Sian Harries is an award-winning comedy writer and performer. Hailing from Carmarthen, Harries now lives in London with her husband, fellow Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert.
Her writing credits include the Channel 4 Greg Davies sitcom Man Down, BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, BBC Radio Wales’ Sony Award-winning Here Be Dragons, 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 has appeared in Mark Watson’s The Hotel and the sketch group Superclump.
She talks to Cerith Mathias about the pressures still faced by women in comedy; the possibilities for a satirical take on Welsh public life and her quest to re-discover the lost history of the Welsh women who first settled in Patagonia.
Cerith Mathias: You’ve got a long list of writing and performing credits to your name. What are you working on currently?
Sian Harries: At the moment me and Rhod are writing a sit-com together. We’ve been working on it for years, and finally because I’ve got a gap in work and Rhod’s got a gap we thought we’d do it. We started writing it about 7 years ago, and back then it was a bit weird working with your romantic partner. If one of you doesn’t find the other one funny, it can get really personal. But now it’s absolutely fine, because we know each other so well. I think we bring different skills to it really. When Rhod was doing his stand-up, he used to talk about a fictional village called Llanbobl, so it’s based in Llanbobl and all the weird little characters that live there. It’s in the back of beyond in Wales, in this strange little village. I’ve also been writing on the third series of Man Down, which is filming in a couple of weeks, and I’ve been working on a series of short films for BBC Wales about the National Assembly Elections. There’s also a documentary for Radio Wales on Patagonia that I’m editing.
So it’s a busy time for you, what then do you make of Tina Fey’s recent comments that 2016 is a ‘terrible time’ for women in comedy? She says that male comics earn more for work that isn’t as good, while ‘…the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.’
I think maybe she’s talking about America specifically and also about performing in film. Because I think that’s true — women get paid less for being in films. Is it a terrible time? I wouldn’t say ‘terrible time’, because I think more and more women are becoming successful in comedy and there are more female role models in comedy, which hopefully is making more women join in.
I think one thing that remains is that people still specify ‘oh you’re a female comedy writer,’ whereas they wouldn’t do that with a man. You’re not a ‘male comedy writer’ – you’re just a ‘comedy writer.’ It’s still something that’s brought up, specifying gender is still a thing. What we’re striving for is the day where we’re all just comedy writers, and there’s not an issue. But I wouldn’t say it’s a terrible time, well not for me personally, and I can only really speak from my own experience. I think women are far more visible. For me, and maybe it’s because I’ve matured and I’m more experienced now, I’m finding it far easier to write female protagonists. I think because there are a lot more around now, far more than when I was younger. It’s a case of saying ‘the women in my life are really funny; of course they can be on screen.’ It’s about making that connection. I’ve known a lot of men to say ‘oh, I don’t feel confident writing female characters,’ or ‘can you help me with the dialogue for the women, because I’m not confident.’ I think it’s because maybe they’re afraid of being criticised for getting it wrong.
Is writing for / performing with an all-female ensemble something you’d be interested in doing?
Definitely. I think it would be fun to try that, because I’ve never done an all-female thing, but then it just depends on the individuals involved, really. Any project I thought was really good, I would do it, regardless of whether it was with men or women. I think it’s always really nice to work in a mixed group. I often work with just men and sometimes I feel that I have to represent the female voice. Sometimes I have to say ‘I’m not sure about that.’ Especially when there are a lot of male writers as well, because you tend to write what you know, and you tend to write characters that you identify with on some level, so I think it’s natural if you’re a white middle-class male, you’re going to write a white middle-class male character. I think having another woman in the writers’ room with you helps validate what you’re saying. So you don’t always have to feel like you’re the P.C police, especially when you’re trying to be funny as well.
Is that a difficult line to walk? Being aware of how women are portrayed and represented, while being funny at the same time.
It’s just tweaking it. I think it’s getting better. I work with such brilliant men – they’re so funny and so talented. They get it. So, sometimes it’s just a case of saying ‘What if that was her and not him doing that?’ and they just say ‘Oh yes! Of course.’ And I have to do it to myself, even. It’s all about who you can see, who’s visible. When I first started out, I was writing a sit-com and a producer said to me ‘Why don’t you make the protagonist a woman?’ and I just couldn’t. I couldn’t see the main character being a woman in this particular sit-com. And it was because, I think, I just hadn’t had many visible, funny women to inspire me. But now, as I said, I can write funny women really easily because I’ve seen more and I’m more confident in doing it. I can write for men easily because there are so many of them in the media and on TV, and I’ve grown up with really funny male protagonists, like Basil Fawlty and Blackadder and what have you, so women can write for men, it’s just the fact of being aware of women and the more visible women are the more people will write them as funny main characters.
Do you notice a difference confidence wise between male and female writers/ performers? Are women less willing to clown-around, and more cautious perhaps?
I think some people expect women to look a certain way and to behave a certain way. A lot of my female comedy friends are hilarious, they’re real clowns and they have no qualms about looking ridiculous or falling over. I think there’s a resistance to it. I remember I was performing in something, and I was having my make-up done. The make-up lady was putting a lot of make-up on me and I was playing quite a rough character, and I said ‘I don’t think she needs this much make-up.’ And she said ‘Well you want to look nice on TV’ and I had to say ‘Well, no, not really.’ I think some people still have that expectation of women. But I think films like ‘Bridesmaids’ smashed that expectation. There are more and more role models of women just having the freedom to act like clowns and look dishevelled and it’s fine. It’s real. It allows you to be funny. It’s like Amy Poehler said ‘vanity is the death of comedy’ – you can’t be concerned with looking good and be funny at the same time. They’re two opposites.
On the subject of the visibility of women, you’ve just come back from a trek in Patagonia to raise money for Velindre Cancer Centre, where you’ve been re-discovering the stories of the women who helped settle there. What did you find?
It’s a project I’ve been working on for Radio Wales, and it’s been fascinating. I’d always had in the back of my head this story that Welsh women, the Welsh settlers who went out to Patagonia in 1865 they had the vote. It was in the constitution that everyone who lived there over the age of 18 had the vote. And that blew me away, it’s so much earlier than here. So why don’t we know more about it? I was going out there to do a trek for Velindre, so I decided to find out more because there wasn’t much information about it here. There are a couple of books, but it’s really inconclusive, and that got to me a bit, that this female history isn’t really recorded. So that’s what I set out to do, to find out what the story was and whether they did actually have the vote out there. And I met some incredible women, the descendants of the Welsh settlers, and their stories were wonderful.
Women’s stories are often airbrushed from history – is your programme an attempt to reclaim them?
It’s talking to the women about their grandmothers and their great-grandmothers. Women’s history is often in storytelling, so it’s more of an oral history that isn’t necessarily recorded, it’s more: we know it, our family knows it and no one else really knows about it. It was so interesting, because we know stuff about the men who went out there, the pioneers. But we don’t know about the women. 150 of them went out there, and I think roughly half were women. A few of them were single women, they weren’t wives or daughters of the men; we don’t really know what they did.
It all stemmed from the fact that me and Rhod were writing a sit-com in Pembrokeshire in my grandfather’s house and we were in the vestry of this little old church where my grandparents got married having a break and I was snooping through the old certificates and I came across their original wedding certificate. It had my grandfather’s name: John Glyndwr Vittel, 24. Farmer. And underneath it said Sarah Elizabeth Wilson, 21 and then just nothing. It was just blank underneath and that just made me think – that’s wrong! Because I know for a fact she worked. She worked her arse off on the farm. She worked the land, properly worked. There are photos of her carrying the heavy machinery, I’ve seen her scars and her varicose veins from where she used to carry pails of water. And just the fact that it wasn’t recorded, it was like she didn’t do anything. It was like it was saying ‘She’s just a woman.’ And that made me think, we’re not recording women’s lives. It pushed me to find out about this stuff.
Are there any plans to extend the Patagonia exploration back over here, to reclaim some of the Welsh women lost to history?
Yes definitely. There are so many untold stories out there of brilliant women and I think it has such an effect on other women. If you don’t see women in the public eye or know about what they’ve achieved, you don’t think you’re capable of it. When I was out in Patagonia I had an email from the editor of ‘Standard Issue’, an online magazine for women established by Sarah Millican and a bunch of us who wanted to just have a magazine without the bullshit ; well she emailed me saying would I write an article about the fact that the UK government are thinking of dropping feminism from the syllabus (in England), and the only woman that’s going to be left on the politics syllabus is Mary Wollstonecraft, and that made me think we need female history more than ever. Because I didn’t notice it in school. I did history and politics and there was nothing apart from Thatcher. History, and Welsh history especially is full of incredible women that we weren’t taught about. People like Cranogwen. She lived in Llangrannog, a place we went as kids, so why didn’t I know about her? We know all about Barti Ddu, and all the machismo pirate stories. Cranogwen was amazing; she was a sailor, who preached. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t know about her.
You’ve also put together short films for the BBC on Welsh politics and are working on a kids news sketch show. Can comedy make politics and news more accessible and encourage people to be more politically engaged?
I think so. I think it’s a chicken and egg situation though. Because if you do a political comedy show, people have to know the references in order to get the joke. I do think it can make it more accessible. Something like Have I Got News for You, which I was brought up watching made me more aware of news stories. And programmes like The Thick of It are so funny, and if you can make something fun to watch then people are going to be more interested in it. And it’s important to punch up at figures in authority. It’s really good for democracy. Some of the funniest sketches I’ve written have been when I’m angry about something.
Like you say, people need to know who they’re laughing at. There aren’t many satirical programmes about Welsh politics. Is there scope for any?
When I lived in Wales, most people didn’t seem to know what was going on in the Assembly, I don’t know how much has changed. Context is everything. I know Ben Partridge has written a comedy about being an Assembly Member. And stuff like that can be quite informative as well as funny. I think if people saw a programme that’s really accessible that’s based inside the Assembly you would get more people taking an interest in Welsh politics. There’s definitely loads of material in there! I’m writing with Ben Partridge and Lloyd Langford now, putting together 2 minute short films that are going to go online about the Assembly elections, trying to get young people’s attention, and trying to make them aware of what’s going on.
Does your comedy have a more political edge these days?
I could say yes, but then me and Rhod have just written a really childish scene, it’s quite puerile. I think I just do what I think is funny. I’m working on my own sit-com at the moment, it has a female protagonist. It’s not political, but if you’re writing from a certain under-represented group, then anything you do is going to be a bit political. Because other people are going to think that you represent that group, so I think you do become aware of it. Even if you don’t want it to be a statement, people take it as one. It feels sometimes that everything you do becomes a statement for what all women are doing. It’s like when Obama became President, he was seen as a black President, whereas George W. Bush certainly wasn’t seen as representative of every white man. So for me, I do whatever makes me laugh.
The Tidy Wives: the Welsh Women of Patagonia will be broadcast on BBC Radio Wales on April 2nd