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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Zoe Williams

‘No conversations were off the table around sexuality’: Adjoa Andoh on punk, Bridgerton and kids’ classics

Adjoa Andoh
‘People have been going to sleep to my voice for decades’ … Adjoa Andoh. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Judith Kerr’s Mog is not an especially Christmassy creation: she’s a pesky cat, the colour of a 70s puddle, the centre of a loving family where the mum looks like she spends a lot of time sighing.

Nonetheless, Mog did have a Christmas adventure, published 1976, so why shouldn’t Channel 4 animate it for their seasonal offering? There can’t be anyone in the country who didn’t either read it to their kids or have it read to them. As soon as you start watching, you settle into the nostalgia like a warm bath. The narrator’s tone has a lot of life in it, along with gentle, absolute authority. It doesn’t send you to sleep, but lets you know it is safe to do so. In short, Adjoa Andoh, 60, is perfect. “I’ve been doing audiobooks since they were still recorded on cassette,” she tells me. “People have been going to sleep to my voice for decades.” She loves taking roles the whole country will watch, as her TV work – EastEnders in the 90s, Casualty and Doctor Who in the 00s – can vouch. “There’s something about the ordinariness of Mog everybody can relate to: as something either they had, or they yearned for, or they’re trying to recreate. That foggy street, the buses, the prep, those family dynamics. There will be people up and down the country bracing themselves for the arrival of their aunties, wondering what they’ve got for Christmas lunch, or whether they can afford Christmas lunch.”

Wait a second: this Mog chat is making Andoh sound a little cozy. In fact, this woman is an absolute firebrand. I remember her from Battersea Arts Centre in 1994. She and Polly Irvin were running a radical theatre company, Wild Iris, single mothers filling the building with noisy feminism (I was just waitressing, I didn’t actually know them). “We were ex-punks, or still punks. We wanted a theatre company that selfishly reflected who we were. Central stories for women, casts of colour, always original material. No conversations were off the table around sexuality. And we were doing that in the 80s,” she remembers. Ah, the 80s – a time when it was commonplace for rightwingers to attack arts funding on the grounds that it was all going to “Black, one-legged, single parent lesbians”. While that was going on, Andoh was making art that said: “Yeah, what of it?” (among other things). In fact she wasn’t a lesbian, she was in love with the guy who ran the BAC bookshop, Howard Cunnell, later marrying him and having two more children.

Mog’s Christmas.
Starry night … Mog’s Christmas. Photograph: Channel 4

Andoh grew up in the Cotswolds, a rural environment – her best friend came to playdates on a horse – chosen by her father because of his experiences in a city when he first arrived from Ghana. “In the late 50s, in Bristol, Black children were routinely put into educationally subnormal schools,” she says. Her dad worked for British Aerospace, her mother was a history teacher, she was meant to go to Cambridge but flamed out in her A-levels, between the hitchhiking, the endless hunting for an NME, and the “pillaging your dad’s old suits”, it took a lot of time to be a 999 fan from the Cotswolds.

Instead, she started a law degree at Bristol Poly. “I hated student drama, I was a punk – but I joined a Black women’s group. We used to teach a Saturday school, because the outcomes for Black children hadn’t changed much since my father’s time. We went to Greenham, we read books, we had visits with Brixton Black Women’s Group. It was a space for opening your mind and advocating for yourself.”

So she quit her law degree, moved to a squat in south London, got her first Equity job the same week she discovered she was pregnant, at 23 – “the theatre administrator said: ‘Right, then, we’ll have to institute a maternity policy.’ And that was the fabulous world I started my career in.” She hasn’t stopped working since.

This is partly because Andoh has moved seamlessly between the avant garde and family-tea viewing material. “I don’t think there should be anything highbrow or lowbrow,” she says. “I performed in Cuba, where everyone goes to the ballet, but you want to go to a football match, forget it. Culture should just be culture. For me, the only important thing is, do you have access to it or not?” She’s discerning, the work needs to be good – but she also likes being able to pay the mortgage, likes being employed. “And I do care about trying to keep a mixed portfolio.” We both snigger, as the lifelong socialist sounds like a stockbroker. “I mean, I like what keeps me limber. To be able to play Duke of Gloucester in Richard III every night [as she did this year, in a radical reimagining in which the anti-hero is a racial outsider] means you have to deal with live audiences, and you have to remember a hell of a lot of lines. And you can’t go for another take.” Also, “I like being able to be in a show that is global.”

Adjoa Andoh recording for Mog’s Christmas.
Adjoa Andoh recording for Mog’s Christmas. Photograph: Channel 4

Ah, Bridgerton: she’s been Lady Danbury since the beginning, three years ago, in a hit that turned period drama on its head, with this mild but seismic challenge: just because it’s set in the past, doesn’t mean everyone has to be white. “I was ready for Bridgerton 30 years ago,” she says. “But as we know, things take a long time to catch up. I think that genie’s out of the bottle now in terms of fictional historical drama, unless maybe you’re setting something in Iceland in 50 BC.”

It’s interesting that Andoh has never made any secret of her politics, yet has never been pigeonholed into political roles. “I’m a middle-class woman from Gloucestershire, who’s a reader in the Church of England, with three children and a grandson,” she says. “I support Leeds United, my values are more socialist than anything. I’ve been an advocate for people of colour, for women, for trans people, for LGBTQIs, for refugees, pick your poison. But the point is, I’m all of those things.” A reader, she explains, is a “vicar’s sidekick”; they’re not clerics but they can lead services, as she does, in Southwark Cathedral: “It’s right in Borough Market. That’s where the church should be, in the middle of the frenzy.”

That super-wholesome note brings us back to Mog, the new cat-icon of Christmas, except not exactly: “I played Judith Kerr’s mother in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” says Andoh, “and I think about Judith Kerr’s childhood, the extremis her family went through. Constantly having to strategise, what do we have to do to stay alive, get out of this country, stave off starvation. There’s something practical about her, it’s not sentimental. I don’t like googie-woogie stuff because that’s not going to provide resilience.”

This time of year is notoriously short on edge, humour and grit, then it turns up where you least expect it – narrating a children’s cartoon.

Mog’s Christmas is on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve at 7.45pm.

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