A bitch of a day

It's got sex, it's got satire and it's the work of a 16-year-old. Peter Guttridge goes on location with Channel 4's 'Life's a Bitch'
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The Independent Culture
A gloomy October day in Charlton, South-east London. The Perrier Award-winning comedian Sean Hughes, looking seriously Sixties in a grungy Afghan coat, dyspeptic-coloured loons and a goatee beard, is having a quick fag outside ornate Charlton House. Inside the former branch library, the independent production company Compulsive Viewing is filming Life's a Bitch, a 30-minute satirical comedy commissioned by Channel 4 from Susan Nickson, a 16-year-old Cheshire schoolgirl.

Life's a Bitch catalogues the life of an anonymous woman, played by Kathy Burke, focusing on five ages from seven to 70. Today she's in her promiscuous hippie twenties and Hughes is her one-night stand. Burke joins Hughes. "I met Sean in Edinburgh the year he won the Perrier," she says. She cackles. "I tried to snog him in the Gilded Balloon. When he came to do this I said, 'I told you I'd get you into bed.' "

Inside the 19th-century building a large alcove off the entrance hall has been transformed into a cruddy "pad" - mattress on the floor, ethnic blankets on the walls, one of those rocket-ship shaped lava lamps. The entrance hall itself is a jumble of crates, props, wires, lights and people.

The producer, Kate Iles, heavily pregnant, is sitting contentedly to one side watching order come out of apparent chaos. The director of photography, Dick Pope, and director Coky Giedroyc are planning the camera movements for a party scene in which the discussion Hughes and Burke are having about cod liver oil as a lubricant in bestiality is interrupted by comedian Dave Schneider (as Burke's love-lorn best friend) offering Burke a very large cactus.

Hughes and Burke come on set with the other party guests to rehearse the scene. Writer Susan Nickson has been down for two days watching the filming. Nickson was the overall winner of the 1994 Lloyds Film Challenge for young writers with her 10-minute short Buddha's Legs - written when she was only 14. On the strength of that, Channel 4 commissioned her to write a half-hour drama.

"Buddha's Legs was a teenage rant thing," Nickson says. "But for this I didn't want anything 'jerky schoolgirl'. I wanted to portray something a bit adult. So I got this idea for five parts of someone's life." She wrote it in a week. "Then with help from the script editor and other people I did the completed script. There were changes to be made but I take criticism from people in the know quite easily. It was more difficult when in my mind it was finished but they still wanted to change things."

After discussions between cast and crew about how the actors playing party guests will walk past the principals and how the camera will follow them, there are several rehearsals and then Giedroyc is ready to go for a take. At the last moment Pope, the cameraman, moves a light on a tall stand a couple of feet nearer Hughes and Burke on the already cramped set.

On cue, Pope backs into the room, his camera leading Schneider. The boom operator (who rejoices in the wonderful name of Loveday Harding), wielding an inordinately large boom microphone, does a strange fandango around him while director Giedroyc tiptoes after in her red trainers as if she is playing grandmother's footsteps. Then Pope backs straight into the light he's just moved.

They've been here since lunchtime on day 10 of a two-week shoot. Just after seven, they finally get the shot and everybody hurries off, politely batting away local pre-teen tearaways looking for things to rip off. Glamorous it ain't but Nickson doesn't mind because she reckons she's got it sussed. "I like writing for television because it's easy and you get kissed a lot," she says. "There's all the free beer - and everyone's a smoker."

n 'Life's a Bitch', tonight on Channel 4, at 10.55pm