Setting the Mood

Setting the Mood

By Michael Pickard
November 28, 2023


Channel 4 comedy-drama Big Mood shines a light on mental health from the perspective of two best friends. Writer Camilla Whitehill joins stars Nicola Coughlan and Lydia West to reveal more.

When Camilla Whitehill started thinking about who might play the lead in her first original series, she didn’t have to look far. Counting Bridgerton and Derry Girls star Nicola Coughlan as one of her oldest friends, she wrote the part with Coughlan in mind, “so she couldn’t not do it,” the writer laughs.

“There was no moment when I asked her if she wanted to do it. I kept saying, ‘Well, what’s she going to do? Say no?’ She literally couldn’t. Luckily, she liked it. It could have been trash.”

Coughlan responds: “People were like, ‘When did you know you were going to do it?’ It’s like, well, I had to.”

Camilla Whitehill

The role in question is that of Maggie, the central character in Channel 4 comedy-drama Big Mood. Created and written by Whitehill, the story follows Maggie and best friend Eddie (It’s a Sin’s Lydia West), whose chaotic friendship is put to the test when Maggie’s bipolar disorder returns, leaving Eddie to question whether their relationship is in either of their best interests.

Exploring the complexities of both female friendship and mental illness, the six-part series brings together Whitehill and Coughlan 15 years after they met while training to be actors, initially at the Oxford School of Drama and then at the Birmingham School of Acting. “When we first met, we did a lot of improv and I thought she was so funny and so smart,” Coughlan recalls of her friend. “I dreamed that we would work together to do something. We definitely had grand ideas.”

Sharing a similar sense of humour, they wrote a comedy podcast called Whistle Through the Shamrocks – a story about “Ireland, love, murder and potatoes.” That cemented a creative shorthand that would come in handy on Big Mood, which they say has come at the perfect time in their careers.

“We were not on the same path in our 20s,” Coughlan says. “We were both struggling and working in our desired fields and it was hard. We’re now both at a point in our lives where we both so appreciate actually getting to do this. Had it happened before this point, it wouldn’t have been what it is.”

Whitehill describes the characters that populate Big Mood as “amalgamations” of herself and people she knows. “I really wanted to write about female friendships, because I’ve found my friendships to be the most important, defining relationships in my life,” she says. “They see you through a lot of changes, but they also don’t always last forever. That side of friendship can often be overlooked.”

Lydia West (left) and Nicola Coughlan play best friends Eddie and Maggie in Big Mood

From the beginning, the bond between Maggie and Eddie is clear to see, though it is Eddie who often gets pulled along in the wake of Maggie’s exuberance.

“Maggie is a fun, funny, charismatic woman who can be a bit immature, and can be spontaneous to a fault,” the writer explains. “She doesn’t see herself as a responsible person and therefore doesn’t act like a responsible person. She relies heavily on Eddie, who is purposefully responsible in a way that is not always in her best interests.

“Eddie comes across as quite a strong person in the sense that she can be defensive, she can be aggressive if she wants. She’s quite streetwise and can come across as a bit hard. But I think underneath that is an extremely sensitive person who feels she must take care of somebody. And if she’s not taking care of someone or something, she begins to doubt her self-worth. That’s how they end up so close and co-dependent and how that might also not be the best thing for each of them.”

West was sent the script a couple of years ago and jumped on a call with Whitehill to discuss the project and playing Eddie before it was even commissioned. “I was just like, ‘I hope this gets picked up. It’s amazing.’ And then it did,” she says.

“I’ve never played in anything like this. It’s a difficult subject matter. It’s also very close to home; I’ve always wanted to be a part of something that involves mental illness. You treat it with sensitivity but then it is so funny and fun. I was just so excited to be part of it and to support Nicola.”

The Channel 4 comedy-drama is produced by Dancing Ledge

Playing someone with bipolar, Coughlan watched documentaries on the subject and she says the role gave her a greater insight into what life is like for people with the condition. “Depression is something that everyone understands and unfortunately most people experience,” she says, “but the manic side of Maggie was something I didn’t fully understand. This show isn’t an education manual about bipolar disorder, but it’s going to open it up to people in a way it hasn’t been before. It was definitely very eye-opening to me.”

The role was also unusual for Coughlan in that it required her to use her native Irish accent – but this meant she wasn’t able to find the character’s ‘voice’ to inform her performance, as she has done with other parts.

“When a script is good, you’re just like, ‘Oh, it’s actually fine.’ But doing something like this, it’s fun because it’s heightened in a certain way, but then it gets so real,” she adds.

Whitehill wrote the scripts on her own, describing the show’s darkly comedic tone as the place she feels most comfortable. “For me, it’s all comedy. I’m not a drama writer and I wouldn’t ever write drama,” she says. “I always land on the lens of comedy, even if it’s something really dark. It’s just how I’ve always written and how I see the world. There were lots of struggles in writing, but I don’t think the tone was one of them because I just knew what it was intrinsically.”

The writer also acted as showrunner on Big Mood, giving her the opportunity to ensure her vision was carried across the series, which is produced by Dancing Ledge (The Responder) and distributed by Fremantle. She was on set every day to support director Rebecca Asher and her leading actors, who had challenges of their own.

Sally Phillips also features among the cast

During the shoot, West spent her weekends rehearsing for a one-woman play, which consisted of an hourlong monologue. “I look back at that time in my life and think, ‘Never again,’” she admits. Meanwhile, as well as switching between Maggie’s depressive and manic states, Coughlan also had to spend three weeks switching characters entirely, as the Big Mood filming schedule overlapped with that of the third season of Netflix period drama Bridgerton, in which her character Penelope Featherington takes the lead.

“My head was fried,” she remembers. “I’d never been the lead on any show before, and this was two at once – and they were vastly different. But in a way, it was good because I didn’t have the time to stress and overthink it because it’s a really challenging part. I can really overthink stuff, get really anxious and worried and back myself into a corner, but I simply didn’t have time.”

Few people have seen Big Mood yet – it’s set to debut on Channel 4 in 2024 – but Coughlan says the reaction so far has been “amazing,” adding: “I feel so proud of it. The first time I watch anything I’m in, I’m like, ‘Argh.’ But the first time I watched this, I was like, ‘It’s really good.’”

Whitehill just hopes that while Maggie and Eddie must face up to the show’s difficult subject matter, the show’s humour can shine through. “My main thing is I hope they think it’s funny,” she says.

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