‘We cleaned by night and wrote by day’: Daisy May Cooper on creating This Country

In my first week at Rada we had an introductory talk from the school principal. “We’re going to dismember you, pull you apart limb by limb, and then piece you back together again.” I kid you not. Those were his first words. Many of us were taken apart but never put back together again.

Before I went to Rada, I wasn’t even aware of the smörgåsbord of ways you could be told how utterly shit you were. It would be far too depressing for me to share all the negative comments made to me by students and tutors alike, but these are the highlights: “I don’t know why you’re here. You have no talent.” In second place: “You’re one of these actresses that’s here by fluke, aren’t you?” And trailing a close third was the withering: “Have you considered teaching, Daisy?”

One tyrannical tutor basked in the twisted cruelness of it all.

“Daisy, what’s your worst childhood memory?”

“Erm … probably my Auntie Alison crashing her car when I was around six and my family having to switch her life support off?”

“Not good enough … Think of something worse … ”

She pointed menacingly at the next person. “And you … what’s yours?”

“Erm … the … the … the … abortion I had at 15 … ” Silence.

“Great!” The teacher clapped her hands triumphantly. “I want you right back in that place. Be the character, don’t play the character!” I think some of the other students loved it but, honestly, I felt as if all the stuffing had been ripped out of me.

As it turned out, my brother Charlie was having an equally hard time. He’d dropped out of Exeter Uni and had been working shifts in Pizza Hut back in Cirencester. “Come to London,” I suggested. He didn’t want to go home. Mum and Dad had been struggling to pay their mortgage. With hardly any money coming in, they were talking about selling the house. “You can sleep on my floor.” He thought that was an amazing offer, until he was forced to loiter around the shared kitchen while I had sex with whichever random I brought home. He ended up staying on my floor for a whole year. Without him, I would’ve lost my mind.

Whenever I got back from classes we made up skits and stupid songs about people we knew from Cirencester. Mum sent us the local newspaper regularly and we thumbed through it. We took the piss out of everyone and everything; I guess it was our way of admitting that we missed home. One song we put together was about a fictional red-meat-loving racist butcher whose son announced he was turning vegetarian. Its natural comic potential seemed obvious to me and Charlie. And, for one of our stupidest songs to date, we drew on the old music-hall tradition and created Rang Up the Dong, which was about nothing in particular.

When Charlie and I eventually made it back to Cirencester and were sharing a room, like the crusty old grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, making shit up became our only escape. We had so little money and so little hope, but something the actor Jessica Ransom said to me after I’d filmed a scene in Doc Martin had stuck in my mind. I’d told her about my post-Rada nightmare and how I’d found it impossible to get work. She’d suggested I try writing my own material. I’d never thought about it before. I was so caught up with trying to make it as an actor in other people’s shows and being reliant on other people’s scripts. Maybe I could, I thought.

I started writing. Just to make Charlie laugh, I created a character called Kerry. She was like so many girls from around where we lived, and inspired by the school bullies from when I was at Deer Park secondary. She was oafish and selfish, but underneath it all she had a big heart.

And I created Kerry’s mum – the character whose voice I also act on This Country but who you never see. Then we started filming two-minute sketches. The videos got absolutely zero views on YouTube, but Charlie and I pissed ourselves. Unfortunately, every now and again reality kicked in.

After doing an assortment of shit jobs and signing on, Charlie and I got a cleaning job. It was £100 a month for three hours a night, in an office block in Cirencester. We got the three-hour shift down to 20 minutes. Vacuuming was a lot of effort. Instead, I cast my eye across the floor and picked up the most offending particles by hand. If we were feeling energetic, we emptied the bins.

At home, our Kerry videos got slowly better. So much so that Dad suggested we write a proper scripted comedy based around the character. Charlie and I cleaned by night and wrote by day. At first, we put together four pages of script. To be clear, we didn’t actually know what a proper script was or how to present it. It didn’t matter. It was more important that we got our ideas down.

Alongside Kerry and her mum, Charlie and I developed a character called Dale, who was later to become Kurtan in This Country. We continued writing until we had 10 pages of script, called Kerry Gets a New Camera, which Charlie filmed. It was a skit where Kerry and Dale play Scrabble and want to know if “Dave” is a proper word. I sent the script to my more-than-useless agent. She didn’t reply. I rang her.

“Hi, it’s Daisy … Daisy Cooper? Just wondering whether you … ”

“Daisy who?”

Oh, great. My agent can’t even remember who I am.

“Daisy Cooper? I’m on your books. I sent you a script I’ve been working on … I was … erm … wondering if you’d had a chance to … ?”

“No.”

As far as I know, my former agent never did read our script. I got impatient and went to the library and researched production companies. Then I sent out emails to hundreds of them with the videos we made of Kerry attached. It felt as hopeless as catapulting satellites into outer space. Just me and Charlie and our ideas and all the blood, sweat and tears it took to get our work together hurtling out there into the cosmos. But at least I was doing something.

We waited weeks. Then, one day, I received a message from a production company in London. In that moment, all the shitty jobs I’d ever done paled into insignificance. This was it! Somebody, somewhere, in a big, fancy office in London, actually thought we were funny.

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