By Kerry Potter
With her comedy GameFace back on our screens this week, stand-up star Roisin Conaty is channelling the Bridget Jones-style singleton for a new generation. She explains why, like her character, she’s looking for laughs not love.
Roisin Conaty can find the humour in most things, but men telling her that women aren’t funny? Not so much. ‘They’re always s***heads on Twitter who can’t spell, with a football club logo on their profile. You can’t say black people or gay people aren’t funny, so why that?’ she asks, her accent no-nonsense North London (think Adele, basically).
We’re sitting side-by-side on a wooden bench at the edge of a photo-studio courtyard, sheltering from the rain. ‘And then sometimes women will say, “I don’t normally find women funny but I like you…”’ continues the 38-year-old stand-up, ‘and that breaks my heart. I think, “Whaaat? You’re telling me you’ve never had a good laugh with a woman?”’
The solution, I’d suggest, would be to order the naysayers to binge-watch series one of E4’s GameFace, her semi-autobiographical comedy drama. It is utterly hilarious, but with a peppering of pathos, as well as being entirely believable. It should propel Roisin from that raucous woman you might recognise as bonkers Jo in Greg Davies’s madcap Channel 4 sitcom Man Down (or from an 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown panel) to a major comedy-world power player.
Roisin plays Marcella, a lovable, chaotic 30-something whose life isn’t going entirely to plan. She can never have just the one at the pub. She’s a failing actress stuck doing temp jobs. And she has been dumped by her long-term boyfriend Simon (played by Dustin Demri-Burns from anarchic comedy duo Cardinal Burns), who then high-tails it to Vegas and marries a girl he’s known for six days. Ouch.
The show will doubtless be compared to last year’s award-winning Fleabag, BBC3’s dark sitcom by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but as Roisin politely but firmly points out, the pilot of GameFace was screened back in 2014. ‘I thought Fleabag was wonderful and she is a genius, but they are very different shows – they have different voices,’ she says. I’d also mention Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe in the same breath, another Channel 4 comedy drama that’s as warm and real as it is funny, with a flawed, forthright female lead.
And, of course, you can’t create a show about a single 30-something without the legacy of Bridget Jones heaving into view. ‘I loved reading those books in my 20s,’ says Roisin. ‘But Marcella’s goal isn’t to meet someone – she’s still broken-hearted about her ex. Her goal is to have a career and more control over her life.’
With Marcella’s bedraggled beehive/smeary eyeliner vibe, and Man Down’s Jo apparently channelling Su Pollard’s style, it almost comes as a disappointment to find Roisin to be groomed and tasteful in person. Her trademark big blonde hair is swishy and she’s statuesque: 5ft 8in in Ralph Lauren skinny jeans and a simple grey T-shirt. A size 16, she feels comedy is one of the few art forms in which its female stars’ appearance isn’t scrutinised.
‘I’ve never had a conversation where I’ve felt like [my looks] were a problem. I gain weight, I lose weight; I do my hair however, and no one’s ever gone…’ she makes a teeth-sucking, disapproving face. ‘I mean, I’ve got a face for comedy. I say that with love. It does its job.’
She’s belatedly fallen in love with fashion: ‘I never had any money in my 20s so I had to disengage with it. Now it’s nice in that I can buy pieces that suit my shape. I like a sleeve on a dress, something pinched in at the waist that shows my figure,’ she says. ‘I read the other day that boobs are back. Are you joking? Like you can park them up for a while. Imagine being a 15-year-old and told that your body is out of fashion. Wow.’
GameFace’s Marcella is so named because it’s Roisin’s middle name: ‘It gives enough separation to make the show kind of about me but not me in full.’
Many of the themes are inspired by how Roisin’s life has changed in her 30s. ‘It feels like life speeds up and if you’ve got a dream you haven’t fulfilled, you think: “Do I carry on with it or let it go?” And you might have relationships that haven’t worked out, so you can find yourself back where you were at 21 but with less belief in yourself. And there’s money – in your 20s you and your friends are probably all earning roughly the same money but that changes. Someone’s doing well, someone’s broke – so where to go for dinner for someone’s birthday?’
It’s also the decade when your friends start having babies: ‘That can be hard on your friendships. And even if [having children] isn’t something you’re thinking about at that point it’s a conversation that comes into your world.’
She has dated sporadically in recent years, but GameFace’s ex-boyfriend storyline was inspired by a long-term relationship from some years back that she was ‘not able to move on from: I had to move back to my mum’s house, heartbroken’. It did, at least, provide material for her 2010 Edinburgh show, which won the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award for best newcomer.
These days she’s relaxed about being single. ‘I’m not dating at the moment. I’d like to have a relationship but I’m not getting out of bed thinking, “Oh my God!” I’ve never been that girl who has to be in a relationship. My job has given me such a big, full life and, while I know it’s not quite the same as having an intimate relationship, I do have a lot of friends and family. I guess I would like to meet someone but it would have to be the right person because I’m quite set in my ways now.’
Random male fans occasionally ask her out via Twitter but she’s never tempted: ‘No way, the dynamic would be insane. It would be too weird.’ Does she feel pressure to settle down? ‘No, I don’t really. I mean, part of me would love the idea of that. But another part is terrified of that: the commitment; the finality; that you can’t change it.’
A ‘gregarious, imaginative, silly’ child, Roisin – and her younger sister Siobhan – grew up hanging out with their mother’s 12 noisy Irish sisters. ‘All these funny aunts would be in a room together and there’d be this giddiness that I loved. I wanted to be like them.’ Her mother and father, who is also Irish, met in London and settled there. She was a nurse, he worked in admin for Aer Lingus.
‘I come from a working-class background and it wasn’t in my world to be a writer – I had no direct access to those kind of jobs. But I sensed I wanted to do something like that.’ It took a while for her to pinpoint where her passions lay. She started a degree course in film at Middlesex University but dropped out after two years when it became too technical. In her early 20s, she ‘bummed around’ doing a series of dead-end office jobs, while writing in her spare time.
She’s extremely close to her mum Margaret, who calls twice within an hour while we chat, apparently undeterred by Roisin ignoring the first attempt. The second time, Roisin answers, says she’ll call back later and tells her she loves her. On hanging up, she bursts out laughing: ‘She said “Hello, stranger” in a really passive-aggressive way – I only spoke to her yesterday!’ Margaret is engaged with Roisin’s career up to a point: ‘She’s not a pushy showbiz mum, she’s more concerned whether I’m happy and eating enough vegetables.’
Their closeness is understandable given that her father suffered a fatal heart attack, aged just 52, ‘14 or 15 years ago. I can’t remember what year I lost him – that’s awful, isn’t it?’ Roisin grows quiet but does say that it ‘gave me a fearlessness around doing stand-up. Life is short and you can try things, be brave and be silly, because one day we’ll all be dead, so it doesn’t really matter.’
It was after a drunken meal in a pizza restaurant that a friend signed up Roisin for a London pub’s comedy night. Three months later, she made her stage debut. Cue epiphany: ‘Immediately, I was like, “Oh! Oh! This is my thing. This is going to be a big thing for me.”’ Of course, bad gigs followed as well as the good, while she honed her craft – ‘I never got heckled much; I got silence, which is worse.’ She’s not sure if there’s equal pay in stand-up but ‘the sexism has eased off a lot now. When I started it was insidious. I’d be introduced, like, “Ooh, she’s a woman!”’
These days she’s also a regular face on comedy panel shows, another area not known for its great gender balance. ‘Women should’ve always been on those shows. It’s madness,’ she marvels. Not least because their presence inspires younger women. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see. Women growing up don’t know there’s that route into comedy otherwise. I want to see all kinds of people on television, not just white men.’
Roisin also returns to TV later this month in series four of Man Down – think Men Behaving Badly meets Sorry!, with a surreal modern spin. Inbetweeners star Greg Davies plays the deeply immature Dan, who regularly meets his oldest friends – Roisin’s bonkers would-be entrepreneur Jo and strait-laced financial adviser Brian (Mike Wozniak) – in the local caff to bemoan his latest life disaster.
‘Doing the show has been a ball because Greg’s one of my dearest friends in real life, too. We’ve known each other for 14 years, through stand-up. Same with Wozzers [Wozniak]. Comics always hang out together and go down the pub when they’ve got time off; it’s very sociable.’ The late Rik Mayall starred as Greg’s father, before his sudden death from an acute cardiac event in 2014. ‘It was a really hard moment for the show, just awful. He was very playful and very sweet to me. I felt for his family immediately – I knew what they were going through, that journey you have to go on.’
Greg, a commanding presence at 6ft 8in, has a large female fan base – does Roisin see the appeal? ‘You can’t ask me whether Greg’s fanciable! He’ll kill me if I say yes, he’ll kill me if I say no. He’s a handsome man and I can see why women would be attracted to him.’ Despite encroaching middle age, Greg’s alter ego Dan is a classic Peter Pan figure, something that Roisin relates to.
‘The old markers of being an adult [such as settling down] are blurred these days. Part of me feels very much like an adult; I feel absolutely focused with work. But then I have to talk myself into not having chocolate for breakfast every single day, like a child.’ She still lives in a flatshare, in North London’s Crouch End, with comedian and actress Caroline Ginty, who also plays her flatmate in GameFace: ‘I’ve never lived on my own. I’d be too scared,’ she shudders.
While Marcella parties hard, Roisin’s own drinking prowess is now diminished. ‘It’s so sad what’s happened to me – I used to be an absolute legend! Now I fall asleep in corners at parties because I’m so tired.’ Such is life when your career is exploding and you rarely get a day off. ‘I’m pretty ambitious,’ she smiles. ‘I hope GameFace does well, I’d like to do a stand-up tour next year, I’d like to direct and I’m currently writing a couple of other things. I want to create a body of work that I’m proud of.’
Her burgeoning fame means she’s increasingly recognised in public – she was walking down a street in Spain recently when a friendly male fan stopped his car to tell her a joke about two cats. Then there’s the darker stuff, such as the charmers who send her naked photos on social media: ‘I don’t find it funny. It’s unacceptable.’ But overall, life is sweet. It took Roisin a while to work out what she wanted from life, but there ain’t no stopping her now. As she puts it: ‘I’m a bit chaotic but I get to where I want to get to. I just take weird routes.’
GameFace starts on E4 this Thursday at 9pm