'The first thing she did after the tumour diagnosis was put on an inflatable sumo suit...' | Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson on their new BBC comedy Britney © Drama Republic

'The first thing she did after the tumour diagnosis was put on an inflatable sumo suit...'

Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson on their new BBC comedy Britney

Britney, a one-off comedy pilot about a young friendship turned upside-down by a brain tumour  comes to the BBC Three tomorrow. Here creators and stars Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson talk about their real-life friendship, how the show evolved from its Edinburgh Fringe roots and casting a comedy newcomer by the name of Omid Djalili

Tell me about Britney...

Charly: Britney is the very true and very funny story of when I was diagnosed with a large pituitary adenoma  and I moved back to my tiny childhood village to deal with it. Luckily, my best friend Ellen was nearby….

Ellen: Having glamorously not yet left home…

Charly: Right and that is glamorous. So we were able to face it as a duo.

But that sounds like a sad story and this is a comedy.  How did you manage to find humour in such a difficult situation?

Ellen: Well, it was never a conscious decision to find the humour in it. But Charly makes me laugh more than anyone else in the world…

Charly: And Ellen makes me laugh more than anyone else in the world…

Ellen: Except whichever boy you fancy…

Charly: True! And we were back together for the first time in a few years having studied apart, and so it was just a case of ‘let’s have a nice time and try to discuss what’s happening as little as possible’.

Ellen: It was our dream to do comedy together from when we were teenagers re-enacting Smack the Pony and French and Saunders sketches in our bedrooms.

Charly: And we were considering trying to write a sketch show anyway. Then every time we came to write any kind of comedy over those months it ended up being brain-tumour related, because I guess it’s so much of what we were thinking about.

Ellen: Charly’s brain is so weird - even without the you-know-what - so she had a mad way of explaining stuff. Like how surreal it was to be told there was something in your brain you didn’t know was there that needs an operation to get rid of, she explained that to me as like finding out there was a small Welsh town in your brain, whose inhabitants are really pissed off they’re about to be evicted. And every time that happened, I was thinking, ‘This should be a show; how else will we monetise the experience?’

Is the TV show different to your original Edinburgh stage show?

Charly: Totally different, in some ways. In the live show, Ellen and I play all the parts and it’s very, very sketchy. Tonally, we hope the pilot has maintained a sort of wild energy, and the love-story that’s underneath the stage show, but just by virtue of actually having locations and sets and other actors it’s really different.

Your supporting cast includes Omid Djalili as Charly’s doctor and Lia Williams and Tony Gardner as her parents.  Did you have an idea of who you wanted to play the roles?

Charly: We really wanted everyone who you watch in the pilot to take the roles so it is a real dream.

Ellen: The only person I was slightly gutted about was we’d offered Daisy Edgar Jones the role of Charly, but she was filming some sort of Irish thing so couldn’t do it. But Charly does a really good go.

Charly: Omid has been a huge fan of ours for a really long time, we actually taught him everything he knows about comedy.

Ellen: Right. So when he wrote to us begging for what he described as ‘the opportunity of a lifetime’, we thought we’d give this plucky newcomer a chance.

Charly, you were desperate to stay in New York.  Do you think you might ever go back?

Charly: Oh big time! I’m not done over there. I didn’t get to leave on my own terms, I left because of my diagnosis and the fact that the American healthcare system is dogshit but I’ll definitely go back, I’m excited to.  

What’s it like acting as yourself?  Did you find yourselves exaggerating your personalities and stories?

Ellen: The good thing about the fact that we’re doing it together is that if one of us does start to exaggerate parts of ourselves in a scene, we can say ‘chill out mate, you’re doing a bit much here’ or ‘actually you weren’t wearing so much makeup or that padded bra for that part of the brain surgery’…

Brtiney stars Charly and Ellen

Did writing this programme make you nostalgic for your past?

Charly: Yes and no. It was definitely nice to revisit lots of the jokes and adventures we went on but it wasn’t a barrel of laughs dredging up the medical stuff. Having said that, though, it was very cathartic to look back on everything and choose how to tell the story, it was quite freeing in some ways.

You both seem to find the funny side of the darkest situations. Do you use comedy to get through difficult times?

Ellen: I don’t know if this answers the question, but the first thing Charly did after the diagnosis was put on an inflatable sumo suit and I wrote a comedy eulogy.

Why did you name your tumour Britney?

Ellen: It’s easier than always referring to it as ‘that enormous tumour resting life threateningly close to your carotid artery’.

Charly: Also because a bad bitch brain like mine could only house a bad bitch tumour and Britney is the baddest bitch in pop.

You have a great friendship.  Do you ever fight? Do you ever get on each other’s nerves?

Ellen: Yeah, we definitely fight. We hate to do it, though!

Charly: We always try to make up before we go to bed, even if that means a very late walk and a Strongbow Dark Fruits and a chat.

Ellen: We spend a huge amount of our time together, and often find we’ll be up into the early hours of the morning because we have so much to ‘catch up on’.

Charly: How?! We live together, we work together, we hang out in the evenings and at weekends together. By virtue of spending so much time together and having been best friends since we were 14, it would be creepy if we didn’t sometimes get on each other’s nerves.

Is your friendship exactly as it’s portrayed in the programme, or is it exaggerated in the name of comedy?

Ellen: If we wrote like we actually talk, I reckon it’d be unintelligible.

Charly: Yeah, we’ve had to write in more ordinary human speech otherwise nobody would have understood what the hell was going on. The friendship in the show is honestly completely authentic, if anything we’ve had to chill it out a bit for TV.

Ellen: Our only fear is that, in mining the friendship for our careers, are we hollowing something out deep within us?

Charly: But then we think, ‘but it’s the BBC!’

Ellen: And we’re instantly soothed.

• Britney drops on BBC Three tomorrow

Published: 29 Nov 2021

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