Life's amazeballs for Twenty Twelve's Jessica Hynes
She lost out to co-star Olivia Colman at the Baftas, but Jessica Hynes has lots to keep her happy, including two new sitcoms and a possible Twenty Twelve spin-off.
Comedy writer and actor Jessica Hynes – Daisy Steiner in Spaced, greedy neighbour Cheryl in The Royle Family and PR fruitcake Siobhan Sharpe in the now Bafta-garlanded Twenty Twelve – is telling me about her fascination with the suffragettes. "I mean Christabel Pankhurst (activist daughter of suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst) got a first-class degree in law, but, as a woman, wasn't allowed to practise law."
It's a topic that seems to be in the air at the moment. Last year's Tom Stoppard adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End re-introduced the world to the spunky young suffragette heroine Valentine Wannop, while the BBC factual series Tales from the Old Bailey re-created Emmeline Pankhurst's 1912 trial (before an all-male jury, naturally) for damaging property. And next month sees the centenary of the most shocking suffragette action of them all – when, on Derby Day 1913, Emily Wilding Davison died when fatally obstructed the King's horse – the subject of last Sunday's Channel 4 documentary, Clare Balding's Secrets of a Suffragette, in which the presenter declared: "We're talking about a terrorist movement."
"There were other women killed", says Hynes. "On one particular day in 1910 called Black Friday the police killed two women at a protest after Herbert Asquith's Liberal government did an about-face on the Conciliation Bill." After Asquith's U-turn on a statute that would have given the vote to one million of Britain's wealthier women, a group of suffragettes plotted to assassinate the Prime Minister, which is where Hynes first came to subject.
"I was researching a sort of Ladykillers-style comedy film about the suffragette plot to assassinate Asquith," she says. "They looked so funny and I thought that would make a great comedy, but my research got more and more serious and I thought actually, the film isn't what it's supposed to be, which is comedy. And then I realised what I wanted to do was write a comedy based on strong comic characters and put it in a proscenium setting."
The result, after several years of development, is her new BBC4 sitcom Up the Women. Set in Banbury in Oxfordshire, it stars Hynes, Rebecca Front (The Thick of It), Vicki Pepperdine (Getting On) and Judy Parfitt (Call the Midwife) as members of an embroidery circle who decide to create their own local branch of suffragettes. "It's just about a group of women who haven't got a clue and are failing badly," says Hynes. "It's a kind of character study and hopefully, on a good day, it will be a kind of female Dad's Army."
Of course, comedy thrives on conflict – it's not all sewing and sisterhood, with Front's character, Helen, belonging to a more conservative era of womanhood. Or, as she puts it: "What on earth do women need the vote for? My husband votes for who I tell him to vote for. What could be a better system than that?" Another character asks whether votes for women will mean compulsory smoking – one example, says Hynes, of many such baseless (but comedically fruitful) fears. "There were genuinely held beliefs that if women got the vote the population would die out," she says. "Also how could they vote? Their sleeves would get caught up in the ballot papers."
Up the Women has the distinction of being the last ever sitcom filmed in BBC Television Centre in London, and in the fashionable manner (think Miranda, Mrs Brown's Boys or – if you must – Ben Elton's The Wright Way) it was recorded in front of a studio audience. It's a new direction for Hynes, who has preferred the more subtle observational comedy of Spaced and Twenty Twelve.
"I wanted to do something totally different", she says. "To go to the other end of the spectrum and see what I can do when I have total limitations… just the characters, just that stage. It was really, really hard… particularly with no outside shots, no locations."
Up the Women is her second creation (after an episode of Sky Atlantic's Common People) under the wing of Steve Coogan's production company Baby Cow, and Hynes has also been working on a female superhero series for Sky Atlantic called Justine ("It's Buffy meets Kick-Ass"). But her most recent television appearance was at this month's TV Baftas ceremony, looking on as her friend and Twenty Twelve co-star Olivia Colman won the award for best female performance in a comedy programme. I had thought Hynes was going to be a shoo-in to win that award to put alongside the Royal Television Society prize for her Twenty Twelve turn as Siobhan Sharpe.
"You know what? I had a sneaking suspicion I wouldn't," says Hynes, who attended with her mother, who, being a big fan of Olivia Coleman, kept leaning across her daughter to talk to her heroine (Hynes's daughter – a Miranda fan like so many teenage girls – was rooting for Miranda Hart). "Olivia's done the most phenomenal body of work in the last few years, and I was thinking 'this is her year'."
In the aftermath of Twenty Twelve's Bafta haul, one newspaper quoted "a BBC insider" to the effect that there was "real desire" for a spin-off series featuring the same actors and characters, but in a new setting – the NHS has been one suggestion. Certainly when I visited the set of Twenty Twelve last summer, the show's creator, John Morton, told me that: 'There's been some talk about whether there can be a life (for the series) post-Olympics and it's tempting because I'd love to work with those actors again'.
"There's a few murmurings," confirms Hynes, who "unashamedly" advertises her availability for any spin-off. "I'd like to work with him [Morton] again because I think he's brilliant. I've never worked with anyone who sees his characters with such clarity. Every little 'um', 'ah', 'if' and 'but' all written with… you know… it's incredible." Or "Holy shet… amazeballs", as a certain PR guru might have put it, and hopefully Siobhan will be let loose on the English language again before too long.
'Up the Women' starts on Thursday at 8.30pm on BBC4
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