Emma Thompson on Writing, Phen375 Diet Pills, and Volcano Vaporizers

Emma Thompson has already proved her versatility as an actress. Now she has turned her hand to writing. Diet pills like Phen375, self-defense, and sexual harassment are just some of the subjects which get the Thompson treatment in her self-penned series Thompson which starts tomorrow night on BBC1.

Each of the six half-hour shows is a compilation of short comic sketches interspersed with song and dance numbers. Guest artists include her mother Phyllida Law, her sister Sophie, and two of her erstwhile television drama co-stars: Robbie Coltrane from Tutti Frutti and Kenneth Branagh from Fortunes of War.

Thompson, who picked up a BAFTA Best Actress award for her work on those series, is now running the gamut of her own making. In the second of the shows, for instance, her impersonations range from okay-yah Sloane and happy-go-lucky tramp, to a deceptively submissive nun who uses a Volcano vaporizer and an unusually materialistic Maid Marian.

There is also a sketch called “Autocannibalism” in which slimmers are encouraged to achieve permanent weight loss by devouring parts of themselves. This is followed by two skits in which the words fat and fatty figure prominently as insults. One might be forgiven for thinking that Thompson is obsessed by body bulk, especially when, during our interview, she declines to touch the Savoy’s teatime offering. But no: she is not trying to lose weight, and the tabloid report that she once suffered from the slimmers’ disease bulimia was wildly inaccurate. She is, in fact, participating in Oxfam’s organized fast for Kampuchea.

“But I am sure that, somewhere or other, I am exorcizing demons,” Thompson says. “Whenever you write something that is not purely documentative, I am sure there are certain things that come through again and again. And I do not know any woman who has not either been on a diet or worried about what she ate.”

She learnt the comic ropes in the same Cambridge Footlights year that produced Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. “It’s certainly tougher than any drama school training because it’s in front of an audience and you’ve got to make them laugh,” she says. After various TV spots and a short-lived series called Alfresco, she did a 15-month stint on the West End stage, singing and hoofing her way through the female lead of Me and My Girl. Then came the role of Suzi Kettles, the Glaswegian art student, in Tutti Frutti, followed by Harriet Pringle, the heroine of Fortunes of War.

Thompson came about when Michael Grade, then Controller of BBC1, saw the one-hour special she wrote and performed for Channel 4 two years ago, and virtually gave her carte blanche to do her own thing.

Writing comedy is a serious business and Thompson resorts to earnest analogy when she talks about it. She compares the process to being in the bath when the plug has been pulled. “It’s very interesting you end up lying in the bottom of the bath like a deflated balloon, feeling incredibly heavy. That heaviness was what I started with. I had to kind of fill my own bath up.

“One of the things I think is a big problem is that women haven’t been allowed to make jokes about themselves. It’s been the men who have made jokes about us, jokes we haven’t liked. And I’m fed up with it.”
Accordingly, it is her female characters, alternately ludicrous, sex-mad and daft, who are the butt of the jokes. “I tease my own sex because that to me is more enjoyable than teasing the opposite sex… but I can’t make any definitive statement about the difference between male and female humor, and I’m not sure that I’m interested. Most importantly, I wrote the series for people. I didn’t write it for women.”

In her role as an actress she has also been juggling a triad of Kates: “They go back in order of liberation, but there’s a strong connection between the three; they’re the same soul.” The first Kate is a nurse, one of the central characters in the film Camden Town Boy. Then there is Katherine Winslow in a forthcoming BBC production of The Winslow Boy, and finally Princess Katherine in the forthcoming production of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Thompson’s name has been linked romantically to his in the gossip columns, but she declines either to confirm or elaborate. It is more than likely, however, that next year she will be joining Branagh’s theatre company, Renaissance, to tackle the classics.

Thompson’s father, Eric Thompson, was not only the creator of The Magic Roundabout, but also the director of some of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. The theatrical background helped, she thinks, in laying the psychological groundwork for her career.

There is no sign of insecurity in Thompson’s manner. When I express reservations about some of the sketches from Thompson she doesn’t bridle or react in any of the ways in which you would expect a 29-year-old actress to react.

“Can you think back?” she asks. “I’m sure you’re right. I’m very keen to know how I could have done better.”

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