Plan Bea: Aisling Bea on searching for laughter in sad places

Aisling Bea in This Way Up. Photograph: Adam Lawrence/Channel 4
AISLING BEA’S FIZZY WIT HAS SEEN HER PROFILE EXPLODE IN RECENT YEARS. BUT THE PERVADING THEME OF THIS WAY UP, THE COMEDIAN’S MOVING NEW TV SERIES, IS LONELINESS, AND ‘THE DAILYNESS OF GETTING BETTER’

Sitting in the Soho House members’ club in London, Aisling Bea has cornflower-blue nails and gold Claddagh jewellery. She is joshing with the waiting staff, still decompressing after a viewing of her new show at the British Film Institute, ahead of the first episode’s airing on Channel 4, next Thursday.

This Way Up opens with her character, Áine, leaving a facility after having had a breakdown. The pervading theme of the show is loneliness, and “the dailyness of getting better”, as Bea puts it. Within that incline are humour and lightheartedness and also extraordinarily moving moments, particularly in that first episode, when Áine suddenly breaks down, alone, in her sister’s bathroom.

There’s something about this show… I think a little bit of it slowly came about as a slight response to the people and stories that came in after I wrote that article about my dad

Two years ago Bea wrote an article for the Guardian about her father, who died by suicide when she was three. After it was published she was inundated with people sharing their stories with her.

“There’s something about this show… I think a little bit of it slowly came about as a slight response to the people and stories that came in after I wrote that article about my dad,” she says. It was a fictional, creative response of her own to the discussion that article created, she says.

Bea grew up in Kildare with her younger sister, Sinéad, and their mother, Helen, a former jockey and teacher. She studied at Trinity College Dublin before moving to London to study acting, living with “posh Chelsea people for two years”. Small parts in television followed, before a role alongside Sharon Horgan in the BBC Three series Dead Boss, and a pivot towards stand-up comedy. Quickly, she became a regular on TV panel shows and comedy festival stages, goofy, whip-smart and loud.

Bea’s trajectory as an actor, writer and comedian will have reached new heights by the end of 2019. She wrote This Way Up, which was produced by Horgan’s production company, Merman (Horgan plays Áine’s sister, Shona). Also upcoming is a Netflix series, Living with Yourself, in which she stars alongside the American actor and comedian Paul Rudd, created by Timothy Greenberg, the Emmy-winning executive producer of The Daily Show.

“I’ve been down to the last two for pretty much everything since I was 18 but have never gotten the things. People go, ‘I’ll remember you for something else.’ Thanks a million! Then you do two lines for £300,” she says.

Living with Yourself was “the first time the magic thing happened. I just put myself on tape; they had a phone call with me, then flew me to New York for a chemistry test. That magic thing had never happened to me, and I’ve been an actor for 15, 16 years.”

Aisling Bea
Aisling Bea

In person, she’s sound and fizzing with energy, and often delivers thigh-slapping, hilarious asides, many of them rooted in self-deprecation. There’s also a sense that her work ethic can have her running on fumes. Speaking about her creative process, she is starkly honest and down to earth, always picking up the rock of her work to detail the emotional habitat underneath.

Hard workers are not a rarity in film, television and comedy, but when you’re doing all three and then some, the scale of graft is intimidating. Take the weekend that preceded the BFI screening of This Way Up, on a recent Tuesday. Bea performed at the Bristol Comedy Garden on Friday, at Union Chapel on Saturday, at the Royal Albert Hall with the Guilty Feminist podcast on Sunday, and in Islington on Monday. Most of her friends work in similar professions, as comedians, actors, writers.

Bea and Horgan spent two years developing another show, set in Ireland, that struggled for space when Derry Girls filled an Ireland-shaped hole in British television schedules, and the project was parked. Frustrated, Bea was at home with Sinéad, who was watching television in the sittingroom. Bea started writing, and lashed out 12 pages in half an hour, “just about sisters, and the banter. It wasn’t necessary based on Sinéad and me, but it was just the energy… There’s something different with family, an extra level of meanness that I find really funny.”

Horgan liked those first 12 pages. Bea moulded them into a pilot script and sent it to Channel 4, which commissioned a first script, and a second, then a 15-minute pilot, which was made almost two years ago. Finally, in February 2018, Channel 4 commissioned a series. Bea says the moment she found out it had been green-lit was one of the best of her life.

She was in Los Angeles at the time, and had just been cast in an Amy Poehler pilot, having spent five years returning to LA every pilot season, self-funded, to try and get something going. Her part didn’t go ahead in the show, but she got to meet Poehler; she still shakes her head thinking about that encounter.

“You meet a lot of famous people in this business, but she’s the one person. She will never be friends with me because I lost all [cool]. I was, like” – Bea steels herself and shouts an impression of the meeting: “‘AMY! IF YOU EVER COME TO IRELAND YOU HAVE TO STAY IN MY MOTHER’S HOUSE.’ I was such an idiot around her. I got sweaty everywhere. I never thought I’d be that person… so embarrassing.”

Aisling Bea in This Way Up
Aisling Bea in This Way Up

Sinéad was also in Los Angeles, attending the Oscars as part of the costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s team, nominated for Beauty and the Beast. The sisters were standing in a costume gallery beside the iconic yellow dress worn by Emma Watson’s Belle character, which Sinéad had helped design while living with Aisling – in a home scattered with yellow fabric from the dress – when Bea’s agent called with the news about the series’ getting the go-ahead.

When she recalls that moment, the emotional weight of it overwhelms her. Her eyes fill with tears. “I remember being, like, ‘If I wrote this in a play it would be too broad and obvious a situation to happen.’ The two of us were just there together, and she’d never been in LA or anything before... and she’s going to the Oscars, you know?... I couldn’t believe that’s how I was experiencing that news.”

The deftness of Bea’s writing in This Way Up becomes especially apparent in the third episode, which takes place around a dining table where the jokes, asides and tensions of family dynamics under- and overlap. The writing is thoughtful, revelatory, sad, funny. There’s a golden feeling of a writer finding her voice, a voice that is surprisingly delicate and moving.

There is little slapstick, or shots at open goals. Instead, what is laid out is sophisticated, nuanced and well crafted. As Horgan did with her Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, Bea is creating drama about the human experience that is also funny. Perhaps her capacity for jokes, as great as that is, is just the beginning of something much more.

Bea’s fame is likely to increase in the months to come, but she’s sceptical about such things. She has been here before. “I did this show called @midnight, an American panel show. It was the first time I’d been on American TV as myself, two or three years ago now. We recorded in the afternoon, and it was going out at midnight in LA. I was walking around LA going, ‘Well, this is it, the last time I get to walk down this street, just a normal woman with a juice.’ That night, I think, I got three tweets. And one of them was: ‘How dare you f***ing talk about America like that?’”

Sharon Horgan in This Way Up
Sharon Horgan in This Way Up

Whatever happens, This Way Up has already done its job for Bea in a much deeper, more personal way. “The making of this show has already changed my life… Profile, being looked at in different ways, goes up and down. I see with so many of my friends who were really famous for six weeks and then not at all. Ups and downs.”

When Dead Boss – an under-rated gem of a prison sitcom written by Horgan and Holly Walsh, and starring Bea, Horgan and Jennifer Saunders – came along, Bea thought “everything would be really different” after the show went out. “It just wasn’t. The show got pulled despite how amazing it was. It didn’t get a second series, it just got cancelled.”

The sense of achievement she feels on the eve of This Way Up airing is not about external affirmation. She has made her own show, and nobody will be able to take that from her. Profile, fame, acclaim, that “other stuff”, Bea says, are “silly things”.

Throughout the interview, Bea touches on neuroscience and Love Island and Brexit and the intelligent end of designing one’s life, productivity, and success (she’s reading the British neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow’s book The Science of Fate, which examines how much of our life is predetermined at birth versus how much is within our control). She likes Sally Rooney’s novels, and the line of the Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che about sending white American women to the caliphate to erase Isis via gentrification, and thinks Boris Johnson is an “Eton-educated f***ing idiot” who “doesn’t give a f**k, cannot give a f**k”.

She’s interested in environmental issues too, and ran a green set on This Way Up. Her sister sourced costumes from Oxfam’s warehouse, and plastic was banned. (Her sister was so fastidious that one of the crew bought her a litter-picker as a half-joke.) She also mentions the Repeal movement for last year’s Eighth Amendment referendum, which she says had “a visceral effect” on her.

“I really believe in humans,” she says at one point, “the amazing things we can do together; I love female energy, that bigger female energy that pushes through to effect change for so many people.”

Energy is key to Bea, although maybe a better word is propulsion. There is a striving aspect to her force that is compelling and charismatic and searching.

“I think you would have been proud to watch your daughter do stand-up at the O2, and sad to see my mother watching it on her own,” Bea wrote in that Guardian article in 2017, addressing her father, Brian, directly. “Then again, if you hadn’t died, I probably wouldn’t have been mad enough to become a clown for a living.”

A residue of sadness may underscore the sentiment of This Way Up, but the harvesting of such themes, facilitated by great writing, seems to drive the characters towards somewhere else. Somewhere, maybe, that’s happy.

This Way Up starts on Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursday, August 8th