Sian Gibson had given up on acting and was working in a call centre in Chester when Peter Kay sent her the script for Car Share. "I was just sick of going to auditions for parts which were three lines. You know, 'That's £1.99 please, love'. I've got a mortgage to pay. I was doing rubbish jobs and it was soul-destroying. There's only so long you can go on," she says. By the time she quit, it had been over a year since her last audition. "It had just run its course and I was getting on with my life as it was. I wasn't waiting for the phone to ring – it had gone past that."
So Gibson got on with life as a prematurely retired actress, living happily in Mold, north Wales, with her husband, Ian, a gasman and their three-year old daughter, Gracie. She hated her job at Card One Banking but, stuck in a rut, she stayed for years. "Because the people were nice and it was next door to a lovely garden centre that did the best toasties... I'm still not entirely sure what they did."
An email from her old friend Kay changed all that. When Paul Coleman and Tim Reid asked the megastar comedian to look at their script for a sitcom about two supermarket workers, John and Kayleigh, sharing the drive to work, they never dreamed that he would take the main part. Kay, in turn, sent it on to Gibson and asked her to play his passenger. "He's always looked out for me," she says. "About a week before we started filming it, I said, 'I don't mind if you want to ask Suranne Jones or Sheridan Smith, you know, one of those really good actresses, to do this.' I thought, he can't just bring his mate in, surely? I was so scared of letting him down. I think the BBC thought, 'who is she?'"
If they did, they needn't have worried. The result was the most popular comedy of last year, and the biggest sitcom to premiere on any channel since 2011. The opening episode on BBC1 was watched by 6.85 million; another 2.5 million watched online. Car Share has now been recommissioned for a second series and is set to sweep the board this awards season. If Gibson doesn't win a Bafta for her irrepressible, all-singing, all-dancing, all-face-painting Kayleigh, it will be an outrage.
"It's just weird, to go from where I was to this," says Gibson who is not wholly unlike Kayleigh off-screen. In fact, sleek hair aside, she is exactly like her. "Peter gave me all this media training. He said 'It's going change your life'. And I thought, I look nothing like Kayleigh. Once I've had my hair extensions out, I'll be fine. He said, 'You look exactly like her and your voice is exactly the same.'" Like Kayleigh, she is funny, down-to-earth (after the interview she emails worrying that the photographs will make her look like "a bit like Aunt Sally with a Farrah Fawcett wig.") and has the same tendency to go a bit high-pitched when she gets excited. Like Kayleigh, she seems like she'd be a great friend. "The reason people have taken to Kayleigh is because no one knew who I was," she says. "Everyone believed in her because no one had seen me before."
Once Kay got his hands on the script, he and Gibson worked on it with Coleman and Reid. In the original the assistant manager and promotions rep were younger, in their twenties. "We made it our ages [Gibson is 39, Kay, 42], which made it a bit more sad. We're a bit older, bit more desperate," says Gibson. Coleman already had Gibson in mind, having become friends with her via Kay when he co-wrote his reality television spoof Britain's Got the Pop Factor... and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice in 2008. "I loved her personality and I originally based Kayleigh on Sian, so when Peter suggested her for the role I was thrilled. Sian read it and said, 'It feels like it's been written for me'. I flattered her and told her it had."
"I loved it," confirms Gibson. "Paul had heard me on nights out, when I'd had a few drinks and said silly things and added them to the script." Like what? "Stuff about Zumba – I love my Zumba. And the things I said about Beyoncé. Peter, Paul and I had been to see Beyoncé and we wrote all of that into the script the next day." They filmed inside a towed-along Fiat 500 for 10 hours a day, with five cameras trained on their faces, improvising as they went. "Everything was on camera. Peter wanted to keep it really natural so if we were driving around and something funny happened out of the window, it wouldn't be odd," says Gibson. "I was thinking, will other people find this funny? It's two people in a car, laughing at each other's jokes." Which is exactly what makes it so enjoyable. That, and the warmth that comes from being friends for 20 years.
"Well, that's why he cast me," she says. "He said that he could get an amazing actress but you might not have the chemistry there." Nevertheless she was terrified on her first day on set. "I know that whatever Peter touches turns to gold and he's got a massive following, so we were fairly safe there. I was really nervous because I thought I could be responsible for his first flop," she says.
Gibson met Kay at the University of Salford over 20 years ago. Born in Mold, Foulkes (as she was then) was never an "arty farty" child, although she did join the local youth theatre at Theatr Clwyd. Her father was a builder, her mother a housewife.
At Salford she studied performing arts, bonding with Kay over their inability to take it too seriously. "I always wanted to be an actress. I don't think I'm ever going to be Judi Dench or anything like that, I just like making people laugh." In a student production of Elektra, she recalls how Kay – performing with an inexplicable Northern Irish accent – brought the house down at a climactic moment with just a tut and a roll of his eyes at the audience. "The whole place erupted laughing. "Our drama teacher was furious."
After graduating, she got an agent and work straight away "because I'm short and I always looked younger than I am. As soon as my thirties kicked in, that changed and that's when it all went a bit wrong." She appeared in Peak Practice, ITV period drama The Grand and Hollyoaks for a time. "I know everyone has a snobbery about things like Hollyoaks, but I just loved it. It's a job isn't it? I could have been doing that or I could have been temping in the Little Chef down the road."
Meanwhile, Kay would always find a part for her in his shows. She played Yvonne in That Peter Kay Thing, Young Mary in Phoenix Nights and starred as one of wheelchair-bound popstars, Two up Two Down, in Britain's Got the Pop Factor. Aside from that, they have remained firm friends; Kay is godparent to her daughter. When they finished filming Car Share Kay had a screening party for friends and family at his house. "I drank that much wine that I couldn't remember episode six. I said to my husband the next day, 'Was it all right? I can't remember the ending.' I was just drinking through the nerves. I hate watching myself. I say things about my exes and I think, why did we put that in the script? It seemed funny at the time..."
The show has already opened doors. Next up is a new hour-long comedy play, Do Not Disturb, set in a boutique hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon. She plays the put-upon receptionist with Catherine Tate and Miles Jupp among the randy guests. Written by Aschlin Ditta (The Catherine Tate Show) it is an old-fashioned farce with plenty of mistaken identity, slamming doors, romping, and a stag do and a couple of dominatrixes thrown in too. Gibson hopes it will lead to a full series. "I don't take myself seriously. I can't see myself ever being cast in a really sexy part," she says. "I'd love to do a bit of a Broadchurch, you know. But I'm really loving doing the comedy. And that's what being thrown at me at the moment."
The second series of Car Share was confirmed at the very end of last year. "We've got loads of ideas. We know what we want to happen." Will Kayleigh and John get together? "If they do, will that be the end of it? I don't know... Them getting together wasn't the central thing to us, we had other things that we'd concentrate on. When people have focused on their relationship, it's mad because we really didn't set out to write it. It's just the chemistry between us."
They'll get back in the car later this year to shoot it. In the meantime, Gibson is busy being a "full-on Mum" to Gracie. The big difference is that now her fellow mothers at the school gates have a crush on her co-star. "So many of them tell me that they fancy John. I keep telling Peter, you've got a massive fanbase as John... Never heard that before," she laughs. "I just want to take the opportunity while it's here, just grab it and do whatever I can. Because I've been there before, where it doesn't last. I'm not so naive to think that it's going to be like this forever." I wouldn't be so sure.
'Do Not Disturb' is broadcast on 27 January at 10pm on Gold
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