Big interview: Sophie Willan's fearless working-class comedy

The daughter of a heroin addict, Sophie Willan grew up in care and now as a comedian tackles areas where others fear to tread. She talks to Yvette Huddleston.

Sophie Willan. PIC: Steve Ullathorne

One of the brightest new young voices on the British comedy scene, Sophie Willan, is definitely not afraid of taking audiences out of their comfort zone.

In her debut show On Record, the Bolton-born stand-up talked frankly about her tough, unconventional childhood growing up with a heroin addict mother and her time in and out of care as a teenager. It got her a Chortle Best Newcomer nomination in 2016 and the show went on to complete a hugely successful nationwide tour and a run at London’s Soho Theatre.

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In the relatively short time she has been on the circuit, Willan has been receiving rave reviews with one critic describing her as “a truly special talent” and another as “fearless”.

With her new show Branded, which received deserved plaudits at last summer’s Edinburgh festival, winning her the prestigious Herald Angel Award and earning her a nomination for the Edinburgh Comedy award for best show, she tackles a variety of issues relating to her life as a working class woman from the North. It tours the UK over the next three months, including several Yorkshire dates, and in it Willan explodes tired old stereotypes and labels, challenging the lazy assumptions that people make about others.

When we speak over the phone she is struggling with a heavy cold but she is warm, immediately engaging and clearly passionate about her work both as a stand-up and as an activist, campaigner and educator (more of which later).

“The show is sort of around identity politics which at the moment seems to be quite a theme with everybody. I wanted to explore that,” she says. “I wanted to explore my own personal experiences of being Northern, female and working class. I look at how that works for me and against me, how it creates a narrative and how that can be positive and also very negative. Because I lived in a council house and I was in care, I’m seen as a working class hero. I’m excited about the show; it was really nice to have had such a good run at Edinburgh with it and it’s great to be able to take it on the road.”

Her work is bold and unapologetically political. She says that her first show, On Record, grew out of her anger at what she was seeing on television, in particular the way in which welfare recipients were depicted, how people with mental health issues were portrayed, as well as the news about the cuts in provision for care leavers and the hike in university fees which would impact most on young people from low-income families.

“I wanted to create an antidote to all that,” she says. “I wanted to create shows that help to redefine the way some of those people are regarded, to use my own experiences and my own family to humanise people from my background and make it funny, to try and bring about a better understanding. It is a hangover of generations of blame; let’s stop blaming individuals and look at the issues around addiction and mental health.”

She loved comedy as a child, she says, but it was never something she had thought about as a possible career, so the past couple of years have been a bit of a whirlwind – although as a one-time member of the Manchester-based theatre/cabaret group Eggs Collective she was not a stranger to performing.

“I was doing theatre before moving in to comedy,” she says. “And I was feeling a bit misplaced.” She was living in Salford at the time near Media City and went along to a ‘sitcom showcase’ held by the BBC. There she met a producer who liked her and who asked her to write something. “So I did and she said that it didn’t work as a script but she suggested I do stand-up. I tried it and I loved it. I went from five minute sets to open mics, then entering competitions and then writing my first hour. That was only two-and-a-half years ago and I haven’t really stopped since.”

Last December, Radio 4 announced a whole host of new comedy shows due to be aired during 2018 and among them is Sophie Willan’s Guide to Normality in which Willan challenges what it means to be normal, drawing upon her own experiences.

The series is currently in development and when we speak she has been working flat out on the scripts for the series.

“It incorporates themes from both my stand-up shows and I’ll be exploring issues that are not really explored in my kind of voice and from my perspective,” she says. “One of the episodes is about femininity, another is about work and in another I look at the welfare-shaming culture. I like to do things that create nuance.”

She pulls no punches with her material and is disarmingly straight talking and honest. She is aware that hers is a voice that is not often heard, especially in stand-up comedy – and it clearly rankles.

“Previously I was an unheard voice but as a working class person, now everybody wants to hear my story – we seem to be back in vogue,” she says drily.

“Most of the people in this industry are not working class, but since I have become successful I have a voice – and I’ll use it. I’ve seen the desperation that comes from living with a heroin addict and having to work as an escort to finance my career in the arts – which I talk about in the show. We seem to be obsessed with class again – three years ago it seemed like it wasn’t an issue and suddenly it’s become fashionable again… I also confront my own hypocrisy and talk about my family background and why my grandparents voted Tory.”

Both On Record and Branded contain strong autobiographical threads, but Willan has said in a recent interview that going forward she intends to move away from the very personal stuff, while still championing working class representation and highlighting the plight of care leavers, like herself.

This is an area where she is making a big difference to many young people’s lives. In 2015 she secured funding of over £100,000 to create the multi-platform project Stories of Care, and the work it has been doing with care leavers across Greater Manchester has established Willan as one of the UK’s leading ambassadors for homeless and care-experienced young people.

“I set it up as an antidote to the narrative around care leavers and kids in care,” she says. “I wanted to do something positive – to create a project that put care leavers in the forefront and helped them to be creative leaders.” Last summer Stories of Care launched a book entitled Tales of the Weird, the Wild and the Wonderful, an anthology of stories for children aged 7-11 written by care leavers, based on their own experiences. “I worked with them in workshops – spread over 30 weeks – looking at how we tell our own stories and how we can bring aspects of our own lives into to fiction.”

Two thousand copies of the book have been distributed to looked-after children across the UK – providing relatable and inspiring role models, both through the book’s characters and its authors. “It is about putting the care leavers at the centre of their own narratives,” says Willan. “They are not usually the people writing the stories – and I wanted to change that.”
Sophie Willan brings her show Branded to Theatre in the Mill, Bradford on February 16, Selby Theatre on February 17, Barnsley Civic on June 2, Square Chapel in Halifax on June 8 and Sheffield’s Square Hole Comedy on June 10.