Tuesday, March 12, 2019
After years of running a successful PR firm in London, Agatha Raisin decides she’s had enough of the city’s hustle and bustle and moves to Carsley, a sleepy hamlet in the Cotswolds, to live the quiet life. Serene days are not in the cards for Agatha, however, and soon she is caught up in a murder investigation, eventually becoming the de facto village sleuth. (There are a surprising number of mysterious deaths in Carsley.) That is the quirky premise for Agatha Raisin, a delightfully addictive TV series from Acorn TV starring Ashley Jensen.
Based on the mystery novels by best-selling Scottish writer M.C. Beaton, Agatha Raisin made its television debut in December 2016 with a two-hour film, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death followed by eight 45-minute episodes. Although the shows garnered about one million viewers per episode, Agatha Raisin's future was unclear until 2018, when Acorn TV ordered a second season, making the TV show the U.S.-based streaming service’s first original programming. Season 2 comprises three 90-minute episodes, each one based on the coordinating Beaton novel — of which there are 29 and counting.
Thanks to the novels, the episodes are assured entertaining plots, but what makes Agatha Raisin really come to life is the cast. Jensen is perhaps best known to American audiences from her three seasons as Christina McKinney on Ugly Betty (2006-2010), and her Raisin is feisty, charming, sophisticated, ridiculous, savvy, inappropriate, and endlessly endearing. Add a supremely talented ensemble cast to the mix — which includes Mathew Horne, Katy Wix, Jamie Glover, Lucy Liemann, Jason Merrells, Jason Barnett, and Matt McCooey — and the result is a delightful romp full of mischief and laughs.
I recently had the chance to speak with McCooey, who plays Detective Constable Bill Wong, the kind-hearted, ever-patient subordinate to his incompetent superior, DCI Wilkes (played impeccably by Barnett). Although a police officer, Wong is also part of Agatha’s inner circle and, as such, a cohort to her mystery-solving schemes. Like his character, McCooey is amiable and disarmingly funny. I recently spoke over the phone with the actor/writer/director from his home in England. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
Agatha Raisin is so funny and charming and ridiculous, and I get the sense that the cast feels similarly. Absolutely, yes. I was very lucky in that it was my first proper regular role on a TV series. Even from reading the initial script for the pilot, the Quiche of Death, it was funny and, [although] obviously we are covering murder and serious things, it had this light tone to it. I’m a big comedy fan. I get the job, hurray, very exciting, we all arrive [on set] and we had such a good time on the pilot. Then I thought, “Wow, every job’s gonna be this fun.” [That hasn’t] necessarily [been] the case. When we got commissioned for the whole series I was absolutely made up; it was my ideal job. To this day, still, it’s super, super fun, lighthearted, hopefully entertaining. I feel really lucky to be in it.
Did you have to audition for your role? I did, yes. I don’t think Ashley [Jensen] would have auditioned — I think she would have been offered [the part] — and maybe Matt Horne, but I had to do three auditions. It was over quite a long period of time and they made me wait — it was two or three months, I think, from the initial audition to being booked for the job. From the third one to getting the job was about a month of them sort of saying, “Great, we loved you.” [I was] staring at my phone for a month, wondering, “What’s going on, someone call me, please!”… When I got the job and I was chatting to the executive producers on set, they said, “Oh yeah, we knew we wanted you from very early on.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me that three months ago? To save me pulling my hair out.” [Chuckles.]
I love your character Bill. I feel really lucky because Bill is not only the policeman, so I get to discover the murders and arrest murderers, but also a close friend of Agatha, so I get to join in with the village activities, whether it’s the fete, the barn dance, or going to try to rescue her from her holiday cottage.
The dynamic between Bill and Gemma (Katy Wix) is fun to watch as they think about making their friendship a romantic partnership. It’s fun to play, actually. I think it’s nice — they will have a few moments of quite touching drama amongst all the madness of murders and big comedy and big comedy actors doing their thing brilliantly.
The short film you wrote and directed about a benchwarmer on a rugby team, Billy: Thoughts of a Substitute, is hilarious. The guy who plays Billy, he’s not an actor; he’s just one of my best friends from home who I grew up with, and he’s actually a very good rugby player. … But I just knew he had this face that would draw people in, hopefully make people laugh. I asked him to do it, and he jumped at it, to have a chance to be in front of the camera. That short film actually got a little screening at the Cannes Film Festival.
Did it? Not part of the competition, but it was selected for a particular screening, and I was invited to go back out there, but I couldn’t make it, so Billy went on his own for the day so he could walk into the Palais, watch himself on the big screen, have an ice cream on the beach, and then come home to tell his mum that he’d done that.
Do you think of yourself as an actor first and then a writer/director, or the other way around? I guess both. Professionally I’m an actor … having said that, having directed short films, and directed actors in short films, I really think it helps me as an actor to know what it’s like on the other side. I also edit for my corporate work as well, so again, having experience editing as an actor I’m kind of, “Hold on a minute. Is that gonna edit with that because I didn’t have my hand in the right place?” I think it all links in, it all helps itself, and hopefully it will make me good at one of them, one day.
Had you read M.C. Beaton’s books before being cast on the series? When I was auditioning, I read the Quiche of Death. Then when I got the [part], I read maybe the first six or seven or eight. My mother-in-law’s auntie had them all, and she gave them to my mother-in-law when I got the job. So, I basically had this Agatha Raisin library that I could just read whenever I wanted to. When I found out which books were being adapted into episodes, I read all those. I’ve made good friends with M.C. Beaton over the years. … We’d meet up when we were shooting once a week on Wednesdays in the pub, and we have a little catch up. She would tell me, I’m working on the new Agatha [book] now, and I’d say, “Okay, just don’t kill Bill,” and we’ll get along just fine.
Each Agatha Raisin episode is based on a full book. Is that why you guys went to 90 minutes? Yeah. The pilot was 90 minutes and then the series was 45 minutes. But to get a book into 45 minutes — it didn’t leave much room for character development; it was more, someone has died, here are the suspects. Agatha kisses James [Jamie Glover], or something, and then quick, let’s solve it. I think we all felt as actors and the directors, writers, that it was nice to have a 90-minute format where we could explore a bit more, as opposed to just run around and arrest someone.
Why do you think Agatha Raisin is so popular? There’s a lot of pretty grim, deep, heavy dramas out there, and I’d like to think that we can give people the option to watch something within the genre that they enjoy but a slightly different take, slightly more lighthearted. You don’t have to chew your fingernails as you’re watching it. You can sit back for an hour and a half and hopefully watch it with a smile on your face and guess who drowned someone in some [fruit] jam or something, as opposed to hacked someone to death.
Agatha Raisin is available at Acorn.TV and via streaming devices. For a behind-the-scenes experience, check out Transcendent Travel and Acorn TV’s seven-day U.K. trip, which tours series sites, including Agatha Raisin, Midsomer Murders, and Doc Martin. See transcendent-travel.com.