‘I’d just take a break and cry’: Catastrophe’s Rob Delaney on how comedy helped him cope through grief

After his two-year-old son Henry died last year, the creator and star of Channel 4's Catastrophe took solace in life's funny moments

Sharon Horgan, Rob Delaney and Carrie Fisher in Catastrophe (Channel 4, HF)

This is the third time I’ve interviewed Rob Delaney, on each occasion just before the launch of a new series of Catastrophe, the scabrously funny sitcom he writes with his co-star Sharon Horgan. But we won’t be meeting under these circumstances again: he and Horgan have confirmed that this fourth series will be their last.

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“We’re incredibly proud of it,” says Delaney, 41, sitting on a blue sofa in a west London photographic studio, a black coffee going cold in front of him. “I think four series is a wonderful number, perhaps the ideal number to say what we wanted to say about marriage and having young kids and the minefield that that is.”

When Delaney, an American comedian previously best known in Britain for being funny on Twitter, first relocated his young family to London to film Catastrophe in 2014, he didn’t know if there would be a second series, much less a fourth. Five years later he finds himself fully embedded in London life, the star and writer of a wildly successful, very British show.

“It is decidedly a British sitcom, even though I’m very obviously American and Sharon is Irish,” he says. “It’s on a British network, it’s made with British money and most of the people in it, who aren’t Sharon and myself, are British. Sharon has a British passport – I should stress she’s allowed to live and work here, in case the Home Office reads this. I also have a visa, which allows me to make sitcoms.” His future writing plans are, however, on hold for the moment.

“I’m just taking a second before I create something out of whole cloth again, because of everything that’s changed. I want to let it gestate because I’m a different person now. And Catastrophe was so personal, for better or worse.”

The change he speaks of is the death of his youngest son, Henry, last January at the age of two. In a heartbreaking Facebook post, Delaney revealed that Henry had first been diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2016, undergone surgery that left him with significant physical disabilities, only for the cancer to return in the autumn of 2017. Up until that point fans of the show had no idea what Delaney and his family had been going through; he’d guarded their privacy fiercely and continued to work. How, one wonders, was it possible to create comedy during that time?

“Shoots were hard,” he says. “Sometimes I’d need to take a break and just go cry.” Delaney’s normal speaking voice is bright and booming, the kind you can hear through walls, but now he speaks softly, treading carefully over his words.

“Writing them, logistically, was difficult,” he says. “We rented an office right by Great Ormond Street Hospital so I could duck in and out as needed on series three. So that was challenging.”

Catastrophe

To his surprise, Delaney discovered that his ability to be funny remained somehow unimpaired. “I found incredible sadness and confusion and anger not incompatible with work,” he says. “I found grief not incompatible with work. I can’t return emails any more, or do basic admin, and my memory is fundamentally damaged. So there are things that I’m much worse at now. Joking around and imagining stories has not suffered. Maybe because it’s almost like a vital sign.”

Or it could be, he thinks, that humour and sadness – which have always sat side by side in Catastrophe – also coexist in real life: “I know, for example, my wife and I really enjoyed movies and TV shows, even in the worst times. We found Getting On right after Henry died.” Delaney and his wife, Leah, had never seen the BBC comedy created by Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine and set in an NHS geriatric ward. “We were just intoxicated by it,” he says. “We know bleak now, so for us it was just like water finding its own level or whatever.”

Last September , he published a fuller account of Henry’s illness – harrowing and raw, sad and joyful, impossible to read without crying. It started out, he says, as a sort of acknowledgement of the other parents of sick kids out there: “I just wanted to say hi there, I know what you’re going through, and to talk about it in a way that might help the world at large understand what it is that you’re dealing with.” The piece was to be the basis of a book, one Delaney thinks he now won’t write, although he intends to continue to speak out, aware that he’s in a position to help destigmatise death, particularly the death of a child.

“Generally, people who’ve lost a child like to talk about their child.” In those circumstances, curiosity is usually more welcome than embarrassed silence. “Of course, you’re curious,” he says. “Ask. I’ll talk about it. Because I’m proud of Henry. I’m not ashamed of him. I’m not gonna be cast aside because the thing you least want to have happen to you happened to me.”

Delaney recalls a recent conversation with the six-year-old daughter of a friend. “She said, ‘Did your son die?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, he did.’ And she goes, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe that! That’s terrible!’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is! Thank you!’ I really appreciated that direct, open honesty. It’s better than some acquaintance at the supermarket not able to meet my eye because they don’t know what to say.”

Delaney’s experiences have made him a tireless champion of the NHS, a campaigner for Medicare for All in the US and a keen supporter of a number of charities, including Noah’s Ark and the Rainbow Trust. Last year he became the first person to read one of CBeebies’ Bedtime Stories in Makaton – a language programme combining signing with speech, designed for children and adults with communication difficulties. “That I did explicitly in memory of Henry, and for other kids and families who use Makaton,” says Delaney. After surgery, Henry’s tracheotomy left him unable to speak, but he became so proficient at signing that his parents had to take an intensive course to catch up with him.

“There had never been a two-day period where, from 9am to 5pm, one of us wasn’t with him. So for two days in a row we weren’t there, and we were sick about it, but we came back way better at Makaton and he exploded with joy. He was like, ‘Finally!’ ”

Delaney may not be rushing headlong into the future at this point, but that’s not to say he hasn’t kept busy. Last summer his fourth son was born. He’s been doing stand-up, and he’s acted in, by his reckoning, five or six films imminently to be released. “Catastrophe has put me in good stead,” he says. “It opens doors and then once I get in the door, I know what to do.”

There’s also a line in his CV I’d never noticed in the course of our previous interviews: when he graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1999, his degree was in musical theatre. Does that mean he can sing and dance?

“I don’t dance well,” he says. “Although I did study it very seriously, I’m bad at it. But I do sing well. I’m classically trained, show tunes, all that business.” In fact, he says, he has plans to do a musical in the not-toodistant future. “I’m talking to some people now about that. Yeah, I love to sing and want to and will. Dance… let’s hope I don’t do that.”

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Catastrophe series four begins Tuesday 8th January at 10pm on Channel 4