The comic side of embarrassment

By Bridget Jones

Writer finds hilarity in life's most uncomfortable situations, writes Bridget Jones

Julia Davis wrote Hunderby and plays a pivotal role.
Julia Davis wrote Hunderby and plays a pivotal role.

Mass fatalities, racism, vomiting and an emotionally abusive husband threatening to stone his wife to death. Welcome to the first four minutes of Hunderby, a new comedy from the pen of Julia Davis.

Yes, comedy. Period comedy, in fact.

"I just love the repressed and forbidden atmosphere in which the characters must exist," Davis explains. "But more than anything, [I wanted] the chance to play around with the language. Obviously [what we use] isn't really remotely accurate - it's possibly more 1700s than 1800s with ludicrous made-up words thrown in but that, to me, was the joy of it."

The story's not unfamiliar, but the laughs sure are. It's 1831. Helena has survived a shipwreck only to end up married to the local pastor, Edmund, whose dead wife, as his eyepatch-wearing housekeeper (played by Davis) keeps reminding her, was a flawless saint no one could match. Now the less-than-happy couple must have a child within a year or they will lose their home, Hunderby.

Unsurprisingly, Davis is a fan of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca, which tells the story of a young woman who marries quickly, and moves to the estate of Manderley - complete with sinister housekeeper.

She says she has read it, watched it, and thought about it a lot, before starting to write Hunderby nine years ago - it was then going to be a film, and maybe she would play Helene. But time passed, and Davis couldn't get anyone to commission it. By the time it was picked up and turned into an eight-part series, the writer had to reassess her role in the show.

"I fancied myself playing a more emotional, and even likeable, heroine but of course the years ticked by and I realised I'm just better at playing evil old women."

Davis is no stranger to making the uncomfortable funny, and the funny uncomfortable. She's created some of the most unlikely shows to claim comedy status. In Nighty Night, she played Jill, a narcissistic sociopath who, upon learning her husband has cancer, manipulates her neighbour, a wheelchair-user with MS.

Then came the highly rated, yet uncommissioned Lizzie and Sarah; the English comedian was one of a pair of housewives enduring life with their cruel husbands. Belly-aching stuff.

"My approach to the 'is this too far' question is to write absolutely anything - you quickly feel that internal voice that says you've crossed away from what would actually be funny," she says.

That line, she says, is very delicate and it all comes down to tone. With so much experience in the dark arts, Davis, who has twin boys with The Mighty Boosh's Julian Barratt, acknowledges there is a bleakness to her work, but there is also a level of pure silliness - and even the odd traditional gag - lurking within the poetic language of Hunderby's time.

"The darkness is not intentional, I'd adore to write something feel-good but it simply does not come out of me. I guess in life I'm a kind of optimistic depressive," she says."

Coupled with those dark, twisted themes, religion also pops up in a lot of Davis' work. But then, she points out, so do wheelchairs. The God gags come as catharsis for a childhood spent in church, among a family of vicars. The wheelchairs, she says she's not so sure about.

Although part of Hunderby's charm, if that is indeed the right word, is its painful awkwardness, the self-described "shy and overly sensitive" Davis says she hates the idea of making things uncomfortable for her cast. But she says she was convinced Alexander Macqueen, who plays pastor Edmund, could pull off a series of odd, drawn-out sex scenes, among other cringeworthy things.

"In fact he virtually volunteered some pretty crazy moves in his casting that had me weeping with laughter, so it was great fun to ask him to do more and more weird moves - and noises - on set.

"But I think Edmund's sweaty, dodgy moves and grunts may have been quite unpleasant for Alexandra Roach [who played Helene]."

It's almost impossible to watch, a bit like a historical Girls. But like the American hit, Davis says the fun comes from pushing all the right - and some of the wrong - buttons.

"I think my work can divide people but I'd rather get a reaction than just the sense that I made something mediocre. I always put my heart and soul into what I do so, at the very least, it hopefully won't be bland."

What: Hunderby
When: Thursdays, 9.55pm (and repeated at various times on Saturday and Sundays)
Where: UKTV

- TimeOut

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