Rebecca Front and Morwenna Banks talk funny women, taking on dramatic roles and Shush!

The comedy queens are back with a new, eccentric radio project

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How would Rebecca Front describe her Radio 4 sitcom? “Totally divorced from reality,” she says. “We’ve got quite far-out characters, catchphrases, things that happen each week for no particular reason – like people endlessly ending up on a slippery floor every week. It’s more influenced by vintage radio comedies like It’s That Man Again than anything else that’s been around since.”

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And Front should know. She has, after all, appeared in big-hitting comedies – from Chris Morris’s news spoof On the Hour/The Day Today through Big Train and The Catherine Tate Show to Nighty Night. And in The Thick of It, as Nicola Murray MP battling her spin doctor, Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, she delivered the less profane insults – “You’re about as on the ball as a dead seal” – and was on the receiving end of Tucker’s sweariest tirades.

She’s everyone’s favourite collaborator – but Shush! is her own project with co-star and co-writer Morwenna Banks. They’re sitting in a room together, explaining that Shush! began as a TV sitcom idea from Armando Iannucci some 12 years ago. “Armando rang me – as he did with On the Hour – and suggested it,” Front explains. “I said yes, as long as I don’t have to write it. I said the same sort of thing with On the Hour – as long as I don’t have to improvise. But he did make me improvise and, of course, one week after the call I found myself in an office at the BBC with Morwenna thinking, ‘How did this happen?’ I spend my entire time trying to get out of writing projects and I always end up doing them…”

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The Thick of It

In the face of evidence from Lucille Ball to Fleabag, both Front and Banks still encounter the question – can women be funny? They put their head in their hands in despair when they say it. “It comes up again and again,” sighs Front. “It’s so frustrating,” adds Banks. “Although ironically when I started doing drama one critic said, ‘It’s very distracting because I’ve seen her in comedy and I can’t take her seriously’,” says Front. They both crack up. “You can’t win with some people.”

“Although,” Front cocks her head to one side, “I remember when I was at Oxford, John Sparkes, who was in [Channel 4 sketch show] Absolutely, saying, ‘You’ve got to meet Morwenna Banks – I’ve been watching her at Cambridge, you’re going to love her, she’s hilarious,’” she grins. “So not only are women funny, but this programme has clearly been our destiny since day one.”

The bane of Front’s career has been the wacky friend or the vicar’s wife roles: “That’s changing a little,” she concedes. “It’s not happening fast enough or often enough, but it’s much better than it used to be.” That’s partly why she’s been playing dramatic roles recently – in Doctor Thorne, War & Peace, Humans and Lewis. “At least they are proper characters and not just the vicar’s wife.”

Banks and Front met on Stressed Eric, an animated BBC2 show for grown-ups. “It was brilliant and I really wanted to work with her again, but we’re both quite shy at making any actual approach or overtures,” says Banks. “It turned out people had been thinking we should write together for ages – it’s just Armando was the first one with an actual plan.”

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Fleabag

The pilot didn’t make it to the screen but Front and Banks loved their characters Alice and Snoo so much they kept working and pushing and pitching until Radio 4 commissioned the first series back in 2015. “We couldn’t let it lie,” Front explains. “Every time we get in a room together it was a lovely atmosphere and I think we both just thought, ‘Come on, let’s do this!’ There’s no subtlety to it, just fun and larks. Each episode starts with a flimsy premise, then these two women tie themselves up in knots for 25 minutes. We have to write it in the same room because we have to muck about to get that silly.”

Their characters are librarians – and they’re very eccentric. “Alice was a child genius at Oxford or Cambridge when she was six or nine… we’re very imprecise. Her dad chaperoned her and she once killed a duck with a harp so she’s incredibly neurotic, highly strung and can never leave the library,” says Banks. “Snoo has a very scant understanding of books and literature, has a very odd and chequered past and always thinks everything’s fine. Neither of them can survive alone, in other words.”

Both women have played in dark, satirical comedies. “There was a phase where everything I was being offered was getting competitively darker and darker,” says Front. “It’s like people saw Nighty Night and tried to find something more extreme.” And both have been involved in protests against library closures. But they decided to avoid tackling politics in the script. “Except, I suppose,” adds Front, “it’s political in that it’s by and starring two women and we almost never spend our time talking about men – in other words it passes the Bechdel test [where a work of fiction contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men].”


“It’s good that we’re able to author our own shows now,” Banks concludes, as they get ready to head to the recording of episode one. “Shush! is not about age, gender, marriage or partnership. It’s allowed to be itself and I don’t know how much that exists beyond radio.”

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Shush! is on Wednesday 3 May at 11.30am on Radio 4