Emer Kenny is back on our screens in Channel 4’s new crime comedy The Curse.
Best known for her role as Penelope “Bunty” Windermere in Father Brown, this time the 32-year-old London-born actress is playing a gangster’s wife in the 1980s!
The Curse is based on an infamous real-life 1983 robbery where six men raided a depot near one of London’s airports thinking they’d walk away with £50,000 in cash, only to stumble across seven thousand bars of gold, with a street value of tens of millions.
The six-part fictionalised tale follows a gang of hopeless small time crooks who, through their own stupidity and poor judgement, find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest gold heists in history.
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Here Emer Kenny chats about what to expect from The Curse when it premieres this weekend…
Can you start by telling us the set-up for The Curse?
“In the East End in 1982, a group of misfits, petty criminals and basically idiots get an opportunity to rob a security depot for a couple of hundred grand. In doing so, they come across £30million in gold bullion.
“It’s more than they’ve ever dreamed of, so they take it. They don’t have the smarts or the criminal know-how to get away with that, so are forced into a hardcore criminal underworld which they just can’t handle.”
Tell us a bit about your character, Natasha?
“Natasha Fantoni is married to Albert and they run a cafe called Alberto’s. It’s the chosen place for all of the East End criminal fraternity to get their bacon sandwich in the morning.
“That’s the world they operate in, even though they just run a greasy spoon. They’re skint but Tash aspires to more. She wants holidays, a new car and a better life for her twin daughters.”
And she’s also the sister of Sid the security guard?
“Yes. She uses her feminine wiles to talk Albert, her husband, into this criminal adventure and also convinces her brother Sidney that he’s the mastermind behind it.
“They think it’s all their idea, but it’s not… it’s hers. That’s the magic of Tash. She’s very clever. She’s the smartest one in the room at all times – except when they start coming up against proper gangsters, then suddenly she’s completely out of her depth.”
You might say she’s the moral centre of the show but Tash isn’t terribly moral…
“She’s the immoral centre! I like that. Natasha Fantoni: the immoral centre.”
How did you go about creating Tash?
“She’s key to the story but a lot of the comedy comes from the fact that these guys are idiots. And Tash isn’t an idiot, she’s switched-on. She’s probably one of the few characters who’s intentionally funny. She makes smart-arsed remarks rather than clowning it up like the others do.”
Is she underestimated because she’s a woman in a man’s world?
“Definitely. The show’s got a lot of 1980s sexism running through it. That’s why she’s not involved in the heist, because it’s not a thing that women did at that time. She has to get the men to do it for her.
“Even though they all know she’s the smartest and toughest, Tash still has to deal with their surface-level sexism. She’ll often say something and Phil will repeat it as if it’s his idea. Mick’s always going “Yeah alright sweetheart” when Tash speaks. It’s an exaggerated form of what I think a lot of women will still recognise.”
Do you relate to her?
“I relate to the mansplaining and having to shout over blokes! That still occurs quite often, unfortunately. I didn’t base Tash on anyone in particular but I did find my in-laws quite helpful.
“My husband’s family are all from Tottenham and his mum and all his aunties were around Tash’s age in the early 80s. So if I wanted to check on accents, phrases or references, I’d voice-note my husband [Rick Edwards] and say: “How would your mum or your Auntie Joyce say this?””
You’re too young to remember the 80s but did you enjoy immersing yourself in that period?
“I loved it. I was born in ’89 so I was much more of a 90s kid. But the boys put all these 80s playlists together and the music was amazing. There are lots of funny details – like there’s a scene in our flat where the kids are watching the original Worzel Gummidge on TV.
“I’d never seen it before and was like “What kind of nightmare did these kids grow up watching?” The production designer Anna Sheldrake made these amazing sets with patterned wallpaper and lots of brown. A lot of it’s back in fashion now but the locations really helped whisk us back there.”
Tell us a bit about Tash’s look in the show?
“When they said it’s an 80s heist comedy, I thought it was going to be massive hair, loads of gold, glamour and sequins. I was totally up for that. I was like “Finally! My massive-haired, body-con 80s moment!” But then I got to the costume fitting and they said “That’s been done a lot on TV, so we’d like to do earlier 80s.”
“Because the characters don’t have any money, they’re still wearing their stuff from the 70s. We looked at old episodes of Only Fools & Horses and a lot of the women were wearing baggy shapes, fussy blouses, a lot of beige and brown.
“I was like “This isn’t the sparkly dream I was hoping for.” But Lynsey Moore, our costume designer, has an amazing eye and when it all came together on-screen, I totally understood. I got quite into those paisley frocks that Tash wears. As the series goes on, she gets a bit more gold and a fur coat, a bit more gangster.”
There’s lots of smoking in the show. How was that?
“The whole show exists in a smoky haze. We made a character decision that Tash only smoked when she was nervous, so I didn’t have to smoke as much as everyone else. Which was fine by me because those fake cigarettes leave an awful taste in your mouth.
“So I got off lightly. But again, all the smoking whisked us back. When a cafe or a pub is filled with smoke, it locates you in a different era.”
The show should come in Smell-o-Vision…
“Exactly. Oh my God, some of those sets in Smell-o-Vision! The cafe was so greasy and smoky.”
The boys were already a bit of a gang. How was it coming in from the outside?
“A little bit daunting. I actually knew Tom because we’d done an episode of Live At The Electric together. I met him in a make-up room when he was dressed as a mad hillbilly. I’d never met the People Just Do Nothing boys but I really admired their work and found them so funny.
“But they’ve obviously known each other for years, so coming into work with them as the only outsider, I was nervous. At the audition, the casting director said: “Look, just to warn you – there’s a lot of blokes in there, sitting around a boardroom table, they’re all laughing and very loud, don’t be intimidated.”
“She was lovely and looking out for me… because she was totally right. I went in and they were all sat around this long table like businessmen but wearing tracksuits. My first audition was this bedroom seduction scene with Allan. I’d rehearsed it with my husband beforehand and he said: “Don’t do it like that, it’s really creepy.”
“I was so self-conscious but I just turned around to Allan, went for it and tried to full-on seduce him over the table. I guess it worked.”
Despite your creepy seduction technique…
“Yes! I mean, it’s on camera now, so viewers can decide how creepy it is.”
What was it like on-set?
“They made me so welcome. They were all very aware of the fact that joining their gang could feel intimidating, so went out of their way to make me feel like part of the crew.
“That includes ripping the piss out of me, because that’s how they treat people they love. So that was an honour.”
Was there lots of corpsing with laughter during filming?
“So much. Mick’s voice was bad for that. The first time I heard it in the audition it took me completely by surprise. I was like, “Is he doing that voice? Oh my God, he is. OK, let’s keep going.” There was a lot of improv. We did so many versions of each scene, so I’m excited to see which they pick and what makes the edit.
“It almost got to the point where if someone didn’t corpse in every take, we’d question whether we were being funny enough. James the director was very good at letting that happen, so it all felt very natural and never got too serious. Often I had to be the straight person who was delivering the facts while the rest of them were being ridiculous.
“I’d stare at Allan‘s chest because I knew that if I looked at him, I wouldn’t be able to keep it together. I’d be shaking with laughter, trying to stay quiet, but he’d go “Look at me, Tash! Look me in the eye, Tash!” Steve made me corpse all the time too.
“He’s got an amazing way of keeping his face unbelievably serious while saying the stupidest things. Sidney calls my character “Nat-Nat” in this nasal voice. It would always get me.”
Are you a fan of heist films?
“Everyone likes a heist movie, don’t they? And James is a brilliantly visual director so he’s made the show feel so cinematic. The Curse pushes the boundaries of what a half-hour comedy can be. It’s got dramatic aspirations and feels very ambitious.”
What journey goes Tash go on through the series?
“The Curse is a bit of a cautionary tale, hence the title. She begins the story with these aspirations and ideas of what she wants. There’s a heartbreaking scene where Albert says: “I wish all this had never happened. We were happy.” She replies “Were we?” And he looks completely devastated.
“As they get in deeper and deeper, I think she realises she doesn’t really need any of these trappings and maybe she was happy after all. It’s a tragic tale because they’ve sold their souls to the devil. She also wishes Albert was stronger and less wet, so when he becomes a bit of a leader, it totally changes their marriage.
“Suddenly Tash is looking at him in awe, thinking “Yeah, that’s my man”, rather than rolling her eyes with exasperation. That’s her journey. And happily, she does get a bit more glamorous too.”
Would you like that journey to continue?
“Absolutely. I know they’ve got ideas and the series ends with a great hook. I’d love to make more but we’ll see what happens. It was a dream job. From the moment we started, I didn’t want it to end. We loved making it, so I really hope that people like watching it.”
The Curse begins in the UK at 10pm on Sunday 6th February on Channel 4, with every episode available to stream on All 4 from Sunday morning.