Like Midnight Run, but in the 17th Century, and with witches, and on horses... | Tim Key talks about his new BBC comedy, The Witchfinder © BBC

Like Midnight Run, but in the 17th Century, and with witches, and on horses...

Tim Key talks about his new BBC comedy, The Witchfinder

In the BBC’s new comedy The Witchfinder, Tim Key plays the title character, Gideon Bannister transporting suspected witch Thomasine (Daisy May Cooper)  across the country in 1645. Here he talks about the ‘road movie’ premise, working with his co-stars… and the chilling backdrop to the comedy.

Tell us about your character…

He’s a witchfinder, he’s not a great witchfinder.

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, the slight elephant in the room, 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 – unfortunately for her. And she’s not deserving of any of it. 

Gideon finds Thomasine  in her town, starts with a kind of a trial, but then realises it’s more advantageous for him to take her to Chelmsford. It’s a classic.

So the whole thing is then a  kind of  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 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. We’re in a town called Dedham and I’m just going round this town and behind me it’s clear that there are lots of dark things happening. 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. 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…. they’re literally trying innocent people as witches. And yeah, that girl gets put on a fire.’ 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.

I understand that you and Thomasine have to pretend to be husband and wife…

He thinks on his feet my guy quite a lot and it becomes advantageous to suggest that him and Thomasine, his witch 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. Not only that but also newlyweds in order to escape the clutches of a god-fearing village. So that was quite fun.

We shot that scene right at the start of filming and we were then shut down owing to Covid, so that was the first thing that Daisy and I shot, just sort of getting off with each other in a pub garden. It was 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.

Could you tell us about your fellow cast members?

So, obviously chiefly there’s Daisy May Cooper who is fantastic. She plays the witch.

Everyone that comes on is just brilliant at doing it. So we have Daniel Rigby as one of my nemeses. Reece Shearsmith, Jessica Hynes, I mean they’re all  people I’ve watched from afar 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  grabbed another couple of awards just to 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 my bread and butter, which is working with Daisy. Probably about a quarter or a third is me and Daisy floating around as a two and then encountering various other people. 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 he really finds it.

She’s really funny and I think she’s about as good as anyone I’ve seen. She’s so funny and then can just switch it, dredge up her Rada training and be in floods of tears.

So why should we watch Witchfinder?

I think it’s a really interesting story and  an 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. 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 flip it and go somewhere slightly different emotionally.

What about tour animal co-stars?

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…

I was filming a scene which is a two-hander, me in a stable with a horse. I’m kind of delirious slightly, and so we did have four hours with me acting opposite, um… 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 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 cowered by the horse.

Oh 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 long ago, there’s a lot of horses that we were riding and I wouldn’t say I was  born to ride horses.

Could you give us just three words to describe The Witchfinder?

Well, I guess it’s ‘dangerous’. 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 launches at 10pm next Tuesday, March 8, on BBC Two and will be available as a box set on BBC iPlayer. Read an interview with Daisy May Cooper here.

Published: 1 Mar 2022

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