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Drifting with intent: Sitcom star Jessica Knappett

The actress-writer tells Holly Williams about creating Britain’s answer to ‘Girls’
  • @Holly_bops

You’ve got to laugh. At least, that was what Jessica Knappett told herself, one day after a shift selling posh coffee machines in John Lewis. In defiance of shoddy wages, she’d snaffled some miniature demonstration milk cartons, and it was while painstakingly opening 17 of them to pour over her cereal that she decided she’d “reached a new low”.

Knappett was drifting – after a four-year course studying English and drama at Manchester University, she graduated in 2007 with grand ambitions to be a writer and actress. Instead, she found herself living in scuzzy flats, mired in “terrible relationships” and doing “horrific work” – another impressively pointless job was as a National Lottery vending machine assistant, standing guard to prevent under-16s buying tickets. “I’d say to my housemates, ‘well, gotta go to work, that vending machine won’t run itself!’”

Clearly, she was able to see the humour in her situation – and a lot of her experiences working horrible jobs have fed into her first sitcom, Drifters, about three twenty-something female friends in Leeds, in which she also plays main character Meg. “I remember thinking the promotions industry is such a massive joke itself – that horrible juxtaposition of having no money and being surrounded by wasted money. This needed to be expressed in some other medium,” says Knappett.

If you recognise the 29-year-old, it’s probably from 2011’s The Inbetweeners Movie. Knappett, who knows how to contort her lanky frame and rather large mouth for maximum comedy value, was cast as “the funny one” – gormless Neil’s love interest – thanks to her experience in sketch comedy. Previously, she had been one-sixth of the acclaimed all-female comedy troupe Lady Garden.

The film changed her life. “It was my break, and it was also just such a relief to be being paid,” she says with a laugh. It was the beginning of several fruitful collaborations, too. During the six-week shoot, she got to know the writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who produced Drifters. “We just got on. They said, if you’ve got any ideas, we’d like to develop something with you.”

She also formed a lasting friendship with Lydia Rose Bewley, another of the Inbetweeners girls. And Bewley co-stars as Bunny in Drifters (inset with Knappett) – though Knappett insists she didn’t just bag her mate a job. “I remember saying, won’t it look like we’re trying too hard to do a female version [of The Inbetweeners]? But she was just so funny in the audition – she absolutely nailed it.”

Which is hardly surprising, since Knappett used to note down daft things Bewley said to use in her scripts. But mostly, she plundered her own life; even on first meeting, Knappett – who has a deadpan Yorkshire drawl – comes across as happy to over-share if it prompts a laugh. Apparently this is Morris and Beesley’s approach as script editors too: “Basically  I was locked in a room and forced to tell them my deepest, darkest secrets.”

Drifters opens with Meg pissing herself while bungee jumping on a post-uni gap year before arriving home to Leeds, and the humour remains as bouncy, and bodily-fluid-based, throughout. The hopeless trio of friends are seen throwing up in bins, gate-crashing a wake, getting scabies … “That was a thing that happened,” announces Knappett cheerily. “I was couch surfing with no idea I had it, and I stayed with everyone, people’s parents, friends … when I found it was scabies [the doctor said], you need to boil all your bedding, so I had to get on the blower and phone all these people – it was like having the STD trail but without any of the fun.”

Drifters is firmly set in a post-recession world, where assumptions of getting the “cool, arty, media-y jobs” that Meg poutingly pines for are thwarted. In this, and in its unflinching portrayal of what young women get up (and down) to, it has an obvious predecessor: Girls, which was also semi-autobiographical, and starred its creator, Lena Dunham.

Knappett insists she was unaware of Girls while writing. But it’s a tough act to follow, and Knappett wriggles awkwardly at the thought. “It’s like comparing Britain to America … also E4 to HBO. Girls is so cinematic, this big, gritty, huge-budget thing – in that sense, I don’t want people’s expectations to be too high! Also, I’m not as cool as Lena Dunham. I haven’t got Riot Grrl tattoos; I haven’t made an indie short; I don’t write about taking cocaine in Manhattan warehouses, and I never will. Having said that, I really admire everything she’s done for comedy – she’s radical and innovative and an amazing feminist.”

“It’s just a massive coincidence,” she sighs. But a British take on the situation feels timely – the graduate jobs market doesn’t show much sign of improving. “It’s not like I tried to consciously write something that is ‘very 2013’. But hopefully that’s what’s relatable about it,” says Knappett, pointing out that viewers are likely either to be in or have been through that drifting period – or even be the long-suffering parents of an aimless millennial. Her own parents may recognise hints of themselves in Meg’s ’rents. They’re played by Arabella Weir (“spot on”) and Bob Mortimer: “I couldn’t believe he agreed to do it. He is like the father of comedy,” says Knappett. Her real parents both work in medicine, her father running an intensive care unit – and their gallows humour spilled over into home life. “There was always a lot of humour in my house. They just have such awful times at work … we’re either hysterically laughing or arguing.”

Home was Bingley, in West Yorkshire, and it was important to Knappett to write about the north. “There’s not much comedy set in Yorkshire, so I’m quite proud of it. It’s good to get things out of London,” she says, even if she now lives in the city’s Hoxton area.

With several scripts on the go, and an under-wraps acting project in the pipeline, these days Knappett is more likely to be buying an espresso machine than flogging one. Nevertheless, her sitcom works because it’s grounded in that daily grind.

Not that it was all gloom. “You have to go through a period of your life where you’re not responsible. You have no power but immense freedom. I do look back on those days and think, what were you worrying about? You could do anything! And you just worried about being able to afford wine – that was your main concern. It was kind of great.”

‘Drifters’ begins on E4 at 9pm on Thursday