Sometimes, a must-watch comedy hits our screens: This Way Up is exactly that. Georgia Humphreys meets its creator and star, comedian Aisling Bea, to find out what inspired it
Loneliness, mental health, the pursuit of happiness: the subject matter of This Way Up is far from light.
And yet, the new Channel 4 comedy is, at times, hilarious.
Stand-up star and Kildare native Aisling Bea — who has written the show and also plays protagonist, Aine — was bored with such issues being talked about in a “maudlin” way, and wanted to show you don’t lose your humour in tough situations.
The actress — also known for shows such as The Fall and Gap Year — took the same approach with an article she wrote for The Guardian in 2017 about her father’s suicide. She was three when he died.
“I wanted full-on jokes in there (the article), and I want jokes in this show,” says the 35-year-old, whose real name is Aisling Cliodhnadh O’Sullivan.
“It doesn’t make you not-funny. It doesn’t make you lose all the bits of yourself. You don’t become defined by that narrative, either; there’s all the other bits of you. So, that’s what I wanted to show with the show, I suppose.”
The six-part series follows Irish immigrant Aine, who works as an English-as-a-foreign-language (TEFL) teacher in London, attempting to rebuild her life following a “teeny little nervous breakdown,” with the help of her sister, Shona, played by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan.
Who are the role models for the characters? “I think a little bit myself and Sharon; I think a little bit myself and my sister; I think a little bit myself and my best friend, Bronagh.
“I’d like to think I’m a creative person, but one thing I have a real problem with, creatively, is names. I literally look around a room and call someone, like, ‘chair table’.
“Aine is ‘Ai’, which are the first two letters of my name, and Shona, which is the first two letters of Sharon’s name...”
Does she feel pressure to represent someone’s experience of mental health issues responsibly?
“No, actually,” Bea replies, slowing down her fast-paced chatter, and pausing to think about her answer.
“But it’s something I talk about regularly in public spaces — sometimes, five times a week on stage — so I had a kinda good gauge, I think, of what people can handle, and what people should maybe handle and hear about more.”
However, stand-up comedy isn’t the right forum for certain ideas, she adds. “I felt like with this stuff, it was better shown through fiction and characters. A lot of what I wanted to talk about wasn’t necessarily landing on stage. In terms of responsibility, I’m in the world, too, so I wanted to do it a bit for myself, and so there were certain things I definitely wanted to be careful with showing,” she says, thoughtfully.
“There’d be a joke and I’m like, ‘No, we can’t edit that, because we need that, because that’s a kindness there, and you need to leave that in, to show the complexity of that person’, little things like that.”
Bea is down-to-earth and you just want her to be your friend.
That’s how viewers will feel about Aine, too, to which she responds: “Oh, that’s so lovely. Do you know what a journalist said to me the other day? ‘The thing about you, Aisling, you’ve got that lovely, everyman quality’.”
With an infectious laugh, she quips: “And I’m like, ‘I don’t think I do. I decided not to model professionally, I’m not an everyman. I’m a star, OK’?”
As you’d expect, the comedian, who has appeared on most major UK panel shows (in 2016, she became the first-ever female team captain on 8 Out Of 10 Cats) constantly cracks jokes, and is brilliantly expert at poking fun at herself.
When discussing the reaction This Way Up might get from viewers, Bea takes on a more serious tone again, sharing how she’s embracing a positive mindset.
“Because you never know, but I was saying earlier on, we all have the idea of catastrophising things for ourselves, because it’s a self-protection thing: ‘Well, I won’t be disappointed then, if people hate it’.
“And I actively decided for myself, for the first time in my life, to not allow myself to do that, and to maybe believe compliments and lean in. And if I’m shocked because it gets one star everywhere, I will just fall from a height: fine.
“But I’m prepared to do that, rather than live through the negative bit of it. To sit on stage with Sharon and do the Q&A after people watched it, and there were loads of my friends there, and my sister and her husband, it was just... Yeah, I felt really lucky.”
This Way Up starts on Channel 4 on Thursday, August 8