The Thirteenth Tale

A haunting psychological mystery on BBC Two

Interview with Tom Goodman-Hill

I love ghost stories. I remember when I was about 12, I read MR James’ Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary under the covers, way too young to fully understand what was going on with those stories, completely terrified but absolutely loved them."Tom Goodman-Hill
Category: BBC Two; Drama

Who do you play and what is your character’s involvement in the story?

I play Doctor Mawsley, who’s the family doctor at Angelfield and has known the family for a long time. They’re one Scotch egg short of a picnic as far as Dr Mawsley’s concerned, so he’s aware that that he’s dealing with a slightly strange situation. He’s asked to investigate the behaviour of the twin girls as they seem to be getting out of hand and is called in to see what their behaviour entails and whether there’s anything that can be done about it.

He and the twins’ governess take matters into their own hands…

I think it’s fair to say that they take a hard-line attitude towards the twins; it’s not quite as enlightened as attitudes today. They’re not particularly tolerant of the girls’ behaviour but they think that they’re making great forward leaps in child psychology. They’re doing it from a good place; they’re just not necessarily doing the right thing, which serves to make the situation worse.

What appealed to you about the role?

What’s most fun about it is that it’s like making two films in one. You’ve got the present day framing story and then the childhood in the past and all the story of Angelfield House. That’s appealing in itself - a story within a story that’s just beautifully encapsulated and quite romantic and scary all at the same time. It’s fun for the viewer as well as when you’re watching it, as you see a story unfold and you’re aware that it’s only part of a greater overarching story that involves everybody. Also, there’s just something about Doctor Mawsley where you’re not quite sure whether he’s entirely honourable at any one point and that’s always quite fun to play.

Who did you get to work with in the cast?

It’s been enormous fun acting with Alex Roach and a fun relationship to explore. Madeleine, who plays the twins, is extraordinary, it’s like having another adult on set because she’s so completely together and in control of what’s she’s doing. It’s a little bit terrifying when someone comes in and is a complete natural, but it’s exciting to watch as well. I finished a week before the end of the shoot, where they were telling a completely different story, which is fun but it’s also weird that most of us don’t get to work with Vanessa, Olivia or Stephen as they’re in a completely different time frame.

James Kent directed the film - how was it working with him?

James is incredibly gentle. He’s very careful, lets you play the scene out and rehearse and then by the time you turn over and shoot it, you generally do it in one take and you cover the scene very quickly. It’s good because it means it’s very fresh and James goes with everyone’s instinct, which is a really nice way to work.

How have you enjoyed being part of the story from another era?

I only really started doing any sort of period drama about three years ago with The Devil’s Whore and suddenly, I’ve got it coming out of my ears! I’d been so used to working with new writers and in modern settings that to suddenly start working in a different time period was quite fascinating. Mawsley’s quite relaxed for the 1950s and there’s a romantic edge to him - it’s funny as the more you play in a time period you realise that people act differently regardless of the period they’re in. The clothes might make you physically upright, but actually in your head you’re going through similar thought processes, so it’s been really interesting finding that out over the last few years. 

The Thirteenth Tale uses some spectacular locations - which did you visit when shooting?

I grew up down the road from Belsay Hall in Northumberland, which looks incredibly similar to one of the houses where we filmed, but it’s completely different inside which is really interesting. We were also down at Broughton Abbey, which is a beautiful house, kind of sprawling and amazing work inside the house and paintings on the walls and faded old arm chairs, an extraordinary place. For Doctor Mawsley’s house, we filmed at Thwaite Mill, which is a stunning red brick Mill House. I didn’t realise that there’s such a concentration of incredible stately homes all centred around Leeds.

There are ghostly elements to The Thirteenth Tale. Do you enjoy those tales?

I love ghost stories. I remember when I was about 12, I read MR James’ Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary under the covers, way too young to fully understand what was going on with those stories, completely terrified but absolutely loved them. I love ghost stories but kind of left them alone after my teens and came back to it after playing Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights on the radio.  It took us four weeks to record the whole book and I re-read it in that time. The Thirteenth Tale is reminiscent of Wuthering Heights because you’re never sure if it’s a ghost or if people have gone a bit mad; that feeling that’s been channelled all the way from Bronte is a really exciting one.