Inside Seeso’s Dark British Import, ‘Flowers’

Arriving on Seeso next week, Flowers is a funny, emotionally fraught British comedy-drama that truly puts its central characters through the wringer. Starring Julian Barratt of the Mighty Boosh as Maurice, a depressed children’s book author, and Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman as Deborah, his giddily nervous, oversexed wife, the couple share a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere with their 25-year-old twins, Maurice’s senile mother, and Shun, his Japanese illustrator and the family’s de-facto lackey.

Shot claustrophobically gloomy through a grimy lens, the six episodes unfold in an unidentifiable time and corner of the English countryside, a netherworld that seems to have absorbed the bleak fug of Maurice’s books about goblins, The Grubbs. But also, bizarrely, some of the derangement of Shun’s ultra-erotic Manga cartoons.

While both of the twins, would-be inventor Donald (Daniel Rigby) and tortured musician Amy (Sophia Di Martino), are infatuated with their neighbour Abigail, Deborah suspects Maurice of sleeping with Shun, even as she herself attracts the interests of other men. A cauldron of repressed feelings, the Flowers are like The Royal Tenenbaums meets The Twits as one writer neatly described them before the show’s UK premiere on Channel 4.

Flowers is the television directorial debut of 29-year-old Will Sharpe, who not only wrote the script but plays Shun. A former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and president of Cambridge University’s Footlights Revue, following in Hugh Laurie, Eric Idle, and Peter Cook’s footsteps among others, he was born in London but lived in Tokyo until the age of eight.

Along with his regular collaborator since his student days, the director Tom Kingsley, Sharpe has also just released his second film, The Darkest Universe, in which he stars with co-scribe Tiani Ghosh and The Inbetweeners’ Joe Thomas.

With Flowers opening with Maurice attempting suicide, recalling events in The Darkest Universe and the pair’s Bafta-nominated 2011 debut, Black Pond, it felt logical to start by asking Sharpe and Kingsley what precisely they find so funny about dysfunctional families, mental illness and people trying to kill themselves?

“In any project, it’s important for the relationships to be interesting and complicated” Sharpe suggests. “And I find it most interesting when the situations are difficult and the characters are having a difficult time, centring on the question of how they’re going to deal with it and find something positive.”

“Still, it’s important for both of us that it’s never dealt with in a flippant way, that the performances, writing and direction all deal with the situation sensitively. Someone with a problem, feeling it in a particular way, they’re not necessarily paying due diligence to their mental state. The challenge is always trying to find laughs in the situations, rather than the pain itself.”

Just as Maurice struggles to open up about his depression, neither the slightly touched, suicidal Blake in Black Pond nor the lost souls Alice and Toby in The Darkest Universe, are ever diagnosed with anything specific. And such classic British repression has its benefits.

“When you get specific, there’s a responsibility to be completely accurate” argues Sharpe. “Not everyone is diagnosed in life. And anyway, whose perspective are you seeing them from? You don’t always know everything about a character and sometimes that can provide the drama.”

For Kingsley, the attraction of characters “who behave slightly strangely, no matter if it’s acknowledged or not,” is that it affords their stories an “openness,” which ties into their desire to escape generic convention. “Flowers is like Black Pond and The Darkest Universe – comedic but also dramatic. You don’t have to pin them down, it’s just nice to let them be.”

Indeed, “the danger of editing any comedy is that you become bored of the jokes quite quickly. So we make them more honest, dramatic and real by taking out the jokes, unless they’re totally natural to a situation”.

Sharpe concludes: “We always say that it’s difficult to take drama seriously if it doesn’t have a sense of humor. And comedy is harder to find funny if you don’t believe in the characters and invest in how they’re feeling. That’s a lot of our motivation.”

For anyone ignorant of the fact that Sharpe wrote Flowers, Shun’s portrayal as permanently resolute, pornographic-minded, hopelessly subservient, could seem stereotypical, at least initially.

“It wasn’t a concern” states the half-Japanese actor, who wanted to infuse the show with some of the “irreverence and color” of sketch shows recalled from his Tokyo childhood.

“Occasionally an idea would come up in development that would make me uncomfortable” he admits. “But those ideas didn’t make it in. All of the characters are a little bit heightened, stylized, and versions of an archetype.”

“The series develops in a way that hopefully means you can see them questioning their own archetypes and challenging them. And Shun is no exception to that.”

Rejecting the sitcom approach of “resetting” with each episode, Sharpe acknowledges his love of shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, “where you can tell stories over a long period of time and call back to a moment from series two in series five.”

This more cinematic arc resonated with Barratt, “who’s a bit like an old school film actor and loves watching classic movies” the writer-director explains, citing the Coen Brothers and Hal Ashby among his own influences while stressing that he invariably rejects anything which feels like an homage.

Barratt’s crumpled, brooding turn “is so nuanced and controlled and he’s very deft, he would joke about how we’d have to magnify his performance a hundred-fold to see it” Sharpe adds. “Genuinely, watching the rushes in the edit, to see the amount he was doing, with so little, in such a short space of time, that was mesmerizing.”

With Colman by contrast, “the striking thing about working with her is her incredible range. Everyone remembers her from Peep Show but then she blew everyone away in Tyrannosaur with that dramatic performance.

“Even in The Lobster, where the house style was a kind of anti-acting, she still managed to stand out and we were excited about trying to make use of all these different Olivia Colmans within the same show. She’s so skillful and always delivers what you need. There were moments where I thought of it as an Olivia Colman aurora, where she took it to another level and I just felt lucky to be there.”

After three years developing Flowers and The Darkest Universe, he wants to recharge his batteries before even contemplating another season of the show. Meanwhile, he and Kingsley are eager to try and secure a US release for their film.

“We’re in the early days of that” Kingsley reveals. “[Saturday night’s] premiere at the LOCO comedy film festival [in London] is the first time we’ll see The Darkest Universe with an audience, so we’re hugely excited about that.

“We’d love to take it to America because we had a great time at SXSW with Black Pond [which starred stand-up Simon Amstell and Chris Langham from Veep’s UK pre-cursor The Thick of It]. We thought the humour wouldn’t travel. But we weren’t making references to pop culture. And when we spoke to audiences, they were telling us that these are strange, funny people and people are the same all over the world.”

Inside Seeso’s Dark British Import, ‘Flowers’