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Less Nippy, More Sweetie

Less nippy, more sweetie
Published: 20th November 2005
Author: Edinburgh News

IT’S A very actressy thing to do, of course – just not a very Glasgow-in-November thing. But when Michelle Gomez plonks herself at a table in the Millennium Hotel, orders a Diet Coke and sparks a Marlboro Light, the dark glasses stay firmly on.

She had already insisted she wasn’t going to do photographs, and now she’s not doing eyes. Or much in the way of chat about the new series of Channel 4’s brilliant, bonkers Green Wing. And in George Square, after just five minutes, I’ve already made up my mind: nippy sweetie.

In her home city today, 33-year-old Gomez is wearing a peach-coloured blouse, slashed to the navel with no bra, and it’s already disconcerting enough not being able to see your subject’s peepers. But I press on regardless.

If you missed the first series of Green Wing then maybe you spent nine consecutive Fridays down the pub, trying to get off with the girl from human resources, and more fool you.

The show is set in a hospital, but not one you’d ever want to visit, even during visiting hours when it’s life-and-death. The ensemble cast is a who’s who of culty comedy, including the splendidly named Julian Rhind-Tutt from Hippies, the dark-haired girl out of Black Books, the cat-like one in Coupling and Mark Heap, once of Big Train, who howls at the moon: “Slitty, slutty sluts!”

Gomez is the girl from human resources. More specifically, the hospital’s staff liaison officer, Sue White. In an off-duty and – very specifically – physical sense, no-one wants to liaise with her. This is part of her problem, and explains why she’s such a monster. I would not imagine Gomez suffers such traumas. She is, after, all married to Jack Davenport, the actor-hunk. But I would not imagine she likes talking about her private life. At all.

Green Wing is quite unlike other British comedies around just now. For one thing, each episode lasts an hour. For another, it’s funny. If your tastes lean towards the traditional (half-hourly, unfunny), then try Carrie And Barry on BBC1. Gomez can currently be seen in this one too, but I’m in no hurry to tell her how much I don’t like it.

A prickly presence from the start, she says she’s just finished filming the second series of Green Wing but, no, she cannot tell me what happens in it, definitely not. Instead she goes over old ground, the genius of its creator Victoria Pile, the brilliant teamwork, and how they all laugh so much on set it never feels like work.

The big question is whether Gomez has anything in common with the scary, rude, possibly deranged, staggeringly unsympathetic Sue White. “All the actors were encouraged to devise their own characters, that’s what is so brilliant about the show,” she says looking straight at me. Or right over my head, I forget which.

“We spend months devising the scripts with the writers who monopolise our faults, and being careful what you reveal about yourself, especially at lunchtimes when everyone’s relaxed, has become the greatest skill of the job. That’s when we rip each other to shreds, basically.”

Our chat, never cosy, turns a bit more frosty when I suggest that to the undiscerning eye Green Wing might seem a bit indulgent. “Well, if that’s how you wish to categorise the fact we’ve been afforded a forum in which to create something that has been received very well, on you go.”

Hang on, I know Green Wing has won awards, and I love it, too. Would she rather hear what I think about Carrie And Barry, a safe, simpering sitcom that could have been made any time in the past 40 years? “Comedy is so much harder than making drama,” she continues, “and the pressure [following the success of the first series of Green Wing] was very much on us.

“But after a couple of months we decided: ‘Hang on, we’re not going to try and be funny just to please people.’ It doesn’t matter what happens to the second series, it doesn’t matter. For me, the process is the most exciting part of this job. Take that away and you just become someone’s puppet.”

It is no surprise at all when Gomez, who first revealed her flair for comedy in The Book Group, reveals that she hates interviews. She doesn’t think she has anything to say. She certainly doesn’t want to talk about herself beyond the work that she thinks speaks for itself. But then she surprises me, and possibly herself, by doing exactly that.

It’s as if the dark glasses have just been whipped off – they stay on, of course – when she describes her young life and the little girl who wanted to act from her “first waking thought” and who daydreamed of being the next Marti Caine, possibly after some slapstick had gone wrong – the 1970s and ’80s star’s falling-down gags being the thing she loved most.

Performing was in the blood – after a fashion. Her mum May, with her Auntie Doris, ran a modelling agency in Glasgow called Browns Inc and May would parade in Jenners’ best tweeds in what passed for the catwalk in 1950s Edinburgh.

“Mum was an old-fashioned beauty: fine-boned, normal hair – not like mine, which is the stuffing out of a couch – and a great ass. She turned heads. Then this fellow from Montserrat who’d come over to Fettes College for an education and who was dabbling in photography, turned up at one of Mum’s shows and they fell in love.”

Tony and May encouraged their daughter’s ambitions. “Mum was a frustrated actress,” says Gomez. Their daughter was probably a frustrated comedienne, first revealing her talents in this area at Shawlands Academy. “I used to sit behind my best friend Helen Pollock and make her tie move up and down with my ruler.” Only once did she contemplate an alternative career. “Briefly, I thought I wanted to do a job that would involve lots of filing. Maybe there was a bit of Sue White in me even then.”

She didn’t soar as an actress right away. “I was always playing crows.” Then she moved to London and worked as a waitress in the (usually) long periods between parts. She kept the acting a secret. “I got these cards printed, like for a taxi firm – ‘Need a ride? Phone Mickey’ – and if anyone asked what I did I gave them one. As an actress, I had absolutely nothing to say for myself. Still don’t, really.”

ALL THAT CHANGED with Trainspotting. Gomez was the only woman playing four female roles in the Citizens Theatre production that was seen by the producers of the movie, although none of the stage cast got picked for the film.

“None of us was bitter about that because the play was far superior, the film obviously being a nice pop-art video which made smack look quite fun and starred Ewan McGregor and… I would have shagged him!” She’s joking. The play transferred to London’s West End and, by enticing a new, young audience into Theatreland, was no less significant than the movie.

The Michelle Gomez who’s delivering a gag every sentence is as unrecognisable from the one at the beginning of the interview as Green Wing is from Carrie And Barry. Maybe I should have steamed straight in and asked her about Jack Davenport because now she’s chuckling as she recalls how he used to stalk her.

“He came to see Trainspotting and, because I got my tits out on stage, he came back half a dozen more times. I only found this out when he rescued me from a blind date that was going nowhere. The This Life crowd were having their ‘wrap’ party in the same bar. He asked Steve, my date from Customs & Excise, if he could whisk me away and, bless him, he didn’t mind. Jack wasn’t my type at all. I thought he was too young and too posh and I told him that. Plus, I couldn’t deal with his dodgy bowlcut. But he wore me down.”

There’s a moral here. When you’re encountering Michelle Gomez for the first time, determination will pay off in the end. And, career-wise, it’s done the same for her with the wonderful Green Wing. “I love Sue White,” she says as she gets up to go, “and I wish I could be more like her.

“Of course, I know that I resemble her every day of my life!”