Everyone loves a good mystery, even if we don’t feel smart enough to understand it. For Northern Irish actress Thaddea Graham, her role in the new Netflix series The Irregulars as a whip-smart young orphan named Bea put her in the shoes of someone who solved intricate riddles much faster than herself – and did so on behalf of no less than Sherlock Holmes.
“Bea is a lot smarter than me,” says Graham, 23. “Some of the scripts I was reading, she’s putting all these things together, and I read it and I go, ‘Hang on, what? I don’t understand. I don’t, how did she… oh, okay, there it is.’ It’s really fun to play that: Bea knows what’s happening, but Thaddy has no idea.”
The Irregulars, created by Tom Bidwell (My Mad Fat Diary), turns the Sherlock Holmes world on its head. Based on the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of ragamuffins first introduced by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, the new series puts a supernatural fantasy spin on the franchise. Desperate to care for her sister Jessie, Bea and her friends are employed by Doctor Watson to investigate the darker areas of Victorian London. Before long, though, they find themselves up against a number of otherworldly terrors they didn’t sign up for.
“Watson comes to me and he says, ‘I have a business proposal: I need you to go round the parts of London that I can’t access because I’m a posh man,’” says Graham, 23. “So Bea starts collecting all this information, and then the supernatural element comes in, and she goes, ‘What the hell have you got us involved in?’ And it just starts to spiral and get more intricate.”
Graham, who appeared in another popular Netflix series last year, fantasy epic The Letter for the King, and hit BBC drama Us, grew up in the Northern Irish countryside before attending school in Belfast. She acted in local productions from a young age – “I was never any good,” she says – and was about to apply to study law or psychology upon finishing high school before her mum intervened.
“She said: ‘What are you doing? You’re not going to enjoy that, you’re not going to be happy in that kind of very formal educational setting, you thrive in a creative environment,’” remembers Graham.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do drama school, it’s not a real thing.’ But she took me over [to London], I auditioned for drama schools, and luckily one of them took a chance on me. My mum saw something in me that I didn’t…”
Her years at ArtsEd in London were life-changing, says Graham: “I was only a teen when I went to drama school, and I’d never been away from Northern Ireland before.” Luckily, she learned to cope and soon excelled, but years later – when preparing for The Irregulars – that experience helped her to connect with her character.
Though Bea is battling demonic ravens and violent ghosts in a London very different from the one that Graham now lives in, she’s also just a 17-year-old orphan with a younger sister to support on top of simply surviving. “All of these characters have been affected by grief in some way, and that’s a very universal theme that unfortunately everyone is going to have to deal with, and maybe some people have already dealt with,” says Graham. “And really trying to connect those and to ground those thoughts, I think if you didn’t, it would almost be disrespectful to the people who have lived similar lives. So I don’t think it’s something to take lightly.”
Some parts of Bea’s life were harder to perform than others. Facing sinister monsters, such as in the first episode, required new acting muscles, says Graham. “We’re running away from these [murderous] birds, but they obviously weren’t there; that’s all VFX,” she says. “So we’re running away, looking over our shoulder, going, ‘Oh my god’ and [shouting], but there’s nothing there, so you do feel a little bit ridiculous. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.”
The Irregulars was almost thwarted by COVID-19, with lockdown halting production just two weeks from wrap. “We were stood down as a precaution, so I thought, okay, I’ll go home for two weeks, and I packed my bag for two weeks,” says Graham with an ironic smile. “I think it was something like four months later, I was still in Northern Ireland, saying, ‘Oh my god, I need more clothes. I did not pack for this.’”
The events of past year only crystallised the impact The Irregulars had on Graham, and she hopes viewers find the same level of comfort and escapism she felt while working on the show. “The biggest overriding takeaway for me is grief, and how you respond and how you deal with that,” she says. “In a time like COVID, where we’ve been faced with it so intensely, I hope it makes people feel less alone.
“Grief is a very personal journey, and sometimes when you’re trying to deal with it, you think ‘Oh my god, I feel like this, but is that wrong? Should I be feeling angry? Should I be feeling numb? Should I be feeling upset?’ We see so many different versions of that in this show. I really hope that people see something that makes them feel seen and less alone and less scared of these things. It’s a show for everyone in that element.”