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IT Crowd star Katherine Parkinson on her creepy new sci-fi drama Humans, from the makers of Mad Men and Broadchurch
Gemma Chan stars as \'Synth\' Anita in the Channel Four show Humans Photo: C4
The advert for “Persona Synthetics” recently broadcast on Channel 4 caused a social media sensation.
It was selling “Sally”, a “synthetic human” who is maid, nanny and housekeeper rolled into one. Sally is “the help you’ve always wanted. She is faster, stronger, more capable than ever before. Sally is part of your family.”
Viewers found Sally – a lifelike but creepy android – profoundly disturbing. Apparently artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics had avanced in leaps and bounds.
In fact the commercial was an ingenious way of promoting Humans, a new science fiction drama starting this month and expected to be the hit of the summer.
Being a busy working actress and the mother of two small daughters, Katherine Parkinson, who stars in the series, can certainly see the appeal of a highly-accomplished robot that could bring order and serenity to chaotic, domestic life.
“Would I want one?” she laughs. “Well, it would be difficult to resist, wouldn’t it? I mean, I thought I didn’t want or need an i-Pad, but then I saw that everyone else had one and the benefits it could bring and now I have one and I’m checking it and my phone every two minutes.
“So, yes, if science can create a robot that can clean and cook brilliantly, pick the kids up from school and read them a bedtime story, then we’re all going to want one. But, my fear is that, once we’ve created such a thing and let it into our homes, there’d be no putting the genie back in the bottle. Technology is great and a triumph in so many ways, but in others it’s a total Pandora’s box, isn’t it?”
Humans has been co-produced by Kudos, the UK company responsible for Broadchurch and Ashes to Ashes and AMC, the American makers of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. You would expect this collaboration to come up with something that would be both topical and ground breaking and Humans doesn’t disappoint.
“I do think that it will get people talking and thinking,” Parkinson says simply.
The eight part drama imagines a world in which good-looking “synths” do all of society’s menial jobs and, are, of course, the latest family gadget.
Parkinson plays Laura, a lawyer and hard-pressed mother of three children of varying ages. She could use a hand at home but gets more than she bargained for when her husband, played by Tom Goodman Hill, brings home the eye-wateringly beautiful but unsettling “synth”, Anita, played by Gemma Chan.
Although set in what the makers call “an alternative present”, the sort of society Humans depicts is already being predicted by scientists and social commentators. Last year Professor Stephen Hawking warned that artifical intelligence could “spell the end of the human race”. He said: “It (AI) would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”
Anyone who has watched the online videos of the robot receptionist who works alongside humans at Tokyo’s oldest department store and utilises technology created by Toshiba and Osaka University Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, or the extraordinary creations of companies such as Boston Dynamics, will be disinclined to dismiss this as wild conjecture.
The historian and author, Professor Yuval Noah Harari, told an audience at the recent The Hay Festival: “I think it is likely in the next 200 years or so homo sapiens will upgrade themselves into some idea of a divine being, either through biological manipulation or genetic engineering of by the creation of cyborgs, part organic part non-organic.”
Parkinson points out that the society depicted in the series is neither utopian nor dystopian.
“Instead, it shows that there would be both positives and negatives involved. And I loved the fact that it allows the audience to make up its own mind about whether or not a ’synth’ would be a good thing. Not everyone is going to agree.”
We’re meeting the 37-year-old actress today in a private room at a Soho restaurant. She has left her two little girls, Dora, two and Gwendolyn, nine months in the care of her husband, fellow actor, Harry Peacock. She looks terrific, although, she confides that she only gave up breast-feeding her youngest child a couple of days ago. “I expected to be more of a wreck about it than I am but I’m doing OK, for now,” she says, crossing her fingers.
Gwendolyn was only six weeks old when Parkinson started working on Humans. “I hadn’t intended to go back to work so soon, but I read the script and Harry read it and we both thought it was just too good to turn it down,” she says.
“But if you look closely at me in the show, there are times when I am the biggest breasted actress in the world and others when I look completely deflated. It depends on whether or not I’d just used the electric milk pump that was kept in the make-up truck for me during filming.
“It did make me think that I could really have done with a \'synth’ wet nurse back at home, although I’d have made sure she was a lot less good looking than Anita. If such a thing was ever invented I think there’d be a much higher demand from working mothers for dumpy models than for \'synths’ that look like Gemma Chan.”
Parkinson is instantly recognisable as Jen Barber from the Channel 4 sitcom, The IT Crowd. Barber heads up the department of technology geeks despite being unable to tell her firewall from her external hard drive.
The role earned her a best comedy actress BAFTA last year but her CV is also filled with highbrow stage performances and a clutch of serious TV dramas that include last year’s political thriller The Honourable Woman.
“I never really think of myself as either a comedic or a serious actress,” she says. “Basically, I like roles that have a bit of both because that’s how it is in life, isn’t it? You don’t get through a day without experiencing the gamut of emotions.”
She has been feeling them more, she says, since becoming a mother. “You spend your life trying to toughen yourself up and then you have a child and it’s all undone. You’re back to square one.
“You know that you’re going to have the feelings that you’re going to have but I thought it would only be a nice thing, whereas, actually, I have found it a bit overwhelming – and almost, at times, wished not to feel it, because it’s so tiring.”
Parkinson is the daughter of two, now retired academics – her father, Alan F Parkinson, is a historian, while her mother, Janet, was head of a school English department.
Parkinson herself went to St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she read Classics.
“I’d read about people like Rachel Weisz and Thandie Newton going down the Oxbridge route and it inspired me. They were these absolutely beautiful, glamorous, intelligent women who’d gone to a top university and done lots of acting while they were there and I thought, \'Well if I get there, maybe those opportunities will happen for me,’ which was quite a simplistic way of looking at it but, as it turned out, that did sort of happen.”
She appeared in around 40 plays during her time there and But the experience convinced her that she wanted to act. She went on to study at LAMDA.
She left after a year when the roles started flooding in. “And I’m just so lucky that I haven’t really been out of work since, although, if the world had decided that it didn’t want me to act, I’d have found another career. I don’t really understand people say that acting is the only thing they came on the earth to do.”
The parts are certainly not drying up and we’ll also see her soon in The Kennedys – a multi-generational comedy from the BBC which is set in the 1970s and based on the memoirs of actress and TV presenter Emma Kennedy.
Parkinson plays young Emma’s mother, Brenda and found herself working alongside her own husband for the first time.
“I’m married to a character played by Dan Skinner and our best friends in the show are Tim and Jenny, played by Harry and by Emma Pierson. Tim’s an unreconstructed, pervey 70s male who feels my character up when no one’s looking. I don’t think she likes it ,” she laughs.
Working with her spouse, whom she met while doing an unpaid actors’ workshop 15 years ago, had benefits and drawbacks.
”On the one hand I dreaded that my \'on set \' persona was going to be exposed and I wouldn’t be able to flirt with anyone. And that was true. On the other hand, it was fun working with him and we could row in the car on the way to work.
“But, seriously, it was nice because we’ve had two children in relatively quick succession and to be in a situation where we’re not just having an information exchange or changing nappies or bathing one of them felt pretty novel.”
Don’t get Parkinson wrong, she loves to be with her babies, but also, occasionally likes to let her hair down. She had a great time, for example, at the swanky launch for Humans.
During a Q&A session with the press she confessed she had been so haunted by the idea of a “synth” in her own home that she’d had a vivid nightmare about Anita breast feeding her baby.
“Oh God,” she groans now. “Why did I say that, when I hadn’t even told Gemma about it beforehand?
“I shouldn’t have had that glass of wine,” she concludes.
Humans is on Channel 4 from Sunday 14th June at 9pm.
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