Leeds born TV cop Gemma Whelan to discuss true crime obsession at LIFI homecoming

Gemma Whelan as Det Sgt Sarah Collins in ITV police drama The TowerGemma Whelan as Det Sgt Sarah Collins in ITV police drama The Tower
Gemma Whelan as Det Sgt Sarah Collins in ITV police drama The Tower
With starring roles in a range of huge TV successes, you might think that Leeds-born actor Gemma Whelan would have to adopt a disguise every time that she stepped out of her front door.

Well thankfully, apparently not - and the very idea of it makes her giggle, writes Phil Penfold.

“Oh heavens”, she says. “It’s the sort of reaction - if anyone reacts at all - where people are very kind, and they see me, there’s a pause,

and a comment like ‘Weren’t you in?' or ‘Isn’t it you from?’

"There’s maybe a double-take, and then they just move on. It’s very nice, of course, but I don’t think that they quite equate a mum pushing a buggy and trying to get on a train, with the person who was on their TV screen the night before. I somehow manage to dodge it all.”

She is back on our TV screens later this month for a second series of police drama The Tower, in which she plays Det Sgt Sarah Collins, and Gemma will return to her home city to take part in a discussion – What’s our obsession with true crime? – as part of Leeds International Festival of Ideas, at Leeds Playhouse, on September 29, 7pm. For tickets and more LIFI information – visit leedsinternationalfestival.com.

Gemma and her husband, the comedian and actor Gerry Howell, and their two youngsters live in Peckham, South London, and they are so much part of their close-knit little community that they and their neighbour have even built a connecting door in the fence that divides their property.

Viewers will know her from film and TV appearances in series as diverse as Upstart Crow, Game of Thrones (where she played Yara Greyjoy), Gentleman Jack, The Moorside and now The Tower.

The Tower was so successful in its first outing in 2021, that it was immediately re­ commissioned for series two and Gemma heard the good news the other day that a third series will soon start shooting.

She was born in Leeds and grew up in Yorkshire until her father was offered a new job in Warwick, and the family moved on.

“I remember my early years very well,” she says, “and they were very happy indeed - you don’t forget things like playing in the street with your friends, and your early days at school. It was a lot of fun.”

It was even then, perhaps, that Gemma found herself to be “the class clown.” But does being the one that makes everyone else have a chuckle - often at the expense of the teachers - mean that you are dodging another issue? It often does. That it’s a form of escape?

Gemma hoots with laughter at that fanciful suggestion. “Oh Lordv.” she says, “That’s going rather deep. I’ll be paying you £90 an hour for another therapy session next!”

She has a great sense of humour, and that’s probably why after appearing “in all the school plays and watching things like l Love Lucy and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em on what seemed to be a constant TV loop”, Gemma then studied drama at Middlesex University, with a module in comedy and became a stand-up comedian. She did very well at it.

“Initially, I was always fascinated by dance,” she says, “and I thought that my career choice was maybe going to be in the musical theatre. But that wasn’t the way that it happened, and I went down another route.”

She adds with a smile: “It was a convoluted journey. My first comedy solo date? That would be at The Kings Head in Crouch End and I loved it, albeit that it was also terrifying.”

Gemma in Game Of Thrones as Yara GreyjoyGemma in Game Of Thrones as Yara Greyjoy
Gemma in Game Of Thrones as Yara Greyjoy

She omits to mention that her stand-up routines won awards, and that she was the toast of the Edinburgh Festival a decade back. But then a casting director for Game ofThrones saw one of her tapes, and got interested in this new talent. Sent to audition after

telling her agent that she thought that she would like to do something more dramatic, she had “no hopes at all” of gettingan offer.

But she ended up playing Yara from 2012 for two years, returning for another three in 2016.

Gemma modestly says that it was “being in the right place, and at the right time, perfect synchronicity”. She does not say the word talent, but that’s what was definitely spotted.

She recalls that she was told “you won’t get the part, but they might just remember you, and you may get something

gloomy prediction that was proved to be totally incorrect.

Gemma Whelan defied odds to get a part in blockbuster Game Of ThronesGemma Whelan defied odds to get a part in blockbuster Game Of Thrones
Gemma Whelan defied odds to get a part in blockbuster Game Of Thrones

Doors started opening, and they have never closed. Gemma reads around her roles, carefully researching backgrounds, places, and occurrences. For The Tower, which is based on best­ selling author Kate London’s Metropolitan trilogy of novels, Gemma says the

books “are very powerful, and beautifully written”.

“Then I got the scripts from Patrick Harbinson, and I realised that there were subtle, but significant, differences between the two, and that

we were filming the script for TV, and not the book. It’s a question of balance in telling the stories.”

One of Gemma’s most harrowing roles to date was to play Karen Matthews, the real- life Dewsbury mother who fooled millions into believing that her daughter Shannon had been abducted.

The story was carried by the media, and a spotlight shone on Karen’s community - desperately trying to locate the missing child - for many days. Until the revelation came that Karen had staged the whole thing.

Gemma cannot condone what Karen did (“and I never would”) but she sees the bigger picture.

“It was misguided, foolish beyond belief, a stupid and ridiculous decision,” she says with compassion, “but you have to see the socio­

economic point, and the fact that Karen was living in the underbelly of society. There was abuse involved, she was below the poverty line, and when then truth came out, she was villainised.”

She’d love to do more stage work, and Gemma lets slip that there is more than likely something theatrical in the offing. Could we hope

that it might be for the Leeds Playhouse?

Gemma isn’t giving anything away but simply says: “Oh yes, I’d love that, that would be a iov.”

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