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CHANNEL 4’S PURE WRITER KIRSTIE SWAIN TALKS TO FUNNY WOMEN

A brand new comedy drama Pure is coming to Channel 4 on 30th January, telling the story of 24 year old Marnie who suffers from bad thoughts that she can’t tell anyone about. Her obsessive thoughts drive her to escape to London where upon meeting new people, Marnie discovers she’s not the only one who feels lost. We caught up with Pure writer Kirstie Swain to discuss writing comedy about mental health, how to write comedy at all and a certain Funny Women Awards winner who pops up in the series…

Funny Women: Tell us what is Pure about?

Kirstie Swain: Pure is a comedy drama about a young woman called Marnie who has relentless graphic sexual thoughts. Little does she know she’s suffering from an excruciating type of obsessive-compulsive disorder – nicknamed Pure O – where her obsessions take the form of sexual intrusive thoughts and her compulsions are unseen mental rituals that deeply affect her daily life. One day, Marnie thinks the worst thing she’s ever thought and her solution is to jump on a coach to London with nothing but a backpack and some dreams…and a headful of sexual imagery. She goes to London to find herself but ends up finding other people instead, and they’re all just as lost as she is. It’s a coming of age show about getting to know your mind and your mates.

FW: How did you come to write the script for Pure?

KS: It’s inspired by the memoir of the same name by Rose Cartwright about her experiences of growing up with undiagnosed OCD. Drama Republic sent me the book to read and as someone who’s suffered from an anxiety disorder, the way Rose spoke about obsessive worrying and cyclical doubt (and in such a frank and funny way) really resonated with me. I was like, I have to do this now! I was a huge fan of Drama Republic’s work too, so getting to make this show with a bunch of incredible, hilarious women like them (Executive Producer Roanna Benn, Producer Jen Kenwood and Script Editor Morven Reid) was a massive tick for me. We just thought it would be a great way into a relationship show about someone who struggles in her relationships because of a chronic anxiety condition. Writing this show was the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make and as someone who can’t even decide what have for dinner most of the time, that’s saying something.

FW: Was it a challenge to write a character who has mental health issues? 

KS: We wanted to be truthful and respectful of the condition but also make a great TV show too. We couldn’t just cut and paste Rose’s experience. As with any adaption, we had to find its legs, build to a return and effectively create a genre, which for me was a relationship comedy drama so I created all the characters and stories in order to serve that. We were also really mindful that mental illness on screen, especially in women, is sometimes used as a shortcut to a character quirk. You don’t often get to go home with those characters and see what their life is like when they stop being ‘wacky.’ But in Pure we wanted to go beyond the humour and see the pain too. One big challenge was that mental health is a very private experience – a lot of it happens in the sufferer’s head. We had to get Marnie out of her head and into the world so we weren’t just watching a woman wince for six episodes. We visualised a lot of her intrusive thoughts as flashes of live action. For example, when she imagines grabbing a stranger’s crotch or licking her boss’ face in a meeting. We literally flash the viewer, and, much like being flashed by a mac-wearing stranger in a park, we wanted those images to be as just as disturbing. Marnie’s not aroused by these images, she’s disgusted by them. We wanted the audience to be disturbed too. Another challenge was the fact that OCD is a very complex and repetitive illness, so we used voiceover to try and show the true incessant nature of the illness… with jokes.

FW: Despite the serious nature of Marnie’s mental health, Pure is a comedy drama, how did you manage to find the comedy in this subject? 

KS: Something Robin Williams said really stuck with me which was that “the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” That applies to ‘worried people,’ too. I’ve always used writing as a kind of therapy to make sense of the more uncomfortable things in my life as well as the joyous ones. Comedians often find humour in devastation and I think we should. If you can laugh at something that scares you, you take away its power, which can empower you. Comedy is a weapon and when it’s used for good it can have heroic effects. Finding humour in mental illness is a kind of ‘fuck you’ to it.

FW: Did we spy 2017 Funny Women Awards winner Thanyia Moore in the cast?

KS: You did! She plays a millennial musician called KWINE in episode four. Her face acting is hilarious and impeccable.

FW: As a stand-up and comedy writer do you have any advice for aspiring comedy writers out there? 

KS: Write the script only you can write. Don’t try and copy other people’s style. Write stuff that makes you feel something because then it has more chance of making other people feel something too. It should be ‘you on a page.’

Write stuff, make it, then show it to people – even if it’s shit, because the next thing you make might be less shit and so on and so on until one day you make something you’re really fucking proud of.

Write everything down. Yes it can be quite antisocial if you whip out a notebook in the middle of a smear test but what if you went to it misguidedly wearing a jumpsuit and the only way you can get over the embarrassment is by writing a joke about it? It’s all material. You need record of that shit! I keep finding weird notes on my phone like the one I’ve found earlier that just says: “glitterbutt.” What does that mean?! I don’t know, but it might be the basis of my next show.

But ultimately just write.

FW: That’s great advice, lastly, who are your favourite funny women?

KS: To name a few:

Sharon Horgan
Kristen Wiig
Rachel Parris
Aisling Bea
Julia Davis
Hannah Gadsby

Smack The Pony – and it’s not just because Doon Mackichan is in Pure

Pure will air January 30th at 10pm on Channel 4. The full series is available, free to view or download, on All 4 following transmission of the first episode. The series will also continue weekly on Channel 4.