NELL HUD­SON plays the monarch’s dresser in Vic­to­ria, a role that places her at the heart of the hotly an­tic­i­pated new se­ries. She gives Daphne Lock­yer the lat­est royal gos­sip

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As hit se­ries Vic­to­ria re­turns, ac­terss Nell Hud­son, who yp­s­lathe royal der­sser, gives us the on-set gsiops

Nell Hud­son is flat­tered by the ‘young Brigitte Bar­dot’ con­cept that has in­spired our photo shoot; although she needn’t be – her long blonde hair, pil­lowy lips and killer curves def­i­nitely put you in mind of that most iconic of French ac­tresses. ‘Who wouldn’t like that com­par­i­son?’ she laughs.

She has just posed in a range of glam­orous 1960s out­fits – a far cry from the aus­tere, ‘up­stairs, down­stairs’ style of her cur­rent act­ing role. She’s do­ing ‘corset time’, film­ing the new se­ries of Vic­to­ria – the jewel in the crown of ITV’s au­tumn sched­ule – and her cos­tume for Miss Sk­er­rett, the Queen’s dresser, could not be more dif­fer­ent from to­day’s. ‘I’ve been wear­ing the same drab, grey dress on the show for two years now, while Jenna [Cole­man, who plays Vic­to­ria] has one stun­ning out­fit after an­other. It’s so un­fair!’ she wails. ‘Although in the last cou­ple of episodes of the new se­ries, I do get two new out­fits, prob­a­bly in slightly dif­fer­ent shades of grey. The au­di­ence will hardly recog­nise me!’

That au­di­ence, of course, hap­pens to be huge: the 2016 se­ries was watched, on av­er­age, by more than five mil­lion, beat­ing even its big Sun­day night BBC ri­val Poldark. The grand, sweep­ing back­drops, the glossy pro­duc­tion val­ues, Daisy Good­win’s com­pelling script and, of course, the in­tense love story be­tween the young Vic­to­ria and Al­bert which has, by the way, spilled over into real life be­tween the ac­tors Jenna and Tom Hughes, have all cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion.

‘If we knew ex­actly what makes the show a suc­cess we’d bot­tle it,’ Nell says, ‘but maybe peo­ple love it be­cause, un­like con­tem­po­rary drama, where ev­ery­thing is out there, Vic­to­ria is all about feel­ings brew­ing just be­neath the sur­face. There is so much chem­istry and sub­text, which is a lot of fun to play – and to watch.’

That chem­istry was also there, in se­ries one, be­tween Sk­er­rett and the palace head chef Fran­catelli (Fer­di­nand Kings­ley). Who could doubt it after the scene in which they sen­su­ously shared Fran­catelli’s choco­late and ice cream cre­ation? ‘Ah, the Bombe Sur­prise,’ Nell gig­gles. ‘That was a hoot. Mind you, I’m not one of those ac­tresses who pre­tends to eat on screen – I re­ally went for it. We did lots of takes and by the end I did feel pretty sick.’

The simmering re­la­tion­ship boiled over at the end of the last se­ries when Fran­catelli quit the palace and asked Sk­er­rett to go with him to Lon­don, where he had been of­fered a po­si­tion as head chef of a gen­tle­men’s club.

‘Sadly, she turned him down be­cause she has a cousin and a niece de­pend­ing on her fi­nan­cially and it’s a big deal for some­one like her to be em­ployed at the palace.’ Un­like the real-life Sk­er­rett, who came from the up­per class, Nell’s char­ac­ter has been given a colour­ful back­ground by Good­win. ‘She grew up in a brothel and the palace job was her ticket out of that world and one she can’t re­lin­quish.’

Pro­fes­sion­ally, at least, the choice pays off. ‘In the new se­ries, she’s pro­moted to head dresser and is now Mrs Sk­er­rett be­cause, oddly, once you reach a cer­tain level of se­nior­ity you be­come wed­ded to the royal house­hold.

‘On the personal front, though, she’s still a bit in love with Fran­catelli and she’s de­lighted when the Queen hates the new Scot­tish chef ’s food – all tripe and lumpy por­ridge. When Fran­catelli ar­rives back at the palace, Sk­er­rett ini­tially be­lieves he’s come back for her, but it turns out the Queen has or­dered his re­turn. How sad for Sk­er­rett that he didn’t come back for love.’

Nell clearly feels a lot of sym­pa­thy for Sk­er­rett and finds play­ing her a plea­sure. ‘I adore her and can’t help think­ing she’s a lot nicer than me. She’s loyal, per­cep­tive, in­tu­itive, will­ing to take the bul­let for other peo­ple with­out want­ing any­thing in re­turn.’ In the very first episode, for ex­am­ple, she took the rap for one of her col­leagues, who was ac­cused of re­selling the Queen’s gloves. ‘It breaks my heart that such a good woman has had to choose be­tween her job and her man.’

Not sur­pris­ingly, Nell, 26, finds it hard to see any ad­van­tages to life in the re­pres­sive Vic­to­rian era. ‘God, who’d have wanted to be around then?’ she asks. ‘The corsets women had to wear, even when preg­nant, say it all; you can’t move or eat, your lungs can’t func­tion prop­erly. Your breath’s so shal­low you feel per­ma­nently in panic mode. No won­der Vic­to­rian women were of­ten called hys­ter­i­cal. Try wear­ing one and see how re­laxed you feel.’

The fact that modern ac­tresses must still wear corsets in pe­riod dra­mas strikes Nell as odd. ‘They give you in­cred­i­ble pos­ture and shape and I’m glad I know how it feels to wear one. But, in time, surely the film and TV in­dus­try will let us try one on for 20 min­utes and then we’ll all wear Spanx in­stead. It’s quite hard to wear the real thing for 15 hours of film­ing.’

Nell shares an anec­dote about be­ing cast as Sk­er­rett. ‘You have to have a med­i­cal be­fore film­ing starts, for in­sur­ance pur­poses, and when I told the doc­tor it was a pe­riod drama she said, “Oh, lots of corset wear­ing. At least you won’t be able to eat!”, fol­lowed by a con­spir­a­to­rial “Yay!” And you think, “Are you kid­ding me? Is that what a doc­tor ought to say to a young ac­tress?” It’s mind-bog­gling.’

Nell clearly knows her own mind and has learnt to re­ject the pres­sure on ac­tresses to be un­nat­u­rally thin. ‘It’s a strug­gle be­cause ac­tresses face so much re­jec­tion and have so lit­tle con­trol over their own lives. So you think, “OK, what are the fac­tors I can con­trol? I can dye my hair, I can cut it. I could lose a stone! Then maybe I’d get the job.” Since leav­ing drama school five years ago, I’m sure I’ve played with all those con­trol­lable fac­tors. But, in the end, it comes down to whether you’re right for a role and whether you did a good job in your au­di­tion.’

It helps that Nell – whose other big break was play­ing beau­ti­ful Scot Laoghaire Macken­zie in the Ama­zon Prime his­tor­i­cal fan­tasy se­ries Out­lander – comes from a sup­port­ive fam­ily. The sec­ond of three sib­lings, she re­mains close to her el­der sis­ter, Vi­o­let, a char­ity worker, and younger brother, Gabriel, who’s study­ing for his PhD.

‘Prob­a­bly, be­com­ing an ac­tress is clas­sic at­ten­tion-seek­ing, mid­dle-child be­hav­iour,’ she laughs. ‘But, still, there were zero other ac­tors in our fam­ily, and I didn’t have a clue how you be­came one.’ Nonethe­less, both her par­ents have their own line in cre­ativ­ity – her mother Cres­sida (daugh­ter of writer and critic

There’s so much chem­istry and sub­text, which is fun to play – and to watch

Cyril Con­nolly) is an au­thor; her father Charles con­verted a dairy farm into an or­ganic rose-grow­ing busi­ness. (He turns the flow­ers into petal con­fetti for stylish wed­dings: ‘It will be great when I get mar­ried,’ Nell says.)

Nell grew up in awe of her par­ents’ tal­ents. ‘My mum was a bril­liant role model and my dad struck me as Su­per­man be­cause there was noth­ing he couldn’t do. He taught me to draw and to play the piano. We went to the the­atre and to for­eign films at the cin­ema. Their view was al­ways, “Do the thing you love.” So when I said I wanted to act, their re­sponse was, “Cool. What can we do to help?”’

Her mother drove her to drama school au­di­tions. ‘We’d stay in ho­tels overnight and the next day she’d pack snacks to keep my en­ergy up and wait for me out­side in the car.’ Nell won a place at The Ox­ford School of Drama (other alum­nae in­clude Claire Foy and Cather­ine McCor­mack) and moved to Lon­don after grad­u­at­ing.

‘I love my Lon­don life, pos­si­bly be­cause I grew up in the Worces­ter­shire coun­try­side. When I was a child it was idyl­lic – end­less sum­mers where we rode bikes and swam in rivers. There was so much free­dom. But when I hit 13, I felt things clos­ing in. I’m so happy to go back there now and see my par­ents, but at the time I longed for city life.’

It didn’t help that she loathed her teenage school days. She was pri­vately ed­u­cated at St Ed­ward’s, a Catholic school in Chel­tenham. ‘No of­fence to the school, but for me it felt a bit like a benev­o­lent dic­ta­tor­ship. Ev­ery­thing was petty rules and I’m not good with those. At home, I was used to be­ing treated as an equal and I re­ally kicked against the sys­tem.’ The re­li­gious side was also un­com­fort­able. ‘By the age of ten, I didn’t re­ally be­lieve in God, so the morn­ing as­sem­bly, pray­ing and hymn singing, felt weird.’

She suf­fered, too, she says, with ‘square-peg-in­round-hole’ syn­drome. ‘I didn’t con­form to the pro­vin­cial town stereo­type. I’d be tempted to raise my own chil­dren in Lon­don or some­where you can be who­ever you want to be. I’d pre­fer the kind of school where boys can choose to wear skirts to the kind I went to, where top but­tons must be done up at all times. Urgh!’

Her Lon­don life now is in Hack­ney, where she has re­cently bought her first flat and lives with her boyfriend of six years Will Tay­lor, front­man with up-and-com­ing band Flyte. They met when the band was play­ing at The Jericho Tav­ern in Ox­ford. ‘There were these good-look­ing guys sit­ting in the beer gar­den. I was, like, “Well, let’s go and talk to them,” and it turned out they were the band. Will and I con­nected im­me­di­ately.’

She de­scribes him as her an­chor. ‘And I re­ally need that be­cause act­ing is such an un­sta­ble job, such an ad­dic­tion. The best mo­ments in your life are when you get the call and the worst are when you’re out of work, go­ing cold turkey, some­times for weeks. But Will is able to steady me and pull me out of it. All ac­tors are mad to vary­ing de­grees, if you ask me, and it’s one of the rea­sons I wouldn’t want there to be two of us in a re­la­tion­ship. Aw­ful!’

She was fresh out of drama school – and out of work – when they met, and Will’s band had yet to be signed. ‘Hon­estly,’ she says, ‘we had al­most zero money. We went to Wa­haca when it first opened with £2.50 be­tween us. They said, “Like us on Face­book and we’ll give you free tacos.” We were re­duced to bar­ter­ing for food!’

Nell her­self is no slouch in the mu­sic de­part­ment. She’s a song­writer, singer, key­board and ukulele player who sup­ported Jools Hol­land’s 2014 tour. ‘But my heart lies more in act­ing than in mu­sic and I be­lieve in the truth of the Chi­nese proverb, “If you chase two rab­bits, both will es­cape.”’

Her role in Vic­to­ria shows that com­mit­ment is pay­ing off. She’s de­lighted to find her­self in the en­sem­ble cast of such a suc­cess­ful drama and rel­ishes every mo­ment on set. ‘Sk­er­rett ex­pe­ri­ences both up­stairs and down­stairs worlds – the Queen’s bed­cham­ber and the ser­vants’ quar­ters,’ she says. ‘And there’s a dif­fer­ence when you’re film­ing. Down­stairs tends to be much sil­lier and smut­tier and there’s a lot of laugh­ter. Up­stairs, it’s a bit more se­ri­ous.’

The en­tire cast have bonded, though. ‘We have din­ner to­gether every night and on set we chat for hours in the green room while we’re wait­ing for our scenes. Among the top­ics – this be­ing Vic­to­ria – they might share their thoughts on the modern roy­als. ‘I ad­mire them for the re­spon­si­bil­ity they shoul­der and the tourism they bring to the coun­try, but I don’t envy them and I find the idea of monar­chy in­de­fen­si­ble in this day and age. I can af­ford to feel a bit af­fec­tion­ate about it, but if I were a sin­gle mother do­ing three jobs to make ends meet, I’d be furious about the level of priv­i­lege they en­joy.’

There’s also chat among the ac­tresses about the is­sue of on-screen nu­dity. ‘Not that I have any ex­pe­ri­ence of it yet, be­cause no one has asked,’ she laughs. ‘But we talk about what would be ac­cept­able, and about hav­ing to kiss cer­tain ac­tors that you might or might not fancy. Per­son­ally, I find that be­fore­hand I might think, “Oh, no, I don’t fancy him at all!” But then some­thing kicks in and af­ter­wards you think, “Oh, maybe you are quite at­trac­tive after all!”’

Like all good mil­len­ni­als, they talk about the pres­sures on their gen­er­a­tion, too: the way that youth is ‘the sub­ject of a mas­sive in­ter­net ex­per­i­ment that no one re­ally knows the con­se­quences of ’, lev­els of stu­dent debt and fi­nan­cial in­equal­ity be­tween the gen­er­a­tions. ‘I’m lucky be­cause at least I’m man­ag­ing to buy my own prop­erty, even though I’ll now be in debt for the rest of my life!’

Her bur­geon­ing ca­reer could put paid to the debt sooner than she thinks – es­pe­cially as she’s also writ­ing a com­edy hor­ror script with friend and fel­low cast mem­ber Tilly Steele, who plays Sk­er­rett’s as­sis­tant in the new se­ries. ‘It’s a cross be­tween With­nail and I and It Fol­lows,’ she ex­plains. ‘And it’s all about the weird world of pen­ni­less ac­tors hav­ing to stay in aw­ful digs. We’ve all been there,’ she con­cludes, although in the case of this funny, clever, tal­ented ac­tress, you can’t imag­ine she’ll be there for much longer.

Vic­to­ria re­turns to ITV on Sun­day 27 Au­gust at 9pm

NELL WEARS DRESS, Alexan­dra Long

Nell in Vic­to­ria, above, and Out­lander, be­low

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