Interview with Tim Key on The Witchfinder

The Witchfinder (6 x 30’) will launch on BBC Two and as a boxset on BBC iPlayer on 8 March at 10pm

Hi Tim. Who do you play in The Witchfinder?

I play Gideon Bannister in The Witchfinder; he is the witchfinder, he’s a witchfinder, he’s not a great witchfinder.

So you find a witch quite early on?

Yes, I mean that’s part of the point of it – there’s a lot about in the 17th century, or a lot you can conjure up. So Gideon finds someone that’s accused of being a witch – I mean, looking back, the elephant in the room is that 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 passport to success, unfortunately for her, and she’s not deserving of any of it.

Would you talk us through the trials and tribulations and adventures they encounter on the journey?

So my guy, Gideon Bannister, finds his witch – Thomasine Gooch – in her town and starts 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 road movie; when it was described to me they said it was like Midnight Run, but in the 17th century 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 worm their way out of.

There’s one particularly bleak town where witchery is being clamped down on hard. 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. We’re in a town called Dedham and I’m just just going round this town, and then behind me it’s clear that there’s lots of dark things happening.

As I’m going to what I think is a feast, a witch rushes past me, she’s being dragged by other villagers and she’s screaming, and she was a really good actor, and it was really chilling for a moment – there’s an element of the story which is mind blowing and even though it feels too far away to be able to comprehend it’s 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 – 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 inhabiting and he’s not helping.

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

He thinks on his feet 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 and husband and wife.

Not only that, but they also pretend to be 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, getting off with each other in a pub garden. It was literally the only scene we shot, then we had 18 months to reflect on our working relationship and back we came.

So it was quite nice to come back and shoot that episode again, and it is was as fun as you would imagine it would be, being married to Daisy for half an hour. I guess that must be the fun of it for the writers – in every episode they can enter a new environment, have a different set of problems and then try to get out of that somehow and walk off into the sunset before their next adventure on their road to Chelmsford.

Tell us about your fellow cast members.

Obviously, chiefly, there’s Daisy May Cooper, who is fantastic. We have Daniel Rigby, as one of my nemeses; Reece Shearsmith, Jessica Hines – they’re all people I’ve watched from afar for years, they’re all brilliant, they’ve all got lots of awards. About three weeks in it was the Baftas and a few of them just went 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.

For me, the best bit of all was my bread and butter, which was working with Daisy. Probably about a quarter or a third is just me and Daisy floating around as a two, then encountering various other people. I knew she was good from watching her in other things, but she is really good. And there’s 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.

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

Why should we watch Witchfinder?

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. They’re revelling in that world and finding the humour in it, but also because it is such an interesting dark terrain, they can flip it from one moment and then go somewhere different emotionally. The two things fit together really well.

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 which 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 four 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, I was talking to this horse while the wranglers were 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 animals floating around. Or being eaten. There’s one bit where I get covered in bees. And stung by bees. We’re never far away from animals.

And then, obviously because it’s a road movie and it’s a bit too long ago, we were riding horses a lot. I wouldn’t say I was born to ride horses.

Could you give us three 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. 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.