Damned returned to Channel 4 last week for its second series and I recently caught up with Isy Suttie to find out more about starring in the hit comedy.
Written by Jo Brand, Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, the series is set in the children’s services department at Elm Heath and Isy plays receptionist Nat.
A temp in series one, Nat is now a permanent member of the team but with the arrival of know-it-all student Mimi, has Nat realised she does have ambition after all?
Here’s what Isy had to say about working with Jo Brand, her character’s backstory and why a good atmosphere on set makes all the difference.
How would you best describe Damned?
It’s set in the children’s department of social services and with some sitcoms, you can lift the characters out and put them anywhere, but with Damned I guess you can too, but it’s very much about social services.
What I mean by that, is that in some sitcoms the characters happen to work in a shop together but it’s not really about the shop whereas this features cases based on real life and at times can be quite brutal and real.
Damned doesn’t pull any punches in how it portrays the type of cases social services have to deal with. It’s perhaps more of a comedy drama, so if you’re expecting something like Mrs Brown’s Boys, it’s not that! Nor is it something like Call The Midwife.
If anyone’s seen Getting On, I suppose it’s similar to that and typical of the stuff Jo Brand writes. It deals with real people in real life and it’s warts and all with pockets of joy and funny within that.
“Damned doesn’t pull any punches”
Were you surprised by the success of the first series?
We all hoped it would be successful. It’s so different starting something all together rather than going into something that’s already established. That’s the second time I’ve done it. The first time was Whites, which was also with Alan Davies.
It’s really exciting doing a first series together and not really knowing anything. I wouldn’t say I was surprised because the writing was so good, but you never know how things are going to go down.
Sometimes you film something that is loads of fun and you think it’s going to be amazing but then you watch it and for some reason it just doesn’t quite hold together.
But when I first saw Damned, it was exactly as we had envisaged it would be when we were making it so I was really pleased that people liked it.
How much freedom does Jo Brand give you with the script?
Oh loads. She also writes it with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith who are also both in it, so they’re there all the time which is nice. If they were different types of writers, the type to dictate and say “Do it like that!”, then that wouldn’t be so nice, but they are the complete opposite.
Jo’s so amazingly trusting of us which creates a really creative atmosphere which is unusual for a set. You really feel like you can make suggestions and tiny tweaks to lines and there’s a lot of improvisation on Damned, more than I’m used to. We do whole takes that are really loose so the last take will always be improvised.
It must be a really hard show to edit because usually the improvised take can be three times as long as the scripted scenes.
“Jo’s so amazingly trusting of us”
I speak to some actors who don’t like to improvise and would much rather stick to the script. Are you a fan of improvising?
With Damned I am, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I am in all jobs. I think the atmosphere really helps. If it’s the wrong atmosphere you just feel like you can’t do it. But if it’s the right atmosphere, you will take those risks and say whatever comes to your head and one time out of twenty it’s brilliant.
We have a lot of guest stars in the series and it can often be difficult for them to walk into us doing an improvised scene. If I was walking in to Damned for just one episode I think I would be a bit reluctant to improvise because you don’t really know everyone that well.
But there’s never any pressure on them to improvise, which I really love. If you want to do it, then do. But there’s no one going “Do something different to the script”. If something comes to you, just do it, so we’re really lucky to have that freedom.
How would you describe Nat then?
She really means well and I’m very careful not to think of her as someone who’s ditzy or not very intelligent. I think that’s the easiest route to go down when you see it on paper.
I really try to see Nat as someone who’s just a bit of a daydreamer and if she’s given the right role and encouragement, she’d probably be really good at problem solving in quite an instinctive way. But I don’t think she’s very good at the admin side or using the phones as she gets quite easily flustered.
“I’m very careful not to think of her as someone who’s ditzy or not very intelligent”
What is it about Nat that first attracted you to the role?
I really like that there was a chance to do something different with the character. I think she’s a really sweet person and I thought it would be easy to think of her as not having much up there and not wanting much from life.
But I like the challenge of trying to find little bits of brilliance within her, that even if I just know that it my head, it changes the way that I play it.
I like the fact that she’s quite hot-headed and loses her temper, because that’s not something that you would normally associate with a receptionist who’s always getting things wrong.
She’s the girl who’d never get asked to dance but gets up at the end like the female version of Napoleon Dynamite.
Do you think about her backstory?
Yes, I always do that. If a character hasn’t got a surname, I’ll always given them one. I work a lot on their upbringing and the house they grew up in. I’ve always done that and it makes me feel secure in what I’m doing and the decisions that I make.
I think she’s quite sex mad which is not something you’d probably know from the script but I like the idea that she’s slept with quite a lot of men and really likes going out clubbing with her mates and drinking Bacardi Breezers or whatever. That’s quite a big part of her life but she doesn’t necessarily make the right choices with men.
This is all in my head, but she used to work in a garage as a receptionist and she had an affair with a married mechanic there for a number of years. She really believed that he’d leave his wife for her, but he didn’t, so she’s not had an easy time.
It’s quite easy to think she wants to be an artist or whatever, but with Nat, I’m not sure that she does have ambition. I do think she’d quite like to be a social worker though and I think she’d probably be quite good because she’s good at disarming people because sees so direct. I don’t think she’s got the confidence to admit that to herself.
“She feels very threatened by Mimi”
How does she get on with Mimi?
She feels very threatened by Mimi, which is probably when she starts to realise that she wants something more than just sitting on reception. She finds her a real threat and doesn’t really know how to deal with those feelings.
When Mimi first comes, Nat holds out an olive branch and starts talking to her about Mariah Carey but Mimi shuts her down. And that’s enough for Nat.
That’s what I mean about her hot-headedness. She’s just like “OK, screw you”. Mimi is quite different from her as well. She’s educated and confident about putting her views forward whereas Nat doesn’t really understand what feminism means.
And Lolly Adefope is perfect for that role isn’t she?
Oh yeah, absolutely. When I knew that Lolly was doing that part I was so excited because I’d just watched her in Pls Like on BBC Three. I kept having to rewinding the bit where Lolly was the make-up person testing out the cream!
She’s so brilliant and I think of her, because she’s so good, as someone who’s been on telly for decades. But actually, on paper she hasn’t. She’s done Loaded and she’s done a fair bit but she’s so funny and I feel like she’s going to go far.
She really trusts her instincts and that’s half of it with comedy, just going with your instincts. She’s really great so it was really nice to work with her.
What are your favourite scenes to film?
I like all the scenes around the table in the meeting room. They are long! Each of them is like six or seven pages and usually i’d consider a scenes that two to three pages quite a long scene.
But I really like them and I think that’s partly because they involve guest actors and that’s always really exiting. They’re so good. They’re all so brilliant and there was one scene that made me cry. And I thought “Oh yeah, I think Nat probably would cry.” I think she’s quite an emotional person.
It’s a chance to just sit back and watch the guest actors. It’s like they just walked in from a West End play, they can really act!
“They never throw their weight around in the way that some main actors can”
In one way, Jo and Alan’s characters are at the centre of Damned but it still manages to feel like an ensemble piece. Would you agree?
It definitely feels like that when we’re making it. I’ve done some jobs where you may be a regular character in it, but you’re aware that it’s not your show and you’re part of the supporting cast.
Whereas on Damned, I never even think about how many days I’m in. Some days I’ve only got a couple of lines in eight pages but you don’t feel like you’re a minor part. There’s a lot of cutaways of reactions anyway so you can’t start thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch! Not that I’d ever do that… (Laughs)
But that’s to do with Alan and Jo. I knew Alan from Whites and it was a really lovely experience, but I didn’t know Jo that well before Damned but it’s been a real joy to get to know her. She’s such a kind person and just such a laugh to be around. They both are.
You don’t even think about whose show it is, which in many respects reminds me of The Thick of It, where the whole world is made up of the combination of characters.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing my first novel and I’ve got to hand it in this Summer so it’ll probably be out next year. That’s about a woman who leaves her partner and she has to move back home, with her child, and she has to start her life again.
I don’t have a title at the moment. I had a really long title but everyone was a bit like “Meh. No one’s going to remember that”. But I think I might have one. I’m not entirely sure.
It’s one of those things. You can spend a lot of time thinking about the title before you’d written anything.
And I’ve just filmed something that was really fun but I can’t say what it is just yet…
Any more stand-up?
I might do. I’m thinking of doing this festival in Wales called Machynlleth Comedy Festival in May. Elis is doing a show and I haven’t done stand-up for a while so I’m thinking it might be quite nice to do it again.
So I’m thinking that I’d probably do a show with my mate and I’d really like to do a live show based on my radio series Love Letters, so that might be my first step into doing that.
I’ve had this ambition for a while to write a show about this village called Imber in Witshire, which in the war, all the villagers were told to leave because the army needed it for target practice. They were told they’d be allowed back but they’ve never been allowed back so it’s a bit of a ghost village.
It’s open a few times in the year to the public and I’m so fascinated by derelict buildings and derelict towns and what belongings people leave behind. So I’d quite like to do a live show about that, but I don’t know how but I keep mulling it over.
Damned continues Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4