Twenty years on from Four Weddings and a Funeral and Anna Chancellor is still associated with her character’s nickname – Duckface. “You have no control over how people perceive you, so you might as well just give in,” says the 49-year-old.
“I suppose it’s churlish to mind ‘Duckface’, but curiously, from my point of view, I’ve always adored ducks. Just been one of those things, one of life’s ironies.”
Her latest role is a world away from her fowl-inspired moniker. She’s starring in the new BBC adaptation of EF Benson’s comedy-drama Mapp and Lucia, which has been adapted by The League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton.
Set in the summer of 1930, she and Miranda Richardson play Mrs Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas and Miss Elizabeth Mapp, who clash when Lucia (Chancellor) holidays in historic Tilling, where queen bee Mapp lives. Comedy ensues when both vie for social prestige, all the while attempting to maintain a facade of friendliness towards one another.
“Playing passive-aggressive war with a smile on your face is fun,” notes Chancellor of the series, which also stars Mark Gatiss as pie-eyed Major Benjy and Alan Partridge star Felicity Montagu as gossipy Godiva Plaistow.
Off screen, Chancellor and Richardson are much more united than their characters. For starters, they both would like to see more women of a certain vintage placed in leading roles on television, and are pleased Mapp and Lucia does just that.
“I think American television has been a bit ahead of us in terms of putting women at the forefront of their fantastic shows,” says Chancellor, who is a fan of Laura Linney comedy-drama The Big C.
While a need for good female roles is a real issue, there was another rather more superficial – but nevertheless pressing – problem on set. With Downton Abbey filming at the same time as Mapp and Lucia, there was a shortage of the right frocks for Chancellor, who cropped up in the latest series of the ITV period drama as a visiting lady who took a fancy to footman Jimmy.
After rummaging through “costume house to costume house on a motorbike”, the costume designer eventually found the right look for the “glorious” Lucia. Wardrobe in place, Chancellor was pleased to get going on the project. But the one thing she didn’t want to do was to seek out the Eighties Channel 4 adaptation starring Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales.
“I’m a huge fan of Geraldine,” she explains. “And you’re either going to be thinking: ‘Geraldine didn’t do it like that’, or ‘Geraldine was so successful doing it like that’, that you’d always be pivoting towards or away from what someone else had done. It’s almost better to view it as new writing, a fresh thing, and I do think it has a freshness to it.”