Brutality, murder, sexual deviance and illness don't sound like the most promising subjects for comedy. But then Julia Davis is no ordinary comedian. In a rare interview, she talks about movies, motherhood and where the "dark" stuff comes form
Julia Davis photographed at home, March 2010. Photograph: Shamil Tanna
Julia Davis comes running, red-faced, down Old Compton Street. She says she couldn't remember whether we were supposed to meet at midday or 1pm, so splits the difference and arrives at half-twelve. As we walk through Soho, she gets a few crafty glances in her oversized furry white coat. "It's not real, though," she whispers. But people aren't staring at the coat. For those who know her work, Davis's blonde hair and big, toothy smile are recognisable from a mile off. Her eyes are dark, dewy and intense and, when she talks, Davis is as caustic, sweary and silly as you might expect. But she is also incredibly warm, tactile and interested – with every question, she asks at least two in return. She is brilliant company, sitting in a café tackling a slice of pizza half the size of her face.
Davis challenges the very notion of what comedy is, and can be. Her writing portrays the wincing, pathetic absurdity of human relationships with such surreal imagination – it's hard to draw comparison (though Harold Pinter is a hero, and it shows). The role she is indelibly associated with is Jill Tyrell, the sociopathic beauty-parlour owner inNighty Night who, upon learning of her husband's cancer, starts telling everyone he's died. She meddles in the marriage of her MS-suffering neighbour Cath (Rebecca Front) and womanising husband Don (Angus Deayton), and generally devastates people's lives left, right and centre.
Considering its success, Jill must be a character she's fearful of never bettering. "Oh, definitely. Jill let me say and do things I would never get away with in real life," Davis laughs. She laughs a lot, actually, and unintentionally slips into Jill's West Country accent a few times. "I still think of things for Jill all the time. It's annoying, because I want to be able to find another character who I could write for indefinitely."
Last time I interviewed Davis she was heavily pregnant with twins (Walter and Arthur, now three) with long-term partner, Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt. Apart from small parts in Gavin and Stacey and Christmas 2008'sLittle Britain Abroad, she has been off the radar for a while now. This seems to be her preferred state (she has only done a handful of – very guarded – interviews throughout her entire comedic career).
But she recently returned to upset the pH of British comedy again with the brutal Lizzie and Sarah, co-written with fellow comedic cult hero Jessica Hynes (Spaced, The Royle Family). The pilot, which aired at the wholly unambitious time of 11.45pm on a Saturday in mid-March, visits two browbeaten housewives whose lives take an explosive turn. There is horrific domestic abuse, brazen adultery and, finally, multiple murders – it makes Nighty Night look like The Wind in the Willows and is perhaps the most challenging comedy Davis has written. The BBC clearly didn't know what to do with it (when asked if they would pursue a full series, a spokesperson replied, "We are fortunate to work with some of the best writers and production companies in the business, but in order that we maintain a variety of different tones and flavours on each channel, certain pilots will not be taken forward as series"). And so, despite glowing reviews and a "Commission Lizzie and Sarah" campaign on Facebook, it remains in limbo.
How will she feel if the series doesn't get picked up? "I'll commit suicide," she deadpans.
Davis has spoken in the past about how depression – largely the product of self-esteem issues – was something she had to regularly fight against (speaking to the Guardian's Stuart Jeffries in 2004, as the second series of Nighty Nighty was about to air, she explained that her personality "is prone to being depressive, dark and extreme"). The notoriously isolated nature of writing, then, is a great way to go. "Yeah, it's brilliant," she says, tilting her head into the sun. "But I have to get up now. I can't just lie in bed and be self-obsessed if there are two children running about who could easily fall down the stairs. A friend asked recently if I still get 'that suicidal thing in the morning', and I said yes, but that it's totally different now. I have other people to think about."
She talks about her children cautiously. But when she does, her whole face changes. Her eyes soften. "I sometimes write in a café down the road from my house now because I feel guilty trying to work if I can hear them playing. I invariably end up sat in a corner, depressed, retreating into my own world." Davis has always been obsessive about her work; in the past, whole nights were spent in front of the computer, agonising over every tiny detail. "I can't be like that now," she says. "You have to be enough of a parent – you have to be there. If I'm feeling bad, I really do just have to get on with it and try and channel it back into my work somehow, do something positive with it."
I ask Davis if she's ever had therapy, and she answers animatedly. "I have serious problems with it," she says. " The way I see it is that you're paying someone, so they don't really care about you – they're not listening in the way that someone who loves you does." She pauses, carefully. "I know it's cynical, but it frightens me that you could see this person in the street and they may or may not say hello to you. It's bizarre – you go in with no self-esteem, and come out feeling really arrogant about the whole thing."
Does she ever think about giving everything up? She doesn't flinch. "Of course, but in relation to work mostly. I went up for loads of roles recently and didn't get any of them. I was told for one that they wanted someone more 'voluptuous'. It's totally humiliating and degrading and you start wondering if it's worth it."
DAVIS'S DECISION TO BECOME a comedian came fairly late. Born in Bath in 1966, she studied drama at York University, but was sedentary for almost two years with glandular fever. She worked in various jobs until her mid-twenties when she began performing and writing. Her career began in a Radio 4 comedy with Arabella Weir, and she went on to be cast in Big Train, Blue Jam – Chris Morris's surreal radio comedy – and its TV offshoot, Jam. "I wish Chris would do more Jam," she says, echoing the thoughts of Morris fans everywhere. "It was just so unlike anything else. There were no recurring characters, so it was unbearably close." After Jam, she sent a demo tape to Steve Coogan and wound up joining his 1998 national tour. Following that, Davis co-wrote and starred in Human Remains – a quietly legendary, six-episode series of observational comedy about dysfunctional relationships – with the then-relatively unknown Rob Brydon.
So, apart from Lizzie and Sarah, what has Davis been writing sinceNighty Night? "There are loads of unfinished scripts I've been working on, including a film." Her own film appearances have evidently bruised her. She had a contemptuous cameo in Love Actually (2003), and small roles in Sex Lives of the Potato Men (2004) and Confetti (2006). "I've always been very selective over what TV I've done but, when it comes to films, I don't think I've chosen brilliantly," she admits. "I haven't even watched Love Actually." While she may not enjoy the blockbusters she's been in, Davis remains ambitious, even cautiously optimistic, about acting. "I do want to do some great, challenging film roles," she says, raising her eyebrows, quickly nodding her head. "But I think about all the interacting you have to do with everyone on set and beyond and it's scary."
As she lists the projects she has been involved in, it's evident that Davis is someone who has to be working on something all the time. What would happen if people stopped commissioning her writing or sending her scripts? "You know, my attitude towards work has changed. I used to think that you'd be really selling out if you did something like a voiceover. Now I don't think like that. You have to be realistic – everyone has to do shit things to fund their projects of love. I hope that I won't get to that place, but I'd be prepared for it if I did. I've got serious fantasies about opening a tea shop, and things like perfume making." She leans back on the legs of her chair. "But is that meant to happen now, or when I'm 90? It's hard to see when things get messy. Sometimes I sit down and have to think about what I enjoy in life, [puts on silly voice], you know, laughing with friends, shopping, baking cakes. OK, I'm being stupid, but you have to put things into perspective sometimes."
Speaking of perspective, I ask whether motherhood has diluted Davis's sick sense of humour and she scoffs. "No! It just keeps getting worse. The only thing that's changed for me is what I watch. For example, Don't Look Now used to be one of my favourite films, but I can't watch it now because there's a child dying." She says this matter-of-factly, and without a smirk. Yes, she's sick-minded, but still human. "When the kids were about nine months old, I did this Mike Bartlett play called Contractions. There was a woman in it whose baby ends up dying – it was a horrible and sick play, but funny in a black way. Someone asked me then if my humour had changed since I'd become a mother and I said no. I wasn't meaning that I found dead children funny, of course, but I don't think for a second that my humour was going to change because I had kids."
Considering their parents, you'd expect her children to be two very funny little people. "Everyone always asks if the kids are funny, and probably do expect it," she says. "But I sort of hope they don't end up doing comedy, because everyone who does is usually mentally ill in some way." Davis says she'd love to write a book on men in comedy, claiming that they "all have mother issues".
There will come a time, though, in a few years, when her boys might see all the stuff that their mum has written. Is that something she worries about? "I like to imagine that they'll never be interested in seeing it," she laughs. "Although I'd be happy to show them anything. We did show them that scene from Nighty Night where I ride the huge horse into the church. I pointed to the screen and said, 'That's Mummy', and they were really confused at first. Then they became obsessed, always asking to see 'Mummy on the horse'." Just as the word "horse" comes out of her mouth, a very tall homeless man bends down over the table and asks Davis for money. She declines, and he walks away muttering something obscene. "I have to vary which homeless men I give money to. There's a guy where we live who's so horrible. He drips saliva on to me and is so nasty and violent – I just think, no way."
In almost everything that Davis touches, there is underlying – or, more often than not, explicit – violence. Sexual deviance is rife, people treat each other despicably and are subject to unrelenting abuse. "There is a vein of violence in everything I do," says Davis. To the question of where it comes from, she just says, "I don't know, I really don't know," over and over again. By all accounts her upbringing was nice and stable. "It's certainly not my parents. My mum's not violent, and my dad is a really sweet, kind man. It must be from some emotional violence I've seen.
"I look at people all the time," she continues. "I was in Liberty the other day, meant to be writing. I saw these two blokes with their girlfriends – one of whom was this young Japanese girl who didn't speak much English. This guy was obviously so chuffed that he had her as a trophy he could show off and belittle. He was talking to her like a toddler and then started taking photos of the cream tea. I just thought, 'What the hell is that? What are you going to do with those photos? Put them on the wall?' I thought it would be good for some characters."
IN TERMS OF FUTURE PROJECTS, Davis can soon be seen in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's 1970s-set "feelgood drama" Cemetery Junction, in which she plays Gervais's wife. "It's a brief role," she explains. "I play Ricky's wife, and I'm a horrible, racist, don't-expect-too-much-out-of-life-kind of parent." She also has a "small-ish" part in Chris Morris's suicide bomber satire Four Lions, which tells the story of a group of British jihadists and their ham-fisted dreams of glory. Both films have a fanfare surrounding them, and will undoubtedly raise Davis's profile even more – something you would think she'd be afraid of. "It's a balancing act," she says. "I want to write, but I also want to be an actress. So I guess I'm a bit confusing in that respect."
Maybe she is, but Davis's comedy relies on confusion. Her work polarises people, and it seems as if she wants it to stay that way. "There is definitely still a part of me that wants to make something cult," she explains. "I want people who like the same things as I do, who find the same things funny, to see it. I've got no desire to be mainstream or seen by millions of people." She stops, perhaps worrying about coming across as falsely modest – something she "really hates". "It's not in a self-conscious way, either," she concludes. "I just don't want it."
A week later, I meet Davis again at her home for the Observer photo shoot. She texts me the day before, warning me not to look at her while she has her picture taken. But, from the glimpses I get, she seems comfortable enough, if a little nervy. At one point the photographer asks her to "part the lips slightly", and she catches my eye and smiles tightly, as if she's about to burst out laughing. After the shoot, we eat from a plate of cream cakes that she bought especially. She cuts each one into four pieces. The living room is open, light and is very much a family room – not least in the black, insecty spirals of marker pen drawing on the walls, the fruits of two tiny artists' hands, presumably. There is a huge, Afghan-looking rug on the dark hardwood floor that makes me feel like I'm in a little family cave. And, when (the very polite) Barratt comes in from the rain, full of cold, I suddenly feel like I'm intruding. I leave them all sat on the sofa, watching Tom and Jerry.
Cemetery Junction is out on 14 April; Four Lions on 6 May
DARK ARTS: JULIE DAVIS'S FINEST TV MOMENTS
HUMAN REMAINS: "SLITHER IN"
B&B owners Gordon (Rob Brydon) and Sheila (Davis) arrange their care of Sheila's bedridden sister, who is in an incurable coma, around their S&M-filled swingers' lifestyle. They talk about wishing they could knock through to the room next to the sister's, the "play room", covered floor to ceiling in black PVC and fitted with harnesses and penetrative accoutrements of every kind. At the end of the episode, they knock through the wall anyway, covering Sheila's sister in a sheet of tarpaulin amid the mess of bricks, plaster dust and wipe-clean plastic.
Key line "Ignorance is bliss. That, to me, is the beauty of a coma."
Jill's husband Terry (Kevin Eldon), to whom everyone has paid their respects at his bogus funeral, wakes up in the house in a nappy that Jill's put on him. He gets dressed in one of Jill's lurid camisoles and a denim skirt. Jill blocks his path and locks him in the bedroom, strapped to the bed, while she goes downstairs and attends to Linda – who confesses to her one-night stand with Terry. Jill suffocates Terry with a pillow, stuffs him into a cupboard and rings Don (Angus Deayton).
Key line (As she meets Terry in the bedroom doorway) "Dr Wivell warned me about this. He said this would happen in the final stages. The tumour squeezes the brain out like a cuckoo."
JAM: "INJURE FOR FRIENDS"
Lucy Tizeman (Davis) is incapable of making friends normally. Instead, she causes accidents – such as tying a piece of wire to two trees to bring down cyclists – and attempts to make friends with the injured people. The sketch's pièce de resistance comes after Lucy begins observing people in their houses. She watches a mother send her teenage son off to school, before knocking at the door some time later to inform her (inaccurately) that her son has drowned in his canoe. While the mother is weeping, Lucy pulls out two tickets for a performance of Cats that evening, asking if she'll go with her.
Key line "People never find you boring if they need help. So I've started to make people need help."
LIZZIE AND SARAH
The most affecting scene in the pilot is when Lizzie (Davis), after finding her husband John servicing the maid, lets the dirty plates from Sarah's (Jessica Hynes) birthday dinner crash into the dishwasher, before unravelling – eyes desperate, mouth quivering. "John's been fucking Brinita, right under my nose. I pay her £700 a week, plus £300 for emergencies, only to wash John's stinking yellow semen off of her bed sheets." Sarah replies, "Oh, come on Lizzo. Where would I be if I got all upset about Michael making love to me with a pillow over my face and, as he finishes, screaming, 'I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!'?" Chilling.
Key line (Sarah, later on) "Can we stop killing people? From now?"