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BBC Shadow Of The North Interview

Freema Agyeman

Christmas could not come early enough for actress Billie Piper who admits she is a huge fan of the festive season and loves nothing more than hanging out with family and friends and doing all things traditional.

"I would have put my Christmas wreath on the front door in November if I could have gotten away with it," she laughs. "I love Christmas and the whole festive period couldn't start early enough for me. I get so excited and have heart palpitations, the works.

"What I love about it is being with family and loved ones and just watching them all because everyone seems to be a lot happier at this time of year. I love carols, Santa and the pure magic of Christmas though I never make New Year resolutions because January is such a horrible month anyway, why try and give up any of your vices when you need them the most?" she explains.

As for television Billie will be glued to all the big event programmes like the EastEnders special and old videos of Home Alone 1, 2 and 3 and her favourite, Christmas With The Kranks. She will not be in this year's Doctor Who special but admits it was a bit of an ordeal last year when she watched it with her mum who is Doctor Who mad.

"Last year my mum tortured me constantly saying what a shame it was I was leaving Doctor Who so I won't be watching it again this year with mum."

She will, though, be appearing in the show again in the spring as the much-loved character Rose Tyler and reunited with her old pal David Tennant.

"Leaving Doctor Who was a huge step for me which I felt really sad about since I was leaving people that I loved. But it felt like the right thing to do at the time. I've noticed as I get older I consider things a lot more before I do them and sometimes that can be great or a burden.

"When I left Doctor Who I was 22 and a bit fearless whereas now I certainly consider things and take my time making decisions. I have to think of potential pitfalls as opposed to being green in my youth which I much prefer," she explains.

"It was a big part of my life for two years and I do miss it and David Tennant whom I adore but I've had a busy time and I'm enjoying a break now. I've been working non-stop from Doctor Who through Ruby and Shadow (the two Pullman mysteries) to Mansfield Park and Secret Diary Of A Call Girl that I needed a break but I do find I get itchy feet," she laughs.

"You get used to a certain pace of life and you do get worried about what's round the corner but I've spent my time watching daytime TV, decorating my house and seeing my friends and family. That's a huge bonus of being off but I still haven't had a holiday which I would love."

In the run-up to Christmas, though, Billie is content watching her favourite programmes which include X-Factor. "I think Rhydian is fantastic and I often watch the programme imagining what I would say if I was judging the acts – it's a great game," she adds.

"My other favourite programmes of the moment are Studio 60, Heroes, Strictly Come Dancing and recently I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! As you can see I have loads of time on my hands!"

Though she loves watching the music reality shows Billie remembers her days on the road with distaste. "I really didn't like the music industry at all and in my opinion they work you so much harder than I work now for example – sometimes for 20 hours a day.

"And at that age you are endlessly tired and in my case being a teenager all you want to do was sleep yet you end up pushing yourself, doing press junkets and interviews up to 30 times a day. You have to really want it otherwise it can be a destructive industry but I can't deny that for someone with such obvious talent like Leona Lewis it has paid off – she is sensational."

Billie Piper says of her role as Sally Lockhart in The Shadow In The North:

"Sally is quite feisty, and has a right old bee in her bonnet when one of her elderly clients loses all her savings after investing on Sally's recommendation. She is ahead of her times, outspoken and wants to be respected by those she considers her peers and is determined to get her client's money back one way or another.

"One of the ironies of the story is that Axel Bellman played by Jared Harris is the baddie and he finds her the ultimate challenge and quite fascinating and he wouldn't have come across many women like her at that time."

During her quest to unravel the mystery behind the missing money and the now bankrupt company Sally invested in, Lockhart's investigation becomes entwined with that of her friend and confidante Frederick Garland.

As the stories unravel Philip Pullman's intricate plot unfolds and the many colourful characters come to life, not least Sally's faithful dog, bodyguard and companion Chaka.

"There is working with dogs and working with dogs and that was like working with a horse! It was huge. We had two different dogs playing Chaka and one was a stunt double for the other ... one was good at stunts and action sequences while the other was good for still shots and was quite docile.

"They had very different skills and talents! And strangely they had to be painted black because they had light spots on their coats so you had to be really careful with the costumes as the paint would rub off quite quickly."

After filming ended on the Sally Lockhart mysteries Billie went on to film another period drama, Mansfield Park for ITV. Hence, most of her waking hours over a six-month period were spent trussed up in a corset.

"I had a few weeks off in between filming the two Sally Lockhart mysteries and Mansfield Park so my ribs were perfectly crushed and my corset mould was exactly the same shape for both!

"It was actually quite good to do a stint of period dramas back to back. It makes you feel quite pretty and girly and wearing a corset is actually really good for your performance because it forces you to stand in the correct way and it just puts you in that place straight away.

"Those are the costumes that really work for you in so far as they inform how you hold yourself and what you do. As far as the corsetry goes – the tighter the better for me. You get used to it like anything because it moves with you. However I'm a real jeans and t-shirt girl and the novelty of wearing a corset does wear off after a while."

"I read loads of books about the era and in particular I read a lot about women of that time – the most striking contrast between women now and then was that women really sat on their opinions and couldn't voice their thoughts.

"It's all about being polite and courteous but Sally Lockhart is a woman on a quest – she is incredibly ballsy and independent. It's just a great murder mystery, fantasy packed, full of good hearty characters, set in period London and that is the appeal of Pullman's book," she adds.

Whilst filming The Shadow In The North Billie had to contend with a number of stunts and found managing the costumes were the biggest challenge when charging around dodging fires and explosions.

"Because I am so clumsy and unladylike I found it hard work at times to manoeuvre in the costumes and, in particular, the fire scene was really hard work because it was unbelievably hot and I had hair down to here and black horse blankets thrown over my head. It was the height of summer filming in a studio and I get quite delirious and giggly when I get too hot so I'm sure it wasn't one of my finest days at work," she laughs.

"It was a really fun job, however, with a great cast on board: Johnny Standing, who is always hilarious, Jared (Harris) and Julian and of course JJ and Matt who I knew from The Ruby In The Smoke so we had a laugh all the time."

Romance is never out of sight for Sally Lockhart in the shape of close friend Fred Garland, played by JJ Feild.

"She fights her relationship with Fred for so long but she is clearly in love with him. It's obvious she wants to stand on her own two feet and have her own business and not be an extension of any man. She is quite a control freak and scared of losing her identity if she becomes a wife and mother.

"However I think they are quite rooted as a couple – he is very quirky, charming and sweet and it's good to have that romantic thread running through the story amongst the brutal murders and conmen!"

Billie identifies with Sally's independence and, having been on the road with her music career from an early age, she is all for female empowerment.

"I have always been behind the notion of girl power and women having jobs and feeling good about themselves etc but I appreciate it can be tricky being a woman at home and a woman at work and finding a balance that makes it click.

"And in that respect I am like Sally. We share a determination and we are both quite relentless yet at other times I am happy to take a back seat. I don't share her financial acumen though," she adds. "Sally is definitely better at handling money than I am. She is a financial wizard."

When novelist Philip Pullman visited the set Billie found herself somewhat tongue-tied and lost for words: "I met Philip Pullman a few times but I was really star-struck and forgot everything I wanted to ask him and turned into a gibbering wreck.

"I ended up just staring at him. He is huge and towers over you but is very softly spoken and gentle and you kind of just want to hold his head. He was a very sweet man and came down to the set a few times and he felt very comfortable with what we were doing," she says.

There are two more mysteries in the Sally Lockhart series and Billie would love to make them all, time and work permitting.

"I loved making the films and would love to do more. Philip said he thought there were more Sally Lockhart stories to write and we still have two more to go in this series. I love the multi-cultural feel of the cast which lends itself to the fantastical nature of Pullman's writing.

"It would be great to do one a year," she hints.

But, for now, going on holiday, eating chocolates over Christmas and watching her favourite programmes are the only things Billie has in her sights.


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