She’s been responsible for some of British television’s blackest and most brilliant comedy. But Stylist discovers Julia Davis is a sensitive soul at heart…
Photography: David Bailey
Words: Andrew Dickens
After an hour of sitting in the same room as Julia Davis, I’m beginning to sympathise with those film crews who spend days waiting for some rare creature to pop its head out of a burrow, just so David Attenborough can bother it for our amusement.
Despite craning my neck, all I’ve glimpsed are her feet and what might or might not have been an elbow. This is partly because she’s hidden within a jungle of photographic paraphernalia, cultivated by the man shooting her for our cover – a young up-and-comer called David Bailey – and partly because, I’m told, Davis is really rather shy; which is not a trait you might expect when you look at what she does.
When mentioning Davis’ work, it seems compulsory to use the word ‘dark’. It’s something that irks Davis, 45, but, frankly, it’s unavoidable. When her most celebrated creation, Nighty Night, is a comedy about a woman who a) can’t wait for her husband to die of cancer and b) while she is waiting, decides to seduce the husband of her MS-suffering neighbour, she’s unlikely to draw comparisons with Keeping Up Appearances for her portrayal of the amoral Jill. Throw in the fact that Davis went jogging in her underwear and wore chaps (with nothing under them) to a blind date, and you can understand why nobody’s going to think, “Blimey, that Julia Davis could do with coming out of her shell a bit.”
The photoshoot ends and Davis emerges from the jungle. Not that I’d envisaged her drowning kittens or anything, but I’m taken aback by how nice she is. She’s graceful, polite and naturally beautiful but understated in bare face, jeans and a grey jumper.
One person who most definitely isn’t shy is Bailey. You’ve heard of a charm offensive? Well, Bailey is charmingly offensive. He’ll tell you to “f*** off”, but with a glint in his eye. As Davis and I head off to a local Bloomsbury pub to do the interview, he kicks me in the leg. “She’s lovely. Be nice to her, you f***er,” he says, before smiling and making it all OK.
As we walk and talk, it becomes clear that Davis’ shyness is born of modesty, which is slightly misplaced when you consider she’s in the A-Team of modern British comedy. Her acting CV includes shows such as Human Remains, Brass Eye and, perhaps most famously, Gavin & Stacey, in which she played the maritally disgruntled Dawn. She counts Chris Morris, Rob Brydon, Ruth Jones and Steve Coogan as collaborators and friends. She even has a comedy partner, so to speak, in The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt, father of her five-yearold twin boys, Walter and Arthur.
Then there’s her writing. Davis hasn’t so much pushed the envelope as blown up a branch of Ryman. Jill is possibly light entertainment’s first suburban sociopath, while her much-lauded pilot, Lizzie And Sarah (sadly not picked up by the BBC), involved two housewives on a murderous rampage. The last month has seen a welcome Davis invasion on our screens with Channel 4’s Bad Sugar, while her latest creation Hunderby is making Monday nights bearable again. Having started last week on Sky Atlantic, Hunderby is no exception to the subversive rule, being part Blackadder, part The League Of Gentlemen, part Middlemarch, but completely Julia Davis.
Would it be right to say that Daphne du Maurier’s book Rebecca was the main inspiration for Hunderby?
That was definitely the original inspiration for it. There’s a real mix of things. There’s the Mrs Danvers thing. There’s a letter being unread which is a bit Tess Of The D’Urbervilles.
It’s riddled with double entendres and euphemisms. Were you struggling to think of Victorian words for rude parts after a while?
Not really. I was just trying to think of as many different ways of saying something… I wasn’t that worried about whether the language was entirely accurate. It’s certainly not entirely accurate to that era. In some places it’s somewhat medieval. It’s more just having fun with that.
How much of yourself do you put into your characters?
I just try to put myself in the minds of all the characters. In this, you’ve got the very vulnerable, innocent woman, which exists within me. Then you’ve got the romantic Dr Foggerty character and I like imagining being him.
You don’t do many interviews. Do you dislike being in the spotlight?
I think most people, including me, like to read gossipy things about others; revealing things that I love to read, but I don’t really want known about me. For that reason, any answers you give are going to be quite measured. Also, because I always get asked, “Why is your stuff so dark?” and I don’t really have an answer.
Do you ever shock yourself?
Certainly not when I come up with it. Sometimes, yes, I’ve occasionally looked back on things and felt like it’s not really come from me, in a weird way. If I sit and watch it with relatives, I spend a lot of time cringing.
Are you one to make inappropriate jokes in real life?
No. I’m quite tactful, actually. I worry about whether people are all right. With my friends, obviously, conversations are quite free and uncensored, but I would never enjoy making someone feel uncomfortable at all.
There’s a vast pool of British comedy talent at the moment. Do you think we should be making films to rival the likes of Bridesmaids?
I wish we were. I’m not really sure why we’re not. Maybe it’s their approach where they put together big teams of writers. The only person really doing that might be Armando Iannucci [creator of The Thick Of It and Veep].
Would you like success in the US?
I do think with Hunderby, ‘Will anyone in America like it?’ I’d love it if they did. I know they love Downton Abbey.
Lizzie and Sarah got a great reception, but the BBC didn’t commission it. Do you think they got scared of anything too risqué after the Russell Brand/Jonathan ross affair?
I’d say a lot of it is down to controllers and commissioners who change, and the personality of those people who choose what they like. Also, shows like Miranda. I know her very well. I love what she does. That’s a much warmer kind of comedy. People loved it. And it starts a trend where they go, “We like this. We want more.” So, then, how’s a show like Lizzie And Sarah going to fit in?
Do you feel like you’re a woman in a man’s world?
Interesting… I don’t generally feel that. Working on Hunderby, the director [Tony Dow] is a man and the director of photography also, and sometimes I got the feeling I had to tread carefully. You can feel very slightly more judged as a woman, for making decisions. But I don’t feel like I’ve had a horrible struggle through loads of sexist men. In fact, I actually feel that a lot of men have been very supportive of me from the beginning.
Do people expect you to be funny all the time?
Only in a situation like just now. I spoke to David Bailey on the phone [before the shoot] and he asked, “What do you do? Are you a comedian?” I don’t even call myself a comedian. Then you think, “Oh god, they’re going to think I’m really funny.” when you’re funny off camera, what’s your thing? It’s always going to be me saying something slightly left-field or just weird. One of my little boys has definitely got the same slightly eccentric humour. It’s just stupid.
Do you deal with life using humour?
Definitely. I think that’s true in all my friendships. If I can laugh with people, it makes me feel safe with them. If I feel someone has no sense of humour, I find it really scary. I do it with the kids as well; put on stupid voices to lighten up the spirit or gee them along to do something. is that how you broach deaths of goldfish and hamsters? I haven’t got there yet. I’d definitely be careful about it. Children are so mercurial with their emotions. They can be absolutely sobbing one minute and then they’re fine. So you can bring them out of stuff really easily with some stupid voice.
Have they given you a whole new source of material?
They could, but I think I’m unlikely to write about that. I often used to think of how Jill would be with a child – it’s so awful. How far could you ever go? But you do see people being horrific, the way they talk to kids.
There’s a rumour Kylie watched Nighty Night while she had cancer...
Yeah, I heard that too. I went to a club once and she was there singing karaoke. I was really drunk, and I thought, ‘Oh, she likes me,’ so I went and spoke to her. She was really nice.
When people pay you compliments like that, can you take them?
Well, I like them. I really like them, yes. I’m really chuffed. Because, obviously, Nighty Night was dealing with a woman being horrific about her husband with cancer and that’s a pretty heavy area – the idea that Kylie had cancer and yet was finding this somehow funny and helpful… What better thing could there be than bringing pleasure to someone in pain?
“The idea that Kylie had cancer and yet was finding Nighty Night funny and helpful… what better thing could there be than that?”
What about personal compliments? Is that a different thing?
Maybe. Somebody once said to me, “Just say thank you,” if someone says something nice. Because if someone says, “Oh, you look nice,” I usually go, “No, I look awful.”
So, was it hard to film the scenes in Nighty Night when you were running around in your underwear and jeans with the cheeks cut out?
You just write it and it’s a character. Luckily, that was a good 10 years ago. That was pre-children. Weirdly, I was thinking about the arse thing the other day. We were filming in this close in Surrey and all the residents had been paid, I’m sure, to allow the filming to go on. There was this woman who clearly loathed it and me, but she kept talking to me through her dog: “We don’t like her, do we?”
How do you relax?
Watching a lot of films, music, hanging out with friends; talking. I’ve lived on my own quite a lot before, and I do like my solitude. Now I've got twins, it’s quite hard to be on my own. I do that by just walking around town. Actually – and this is such a girly thing to say – Liberty’s department store is a real therapy. I go in there and wander around and just look at pretty diamond earrings and things.
Do you watch any children’s television with your sons?
I do. I watch quite a lot, but I also manage to get them to watch what I consider to be really good, like Tom & Jerry. Octonauts is quite good. CBeebies in general. You know that guy Mr Tumble? He’s really good.
Do you vote? Are you political?
This is a really tricky thing, because I don’t think I’m very politically active. I’m sure if I analysed it I am political, but I don’t feel I can say that, because I’m not doing anything about it.
So you have the feelings and the thoughts, but not the drive?
Yes, which I feel quite guilty about. It’s true: if everyone did something about it, there wouldn’t be homelessness. I do think that, but how can I say that and not do something about it? I should be giving everything up to be going to do that. Maybe sometime in my lifetime I will.
What makes you cry?
Loads of films. Oh, so many things [laughs]. Being hurt by someone. My children make me cry in a good and bad way. If they’re being incredibly sweet or if I feel that they’re upset. But there was another thing, a programme a while ago. Women would have a makeover and then they’d look in the mirror – that used to make me cry if they were happy. Or people who have been adopted and just found their mother and father, all that kind of thing. I’m quite easy to manipulate, actually.
Finally, what do you value?
This is going to sound cheesy, but friendships really. Love and friendships, that’s pretty much it. Oh, and being able to do what I love doing. I do value that. Health. Those are the main things. And liberty… Liberty and Liberty’s.
Hunderby is on Sky Atlantic HD every Monday, and is also available on the move with Sky Go