Interview: Dead Boss co-creator Holly Walsh
Holly Walsh is perhaps best known for prolific appearances on popular panel shows like Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Mock The Week, as well as Fringe show Hollycopter, which attracted a Best Newcomer nomination last year. However her latest project, BBC3’s Dead Boss, sees Walsh move behind the camera on a show she co-writes with Sharon Horgan. The series follows Helen Stephens (played by Horgan), who is wrongly imprisoned for murdering her boss. Keen to find out more about the show, James Harle caught up with an exhausted Holly Walsh to find out if everything had gone according to plan…
JH: So, the first episode of Dead Boss aired on the 14th – how’s the reaction been so far?
HW: It was really good. We were thrilled; we were super happy; we were dead chuffed with it. It was really positive. I got a pizza and watched it at home with my boyfriend, and it was brilliant to see my work on TV like that.
JH: And what did your boyfriend think of it?
HW: Well, he’d seen a lot of the earlier edits. I tried to show some people early edits of it, and others later edits, to try and get perspective. Not many; just three or four people who we showed it to as we went along. When you’re editing it, you need someone who’s not been in the room staring at it for hours – you need perspective. It’s like anything, when you’ve been working really hard on something you sometimes need a fresh pair of eyes.
JH: You and Sharon Horgan have gone on record as being ‘obsessed’ with Jennifer Saunders – has she worked out as well as you’d hoped?
HW: It’s been incredible. Honestly, we were so thrilled when she said yes. She was such a dream choice for us that when she agreed to it, we were just like: ‘Oh my God, she’s going to do it.’ She’s so funny; what she can do with just one eyebrow is incredible. She’s hilarious. She’s always so in control, she knows exactly what she’s doing, and she can make anything funny. She’s brilliant, and she’s in every episode.
JH: And of course she’s just won a BAFTA for comedy performance…
HW: Yeah, for Ab Fab wasn’t it? Which is, like, an amazing series. I watched it when I was a teenager, and I’ve re-watched it recently – and the jokes which I didn’t necessarily get when I was sixteen I get now. I know people like that now.
JH: So what’s it like around the writing table with Sharon Horgan and Holly Walsh?
HW: Well, we’ve known each other for quite a long time now, so we’ve got quite a good writing relationship; but it did take a while, I don’t think it’s something you can rush. It took us years to really get it going; but we’ve always really laughed at each other, which is really good, and we’ve always had a lot of fun writing together.
I think writing a series, though, you have to up your game a bit. We’ve had such a good time doing it, we’ve really enjoyed the process, so I think we’re lucky – or I’m lucky, anyway, that I got to work with her. Because I was such a huge fan of Pulling and everything else she’s done, for me it was a massive treat to work with her. Plus, I’ve never written a sitcom before. Does that make sense? I’m sometimes paranoid what I say doesn’t make sense.
JH: Made sense to me. Do you regret not bringing that chemistry into the acting side as well? Sharon is the main character, and you appear onscreen for all of three seconds.
HW: Well, I’ve never really acted before, and when you’re in a situation where you’re with some of the funniest actors in the country, and they’re all absolutely shining, I don’t think that’s a good time to test the water! I thought it probably wasn’t my best introduction, and that it might be better to learn as you go rather than jump in at the deep end. I loved performing in it, but I thought this is maybe too big a deal to use it to get my foot on the ladder. And I just don’t look good in a jumpsuit. That’s the main problem.
JH: A prison inmate is a daunting role – but imagining the scenario must have been daunting too. What kind of research went into writing the script?
HW: Well, we got teamed up with a girl who had been a prisoner. We had a long chat with her about her experiences, and she was just really honest and great to talk to. Sharon and I decided we didn’t want to make the show a social commentary about prisons, we wanted to work in the tradition of prison and crime comedies, but talking to her still helped us a lot. She came down to the set and having someone with that experience there helped us get our heads round it all.
JH: It must be a delicate process, bringing the comedy out of what could be quite heavy subject matter…
HW: It’s the same for any kind of crime or prison related comedy, if you think about the history of them. As I said, it’s not a social commentary; we didn’t want to go down that route, we wanted to stay away from that and create our own world where stuff happened that was descended from the reality of being in prison. We worked hard on that.
JH: I think one common strand with these types of shows is that they seem very character-driven. Do you have a favourite character?
HW: Well, we were talking about this the other day, Sharon and I, and I think my relationship with Sharon is a sort of variation on Helen and Christine. Neither of us is as extreme as that – but we do kind of mess around quite a lot…
I wouldn’t say we are those people, but it was a nice dynamic, and one that we found easy to write. But I absolutely love the relationship between Henry and Mary. The two actors who played them (Ed Hogg and Amanda Lawrence) had this immediate kind of acting chemistry. We never screen tested them together, so we got them in the same room and it was like: ‘Is this going to work out?’ And it did.
It was an amazing thing seeing them work together, and they’re both brilliant actors so they just played off each other in a really good way. It’s the kind of thing we couldn’t have predicted, but it was so lucky and amazing. I loved everybody, actually. I could give examples of everybody being brilliant, and the company got on like a house on fire, which is really nice. There was such a good feeling on set when we were making it, because everyone just ‘got’ each other, and that’s always helpful. Everyone has to be on the same page to get the tone right.
JH: Part of the mystery-comedy genre is that you’ve got a strong arrangement to the episodes; Psychoville, for example, had a very intricate structure. Is it hard to be funny and tie up the plot at the same time?
HW: Well, we’re a big fan of the cliff-hanger, so we’ve tried to untie as many things as possible, rather than tie them up. I loved Psychoville and I loved all the people involved in it – but we didn’t set out to make it like Psychoville, it was just a natural part of setting it in a prison. If someone’s been falsely imprisoned for killing their boss, there’s a natural whodunit in that. It’s like, if she didn’t do it, who did do it? So it’s a natural side-effect of the context, if that makes sense…
JH: Were there any programmes or films which did have a big influence on Dead Boss then?
HW: We watched a lot of films which were really useful, films like Stir Crazy and Mean Girls. A lot of those high school films were quite important, because we liked the idea of a prison being like a school. You know, when you walk into the dining room and there are the jocks and the bullies and the swats – we love all that. Films like Stir Crazy were really helpful too, but I hope that in the end we found our own way of doing stuff rather than relying too much on anything else. There were a lot of things we looked at, and were really inspired by.
JH: And I hear you kept up your stand-up throughout the filming?
HW: I did try to keep gigging, but in the depths of filming when we were doing twelve-hour days I didn’t have the energy for both. I had to keep gigging really, because I do stand-up for a living and you’ve got to keep your hand in. It’s not something that I could take three months away from and then return to, at my stage. I’ve got to keep my hand in, and keep working on stuff as I go. It does feel like a double life at times, but the differences are interesting. When I do stand up I can think of a joke, say it out loud, and if no one laughs I can say: ‘Oh, no one found that funny. I need to take it away and work on it’. With TV there’s a sort of delayed reaction; you make the whole thing, then put it out there and just hope people laugh at it. I love the immediacy of stand-up.
I went up to Manchester for 3 days about a month ago. I just sat in a horrible Travel Lodge next to an industrial estate during the day and wrote jokes, and at night I went and did gigs around there. I did new stuff at the Comedy Store, at XS Malarkey and a really nice one at the Contact Theatre on the university campus too, which was really fun.
They were such cool audiences, so fun, so smart. I know Manchester’s got its own scene and I loved it. I thought: ‘This is such a healthy, exciting place to bring new jokes.’ Nice, supportive, and really useful in trying to work out what was funny and what wasn’t. There’s a good energy up there.
JH: Finally then, if you could use one sentence to convince our readers to watch Dead Boss what would it be? What’s the show’s unique selling point?
HW: Um, well…Jennifer Saunders gets off with Tony Blackburn. She kisses him really quite hard on the lips.
Dead Boss is on Thursday nights at 10.30pm on BBC3. You can also watch the show on iPlayer here.