It's hard being funny in a corset... | Susan Wokoma on Year Of The Rabbit © Objective/Channel 4

It's hard being funny in a corset...

Susan Wokoma on Year Of The Rabbit

Explain a bit about Year of the Rabbit.

Year of the Rabbit is a police procedural set during the Victorian era that focusses on Rabbit, played by Matt Berry, who is a copper, and Strauss, played by Freddie Fox, who is the new kid on the block, and Mabel, who I play, who is the daughter of the chief played by Alun Armstrong. She’s very keen to become the UK’s first female copper. It follows them solving very Victorian-esque crimes; sort of Jack the Ripper levels of violence and weirdness.

In some respects it’s about as far removed from Chewing Gum as it’s possible to get, isn’t it?

Yeah, it is. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. Cynthia in Chewing Gum is such a bizarre, strange character whereas there’s so much where Mabel is aware and sure of herself. 

But over the course of the series that gets tested and she gets knocked off her axis. In terms of style, in terms of language, in terms of the scale of it, in terms of the plot, it couldn’t be more far away from Chewing Gum.

It’s a very sweary comedy and Mabel is the sweariest of the lot, isn’t she?

She is, thank goodness. I think I get the only, or maybe one of only a couple of C-bombs in the whole thing. What I love about that is that she is not a police officer. She has tagged along on this big escapade. She’s running across London and chasing after criminals, but she’s not allowed to say the word c***. ‘Mind your manners!’ It’s so funny.

Do you enjoy the absurdity of the show?

Absolutely. I’m a big fan of Matt’s and I know he does absurdity like no one else. The great challenge about this is to get on board with the absurdity of it, but also we have a plot and we’ve got 23 minutes to zip through it. 

It was a really big challenge in keeping that weirdness and also getting the plot down. You want there to be an element of peril and danger. When people get killed, they get killed. That was really fun to tap into both. There were loads of times on set where I was like: ‘What are we saying?’ Love it, though.

Do you like the fact that Mabel is a strong woman?

Yeah. The thing is, she’s grown up in that police station with loads of blokes. The fight isn’t so much ‘up for women’ because she doesn’t have any women around here. It’s more ‘Oh, I want to be one of the lads.’ She is closer to Spice Girls feminism, one of the lads. 

Feminism didn’t exist properly, in Mabel’s mind, then. So it’s wanting to be one of the lads, work as hard as them, fight as hard as them, catch as many criminals, beat up as many people… that’s where it all comes from.

 And then she meets Lydia, Keeley Hawes’ character, and that’s the first female I think ever in her life that she’s gone, ‘Oh my God, she’s completely different and there’s no men around her. What is that?’

How was the experience of working with Matt and Freddie?

Oh, I loved it. On paper it shouldn’t work, with three completely different people. We’re so different but my goodness the chemistry was evident. I mean it’s why we got cast. I hope, and feel like, you can see it on screen. 

Matt is somebody I’ve admired for a very long time and he was so encouraging and nurturing. Whenever I’d get an idea but get too worried we didn’t have much time for me to go, ‘Oh, we could try this!’ he would always say, ‘Your instincts are really good. What was it? What were you going to say?’ So nurturing in that respect. 

And Fred I’ve known, he hasn’t done very much television but I’ve known him a lot through theatre. The thing I love about Freddie is there’s no coolness to him in his excitement and his enthusiasm. Strauss is not a million miles away from Freddie! It’s so gleeful, particularly when you’re filming in January when it’s freezing cold, to be around someone like that. He’s not done comedy before in this respect, ever. So being sandwiched between those two was really, really a delight and I learnt a lot.

The Victorian era is beautifully recreated. Where were the external bits filmed?

Well Ben Taylor, who is the master of all things at the moment, shot it so beautifully. In the pilot we shot predominantly in Chatham which is where Call the Midwife Is. That’s where we did mostly the pilot. But the rest of it we did in a place called Luton Hoo which is all external, 360-degree Victorian. So it meant that Ben Taylor could really do those action shots and not have to worry about getting in a Starbucks. 

I remember night shoots with all the smoke, and one night where it started snowing (freezing!) but it looked extraordinary.

All the studio stuff was at 3 Mills Studios in Easy London which again is Victorian so we could do external things out there. We lucked out with these locations. 

It was freezing, I’ve said that three times, but filming in January the light that we would lose and how dark and moody it would look, it was pretty ambitious I think.

Had you done any period pieces before?

No, zero, none. I did a restoration comedy on stage maybe five or six years ago but apart from that everything has been jeans and T-shirts with me which has been fine. So that was one of the draws, like, ‘OK, how do I be in this world that I’m not normally seen in and be funny and that.’ The reality was with great difficulty, wearing a corset.

It was painful! Genuinely painful. It made me look at all those actresses who do that with a lot of admiration.

But on top of that trying to be funny and running down a street and beating someone up with a bike chain…. I had to think how to execute that and still be funny. Because it hurts! There’s no two ways about it, it hurts. But it looks great.  

The material is so absurd and the language so funny, did you have problems corpsing? If so who was the worst?

I think we all had our moments. Obviously Matt is an exec on it and he’s written loads of it so he had a different hat on, but the worst time was when we were all together and we were in one half of a carriage and there was definitely not enough space for us three. 

Matt has this unique way of delivering lines, and all he had to say was ‘Good God!’ That’s all he had to say.  We stopped for about 15, 20 minutes because all three of us could not stop laughing. It was painful. 

There’s something about being in very close proximity when you start corpsing, you feel someone’s shoulders going. You could be silent, crying in a corner, but if your shoulders are going, the person next to you? Forget it. That was the point I felt like they might replace me. I lost all decorum in that one.

• Year Of The Rabbit starts on Channel 4 on June 10 at 10pm. Interview courtesy Channel 4 Press.  

Published: 4 Jun 2019

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