It’s quite unusual for a first-time writer to get their work on television, let alone have it screened at primetime on a major channel – but that is exactly what Bingley-born writer-performer Jessica Knappett, 29, has managed to pull off.
Her six-part sitcom Drifters – which she also stars in – begins its run on E4 next week in the Thursday night comedy slot.
“Sometimes I can’t believe it’s actually happening – in fact, most days I can’t,” says Knappett who is now based in London but set the series in Leeds. “I wanted to set it somewhere that was not London. When I was growing up in Bingley, going to Leeds was an exciting excursion, so that inspired me. And it was nice doing my own accent.”
The series focuses on the lives of three young women friends who have drifted back to Leeds after university and are trying – not entirely successfully – to get their lives sorted out.
Knappett says that the series is semi-autobiographical. The idea for it came when she was in between acting assignments and is partly based on some of the rather menial jobs she found herself doing after graduating in Drama and English from Manchester University.
“There are quite a lot of rest periods as an actor,” she says “I started coming up with the idea when I was jumping around dressed as a mobile phone handing out leaflets on the streets of Manchester and Leeds. I thought ‘Is this what I got my degree for?’ but I also thought ‘I have got to write all this down.’”
Knappett is no stranger to comedy writing – she began her performing career as a founder member of the acclaimed sketch group Lady Garden, alongside Jennifer Saunders’s daughter Beattie Edmonson, and would often write bits of their material – however, a full-blown sitcom is another matter. Her big break came when she got the part of Lisa, Neil’s love interest in The Inbetweeners Movie. Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who wrote and produced the movie as well as the hugely popular TV series, recognized Knappett’s talent and asked her if she had any ideas for a sitcom.
“It’s amazing what a difference it makes when two producers start talking to you,” she says. “I began taking the writing a bit more seriously. They took me under their wing, which was great.” The series has already been touted as the British counterpart to Lena Dunham’s US hit Girls. While Knappett is flattered by the comparison, she gently dismisses it. “There’s a sexiness to America that we in Britain just can’t compete with,” she says. “I’m not as cool as Lena Dunham – my character, Meg, is a bit of a nerd and the show is really daft in tone. We don’t take ourselves seriously at all.”
Growing up, Knappett says comedy was a big deal in her family. “My mum’s a physiotherapist, there’s nothing funny about that. But both my parents worked in hospitals and had to deal with quite grim situations, so they had that gallows sense of humour,” she says.
Instead of putting on the radio, their car journey entertainment consisted of Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson tapes.
She has other acting jobs in the pipeline, she says, but is keen to continue writing. “I am hoping this is just the beginning. I have been given a shot but obviously with that comes enormous pressure,” she says. The first episode is due to air on October 31. Knappett laughs wryly. “Yeah, Hallowe’en,” she says. “It’ll certainly be the scariest night of my life.”
Jessica Knappett’s Comedy CV
Jessica Knappett was born in Bingley, West Yorkshire and studied Drama and English at Manchester University.She was a founder member of Lady Garden, a successful sketch group. She was in The Inbetweeners Movie in 2011 and the Alan Partridge movie Alpha Papa this year. She has also made a number of TV and radio appearances including BBC3’s Lunch Monkeys and E4’s How Not to Live Your Life.
Drifters starts on E4 at 9pm, October 31.