Aisling Bea is hungover when she welcomes The Big Issue to Channel 4 headquarters in London. But this is not just any hangover. It has been years in the making and is of the righteous variety.
The previous night Bea, writer-actor-comedian with sellout stand-up shows, a Netflix comedy special, roles in high-profile dramas The Fall and Hard Sun plus numerous panel show triumphs to her name, unveiled her new series This Way Up in front of friends and family for the first time. Afterwards, she was aided and abetted in her celebrations by Derry Girls stars Nicola Coughlan and Siobhan McSweeney.
My friends and family know how important this has been to me.
“Full disclosure: Siobhan kept on forcing red wine into me and I’m blaming her,” says Bea. “It was not a late night, but it was intense. When you drink because you are emotional it is a different hangover. I can feel it in my heart.”
This Way Up is new territory for Bea. Not only did she excavate her own life for the series, but she is also the beating heart as Aine, a fast-talking, funny, warm, awkward English-as-an-additional-language tutor looking to recover and regain her happiness after a breakdown.
“When you are a stand-up you write something then get to show it to people that night or at your next gig,” says Bea.
“This has been years in the making. For it to be going out to the public is grand. But my friends and family know how important this has been to me. So to be able to show my thing to them was a really special feeling. This is the biggest deal ever for me.”
I am very aware of the things that helped with my own mental health
Was the feedback positive? “I don’t know if people are going to tell the truth to me. It is like if you have chosen the wrong dress on your wedding day, no one is going to tell you.”
The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.
Bea is sharp, engaged, witty, warm. And her new series is the same. Following on the heels of Fleabag’s triumphant second series, This Way Up, though entirely different in tone, is another look at serious, complex issues – in this case grief, mental health, parent loss, women in business, chosen family – through the lens of comedy.
“It is really hard to listen to something if it is dull. To spark people’s imagination, you need that initial fire or flame,” says Bea.
Laughing together can build the understanding and empathy the world needs right now, she reckons. “It is like at comedy gigs, how the chairs are set out matters. If people in the crowd are too far apart, they laugh less because there is not a solidarity. The best gigs are when people are physically touching each other, even if they are strangers. The audience begins to move as one.”
I have long been trying to be Sharon’s sister, so the only way to do it without going back in time and having our parents meet was to write it for us
What lifts This Way Up to great heights (it really is that good) is the relationship between Aine and her sister Shona, played by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan. The pair positively fizz.
“I have long been trying to be Sharon’s sister, so the only way to do it without going back in time and having our parents meet was to write it for us,” says Bea.
“We didn’t have to do any work, to be honest. We bounce off each other. That is also how I speak to my [real-life] sister. We speak over each other and at the same time and have three conversations on the go at the same time. Multitasking chats: ‘I don’t like that top on you. No, I do feel sad about the way things ended with him but really, I wouldn’t wear that top. Did you see mammy, by the way?’”
While Bea’s alter ego is troubled, struggling with her mental health and living in an awkward flatshare, Horgan’s older sister is in a steady relationship, with a home of her own and a high-flying career in business. Their love and devotion shines through, but there’s not a drop of schmaltz. It’s a tough balancing act, says Bea.
“Sharon and I keep an eye on that, because we are two white brunette women and there is a market for cutesy with that.
“A tiny difference can roughen it up. It can be something nice followed by a punch. Sharon had to hit me so many times on the arm in one scene. She really got me in the last take – and that is genuine laughter from me when I walk out. But to me, that is what love looks like in a family.
“In the same way I didn’t want Aine to be this kind of white saviour. I wanted to make sure she had a few dickhead moments where she didn’t get it right.”
It becomes clear through watching This Way Up and talking to Bea that she and Horgan, whose Merman company produced the series, were vigorous in their attention to detail.
“The core has to be Aine and Shona, which is hard because I would fall in love every week with another cast member and want to write something extra for them,” she says.
Bea is, she says, part of a proud new London-Irish generation.
Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.
“I was definitely brought up in the post-Riverdance generation, which is borderline arrogant about how culturally better we are!” she laughs. But her work as a patron of the London-Irish Centre opened her eyes to another version of her story.
My big issue is definitely access to therapy and information about what to do to look after yourself
“There is also a huge amount of people who come over and have the dream of London and your magazine is a lifeline. I see it a lot. Because a lot of people can afford the flight over but then don’t have access to knowledge about how to get a social security number, how to get housing, living in London and how much it costs.
“My big issue is definitely access to therapy and information about what to do to look after yourself – how to explore your own brain and get better,” she says.
“I am extremely aware of how much of a privilege it is to get better. You have to have money to access therapy. You can be put on a list for a year or two to get a therapist. It isn’t something the government is going to fix.
“And so I am very aware of the things that helped with my own mental health. I would not have known about when I was growing up in Kildare as a teenager.”
This Way Up will air on Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursday 8 August.