Julian Barratt: how TV show Flowers tackles mental health with humour

The star gets to the heart of the cult comedy-drama's second outing

Lily Pearson
Friday 29 June 2018 13:01 BST
(Courtesy of Channel 4)

“He’s trying to wrestle with his new equanimity, a new peace of mind,” says Julian Barratt of Maurice, the melancholic children’s author he plays in Channel 4’s cult comedy-drama, Flowers, which returned for a second series earlier this month. “But, really, it’s catching up with him. It’s catching up with all of them.”

Two years have passed since we last saw the Flowers family and, at first glance at least, they’re in a much better place. Maurice is now on medication and Deborah (Olivia Colman) has written a book about dealing with her husband’s depression. We join the pair on a caravan holiday, putting on a pretty unconvincing show of happy families.

Courtesy of Channel 4

But this is Flowers, the first season of which proved that failed suicide attempts and dying grandmothers were situations that could be suitable subject matter for dark humour, and an easy ride isn’t to be expected.

For the Channel 4 sitcom’s latest outing, mental health remains a focal point. At the family’s sprawling, dilapidated country estate, Maurice and Deborah’s adult twins, Amy and Donald (Sophia Di Martino and Daniel Rigby) remain at war with one another. Amy, now in a relationship with Hylda — an ex-junkie priest played by welcome newcomer Harriet Walter — has invited her all-female musical collective, The Pink Cuttlefish Orchestra, to stay.

After receiving a box of her late grandad’s magic ephemera, she becomes increasingly fixated by what she believes is a curse on their family.

“It’s a more frenetic tone,” Barratt explains, noting how, unlike the first season, which focused on Maurice’s depression, Amy’s bipolar disorder is mirrored in the narrative journey and chaotic visuals. For Barratt, comedy has always been a useful vehicle for exploring serious issues. “It’s how I deal with things,” he says. “People I know who work in comedy are often united by a sort of gallows humour; a way of uniting in the sense of ‘isn’t life s***?’, and there’s a lot of humour to be had in that.”

This is certainly the case for Flowers, in which the ability to depict serious and sometimes harrowing moments with downright hilarity is second to none. Alongside Barratt’s brilliant performance, there are great one-liners from Donald, while from Deborah, there’s a sense of quiet desperation that is both very funny and quite haunting. “I don’t see a problem with juxtaposition between those two things,” Barratt observes, dubious of the notion that happiness and sadness have to be mutually exclusive.

Courtesy of Channel 4

There’s nothing quite like Flowers on TV right now. The brainchild of Will Sharpe — the 31-year-old Bafta nominee who, alongside writing the show plays Shun, Maurice’s Japanese illustrator and long-term lodger — it’s an ambitious foray into dysfunctional family dynamics, offering a representation of mental illness that remains hopeful without any need for sugar-coating. The visuals themselves are also unlike anything on the small screen. Cinematic and, at times, dreamlike vistas descend into surreal nightmarish visions, as we see the troubled characters’ psyches unravel in technicolour.

Unruly landscapes and an absence of obvious pop cultural phenomena make it hard to place Flowers in any specific time or location, which only serves to further emphasise the show’s sheer originality. Indeed, when asked to describe the show to someone who has never seen it, Barratt pauses, poignantly, unable to find the right pithy statement. That’s the thing about Flowers: it evades easy definition. You’ll just have to watch it and see.

Seasons 1 and 2 of Flowers are available now on All 4

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