This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Some people baked banana bread over lockdown. Others learnt Mandarin. But Daisy May Cooper co-wrote Am I Being Unreasonable?, an offbeat comedy thriller about obsessive friendships, women on the edge, a freak accident and a dead cat.
Imagine the gnarliest Mumsnet thread come to life and televised, and you’ll get the vibe. “We were very inspired by reading those [Mumsnet] posts,” laughs co-writer Selin Hizli, on the question of whether the show’s title is an allusion to the parenting website’s most overused phrase. “Those posts are so brilliant,” laughs Cooper. “Women talking about how awful their marriages are, and all the other women go, ‘Leave the b*****d.’ They could write that their husband sneezed, and they’d still go, ‘Leave him!’”
Ask how the series came about, and you get a surprisingly candid answer. “It was because I was desperately unhappy in my marriage, but didn’t realise it at the time, and then lockdown put this massive spotlight onto it,” says Cooper. “My daughter had asked me to put a pair of dungarees on a Sylvanian Family squirrel. It was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was completely broken.”
In fact, at the time of writing Am I Being Unreasonable?, Cooper and Hizli’s lives very much mirrored their characters’, with both women eventually splitting from their partners (Cooper shares a daughter and son with hers, while Hizli shares eight-year-old twins).
“As Daisy says, you don’t realise you’re unhappy until [lockdown] magnifies it,” says Hizli. “We didn’t realise how much we were missing that really important friendship as a source of comfort and connection. That was the starting point for our writing, and also talking about other female friendships that we’ve had, and how some of them get really toxic and make you doubt yourself more.”
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The plot centres around 40-something mum-of-one Nic (played by Cooper), a cantankerous character bored by her marriage and grieving a loss she’s unable to share with anyone else. When Jen (Hizli) arrives in town, the two soon form an alliance fuelled by a shared love of kitchen discos, crushing hangovers and bitching about other mums.
“Nic and Jen are both damaged, but who isn’t?” says Cooper.
Like fellow BBC comedy Motherland, Am I Being Unreasonable? will be familiar territory for any woman who’s ever drunk five too many proseccos while dancing to Promised Land on repeat the night before their toddler’s birthday party. At times, it makes for uncomfortable viewing. But it’s also truly hilarious, peppered with the same pin-sharp dialogue and clever social observations that made This Country so unique and well-loved.
And like that previous hit, which Cooper created with her brother Charlie, Am I Being Unreasonable? only exists because of the strong bond between its two creators and stars.
“You have to have brutal honesty, but you also have to feel safe to suggest things,” says Hizli. “A lot of this show is about our own lives. You’ve got to feel safe enough to share that with someone and not worry they’re going to dismiss it or not treat it with the care it needs.”
“It’s such an intimate thing to be able to write with somebody,” says Cooper, “but fortunately, Selin and I are so close that we can tell each other if we think the other one’s idea is rubbish. I have that with my brother, but I’ve tried to write with other people, and I can’t.”
It may surprise fans that the Coopers do have plans to return to This Country – though the death of their friend and co-star Michael Sleggs, aged 33, means it won’t be for a while.
“We definitely will, but I’m not ready yet,” she says. “I found the last series so hard when I lost Michael. I’m still trying to process that.”
For now, anyway, Cooper has a new writing partner. She and Hizli have been friends since meeting at Rada in 2007 (“I hated her when I first met her,” says Cooper), but had lost touch in recent years, with Hizli’s acting career (she starred in Land Girls and Grantchester) becoming increasingly hard to juggle with twins. At one point, while Cooper was busy making This Country and becoming a big player in the UK comedy scene, Hizli found herself in particularly dire straits.
“I had my kids when I was 24, worked a bit and then moved out of London and it just dried up,” she says now. “I live in Kent and I just got a job at a local restaurant waiting tables and cleaning toilets. It was quite grim. I’m genuinely not good at anything else. Acting is all I’ve ever done, so there weren’t a lot of other options.
“Neither Daisy nor I went to university; we both just went to drama school. Getting in a car during lockdown in November, having not seen Daisy for years at this point, I had nothing to lose.”
“That’s when the greatest stuff is written,” notes Cooper. “JK Rowling did a similar thing. If you’ve got nothing, then you have everything to gain. When we were writing this, Selin was cleaning toilets. She was such a talent. I thought, ‘I can’t let her be doing that.’”
“If I’d been ticking along, doing a couple of acting jobs, I probably never would have got in that car,” adds Hizli. “I felt like everything was against me: it was lockdown, work had dried up, I felt like I was failing my kids, my relationship was failing and I just thought the universe was against me. Then a little voice said, ‘What if this is the universe asking how badly you want it, and how much you are willing to risk?’ There was something pulling me towards Daisy.”
The two were reunited three days after Cooper had moved out of her marital home. “I had my son in lockdown. It was a mess. They [the hospital] weren’t allowing the husbands to come in. And that’s when I knew I couldn’t go back to him. Because I was actually loving it with all the nurses and all the women. I felt dread at bringing the baby back home. Isn’t that terrible?
“My ex-husband is a lovely man, but I just wasn’t in love with him. And he wasn’t particularly in love with me. Writing this show has been therapy for us, in a very weird way. It’s our way of being able to cope with the last couple of years.”
The show also explores toxic femininity. “A lot of women are in competition, and it’s all to do with men,” says Cooper. “Why are you being this way? Why do you change when a man walks into the room?” Before the birth of her daughter, Pip, in 2019, she recalls doing NCT classes “with women who I knew had the same cracks as I did, but wouldn’t show me”, which made it hard for her to bond with them. “I found that unbelievably isolating. All I wanted was for someone to say they were struggling as well.”
That Cooper and Hizli are both so honest is as much of a bond as their shared life experiences, and it’s clear that working so intensely together has made them an even closer partnership.
“You’re so unbelievably supportive,” says Cooper of Hizli. “You don’t judge me. I could say, ‘I think I might have murdered somebody,’ and you’d go, ‘Don’t panic, we’ll wrap him up in a carpet and throw him in the Thames.’ I just know that you’d love me forever. As I do you. Which I’ve struggled to have in relationships I’ve had with men.”
In Am I Being Unreasonable?, Cooper and Hizli were also spurred on to create the sort of working class characters that don’t commonly exist on TV. “I still get angry that there aren’t the opportunities for working class talent,” says Cooper.”
“Also, if you are working class, it’s tougher to be seen as anything other than that,” adds Hazli. “There are obviously parts, but they are in the minority. I would never even get a look-in at those parts for posh English roses.” “We’ll always be character actresses,” notes Cooper.
“If I have to read another script note that says ‘stunningly beautiful – everyone looks at her when she walks into the room…’” says Hizli, rolling her eyes. “I had an audition tape sent through the other day that asked me to send a full body shot and not wear any make-up. How dare you think you can tell me what make-up I should wear?”
“Everybody’s aware the times are changing and they’re still covering their arses, but things haven’t really changed,” says Cooper, “and that’s really depressing. All the people that are making the decisions are the posh people.”
Notably, Am I Being Unreasonable? was made by a team that was 50 per cent female. “Our producer, Pippa Brown, was great, and having camerawomen changes the atmosphere on set.”
While there are still barriers, both agree that it’s an exciting time for female-led drama and comedy, namechecking Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel, Catastrophe and Motherland [both created by Sharon Horgan] as game-changers in the industry.
“What’s so lovely is that it’s not like it used to be. It’s not competitive between those [female] peers. Everybody is so supportive. That’s why the best material is being made – everybody’s supporting each other against these fat-cat people who make s**t decisions in offices because they’re trying to justify their jobs.”
“You’ve got comedy at the centre of those shows, but you also get really poignant and difficult moments,” adds Hizli. “There’s an honesty that’s a knee-jerk reaction to women having been portrayed in a certain way for so long.”
“Like saying women aren’t funny,” adds Cooper. “Even Ricky Gervais doing that stand-up was so unbelievably... I mean, I know he was making a joke out of it, but that’s how he feels and I think that’s how it still is in the culture. ‘Women aren’t funny?’ F**k me – surely our generation has shown otherwise.”
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