The small screen rules our lives now, and one queen rules that realm. Brilliant in everything she’s in – and she’s in nearly everything – and quietly becoming a producing powerhouse, Keeley Hawes rules British telly.
From Bodyguard to Line of Duty, her CV is basically a roll call of some of the most watchable British TV of the 21st century, and she shows no sign of stopping. This Sunday, she plays the lead in her own executive-produced drama Finding Alice, about one woman’s grief after losing her husband. That’s followed by a pivotal role in Russell T Davies’ highly anticipated It’s A Sin, which charts the 1980s Aids crisis in London, before she stars in the film To Olivia, playing Hollywood actress Patricia Neal in the midst of a tumultuous marriage to children’s author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville).
This wave of forthcoming projects is a reminder that Hawes is not only one of our most reliable and hardworking actors, but she’s also now becoming one of the most influential. Like Hollywood counterparts Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, Hawes’s move into producing shows that she wants to carve out her own roles, rather than wait to be given them. She appears to embracing the fact that the industry no longer expects women to disappear when they reach the age of 40. In an interview in 2019, Hawes, now 44, said, “Historically, you are not supposed to be getting to my age and having the time of your life, but the parts are getting much more interesting. Until a couple of years ago I felt apologetic for being as busy as I am, which is very odd. So I have had to have a word with myself.”
She first took up the producing mantle with The Durrells, an adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s memoirs about his animal-obsessed childhood in Corfu – and a book that she had always loved. Playing the family matriarch over four seasons, it was premium family viewing – and gave an early role to Josh O’Connor, now one of the most sought-after actors on screen. It also gave Hawes a taste for taking the reins: Finding Alice is the second show created under her company, Buddy Club. The first, Honour, based on the so-called ‘honour killing’ of Banaz Mahmod in 2006, was a story she felt passionate about telling. “If we can open people’s eyes through this drama and if one girl or woman doesn’t have to go through what Banaz had to go through, then Honour is a success, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.
In front of the camera, she’s one of our most versatile actors – always natural, never showy – and it’s slightly bonkers that she’s never won a major acting award. The period dramas she first made her name in – including, notoriously, Tipping the Velvet in 2002 – could have seen her typecast, but she transcended the template with lead roles in gripping shows like Spooks (where she met her husband, Succession star Matthew McFadyen) and Ashes to Ashes.
As DCI Lindsay Denton in Line of Duty, she remains the show’s most unsettling of bent coppers, with a performance that subtly combined a brittle sense of nihilism with a worrying vulnerability. Her performance was so good that it was easy to see how she’d got herself in a mess, and you could never quite turn completely against her. Her status as the MVP in any TV show became so strong that viewers were simply unable to accept that Jed Mercurio would really have killed off her character in Bodyguard after just three episodes. The moment that Home Secretary Julia Montague was assassinated won Bafta’s ‘Must-See Moment’ award that year – but conspiracy theories that her Julia faked her own death can still be found on Twitter.
But Hawes is as comfortable in smaller character roles as she is carrying a whole drama on her shoulders. In the same year that she was nominated for the Best Actress Bafta for Bodyguard, she also picked up a Supporting Actress nod for her performance in Mrs Wilson. She brought a careful dignity to the role of Dorothy Wick, one of the wives of a bigamist, based on actor Ruth Wilson’s own family history. Her range is clear, but through all of her characters she manages to thread a relatable sense of the everywoman.
Her telly crown is only bolstered by the fact that, IRL, she is really rather cool. She has not shied away from speaking openly about her experiences with depression, and when it was suggested that she’d lost a stone for Bodyguard with ‘the alkaline diet’, she tweeted: ‘Um, no, I didn’t. #whowritesthisshite? #whatthefuckisanalkalinediet?’
It’s going to be a drab January, but at least we can be grateful that Hawes is back on the box, cementing her status as telly royalty. Queen Keeley, we bow down.
Finding Alice is on ITV from Sunday January 17; It’s a Sin is on Channel 4 from January 22; To Olivia is released on Sky Cinema on February 21