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Power of one – Anne-Marie Duff in The Virgin Queen

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Playing Elizabeth I in the BBC drama The Virgin Queen was both the role of a lifetime and a daunting challenge, actress Anne-Marie Duff tells Liz Thomas

Anne-Marie Duff is currently gracing screens as Elizabeth I in BBC1’s £9 million four-part drama The Virgin Queen, a task she has compared to performing in the Olympics.

The actress, who sprung into national consciousness as feisty Fiona Gallagher in Paul Abbott’s award-winning hit series Shameless, fully admits that to play this Queen is the role of a lifetime and one that is difficult to make your own.

She is in rather classic company, following on from a veritable who’s who of American, Australian and British acting doyennes, including Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Most recently, of course, Helen Mirren took on the part in Channel 4’s far more fruity take on the monarch’s twilight years. At the time the shows were announced there was much competition and irritation between the two broadcasters.

Duff admits she didn’t watch the rival version, which was broadcast late last year, despite knowing Mirren well since they worked together on Collected Stories at the Haymarket Theatre in 1999. She says: “It wouldn’t have been very useful – the two productions are very different. We both sent each other flowers and a good luck card and I’m looking forward to watching it freely now.”

The BBC’s take covers Elizabeth’s life from her early twenties until her death at the age of 69 in 1603. Already the column inches have racked up on the debate over her virginity. Channel 4’s production indicated she was romping with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, while across the pond the sequel to the film Elizabeth, starring Blanchett, is expected to depict a sexual liaison with Sir Walter Raleigh, played by Clive Owen.

The Beeb have opted to go with historical record. Paula Milne, who wrote the screenplay, said: “If I was asked to write a piece about a contemporary woman whose mother had been killed by her father, I would be expected to examine the psychological impact. I think in those circumstances it was inevitable that Elizabeth would regard intimacy as a threat.”

Duff is more circumspect in her opinion, admitting that she knew very little about the time or the monarch before she took up the role, although she hastens to add that she pored over any text on the subject she could find in the run-up to filming. She says: “I think she was a very complex woman. She was very sexual but also repressed. I think she knew if she married she would have had to share power and that just wasn’t an option for her. In a very real sense, she was married to her job and to her position as the head of her country.”

Despite being born in and living in London, Duff is hugely proud of her Irish heritage but says what she learnt of Elizabeth impressed her greatly. She explains: “She is in the very soul of England. She is in the bones of this country. She sort of sums up the character of the people.”

The 34 year-old is clearly enamoured with the role, despite the fact that she had to shave her forehead for it. She laughs: “In pictures it is obvious when you look at them that she’s got a very high brow, so out came the razor. It has all grown back now but it was quite funny at the time because if I went anywhere off the set, I had to comb what I had left forwards. It was a bit like Bobby Charlton.”

Then there were the hoards of latex and prosthetics she had to wear as the monarch aged, which she says were quite restrictive. But Duff stresses there were upsides to the role. She has become a master horsewoman and, well, she was crowned Queen of England. She wore the same dress that Blanchett wore in the film – an exact replica of the original – hired from an exclusive costumier in London.

Although Duff first started in amateur dramatics when she was 11, she did not act professionally until she attended drama school. While Shameless helped Duff to popular acclaim, she has in fact been garnering praise from the critics for some time. She was nominated for an Ian Charleson award for her Cordelia in Richard Eyre’s King Lear and an Olivier for Collected Stories. Her roles in Peter Mullan’s difficult film the Magdalene Sisters, TV drama Sinners and in costume epics Charles II and the Aristocrats also picked up plaudits.

Last year she starred in Owen McCafferty’s version of JP Miller’s Days of Wine and Roses at London’s Donmar Warehouse and theatre is something she enjoys as “more real” than television. The third series of Shameless is now in full flow but Duff has no regrets about deciding to move on. She says: “I thought that I’d gone about as far as I could with Fiona and that she needed to move on and Paul sort of works that way anyway. It was sad to leave, because I’d got very close to the team and particularly to the kids in the show. But it was such hard work and it was time for something different.”

Never one for discussing her private life, Duff remains tight-lipped on the rumours that she will wed her partner and former Shameless co-star James McAvoy this May. He too has been making his mark in the past few years, starring as Macbeth in the BBC’s Shakespeare Re-told season and as Mr Tumnus in the Christmas blockbuster The Chronicles of Narnia.

Although she says she was ready for a break after filming The Virgin Queen, Duff is now looking for the next challenge but says there is nothing concrete to report. However the show, co-produced by Colditz and Henry VIII producer Power, was shown first in America to avoid a clash with Channel 4’s production. The drama has been well received there and Duff now has an agent over there, so Hollywood may well beckon. She says: “Whatever I play next, however great a drama it is, it’ll be nothing like The Virgin Queen.”

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