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It’s taken Marsha Thomason three decades in showbiz, but she’s finally landed her first starring role in a British TV series. Best known to UK audiences for her parts in nineties dramas Playing the Field and Where The Heart Is, 18 years ago Marsha moved to LA and never looked back.
She secured a series of roles in highprofile TV shows and a starring film role as Eddie Murphy’s love interest.
But Mancunian Marsha is now back on home turf, playing the lead in ITV’s Lancashire-based crime thriller The Bay, taking over from Morven Christie in the third series, which starts tomorrow night.
“It’s the first time I’ve been number one on the call sheet,” says Marsha, 45, referring to the list of actors in order of importance used on every set. “I’m absolutely thrilled. And even though I live in the States, I had seen the first series of The Bay and loved it. I was so excited to be cast, but I do feel a certain amount of pressure, because Morven’s are big shoes to fill.”
Set in Morecambe, The Bay’s first two series followed DS Lisa Armstrong of the West Lancashire Police Service, played by Grantchester star Morven.
DS Armstrong was a police family liaison officer (FLO), specially trained to support families in the wake of a serious crime.
Following Morven’s decision to quit, Marsha was cast as DS Jenn Townsend, a new FLO.
Although she’s appeared in the occasional British role, like Safe House (2015) and COBRA (2020/21), Marsha has enjoyed a thriving career in the States. After playing Eddie Murphy’s wife in 2003’s The Haunted Mansion, she landed roles in hit US series Lost, 2 Broke Girls, White Collar, NCIS: Los Angeles and Magnum PI.
Many black British actors – including Homeland’s David Harewood – claim to find America a more welcoming place and stars as varied as Idris Elba, Doctor Who’s Freema Agyeman, Lennie James, Cush Jumbo and David Oyelowo have all found success there.
But Marsha insists that wasn’t a motivating factor for her move to LA.
“I know that a bunch of actors have citedit as a reason, but for me it kind of happened organically,” she says. “I’d always been successful in the UK, although I was generally the only black person in the cast.
‘I’d been in the UK, “But I had just made a couple of big American films and got cast in a pilot and I really liked LA and stayed.”
Now back in the US and chatting over Zoom, she’s understandably thrilled to be cast in a big British drama tht h lld i that has pulled in more than seven million viewers.
“I watched the first season of The Bay for Dan Ryan, who plays DI Tony Manning,” explains Marsha.
“Ironically, we played cops together on Messiah in 2007, which I remember well because I met my husband on that job. I loved it, so when they sent me the script, I was familiar with the show. I auditioned doing a scene in the station where Jenn gets called up to the board to explain the case and the suspects.
“I put up pieces of paper on the wall at home, which grounded it in a little bit of reality. Maybe that tipped it for me.”
After Covid delayed filming of series three, Marsha made the big move to Manchester with her eight-year-old daughter,Tallulah, for four months last year to film The Bay. It wasn’t quite the dream homecoming she’d hoped for.
“I’d done COBRA in Manchester in 2019, but this was different just because of Covid,” she says. “Unfortunately, we were kind of stuck indoors and unable to see the people I’d wanted to see and Christmas was ruined.
But I did get to see my parents a lot, and my daughter home-schooled with her class online in the US by starting school at 4pm. It was a bit bananas. I loved being back in Manchester, even in the winter.”
For Marsha’s character in The Bay, there’s a big move, too. Single mum DS Townsend has relocated with her two teenagers from Manchester to Morecambe to move in with her boyfriend, Chris (Barry Sloane), and his daughter Erin (Georgia Scholes).
“I don’t relate to her decision to move her kids in with her boyfriend,” laughs Marsha, who is married to fellow Briton Craig Sykes, a lighting technician.
“They’ve only been together 18 months!
It’s a lot to expect to move with your teenage children into the home of your partner who has a teenage daughter.That’s bound to be chaos. And there is. There’s a massive learning curve there. I’m someone who likes to think things through.
“But a FLO needs to be a people person, a good listener and communicator, and so it kind of came naturally to me because I am interested in people’s stories. I definitely relate to her.”
DS Townsend joins the precinct after a period of tremendous upheaval.
Not only has Lisa Armstrong left, but her sidekick, DC Med Kharim (Taheen Modak), was murdered in a hit and run attack last series. But Jenn has to hit the ground running. She barely has time to find out where the kettle is before being thrown into her first case.
The bruised and battered body of a young local, Saif Rahman (Brahmdeo Ramana), is discovered in the bay.
DS Townsend is assigned as the FLO to his family, a large British-Pakistani family in which tensions are running high, and it’s her job to befriend them and elicit as much information as she can.
Guest stars include Billy Elliot’s Gary Lewis as a coach andVincent Regan as Saif’s mother’s boyfriend, Ray Conlon.
The police have to throw the net far and wide to try to nab the culprit.
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“Everyone’s a suspect,” laughs Marsha. “By the end of the second episode, you’ve been introduced to so many characters and it could be any one of them.”
Meanwhile, in the precinct, Jenn’s new colleagues are not exactly welcoming.
“Lisa was really good at her job, so Jenn has to prove herself,” explains Marsha. “But she’s particularly nervous because she’s carrying baggage from something that happened in her career back in Manchester.
“She’s feeling a little insecure about her ability, really. Hopefully through this case she builds that confidence back.”
However, DI Manning has full faith in his new FLO.
Daniel Ryan reprises his role as the precinct’s chief, now dressed in noticeably sharper three-piece suits.
“On set I called myself a ‘fat Martin Compston’,” laughs Daniel, 53, referring to Manning’s new waistcoat, a favourite garment of Compston’s character DI Steve Arnott in blockbuster BBC show Line of Duty.
“Tony has got divorced and maybe he’s tarted himself up to try and reinvent himself a little bit. So they gave me a shiny new suit.”
But Tony’s sadness about his divorce is also evident when in episode one he receives the decree absolute that officially ends his marriage. “Having had one of those in the post myself, it’s a landmark day,” admits Daniel, a dad of three who’s now happily married to his second wife. Even though you’re expecting it, it’s a very sad piece of paper.
“They shot that scene in a way that gave it the gravity and the full stop it needed, because as much as you try to move on, if you’ve got kids, you’re still tied in a relationship.”
Daniel – a familiar face from Doctor Who, Home Fires, Mount Pleasant and Innocent – admits he was upset when Morven decided to quit the show.
“It was pretty sad, I have to say. I was very disappointed,” he says. “I didn’t know at the time if the show was going to carry on or not and Morven was very apologetic about that possibility. Then ITV decided they wanted the show because it’s a big hitter, which is fantastic.”
So Daniel was thrilled when Marsha came onboard.
“She rang me to talk about it out of the blue. I didn’t even realise we still had each other’s phone numbers from Messiah!”
Now the pair are reunited. Marsha admits she’s anxious about how The Bay will be received.
“I’m dying for it to air so that people can see me in the role and hopefully accept me as the new FLO,” says Marsha. “It was such a happy job for me, and I really enjoyed finally being the lead. That’s a very nice feeling.”
- The Bay starts tomorrow night at 9pm on ITV
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