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‘We always need stuff that cheers us up’: Diane Morgan on love, laughs and learning to let go

In August 2020, only days before the pilot episode of Mandy was set to be broadcast, Diane Morgan picked up her phone and prepared to call a bigwig at the BBC. “I’m really sorry,” she’d envisioned herself saying, “but there’s absolutely no way you can let this thing go out.” She was ready to beg – to offer whatever cash, bribe or bargain necessary. Nothing was off the table in her effort to ensure the refreshingly ridiculous, six-part comedy series she’d directed, starred in and scripted ever reached the nation’s TVs.

This might sound strange: Morgan has quite the track record when it comes to shining on the small screen. She was elevated to cult sensation in 2013 while inhabiting her role as the simultaneously inept and insightful spoof interviewer Philomena Cunk: “How did Winston Churchill come to invent Tipp-Ex?” she asked one historian. Or: If horses used to be so good at drawing carriages, why are they no longer any good at art? From there, her deadpan demeanour landed her leading roles in the three seasons of the BBC’s much-loved Motherland – a nit-infested, school-gates sitcom of Sharon Horgan et al’s design – and Ricky Gervais’s After Life, too. Mandy, however, is different. For the first time in a long while, Morgan felt exposed.

“Of course, I did,” she says. “I wrote and directed it; my face is all over it. Normally, I can blame the writers, the awful direction. But if this is rubbish, it’s me who has made a bad programme.” This was a character Morgan had created alone, and she had nowhere to hide.

“I’d just done Liz in Motherland and Kath in After Life,” Morgan says, staring from across the table in a north London studio, her rescue dog, Bobby, next to her. “They were both low-key, laconic characters. Something in me just wanted to do something stupid, totally different for a change.” When she’d first been given a 15-minute slot on BBC Two, Morgan wanted to make something frivolous, and silly, almost cartoon-like.

What’s so funny?: as her new character, Mandy Carter.
What’s so funny?: as her new character, Mandy Carter. Photograph: Kieron McCarron/BBC

So she dreamed up Mandy Carter, a gives-no-shits antihero who smokes like a chimney; a woman who struggles as much to keep a hold of reality as she does her slurry of jobs. In an era of hefty and heartfelt, exposing comedy-dramas – Mae Martin’s Feel Good, Aisling Bea’s This Way Up, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s FleabagMandy falls into the genre of comedy of the absurd. During the pilot, Mandy lands a job as a stowaway tarantula spotter at a banana processing plant; she gets distracted, and somehow 17 people die. A stint working at a chicken shop sees her set the place on fire when her hair extensions get caught in an extractor fan while sneaking off for a fag. The storylines have only got more ludicrous.

In the end, Morgan never made the phone call. Instead, she switched off her phone and pretended it just wasn’t happening. She refrained from reading reviews and refused to look at social media. It was only when Ben Caudell – her TV producer partner – assured her that responses were positive that she dared come out of her self-imposed cocoon. “I was just sitting across from him, yelling: ‘Don’t tell me! Fine, tell me! Is it bad? How bad?’” She felt physically sick. “No, he said, it’s good. Obviously there were a couple of lunatics who said they want their licence fees back. But you’re always going to get that.”

Honestly? She never even considered the idea that execs would offer her a fully fledged series. And then another, and a Christmas special, both of which she’s here today to promote.

“I don’t think the world needs another comedy drama right now,” she says, seriously. “Nothing is really comedy-comedy. If they’re not funny you can get away with it by just saying, ‘Yes, but that one was drama, actually.’ But also this is all I could come up with. And well, it’s just silly. I was fucked if people didn’t crack up.”

There was nothing exceptional about Morgan’s childhood in Bolton, she says. Dad was a physiotherapist, mum raised the two kids and ran the home. “Should I skip to the interesting bits?” she asks. She’s not sure there were any. “I wasn’t beaten or anything, if that’s what you want. Is it?”

Office politics: in Ricky Gervais’s After Life Series 2, with Mandeep Dhillon and David Earl.
Office politics: in Ricky Gervais’s After Life Series 2, with Mandeep Dhillon and David Earl. Photograph: Netflix

The Morgan family’s love of comedy was all-consuming, almost obsessive. Theirs was a household that prized academic achievement far less than the ability to make people laugh. “If you could crack someone up,” she says, “that was really good. We’d all try to be the funny one. We’d all watch comedy shows together, record them and then pick them apart.” Until she found drama classes, school reports always noted that she was a quiet girl. Then at 15, she discovered that putting on funny voices was an easy way of winning friends. It was a revelation. Something clicked.

She’s 46 now, but Morgan was certain she wanted to be a comic actor before her 16th birthday, inspired by the likes of Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock. When plonked in front of a careers adviser she didn’t get much support. “They responded as if I’d said my future lay in being a mermaid,” Morgan remembers, unforgivingly. “It was that weird to them. They didn’t know what to do.”

It would be better, a teenage Morgan was assured, to give graphic design a shot. If she was still interested in performing a few years down the line, much better to get involved in some local am-dram. At her art school interview, her interviewer implied she seemed a little half-arsed. When asked what she would rather be doing, Morgan made it clear she quite fancied acting. The tutor passed Morgan back her papers, and told her to go and do that instead.

“What a stupid thing for me to do in an interview,” Morgan says now, “but she was the first person who just told me to make it happen.”

‘It makes you really want to make silly things.’
‘It makes you really want to make silly things.’ Photograph: Kristina Varaksina/The Observer

It took three years of slogging it out at auditions to finally secure a place at drama school. Meanwhile, she worked in sales (tea towels, to be specific), in a worming tablet factory and peeling chip-shop potatoes; somehow she managed to cling on to her post as a dental nurse after knocking out a patient’s crown while daydreaming on the job.

Drama school rejections, meanwhile, were plentiful. And after meeting Maxine Peake at an ill-fated audition, the pair sparked up a friendship that buoyed each other. Morgan reckons she was turned down time after time for her displays of desperation: “I was like a Britain’s Got Talent contestant: almost crying, always shaking. I didn’t have a plan B and so I was consumed by fear. It was hell on earth, that time,” she says, almost shuddering while reliving it, “but it certainly gave me ideas for characters. And it makes you really want to make silly things, because you realise how important they are to people. I think that’s why I love comedy so much. You need stuff that cheers you up. Comedy did that when I was down.”

Then one day, Morgan said to herself: “Do you know what? If they don’t want me, then fuck it. I didn’t know what I’d do but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” She approached auditions with a whole new attitude. “When I let go, I immediately got accepted. It’s the way the world works.”

Morgan landed a place at East 15 Acting School in Essex. On the first day, the class were asked to introduce themselves by writing a poem and drawing a self-portrait. She doesn’t remember much from her brief foray into poetry: “Why don’t you stay in Bolton and get a job at Asda, something something something and buying a Mazda.”

“Some classes were pointless,” she says, “you know, throwing bean bags around. That sort of rubbish.” In one lesson, Morgan was instructed to hand a shoe to another pupil while telling the classmate how she felt. “I took the shoe and said I felt really angry that I’d wasted money doing this crap,” Morgan recalls. She was swiftly yelled at, and banned from coming back.

Other parts of her course, she’s quick to add, proved more helpful. East 15 is, after all, a training ground for method actors; a place to perfect the character craft. “I don’t think it was as useful for me as doing standup,” she adds. “Comedy helps you find out what makes you interesting as a person. At drama school they try to get rid of those bits of you, rather than homing in on the weird qualities that I often exaggerate today.”

Laugh out loud: with Charlie Brooker, Konnie Huq and partner Ben Caudell.
Laugh out loud: with Charlie Brooker, Konnie Huq and partner Ben Caudell. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

After graduation, work in the business wasn’t forthcoming. She bagged herself a bit-part in Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights after writing to him – “Dear Peter, I’m also from Bolton. Give me a job” – and a few low-key theatre gigs, but little else. So she turned to standup comedy. It felt, as Morgan puts it, like her only hope. It was here, on the circuit, that Morgan finally found her feet.

“If you do it long enough,” she says, “you see what’s funny about you. With me? Well, I look very miserable. I’m not animated. I sound very down in the dumps. So I’d play on that, say I was having an awful time. And that worked.”

From then, agents quickly started calling. Cunk was certainly the turning point. It gave her enough notoriety, she feels, to secure other work. “Then after a while it sort of snowballed,” she says. “It was gradual, not an overnight change.”

Occasionally, she started to notice people would give her glances; stand on the street staring in her direction. “I used to think: ‘What the fuck is his problem? Who does he think he is, looking at me?’ And then I’d remember: ‘Diane, love, you’re on TV now.’”

In Mandy, Morgan presents a character lovingly shaped by the women she grew up surrounded by. But Mandy’s a smoker and a drinker, and she gets done for benefits fraud. With heightened cultural sensitivities, was she ever worried some viewers might think she’d created a class caricature?

‘I’d say yes if the right serious acting role came along. Just definitely not a copper. Or a podcast for that matter. I’m sick of them’: Diane Morgan with her dog Bobby.
‘I’d say yes if the right serious acting role came along. Just definitely not a copper. Or a podcast for that matter. I’m sick of them’: Diane Morgan with her dog Bobby. Photograph: Kristina Varaksina/The Observer

“It’s funny,” she says, surprised. “To me that doesn’t even register. It doesn’t occur to me that I might be playing the ‘working class’ character. I mean, I am from a working-class background, even if I’m not now.

“I suppose that’s something people have always been nervous about,” Morgan argues. “Well, middle-class people anyway. They were worried about it with Philomena Cunk.” When she first auditioned to play Cunk for Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, she was asked to read in a prim and proper RP voice.

“They didn’t want her to be northern for exactly that reason,” Morgan believes. “They wanted her to be posh, because they already had Barry Shitpeas and he’s working class. They didn’t want another ‘stupid’ working-class character. But that’s not right.”

At the end of the Cunk audition, Morgan successfully convinced the room to let her give her native Bolton accent a chance. Just as she predicted, everyone agreed the voice was right. “The thing is,” she says of characters like Cunk, Liz and Mandy, “they’re not stupid. They’re actually great people that you look at and want to be friends with, people you admire.” Lots of us look up to them, she reckons, because they don’t care what people think. That’s something we’d all like to feel, Morgan says, deep down. “It’s not usually working-class types who are concerned about all that stuff. I don’t know why we should get upset.”

This might be less clear cut if she was from a different background. “I definitely think if I was very middle class and had a proper posh voice I couldn’t do a character like Mandy. Everyone would be up in arms that I was taking the piss out of the working classes. But it’s not, they’re full of love. They’re a part of who I am.”

It has been a busy year for Morgan: what with new Mandy; new Motherland; new After Life. A break sounds enticing. “I’ve been pulled through the hedge backwards, I haven’t stopped,” she says, “which, of course, is great. Though I would really quite like a sit down, please.”

With space to breathe, Morgan might think about what comes next. For a long time, she passed on offers to play straighter, more dramatic roles. She’s turned down more hard-hitting copper jobs than she cares to count. “I just couldn’t do it before,” she says, “I never fancied it.” Now, however, she’s ready for something a little more meaty. “I’d say yes if the right part came along. Just definitely not a copper. Or a podcast for that matter. I’m sick of them. There’s too many. Get them off.”

As for Philomena Cunk? Like the rest of us, Morgan misses her. “She’s like a shield,” she says fondly, “a suit of armour. She can say anything, go anywhere, do no wrong.” Characters offer comfort, because for all the sharp wit and straight-faced sardonicism, she’s clearly invested in what she does. Because Diane Morgan takes comedy seriously. It’s no joke to her, this business of making people laugh. That’s why from time to time, she feels Cunk’s absence. “But then again, I can always walk around my house as her when I want to. And sometimes, I do.”

If Morgan’s nerves start playing up again before Mandy’s imminent return to our screens, maybe that’s where you’ll find her. Not fretting or freaking out, but channelling her fearless, unflinching inner-Cunk in the kitchen, once again demanding to know why it is that humans cry when it’s definitely the onions that are getting hurt.

We Wish You a Mandy Christmas airs on BBC Two over the festive period; series two of Mandy is coming in the new year on BBC Two. Catch up on series one on iPlayer now