Unconventional comedy Nude Tuesday – spoken in gibberish and later subtitled to comic effect – was already an intriguing proposition. But when Steve Newall got word that the brilliantly bleak Julia Davis was on subtitle duty, he couldn’t wait to talk to her about it.
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR LENGTH AND CLARITY
We’ve all done it—okay, at least I have. No, not public nudity or a sex-positive couples retreat (yet), but the voyeuristic pastime of having a good ol’ gawk at what other people are watching on international flights. Mostly, the findings are mundane, but one that’s stuck with me for some time was the sight of two small children left in the company of some harmless-sounding inflight entertainment. It may have had an innocuous-enough title to lull parents into a false sense of security, but rather than bedtime stories for kids, across the aisle two impressionable children were soaking up Nighty Night, a brutally black comedy that might actually be unsuitable for some adults (yes, I love it).
Centred on an unhinged self-involved beautician, Nighty Night follows Jill Tyrrell as she tries to speed up the death of her husband (freshly diagnosed with cancer), gets fixated on the married man next door, strings along a gormless accomplice to take a murder rap for her, and generally wreaks bleak havoc. From grotty takes on sex to a near-uniform depiction of men as feeble and pathetic, the show’s not exactly the best babysitter for kids.
While they did seem engrossed in this show (described by the New York Times as “a comic tribute to everyday sadism”) hopefully they didn’t end up repeating too many great lines like Jill’s on-screen description of her vagina: “Mine’s tight. Like a cat’s anus.”
Tyrrell is just one of several incredible comic anti-heroes written and performed by Julia Davis, whose other creations include the superb Hunderby, Camping and Sally4Ever (Flicks’ Paul Casserly wrote about Davis’s “loathsomely toxic comedy brilliance” when the latter aired). Fans like myself were instantly thrilled to hear Davis had signed on to write subtitles for Nude Tuesday, a comedy shot in gibberish and its dialogue composed later.
With a dented marriage at its core and plenty of scope to push the envelope when it comes to both bawdy and deadpan humour, Davis felt a great fit. The results live up to the full potential of this pairing, with gags that are effective and believable in context even as they appear unsupported by the shooting script (a running joke about thrush, for instance, or multiple references to an affair).
Sign up for Flicks updates
Excited as I was to hear from Davis about Nude Tuesday, first I have to bring up those kids and their exposure to Nighty Night. “Oh dear. Were they crying?” she queries with a laugh. It was hard for me to tell, but what I could share was that these kids would be in late adolescence now, and possibly a bit damaged by the experience. As I say to Davis, I sometimes just wonder what it might have contributed to their lives.
“That’s incredible,” Davis replies with another laugh. “Oh well, I’m sorry to those teens wherever they are now. I hope they’re okay. They can contact me if there’s any trouble and I’ll do my best. I’ve got teenage boys now, so yeah.”
With that public service out of the way, attention turns to (the probably also kid-unfriendly) Nude Tuesday. ‘Subtitled By’ is not necessarily a credit Davis expected to ever end up with, I suggest. “No, totally” Davis confirms. “I’ve never done subtitles before. I was already a big Jackie van Beek fan, and when they contacted me and asked ‘Would you like to have a go at doing this for this film?’ I just said yes, even though I didn’t know what the film was about or whatever. I just thought yeah, this sounds both brilliantly fascinating and I love you, so yeah, I’ll do it.”
Conceptually, this job feels somewhere between an improv exercise and the work of subtitlers cranking out captions for film festival titles, I suggest. But it seems like such a unique proposition for Davis to jump into this world and completely apply her own logic to it.
“I would say it was actually a lot more difficult than I’d imagined,” Davis confides. “Because when they first mentioned it they said, ‘Oh you know, different people will be doing subtitles’. And also, ‘It’ll probably take you a couple of weeks or something’. And it actually took me quite a few months to do it.”
“I think one of the difficulties was the matching to time codes and just getting it really precise to the pictures, in terms of how much some people were saying, as compared to a joke that I was trying to tell or ideas I had. So that was really challenging to start with. And after a couple of weeks, I was like, ‘I just don’t know if I can do this. it’s so difficult’. About three weeks in, I thought ‘It’s too much. I can’t match these time codes. I can’t do this. It’s like doing a massive test and I can’t do it.’ And I’d have to keep going back to scenes over and over again. They said to me ‘Just forget for a bit that it’s going to be this number of words or just go for it creatively, and then we’ll try and trim it back down and see where you are.'”
Putting everything in reverse to how someone would normally write seems like a fascinating process, one that might not be too dissimilar to creating jokes in an edit. Davis seemed to agree that the project tapped into more than just her writing experience: “Yeah, that’s interesting. I suppose because with my stuff, the past two series I’ve done, I’ve directed and edited them. So that editing thing probably is useful to have that kind of knowledge. But then, what I did as well, in the end, was to take the approach of actually just taking random scenes and write for them—just because I think I’m inspired to do that today, where I’ve had some ideas in the middle of the night for this scene or whatever.”
“I’d sort of gone into it quite naively: ‘Oh, I’m just going to write some funny lines’. And it’s not even as long as a TV series, so it’s not that much… But like you say, you do need to kind of keep going forwards and backwards all the time in terms of, well, how is that going to affect that bit down there? ‘That joke, well, it has to come in here’ or ‘there is too much of that joke’ or whatever. It’s quite mathematical in a weird way.”
“But yeah, I suppose it’s all those elements of trying to keep the story coherent. And particularly, because at the beginning, they’d said to me, ‘You can literally go as weird as you want. You can pretend this is on another planet…’ There was so much freedom, in a way, at the beginning that it was almost too much. I think seeing the film as I did originally, with just the gibberish language, you can totally make sense of a story visually anyway. So that’s why I’m fascinated because I don’t know what the original story was written as.”
Difficult as it may have been, the subtitling process offered interesting creative opportunities. One Davis singles out is a scene where Laura’s husband Bruno (Damon Herriman) is watching something on his laptop, sight unseen to the viewer. “I think there’s sounds of gunshots or something. And I had so many different ideas—he’s talking about a stag weekend that went wrong or he’s talking about a Hitler movie… I really enjoyed that you could just literally do anything with it. That was really, really fun. And I really liked writing for Jemaine’s character, as well, trying to follow something about the way he performs. That was really fun.”
“I mean, it’s a weird thing as well because I’m such a fan of his. And then, there’s always that kind of fear of, “Oh my God, he might absolutely hate this version. So there is that side of it as well that’s kind of weird.”
As our interview draws to a close, conversation returns to the now-teens presumably scarred by Nighty Night. Perhaps they’ll be in a minority of two who find nothing unconventional or unique about Nude Tuesday. But at least I’ve shared this unlikely origin story with the architect of whatever permanent damage has been done. “I’ll take that for the rest of the evening and mull that over and perhaps say a prayer for them,” Davis offers. And what more could you want.