Simply Dolly Wells

Dolly Wells: ‘I got divorced on Zoom’

Saturday Review   |   Written by Dominic Maxwell

As she returns to our TV screens in Inside Man, the actress talks about her father John Wells, her recent ADHD diagnosis and her amicable separation from her husband of 20 years

Dolly Wells
Dolly Wells
Dominic Maxwell
The Times

Is it possible to put a thoroughly decent human being in a situation that would cause them to try and end the life of another thoroughly decent human being? That moral quandary and grabbing dramatic premise was what lured Dolly Wells into signing up to the new BBC television drama Inside Man, in which she stars alongside David Tennant and Stanley Tucci. Well, that and the prospect of working again with Steven Moffat (SherlockDoctor Who), the writer who co-created the 2020 adaptation of Dracula that gave Wells a breakthrough role as Sister Agatha Van Helsing.

“I was in the middle of lockdown in Cape Cod,” says Wells, who left her native London for Brooklyn, New York, in 2014. “And I just thought life was never going to resume in any possible way, and suddenly Steven popped up on Zoom offering me another job.”

Watch Inside Man and you’ll see why Moffat wanted Wells for the job. She plays Janice, the maths tutor of the son of a nice, principled vicar, played by Tennant. We first see Janice standing up to a bully on the train. Later we see her stand up to someone else (trying to avoid spoilers here . . .) in a confrontation that will end with her being locked in a cellar. It’s the sort of scene that needs stunningly good but outwardly unactorly performances to sell us on its spiral of misunderstandings. And Wells, 50, could hardly do it better. She has the rare knack of being highly individual yet utterly unaffected, seemingly spontaneous yet highly focused.

Wells with David Tennant in Steven Moffat’s Inside Man
Wells with David Tennant in Steven Moffat’s Inside Man

As I meet her in a café in north London, sure enough, she has just the propulsive mixture of personability and intelligence of her screen work. A convent school-educated Brit, she is built to self-deprecate: it’s easy to appear good in a scene with these sorts of co-stars, she insists. When she was filming Dracula she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosed. And although her ADHD means she is often losing her keys and can’t always remember when she has to take her son to school or where she left the car, her impulsiveness, she suspects, feeds into her ability to be unusually in the moment.

“I’ve got this thing in me which is useful because I’m a bit hopeless at knowing where the camera is. And it means I do sort of actually believe I’m in the situation I’m pretending to be in.” So she will be open (but not carelessly so) in an interview, say — talking about everything from her lifelong friendship with Emily Mortimer, whom she met when their fathers took them to a party at Tom Stoppard’s house when they were four, to the end of her 20-year marriage during lockdown — in much the same way that she puts up no barriers for the camera. “My therapist said, ‘You’re a bit braver, you don’t really regulate risk quite right . . .’ which can be both useful and annoying for other people.”

And if she lacked focus in her twenties, she has slowly made up for it since. She had roles in seemingly every British TV comedy show of the 2000s: Peep ShowThe IT CrowdThe Mighty BooshSpy, CampusNoel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy . . . Then, in 2014 and 2015, with Mortimer she co-wrote and co-starred in the mock-autobiographical Doll & Em on Sky — a comedy about a successful actress (Mortimer) and her best friend who works as her PA (Wells). It was, she admits, a cult hit rather than “watched by millions”, but those who liked it loved it.

Mortimer later appeared in Wells’s first film as a writer and director, Good Posture (2019), Wells appeared in Mortimer’s TV adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (2021), and the pair spent much of lockdown making ill-fated Zoom pitches to sell a new sitcom, Please Be Frank. It is on the back burner now, although they will work together again. They would love to do a third series of Doll & Em, for starters. “We are both still really proud of it and would like to do more.”

Her profile rose in 2018 when she played a New York bookseller opposite Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me?. And it was her turn as the sparky Sister Agatha in Dracula — “such a fun job, I could have been Agatha for a year, it was hard to say goodbye to her” — that made her a famous face after it played to audiences of seven million on BBC1 at the start of 2020.

But then . . . well, we all know what happened to the rest of 2020. The big breakthrough didn’t quite sprout into huge opportunities. “It felt like I had been given a boost by Agatha, but then it was more like, ‘What now?’ It was very frustrating,” she says, “but I don’t remember being too bitter.”

Slowly, work returned. Stephen Merchant cast her as Margaret, the daughter of Christopher Walken’s character Frank, in two seasons of his BBC series The Outlaws. “I signed up to it the moment they said I would be Christopher Walken’s daughter. I absolutely loved him.”

His lightness of touch reminded her slightly of her late father, the writer and satirist John Wells. Granted, until she was 18 she thought he was her stepfather rather than her biological father: only then did she find out that her mother, Teresa Gatacre, had had an affair with Wells while married to her first husband, Edward Gatacre, the father of Dolly’s five elder siblings (“my Dutch father”, she calls him).

She remembers being taken to see Anyone for Denis?, the early-Eighties West End spin-off from Wells and Richard Ingrams’s Private Eye column Dear Bill, in which her father played Denis Thatcher. She used to marvel at his ability to cook up new lines each night based on that day’s news. The impressionist Rory Bremner referred to the “climate of fun” that Wells created around him. It was something his daughter found “very inspiring. I always thought, ‘This can’t be a job.’ It seemed too fun.”

She had her two children, Elsie, 20, and Ezra, 17, as she entered her thirties. Then, eight years ago, she moved with her children and her husband, the photographer Mischa Richter, to Brooklyn, which is where Mortimer lives. Is Wells there for good now? “No, I don’t think I am. I wouldn’t have said that before, but my son finishes school next year. And, it’s perfectly OK, but my husband and I got divorced. On Zoom again. Everything happens on Zoom.”

Wells’s first public mention of this was in June on her Instagram feed, where she suggested that her father would have “made a wonderful speech at my wedding and a perfect one after my (Zoom) divorce”. She and Richter split up in June 2020, after 20 years of marriage. “I wanted to acknowledge it for friends and family, but I didn’t know what the etiquette was, really, on the Instagram and the like. So, yeah, there’s not a huge reason for me to stay.”

They have remained friendly enough to enjoy the bizarreness of the “inexpensive” ($600) Zoom divorce ceremony. Every now and then strange faces would join the judge on the screen. “We would text each other, saying, ‘Who’s that, who’s that?’ And it was just people being, like, 20 minutes early for their sessions, because they are so quick. Afterwards, we phoned each other and sort of said, you know, ‘Well done, sorry we didn’t do a better job.’ It made us cry. It’s really tough.”

Her ex made her cry again — in a good way — when he pointed out that she could finally be known legally under the name she has used since she was 18. Before she was married she was Dorothy Gatacre — she didn’t change her name by deed poll, and her father hadn’t been on her birth certificate. After she was married she was Dorothy Richter. Now, finally, she is Dorothy Wells. “I don’t know who Dorothy Wells is but I am going to have a good go at seeing.”

She is in a new relationship. “I am seeing someone lovely, I won’t say more than that for now.” Meanwhile, more work looms. She will appear alongside Noel Fielding again in a new Apple TV+ comedy about Dick Turpin. She is writing another film too, about, yes, the ending of a marriage, although like the first one she won’t be in it herself. “Martin Amis said to me, ‘It might be a touch too soon.’ And he’s not wrong.” And whatever she acts in, she will make it look . . . not easy exactly. But amusing, distinctive and oddly natural too.

Inside Man is on BBC1 at 9pm from September 26. Dolly Wells and Steven Moffat appear on the podcast Obsessed With . . . Inside Man on BBC Sounds from September 27

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