It’s been a long time since Brenda Blethyn starred in a studio sitcom on our shores.
Some three decades, in fact, for those who recall her leading role opposite Simon Callow in much-loved 80s sitcom Chance In A Million.
But now the star, who is known for her portrayals of eccentric, working-class women, is dusting off her skills and returning to the fold in ITV’s brand-new six-part comedy, Kate And Koji.
“I’ve done a couple of them in America, and I suppose it is kind of similar, but there’s a different vibe,” muses Blethyn, 74, when we catch her on a break between rehearsals.
“It’s lovely having the audience in, it’s really nice.”
Filmed in front of a live audience, Kate And Koji, written by the brains behind Outnumbered, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, centres on Kate, the owner of a seaside cafe who forms an unexpected friendship with Koji, an African asylum seeker cum qualified doctor.
Although from very different worlds, it’s soon evident they share similar traits, including a dogged determination to never back down.
While Golden Globe winner Blethyn shines as Kate, it’s down to Jimmy Akingbola to play Koji, whose previous studio sitcom experience lies in The Crouches; a short-lived BBC series that demised in 2005.
“It’s a hybrid,” says the Londoner, 41. “You’ve got that mixture of a live audience to bounce off and negotiate the laughs; whereas when it’s single cam, you just say the lines and never really know if it lands.”
So what does the duo make of the title characters’ spirited relationship?
“She is a bit scathing but she’s got the wrong idea, blaming him for sitting there (in her cafe) because he’s unemployed,” Blethyn begins.
“You soon discover that she’s got a heart underneath all that – and that’s just what most people do think about immigrants coming into (the country).”
“At the same time, he’s a little bit pompous… And I’m probably being kind to him there!” Akingbola teases.
“He’s defensive. There’s that air of, ‘Do you know I’m a doctor? I’ve got a big house in West Africa somewhere. I’m above all this, but I know I’m a part of it.’ And yet he still displays that caring quality.
“They’re stuck in their ways but they are kind people, once they get over the arguing,” he reasons.
Joining them is Kate’s “peacekeeper” nephew, Medium, played by Blake Harrison; Councillor Bone, portrayed by Barbara Flynn; and Dr Ayesha Radwan, played by the brilliant Meera Syal.
Aside from the laughs, however, there’s a serious subject matter at stake too.
An asylum seeker who is fleeing persecution, Koji is billed as a proud, professional man, who is bewildered at finding himself marooned in Seagate (a fictional town in south Essex).
And it’s all too recognisable a scenario, Akingbola empathises: “I met a guy who’s in a similar situation to Koji – and they do get sent out of London into all these different towns and what not.
“So he really is a fish out of water, but also he’s not alone when he talks about being in a hostel. There are tons just like him.
“There’s the comedy aspect, but it’s got to come from truth,” he follows. “I didn’t want people just laughing at him or at the situation. I wanted us to really bring it to the forefront and educate people and go there and expose it, in terms of how difficult it is.
“If you get £5 a day and town is a bus ride out of the way, how do you get your shopping? And if you don’t have friends and access to money elsewhere, how do you function? How do you survive?
“So while this is a great comedy, the writers don’t shy away from the truth and how people are, having been in Koji’s position for months or years at a time, just waiting,” he notes.
Kate And Koji is on ITV, Wednesdays at 8pm.
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