The second series of This Way Up on Channel 4 really wasn’t meant to go this way. But then none of us expected a pandemic. In the aftermath of the first series, which documents the relationship between two sisters, Aine (Aisling Bea), and Shona (Sharon Horgan) as the former emerges from treatment following an intentionally vague collapse in her mental health, Bea won a Bafta for Breakthrough Talent. The series was tender, loaded with humanity and a realism that was both simultaneously pierced and bolstered by Bea’s hilarious and vulnerable writing.
There was a sense at the time that the Kildare woman, known for her graft as much as her craft, was working flat out. She had starred in the Netflix series, Living With Yourself alongside Paul Rudd, a big break. She came back to Ireland to work on Amy Huberman’s Finding Joy. She had a short Netflix stand-up comedy special. She was in ITV’s Quiz, Nick Hornby’s State of the Union, and the feature film Love Wedding Repeat.
She was writing, acting, doing stand-up gigs, and a guest on panel shows and podcasts. It was all go.
But it was her authorship of This Way Up – the writing of it, working as executive producer, and how she embodied the lead role – along with the pitch-perfect dynamic with her co-star and friend Horgan that changed things. After being an actor who does stand-up, and a stand-up who is a fine comedic actor, she was now seen as a contemporary Irish voice flying at comedy and screenwriting alongside Horgan and Derry Girls' Lisa McGee.
When that first series came out in August of 2019, Bea ended up doing press for it until December of that year. It was recommissioned for a second series in November 2019, and here we are. Well, not quite.
To prepare for the interview, Channel 4 send the first three episodes to watch, half of the series. They are, unequivocally, brilliant. It’s ironic that the show was made with such monumental constraints, because it feels more expansive, spreading out into the lives and emotional interiors of other characters.
At the outset of our conversation, I tell Bea, honestly, that it's the best television I've watched in some time. She bursts into tears. "Sorry. Sorry. It was so hard to make. You're the first person who's a journalist who has watched them, so, I'm still editing, I'm still trying to finish editing, so that's really nice to hear. Sorry."
Her outpouring of emotion is pronounced, and the interview slips out of its artificial mode. I ask her if she's okay. "It's genuinely so cathartic to start hearing that." She wipes the tears away, but before our time is out, there are a few more at different points.
It's very obvious that Bea has gone through an incredible slog. Everyone carries their professional traumas from the past year. For many in the arts, working in the real world became impossible, but when you had to keep doing it, as Bea did, it's must have been like wading through concrete.
Some people, Bea thinks, have the temperament to be a writer all the time. But in her world, she finds it hard not to be able to show people stuff as she goes along. Stand-up allows for this. The one thing she told herself and others going into writing the second series is that she didn’t want to go it alone.
“I didn’t want to be alone writing because it nearly killed me the last time around. They were all like ‘oh yeah’, and then lockdown. So it couldn’t have been more the opposite of the way I wanted to work. It’s definitely come at a cost of my mental health and stuff like that.”
When Bea was shooting a new Home Alone film in Canada last year – a job that was meant to be a few days long, but with the pandemic ended up stretching over a month – she was chatting to Jordan Carlos, a New York stand-up also in the film, “This is not his quote, but he said: if series one is the war, series two is peace. Whether you won the war or lost the war, how does that look?”
This perspective, of what recovery looks like for Aine, also bled into writing characters in relationships and how to authentically represent them on screen. “So much of romance, what we get at the end of movies, is clearly a toxic relationship that was based on chaos.”
And stalking. “Yeah, and stalking. Not a healthy basis of: do they communicate well? Are they nice? Do they go to the shop for you? Not just will they know you’re the person because they ran away and are about to leave the country and you ran through an airport. You know? They should have known before that.”
Bea finds it almost impossible to separate the experience of the pandemic, and of lockdown, from the experience of making the series, “My lockdown won’t end until it airs I think . . . We were just on set suddenly, in masks, no one touching each other, making the show, hoping it sounded okay out loud, or that the cuts I’d made worked. That’s so not creative. I hope I made something good, but like, it was definitely a personal cost.
“But if you have to write your book,” she says of commitment to a project, “it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a good time, as long as the book’s good. That’s ultimately, with artists and writers and stuff, always the handshake you’ll make with the devil. You’ll never go ‘oh, will I be happy and the thing be average? Oh, no thanks!’ You’ll always take your ego at any cost.”
She’s also not yet sure what new qualities lockdown brought, as our personalities all morphed throughout the year and a half. “I don’t know what lockdown has done, but making the show definitely left me a lot harder, with edges I don’t totally love. I think I’m very interested often in the idea of reacting versus responding. That was something I learned through therapy, the idea of reacting to things when you’re supposed to respond, not react . . . I think everybody could do that up until about September. And then everybody is just reacting, because we’re all in THIS.
“If you drip something on someone’s head, it’s probably going to be more oppressive than knocking someone in the head and over. I think that’s what this [pandemic] has felt like, slow drips, and we’re not even realising. I find taxi drivers snap more. I’m snapping more. We’re all just snapping.”
What the lockdown did allow for was Bea to be at home in London for the longest stretch in around three years. She was able to meet friends in the park, and feel settled. In many ways, she says, she was living something of an isolated and locked down life before the pandemic began, shunted in and out of trailers on sets, stuck in airplanes, going from one project to the next.
“There are honestly, no good things to come out of the pandemic, but if we’re scraping the barrel, I think maybe it’ll give people more of an understanding about what mental health issues are. Because people go ‘oh, that? I did have a bit of that.’”
A week previously, she was having a pedicure and the pedicurist said (as Bea puts on a flawless Welsh accent to do her justice), “‘you know I did actually suffer a bit from anxiety. I did actually. I would never have had anything like that before, but I did find it tough.’ I thought, oh, that’s interesting, it was people’s first time ... Lockdown is what it’s like to have depression and Covid in the air is this reason you can’t go out but you can’t see it. So people go: oh, that’s what it feels like.”
The fragility of mental health underscores This Way Up. The unseen triggers. The confusing slips when everything seems “fine”. The hyperness of happiness and the cascading darkness that can seep in unannounced. The lightness for Bea personally, has recently come from a rediscovered passion for stand-up. When the stakes lowered, she found a point of entry again.
“I fell in love with stand-up again last summer when we could start it up. I’m starting gigging again next week. And it’s the first time in years I’ve felt actually excited to do it, not like ‘yeah, hi Una, I’m really excited about the shows coming up,’ like I’m actually looking forward to going out the door. I got that back during the summer. I think it was something to do with always feeling like, if my work is my children, always feeling like you haven’t been a good enough mother, or that you were doing one thing at the cost of another.”
There’s also a levelling of the playing field in stand-up culture that the absence of live performance has created, “there’s something about us all starting back at the same time. Sometimes you’re on a bill and it’s like ‘oh god, it looks like they’ve been gigging every week and I’m only doing one at the moment’, or ‘I haven’t gigged in a month, I’m going to be a bit shite, and people expect a lot.’ Whereas actually, no one had been out of the house. The expectation was so low, which is my favourite level of expectation! Hate it high! Keep it low!”
Last September, she did a gig with Sara Pascoe and Kiri Pritchard-McLean, “the three of us had a f*cking ball. I put together a new set in only five weeks – and sometimes it can take me ages – because I loved gigging and finding an audience again.”
She also enjoyed the reduced pressure of doing stand-up during the pandemic.
"No one is going to come [to a gig] and go: 'oh, we should turn that into a Netflix special!' The gigs are not 'career', it's creative. Because if they did you're like, 'well, it's too late, they've done another lockdown, so can't do it!' It's a little bit like hiding from the big bosses."
Bea has found a level of fame and success, but it has come with a sense of pressure that isn’t exactly pleasant. “I think the stakes should be low for creativity. Because as soon as you bring in wage packets and pre-production, and all that kind of stuff, and paying your bills, it dampens where creativity comes from, which is a very childish place. And unfortunately, to make a living out of it, you have to match childish with deadlines . . . you’ve to get scripts in on time. All the big girl stuff.
“But that inevitably ruins the feeling [of childish creativity]. So when you’re allowed just go and like do gigs with Sara, and no one was coming to try and turn it into something that would make any more money than the two hundred quid for the night. Woohoo! That’ll barely cover anything! My Ubers for the week! That feels lovely.”
The pressure from bigger productions is “awful”, Bea says. “‘We’ve hired the people and the team and availabilities, and also there’s an airborne virus so if we don’t get it done in the week then the numbers are up and people could just die.’ Oh great, so I’ll just do the rewrite tonight then, will I? Aagghhh! That’s what it felt like for a lot of it.”
Let me point a gun at someone like, 'that's easy for you to say, GO! Bang bang bang.' Cinemas, widely released, you barely have to do press.
Before we wrap up, I ask her whether there’s a dream project idea that she’d love to get off the ground, expecting to hear about some film she’s starting to sketch out, or another television show.
“I’d love a big f*cking easy famous job,” she says, “Some kind of like ‘quick, we have to get all of the megablasters out of the transformer!’” It’s a surprising answer, but you get the feeling she’s only half-joking, given the level of commitment, effort, and exhaustion her own show demands and causes.
“The work I put into my show, and the viewing figures are good, but like, you know, you’re still like . . . ” she mimics talking to an apathetic journalist, ‘And it’s This Way Up’, ‘oh, like the side of a box?’ ‘Yeah, This Way Up. It’s on Channel 4, on demand, and Australia . . .’, you know all that? I’d love a big, easy aul job that you’re not going to bring it home with you and think too much, about finding the crystal in the maze, or ‘Well, we’ve got a few things for you to look at, James, this one is a pen that’s also a dagger.’”
So, breeding raptors?
Yeah. Something like chasing a thing. I know that’s not the artsy answer, but I’ve got arty projects coming out of my arsehole. Because of the show I get approached a lot about ‘grittier but with comedy’ things. Let me point a gun at someone like, ‘that’s easy for you to say, GO! Bang bang bang.’ Cinemas, widely released, you barely have to do press.”
She talks about how so many more people now know the claustrophobia of not being able to escape your work, when you work from home. "When a lot of your work is here," she says, pointing to her head, "you can't leave. That's what I feel about the show. My work from home is just there all the time." She takes a pause, "So can you target this [article] at like, lads who do Marvel movies?"
“Yeah, like Wolverine’s sister. Something like that. Does he have a sister?” The plan hits a speed-bump in real time, “You probably have to watch them to be in them,” she thinks aloud. I say I don’t necessarily think so.
“I’m saying this so you’ll write it in. Say what a big fan I am of them, but I’ve never watched them. But absolutely: big fan.”
The funny thing is, Bea is not that far removed from the pre-sold franchise Goliaths of the comic-book-movieverse. “Kumail Nanjiani is one of my pals, and he’s all of stand-up [comedians’] ‘G’wan Kumail!’ He was suddenly in a Marvel thing. He’s a good-looking man, has always been... Then Marvel stepped in with some cash and got him ripped. He’s now one of the most handsome men in the world. He’s ripped. And loads of stand-ups were like ‘ahhhhh! That could be us!’
“If someone would just pay to have your fish delivered at one and six every day. Someone training you for money for six months. That’s what happened with Paul [Rudd] with Ant-Man. Paul did normal enough comedies, brilliant comedies. But then someone stepped in and gave him chicken three times a day and then he got ripped. He bloody loved it.”
She’s on a roll now in the full Marvel- training fantasy. “Bee-Woman? I don’t know. Something where people just take all the responsibility out of you and tell you what to eat, and you have to do something physically hard for ages that’s not existentially draining.”
Sounds like a plan, I say.
“Yes,” she says, “Whatever that is.”
- This Way Up airs on Channel 4 at 10pm on July 14th.
(Main photograph: Joseph Sinclair; styling: Holly Elgeti; make-up: Justine Jenkins; hair: Narad Kutowaroo)