Interview: Sharon Rooney speaks with her own voice

Rooney stars as barmaid Jules in the Highland-set BBC comedy Miller's Mountain
Rooney stars as barmaid Jules in the Highland-set BBC comedy Miller's Mountain
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‘I kept doing a full punch, straight on, not swinging. I was terrified that I was going to hit Jimmy in the face. The first thing I’ve done in front of a live audience and all I could think about was: ‘don’t get too close, don’t actually knock him out!’”

It might not sound like it, but for Sharon Rooney, the chance to indulge in a bit of slapstick violence actually came as a bit of professional light relief. The 25-year-old Glaswegian plays Jules, a no-nonsense barmaid in Miller’s Mountain, one of three comedies that BBC One is currently piloting as a revival of its Comedy Playhouse strand, which previously developed such classics as Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Last of the Summer Wine and Are You Being Served?

Set in the Highlands and shot in Glasgow and Glencoe, Miller’s Mountain follows the antics of a rag-tag band of mountain rescue volunteers as their leader Jimmy Miller (played with pompous buffoonery by Jimmy Chisholm) initiates Conor (Kevin Guthrie) into the team. That Conor’s induction principally involves male nudity, an escalating succession of freakish injuries and Jimmy grandstanding about his exploits in the local pub leaves Jules distinctly unimpressed and suggesting as much to Jimmy’s face – with her fists.

As Rooney observes, Miller’s Mountain’s knockabout “pure comedy” is a long way from the witty but often “tense, emotional” peaks of her role in the acclaimed teen drama My Mad Fat Diary, which has just finished its second series on E4. Rooney stars as Rae Earl, a music-obsessed 16-year-old plagued by mental health and body issues and worried that boys will never fancy her, in a series which deftly tackles the spectrum of adolescent problems, from sex to suicide, in ways that are sensitive, memorable and rarely pull any punches. The show’s reception continues to “amaze” Rooney, who as part of Bafta’s support for new talent, was crowned a Breakthrough Brit last year.

“The support and niceness of people has been bigger and even better than the first series” she reveals. “Just how people have stuck with Rae and gone on the journey with her.

Series two was a lot darker and the issues got heavier. I’m really honoured that people have enjoyed it.”

Modest and apparently level-headed about her recently acquired fame, Diary turned up just as she was considering quitting acting and returning to college to study nursing. After initially dismissing it as “another fat girl role,” Rooney is thankful that her agent persuaded her to actually read the script and audition. Now she declares that “I would have loved a character like Rae to be on television when I was growing up,” commending writer Tom Bidwell, who adapted the show from the real Rae Earl’s books, for his ability to “get inside the head of 16-year-old girls, especially about boys and periods”.

Even so, Rooney assiduously researched depression and spoke to sufferers before filming. “The worst thing that could have happened was for someone who’d been through it, or was going through it, to watch it and say ‘there’s no way I can relate to this, that’s not how it feels’. That would have destroyed me. It’s so important and not something you can take lightly; swan in and make it up as you go along.”

Although a target for abuse on Twitter when the show was announced, “which terrified me, because I thought ‘they hate it and it’s not even been on yet’,” the nuanced and ambitious drama quickly confounded the sceptics and trolls. And now, with her substantial fanbase, Rooney has been thrust into a curious existence as a teen icon-cum-agony aunt, a daunting prospect for any television newcomer.

Indeed, so convincing are her Lincolnshire vowels that some have even criticised the authenticity of her Scottish accent, a double-edged compliment of “people finding it hard to see me as anyone other than Rae. It’s nice in a way, because it means I’ve played my role realistically.”

Still, she says representing mental health sufferers “can be tough, especially if they ask you for help, or when you’re out and about and they want to explain their situation. Obviously, I’m not trained and I don’t have the words. I wish I did. But it’s very rewarding too, on social media or in public, when people tell you that the show’s helped them and they’ve got help, they’ve spoken to a doctor or their family. You want to make these issues less stigmatised. That’s a really lovely part of the work.”

As fulsome in her praise of Miller’s Mountain creator Donny McLeary as she is of Bidwell, Rooney describes the co-writer of Radio 4’s Fags, Mags and Bags and the stage show Appointment With The Wicker Man as “so, so funny, there’s something so magical about his writing and I don’t ever think I’ve laughed so much on a job”. But if there’s another element that links the madcap Scottish pilot to Diary, which saw Rae ultimately consummate her relationship with the boyishly good-looking Finn (Nico Mirallegro), it’s in Jules’ appreciation of Conor, a rare display of unabashed female lust in a prime-time British comedy.

“With the dead guy in the corner of the pub, and stuck with people like Jimmy, there’s no totty for her in the village!” Rooney exclaims. “And then in walks this shiny, lovely looking guy and it’s the most exciting thing to happen to her in months. Perhaps it’s just me and I’m really lucky, getting to work with all these handsome guys!”

After previously appearing alongside Guthrie on BBC One’s one-off Hogmanay comedy, Two Doors Down, in which his boyfriend was played by Greg McHugh, I wonder if Rooney is committed to working in Scotland or whether, with her profile down south rising, she’ll have to decamp to London for the sake of her career?

“I spend so much time away that it’s lovely to be surrounded by Scottish accents, because I miss that” she reflects. “But as an actor, you have to be open to moving where the work is. So I’ll stay here till the day comes when I have to move.”

A cameo in Sherlock as a conspiracy theorist found her mum “beside herself with happiness, she just loves Benedict Cumberbatch”. But Rooney remains tight-lipped about her involvement in another comedy pilot, Kerry, for ITV, that began shooting in Cirencester in March. And she has no idea if My Mad Fat Diary will return. “I’ll be the last to know and probably find out via Twitter. That’s what’s happened so far.”

A sometime dabbler in stand-up, she doubts that she’ll be returning to live comedy anytime soon “because I’d just get heckled with Mad Fat Diary quotes”. And she suggests that her ambition to perform in musicals is now dashed after Rae’s a capella rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U, a scarier moment than all of the show’s emergency room dashes, intimate sexual fumblings or the scene in which she was shot on Watford High Street with nothing but a bikini and an inflatable crocodile to protect her modesty.

“That was so stressful, trying to keep the right key in Rae’s accent while everything was so, so silent around me. I can feel my nerves returning just talking about it! We did that take 22 times!” she marvels in giggling horror.

• Miller’s Mountain will be broadcast on BBC1 on 6 May at 10:40pm