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I TALK TO Aisling Bea

"The relationship between two sisters rather than two friends is something dear to my heart."

It's often said that "It takes 10 years to become an overnight success" and never has that saying been truer than when it's applied to actor and stand-up comedian Aisling Bea, who 10 years on from her first acting gig is about to launch her own debut six-part comedy on Channel 4 called This Way Up.

So where might you have seen Aisling before? In 2014 she appeared on Live at the Apollo, in 2016 she became a team captain on 8 Out of 10 Cats and it was that same year in which she took on a dramatic role in hit BBC Two drama The Fall alongside Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. She has also appeared on multiple panel shows, was a series regular in Sky One supermarket sitcom Trollied and has taken two solo stand-up shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

It was only a matter of time before Aisling authored her own piece on television and after striking up a close friendship with Sharon Horgan on the set of BBC Three sitcom Dead Boss the two started working together on a project which never quite got going so it's rather fitting that her first commission has been made by Sharon's production company Merman.

This Way Up sees Aisling and Sharon star as sisters Aine and Shona, both in their own pursuit of happiness. Whilst Aine is trying to pull her life back together after a nervous breakdown, Shona is trying to make sure that she also makes the right choices in life - all whilst looking after her younger sister.

Through Aine’s own experiences and the experiences of those around her, This Way Up unveils the obstacles which come between the goal of happiness and the reality of a life lived showing that the journey to happiness is harder for some than others.

I caught up with Aisling the day after the press launch at London's BFI to find out more about the series, including how it came to be, what it was like to write and her favourite moments.

How did the idea for This Way Up come about?

I wrote the original idea for This Way Up very quickly to be honest. It came about because myself and Sharon (Horgan) had been writing another show together for about two years. We slogged away at it but it didn't work out so I wrote this one very quickly one evening - not this exact one, but the first messy draft of it.

So I put the idea to Sharon - it's about two sisters, their relationship and all this kind of stuff, and slowly but surely it became more layered with all the different threads but the original premise remained.

The relationship between two sisters rather than two friends is something dear to my heart and something I know very well so it sort of fell out of my fingers a little bit.

Was it always a no brainer that Sharon Horgan would be involved?

Yes, it was never written for anyone else. I absolutely wrote this part for Sharon so there was never a discussion about anyone else playing that part. I remember going to Sharon with the other idea when Merman was in its infancy and Sharon was basically working out of a little box. I've been there to see how Merman has developed and stretched and changed so it was really important to me that I made it with Sharon.

Sharon actually said the other day "I think it would have been devastating if Aisling made her first show with someone else." This is not just a show with Sharon starring in it but it's for Sharon's company and that feels pretty special.

How have you found the process of writing a sitcom?

I've been a writer and a scriptwriter for a very long time, but I'd never written a full series because none of them had ever been good enough to get commissioned. There have been bits of this where I have to go "You know how to do this so well. You really do." and then other bits that I was very naive to - like how to do a story arc, how to do chat, how to have characters - which is all literally in my remit as a writer and an actor.

I had to think about where a commercial break would come, where we left the audience and why should they watch episode two? It was important to give all of our characters something within the first two episodes.

I was completely naive to the editing of it and how much time that would take. Also, the amount of drafts! You do your first draft and you're surprised by how many notes come back and then you think "OK, I'll do two drafts." but no, I'd say each episode had about seven or eight drafts.

Because I'd been working so long doing so many things and trying my best to work, it's not like I only had one job so I completely over-committed myself. I was filming Living With Yourself for Netflix in New York, I was gigging at weekends, writing this in the evenings and in between scenes and it was a lot to take on.

So a lot of it was a learning curve in how to manage it practically rather than the actual craft or creativity of it which is the easy bit I suppose.

You were sat (last night) amongst an audience at the BFI watching two episodes for the first time, what did that feel like?

I'm genuinely surprised I didn't cry. I suppose going up at the end and doing the panel is where I naturally do work so that part felt quite normal. But afterwards, when all my pals were there and coming up to me, it felt like breathing out after a very long time.

When I write stand-up, there's probably a couple of hours turnover before I get to show it to people. With this it's been years so my friends know how passionate I am about this project which I haven't been able to show anyone. I could talk about it, but now it's ready to be seen it's very much like showing people your baby.

Even today I feel a nervous energy, but now the public watching it will be completely different but I feel incredibly grateful for that first moment last night of people getting to see the thing. Even being at the BFI, I couldn't quite believe that they would want to show my thing rather than being round my house or in a pub which is where I imagined we'd be watching it. The BFI is where real people show their work.

I'd say it was one of the best nights of my life and like a childhood dream come true. Not that I dreamed of the BFI when I was a five-year-old child in Ireland but getting to show people my show and sit on stage with two people who are now great friends of mine, Gavin (O'Grady) and Alex (Winckler) and also my big sister (Sharon Horgan). And then with my little sister in the audience having been a part of it doing costume is kind of how my mother saw my career going "Sinead can do the costumes" - what a dream. What an absolute dream.

Why did you decide to set This Way Up in London rather than Ireland?

I've been an immigrant in this country for about 11 or 12 years. It's what I know, so going back to Ireland might have felt a bit fake actually. I honestly don't know what it's like to live in modern Ireland. I've been gone in quite an important life-changing decade, but I know what life is like for Irish immigrants here, many different types of them.

And immigrants generally. I suppose a lot of my point of view is settled fish out of water - fish out of water in a cup of water, put it that way.

How long did it take you to strike that balance between the comedy and the drama in This Way Up?

I'd love to tell you that it took a long time, but it didn't. It's where my sentiment naturally sits. We just naturally have those jokes in darker times. Alex is the same, Sharon is the same so there were no big stretches and that's how I operate and have operated in life.

Myself and my sister Sinead grew up in a house where where grief and humour were living side by side, that's what we knew. We still would have a joke if a door creaked open and both go "Father?" which is just our humour. It freaks other people out but we find it really funny. So that tone is where I sit naturally and what I like watching as well.

This Way Up appears to be about sisterhood and loneliness. How would you describe the themes within the show?

Exactly what you said there. Sisterhood or siblings, family. We happen to be sisters but there's definitely an element of speaking to any family member in a far worse way than you would speak to a stranger. Politeness goes out of the window. I find that very funny when people go "Fuck off! I love you so much." - I like that juxtaposition of how families speak to each other.

You're never meaner to anyone than your mother at Christmas but if anyone says anything bad about her it'd be the worst. So family is a big theme, co-dependency as well. What I wanted to show with Shona's character is not just show the journey of someone being unwell, but what it does to the people around them, the worry and the constant monitoring and what effect that has on people.

In a way, that's why I have Vish, played by Aasif Mandvi, in there because he's marrying into an already established twosome - he's the third person in that situation. He's the third wheel. He will never be Shona's priority, Aine will always be her priority and that's a hard thing to know.

There's a maternal instinct there with Shona which has to do with the age difference as well.

Finally, what are your favourite moments from the series?

I think myself and Sharon singing in episode four. We didn't have many shots to choose from because we found it so hard to look at each other. If you catch us looking, know that that was the biggest achievement of the day. There's so much footage of us breaking our hole - for want of a better word - laughing.

That really made myself and Sharon cry with laughter. We just couldn't look at each other because we had to take it so seriously and we weren't particularly good at singing. We didn't want the audience to think that Aisling and Sharon couldn't sing so we were trying really hard which is so funny to watch - someone else trying really hard to be brilliant at something they're average at.

I also loved filming a night out in episode five with Kadiff (Kirwan), Danielle Vitalis and Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge. I think those ensemble days with them felt like a bit of pressure off for me. It can feel a bit lonely when the scenes are very me heavy so I loved the gang scenes with them.

Then from an outsider point of view, as a writer and producer on it, I loved sitting and watching Indira (Varma) and Sharon together. Indira just sparkles and I felt so lucky to have her involved. She's also a gorgeous woman. She's a really humble, brilliant actress and a joy to have around on set.

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


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