It wasn’t a promising start for the surprise comedy hit of 2017. Daisy May and Charlie Cooper were sharing a bedroom in their parents’ house in Cirencester, with no money and nothing to do but ponder the ridiculous side of their lives in the Cotswolds.
He was an Exeter University dropout; she was struggling to find acting work after graduating from Rada. Instead, with almost no writing experience – but two lifetimes’ worth of inspiration – they created what became This Country.
A BBC3 mockumentary about cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe, played by Daisy May (31) and Charlie (28), it was the cult hit of last year. The second series is on iPlayer and airs every Tuesday on BBC1. Not since William Blake’s Jerusalem has such evocative tribute been paid to the English countryside.
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The Coopers’ green and pleasant land is one of pebbledashed council houses and scarecrow competitions, fights over oven space, boredom-induced shoplifting, peeping Toms, and the search for a lost primary school classmate immortalised on a tea towel. The show is so funny that comparisons have been made to The Office, The Inbetweeners and The Royle Family; so realistic some have mistaken it for a real documentary. Halfway through our interview in Daisy’s cottage – “A bit Cotswold Life, this, she’s betrayed us,” Charlie whispers to me – their mother, Gill, bursts in to tell us that she’s just been chased through the woods by two enormous feral pigs on her way back from the corner shop.
Kerry and Kurtan are the perfect double act. She is a daft, would-be hard-nut who surrounds herself with a gang of Year Seven schoolkids for protection; he, “very much too obsessive with things”, has halfconcealed ambitions to break free from the village. Series two looks less at the idiosyncrasies of rural life and more deeply at the cousins themselves – Kurtan’s reliance on the local vicar for guidance and Kerry’s heartbreaking relationship with her dad, who is played by the Coopers’ real father, Paul (their uncle Trevor also stars as the local miser, Len). “It’s difficult to sustain a programme where the main theme is boredom,” says Charlie.
This second series was written in five months while the first was six years in the making, born out of homesickness when Daisy was studying in London (in the same year as James Norton) and Charlie was sleeping on her floor.
“I was so unhappy at Rada. I’d always wanted to do comedy, but we never did any, all we had to do was Macbeth,” Daisy says. “I played Lady Macbeth, being as serious as I could, and everybody started laughing. Charlie and I started talking about this girl we knew that used to hang around Cirencester, and I’d do impressions of her.” That impression grew into a monologue for Daisy’s final performance, and became Kerry.
After drama school, auditions came to nothing. “I’m difficult to cast. In comedy, if there’s a female character, usually written by a bloke, she’s either the ditsy good-looking one, or the sexually aggressive one. I never fit into those.”
“It drove us to write something that she could be in,” says Charlie, who has worked as a model, and never intended to star in the show himself until they couldn’t find anyone who could do the accent. Broke and otherwise directionless, working on the comedy “gave us something to focus on”. A disastrous ITV pilot followed, before, eventually, the BBC’s head of comedy commissioning, Shane Allen, took notice.
Almost every storyline is based on real life and the characters – antagonistic neighbour Mandy, tedious schoolfriend Slugs – are inspired by people they know, and most of them are flattered. The eccentricities of village life – like a crisis meeting the pair attended after a big cat was seen at a zebra crossing – provide rich, lyrical turns of phrase to use in their dialogue. Daisy says, “It’s truthful for us, so it’s lovely when other people say it could be any village in the country.”
Two things make This Country special. One is the way it mines comedy from the mundane: “We’re inspired by everyday things, stuff we’ve seen on Facebook, like people collecting Compare the Meerkat toys,” Charlie says. “When you set out to write a heavy storyline, it’s always a damp squib.”
The other is the detail that bejewels every line: specific cultural references such as the Cadbury’s Fuse bar, Tony from Hollyoaks, Warhammer. “Tiny things take us ages. We’ll be looking for the name of a shop – Greggs isn’t right, Tesco’s not right… We’re meticulous,” says Daisy.
“You’ve got to be brave enough to accept that 90 per cent of people won’t get the reference, but the ten per cent who do will love it,” adds Charlie.
The Coopers’ Gloucestershire is far from bucolic idyll, but there’s genuine affection for their home and real pathos in their characters, whose hopes and horizons are limited.
“You have to feel for them,” Charlie says. “The best comedies are always the most tragic. Del Boy, Harold Steptoe, they’re all trying to better themselves. [In the first series] Kerry gets involved in a pyramid scheme thinking she’ll be on Dragons’ Den – but she gets it wrong, time and time again. Anyone who’s got bravado but deep down is completely vulnerable is interesting.”
Daisy agrees. “She’s different from other female comedy characters – the focus is not on femininity. This is someone who is asexual, tomboyish, and the biggest unrequited love story is her relationship with her dad. She’s got nobody, and her life is a lot sadder than Kurtan’s.” This series, he gets a job and a girlfriend, while Kerry only gets herself in trouble. “She’s so lost and is such a plodder, he feels a duty to look after her,” says Daisy.
Daisy and Charlie are warm and hysterical company. Throughout our conversation, Daisy tells lurid anecdotes about Cirencester celebrities and graphically recounts going into labour two weeks earlier. Charlie cradles his new niece, Pip, and compares her, fondly, to Winston Churchill. It seems deserving that their years of holding on to hope have finally been rewarded, but Daisy insists, “We’re just trying to make each other laugh. That’s all it is.”
This Country is available on iPlayer (a new episode is released every Monday) and airs on Tuesdays at 10.45pm on BBC1