Hope Springs: Alex Kingston plays Ellie Lagden

Alex Kingston has made her mark on British TV playing strong, powerful women from Boudica battling the Romans to adventuress Moll Flanders cutting a dash through 18th century England. Now she’s bang up-to-date as Hope Spring’s gang boss, Ellie Lagden.

Feisty, shrewd, yet big-hearted, she’s very much the leader of this pack of ex-cons. However, Alex admits she’s bewildered as to why she’s constantly at the top of casting agents’ lists when they’re looking for someone to play a no-nonsense ball-breaker.

“I don’t know why I get cast as these women because I’m actually not very strong or tough myself,” ponders Alex. “It’s great because they are very nice parts, but I do wonder whether people expect me to be as strong as these characters. Maybe they do. Maybe that’s what people think I am like? My God, I hope not,” she adds, laughing.

“I assume it’s because I’m tall, I’ve got quite a centred voice and, you know, I’m not skinny. I’m strongly built. I think that’s probably why things work out like this for me. Ellie’s another tough nut to crack and maybe her vulnerability doesn’t show through as much as some of the other characters I’ve played, so yes, she’s definitely another strong one to add to the list.”

Married to bad-boy mobster Roy Lagden (played by Mark Frost), Ellie has spent most of her adult life as a gangster’s wife, believing that happiness was a life of luxury and bling. But four years at Her Majesty’s pleasure means she’s discovered all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

“She went to school with her husband, he was a couple of classes above her and was the handsome bad-boy that all the girls fancied. She ended up getting him and they’ve been together ever since then. I don’t think she’s ever known another man. I imagine she always guessed he was doing dodgy deals and she’d accept packages that came to the house and became more involved, not by doing anything especially bad or majorly illegal, but by being on the periphery.

“She didn’t ask questions because she liked the lifestyle that his so-called work brought. She liked the bling, the money, the lovely cars and of course the nice house with the lions at the gate.”

She also loved Roy enough to take the rap for him and serve three years in jail for fraud. But then she found out he was hiding a massive secret from her – his girlfriend and their child.

“She could cope with taking the rap for him, that was something she felt she could handle. But, as far as she’s concerned, the thing that was the worst he could’ve done to her was when she found out he’d been having an affair all the time and had a kid. That’s why she wants revenge and I don’t think she’d necessarily have sought her revenge so spectacularly if she hadn’t made that discovery.”

A lengthy stretch in prison has given Ellie clarity of thought. She realises that if she wants to change her life she’d better do it now and she’s not going to rely on any bloke to get there. Ellie now knows that the friends in her life – Hannah (played by Sian Reeves), Shoo (Christine Bottomley) and Josie (Vinette Robinson) – are her new future.

“Ellie has this strength and wants to mother and look after the other girls. She says: ‘Look, if you stick with me we’ll have a good time. So let’s get out of here and set ourselves up for a life in the sun somewhere’. She makes it all sound fantastic because Ellie just has this charisma and that strong belief that anything is possible, and the others believe in her because of that.”

Together, they hatch a plan to escape to Barbados and start a new life, courtesy of £3million stolen from Roy. But things don’t quite go according to plan and they end up in hiding in a remote and slightly eerie Scottish village called Hope Springs, much to the initial bemusement of the locals.

“They must think that the aliens have landed or something when we turn up,” grins Alex. “That’s what I hope comes across anyway.

“And, of course, we as characters think we are on our way to the Barbados, so we’re all in our bright Caribbean holiday gear and end up standing in the wild and windy Scottish moors. So we should definitely look like fish out of water,” says the Surrey-born actress, who returned to her role of Dr Elizabeth Corday in ER earlier this year for the long-running US medical drama’s star-studded final season.

“The locals certainly eye us with suspicion and quite rightly because, aside from our look, we are involved in some fairly suspicious activities. But the village itself, they have their own secrets which are also slowly revealed. So nobody there is whiter than white. Everyone is hiding something and despite the fact that our characters have just left prison, I don’t think they are that much worse than some of the villagers!”

Much to Ellie’s surprise, the village throws up some interesting relationships and an unlikely bond develops with the local policeman, Gil (Paul Higgins) – something his fiancee, Anne Marie (Ronni Ancona), isn’t too happy about.

“She needs to have him on her side because they are criminals and they’ve found themselves, out of all the places they could’ve chosen to hole up and hide, in this tiny little village that is actually embroiled in a murder investigation. She doesn’t want swarms of CID busying themselves around the place, so she’s very canny and initially that’s why she befriends Gil because she needs to know what’s going on.

“But then she actually genuinely does start to like him and it gets quite complicated because she knows he’s engaged to be married. She does have a moral bone in her body and so she doesn’t want to jeopardise that, even though she doesn’t particularly like his fiancee, Ann Marie.”

Over time Ellie learns how to let go of the past by discovering that friendships remain long after the bling is gone. And, through Gil, she’s reminded that not all men are bastards.

“I think Hope Springs has great potential,” says Alex. “It’s a wonderful idea that you can run with in any direction really and that was one of the things that drew me to doing it. And, also, it was the opportunity to work with this group of women who have such a fabulous age span. I just thought this could be fun and, after doing some more heavier roles, I was ready to have some fun.

“As well as the drama there are also some truly hilarious moments, so the tone of the piece is quite difficult to describe, because it’s not broad comedy and it’s not straight drama. One of our directors kept calling it a ‘dram-edy’, which I think is spot-on because it is combining the two.

“Basically Hope Springs is a drama with humour and a certain amount of heightened humour. I don’t want to say campery, because I don’t think it is camp necessarily, but I would say it’s similar to the style of Desperate Housewives and that slightly heightened world that they live in.”

While the gang may have spent three years getting to know each other in jail, the actresses playing them only had a matter of weeks in rehearsal to create a bond between their characters. So Alex came up with a clever plan in order to kick-start their relationships.

“We went out on the town in character to this bar in Glasgow which was great fun. We ordered lots of champagne on the credit card and were quite loud and I think the poor barmen was terrified actually.

“Whenever he came over to bring us more drink or more food he was hearing snippets of conversation like Christine [Bottomley] talking about the only time she’d been to the seaside was when she was doing a drugs run and then us making up stories about stuff we’d got up to in prison. He really didn’t know what to make of us at all, the poor guy,” adds Alex, grinning.

“Our director thought we’d only last five or ten minutes but we actually stayed in character for a good four hours.

“Over time we’ve become a very close-knit group and we support each other and look out for each other and I think that’s why the group works so well off screen as well as on.

“I know some people like to believe that groups of women on a TV show are always hideously competitive but that certainly hasn’t been the case here. I don’t think there’s been any sort of diva behaviour and, if there has been any diva behaviour, I can promise you it hasn’t come from me!”

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