Flowers: Channel 4’s peculiar, poetic comedy treat

Sad, strange and very funny comedy drama Flowers, feat. Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt, starts tonight on Channel 4…

Julian Barratt has news for you: “We’re all going to die.”

“Spoiler!” says Will Sharpe.

“We’re all in a bit of a horrifying situation” continues Barratt. “The reality of our predicament on the planet is…” he laughs, “quite bleak.”

We’re discussing death and new six-part comedy drama Flowers, written and directed by Sharpe, starring Barratt and Olivia Colman as Maurice and Deborah, heads of the dysfunctional Flowers family. The subject becomes relevant once you see the opening seconds of episode one.

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“I used to really like and still do, The Odd Couple, the film with Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau” says Barratt. “It starts with him wandering about trying to kill himself and he puts his back out. I always find that funny, sort of leading you into that place and then taking you out of it. I like the proximity of death throughout Flowers. It’s not a light escape from the troubles of life.”

No argument there. Flowers is the story of a family struggling to communicate, struggling to stay together and generally struggling. It’s very funny, cartoonishly so at moments, but it isn’t frothy distraction. ‘Dark comedy’ appears to be the most commonly applied label.

“We didn’t want it to seem wilfully dark, or dark for the sake of it” says Sharpe, whose 2011 debut feature was terrific black comedy about death and scandal, Black Pond. “It’s not supposed to be proudly dark, if that makes sense, if it’s dark it’s because the characters are in a dark place or experiencing dark things. We never wanted to make fun of something that was sad.”

Barratt’s familiar with the label because of the work of his partner, Nighty Nighty and Hunderby creator Julia Davis. “My other half gets a lot of this because her stuff is… she’s always getting ‘how do you get so dark? Why are you so dark?’ I suppose when the ‘dark’ label comes up if it’s got death in it but it’s not a drama and you’re doing jokes, then it’s automatically dark.”

Sharpe settles on his own definition, “I’d say it was a sad comedy, rather than a dark comedy”.

“I find sadness quite funny” says Barratt. “I don’t know if you saw Force Majeure. I really loved that film. It’s quite a sad film, and the lead was crying at one point in that and it just made me laugh so much.”

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“Is it the bit where she says ‘you’re not really crying properly, there’s no tears’?” asks Sharpe. “That was really funny.” The same things seem to make these two laugh. Both cite Fargo, Louis CK and Six Feet Under as we chat. They’ve also both been involved in what you might call highbrow comedy in recent years—Sharpe was announced to be co-writing a modern-day adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide, and Barratt appeared in Gogol’s absurdist satire The Government Inspector at The Young Vic in 2011.

“Did you see that play I did?” Barratt asks Sharpe when I bring it up. Sharpe apologises, no he didn’t. “I thought you were going to say ‘That’s what made me cast you’” says Barratt.

It was Nathan Barley, the Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris-written comedy in which Barratt played cynical writer Dan Ashcroft, one-eyed man in the kingdom of the hipster blind, that made Sharpe think of Barratt for the part of Flowers’ depressed children’s author Maurice.

“He’s been in a lot of comedies but always with a sort of depth as well, that was what was attractive about Julian. He’s definitely funny, but also feels like—especially Nathan Barley—feels like something else as well. An anchor or a sadness or something.

We did deliberately choose actors across the board who we thought were funny but also could carry an emotional story. If anything, that was what we were interested in, was for it to definitely be funny but also to feel like there was a realistic motivation for the things that people were doing or saying, and that you could get stuck into the characters.”

Job done, especially so in the case of Olivia Colman’s Deborah. Colman is brilliantly, Britishly brittle in episode one. You’ll recognise Deborah immediately: frantically glossing over life’s troubling aspects with a manic laugh and insisting on communal happiness through sheer force of will. She’s countered by Barratt’s removed, uncommunicative Maurice, and their immature twenty-five-year-old twins, Donald and Amy, played by Daniel Rigby and Sophia Di Martino.

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Braying, invention-mad Donald has less to do with the show’s sadder elements, but febrile, artistic daughter Amy is just the combination of comic inelegance and poignant emotion Sharpe’s talking about. (Di Martino was once Sharpe’s co-star on Casualty—as well as writing and directing, Sharpe also acts. In Flowers he’s very funny and then heart-breaking and then very funny again as Maurice’s live-in Japanese illustrator Shun, a character Sharpe explains as his attempt to ‘own’ outmoded Japanese comedy caricature by developing it beyond what first appearances suggest.)

Joining them are a haphazard set of less well-resolved supporting roles: weird neighbours, a widowed builder, divorcing friends, a wanton aunt, a clown…  If the characters outside the Flowers family feel somewhat arbitrary though, it’s no great shame. Never misanthropic or deliberately ‘edgy’, the smudged, poetic picture it paints of family love, mental illness and the difficulty of honest communication is its real story.

“I love that aspect of it” says Barratt, “that sort of awkward hiding of everything. There’s a lot of repression in this, especially for my character. He’s quite lost, and Olivia’s character is so trying to make everything good and nice with that sort of energy.”

Is that inability to communicate a specifically English comedy trait? “As opposed to say, an American type of thing?” says Barratt. “I don’t know if it’s particularly English. Woody Allen’s not like that, but there’s a certain dynamic comic voice that this isn’t, I suppose. People are not talking about things a lot. I love the way the miscommunication develops, the gaps. A lot of comedy comes out of that.”

Sharpe agrees. “I think it is about what people aren’t saying, or what they want to say but find themselves for some reason not being able to say. A lot of the stories are built on that weird instinct, or sort of lack of instinct. There’s often if not always a subtext, something else happening. The scene seems to be about one thing but actually, it’s about another thing.”

More often than not, those other things are death, depression, suicide, sexuality, tragedy, loss… all of which might feel to some like strange places to shop for laughs.

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“Nothing can not be made funny I always feel” says Barratt. “I used to love M*A*S*H, which was brilliant, the way the corners on that show used to go from dark to light were amazing.”

That’s a good description for Flowers. Its corners turn from outlandish to poignant to ridiculous and back in quick succession. The silliness more or less leaches out by episode six, leaving behind a surprisingly affecting emotional drama that makes the show as a whole difficult to categorise.

“I don’t know how to label it,” Barratt admits. “You start going, ‘it’s magic realist’ or ‘it’s got psychological images that are delusions’ and there’s comedy and sadness in that.”

Perhaps these days, Sharpe suggests, there’s less of a need to apply strict labels to television. “There are shows that I really like coming out like Transparent or Louie that are just themselves. I feel like that problem of how you label a show is a thing at the moment. People are getting wise to that more and more.”

“That new Louis CK show [Horace And Pete], he won’t even say what it is” says Barratt. “He says it’s not a comedy but he won’t say anything about it, so you download it and it you want to watch it, you watch it. It’s odd, it’s multi-camera but there’s no audience, it’s sort of funny and then not funny and it’s its own thing. I suppose because the way you consume it has changed as well…”

Perhaps to align it with streaming formats, Channel 4 is releasing Flowers as an event series with a new episode shown at 10pm every night Monday to Friday starting with a double-bill. A week-long holiday with the mad, sad, funny Flowers family may not be a relaxing break, but it’s definitely one worth taking.

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