Watson & Oliver: It's hi from me...and hi from her

Veronica Lee meets the double act reared on classic TV comedy whose daft, character-led sketches will be coming to a front room near you

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The Independent Culture

Does the BBC have another Miranda-sized hit on its hands? Or might it even have found the next French and Saunders? The corporation must be hoping so, because it’s launching an unknown sketch duo – female, middle-class and with broad comic appeal – on BBC2 tomorrow, in a new six-part series.

Lorna Watson and Ingrid Oliver appear slightly fazed, even embarrassed, by the attention they are receiving, but like the well-mannered young women they are, won’t be drawn on the comparisons with their comedy heroes. “It’s a massive compliment. But it’s not something we’ve allowed ourselves to think about.”

Between 2006 and 2008, Watson & Oliver performed three successful Edinburgh Fringe shows that gained critical plaudits and a devoted following for their erudite, wonderfully daft and often surreal comedy. Sketches included the doomed secret affair between a matador and his bull, a gloriously awful opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, and an Apprentice spoof in which Nigel the Bee has to explain his hive’s poor performance to the bearded queen – “Er, well, we had trouble sourcing the pollen.”

Their TV show, which was recorded in front of a live audience, has been broadened out to include celebrity guests, running gags and the odd catchphrase. New characters include Georgian heroines, the denizens of a greasy-spoon cafe and a newly married couple called Wills and Kate.

“We’re not edgy,” says Oliver, almost apologetically, “and the series is quite classic in its format, but it feels very us. We have filmed and live sketches, we introduce each episode and then have a big finale.”

Unusually for a female duo, their comedy doesn’t rely on pretty/plain or daft/stupid tropes; both are attractive and at home in male roles and physical comedy. They are very good actors, so there is a marked equilibrium in their act. They have lots of popular culture references (Keira Knightley and Damien Hirst may flinch) but also unashamedly intelligent humour – their Playboy Bunnies sketches are hilarious but also make a subtly feminist point.

The comics, both 34, met at Tiffin Girls' School in Surrey; Oliver declares herself the "more verbal" of the two, while Watson is "more ethereal". They recall their schooldays – when, Watson says, Oliver gravitated towards her because she was part of that year's collection of oddballs – and they make each other, and me, laugh a lot in conversation, with dry and self-deprecating asides.

They come from families who watched a lot of TV comedy, everything from The Two Ronnies and Jasper Carrott to Mr Bean. Watson's parents are teachers, while Oliver has an engineer father and and businesswoman mother. "I offset our middle-classness by saying that my father comes from German peasant stock," Oliver says. They both read languages at university (Watson at Edinburgh, Oliver at Oxford) – and wordplay is a noticeable part of their comedy, whether it's Jane Austen given a knowing modern twist or a silly and endearing Boris Becker/Steffi Graf sketch delivered entirely in German.

After university, between improv and acting work (Watson has appeared in Lead Balloon and The IT Crowd, Oliver in Doc Martin and Peep Show), they worked in boring temp jobs, characters from which feed into their wide range of voices and accents, before starting their professional partnership in 2005.

The comics, both of whose partners are actors, acknowledge that their enduring friendship is key to the professional partnership. "We know each other so well and see each other almost every day," says Oliver. "We spend more time together than many married couples."

"It's quite extraordinary that we haven't fallen out," adds Watson, "considering we went through our teenage years together. But we are in synch emotionally and seem to have our ups and downs together, so we can see when the other is stressed and needs to take a break."

They mostly write separately then edit each other's work, and if one doesn't like a sketch it doesn't go in. They rarely have a disagreement. Watson says: "Egos can come into it when we both want to play a part but it's usually obvious who plays what. The friendship comes first and we don't argue." Oliver adds: "It has to be an equal partnership and we have to trust each other."

They struggle to explain why audiences liked their work in Edinburgh – they're more likely to talk about difficult gigs – but Mark Freeland, head of BBC in-house comedy and co-producer of Watson & Oliver with Robert Popper (who wrote Friday Night Dinner) explains their appeal. "They have a spark," he says, "and an instinctive understanding that comes from knowing each other so well – they have a kind of relationship that can't be manufactured. They are like two sisters, two old ladies and two toddlers at the same time.

"Making good comedy is a kind of magic," he continues. "You would like Lorna and Ingrid to be magically transported to your kitchen to have a cup of tea with because they make you laugh just by talking."

It's inevitable that Watson & Oliver – regardless of whether it draws an audience – will be seen as part of the debate about women in comedy, but Freeland says that would be missing the point. "There is some way to go in terms of stand-up and women on TV panel shows," he says, "but with comedy actresses it's the complete opposite. We are blessed with talent – Catherine Tate, Olivia Colman, Rebecca Front, Jessica Hynes, Elizabeth Berrington, Tamsin Greig, Miranda Hart – all tour-de-force performers, a list which I believe will soon include Lorna and Ingrid."

Freeland also points out that both Hart and Tate made their debuts on BBC2. "Lorna and Ingrid have broad appeal and the channel has always had an eye for that," he says. "I suspect their catchphrases will be repeated in offices and playgrounds the next day." Watson and Oliver, meanwhile, can only hope that they and BBC2 will be a good fit. "It's where we dreamed of being," says Oliver, "because it's where we saw our comedy heroes."

'Watson & Oliver' begins on BBC2 tomorrow at 10pm

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