Bolton-born Diane Morgan, 44, went to acting school, then worked in a chip shop and in telesales before trying standup aged 30. She’s now best known for her deadpan portrayal of dimwit TV pundit Philomena Cunk on Charlie Brooker’s Wipe series and the spin-off Cunk mockumentaries. Morgan also appears in parenting sitcom Motherland and Ricky Gervais’s black comedy After Life. She stars in the forthcoming BBC sitcom Mandy, the first show that she has both written and directed.
What inspired Mandy?
She’s based on a real person. I can’t say who she is but I met her and thought, if I ever get the chance, I’d love to play you. I just started impersonating her around the house, so when I got the opportunity to do this 15-minute comedy pilot for the BBC, I went: “I’m going to do that woman!” Her hair, clothes, voice, everything – it’s all exactly the same. Now they’ve given me a whole series, more fool them. I got Mandy’s entire costume off eBay. This woman was having a clear-out, selling her whole wardrobe, and it was all so Mandy. I bought up the lot. It’s quite a handy technique if you want lots of similar clothes for a character.
The show has a distinctive, daft tone. How did that come about?
Most people nowadays are doing downbeat, naturalistic comedy. I wanted to do something mad and silly. I crave silliness. A bit of pure escapism. It’s turned out much weirder than I imagined. It’s quite visual, like a Viz cartoon, but I’m happy with it. And Mandy by Barry Manilow is the theme song. I didn’t think we’d get the rights. I tried to get Jarvis Cocker to sing it but he never got back to me. I was worried we’d have to use the Westlife version instead, so I’m chuffed we got the original.
Each episode has a surprise guest star. How was working with Shaun Ryder from Happy Mondays?
When I was writing, I’d think: “Ooh, I wonder if we could get such-and-such?” Amazingly, they all said yes. I felt like Morecambe and Wise. I asked myself, if Mandy had an ex-husband, who would it be? Mark E Smith’s died, so it had to be Shaun Ryder. He got to fire two guns for this shootout scene and it was his best day out ever. Shaun was like: “I’m not an actor, I hope I’m not shit”, but he was brilliant.
Natalie Cassidy, AKA Sonia from EastEnders, might shock a few people…
She messaged me on Twitter one day and we started chatting. Then I wrote this part and thought: “Who can I get to play this cockney gangster lady? Aha, Cassidy!” Everyone knows her as softy Sonia with her trumpet. I thought I’d wrestle that trumpet off her and get her a bloody Oscar. I’m not sure how people will feel about her effing and jeffing. They’ll either be appalled or think it’s fantastic.
Another of the guest stars is Maxine Peake. Aren’t you old friends?
We’ve known each other 25 years now, scarily. We first bonded at drama school when she introduced me to Withnail & I, which was the best thing I’d ever seen. This was originally going to be a project for the two of us, about Mandy and her long-lost sister Maxine. I wanted Maxine to play a version of herself, but she wasn’t keen on that. So I ended up just doing Mandy and slotting in Maxine as a different character.
Peake found herself at the centre of a news storm recently when Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked from the shadow cabinet [Long-Bailey had retweeted an interview in which Peake referenced an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Peake later tweeted a clarification, saying: ‘I was inaccurate… I find racism & antisemitism abhorrent’]. What did you make of that?
That was a strange turn of events. I texted her and said: “You’ve had a busy week.” It was ridiculous. Maxine’s the sweetest person. There’s no way she’s antisemitic but people are very sensitive at the moment. You’ve got to be so careful.
Do you worry about causing offence with your comedy?
You can’t censor yourself when you’re writing. I think you can joke about anything as long as it’s funny enough. Larry David gets away with all sorts of dreadful things because it’s in character and it’s hilarious. But whatever you do, someone’s going to be offended. Mandy’s not the most woke person in the world. She’s quite un-PC, especially in Chinese restaurants. I’ll probably get cancelled, but I’m ready for it.
Mandy’s a chain-smoker. Are you?
I’m very much a non-smoker but stunt cigarettes don’t look convincing, so I smoked real ones for the role. I’m very method [laughs]. It was vile. I went through packs and packs. By the end, I’d lost my voice. Liz from Motherland smokes all the time too. I’m typecast as a heavy smoker. People often ask me for a light, actually. Maybe I just look rough.
You created, wrote, directed and starred in Mandy. What were the challenges of that?
It sounds mad when you put it like that, like I’m Orson Welles. There was a lot of multitasking, but the advantage is that you can shape it exactly how you want.
You work with Ricky Gervais, who exercises similar control over his projects. Did you learn from watching him?
Yeah, he’s very generous to work with and gave me some great advice. Ricky rarely does more than four takes. He knows what he wants, knows when he’s got it and moves on very quickly.
You came to comedy relatively late. How come?
I wasn’t getting any acting work and people kept saying I should try standup. I put it off for years because the thought made me feel physically sick. Then 30 was approaching and I thought, shit, I’d better do something with my life, so I gave it a go and started gigging. I was working in telesales at the time and it seemed incredible to me that I could earn the same money for 20 minutes on stage. Casting directors came to gigs, so I started to get bits and bobs. But it wasn’t until I auditioned for Charlie Brooker that everything changed overnight.
I love being Cunk. It’s like wearing a suit of armour. It’s very freeing. I take it embarrassingly seriously. When I’m interviewing experts, I try to second-guess everything they’ll say so I have a response ready.
What were your experiences as a woman on the comedy circuit?
I was very often the only woman on a standup bill, on a panel show or in a writers’ room. I never experienced any harassment, just what you’d call microaggressions. I used to be in a double act with Joe Wilkinson and promoters would always hand him the money. Or doormen would assume I was a male comedian’s girlfriend. Annoying things like that. Things are improving, but very slowly.
What was it like working on Motherland?
Fun, but also a nightmare. We usually shoot when it’s absolutely freezing. It’s like they deliberately wait until the coldest day of the year, then get you outside to film. It’s tricky wrangling the kids too. They should use dummies. Or add them in later with CGI. Me and Anna [Maxwell Martin] are always trying to work out ways we can avoid scenes with children [laughs].
Your character, Liz, is refreshingly different to usual screen portrayals of motherhood. Do you get grateful feedback from mums about it?
Oh my God, yes. I get women running up to me in the street and saying: “Thank goodness for Motherland.” Parenting on TV is usually cutesy kids and parents who are mildly frazzled, but not furious and frustrated like in Motherland. It was really needed, I think. Seeing bad parenting makes people feel better about themselves.
Does it make you feel relieved you’re not a parent?
I’ve never wanted children for a split second. The pain, the expense, the hassle… I can’t see any advantages. Then I work on Motherland and feel vindicated. People say: “Yeah but who’ll look after you in your old age?” What? Are you only having kids to be your carers?!
Who were your comedy heroes growing up?
I loved Peter Sellers and Peter Cook… mainly dead blokes called Peter. All my favourite sitcoms, like Hancock, Fawlty Towers or Rising Damp, were about angry old men. There’s nothing funnier than people furious about how their lives turned out. Too much comedy now is blandly mainstream. And warm. Fuck warm! Who wants warm comedy?
Aren’t you distantly related to Julie Goodyear, AKA Bet Lynch from Coronation Street?
My dad died last year but there were a few actors on his side of the family: Julie Goodyear, Frank Finlay and Jack Wild [who played the Artful Dodger in Oliver!]. What a dynasty. We’re like the Redgraves. Julie’s got a touch of the Mandys, actually. Maybe I could cast her as Mandy’s mum.
How has lockdown been for you?
I’m perfectly suited to lockdown because I’m a bit of a hermit, so I haven’t had too bad a time. I’m one of the lucky ones. I wish they’d hurry up and invent a vaccine, though. I’m not sure I can take many more Zoom calls. And the quiz shows on Radio 4 without an audience are sort of haunting.
Have you taken up any new hobbies?
I’ve got into gardening, which has been a revelation. I’d never grown anything before but when lockdown started, I went on Suttons Seeds’ website. I’ve only got a little roof terrace and now it’s like a jungle out there. I had my own potatoes and peas for dinner last night. Thing is, it cost me £30 to grow them, with the amount of compost you need. I could’ve bought a bag of spuds for a quid. I tried carrots too but they didn’t work out. I nearly kicked them off the roof, I was so livid. It’s stressful, this horticulture business.
You’ve been learning to drive for years. Have you passed your test yet?
No, I had my test booked in, then the pandemic started. I’ve had hundreds of lessons and several diabolical instructors. I’m determined to do it, but I haven’t practised much during lockdown because I was frightened the police would stop me and say, having a driving lesson, are you? Oh yeah, that old chestnut. Testing your eyesight?