Charlotte Ritchie talks Feel Good, Fresh Meat reunion and feeling "very concerned" over Doctor Who
The actor has crammed three sitcoms and a game show into 2021 – and we're only halfway through.
Charlotte Ritchie is having a good year. The comedy star kicked off 2021 with the second series of cult favourite Dead Pixels, followed that up with an amusing run on legendary game show Taskmaster and is now gearing up for the return of BAFTA-nominated Feel Good. The latter is a collaboration with stand-up comedian Mae Martin and screenwriter Joe Hampson, chronicling an intense and dysfunctional LGBTQ+ love story that explores themes of gender identity, abuse and trauma, while maintaining a witty sense of humour throughout.
The semi-autobiographical series stars Martin in the lead role, playing an alternate version of themselves, with Ritchie as co-star and love interest, George. The first season went down a storm with critics and audiences alike, securing a nod at this weekend's BAFTA TV Awards and a second season courtesy of Netflix, which handled international distribution the first time round. Feel Good has resonated with fans all over the world – from Brazil to South Korea – but don't think for a moment that it deals in broad strokes.
"I think what really struck me was that the more specific a scenario, and the more specific the references and the personal touches, the more that that seemed to speak to people," explains Ritchie, in conversation with RadioTimes.com. "I couldn't believe really that there were people getting in touch about specific scenarios that they felt represented in... I thought that was really amazing."
While some creatives have a tendency to push a successful concept until it runs out steam, Martin and Hampson's comedy drama is coming to an end with its sophomore season. In doing so, the show eliminates any risk of outstaying its welcome, taking a cue from the many classic British comedies that opted for similarly brief runs. Ritchie is careful not to spoil the ending, but admits to being "really moved" by Feel Good's final episode.
"You go on a real journey with this couple and I find I just really root for them," she says. "I suppose you get this feeling like you are still kind of wondering where they go next. I don't think that it's completely fully tied up in a big pretty bow, but it’s truthful. There's this sense of the unknown in their future which I really love because I think that's what life really is like. There are no guarantees and you do have to take whatever life is throwing at you as you progress either together or not."
The success of Ritchie's partnership with Martin can be partly attributed to her long history of working collaboratively with fellow creatives, dating back to her teenage years performing in the British Youth Music Theatre. Talented ensemble casts have gone on to be a hallmark of the actor's career, from breakout project Fresh Meat to later success in Call The Midwife and Ghosts, and this is no coincidence.
She says: "What I think is so special about youth theatre is that you get to the root of what is really good about this type of work, which is that you work with other people all the time; people who are often quite different from you and bring their own particular way of being and you have to figure out how to work together.
"I have generally worked a lot with ensembles and that's something I really love," Ritchie continues. "And for me, what's great about Feel Good is the way it is like working in a team with Mae to make a good thing. So I think, definitely, for me, that process of working with other people is the very best part of it."
Musical theatre paved the way to an early singing career, as Ritchie joined the classical crossover group All Angels, which bagged a record deal with Universal and major gigs including a Wembley Stadium performance at 2011's UEFA Champions League final. Ritchie "always" had one eye towards a return to acting, but splitting her attention in the early days did have its benefits.
"I think a defensive move I always had was saying that I wanted to do the thing that I wasn't doing, because then it meant that if I failed at what I was doing that it was actually fine – because what I was ultimately doing was something else," she recalls.
"I find singing really exposing actually, more and more the older I get, I don't really enjoy it that much anymore," Ritchie reveals, seemingly disinterested in a return to the music biz. "But I think if I was to do a musical or something, that would be quite fun – to play a role would be brilliant. But I think when you sing just as a singer it can be very exposing, the connection between you and the audience is that much closer weirdly."
Around the same time that All Angels disbanded, acclaimed university-set sitcom Fresh Meat started airing on Channel 4, introducing Ritchie as privileged popularity-chaser Oregon (real name: Melissa). From the minds of Peep Show creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, it's little surprise that the show proved to be a hit, with Ritchie earning national recognition after only recently graduating from university herself.
Indeed, the actor bagged the coveted role during her final year studying English and Drama at the University of Bristol, where her demanding dual honours course and music commitments rendered her "quite absent" a lot of the time. Ritchie considers an Edinburgh Festival sketch show she performed during her second year as a defining moment, introducing her to the likes of Jamie Demetriou (Stath Lets Flats), Ellie White (The Other One) and Feel Good co-creator Joe Hampson.
"I think I learned more in that month at Edinburgh than at any other point in my life," says Ritchie. "That encouraged me and helped me with that [Fresh Meat] audition, so if it hadn't been for that and meeting those people, I probably wouldn't be doing this."
Although Ritchie has given some thought to where Oregon might be today ("probably in the government"), the actor is apprehensive about the prospect of a Fresh Meat revival or film – even as the sitcom approaches its 10th anniversary.
"I would love to play that part again, but I also know that there is something that’s really important about just leaving things as they are," she explains. "The temptation would be there – and who knows, maybe that will happen – but I think that it's quite nice to forever wonder what happened to those characters and to never have that confirmed."
Following a stint in BBC Three comedy Siblings, where she played a selfish and sociopathic underachiever, Ritchie took a break from comedy to join the cast of BBC One's beloved period drama Call The Midwife. It's safe to say that nurse Barbara Gilbert was a distinct change of pace from her preceding screen roles, with the kind-hearted character undergoing a touching arc across four series that ultimately ended in tragedy.
"I'd done a lot of comedy and it felt exciting to try something new," Ritchie told RadioTimes.com. "I also adored the show, I thought it was brilliant and very beautiful and also quietly, extremely, feminist and I learned so much. Every episode seems to tell such a rich history that has been, I think, to a lot of people hidden and unknown. So I just found it not only beautifully written, but also just so fascinating. And then once I joined it, the cast was just so great – I had an inkling they might be and they were – it was really fun."
After an emotional exit from Nonnatus House, it wasn't long before Ritchie was back on BBC One for a guest spot in Doctor Who's 2019 New Year special, titled Resolution. She stars as archaeologist Lin, who crosses paths with the 13th Doctor and her companions when her mind is taken over by a rogue scout Dalek. While not an expert on all things Who, Ritchie can remember being a "bit scared" by a couple of episodes in the Tennant and Smith eras prior to joining up herself.
"I hadn’t watched a load of it, but I was really aware of its loyal fanbase and very, very concerned about doing it justice – and really excited to be in Jodie Whittaker's series," says Ritchie. "She's so amazing and she was such a pleasure to work with, so it was a huge honour. Also, to have anything to do with the Daleks... I can't really believe I got to do that."
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Rumours continue to circulate about Whittaker's future on the show, with some fans theorising that the Doctor could regenerate once again at the end of the next series. Ritchie says that taking over in the legendary role would be a "spectacular job", although initially thought herself out of contention due to her existing role in the Whoniverse.
Ritchie says: "I just don't think it would narratively be satisfying that someone who popped up in one of the episodes a couple of series before suddenly becomes the Doctor. I think I may have ruined my chances there."
When reminded that Peter Capaldi managed to secure his gig as the 12th Doctor despite earlier appearances in both the sci-fi drama and its spin-off Torchwood, Ritchie remains daunted by the prospect of taking the reins from Whittaker's groundbreaking run.
"Never say never," she adds. "I mean, she's got big shoes. She's so brilliant, I really love her in that part."
Most recently, Ritchie has been seen competing on Channel 4 game show Taskmaster, where she and four other comedy personalities vied for the approval of Greg Davies by undertaking a series of bizarre challenges. The show's studio segments were a leap out of Ritchie's comfort zone given that she's used to working from a script, but she feels that she "loosened up" over the course of the series and was ultimately left in the mood for more.
"It's quite disarming to watch yourself be self-conscious at the beginning and then growing in confidence every episode," says Ritchie. "Obviously, I've done live things before, but I’m just very rarely myself in front of lots of people. I got to the last episode and I was like: 'Right, let's redo this, shall we? Can we just go again?' I mean, it was great. It's such an honour to get to do that show. I had a really good time in the end."
As for Greg Davies' repeated comparisons of Ritchie with a children's TV presenter? "I actually think, considering that children's TV presenters are basically nurturing our future society, I feel really complimented by that. And of all of the things I could be compared to, I think that's pretty great. The difference is that that's not what goes on in my head, but if that's what comes across, I'm fine with that."
There's more to come from Ritchie this year, as BBC One sitcom Ghosts has recently wrapped filming its third series, where haunted homeowners Alison and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) will face a "big new challenge". But while her reputation in the comedy world is now firmly established, she hasn't lost interest in performing more drama in the future.
Ritchie adds: "What I love about things like Feel Good is that there's a real mix of those two genres. I think more and more TV is harder to categorise. There’s lots of shows that I feel might be described as a comedy, but actually move you to tears or the other way around. I think that writing is so sophisticated and TV is so good these days, that it might not be possible to decide one or the other and that there'll be a lot more of a mix."