Never mind the bog rolls, if ever the country needed a reet good gallows laugh it is now.
Fortunately for us, there’s a comedian who can help us out in our dark hour.
Her name is Sophie Willan.
I know this for a fact because nine years ago when I was at a low ebb she lifted my spirits enough to see the funny side of my collapsed life.
I was a blues song turned up to 11. Not only was I heart-broken and redundant, the cat was heart-broken and redundant too and the dog didn’t even exist.
Then one grey rain soaked afternoon Sophie rang out of the blue and burst the lonely Whalley Range bedroom bubble I had been stuck in for months
‘Nikki,’ she said in her bag of gravel Bolton voice, ‘I know your life is shit right now and you probably want to kill yourself, but please don’t, lots of people love you and would miss you…including me.’
I hadn’t been entertaining thoughts as extreme as those, but certainly I was having some kind of meltdown, mid-life crisis or spiritual awakening as therapists like to say. I walked outside hands held out to the sky and did the most enormous belly laugh that rollicked around the courtyard. It was so good it managed to churn my anxiety-riddled guts into smooth butter. I’d always known from the moment we first spoke that Sophie was a very special person, now I knew why.
Sophie Willan’s comedy rise
Sophie had always worked harder than anyone I know to ‘make it’, she is blessed with funny bones and a mind like a website for observations. This latest interaction with her meant I personally understood her unique talent: she can turn pain into laughter.
Thankfully in 2017 the BBC saw this too and made her the inaugural winner of the Caroline Aherne Bursary. Since then a working class glass ceiling has been smashed and a notoriously establishment middle-class door into the Beeb has been kicked wide open. Sophie’s profile has gone through the roof. Her talent writ large. In 2018 she was cast as Ruby in Still Open All Hours alongside the nation’s favourite comedy actor David Jason. And at last, in 2020, I am over the moon to type, her TV time is about to come…
Her new show Alma’s Not Normal, which she has written and stars in and has executive produced, was filmed in and based on her tragic-comedy upbringing in Bolton. In the fictionalised version of her abnormal life Sophie plays Alma Nuthall a wild-child in a family of riotous characters that inevitably compound but ultimately challenge the stereotypes of northern women.
Alma’s Not Normal Cast
Speaking to me via Whatsapp from her bunker in Bradford Sophie said it is a very strange time to have her show coming out during the coronavirus pandemic.
She said, “I can’t quite believe my pilot is coming out amid all this quarantine madness. But at least everyone’s at home to watch it! I hope it brings everyone a laugh at this strange time.”
It is a testament to Sophie’s talent that she has attracted a strong cast to play her not too far from the truth on-screen family. Northern acting royalty in the shape of Siobhan Finneran (Rita from Rita Sue and Bob Too) plays Lin Alma’s heroin addicted Mum and rising star Bristolian actor and comedian Jayde Adams as best friend Leanne. Young Alma is played by butter wouldn’t melt Maizie Wickson while Lorraine Ashbourne has the dream role of Alma’s larger-than-fiction Grandma Joan.
The show is produced by Expectation and the half hour pilot will air as part of the New To Two strand of BBC2.
When you tune in watch out your tellybox doesn’t explode, because Sophie’s talent is not normal. It is exceptional. She is going to be a huge star. She is already a meteorite flying across space on a collision course with this isolated island. And when she hits our screens next week in this strange Age of Corona her comedy cure will give the nation a much needed belly laugh too.
Sophie Willan stars in Alma’s Not Normal BBC2 10pm 7th April.
I live in Lancashire, in the North of England. I write for pleasure and to amplify people's stories who might not have such an equal footing in the mainstream media. Follow my blog, subscribe to my newsletter, join me to help build word-bridges between people, across the English Channel, over the Irish Sea and beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Oh you can hire me as well if you need words, because I really like helping people too :-)