Ashley Jensen fans — we know who we are — have reason to be glad: “Agatha Raisin” is back. Adapted from the novels of Marion Chesney (writing as M.C. Beaton), the series stars Jensen as a London publicity agent turned small-town detective — a sort of Miss Marple in bangs, stiletto heels and animal prints. The show has recently begun a second season here in the U.S. on the streaming channel Acorn TV. (Acorn rescued the series after its original producer, Sky One, declined to renew it, as it similarly did for “Foyle’s War.”)
From comedy to drama and all the shades in between, Jensen is a versatile actress, able to play sweet, saucy or slightly unhinged, and yet always somehow remain herself, down to her native Scots accent she invariably (and unusually in British productions) keeps from role to role. Her humanity is always evident, even when the character is difficult.
Americans who have followed her career less closely are most likely to know her from “Ugly Betty,” where she played the title character’s best friend, fashion magazine seamstress Christina McKinney. Indeed, Jensen has a long history of playing best friends and sidekicks. She was first noticed here as Maggie, Ricky Gervais’ socially dim but endearing colleague on “Extras” — she was the soul of that series — and you may seen her solving uncanny crimes alongside Patrick Stewart in “Eleventh Hour.”
But now, nearing 50, Jensen has graduated to lead in two series, the comic-romantic mystery “Agatha” and the people-are-complicated drama “Love, Lies and Records,” which also plays on Acorn TV, set in a registry office in Leeds.
In addition, she’s still playing the best friend (though one with much to do) in the dark comedy “Catastrophe,” which streams domestically via Amazon, and she’ll be seen in Gervais’ upcoming Netflix series “After Life” and heard in the Disney live-action/computer-animated remake of “Lady of the Tramp” — as, what else, a Scottie.
“It’s almost become a bit of a brand, my voice,” Jensen says on a recent transatlantic telephone call.
Of “Agatha Raisin,” Jensen says, “it’s one of these things we do quite well in Britain. We get a rag bag of eclectic characters and throw them into a situation against the beautiful English countryside — very much a chocolate box England in this show, but with modern story lines and modern themes.” As to her future with Agatha, “I would love to continue playing her. It’s an absolute joy. I’ll play her till I’m no longer in stilettos, but possibly with a walker.”
The first episode of the new season, the feature-length “Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham” is streaming now; “Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfam” premieres Dec. 24, followed by “Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate” on Jan. 28.
It’s got all the elements of perfect television. It’s got escapism, it’s a little camp ... it looks amazing, it’s got ... madcap characters.
What made you want to act?
I grew up in a little kind of rural place in the southwest of Scotland, so I had no theater — we didn’t really have a movie theater — so television was my connection with acting. There was a sitcom in the 1970s called “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em,” with Michael Crawford, who you may know from “Phantom of the Opera” and “Barnum.” He played this madcap character called Frank Spencer who was a kind of naive fool, really, and very much a sort of clown — he was a man who just got it all wrong. And I look back on it now and kind of think my “Extras” character, with her naivete and her wide-eyed openness and innocence, was reminiscent of that. He was what I saw and went, “Oh gosh, when I’m an actor I want to be like that.” He was very much involved with physical comedy and I’m getting an opportunity on “Agatha” to play around with more physical comedy than I’ve had before. It’s something I really love, and goes back to things like Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton, before words were as important. There’s a sort of innocence about it and I quite like that charm.
Were you trained in any particular sort of method?
Not hugely. I went to the National Youth Theater; in fact the first year I didn’t get in, and then the second year I think I was more determined and I got in. [Before that] I went to a drama school which, to be honest, wasn’t the best drama school in the world — I don’t think it’s even going now. But I didn’t have a great deal of choice because I lived in Scotland and there were two drama schools and it was so incredibly expensive to go down to London and live and support yourself. At the time it was all very much stage oriented and nobody really tells you — well they certainly didn’t when I was there — how to act in front of a camera. That’s the sort of thing I literally learned on the job really.
Everybody has lots of different sides; it’s finding your key into each character and then...wearing the character.
Does your approach change when you’re playing drama as opposed to comedy?
The main thing is that you always come at it from an angle of truth. It’s interesting playing different kinds of comedy, from “Extras” to “Ugly Betty” to “Catastrophe” to “Agatha Raisin.” There’s an element of me in all of these characters. Everybody has lots of different sides; it’s finding your key into each character and then expanding upon that and then wearing the character that way almost. It’s understanding the kind of program you’re in, as well. In “Agatha,” we’re aware we can get away with more physical comedy than I maybe could on “Afterlife,” the program I’ve just done with Ricky, or on “Extras.” It wouldn’t be appropriate on “Ugly Betty” to be pratfalling through a closet because that was more about the fast dialogue and keeping it moving.
When the first “Agatha Raisin” series ended, did you already know Sky One wasn’t going to renew it?
No, I didn’t. We were all incredibly optimistic. Half the crew were saying, “I’m not going to take another job because I know for sure this is going to go again.” So everyone was quite dumbfounded and dispirited when it wasn’t picked up — because to me, it’s got all the elements of perfect television. It’s got escapism, it’s a little camp, it’s a little arch, it looks amazing, it’s got wonderful madcap characters. And our producer was very tenacious and felt there would be more life in this character and this show and decided to go out there across the pond to Acorn. That gave us quite a lot of confidence that an American company decided, “We think this has legs and we will support it.”
You seem to lack vanity as an actress; in the new series’ first episode, you’re running about in a green cosmetic face mask, given a terrible haircut and other characters are continually commenting on your age and looks.
Having played the best friend pretty much all my career I’m not under pressure really to be the leading woman or a beautiful woman, and I think sometimes women when they’re younger and they’re in that lead role, juvenile lead role, there’s a lot more pressure. There’s even less pressure if you’re meant to look a bit crap from time to time — though, having said that I did a film called “The Lobster” a few years ago, and the director [Yorgos Lanthimos] was like, “I want to cut her hair and have her with no makeup on.” And they put this wig on me because my hair was long at the time, and he went, “Yeah, but she still looks OK.” And I said to him, “Yorgos, please don’t worry, it really does not take much to take me over the edge.” But me and the makeup lady evolved this terrible hairstyle, and I got on to the set the first day, and she came up to me, she was Irish [Jensen does the accent], “Ah, sheila, Yorgos says he thinks you should maybe have a little makeup on after all.” People can’t be poised and beautiful all the time, can they? That’s just part of being human. I’m quite confident with who I am and what I look like, and just happy that it all still works.
What does playing Agatha give you that earlier roles might not have?
Obviously to be playing the lead, and also a character this quite brash and quite rude and quite frankly doesn’t [care] what other people think about her. She doesn’t take no for an answer. People always ask, “Is it fun to play that?” Of course it’s fun to play a character that is supremely confident in how she conducts herself. It’s fun playing people who behave maybe in a way you yourself wouldn’t behave.
Another thing that’s interesting is that often the person who’s the focus of affection is a young woman, 25 or 20 or 32 maybe. To have a woman who’s a bit older having men fighting over her is quite unusual and quite timely. And about time.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd