Interview: Tim Key On New BBC Comedy The Witchfinder

TV: The Witchfinder, BBC Two

Q. Name and who you play in The Witchfinder


My name is Tim Key and I play Gideon Bannister in The Witchfinder, and he is the witchfinder, he’s a witchfinder, he’s not a great witchfinder.


Q. So you find a witch quite early on? 


Yeah, I think that’s part of the point of it, there’s a lot about in the 17th century, or there’s a lot you can sort of conjure up. So he finds someone that’s accused of being a witch, rather than; I mean I think the slight elephant in the room from looking back on it with a bit of hindsight is there are no witches. But he finds someone who can be his witch. The guy is a classic opportunist, thinks that this witch is his passport to a surge forward in his career to riches and repute, so she becomes his kind of passport to success, unfortunately for her, and she’s not deserving of any of it.  


Q. Would you talk us through some of the trials and tribulations and adventures they have on the journey? 


So my guy, Gideon Bannister, finds his witch, Thomasine Gooch, in her town and you know, starts with a kind of a trial, tries to try her, but then realises it’s more advantageous for him to take her to Chelmsford. It’s a classic. So the whole thing is kind of then a road movie, when it was described to me they said it was like Midnight Run, but in the 17th century, and with witches, and on horses, so I mean once all that’s come in it’s not that much like Midnight Run. But at its heart it’s the same sort of thing. It’s him with someone he needs to get somewhere for legal reasons. To his advantage. So yeah then it becomes sort of a road movie, but set over six episodes, where they find themselves in varying degrees of peril, or situations that they have to kind of worm their ways out of.

One is a particularly bleak town where witchery is being clamped down upon, quite hard. I mean it’ll be interesting to see the final thing, I think you’ll see unfortunately, witches kind of swinging from boughs of trees, and things like that. There was one about a week or two in, where it is quite chilling, when you get a really good actor who’s playing a witch. We’re in a town called Dedham and I’m just sort of going round this town and then behind me it’s clear that there’s lots of dark things happening, and as I’m going to what I think is just a kind of a feast, a witch rushes past me, being dragged by other villagers, and she’s screaming, and she was a really good actor, and it was actually really chilling for a moment where you’re like, oh, there’s an element of the story which is obviously sort of mind blowing and too far away to be able to comprehend, but is really chilling, that they’re literally trying innocent people as witches. And yeah, that girl gets put on a fire. I mean I’m not saying she definitely gets burnt you’ll have to watch the thing, but there’s some real peril floating around. My guy is sometimes in danger but I think more to the point you realise it’s a very dangerous world he’s kind of inhabiting and he’s not helping really. 


Q. I understand that you and Thomasine have to pretend to be husband and wife, can you talk to us about that a bit? 


He sort of thinks on his feet my guy quite a lot and it becomes advantageous to suggest that him and Thomasine, his witch (Daisy May Cooper) are husband and wife and obviously that has some comic potential because in real life they’re absolutely furious with each other all of the time and then suddenly they have to have a front of being very much in love and husband and wife. Not only that but also newlyweds in order to escape the clutches of a god-fearing village. Yeah so that was quite fun. We shot that scene right at the start of filming and we were then shut down owing to Covid 18 months ago, so that was the first thing that me and Daisy shot, just sort of getting off with each other in a pub garden. It was literally the only scene we shot and then we had 18 months to kind of reflect on our working relationship and then back we came. So it was kind of quite nice to come back and shoot that episode again, and yeah it is as fun as you can imagine it would be being married to Daisy for half an hour. I guess that must be the fun of it for the writers, just every episode they can enter a new environment, have a different set of problems and then try and get out of that somehow and walk off into the sunset before their next adventure on their road to Chelmsford.


Q. Would you talk to us about your fellow cast? 


Yeah so, obviously chiefly there’s Daisy May Cooper who is fantastic, she plays the witch and then the whole thing is populated by, yeah, yeah they’re quite good actually. I mean everyone’s really good and everyone that comes on is just brilliant at doing it. So we have Daniel Rigby as one of my nemeses. Reece Shearsmith, Jessica Hines, I mean they’re all just sort of people that I’ve watched from a far for a various amount of years, they’re all brilliant, they’ve all got lots of awards. There’s one bit about three weeks in where it was the BAFTAs, and a few of them just went to the BAFTAs and sort of grabbed another couple of awards just sort of edge further ahead of me. But yeah they’re brilliant. And a lot of the scenes are two-handers so you do get to have your moment where you’re just acting with these brilliant performers.


But for me the best bit of all is just my bread and butter which is just working with Daisy. Probably about a quarter or a third is just me and Daisy floating around as a two and then encountering various other people and I knew she was good actually from watching her in things but she is really good. And there’s quite a lot of emotion that she can find in the story because she’s being badly wronged and is in a bit of a pickle really and she really finds it and she’s really funny and I think she’s about as good as anyone I’ve seen really. She’s so funny and then can just switch it, dredge up her RADA training and just be in floods of tears.


Q. So why should we watch Witchfinder?


I think it’s a really interesting story and interesting period in history. I haven’t seen much about 17th century witch-infested England and I think if it was a big sort of period drama it would be interesting, there’s so much there. But then, Rob and Neil Gibbons who write it are just so good at writing – they did ‘This Time’ and a lot of Alan Partridge stuff so they bring that to it and the two things I think fit together really well and they’re really revelling in that world and finding the humour in it but also because it is such an interesting dark terrain, they can sort of flip it from a moment and you know, go somewhere slightly different emotionally. 


Q. Talking of animals, have you got any standout co-stars from the animal kingdom?


Yeah that’s been a bit of a problem. Doing the show I’ve had to work with animals which obviously is famously quite a clichéd no no. I did a bit of stuff with some rabbits so it was a bit unmanageable and then a horse. Every day there seems to be a problem that you have to kind of succumb and I was filming a scene which is a two-hander, me in a stable with a horse. I think I’m kind of delirious slightly, and so we did have 4 hours with me acting opposite, um I forget the guys, ha I can’t remember the horse’s name. I mean, that’s irrelevant as he’s not famous. But yeah, just talking to this horse and wranglers just kind of straightening him up. I think it’s probably the only scene in the whole show where I’ve been pretty confident that I’ve been the best actor on screen. I was less kind of cowered by the horse. But yeah, there’s been a lot of, a lot of animals sort of floating around I think. Or being eaten. Or yeah, there’s one bit where I get covered in bees. And stung by bees. Yeah we’re never far away from animals. And then, obviously because it’s a road movie and it’s a bit too long ago, there’s a lot of horses that we were riding and I wouldn’t say I was sort of born to ride horses.


Q. Could you give us just 3 words that come to your mind when you think of the world of the Witchfinder?


Um, three words about the Witchfinder world. Well, I guess it’s dangerous. Urm, it’s very unfair. I mean, Thomasine, Daisy’s character, doesn’t really stand a chance. And I guess, I mean, for want of a better word – it’s funny. But only because we’re not living in it, we’re making a show about it.


The Witchfinder, BBC Two and BBC iPlayer from March 8.


Interview supplied by BBC




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