Julia Davis: Nasty Piece Of Work

Bad, mad, and absolutely hilarious to know.


My usual benchmarks for women being amusingly nasty are Kaitlin Olson’s Dee Reynolds and Olivia Colman’s Sophie Chapman – two characters whose actors actively pushed for them to be horrible in their own right, rather than just mugging wet-blankets cursed to eternally react to their funnier male co-stars, and who roundly succeeded. But Julia Davis makes them look like Pippi Longstocking and Tinkerbell.

Davis’s creations have never just been this, but her shtick, her personal party piece through all of it, is writing and playing women so irredeemably awful and vulgar that like an ongoing car crash one cannot help but keep watching to see what happens next. Nighty Night really threw down the gauntlet in this regard, as Davis reacts to her husband’s terminal cancer diagnosis by, before he’s even dead, immediately pursuing her hunky new neighbour.

Sally4Ever had basically the same Davis character turned loose in middle-class England to shamelessly break up another marriage, and Camping saw her edged slightly to the periphery, one in an ensemble rather than the main event – but very much still ready and eager to tempt, manipulate, and philander.

The brilliance of it is the audacity of the character in constantly pushing the bounds of politesse, the sheer brazen depths Davis’s onscreen persona plumbs. This is not the old cliche of a juvenile work casting the author as Faust, this is Davis having created a character so repellent it would have been an insult to make anyone else act it all out.

(Lena Dunham’s ill-advised adaptation of Camping managed not to get this at all, and made the Davis-analogue a harmless quirky hippy.)

At the risk of either being sexist, or not sexist enough, Davis’s characters simply wouldn’t work as men. Or, at least, not remotely as well. The faux-chumminess wouldn’t attract the same suspension of disbelief, and the claims of fear would just seem weak. But the single-minded devotion to her own wants and whims, that’s something that transcends gender.

julia davis nighty night

In playing these social games and finding the weak points of society, it’s hard not to see seeds of this in the stupid-person-for-hire sketch in Jam, in which Davis played the stupid person. The single-minded dedication to their own worldview becomes an unstoppable force, and everyone else’s desire to keep the peace or simple apathy ends up a not-so-immovable object.

You could fairly call it cringe comedy, dealing as it does with the kind of material that will have you wincing through your fingers at it. But unlike most cringe comedies, here the protagonist is not the unfortunate recipient of all these excruciating scenarios, rather they are the one happily inflicting them upon everyone else, wielding the cringe like an old egg in a sock and using it to bash anyone within reach.

So when Davis is in the act of doing something awful, be it making an MS patient walk up a steep hill or dragging another lustsick man off the wagon or killing her own husband, this is the meat of it – but the accompanying two veg can end up leaving a lot to be desired. While Davis has an excellent and skilfully deployed tool in herself being the most awful person imaginable, where she tends to stumble is in the support structures around this barrage balloon of a villain protagonist.

We can just about buy the cringe comedy’s hapless victims as protagonist, but when they’re the unfortunate bystanders they often don’t inspire the kind of pathos they need to. Davis’s unlucky objets d’amour in Nighty Night and Sally4Ever, Angus Deayton and Catherine Shepherd respectively, come off not merely passive, but paralysed in the face of her manipulations.

(Admittedly this didn’t fit Shepherd’s timid presentation too badly, but former panel-show quizmaster and frequenter of prostitutes Deayton seemed like he’d been hit in the head just before they shouted ‘action’.)

This also extends to Deayton and Shepherd’s onscreen spouses. Rebecca Front is consigned to grin and bear it the same way her character does the MS. Meanwhile, Alex MacQueen – who gets typecast as flimsy anyway – seems so wet a blanket that it’s hard not to understand why Shepherd would stray in the face of any bleach-blond manipulator, Davis or otherwise. And anything that undermines Davis’s lurking evil, which is after all the centrepiece, cannot help but feel like a mistake.

The missing piece here is consequences – Davis’s various ghouls can’t really face any, or they’d end up in prison. On some level this is sort of key to the whole project, as the gamut of sappy middle-class fall guys grin and bear her paper-thin politesse. But in terms of wider plot points, this doesn’t let too much important actually happen.

Nighty Night ripped the mask straight off in that regard, with the weaker second season going through the same rigmarole as if the events of the first had never happened. Front’s character, apparently, could simply shrug off the woman who seriously attempted to steal her husband waltzing back into their lives and having another crack at it.

Meanwhile, Sally4Ever’s Sally frequently raises issues like ‘I’m going to lose the house’ or ‘I’m going to lose my job’, ready-made excuses for Davis as writer to twist the knife in some way or other, but instead these plot points simply don’t come up again. Even through a clunky time skip, Sally just floats along in the same comfortable home counties bubble no matter what we are told has befallen her.

This says nothing that is pleasant of the show’s ultimate worldview, but more importantly, is simply leaving possibilities on the table, to go green around the edges. Why not let Sally – who is the title character, after all – fall further, when there’s ample grounds to have her do so? Why get cold feet here?

(Despite everything, Sally actually gets a happy ending – running off with a character played by Davis’s real-life husband Julian Barratt. It would be so easy to draw any number of psychosexual inferences there, wouldn’t it?)

Occasionally, it must be said, Davis simply goes too far. This is not moral hectoring, I would hope I have by now established I’m very much here for the amorality, but merely stating that the eternal quest for greater repugnance can sometimes trip and fall from being funny-ridiculous to ridiculous-ridiculous. One thinks of Davis in Sally4Ever instigating a man to shit on her face, and then having his wife and child walk in on this intimate scene, which in the moment seemed remarkably contrived.

As an example of how Nighty Night went badly off the rails between its two runs, the first had Davis come on to the neighbours’ uncomfortable teenage son in a nastily plausible way. Come the second, in an overreached attempt to recapture those glory days, the character then did the same with their other, pre-teen son – and claimed this small boy had got her pregnant – and other characters went along with it. Some disbelief simply can’t be suspended.

Ancillary characters are always the first to suffer as Davis’s monster bends light around her surface. Weirdly, though, A-list cameos – who you might expect to claw back at least some of the spotlight – end up by far the most sidelined. Sally4Ever, being a joint production between HBO and Rupert Murdoch’s evil Sky, had the clout to bring in special guest stars Lena Headey and Sean Bean playing themselves, at that time both riding high on the hog off what was then the best TV show in the world, Game Of Thrones. Yet neither got any real comic payoff of their own.

Bean, at least, got a few lines of actual dialogue, even if it was entirely tangential. Headey, however, was reduced to glowering from the background as Davis bungled her big scene. This played out for a couple of takes until Davis whisked herself away to receive the faceful of shit I mentioned earlier.

Nighty Night show
Nighty Night show

A creation like Mr. Bean (no relation to Sean) can get away with being the funny guy to the straight man of an otherwise normal world. But Bean is basically harmless in a way Davis’s characters decidedly aren’t. With Bean, you would simply shrug and let him carry on. With Davis, you’d get the hell out of the way, or, if it’s too late for that, ring the appropriate emergency service.

Felicity Montague’s characters in Nighty Night and Sally4Ever, at least, present a suitably nasty counterpoint – just as shamelessly self-interested as Davis, but not nearly as good at it. Unfortunately they have a tendency to wander off, in both cases ending up in deeply unwantable trysts of their own which are by that point far, far away from the main action, becoming a B-plot which the characters don’t really have the substance to carry.

This is why Davis’s podcast Dear Joan And Jericha has the feeling of something finding its home. Davis and frequent collaborator Vicki Pepperdine (the neurotic lead in Camping, and Davis’s even-worse therapist in Sally4Ever) simply bat back and forth with the most depraved, disgusting scenarios they can think of – as a pair of agony aunts, who are straight-facedly offering the worst advice imaginable.

Here, the vulgar ideas can simply flow freely, without having to try and distort a believable wider narrative around their surface. Basically any flavour of the sexual, the scatological, or the otherwise depraved can be picked up and experimented with (horses and awful husbands are frequent topics), and frequently it is clearly Davis and Pepperdine egging each other on to see how much worse it can get – they’re admirably resistant to corpsing, though a too-frank mention of a donkey punch does set them off at one point. It’s a playfulness that bringing Lena Headey in, presumably at great cost, to sigh and roll her eyes simply could not have.

What’s more, it has the less-is-more of the aural medium. Ideas which would be far too graphic to create in visual form onscreen don’t have that problem on a podcast. If it turns out that Joan and Jericha’s hapless advisees have sent in a photograph (and it often turns out they have), it can be of anything, no matter how personal, illegal, or graphically repulsive.

And the dryness of the delivery takes it to another level. Davis’s grotesques always acted as if their insane demands were the most reasonable thing in the world, but here the advice to (for instance) strike up an affair with your own nephew is relayed with a casual matter-of-factness which, if you weren’t really listening, you could take for the genuine article of some chummy advice column on Radio 4.

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