‘None of it has felt insurmountable’: Amanda Abbington on Sherlock, separation and her fiancé’s nightmare fall

After her show-stealing turn in the Steven Moffat drama, the actor is returning to comedy with his play The Unfriend. She talks about why funny women intimidate men, her daredevil partner – and coping with the accident that befell him

Amanda Abbington is a great believer in good manners. She and her ex-partner Martin Freeman instilled the importance of Ps and Qs in their two children from the word go. “We are so militant about it,” she says. “Manners cost nothing, as my grandmother used to say, and I think it’s true.” Even so, she is able to see the absurdity of British politeness at times, certainly when it is taken to extremes as it is in The Unfriend, Steven Moffat’s new play, in which she stars opposite Frances Barber and Reece Shearsmith.

The Unfriend, which is directed by Mark Gatiss, follows a couple who are “dying of manners”, as Abbington’s character Debbie puts it, after an American house guest turns out to be a potential maniac. The play is an indictment of British social mores, wrapped up in rollicking farce. “We’re not very good at saying, ‘That’s enough now,’” adds Abbington. “We tend to let people overstay their welcome. I’m like that, too.”

Abbington is on her lunch break from rehearsals, sitting down to a baguette but – ironically – is too polite to take anything other than occasional pecks out of it. “Please eat,” I say. “Oh no, it’s fine,” she replies, patting the sandwich with what seems like yearning. She is still feeling the tingle of being back inside a theatre after so long. The last production she starred in was Florian Zeller’s intense family drama The Son, at the Kiln in London in 2019. The contrast, she chuckles, is a case of “from the sublime to the ridiculous”.

‘Dying of manners’ … in rehearsal for The Unfriend with Reece Shearsmith and Frances Barber.
‘Dying of manners’ … in rehearsal for The Unfriend with Reece Shearsmith and Frances Barber. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Although Abbington loves the exhilaration of theatre, she is best known for her work on such prime-time TV shows as Mr Selfridge and Sherlock. The Unfriend, which is being staged at the Minerva in Chichester, reunites her with Sherlock’s Moffat and Gatiss. They have all been grafting hard but laughing their heads off. “Everyone’s feeling like a pressure valve’s gone off.”

Could its central plot hinge – of the American woman inveigling her way into the couple’s home to spark fear and danger – be a metaphor for Britain’s suspicion of the outsider-immigrant as well as the hypocrisies of do-good couples with enormous homes? No, she says briskly. It’s a play that is simply very funny, nothing more, nothing less. “Mark was saying the other day that when he was touting this play around a couple of years ago, he took it to a few producers who read it and said, ‘Is it just funny?’ Sometimes it’s OK for something to be ‘just funny’ and not to have a message.”

Having done both comedy and drama, Abbington believes the former is trickier to pull off. “An actor has to have funny bones – to be able to look at a sentence and work out where the beats are. Reece is such a brilliant comedy actor: when I watch him, I can see he knows exactly which bits to emphasise. It’s a beautiful learning curve.”

Does she feel the playing field has been levelled and women’s funny bones are now fully acknowledged? “No, not by a mile. But we’re getting there. We’ve got wonderful women coming up but I think there’s still a stigma attached to women being funny.” She has, in fact, found that it’s a turn-off for some men. “They’ve gone, ‘Oh I can’t go out with you – you’re funny. I’ll be your friend but I can’t date you.’ I think funny women are intimidating for men. It’s a thing that irks them.”

‘It was difficult’ … Abbington played Freeman’s wife in Sherlock as they split.
‘It was difficult’ … Abbington played Freeman’s wife in Sherlock as they split. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Hartswood Films

Her own life is full of funny women, both those she grew up admiring – such as Julie Walters, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders – and her closest friends. “All my best friends are hilarious. Daisy Haggard is one, Rebecca Callard is another. We are inundated with funny women, but we have to fight for it.” So the choice is either to be funny or sexy? “Yeah, you definitely can’t be both – that’s unheard of. It’s ridiculous because all the women I’ve just mentioned are really sexy.”

Abbington grew up an only child in Hertfordshire, her mother a housewife, her father a photographer who set up print labs. She was bullied at school by “a group of girls who made my life miserable”, which had a lasting effect. “It informed most of my life. I realised that when I went into therapy. You never come out of childhood unscathed, but you either have to process it and get past it, or hold on to it and have a not very nice life.”

Her childhood had its passions, though, and she initially took to dancing when her mother gave her the option of riding lessons or ballet classes. “She said I couldn’t do both because we couldn’t afford it and that she’d much rather I do ballet because it was cheaper.” She didn’t feel like a natural dancer but she loved it and fantasised about performing at the Royal Opera House. She auditioned for Cats at around 17: “I went up for it about eight or nine times and I didn’t get it – which I’m quite pleased about because it would have taken me in a completely different direction.”

One day she injured herself badly while doing the splits and a drama teacher urged her to focus on acting instead. She attended a local drama school whose principal, John Gardiner, was an inspiration. She acted in one of his plays and found an agent while still a student.

Daredevil … Jonathan in The Incredible Mr Goodwin.
Daredevil … Jonathan in The Incredible Mr Goodwin. Photograph: Steven Neaves/UKTV

Being a mother and an actor over the years has been a juggle, Abbington says, in what sounds like understatement. She gets her children on to the school bus at seven every morning before travelling to London from Hertfordshire for rehearsals, and then heads home by 7pm. How have the work-life navigations changed since her split from Freeman? It’s been fine, she says. The children divide time between their homes. “He’s a great dad and we get on really well. We share the childcare and make sure they’re OK above everything else.”

In 2019, on Desert Island Discs, Freeman spoke of how hard it was to play Abbington’s on-screen husband, Dr Watson in Sherlock, while in real life they were separating. Was it hard for her, too? “Yeah, it was. We’d gone through the break-up months before and kept it very quiet. So doing that really was difficult.”

There is, she says, no rancour. “We had 16 years together and two amazing children. We broke up for reasons that were personal but we had a great time. Now we’ve moved on. He’s got a lovely girlfriend called Rachel and I’m engaged to the most amazing person. This is the second half of my life, which I’m going to be doing with him.”

At 50, she feels the healthiest she has ever been, in every way. Her new partner is Jonathan Goodwin who, until last October, was a professional escapologist, stunt performer and daredevil. He was in the series Dangerman: The Incredible Mr Goodwin. However, two days before we meet, Abbington announced that, after a serious accident during a stunt, Goodwin had been left permanently paralysed. He had been 30ft in the air, upside down and strapped into a straitjacket between two cars when he was accidentally crushed. He lost a kidney, broke his shoulder blades, severed his spinal cord and shattered both legs. He almost died in the accident, then again on the operating table. The news came out all these months later, when Abbington spoke on a podcast with Jay Rayner. “We were just chatting and it came out. It was going to come out eventually because Jonathan would be coming to the opening night of this play in a wheelchair.”

‘This is the second half of my life, which I’m going to be doing with him’ … on Lorraine with Jonathan.
‘This is the second half of my life, which I’m going to be doing with him’ … on Lorraine with Jonathan. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Abbington had only been romantically involved with Goodwin for two months before his accident, though they had known each other for years as friends. When they realised they were both single (he is divorced with a nine-year-old daughter in America) they began speaking on the phone, for as much as seven hours at a time, and he proposed to her within an hour of their first actual meeting.

What was it like to receive the shocking news of his accident? “It was one of the worst phone calls. But Jonathan is so strong. He’s a proper inspiration. He’s never once moaned about it. He’s sometimes nostalgic about what he did but at the same time it’s like, ‘This is the next chapter of my life now.’ A lot of people I know asked me, ‘Are you staying with him?’ I was like, ‘Yeah of course.’ I can’t imagine life without him. We have too much fun. He makes me laugh like no one else. None of it has felt insurmountable, not even his accident.”

It has changed her outlook on life, though. “There was no way of predicting what was going to happen to Jonathan. Now I don’t look too far into the future or the past. You don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s about being in the moment. We try to say ‘Yes’ to a lot of things. Life’s too short.”

  • The Unfriend is at the Minerva theatre, Chichester, until 9 July.

  • The headline was changed to reflect that Amanda Abbington and Martin Freeman were not married, and therefore not divorced


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Unfriend review – manners can be the death of you in Steven Moffat’s comedy
Mark Gatiss directs Reece Shearsmith in Moffat’s cringe-tastic play that more than stands up next to the trio’s celebrated TV work

Ryan Gilbey

27, May, 2022 @10:26 AM

Article image
Steven Moffat writes play inspired by perils of holiday friendship
Ex-Doctor Who showrunner’s latest work, The Unfriend, will be at Chichester Festival theatre

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

13, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Othello; The Unfriend; On the Ropes – review
Brute force speaks volumes in Frantic Assembly’s breathtaking Othello; Steven Moffat and co flirt with farce; and the story of Windrush boxer Vernon Vanriel hits home in song

Susannah Clapp

29, Jan, 2023 @10:30 AM

Article image
Sherlock finale watched by smallest audience in show's history
Critics divided on last episode of series four, His Final Problem, a Russian version of which was leaked online

Jasper Jackson

16, Jan, 2017 @12:30 PM

Article image
Sherlock returns to the BBC: 'He's definitely devilish'

With three more cases for BBC1's Sherlock to crack, we speak to the series' co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

Gwilym Mumford

17, Dec, 2011 @12:02 AM

Article image
Angels and demons: the unmissable theatre, comedy and dance of autumn 2017
Hamilton hits London, Bryan Cranston’s news anchor goes berserk, Wayne McGregor turns his DNA into dance, Mae Martin revisits her teen addictions and Toyah Willcox is a time-travelling queen

Michael Billington, Lyn Gardner, Judith Mackrell and Brian Logan

12, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard: 'We met online – back when that was odd'
Mark Gatiss and his husband Ian Hallard star in a play about a gay party that turns toxic. They talk about new threats to equal rights, the Sherlock backlash – and their dog-sitting issues

Amy Fleming

01, Feb, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘I threw my arms around Beckett!’ – electrifying first nights, by Ciarán Hinds, Eileen Atkins and more
The author of a new book about the greatest openings in theatre history asks stars of stage to recall their most thrilling first nights – and the occasional disasters that befell them

Interviews by Dominic Dromgoole

26, Oct, 2022 @2:59 PM

Article image
‘Don’t tell actors how to act, Mum!’: Kate Mosse on how her debut play was a family affair
How did the novelist adapt her bestseller The Taxidermist’s Daughter for the stage? By stripping out the gore, ratcheting up the revenge – and asking her actor son for tips

Claire Armitstead

18, Apr, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘My nails are longer than my future’: Our Generation, the 254-scene play about teens, cuts and Covid
Sieges, riots, serial killings, sex work … Alecky Blythe has put them all on stage. She reveals all about her latest project – an epic look at the comic ups and touching downs of teenagers across Britain today

Claire Armitstead

08, Feb, 2022 @6:00 AM