London Tide's Bella Maclean on making her National debut, Sex Education and starring in Jilly Cooper's Rivals

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

It’s shaping up to be quite a year for Bella Maclean. After breaking out last year in Netflix’s Sex Education, this autumn her name will be on everyone’s lips as one of the stars of the much-anticipated Jilly Cooper adaptation Rivals. But before that is the small matter of her debut at the National Theatre.

We meet a few days before London Tide’s opening night, and she’s remarkably calm. “I’ve been weirdly fine about my National debut,” she says. Her mum, on the other hand, hasn’t – and after two sleepless nights she snuck into a preview, much to her daughter’s chagrin. “I feel guilty about being ungrateful for her being there… all you want is a supportive parent.”

We’re in a small room, several floors up in the labyrinthine, concrete corridors of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, looking out over the Thames. It’s an appropriate view as we discuss this new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, a story bound up with the ebbs and flows of the great waterway running through London.

Writer Ben Power has filtered the hefty tome – it runs to more than 800 pages – down to a little more than three hours of stage time focusing on a story of social inequality that despite being written in the 1860s has much to say about the London of today.

It’s something Maclean, who is looking elegant in a dark striped suit, has been thinking about a lot, and points to an essay Power sent the cast about how Dickens’ London is our London. “The housing crisis, food poverty, the postcode lottery of opportunity would have been familiar to him,” she reads from her iPad.

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

“Just as the city consumes so it redeems, Dickens believes, and our play believes, the city can save us. In fact, he believes the community and connections allowed by the city might be the only hope we have of saving each other.”

After reading more, she breaks off, “Isn’t that amazing? It draws on such a clear connection between then and now. We’ve just come off the pandemic, and there’s the cost-of-living crisis and homelessness is at a high… If Dickens was standing here now, he might think not a huge amount had changed.

“But I love the idea of hope and of so many people in the city – from all sorts of walks of life – and we’re connected because we live in this place. We can choose to use it as a community or fight against it.”

She plays Bella Wilfer, promised to the richest man in London who then dies before they even meet, leaving her with no prospects, stuck living with her poverty-stricken family. “She’s really volatile, so forthright and opinionated and snappy. If you were to judge her immediately, you’d probably say brat.”

But she’s more than that – Maclean also describes her as “feisty and zesty, filled with life and colour” and in the spirited exchanges with her family she could draw on her experiences, especially with her older twin sisters. “I was thinking, ‘That’s my family.’ My family is energetic and loud; for me it’s about yelling to be seen.”

Maclean, with bright sparkling eyes and always quick to laugh, wrestles with how best to answer some of the questions. It’s her first solo interview and she wants to pick the right words. “My brain’s so scatty, I’ll jump around so much.”

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

And yet, she takes it all in her stride, as she does with opening night of London Tide several days after we meet, where she shines on the Lyttleton stage, luminous and charismatic, wrapping the audience in Bella’s journey of redemption from stroppy teen to empathetic heroine. The play has music by PJ Harvey, and Maclean has been hailed for her singing as well as her performance.

Given this is her first interview, there is little information about her available, and much of what is out there is wrong. Those ‘Everything you need to know about Bella Maclean’ pieces, it turns out, don’t know much either. Most have her down as 23. “I don’t know where anyone got that from, even people in the cast keep saying that after reading it online. I’m 26.”

Maclean tells me she grew up in New York, where her parents were living for work, until they moved to East Sussex when she was 10. She went to London at 18 for drama school and has stayed since, currently giving west London “a go” after spending time in the east.

She was in all the school plays “from day dot” – but it was playing Jean Valjean at “16 or 17” that really gave her the bug. She laughs, “It’s funny because we thought it was the best thing ever and we took it so seriously, but on reflection…”

Even so, that role made her think “there’s no greater feeling than this” and a teacher told her if she wanted to act she’d have to commit. So she applied to study drama, winning a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Before the end of her final year, Maclean landed a role in the musical Spring Awakening at the Almeida. Initially the pandemic put it on hold, though they ended up putting the show on in-between lockdowns.

Her first TV role came in BBC long runner Silent Witness – her nascent career was nearly derailed by an uncontrollable attack of the giggles in a sombre scene – and the following year came Sex Education in which she played Jem, a character helping out on her father’s farm. “There was pressure, but I wasn’t a lead so it wasn’t a huge amount of pressure. It was a lovely storyline in a show that had been going on for ages. She was just a lovely character, she loved nature and horses.”

For the role, Maclean told her agent she could ride (as many actors do to burnish their Spotlight profile). “That was a mistake,” she laughs. “I remember getting on a horse, cantering, and I thought, ‘Oh my God I’m going to fall off and break my back and this is going to be the end of a very short career.’ I was meant to be brilliant at riding. They edited me brilliantly.”

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

If Sex Education was a gentle introduction to blockbuster TV, her next show will almost certainly take her to the next level: Disney+’s adaptation of Jilly Cooper novel Rivals. Set in the world of independent TV in 1986, it has drama, excess, sex and the no-good antics of the social elite.

Maclean plays the daughter of Aiden Turner’s Declan and Victoria Smurfit’s Maud – tender-hearted and strong willed it falls to her to keep the family together. The actor lights up when the show comes up in conversation.

“It’s so nice to talk about it,” she says of what seems to have been riotous, campy fun – though she hasn’t seen any of the finished episodes yet. “The actors are taking the piss within taking the piss. No one is taking themselves seriously. But it has the grit too. It was so joyous being in those Eighties clothes, and the sets were just ridiculous. Even eating that classic Eighties picnic food. It was so fun.”

The Eighties-ness of it may not extend to the attitudes of the time and Disney has promised it will be told through a 2024 lens. “If you’re going to make it you need to make it as it is, otherwise it wouldn’t be Jilly Cooper. But you can take away some of the comments that really don’t land in today’s society. You can take away the more misogynistic characters.

“There is a lot of heart in the show and the characters have empathy. They are not brutish, misogynistic caricatures. The female characters have more status than they might have done otherwise. It’s still rompy and campy. It will be all of that...”

In some Jilly Cooper books, there’s a focus on women’s bodies – get thin, get your man. “Yes, it’s not that,” Maclean says firmly. “A lot of that is taken out. It’s not that. There are comments on that. You get all the best bits of Jilly Cooper.”

And the actor didn’t realise quite what a big deal starring in a Jilly Cooper adaptation would be until she told her mum. “It’s a real cult classic that people read under their covers. It is so gripping.” What is clear that, along with the show, Bella Maclean is about to become something of a big deal herself.

London Tide runs at the National Theatre until June 22;