Change for the better
Actor and stand-up comic Bridget Christie tells DQ about writing her first television series, The Change, a Channel 4 comedy-drama pitched as Shirley Valentine meets Deliverance – with pigs.
In the picturesque surrounds of England’s Forest of Dean, change is afoot. Developers are preparing to tear down dozens of historic trees to make way for a new highway, while some locals are fuming that the annual Eel Festival will upset tradition by crowning an Eel Queen, rather than an Eel King.
Change is also coming for Linda, a 50-year-old, working-class, married mother-of two, who thinks she is suffering from early-onset dementia after forgetting what a shoe is called. But when she learns she is actually going through the menopause, Linda decides to throw off the shackles of her home life – and the three-and-a-half million minutes of ‘invisible work’ she has done over the years – by doing something for herself.
Dusting off her Triumph motorbike, she heads to the forest to reconnect with the person she used to be, and to find a time capsule she hid up a tree when she was 10. But when she becomes caught up in the local community – eccentrics, artists, eel fisherwomen, musicians, misfits and the occasional bigot – she discovers a bigger sense of purpose and new-found friendships. But will the truths she has hidden about herself come back to haunt her?
So begins Channel 4’s hilarious and heartfelt comedy-drama The Change, the first TV series written by actor and stand-up comic Bridget Christie. Her journey to creating the show, which debuted this week, began more than seven years ago, and she describes the chance to write a series, particularly one set in the area where she grew up, as a huge honour.
“It’s been long, but it hasn’t been difficult,” she tells DQ. “Something like this where the story is [something] I’m really interested in and can relate to, and it’s filmed near where I grew up, it’s just been a real privilege.”
Christie had been pitching ideas for series for years and years – “probably longer than I’ve been doing stand-up” – with varying degrees of success. Some had scripts commissioned but were then dropped, while others even had a pilot filmed before failing to get a series green light.
The Change initially told the story of a middle-aged person who returns to their hometown after life hasn’t worked out the way they hoped. “But then that evolved over time to include a central character who is going through the menopause, because I was as well,” Christie says. “In that space, I had gotten older and was going through more things, so that character changed and evolved and then she went to the Forest of Dean. It just was a really organic process, the whole thing.”
In the series, Linda is ignored, overlooked and taken for granted by her husband Steve (Omid Djalili), while her overbearing sister Siobhan (Liza Tarbuck) never misses an opportunity to boss and belittle her.
So when she discovers she has the menopause, Linda takes this moment to rediscover her own identity and sense of self – leaving her husband to discover the cupboard full of notebooks detailing the time she has spent on every household chore.
Linda then serves as the anchor in a story that introduces an eclectic and quirky group of supporting characters she meets in the forest community. The Eel Sisters, Carmel (Monica Dolan) and Agnes (Susan Lynch), run the Eel Café and host the annual Eel Festival; Joy (Tanya Moodie) is an artist, feminist, folklore specialist and a DJ at the Forest FM radio station, where outspoken, intolerant The Verderer (Jim Howick) also speaks his mind. Then there’s the Pig Man (Jerome Flynn), a reclusive figure who lives a solitary life in the forest, and Tony (Paul Whitehouse), a regular at the local pub. Tony’s ‘trousers reveal’ at the annual town meeting is so popular it has its own sweepstake.
These characters all came to Christie at different times during the writing process, though the Eel Sisters were very early creations. She even had an idea of the actors she wanted to play them, and could imagine how they might say the lines as she wrote them.
Luckily, all the actors she wanted for the roles then said yes. “I was just so privileged and blessed and lucky,” she says. “We sent them scripts and scenes and then they said yes. I couldn’t really believe it, to be honest. That worked out really well for me. It’s a really talented, high-calibre cast.
“We had a lot of fun filming, and they all totally belong. Everyone just fit in so well.”
Set to a folk soundtrack, the series serves up a blend of comedy, drama and melancholy, while some of the more absurdist moments come courtesy of the Eel Sisters, who insist on serving everyone eels and have been dubbed ‘Feminazis’ by The Verderer for their decision to go against tradition and crown an Eel Queen at the forthcoming festival.
Sadly, fans about to flock to the Forest of Dean will end up disappointed. “It’s all made up. There’s no Eel Café,” Christie says. “What is true is that when I was a child in the 1970s, I do remember a certain point in the year was elver season and all of the men in the street would put the elver nets on top of their cars and drive off to the forest. So I had that memory, but there’s no Eel Café or Eel Festival. It would have been easier to write if there were.”
Until she started work on The Change, Christie had never written a screenplay, and she describes the process as “completely and utterly different” from penning a script for a stand-up show.
“It’s an entirely different beast,” she says. “For an hour or two-hour tour show, I’ll have ideas percolating away, and then I’ll try stuff out at a new-material night and then rewrite stuff. A lot of it is worked out – I have a very specific way I structure an hour show. I even know what it looks like and I’ll pin it all up on the wall.
“With TV, wow. It is incredibly time-consuming and difficult because everything that everyone says has to either be character-driven or move the story along or be funny. But you have to constantly be moving forward and things have to be done very quickly. It’s really learning on the job. But my executive producer Morwenna Gordon was with me every single step of the way. There’s no way this show would exist in the way it does without her. It’s not simple; it’s like working out a puzzle.”
Should she decide to write another series, or even a second season of The Change, one thing Christie learned about screenwriting is to get something down on paper as soon as possible, “no matter how bad it is.” She continues: “And it will be. If it’s me, the first one will be bad. But without something on the paper, you can’t make it better. I would think about things for a long time before I got them down. On the next thing, I would just get them down.”
Then when it came to casting The Change, which is produced by Lisa Mitchell and directed by Al Campbell, there was never any doubt who would play Linda.
“I have been auditioning for, what, 30 years and not getting jobs. There’s no way anyone else was going to be Linda,” says Christie. But she never felt overwhelmed by the task of writing and starring in the series, which she also executive produces.
“There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t feel like the luckiest girl in the world, so nothing felt like a struggle,” she says. “I didn’t feel out of my depth at all. All the work I’ve done so far was coming towards this this moment and I wanted to enjoy it. I didn’t want to look back and think, ‘You should have really enjoyed that. You should have tried to just live in the moment,’ because it may not ever happen again. It’s quite something to get your own thing off the ground.”
Filming took place on location in and around the Forest of Dean, where production designer Julian Luxton built the Eel Café from scratch. He also dressed Linda’s house and Pig Man’s cave, while a venue in Chepstow was transformed into the show’s popular community café, home of Forest FM and occasional cat speed-dating nights.
“There were a lot of external locations, so we had to go and do recces for those and pick the right lakes and things like that,” Christie says. “The Forest of Dean is my childhood idyll, so it was really great being out there and filming there because it’s just a beautiful part of the world. That felt really special to be able to showcase it as well and to allow people to see the beauty in it that I’ve always seen and to get that on to the screen.”
Produced by Expectation, The Change taps into a number of themes that reflect the show’s title, not least the personal changes Linda is facing and the wider community at large, from the environment and redevelopment to the Eel Festival. It’s also about the value of time, as Steve spends countless moments reading through Linda’s ‘chore ledgers.’
“So The Change was just a really neat, catch-all title,” Christie says. “We change as humans. Everything’s changing all the time. There are big themes in the show – you want people to be laughing but thinking about stuff as well.”
But what can viewers expect from a series described as ‘Shirley Valentine meets Deliverance, with pigs’? Christie laughs. “Exactly that.”