An interview with Keeley Hawes, who plays Valerie Tozer

Category: Press Pack Article

You’re incredibly busy – what was it about this project that made you want to make space for it in your schedule?

I remember reading a press release about it and thinking: that looks really interesting. Such an interesting period of time that hasn’t really been done in this way. Then I got a message saying the first four scripts were on the way but to keep going because even though I was only in a handful of scenes, I’d be in a lot of episode five. Even on the strength of the handful of scenes I would have wanted to be part of it, but then came episode five and it was amazing. I couldn’t believe my luck.


Why were Russell’s scripts such a draw?

They were so real. There can be humour in death and Russell manages to find those light moments. I sat and read every episode, one after the other, and laughed and sobbed. I find the sadness of it hard to talk about, even now. Valerie is so complicated, but you need to have sympathy and empathy with her, or it doesn’t work. Russell has created someone so believable. I knew people like that, products of their time and generation unfortunately.


Who is Valerie Tozer?

I play Ritchie’s mother. Valerie and her husband Clive have no idea that Ritchie is gay; they live on the Isle of Wight and they’re removed from this life their son is living. Eventually it becomes apparent and they have to face up to a new reality. She goes on a hell of a journey! For so many people there was a stigma around AIDS and there still is for many too. Hopefully this show will help break down attitudes that some people still have.


How would you describe her relationship with Clive?

Clive and Valerie have such a complicated relationship. Are they happy? No, I wouldn’t say so. They’re not happy together and they’re unsatisfied with their lives in general so their hopes are pinned on their children to a degree. We all got on so well and had such a lovely time on set, which made it even harder! But also fun to play against that. So many people have messy relationships with their families and, when they’re forced to confront things together– the cracks in their relationships are thrown into focus.


The Tozers have quite a complicated relationship – what do you think the drama says about the notion of “family”?

Ritchie finds a family unit in London, with Jill at the heart of it. It’s been lovely to watch objectively, because I’m not in a lot of it, so to see the Pink Palace and the storylines with Colin and Roscoe has been a joy – the performances and the life in a story that is so much about death is wonderful, tempered by the sadness about the lives that weren’t able to be lived.


Was that sadness felt on set?

The Tozers are sprinkled across the series until episode five, which is our episode really, so Shaun and I were in and out for a day here and there, and it was possibly the warmest set I’ve ever gone into. Every one of the cast I had the pleasure to share scenes with or even just meet was incredible. It was a really hard shoot but they kept the atmosphere going. It was the only set I’ve ever gone on where a member of the crew broke down in the middle of the scene. They were exhausted and drained; it was a long, hard shoot but they were glorious.


How was it working with Olly?

Olly was just brilliant – I loved acting with him and hanging out with him. He brings such huge energy… Number one on the callsheet and in every day, but he led the project so beautifully, and that trickles down and sets the tone. We had the pleasure of him breaking into song quite a lot as well. Actually, they all did! Years & Years were slightly off my radar, then I heard a song on the radio and went: Oh my God, that’s him! I had no idea.


Why do you think this is an important story to tell, and why is it important to tell it now?

People say we’ve never lived through anything like this Covid pandemic, but we have – the timing has become accidentally extraordinary. The way people were treated before they knew what AIDS was, the alienation of those people who were suffering in isolation, people with PPE and so on, all the conspiracy theories about a gay cancer – there are so many parallels to now, before we got a clearer understanding of Covid. I follow this brilliant Instagram page called the AIDS Memorial. Every day people post pictures of people they’ve lost with the hashtag #whatisrememberedlives – each and every story is different, from the 80s to the present day. Reading them makes all the lives in It’s A Sin feel more real, because some of them are so similar and they’re people that deserve to be remembered.


What do you remember of the era?

I grew up very close to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington where there was an HIV wing, one of the first ones I think. I remember walking past that quite often and feeling a sense of foreboding. A teacher at my primary school, when I was a bit older, went away and was ill and died of AIDS, but it wasn’t something people wanted to say out loud. Nobody wanted to put a name to it, he was just “unwell”. It all came flooding back. All the 80s came flooding back, to be honest – the design team did a phenomenal job. Sitting in that house, eating Bourbons or making boiled potatoes with no salt or butter… I do have waffles, Vienetta and Arctic Roll in my freezer at the moment, so maybe I can’t let go…


This isn’t the first time you’ve gone back in time to the 80s on screen – is it a decade with which you have a particular affinity?

I suppose so! I grew up in that decade and feel quite sentimental about it, but I wouldn’t want to relive it.


What do you hope audiences take away from the drama?

I don’t think my 20-year-old son has much idea about this, it’s not something studied in schools, because HIV is something you live with, you don’t die from it in the same way. It’s not a death sentence. So I think it will act as a reminder to some or even be news to younger generations.