As someone who suffers with bipolar, dyslexia and ADHD, when Joe Gilgun began writing his new TV series Brassic, he did it his way – as he always does. Having been encouraged by friend Dominic West to compile the wild stories from his days growing up in Chorley, Lancashire – from nicking horses to selling weed – Gilgun found an output that focused his attention.
The resulting six-part series is an ode to Chorley and its colourful characters. Centred around the story of Vinnie, a character loosely based on Gilgun – both bipolar, both hugely charismatic and witty – we’re taken through kink basements, weed sheds and illegal boxing spots as Vinnie and the gang try to get by in life, backdropped by the Lancashire countryside and the emotional throes that come with finding your place in this mad world.
Alex James Taylor: Congrats on the show, it’s such a great watch and really nails that sweet spot between comedy and drama.
Joe Gilgun: So happy you like it. We try not to hit the rules, we just let the story naturally flow. We have a healthy awareness of when and where we don’t want the comedy, and what we learned in the first series was that we need to be a bit more confident with our emotional moments, because they are there and they hold the show together. Some of that stuff is the most relatable. It’s great having a laugh and turning off after a long day, but you need to be able to connect with these characters.
AJT: When did the idea for the show first pop into your head?
JG: I’d been toying around with the idea for many years. I knew that my stories were funny and I knew that the people I know and the place I come from is colourful. More than anything it started with me embellishing a lot of stories. I’d do it on film sets with middle-class people from London who just love hearing about my escapades, they think you’re fucking hilarious, you know? [laughs] You’ve lived a pretty miserable life stealing fucking horses and selling weed, but they’re finding it hysterically funny. So I began realising that there’s a fucking window here and it’s the perfect size to get through. I end up getting a part in Pride, which is a bloody brilliant film, and I’m with Dominic West a lot. Him and I sort of latched onto each other, two very different people from very different backgrounds, but fuck me, I honestly love that guy, I think the world of him. I’m telling him these stories about getting up to no good and he’s like, [impersonates Dominic West] “These stories are fantastic, you have to turn them into something. You must talk to David Livingstone, I’ll put you in touch with him.” So I said, “If I write it will you be in it?” and he went, “Of course.” So I thought, “I’ve got you now” [laughs]. I go to talk to David and he’s much the same, loves the stories, however he says he needs to see something on paper. But I can’t write, I’m dyslexic, so I’ve not idea what I’m gonna do. I told my best mate Quayle and I think at first he thought it was another bipolar moment, me inventing this thing – I’ve brought him on a lot of bipolar journeys in the past. But anyway, we ended up writing this hybrid book. We didn’t know how to format it, neither of us can type, I can barely write at all. What I didn’t realise at the time was we were finding the process. So we took this hybrid book to David and he was like, “What the fuck is this?” It was pages sellotaped, post-it notes with drawings on, just madness. It was like this big [gestures the size], you can’t shut the fucking thing. It’s all out of order and I’m having to show him, “No, no, no, that page is wrong,” because of the way my fucking dyslexic brain works, it’s a jumble. But that process allowed me to really teach myself the stories, in real detail – to the point of what hair characters have. Because honestly dude, my brain never fucking stops. It’s not always good, it’s very troubled, but it’s constantly going.
“There’s a lot of me in it. How I deal with my problems, my anger issues, my emotional ups and downs. Even down to the name of the drugs I’m on.”
AJT: Do you tend to think visually, does that help you focus?
JG: Yeah, I need to see it in my head. Even when I’m learning a script that someone else has written, I’ll visualise it. So then I was put in touch with Danny Brocklehurst and… It’s like I have this locked door and I don’t know which key goes in the lock, I just need someone to be like, “It’s that one dude, that’s the key.” So Danny was that person. He opened the fucking door and we figured it out. He sits like you are now, puts his phone on record and I just tell him the stories, from start to finish, in detail, acting them out.
AJT: How did you find the process of packaging it down into six episodes? That edit must be tough.
JG: Yeah it’s tough because there’s a lot I want to talk about. The trouble with my head is, it doesn’t think in a linear way. I used to do these paintings and I couldn’t work on one at a time, I had to work on them all at once. Like even now talking to you, there’s a man down there with shades on, and I don’t know why he’s got that orange padding stuff with him and there’s a pigeon over there going towards that wire. You know, my head’s never in one place, it’s all over the shop. So when we go to format and logistically plan the show out, Danny’s the one who organises it while I try and steer it. We all do. We’re such a tight group, they’ve become my best friends, and we’ve had to be in order to get into Vinnie and understand the condition of bipolar. It’s a very difficult condition and I feel like everyone’s very individual. A lot of people might watch the show and go, “Well that’s not what it’s like for me.” And that’s alright, that’s not the story we’re telling, we’re telling mine. Some people will relate to it in areas and others won’t.
AJT: How much of yourself did you want to put into Vinnie’s character?
JG: There’s a lot of me in it. How I deal with my problems, my anger issues, my emotional ups and downs. Even down to the name of the drugs I’m on. I’ve tried to expose myself and the nature of the man I’ve become through dealing with this condition. I want everyone to see how vulnerable I am. I want men to see that you can be vulnerable and still feel like a man. Some of the hardest men and women I know suffer with mental health. A common misconception is that because you have mental health issues, you’re weakminded. I think a lot of people make that assumption, and I think that a lot of people who suffer with mental health feel that way, or are made to feel that way. When actually, those people are doing exactly what everyone else is doing, all the same shit during the day, only they’re really sad, and frightened. Now, that to me is a fucking hero. That’s a tough person. That assumption that mental health issues make you weak, it’s such bollocks. And I believed that. I thought I was. I thought because I have dyslexia I’m stupid and because I have mental health problems I’m weak. I’m neither of those fucking things, I know that now.
AJT: And you address a range of issues within the series, mental health, homosexuality, there’s the guy with the stutter.
JG: I’ll tell you what it is, I wanted to normalise those things. They’re issues because we make them issues. We have a gay guy – he’s just a character that’s gay. We’ve got a muslim guy who plays a character, not a muslim. The microcosm I’ve come from, these ex-mill towns, because they’ve got a proud past and a bit of an identity crisis, it breeds these incredible characters. But because it’s such a small town, these people are normalised and the novelty wears off. There’s a community of fucking cowboys knocking about in Chorley.
AJT: [laughs] Proper cowboys?
JG: Yeah. They’re blokes from Lancashire who dress like cowboys. They meet up on the street and just be cowboys, like calling young kids, “Hey, son.” There’s another guy who wears a wig back-to-front on purpose, he prefers it that way. Nobody gives him a hard time for that, who gives a shit.
AJT: Yeah, I’m from Doncaster and it was the same thing there. There was a bloke who dressed as a pirate, another who wore a tutu, nobody batted an eyelid.
JG: [laughs] They’re fucking happy, what difference does it make to your life that this guy dresses like a pirate. It’s not to say that there aren’t a bunch of nobheads in Chorley too, but it’s right-of-passage in that sort of place.
“Like a lion looks for a fucking gazelle, look for the weakness and take advantage of it, that’s what writers and directors do with actors.”
AJT: You must grow a real emotional attachment to the characters, do you ever feel sorry for them as you write their storyline?
JG: Yeah absolutely I do. Cardy always really moves me because he’s such an innocent, pure lad, he doesn’t understand and he’s very vulnerable. Erin is absolutely heartbreaking too, and little Tyler. Even Jim the farmer, he’s based on a real fella. The guy he’s based on is very, very different to him though. All the characters are massively embellished, I don’t think anyone’s going to watch it and know that’s them – I really hope not anyway [laughs]. I’ve been really careful so people don’t feel like they’re being attacked, exposed or called out. That’s not what I’m here to do, it’s just my end of the story.
AJT: Does your sympathy towards the characters ever change the writing?
JG: No it doesn’t, I’m honest with it. If it’s hurting it’s because it’s real and you need to push forward with it. Find more. Don’t back off or fear putting these characters in difficult positions. The story carries itself in a way, so you can’t avoid putting characters through certain things just because you feel sorry for them. You have to expose them. You have to see the vulnerability and go straight for it. Like a lion looks for a fucking gazelle, look for the weakness and take advantage of it, that’s what writers and directors do with actors.
Brassic premieres on 22nd August via Sky.