Julian Barratt in 'Flowers.' Photo courtesy BBC Channel 4
Maurice Flowers is drowning. He is submerged. He feels as if there is no way back to the surface. In the first scene of Flowers, a Channel 4 comedy-drama, the middle-aged children's book author, played by The Mighty Boosh's Julian Barratt, takes the noose his magician father used as a prop and tries to hang himself from a tree in his garden. To Maurice, suicide now seems like the only way he can handle the relentless "invisible monster" that is his depression. But the rope fails in its task, and Maurice is left to try and find his way back to the surface, or sink into the depths.
"The rest of the series refers back to that moment in different ways," says Will Sharpe, the show's writer and director, "and the most important thing for me in that sequence was to feel, quite quickly, that you got a sense of what it might be like to be Maurice, or at least where he might be at."Over six episodes, Maurice struggles to tell his wife Deborah (Olivia Colman) and twin children Donald and Amy (Daniel Rigby and Sophia di Martino) what is going on.They have their own problems. Donald and Amy are 25 years old and living at home. Haunted by their environment, they have pitted themselves against each other. They are both stuck. They are both self-destructive. Neither of them fit in.Determined to keep the family together, their mother's optimism is starting to fade as she realizes she may not be able to live with her husband any longer. She also thinks he's engaging in a secret affair with his Japanese illustrator, Shun, who lives in the shed Maurice spends all his time in.
Not content with writing and directing the whole series while still in his 20s, Will Sharpe, whose mother is Japanese, plays Shun. Shun is fond of drawing pornographic manga featuring characters like Mr. Gay, a superhero burdened with a constant, painful hard-on. But like the rest of the characters in the show, there is tragedy as well as comedy in Shun, his seemingly boundless enthusiasm masking a traumatic past.
This melding of comedy and drama makes Flowers an unusual series, in that it doesn't fit easily into any of the banal strait jackets TV often likes to force its shows into. This isn't genre comedy. If you're into Mrs. Brown's Boys and comedy quiz shows, look elsewhere. There's plenty of surrealism and some broad accents, but the comedy in Flowers comes from a truthful place.Speaking about Maurice's character, Sharpe tells me he was trying to make an "honest representation of how he might feel." At no point does the show make fun of Maurice and his problem. Rather, Sharpe looked to find "the comedy around that issue."When I meet him in Soho, Julian Barratt is disarmingly honest about his affinity with Maurice. "He's stuck and a bit childlike," Barratt says of his character. "When you're depressed, you can't get out of the way of yourself—you don't know what you're doing to yourself. I relate to that because I suffer from that, as well. As an artist, you're always trying to figure a way out of the lack of self-worth or the lack of self-belief that you have."He pauses. "I don't know why I do what I do, but I feel as though I can relate to it… sometimes it helps. But if you're constantly trying to get worth from creating things, you're on a hiding to nowhere, really, because you only ever feel good when you've done something, and then when the work dries up or you're not able to work, you feel pretty awful, like you're not valid as a human being."
Now in his late 40s, married to fellow comedian and actor Julia Davis, and the father of two young children, Barratt still moves all over the creative landscape—one minute he's a writer, the next he's an actor, then he's a musician. Sometimes he's all three at the same time. Sometimes he's something else. He questions what he's doing and thinks deeply about it. He says he's often self-destructive in auditions. He seems to still be in search of something. Talking to him, there are moments when I find myself wanting to grab him by the shoulders and say, "Mate, don't be so hard on yourself." But that kind of searching and questioning is integral to what he or any other artist does.Barratt says he finds it hard to make decisions, and he doesn't know quite how to define himself. He plays the guitar every day and still wants to be in a band. "I feel a bit like a musician who is somehow doing this other stuff. I don't really feel time passing when I'm doing music," he says. "Maybe that's just the nature of writing. When you're writing a narrative, it's just fucking hard work—it's a struggle, I find."
In person, Barratt looks like a bohemian badger, his salt and pepper beard and flowing cardigan adding to the air of noble integrity he brought to iconic roles like "preacher man" Dan Ashcroft in Nathan Barley and jazz fanatic Howard Moon in The Mighty Boosh. Even before he became a father, Barratt seemed like a father to what he calls "the Boosh family": "On tour, I'd be searching for the old pubs with real fires, and Noel [Fielding] would be going, 'I hate those places. They smell of farts and men smoking pipes.'"
His struggle with sleeping prepared Barratt for fatherhood and was in sharp contrast to the dreamier Fielding. "Noel sleeps incredibly well," he says, "which is one of the main things I'm jealous of with him—his ability to fucking sleep anywhere. He just has loads of sleep, excessive sleep."Various news outlets have reported that Barratt and Fielding are reuniting for a new series of the Boosh. "Not really, no," says Barratt. "We've talked about it. People keep saying we're writing together. We've talked about doing it, so that's not really the same." Still, Barratt says that he'd "love to do it again" and that, if Fielding is also game, he's sure something will happen.Barratt signed up to do Flowers after meeting with the show's producer, Naomi De Pear. They were talking about another project, but De Pear realized Barratt would be perfect as Maurice. Apart from anything else, he was wearing a sweater that seemed very appropriate for the character. Barratt loved Black Pond, the film Sharpe co-directed with Tom Kingsley, and had always wanted to work with Olivia Colman. She'd always wanted to work with him, and the contrast between the sunny Colman, who is brilliant, and the darker Barratt is very effective.
Part of Maurice's darkness is expressed in the children's books he writes, which concern the Grubbs, a family of goblins. Images of the Grubbs are used at intervals throughout the show. In order to make this convincing, Will Sharpe and Naomi De Pear, both producing a television show for the first time, needed to find an illustrator who knew what he was doing.
And so I make my way to a former printing factory in south London. Now an artist's studio, Swedish illustrator Staffan Gnosspelius has worked here for the last six years. Gnosspelius provides the illustrations of the Grubbs used in Flowers. "For me, Flowers is the Grubbs. And I really like the Grubbs. They got style," he says, before suggesting a spin-off series just about the goblin family.The Swede also makes children's books, and, like Maurice, whose publishers tell him his work is way too morose, he has struggled in a market that can be afraid of art that isn't shiny and bright. Gnosspelius's work is funny, but it is also unafraid of the dark.Sharpe and De Pear are with me in the studio. It's the first time Sharpe and Gnosspelius have met, even though they've been working together over email and phone for months. Sharpe says he can identify with the illustrator's need to do what comes naturally to him. "There was a period when I was pitching stuff, and it felt like I was trying to second-guess what was zeitgeisty and what might get made," he says. "Flowers is the result of trying to be un-cynical and to do what felt right. I can relate to the feeling of being fake."The result is a show like many that Sharpe admires—Transparent, Louie, Grandma's House are three he names—one that sits outside the parameters of genre and is not afraid to talk about emotions without always making a joke, while also being very funny. This is challenging work. It's brilliant work. It's the kind of work we don't see enough of on British television. It will make you laugh. It will break your heart. But it will make you feel, in the end, as though there is a way back from the depths to the surface.Flowers airs at 10PM on Channel 4.Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.