Emma Kennedy on writing her new sitcom the Kennedys

ONCE upon a time Emma Kennedy was a lawyer, then she jacked it all in to become a comedy writer. Nine books and nearly 20 years later, her new BBC1 sitcom proves the gamble has paid off, writes Claire Black. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown

Emma Kennedy. Picture: Debra Hurlford Brown
Emma Kennedy. Picture: Debra Hurlford Brown

‘My very first Edinburgh Festival, that was in 1987,” says Emma Kennedy. “I went up there with Stuart Lee and Richard Herring and some others. We were in a comedy group called the Seven Raymonds. We stayed in the masonic lodge at the top of the Royal Mile. There were 60 of us sleeping on the floor. There was no bath. All there was was one toilet and one hand basin. I slept under a coffin for six weeks. Every single one of us got athlete’s foot.” She laughs. We both do.

Kennedy is funny. Very funny. You know that old story about comedy writers being miserable? Well, Kennedy isn’t. Not even close. Yes, she was once given a fortune cookie that said, “Bad luck and misfortune will haunt you for all eternity.” (She’s still got it, glued into a diary.) But life, for Kennedy, is full of absurdity, sometimes it’s painful, but no matter the mishap, there’s pretty much always room for humour. Take a story which involves a premature death and being shot in the neck. You wouldn’t laugh at that, would you? Well I did. A lot. Loudly. The only thing I can say is that it wasn’t my fault, it was Emma Kennedy’s. When she tells a story, I don’t think it would really matter the topic, there’d be laughter.

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There’s an odd thing about meeting Kennedy because I follow her on Twitter. I have for years. So although I don’t know her, we’ve never met before, I know about her. I know she recently got married to her partner Georgie Gibbon – she posted a picture, they looked happy and lovely. And I know that she exchanges loads of silly tweets with singers Tracey Thorn and Alison Moyet – they’re mates. She knows Sue Perkins and Clare Balding. And she does stuff for Children in Need (Emma Freud is a friend – they met on Twitter, in fact) and breast cancer awareness. She guffaws (of course) when I tell her. “I don’t mind,” she says. “I love Twitter.”

The Kennedys. Picture: Gary Moyes

Kennedy is a polymath and she’s had a long career. She was a lawyer (we’ll come back to that). She’s an actress (she’s appeared in a slew of telly programmes). She’s written nine books – a mix of children’s titles (the Wilma Tenderfoot series) comedy memoirs (The Tent, The Bucket and Me and I Left My Tent in San Francisco) a guide to the cult TV series, The Killing (Sofie Gråbøl is a pal) and most recently a novel, Shoes for Anthony. She was the runner-up at the World Conker Championships (I’m not joking and neither is she when she tells me about it which is why I’ve included it). And she won Celebrity MasterChef a few years back. So where to start? How about being a lawyer?

“I had a secretary called Madge,” she says. “I loved her.” She doesn’t know what she’s doing now but there was some talk of a carpet cleaning franchise. “She would just come in and cry most mornings. That would be my first job of the day, just seeing what was wrong with Madge.

“I wasn’t made to be a lawyer, I’m not furious enough. I don’t know if it’s that, I slightly lack that – and now I will destroy you instinct, which you do need if you’re a litigator. You need to be a bit of a rottweiler and I’m not that really.” She smiles. “I didn’t lose a case so technically I was quite good at my job. But it didn’t make my heart sing.”

If there was one thing she could tell people, she says, it’s that you only get one go so don’t make your life a drudge. Work to live, not live to work is her ethos. It was 1995 when Kennedy looked down the tube carriage and realised she had to make a change. “It was about 6am, everyone looked grey and ill. I thought, oh my god, this is the next 40 years of my life. A depression settled into my chest like a lead weight.”

She got off the tube went to her senior partner’s office and told him she was resigning. He asked her who had headhunted her and she told him no one, she was leaving to write comedy. He laughed for 10 minutes without stopping, which I suppose you could see as an auspicious start for someone with that career in mind.

The next task was to tell her mum. Kennedy is an only child. Her parents, Brenda and Tony, were teachers. They came from working class backgrounds, the first generation of their families taking a step towards the middle class. If you’ve been watching The Kennedys you’ll know that they lived on Jessop Square in the New Town of Stevenage. It was the 1970s and they were aspirational. The family seems to have been glued together with brown furniture, man-made fabrics, love and lots and lots of laughter.

But that wasn’t the response when she told her mum, she was giving up her job as a lawyer. “Can you imagine,” she says. “First person in the family to go to university and what a university to go to – Oxford. ‘My daughter the lawyer’,” she mimics her mum. “So when I told her I resigned, I think it’s fair to say she had a Victorian illness immediately. She literally took to her bed. She couldn’t look me in the eye for about six months then I introduced her to Rory Bremner and she thought that was lovely. And so all was forgiven.”

It took her mother half a year to accept her daughter’s sudden career change, but Kennedy never doubted she could pull it off. “I knew it’d be hard,” she says. “It was hard, but I just plugged away. That’s what I do. It’s taken me 20 years to get a BBC1 sitcom.”

Kennedy spent years writing for Radio 4 and having male producers tell her that she couldn’t write. “I did a show – I won’t name it – where I could not get anything I’d written into the script. One week I submitted a script and it was dismissed. I sent it in again with a man’s name on it and it went in the show. I’ve sat in a read-through and been told to shut up because I’m just the girl. This does exist. It’s extraordinary.

“I bumped into a very high powered executive a few months ago. About 10 years ago she told me I was never going to be a successful writer and I should probably just pack it in and forget it. It was the most serendipitous moment I’ve had because I was with Sofie Gråbøl from The Killing. She had taken me as a guest to a do. The executive came over because she wanted to meet Sofie. She asked me how I was in a voice dripping with pity and said, ‘are you doing anything just now?’ I said I’ve just finished shooting my BBC1 sitcom. She looked at me with complete bafflement and said, ‘how did you manage that?’” She hoots.

The answer is actually pretty simple: hard work. Kennedy has an “incredible work ethic” inherited from growing up and realising that whatever she was going to do, she was going to do for herself. “My grandparents on both sides were extremely poor, very working class. My parents were first generations taking the next step up to being lower middle class. It was drummed into me that I had to have a job. And I’ve had one since I was 14.

“The way I regard myself is as a small business. I don’t think of myself as a creative genius. I don’t think of myself as an auteur. I have no pretensions in that regard. I think of myself as a working writer. When people ask me for advice about being a writer I always ask them how often they write. If they don’t say Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm then I say to them if your small business was a shop, would you only be open for 40 minutes a day? What’s the difference? There is no difference.

“I have got an incredible work ethic but to be honest that’s because I have to, I’ve got to pay bills. I can’t just sit around waiting for the muse to strike, I’ve got to get on with things. Inspiration and getting a draft done are two very different things. Inspiration is just the spark of an idea and that can happen anywhere – on a dog walk, in a chance conversation. And then it’s about putting the idea together and making it work and that’s just graft.”

She says that now when she looks back she thinks it’s so obvious that she should’ve said right from the start, you know what, I’m going to be a writer. But there wasn’t anyone in her family who had anything to do with the media or any kind of creative job. There was no template to guide her so how could she have known that to be a writer was even an option?

That said, Kennedy had form for finding her own way. Going to Oxford was entirely of her own making. No one at her school told her to apply or thought that she’d get in. Her parents didn’t think she’d get in either. She had sat down one day and read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, the story of a young working class man who sees the spires of Christminster (Oxford) and dreams of becoming a scholar. “He sees this little stone marker with a hand pointing towards Oxford and the words ‘Thither I go’,” says Kennedy. “Maybe it was the age at which I read it but something in that just sang to me. Even though that book ends disastrously, going to Oxford is, for Jude, a disaster, it sowed the seeds for me. I just thought I’m going to go to Oxford. I told my teacher and her first word was, “Really?” My mum walked me down the garden and said, ‘are you sure you want to do this because the disappointment is going to be awful’. But I just said I’m going to do it.”

The road to Oxford wasn’t smooth, far from it, which is most likely why it plays such a pivotal role in her life. Having been given a conditional offer, she got glandular fever. She was in bed for a month, her school advised against sitting her A-levels. But she insisted. She fell asleep in her history exam and so didn’t get the grade she needed. She was devastated. But the college she’d applied for told her that if she applied again the next year, they’d consider her.

“I was so defeated I just went and got a job in a local hotel as a washer upper,” she says. “I liked it.” She did well too. First promotion was to veg peeler, then to waitress. “I was getting on well. I was earning a decent wage. I could afford to buy skirts in Jigsaw for the first time in my life.”

She didn’t even put herself into the university clearing system so now university wasn’t even a prospect. And then she had a chance encounter with her English teacher, Mrs Graebe, which changed everything. “She had retired so she didn’t know what had happened to me. She asked me if I was off to university. I told her no. She did a double take and then she gave me a speech I’ve never forgotten.” She told Kennedy that anyone can give up, giving up is easy, easiest thing in the world. And so she should never give up. She then gave her her phone number and offered that if she still wanted to go for it then she would tutor her. They would talk books and poems and plays. “She walked off and I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed that I’d set myself a goal and let it go. I’ve never done that since. I will always try. If I fail that’s a different matter but I won’t not try.”

Kennedy went to see Mrs Graebe once a week. She went back to the college, sat a paper and had another interview. “They told me they were going to give me a scholarship but then they said but we can’t because they’ve changed the rules this year.” She booms a laugh. “I was standing in this old, medieval corridor waiting to go in. The only thing I was thinking was I’m doing this for Mrs Graebe. And it’s still the best phone call I’ve ever made – telling her I’d been accepted. I genuinely still think of that as the greatest achievement of my life.”

And there’s another one now. A sitcom on prime time BBC1. Kennedy is genuinely pleased with it and proud. She’s full of praise for the cast – Katherine Parkinson and Dan Skinner as her parents. “There’s part of me that’s beyond thrilled and part of me that is terrified,” she says. “There’s nowhere to hide. Some people will love it. Some will hate it. And then there will be people in between. Actually I can’t worry about people’s responses. I can just know that I’ve done a piece of work of which I’m proud. And that’s it.”

And what about that story of a death and being shot? Actress Clare Cathcart, was in the pilot of The Kennedys which was then reshot as the first episode. Cathcart died before the reshoot. She had an asthma attack and suffered a heart attack. Her brain was starved of oxygen. She was only 45.

“Can you believe that, this is about to be a funny story?” she says. “I got the call about Clare and so I got on the train to zoom down to Brighton to see her. Her parents had flown in from Ireland and it was the first time I’d met them.” Cathcart was, she says, a very funny woman. When Kennedy arrived she was unconscious. “The consultant came in and told us there was nothing they could do. I left the hospital in a terrible state of shock and grief. I got back on the train and thought there’s loads of people to phone but I don’t want to do it on the train because people will listen so I got off the train and made the first call and I was shot in the neck.” She laughs. “I literally just said, ‘Clare’s died’ and then I was shot in the neck.”

It turned out there was a guy who had been shooting people from his bedroom window with an air rifle. “When I rang the police and said I’ve been shot in the neck they came zooming round and they went can you remember where you were when you were shot? She thought she could and the policemen had a suspicion he knew too. He drove her to the exact point. I said how did you know and he said because he’s shot three other people.” She guffaws. “Clare would’ve been howling with laughter. Bring on the disasters.” She laughs.

• The Kennedys is on Fridays at 9:30pm on BBC1