Best friends Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson thought carefully about what to call the tumour that was growing in Charly’s brain.
The doctors had their own name for the golf-ball-sized growth sitting right behind Charly’s left eye — a pituitary adenoma — but the friends decided they needed something less scary. They flirted with calling it Terry Wogan (‘as in Pitui-Terry Wogan,’ says Ellen), but that didn’t seem quite right.
So Britney Spears fan Charly, then 23, suggested Britney. Bingo! Not only was she ‘iconic and fabulous’, but Britney was also one of life’s survivors. From then on, they were a threesome — Charly, Ellen and Britney the brain tumour — although Ellen is at pains to point out that this Britney was never a friend.
‘She was just there, like the flatmate you didn’t really want or like, but allowed to come to the pub with you, nonetheless.’
Best friends Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson (pictured) have appeared together in Britney, a BBC comedy based on the story of Charly’s brain tumour
What a thing to have to deal with, so young. The pair, who met at school in rural Oxfordshire, are now actresses. Charly’s biggest role to date has been in the critically acclaimed 2019 Channel 4 series Pure, while Ellen starred in the Agatha Christie mini-series The Pale Horse.
But this week they appeared together in Britney, a BBC comedy based on the story of Charly’s brain tumour. The TV pilot (and yes, they are hoping for a full series) is an expansion of a sell-out stage show they performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.
The production is admittedly surreal. Viewers are led inside Charly’s brain and the show includes a scene where Charly dons an inflatable sumo-wrestler suit on the day of her diagnosis. Poetic licence? No, it really happened.
‘My dad’s mate had given him a sumo suit as a silly Christmas present and so, on Doomsday, we took photos of me in it.’
The tone was set for how these friends would deal with the biggest challenge of their lives: they would laugh through it, somehow.
As the women, now 28, point out, what was the alternative?
Charly says: ‘It was that thing of laughing at the monster so you are not scared of it. If you cry when do you stop? It was easier to make light of it.’
Their show is not really about a brain tumour. It’s a celebration of friendship. Ellen pretty much moved in with Charly’s family during this time (‘To be in place when I exploded, so she could pick up the debris,’ says Charly).
The pair live together today, finishing each other’s sentences as we speak on Zoom — and at one point both miming Charly’s brain surgery (with gruesome sound effects).
Charly (pictured) discovered a mass on her brain after going to her GP about her lack of periods and a blind spot in her peripheral vision
This sort of silliness rooted their friendship, which started at the age of 14 when they wrote their own plays (Finding Emo, anyone?) while at school together in Abingdon. Charly later moved to New York to study dramatic arts, and Ellen studied at Cambridge.
In 2015, Charly came home for a visit, and went to see her GP (played in the drama by Omid Djalili) about her lack of periods and a blind spot in her peripheral vision. An MRI scan showed a mass on her brain. ‘They said it had eroded the bone in my nose and was pressing on the optic nerve, and it was lucky we had caught it,’ she says. ‘The next step would have been discovering it because I’d gone blind.’
Even worse, the tumour was so close to her carotid artery that removal might kill her — and they still had no idea if it was cancerous. Into the breach stepped Ellen. ‘I saw it as my job to make her laugh, which is what I’d always done anyway,’ she says. They both talk of toppling into limbo, ‘almost like a fantasy world’, says Charly. ‘As I was going through the tests, we’d do impressions of the doctors and create our own scenarios.’
The friends talk about sitting up into the night, watching TV. There is a touching moment when Charly admits she was afraid to sleep, and Ellen knew it. ‘It’s hard when you are thinking “What if the tumour grows another inch in the night and I don’t wake up?” ’
Ellen remembers the anaesthetist confiding that Charly’s heart had stopped on the operating table during her operation. Pictured: Ellen and Charly
Charly was operated on in March 2016, and Ellen remembers the anaesthetist confiding that Charly’s heart had stopped on the operating table.
‘He wasn’t the most tactful person we’ve ever met. He said “Oh my God, guys, she died”.’ Charly makes a jazz hands gesture. ‘And guess who is alive again?’ Even at that darkest moment, there were flashes of humour. Ellen laughs at the memory of the surgeon in his scrubs, with wellies on. ‘They had blood on them. I was transfixed. I wanted to ask “Is that Charly’s . . . brain blood?” ’
In the stage version of the show, the anaesthetist gets two full scenes. ‘He’s the heartthrob of the piece,’ says Charly. ‘A sexy rugger bloke who is crap at talking to people.’
The days that followed the surgery were hideous — and yet they, too, have been mined for comedy. Charly’s face was bandaged, ‘as if I’d had a Beverly Hills facelift’, and she was warned that she could not sneeze. ‘If I did, bits of my brain would come out my nose,’ she says.
Ellen read her extracts from Harry Potter but ‘made them smutty’, which confused the already confused Charly further. ‘I was drug-addled and not myself, and in the most bizarre pain, concentrated in my face’.
Charly credits her best friend as her saviour, admitting that she isn't sure how she would've got through it all without Ellen
‘That week after the surgery was the worst part of all,’ says Ellen, suddenly serious. ‘She was behaving oddly and there was this unacknowledged fear: was this Charly for ever?’ Oh, the relief when the old Charly eventually re-emerged — albeit a more fragile, often tearful version.
It was Ellen who persuaded Charly to take their stage show about her illness public — and it went on to win much critical acclaim. ‘I wanted Charly to see it as something other than just this rubbish chapter that needed to be forgotten about,’ says Ellen.
For her part, Charly credits her best friend as her saviour: ‘I don’t know how I would have got through it all without Ellen.’
The good news is that Britney was not cancerous, although surgery did not obliterate her entirely. ‘She’s still there, but tiny — just a sludge. I’ve been told that she won’t grow though. If I ever do get another brain tumour, it won’t be Britney.’
Off they go again, imagining what is happening now inside Charly’s brain. ‘Britney is still in there, trying on outfits for a comeback tour, but it won’t happen,’ says Charly. Ellen nods. ‘It’s over,’ she says. ‘But she’s just left a pair of shoes behind.’
Britney is available to watch on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer