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Aisling Bea: This Way Up was ‘like trying to light a barbecue in a storm’

Aisling Bea’s comedy-drama This Way Up is seriously funny. But there’s still space between the laughs for nods to big issues like Grenfell and Windrush

“Today I might have pneumonia, but last night was lovely.”

Aisling Bea is feeling under the weather when The Big Issue calls. Because the previous night, she was literally under a lot of heavy weather, performing stand-up at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London.

“It was so sunny when I was on my way, then as soon as I got on stage, it started to rain and from then on it was hilariously stormy throughout the whole gig,” she says, voice a little croaky from making herself heard above the downpour (and possibly the post-show drinks with her pal Nish Kumar).

“It was torrential at one point – and I was totally out in the open. When they say Open Air Theatre, they’re not shitting around, you know? It happened last July when I played there too. Is it a message from Jesus?”

Bea has, she says, fallen back in love with stand-up after a period of time when it felt like training for a sporting event “because we do have to keep doing stand-up to stay any good at it”.

Bea is one of the best in the business. And the profits from the gig went to the domestic abuse charity Refuge. “The idea of being locked in with your abuser by the government – that’s the bit where I’m like, ‘Oh, my god’,” says Bea, whose social conscience and clear-sighted worldview infuses so much of her work.

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The return of Bea’s comedy-drama This Way Up for a long-awaited second series showcases once again a rare ability to make serious comedy, about serious issues, that is seriously funny.

If the series looks at loneliness and fragile mental health, love, family and sisterhood, connection, loss and isolation, then the gags still sparkle and the characters – led by Aisling Bea and Sharon Horgan as sisters Áine and Shona – pop out of the screen with an extraordinary verve.

The process of writing and then filming the series against the backdrop of the pandemic was not easy, and Bea reels off some of the setbacks she and the team encountered. “The airborne virus was the least of our troubles,” she says.

“You have serious things like people losing people or getting sick or struggling in their own homes and families and relationships. Then there are locations getting cancelled, people having to pull out, not being able to do scenes that were part of the script – which you wouldn’t know until the night before – because of Covid reasons.

“And in terms of having inspiration to write when you are lonely and low from the pandemic… writing the first series was so lonely and it wasn’t great for my mental health. So second time around, the one thing I knew that I didn’t want to do was do it on my own. Then there was a global pandemic and it was almost like it was God laughing and going, ‘Not only will you do it alone, you’ll do it without even being able to see a friend for weeks.’”

She checks herself. As she does constantly.

“I feel like I’m a right negative Nelly today but I am proud of the show that I ended up making. I suppose you do look at the cost of it at the end of it, don’t you, like with anything? But I’m very aware that so many people have had it so bloody tough. I’m highly aware of the privilege of having a job during the pandemic. But gratitude doesn’t inspire you creatively. It just makes you feel guilty that you’re not feeling fantastic that you have a job.

“Everything I tried to do kept on getting a knock. But I really hope people like it. I’m very proud of it. But it has definitely felt like trying to light a barbecue in a storm.”

Bea is fearless when it comes to tackling difficult subject areas. Whether that is devising This Way Up with its foregrounding of the lead character’s mental health struggles or, for series two, including two of the biggest issues in the UK today.

“It’s hard to know how to use your platform sometimes,” says Bea. “The stakes are personally quite high when you write about an issue, but I wouldn’t want to go to bed at night feeling like I’ve been a coward. It’s not a TED talk, this is a 23-and-a half-minute comedy drama telling the story of what Áine is doing.

“But I had six blank documents open to write the series and I can either spaff out six episodes set in a café or fly a bit closer to the sun. And it’s scary. I literally wake up at night thinking oh, my god, what if this is, you know, disrespectful, tonally. But certain issues need to stay at the fore as much as possible. So there is a Windrush fundraiser in episode four. And I’ve got a nod to Grenfell in episode five.

What you measure a person or government by is how they are in the years afterwardsAisling Bea

Aisling Bea

“For me, one of the biggest issues is the cladding scandal in the wake of Grenfell. After Grenfell happened, it should have been sorted like, yesterday. All those poor people who have cladding on their buildings and are stuck in flats they can’t afford to fix and can’t sell or move on from? They’re not just worried about money, they are also sitting there in houses which are more flammable.

“Anyone can come down and give a quick wave in the event of a tragedy. What you measure a person or government by is how they are in the years afterwards. It’s like, everyone will come to the funeral but what about when you’re grieving three years later? Who was turning up for you then? And that’s what this feels like – what parts of Britain are turning up for the victims of Grenfell years later and for these people who are stuck in the cladding crisis? Listen, it’s not like I’m a Conservative fan anyways. But for God’s sake.”

Bea talks about completing This Way Up meaning she had a ‘successful-on-paper’ year – but how hard it is to take joy in that when you are unable to share it with people?

“All those little human moments, those small moments, are the ones that we didn’t realise how much we needed,” she says. “It wasn’t the big holidays abroad, it was the little incidental moments of humanity that I think we’re missing.”

An underlying mood of isolation and trying to connect was present in This Way Up from the very start. But it says even more now. And anything that helps us question or understand or come to terms with what we have been living through should be applauded.

“I’m lucky I get a platform to complain to people widely and publicly about the difficulty of my lockdown or I get to put it in a television show,” says Bea.

“But most people have not yet been able to find their voice or even the words to describe the last year. I think it’ll be a long time before people process what happened and what went wrong and how much of it was because of the pandemic and how much of it exposed what was there that was bad anyways.

“I think we’ve yet to hear even the tip of the iceberg of the stories of these times.”

This Way Up by Aisling Bea airs on Wednesdays on Channel 4 and is available as a boxset on All4

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