Flowers: Interview with writer-director Will Sharpe who plays Shun

Category: News Release

First off, season one – you must have been thrilled with the reception the show got.

Yes, although it was kind of surreal more than anything else. It all happened very quickly. Once Channel 4 had made the decision to strip it across a week, the slot that seemed to make the most sense was quite soon after we’d started post-production, so the whole thing was a bit of a whirlwind of trying to finish it and get it out. It took a while to sink in. Possibly it still hasn’t. And also I had nothing to compare it to. But I was definitely grateful for people having watched it and did have a sense of the overall reception. I tried not to think about it too much.


Is that because a successful first series means there’s added pressure for series two? Did you feel that? Did you have that ‘difficult second album’ syndrome?

I think I probably felt the pressure initially, because you don’t want to let anyone down. But I don’t think we’d have embarked on a second series if we hadn’t wanted to, if it hadn’t felt like there was unfinished business. So, in that sense, it didn’t weigh as heavily as it could have done, in that it didn’t feel like it was just for the sake of it. There were still things to say, things there wasn’t space to explore fully in the first series. The other thing that I feel is important to mention is that the audience’s response, particularly surrounding the mental health story, was hugely motivating. And also that we never really stopped. As soon as the first series was over, we were talking about the second series. So I never felt like I had left the world of “Flowers”. A lot of the pressure just came from us loving the characters and wanting to do them justice.


So how is the second series different?

One thing I was keen to do with the second series was to keep it the same show, but to move it on, to broaden the world and deepen it. I guess the first thing you might notice is that it’s set in a different season. Where the first series had an autumnal, wintery palette, was about depression and was set against the fairytale world of Maurice’s children’s books, the second series is set in summer and is more about manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s now more commonly known, which contains within it depression. The story of Maurice’s mental illness continues and how it impacts on his relationship with Deborah and his family, but this time the central seam is Amy’s journey of gradually discovering that she has bipolar disorder. Her manic, or hypomanic, state of mind, along with the summer setting, are also reflected in the new palette, which is colourful and warm and bright, as well as the music and the editing and the overall energy of this series, which is often quite wild and epic, like a kind of rush.


Where do we start at the opening of season 2 – where do we find the characters?

I guess it’s about two years later and I was keen for it to feel that time had passed. So that’s partly reflected in how the characters look and also a little bit how the world looks, to try and make the first series feel like a memory, as it would to the characters. Deborah has been working on a book about Maurice’s depression and that’s been her way, I suppose, of processing the events of the first series. And also to reclaim a sense of independence, perhaps, that she might have felt she’d lost over time. Maurice is on medication and trying to implement the tools that have been given to him from treatment. He’s seemingly in a better place, but as the series goes on I think we realise it’s not as simple as everything suddenly being rosy and perfect. Even if it’s not problems born directly out of you, there will might problems from those around you that will challenge your mental state. Donald is increasingly frustrated by his inability to grow up and has started an independent plumbing business. He’s a sexually frustrated young man. I think he’s sort of become an embarrassing dad before even starting a family or even having any sexual or romantic experience, or lived any kind of life beyond a sort of adolescent man-boy. His journey is interesting, because on the surface he’s the clown, but he’s also vigilant and in some ways understands Amy better than anyone else. He wants people to take him seriously. Amy on the other hand seems to have found her feet and is pursuing her music with her female music group “The Pink Cuttlefish Orchestra”. It’s almost a kind of weird experimental performance art. They come to stay at the house because she’s working on her next show. At the same time, she starts to get interested in her grandfather Felix, Maurice’s dad - an apparently quite temperamental and arrogant magician who ran away from home, abandoning Maurice and his mum when Maurice was a little boy. They’ve never really talked about it as a family, but Amy’s curiosity is piqued. She finds a book amongst Felix's belongings called "Baumgaertner", which is full of strange and violent Baroque style paintings that seem to tell a story. Amy tries to set these images to music and her increasingly fizzy state of mind becomes a sort of portal into the world of “Baumgaertner".


You didn’t mention Shun, the character you play. The show is about a family, and it’s named after them, but Shun is the other key character. What’s his role in the show, why is he there? He’s comic relief, but he’s more than that, isn’t he?

Yes. I think he, as a character, is asking that same question about himself, and about his position within the family. He is trying to feel at home and maintain a sense of purpose among the Flowers. On the one hand, he is very welcomed into their household and they are his friends. On the other hand, he isn’t a part of that family in a biological sense and, now that Maurice is not writing "Grubbs", he feels somewhat at a loss as to what to do with himself and underlying issues start to bubble up to the surface. Shun came from my desire to feed some of the flavours of Japanese comedy that I grew up watching into the show. And then, like all the other characters, he challenged his position in the sitcom and started to show me other aspects of his character.


Flowers is by no means your average sitcom. It is often deeply poignant. Are you aware of trying to keep some balance between light and dark, or do you just get on with telling your story and the balance is whatever it is?

I definitely do have an eye on the balance overall, partly because I think it makes it funnier if you can buy into these characters as human beings with feelings, however eccentric they might be. And also I think it makes the storytelling more effective if you’ve given space for people to laugh, to relax, before you go somewhere a bit heavier. The actors are all so deft at being extremely silly and funny one minute and then very sensitive and emotive the next, which was always such a pleasure to watch and direct and just generally to be around. The performances are a big part of what defines the tone, as well as the music. The only thing I’ve always been quite militant about is not laughing at anyone’s misfortune or mental state. There has been some discussion about whether it’s a comedy. I don’t really mind what genre it is – in spite of its connotations, I’m quite comfortable calling it a comedy drama, because I think it contains both. But I definitely wouldn’t call it a drama, because these are comedy characters first and foremost and the engine of the story is more often than not comedic, even if it takes us to a difficult place. If I had to side with one, I’d probably call it a comedy. I think it’s helpful to be able to laugh, even when exploring issues that can be painful to think about. I sometimes think of it as a comedy with a mental illness.


Why do you feel the need to tackle mental illness, to deal with bipolar disorder and depression?

I don’t know if I would call it a need, although maybe it was. I just sort of couldn’t help it. I didn’t know how deeply the series would delve into these issues when I first set out making the pilot, for example. It just happened. So my instinct to write about these issues wasn’t socially motivated initially – which isn’t to say how we handled it wasn’t socially motivated and in fact we worked quite closely with the charity Mind on this series, because I wanted to make sure I was handling the subject sensitively. But I was mainly concerned with telling a good story and it always felt like it was the characters who were leading me into more challenging territory. That said, I’m drawing on my own experiences, not directly normally, but how the world looks and feels to me. I have type 2 bipolar and I have always wanted to write about manic depression. I’ve never quite found the right way – until now, maybe. It is a difficult thing to communicate. Depression, weirdly, is arguably a more immediately relatable subject, because even if you don’t have it as a condition, many people might have experienced circumstantial depression, when they’re having a difficult time, or experienced grief perhaps which has some similarities. In that sense, this felt like an ambitious subject to take on, but it made sense to me to make this a different season with different energy and also, perhaps, to look at the two sides of my mental illness.


Do you worry that dealing with stuff that’s so personal and so resonant to your mental condition might in some way impact on your mental health?

Yeah, I did worry about that. I did wonder sometimes: “Is me going into this world, is this good for me?” I still don’t really know the answer. On the one hand, I do find it quite an intense and exhausting world to be in. On the other hand, it’s also a really exhilarating and enriching world. And I love the characters. They’re good company. It was helpful to have it as an outlet I suppose is what I’m saying, a way to process things. So it can be healing as well.


So there’s an element of catharsis to it as well? Or is that a bit glib?

Is it glib? I don’t know… It probably was cathartic. Sometimes when I was writing the series, it felt like stepping into a wind tunnel, or being beaten up by it or something. It was hard going sometimes. But, as it went on, I realised that maybe it was actually helping me and that I was only having a hard time because I was having a hard time, not because I was working on a show that deals partly with mental illness. In the end, it was a very liberating experience to write and make this show, with such a remarkable group of people. So yes maybe it was cathartic.


You worked a bit with Mind on this series – in what way?

We consulted them on the series. They met with Sophia and she talked to someone who had experienced similar things to what Amy goes through during the course of the series. Even though a lot of this is drawing on experience, I wanted to make sure that we were telling the story responsibly and thought it would be no bad thing to have experts cast an eye over it to make sure we weren’t doing anything unhelpful. So they didn’t have a hand in structuring the story, but they reassured us about what we were doing right and helped us to nuance things occasionally. They were extremely helpful and a pleasure to work with.


Is it difficult to concentrate on your own performance, while watching and overseeing everything else?

In some ways it’s helpful to have the scene as a whole to focus on, because it means I don’t have time or space to overthink what I’m doing from a performance point of view. I find it most difficult when Shun is playing a small part in a big group scene, because it’s harder to judge it on the basis of the chemistry in the scene between the other actor, or actors, and me. And there’s normally quite a lot going on already. So I deliberately tried not to write Shun as a bit part in a group scene too many times. When it’s a two-or-three-hander, I don’t find it too difficult, partly because I’m used to it and the cast seem very comfortable with it. We try to keep a really non-hierarchical shoot. We’re all just working our way through it together, trying to find the best way. The atmosphere on set was very collaborative and we all trusted each other. And when it’s your own writing, it’s easier to judge when it feels right than, say, if I was trying to direct someone else’s script and to play a character they’d created at the same time, because I’d constantly be trying to work out if this was what they’d imagined.


What would you like viewers to take away from this series?

One thing I wanted to achieve was to give the audience a sense of how it feels to have a mental illness, or to be around mental illness. Awareness is one thing, but I don’t often get a sense, when I’m reading articles or interviews for example, of how it actually feels, of how relentless it can be, of what it is that’s being asked of people with a mental illness to cope with it, or how painful it can be to love someone who is suffering. At the same time, I also want the audience to feel like living with mental illness doesn’t rule out a joyful and fulfilling life, that it doesn’t rule out laughter and that it doesn’t mean this is a world without hope. The characters in the show make mistakes, as all families do, but they are all trying and, ultimately, they are good to each other. I feel like it doesn’t mean anything to have a positive outlook if you just ignore everything that’s hard. It only means something if you can have a positive outlook while still accepting that there are certain things about this world that are challenging. The making of this show has been an unbelievably enlightening and fulfilling experience for me. I felt incredibly supported, both as creator and just as a person who occasionally has a hard time handling their own head. Throughout the process, from developing the scripts to the shoot to the edit to post-production, there was never any sense of judgement, never any sense of shame from anyone about working on a show that handles these difficult subjects in an unusual and hopefully uplifting way. In fact, maybe the opposite. It almost felt like “Flowers” became a space where we could all safely express our vulnerabilities, could use them to a creative and productive end, to tell a story. We trusted each other and that communion of trust, I think, in turn, has given the show its heart. I would love for the audience to feel like they can be a part of that, of the world of “Flowers”, where everyone is vulnerable and everyone is strong.