Jessica Hynes on her new Suffragette sitcom Up The Women

"You think of Emily Davison as the only martyr, but it was all quite serious. It was no longer Carry On Up the Suffrage. I was crying into my tea..."

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Jessica Hynes on her new Suffragette sitcom Up The Women
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Jessica Hynes has been acting since before she finished her A-levels. “I did have an agent when I was very young,” she says. “I did the National Youth Theatre, played a 50-year-old herring pickler when I was 17. When I came out, there were six agents waiting for me.” Since then, whenever it seems television has taken a funny turn, Hynes has been there, sometimes acting (as in The Royle Family and Twenty Twelve), sometimes writing and acting (Spaced). Her very long, flawlessly structured career accounts for the foolish sensation I have when I meet her that she’s actually one of my best friends.

The success of Twenty Twelve at the Baftas reminds me of her sheer range. It won Best Comedy and Olivia Colman won Best Female Performance in a Comedy, an award that Hynes was also up for. “My mum was always talking about how brilliant everyone else was in that. It’s a running joke between us. I say, ‘I’m sorry I’m not Olivia Colman, Mum.’ And she says, ‘That’s all right, dear. Never mind.’”

In the Olympic comedy, Jessica Hynes was a complete dolt, who could make you fall about laughing just with the look on her face as each fresh doltish thought flew into her head. In Up the Women, a beautifully done sitcom about suffragettes, written by and starring Hynes, she’s a woman ahead of her time, way too clever for the company she keeps, and her face is at permanent war, as her patience wrestles with her urgent desire to tell people what idiots they are. It is truly wonderful to witness. And the show itself, where Hynes’s nemesis is the wonderful Rebecca Front of The Thick of It fame, is brilliant – for the performances, for the script and for the atmosphere.

Set in 1910, it centres on Banbury Intricate Craft Circle, the Edwardian era’s answer to the book group, in which a handful of women decide the limits of their commitment for or against women’s suffrage. There’s a deliberate quaintness to the way it’s done – as Hynes describes: “I thought, it would work if you went really retro with it, to make it much easier to relate to these women, who are warm, who are failing.

“Comedy only really works if you are failing. I made it deliberately restrictive, a church hall and a kitchen, nowhere to go to, nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. I just loved that.”

Coupled with the humour, which is pacey, wordy, surreal, fast, and frequently saying much more than you think it’s saying, it reminds me of Dad’s Army – not just in passing, but powerfully, as if it has captured the essence of the show, a quintessentially British way of looking at deadly political seriousness and still managing to find it really amusing.

The idea came when Hynes read a piece about a suffragette plot to shoot Prime Minister Asquith (no casual plot, either – one of the women was already attending a shooting range when her comrade blew the whistle). Hynes thought it would make a really funny film, and sold it to the BBC provisionally on that basis. And then she started researching it. “I started to realise how dark it was, reading all these lists of women who were beaten up and killed. You think of Emily Davison as the only martyr, but it was all quite serious. It was no longer Carry On Up the Suffrage. I was crying into my tea.”

So the original film didn’t come off, happily for the sitcom that grew in its stead. But the research did leave its mark. “It changed my view on so many things. It affected me in a way I hadn’t expected. I began to understand things about our current society and the way I fit into it, or don’t. I began to understand that the roots to sexual inequality are economic. Without any political power, women would be free or cheap labour. They were totally unpaid, unrecognised cogs in those wheels of commerce.

“And all the propaganda around women and their failings – they’re too weak, they can’t think straight, they’ll get their sleeves caught in the ballot box, who will look after the children – all of that is built to protect an economic status quo.” At this point something happens that I really wasn’t expecting; Hynes wells up, in... well, basically, outrage. A pure inability to stomach the injustice of it all. “Sorry,” she says. “I don’t drink coffee. Just in case you think this is because I’ve drunk too much coffee.”

That’s not what I think at all! Now I’m bursting with outrage as well. She carries on, “We’re steeped in it, you know. It’s thrust on you, and how do you extricate yourself from it? All these projected ideas about how you’re weak, and stupid, and not as good as men or not as strong.”

This is why the suffragette project has consumed her, not for the sitcom that it became, not for the film that it didn’t become, not for the brilliant part it landed her (because she’d written it), nor for the depth of the British comic heritage it taps into. Rather, because “it’s our history, and it’s empowering, and yet we’re detached from it, and that’s wrong. You get young girls saying, ‘Didn’t Parliament want to talk to them, and then they started doing all that militant stuff, and it was bad, and they didn’t behave themselves, did they?’ No. That’s not what happened.”

Part of what makes this so exhilarating is that actors will almost never say anything political; they seem to have made a collective decision that opinions mess with the job. Hynes, more than many, is often portrayed as a person who’s determinedly unradical, traditional even, having started a family young, at 25, in an almost 50s marriage (she met sculptor Adam Hynes at 18 and they’ve been together ever since). She still seems a bit surprised, 15 years later, by how fast it all happened. “I think I was on a bit of a mission, but I’m not quite sure what that mission was. I haven’t worked it out yet.”

If there’s one thing to be said for having children outside the mid-30s groove that has become the norm, it’s that there’s a good chance you’ll sound tremendously wise and thoughtful, as Hynes does. “Motherhood forces you to engage with your vulnerability. And if you have problems with that – [she gives a vaudeville pause] – it is not good. But then you do, and you learn, and you grow, and you figure out what it is to be a parent.

“The thing that’s bowled me over more than anything is that I never imagined I would be married with three children, after meeting Adam at 18. I always imagined myself with various different lovers. Meeting someone so young, and coming this far with them, has been a complete shock to me.”

A minute passes, during which she seems to be considering whether “shock” is the most flattering word she could have used. “Lucky,” she emphasises. “I feel amazed and very lucky.” Her timing is so pitch-perfect, it almost doesn’t matter what the words are; she’d be funny regardless.

Up The Women starts tonight at 8:30pm on BBC4