Sian Gibson had given up on acting and was working in a call centre in Chester when Peter Kay sent her the script for Car Share. “I was just sick of going to auditions for parts which were three lines. I’ve got a mortgage to pay. I was doing rubbish jobs and it was soul-destroying. There’s only so long you can go on,” she says. By the time she quit, it had been over a year since her last audition. “It had just run its course and I was getting on with my life as it was. I wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring – it had gone past that.”
So Gibson got on with life as a prematurely retired actress, living happily in Mold, north Wales, with her husband Ian, a gasman, and their three-year-old daughter Gracie. She hated her job at Card One Banking but, stuck in a rut, she stayed for years. “Because the people were nice and it was next door to a lovely garden centre that did the best toasties… I’m still not entirely sure what they did.”
An email from her old friend Kay changed all that. When Paul Coleman and Tim Reid asked the megastar comedian to look at their script for a sitcom about two supermarket workers, John and Kayleigh, sharing the drive to work, they never dreamed that he would take the main part. Kay sent it on to Gibson and asked her to play his passenger. “He’s always looked out for me,” she says. “About a week before we started filming it, I said, ‘I don’t mind if you want to ask Suranne Jones or Sheridan Smith, you know, one of those really good actresses, to do this.’”
The result was the most popular comedy of last year, and the biggest sitcom to premiere on any channel since 2011. The opening episode on BBC1 was watched by 6.85 million; another 2.5 million watched online. Car Share has now been recommissioned for a second series.
“It’s just weird, to go from where I was to this,” says Gibson, who is not wholly unlike Kayleigh off-screen. “Peter gave me all this media training. He said, ‘It’s going to change your life.’ And I thought, I look nothing like Kayleigh. Once I’ve had my hair extensions out, I’ll be fine. He said, ‘You look exactly like her and your voice is exactly the same.’”
Once Kay got his hands on the script, he and Gibson worked on it with Coleman and Reid. In the original the assistant manager and promotions rep were younger, in their 20s. “We made it our ages [Gibson is 39, Kay 42], which made it a bit more sad. We’re a bit older, bit more desperate,” says Gibson.
They filmed inside a towed-along Fiat 500 for ten hours a day, with five cameras trained on their faces, improvising as they went. “Everything was on camera. Peter wanted to keep it really natural so if we were driving around and something funny happened out of the window, it wouldn’t be odd,” says Gibson. “I was thinking, will other people find this funny? It’s two people in a car, laughing at each other’s jokes.” Which is exactly what makes it so enjoyable. That, and the warmth that comes from being friends for 20 years.
“Well, that’s why he cast me,” she says. “He said that he could get an amazing actress but you might not have the chemistry there.” Nevertheless she was terrified on her first day on set. “Whatever Peter touches turns to gold and he’s got a massive following, so we were fairly safe there. I was really nervous because I thought I could be responsible for his first flop,” she says.
Gibson met Kay at the University of Salford over 20 years ago. Born in Mold, Foulkes (as she was then) was never an “arty farty” child, though she did join the local youth theatre. Her father was a builder, her mother a housewife.
At Salford she studied performing arts, bonding with Kay over their inability to take it too seriously. “I always wanted to be an actress. I don’t think I’m ever going to be Judi Dench or anything like that, I just like making people laugh.” After graduating, she got an agent and work straight away “because I’m short and I always looked younger than I am. As soon as my 30s kicked in, that changed and that’s when it all went a bit wrong.” She appeared in Peak Practice, ITV period drama The Grand and Hollyoaks for a time. “I know everyone has a snobbery about things like Hollyoaks, but I just loved it.”
Meanwhile, Kay would always find a part for her in his shows. She played Yvonne in That Peter Kay Thing, Young Mary in Phoenix Nights and starred as one of wheelchair-using popstars, Two Up Two Down, in Britain’s Got the Pop Factor. Aside from that, they have remained firm friends; Kay is godparent to her daughter.
The second series of Car Share was confirmed at the very end of last year. “We’ve got loads of ideas. We know what we want to happen.” Will Kayleigh and John get together? “If they do, will that be the end of it? I don’t know… Them getting together wasn’t the central thing to us. When people have focused on their relationship, it’s mad because we really didn’t set out to write it. It’s just the chemistry between us.”