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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: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.