An Interview with Julia Davis, the Weird Queen of British Comedy
She's been in most of the best British sitcoms of the last 20 years, and she's wrote some of them, too. We met her to talk about whether anything is off-limits.
Photography by Christopher Bethell
Certain words come up when you talk about the kinds of comedy Julia Davis stars in, or writes, or sometimes both: goth-diary words like dark, twisted, macabre. She has jokes that involve illness and funerals and rape. Her characters murder their husbands, or abuse their wives, or sometimes, when they're sweetly in love, have to knock through a wall of their coma-stricken sister's hospital room to make their amateur sex dungeon bigger ("It's what she would have wanted").
Pleasingly, obviously, Davis is nothing like most of her characters. "I sometimes meet certain kinds of men who think I'm really scary, because of the stuff I do, and they don't realize that I'm not, and wouldn't be," she says. She speaks quietly but firmly. "It's a reaction to all those things. They're just extreme versions of things I'm annoyed or outraged about, in some way."
In person, Davis is pensive and slightly shy, and worries a lot about how she's going to be perceived. She thinks about each of her answers for a while before she delivers them. She's got a natural warmth that is at odds with the awkwardness people must experience if they're spending a lot of time talking about themselves, when they clearly hate talking about themselves. She's slightly hoarse from a long day of promotion for her latest sitcom, Camping. She says she's not that into interviews. Until recently, she had spoken about herself rarely. She says that knowing a conversation is being recorded makes her incredibly self-conscious and makes her second-guess her answers, and she claims not to have much insight into where her ideas come from, anyway.
"I over-worry that I'm going to be quite boring," explains the woman who opened her most famous sitcom with a funny cancer diagnosis. "Or, I worry that I'll just go the other way and say terrible things," she admits, which is a bit more like it.
There are few people in British comedy with the kind of reputation that Davis commands. She's appeared in most of the greatest sitcoms of the last two decades, and she has written some of them, too. Her work is so distinctive that you could know it came from her mind within five minutes of watching it. She grew up in Bath, singing in various folk acts as a teenager. After much squirming, she finally admits that her first band was called the Hand-Knitted Air Rifles. "Terrible. I can't even bear it." She cut her teeth in TV comedy on the sketch show Big Train in 1998; then in 2000, she was part of Chris Morris's Jam. The IMDB listing for her Jam characters gives you an idea of the sort of roles she played: Welsh Woman, Hester Twunt, Owner of a Dead Dog...
In the same year, she co-wrote Human Remains with Rob Brydon. It doesn't quite get the recognition it deserves, but it still stands as one of Britain's most unusual and innovative comedies (Davis says her dad took her to see Pinter plays when she was a kid; in this, you can tell). Each episode follows one new couple, improvised by Brydon and Davis, who variously repulse and despise each other, hide terrible secrets, and do a sexy wedding dance to R. Kelly's "Bump & Grind."
Davis specializes in showing outrageous behavior, but seems to have a particular skill in writing couples who are desperately unhappy. There's a scene in one episode of Human Remains, called "All Over My Glasses," in which Brydon's character throws a curry in the face of his fiancée. I ask her what it is that she finds so intriguing about couples who don't seem to like each other. She thinks for a bit. "I think they're quite common," she says. "I see it all the time. Obviously loads of people have lovely relationships, but often people are together, and they just sort of carry on in these strange worlds, and they'll carry on forever."
She says she's particularly fascinated when one half of a couple berates the other in public, in restaurants, for example. "When I see it, I almost want to go over and say, why are you being so horrible? It's as if some grim pact has been made, some unspoken thing."
In 2004, she wrote and starred in Nighty Night for BBC3, taking some of Human Remains' more grisly aspects and turning up the grotesqueness. Its lead, Jill Tyrell, is a sociopathic hairdresser from the west country with a sideline in malaproprisms and an obsessive love for her married neighbor, Don. Though it lasted just two series, its afterlife has been long, and its fans are rabid. There are Instagram accounts dedicated to posting gifs and clips. Recently, there was a club night held in its honor, which Davis was tempted to turn up to in character. Fans can quote tons of dialogue at each other, or more simply, just revert to Jill's favorite greeting: "Hiya Cath!" How many times does she get that a week? "Not often," she says, "but it's very nice."
Davis is aware that the show has a queer following, and says can't quite pinpoint why, but she mentions that the initial reaction to the show was mixed, and that still seems to bother her, even now. "A lot of straight men really didn't like it. I mean, really angrily didn't like it," she recalls. "I don't normally look stuff up online because I don't want to read anything horrible about myself, but then someone had sent me a thing... I have asthma, and Ruth Jones [who played best friend Linda in the series] has asthma, and there are jokes about asthma. And there was a thing that was like, I hope she dies of an asthma attack!" She looks pained. "God. Real anger about it." She thinks the reception might have been particularly vicious because a good part of the first series is about cancer, and dealing with cancer. "I think people think you're mocking illness," she reasons. "But apparently Kylie really liked it, and she was going through cancer treatment, so you just think, Good, I'm glad."
Davis didn't like the second series of Nighty Night as much as the first. "It's OK," she says now. "I think some of it's funny. But you get a bit more money, you move location, and you think, I mustn't bore people, I need to do something else. And I just feel now that it was too ridiculous."
She sounds like the kind of person who's very hard on herself. "I really hate doing something that I don't think is as good as it should be," she replies, steadily.
Davis has spoken about her anxiety in the past, and says that in some ways, constant worry is helpful because it makes her work, but in other ways, it's crippling. "It obviously has a bad impact on other parts of my life. Or when you make something, you're always worrying: Is it good, is it going to work, are people going to like it? It's easier when it's not your own thing that you've written."
In fact, she admits, it was never supposed to be this way at all: Initially, she wrote her own characters to get her acting career started. "With Human Remains, I thought, Oh, I'll just write that and then hopefully I'll get offered a load of really interesting acting work. But that didn't really happen."
But you were in Love Actually... "Exactly," she laughs. "I was in this Dogme film called Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself , by Lone Sherfig, who did An Education. I thought, This is great, I'll do all these interesting Danish films... and that was it. I think I was very lucky at the start of my career with all the acting jobs I got. Since then, I've enjoyed writing, though I hate it as well."
Davis has made her last two series—the linguistically agile, incest-heavy period comedy Hunderby, and now Camping, about a group of friends celebrating a birthday on a tightly controlled, organized-fun trip—for Sky Atlantic, which, you suspect, affords her a bit more freedom to say and do what she wants to. It's difficult to imagine Nighty Night, with its jokes around disability and suicide, getting commissioned by the BBC in today's political climate, where it seems as afraid of boundary-pushing comedy as it is of displaying a left-wing bias.
Davis's resumé is full of shows that were outrageous and funny then, and remain shocking today. It's sad to realize that if they were written now, there might not be a place for them. "All that stuff, like Jam, Big Train, Brass Eye—Big Train wasn't as anarchic, maybe, but all of Chris Morris's stuff from that period was... I thought, Great, this is what it is," Davis says, though adds that she's not up enough on current comedy to know whether that anarchic spirit has gone away or not, or why.
She mostly watches Would I Lie To You ("hilarious") and the E! channel ("I find some of Keeping Up with the Kardashians slightly boring, though—I wish more happened"). She had a lot of love for Doll & Em, the quiet, underrated and under-seen Sky Living comedy about a pair of friends. "I watch it, and I think, Oh, I wish I could do something like that. It's trusting that very small things are interesting and funny to watch. I think it captured something about women in a brilliant way," she says.
In 2010, with Jessica Hynes, Davis made a pilot for the BBC called Lizzie & Sarah. The BBC buried it in a graveyard slot and did no publicity around its transmission. Would it have been treated this way had the pair been two male comedians of the same experience and caliber? Who can say. But Lizzie & Sarah was incredibly strange, and sunk its teeth into the heart of suburbia, and particularly women's lives. The two leads were middle-class housewives whose husbands treat them with unimaginable cruelty; eventually, they find a gun and wreak bloody revenge on everyone who's crossed them. Comedically, of course. You can watch it online, and you should: It's brilliant.
Davis was disappointed that it didn't get a full series. "I do really think we could have done something with that. We had all these characters we were going to do to link it together, and I liked working with Jessica because she brought such a different energy to it. Had I written Lizzie & Sarah on my own, they would have been victims through the whole episode, and she brought in the idea of the guns and the revenge. It was a real shame. But I remember meeting this guy who said he liked it, but he said, 'It's basically a study in domestic violence, isn't it?' I thought, Oh God, maybe it is."
There's a scene in which one character buys his wife, for her birthday, a one-way bus ticket to Iran, for a boob job. In another, he holds a pillow over her face while they're having perfunctory sex. "I can see why, sort of, it didn't get picked up. For a lot of people, it was too bleak," she laughs.
Even at its darkest, her comedy is tempered with a physical silliness. Nighty Night is as daft as it is grotesque; for every scene in which people kill themselves because of a bad haircut, there's a dinner party involving a meal called "prawns in a milky basket." People fall over and get stuck in saran wrap. But even this inherent ridiculousness might come from a place of fretting, of concern. "If I'm writing, I constantly worry: Is it funny, is it funny enough, is it working? So for that reason, possibly, I go to extremes or throw in stupid things," Davis says.
Often in Davis's work, there's a sense that nothing is too much. "My thing is, if it's making me laugh, it's funny, and if it's not, it's not." She talks about a now notorious scene from Jam. "There was a sketch I was in, before I had children, with me and David Cann playing these parents whose child had gone missing, and we couldn't be bothered to go and identify him. I still find that funny," she says, the implication being that now she has kids [she has twin boys with Julian Barrett], she's no longer supposed to.
"Because it's such a shocking idea. It's confronting a terrible fear that you have with children, and that's what I think Chris [Morris] was doing. People could write something that tries to be shocking and sick, and I probably wouldn't find that funny at all. It's in the way it's done, in the context and the tone."
We Davis fans wait years for a new show to come along, then three arrive at once. The second series of Hunderby aired earlier this year; she's got an imminent new sitcom for Channel 4 about daytime TV called Morning Is Broken, and now there's Camping. I wonder if it's a prolific burst of creativity, but she says it's just that they're all coming out at once, and that writing always takes her ages. "Apart from a thing I did for Radio 4 recently, which was completely improvised, with Marc Wootton and Vicki Pepperdine. We turned up, did three hours of improvising, and that was it, she says. "Dream job."
Pepperdine is also in Camping, playing Fiona, a brittle, uptight woman who spends most of her time being awful to her long-suffering husband Robin (the League of Gentleman's Steve Pemberton). She's really, really horrible, I say. Davis looks surprised. "That's what other people have said," she says, as if I've misunderstood. Then she looks amused. "No, I know," she smiles. "That shows I've got something wrong with me."
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