Doctor Who’s Pearl Mackie Time Travels Once Again In PBS’s Tom Jones

Pearl Mackie talks with Den of Geek about her time on a centuries-old classic (Tom Jones) and a decades-old classic (Doctor Who).

Pearl Mackie as Honour on Tom Jones
Photo: MASTERPIECE and Mammoth Screen

This article contains some potential spoiler details from the novel Tom Jones and its TV adaptation.

Tom Jones, Masterpiece PBS’s latest period drama miniseries team-up with historical storytelling powerhouse Mammoth Screen and U.K. network ITVX, is a romantic comedy blended in with sharp commentary on class and morality in mid-18th century Britain. The show is the first television adaptation of the classic novel of the same name by Henry Fielding

Fielding’s novel tells the story of Tom (Solly McCleod), an illegitimate child of a maid who was adopted by Squire Allworthy (James Fleet). He grows up among the gentry but is constantly reminded of his frowned-upon low origins. Tom also ends up befriending some of the working-class residents nearby as well. His childhood friend Blifil (James Wilbraham) is set to inherit a large estate but eventually, he becomes Tom’s rival as his parents arrange to marry the girl Tom also develops feelings for.  

In this adaptation, writer Gwyneth Hughes changes an important detail to Fielding’s original story. In the 1749 novel the girl that both Blifil and Jones fight over is white and Hughes decided to make her biracial and edit her background story with real history. Sophia Western (Sophie Wilde) was born in Jamaica to a white plantation owner and an enslaved Black woman. Her father granted her freedom but died. She was sent to England as a little girl to be raised by her grandfather Squire Western (Alun Armstrong) and Aunt Western (Shirley Henderson). 

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While Sophia’s white family dotes on her, she isn’t entirely isolated from other Black folks. She has Honour Newton, who is more than a lady’s maid to her. Pearl Mackie plays Honour who helps Sophie as a friend, confidante, and even partner in crime when Sophie decides to reject Blifil’s proposal. Honour and Sophia have to navigate a world that’s not always accepting of them and this is what bonds them together. This adventure and the mishaps along the way result in Honour gaining agency and breaking the negative stereotypes of servant-employer dynamics in period dramas. 

Honour is a sharp departure for Mackie from both her most well-known role as Bill Potts in Doctor Who and the roles she has had since on The Long Call and most recently The Diplomat. Mackie spoke to Den of Geek about why she took on Tom Jones, working with Hannah Waddingham, and what she’s most proud of about her travels in the TARDIS. 

DEN OF GEEK: You’ve dabbled in telling stories set in the past before on Doctor Who. What convinced you to dive all the way into a period drama?

PEARL MACKIE: When I grew up, I didn’t see any Black people in period dramas. It just wasn’t really a thing and yet I loved them. Me and my mum used to watch the [1995] BBC Pride & Prejudice a lot. When I was 17, one of my first jobs was as an usher at the Old Vic Theater and Jennifer Ehle came and did a play. I remember talking to her once and [telling her] “Oh my God, I loved Pride and Prejudice.” Period dramas were always a big thing for me. But as an actor, I always didn’t really think it was a possibility. 

What I really liked about Honour, and the casting of myself and Sophie as Sophia and Honour, is that it’s not a colorblind casting decision. The [creative team said] “We’re casting two Black women, but what we are going to do is we’re going to explore what their existence would actually be as two Black women,” rather than just saying, “Hey, we’ve got some Black people in the cast.”

Don’t get me wrong – nothing against Bridgerton. I love Bridgerton, and Shonda Rhimes is doing amazing stuff with that. I love the joy that racebent casting can bring and that viewers can look at Bridgerton’s society and not think about the racial dynamics.

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I don’t want anyone to get cross with me saying that, but what I really like about this is that the story doesn’t shy away from the realities of what that would mean. The script talks about Sophia’s character being the daughter of a slave and a slave owner and her journey. There were a lot of Black people in Britain at the time and in loads of cities in Europe. I’ve always thought if Shakespeare can write Othello about a Black man in the 1600s, then we existed.

Did you do any historical research or read the original novel before starting filming?

I didn’t actually read the book beforehand. [Writer] Gwyneth Hughes and director Georgia [Parris] had both said that they expanded Honour and her role within the screenplay versus what it was like in the book.

The dynamic that Honour and Sophia have is quite different. I believe there’s a closeness that comes for Sophia and Honour that may not necessarily have existed in the book between a maid and a servant. We really wanted to explore that bond because we decided that Honour had lived with Sophia for quite a long time.

When Sophia came over to Britain, they don’t have anyone who can do her hair, so they need to find someone who can. There’s less of a sort of maid slash mistress kind of dynamic because we’ve been quite close for quite a long time. I believe the feeling that Sophia and Honour are friends. really comes through. Gwyneth really wanted us to run with that because it’s a really nice thing to see two Black women in a period piece who have each other’s backs. Honour has the closeness to advise Sophia at times like ‘What are you doing? Be wary of Tom Jones.’ It’s really nice to see the way that their relationship grows throughout.

What was your working relationship with Sophie Wilde like?

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We got on really, really well. I mean, we still do actually. We still keep in touch, and I think she’s wonderful, talented, and she’s so lovely. I’m a bit older than her and we had a lot to share about our experiences and about similarities and differences. It is always a gift when you get to work that closely with someone that you really care about and you really love.

Honour has a few major plot points which we’d love to get your behind-the-scenes view on. Let’s start with the scene where Honour and Sophia have a terse exchange with a racist innkeeper’s assistant and the owner. Were you surprised by how the script treated that scene?

I was surprised but in a good way because that [exchange] is the reality of what it would’ve been like. It can still be like that if you venture too far out of cities in America and the U.K. I believe imagining that it would’ve been more chill in the 1700s is just completely unrealistic. I really like that the script just sort of goes quite bold with that. Honour wants to protect Sophia in that situation because she’s much more out in the world. She would’ve had to go and get supplies from the market and is far less protected being of the lower class. When they’re confronted with those characters, Honour wants to take charge because she knows what to expect a little bit more and knows that it can be really horrible. Honour wants to make sure that Sophia knows that she’s kind of there for her and protects her from getting the brunt of it. 

Another turning point for Honour is when she goes to find information about where Sophie’s aunt lives in London and she stumbles upon the Black men’s pub. Can you elaborate on your reaction to the script and Honour’s perspective?

While reading the script for the episode and seeing that Honour goes into the pub and it is full of Black men, I was like, “oh my God, this is cool.” I feel Honour’s experience is the way it would’ve been. I mean, we didn’t have as much segregation in our country, and obviously, that was not the case during that time in the United States. Communities of color naturally gravitate towards one another, especially if there are racist people around. There definitely were at that time, and still are now. I don’t think it would’ve been something that Honour had experienced before because, as a maid, I don’t think she would’ve had that much sort of time and capacity to socialize. I also don’t believe women were allowed to go to pubs.

 At first, Honour is a little intimidated at first because she hasn’t been in a space like this. And then the patrons and bartender are wonderful and welcoming and kind which makes her feel safe and happy. Honour and Sophie have had a rocky journey and she goes in there [thinking] this could be another horrible encounter as they have previously had on the journey. She doesn’t let her guard down immediately, but there is definitely a huge sigh of relief. Obviously, there are a couple of cuties in there, so she’s [intrigued].

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Honour’s last turning point is when she meets Lady Bellaston whose plot moves in a different direction than what viewers may initially expect.

Lady Bellaston, played by the inimitable Hannah Waddingham, was an absolute joy to work with. There’s one scene where Honour and the other ladies in waiting are dressing Sophie for a ball and Lady Bellaston’s walking around. We had so much fun improvising. Georgia said “Let’s just let the camera run for a little bit. And Hannah, you kind of do stuff, and Sophie, if you can sort of respond, and Pearl, you can respond as well,” which was just so much fun.

Lady Bellaston is such a brilliantly bad character. She’s not the nicest and not what you’re expecting as the journey leads to her. You feel like that’s going to be the point of safety for Honour and Sophia and then it really isn’t. She adds a totally unexpected dynamic to Sophia and Tom’s relationship and [illustrates] the maliciousness of London [compared with the countryside], and its kind of dirty, confusing connotations. I think people are going to absolutely love Hannah’s portrayal.

What do you want viewers to take away from Honour’s story and Black viewers in particular?

Honour’s story has so much nuance, and there has been a lot of negativity in the past, and there still is, for Black actresses playing maid characters. Honour’s journey with Sophia and their closeness, it didn’t feel to me like a typical maid-mistress relationship. She felt really human to me, and her desire to protect Sophia felt real because she cared about her on a personal level rather than because of her status. I hope people like her. I really did. I felt a really profound connection with her when I read the story. I also thought she was really funny, which I hope comes across. And I really love that she gets her own slice of joy at the end. And then it’s obvious, it’s a coming-of-age story for Sophia’s character, but I feel like there’s room for a little coming-of-age story with Honour’s character as well. Black joy for women is just an amazing thing and I hope people feel a small slice of that when they’re watching Tom Jones.

Den of Geek has covered Doctor Who extensively and we’re basically contractually obligated to ask about the series. “The Power of the Doctor,” aka Jodie Whitaker’s last episode, featured a support group for former companions of the Doctor. Do you believe Bill Potts would attend one of their meetings?

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I feel like if we’d have left her at a different point in the series, then maybe [she would]. Where we leave her and where she’s at kind of mentally, she’s with Heather [Stephanie Hyam], and she hasn’t left the adventure behind. I think it would probably be useful, but I don’t know if Bill would volunteer to attend. I think she wants to figure it out herself. 

What is your proudest moment of being on Doctor Who and playing Bill?

Oh God, I mean all of it. I think playing the first out lesbian companion is a massive thing. And I think that is something, for me as a queer person as well, that is a huge achievement and something that I really think means a lot to a lot of fans. People still talk to me about it. Being on Doctor Who in the first place was a huge achievement, but I would say what Bill represents would probably be my proudest[achievement.

Tom Jones wrapped a while ago, what are you currently working on?

I’m also in a show that’s out at the moment on Netflix called The Diplomat. I’m also just about to start rehearsals for a play at the National Theater in London about Grenfell Tower and the fire disaster that happened there. [The play is] told in the words of survivors. It’s a really important production for the National Theater so I hope they film it.

Tom Jones is airing weekly on Masterpiece PBS at 9 p.m. ET. All episodes are currently streaming on PBS Passport and the Masterpiece Channel on Amazon Prime. In the U.K., all episodes will be available to stream on ITVX starting on May 4.  

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