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Help | Interview with Cathy Tyson (Tyson)

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What drew you to the role?

Good writing, and it was full of heart. New characters. A forty-year-old man with dementia. I didn’t know about that at all. New characters, new stories, are a big draw to me as an actor. The people who are involved in it, Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer, that was a draw. But first thing was the script! The type of characters, good writing is always a draw.

Tell me about your character Polly. She has a very powerful scene where she reads a special poem. How important is it for you to have those moments?

I guess it’s the backstory that was interesting to me because it was set in Liverpool and as an actor I had to fill that in and decide who Polly was. I worked with the director Marc Munden, he decided she had alcohol related dementia, Polly. I said to him way back in the 70’s in Liverpool there wasn’t much on black history, there wasn’t black history month, there weren’t any black authors on the curriculum. And what I thought may have led to this alcohol related dementia was the possibility of being in Liverpool in the 70s and 80s and being a teacher. And I was there during that period and know what it was like, and how tough it was before the riots and after. It was lovely to craft and fill in the backstory for this woman. And I’m pleased because they’ve included a poem of a black person. When I’m doing a part it’s not just about drawing from the white English canon and Marc listens to that, and so did Jack. So, you just try to bring some authenticity. ‘A Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’, was very poignant considering that it had many messages.

How did you prepare?

Well, I just thought about Liverpool in 70s and 80s. I had to walk slowly because she was older. I wore a wig. I had to think about my movements, the fragility, the costume. As an actor I don’t mind looking different. I became an actor to play different characters. I don’t have to look good all the time. That helps me in my work. I’m not a model, I’m an actor. I had to put these tights on. Sometimes when you dress like that people start to see you like that. It was a taste of how people get treated because of how they dress, because of their age. Not that anyone treated me badly. It’s still taboo, isn’t it, age? Even if you’re dressing older. I like playing with people’s ideas of me, or characters that I do, because it can disturb them.

How much did you know about the Covid crisis in care homes?

I knew about it from the news. I had my godson’s mother in a care home, and I knew they were doing well which is good, and no one was passing away in their care home. I don’t have elderly parents anymore so I wasn’t directly affected. I guess when that happened in February/ March 2020 we as a nation were kind of surprised ourselves. We were just trying to go from day to day, trying to stay safe, trying to get the food in, dealing with isolation. We’d not seen friends, life going on zoom. Since then I’ve read stuff about care homes. In research for this I read articles about what happened here of people being sent back from the hospital to care homes and not being looked after. Which is a disgrace, which Help features. That is what happened. People were moved out of hospital carelessly. But you also have to understand in March 2020 we didn’t know what the hell was going on. We were in chaos as a nation. Mistakes were made really badly. We’re just coming out of it- but we’re still in it. I also don’t point the finger of blame too much because I’m still aware that it was a complete shock to the system, mistakes that were made were fatal. Which I don’t excuse. I volunteered for the NHS and I did a little bit. I was aware of the situation of elderly people. We were in a crisis and people rallied together to get people fed.

What do you think a drama can add?

It helps us to ponder other questions. It’s the only way I’ve really learned, drama, reading and art. That’s my way. It’s a story, we get to see people we don’t usually see. It can also challenge us. It’s a voice, it can also focus on people who are voiceless. My own take for my character was that she was an ordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. Where black lives are concerned it’s still kind of revolutionary to be seen, to be normal. It shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. What motivates me is say, “Ok you say we’re all these kinds of things: criminals, drug addicts, in gangs. But all these other people exist.” That motivates me. The new stories, that’s what drama can do. Good drama that can stay with you for the rest of your life. Cathy Come Home, I remember that. I remember stuff from Ken Loach. For me personally that’s the kind of drama I’m interested in, social drama, it’s really inspiring to me. I guess it’s to do with my background, my parents, where they came from. In working class life as well there’s a lot of drama. There’s a lot of obstacles to overcome. I’m not just talking about my own life because I’m middle class now, I can’t really call myself working class anymore, but I come from the working class. But there’s a lot of drama in working class lives that they have to overcome on a regular basis. There are many stories there because there’s a lot to overcome. Oooh I’m getting serious aren’t I?

Did filming in lockdown heighten the atmosphere?

I’d been working on set since September [2020] so I’d done 3 or 4 projects before Help and so I was used to being on set with Covid. I’d had a very good experience on my first one in September. An actor’s just happy to be working aren’t they?! Of course, you can’t hug each other, but we did have that moment when we’re in the home and I said that poem. There was about 30 people in the room. And we thought that’s a bit odd isn’t it. We were aware that we were close because of the protocols on set. We filmed that in the knowledge that a vaccine had been created in December, and that to me gave hope. There was a sense of hope actually. I think it’s going to be a really important drama, good on Channel 4!

How important is the sense of place, setting the story in Liverpool?

Considering Ian Hart, Stephen Graham, Jodie Comer – they were lovely to work with. Very understated in a way. Lovely to be around. And Sue Johnston, such an honour to be in all their company. Ian Hart and I went to the same college in Liverpool, that was really touching to work with him. Liverpool’s got a reputation for being a characterful place and in a sense it’s had to fight on its own. London gets a lot of attention. Of course I’m fond of Liverpool, Manchester it would have been similar.

What was it like filming in a former care home?

Alex the set designer did really well. Of course some people are absolutely terrified that they’re going to end up in one. But people do go there, and there are lovely people who work there. But I guess there’s a fear of those places. That is the last place you’re going to be. My character had one room, a single bed. It was quite humbling.