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Britain’s most hilarious woman

Text by Paul Flynn
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Styling by Jane How
Issue n° 2, Autumn & Winter 2010

The comedy of Julia Davis inspires fandom bordering on the obsessive. Her most famous work, the BBC television series Nighty Night, revelled in unflinching cruelty, its dark subject matter consistently nailing things that shouldn’t be laughed about. It was knowingly shocking, especially coming from a woman.

Julia occupies a precarious position in British comedy: admired by her peers, loved by her audience, but often denied a public platform, apparently because networks are too scared of her work. It is a situation that says much about Julia’s fearlessness, her originality, and the state of comedy today.

On 21 March, the BBC aired the pilot episode of a maniacal new comedy-drama, Lizzie and Sarah, written by and starring the British comedy star Julia Davis. Lizzie and Sarah is the tale of two beleaguered housewives exacting revenge on their hideous husbands. Like much of Davis’s work, it was delivered as a gloriously unapologetic, dryly humorous cacophony of those vile thoughts that exist in a mostly undisclosed corner of human nature. “Most things I do come from something that makes me angry,” she says. Davis’s skill, if it can be condensed as such, is to extract the laughter from the grotesque.

The pilot ends in mass murder, with the housewives on a shooting spree across sleepy suburbia. Again, as with much of Davis’s work, a quick viral spread of internet fan worship went into overload. Yet after the BBC aired the pilot, it was like a balloon deflating, quite as if the BBC had forgotten Lizzie and Sarah ever existed. It disappeared into the ether. The full series was never commissioned.

It is impossible to judge what happened to the show. Davis herself is none the wiser, having never recieved a courtesy call to explain why it was not optioned. Current popular theory around the BBC says that the institution is running scared of spiky content due to the recent change of British government from the moderate left to a radicalising right wing. Another theory has it that after a silly interlude between two presenters on a BBC radio show exchanging lewd schoolboy chatter on air became a national scandal in 2008, a rigorous new set of compliance rules has crippled comedy creativity. Perhaps the bodies responsible for commissioning new comedy at the BBC simply did not like the pilot. Or perhaps there is something deeper going on here. It was, after all, astonishingly only three years ago that an issue of Vanity Fair magazine arrived on newsstands with the cover line ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. The BBC is hardly celebrated for its trail-blazing plethora of major female comedy stars at the moment.

Who knows? Not Davis. “Oh, I have to be really careful about what I say. I think that what there is, is just a different... Oh, God how do I say this?” It is clearly a conundrum the actress could do without. On the scant evidence of two hours’ conversation, Julia Davis is almost as maddeningly cautious in life as she is unhinged on screen. We meet at Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street in London; Julia has eaten a plate of scrambled eggs on toast when I arrive.

“There is a lot of fear going on at the BBC and generally in TV, actually,” she says. “And I’m not sure why.” When I got Nighty Night commissioned, people in charge at that point were very open-minded about having quite radical people writing for British TV.”

Davis’s self-written masterpiece Nighty Night launched in 2003, winning her widespread acclaim for its depraved comic brilliance. “But the game has utterly changed. Now they ask you to film a bit, show us a bit, do this, do that. Then they ask you to fit a certain demographic... Is it old enough? Is it BBC Two enough? Or BBC Three or BBC One? I imagine it’s a little bit like making an album and then someone interrupts and says...”

Everyone’s buying Lady Gaga records now so can you make one a bit like hers?

“Yes. It’s a weird process. We got the pilot and that was the end of it. It’s not been talked about since.”

Recently Julia Davis has found herself looking at the British TV schedules for the first time in her professional life. “Just to see what’s being made. And there is literally nothing on.” She quite likes America’s Next Top Model. Doesn’t everyone?

Julia was photographed on a lovely summer afternoon on the terrace of a nautical art deco villa in the Forest Hill district of southeast London, enjoying the area’s panoramic vistas. Here, Julia is wearing a black georgette and wool top by YVES SAINT LAURENT. In the opening image, Julia wears a navy silk crêpe shirt with black collar and epaulettes by CÉLINE and black wool wide-leg trousers by MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA.

For over a decade now, Julia Davis has operated in the strange professional chasm between cult phenomenon and mainstream darling. A deeply disturbing work, Lizzie and Sarah probably would not have represented her tipping point toward becoming a household name, had it made it to a full series commission. But Davis can content herself with holding a special place in a special part of the British psyche. Her comedy career has always teetered on the brink of some astral shift that would position her right at the centre of the modern idea of British humour.

It is a humour that the Americans, in particular, currently appear to be especially invested in. British names like Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, Sacha Baron Cohen and the Little Britain duo of Matt Lucas and David Walliams have all achieved billboard stature in the US. They are deemed to have the individual commercial clout to launch movies. Brand and Baron Cohen have both been Rolling Stone cover stars. Gervais presented this year’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony.

Somehow that thing that has happened to the British male comedy stars of the decade – that sprint from an imaginative, anarchic showcase on a terrestrial British TV channel to the peculiar professional high of Hollywood – has not happened to their female peers. When she talks about her old workmate and supporter Simon Pegg, she says, “He is here,” reaching her right hand up to the sky, “and I am there,” resting her left hand on the table. Given the dextrous nature of Davis’s raw talent, it seems odd. “I mean, of course I should be living Ricky Gervais’s life now.”

Do you think you have to want to become that famous in order for it to happen?

“Yes, I think you probably do.”

There remains some confusion and complication in her professional story as to whether Julia Davis does want that. She is a shy person and openly says so. When she talks of the person she would most like to see her work, it is not a fêted Hollywood producer but the deeply idiosyncratic Spanish auteur Pedro Almódovar. “Then I could learn Spanish and star in one of his films.”

To the untutored eye, and certainly to fans, Davis’s position in British comedy culture is perhaps a preferable career model to that of her male peers. Of the brace of them who have taken America, only Sacha Baron Cohen appears to be doing it entirely on his own terms, and even then, who knows the headache involved in negotiating that amount of success? To give a musical analogy, the question of success in the creative realms was set in a new template in the ’80s. Is it better to be U2 or the Smiths?

Julia Davis is very much the aspiring comedy Morrissey to Brand, Gervais and Baron Cohen’s steel-plated Bono. She has a personal fragility that does not suggest blockbusters and billboards. In another time and place, you could quite imagine Davis’s most iconic character, the modern grotesque Jill Tyrell, star of Nighty Night, being culled from a black-and-white TV still for a Smiths 7" single sleeve.* When fans traipse around her shouting “Hiya Cath” in the manner of Jill Tyrell, it is similar to the way entrenched Smiths fans would once quote Morrissey’s lyrics at the singer. To be loved in minute detail seems less vulgar when one contemplates the excesses and boredoms engendered by the frequent exposure of mass appeal.

Julia, who doesn’t ordinarily smoke, is wearing a gorgeous black wool coat over a grey cashmere jumper dress, both by STELLA McCARTNEY. The black satin court shoes with ruched black leather detail are by GIUSEPPE ZANOTTI.

For the creative themselves, all this ‘cult’ business is a different matter entirely. It is at this rocky professional moment that we encounter Julia Davis in 2010, at 43 (“Sadly. Feel free to put much younger.”) She has never had a stage age. “To be honest, I’m amazed by how many people do. I can’t believe no one ever suggested it to me at the start.” I ask if I would be surprised by her gross taxable income for the last year and she responds, “You’d be fucking surprised by the lack of it. Yeah. I think you would. Actually, I can tell you hand on heart. You would be fucking surprised.”

In 2000 Julia starred in a portmanteau series called Human Remains with the Welsh comedian Rob Brydon. Her first writing and broadcast vehicle explored the periphery of where Davis’s humour could go. The immediate impact was that of a star being born, a star who might annihilate the repression and grubbiness bubbling underneath the veneer of suburbia. Davis and Brydon felt in charge of something effortlessly new, creating a low-wattage, high-gossip hit that proved to be a surprise international export. “It’s really popular in those cold territories where people kill themselves,” she says, explaining that she occasionally gets repeat-fee cheques from unusual countries.

Two BBC commissioners suggested Davis should write by herself and she scripted a pilot for Nighty Night alone. “I went in with it. They said, ‘But is it funny?’ I did an impression of Jill Tyrell for them and they said, ‘Yeah, OK, off you go then.’ And that was the commissioning process. Bang.”

Davis’s strand of funny is demented, lunatic and unhinged, one that repeatedly kicks at the shins of received suburban manners. She often deals in the tricky currency of female cruelty and appears to have identified a new microcosm of the British class system somewhere between working and middle that is in a permanent argument with itself about why life looks the way it does: artless, put-upon, getting by, with a blind concentration on sex as a vacuous act of blind revenge.

Julia’s character Jill Tyrell embodied it all. There is a look that Davis can do with her eyes to camera that explores an individually unique form of mental illness – somewhere between absolute ennui and absolute hatred. It is astonishing. Her writing affords the compliment ‘twisted’ a brand new subdivision. Jill Tyrell’s key agenda in Nighty Night involved pretending her husband had died of cancer and turning knife-edge humour out of it, while terrorising her neighbours, one wheelchair-bound, and the local church folk.

I deliberately missed the first flurry of the British Nighty Night cult on account of having been diagnosed with bladder cancer six months before it aired. Julia Davis looks ashen at this.

“Oh, no. Oh my God. Oh, Jesus. Poor you. You were OK?”

Just because her written humour is 20 different shades of bolshy and her acting technique hovers around the extreme edges of lunacy doesn’t mean you can expect her to be that way in real life. “I’ve often asked myself, ‘If I was diagnosed with cancer would I be able to sit down and watch this?’” She looks genuinely mortified at the idea. “I don’t know.” She pulls an expression that says ‘eek’ before remembering a recent celebrity addition to the Nighty Night fan base. “I know that Kylie Minogue, for example, said she really liked it and she actually watched it while she was going through breast cancer treatment. I mean, my God. Fuck. I really don’t think you can imagine what kind of an effect anything you write is going to have on people. You know? I’m going to write this thing about this woman who is so awful and selfish that when her husband is diagnosed with cancer all she thinks about is herself. That’s it. I don’t think: ‘Well, how’s that going to be for someone who has it?’”

Julia is wearing an oversize cable-knit jumper by PRADA.

Good. Nighty Night has become a modern comedy master class. It has acquired the status of a vintage champagne. For years after it first aired, Julia could not go to a restaurant without someone making a quip about settling the bill now, “because it’ll only get nasty later”, as Jill does repeatedly. “I always feel like Jill when I order a cappuccino,” she says, while ordering a cappuccino. Only the other week, a gay fan in the stairwell of the department store Liberty stopped her to shout, “Hiya, Cath!” in Tyrell’s deep West Country accent. She stopped to chat. “He was really nice. Why wouldn’t I?”

These are moments Davis likes. Essentially, she says, “doing stuff behind characters makes sense to me.” She thinks that writing fiction is an instinct and finds fame perplexing. She says that recognition of her is reasonably low and that she doesn’t feel relaxed having her photograph taken. I ask if this lack of comfort is because she has a fear of looking beautiful. She says quite the opposite, that “it’s the fear of looking awful. Because I play really awful, horrible people, part of me wants to look nice at some point. You want to say: ‘But I can look nice, honestly.’ It’s more the fear that you don’t but that you’re trying to look beautiful.”

Though she has been with her partner* (himself a comedian who has ridden his BBC franchise, The Mighty Boosh, into clever commercial merchandise overload) for over ten years, they have never married. They have two children, twin boys, Walter and Arthur, three. She says she doesn’t know if she’d want to get married. “I’m not sure about the whole marriage thing. That’s a whole other story. Generally I’m such a contradiction. I never was one of those girls who said all they ever dreamt about was their wedding dress. But I am quite romantic. So I’m not against marriage. Everything I have done has not been part of any big plan. I don’t really know the answer to that question.”

Just after giving birth, Davis was cast as a minor character in one of the defining popular comedy shows of the BBC decade, the coy modern romance Gavin and Stacey. It made a major mainstream star of one of its two male leads, James Corden.

Julia Davis says she doesn’t mind being cast in supporting roles. “To be honest, Gavin and Stacey came at a time that was really good for me. I’d just had twins and it was nice for me not to have that huge pressure. It was all friends. If I was always, forevermore, not going to be the star of anything, never, ever, then I might be annoyed.”

Pop psychology says she may have subconsciously beat her own professional retreat after motherhood happened at the age of 40. “I do think, post-having children, ‘Was I ambivalent about work in some way?’ Something like that has definitely gone on. Part of me thinks, ‘In three years I haven’t really done any major things.’” This is nonsense; she has done three seasons of the most successful British comedy show of the last decade, been cast in the best British film of the year and fashioned a six-part series that has fallen inexplicably foul of the new caution at the BBC.

Here, Julia's in a black georgette and wool top by YVES SAINT LAURENT.

Julia is currently learning lines from a script for a season of humorous contemporary adaptations of the work of Chekhov that she will soon film for a marginal culture channel, Sky Arts. She will appear in The Bear.

Is there still a market for Chekhov?

“I hope so.”

She never harboured any secret fantasy of being an actress as a child. “I was always meant to be a teacher,” she says, surprisingly.

Meant to be? What does that mean?

“I can’t remember whether my parents wanted me to or I thought that I wanted to, but I just used to go on and on about it. ‘I’m going to be a teacher.’ Then I started a course and I absolutely hated it. I was in a school, on a postgraduate-type thing, thinking: ‘But I hated school. What am I doing back here? I cannot control these kids. I don’t relate to the other women who are doing this.’ It was just awful.”

Her own experience of school sounds hideous. “It wasn’t my favourite place. I was negotiating for most of that time, being a really awkward teenager turning into a slightly less awkward teenager. I was quite goody-goody about doing my work and trying to do well. I was very insecure, really lacking in confidence. Hated big groups of people. I didn’t get bullied and managed to get away with that and negotiate my way through everything.” She pauses to think about the word ‘negotiated’. “That says it all. I definitely didn’t love being there. I didn’t have any friends in school. I think it just took me absolutely ages to find a way of being.” She says that things became OK “when I got to about 16 and started dyeing my hair and taking drugs”. Altering her state. I’ve rarely heard a more compelling, if troubling, predisposition toward the art of acting.

Was this the thing you were supposed to do?

“I do have guilt that I’m not doing something more to help society. I know that sounds quite weird, but if people say, ‘Your show really cheered me up,’ then I do think, ‘Good, I’m doing something right then.’ It feels right. When I got to London after having done loads of really horrible jobs that I hated, I did some work with Chris Morris.” She had a recent supporting role in the controversial satirist’s brilliant film Four Lions, in which he managed the previously unimaginable triumph of turning gently heartbreaking humour out of terrorism. “He said, ‘Can you pretend to do the voice of a fat person who’s got the flu?’ I could. I just thought, ‘This is what I should be doing.’ It felt like my weirdness fitted into some kind of thing.”