My favourite scene in the new Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells sitcom is one in which Mortimer marvels at Wells's ability to cry spontaneously and Wells explains how she triggers tears by imagining personally traumatic events. It's funny because Mortimer seems genuinely impressed by Wells's weeping abilities and Wells seems to be genuinely crying.
“There’s this unspoken thing about what it means to be a good actor, and it very often boils down to whether you can projectile cry on cue,” explains Mortimer.
“If you can do it then you’re an awesome actor, and if you can’t you must be really crap. And when you’re feeling bad about the whole business of acting, you think ‘Oh my God, if only I could cry more’.
“We thought there was something very funny about people desperately thinking of the saddest things they could think of – the death of their beloved fathers – in order to squeeze out the tear.”
“It’s competitive mourning,” adds Wells.
Doll and Em is a naturalistic, single-camera comedy featuring Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer as childhood friends Doll and Em. The latter, like Mortimer, is a very successful US-based actress. The former, less like Wells, is her personal assistant (Wells is, in real life, a comic actress who has starred in The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd and Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy ).
It's the latest in a wave of programmes featuring people portraying distorted versions of themselves on screen. You may have seen James Van Der Beek as a self-obsessed Van Der Beek in Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 , Larry David misanthroping along as himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm and a whole heap of celebrities gamely lampooning themselves in Ricky Gervais's sitcoms.
Or maybe you liked Michael Winterbottom's The Trip , in which Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan take a bantering and bickering roadtrip around Britain while pretending to be Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.
Using their real names
"We've gone back and forth on how sage an idea it was to use our actual names," says Mortimer. "It was what our director titled the first taster reel we made. It was a kind of experiment. At the time we didn't even know if it was going to be made, and we called each other Doll and Em because it was easier to use our own names when we were improvising [episode one is largely improvised, but the other episodes were scripted].
“We thought we’d be redoing it if it got made and that we’d change our names then, but in the end that became the first episode.”
What those other previously mentioned shows don’t have, however, are real life-long friendships to exploit.
“There’s so much shorthand in the way we interact with each other that you can’t fake,” says Mortimer. “I think people will be able to see that on the screen when they’re watching it. Hopefully that means when we start behaving so badly it’s really discomfiting for the audience and becomes more heartbreaking than it otherwise would have been.”
Wells and Mortimer do seem ridiculously comfortable in one another’s company. They talk over one another, laugh at one another’s jokes and finish one another’s sentences – even when it’s not entirely necessary.
“Working together could have been a terrible . . .” says Mortimer.
“Mistake?” finishes Wells.
“That’s the word,” says Mortimer.
Are they similar to the characters onscreen? “Only in that we are best friends from childhood,” says Mortimer.
“And we look the same,” says Wells.
Friends since four
They first met when they were four. “We were family friends,” says Wells (
their fathers are barrister and author John Mortimer and actor and satirist John Wells). "So it was like cousins meeting when we met. We went to different schools and universities but then, when we were 22, we became really good friends."
They had worked on joint writing projects in the past, but that was really about just spending time together, according to Wells. “Emily has been in America for quite a few years,” she says, “and we were taking any excuse to talk for hours on the phone or to visit one another.”
“After a while we were feeling almost embarrassed because we hadn’t come up with anything,” says Mortimer. “Then all it took was having this one very simple idea.”
“We were both really fascinated and amused at the idea of people having assistants,” says Wells. “And that very quickly turned into, ‘What would it be like to have your best friend as your assistant?’
“You’re completely equal in every other area of your life, apart from maybe your successes. You’ve known each other, gone through all sorts of things, and then, suddenly, you are your best friend’s boss. What would that be like?”
Stylistically Doll and Em was more influenced by cinema than sitcoms, but they liked how Winterbottom's The Trip could operate as both (that programme was aired as a six-part television programme in the UK, but it also got a single theatrical release in American cinemas).
"If Doll and Em succeeds," says Mortimer, "it will read like an indie movie, shot over six episodes with a complete narrative structure."
Were there any moments when real life and fictional life got confused? “There was one scene where we were having a row,” says Wells, “and because we were using our real names I did have a bad acting out-of-body moment where I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is so sad, imagine if we were really having a row like that’, so I got really sad as the real Doll watching the row and I started to cry.”
“It was an amazing acting moment,” says Mortimer, as impressed by Doll’s spontaneous tear-generation off screen as on. “She actually cried. We were kind of breaking up, and it was really heartbreaking. It felt really awful to say those words to each other but then the director thought crying was the wrong thing to do.”
“He was right,” says Wells.
“I don’t know,” says Mortimer wistfully. “I think it’s always cool to cry.”
Doll and Em airs on Tuesday at 10pm on Sky Living