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Jessica Ellerby: "We're not The fucking Crown"

The Pennyworth star on forgetting her voice, ghosting, and the show's on-set catchphrase

England is in disarray. Hard to picture in this serene political era, but do try to envisage an England where a hard right-wing leader has mobilised the armed forces, with a civil war breaking out between these fascist forces and those loyal to Queen Elizabeth II.


This is the scene at the beginning of the second series of Pennyworth, which imagine the early years of former SAS soldier Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon), this caddish mercenary in 1960s London a contrast to the formal Wayne Manor butler. Alfred is such a bounder, he even ghosts the Queen. "He absolutely ghosts her,' shares Jessica Ellerby, this parallel England's Elizabeth II, monarch and figurehead of the resistance.


"It's a funny choice. Alfred's a complicated character and his thread of romantic encounters is rather checkered. I remember reading a script and hoping I'd be his wife. When that script came through, I think everybody was shocked." This Elizabeth may inhabit another dimension, but Ellerby does share this experience with her. "I was ghosted, just before I met my husband. I didn't know what ghosting was. I didn't know it existed. I think ghosting is a bit sociopathic."


Sociopaths abound in Pennyworth, home to an England where public executions draw spectators and are broadcast on television, the lurch into complete fascism one cup of stewed tea away. "There is a lot of darkness in the show, but it's the balance which makes it work," explains Ellerby. "It doesn't take itself too seriously. There is a playfulness to the dialogue, the scenes, and to how people interact with one another. Underneath all that, though, is tremendous darkness and it is uncomfortable. All of it is." Which is why a cheeky frill, such as Her Actual Majesty suffering the indignity of a ghosting, defines the show's punky attitude. "There's scope for them to do whatever the fuck they want, because there's no blueprint for this - that's what's so exciting."

The freedom within Pennyworth extends to how the Queen is portrayed, this multiverse-monarch untethered from the realities observed in other dramas depicting royals. Despite that, did Ellerby listen to other actors' vocal performances of HM, or was that territory to avoid? "We've all watched The Crown, let's stop beating around the bush," she replies, laughing. "Claire Foy nailed it, didn't she? You're not going to smash that. Luckily for me, this Queen isn't pure Queen. She's DC Comics queen. We want to be able to recognize her, but we also want her to sit within this. There was a bit of a joke on set, with people saying, 'We're not doing The fucking Crown!'"


Even so, nailing the voice still requires historical research, which poses its own problems. "There isn't a lot of recorded footage of the Queen in her youth, and how she speaks now is very different to how she spoke then. On top of that you have her public address voice and then her at home voice, which maybe everyone has to a certain extent. Bascially, how clipped and how formal is it? She's a combination of a little bit of Elizabeth with quite a big dollop of Margaret. She's quite sassy and much freer than the Queen."


Despite not being anchored in this world, Ellerby still feels the pressure to make the Queen unmistakable. "There's something quite scary about having to do both, to be liberated and to make her very recognizable so there's no question of who she is. I worry when costume brings the crown round and they tell me I'm wearing it - I think I'm not doing a very good job of making everyone aware of who she is, if they're having to plonk that on my head."


Those fears - even if lighthearted - became a small concern last September. When production on Pennyworth was abrutply halted last spring and didn't resume until autumn, the very specificity of HM's voice eluded Ellerby. "It was a weird gap - it's not as if you've gone about your daily life. You've been inside with your thoughts. I'm not going to lie, I had to have another dialect session because I could not remember how the Queen speaks. I couldn't remember how to produce that accent. Didn't have a clue. It's so specific and it's unlike any anybody else's accent. There's a very particular placement in the mouth and the intonation - little things that I had forgotten."


For the meantime, those iconic Buckingham Palace tones are holidying in Ellerby's mental Balmoral. During lockdown she managed to write a play called Eggs - about friendship, fertility, and social constructs - and is about to start filming an episode of Midsomer Murders, where she'll star opposite her husband Nick Hendrix (DS Jamie Winter), who didn't ghost her. "I am so excited. We've never worked together - all of our scenes are together, so I cannot wait. If nothing else, just to get in there at work, get all the gossip, and tell them all what he's really like." But what about her character? Will she face as wild a time as Her Queen? Will she be murdered by a giant pile of grass cuttings or an antique scythe dropped from a biplane? "I couldn't possibly say," replies Ellerby.


It's not a denial.


Pennyworth is streaming now on STARZPLAY

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