In the spring of 2020, as the country entered lockdown for the first time, sisters Kat Sadler and Lizzie Davidson had a long-overdue catchup on the phone. They both had terrible news to share: Davidson had accrued £20,000 worth of debt while Sadler had experienced a “complete mental health crash” and been sectioned after attempting to end her life twice.
Did the pair respond to each other with solemn compassion? Not exactly. In fact they instantly decided it was “terrifying but also hilarious that we’d ended up in these positions in our lives,” says Sadler. “We’re not serious people, so even the attempt to be serious on the phone telling each other what had gone on, we just couldn’t do it.” Davidson agrees: “We always find the absurdity in everything – that’s our coping mechanism.”
It didn’t end there. Sadler, a standup turned TV joke writer, immediately started work on a script inspired by their conversation, and three years later it has become the sitcom Such Brave Girls – hands down the funniest British comedy of the year. It stars Sadler as twentysomething Josie (nervy, indecisive, people-pleasing, recently sectioned and coming to terms with her sexuality) and Davidson as her younger sister Billie (aggressive, vain, dangerously obsessed with her on-off boyfriend Nicky). It is pitch-black, hysterically funny and brutally unsentimental – a zillennial Nighty Night.
A week before broadcast, the pair – who are from Sutton in London – are practically vibrating with anticipation. “I sit down every morning and click through to next week on the TV planner to see the name of the show come up. I’m such a loser,” says Davidson (the sisters have different surnames because Sadler is a stage name). The filming process was similarly nerve-racking. “Before every table read we would call each other crying and panicking,” says Davidson, still slightly breathless. “We had such bad impostor syndrome.”
Neither had any real prior screen acting experience. Sadler, who is 29, had carved out a career writing for TV shows including The Mash Report and Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back. Davidson, 26, had been performing in the interactive children’s show Shrek’s Adventure on London’s South Bank, where she continually encountered “abusive children who really try to upset you. So any hate that’s coming is going to wash over me,” she deadpans. (Inspired by this, Billie works as a witch at the bleak-looking Kidz Cauldron.)
Such Brave Girls may prove divisive. It is packed with jokes about sex, death, abortion and suicide. But it is never uncomfortable or mean. That’s partly because it is firmly rooted in truth: Sadler and Davidson can go there because they are essentially poking fun at themselves; taking what they say are the worst bits of their personalities and implanting them into Josie and Billie. The former shares Sadler’s belief that “my trauma makes me interesting. There’s also the selfishness and the narcissism.” Billie has Davidson’s “obsession with attention, needing validation through the way men look at her, the way even women look at her. She’s also very loud and rude.” Davidson adopts a faux-indignant look. “And I’m nothing like that so it’s weird that she wrote that.”
In the series, Davidson’s real-life debt has been transferred to Josie and Billie’s mum, Deb, who was left in the red by the girls’ father after he went out for teabags 10 years ago and never returned. (I presume their real father didn’t do the same? “No, not teabags,” says Sadler.) The series sees Deb desperately attempt to lock down new love interest Dev (Benidorm’s Paul Bazely) so that the three of them can move into his big, fancy house. Sherlock’s Louise Brealey plays Bev bracingly against type as a raging narcissist desperate for her daughters to look “feminine”, and actively annoyed by her eldest’s mental health struggles.
In episode one she chastises Josie because her sad face is preventing Dev from getting an erection. She is a fictional character, the sisters insist, but the dialogue “was inspired by the way me and my mum talk to each other”, says Sadler. “And I do find with our mum that she does get cross if I don’t shave my legs. It’s very important to her. I find that generation’s obsession with femininity so funny.”
Despite Deb’s cartoonish ferocity – at one point she threatens to slit Josie’s throat – Such Brave Girls is, at its heart, a wildly relatable portrait of the mother-daughter-daughter dynamic. Even more impressive is the way Sadler has managed to mine so many belly laughs from severe mental health issues. A lot of them come from Deb and Billie’s unabashed irritation at everything Josie says or does, but the show is also a sendup of Sadler herself. “Kate [Davidson’s name for Kat] could have easily written Josie in a very worthy way, but instead she was like, “I want people to take the piss out of me because I am annoying. I have dragged this out too long,” says Davidson as Sadler giggles. “I think seeing depression in that way makes it less scary.”
Despite Josie’s depressive history, it is Billie who routinely threatens to kill herself (with a kitchen knife, and also a toilet), often in streams of hilariously unhinged messages to the utterly blase Nicky. She will go to any lengths to attract his attention, including frothing at the mouth in agony as she bleaches her hair – something Davidson actually once did. “A lot of the chaotic stuff you might think is unbelievable is probably real,” she admits.
As deliciously dark as the series is, it could have been even more so. During the writing process, the pair competed to “gross each other out. Really freak each other out. And then we’d send it in and [the producers] would be like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do that …,” says Davidson. The show is co-produced by hip powerhouse A24. Sadler says they were told series one needed to earn the audience’s trust before they could push things even further. “We could be braver as we go on – but I think it’s already pretty brave now.”
One thing Sadler wasn’t prepared to compromise on was the sitcom form. She was dead against turning Such Brave Girls into a gently amusing dramedy, recently telling the BBC she was “bored of watching shows that feel very safe” and “nice”. Director Simon Bird (best known for playing Will from The Inbetweeners) was fully on board with Sadler’s desire “to make it purely funny but also be dealing with tough things.” Sadcom-style reverence was out: “I think if you treat things delicately they become more scary.”
Sadler’s comedic touchstones for the series included Sharon Horgan’s 00s sitcom Pulling, Peep Show (“I feel like we’re twisted versions of Mark and Jeremy”) and the Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson. “He’s so good at being a character who’s innately full of pain but trying to project an image as though he’s in control. I wanted to channel that into Billie – there’s a lot of madness behind the eyes.”
The real-life-sisters’ energy may also bring to mind other sitcoms starring siblings: Daisy May and Charlie Cooper’s This Country, Jamie and Natasia Demetriou in Stath Lets Flats and, more recently, Juice, featuring Mawaan Rizwan and his brother Nabhaan. Sadler and Davidson say they bonded like never before during the writing process. “Maybe it’s different for other sisters, but sometimes you keep your secrets to yourself,” says Davidson. “With this we would just tell each other really dark, horrible things and laugh about them so much.” But their familiarity also meant emotions flared on set. Sadler admits she neglected to learn her lines for one scene, which made Davidson “absolutely furious: why would you let me down like that? Also, whenever I had a closeup she would just be looking down at the script the whole time. I was acting against a wall. She was giving me nothing!”
Despite these niggles, the project was a dream come true for Davidson. Beforehand she was “flailing massively. I had no purpose in my life at all. Kate pointed me in the right direction and pulled me along – thank you, baby.” Sadler believes her sister “felt like there was a cap on what she could achieve. It was amazing to get her to open her eyes to how talented she is. She’s irritatingly funny – I could spend years writing something and then she’ll think of something on the spot that’s a million times funnier.” Indeed, Davidson’s performance is a comic tour de force.
Such Brave Girls proved a lifeline for Sadler too. “This show saved the both of us,” says Davidson. Channeling their problems into comedy has been “so cathartic” agrees Sadler, who also says it gave her “that fire back”. Now, everything they told each other during that fateful phonecall “hurts so much less – because we made it funny”.
Such Brave Girls begins on BBC Three on 22 November
In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, call or text Mental Health America at 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978