No-one looks their best while running, which is why Geraldine James thought she would have a trial run at home before she had to jog in front of the camera for her latest role, in new police drama Black Work.
Unfortunately, her loved ones weren’t as supportive as she had hoped. “I was terrified, so I kept doing practice runs at home and going to my family: ‘Does this look all right?’ And they just said: ‘You look completely idiotic. You can’t run like that’.”
But the show must go on and, although she planned to do the absolute minimum required, James found her mojo on the day, outran the camera – and has been running ever since.
“I used to run quite a lot and then I stopped. I’m very faddy. I go through fads of doing things and I hadn’t done any running for a long time, but as a result of Black Work, I’ve started again. It’s life imitating art in this instance.”
In the new three-part drama, James plays Chief Constable Carolyn Jarecki, who has worked her way up through the ranks. “It’s a fairly unusual position for a woman, but getting less so,” notes the 64-year-old. “She’s quite a complex character, which I liked. The way she runs her police force is interesting, as is her professional relationships with her second in command William Hepburn [Douglas Henshall] and young Wpc Jo Gillespie [Sheridan Smith].
“She’s not just a bossy policewoman. She has to be politically astute. It’s like being a mayor. She has to balance what she can and cannot pursue. It’s very topical.”
Carolyn’s put in a difficult position when Ryan (Kenny Doughty), an undercover policeman who’s married to Jo, is shot dead in mysterious circumstances. While she wants to come out and support him in public, she doesn’t want his undercover operation to be jeopardised. “There are a lot of cop shows on TV, but this is an unusual take on it,” says James, crediting series writer Matt Charman, who also worked on last year’s Our Zoo.
“I’d never worked with Matt before but I think he’s one of the great writers for telly. He’s exceptional. To me that’s the most important thing, the writing.”
The drama explores how well we know the people we love, with many secrets and surprises woven through the series.
“Carolyn keeps secrets and she discovers things that have been kept secret from her. You discover people you think you know, you perhaps really don’t – and that’s always good fun to play. There’s a lot of discovery and revelation,” reveals James, who was born in Maidenhead and has one child with her actor husband, Joseph Blatchley.
Educated at Downe House in Berkshire, James studied acting at the Drama Centre London before starting out in repertory theatre. In the four decades since graduating, she’s received four Bafta nominations – for Dummy in the late Seventies, The Jewel in the Crown in 1985, Band of Gold in 1996 and The Sins in 2001 – and appeared in movies such as 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
But this is the first time James has played a Chief Constable and worn the iconic blue uniform.
“When I first put it on, I thought: ‘I look like a complete fool in this. It doesn’t work at all’. And then I got rather keen on it and quite enjoyed wearing it. It’s empowering. I really got to like strutting about,” she reveals, laughing.
Black Work, ITV, Sunday, 9pm