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Britney: Spears, tears, and gratitude

Sketch duo Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson on adapting their hit Edinburgh show for BBC Three, selfishness, and finding the positives from a brain tumour

BBC/Drama Republic Ltd/Anika Molnar

Britney was one of the hits at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016, but not that Britney. Spears fans who bought tickets to the comedy show on the strength of the name alone would have discovered a brain tumour named after the teen-sensation featured more prominently than the actual teen-sensation.

The mononymous pop star lends her name to both sketch duo and childhood friends Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson as well as the name of their show, which has been adapted as a pilot for BBC3. As with the stage show, this tells the story of what happened when Clive was diagnosed with a brain tumour and how the pair handled this life-changing event.

You’ve been living with Britney, in some form or other, for quite some time now…

Charly Clive: Most of our twenties. That’s weird. I never thought of it like that before.

Ellen Robertson: Don’t think about it.

CC: And we also called our duo Britney, so even when we’re not thinking about Britney, we are Britney.

I’m assuming in 2016 you must have had people turning up at the show expecting it to be Spearsalicious…

ER: We use loads of Britney in the stage show. Our whole soundtrack is Britney Spears. When the audience entered the space they would have heard a hell of a lot of Britney.

CC: The pre-show music is all Britney, so if you’re getting ready for a Britney Spears show, you’d think you were right. And then we walk on stage and say, ‘Welcome to the human brain’. Hopefully by the end we’ve won them over.

Did you ever speak to anyone after who said, “I didn’t expect that”?

CC: We did use to have people say they couldn't tell if it was a true story or not, because when we first did the show we never specified it was a true story.

ER: We assumed people would know. We were using our own names and talking about it all, but I guess if you don’t know us… And why would they?

BBC/Drama Republic Ltd/Anika Molnar

It’s quite a subject to invite people into and to assume they’ll understand it’s a true story - I’m unsure people would assume anyone on stage would be that open about themselves…

ER: Stand-up is always so confessional and, even if we kind of know when a comedian says ‘This happened…’ it maybe never did or it happened to someone else, we still buy into the idea it’s confessional. I feel with two or more people in sketch comedy or theatre there is an assumption it isn't necessarily true. We'd forgotten this, because we were so in the mindset it’s a comedy. We thought of the show as a two-person stand up; there are lots of characters, but it is the same sort of format that we’re used to seeing from a solo comedian. We are very honest on stage. Too honest…

CC: Sometimes people say ‘Your comedy is so brave’, which is really sweet. But brave kind of implies we’ve earned it, but really it’s a big treat for us. If anything, it’s selfish. We go on stage to have the best time of our lives and also slightly exorcise some demons which people have paid for the privilege to watch. If anything, we're taking advantage of the people that sit down and watch the show.

How has it been returning to the show to adapt it for TV? Has your view of the show changed in the process?

ER: It feels like we’re always coming back to it and it’s always really different. Even the Edinburgh run was completely different to when we did it at the Soho Theatre three years later, after Charly had been through another six weeks of radiotherapy.

When we were writing it, we were looking back not only on the period of our lives where the brain tumour was happening, but also the period of our lives where we were writing the show. Sometimes we become really emotional when we think about it or write certain bits. On other days, we just laugh constantly.

CC: Totally. Often, the emotional stuff is not the stuff that you would expect it to be. Sometimes one of us will remind the other which jumper we were wearing. The clarity of that will be the thing that will make you go, ‘Oh, God’. The details are an acknowledgement of the fact that it actually was our life. We're so removed from it now. The way it's become our story is so exciting and to tell that story is such a fun privilege, but at one point it wasn’t and it's sometimes hard to remember that it wasn't. The great gift of doing the show is that we've completely taken control of the way we want to think about it.

It was funny in meetings when we'd have to warn Drama Republic, the show’s producers. We’d say, ‘Guys, we're gonna cry sometimes, but don't worry, everything's fine, and we can keep going. There were moments where Ellen was telling an idea, weeping, I'd be laughing, and everyone else was asking, ‘Should we take a break?’

Is there, in any way, a sense of gratitude as to what has happened in terms of how the diagnosis has been a catalyst for this incredibly creative period of your careers and also what it's done for your friendship?

ER: It did afford us more time than we'd had for years in our adult life to hang out together - it definitely allowed the friendship to be important in a way that I think adults don't necessarily allow their friendships to be important.

CC: That's such a good point. I think increasingly it's impossible not to be grateful for it and that is a complicated feeling for both of us.

ER: For you, particularly.

CC: Because you were thrilled initially. When the phone call came through Ellen was, like, ‘Finally!’

ER: The bitch is ill!

CC: It's no picnic by any means, but it has afforded us quite an extraordinary life because of it and I would choose the good with the bad every day of the week; there's nothing about it now that I would change.

We're both out of the other side of it and are the people we are happy to be. Not that we wouldn’t have been without the tumour, but it might have taken us slightly longer to figure out this is exactly what we want to do and you’ve got to do it while you can. And, as Ellen said, it afforded us this time together in that important stage of our life, fledgling adulthood, to say, ‘This isn't just a childish ambition anymore - this is what we want to do with our lives.’

Is the rest of the series written?

ER: We have a lot of it in our heads. We can't bear to commit it to paper until we know whether it will happen or not. It would be too sad to burn the scripts.

CC: Or we could use them as weapons to whack people with. We’ve known all of the series for ages...

ER: Will you survive?

CC: [Charly crosses both sets of fingers] Let’s hope.

That’s some serious divergence from the source material if not...

CC: Imagine if the BBC said, ‘We want to commission it, but we want a sad ending.’

ER: I’d say, “Done!”

Britney is streaming now on the iPlayer

BBC/Drama Republic Ltd/Anika Molnar

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