meEarlier this year, Sophie Willan went through an extraordinary streak of extreme ups and downs. He was filming his sitcom Alma’s Not Normal, a project he started working on years ago when his grandmother died. She had raised Willan for part of his childhood and inspired a character on the show. The next day, Willan discovered that she had been nominated for a Bafta for comedy writing.
A few weeks later, while watching the ceremony on a laptop on a picnic bench outside the converted barn where he was staying, Willan was named the winner. Her response, posted on Instagram by her co-star Jayde Adams, is the happiest thing you can see all year: Willan takes off on a victory lap, wearing a gorgeous red sequined dress to match a tractor on the background, running and yelling “What the heck?” and again. “I woke up all the children who had been lying in the house next door,” says Willan, laughing. “It was fabulous. It was surreal.”
Willan had simply been nominated for the pilot of Soul Not Normal. An entire series of the sitcom was commissioned after it aired last year to rave reviews, and she spent the pandemic writing it. It contained many elements from Willan’s own life, which he has also explored on two stand-up shows. Like Alma, Willan grew up under the care of his mother, who was addicted to heroin, and was unable to care for her.
In one episode, Alma obtains her case files from social services – when Willan got access to hers, they became the basis for her 2016 show On Record. Both were engaged in sex work at one point to earn a living; Willan spoke about that and the various labels that had been applied to him (northern, working class) on his acclaimed 2016 Edinburgh show Branded.
Willan was banned from school, he says, “for getting drunk in a bikini like Alma does, so that took a lot out of my life.” Other than that, she is reluctant to talk about the details of her own life that made it onto the show. “It’s inspired by my experiences and the people I know, which allows it to be authentic,” he says. But the fact is that, although Alma is extreme, “many people who see him will recognize the people he knows. There’s a universality to that. “So the title is ironic.” Actually, it’s very normal for families to have all these kinds of complexities. “
It’s amazing how much Willan has put into six half-hour episodes: addiction, caring, mental health, shitty jobs, sex and consent, class, generational poverty, well-being, feminism, how to follow your dreams when life has treated you badly. . On the other hand, the direct effect of government cuts on marginalized people (David Cameron makes a brief appearance).
Even more impressive is how all of this never feels sad or heavy. It’s not just because of the banter and the brilliant cast, there is also a warm and joyous thread to it all. As an executive producer, Willan took care of everything. Alma, a 30-year-old aspiring actor and wearing flashy coats, is hilarious and light-hearted. If she can’t be normal, she says, she wants to be fabulous. “I wanted to show a very whole person,” says Willan, speaking on Zoom from his home in Salford. “I think that experienced caregivers are often portrayed as a hero, a victim, or a demon. But Alma is full of life. She makes a lot of stupid decisions, but she also makes some really good decisions and she’s a lot of fun. “
Willan, also in his 30s, wrote the first draft around 2014 after years of austerity ruined lives and people who received benefits were demonized. “That era of Cameron felt really negative for welfare recipients, mental health [care] and recipients of social services: people like my mother, people who have had difficulties. “His aim was to show” the complete human being. That, for me, is an antidote to the description of that time. “
Alma’s Not Normal takes place in Bolton, where Willan grew up. She spent much of her childhood in foster care (her father was not around) and was cared for by her grandmother, Denise. It was Denise, glamorous, in her 40s, newly divorced and clubbing lover, who took Willan on vacation to Ibiza, where Willan joined the hotel’s theater club. He played the role of a crying clown, his appreciation for black comedy seemingly fused in that moment.
“I have the error,” she says. What did you love about it? “Probably the same things I do now. I am a natural braggart. I always liked making people laugh: my grandmother, my friends. They called me the class clown, which feels very successful. I think I was a creative person by nature, my family is quite creative. And Bolton is a really fun place – there’s a natural humor there. “
When he was eight years old, he discovered Alan Bennett and was writing and performing his own monologues on his porch, attracting neighborhood children as an audience. Her grandmother introduced her to Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, “people who came from my kind of world, who were really cool.” But for Willan, with such a chaotic background, the idea of breaking into television must have seemed impossible. “It is not so easy to know the way,” he agrees, “especially when there is no one around you who comes from that world. So you discover it as you go along. But I always had a kind of blind faith. It felt like an inevitable thing to do. “
As a teenager, his life remained “chaotic and turbulent.” His relationship with his grandmother deteriorated (they later reconciled), then he got into a relationship “which was quite abusive.” The school seemed useless. “He had been in a lot of foster placements. There were just a lot of things going on, where getting up and going to an academic system didn’t feel as possible. “By then, she was living in supported housing” where you have a kind of support worker for the landlady, but you’re independent. There was a freedom that was possibly too much for a 16-year-old. ” A teacher showed up at Willan’s home for her to come and take her only GCSE.
Willan moved in with his aunt and held three jobs, remaining fully convinced that his career in the arts would take off. “My aunt told me, ‘Just go to Google, find something.’ So that’s what I did. ”What he found was Contact, a Manchester youth theater company. Instead of the largely middle-class figures he had seen on TV and in movies, here he felt Among the people he recognized, he then created his own theater company and learned all there was to know about grants and funding for the arts.
It was around this time that Willan turned to sex work so that he could earn enough to live on, an experience he also gave Alma. “I wanted to show a really honest view of the escort and not give a definitive opinion,” he says. “Because I think that’s what you see a lot: very definitive opinions about the guard.” For Alma, there are good parts (money, the first time in her life that she has) and bad parts (basically: men).
Then there is the stigma. Alma and her friend, who works at a minimum wage cafe, argue about whether Alma is misled that her sex work is empowering, and the friend’s judgment is very clear. Were these conversations the ones Willan had at the time? “I think sex workers are constantly being judged. They all have something to say. Sex workers are rarely able to speak for themselves. “For Willan, the whole show, not just the sex work sections, is about capturing the nuances and contradictions of life.”[It’s] about showing that everything is multifaceted. Alma’s mother is addicted to drugs, but she is also a wonderful person and is a horrible person at times. “
The show came after Willan was awarded the Caroline Aherne Fellowship in 2017, which develops new talent and provides access to the BBC’s Commissioned Comedy Editors. When he was creating his own theater shows, Willan would hang around the outskirts of Media City in Salford and hand out flyers to producers. One came to a show and commissioned Willan to write the first screenplay for Alma Not Normal in 2014, but he couldn’t go any further. “It was very difficult for me to make that transition to television,” he says. “There were still a lot of barriers. It’s still a fairly London-centric industry. Getting people to take you seriously, or to listen to your ideas, or to come into the room or know where the room is, can still be a challenge. “
The scholarship took her to those rooms. Things are looking up, she says. “The diversity of commissioners is improving. You cannot do it symbolically. It has to come from people who are goalkeepers, who know and have had different experiences ”. Her own organization, Stories of Care, supports and develops creative talent in youth who have been through the care system, and had paid for dropout training schemes in her series.
On a practical level, he says, getting “more people of color, more working-class people, more regional voices and more experienced caregivers working behind the scenes on television changes what is considered normal. . On a personal level, coming from that background, with experience in caring, all the things that come with that, I know that can make it even more difficult to get into the television industry. So when you’re in it, being understood and fitting into those worlds can be challenging. “
That’s one of the reasons she went so crazy with her Bafta win. The next day, back on set, he saw the impact the news had on young people in his training program. “It is a reminder that things are possible.” For Willan, the poet and writer Lemn Sissay, who was the first performer he had seen talking about growing up in care, “he has been a very positive influence on my life and a person to look up to. You need people with whom you relate, who are achieving the things that you would like to achieve. “
Has it been cathartic to write your own experiences? “Writing comedy is always fun for me,” he says. “So, whether it’s about my own life or about other people, the empathy that I put into the characters is really rewarding. When you have had a varied education, you have much more empathy because you have seen a lot. I think everything helps to be a writer. “She smiles happily.” That has been a positive result of my experience. And I love that. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism