Interviews: 'Bad Sugar' and Channel 4's 'Funny Fortnight'
Olivia Colman, Julia Davis and Sharon Horgan tell Gabriel Tate about their brilliant new C4 sitcom
If you needed a template for how to produce a hit comedy, you could do worse than follow the example of ‘Bad Sugar’. Take one garlanded production company (Tiger Aspect). Gather three of the hottest properties in TV comedy (who, curiously, have never before worked together – Sharon Horgan, Julia Davis and smallscreen comedy Zelig Olivia Colman). Surround them with ‘brilliant men’ (as Horgan puts it) on-screen. Recruit the writers of two wildly different but massively successful sitcoms (Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, of ‘Peep Show’ and ‘Fresh Meat’) and hire the director of ‘The Inbetweeners Movie’ to bring it to life. It’s no wonder that ‘Bad Sugar’ sits at the heart of Channel 4’s ‘Funny Fortnight’, two weeks celebrating the broadcaster’s rich comedy heritage and promising future. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one, ‘Bad Sugar’ is utterly risible. The acting is exquisitely awful, the narrative nonsensical, the soundtrack wildly over the top and the direction absurdly stylised. But that’s okay. In fact, that was the plan all along. ‘Bad Sugar’ is a witheringly accurate, peculiarly British collision of American soap and Latin American telenovela; formats for which such foibles are worn almost as badges of honour. The line ‘Why would you throw a red-hot boule ball at your new sister?’ delivered with devastating contempt by Davis, is easily vicious enough to recall Alexis Colby in her pomp.
The family portrait above depicts the Caudwells, a dysfunctional clan bickering over who gets the spoils when the ailing patriarch dies. This lot make the Ewings look like the Waltons: the obvious relish taken by each performer as they compete to out- camp each other ensures both an impressive cohesion of style and an infectious sense of fun. And the casting sees all three leads take on roles with intriguing resonances in past triumphs. Davis plays poisonous queen bee Daphne – based, she confirms, on the divas from Hollywood’s golden age and with more than a hint about her of one of the last decade’s great screen monsters, the sociopathic Jill Tyrell in ‘Nighty Night’. ‘Probably due to my own deep lack of world domination, I find these power-hungry, fucked-up women very enjoyable to play,’ she confesses. Colman is her sister Joan, a childlike innocent who may or may not be a murderer, and a character reminiscent, she claims, of a role she took in ‘Midsomer Murders’ back when pickings for her were considerably slimmer. Horgan is Lucy, the ambitious but somewhat inept schemer marrying into the family. The temptation to recall Donna, her simultaneously sympathetic and reprehensible thirtysomething from ‘Pulling’, is irresistible.
Horgan concedes the comparison good-naturedly, as she does with all the questions when she isn’t rasping with laughter. In fact, interviewing the three of them in quick succession is both discombobulating and tantalising: the nights together in the pub, getting drunk and coming up with silly concepts, must have been as much fun as the show itself. All three are generous and self-deprecating; they’ve all suffered the odd miss to balance out the hits. The concept of a ‘Dallas’ spoof was Davis’s, and she is thoughtful throughout our conversation. Free and frank with her opinions, Davis admits that she’d have taken the show ‘in a slightly different direction’.
‘I was a bit worried it might be like putting a boyband together,’ she says, ‘but it worked well. Sam and Jesse integrated our different ways of working. They can reach quite a wide audience, slipping weird things in without making it too unpalatable. I never like thinking about an audience... I’d be just as happy if it had a really small, cult audience!’
‘It was nice, but as awkward as those things are when you don’t know each other but someone’s saying you should all be friends,’ recalls Horgan of the initial meeting. ‘But we all got on. We’re all doing our own thing, though, so we thought: wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone else wrote it?’
It was Colman who wrangled Bain and Armstrong, her friends and colleagues from their time on ‘Peep Show’. She is as charming as she was in her first ever press interview, conducted with me back in 2007. But she’s equally careful about being too forthright. ‘I’m always a bit stumbly and feel out of my depth talking about comedy,’ she says apologetically, insisting that she’s an actor who fell into comedy almost by accident. As the only one of the three without writing experience, her reticence is perhaps understandable. ‘I kept saying: “I’m really sorry, I’m not sure how this works. Can we do...” If you get to 38 and you’ve never written before, then you can’t do it. I understand what’s funny and can make people’s lines work, but I couldn’t write them down. I know my limits!’
After an award-winning turn in Paddy Considine’s ‘Tyrannosaur’, Colman is now a big-screen star. Certainly, she feels a little more disengaged from television comedy, having bowed out of ‘Peep Show’ (‘I don’t think Sophie’s so interesting to people now,’ she states contentiously), with ‘Twenty Twelve’ finished and the next series of ‘Rev’ not due until 2014. Horgan and Davis, meanwhile, are enjoying life at the heart of the action once again after well-publicised knockbacks.
‘I really don’t care any more that “Pulling” was cancelled,’ says Horgan when gently prompted: she’s got to the point where she can put a positive spin on it. ‘It was nice that it never had the chance to get shit.’ But she hopes that her most recent BBC3 show, ‘Dead Boss’, may get another run; in the meantime, she has two documentaries for C4, a show in development with Sky and a pilot for ABC in the works. And Davis has ‘Hunderby’, a characteristically dark costume-drama, coming soon on Sky Atlantic. In November 2011, she told Time Out she felt ‘creatively thwarted,’ after the BBC buried in the schedule her collaboration with Jessica Hynes, ‘Lizzie and Sarah’, and turned down a proposed return for ‘Human Remains’, her trailblazing 2000 comedy with Rob Brydon. ‘I don’t feel thwarted now,’ Davis laughs. ‘It’s frustrating, when you’ve got all this stuff you want to say and you think there might be some people out there who want to see it... But I’m really pleased to have made “Hunderby”.’
This optimism is reflected in the rude health of television comedy, where series as divisive and diverse as ‘Fresh Meat’ and ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ are competing with ‘Spy’ and ‘Getting On’ for awards. ‘Bad Sugar’ will arrive in earnest with a full series next year. With such a gathering of stars and the three leads effusive about the shoot, it’s no wonder. ‘We’ve got some ridiculous ideas,’ claims Colman. ‘The only thing is that we all might look about 10 per cent more haggard by then,’ laments Horgan. Davis, though, is looking on the bright side. ‘I keep imagining Olivia’s going to whisked off to Hollywood, but that’s okay. What could be more “Dallas” than killing someone off then bringing them back to life?’ This optimism is reflected in the rude health of television comedy, where series as divisive and diverse as ‘Fresh Meat’ and ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ are competing with ‘Spy’ and ‘Getting On’ for awards. ‘Bad Sugar’ will arrive in earnest with a full series next year. With such a gathering of stars and the three leads effusive about the shoot, it’s no wonder. ‘We’ve got some ridiculous ideas,’ claims Colman. ‘The only thing is that we all might look about 10 per cent more haggard by then,’ laments Horgan. Davis, though, is looking on the bright side. ‘I keep imagining Olivia’s going to whisked off to Hollywood, but that’s okay. What could be more “Dallas” than killing someone off then bringing them back to life?’
'Bad Sugar', Sunday August 26, 10pm, Channel 4
Other highlights from Funny Fortnight
Vic and Bob’s Lucky Sexy Winners
Thursday August 23, 10pm
At least the premature cancellation of ‘Shooting Stars’ has allowed Reeves and Mortimer to spread their wings in a further twist on the panel show.
Them from That Thing
Tuesday August 21 and Wednesday August 22, 10pm
One of ‘Funny Fortnight’s’ key figures, Kayvan Novak (also to be seen in ‘Bad Sugar’ and ‘Verry Terry’) puts in another shift in this sketch show alongside familiar faces Sally Phillips, Blake Harrison and Morgana Robinson.
Toast of London
Monday August 20, 10pm
A lead role for Matt Berry? Playing a pompous actor struggling in London after his West End show bombs? Scripted by ‘Father Ted’s’ Arthur Mathews? Go on go on go on go on go on go on!
Whatever Happened to Harry Hill?
Thursday August 23, 9pm
In which the big-collared comic catches up with the cast from his original Channel 4 series. Expect puppets, chickens, Al Murray and silliness galore.
And from the vaults...
Night owls should keep their big round/square eyes open for classics from the archives, including Peter Cook’s show-stealing performance on ‘Clive Anderson Talks Back’, cheeky animated online gaggery in ‘Comedy Blaps’, Chris Morris’s timelessly unsettling ‘Jam’ and Vic and Bob branching out in ‘The Weekenders’ (below).