I used to think, I don’t want to frighten them off with female stuff

In the sharp and smart new Channel 4 comedy-drama Chivalry, written by Steve Coogan and Sarah Solemani, the acclaimed feminist director Bobby (Solemani), who has to work with Cameron, a classic chauvinist studio boss (Coogan, in a classic Coogan role), explains why her progress in the film industry has been so slow compared with her contemporaries: “I’ve been hacking through this jungle that the most average man can stroll into,” she says with feeling.

“Steve came up with that line, actually,” Solemani, 39, tells me over a breakfast of brisket and scrambled eggs in a deli around the corner from her home in Los Angeles. I’d assumed she’d written it, because she herself has been hacking through the jungle of British TV and film for two decades, to the point where she considered writing her memoir just to title it “Nearly”. “Because it was always TV commissioners telling me, ‘Right, this is so nearly what we want, but … ’” she says. Over the years, she has been pitched by magazines and the TV industry as “the new Lena Dunham”, “the new Amy Schumer”, “the new [insert any big-name female comedian]”, only to then be told by British TV bosses that she was nearly what they wanted, but not quite.

Not that she was unsuccessful: she starred in sitcoms including Him & Her with Russell Tovey (2010-13), Bad Education with Jack Whitehall (2012–14) and The Wrong Mans with James Corden (2013–14); she had a flashy film role as Bridget’s best friend in Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016), and she adapted Jo Bloom’s novel Ridley Road, about British fascism in the 1960s, which was screened on BBC One last autumn. But around and in between these gigs, there was, she says, “a lot” of rejection.

“A toxic culture still exists in the industry; one in which the artistic potential of half the human race is constantly undermined,” she wrote in the Guardian in 2017 in the wake of #MeToo. Once, she and the writer and actor Olivia Poulet (The Thick of It) wrote a script, but a TV commissioner told them: “I know I asked for something a bit female, but this seems a bit too female.” “I’ve got that note somewhere,” Solemani says in the tone of one who has kept all of her receipts. I say that it’s interesting that all of the sitcoms she starred in were created by men. Her eyes widen, and she makes an emphatic “believe me, I noticed” nod.

Solemani grew up in London and moved to Los Angeles six years ago. She has a nice mix of British candour and Californian earnest optimism that slips occasionally into light LA woo-woo-ness (we take a brief detour into the importance of “celebrating oneself, like, ‘I did a good show’, ‘I did a good bedtime with the kids …’”). She is a longtime campaigner for the decriminalisation of sex work, and in 2016, when she turned up for the premiere of Bridget Jones’s Baby, she carried a placard demanding creches on film sets. Coogan is no slouch when it comes to campaigning either, having taken on the British tabloids in the phone-hacking scandal. But his reputation as what people used to call a roué precedes him on both sides of the Atlantic, and he was once cited by Courtney Love, of all people, “one of my life’s great shames”, along with crack cocaine. In Chivalry, he and Solemani have the same enjoyable odd-couple dynamic as Coogan’s collaborations with Rob Brydon on The Trip.

That Coogan wrote that particular line about how much harder it is for women in the entertainment business suggests Chivalry was as successful behind the scenes as it is on screen at “engaging in a dialectic”, as Solemani puts it. “Now in the culture, people don’t talk to each other. We announce our standpoint, we shout at opposing views and we affirm each other’s politics. We don’t have the kind of gritty debate that makes you question your viewpoint, and that’s what Steve and I both wanted in the show,” she says. Solemani spent years getting rejected, whereas Coogan, she says, “has been famous and rich for most of his adult life – he even had a statue in Norfolk”. Did working so closely with her make him question some of his experiences?

“I think that’s for him to say,” she says carefully. “But that journey is definitely in the show.”

Chivalry opens with Bobby reluctantly taking over a film project after the previous director – a sexist of the old school – dies, and she tries to remake it as a little more female-friendly. The show has been described as a #MeToo satire, but that’s a description that makes Solemani wince. Because it doesn’t explain what the show is satirising? “Yes, exactly,” she says. “And that was one of our challenges. We were constantly walking this tightrope between wanting to give something to everyone in the audience – from the most woke feminist to some old dinosaur – but without minimising what the movement was, which was a declaration of systemic abuse of women.”

Far be it from me to punch up a comedy writer’s words, but this description does not make Chivalry sound like a barrel of laughs. In fact, it is very funny, and more nuanced than I was expecting. The show satirises the extremes on both sides, from Cameron describing his twentysomething assistant as “the love of his life” but admitting he doesn’t know her birthday, to the actor who gets intense counselling from the set’s intimacy supervisor (Aisling Bea) to cope with a sex scene, while the initially supportive Bobby rolls her eyes impatiently. Eventually, she pushes the intimacy supervisor aside so she can just finish the damn scene. “Don’t feel like you’ve betrayed the movement,” Cameron says consolingly, much to Bobby’s irritation. What makes this scene even more interesting is that Solemani has written in the past that she felt deeply exploited when acting in sex scenes. Chivalry shows the occasional tension between not treating actors like pieces of meat, but also needing them to do their job.

“There’s a lot of hypocrisy running through the show, and we wanted the characters to navigate that,” Solemani says. The show is far more nuanced than most discussions of #MeToo, let alone most sitcoms that look at battles between the sexes.

Coogan and Solemani have been engaging in a dialectic about the #MeToo movement since 2019, when they were on the set of the Michael Winterbottom film Greed, in which Coogan plays a Philip Green-like tyrant and Solemani plays one of his minions. Coogan was aware of her feminism and so, she says, “he would totally wind me up” about the #MeToo movement.

 

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