Tessa Peake-Jones: 'where are the great comedy characters?'

Tessa Peake-Jones: 'where are the great comedy characters?'
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Pic © REX, Ken McKay, ITV

For years we loved settling down in front of the TV for the Christmas special of Only Fools and Horses. But although there might be a repeat or two this festive season, actress Tessa Peake-Jones – who played Del Boy’s long-suffering wife Raquel –  says there can’t ever be a new episode. She’s adamant John Sullivan, the series’ brilliant writer who sadly passed away in 2011, cannot possibly be replaced.

“He was one of the unsung heroes of television writing, and quite amazing,” remembers Tessa. But that’s not to say she wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to work with the Only Fools cast again.

“John was planning another Christmas special before he died,” she continues. “Everyone would have leapt at the opportunity because we all had such brilliant fun.

“But John was a bit of a genius and nobody can really replace him. It was his writing that was the absolute success. If he hadn’t created those lines for those characters, you wouldn’t have had such an enduring programme.”

Tessa Peake-Jones on Only Fools and Horses

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than a decade since the series ended. But Tessa feels the timing of that was right, too. “Joyous though it was, Only Fools was a job with a beginning and an end, and I suppose when that end came we all felt it was right. We’d prefer people to remember us at our best, rather than limping on and disappointing them, which would have been awful! “It feels good to know that people have happy memories

of us.”

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[pic taken from Instagram]

Speaking of happy memories, have we lost the sparkle of classic comedies such as Dad’s Army and Porridge forever? The charm of Only Fools doesn’t seem to have had many challengers to its crown in recent years.

“I don’t watch a lot of current comedy,” says Tessa. “It’s too focused on immediate gags. The comedies that have endured are all character based, with very real human beings at the centre. Captain Mainwaring, for example, in Dad’s Army; Steptoe, Del and Rodney…they’re real people who get put in funny situations.

“Nowadays writers seem to go for one-line jokes, rather than the reality of who their characters are, and how they relate to each other. Though there are exceptions. Gavin and Stacey got it right because they focused on character, and The Royale Family, too. Barbara (played by Sue Johnston) could have been your gran, your auntie… you know women like that in your life.”

And Tessa’s life was shaped by memorable, formidable women. “I had rather an unconventional childhood,” she explains. “It was my mother Mary and godmother Renie who brought me up. They were very different people. Mum gave me confidence and belief in myself, whereas Auntie Renie was the stable, secure one who never floundered. She didn’t get excited, but was very solid.” She pauses.

“It’s sad,” she continues, “because Auntie Renie’s favourite programme in the world was Only Fools – but she died about a year before I got the job. She would have been thrilled if she’d known.”

Tessa attributes much of her success to mum Mary who wrote to TV producers just as she was leaving drama school, to say what a talent she was! “That was amazing,” she laughs. “She never told me until afterwards but it was a very resourceful and marvelous thing to do. It led to my first telly role, which led onto everything else.”

Tessa Peake-Jones on Granchester

Mary and Renie spurred Tessa on to become one of Britain’s best-known actresses, most recently in Fifties’ murder mystery series, Grantchester, where she plays housekeeper Mrs Maguire.

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[pic from Instagram]

It wasn’t the first time she’d worked alongside actor James Norton who plays the lead role, vicar Sidney Chambers. They worked together before, on a film called Bonobo, about family conflict. “So when we met up for Grantchester, James was already like an old chum and our characters weren’t that dissimilar either. The relationship between us in Grantchester is warmer than in Bonobo, but there’s still the element of Mrs Maguire ticking Sidney off a bit.”

And although Mrs Maguire is known for her straight-laced seriousness, Tessa really enjoyed playing the part. “She’s a joy to play,” says the actress,“because she’s so very different to me in real life. And one of my favourite periods, to act in and to watch, is the Fifties. Perhaps because I was born at the end of the decade there is that extra connection for me.”

But Tessa’s main aim is to try as many different roles as possible. “Going from one extreme to another, like from Raquel to Mrs Maguire, or Evelyn in Marchlands – who was a bit of a sour puss – that’s all quite good fun.”

So while another series of Grantchester has been commissioned, Tessa’s happy to try new things, too. “I love working with new writers,” she says, “and I like a bit of risk, especially in the theatre. To create something from scratch, rather than have it all ‘tried and tested’ is really lovely.”

Though Tessa will never forget the role that catapulted her into the limelight, and neither will her fans. “It may surprise you, but we get a lot of letters from teenagers, whose parents have told them they must try watching Only Fools”, she says. “And all credit to John. How wonderful that today’s younger generation still enjoys his work.”

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[pic taken from Instagram]

  • Tessa stars in Bonobo, at selected cinemas now.
  • Grantchester is also out now on DVD (©2014 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved, RRP £19.99).

There's more star chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.