Written by Sara Pascoe

Arts

Up The Women

As the second series of seriously funny suffragette sitcom Up The Women starts tonight, standup Sara Pascoe asks writer and star Jessica Hynes a few questions exclusively for Standard Issue.

Jessica Hynes (right): creator, writer and star of Up The Women, also starring The Thick Of It's Rebecca Front. Photograph courtesy of the BBC

Jessica Hynes (right): creator, writer and star of Up The Women, also starring The Thick Of It’s Rebecca Front. Photograph courtesy of the BBC

Up The Women, the revolutionary comedy that certainly gets our vote, is back on TV tonight, transferring from BBC4 to BBC2. Comedian Sara Pascoe had a chat with creator, writer and star Jessica Hynes, who, among may other successes, also co-wrote and starred in the brilliant Spaced with Simon Pegg.

Sara Pascoe: How important is gender to the characters that you write?

Jessica Hynes: Very unimportant. What matters is character and humour.

SP: Lots of people have theories about the difference between men and women creating comedy, or what they find funny. Do you buy into any of that?

JH: Comedy is not split between men and women, it is split between funny and unfunny. If you fundamentally believe that women share common personality traits because they’re women and therefore laugh at the same things or are unable to be funny it doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person, just a bit stupid.

SP: You are a very very funny comic actor; can you ever be serious?

JH: I can be serious, although when you’re a comedian doing a serious part I think people are often waiting for the laugh and feel cheated when it doesn’t come. My aim is always truth whatever the role – although like most comics I will sacrifice integrity, personal safety and indeed my grandmother if there is a laugh in the offing.

SP: With a comedy about the suffragettes, you’re being funny about a serious thing; how do your audience respond to that?

JH: When I began developing the idea I did a LOT of research, I ended up looking through micro fiches at The Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge and police documents at the National Archives. I became slightly obsessed, depressed and desperate at the reports and stories I read. Creating Up The Women was an attempt to shrug off the propaganda rhetoric of oppression that characterised the suffragette movement and in many ways still shapes women’s experiences today. I wanted it to be a ‘fuck you, you paternalistic oppressive cunts’ with jokes and no swearing.

SP: Is TV a sexist place? Have you ever been made to feel unwelcome? 

JH: It’s possible I might been but not noticed. I am blessed – or cursed, depending on how you want to look at it – with an incredibly thick skin. Also, I always assume everyone hates me, so when someone makes an effort to prove otherwise I am thrilled and suspicious.

SP: Can you think of three inspiring women that maybe readers don’t know but should? 

JH: Celia H Payne, the woman who discovered the world was made of hydrogen. Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, champion of the rights of working women whose grand-daughters sung the theme to our show. Sojourner Truth, a black American civil rights campaigner who wrote the infamous ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech and makes a very good point about religion: “And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part?”

Up The Women cast (l-r): Emily (Georgia Groome), Frank (Adrian Scarborough), Eva (Emma Pierson), Helen (Rebecca Front), Margaret (Jessica Hynes), Gwen (Vicki Pepperdine), Thomas (Ryan Sampson), Myrtle (Judy Parfitt). Photograph courtesy of the BBC

Up The Women cast (l-r): Emily (Georgia Groome), Frank (Adrian Scarborough), Eva (Emma Pierson), Helen (Rebecca Front), Margaret (Jessica Hynes), Gwen (Vicki Pepperdine), Thomas (Ryan Sampson), Myrtle (Judy Parfitt). Photograph courtesy of the BBC

SP: If I gave you twenty million pounds for a project, what would you make?

JH: My Sky Atlantic show JUSTINE about a claw-wielding action hero set in a fictional country riven with corruption. It’s never gonna happen. I know.

SP: Have you ever felt that you have a responsibility to other women? Or felt the pressure of representation?

JH: I feel absolutely the responsibility – I am driven by it. During dark, lonely, joke-free evenings attempting to write the show by candlelight, I would imagine the spirits of those brave suffragettes fighting for their human rights and I would listen to them… and they would say, “It better not be shit.”

SP: Is there a difference between the American comedy industry and Britain’s? 

JH: There is, and I never wanted to work in America because I felt I would lose my voice. I am, as we all are, extremely lucky to live in a country where freedom of expression and creativity is sacred. The BBC commissioned this show because they felt it was something that SHOULD be on TV. That would never happen in the States. I am eternally grateful to be where I have found myself.

SP: Can you describe the writing process for us, please? 

JH: Barunka O’Shaughnessy and Morwenna Banks were my fellow writers on the second series; they are both much better writers than I. So clever of me to entrap them I think. We also had a peerless cast of men and women, a lot of whom write, which helped the show immensely: Vicki Pepperdine, Rebecca Front, Judy Parfitt, Emma Pierson, Georgia Groome, Ryan Sampson and Adrian Scarborough were incredible. The process of creation was research, plotting, outlines with us three writers together, then drafting scripts, rewrites, rehearsals, more rewrites, more rewrites then more rewrites. There isn’t a typical writing day, just the absolute commitment to creating the best possible show.

Up The Women is on BBC2, tonight, at 10.05pm

Sara Pascoe is currently on tour: www.sarapascoe.com

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Written by Sara Pascoe

Comedian and actor. I have won QI and Pointless.