DQ heads to Manchester to meet the cast and creative team behind ‘anti-romcom’ Significant Other, an adaptation of an Israeli series that brings together two unlikely soulmates. But as ever, the path to true love doesn’t run smoothly…
As far as cinematic meet-cutes go, Significant Other might be the most unromantic example of all time, with a fair chance that one or both of the ITV comedy’s central characters might be dead before the opening credits roll.
Lonely and depressed, Sam (Youssef Kerkour) has just taken a handful of pills before getting into bed, where he waits to die. But he is interrupted when neighbour Anna (Katherine Parkinson) knocks on his door to politely explain that she’s having a heart attack and ask if she could come inside while she waits for paramedics to arrive.
Cut to the inside of an ambulance as both Anna, sitting with an oxygen mask strapped to her face, and Sam, lying prone on a stretcher, are being whisked to the emergency room.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that both characters survive their ordeals, and what follows is a surprising, heartfelt and very funny story, based on the Israeli series of the same name, of two deeply flawed characters who embark on a hesitant, obstacle-filled relationship together.
When DQ visits Manchester to meet the show’s cast and crew in October 2022, filming is taking place inside the hotel apartment complex Native Manchester – housed in an iconic red-brick building a stone’s throw from the city’s Piccadilly station – where both Sam and Anna’s fictional apartments have been recreated.
“I really liked the scripts when I got sent them, and it just feels like we’ve delivered the scripts,” Parkinson tells DQ during a break in filming. “They haven’t been misinterpreted or distorted, because it was such strong writing that it was quite clear what the tone was and what the story was. And I’ve really liked working with David [Sant], the director, and Youssef.”
Parkinson describes the series as “quite unusual,” a comedy that is “bleakly funny yet quite truthful.” “It’s just arrestingly different from anything that I had read, perhaps because it’s not British and I find it surprising and funny,” she says.
Significant Other’s sadness can be found in that first meeting between Sam and Anna. But after that, the show presents them as two lonely people who are having a rough time and can’t see that the person who might make them happy just happens to be standing right in front of them.
“It’s never quite the Richard Curtis romcom you want,” Parkinson says. “I don’t even think they know they’re lonely, but it is an urban tale of loneliness in a communal living situation. And it’s about hope, really, because out of their slightly broken lives comes this new relationship that is mutually beneficial when they let it happen.”
It seems romance can come from the most surprising places, not least when you’re in hospital holding a stool sample with a cannula in your hand, a cigarette in your mouth and wearing a gown.
“Essentially, it’s a will-they-won’t-they. But it’s really bleakly comic. It’s sort of anti-romantic,” Parkinson adds. “There’s a bit when, after we’ve had sex, he accidentally punches me and elbows me in the face when he’s weeping about his life. That’s the sort of thing that happens, and it just feels surprisingly truthful.”
Kerkour agrees there is a dark side to the humour in Significant Other, but says it comes from the absurd situations in which the characters find themselves.
“It’s a very, very unconventional love story,” he says. “That’s how people have put it. It’s the underside of the romantic image, but it still goes somewhere people can relate to.”
Sam, he explains, is trying to reclaim his lost youth by breaking up with his wife Shelley. But Kerkour believes that, rather than being in the grip of a midlife crisis, his character has simply never grown up, having everything he could want and then walking away from it all.
“He goes back to some sort of 14-year-old adolescence where he’s literally just walking emotion and can’t do anything,” Kerkour says. “So he’s reactive, he’s emotional and all his flaws and weaknesses are laid bare. But when he wants it all back, it’s too late.”
Notably, Kerkour (Home, Stay Close) is pleased that Significant Other ignores his Arab background, rather than highlighting it as has been his experience with some shows in the past. “I’ve been enormously chuffed to play someone whose heritage is what it is but it’s not ever spoken about,” he admits. “For me, that’s what I’ve always identified as progress, when we see it on our screens and we don’t highlight it and talk about it. He behaves more like an Englishman than he does an Arab, and I love that. I’ve loved being in that world.”
The actor first met Parkinson over lunch, and he describes his on-screen partner as “the most perfectly well-rounded performer I’ve ever worked with,” noting her ability to shift from the comedic to the dramatic in a single beat. They also bonded over a shared love of coffee.
“She’s known as a comedic actress, but she’s actually a lot more versatile than that and has phenomenal emotional recall,” he says of his co-star, whose comedy credits include a lead role in hit sitcom The IT Crowd. “When you act opposite somebody like that, they make you a better actor – and she has without a doubt made me better just in the time we managed to spend together.”
The cast also includes actor and singer Kéllé Bryan (Me & Mrs Jones) as Shelley and Ben Bailey Smith (Andor) as Anna’s ex, Damien, plus Mark Heap (Spaced), Sue Vincent (Alma’s Not Normal), Shaun Williamson (Extras), Olivia Poulet (Doc Martin) and Will Ash (Death in Paradise).
Shelley, says Bryan, is a hard-working estate agent who put her career on hold to start a family with Sam. Then when their children were old enough for her to return to work, she found Sam had become disillusioned with their relationship and announced he wanted to see other people.
“That to her is shocking and stuns her,” she says, “because it’s like, ‘Hang on, I’ve done all of this, we’ve sacrificed all of that. I’ve now got my career back. We’re in a really good place, the children are older now and they’ll be going off and we can go back to going on holiday and doing the things we really want to do’ – and he’s like, ‘I’m off.’
“She knows who she married. He’s a bit of an oaf, and incredibly untidy, but as married couples do, you deal with that because you love the person and you want to keep the family together. But this is not what she was expecting at this point in her life. So she’s dealing with the shock in a very forthright manner. He’s made this mess, but she’s still cleaning it up.”
Bryan believes many viewers will see aspects of their own lives in the situations Sam and Anna end up in, just as she has in Shelley. “And that’s what’s funny. You’re enjoying a really good story that you can empathise with, and then you find it’s just really funny. I give the credit to the writers and Youssef, in terms of his performance, which is just outstanding. I haven’t actually met a talent like Youssef in a very long time. He has this old-school head of Fawlty Towers and the physicality of a Jim Carrey, but in a very modern, contemporary sense. It shouldn’t be funny, but it just is.”
Meanwhile, Bailey Smith appears in episode four as Damien, who pops up at Anna’s grandmother’s funeral as an old flame hoping to reignite their relationship.
“He’s married, so he’s operating on a pretty sly level. But she knows that and they’ve had dramas before. But he really does feel strongly for her, even though it could never work,” the actor explains. “He’s not the most trustworthy person on the planet but, at same time, the way he feels about her is genuine and he finds her, unbeknown to him, at a vulnerable juncture. They’re only going to end up in one place, basically, and you’ll see all of that over the course of the episode.”
Bailey Smith, a musician and rapper also known as Doc Brown, agrees that describing Significant Other as a romcom sells the show short. “It is just trying to get to the nub of these two central characters, Anna and Sam, in the most useful way it can,” he says. “And the nature of real life is that there’s humour in absolutely everything, even a funeral. That’s what it’s staying true to, rather than being overtly a comedy, a romantic comedy or a drama.
Audiences are OK with that now. I don’t think people are bothered too much about pigeon-holing; they’re more interested in story and character.”
Produced by Quay Street Productions, Significant Other is written by Dana Fainaru and Hamish Wright, who first met when they worked on British medical drama Casualty. Wright started as a script editor in 2008, and the first script he edited was one written by Fainaru.
They had tried to develop projects together over a number of years, without success, until they secured a deal with executive producer Nicola Shindler (Nolly, It’s A Sin) when she was still at Red Production Company. That meeting, however, came the day before the UK went into lockdown amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fast-forward two years and Fainaru had watched Significant Other in its original Hebrew. She loved it, but thought it could never work in the UK. Then when Wright got hold of a subtitled episode and he too fell for it, they went back to Shindler – who was by now at the helm of her own company in Quay Street – with a pitch to remake it.
“I did that and I swear Nicola got back the next day and said, ‘Love it. Let me talk to the production company and get the rights.’ And it’s moved so fast,” Wright says. “Quay Street has a first-look deal with ITV, so it just landed with [head of scripted comedy] Nana Hughes at ITV. She really responded to the pitch document, they commissioned a script, we did the script, then we got the cast attached and got the green light.”
Rather than a meet-cute, Wright describes that opening meeting between Sam and Anna as a “meet-horrible.” “Dana and I are mainly drama writers. This is the closest we’ve come to comedy. The Israeli original was absolutely brilliant, but very austere, almost dry and deadpan. We’ve warmed it up a bit, which feels appropriate to not only the UK audience, but the time we’re in as well.”
One way they have localised the series is with Bryan’s character Shelley, who Wright says is “very hard-edged” in the original but is now a more sympathetic figure.
“It’s interesting that the American version of The Office, when they’re most faithful [to the original UK series] in those early seasons, they’re not all that effective,” he continues. “Their first episode was very much beat-for-beat, and our episode one is quite faithful too. But as we go on, it’s diverge, diverge, diverge.
“Hopefully it is truthful. I hope that it’s funny and it’s sad and has got heart and emotion. That’s what we set out to do,” he adds. “That’s what we absolutely put on the page. And with Katherine and Youssef, it’s a real showcase for two people at the top of their game.”
Significant Other reunites Parkinson and Kerkour with director Sant, with whom they worked on Hitmen and Home, respectively. And on set, Parkinson says filming was quite intense due to the fact that a number of scenes are very long.
“There hasn’t been a lot of sitting around chatting, but we’ve done quite a lot of it in these flats so it’s been quite focused and a lot of laughs,” she says. “But I’m looking forward to finishing and not having to learn another line for about six months.”
Producer Debbie Pisani says the ambition behind the shoot was to create a thoughtful comedy, complete with long pauses and scenic shots that dispel with the usual rhythm of a television sitcom. “It is very funny in parts but not in the traditional sense,” she says. “As soon as I read the first script, I was hooked. I was like, ‘This is really good.’ Just the opening scene grabbed me.
“It’s a story about an unlikely couple of neighbours who get together – or don’t, but who form a friendship in their mid-40s. So it’s not your usual young 20-somethings, it’s people who’ve been around, are a bit more life-savvy and have baggage and have been hurt. So they are more cautious. Anna is someone who needs to open up and Sam is someone who needs to grow up.”
Pisani likens Significant Other to a show she previously produced, Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life, which was “similar in that it was funny but it also had a lot of emotion, and we didn’t shy away from the sadness or the pain,” she explains. “This show is also about loneliness, and both Anna and Sam see something in each other but don’t immediately connect. I love the fact that it was about the middle passage, about people who have been out there, done it, had kids and they’re on their second go.”
One scene called for Kerkour to stand on a ledge in the rain before having to fall backwards onto crash mats several metres below. “It was absolutely freezing, so I want people to know that I suffered,” he jokes. “But that was a fun day. Likewise, eating a vegan egg-and-bacon sandwich. I ate 12 sandwiches. On Home, I ate 27 sandwiches for one scene, so I’m very adept at eating sandwiches. I got to do a lot – there’s a pack of jelly babies in one scene. They all went. So it’s been quite a rich eating experience for me on this show, which I’m happy to repeat any time. Anytime, anywhere, I’m available.”
With the show launching on ITVX today, Kerkour says viewers should expect the word ‘real’ to come up a lot.
“Real life is like this. The person that’s for you might be standing right in front of you and you wouldn’t even notice it because your problems and issues dominate,” he notes. “But nothing ever tips over into sentimentality or anything like that. It’s never violin strings and drama and all the rest of it. It’s a very unflinching look at relationships. People will be laughing at the comedy and crying at the truth.”