In Conversation with Sian Harries

Sian Harries is an award winning comedy writer. Originally from Carmarthen, where she grew up with fellow comedian and writing partner Elis James, Harries now lives in London with her husband, another member of Welsh comedy royalty – Rhod Gilbert.

Sian’s writing credits include BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, BBC Radio Wales’ Here Be Dragons, the Channel 4 Greg Davies sitcom Man Down and Rhod Gilbert’s Back to Llanbobl.

Working in both English and Welsh, Sian also created and wrote Hefin a Liz – a comedy series which was shown as part of S4C’s Hwb programmes for Welsh learners. She is also currently writing a novel about a comedian’s girlfriend whose blog leads people to believe she’s the funny one of the partnership.

Cerith Mathias caught up with Sian over coffee in a busy café on London’s Portobello Road, where they chatted about the pressures of being a woman in the world of comedy and the particulars of a Welsh sense of humour.

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Cerith Mathias: How did you get started in comedy? Was it a career path mapped out from an early age?  

Sian Harries: I’ve always loved comedy, since I was little; Porridge, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers – I grew up with them. I remember whenever we had to do any kind of creative writing in English class or whatever; mine were always trying to be funny. When I was a child – anything I thought was funny, I wrote it down, so I’ve got still got all this stuff from when I was quite little. I’ve got notebooks filled with things from when I was about 8 onwards, and you can see the joke process starting to form in my diaries – and some of it so bad! Things like ‘today I liked something really unusual – school dinners!’

How did you hone your talent?

I met Elis (Elis James, Harries’ writing partner) when we were about 9, then we became best friends. Though, we hated each other at first. I ripped his Shoot magazine and he was really upset – he mentioned it in his speech at my wedding this summer. I’d forgotten all about it! But we started writing together for Eisteddfods, and it went from there. We were in school together, then university and then we lived together. We’re like brother and sister, so we just bounce off each other, we can react to one another just trying to make each other laugh.

Do you prefer writing to performing?

My dream would be to write something and then perform it. Because when I write I’ve got the rhythm in my head and I know exactly how it’s supposed to be and you sometimes can’t explain that to somebody else.

Is it hard to hand your work over to other people to perform?

Yes, it can be. Sometimes when you start out, you’re so precious about everything, then you slowly learn that it’s a process and a team effort. And when you hand your stuff over to a really talented performer it can be so much better than you thought. And you have to bear that in mind when you are writing – you’re not Alfred Hitchcock – you can’t keep everything and have it all your own way.

What are you working on at the moment?

Well, I’ve just finished recording and writing for Here Be Dragons for BBC Radio Wales, which is brilliant – such a good laugh. That’s on now. I’ve just had a pilot commissioned with Radio 4, it’s a sit-com about a brother and sister. When I wrote it, it was with me and Elis in mind, and we’re kind of a weird brother and sister who are going around the UK in a caravan, discovering far and exotic lands – but in reality it’s just places like Aberystwyth. They’ve never left Lampeter before, they’re just going to places they’ve read about in The Western Mail – and it’s just them having adventures, and being petrified. They keep a log of where they’re going, because they think people in the village will love to know what they’re doing  — so they write down things like where you can get a nice piece of ham, or where’s good to park. A very Welsh sense of humour.

Do you think there is a particular Welsh sense of humour?

I think so. I think we find the ridiculousness in little things and the idiosyncrasies in things. And I think Wales, and I mean this in the best possible way, especially where I’m from – nothing happens, so you’re kind of forced to find little things amusing and your brain just becomes hardwired in that way. I think it’s that chasm between people taking something really seriously that isn’t actually that serious, and I think that’s where my humour stems from, I just love it. For example, people in mother’s church think that I’m married to Rod Stewart , and they congratulated my mum on my engagement to Rod Stewart, and my mum is saying, ‘No, no – it’s not Rod Stewart, it’s Rhod Gilbert’, and they nod and say ‘Oh, right’, as if they’re the same!

So am I right in thinking you get a lot of inspiration for your comedy from home?

The moment I realised it was when me and Elis were living together, we were in university and we were living with two people from England who had been public school educated and we were watching Noson Lawen (a long-running Welsh language variety show, broadcast on S4C) together – and we were saying ‘This is S4C’, and they were like ‘What is it?’, and seeing it through their eyes, I thought ‘Oh my God, this is weird!’.

I always remember one of my uni friends coming to stay with me at my parents in Carmarthen and asking ‘Sian why are there loads of photos of you in a witch’s hat?’ And I had to say – ‘No, that’s me in traditional Welsh costume!’ You take it for granted, but to people who don’t know, it can be really odd. And in Elis’ parents’ house there’s the painting Salem, and again the same friend went to stay with Elis and said ‘Oh look, there’s the witch’s hat again’, and Elis said – ‘Well actually this is a really famous piece of art in Wales, because if you look really closely you can see the Devil’s face in the woman’s shawl, and our friend was like ‘Why?! – Why is this up on the wall in your house?!’

I remember it being on the wall in my primary school…

Yes me too, growing up petrified of Paisley! But that’s what comedy is – questioning things. You’re fed stuff, so you take it for granted, and then you start thinking ‘hang on a minute’ and you view it in a different way, through a different point of view, and it becomes funny. I love detail. When I’m writing sitcoms, I’m always thinking about what could be happening in the background, the little things that are going on. I get that from my family I think. My Mum is always pointing stuff out.

So comedy runs in the family?

My grandfather is just the funniest person ever. He rarely speaks English, and he can be so surreal. He’ll phone me up and we can have a 20 minute conversation about cheese. And I hate cheese, he knows this, and he’ll phone and say ‘Did you get it then? The cheese I sent you? ’ We’ve been like that since I was little. Just nonsense conversations. It’s a joy. My grandfather and me –we’re incredibly close. You know he was on the jury for one of the last people to face the death penalty, really serious stuff, and he got told off for eating biscuits.

Now that’s background detail..

There’s my grandmother mortified. All this serious court business going on and a policeman had to tell him off for eating biscuits!

Your upbringing clearly influenced your comedy style, but what about your home life now? Being married to Rhod, is it all banter around the dinner table or do you leave the jokes at the door?

It’s like being in a studio sitcom. Up until recently we were living with (fellow comedian) Lloyd Langford, so we’d kind of perform in front of Lloyd – so that would egg us on a bit.

Do you and Rhod write together?

Yes, we’re writing a sitcom together at the moment.

How does that work? Is it difficult collaborating with your husband?

Well…  We wrote a pilot together with Greg (Davies) for Radio 2 four or five years ago. Then we’ve had it on the back burner because Rhod had his tour and everything. It’s better than it was. Because when we were first together I was just starting out, I had only just started writing professionally – and I was writing with a giant, you know a proper massive comedy brain. So I was very unsure, and because Rhod is incredibly straightforward, he’d be like ‘that could be better.’ So it was a steep learning curve. Especially when you bring in the whole ‘you’re my boyfriend and you’re meant to be supportive!’ stuff too. But we’re very, very similar. We work well together.

How has being first the girlfriend, and now the wife of such an established and well known comedian impacted on your own career? Have you found it a help or a hindrance in trying to forge your own path?

I think because of when I started out – he was massive, and also I was a woman starting out, and you do tend to get some people thinking I was just getting my work through my partner. So I’ve been adamant that I’m going to forge my own way. And bless him, he’s so supportive, but when he asks if I want to him to have a look at something I’ve written, I’m like ‘no, no that’s fine.’

I didn’t used to mention that we’re together, but then Wales is tiny. I’d go for some meetings, they’d get me in and ask about Rhod, which was so hard – especially when I was just starting out.

That must have been difficult. Things have changed now I take it?

Yes definitely.

Comedy has traditionally been viewed as a male arena, particularly in stand-up – is that changing? After all Bridget Christie won this year’s Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award for her feminist show, poking fun at sexism.

There are more (women) than there were, definitely. I mean it’s more to do with society, it traditionally hasn’t been, and still isn’t to a certain extent, designed for women to follow stand-up as a career. It’s late at night, you have to travel there, and women are more often than not still looking after the kids so it can be hard. And this is an interesting thing, some girls who’ve done stand-up have told me they actually dress down to go on stage. They dress in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the fact that they’re attractive, just as a way to say – ‘you will listen to what I have to say’, rather than be looking at me as a sexual object. But, yes, the majority of writers are still men, especially with panel shows. There is an issue with panel shows, there are less women stand-ups to choose from, but that is changing and also women have reported back to me, I don’t know whether it’s because their voices are softer, they can’t get in there like the men, they get talked over. I don’t know if that’s a female thing- that women are more likely not to want to speak over someone, whereas men are more boisterous.

Some argue that women don’t do well in that area because, dare I say it – we’re not as funny as men. Indeed Germaine Greer famously said that women can’t do improv; men are better at banter, innuendo and the arts of fooling and that women can’t learn jokes because they ‘bugger up the punch line’.

No way is that true. The thing that I really dislike is the whole question of ‘Are women funny?’ because I just don’t think there should be a debate about it. It totally depends on the individual. I know boys who are more anecdotal and I know girls who are incredibly quick. If I took the funniest woman I know and pitched her against the least funny man I know- she’d annihilate him, but then vice- versa – it’s individual talent rather than gender.

What do you think needs to happen to alter attitudes toward women in comedy?

A lot of people are looking for female-centric comedy at the moment, because obviously people like Bridget Christie are doing really well, so I think if you get more women on the screen being funny – then you’re going to get more women saying ‘I could do that.’ So it’s not just tokenism. I’ve had in the past people saying, and this makes me really angry – ‘we need a vagina in the room’.

How do you react to that?

Well, I either thought it was so ridiculous it was funny, or just refused to work there. You know – I don’t want to be the ‘vagina in the room’, I want to be Sian, the one who writes the comedy. I had a few people saying that about me writing for Greg’s sitcom, saying well he obviously wanted a woman on it. And I was like ‘No, he wanted me on it. He likes me and he thinks I’m funny.’ It’s that thing isn’t it, you don’t want it to be too PC, but you also need to boost the numbers of women in comedy. That’s the beauty of something like Twitter, say what you like about it, and there’s a lot of bad stuff, but it’s totally democratic when it comes to comedy. I follow a lot of women, and because you get to choose who you follow, my timeline is made up of a lot of funny women and they’re all quipping really quickly, back and forth with the banter in 140 characters, it’s insane.  So there’s your proof that women can banter.

Who are the women on your timeline? Who do you consider to be the funny women of today?

Caitlin Moran, Grace Dent as writers, and then stand-ups, Bridget Christie. I love people like Rebecca Front, Julia Davis, Jo Brand and even though I was never really into them growing up – I love French and Saunders, they’re just brilliant actors and so funny. And I still love Victoria Wood. People like that showed me that female characters could be grotesque too; women don’t have to be the straight character telling the funny bloke to shut up and behave or to stop making a mess. That’s just really boring.

Some prominent feminists have said that the problem with feminist comedy is it dilutes the issue, arguing that poking fun at misogyny and sexism detracts from the seriousness of the message. Do you agree?

I saw Bridget Christie’s show on Monday, and it just made me cry. It was awesome. Genuinely hilarious and then the end was so heart breaking. She played a clip of Malala when she was 11 just saying that all girls should be able to have an education and I literally burst out crying. I just thought, oh my God, that’s an 11 year old girl and to be that brave is just unbelievable. But I think from Bridget’s point of view it’s just an example of how you can genuinely weave a serious message through brilliant stand-up. I think that’s so important. So, it’s nonsense that you can’t make feminist comedy.

Are you conscious of building in a feminist message when you write?

My form of feminism is all women are equal. So if every woman is equal, then every woman has a right to choose how she behaves, so you can’t slag someone off for representing us as a whole – one woman doesn’t represent everyone. It’s like with Catlin Moran – she is my absolute hero. She helped me out so much, her book came out, it was just such a key to how you cope with being a feminist and also being funny. Because before, I’d get so angry with people being sexist, but it’s really hard to be funny when you’re angry. People don’t take you seriously if you’re just ranting. She just held the key for me. If someone is being sexist – point out how ridiculous they’re being.

Speaking of books – you’re currently writing a book about a comedian’s girlfriend who is funnier than he is. A case of art imitating life?

Ha ha! No! It’s not about me and Rhod, but it is based around lots of experiences I’ve had from backstage and being in greenrooms over the years. And on things like going to meetings and people only being interested in your partner.  In the book, she is not better than he is, she’s just a different kind of funny and she becomes more popular.  It’s about a couple who really love each other and it’s about how ego and work affects them. Each gets to live in the other’s world and it’s about how they cope with that. And hopefully it’s funny.

Here Be Dragons is currently on BBC Radio Wales and Man Down is back for a second series in January 2014.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis