Lady in red (and purple): an interview with Adjoa Andoh

Since its debut on 25 December, 82 million households have streamed Bridgerton – the new period drama has held the number one slot on the top 10 list in over 70 countries and has made the fifth biggest original series debut on Netflix. Melissa Blease speaks the force of nature that is Bristol-born Adjoa Andoh, also known as Lady Danbury

From Casualty, EastEnders and Dr Who to His Dark Materials and Invictus by way of A Streetcar Named Desire, Richard II and countless audio book narrations and radio dramas, Adjoa Andoh – born in Clifton, Bristol in 1963 – has, for the last three decades, been virtually omnipresent in theatres, on our screens and over the airwaves. But on Christmas Day 2020, Andoh secured a very special place in the nation’s hearts as Bridgerton’s indomitable dowager Lady Danbury. Formidable but always fair, frank but funny, and always, always full-on fabulous, she’s the woman you want as your best friend… but woe betide you turning her into a foe.

With viewing figures topping 82 million, Bridgerton has become the most-watched series on Netflix in 76 countries across the globe. And here’s the really good news: there’s at least a third and fourth season in the pipeline, and season two is currently being filmed in Bath.

We caught up with Andoh in a break from filming to take a whistlestop walk in her footsteps, from brave beginnings to right here, right now all-things-Adjoa.

Bristol and Bath: early days, beyond… and back again

I spent much of my early childhood in Leeds and then the Cotswolds, but I was born in Clifton and still have very strong connections with both Bristol and Bath. My grandmother lives just off the Downs in Bristol, and my family lived in Whitchurch before moving down to the Cotswolds when I was four. We lived in Wickwar which was very beautiful but very quiet: just a couple of buses a week, and lots of cows and sheep. But Bristol was my Mecca.

I was a punk in my early teens, and I saw The Clash at Bristol Exhibition Centre in 1977. I used to go to the Locarno and Trinity Hall all the time – they were ‘my’ places. My dad worked for British Aerospace; I sat my A levels at Filton Tech; I started a law degree at Bristol Polytechnic; I signed on in every dole office bar one in Bristol – I lived all over the city, I’ve still got lots of friends and family there and I’m very, very fond of it, and Bath too.

I was a punk in my early teens, and I saw The Clash at Bristol Exhibition Centre in 1977

I eventually moved to London and started acting, but I came back to play Miss Haversham in Great Expectations at the Bristol Old Vic in 2013, and stayed with friends I’d kept in touch with since 1981 when we were in Bristol Black Women’s Group together; my ready-made little gang, still going strong! My best friend still lives in Bristol too, and my godson. And my mum went to teacher training college in Bath, where we film Bridgerton! So my West Country connections are very, very strong.

Growing up: where it all began

I was the kid that always did the school play, or put on plays in the front room. I used to write stories, and make books. I put quizzes together, and cartoon strips, and all that sort of thing; I always liked storytelling, and I suppose I always wanted to act, but I just didn’t know that it was something I could actually do as a career.

And if you grow up in the Cotswolds in the 1960s and 70s, it’s not an option that you consider seriously – you may as well say you want to be an astrophysicist, at a time when wanting to work for Lloyds Bank or apply for the civil service was about as fancy as it got.

Portrait by Chelsea Lauren

But when I was doing my A levels in 1979, I went to the Old Vic and saw Kate Nelligan in David Hare’s Plenty. I was a pretty miserable teenager, but there was something about that play that touched me quite profoundly, even though it had nothing to do with my life; it was set during World War II, and it was about a woman who worked in Special Ops. But there was something about that character discovering that she’d found something that she was really good at – in this case, running spies – whereas being a secretary wasn’t what she was really good at. When she returns to London, post-war, and realises that she’s supposed to get back in her box and go back to her previous life… that was heartbreaking.

The whole experience of seeing that play led me to understand that something really powerful happens when you act, or when you watch a piece of storytelling of any kind that means you can be in conversation with it in a way that goes beyond what’s actually happening on the stage, or on the TV. It can really touch you in a way that makes you think about your own life. I understood, right then, that I really wanted to be part of that.

But even after that experience, I didn’t know how to go about it until I joined my Black Women’s Group in Bristol and met a San Franciscan woman called Deb’bora John-Wilson, who hosted acting classes. When I packed in my law degree after two years (which made my father cry!), I started doing classes with Deb’bora. She eventually got funded to do a show in London and suggested I audition for it, so I did, and I got the part. I was working in Bedminster Resource Centre at the time and I thought I’d go to London for two months then return to Bristol and get on with my life – but I never looked back. Deb’bora was a huge inspiration to me at the time, and she showed me a path that I didn’t really know was there.

Inspire, unite – and fight for what’s right

I think it’s really important that we give a hand up to, or just show what opportunities there could be for, people who are interested in wanting to do things with their life, and show them where the access points might be.

In the village I grew up in in the 1960s and 70s, there were only three black people: me, my dad, and my brother. I learnt about sticking up for myself very early on, and sticking up for other people too. There were certain houses I wasn’t allowed in to because “you can’t have that coloured girl in here” – that was the attitude. And even when I moved to Bristol and tried to get student accommodation, it was okay when I was on the phone because I just sounded like anybody phoning up about the student room to rent. Then when I arrived to see it, I’d get “I’m so sorry my love, if you’d have arrived 10 just minutes earlier you could have had the room, but I’m afraid I’ve just let it.” If you encounter that once, you just think, oh well, I missed it. But when you encounter it six times in one day, you know what’s really going on. So I grew up with a strong sense of what was and wasn’t fair, and that’s something I’ve carried forward, all my life.

It’s not just about race either – it could be about disability, or poverty, or transgender issues. I believe we’re all fabulous human beings, and we should all be taken on our merit and the equality of who we are: are you a decent person? Are you kind? Are you troubled? Are you poor? Do you need some help? What do you think you’re brilliant at? How can I make a space for you? That’s how I strive to think.

We’d all been landed in a world that was sad, and difficult, and suddenly there was Bridgerton

Tough times

Adjoa in the 2020 production of Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, in which she not only played King Richard II, but also co-directed it as well. Photography by Ingrid Pollard

Covid has been – and remains to be – dreadful, for so many people, and on so many levels. Think of the loved ones we’ve lost, the funerals that haven’t been attended, the births that have gone uncelebrated, the weddings that have been cancelled. Think of the people who have lost their jobs and their livelihoods – there have been so many tragedies to bear. It’s been a very exposing experience, a spotlight on the state of the nation and how we value each other, and who we are to each other – fortunately, often in a good way. There have been such acts of kindness and generosity, and a real sense of people balancing their values – realising, for example, that they never made time to get to know their neighbour, but now they do; that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?

But we have to remember that for many people, staying at home hasn’t been an option, and their incomes were so precarious that they couldn’t not work, or there was no furlough to rely on because of zero hours contracts, or they live with lots of other people so they couldn’t isolate even if they needed to. You consider all that – which none of us should avoid considering, regardless of our own personal circumstances – and we end up considering all sorts of issues about wealth, and work, and our immediate environment. There are lots of things that could come out of the situation we’ve all been through that could be positive if people pay attention, and hugely negative if we don’t. I really hope that we hang on to the beautiful things and learn from the tough times. And we’re not out of those tough times yet; I think it’s going to go backwards and forwards for a while, and we’ll all need to hold our nerve for a bit.

Bridgerton: the impact

The response to Bridgerton has been extraordinarily strong in part, perhaps, due to the fact that it opened on a Christmas Day that was really disappointing for lots of people. Whether Christmas is part of your faith tradition or not [another fascinating Adjoa fact: she was licensed as a Church of England Lay Preacher in 2009], it’s a country-wide holiday tradition, and last year we needed that more than ever before, after being apart for so long.

We’d all been landed in a world that was sad, and difficult, and suddenly there was Bridgerton: slightly other-worldly, and totally addictive, and offering people the opportunity to just sort of fly off somewhere else for a while. Yes, Bridgerton may well have had that impact anyway, but I think it was doubled-down on by the circumstances when it first was broadcast.

My friends’ daughter who lives in Bath, where the Holborne museum doubles for Lady Danbury’s house, noticed the museum has renamed their outside space ‘Lady Danbury’s Terrace’!

I love the fact that you can enjoy Bridgerton on many different levels. If you like a good costume drama, or love a historical romp, or thrill to a romantic will they/wont they saga, it’s for you. If you want to look for elements that are more reflective, you can. There are many different races represented, and gay love affairs, and women who want to do things other than get married; it’s a broad remit that says to everybody, “come on in, you’re welcome!”

Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton and Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury on the set of Bridgerton

Lady Danbury: for it is she…

I think every actor brings something of themselves to any given character. Even if you’re playing somebody absolutely reprehensible or the absolute antithesis of who you are, every character, at some level cares about themselves, and you have to play it as though you are them, and connect that you/them with the audience, and then allow the audience in.

I love Lady Danbury’s appetite for life. I salute people who don’t get wearied or downcast but remain hopeful and optimistic, which can be quite a challenge. I’m playing Lady Danbury as a black woman, so I think about the challenges that a woman and a woman of colour would have had in the Regency period. I think about her – the widow of a duke who doesn’t have any offspring that we hear about, who’s independently wealthy, and not beholden or responsible to anybody. Whatever choices she makes in her life are freely hers to make (apart from doing what the Queen wants!). She understands that world, she has status in that world, and she navigates that world very well. But she’s also somebody who can see the fragile ones, and she can scoop them up in her care as she sees fit. She’s not a bully but she doesn’t suffer fools, and she has no time for people who are mean. She knows the bohemian side of the world she lives in as well – the artists, and the drinking clubs, and all that goes along with that. And she’s fun! She likes a good party, and she likes a good frock, and she likes knowing what’s going on, and she can put her shoulder to the wheel if she wants things to happen, or change.

Lady Danbury is an absolute delight to play; I think about all those fabulous aunts you might have grown up with, or great aunts, or friends of your mother who you liked to call aunty; I think about my mum, and my English grandmother, and my Ghanaian grandmother, and all those mighty women who are just ploughing their way through the world as best they can, and finding joy and excitement where they can, and dealing with hardship, and supporting each other through all that and moving forward. I guess, overall, I just want Lady Danbury to celebrate sturdy women – and she most certainly does that!

Watch the first series of Bridgerton on Netflix

Main image: Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton and Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury on the set of Bridgerton. Photo: LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX