Two Doors Down is back and Arabella Weir is pulling on her black leggings once more to play Beth Baird, the linchpin of Latimer Crescent who along with Alex Norton as husband Eric, cheerfully endures whatever torment her too-close-for-comfort neighbours unleash.
“Yes, it’s the same pair – they’ve done well, four seasons now, my supermarket leggings,” she says with the resignation and slight disappointment of a woman who once donned a Kylie Minogue slash-fronted white hooded jumpsuit to sing Can’t Get You Out of My Head for the BBC’s Let’s Dance For Sport Relief.
Weir is nothing like her character, who spends her time mollifying the neighbours, although she shares her charm and warmth. Devoid of the Glasgow accent and those leggings, she is sharper and fastfire funny, proficient in profanity – unlike Beth who isn’t to be held responsible for pushing the Crescent post watershed, unlike the rest of the motley crew. You get the impression Weir would use her wit to put Cathy and Christine on the back foot should they move in two doors down from her London home.
If you’re her pal however, like David Tennant, you can make yourself at home, call her ‘Arry and yourself ‘tenant’. The Broadchurch actor was her lodger for several years after they met making BBC Scotland’s Bafta-winning dark comedy Takin’ Over the Asylum in the 1990s. The former Doctor Who star is godfather to her now grown children Isabella and Archie and still a great friend, as are Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, who signed her up for The Fast Show back in the 1990s. This was where Weir gifted us the catchphrase ‘Does my bum look big in this?’
I ask her if she feels possessive about the phrase that has entered the national lexicon.
“I don’t feel it, I’m correct about it,” she says. “It’s in the Oxford Book of Catch Phrases if you please!”
She laughs, but is proud to report that her daughter sent her a photo of a canvas bag from Bristol University Freshers Day bearing the logo “Does my future look big in this?”
“She said, ‘you live on mum’. I feel very proud that I launched that expression. It’s something most women say.”
Weir’s other screen outings include the hilariously prescient Posh Nosh, a food show parody she co-wrote. Aired on BBC2 in 2003 it starred Weir and Richard E Grant as food snobs and cookery show presenters, and may be back for a fresh serving. She was also in cult youth drama Skins, Doctor Who and E4 sitcom Drifters. Away from TV she has written regularly for newspapers, and drawn on her own experiences in autobiography, Does My Bum Look Big in this?: The Diary of an Insecure Woman, novels Onwards and Upwards and Stupid Cupid, the teen series following the adventures of Tabitha Baird, and her take on food issues in The Real Me Is Thin.
Starting as a Hogmanay special in 2013 Two Doors Down grew into a BBC2 series then another, with the third grabbing nearly two million viewers. Written by Simon Carlyle and Gregor Sharp, it won Best Comedy at the 2017 Royal Television Society Scotland Awards and was one of the channel’s top performing comedies last year.
In the BBC2 series, back on our screens next month, Beth and husband Eric, are joined once more by Elaine C Smith as Christine, Jonathan Watson and Doon Mackichan as Colin and Cathy and the newbies Joy McAvoy and Graeme ‘Grado’ Stevely as new neighbours Michelle and Alan.
Fresh situations to torment Beth and Eric include their 30th wedding anniversary celebrations, a wake, the hospitalisation of Cathy and the new neighbours making the mistake of inviting the Crescent crew into their freshly decorated home.
A lot of Weir’s inspiration for the character Beth came from David Tennant’s late mother, although she is a composite of people Weir has known. “I loved his mum,” she says, “and I love Beth. Beth is a more classic mum than me or mine.”
Born in San Francisco to Scottish parents, and raised in various locations, from Bahrain to Cairo to London, with her parents divorcing when she was ten, Weir’s childhood was far from Latimer Crescent. With parents obsessed about her weight and what she ate – her mother cutting things like potatoes out of her diet – she was miserable about her body and spent a lot of time re-assessing her attitude to food, culminating in a book on the subject, which like her autobiography shows her fearless honesty, not least about her parents.
“My parents were obsessed with weight, and appearances, not from a Grazia cover way, but because they thought it showed their peers that I was greedy and they were failing to correct that. We know now I was just built differently, but it looked like they were not stopping me stuffing my face with eclairs.
“I don’t see any investment in hiding anything,” she says. “If you’re in the public eye there’s no point trying to present yourself in a way that says my life is so super. It’s alienating. It’s only by sharing the good AND the bad, the misery, that you get a more inclusive way of living. Bad situations happen to all of us so there’s no point saying it’s all great. You just make people less privileged than you feel excluded from a special world where everyone is richer and everything is better and everyone has Prada handbags!”
Weir is proud of her Scottish roots, loving her time in Scotland filming Two Doors Down in the BBC’s Dumbarton Studios.
Her father Michael went from Dunfermline High School on a scholarship to study oriental languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, joined the RAF, then after the war went to Oxford and on to the Foreign Service, becoming Ambassador to Egypt from 1979 to 85, while her mother Alison was also an Oxford graduate who gave up work to parent her four children then went back when she became a single parent.
Childhood holidays for Weir and her two elder brothers and younger sister were spent in Scotland, with both grandmothers, although visiting Melrose was preferable to Dunfermline on account of the grannies’ characters.
“Dunfermline granny was widowed very young and her husband left her with teenagers and she wasn’t well off. I know about life as a single mother, and her financial circumstances were hard but she was mean spirited and I was terrified of her. I went out of my way not to go near Granny in Dunfermline. My god she was not going to tell you you were nice or special. It was that idea that if you tell people you love them they will be spoiled… small minded, all about public appearances and the right coats and shoes and being petite and gorgeous. And if you were fractionally chunkier than the child next door…
“My granny in Melrose wasn’t any richer, but she was religious and thought about other people, was kind to everyone. I wish I’d spent more time with her, but she died suddenly of a heart attack, and that’s a regret.”
Back in Scotland filming Two Doors Down, Weir ventured back to Dunfermline recently and was delighted to find it “beautiful, with parks and everything. But I went past my granny’s house and it was still terrifying,” she says.
With regard to her parents’ parenting skills she has long subscribed to the first line of Philip Larkin ‘This Be The Verse’, ‘they f*** you up your mum and dad’. However she ignored Larkin’s recommendation to avoid having kids yourself, instead deciding to apply the opposite of her parents’ childrearing methods. She does have understanding and sympathy for her mother though, a graduate with an “emotionally distant” husband and four children to raise after her divorce.
“When I became a mother I got angrier with her, but the more I understood her circumstances the more I understood how hard it was to be a mother. It’s not like living in a high rise, but she was up against it, getting it wrong and even the best of us do that. But she was so fragile emotionally, because she was so badly parented and neglected as a child herself, feeling unloved, that the vagaries of being a parent made her feel s**t about herself. She was essentially a nine-year-old.
“If you are not robust emotionally, when they say ‘I hate you’, ‘I hate shepherd’s pie’, ‘why are we going to Scotland AGAIN for a holiday anyway?’ it’s hard to hang on to what you’re doing. I had a lot of sympathy for her.
“But she was always nitpicking, couldn’t help herself, because she wasn’t equipped to be a mother, didn’t get the model of how to feel loved and love, to stay so consistently on message, be loving and supportive when you’re under assault. So she made a lot of mistakes and had the opportunity to correct them which she chose not to, for which I stay bemused. But I’m also sympathetic to who she was. She was quite angry at times; there was nothing she loved more than a fight. ‘It’s meat and drink to her,’ my father used to say.”
After Camden School for Girls where she enjoyed entertaining her classmates by winding up the teachers, particularly when her own mother got a job there, Weir went on to study drama at Middlesex Polytechnic. Small parts in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Bill followed, then comedy on Alexei Sayle’s Stuff and The Fast Show. It was a time when there weren’t as many women in comedy and now at 61, Weir welcomes what she sees as as increase in numbers, along with changes in material.
“I’m pretty sure young women comedians aren’t doing as much body imagery stuff and self-deprecation as my generation. There’s not so much ‘look at me the ugly duckling’ humour. But there still aren’t enough women. Look at the panel shows with male captains and two men on each team. If there was only one man on each panel and female captains, they would say ‘it’s a bit female heavy’. But it’s changing.”
Ageing also brings loss and Weir lost her father, stepmother, mother and best friend to cancer between 2006 and 2008, acknowledging that their deaths changed her attitude to life.
“It’s made me value it more and realise how incredibly precarious it is, how you can be full of life one day and the next you have stage four cancer and it’s going to be over soon. The death of my friend Helen – a friendship that was what I imagine a marriage to be like, someone you want to talk to about everything, someone who gets you – made me realise the fragility of life and made me value the people I love that bit extra. It’s made me more sentimental. I’ll cry at an episode of 15 to One…” she laughs. “And it’s made me a bit more fearless.”
So what’s next for the fearless Weir, apart from possibly more Two Doors Down and more servings of Posh Nosh. The suggestion she may write another book brings this swift response: “I hope I don’t have to write any more books. It’s hard because you’re on your own all the time and I like being with other people.”
That’s why Weir is excited about her recent appointment as artistic director for the next Kirkcaldy Festival of Ideas, and is bigging it up. “We have a very impressive headliner, but I can’t say who yet. Last year it was David Tennant, and this year it’s even bigger than that!” She laughs. Then can’t help undercutting herself with humour when I ask what the role involves. “It’s me fannying about being me, as my father would have said.”
Also coming up is a podcast called Straight Eye for an Old Gal. Having divorced in 2013 she is currently single and ready to explore the ins and outs of the dating game. In the podcasts she will report back to her straight male friends on her progress as she explores the world of dating, using various online sites.
“Just the free ones,” says Weir, “with the best intentions. There will be 12 podcasts so that’s 12 dates I’ll go on.
“I would like to help burst the myth that we’re all looking for a boy again. I know lots of women who are very happy working and seeing their mates, but society pressures us to feel we have to be coupled up. Between you, me and the gatepost, I’m not entirely sure I want to be coupled up! Although I might want to see someone again. So it’s a very interesting place to be.”
“Thirty five years ago I would have been ‘Oh my God I’ve got to get a boyfriend!’. But cooking and washing up... I’m not doing any of that s**t any more. I would just tell them to f*** off. I’m up for the fun bits.”
Two Doors Down Series 4 will be shown on BBC2 on Monday, 7 January at 10pm.