Last night Bridget Christie was having a viewing party for the premiere of her Channel 4 show, The Change. It’s taken a while, but finally she’s brought a screenplay to broadcast. “It was a lot of fun,” she tells me, clearly still excited from the experience of watching her creation go out to millions. “The guy doing the continuity was really funny. Obviously, I’ve seen it in the edit, but it’s different on the telly.”
Plaudits are now flooding in for the sitcom, which she both wrote and stars in. The Change introduces us to Linda, an underappreciated and unfulfilled woman who has had enough of it all. Her husband (played by a pitch-perfect Omid Djalili) is, for want of a better term, a bit crap. And whilst her friends and kids aren’t necessarily unsympathetic to her woes, they simply don’t recognise what’s going on. The menopause is kicking in, and she’s beginning to question her role in life. She’s also keeping track of her domestic servitude, and estimates she’s spent 3.5 million thankless minutes on looking after her family.
Essentially as a spectator at her own 50th birthday party, Linda decides to make some drastic changes in her life.
“It’s that central story of someone trying to find themselves again. I think that’s universal. It’s not confined to menopausal women.” Jumping (somewhat carefully) aboard her Triumph motorcycle, she heads to the Forest of Dean to rediscover herself. Somewhere amidst the ancient woodland is a time capsule she hid as a youngster. Could this be a way to reclaim all the years and ambition which have long since evaporated?
Christie is very familiar with the area, having grown up in Gloucester. Her family would go into the forest for walks and picnics. She had a very firm idea of how the woodland could play its part in the show. Filming on The Change employed a lot of special lens and distinctive colour palettes, often giving the sumptuous environments a sense of drama. “It was always this magical, timeless place, so I really wanted to get that onto the screen. I wanted it to look like films I’ve watched from that time when I was a child. Like The Deerhunter and Deliverance. They’re really cinematic, with quite serious stories, against a backdrop of breathtaking natural beauty. I like that juxtaposition.”
Alongside the magnificent scenery, the characters she finds waiting for her are also very different from her suburban existence.
The robustly suspicious Eel Sisters (played by Susan Lynch and Monica Dolan) put her up in a grotty old caravan, in which their father recently passed away. Over in the nearby village, things remain just as eccentric. Paul Whitehouse might be enjoying himself a bit too much as pub bore Tony, who automatically assumes he’s irresistible to every woman setting eyes upon him. And then there’s The Verderer, portrayed by Ghosts’ Jim Howick, a perpetually enraged radio DJ who is campaigning to protect the woodlands.
There are still a few links to Linda’s domestic life though. This most regularly comes in the form of enraged voicemail messages from her older sister, Siobhain. Played by the brilliant Lisa Tarbuck, her sibling is enraged that she might even contemplate abandoning home to concentrate on herself for once.
“Lisa is so brilliant in it… I’ve got five older sisters, and they’re so lovely, so Siobhan was just a creation of a certain type of person who likes control. I’ve friends who’ve had that kind of relationship with a friend, parent or colleague. But none of my characters are based on real people. It was always this kind of magical place.” Providing respite from the joyful oddness of forest life are Tanya Moodie’s Joy, a former ‘outsider’ who now calmly embraces the peculiarities of her community, and Jerome Flynn’s Pig-Man; a hermit who lives off-grid in a cave and looks out for the local wildlife.
According to Christie, assembling this sublime cast (something she describes as ‘a roll-call of all the best people’) was one of the easier parts of the whole process.
“We literally just sent out the scripts and most said yes. The only follow-up I really had to do was with Jerome Flynn. He had a few questions,” she says with a wry chuckle. From the first draft to broadcast, the process has been both unsettling and nourishing. The show was written over several years, and it constantly evolved. She entered menopause, and lockdown descended. The latter reminded her just how beautiful our nation is. It’s rich in culture and rituals, and there’s plenty which we struggle to celebrate, so addressing that became a big part of The Change.
“Every single part of making this show has been such a rewarding experience. It’s really changed me and my outlook on life. It’s made me less fearful to do things. You’ve just got to go for it in life. I never thought any of those people would say yes. It’s been a real lesson in going for what you want.”
The titular change is not just limited to Linda’s situation, everyone in the tight-knit rural community is having to adjust to something. The modern world beyond the trees, with all its social progress isn’t that far away. There’s also a new road being planned which will destroy a huge swath of the woodland. I had entered into The Change with the expectation I wasn’t honestly its target audience. But its seamless flow between being whimsical, bawdy and poignant does win you over. It touches on some very real issues, particularly around gender imbalance and the tendency to suppress our feelings.
This is a prime example of how sit-coms do have the power to be gently subversive and push you in unexpected directions.
Christie suggests that we’re all too busy to put ourselves first. How often do you take ten minutes out of your day to think about yourself? “I think the big theme with this series is self-love. I hope what people take away from this is loving themselves a bit more. We’re so hard on ourselves. We don’t see our strengths that often. We’re not our biggest supporters. I do hope that changes.” Perhaps the big strength of The Change is the time it devotes to each character’s development. It also flows effortlessly through different styles, shifting from robust humour to the whimsical or poignant with a gentle elegance. “I was really lucky because they let me be quite ambitious. There’s a lot of different styles in there.” The fifth episode is mostly comprised of a group of women just chatting about their experiences– something you almost never see on television.
Even the male characters are written sympathetically, regardless of how troublesome their foibles are at first glance. “I think, with Tony and The Verderer, they have depth; it’s just that they’re not showing it to the world. Just yet. The Verderer loves birds, and there are things he’s fighting for, but he also has quite problematic political opinions. And with Tony, he’s never been challenged before. He says things, and people have never gone; ‘Sorry, what?’”
Not content with creating a bit of ‘much-watch’ TV, Christie is also heading out on tour (presumably not on a motorbike) with her new show, Who Am I?
This is in parallel to The Change, while actually being entirely different. It structures itself around her experiences of the menopause. Although that’s clearly just a convenient hook for the marketing blurb. As a newly qualified ‘lady of a certain age’, she’s offering a philosophical and witty examination of how to push new frontiers in being embarrassing, the timeless battlefields of domestic labour and the lingering disparity with which we view people. It all begins with a laconic demonstration of double standards.
“I pretend I’ve forgotten why I’ve gone into the room. It’s a little test really. I did that in Bristol, and the audience were going: ‘Oh, we love you, Bridget! You’re in Bristol!’ Because I’m a 50-year-old menopausal woman they just assumed I’d come out not knowing what I was doing! If Bill Bailey did that, they’d all think it was ‘a bit’.” This sort of inequality pervades our culture. Imagine for a moment that Boris Johnson was female, if your constitution can handle it, now think about what headlines would be splashed across the front of all the tabloid newspapers.
“We just don’t trust women. If Boris Johnson was a woman, who’d pathologically lied for their entire lives, had multiple affairs and children she didn’t know about… She wouldn’t be Prime Minister. And she wouldn’t have been loved in the same way. It’s the same with male comedians and celebrities. We just judge genders very differently.”
Regardless of the core theme (British culture is still skittish about discussions of the menopause) Christie has written Who Am I? to be as accessible as possible.
“There’s more jokes and gags in there. I’m really enjoying doing it. Since being on Taskmaster, I get younger people in. It’s great that they’re 12 and coming to see me, but now they know all about the menopause!” It shows no break in form for Christie, who came to national attention with her award-winning Edinburgh Festival smash A Bic for Her in 2013 – a disappointed treatise on the trend for lady-pens. There was also A Book For Her in2015, which neatly used a virulent fart released into the wilds of a bookstore’s Women’s Studies section as an allegory for the global feminist struggle. And then there’s all the stuff she’s done for radio, which would probably take a full page to cover. Check out the Radio 4 archives, if you don’t believe me. There’s an impressive amount of contributions.
Unequivocally, she describes stand-up as still being her first love. “I’m never going to stop performing.”
She was a typical theatre kid, but after finishing drama school couldn’t find any decent work. Instead, there was stand-up and writing. In a way, she’s glad the roles didn’t come in, because she certainly wouldn’t have written as much. “Every moment of it, from the first script being commissioned, many, many years ago, to talking to you now, has been like a dream. Even though the writing process was really hard, like a puzzle which needs to be solved, I was really aware that I was living in the moment. Because it may never happen again.”
Her own experience of the menopause was characterised by unpreparedness. This will likely be familiar to a lot of women. “I thought I knew about women and their bodies, but I didn’t know I was going through it. I’ve heard that a lot, even from female GPs. We’re just so busy. I’ve got a headache, or there’s a weird period. Why am I hot? And why am I anxious? Why am I not sleeping? All these things are symptoms.”
A slightly embarrassed silence around the menopause has to be a contributory factor in this. And that’s compounded by the lack of brilliant older women characters in our media and culture. Obviously, there’s a few exceptions, but the menopause is never mentioned around them. “In Happy Valley, we don’t see Sarah Lancashire struggling with a hot flush. I’m not saying it has to be, but just an acknowledgement of it would be good.” For The Change and her new tour, she wanted to present an overdue positive aspect of the menopause, and change preconceptions of older women.
“What do people see when they think about that? When you talk about a character who is menopausal, what does she look like?
Is it a woman on a motorbike, or is it an old lady with grey hair who is just sitting around moping? That isn’t my reality, and it’s not the reality of any women I know.” There’s a dishonest narrative about what this time of life brings. It can be very debilitating, but it can be a life changing and positive event. Most older women are brilliant, funny and confident. “They’ve done loads of stuff and know themselves. Why aren’t we seeing them? Why is it always someone’s granny? And, why aren’t we writing them as individual human beings, in the same way that we write parts for men?”
She’s reluctant to suggest the imbalance has suddenly been overcome with one show. But there are more women in the wider industry, from the writing rooms to the director’s chair, so the direction of travel is gently encouraging. “I hope I now spawn loads of other TV shows… where a female protagonist goes on an adventure. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were actually too many ‘older women’ stories?”
Bridget Christie brings Who Am I? to Brighton Dome’s Concert Hall on Sat 9 Sept. Her sitcom, The Change, is available to stream via All4. www.brightondome.org
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