Home‘I Went to School in a Bikini’: How Sophie Whelan Turned Her Messy Life Into Theatrical Gold | the television

‘I Went to School in a Bikini’: How Sophie Whelan Turned Her Messy Life Into Theatrical Gold | the television

NSEarlier this year, Sophie Whelan went through an unusual series of extreme highs and lows. She was filming her own sitcom Alma Not Ordinary, a project she started working on years ago, when her grandmother passed away. She brought Whelan to part of her childhood and inspired a character on the show. The next day, Whelan found out that she had been nominated for a BAFTA for comedy writing.

A few weeks later, while she was watching the ceremony on a laptop on a picnic bench outside the converted barn where she was staying, Willan was chosen as the winner. Her response, posted by fellow cast member Jade Adams on Instagram, was the most exhilarating thing you’ve seen all year: Whelan takes off on a triumphant tour, a gorgeous red sequined dress matching a tractor in the background, running and screaming “What the fuck?” Repeatedly. “I woke up all the kids who were laying in bed next door,” Whelan says with a laugh. “It was fantastic. It was surreal.”

Willan was just nominated for an extraordinary Alma pilot. An entire series of the sitcom after it aired last year was commissioned to great reviews, and Pandemic spent its writing. It contained many elements of Whelan’s private life, which she also explored in two Staffin shows. Like Alma, Whelan grew up in foster care after her mother, who had a heroin addiction, was unable to take care of her.

In one episode, Alma gets her case files from Social Services: When Whelan gained access to them, she became the basis of her 2016 recorded show. Both turned to sex work at one point to make a living; Whelan spoke about it and the different labels that applied to her – working class Northern – on her famous 2016 Edinburgh show Branded.

“She makes a lot of stupid decisions, but she also makes some great decisions”… Whelan, left, and Jade Adams in Alma Is Not Ordinary. Photo: Matt Squire/BBC/Expect

Whelan was excluded from school, she says, “for coming drunk in a bikini like Alma does, so this has elevated my life so much.” Apart from that, she is hesitant to talk about the details of her life that made her on the show. “It’s inspired by my experiences and people I know, which allows it to be original,” she says. But the point is, while alma is extreme, “a lot of people who watch it will recognize the people they know. There is universality in it.” So the title is ridiculous. “In fact, it’s very normal for families to have all these kinds of complications.”

It’s impressive how much Whelan has crammed into six half-hour episodes: addiction, care, mental health, rotten jobs, sex and consent, class, generational poverty, luxury, feminism, and how to pursue your dreams when life has gotten you bad. Hand, The direct impact of government cuts on the marginalized (David Cameron shown in a nutshell).

What’s even more impressive is how all of this never feels so sad or heavy. Not only because of the jokes and the brilliant actors – there is also a warm, cheerful thread throughout. As executive producer, Whelan had it all over. Alma, the 30-year-old wannabe actress who wears standout coats, is playful and lively. She says if she can’t be normal, she wants to be cool. “I wanted to show someone really plump,” Whelan says, speaking via Zoom from her home in Salford. “I think people with caring experience are often portrayed as either a hero or a victim or a demon. But Alma is full of life. She makes a lot of stupid decisions, but she also makes some really great decisions and it’s so much fun.”

Whelan, who is also in her early 30s, wrote the first draft around 2014 after years of austerity destroyed lives and demonized the people getting the benefits. “Cameron’s era felt really negative for caregivers, mental health [care] And the recipients of social services – people like my mother, people who have faced difficulties.” Her goal was to show a “complete human being. This, to me, is an antidote to portraying that era.”

“The freedom I had was probably too much for a 16-year-old” … Whelan in Manchester. Photo: Christopher Tommond/The Guardian

Alma Not Ordinary is set in Bolton, where Whelan grew up. She spent much of her childhood looking after adoption (her father wasn’t around), and her grandmother, Denise, was looking after her. It was Denise—glamorous, in her forties, newly divorced and in nightclubs—who took Whelan on vacation to Ibiza, where Whelan joined the hotel’s drama club. She played a crying clown, and her appreciation for black comedy seemed to coalesce at that moment.

She says, “I got the error.” What did she like? “Maybe just the same things I do now. I’m a natural show. I’ve always loved making people laugh – my grandmother, my friends. I was called the class clown, which is a very subtle feeling. I guess I was just a creative person by nature – my family is quite creative. And Bolton is a very funny place:” There is a natural sense of humor there.”

When she was eight, Alan Bennett discovered and would write and perform her own monologues on her porch, attracting neighborhood kids as much as her audience. Her grandmother introduced her to Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, “people who came from my kind of world, which was really cool.” But to Whelan, with such a chaotic background, the idea of ​​breaking into television must have seemed impossible. She agrees, “It’s not easy to know the path, especially when no one around you came from this world. So you think about it as you walk. But I’ve always had a kind of blind belief. It kind of felt like something inescapable.” I had to do it.”

As a teenager, her life continued to be “chaotic and turbulent.” Her relationship with her grandmother deteriorated (they later reconciled), and she then entered into a relationship that “was very abusive”. The school seemed useless. “I’ve been in a lot of adoption positions. There was a lot going on where getting up and going into the academic system just didn’t feel possible.” By then, she was living in subsidized housing “where you have a kind of landlady support factor, but you are independent. There was a freedom that was probably too much for a 16-year-old.” A teacher came to the house where Whelan was living to convince her to go and take only her high school diploma.

Willan moved in with her aunt, worked three jobs, and remained firmly convinced that her career in the arts would take off. “My aunt was like, ‘Go on Google, find something. “So that’s what I did.” What I found is Contact Contact, a youth theater company in Manchester. Instead of the fairly middle-class characters you’ve seen on TV and in the movies, here she felt like she was among the people I got to know. Then she set up her own theater company and learned all there was to know about grants and arts funding.

Around this time, Whelan worked in sex work in order to earn enough to live, an experience that she also gave to Alma. “I wanted to show a really honest attitude about escort and not give a final opinion,” she says. “Because I think that’s what you see a lot – very specific opinions about escort.” For Alma, there are good parts to her (money – the first time in her life she has anything) and bad (basically: men).

“Comedy writing is always fun”… Whelan as Alma. Photo: Matt Squire/BBC/Expectation TV

Then there is the stigma. Alma and her friend, who works in a coffee shop for minimum wages, argue about whether Alma was cheated about her sex work, and the friend’s verdict is pretty clear. Were these conversations Whelan had at the time? “I think sex workers are constantly being judged. Everyone has a piece to say. Sex workers rarely talk about themselves.” For Willan, the entire show, not just the sex work sections, is all about capturing the nuances and inconsistencies of life. “[It’s] About showing that everything is multifaceted. Alma’s mother is a drug addict but she’s also a wonderful person, and sometimes she’s a terrible person.”

The show was made after Willan was awarded, in 2017, the Caroline Aherne Scholarship, which develops new talent and gives access to BBC comedy editors. When she was creating her own theatrical productions, Whelan would hang out outside Media City in Salford and hand out flyers to producers. Someone attended a show, and Whelan was commissioned to write Alma’s first not-so-ordinary screenplay in 2014, but she couldn’t move forward. “I found it very difficult to transition to television,” she says. “There were still a lot of barriers. It’s still a London-centric industry. Getting people to take you seriously, to hear your ideas, to go into the room, or know where the room is, is still a challenge.”

Grant brought her into those rooms. She says things are getting better. “The diversity of commissioners is improving. You can’t do it symbolically. It has to come from people who are gatekeepers who know and have lived different experiences.” Her own organization, Stories of Care, supports and develops the creative talent of young people who have gone through the care system, and has prompted training plans for care leavers in her chain.

On a practical level, she says, “Having more people of color, more working-class people, more regional voices, and more people with caring experience working behind the scenes on television changes what is considered the natural way to be. On a personal level , coming from that background, being a caregiver, all the things that come with that – I know that can make getting into the smartphone industry more difficult.Then, when you’re on the inside, it can be hard to understand and fit in with those worlds “.

This is one of the reasons why she excelled at her BAFTA win. The next day, returning to the set, she saw the impact of the news on the youth of her training program. “It’s a reminder that things are possible.” For Whelan, poet and writer Lemn Sissay, who was the first artist she saw to talk about growing up in foster care, “He was a really positive influence in my life and someone I should look up to. You need the people that you relate to, who achieve the things you want to achieve.” .

Was it comfortable writing her own experiences? “Writing comedy has always been fun for me,” she says. “So whether it’s about my own life or to other people, the empathy that I put into the characters is really rewarding. When you have a diverse upbringing, you have a lot of empathy because you’ve seen a lot. I think it all helps to be a writer.” She smiles brightly. “This was a positive result of my experience. I love it.”

Alma’s Not Normal premieres on BBC Two on September 13.

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