The TV star tells Daphne Lockyer how appearing in new First World War drama The Crimson Field was her chance to honour the fallen

Although Hermione Norris—the daughter of a former nurse—is about to be utterly convincing as the formidable matron of a First World War field hospital, in real life, she says, she could never have entered the profession.

“Absolutely not, ” she laughs. “I’d just get too upset. My character [in new BBC1 drama The Crimson Field] Grace Carter has the ability to feel real compassion and yet maintain the necessary detachment. Me, on the other hand, I got emotional when we were filming just at the sight of the prosthetics. If you were to put me in a real ward, I’d be crying and clutching onto patients, desperate to ease their pain. I’d be an absolute disaster.”

But though the 46-year-old’s ability to feel things on such a visceral level might not be an asset in the medical profession, it’s one of the things that’s made her a leading British TV actress. She’s known for roles as diverse as despairing, middle-class mother Karen Marsden in the iconic Cold Feet, a victim of domestic violence in Falling Apart, MI5 operative Ros Myers in Spooks, and now in The Crimson Field  (a jewel in the crown of the BBC’s many First World War centenary programmes) a strict, prim authority figure.

And, she says, “With Grace, still waters definitely run deep. She’s an absolute stickler for uniform, rules and presenting yourself correctly. No make-up, no perfume, no frivolity is tolerated. Everything has to be immaculate because an army nurse should represent safety and structure in the midst of all the chaos and carnage. But underneath that starchy exterior beats a real human heart. You need to convey both.”

We’re having coffee today in the library of a swanky London hotel. The surroundings and Hermione’s fashionable get- up—a little black skirt and shirt, soft leather knee-length boots and vermilion nail polish—are a far cry from the backdrop of The Crimson Field and the nun-like costume that she wore during four months of filming.

“For God’s sake,” she laughs again. “It was awful. Corsets, stiff collars, crazy headgear and a wig. When we first started filming it was summer and boiling hot. You could hardly breathe in that costume and the wasps would chase the hairspray in your wig. Then the rains came and it was cold and wet. It’s difficult to say which was more uncomfortable.”

"You could hardly breathe in that costume and the wasps would chase the hairspray in your wig."

The set at Charlton Park near Malmesbury, Wiltshire—doubling for a field hospital somewhere behind the lines of the Western Front—changed with the weather too.
“They’d built probably the most extraordinary set I’ve ever been on for a drama. When you walked onto it, it took your breath away. It was really possible to feel that you were actually in a proper field hospital.

“When we started it was all pristine and new and the sun was shining, but as we progressed, the storms reduced everything to mud and it got increasingly battered, dark and squalid—the perfect metaphor, really, for what happened in the First World War itself. All those men arriving in a blaze of sunny optimism and ending up in muddy trenches, covered in lice with rats eating their ear lobes and toes. It reduces me to tears.”

Hermione has always been fascinated and appalled by the events of the First World War. “My grandfather fought in that conflict and was never the same again. He came home with shellshock and shrapnel in his leg. He also lost all his brothers in the fighting.

“I can remember when I was about four being at his flat in Wandsworth. Something set him off and he was crouching on the kitchen floor. He asked me to come to him and I sat and held his hand. He was shouting out some names. My grandmother came in and said, ‘Oh dear, he’s calling to his friends in the trenches again.’ I’ve always felt rather haunted by that memory.”

About 20 years ago, Hermione’s interest deepened. “It was around that time that I read Birdsong and the Pat Barker Regeneration trilogy. I read the war poets too, went to the Imperial War Museum and visited Flanders. I was deeply affected by it, although at that stage I didn’t even have my children. [Wilf, nine, and Hero, six]. Now, when I consider the idea that boys just a few years older than Wilf died in that war, I feel devastated about it. To say that I’m pacifist would be the understatement of the century. If it were my son going to the First World War, I’d be following him into the trenches saying, ‘Come on, we’re going home!’ ”

"I read read the war poets, went to the Imperial War Museum and visited Flanders. I was deeply affected by it."

It’s no surprise that Hermione signed to play Grace Carter in a heartbeat. She wanted to work on a script that had been penned by Sarah Phelps—a writer she much admires, with a CV stretching from EastEnders to Great Expectations. But it was also a chance to honour the fallen. “It really is a case of ‘lest we forget’.

And in the case of The Crimson Field, of course, it’s particularly about the part that women played, a subject that I don’t think has been dealt with very much in drama.”

The First World War, she adds, represented a pivotal period for women. “What started out in the suffragette movement blossomed during the war. Women came out of it in a very different position.” The six-part drama, is, says Hermione, very much “oestrogen driven. And that makes a lovely change doesn’t it? It does make you think that the tide is turning and that there are more and more dramas now being made with women at the heart.”

There are male characters in The Crimson Field, including Downton Abbey actor Kevin Doyle as field hospital chief Lt Col Brett, but it really focuses on the nurses. Sister Joan Livesey (Suranne Jones), for instance, a thoroughly modern nurse who represents the future, and, under Grace Carter’s wing, a team of young female volunteers—Kitty, Rosalie and Flora, played by Oona Chaplin, Marianne Oldham and Alice St Clair.

“In their previous lives, these middle- and upper- class girls hadn’t even been allowed to go out unchaperoned and then suddenly they were thrust into the unimaginable trauma of the war. The drama is, in a way, about their loss of innocence.”

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