Nicola Coughlan has returned to her Channel 4 comedy roots, this time with playwright and close friend Camilla Whitehill, for six-part series Big Mood, a funny, heartbreaking and refreshingly candid portrayal of what it can be like to live with a debilitating mental illness.


As one character notes, "everyone is different".

Coughlan, who plays Maggie, a 30-year-old writer with bipolar disorder, first met the show's creator at drama school in Oxford, and it was friends at first sight.

"I thought you were really funny," said Whitehill.

"I thought you were really funny too," echoed Coughlan. "Everyone else in our class was quite serious, and I just found Camilla so hilarious. We made each other laugh" – so much so that they always planned to work together.

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"I didn't know what it was going to be, but when I first saw Camilla's writing on stage, she wrote a short play about an atheist choir, and it was just so hilarious, and so her, I knew we had to. There are people like that who then can't get it onto the page, but she did. Her voice was there and I was like, 'Oh, she's going to be a famous writer.'"

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"And I always thought that Nicola would make it as an actor because she had something that was different to other people," said Whitehill. "And that's what you need. You can't just be the same as everyone else. There was something about her style of acting that I thought was really unique. I would always make her do these unpaid short plays. I was always like, "Nic, come and do this dumb thing.'"

And now we find them here, having graduated from "dumb things" (in Whitehill's words) to Big Mood, although Coughlan was "never asked to do the show".

"It was never a discussion, it just sort of happened," she explained. "And then I had to say to my agent, 'I'm going do this project of Camilla's, and it's not commissioned.' And she was like, 'Ok... there are other things people want you for.'

"It is mad having to sell that to someone, because I know Camilla's a brilliant writer and I had full faith in it even before I'd read a word of it, but it's very hard to sell that to an agent."

Maggie dressed in a red tracksuit riding an electric scooter
Nicola Coughlan as Maggie in Big Mood. Channel 4

Maggie is worlds away from "wee lesbian" Claire in Lisa McGee's Derry Girls, Coughlan's breakout role, and the bashful, insecure Penelope Featherington in Netflix smash hit Bridgeton, which catapulted her rising star to astronomical heights.

"I've never played a character like this, and also just a fully grown adult woman," she said. "It was liberating to play her in lots of ways. She has a lot of confidence, she doesn't really care what people think, whereas I really do, and wish I did less."

In the show's opening scene, Maggie whizzes down the middle of a London residential street on an electric scooter, donning a headscarf, sunglasses and cherry red velour tracksuit as she greets passerby like she's Lady Gaga.

"And it was also the most challenging part I've ever played as well because it goes through the journey of her mental illness, and that's complicated to depict on screen," added Coughlan. "I really loved it, it was a very special experience."

But in the midst of the knotty, weighty subject matter, which charts Maggie's manic and depressive episodes in unflinching detail, it's also deeply funny, courtesy of Whitehill's "comedy first"approach.

"I'm not much of a message person, I don't really know what the message is," she added. "I focused more on trying to make the best, funniest show I can."

But even with that emphasis on making viewers laugh, crucially, you're never laughing at Maggie.

"Just don't punch down," said Whitehill when discussing how to strike the right balance between entertaining an audience and ensuring that you don't belittle the subject at hand.

"When comedy writers or comedians say you can't talk about anything anymore, you can't be funny, actually it's extremely easy, you're just not good at being a comedy writer.

"You don't need to diminish something, but you can absolutely tease and make fun of anything, as long as you're doing it with love and care."

Maggie and Eddie sat next to one another on a sofa
Nicola Coughlan as Maggie and Lydia West as Eddie in Big Mood. Channel 4

This isn't the first time a more obscure, oft-mythologised mental health condition has been tackled on-screen. Anne Hathaway plays a woman with bipolar in the superb Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am episode of Prime Video anthology series Modern Love.

In 2019, Channel 4 aired Pure, a comedy which explores what it's like living with obsessive compulsive disorder that manifests as sexually explicit thoughts. But those conditions have yet to pierce public consciousness in the way that depression and anxiety have.

"We just don't talk about it enough, and we've left some people behind," said Whitehill. "We have left a lot of mental illnesses out of the sort of mental health arena."

Why does she think that's the case?

"People are a little bit scared of what they can't understand. With depression or anxiety, they are extreme versions of feelings we all have. So not everyone has depression, not everyone has anxiety, but people understand feeling anxious, people understand feeling sad.

"But if we're not talking about it, then how are we ever going to understand it? Perhaps when it's something where you can't imagine ever doing or feeling that, maybe that's a bit confusing and scary."

The conversation turned back to why comedy is, despite preconceptions, the perfect vehicle to examine what it truly means to exist with bipolar disorder.

"I really don't think there's much you can't make funny," she added. "And I think when we sort of classify something having to be treated really delicately and be really dramatic and sad, we're actually just contributing to its taboo. If we just bring it out to the light and treat it like anything else, that's better for everyone."

Nicola Coughlan as Maggie in Big Mood, wearing a black dress, lying on a sofas
Nicola Coughlan as Maggie in Big Mood. Channel 4

As well as liaising with Bipolar UK to ensure that the writing was as authentic and responsible as possible, Whitehill also drew on her own experiences – although she doesn't "really see writing as an act of therapy".

"Mostly it's my job," she added.

Coughlan went on to explain why using a creative outlet to achieve catharsis can create an uncomfortable working environment.

"As a general rule I disagree with it," she said. "There's a real danger in writing or acting as therapy because if you've ever been on-screen with someone or on stage or worked with a writer that is trying to work through issues, it's a mess. No matter what you're trying to deal with, I think you have to be removed enough from it to deal with it because otherwise it can just be a disaster.

"It's a professional environment. I know that sounds very strict of me to say, but ultimately there's a crew to consider and your fellow actors. You can still deal with these issues, but you have to do it in an incredibly professional way, in a controlled and safe way. I think less so now in the industry, but that was a big thing, actors going method, throwing chairs. And I'm like 'who's that for, though?'"

"You only threw that one chair," said Whitehill. "And it hit one guy."

"I only threw one chair," laughed Coughlan.

But Big Mood isn't just about what it's like to live with a mental health disorder. The beating heart of the narrative is the friendship between Maggie and Eddie (It's A Sin's Lydia West).

When we meet them, Eddie has already stepped over the threshold into a new decade, while Maggie celebrates her 30th birthday in episode 2 (disastrously, it must be said). But while their love for one another isn't in any doubt, they're learning that life, with its many and varied demands, means that they can't always show up for one another as they'd like to.

"Turning that age, it doesn't necessarily mean that we all hit those milestones at the same time," said Coughlan. "Myself and Camilla, when we left drama school, we auditioned to get into a full-time course and neither of us got in. And then Camilla got onto a course somewhere else and I didn't get in anywhere. And for me it was very much like, where's my life going? I've hit a crossroads.

"And this is just a different crossroads that Maggie and Eddie have hit, when you start going, 'I'm growing up, and you're going this way, and our roads are not really lining up anymore.'

"I remember in my late 20s, early 30s, when people would start getting engaged and having babies and you go, 'but what does that mean for us?' It's a selfish thing, but you also just love your friend. You don't want to lose that version of them."

"But sometimes you will," added Whitehill.

"Sometimes you will, absolutely," said Coughlan. "It comes from a place of love and fear."

Nicola Coughlan and Lydia West standing next to each other looking concerned
Lydia West as Eddie and Nicola Coughlan as Maggie in Big Mood. Channel 4

As the third season of Bridgerton fast approaches, in which Coughlan is now the romantic lead as Penelope and Colin's friends-to-lovers dynamic takes centre stage, the actor is feeling a different kind of fear.

"I always want to do my best job and not let people down, and it's wild being on a show that has hundreds of millions of viewers around the world," she said. "And also the character developing from a little girl in season 2 to a grown woman in the third season, I felt terrified.

"But this year, with Lydia West and Luke Newton, they were insanely good people to work with, people I just felt like I could tell if I was struggling, because it is a challenge. That was an eight-month shoot, and Big Mood and Bridgerton overlapped for three weeks of that, so you're running on reserve. But having good people around made all the difference."

Does Coughlan feel changed now that she's a household name, not just here in the UK, but in countries across the globe?

"I'm lucky in a weird way because I didn't really have a lot of success in my '20s, so it gave me a lot of time to just live in the real world and be really f**king appreciative of where I am now," she said. "I don't feel personally any different, and that's because I have really close friends that I've had for years and years, although sometimes it's wild for me.

"Myself and Camilla were on holiday in Austin, Texas and these young girls were looking over, but I thought they were looking at Camilla, because of her tattoos. And then they started squealing and waving and I was like, 'Oh yeah, sure.' Because you forget sometimes."

"So I'm just grateful, I feel lucky. I've worked with really good people and on projects I'm really passionate about. Bridgerton is a really joyful show, and I think it's lovely that people can see themselves reflected in it. And Shonda Rhimes has done so much in terms of diversity on television and changing what a romantic lead can be.

"It means so much to people to be represented, so I'm super proud to be a part of it."

Big Mood is available to watch on Channel 4 from Thursday 28th March at 10pm.

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