"With the industry being as it is, people need to put you within a context that they've already seen and understand ...then you can evolve that and do it your own way."
In 2017, comedian Sophie Willan was named as the first winner of the Caroline Aherne Bursary. Designed to find, develop and support great new comedy talent, the bursary was named in honour of the late award-winning comedy writer and performer who created The Royle Family and Mrs Merton.
Each year the winner is awarded £5000 to support the development of a comedy script as well as mentoring from a BBC Comedy Commissioning Editor. For Sophie Willan, the result was a BBC Two pilot of Alma's Not Normal in 2020 which in turn has lead to a six-part series starting on Monday and a BAFTA win for Writer: Comedy earlier this year.
Set in her home town of Bolton, Alma's Not Normal sees Willan play Alma, whose tumultuous childhood has led to continual chaos. Following a break-up, she embarks on a new beginning and wants to finally get herself sorted.
With a rebellious streak a mile wide and no qualifications to boot, Alma decides to explore the role of an escort to support her dreams of being a star. Many adventures and misadventures ensue as she navigates the past she’s had and the future she wants.
Meanwhile, and she is trying to get her family back together, but has her work cut out as she tries to fix the strained relationships between her drug-addicted mum Lin, played by Siobhan Finneran and her vampish Grandma, Joan played by Lorraine Ashbourne. And then there's best friend Leanne, played by Jayde Adams.
With a bitingly funny and unflinching take on issues from class, sexuality, motherhood, friendship, abuse and mental health, Alma's Not Normal is a series that is full of heart, humour and candour, celebrating powerful and complex women dealing with the hand they were dealt whilst doggedly pursuing their dreams.
I recently caught up with Sophie Willan to discuss her BAFTA win, what she really makes of those Caroline Aherne comparisons, what it was like to follow the pilot with a series and so much more!
Often in telly, a pilot is just shared amongst executives and commissioners, yours was not only broadcast to a loving audience on BBC Two, but it also saw you win your first BAFTA. What was that experience like?
It was just absolutely wild! I mean, you don't expect it do you? For a pilot, it's really unheard of, so it wasn't even in my periphery. I was on the second day of filming Alma - which was a six-week process and I just got a text message saying "Congratulations on your BAFTA nomination!"
I thought it was a joke at first. I was really baffled by it. And then it was about a month later, so we were well into the shoot by this time, that I actually won the BAFTA. I couldn't believe it. It was a lovely boost because we were coming towards the end of the filming, so it was a lovely boost of morale for everybody.
What did you learn from the pilot?
I learnt a lot really because I'd never done that process before, where I'm exec'ing something, I'm the writer and I'm an actor in it - and wearing all three hats, on a set, is quite a unique experience really.
Even just small things like working with a director when it's your show but you're the actor in it. Actors might ask you for thoughts so learning collaboration with a director was a really interesting process for me.
Me and Chappers (Andrew Chaplin, director) had never worked together before so the pilot was a great opportunity for us to work out our shorthand and our dynamic together. So by the time we got to the series, we both really knew each other and how to work together and what we wanted the tone of the show to be.
It was brilliant for that actually. I'd had such a clear vision for how I wanted the show to look, the music, the sound, the tone of it in general - and actually being able to translate that in the pilot to Chappers so that by the time we got to series he knew the whole tone of the show as well.
I know Alma's Not Normal is an idea you've had since 2014. What was it like handing the show over to other people to help bring it to life?
I was really lucky, because the whole team that I work with - Expectation, BBC and Chappers - they've all been so positive and allowed me to have so much autonomy over my vision, which is brilliant.
And then I've been really lucky with Chappers. He's got great vision and is really creative. So the things he comes up with, the ideas for shots, especially with budget limitations and the ambition of the show, he's planned everything so meticulously - whilst also really listening to me and allowing me to have my vision and be very collaborative. It felt like a really brilliant collaboration.
He's just fabulous Chappers actually. He's very good at working with writer-performers, he worked with Roisin Conaty as well and Spencer Jones - so he really understands how to work with writer-performers in a way that's really respectful and collaborative - but also with his own vision.
Where did the idea first come from for Alma's Not Normal?
I'd always had an idea that I wanted to write a sitcom and explore relationships between women and the complicated relationships between mental health and addiction and growing up in a working-class town. I wanted to do that in a fun and authentic way.
I'd been doing solo shows in theatre for a while, I had a show on and I just went down to Media City and started flyering all the producers there. I bumped into one, called Rebecca Papworth, she's a small ballsy Northern woman so of course, she related to me.
We got chatting, she came to see the show and she said "Come in and we'll have a little chat about ideas" and I thought "No. I'm not chatting ideas." I came with flipchart paper and pinned it up all over the wall and said "This is the plan".
So it had been percolating for years. Then she commissioned it to be written, but we tried to take it down to London to the commissioners and they didn't really get it. It wasn't for them.
Then I went back to the drawing board, started doing stand-up and it was through the Caroline Aherne Bursary, that I was able to get in a room with Shane (Allen) and Kate (Daughton) and explain it personally. Having me in the room, telling them what it was all about really helped, I think.
What made you apply for the Caroline Aherne Bursary?
It's a difficult industry to plug into, I find. Even though I went up to Edinburgh and did two shows back-to-back, they went really well, one got nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award - but I was still really struggling to be plugged into telly.
People weren't really biting. I wasn't really connecting with London TV people. Then the Caroline Aherne Bursary came up online and I thought - you know what, I'm just going to apply for it.
So I went to the fancy dress shop, bought lots of wigs and just spent a day filming lots of different characters on my phone. Then I put in the application, got in the room with Shane and Kate and that was the gamechanger really.
For the pilot, many compared you to Caroline Aherne and those comparisons are likely to continue when the series launches. How do you feel about those comparisons?
She's not a bad person to be compared to is she? She's fabulous, so in one way it's really flattering. But also, I think unfortunately with the industry being as it is, people need to put you within a context that they've already seen and understand. If that helps - which it did help in this case - they were able to put me within a context and go "Caroline Aherne Bursary" - OK, great. Another Caroline Aherne.
If that helps in an industry that's not great at digesting all these different voices and identities - that's fine for me because it got me in the room and then you can evolve that and do it your own way.
How would you describe Alma's Not Normal?
First of all, I'd say it's a comedy-drama. I'd hope that it's light, joyful, optimistic and full of heart. I think the heart's there. That's a key thing for me. But also, it being optimistic, having riot grrrl music, and it being really bright and all those things, are really important to me.
What about Alma. How do you see her?
I think she's an optimist. She's impulsive, foolish, flamboyant, hopeful, full of love and quite innocent in some ways actually. There's a lot of Alma she's not quite figured out herself.
She's not quite got that self-reflective thing going on which is great for sitcom characters, isn't it, because they keep making the same mistakes in different ways.
How similar is she to you?
There are quite a few similarities - but also differences. I think Alma is probably more like me when I was in my twenties. That lack of self-awareness, being impulsive and all those things. But similarly, I think we're both quite optimistic people - always looking for the lighter more fabulous side to life.
What I've always liked about Alma, is that she's someone who's completely living beyond their reality - when she's eating a pot noodle she says "I feel like I should have been a baroness". Well, I've always felt a bit like that myself.
And she says at one point "If I can't be normal, I'll be fabulous" - is that also the meaning behind the title, Alma's Not Normal?
The care experience is often so extreme that there's no chance to be normal and I've noticed it in a lot of care experience people that I know, because nothing's been ordinary, it's got to be extraordinary. It can't just be fine because you'll never be able to do fine. There's a need for things to be extraordinary because they've never been ordinary.
And the irony, I think, of Alma's Not Normal is actually, it's very normal. We all have complicated family dynamics that often make us feel isolated and not normal. But actually, they're really common and normal.
The music is brilliant throughout the series. How much involvement did you have in those choices?
A lot. I love the music. In the pilot, I did all the music and over the series we had a music supervisor as well which helped take the load off. Again, because Chappers had got the sense of the tone from the pilot, from me, we were able - the three of us - to work quite a lot together. So riot grrrl was a big theme and something I wanted.
Martha Wainwright, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole - I love that. I really wanted that song because it really sums it up - the speech that grandma does on the bench, it's left to the women and she's left to deal with everything, so I thought that was important.
What about the costume choices?
Some of that was scripted. I was quite good at putting 'Alma's wearing a fabulous outfit' because I thought, why not? Enjoy yourself! In the first episode, her having a pink fur coat and cycling up a hill - that was all scripted.
But then again, you see, what's great with Chappers and the costume woman - who's amazing, Daniella - is they take what you've written and they just run with it and make it fantastic.
The precision that Daniella had - and Chappers - when Alma is escorting, she's in deep red with light pink and when she's Alma, it's green and pink. So different moods go with the costume as well. The grade and look of the scenes in Manchester - aspirational Alma - is a very different look to when she's in Bolton.
The first episode is largely the pilot, isn't it? Why did you want to have that as episode one?
Some bits are new, not loads. Just a little bit of a character change so a few of the montage bits on the history of the ex-boyfriend is slightly different. We've tried to up the grade because I felt very passionately that I wanted it quite bright which we've done with the rest of the series.
And even though it was a pilot, it was always episode one to me. I always thought - I'm going to do what I would do at the start of the series so it just stayed the same because it was always the first episode out of six. I wanted to set it up in a way where we've got the world, we've got the people and we want to know more.
Then there's the cliffhanger. Is she going to escort or is she not going to? So I wanted that to be the jumping-off point.
Let's talk about the cast. Alma's Not Normal has a brilliant cast. How involved were you in that process?
Catherine Willis was our Casting Director and she is just amazing and brought both Lorraine (Ashbourne) and Siobhan (Finneran) fabulous women to the table and it was a funny process because they were both offer only. So for me, I was very excited but there's also an element of risk.
You have no idea how they're going to play it and I was so overwhelmed with how brilliantly they both did it. Lorraine I'd got a bit of a sneak peek because she did do the live read, and that dynamic felt so natural with me and her.
And then Siobhan. WOW. I mean, I didn't see her performance until we were on screen together, that was the first time. I was like "My God, she's amazing!" I love her. And what I love with both of them is the connection and chemistry that we have together. Me and Siobhan get these moments where we both have a smirk - that's Alma and Lin's moments of connection. Joan and Alma - me and Lorraine - again that dynamic feels so natural and like I've known her all my life.
It's very strange actually, the chemistry.
And working with Jayde Adams of course...
It's been fabulous. She's been brilliant. And again, the chemistry between us on screen I think comes across because we do really get on and we have such a good connection. It's been fabulous.
It's lovely to share this journey with someone that you've come up through the circuit with. We actually met on the queer cabaret circuit in 2013 or something, so quite a long time ago. This is her first major role and she's absolutely smashed it out of the park which is fabulous.
When I first saw Jayde perform, I thought - I've got to do something with her, she's brilliant. There aren't many times where you get that. Where you see such big raw talent and thing - God, I really want to work with that person.
How difficult is it to not laugh on set during a take? I'm thinking, in particular, the scene where Lin is in a hospital corridor ranting - and actually, I think you are laughing in the final take.
That was quite interesting for me, because I don't know if you've ever been around anyone with psychosis, but those rants can go on forever. I wrote up until "I'm a bottom feeder swimming in a sea of cunts" and then I was like - can we just keep the camera rolling, please?
Because I really wanted Siobhan to improv because she's just incredible at these psychosis rants. How she plays them is exactly how they are. That's exactly what I've seen before and they're often very funny. They're very funny, very bizarre and very sad, and very frightening, all at the same time.
The reason I kept the clip in of me laughing a bit because I was laughing, is that actually, that's exactly how I would respond in that situation. It's the nervousness and also you're aware that this is ridiculous. She's talking about her ample bosoms and you're in a corridor so you can't help but laugh.
Then also, it's traumatic and you're nervous, but this is normal for Alma. This is normal life seeing her mum like this so it's not as scary for her as it might be for other people.
In terms of the flashbacks and montages - why did you decide to include those?
Montages for me, I do really like them because I think they're really economical and a chance for real wit and humour to talk about really difficult and complicated things. There's also a kind of lightness to them.
In episode four, you're talking about the system and how mental health and housing has absolutely failed Lin and it's an absolutely tragedy - but being able to do that in Alma's not always self-aware voice, with a lightness and breeziness, gives you so much more.
It also stops you from lecturing. It gives you a chance to matter of factly and quickly, set up what's been going on without telling anybody what they should think or feel about it. You're just presenting the situation rather than telling them the political agenda.
There's a line where Dave Spikey's character - again, great to see him back on our screens - passes comment on working-class being fashionable. Why was that important for you to include?
You see these big waves where class becomes the hot new topic and in my stand-up show Branded, I talked about that - suddenly everyone's going "She's working-class" - "She's northern" - "She's a woman" - and before you know it, you're in these really rigid boxes.
So I wanted to take the mickey out of them as well. And take the mickey out of the opportunism that can come out of that. Which I think is quite funny.
Obviously, these things come up because there isn't that much diversity so I wanted to put that out there.
Alma's Not Normal is shot in Bolton, features lots of local actors from Bolton. Why was that important?
As an actress, on a personal level, it's my hometown. If I'd have seen something filmed in my hometown and they weren't opening it up, I'd be furious. Also, I just think it makes it better, doesn't it? It makes it more funny. More authentic. Bolton people are naturally hilarious. I don't know why but we are funny.
If you get a proper Bolton accent - mine's faded a bit now because I've lived everywhere, but you speak to Dave Jones who plays Bill, he's just hilarious. It's that lovable rhythm. He was obviously one of our open castings - I think they just add an element of something fresh.
There's a trend for comedy to shy away from jokes in favour of the more dramatic moments, whereas Alma's Not Normal is able to do both brilliantly. It's not afraid to be funny. Why did you make that choice?
Because I really do love comedy so for me, it always had to be funny and I do get a bit frustrated sometimes with this shying away from comedy like you say, and I love pathos but it's better when it's been earned.
For me, it's better to do less is more. You have these gutterpunch moments and they mean more I think when you've had that humour. What I do, is often I'll write the scenes and think this is the first pass so I need to get this out - whether it's the narrative or a heavy theme - and then I'll go back and punch it up with jokes because for me, that's so important.
Also, I think humour just makes everything more manageable, doesn't it?
Any favourite scenes?
I really enjoyed the fish fight. Mainly just because we had a real laugh filming that. I do actually corpse a little bit in that - you will see there's a little twitch of the lip, but how can you not when someone's throwing a fish at you? It's impossible.
What's funny about that scene, is that we filmed it separately so all the crew were throwing fish at us - it was Jayde's last day and they were loving it, the crew, it was the most rebellious thing they got to do - throw fish at the actors.
Where do you draw your comedy inspiration from?
Lots of places really. I love all different art forms. Obviously, I loved Caroline Aherne, The Royle Family, but I love theatre as well. I love Bryony Kimmings, I think she's absolutely fantastic. I love Gerry Potter, the poet.
I obviously loved Fleabag and I think that's been quite helpful for women at the minute in terms of the amount of female-led stories. Because Fleabag was so successful, they'll take more risks on what kind of woman so it's been more diverse as a pool - and that's because we did have Fleabag setting out that stall a bit.
What does it feel like to have your own - already BAFTA-winning - hit BBC Two sitcom?
To be honest, it's a bit baffling. It's all a bit bemusing. I'm loving it. It's fabulous. But I've no idea what the next step is. You plan for this for years and in a couple of days it goes out on telly and I've no idea the response.
I'm feeling positive. I'm very hopeful. But you just don't have any idea, do you? So I'm sitting here waiting. I'm so glad they're putting it out almost straight away after filming so I don't have to wait too long to see how it goes down.
In hindsight, do you think the six/seven years it's taken to get Alma's Not Normal on screen has been a good thing?
Yeah, because I've got more experience as a writer. I'm definitely a better writer than I would have been then. I'm more experienced in the industry. I've managed to get a brilliant team of people that might not have been available then - so everything feels like the right time. You have to trust that process, don't you?
Did you ever feel like giving up on it?
No. I've never had that. I've always thought this is what I've got to do and creativity helps because you navigate different parts of the industry - there's stand-up, there's theatre - there are so many ways in so I've always felt where there's a will, there's a way.
So you must have ambitions and ideas for series two?
Yeah. Hopefully, we'll get another series. In the next few weeks, they'll let us know and I'm already planning different characters and stuff.
And all six episodes are airing weekly and will also all be available straight away. How would you like people to watch it?
I love that it's doing both and reaching both audiences because I do think it's quite a multi-generational show so I think it's nice that it's meeting the needs of different audiences. Older audiences maybe do less online - I don't know if that's true but it's nice that we're catering to everybody.
Finally, I'm gutted that Channel 4 have let The Circle go. Would you go back and narrate a new series if Netflix were to pick it up?
I'd love to do it again. I think it's a fabulous show. It's really good fun to do and it is a shame that Channel 4 are not able to do it at the minute.
Alma's Not Normal starts Monday 13th September at 10pm on BBC Two