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Lesley Manville on laughs, love and saying goodbye

I DON’T really do comedy,’ says Lesley Manville with a wry smile, ‘so I thought, I’m not sure I want to do this, a sitcom called Mum. I don’t think I can do the kind of “here’s the funny line” stuff. It’s not me. But then I read it and, of course, I was in.’

Bafta-nominated Manville, one of Britain’s best, if frequently underrated actresses, is recalling how she started out on the journey of creating Cathy, the put-upon but not to be underestimated heroine of Stefan Golaszewski’s Mum, a subtle comedy that over two series has seen Cathy and her bashful beau Michael (played by Peter Mullan) sneak into the hearts of devoted fans. Now it’s back for a third — and definitely final — series that puts the Cathy and Michael saga to bed. Or so we hope.

Kitchen-sink drama: Lesley Manville as Cathy and Peter Mullan as Michael in Mum

Well, actually they’ve already done that bit. As we meet up with them again the 60-ish Cathy and Michael (Manville is 63, Mullan, 59) are tiptoeing round each other like guilty teenagers, having done the deed, as they endure a week away in a country mansion with Cathy’s extended family. When her son, Jason, gets wind that his mum might have a sex life, his nose is put seriously out of joint.

For the uninitiated, Mum is a comedy about grief and Jason is grieving in his own way. When we first met Cathy she was reeling from the death of husband Dave and trying to put her life back together. Michael, Dave’s best friend, is the rock she could rely on while grappling with her own feelings and the demands of a self-centred family who border on the grotesque — yet stay just this side of real. That’s the key for Manville.

‘The fact is that these characters feel real to me — that’s what made me believe I could do it,’ she says. ‘What they are saying is funny, so well observed. Cathy is not the one who gets the laughs — most of my fun is listening to the other characters who get all the funny lines.’

It’s not surprising Manville feels so at home with Golaszewski’s deliberately underplayed style — she first sprang to attention in films with director Mike Leigh, including High Hopes and Secrets And Lies.

‘I watched Him And Her, which Stefan wrote, and knew this was from the same lineage as Mike Leigh — I knew where this was coming from,’ she says. ‘But there’s no improvisation, it’s word perfect. My job is to bring Cathy to life and to put fabric on what Stefan has written and fill in the silences. It’s beautifully set up so the audience is with Cathy. She’s the lens through which you see all the other characters.’

The unseen figure in all this is late hubby Dave, who looms over Cathy and Michael’s tentative romance like a ghost. He’s key because he’s the one thing standing in the way of Cathy and Michael’s future. Whether Cathy is able to move on and put herself first is Mum’s key motor.

Screen son: Sam Swainsbury as Jason

‘I did have a picture in my head of who Dave was,’ says Manville. ‘We discussed him as a group because everyone in the show has a notion of him. He and Cathy were married, they were soulmates, he was the kind of guy who’d be the first to jump in the swimming pool at a party…’

That we feel this history, this obstacle, is key to the emotional landscape Mum paints. And it’s down to the subtle chemistry of Manville and Mullan that we will their characters to get together. And now it’s ending — one way or another. Manville is refreshingly unsentimental about bidding Cathy — and Michael — farewell.

‘It’s different when you do a play, when you give a performance, you know it’s gone, not to be repeated — that’s harder,’ she says. ‘With Mum I’m happy with the idea it will live on, people will be able to see it.’

And the ending? ‘I’m happy with it,’ she says. ‘I think it ends the right way.’

Mum is on BBC2 tonight, 10pm. Season three box set is on iPlayer straight after