Interview: Sarah Solemani
Is it possible to write a comedy about a couple living on benefits without it being perceived as a commentary on Broken Britain?
Sarah Solemani thinks so. She plays Becky in Him & Her - a sitcom about Steve and Becky, a couple of happy benefit bums who never leave their bedsit. In some ways it is very BBC3 - featuring, as the continuity announcer might put it, strong language and frank discussion of sex. There is also quite a lot of going to the toilet (with sound effects) which leaves little to the imagination.
Solemani, whose career highlights have included roles in Mrs Henderson Presents alongside Judi Dench, and the BBC series Silent Witness, feels that the show, despite all its crudity and tendency to shock, is at it its core, a love story.
"It's about two people who don't have much but happen to love each other. They do go out and get drunk and they do have a PlayStation but they don't go on holiday and they don't read books.
"They're happy to be in love and the lack of work doesn't happen to be a problem for them. It really isn't socio-economic comment, it's about the components of this relationship and these characters."
However, Cambridge-educated Solemani does think that the show might have a significance beyond a simple character study. She says: "We are often fed the line that people who live on benefits are loveless, greedy, selfish spongers. But this is quite a sweet insight into how two people might make life bearable in that situation. True, they are lazy but in a fabulous way rather than a lethargic, spongy sort of way."
If the subject matter is not exactly Terry and June, neither is the staging. Writer Stefan Golaszewski sets the action entirely within Steve and Becky's bedsit, with action - all in real time - punctuated by visits from friends and relatives. "Occasionally, their mates will try to get them out but all they want to do is have sex, eat, watch TV or drink tea and eat toast. There's a lot of toast. Normally when you're filming something you might have a shot in a café or show someone walking down the street but this is literally within these four walls."
Although Him & Her is on the BBC's "youth" channel, Solemani hopes that viewers will see past the carefully choreographed grossness to the quality of the writing. "I don't think it is coarse or graphic for the sake of it. It's just trying to capture that private space that we all have. The moment that a third person comes into that space, it all changes. The scripts are really impressive. They have a Mike Leigh quality about them."
Solemani is well qualified to comment on the writing - her own work has been produced both at the Soho Theatre and The Old Vic and she is fascinated by what she calls the "art of comedy". She said: "I'm attracted to the musicality of it. A good comedy sketch should be like a song - there should be no beat out of place."
So does she prefer writing or acting? "I realised I need to do both. I'm about to do another Silent Witness and that's great. But after that I crave to use a different side of my brain. And I've kind of blagged it that I can. I've no idea how that happened."
She feels blessed as far as her career is concerned. "I remember going to plays when I was a child and thinking 'I bet could do that'. I joined the National Youth Theatre and had an agent by the time I was 16 so I never thought about jobs."
In fact, Solemani did not even make it to drama school. She made her West End debut as Elaine in The Graduate as a teenager and resumed her career after Cambridge where she was vice-president of the Footlights.
"My boyfriend says he finds it amazing that I've never had to go to a career fair in my life," she laughs.