Sally4Ever and the loathsomely toxic comedy brilliance of Julia Davis

BAFTA-winning comedy Sally4Ever streams on NEON from May 31. As Paul Casserly writes, its the latest manifestation of painful comic genius from actor/writer/director Julia Davis.

Steptoe and Son, Spinal Tap, The Young Ones, Dad’s Army… let’s throw in some Ronnie Barker, Morecambe and Wise (nearly forgot French and Saunders), and now, Julia Davis. You might not recognise any of those names if you’re really young or the last name if you’re not, but standing here in 2019 and looking back, it’s obvious that Julia clearly deserves a spot on this cobbled-together list of British comedy legends.

For one thing, Julia is prolific. All the other things are that she is funny as a fight involving two people you hate, or as funny as a dog slipping over on the new lino, or funny, as she often is, as a funeral.

All comedy is character. I’m not sure if anyone said that but it has a ring of truth, and Julia has created some of the best worst people of all time. Her latest outing, Sally4Ever reveals her best/worst yet. A woman so loathsomely toxic yet real enough to make you actually shiver. She puts the I into vile.

Ironically Davis is also known by other actors as the worst ‘corpser’ in the business. Which means she often loses it during the shooting of a scene and laughs, meaning they have to do it all over again. There’s some brilliant examples of this in this YouTube clip, a DVD extra in which Julia and Rob Brydon work through the character improvs that formed the basis of their excellent co-pro Human Remains.

I first laid eyes on Julia in Jam and Brass Eye. These are names you should know as they are attached to two of the most gobsmackingly unique comedies of all time. Brass Eye was Chris Morris’s razor-sharp satire of current affairs while Jam was his groundbreaking comedy series that defies categorisation, other than it was in equal parts disturbing and brilliant.

Julia appears in the first episode of Jam which you can find on YouTube. Her depiction of a “thick” woman using her mind-numbing stupidity to get off a parking fine is an early taste of the power she has to confound and delight. What we see in this clip below is an actor who has something rather singular. A gift for mining awfulness that’s she put to good use.

From then till Sally4Ever, the latest Davis creation, there have been other notable successes. Nighty Night from 2004 was the breakthrough. The New York Times quite accurately called it “a comic tribute to everyday sadism”.

In it, Julia plays husband stealer Jill Tyrrell, a corrosively awful woman who makes a black hole seem warmly inviting. There was a touch of Larry David and Gervais about it but somehow Julia seems to find another gear, a ludicrous mode that reveals a previously untapped demon level. Somewhere new where an even more grotesquely hideous soul resides.

It was not so much a breath of fresh air as a nasty chill, but, my god, it was soooo funny. Bracing. Tremendous. It was a secret delicacy for those who watched it. Conversations about it at parties cemented lifelong friendships. Jill’s put-downs of friends were comedy evil incarnate: “God, you look old, Sue. If you weren’t talkin’ I might try and bury you.”

Her advice to an asthmatic friend was no-nonsense: “just take a deep breath and get over it.”  There was no depth to which she would not lower herself.

It was here that some of the now-familiar tropes took hold. The gleeful treatment of sexual perversions and general all-round horniness, the patheticness of men, and the high wire act that tweaks our sensibilities as she dabbles with taking the piss out of disability, and by dabble, I mean she dives right in, holus-bolus.

It was all so rough that one wondered if perhaps Julia would play someone a bit nicer in her next series Hunderby, after all, it was a costume drama set in 19 century Britain? As if.

In this one, Julia played Dorothy, a housekeeper with dark secrets and darker powers over all in her domain.

This time she picked up a Bafta for her script writing which contains her increasingly scandalous turn of phrase. Here’s the master of the manor comparing the anatomy of his ex with his new wife to be: “Arabelle was smooth as ham, nature did not busy her broken mound with such a black and forceful brush”.

It was a marvelous antidote to the G-rated romps of Poldark or Mr. Darcy, it was, beautifully ornate yet filled with dirty thrills, it was Daphne du Maurier on Ketamine. To have watched it was to always remember the beverage known as “bubbly milk”.

With her next outing, Camping, also on NEON, Davis stepped it up a gear, directing as well as writing. The Guardian called it a “gloriously bleak comedy masterpiece” and HBO got so excited they let Lena Dunham have a crack at a remake. But the latter lacked the special ingredient, it lacked Davis. No one thought it glorious, and its Rotten Tomatoes rating is decidedly green.

So it’s somewhat on a roll that we arrive at Sally4Ever, the latest and dare I say, greatest from Davis. If you thought she couldn’t possibly conjure up someone worse, more vile… I’m struggling for the words for her latest creation… hell-bitch-she-devil-nightmare? Nah, that seems too mild. But we’ll get to her in a moment.

The Sally in the series is played by Catherine Shepherd, who brilliantly nails the meek-mannered woman on the verge of a breakdown. She’s such a wet fish you want to reach through the screen and give her a jolly good shake.

Sally is in a nightmarishly dull and sexless relationship with David, played to perfection by Alex Macqueen (Hunderby) an appalling goober with the sexuality of an old sock. As they lurch towards a loveless and clearly doomed wedding day, propelled by their mutual utter lameness, in comes Emma, (Julia Davis) a self-saucing singer, actress, and weapons-grade narcissist.

Emma has the confidence and empathy levels perhaps found only in the wild or the White House. She blows into Sally’s life like a particularly virulent dose of HIV.

Though Davis could easily steal the show she somehow resists. Catherine Shepherd’s Sally is given full reign and is somewhat of a revelation, a creation of comic genius and a masterclass in acting. It’s an incredibly human performance, and Sally feels real in the way that Davis’s OTT creations often don’t. It provides a solid core to the whole shebang, allowing the madness that orbits around her to take increasingly obtuse and hilarious trajectories. The laughs are dirty but the feels are real.

The question some will grapple with, and by some I mean most, is how much cringe can you take? Everyone has a level, perhaps benchmarked by your demographic. It might be Fawlty Towers that you found just too stressful, or South Park, or Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm or even The Office.

For many the tension of this brand of dark, punishing, and often unrelenting humour is just too much.

For others, and I suspect if you are reading this, that includes you, it’s that tension that provides the tang. Perhaps more than other shows this is one to watch with someone else.

Like the joy of crapping yourself in a cinema full of people during a horror or jumping to your feet and spilling your pinot gris at a screaming Game of Thrones party, watching a cringey comedy like this is best done as a group activity. But when dealing with tartness of this intensity, don’t be surprised if you end up polishing off the bulk of Sally4Ever on your own.

It’s not for everyone, and that’s a compliment.