‘I went to school drunk in a bikini’: how Sophie Willan turned her chaotic life into sitcom gold

Earlier this year, Sophie Willan went through an extraordinary run of extreme highs and lows. She was filming her sitcom Alma’s Not Normal, a project she started working on years ago, when her grandmother died. She had brought Willan up for part of her childhood and inspired a character in the show. The day after, Willan found out she had been Bafta nominated for comedy writing.

A few weeks later, while she watched the ceremony on a laptop on a picnic bench outside the converted barn she was staying in, Willan was named the winner. Her response, posted on Instagram by castmate Jayde Adams, is the most joyous thing you may see all year: Willan takes off on a victory lap, magnificent red sequinned dress matching a tractor in the background, sprinting and shouting “What the fuck?” over and over. “I woke up all the kids that had been put to bed in the house next door,” says Willan, laughing. “It was fabulous. It was surreal.”

Willan had been nominated merely for the pilot of Alma’s Not Normal. A full series of the sitcom was commissioned after it aired last year to great reviews, and she spent the pandemic writing it. It contained many elements of Willan’s own life, which she has also explored in two standup shows. Like Alma, Willan grew up in care after her mother, who had a heroin addiction, was unable to look after her.

In one episode, Alma obtains her case files from social services: when Willan got access to hers, they became the basis for her 2016 show On Record. Both turned to sex work at one point to make a living; Willan talked about that, and about the various labels that had been applied to her – northern, working class – in her acclaimed 2016 Edinburgh show Branded.

Willan was excluded from school, lei dice, “for arriving drunk in a bikini like Alma does, so that’s very much lifted from my life”. Aside from that, she’s reluctant to talk about the specifics of her own life that made it into the show. “It’s inspired by my experiences and people I know, which allows for it to be authentic," lei dice. But the point is that, while Alma is extreme, “a lot of people watching it will recognise people they know. There’s a universality in it.” So the title is ironic. “Actually, it’s very normal for families to have all these kinds of complexities going on.”

It is impressive how much Willan has crammed into six half-hour episodes: addiction, care, mental health, crap jobs, sex and consent, class, generational poverty, welfare, feminism, how to follow your dreams when life has dealt you a bad hand, the direct effect of the government’s cuts on marginalised people (David Cameron makes a brief appearance).

Even more impressive is how all this never feels bleak or heavy. It’s not only because of the jokes and the brilliant cast – there is also a warm and joyful thread throughout. As executive producer, Willan was all over it. Alma, a 30-year-old wannabe actor and wearer of statement coats, is hilarious and buoyant. If she can’t be normal, lei dice, she wants to be fabulous. “I wanted to show a very full person,” says Willan, speaking over Zoom from her home in Salford. “I think care-experienced people often get depicted as either a hero or a victim or a demon. But Alma is full of life. She makes a lot of stupid decisions, but she also makes some really great decisions and she’s good fun.”

Willan, also in her early 30s, wrote the first draft around 2014 after years of austerity had ruined lives and people on benefits had been demonised. “That Cameron era felt really negative for welfare recipients, mental health [care] and social services recipients – people like my mother, people who’ve had difficulties.” Her aim was to show “the full human being. That, per me, is an antidote to that era’s depiction.”

Alma’s Not Normal is set in Bolton, where Willan grew up. She spent much of her childhood in foster care (her father wasn’t around), and being looked after by her grandmother, Denise. It was Denise – glam, in her 40s, newly divorced and into clubbing – who took Willan on holiday to Ibiza, where Willan joined the hotel drama club. She played the role of a crying clown, her appreciation for dark comedy seemingly fused in that moment.

“I got the bug," lei dice. What did she love about it? “Probably just the same things I do now. I’m a natural show-off. I always liked making people laugh – my grandma, my friends. I got called the class clown, which feels very accurate. I think I was just a very naturally creative person – my family are quite creative. And Bolton’s a very funny place: there’s a natural humour there.”

When she was eight, she discovered Alan Bennett and would write and perform her own monologues on her porch, attracting children in the neighbourhood as her audience. Her grandmother introduced her to Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, “people that were coming from my kind of world, which was really great”. But for Willan, with such a chaotic background, the idea of actually breaking into TV must have seemed impossible. “It’s not that easy to know the pathway,” she agrees, “especially when there’s nobody around you that has come from that world. So you’re figuring it out as you’re going. But I did always have a kind of blind faith. It felt like a kind of inevitable thing I just had to do.”

As a teenager, her life continued to be “chaotic and turbulent”. Her relationship with her grandmother deteriorated (they later reconciled), then she got into a relationship “that was quite abusive”. School seemed pointless. “I’d been in lots of foster placements. There was just a lot going on, where getting up and going to an academic system didn’t feel that possible.” By then, she was living in supported housing “where you have a kind of landlady-slash-support worker, but you’re independent. There was a freedom that was possibly too much for a 16-year-old.” One teacher turned up at the house where Willan was living to get her to go and take her only GCSE.

Willan moved in with her aunt, and worked three jobs, remaining completely convinced her career in the arts would take off. “My auntie was like, ‘Just go on Google, find something.’ So that’s what I did.” What she found was Contact, a theatre company in Manchester for young people. Instead of the largely middle-class figures she’d seen on TV and in films, here she felt she was among people she recognised. She then set up her own theatre company and learned everything there was to know about grants and arts funding.

It was around this time that Willan took on sex work in order to earn enough to live, an experience she also gave to Alma. “I wanted to show a really honest take on escorting and not give a definitive opinion," lei dice. “Because I think that’s what you see a lot – very definitive opinions about escorting.” For Alma, there are good bits to it (the money – the first time in her life she’s had any) and bad (basically: the men).

Then there’s the stigma. Alma and her friend, who works in a cafe on minimum wage, argue about whether Alma is deluded about her sex work being empowering, and the friend’s judgment is very clear. Were these conversations Willan had at the time? “I think sex workers are constantly judged. Everybody’s got a piece to say. Rarely do the sex workers get to speak for themselves.” For Willan, the whole show, not just the sex work sections, is about capturing life’s nuances and contradictions. "[It’s] about showing that everything’s multifaceted. Alma’s mother is a drug addict but she’s also a wonderful person, and sometimes she’s a horrible person.”

The show was made after Willan was awarded, nel 2017, the Caroline Aherne bursary, which develops new talent and brings access to BBC comedy commissioning editors. When she was creating her own theatre shows, Willan would hang around outside Media City in Salford and hand out flyers to producers. One came to a show, and commissioned Willan to write the first Alma’s Not Normal script in 2014, but she couldn’t get any further. “I found it very difficult to make that transition into TV," lei dice. “There were still a lot of barriers. It’s still quite a London-centric industry. To get people to take you seriously, or hear your ideas, or get in the room, or know where the room is, can still be challenging.”

The bursary got her into those rooms. Things are improving, lei dice. “The diversity of the commissioners is getting better. You can’t do it tokenistically. It has to come from people who are the gatekeepers, who know and have lived different experiences.” Her own organisation, Stories of Care, supports and develops creative talent in young people who have been through the care system, and she had paid training schemes for care leavers on her series.

On a practical level, lei dice, getting “more people of colour, more working-class people, more regional voices, and more care-experienced people working behind the scenes in television changes what is considered the normal way to be. On a personal level, coming from that background, being care-experienced, all the things that come with that – I know that can make it even more difficult to get into the telly industry. Quindi, when you’re in, to be understood and to fit into those worlds can be challenging.”

That’s one reason why she went so wild at her Bafta win. The next day, back on set, she saw the impact the news had on the young people on her training scheme. “It’s a reminder that things are possible.” For Willan, the poet and writer Lemn Sissay, who was the first performer she’d seen talking about growing up in care, “has been a really positive influence in my life and a person to look up to. You need people that you relate to, who are achieving things you’d like to achieve.”

Has it been cathartic to write her own experiences? “Writing comedy is always, per me, joyful," lei dice. “So whether it’s about my own life, or about other people, the empathy I put into characters is really rewarding. When you have had a varied upbringing, you do have a lot more empathy because you’ve seen a lot. I think that all helps with being a writer.” She smiles brightly. “That’s been a positive outcome of my experience. And I love that.”

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