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