Helena Bonham Carter: 'If telly can be an anti-depressant, like Love, Nina, it's worth making'

(Image credit: BBC/See-Saw Films)

Harry Potter's Helena Bonham Carter stars in the BBC1 adaptation of Nina Stibbe’s book, Love, Nina, which begins on Friday, May 20. A collection of letters written by Nina to her sister, about her life as a nanny for a family in an affluent part of London during the 1980s, was an award winner it was published.

Helena plays the family's eccentric mother in this five-part series and we caught up with her to discuss the project, how she copes with her own children and of course, Harry Potter…

How well did you know the book?

"I was aware of the book, but I only read it when I was asked to do the job. In all honesty I don’t have time to read a book unless I’m paid to. I buy the books and I love reading, but I don’t seem to have the time. It’s always a postponed joy. So I read it – it was great to be paid to read Love, Nina."

What did you think?

"It’s a total joy – a bit of magic. That was the draw. Enchanting. I thought it makes me happy. If the telly can be an anti-depressant as much as the book, then it’s worth making."

What can you tell us about your character, Georgia?

"I named her. She was called-Mary Kay in the book and she was named after a real person called Mary-Kay Wilmers; for lots of different reasons everybody had to be re-named. In the book Alan Bennett lives across the street from Mary-Kay, but Alan didn’t want to represented in it. So they created another character called Malcolm. That created a domino effect and it was easier that everyone was renamed. Which in a way was easy because it freed us up from the reality."

Did you meet the real Mary-Kay?

"I did and she’s a fascinating woman. She talks very quietly so I knew I had to be up a few decibels... I read so quietly at the read-through the director was panicking a bit!"

The book is set in Camden, where was it filmed?

"Very close by. I was sort of seduced into the part because I thought it’s such an easy job, it’s just on my doorstep, just five minutes down the road. I can do the school run and everything. It very quickly went pear-shaped. We couldn’t use Gloucester Crescent because Lady in the Van had already been shot there. Also, the BBC didn’t have enough money to stop the traffic. It’s quite a busy road so it costs a lot."

What were the most difficult scenes to film?

"One thing I’ve realised I’m allergic to – and most actors are – are round-the-table dinner scenes. They are the most laborious thing to film, because you’re stuck around a table. How do you shoot it differently? How do you keep everyone interested in a conversation for four hours? It’s very difficult to keep the energy up. So I basically invented every reason to get up from the table – as, in fact, I do in life."

You grew up in north London in the 80s in an intellectual family – were there elements of Love, Nina that reminded you of your family?

"I’ve definitely had bonkers nannies looking after my children! And we definitely had eccentrics. We had two Peruvians, one who sleepwalked nude, but with socks on, that was like sensational to me. I was never awake, but Dad had to put her to bed and not wake her up, just in case.

"My family’s very unpretentious and the thing with Mary-Kay is that she’s completely unpretentious and very straightforward. I think the other thing that related was that my father was very disabled. Although it’s not really central, one of the children, Sam, has a disability and totally upstages his disability. So I could relate to that."

Actually, quite a lot of comedy in the book comes from Sam’s disability...

"Yes, and how you deal with it. My father was never patronised, it wasn’t a sense of seriousness, there was certainly a lack of self-pity from him, it’s just part of life. But what it means is that often disability can either explode a family or bring it together. I think our family had a lot of community, and a similar thing of a lot of people just coming through the house.

"If somebody can’t move, as my father was paralysed, you’d have a lot of society, fun, interesting people, because they’d come through the house and chat and that’s how we carried on."

How difficult is it for you to find time to do things with your kids?

"We try and watch a bit of TV together certainly, things like A Question of Sport and football – West Ham and Arsenal. The trouble is you have to find something that everyone likes watching, although we all enjoy Modern Family. And of course The X Factor, even though I really don’t care who wins now, but it’s something we can watch together. What do you guys watch with your families?"

How about Harry Potter?

"This is the thing, they like watching things again and again. Billy really loves Harry Potter – I didn’t, and Nell didn’t. But Billy will watch Harry Potter again and again and again, that’s his comfort zone."

Are your children impressed by what you do?

"No. No, they aren’t. Not remotely, in fact they’re embarrassed and they’ll get more and more embarrassed as they get older, because it’s that stage. They just want me to keep my head down! ‘Mum don’t!’"

Do they think they wish you had a normal job like all the other parents?

"I think they do actually. They want me to be as inconspicuous as possible. We went to see David Attenborough talk about the Great Barrier Reef the other night, which was great because he’s Billy’s hero. My laugh is quite loud, and you’re born with a laugh like you’re born with blue eyes! And Billy was like ‘Mama, you know that laugh – David Attenborough did actually look at you at one point!’ So they get embarrassed, but I think that’s the nature of being a parent!"

Has Nell been watching Alice in Wonderland?

"She was an extra, which she found very boring, but she got paid which she was very excited about. But the cheque was made out to Neil Burton – so she was a bit annoyed. Everyone thinks it’s funny, but Nell doesn’t. Her main thing was making the money, but she hasn’t watched it yet. I think she will, but she’s not that interested. She’s already disillusioned with the industry at the age of seven!"

How does she feel about your job?

"She resents it. She says ‘Why do you have to work? You don’t need to work?' And I say ‘No, I do actually’ and she’ll say ‘No, no Dad can pay for everything!’ and I tell her that while that may be true, I want to work and I want to be financially independent and have a sense of self. And she rolls her eyes and is like ‘Come on!'"

Watch a clip from Love, Nina. Joe REALLY doesn't like Leicester City FC...


Sean Marland

Sean is a Senior Feature writer for TV Times, What's On TV and TV & Satellite Week, who also writes for whattowatch.com. He's been covering the world of TV for over 15 years and in that time he's been lucky enough to interview stars like Ian McKellen, Tom Hardy and Kate Winslet. His favourite shows are I'm Alan Partridge, The Wire, People Just Do Nothing and Succession and in his spare time he enjoys drinking tea, doing crosswords and watching football.