There is an astonishing episode in Georgia Pritchett’s hugely enjoyable new memoir, My Mess Is a Bit of a Life, in which her 10-year-old brother, Matt, is snatched in the street by a knife-wielding maniac while the pair are walking to school. This is south London in the 1970s, and Pritchett, who is six years old at the time, can only stand on the pavement and stare in horror. The man is disarmed by police, Pritchett’s brother is released unharmed and, along with the rest of her family, she adjourns to the local station, where the now 53-year-old’s presiding memory of the morning is not of trauma, but of the moment a police horse does a really long wee and nobody knows where to look. It was, she says over Zoom from west London, “very British and symbolic of us having to face a difficult thing that we didn’t want to talk about” – in other words, the typifying approach to life and art of the British comedy writer.
With credits on everything from Veep and Have I Got News for You to Miranda, The Thick of It and Succession, Pritchett is one of the country’s most successful screenwriters, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from her book. My Mess Is a Bit of a Life follows the writer through her semi-bohemian childhood – her mother, Josephine Haworth, is an author; her father, Oliver (nicknamed “the Patriarchy”), a journalist and columnist; and her grandfather was the writer VS Pritchett – to her early years in TV and beyond, and the joy of it is that it is firmly rooted in self-deprecation. By her own admission, Pritchett is overanxious, neurotic, oddly proportioned (she has, she says, an unusually long torso and remarkably short legs, such that “the overall effect is more ferret than human”), and almost fatally self-effacing. A typical episode features Pritchett in labour with her first son, trying to give birth without causing a fuss, while her girlfriend – known only as The Moose – makes small talk with the doctor. Eventually, it becomes too much: “‘Sorry to interrupt, but the baby is coming out of my body,’ I said politely, as the baby’s head appeared. Then I lost consciousness.”
It’s a comic persona undergirded by steel; you don’t succeed as the only woman in the room, in an area as competitive as comedy writing, without a certain bedrock of self-confidence. For Pritchett, it was a question of finding a small corner of the writing landscape that none of her family had colonised. “I think writing was the only thing I’d never been confused about,” she says. Nonetheless, it took her a while to take off. After school and teacher training college, she had a miserable few months in a primary school in the Midlands. Then came a stint on the deli counter at Harrods. (“I sold weird curled gnarled dried meats that were very expensive and smelled of the fart you would later be doing.”)
In the late 1980s eventually, and very tentatively, she sent off a few jokes to the Radio 4 comedy show Week Ending. “I knew I couldn’t be a writer like my grandfather, because I hate describing things and don’t have adjectives. And I knew I couldn’t be a journalist like my dad, because I don’t care about facts. And it was my mum who said: ‘Well, you’ve got an ear for dialogue.’ And I thought: ‘Oh yeah, I do like dialogue.’ It felt like my own area that I could fail or thrive in without feeling there’d be any comparisons.”
It took a long time for Pritchett to ascend from what she calls “the lowest of the low” – gigs such as fourth writer to the left on, for example, the Spice Girls movie – and looking back, it’s hard not to read being a woman as the biggest inhibitor. She is very good on the strand of sexism that runs from her school days all the way to the current British TV industry. “One way of knowing you have crossed from girlhood to womanhood,” she writes, “is that men stop furtively masturbating at you from bushes and start shouting things at you from cars.”
During those early years of contributions to Week Ending she was credited as “George Pritchett”, since it was assumed that, like all the other contributors, she was a man. For a short time, while writing for Spitting Image in the early 90s, she was briefly in the company of Debbie, another female writer. When Pritchett heard how her male colleagues talked about Debbie behind her back, she realised they must talk about her this way, too. “People commented on her looks, her weight, her age, her background, the fact that she had never been to university.” It was, she says, often the case that while producers might see the value of including a female writer on a show, “why on earth would you need two? That would be ridiculous.”
And then there is what happened in an elevator when she was 25 years old and writing for a 60-year-old entertainer – “one of my comedy heroes” – whom she chooses not to name. One night, on location, he jumped in the hotel lift with her, pushed her against the wall and stuck his tongue down her throat. The following day, he pounced a second time. Twenty-five years later, the man called her to apologise and Pritchett found herself saying, to her horror, that “it was fine and it didn’t matter”.
She felt tremendous self-loathing in the wake of this call. “I think that, just as when it first happened, it was a shock, and neither time I responded in the way I wish I had. It’s partly a female thing, and partly a people-pleaser thing: that my response is to not want to make a fuss, or make someone feel unhappy or uncomfortable. I felt all those years had passed and yet my response was still not authentic, and not what I wanted to do or say.” She didn’t name him, she says, “because in a way, it isn’t important who it is. It’s important what happened and how common that was.”
It’s surprising Pritchett didn’t have a nosebleed. Since childhood, this has been her primary method of communicating repressed feelings: “Sometimes it’s trying not to cry, and the wrong liquid comes out in the wrong place; perfectly normal way of expressing your emotions!” she says, and she had a couple just last week. Her characters have them, too; while working on Armando Iannucci’s Washington satire Veep, she suggested that Gary, Selina Meyer’s devoted bag man, would react to her becoming president by having a nosebleed, and it was duly turned into a brilliant comic scene.
The repression is curious, in some ways. The family Pritchett grew up in was loving and liberal. There was, apparently, no issue when, after a period of valiantly trying to date men, she announced she would henceforth be dating women. And yet, she writes: “Feelings are like pickled eggs – best left unopened, no matter how drunk you are.” It isn’t fear of censure, she says, but more a question of habit. “Because [my family] are all writers, and they’re all funny, our language was to make each other laugh. That’s a great tool to have, a great coping strategy. And then when I was older, and that was literally my job as a comedy writer, it felt like my job was to be happy. So then it became harder and harder to express anything that was not funny or happy.”
Some of the most affecting parts of the book involve the conception and birth of the two sons she shares with The Moose, and the years of turmoil as their eldest was taken from specialist to specialist with suspected autism. They were told by doctors that he might never speak (he did). For a while, not even nosebleeds could adequately express the fear of what the doctors were telling them. Her son, referred to in the book by his nickname “the Speck” – so called because he was such a large baby – is now a happy, non-neurotypical almost-15-year-old, but for a while the landscape looked very bleak, so much so that when Pritchett’s car once stalled on a level crossing, she was tempted to sit there and wait for the train. (“Then I thought about the train driver and all the people on the train and I steered the car out of the way.”)
These days, the biggest problem is the smell. “I was prepared for the shoes to get enormous, but when you open the bedroom door there’s just this … smell. I didn’t know hormones smell. Someone once said to me you can describe the life of a boy in three liquids; Calpol, Ketchup and Lynx. We’re definitely into the Lynx stage of boyhood. Pretty horrific.”
Those early years of the Speck’s life were stressful, too, as they coincided with Pritchett’s career catching fire as she was hired to work on Veep. This entailed stints in LA and Pritchett found herself in an American writing room, a wholly different environment from what she was used to, not least because, for the first time in 25 years, there were other female writers.
“I’d had no idea what I’d been missing. It was so extraordinary to sit in a room with someone who has similar experiences and frames of reference. It was so pathetically validating. Really. And that’s why, I think, I now persistently work in the States. Because it’s just fantastic working with other women, and I love it.”
Also: “I don’t really get work in the UK,” she says. “Whereas my male equivalents who worked on Veep and Succession and The Thick of It – they’ve all got their own shows.” It is, she says, “the combination of suggesting things with women leads, which doesn’t tend to go down well, and mumbling, socially inadequate men who just want to work with other mumbling, socially inadequate men. I think the States has absolutely proved itself to be a horrifically racist and sexist place in the last few years. And yet in the television world, it’s definitely more diverse.”
In America, Pritchett has more work than she knows what to do with. She just finished final cuts on The Shrink Next Door, a miniseries she wrote starring Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell. She is writing Tunnel 29, a show based on a true story of cold war era Berlin, to be directed by Craig Mazin, who made the TV miniseries Chernobyl. And she is working on something with Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and with Simon Pegg on a TV version of the film Galaxy Quest.
It is an impressive slate for someone whose sweatshirt bears the words “socially inadequate”. Surely this tone doesn’t land in the US, where self-deprecation is regarded with suspicion? “In work, they want to feel that you’re 100% confident and committed, and there’s no doubt or self-loathing. You have to keep that to yourself.” It’s a great joy of her book that she has broken this rule.
‘Spam-related incidents’: An extract from My Mess Is a Bit of a Life
School was a hideous shock. For one thing, it was full of children and children are really noisy. It made me incredibly anxious. As I stepped into school, it was like being winded. I couldn’t speak, I could barely breathe. People would say I was shy. Teachers would demand that I speak. But the words just wouldn’t come. They were there but they were out of my reach.
Finding my voice
At school I spent every second of my time with My Best Friend David. We held hands all day. I would wear my yellow polyester smock and my green polyester flares. He would wear a zip-up brown polyester cardigan and purple polyester flares. We were a highly flammable couple. My Best Friend David was more confident than me. My Best Friend David didn’t worry. My Best Friend David liked talking to people. My Best Friend David liked new things and adventure. My Best Friend David encouraged me to speak. He did this by teaching me to swear. But he explained that if we said a syllable each it wouldn’t be so bad.
My Best Friend David: Fu
My Best Friend David: No
Those were my first words at school.
I went to a school where you only had to go to school if you felt it was right for you to go to school that day. Quite often I felt it was right for me to stay at home and play with the dog. When I did go to school, we spent a lot of time lying on the carpet or expressing ourselves through finger painting or plasticine. The closest I got to doing maths was when my teacher Jean sent me out to buy cigarettes for her and I had to come back with the right change. Sometimes my other teacher, Howard, took me home on the back of his motorbike. Occasionally Henry, the headmaster, would gather us all together and decide we were going to have A Proper Lesson. He would sometimes tell us about the plague or else about triangles. But usually he got us to write haikus. He seemed really determined that if nothing else we would master the Japanese tradition of short form poetry.
Is the only thing I learnt
When I was at school.
I used to be scared of school lunches. There was so much noise and there were such strong smells and there was a lot of brown food. I would only ever eat Spam because that was pink. A boy in my class would only eat custard. He used to be called ‘Just custard’ because that’s what he would say. One day, the custard jug got knocked out of the Dinner Lady’s hand and the hot custard poured onto his head. He had to go to hospital. I stopped having Spam after that because I was worried I would be injured in a Spam-related incident.
Apart from Spam and custard, this was my diet when I was a child: I drank either lemonade or neat Ribena with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast would be Smarties, Jelly Tots or Spangles. Lunch might be a spoonful of peanut butter dipped in a jar of sugar. Then sherbet poured in lemonade for pudding. My favoured dinner was 1p sweets – flying saucers, cola bottles, jelly foam mushrooms or maybe a Black Jack, if I was feeling sophisticated. Then for pudding, a chocolate milkshake but with only enough milk to make it into a paste. The advantage of having a high-sugar diet is that you don’t feel anxious for a while. Though you do get tummy aches and blurred vision.
For some reason I had very bad teeth as a child. One day I had to have a tooth removed by the dentist. I worried about this A LOT. When I came round, I found out he had removed SIX teeth. He hadn’t wanted to tell me because he thought I would worry. This taught me that when you are worried about a Bad Thing happening, the Bad Thing Will Probably Be Even Worse Than You Think It’s Going to Be.