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“Someone here’s got a vagina!”: meet the farcical female double act from BBC Three’s Witless

We speak to Kerry Howard and Zoe Boyle as the second series of their witness protection comedy comes to BBC Three.

There are some situations that lend themselves to comedy – close-knit families, incestuous friendship groups, mismatched colleagues. But two women in a witness protection programme? The premise of BBC Three’s Witless, which follows flatmates Rhona and Leanne struggling to get to grips with their new identities and stay hidden from wanted murderers, isn’t the obvious choice for a slapstick sitcom.

“I mainly wanted to play a character that was close to me, but a bit more… batshit crazy,” says Kerry Howard, the comedian and actress (Him & Her, Reggie Perrin) who plays Leanne, when I meet her and co-star Zoe Boyle in a Soho restaurant to chat the second season of Witless (“Best interview ever!” jokes Boyle, pointing to a towering pile of fat chips).

Howard had been in talks with BBC Three to produce her own sketch show, but, she laughs, “they liked it so much that they didn’t commission it!” Instead, they encouraged her to work with writers and producers to come up with a comedy pilot. She met TV writers Lloyd Woolf and Joe Tucker about a series set in the West Country. “They came back with this amazing double act called Witness Protection, and I read the character of Leanne, and I was like, ‘She’s an idiot! It’s got to be called Witless.’”

Soon, Zoe Boyle, who audiences will remember as Matthew’s prim and proper fiancé Lavinia in Downton Abbey, was cast as Leanne’s foil. She took Monica from Friends as the inspiration for a slightly neurotic straight woman to Leanne’s puppy-dog lust for life, and the show was born. Leanne and Rhona accidentally become witnesses to a murder, and embroiled in West Country gang warfare perpetrated by hapless teenage boys.

Just as Rhona was about to move out of the two women’s shared flat, and away from their uneven friendship, the pair are forced to go into hiding together.

Maybe it is an obvious choice for a comedy plotline, after all. As New Statesman writer James Cooray Smith notes, British sitcoms all follow key rules: “The first is that the situation contains a genuine threat to our characters. The second is that those characters would not choose to be together, but are compelled to be. These two conditions together create what we might term a ‘pressure cooker situation.’” Witless makes other sitcoms look more like a gently bubbling pot by comparison – the first season saw a senior police officer repeatedly run over a man in his car, Leanne get a gun stuck in a washing machine, and Rhona accidently shot an innocent woman through a door.

“We’re the classic odd couple!” Howard laughs, but notes that action-heavy comedies fronted by two women are few and far between. “It’s a very unique position to be in, and I think that’s why it’s so good. It could easily be played by two guys, but it’s great that it’s led by two women. We’re fortunate that [Woolf and Tucker] write women really, really well. Not in a patronising way, in a like, that’s authentic – someone here’s got a vagina! way.”

“Female relationships can be really complicated as well,” adds Boyle. “I think you often end up, like with Rhona and Leanne, in a friendship you’d probably be happier without, but you stay in it for your own guilt-ridden reasons and keep ploughing through. And that’s a good dynamic to have, in a comedy.”

Despite the heightened scrapes Rhona and Leanne often find themselves in, there’s a realness to their friendship that grounds the surrealism of the comedy. “There has to be layers to the friendship,” Boyle insists. “That’s the only thing that makes you care when you watch it, otherwise it just gets boring and repetitive.”

“If she’s just hateful and I’m a moron, you’re not going to like these people,” says Howard. “I did a pilot of it first, and the way I played Leanne was completely different to how I played her with Zoe. That’s because she’s an amazing actress, and so real, that I thought, ‘Ah I can’t just be a one-dimensional gag merchant.’ You made me a better actress.”

“Aw, shut up!” Boyle laughs. Their genuine affection for each other is obvious, each often pausing to compliment or tease the other – and the chemistry between Howard and Boyle is often where Witless finds its best laughs. “We happen to get on very well,” Boyle says. “It could have gone horribly wrong if we hated each other!”

Howard and Boyle trade horror stories of working with overly serious method actors on dramas. “I think it’s often young men who want to be Tom Hardy or Daniel Day-Lewis or something,” says Boyle. “They forget that our job is meant to be about an interaction – it’s not all about your one part of the machine! But girls can’t get away with being morose or sullen on set.”

But the giddy atmosphere on Witless is a world away from other sets they’ve worked on – Howard and Boyle recall dissolving into giggles as they threw themselves (sometimes literally) into the sitcom’s more action-heavy scenes.

“Kerry’s an expert at falling off chairs now,” says Boyle.

“Miranda better watch out,” jokes Howard.

The drama is taken to the next level in the second series of Witless – which takes place over just four days, as the gang catches up with Rhona and Leanne after discovering their new identities. “It gets quite dark at times, and then you need the comedy even more to relieve yourself from the tension,” says Howard.

Neither Howard or Boyle ever imagined they’d front a comedy thriller, but are grateful that comedy parts for women are no longer limited to the nagging, eye-rolling wife. “BBC Three is a good place to grow and to showcase that women can be funny,” says Howard.

“I was just asked whether more women watch the show than men, and I was like, ‘I don’t think it’s relevant!’” adds Boyle. “That’s ridiculous, I’m not even going to deign that with a response.”

They’re excited by much of the current comedy scene. “It’s a really strong year for women at the moment. I feel like we’re really coming of age with Catastrophe, Camping, Fleabag,” says Howard. 

“She’s getting your Bafta, babe,” Boyle jokes to Howard of Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “But you’ll get one.”

“I feel really hopeful being an actress right now,” Howad continues. “I’ve literally turned down a job because I was like, ‘I don’t want to play that mum role, I’m going to wait for these different parts’ – because they are there. I think there’s an appetite for it.”

Series two of Witless is available now on BBC Three.

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Now listen to a discussion of Witless on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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