For fans of stand-up comedy, the notion of Aisling Bea being nominated for a ‘Breakthrough Award’ might leave a few scratching their heads.
A panel-show stalwart, Bea has crafted a successful career on the comedy circuit, becoming a familiar favourite on shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown, Taskmaster and Live at the Apollo.
With This Way Up, Bea finds her signature voice in the world of TV’s scripted comedy. A triple threat as the writer, executive producer and star of the series, Bea has taken less of a cautious first step, and more a running leap into the creative medium.
Bea plays a witty English-as-a-foreign-language teacher called Aine, who is readjusting to normal life following a ‘teeny little nervous breakdown’. Under the watchful eye of her older sister Shona, played by Sharon Horgan, who also acts as executive producer, Aine endearingly fumbles her way through awkward situations as she attempts to get her life back on track.
The series marks Bea’s ascension to a showrunner of auteur proportions. She was responsible for choosing who she wanted to work with at every level of the production, “from the director to the amazing crew to the press team”.
Rather than being intimidated by such an undertaking, Bea found the experience, of what she terms “Big Girl work”, liberating. “After being an actor for so long where you have no say on set, that was incredibly freeing,” she says.
Writing a scripted series for television was “definitely a learning curve”, Bea explains.
“The great thing about stand-up is that you can think of an idea that day, go on stage that night and know immediately whether you’ve made a terrible mistake or not because an audience will stare at you silently – so you get to fix it quicker”.
While scriptwriting may not offer the same instantaneous feedback, for Bea, both writing processes flex the same artistic muscles.
“It’s all part of the same creative outlet,” she says. “[They all] do different things to my brain, and I need all at different parts of my life. They all live in the same house in my brain.”
The crowded house inside Bea’s brain has produced a beautifully complex and nuanced comedy series, packed with equal parts side-splitting laughs and heart-breaking moments of vulnerability.
Bea’s work dances along the fault line between comedy and tragedy, refusing to fall into a maudlin rut: “I don’t see [comedy and sadness] as juxtaposed, I see them as two friends holding hands”.
This pairing of laughter with sadness, light with dark, seems to have captured Britain’s cultural imagination in recent years. The popularity of shows such as Fleabag, Russian Doll and Afterlife, and the resultant explosion of terms like ‘dramedy’ and ‘melanchomedy’, seem to suggest that tragic comedy is very ‘in right now’.
For Bea, however, this pairing of comedy and melancholy is nothing new. Back home in Ireland, finding humour in hard times has always been an essential part of the culture.
“I definitely think what British people describe as ‘dark’, we don’t see as darkness,” she explains. “Irish sentiment naturally sits in what British people might see as making humour out of twisted things, like death, terrorism and depression”.
Bea believes comedy has always broached serious topics, we just weren’t looking hard enough.
“If you look at Father Ted, it was way ahead of its time,” she says. “It was one of the first shows to talk about the infallibility of the church, abuses in the church, gender issues, domestic violence - without us even realising that’s what was happening.”
In Bea’s show, the relationship between the two sisters, Aine and Shona, becomes a focal point through which she tackles difficult topics such as mental illness with humour and heart.
Bea perfectly captures the complex language of sisterhood, as the pair flit from goofy impressions, to raging arguments, to selfless acts of service in a matter of seconds (if you’ve never had the misfortune of fake tanning your sister’s back, count yourself lucky).
This love letter to sisterhood was the primary motivation behind making the series, Bea says.
“It felt very organic - it didn’t start from a mental health aspect. It came from wanting to play sisters with Sharon and using the show as a vehicle in which to do that,” she explains.
As for her next project, Bea will be starring in the upcoming drama Quiz, about the infamous ‘Coughing Major” scandal on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? back in 2001, where Charles Ingram, played by Matthew Macfadyen (Succession), was alleged to have cheated his way to a million pounds.
Written by James Graham (Brexit: The Uncivil War) and directed by Stephen Frears (A Very English Scandal), the series throws the seemingly straightforward result of the case into uncertainty. “I’m now a truther about the couple who were accused”, Bea says.
With a star-studded cast including Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, Sian Clifford (Fleabag), Mark Bonnar (Catastrophe) and Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), Quiz is set to be one of the must-watch series of the year.
Bea plays ITV’s entertainment commissioner, Claudia Rosencrantz. “It was a joy to film”, she says, “all of my scenes with Mark Bonnar, Risteard Cooper and Elliot Levey were probably some of my most fun days of work”.
While there is no official news confirming a second series of This Way Up yet, with a leading role alongside Paul Rudd in Living with Yourself already in the bag and a hilarious performance in Quiz on the way, the appetite among fans is ardent.
Where Bea’s writing takes her next is anyone’s guess, but if This Way Up is anything to go by, it’s going to be special.
Aisling Bea was nominated for the Breakthrough Award at the Royal Television Society Programme Awards 2020.
This Way Up is currently available to watch on All 4. Quiz will start on 13th April on ITV.