Monday 19 August 2019

'You can create a safe space' - comedian Aisling Bea on using humour to deal with grief

Aisling Bea. Photo: Karla Gowlett
Aisling Bea. Photo: Karla Gowlett

Georgia Humphreys

Loneliness, mental health issues, struggling in the pursuit of happiness; the subject matter of This Way Up is far from light.

And yet, the new Channel 4 comedy is, at times, a side-splitting watch.

Irish stand-up star Aisling Bea - who's written the show and also plays protagonist Aine - was bored with such issues being talked about in a "maudlin" way, and wanted to show you don't lose your humour when dealing with tough situations.

The actress - also starred in Amy Huberman's TV series Finding Joy- took the same approach when writing an article for The Guardian in 2017 about her father's suicide. She was three when he died.

"I wanted full-on jokes in there, and I want jokes in this show," says the 35-year-old, whose real name is Aisling Cliodhnadh O'Sullivan.

"You can create a safe space and not be unattractive for talking about something... You're not going to ruin the dinner party, you're not going to bring everyone down.

Aisling Bea attends the Glamour Women of The Year awards 2017 at Berkeley Square Gardens on June 6, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
Aisling Bea attends the Glamour Women of The Year awards 2017 at Berkeley Square Gardens on June 6, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

"It doesn't make you not-funny. It doesn't make you lose all the bits of yourself. You don't become defined by that narrative either - there's all the other bits of you. So that's what I wanted to show with the show, I suppose."

The six-part series follows Irish immigrant Aine, who works as an English-as-a-foreign-language (TEFL) teacher in London, attempting to rebuild her life following a "teeny little nervous breakdown", with the help of her sister Shona, played by Catastrophe's Sharon Horgan.

Asked where inspiration for the lead character came from, Bea reveals: "I think a little bit myself and Sharon, I think a little bit myself and my sister, I think a little bit myself and my best friend Bronagh.

She adds, chuckling: "I'd like to think I'm a creative person but one thing I have a real problem with creatively is names. I literally look around a room and call someone like 'chair table'. Aine is Ai which is the first two letters of my name and Shona which is the first two letters of Sharon's name..."

In terms of the serious topics the show looks at, does she feel pressure to represent someone's experience of mental health issues responsibly?

"No, actually," Bea replies, slowing down her usual fast-paced chatter, and pausing to think about her answer.

"I take responsibility for myself. But I think I had to lean in to knowing my intentions were good. It could still come out and trigger people in a bad way and I'm absolutely up for listening to that, if that's something that comes up.

"But it's something I talk about regularly in public spaces, sometimes five times a week on stage, so I had a kinda good gauge, I think, of what people can handle, and what people should maybe handle and hear about more."

However, stand-up comedy isn't always the ideal space to explore certain things, she adds.

"I felt like with this stuff, it was better shown through fiction and characters. A lot of what I wanted to talk about, wasn't necessarily landing on stage.

"In terms of responsibility, I'm in the world too, so I wanted to do it a bit for myself, and so there were certain things I definitely wanted to be careful with showing," she continues, thoughtfully.

"There'd be a joke and I'm like, 'No, we can't edit that because we need that because that's a kindness there, and you need to leave that in, to show the complexity of that person' - little things like that."

Bea has that down-to-earth quality about her where, well, you just want her to be your friend.

It's the same way, I suggest, viewers will feel about Aine, to which she responds: "Oh that's so lovely. Do you know what a journalist said to me the other day? 'The thing about you Aisling, you've got that lovely everyman quality'."

With an infectious laugh, she quips: "And I'm like, 'I don't think I do. I decided not to model professionally, I'm not an everyman. I'm a star, OK?'"

As you'd expect, the comedian, who has appeared on most major panel shows (in 2016 she became the first-ever female team captain on 8 Out Of 10 Cats) constantly cracks jokes, and is brilliantly expert at poking fun at herself.

When discussing the reaction This Way Up might get from viewers, Bea takes on a more serious tone again, sharing how she's embracing a positive mindset.

"Until it comes out, I've decided to think in my head: 'Everyone's going to love it'," she notes.

"Because you never know, but I was saying earlier on we all have the idea of catastrophising things for ourselves because it's a self-protection thing: 'Well I won't be disappointed then if people hate it'.

"And I actively decided for myself, for the first time in my life, to not allow myself to do that, and to maybe believe compliments and lean in. And if I'm shocked because it gets one star everywhere, I will just fall from a height - fine. But I'm prepared to do that rather than live through the negative bit of it.

"To sit on stage with Sharon and do the Q&A after people watched it, and there were loads of my friends there, and my sister and her husband, it was just... Yeah, I felt really lucky."

This Way Up starts on Channel 4 on Thursday, August 8

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