Changes: Sophie Willan
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Changes. It's Annie Macmanus here. Delighted to have you with us on this episode. Change is what we talk about on this podcast and change we have learnt can impact us in so many ways. We've repeatedly interviewed people on this podcast who have gone through big changes in their early life, changes that were forced upon them and ended up impacting every connection, reaction, relationship they have for the rest of their life. The only way to stop the effects of that early change is to confront it and to explore it. And that is where healing begins. Art is healing, and making art about your own lived experience can in itself inspire change.
Sophie [00:00:51] Connection is change, that moment you feel, 'oh God yes someone gets that' or 'oh God, they've been through that as well', that's a lovely feeling and moment of change. And I think also it's just seeing people isn't it, on screen that you've not seen before, or hearing from people you've not heard from before. That's always where the change is.
Annie [00:01:10] That is Sophie Willan. This week's guest on Changes. A double BAFTA winning actor and comedian talking about making her sitcom Alma's Not Normal. Sophie grew up in Bolton. Her mum was a heroin addict, which meant that Sophie was brought up by her grandma and spent time in the foster care system as well. Her mum is now looked after in a medium secure mental health ward. When she was older, Sophie worked as an escort to help fund her career. Sophie has utilised her past in her shows On Record and Branded, selling out at the Edinburgh Fringe with national tours and a subsequent Radio Four series. Most recently, she earned two BAFTAs for the utterly unique BBC Two sitcom, Alma's Not Normal, which she wrote, produced and stars in. Alma's Not Normal is a semi-autobiographical comedy which focuses on Alma living in Bolton, trying to make the most of what she has and dreaming of being an actress. Detailing the ups and downs of her relationships, including with her mum, her grandma, and her best friend, played by the iconic Jayde Adams. The show achieves that very difficult balance of being really funny whilst at the same time tackling serious issues like class, sexuality, prejudice, mental health, abuse and societal systems like social care. When Sophie won her first BAFTA, she was watching the announcements on a laptop in a pink sparkly dress and did a lap of the garden screaming 'what the fuck!', over and over. Her speech on accepting her second BAFTA for Female Performance In a Comedy was exceptional. You have to see it to understand it. So please go and YouTube 'Sophie Willan BAFTA winning speech'. You will not regret it. I think I've watched it about 20 times now. Sophie dedicated the award to her zebra print loving grandmother who died during the filming of Alma, which she talks about in this conversation. Sophie is currently working on the second series of Alma. But if you haven't seen the first, it has just been rereleased on iPlayer for a month. Go check it out. You are in for a treat. You will not regret it. This is a conversation about Sophie's personal changes, but also change in systems, changing prejudices and change in the concept of normal. Please welcome, Sophie Willan... Sophie Willan, hello!
Sophie [00:03:23] Hello.
Annie [00:03:24] It's lovely to have you. I feel strange seeing your face having been watching all of Alma's Not Normal in the last three days and listening to the Radio Four series. And you've got different colour hair now.
Sophie [00:03:34] I do. I thought it would make me a bit incognito from Alma. It's not worked at all.
Annie [00:03:39] I bet.
Sophie [00:03:40] Because actually the voice is, I think, very clearly me. I think Boltonian-
Annie [00:03:45] And face.
Sophie [00:03:45] Yeah, you forget your face looks the same. I mean, I thought because I've looked a bit knackered this past year post Alma, I thought that and the blonde hair, it's like having plastic surgery.
Annie [00:03:54] No one will know.
Sophie [00:03:54] Yeah. Yeah, they do.
Annie [00:03:56] How are you with change? Do you like it? Do you lean into it? Do you run away from it?
Sophie [00:04:00] It depends really because I'm quite funny about my own routine and my own way of being. When it comes to my home. I don't really like- I like to feel it's my own safe space and stuff. But then also I love a bit of feng shui, so you know, that's all about change isn't it? Bit mixed really.
Annie [00:04:18] It's change in perspective, isn't it? So you still have your nice safe space and your four walls, but it's a different perspective within that.
Sophie [00:04:25] Yes. Yeah. Last week I had a big deadline. It was the perfect time to put garden furniture in the kitchen *Annie laughs* and have a living room space in the kitchen. That's what I was missing. That's what I've been missing my whole life apparently.
Annie [00:04:37] Yeah and just at the deadline as well, yeah.
Sophie [00:04:40] But to be honest, I've got a lot more done since I've put that garden furniture in the kitchen. It looks great.
Annie [00:04:45] Okay, so you like routine?
Sophie [00:04:48] I struggle to find it, but I do crave it.
Annie [00:04:51] Once you're in it, you like it.
Sophie [00:04:52] When I'm in it, but I struggle to get it. And it always feels like a battle I've been against my whole life really but at the minute I've got a great routine.
Annie [00:05:00] Yeah.
Sophie [00:05:01] Get up, take the dog to doggy day-care, come back to do my morning pages which are the best thing.
Annie [00:05:08] What's a morning page?
Sophie [00:05:09] Have you ever read that book The Artist Way? Julia Cameron.
Annie [00:05:12] No, no.
Sophie [00:05:13] Oh, it's brilliant. I read it in my twenties and it did change my life. It's all about like, unlocking your creativity but there's a few things she said you should do, and one of them is doing morning pages where you just set an alarm and it's like a free write. You just write. Don't take your hand off the page. But in a her new book I bought recently she says do it for 30 minutes, which is quite a long time. But honestly the things that you kind of come to every day when you do these free writes I find really helps with the writing process. This new book's called Seeking Wisdom, which is a bit more Gody than her last book, but I'm actually quite up for it to be honest.
Annie [00:05:47] I mean it's an aspirational title, like I'm down.
Sophie [00:05:51] Yeah, but I always find funny when you find yourself in the sort of self-help section of Waterstones looking knackered and thinking, what am I today, and then you're grabbing for a book called Seeking Wisdom. I think it says a lot, you know. And everybody around you in that section looks knackered don't they. They always look a bit- *Annie laughs* they're struggling.
Annie [00:06:09] Yeah, yeah. So what are you working on?
Sophie [00:06:11] Just the second series of Alma. It's took a surprisingly long time this series.
Annie [00:06:17] And why do you think that is?
Sophie [00:06:19] Well, I finished filming Alma at the end of August, I think it was. My grandma had passed away at the beginning of filming so, you know, I was editing scenes with her in it. Like there's a scene with Alma's mum and grandmother having a meal and I was thinking, God, this is actually based on the last meal I had with them as a three. All sorts of things were coming up. A friend of mine died and then my uncle who was my grandma's brother who I was really close to, all died within kind of a few months of each other. And then also it was a fabulous time, you know, winning BAFTAs and red carpets, but quite intense, you know. So there was just a lot. It was kind of a whirlwind time, you know, suddenly you're on the red carpet, worrying about what my arm looks like. That internal misogyny kept poking its ugly head and it felt like a whirlwind. And it's only in the past few months I've been able to kind of recenter. It was a big change actually, everything, you know, with Alma, you know, it happened and it was like your whole life and your whole reality completely shifts from the personal perspective of losing people that were very important to me, but then also just my whole career and everything and the world around me had changed. So it was kind of readjusting to that, I think.
Annie [00:07:30] Yeah. Are you able to look back on it now and kind of have perspective on it?
Sophie [00:07:34] I don't think you can say, ' and now I'm fixed' sort of thing. I think I'm still in the midst of processing it, but I'm definitely not in the whirlwind phase that I was when it was all happening at me. So I've had time to go, God that was mental wasn't it, you know, and actually put things in place again. Which I just felt I didn't have chance to do in that whirlwind period.
Annie [00:07:52] It must be mad enough becoming really well known quickly in any kind of context. When you are writing a series based loosely on the themes that you have experienced in your life, is there surreal moments because it is so meta? You know, you just talked about the idea of filming a scene that was based on, you know, your last meal that you had with your grandma and your mam. There must be moments that are very surreal in that context.
Sophie [00:08:20] So when we were filming Alma, my grandmother passed away on the second day. So we're filming all day and then my grandma passed away that evening and then I had to get up the next morning and just go filming and all day.
Annie [00:08:31] God.
Sophie [00:08:31] And then I got into the makeup chair that morning, like 6 a.m., 7 a.m., whatever. I got loads of texts that said ooo you've been nominated for a BAFTA. This is all in the 24 hours. I didn't even know I was up for one, so that was weird. Then I filmed all day, had to do like, sex scenes and very intense. And there was no kind of, you know, just keep going, keep going, keep going. I think yeah, that was quite difficult. And then afterwards I went to go to the medium secure ward where my mum was to tell her that her mother was dead. And then I had to go straight back to filming the next morning and this is when it got very meta, I was filming a scene with Siobhan Finneran where she was on the lawn of Grandma's house, having a bit of a kind of meltdown.
Annie [00:09:14] I know the scene, yeah.
Sophie [00:09:15] You know, she runs away. And then we went on lunch and then I got a call from the hospital saying, your mum's absconded. She's she's ran away. And that was like life imitating art, imitating life and it was just- that was bizarre as a day to be honest. There was another time I'd had a bit of a kind of, difficulty with getting to a funeral and I'd had to say that I needed that time off. And one person had tried to describe me as being volatile, which I hadn't been volatile, I'd just been very clear that I had to have the day off, I have to go to my grandmother's funeral. But it was also the day that we were recording the records around Alma getting rebellious, defiant and rude. So that was another one you thought- and it was actually one of- because I did a care experienced voluntary scheme, but well not voluntary because they got paid, it was a paid training scheme for care experienced people to be part of the process. And she was the one who said, I had to bring this to you because he called you volatile and, you know, I've been in the care system myself and I thought this whole project was about was not being labelled in such negative ways. And, you know, I saw you being assertive with them and saying I need that day off, but you were not volatile and you were not aggressive. So I had to tell you that this is what he said. Then I went and filmed that scene about her getting her records back, but it was actually great because it really helped the scene. But that was a very weird, again, very strange kind of meta, but also thinking the systems are still problematic I think, you know, even within, you know, telly structures that are trying to be more sensitive to diversity. But I think the thing is, you can't be diverse without setting out diverse approaches to things. Don't say we'll have more diverse people, but you have to now be like us.
Annie [00:10:57] And the nice thing about that situation is that was your implementation. You wanted to bring in care leavers to work on the show, and it was the care leaver who understood that what he said was not okay. And relayed that to you in a really empathetic way.
Sophie [00:11:10] Yes, she was amazingly articulate how she just explained it to me and what it meant to her to overhear that.
Annie [00:11:15] Yeah. Yeah.
Sophie [00:11:17] So a bit meta there on two occasions actually.
[00:11:20] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:11:30] Well let's talk now Sophie about change. Looking back now, what would you say was the biggest change that you went through as a kid?
Sophie [00:11:38] Well I think because I was a care experienced young person, you go through a lot of different change so it's not easy to pin one down. I suppose the first significant change was being put into foster care from my mother's. Then, you know, obviously I went to a foster parent for a year, so that was a significant change because I was living with a very different family. They were lovely. I lived on a farm for a year. Very like Alma. And then another significant change, I went to live with my grandmother, you know, and then there was a significant change when we kind of thought about finding my father. Then we moved to Bristol for two years.
Annie [00:12:13] With your grandma?
Sophie [00:12:14] With my grandmother. And then we moved back to Bolton. And then I had other sort of foster placements after that, and then I got my first flat when I was 17. So that whole period there was so much change. It's hard to kind of pin it down to one significant change, I'd say.
Annie [00:12:29] Can you see a pattern in how it's manifested in you and your attitude to change as an adult? Like, do you like to be in one place? This is my awful card psychology here.
Sophie [00:12:38] I don't know really. I've never felt, 'oh, that's the place I belong'.
Annie [00:12:43] Yeah. So maybe you're good at change because of that?
Sophie [00:12:45] Yeah. I always think it's a bit mixed isn't it with these things. You know, on the one hand, you know, I feel like an alien pretty much everywhere. But on the other hand, I think I've been really lucky because I've got to see all different walks of life from a really young age. I've lived in Bolton, I've lived in Bristol, I've lived in different family homes. So I've seen lots of different ways of people being. I definitely think that added to me wanting to be a writer because you can't help but be more like outside and observant because you're seeing people separately from being in a culture, you're outside of the culture. Even if it's a culture that you initially came from, you've been outside of it and you're trying to make sense of it, I suppose.
Annie [00:13:26] In all of those years, did you have an advocate who you think believed in you and your talent?
Sophie [00:13:31] I think I've had loads in my life. I mean my Aunty Miriam is just lovely and has been really sweet. She was really young. She was only like, probably 15 or something when I went to live with my grandma and her, erm and my grandmother-
Annie [00:13:44] Oh wow, so she would have been like a big sister, kinda?
Sophie [00:13:45] Yeah, she was a teenager really. And we had a lodger and it was like this party house for teenagers because grandma was going through a divorce, zebra print phase, so it was just always teenagers around. That was quite an exciting atmosphere. You know, music blasting out and first it was motorbikes and then it was cars on the drive, you know, so quite an exciting atmosphere. Grandmother, you know, she was quite a mixed person but she did really, you know, love that I love performing and really encouraged me. So I think ---, you know, all my foster placements were, you know, really fairly pleasant and, you know, I was quite lucky that a lot of them were really positive. And teachers, I mean I had one teacher who nicked my GCSE paper out of a class and took it to my house and said you need to sit this exam because you keep bunking off and you're good at English. So you get these people coming from different angles don't you.
Annie [00:14:36] Yeah, who see your potential and like, yeah, and believe in you. On stage, you know when you see you do stand up, you just have such a confidence about you, you know, you seem so strong in what you're saying and I just wonder where that comes from, that ability to be so, it feels like sure of yourself. People who take the piss out of themselves, there's an element of strength there that I really admire.
Sophie [00:14:57] Well, I've just always loved performing. I've always felt really confident performing. Perhaps sometimes when I was younger, more confident performing than interacting, you know, writing things down and getting to the root of things, you know, for me, working things out for myself. And humour is just at the base I think of all my family and also with any kind of trauma, there's always so much funny. We always know that, don't we, tragicomedy thing. I mean, it's so real. So I think comedy just felt a really natural space for me to inhabit. So I think that's probably, you know, where the confidence comes from with it really.
Annie [00:15:31] Was there a moment when you started writing that you kind of, you started to understand yourself in a way that you never had before?
Sophie [00:15:38] I don't know really, I started writing almost Alan Bennett style monologues because I loved Alan Bennett. And grandma loved Alan Bennett so I did those sorts of things. I laugh actually because I went to stay with one of grandma's friends, Christine she was called. Lovely woman. Anyway, grandma used to do this thing, she'd pick up the phone, she'd yabber on for hours and then she'd put the phone down and go, 'oh God, she doesn't stop talking her'. Anyway I did like a performance of Grandmother. Or it must have been based on her, it was clearly grandma, but I did it to Christine. But it was basically me repeating everything Grandma had said *Annie laughs*. 'Ohh Christine, she doesn't half go on. She's always looking for a man, Christine. I tell you what she doens't half go on'. And Christine was like, oh right, okay, very good. I always laugh at that, yeah. But in terms of knowing myself, I think you're always on that journey aren't you as a writer and, you know, discovering more inside and outside of writing aren't you as you're going on.
Annie [00:16:31] Yeah. So we interviewed Lemn Sissay on this podcast, and I was looking back at the conversation that we had because I mean, you share the experiences of being in care together and the experiences of getting your records back. Now again, I only know this from what you've talked about on stage and what I've seen on Alma, but it feels like getting those records was a kind of seismic thing in terms of understanding what other people felt about who you were or what you were to them.
Sophie [00:16:59] Yeah.
Annie [00:17:00] And not very fun.
Sophie [00:17:02] No well, there's lots of positives in my records as well, actually. They're very intense obviously there's a lot of labels. I think that show on records, if you're talking about kind of getting to know yourself, was a really positive one because it was about reclaiming negative language that I've had said about me or that I perhaps have about myself, so I remember writing a whole list on a wall of, you know, starting with shame, you know, what are the things I'm most ashamed of. Then my records came later and there was loads of cross-overs. And that's the great thing with comedy. When you talk about your flaws, which all comedians do, you know there's a real ability to make a roomful of people laugh with you at things that are your flaws, you know? So that's quite an empowering thing, isn't it? And you get to reclaim them and you know, you do realise how political it is as well. That language that you have with yourself, you know, it does come from somewhere and often it goes beyond just family members doesn't it. It goes- it can be more identity political and-
Annie [00:18:00] Yeah. Systemic.
Sophie [00:18:01] Yeah.
Annie [00:18:02] Mhm. And one of the things Lemn said about reading his records was just what a low opinion they all had of him. They had such low standards of who he could be as a human being.
Sophie [00:18:12] Well he had a more difficult time than me. As did a few people of that age group because there was a law that was changed, I think it was, I can't remember but it was halfway through my records, actually.
Annie [00:18:23] Right.
Sophie [00:18:24] Basically, the impact it had on social workers is, always write as if these records will be read by the individual. So you were allowed access to them. I mean, I know people who were, you know, in the fifties and sixties, who got their records back and they're just absolutely horrendous what they've said. I mean, there's a few things in mine which are infuriating and you know, don't feel that kind or I can see what they've done to family members and you know, it was definitely a traumatic experience to get my records back. But I didn't have the extent of what someone like Lemn would experience and for Lemn as well in Wigan, you know, the racial element as well as you know made it even worse, and the time meaning that they could just say anything in that record, you know.
Annie [00:19:04] Yeah, absolutely.
Sophie [00:19:05] The view point was changing, you know, still a lot to be desired, you know, but it was getting better at the time I was being recorded.
Annie [00:19:15] Yeah. And I mean, it must be a very strange situation to read about yourself and your family from the perspective of these different people. But how has your perspective of family changed I suppose?
Sophie [00:19:28] I think Lemn's got great quote, he says err, and I'll probably mess it up now but he says, 'family is a group of people who see the same memory differently'. And I thought that just sums it up doesn't it really? I mean, it's changed a lot for me because I've had times where I've felt like I have had no family, you know, and felt very like an orphan, orphan Annie over here, you know. I felt very like that, you know, Christmas' on my own or, that feeling like completely alone in the world, that I think only a care experienced person can really understand, it's a very unique experience. And then I've felt other times in my life where I've thought, oh, there is sort of people resurfacing. And then I've felt times like fucking hell I just, I just wish they were not here at all. So yeah, I've had a real mix really, I think as as my life has changed, you know, it's been interesting to see who's been around and not been around, you know, at different times. When you've got a kind of family that's had its issues, I think it always is in constant flux and change and you know it evolves doesn't it.
[00:20:30] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:20:40] Let's go back to then your experience then trying to break into doing what you do now.
Sophie [00:20:47] Yeah.
Annie [00:20:47] Would you mind telling me about the time when you were in Salford flyering BBC producers? Where were you at then?
Sophie [00:20:56] Well I was working in theatre, I used to make theatre. I set up a theatre company called X Collective and got lots of funding for it. Then I went solo, I was kind of producing as well so I was producing kind of big outreach projects with a producer called Oliver Sykes and we were doing that. And then I just heard this Media City was opening up, I thought fabulous. And I thought, you know what, I need to live near it just so I can see it every day and just have a bit of, you know, broaden your horizons a bit. Have it in your vicinity. And then I used to go down and flyer BBC producers and there was this event on where they were going to do a talk so I took flyers and flyered all of them really. And there was one producer who just kind of, she was a small, northern woman who just seemed to really get it. And she came to see a show and she said, come and, you know, share a couple of ideas with us if you want. I came with flip chart paper, I stuck it on the walls, I had a plan. It went quite wild. And then that got commissioned the episode, it was the first Alma's Not Normal. That was in 2014.
Annie [00:21:52] So that's what you came with, the pilot episode of Alma's Not Normal, so that's what you came with?
Sophie [00:21:57] Well I came with all these ideas for the series.
Annie [00:21:59] Right, got you.
Sophie [00:21:59] And the we kind of, you know, worked up a treatment. And then she commissioned a script. Yeah. That was kind of based on that. Yeah.
Annie [00:22:07] How did you get from, you know, being a kid who bunked off school and doing one GCSE, like you said that your teacher persuaded you to do, to then being this theatre producer and like being so busy in that world.
Sophie [00:22:19] I just kept crackin on really. So I went to live with Auntie Miriam for a year in Wigan. I worked in TK Maxx and Subway. Would have been about 20. I met my dad that same year for the first time.
Annie [00:22:32] Woah.
Sophie [00:22:33] And then I'd kept Googling. I kept trying to get quite serious about it going right, just spend a day a week where you google all creative opportunities and see what comes up. And I found this thing, Contact Theatre in Manchester, an open audition or you apply to audition but it's free. It's a young actors company and I went to that, and that was the beginning for me where everything changed when I went to Contact Theatre so I would have been like 20 by then, and I joined the theatre company, you know, so I learnt a lot then I had a real drive. And then I got in touch with a woman called Liz O'Neill who runs Z-arts now, and she said right, you need to get cash match funding, support in kind, a partnership with a theatre and a proposal. So that's what I did. Set up a theatre company and then- so it kind of just spiralled from there really. But contact was a brilliant hub for that. There was a certain kind of punky energy back then of you could just go in a venue, sit down with a fundraiser or a producer and say, what do I do? And I loved that. You know, it was fabulous.
Annie [00:23:38] So looking back now, what would you say would be the biggest change you've been through as an adult?
Sophie [00:23:43] Biggest change? I don't know. I'm in one at the minute.
Annie [00:23:47] Ah yeah. You mean as in with the success?
Sophie [00:23:49] Yeah with BAFTAs and TV, so that's been a massive one. But I suppose yeah, probably going to contact theatre was probably the biggest change that set me off on my life's path. I don't know, I think you have little ones. You have these kind of milestones, don't you, that change everything and set you off and you're always going towards those directions anyway, I find.
Annie [00:24:09] I used to have like a plan in my head where like, I need to do this in the next five years. I want to be here like I want to be on Radio One by the time I'm 26 and grrr, were you like that or?
Sophie [00:24:19] Yeah, I think so. I mean, I've always been quite interested in going, you know, do a ten year, five year, two year, one year plan, which I haven't done for a few years actually but-
Annie [00:24:27] Okay good, right yeah.
Sophie [00:24:30] Having a big plan. You know, I've always wanted to write for screen. I've always wanted to do a sitcom. You know, there were certain things I just really wanted to do. I wanted to act. I loved Julie Walters when I was a kid, like, you know, really wanted that- Wood and Walters and I love all that. So, I think I always knew this was, for me, what I was supposed to do.
Annie [00:24:48] Yeah. So you've had the change, you know, congratulations on the success. It's just incredible. The BAFTA speech was just amazing. You could just see the joy radiating out of you and talking about your grandma. I must have been so mad and just such a whirlwind of emotions.
Sophie [00:25:09] Yeah, yeah.
Annie [00:25:10] Mad. But how do you feel like things have changed since then in terms of how people approach you, want to work with you, like all of that business.
Sophie [00:25:18] It is different int' it, I mean.
Annie [00:25:19] Because you're hot girl.
Sophie [00:25:21] Even before Alma, before Alma they were starting- you seen change. And you forget how hard it was to convince people that you were intelligent. And I used to find it really difficult. You know, you'd have theatre producers saying, you just, you know, there's always a joke and, you know, I'm not sure. And you're very bubbly or. You know, whatever. I felt like I always had to prove that was intelligent and I had a strategy and I had a plan and you know, I was political minded. Whereas now I think the proof is in the pudding and I can, you know, I don't have to prove that so harshly. And so that's nice. I mean, it's just like being a white middle class man isn't it? *Annie laughs*. It's been fabulous.
Annie [00:25:58] No questions.
Sophie [00:25:58] I stop at M&S and people give you a free space and say yes to you. I mean, things have changed.
Annie [00:26:05] And now that you have a- you're on the front foot, you know, people are going to endorse you because you have this experience of success. Are you wanting to change, I mean you already were doing it with the series one of Alma, but are you wanting to change how you work and kind of try and do things differently than how you see it being done in the industry?
Sophie [00:26:21] I think that's always been a passion for me yeah, is make it just you know, more inclusive and doing it in a more kind of thorough way. You know, changing this idea of normal and diverse and actually going, there's nothing normal about how we're doing this, so let's open up how we're doing it and let's be taught by different voices about how we do things rather than go, 'we'll let you in and you have to get on our page'. You know, I think I'd like that to be over. So, you know, and just I think oversaturating the industry with all these neurodiverse or whatever you want to call it about people that just have different experiences, so that actually there's no sense of normal, this is a normal way of doing things, because I think that normal, which I've obviously clearly been obsessed with because it's in all my work, but I think that status quo normal thing is kind of a danger zone in everything really.
Annie [00:27:15] You can apply it to education, you can apply it to so much systemic stuff can't you?
Sophie [00:27:20] Everything. Definitely schools. I mean I was always really fidgety in class when I attended. If I did, you know, it was always dead fidgety and even when I was little apparently I used to just get up and walk round the room. The teacher would go 'what you doing', I need to stretch my legs. And I think this certain way of, 'this is the only way that we teach' and 'you have to fit into this box', it's so kind of restrictive for everybody isn't it? I remember we played wink wink murder once and you know they wink you and you die. And I remember thinking, ooo I've got to be dead now for half an hour. So I just put up a sign when I was about eight that just said 'dead, be right back' or whatever and then I just went off. Dead.
Annie [00:27:57] *Laughing* you couldn't stay still that long?
Sophie [00:27:59] No. Because everyone's different aren't they. Everyone's, you know.
Annie [00:28:06] Yeah I mean, there's no such thing as normal. It's mad, isn't it? Like just, the toxicity of that word, you know, forcing people to fit into a box.
Sophie [00:28:13] And I think we're getting better with it. And there's not much stigma around mental health or mental diversity. But it is still there. And I think there's a lack of understanding of people's experiences needing to be factored in.
[00:28:25] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:28:29] And since you've been working with care leavers and having initiatives where they're involved in your work and getting paid properly and getting real experience of the industry, have you seen kind of how that has changed these kids coming through and how that has helped them?
Sophie [00:28:45] Well, yeah. And how they help you. I mean, we did the Stories of Care thing that I set up with Oliver Sykes and it was about basically getting young people who are care experienced, adults, to write affective memory styled fiction for children in an anthology. And this is our second one. You know, the stories are beautiful. I mean, the talent's amazing so being able to kind of support that and be part of that is fantastic. And Lemn suppose, he was a big changer because he made the care experience, I'm sure there were other people, but for me he's one of the absolute lighthouses of people that made the care experience political. And it's really important to have it politicised because actually then it stops being the individual's problem. I mean I got called a problem child a lot and actually it's quite a universal thing that for care experience people. Rather than looking at the system and society and, you know, collective responsibility. We go with the problem, the problem child rather than the problem situation. How do we make it better? And I think, you know, Lemns kind of out there with his experience when it was not a political thing, you know really helped a rising I think of care experienced people to feel pride really in our experience.
Annie [00:29:58] Yeah. He said something about the most institutionalised people of all are the staff in the care homes. They're so institutionalised. I remember that being quite a striking thing.
Sophie [00:30:10] Yeah, I mean, you see it in my mum's and well, all of it and I know so care workers in whatever area they're really struggling because of the coats and.
Annie [00:30:17] Yeah.
Sophie [00:30:17] You know, then you can't get people as qualified a lot of the time in terms of hospitalisations, the night staff and you know the system is broken and I think that needs to be acknowledged. I think what I'm chuffed with with Alma is, you know, I've been really struggling with my mum's set up recently and certain hospital incidents and how that is managed and the people managing it and the cuts and the system and just thinking how the fuck do we get empathy back in this system? Can you teach empathy because it doesn't feel like, some of the people in it don't have it, some of them have loads of that and they're amazing, some of them don't have it at all and they're not being taught it either. So there's a lack of training in empathy and understanding. I had more education in the drama triangle, I'm okay, you're okay. All these things I've trained myself up, I've learnt all the tools because I've had to. But you're dealing with co-workers sometimes that you think, I wouldn't trust you on a night out havign a ciggie and a deep conversation with you, never mind my vunerable mother, you know what I mean? And then actually what the great thing with Alma was is when I did that episode about the records, that's started being shown now in universities all around the country for social services and stuff, they've just been doing it.
Annie [00:31:32] Wow.
Sophie [00:31:33] It's showing up all the time. And that to me is really fabulous. It's the most exciting thing that's come out of Alma because actually that desire that I have that felt really untangible, to kind of have some input in putting empathy into the training system of the social services, is actually happening. So it was never really that tangible, you know, for the arts to have an impact politically or professionally, but I think it actually is, which is fabulous to hear.
Annie [00:31:58] It's so fabulous. I had no idea. So those people are being taught how to-
Sophie [00:32:03] Well, they're being seen that perspective. And I think that's a great perspective, you know, rather than the whole you know, if they read any literature, the Orphan Annie stuff, I think there's a new perspective. And, you know, I think you need that, I think you really need creative approaches.
Annie [00:32:18] Yeah.
Sophie [00:32:19] Semi-autobiographical creative approaches that are not clinical, so we see the full person, because that's often what gets missed in all these records is you don't see the full person. You see a subject matter that's flawed.
Annie [00:32:33] Where was it I saw you saying- or someone saying- they talked about how funny you were. Or they talked about how bright or optimistic or ambitious or. You know, all these things that you don't see written in it, all the bad things.
Sophie [00:32:45] And it's all very clinical and they sound so hopeless in that clinical way. And actually just, you know, being able to go, you are a flawed person, of course you are, but if you were to psychoanalyse anybody's flaws and just put that as their personality description, then you know, the life would look pretty hopeless. I think it's about seeing all of it.
Annie [00:33:04] Another thing again that shocked me on reading Lemns book, and this might not have applied to you, but just the idea of these kids being criminalised. Like literally 16- they're children and then being criminalised and being reported to the police for something that is not a criminal offence, but because they're in this institution, they're given this-
Sophie [00:33:21] They're in the system.
Annie [00:33:22] Shortcut straight to- that was really shocking as well.
Sophie [00:33:25] Yeah, I think you see that a lot actually.
Annie [00:33:28] Sophie, how is it for you then writing these scenes that involve people based on your family? You know, sad stuff. There's some really sad stuff in Alma, but done in such a beautiful way that is not kind of sentimental or overly pulling on your heartstrings. It's done in a very real way, which makes it even more impactful. But how does it affect you, I suppose, when you're writing these things and seeing them being played out and playing them as well, because you're obviously starring in it?
Sophie [00:33:55] Well, I think it can be very intense. You know, sometimes it's really brilliant and cathartic and brings you joy and energy all the time. I thought that was a difficult scene to write, like the one where Alma gets her records back. I've done stand up on that before but the difference with stand up is you're presenting something that's passed. So you're like, this happened, whereas actually writing a scene going that moment when you got your records, when you sat down, when you put them on the floor, how did you feel? And you had to get them out and you pulled up a piece of paper. You're sat in it, like you're literally revisiting it, like doing some sort of, you know, visualisation therapy. So that had a big impact and I was shocked about that because I thought, well, I did a 40 day tour of this show and 30 dates at Edinburgh. I thought this would be fine. But actually, yeah, that had quite an impact. But luckily I've got a good therapist, so that's how I-
Annie [00:34:45] I was going to say, I mean, you must have to put things in place to protect yourself or to kind of bolster yourself when you're doing that work, yeah.
Sophie [00:34:53] Definitely.
Annie [00:34:54] Yeah. Yeah. Has therapy helped? We talk a lot about therapy on this podcast.
Sophie [00:34:58] Yeah well I'm going to be talking about it in Alma, the second series, actually, because it's been a big part of my journey. And this therapist is great, I've had him two and a half years now, maybe three actually. Anyway, turns out he's care experienced, which I've only just found out recently. I felt really ease with him in a very different way. But he's a male therapist, which is my first male therapist, which from a family of, you know, traumatised women I think that's quite helpful. And also he's care experienced. So that's been really interesting and he's so intelligent. And again, you know that thing about his superpower, he always says about the double edge of what we find difficult and what is our superpower, which Lemn talks about as the superhero thing. He has a superpower at what he does because he has had that experience I think. He's got an intuition and then he's educated himself on top of it, you know. So I think it's always about the combination, isn't it? The life experience and then the self-education or whatever you do.
Annie [00:35:54] Yeah, yeah. And you couldn't really like, select a therapist on the basis of them being a care leaver, like that's so serendipitous, isn't it, that you found someone who ends up having the same or similar experiences to you?
Sophie [00:36:05] Yeah, I think it is. Really, really, uncanny.
[00:36:08] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:36:18] There's a quote, I was watching Jade Adams, your amazing co-star and Alma.
Sophie [00:36:22] And Strictly Come Dancing Star. She's smashing it isn't she, it's fabulous.
Annie [00:36:27] She's amazing. And she said in one of her stand ups, 'stand up isn't stand up unless you inflict change upon your audience'.
Sophie [00:36:34] Yeah. Oh, that's lovely.
Annie [00:36:35] Would you agree with that?
Sophie [00:36:36] Yeah, I would. Yeah. I think storytelling isn't storytelling unless you inflict change upon your audience. Yeah. Stand up would fit into that. Yeah, that's very true.
Annie [00:36:47] And do you have aspirations? I mean, you hinted at it before- before you start a project of what kind of change you want to inflict, like what messages do you need to hammer home to those people that will see your work?
Sophie [00:36:57] Well I always think, not so much messages and hammering home, cos then it's a bit like preaching.
Annie [00:37:02] And that sounds a bit aggressive.
Sophie [00:37:04] Yeah, like these bastards need to learn, you know. But it might just be that you get the opportunity to connect with young people who are care experienced, who feel a connection. I think connection is change, that moment you feel, oh, God, yes someone gets that. Oh God they've been through that as well. That's a lovely feeling and moment of change. And I had that when I watched Lemn Sissahy I was like, oh my God, he's talking about being in care, I've not been telling anyone about that. I can do that. So that was a moment of change for me. Oh, you know, a social worker being laughed at in a fun loving and also kind of challenging way, that for me is a moment of change, because I hope in Alma they're not being victimised, targeted, you are bad... it's looking at it as a whole and so therefore- a bit like you would with a family member going, let's have a laugh here. You know, stereotypes but also the kind of, what they're going through on their own. So I hope there's elements of change like that and I think also it's just seeing people isn't it, on screen that you've not seen before. Hearing from people you've not heard from before. That's always where the change is. You know, seeing a grandmother, a mother and Alma talk about things that we've seen in so many screen things, but from a different perspective, from a different experience.
Annie [00:38:18] Yeah, it's a very powerful moment. At the end of the series where Alma's grandma talks very honestly about being a mum and how much it didn't feel right.
Sophie [00:38:28] Yeah, well I wanted that. Yeah, because women are never allowed to talk about these things, are they?
Annie [00:38:33] Right, yeah. And it's so common. I think there's so many secrets, isn't there amongst women. So many secrets that get kind of hushed, you know, after a few drinks in the pub or kind of spoken of.
Sophie [00:38:44] Yeah.
Annie [00:38:45] but so rarely spoken out like that. So so many women will connect with that.
Sophie [00:38:52] Yeah. So I think that for me, connection is where change happens. Feeling connected. I don't think change happens when we feel targeted and attacked. I don't think that works for me. I think, you know, that thing I'm obsessed with is The Drama Triangle which I sent to Jade. I said, don't be offended by this book because it does say how to break free from the victim complex. I said, but it's just, it's changed my life and it's really thin. So it's a dead good read.
Annie [00:39:18] The Drama Triangle. I'm gonna write that down too.
Sophie [00:39:19] Yeah, How To Break Free From The Drama Triangle but it's brilliant because it talks about the rescue of the victim and the persecutor. My therapist gave it me. And when there's been trauma, we set out in these very unhealthy social patterns where everybody's fighting for the role of victim and family members go into victim, rescuer and persecutor, and they flick and they change all the time. Rescuers this need to take control to try and save everybody but can also be a very undermining role. You know, you're basically saying you're not okay, I'm okay, I'll help. Or victims going, I'm not okay. You're okay. Why, I need help! And then persecutors, I'm not okay, you're not okay! And that dynamic plays out in loads in families, which I actually use in Alma a lot when the three women are together, the intergenerational, you know, the grandma, mum and Alma. You can see them playing it all out. But then I think it happens on a political scale. You know, I think about like things that Black Lives Matter. When that happened, everybody in a state of panic going into I'm not okay, you're not okay, rather than going, you know what? We're all okay here. But yeah, there's a system that needs to change here and we need to take responsibility. And I've made certain mistakes as a white person, but I am okay and you're okay, but I need to make certain changes or, you know, the white man who jumps up and says, you're not okay. I'm, you know, the saviour complex, the rescuer, the angry white person who can't accept it, you know, you get it in all dynamics. And actually, when anyone's feeling attacked and in a state like that, I don't think you're getting anywhere. I think when we go right, let's evaluate this system. That's why Twitter's a very toxic place for these debates. You know, I think with Alma, wanted to kind of go these are areas I think could do with some change. But this is not an attack on social workers or an attack on men.
Annie [00:41:13] No I mean, I think that's why Alma's so clever, because there's no binary opinions about anything in Alma. Everything is funny, everything is nuanced, which is life.
Sophie [00:41:23] I hope so, yeah. And sex work particularly, you know, both Leanne and Alma behave badly in that I think, you know, she says I thought you'd understand because you're always shagging about, so she slut shames her and then Leanne turns around and says, oh, so that makes me a prostitute? As if that's a negative thing. And, you know, it's really complicated. Is it empowering, is it not empowering? Well, both can coexist can't they so?
Annie [00:41:47] Mmm, yeah. The conversation Alma has with with her best mate in the thing is so brilliant, because that's clearly you having worked that out in your head, and you're able to kind of put that into the thing and say, I just want to be able to talk about it and have a laugh about it and not be judged. Brilliant.
Sophie [00:42:04] Yeah. I think that's the key isn't it that rather than- because some things are over politicised. It's great to politicise things like care experience to an extent but some things become so politicised that you don't even have a say in something that you're experiencing because everybody on Radio Four's got an opinion.
Annie [00:42:21] Well, can I ask you about that? I wanted to ask you about like feminism and kind of intersection of feminism and class and how there's a kind of elitism within feminism maybe where, there's a certain type of feminism that's kind of normal.
Sophie [00:42:35] Yeah, I think that's getting a bit better recently. In the last few years I've seen it get less classist. But I think for a long time it's been extremely classist. You know, it's been very much, you know, posh white women have got their opinions and you don't really fit into that box. And I felt that a lot, and that's why I wrote about that in my second stand up show in Edinburgh, in Branded, a bit about, you know, women setting the ideals for everybody based on what's been possible for them. And they're very different for other people, but I think that feels like it's getting a bit better.
Annie [00:43:08] Yeah, well I think as well it's just, it's more voices being heard, more gatekeepers that aren't the same, more shows like Alma.
Sophie [00:43:16] Yeah.
Annie [00:43:16] You know.
Sophie [00:43:17] Yeah, I've been lucky.
Annie [00:43:18] It's amazing. Last question. If you could make a change to your own life or the world around you right now, and this is so vast and I apologise, what would it be?
Sophie [00:43:29] God, I mean, this week alone with Truss and everything. I don't know what- I don't know where to start with that.
Annie [00:43:35] I know.
Sophie [00:43:36] It's a fucking mess isn't it. *Annie laughs* sorry to be blunt, you'll probably have to bleep me out.
Annie [00:43:41] No, we can curse on this podcast. It's incredible.
Sophie [00:43:44] Yes, I just. What would you actually?
Annie [00:43:46] I've found that I'm so bad at maths or anything with regards to a budget, I'm like, my eyes glaze over. I just don't understand the language of economics. So I know that she's floundering and the worlds fucked but I couldn't tell you at all why.
Sophie [00:44:03] *Laughs* I know what you mean, I think that's just been it for years though hasn't. Floundering and it's fucked, but we don't actually quite understand what's happening.
Annie [00:44:10] Yeah, it's terrifying. Yeah. Well listen, I wish this writing process to be inspired and fun and actually, like, enjoyable, and I can't wait to see the fruits of it.
Sophie [00:44:22] Yes.
Annie [00:44:22] Well thank you so much, Sophie. It was such a pleasure to speak to you, thank you.
Sophie [00:44:27] You too, thanks so much for having me.
Annie [00:44:32] Thank you so so much to Sophie. I really enjoyed that conversation with her and yeah, please do go watch Alma's not normal. It's on iPlayer now. Rereleased for one month, and let us know what you thought of Sophie and share the episode around as well. We are releasing episodes every Monday, so please make sure you subscribe so you don't miss anything and give us a rating too where you can. That is always so appreciated. Also, I get a lot of people asking to watch these episodes with subtitles and I just wanted to highlight that we do do a transcription of each episode of Changes on my website, so there's a link on the show notes. If you know anyone who might benefit from that, who likes to read the words as well as hear them or just read them if they're hard of hearing, then go to anniemacmanus.com and you will find the transcriptions there. Or as I said, there's a link on the show notes. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN productions. Thank you so much and see you next week.