Celebrating Funny Women Alumni: Chris Entwisle – Underachieving, exceptionally…

“If we all stopped laughing at men who aren’t funny, the world would change overnight.”

As she returns to the stage in Oliver Emanuel’s co-production of The Monstrous Heart, Awards Alumni Coordinator Gemma Higgins talks to 2015 Funny Women Writing Awards winner and 2016 Comedy Shorts finalist Chris Entwisle about destruction and play, the paradox of performance, the safety of writing in bed and how not wanting to throw your computer out of the window feels amazing.

Photo Credit: Joe Maher/WirelImage

Gemma Higgins: Why, hello stranger! Last time we caught up you’d just won the award for Best Scripted Comedy at the BBC Audio Drama Awards for Secret Kebabs, were finalising Fairy Job and about to show ManHunt (the film that saw her reach the final in the Funny Women Comedy Shorts Awards final the previous year) at the Keswick Film Festival. Oh, and you were about to begin writing a new play. I mean, to say you’re prolific is an understatement – I’m tired just after the question! How has it been? How are you feeling?

Chris Entwisle: It’s been tricky. I’ve had some lovely awards and stuff and have continued to write but only by the skin of my massive teeth. There was a good while where I had to do some really dull jobs. I have, on the upside, discovered that I’m really bad at ushering. And “How am I feeling?” Right now I feel like I’m excelling in destroying my own work, and underachieving in looking after my aging parents.

GH: Murmuration, which the National Theatre have supported you to develop, is inspired by your time as Artist in Residence at MIND. Can you tell us anything about the narrative? What are the current plans for the show and will we be seeing you perform in it?

CE: It’s about a voice hearer. I was trying to dramatise auditory hallucination. We had a great week at the studio with voice hearer Valerie Sinason and the wonderful composer Nick Powell. It has just been commissioned for radio four and will star the very brilliant Christopher Ecclestone. I wanted to write it for theatre, but the folks at the Nash didn’t come to the showing. I think they were all really really busy designing the next poster for Whoops There Goes Three Hours I’ll Never Get Back, The Sequel . Actually, I’m really happy that my home has shifted into radio and tv as there is less nepotism and you are much more likely to be credited for your work and paid properly. (I had written a sentence saying: “Plus, most theatre is a load of old wank” but thought it may be overkill… so I removed it. And then added it here in parentheses)

GH: On the subject of performance, your command of the stage has not only seen you receive an abundance of critical acclaim for roles in your own works, but lauded for your “infectious enthusiasm” and “hilarious” interpretations of outrageous, irreverent characters in adaptations of classics such as Sense & Sensibility. You were clearly as much born for the stage as crafting the stories told from it. Do you feel instinctively more connected to, or get more pleasure from, the process of creating or becoming a character?

CE: I don’t know. I’m doing one right now and it’s never plain sailing. I guess you have to really want to do something to go for a part in theatre because theatre is an expensive business. It costs your wallet (obviously) but also it costs your time (very much) and your mental and emotional energy (don’t start me). It’s got to be special – a good script, a director who’s not a moron. Otherwise why add to the vast sea of theatrical crap? (see I told you I might not need the “old wank” – see above). I do get pleasure from doing challenging or comedic roles. In Sense and Sensibility there was a rare opportunity to play two middle-aged comedic well written roles This is the first time in my life that has happened. Women aren’t usually offered one decent comedic role, let alone two. So it was a delight. Regarding performance generally, like most things in my life it is a double-edged sword. It is restricting and freeing. Terrifying and delightful.  It is easier than writing but nowhere near as fulfilling. There is, of course, a social aspect to it which is essential for people like me, as otherwise I would end up alone and rocking in my flat, covered in random bits of A4 paper.

GH: Does your approach to the performance differ when you’re embodying a persona that you originated? Does the experience of portraying them challenge or fulfill you creatively in different ways and do you ever write identities with yourself in mind? 

CE: If I’ve written it I don’t really think about it because it must be part of me to have come out. But it’s a bloody relief to get away from the stuff that lives in my head alone. So yes. There is a kind of lightness sometimes that comes with playing stuff I haven’t written. 

GH: The “beautifully written” Do You Wish To Continue (the film script that saw Chris win the Funny Women Writing Award) is a black comedy about depression, hopelessness, despair, Man Hunt follows a woman who’s trying to get back on the dating horse after her boyfriend’s ‘accidental death’, and your web series Fairy Job depicts the life of a wannabe children’s party entertainer who genuinely thinks she’s a fairy…you create this magical pastiche of dark and chilling meets insane and ridiculous that’s just sublime. For anyone who’s not seen your work, how would you describe it? 

CE: You describe it much better than I ever could. But I guess they are all stories about people who are trapped in a situation and sort of beaten down by life and who fight to win their version of happiness – whether that’s a boyfriend for a doll, or mastering the mechanics of flight. 

GH: You’re back on stage in Oliver Emanuel’s co-production of The Monstrous Heart as Mag, a rustic cabin-dweller in the Canadian wilds whose estranged daughter (played by Charlene Boyd) returns from prison to settle her scores. How did it come about and what was it about the script that made both the play and the character such an inviting prospect?

CE: She’s a recovering alcoholic with a gun hidden in a cupboard. No brainer. Also it’s funny and beautifully written and a new play and a two hander.

GH: “High class inventiveness”, a “unique comic identity”, “ brio and impeccable timing”…when did you realise you were funny?

CE: I don’t know where the hell you’re getting these quotes from but they’re making me feel a lot better. I didn’t know I was funny. I knew I loved comedy. But only boys seemed to do it. I began a double act in the early naughties with my very funny friend Bernadette Russell and people were a little shocked by us. They either loved it or hated it and we got SO much misogynist press. We got sick of heckles like: “you’ve got shit tits.” The scene was almost ALL men back in those days. It was fucking horrendous. We gave up. But we burned bright!! I’d like to think we were simply ahead of our time. I’d kind of love to try again, but I think that working through telly and film is a much more controlled environment for the troubled mind. 

GH: The “playfulness” of Lazy Susan’s “odd, inventive, silly” whilst at the same time smart, self-aware” sketches has been compared to the likes of French & Saunders or Mel and Sue, and although much of your more recent work is far darker, everything you do remains “full of heart” and evokes the sense of almost childish glee at the bizarre misfortunes bestowed upon the characters…its own Comedy of Errors, you could say. Growing up, who or what did you find funny and what influence did it have on your own comedic writing? 

CE: I loved working with Lazy Susan and I always felt my main job was to make sure there was heart and sorrow because that really set it apart from other sketch stuff at the time. The lasses are not just great comics but brilliant actors so they could take the material beyond gags and back again. They have their own darkness in the material, but I think sometimes I overstepped their taste threshold with my suggestions. To be fair I often overstep my own taste threshold so no surprises there. I found lots of people funny growing up but they were mainly blokes because there was mainly blokes. My all time hero is Eric Morecambe. 

GH: Phoebe Waller-Bridge famously writes in bed and has said she produces her best work when on a terrifyingly short deadline – Brett Gelman’s final speech having being written in the car between the unit base and the set! Do you have a particular place you like to write, and / or are their particular conditions you need to create in order to allow the ideas to flow? Where, when and how do your narratives and characters emerge?

CE: Ok well this is gonna look like I’m copying the very great PWB. But I write in bed. Or in a corner. Where I feel safe. I can’t explain it but it feels like a dangerous thing to do. So I have to be in the safest of dens… usually. I bought a desk from John Lewis when I got the tv pilot. It’s basically just a stand for the phone. Which now doesn’t ring because Virgin Media ARE FUCKING ARSEHOLES. Sorry. Off point.

GH: Gill Sims fans will have heard your suitably frank and feisty adaptation of her novel Why Mummy Drinks for BBC Radio. What was that like to work on? How different did you find developing a script using someone else’s narrative compared crafting an entirely original work from scratch? Is there a dream piece of writing you’d love to bring to life in an audio or visual medium?

CE: I don’t think I’m a natural at adapting so no I don’t have a dream thing to adapt but Gill’s stuff is so funny it’s a delight. There are challenges because radio can only have a handful of characters and time is restricted but I particularly writing dialogue for the older couple.

GH: When you entered the Funny Women Awards you were busy directing Lazy Susan and had to get your entry together (the familiar ‘don’t mention the treatment’, springs to mind) in a day when someone sent you a link to it. At the time, did you have any expectations of what might come of it? 

CE: I certainly didn’t think I’d win but I was trying everything at the time to get noticed and thought Funny Women sounded like a great idea.

GH: Not satisfied with – or more likely, simply inspired by the experience of – winning the Writing Award, you then returned the following year to reach the final in the Comedy Shorts category, what do you think it is about Funny Women that makes it such a great platform when you’re looking to break into the industry?

CE: Because you don’t have to compete against men who are generally a bit more confident about their abilities (whether they deserve to be or not).

GH: To say you’ve been prolific as a writer since then would be an absolute understatement. How do you feel your work and your approach to it has changed or evolved between now and then?

CE: I suppose I take it more seriously and am less likely to throw my computer through the window just because it has been noticed, and some people seem to like it. That is an amazing feeling.

GH: Over the years we’ve seen new comedy partnerships, friendships, even relationships start at the Awards. Have you kept in touch with any of the brilliant Funny Women you met through the competition? 

CE: No but I’m always on the look out for them.

GH: “Don’t wait for it to be perfect. Nothing’s ever perfect. Just do your best and send it in. And if you don’t win, write something else. Writing a script is never time wasted” was your (incredibly wise) advice to anyone thinking of entering the Funny Women Awards in 2015. Four years on, with the doors opening up for more women to develop comedy content, write scripts, produce and direct original work and collaborative initiatives such as #BurnBright making things fairer for those who do, is there anything you’d add?

CE: If we all stopped laughing at men who aren’t funny, the world would change overnight.

GH: In 2015 you were branching out into character comedy and in 2017 contemplating a bit of solo stand up. It’s now 2019 and we’ve spoken about Murmuration, and The Monstrous Heart but I suspect you’re sitting on more than a few other projects. So, Chris, what’s next? 

CE: I’ve written Idle Hands and Secret Kebabs for Radio Four (noticing a pattern?) and I’m currently working with Big Talk on a tv series of Do You Wish To Continue. Oh and I’m adapting the next series of Why Mummy Drinks which will be fun. The presenters on Women’s Hour hate the drama bit at the end and are often patronizing and dismissive, so I’m really looking forward to pissing them off as much as I can. Perhaps I’ll pop them in the episodes as grotesque cameos…

GH: You’ve said how much you love the magnificent Victoria Wood, Catherine Tate, Margaret Rutherford, and Lena Dunham (to name just a few on your long, long list), and wrote your hilarious web series Fairy Job with the super talented Kirsty Woodward. When it comes to new comedy writing, which Funny Women are you most excited about right now?

CE: Loads: I love Roisin Conaty, Julia Davis, Vicky Pepperdine…and Diane Morgan is a Comedy Goddess. Oh, and Lisa McGee who wrote Derry Girls. Her work is sublime. Outrageous, SO daft and then makes you cry. Beautiful.

GH: “[It’s an] amazing boost to me to have my work recognised and to be given access to further opportunity. I would like to say that I am still on cloud nine but I’m afraid that even as the applause faded, I began to wonder whether they might have got me mixed up with someone else.” Funny Women Award winner and finalist, awarded Best Scripted Comedy at the BBC Audio Drama Awards for her BBC Radio 4 play Secret Kebabs, but still no stranger to the old imposter syndrome, but looking back over everything you’ve achieved since 2015, has there been a moment when you’ve gone, “You know what? I did that. I did that and you know what? I’m so damn proud of me”?

CE: Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah. Ha.

I mean, you have to laugh: the woman is exceptional…

The Monstrous Heart is on at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, 22nd October – 2nd November. For tickets and more information, click here!