‘A real adult? Oh my god no!’: Derry Girl Nicola Coughlan stars in new comedy Big Mood

New Channel 4 series is the first realistic and humorous portrayal of millennial life we’ve had in a while

Nicola Coughlan has just spilt cola all over her laptop. “I have a granny tray for eating my dinner in front of the telly,” says the Derry Girls and Bridgerton star over Zoom, “and I dumped it all over my computer.” She dabs at the keyboard, a black hoodie zipped up to her chin. “But it’s fine!” Elsewhere on the chat is Lydia West, breakout star of It’s a Sin and Years and Years, who has her camera turned off so she can pump milk, having just had a baby.

It’s a refreshingly down-to-earth introduction to the pair, who are just about to star in Big Mood, Channel 4’s six-part comedy about two best friends in their 30s – Maggie and Eddie – who live in Dalston, London. Maggie, played by Coughlan, has bipolar disorder and the first thing you’ll notice about Big Mood is that, although it’s about mental health issues, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Written and created by Camilla Whitehill, the show is by and about millennials, and if you’re around that age bracket some of the scenes will land alarmingly close.

In the first episode, after screaming along to Avril Lavigne’s Nobody’s Home in the car, the pair arrive at Maggie’s old school, where she is giving a speech to the pupils (read: getting off with her old history teacher). “I thought your generation didn’t smoke,” the teacher says as they share a cigarette. “No, that’s the one after us. We smoke, we just refuse to drink cows’ milk.”

Later, they bump into an old classmate who now has three kids. Maggie looks horrified, referring to the 30-year-old as a “child bride”, while Eddie says: “Some women spend their 20s starting a family. Some women spend them on ketamine. Both are valid choices.”

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There was no question that Coughlan would star in the project. She and Whitehill have been best friends since drama school. Although Whitehill has written numerous plays, this is her first TV series – and she had to have Coughlan. “I always knew she was hilarious, sharp and witty,” says Coughlan, “but that doesn’t always translate. Here, it really did. It’s not like I auditioned – or was ever asked. Thankfully, the script was brilliant.”

For West, the appeal was more that this vision of what thirtysomething city dwellers are like – working in bars, outgrowing friendships, still not “having their sh*t together” – felt painfully realistic. “I know these women,” says West. “I know these characters and I know this London. I was like, ‘It feels so real, it feels so funny, but also serious, important and meaningful.’ I could really relate.”

Big Mood is the first realistic and humorous portrayal of millennial life we’ve had in a while. When Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered in 2012, it was a prime example of how to make smart, funny television about millennials – a generation who, at the time, were in their 20s and trying adulthood out for size. “I have work, then a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am,” says Dunham’s Hannah Horvath in the show’s pilot episode, neatly encapsulating the millennial inclination to dramatise and trivialise the ebbs and flows of everyday life. Later, in 2016, came Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s frank, filthy, endlessly quotable and era-defining comedy Fleabag. Four years later, there was Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, a harder-hitting but also hilarious take on millennial life – this time through a Black British lens.

But after that, TV about millennials – a generation now broadly in our 30s – quickly went dark. Shows about gen Z – Atypical, Heartstopper, Sex Education, Euphoria – hit their stride, and for a while it felt like nobody wanted to see people on TV who could remember 9/11. But Big Mood is the antidote, with a vision of British thirtysomethings that doesn’t feel dated, or based on older ideas about how people that age look and act.

“My friends from back home are married and have ‘normal’ jobs and kids,” says Coughlan, who grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Galway, but now lives in London, not far from where Big Mood was filmed. “Then my friends in London are more what you see in Big Mood. There are lots of different ways of being in your 30s. But also, the sh*t that’s cute in your 20s is a lot less cute in your 30s. You have to start figuring yourself out.” In other words, you’re essentially the same as you were five years ago, but with a lot less grace from everyone else.

Mental illness is sometimes glamorised on TV, but it’s not glamorous.

—  Lydia West

West and Coughlan – 37 and 30 respectively – point out how millennials entered the pandemic as “youngish”. Then four years passed and we were suddenly supposed to own houses we couldn’t afford, or raise kids we also couldn’t afford. Plenty of us are still living in the same messy rented flats, like Big Mood’s Maggie, or struggling in creative industries that are underfunded and barely functioning. “Maggie is a playwright,” says Coughlan, “and I can relate to that. Just before I turned 30 and got Derry Girls, I was living back at home. I had a two-day-a-week job at an optician. I was like, ‘I’ve failed at this. I’m a loser. It’s just not happening for me.’ It was a really sh*tty tough time.”

I ask West, who grew up in London and still lives there, if having a baby makes her feel more “grown up”, like the “real adult” you’re supposed to be once you hit 30. She laughs. “Oh my God no. What the hell, no way. I look at my child and I’m like, ‘You are a baby but I’m still a baby’.” She pauses. “Things happen in life and they force you to take more responsibility or change your perspective. That’s definitely what having a child has done. But I still feel so immature. I still laugh at farts and stuff.”

While Big Mood starts off hilarious, it slowly gets darker and bleaker, as Maggie spirals into a mental health crisis that threatens to shatter her friendships and livelihood. It’s a tough watch, not least because it’s not often that we see the messier side of poor mental health – manic episodes, failing at work, being unable to show up for friends when we can’t show up for ourselves. The 2010s may have seen the mainstreaming of wellness and therapy speak, with mental health initiatives such as Time to Talk, alongside much more awareness about depression and anxiety. But what happens when your mental distress isn’t widely understood, or easy to digest? What happens when it’s ugly, uncomfortable and long-term?

“It’s very confronting,” says Coughlan, who found playing Maggie an education. “It makes us go, ‘How willing are we to give people grace? How much do we understand?” She talks about the narrative of “it’s okay not to be okay and it’s good to talk – but what happens when it goes into a more difficult place than that?”

West agrees: “Mental illness is sometimes glamorised on TV, but it’s not glamorous. It’s dark and it’s awful and if you’re related to someone going through a crisis, that’s not often seen.” Indeed, we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to understanding the reality of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or the side effects of antipsychotic medication.

In many ways, the darkness at the core of Big Mood follows in the footsteps of many of the great millennial comedies. Girls explored OCD, Fleabag grief, I May Destroy You racism and rape. Like all those, the comedy in Big Mood doesn’t exist in spite of the darker moments – the two are intertwined. At one point, Maggie tries to appeal to her agent using the casual, relatable language that we so often use online. “Heyyy girlie, I’ve just been having some ‘mental health stuff’,” she says, rolling her eyes like an overfamiliar TikToker. It’s a scene that’s as bleak as it is funny and funny because it’s so bleak.

“Camilla,” says Coughlan, “will always go, ‘It’s a comedy, it’s a comedy, it’s a comedy.’ And it totally is. But she’s not afraid to go to the dark places. And you have to – to tell the story properly.” – Guardian

Big Mood starts on Channel 4 on March 28th

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