Jo Unwin & Doon Mackichan: 'Doon will sacrifice pretty much all her dignity for a laugh'

The literary agent and comic actress met three decades ago when they filmed a pilot for a sitcom

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The Independent Online

Jo Unwin, 52

Formerly an actress, Unwin (left in picture), is a literary agent, whose clients include Nina Stibbe, Charlie Brooker and Richard Ayoade. She lives with her husband and two children in south London

I first met Doon three decades ago. Both of us were in a pilot for a sitcom, I think – or maybe a sketch show. I think we were both playing married couples, and that I might have been married to Steve Coogan. Or not. Anyway, what I do remember, and very clearly, is us sitting in the dressing room and confiding with each other really quite extremely. We really opened up, as if to say: yes, you're a good'un, I'm going to be able to talk to you.

I was pretty bowled over by Doon. She was strong and confident; she didn't pussyfoot around. Our paths crossed a lot in the months after that, and whenever we bumped into each other at parties, we'd disappear and find ourselves jabbering and yapping in a corner.

I suppose, initially, we went up for the same kind of roles – we were both comic actresses – though she was obviously so much better than me. But I never felt envious of her. Doon is just a glorious woman, so bold and talented. I knew I wasn't in the same league, so I just wanted her to do really well. And she did.

A few years later, I was one of the writers on Smack the Pony [the sketch show in which Mackichan starred alongside Fiona Allen and Sally Phillips], and I and my writing partner, Joanna Scanlan, were tasked with distilling their improvisations into sketches. Doon is a brilliant improviser and will sacrifice pretty much all her dignity for a laugh.

We both became mums at more or less the same time, which was lovely. I was pretty much a homebird by then, making baby mush, and in a way I think she might have found that quite difficult: I was having time with my baby while she was straight back out working. Perhaps we both envied each other slightly. I envied that she could manage to carry on her fabulous career; she may have wanted a cosy home life for a while.

Because she was back working, she managed to stay incredibly fit while I put on about 25 stone. I remember her coming over to my NCT group one morning. We left our babies in the front room while she took us out into the back garden to do jumping jacks before we all ran back in to breastfeed!

As well as being incredibly funny, Doon is an incredibly strong person. I think the most Doon thing she has ever done was during the time her son became very ill with leukaemia. She was in and out of hospital with him all the time, but she had such grit and courage throughout, and still retained an enormous sense of humour. Amazing.

A lot of her humour is underpinned by anger, which I like. She gave a fantastic talk at the Hay Festival recently about violence against women in the media, and how casual it has become. It was then printed in The New Statesman, and I was so impressed I convinced her to write a book. She calls it her rant, but it's more important than that. It will be brilliant, like everything Doon does.

Doon Mackichan, 52

Doon Mackichan is a comic actress who has starred in 'The Day Today', 'Smack the Pony' and, most recently, 'Toast'. She lives with her three children in south London

It's difficult for me to remember the exact details of our first meeting because it was so long ago, something like 27 years. It was a pilot, I know that, and Jo has a memory that Steve Coogan was in it with us. As a traffic warden, perhaps? Oh, I don't know…

Anyway, we clicked. Making friendships that endure doesn't often happen, does it? But ours did. We didn't always keep in constant contact, but every time we did meet up, we always wondered why we didn't see each other more. Then we both had children – and children take up all of your time. Actually, I remember going to see her at her house one morning. She was having a postnatal exercise class with friends. I think I might have made some awful comment about her not working while I was straight back on set, filming The Borrowers. I said that she was lucky: she could slouch around at home, while I had to be busy getting my figure back. Kind of patronising of me, I fear. I actually regretted going back to work so soon. I missed putting my son to bed for six weeks, and that felt like a huge sacrifice.

What I've always loved about my friendship with Jo is that it has never felt competitive. We both know how hard it is for women to get a decent role, so competition is the last thing we should feel. I'm driven, but not competitive, and neither is Jo. I was so glad she became one of the writers on Smack the Pony. During those first few days of filming, I had no idea whether it was funny or not, so Jo shrieking with laughter every time I opened my mouth gave me a huge confidence boost.

A few years later, she had a sudden career epiphany. We had been bemoaning our jobs for a while, how it became difficult to get roles after a certain age, when one day she said to me, "I'm a literary agent!" Her face shone as she said it; she looked evangelical – so much so that I thought perhaps I should become a literary agent myself… She is brilliant at it, and now she is getting me to write a book. She said that she liked the rant I gave at the Hay Festival, and that there was a book in it. My initial reaction: Dear God, are you serious? Writing it will be the hard part.

I've had a few rocky years recently. One of my children was very ill, and I was out of the business for a while; there were a lot of people I didn't see. When you come back, you pick up only with the people you love – and I definitely consider Jo one of the people I love most.

Doon Mackichan will join the cast of 'Di and Viv and Rose' at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2, from April

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