Catherine Tate on her prison comedy Hard Cell: 'Things do get really emotional'

Catherine Tate plays six of the major characters in her new Netflix prison comedy Hard Cell.
Catherine Tate plays six of the major characters in her new Netflix prison comedy Hard Cell. (Image credit: Netflix)

Catherine Tate has given British TV so many outrageous comedy characters, from gobby Nan (now a movie star in The Nan Movie) to ‘bovvered' teenager Lauren, but she’s unleashing six brand new ones for her six-part prison comedy Hard Cell, which launches worldwide on Tuesday April 15 2022 as it brings her unique style of humor to Netflix. 

In an exclusive interview, Catherine Tate tells What To Watch all about her Netflix comedy Hard Cell...

Catherine as prison governor Laura with her 'number two' Dean as the inmates get hosed down!

Catherine as prison governor Laura with her 'number two' Dean as the inmates get hosed down! (Image credit: Netflix)

Catherine Tate reveals what happens in Hard Cell and her characters...

Catherine Tate has created Hard Cell as a ‘mockumentary’ inside a fictional female prison and she plays a range of oddball characters, including prison governor Laura Willis who’s totally obsessed with herself, is always implementing off-piste ideas and is flanked by her very cynical ‘number two’ Dean (Poldark’s Christian Brassington). 

There’s also terrifying hard nut Big Viv, timid first-timer Ange, tattooed Ros who has a besotted pen pal and a horrible mum. Then there's vain Essex prison guard Marco who once auditioned for Love Island.

"I loved being Marco. I just loved it. I realized he’s my spirit animal. He’s an Essex boy. Much of his banter was improvised — he loves to roll his eyes and talk to the camera,’ laughs Catherine. 

"There were wigs and prosthetics, plus tattoos painted on me. The only character I didn’t have that for was Laura. She’s a liberal-hearted prison governor who’s a bit of a buffoon to start with. But by the end you see her heart and her real side when she says: ‘I want these women to fly!’. She just does it with a pair of clown shoes on."

Catherine plays Marco the prison guard from Essex.

Catherine loved playing Marco the prison guard from Essex with loads of banter. (Image credit: Netflix)

Catherine Tate as prison governor Laura in Hard Cell.

In charge! Catherine Tate as prison governor Laura Willis in Hard Cell. (Image credit: Netflix)

The Hard Cell musical and how Catherine got EastEnders legend Cheryl Fergison on board...

One Hard Cell story arc follows Laura’s big brainwave — wanting inmates to perform the stage musical West Side Story because ‘creativity sparks rehabilitation’ and she thinks they’ll feel comfortable with a story ‘about gangs and stuff!’. She’s delighted too to have persuaded former EastEnders star Cheryl Fergison (playing herself) to direct the show. The inmates are thrilled to meet ‘Heather off EastEnders’ and eagerly sign up for parts, but the production soon hits a few unexpected snags…

"This idea started from my awareness of charities and theatre companies that actually go into prisons and do shows like this with great success," explains Catherine. "So I wanted to do the fictitious version of it. Cheryl Fergison was such a good sport — she jumped right in! Cheryl has actually gone into prisons to put on shows and help ex-offenders. In prison, inmates create their own families, networks and communities, and they have highs and lows, plus loves and fights, so it was nice to show how our prisoners start to bond over the musical. Things do get really emotional by the last couple of episodes and there's a twist to look out for."

How long does it take to get into costume? For Roz, you must have had tattoos painted on you?

Catherine says: "I did. Every day. The only person who is completely me is Laura, the governor. Everyone else has got either a prosthetic or a tiny bit to ring the changes. With Roz it’s subtle but there’s actually quite a bit of prosthetic on. A different nose, and the tattoos. Every morning when I sat in that chair I was thinking ‘oh god, why did I say she’s got tattoos everywhere?’ It’s her and I love the prosthetic for Marco and Anne-Marie was heavy duty but good stuff. But Big Viv with all her stuff, the neck it’s all worth it. You sit there at 6am and go ‘oh god why didn’t I just put it in a supermarket’."

To play Roz, Catherine had to have tattoos painted on her every morning.

To play Roz, Catherine had to have tattoos painted on her every morning. (Image credit: Netflix)

Inmate Big Viv is just one of the Hard Cell characters played by Catherine Tate.

Catherine's tough nut inmate Big Viv is someone the other inmates try to avoid. (Image credit: Netflix)

If you were in prison would you be a Viv or a more timid Ange? 

"Gosh I hope I never get to answer that correctly. Can you imagine if I just went ‘well I’ve been in prison mate and…’ Gosh I don’t know. I think probably you’d put on a game face wouldn’t you? I’d probably have to be the joker. And find a family of people by making them laugh. And hope I didn’t find a Big Viv."

Timid Ange finds it tough to come to terms with prison life.

Timid Ange finds it tough to come to terms with prison life. (Image credit: Netflix)

Do you find it easier to write for the characters you play? 

"I don’t actually," says Catherine. "I’m so controlling. I sit by the sidelines and mouth their lines as they are saying them which is so annoying. I get into the head of all the characters. God, that would be terrible wouldn’t it if I’m only writing for myself!" 

What were your favourite scenes to film in Hard Cell?

"I loved doing scenes between myself as Laura with Christian Brassington as her 'number two' Dean. I loved their bantery storyline. I’ve known Christian for years and it’s just great. I loved having Nicky Wardley in the show too. She plays tough, troubled inmate Anastasia and she is one of my best mates. 

"They are all very different parts I needed to play. It’s very unusual for me to be in a situation where Nicky is being hardcore mean."

Catherine on her worldwide fanbase

With Hard Cell having a worldwide release date on Netflix (April 15 2022), there'll be a global audience for the show, but Catherine told us how she’s already quite well known in the US and beyond. "I was in the American version of The Office which was a massive show there about 10 years ago and that became ensconced in people’s lives. Plus Doctor Who is big in the US too among sci-fi fans, so I’m known for being Donna Noble too. 

"Setting a show in a women’s prison is something everyone gets wherever they are in the world, with shows like Orange Is The New Black, Prisoner: Cell Block H, Within These Walls and that new one Wentworth too! It’s a well-tried genre."

Nicholas Cannon
TV Content Director on TV Times, What's On TV and TV & Satellite Week

I'm a huge fan of television so I really have found the perfect job, as I've been writing about TV shows, films and interviewing major television, film and sports stars for over 25 years. I'm currently TV Content Director on What's On TV, TV Times, TV and Satellite Week magazines plus I previously worked on Woman and Woman's Own in the 1990s. Outside of work I swim every morning, support Charlton Athletic football club and get nostalgic about TV shows Cagney & Lacey, I Claudius, Dallas and Tenko. I'm totally on top of everything good coming up too.