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A law unto herself

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IN FREEMA Agyeman's latest role she plays a dynamic crown prosecutor in Law & Order UK. This is what has brought me to this chichi Soho hotel, to talk to her about transferring this grandaddy of long-running American series to the Old Bailey. However, another topic keeps digging its elbows into our conversation. A question hangs in the air, about as subtle as a blue box materialising between us. Ten minutes in, I can resist no longer.

Is she, or is she not, returning to Doctor Who? "There has been some speculation but nothing has been confirmed," she says firmly. The latest rumour - for in the world of Doctor Who, titbits drop daily on our tables - is that her character, Martha Jones, will go back for four specials marking David Tennant's final appearance as the Time Lord. "Talk to anyone in the world of Who and they'll say you never feel like you've left. Ask Billie Piper. David Tennant bounds on to set every day and says, 'Right people, what are we doing today? Am I getting strung up, frozen, flung about a room?' It's a lovely unique environment because people are so passionate. It goes beyond a day job. So, of course, I would resurrect her when the time is right, whether in 10 years or one." I get the impression she may have fended off this question before.

Agyeman, the daughter of an Iranian mother and Ghanaian father, is a sensible, resolutely upbeat north Londoner, the type who has never supped from a half-empty glass in her life. Very petite - she takes a size two shoe - and quite beautiful in an unassuming way, she still seems shocked by how quickly she has been launched into the stratosphere by Doctor Who. Getting the part of the Doctor's companion, taking over from Piper when she was a relative unknown with Crossroads, her biggest part to date, was her big break, and on British telly it doesn't get any bigger. Despite mutterings that she wouldn't be able to fill Piper's shoes, Agyeman, then 27, made Martha Jones her own, a clear-thinking, intelligent companion for Tennant's Doctor. "I was always moving forward, but suddenly it went into fast-forward," she laughs. "I haven't even caught up yet. I'm nowhere near a position of saying 'I wish' or 'I want' because it's still happening."

She knows she will never stop being asked about Doctor Who, but isn't complaining. "The Who fans are the best," she says. "The more, the better. Even after the Law & Order launch, there were a group of them waiting for me. That absolutely warms my heart.

"In the early days, at award ceremonies I would get out of the car on to the red carpet, hear all the screaming, see all the lights flashing, and look for the Who fans. I'd go straight over and just stay with them."

Agyeman continues to get fan mail. "I get about 20 letters at a time. They started before I was even on air, and me and my sister sort them all out. I tried to give her money for helping the other day, but she was outraged."

In Law & Order, Agyeman's character, Alesha Philips, is still a novelty on British television: ambitious, high-flying, female and black. Then again, Agyeman herself is something of a one-off. She was the first black assistant on Doctor Who in 46 years, and how many non-white women do we see donning Victorian dress in Dickens' adaptations?

"I used to watch period dramas and think, 'I'd love to do that but I'll just have to accept it isn't going to happen.' Bang! Suddenly, I was sat there in my corset," she recalls, when I say that watching her in Andrew Davies's Little Dorrit as the put-upon orphan Tattycoram felt like another watershed moment. "Apparently there was a debate on Newsnight about whether we should have made a character from Dickens black, when they weren't in the book, but the fact is that it transposed beautifully. Tattycoram felt alienated, she was being treated differently, as though she were the hired help. In the book that came from the fact that she was an orphan, but she could absolutely have been a black orphan."

Since Doctor Who, Agyeman has started to bag parts in mainstream series, such as Law & Order (which is every bit as cheesily entertaining as you might expect) and Little Dorrit, that aren't race-specific. I wonder, though, is this necessarily a good thing? Shouldn't there be more parts created specifically for black people? Agyeman doesn't think so.

Before Doctor Who, she notes, her CV featured stereotypical gangster roles. "What I love about parts like Martha and Alesha is that they could have been cast on anybody," she says. "Creating more parts for black people gets you into tokenism. Why does the whole point of a character have to be that they're black? How about more parts that can be cross-cast, that we can all go for? I don't have any gangster-related parts on my CV since Doctor Who, not that it's a genre I would avoid. But I would do it now because it's my choice, because I know I can also play a high-flying lawyer."

Agyeman never felt put off at the lack of parts in the industry, which I find hard to believe. "No, no, I didn't," she insists. "The only words I could hear were my mother and father saying, 'Strive, and you'll achieve.' Maybe I was going into it slightly blinkered, but do you know what? It didn't do me no harm. But, yes, the fact is this has been a quintessentially white industry and so I'm okay with people labelling me as a black actress. I'm hoping, though, if my children's children went into the business, that there would be a more level playing field and no need to refer to them as anything other than an actor or actress."

Agyeman grew up on an estate in Hackney, and put herself through university on loans she paid back with her first Doctor Who pay cheque. When she got the part in Doctor Who and the tabloids swooped, much was made of her rags-to-riches story, with claims the estate was riddled with guns and crime. Totally untrue, she says, and totally unfair. "I knew they would take that angle," she sighs. "It was annoying because I wasn't able to defend myself. What was really hurtful was the thought of all the people on the estate thinking I'd said those things. I was straight round to the neighbours." The reality, she adds, was playing with the other children on the estate and being called in for her tea and homework. "I never saw a gun in my life."

Refreshingly, she didn't even decide to pursue acting until later on. "I thought I'd give acting a go but I fluctuated all the time," she admits. "I was the type who wanted to be a doctor, then an architect, then a marine biologist. I watched films and loved all that but then I would see a cat and want to be a vet." She glances around the hotel. "I try to keep my eyes open and see it while it's happening so I appreciate it more. I feel like I'm looking into my own life and I'm aware all the time of how much everything has changed."

Law & Order starts tomorrow, ITV, 9pm

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  • APA 6th ed.: Ramaswamy, Chitra (2009-02-22). A law unto herself. Scotland on Sunday p. 20.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Ramaswamy, Chitra. "A law unto herself." Scotland on Sunday [add city] 2009-02-22, 20. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Ramaswamy, Chitra. "A law unto herself." Scotland on Sunday, edition, sec., 2009-02-22
  • Turabian: Ramaswamy, Chitra. "A law unto herself." Scotland on Sunday, 2009-02-22, section, 20 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=A law unto herself | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/A_law_unto_herself | work=Scotland on Sunday | pages=20 | date=2009-02-22 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=A law unto herself | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/A_law_unto_herself | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 July 2024}}</ref>