Jessica Hynes on making her directorial debut with ‘The Fight’
PUBLISHED: 09:51 05 November 2019
As her directorial debut The Fight comes out on DVD, BAFTA-winning actor and writer Jessica Hynes explains why she owes her career to growing up in Brighton
From her early roles in The Royle Family and Spaced, to monstrous PR Siobhan Sharpe in Twenty Twelve and W1A, Jessica Hynes has established herself as a comic actress.
But in recent years her focus has turned more to drama - most notably her BAFTA-winning role as a mother facing life with a learning disabled child in There She Goes, and a key character in Russell T Davies' stunning dystopian series Years and Years, which should sweep the board at the next round of television awards.
Similarly her directorial debut - the self-penned The Fight - is a naturalistic tale focusing on the stresses faced in modern family life. The film may be set in Jessica's adopted hometown of Folkestone, but her Brighton childhood played an important role in getting her career underway. "I had a great drama teacher, Jenny Leworthy, who ran a class in Hove Town Hall which I went to every Saturday," she recalls. "It changed my life. We used to do Victoria Wood monologues and put on shows at the Brighthelm Centre - it built up my confidence.
"There was also a primary school teacher at St Luke's, Pat Holford, who would put on these incredible productions with music from Liz Taylor. They were unique and special people - they helped me and gave me my life. I can't imagine doing what I do now without them."
Jessica joined the National Youth Theatre around the time her family moved out of Brighton in 1989, which eventually led to a film role, in Peter Greenaway's 1993 film The Baby of Macon. Following a series of comedy shows on stage and television in 1998 she was cast as Caroline Aherne's diet-obsessed best friend Cheryl in The Royle Family. Around the same time she joined forces with fellow actor Simon Pegg to pen Spaced, a surreal cult comedy series about 20-somethings living in modern day London, which was packed with memorable characters and loving pop culture homages. The series earned her two British Comedy Awards, as best newcomer in 1999 and best comedy TV actress in 2001. Since then career highlights have included a scene-stealing role as the PR from hell Siobhan in Twenty Twelve and its follow-up BBC-set W1A (which resulted in her first BAFTA for best female comedy performance in 2015), as well as appearances in Dr Who, the Bridget Jones movies and Paddington 2. In 2013 she penned and starred in BBC suffragette comedy Up The Women.
Directing was something she had always wanted to do, but felt that perhaps the ship had sailed. "When I had the opportunity I jumped at it," she says.
The Fight follows Tina, a stressed mum of three and social care nurse living and working in Folkestone. When she finds out her daughter is being bullied at school, and her difficult relationship with her mother comes to a head, she tries an unusual method of breaking out of the cycle of dysfunction.
Jessica plays Tina, who spends what little spare time she has pounding the streets of her home town listening to motivational tapes (voiced by Russell Brand in an off-screen cameo) in between boxfit classes.
It was attending a boxfit class - as Tina does in the opening scenes of the film - which inspired Jessica to tell the story. "The room was so beautiful," she recalls. "I thought someone should film here - it deserved to be on screen." From there she got the idea of the woman from the boxfit class who decides to step into the boxing ring. "I thought I could make a middle-aged mum Rocky!" she laughs.
Although there is an intentional Rocky pastiche in the middle of the film, The Fight is something else - a much rawer examination of female rage and the pressures of modern life in a small town, with a really naturalistic feel. At the heart of the story is Tina, who has experienced bullying both at school and from her emotionally blackmailing and occasionally violent mother, played magnificently by Anita Dobson.
"I wanted to create a family which was at that point where the kids are out of nappies, but the parents are realising there is still a long way to go," says Jessica. "I wanted to explore the pressures that families feel, but I wanted it to be relatable - to write something uplifting. You see her go through to the other side.
"Really her problems are about the issue of carrying and not acknowledging that she's struggling - it's difficult to explore those quite nebulous feelings and dysfunction. We are all going through some kind of version of it in one form or another. You try to pull through for yourself and your family - the stakes are so high. It's not about an ultimate battle against a foe in the ring, it's more about the struggle she goes through herself."
It's certainly a film which can wrongfoot the viewer - Tina's victories are more psychological than physical, while the tougher moments can feel uncomfortably real. Particular highlights are Tina's relationship with her warm and creative husband, who she only sees when her shift ends and his starts. Mick is played by Shaun Parkes, soon to be seen in Small Axe, a new mini-series by Steve McQueen. Elsewhere in the film Alice Lowe provides a brief moment of comic relief as a home-school mum with her head in the clouds, while Jessica has teased great performances from Liv Hill as bully Jordan and Sennia Nanua as her former friend turned victim Emma.
The Folkestone setting was partly out of necessity, but was useful for a first-time director. "If you're making something in your hometown you don't have to travel," says Jessica, who spent just 12 days filming. "It meant I could pace the streets to find locations and work out the shot angles. Few directors have as much time on location before they start."
The whole film was conceived as a low budget project two years before shooting began. It follows Jessica's ongoing fascination with what she calls the minutiae of human experience. "I'm interested in how people function, why they break, why they don't break, how they deal with challenges," says Jessica. "People are fascinating and incredible in so many ways."
She looks for that minutiae in the characters she plays. In Years and Years, the dystopian drama set in the near future by former Dr Who showrunner Russell T Davies, she was environmental and political activist Edith Lyons whose life is changed forever when she is caught in the middle of a nuclear explosion. "I had worked with Russell T Davies a long time ago on Bob and Rose," says Jessica, referring to the six-part series comedy drama from 2001 starring Alan Davies as a gay man falling in love with Lesley Sharp. "I was lucky enough to be on Dr Who with David Tennant when Russell was the head writer reinventing the show. I was so thrilled when he came to me and invited me to be on Years and Years."
There She Goes reunited her with David Tennant as her onscreen husband. "Getting to work with David again was brilliant," she says of her BAFTA-winning performance, adding that she is set to start filming the second series the following week. "I'm so very lucky and grateful to get two great jobs in the past year or so. Building characters, thinking about how we are, what we are and what makes us like that is an endless fascination to me in my acting and writing."
Jessica has been back to Brighton in recent years. The city has changed a lot though since the 1970s and 1980s. "There are too many people!" she laughs. "I remember Brighton when there wasn't anybody there - lots of empty beaches and funny old playgrounds and a few hippies."
Among her favourite haunts as a child were Queens Park - "it was a magical kingdom" - and Peter Pan's Playground in Madeira Drive at the end of the Volks railway.
She credits Brighton for her lifelong love of jazz. "In the 1980s Brighton seemed to be the place where jazz musicians would come to try out their sets and connect with other musicians," she says. Her mother was a big jazz fan - even writing a magazine, Jazzline, about upcoming gigs. The family took in lodgers, and often these were jazz musicians. "It was a great treat to go to the Concorde and see these incredible musicians in a little town like Brighton before they went up to London to play the 100 Club and Ronnie Scott's," remembers Jessica, adding her family often got name-checked from the stage by their grateful guests. Her next door neighbour was singer Joe Lee Wilson, who had made his name on the Chicago jazz scene, while among their lodgers was the legendary Slim Gaillard who wrote the standard Flat Foot Floogie. "He was a fantastic entertainer, funny and witty and highly skilled in his music," says Jessica. "He lived with us for about a year - he was trying to track down somebody who was ripping off his songs and putting them on vinyl. He was an epic legend."
She says much of those childhood and young adult experiences fed into the writing of Spaced, particularly the weird and wonderful artists Daisy Steiner, Jessica's struggling journalist character, came across. "I feel like I owe Brighton so much," she says. "I love every inch of it. Every street corner has a memory."
The Fight is available on DVD and digital now through Pinpoint and Sparky Pictures.
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