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Niamh Algar: 'I was fascinated by the hysteria tangled up with these video nasties'

The Mullingar actress stars in a new horror film called Censor.

“THAT WAS THE funniest moment, when I was using a… I don’t want to give anything away, but an axe. The camera is where you’re hacking into, but obviously you’re not doing that. There’s just a guy sat under you with his squirty bottle of blood, squirting fake blood in your face as you scream and cry.”

Niamh Algar’s played a variety of roles through her relatively short but impressive acting career, but in her latest film Censor she truly gets down and dirty. The British horror film, the debut feature from Prano Bailey-Bond, sees Algar play Enid, a young film censor who has to watch countless video nasties for her job.

As the film progresses, Enid gets wrapped up in the world of the video nasties, spurred on in part by a trauma from her childhood.

It’s the latest in a string of excellent roles for Algar, who hails from Mullingar and studied acting in Dublin.

After studying design at Dublin’s DIT, Algar went on to study screen acting at the Bow Street Academy in the capital. From there she starred in her first role in 2014′s Trampoline.  She’s since starred in lauded TV series The Virtues (by Shane Meadows), and is currently in Ridley Scott’s series Raised by Wolves. Her film credits include Calm With Horses and Without Name.

Algar is somewhat chameleonic, but one thing she brings with her to every role she plays is a deep sense of strength. Enid looks unlike a lot of recent Algar characters, with long mousy brown hair in contrast to Algar’s own blonde crop. But though she’s fairly quiet, her demeanour masks what’s going on underneath. That the film is lit along the lines of classic Italian horror Suspiria only adds to the sense of unease.

Algar gets to show a new, more muted side to her range in this film, but one that’s matched by the end by her more familiar fierce side.

Video nasties

Vertigo Releasing / YouTube

The film is set in the 1980s, during the time of massive debate about so-called ‘video nasties’, low-budget horrors that through a loophole avoided being reviewed by the British Board of Film Censors. The outcry over this led to stricter controls on video than cinema films.

In Censor, Enid has to spend her work day watching horrific films and taking notes on cuts that would make them more palatable. Squeamish viewers might find Censor’s depiction of the videos a bit rough to deal with, but a close look shows that there’s a cartoonish quality to the scenes. 

Algar was aware of the existence of video nasties, but she spent more time researching the character of Enid and her motivations. “I heard the phrase ‘video nasties’, but I don’t think I ever really understood what that meant. And so when the script came in, I had Prano who is the director and who’s like an encyclopaedia of video nasties [to help],” said Algar. “I just delved right into the research and was fascinated about the hysteria that was tangled up in this area of film, the idea that people thought that because you see something violent, you’re more inclined to carry out violent acts.”

This worry – that such films could influence people’s behaviour – is a bloody thread that runs through Censor. The audience wonders how much Enid, who is clearly sensitive, is impacted by her job. But she’s also the type of person who would surely not be clueless about such a thing. That tension makes us question what she’s doing and why. 

“[My research] was more so the censorship and understanding the role of a censor, as opposed to the video nasties,” said Algar. She and Bailey-Bond spent time thinking about how they were going to convey the psychological journey that Enid goes on.

“We had reference points, essentially. This woman is filtering out explicit content that she feels is not suitable for audiences. And so, like any role, you try and connect that to something that makes sense to you.”

She found inspiration in the form of the The Cleaners, a documentary about the people who have to delete troubling, objectionable and traumatic content from the internet. 

“We have warehouses full of people who are employed to look at uploaded content that we as public put on, and it’s essentially the same job [as Enid's] apart from there’s just more content,” she said. 


And we thought about, how that would have a psychological effect on someone, having to see hours and hours of violence. But also, the main question was: why is she doing this job and what is she trying to uncover?

Strength and vulnerability

Algar’s clearly drawn to strong, multi-layered characters. “It’s always really interesting to play with someone who was quite strong and vulnerable at the same time, because we’re all vulnerable and we’ve all got strengths,” said Algar. “It was choosing the moments that we were going to focus on where you were going to see those cracks.”

There were many discussions between actor and director about Enid’s emotional state, and how she was going to deal with her own vulnerability. “It was just fascinating, exploring this character who feels so closed off. As the story progresses, you begin to see these layers come apart, and the person that you’re left with at the end is a complete 180 of the person that we began with.”

But if you thought that working on a creepy horror film would mean a tough time on set, when the cameras stopped rolling things were, well, gas.”[There are] behind the scenes videos of a lot of us just laughing. Prano, she’s an absolute gem. She’s such a rockstar, and makes everyone feel so heard and included that the camaraderie between cast and crew, it was just so lovely,” said Algar.

Even when you’re shooting something that’s quite intense and emotional, you tend to kind of cling on to the fun, and I suppose the laughter on set can drag you out of those places. And I was lucky that at the end of the day, it was the time pre-COVID, where you could go and have dinner with the cast and crew and and offload, and I think that’s really important.

“This is a character who’s essentially in every single scene, and to map out the psychological journey is really important, because you’re ultimately following her and if something isn’t really ringing true, you begin to lose the audience.”

Thanks to the director, Algar had the space “where I felt so safe and comfortable to explore those emotions and go to dark places as that character”.

Does a character like Enid stay with her? “Yeah, I think we can’t help but still daydream about the character,” said Algar. “But that, I think, just reminds you that you care about the job. I am someone who takes the work home, but you can’t help it because I finish work and then I have to prepare scenes for the next day. So in that timeframe of constantly being in a headspace as someone.”

It “takes time to leave behind a character” said Algar. 

But she finds it hardest to leave behind the relationships that she builds with people on set. “Because you feel like it’s like summer camp. Everyone gets really close for like, three months, and then everyone moves on.”

But not too far on – she’s still good friends with Stephen Graham, her co-star in The Virtues. The day before our interview, they were on the phone chatting for an hour.  

“I’m really lucky with the projects that I’ve worked on to maintain really lifelong friends,” said Algar. ”I think, you know, that the friendships that last are the ones where it’s like you find your family away from home.”

Next up for Algar on screen is the second series of Raised by Wolves, and a TV series called Deceit on Channel 4.  Deceit is based on the true story of a controversial 1992 honeytrap by the British police during a murder investigation. “I’m really, really interested to see how people respond to [Deceit] because it was something that is based off a true life story,” said Algar.

In Deceit, she plays an undercover cop – codename Lizzie James – who is told to start a relationship with a police suspect. 

Exploring all these different worlds on screen appeals to Algar – not least when things get really strange. “There’s a picture of me behind the scenes on Censor that I’ll probably post after the movie comes out – and [in it] I am covered in blood. It’s everywhere. It’s in my eyes, in my mouth,” recalled Algar.

“And it’s like you have those moments, you kind of step away on set and go: what is my job?”

Censor is in cinemas from 20 August. 

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