Watson & Oliver – breaking down gender barriers and making people laugh

Jenni Murray talks to a comedy duo with a difference - they're women...

It’s not every day you hear the news that a female comedy duo has broken through the barrier that seems to dictate that being funny is men’s work and have their own sketch show on primetime BBC2.

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In fact, if I remember rightly, we haven’t heard it since the early 80s (that’s nearly 30 years ago, folks) when French and Saunders and Wood and Walters began to hit the big time alongside Morecambe and Wise, Fry and Laurie, Pete and Dud, the Two Ronnies, Smith and Jones and then Dick and Dom, Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller… I don’t think I need provide more evidence of a clear gender imbalance, although I could.

So the arrival of Lorna Watson and Ingrid Oliver is a big deal and, when we meet in a London restaurant, it’s clear they are only too aware of the burden of responsibility on their young shoulders.

They go along – with apparent relief at not having to make a decision – with my choice of a small meze platter and a bottle of sparkling water, nervously approaching my questions with intense seriousness and self-deprecation.

Why did they decide to include John Barrowman in a musical sketch that makes merciless fun of his supreme self-confidence? “Well,” says Lorna (the blonde one), “I saw him when I was about 12 in a West End musical and just thought he was the most handsome, talented man I’d ever seen. It seemed funny for two women to play swooning, kissing fans when he’s totally open about being gay.” 

“And,” adds Ingrid, with a shyness that belies her command of the material when she performs, “he didn’t have to do our show.” Already they’re taking no credit for the fact they wrote the sketch and the song Barrowman performs.

I find myself wanting to boost their egos and teach them how to big themselves up, the way the boys invariably do, because they are really very good at what they do. But show-offs they are not.

They met at school – Tiffin Girls’ – a non-feepaying, south London grammar – when they were 14 and became friends immediately, even though they were not in the same form. “We were always the oddballs,” explains Lorna, “and we would write sketches and do little shows together. But it was very academic. The boys were in a separate school and the girls were always encouraged to beat the boys and generally we did.” 

“But it didn’t make it easy to learn how to work alongside them,” adds Ingrid. “If any boys came over to take part in activities, there’d be 700 girls pinned against the windows staring lustfully.”

At Oxford, where she read German and Italian (her dad’s German), Ingrid had no time for honing her skills as a performer. “Everybody seemed so much more confident than me. I spent the time keeping my head above water academically. Then I came back to London and did a postgraduate acting course, which set me on the right track.”

Lorna, meanwhile, studied French and German at Edinburgh University, fell in love with the Fringe Festival and spent her spare time doing improvisation comedy with friends. “But when I came back to London and wanted to be Eddie Izzard or Steve Coogan I found standup wasn’t for me.

“I didn’t like dying – which happened often – and trailing around London alone was depressing. And it’s very blokey. I decided if you don’t love something, don’t do it.”

They both got jobs behind the camera with TV companies to earn a living and began to work on their own material, aware that they shared the same sense of humour and style of writing/performing. But their unique selling point is their aim to make their comedy “genderless”. They describe a terrifying appearance in Glasgow before an audience of sour-faced men expecting a Kevin Bridges or a Frankie Boyle.

They were tempted to “get off ” when their first sketch about apprentice bees fell like a stone. But the second sketch, where they dealt ironically with issues the audience would have expected from two women – chocolate, relationships – cracked a few smiles and then came the laughter.

They’ve now done three sell-out shows in Edinburgh, refused one series where they were encouraged to do “girly stuff ” and appear now, at the age of 34, to have found their voice and a mentor in script editor Robert Popper, who’s “taught us how to be better writers and learn our craft”.

They’ve been allowed to develop the characters who interest them, both male and female, from Wills and Kate, Georgian ladies and Bunny Girls to Boris Becker and Steffi Graf (in fluent German). 

“We use our surnames because it makes our gender indefinable,” says Ingrid. “We want to play on traits that apply to either sex and perform both sexes equally well. I want to forget I’m not a man.”

Which leads nicely to their personal lives. “Living with a partner, actor,” says Lorna. “Me too,” Ingrid grins. “Wish I could say it was a woman to make me seem more interesting but, no, it’s a man. Don’t know where it’ll go from here. 

“This series and, hopefully, the next are our babies now, but I’d like kids and I’m getting on and breaking through in my career and it makes me cross that he doesn’t have to worry about interrupting his work, but I do!”

Lorna sighs in tacit agreement. We all know there’s a cruel joke in there somewhere, but none of us can think of the punchline.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 14 February 2012.

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Watson & Oliver’s new series begins tonight at 10:00pm on BBC2