Hull and hot water

Hullraisers is the latest comedy series to put the lives of ordinary women centre stage. Its star Leah Brotherhead also reveals why Bridgerton was uncharacteristically unglamorous for her

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Leah Brotherhead is sitting in a functional, if not exactly glamorous dressing room in London’s Unicorn Theatre.

Half an hour earlier, the Hull-born actor was on stage in a new production of Gulliver’s Travels, which she helped to devise and which critics have been falling over themselves to praise.

She is hoping the same love will be extended to her new television show Hullraisers, in which she stars as Toni, a 34-year-old jobbing actor and mother of one who lurches from one mini-crisis to the next.

“I can’t think why they cast me,” laughs Brotherhead, who is the same age as Toni and, while significantly more than a jobbing actor, is admittedly not yet a household name. “I think we’re all socially conditioned to feel that by the time we hit our mid-thirties we should have sorted out our career, our family and our relationships.

“The truth is that most of us struggle just to get through the day without falling apart and that’s all right. Everyone is screaming into their pillow at night about something, and that’s really the basis of the show.”

Hullraisers has been given a prime slot on Channel 4 right after Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls. The two shows share much in common, not least the fact they are set in cities that have had to battle against a troubled reputation.

“Hull is often the butt of the joke,” admits Brotherhead, who grew up around the Princes Avenue area. “As a kid I remember watching an episode of Blackadder where one of the characters was ridiculed for going to Hull University. I realised then that the place I called home was seen as, well, a bit rubbish by the rest of the country.

“Hull has such a strong identity but it is also a forgotten city. That’s partly down to geography – it is the end of the line. The train literally stops at Hull – the next stop would be Amsterdam.

“However, there is so much to love about Hull and this series celebrates it like a hidden treasure. The people are great, its history is rich and the drinks are cheap. I mean, what more could you want?”

With shots of the city’s famous white telephone boxes (Hull, being the kind of place that likes to go its own way, never sold off its telecommunications to BT), its impressive marina and murals celebrating the likes of Lillian Bilocca, known as the Headscarf Revolutionary for her campaign to improve safety in the fishing industry in the 1960s, Hullraisers offers a gentle alternative to historic headlines of deprivation and despair.

For Brotherhead, who now lives between London and Berlin, returning home to film the series was an unexpected joy as she found herself retracing her steps to the shop where she used to buy magazines as a teenager and along the streets where she used to hang out with friends.

“We filmed literally five minutes away from where my family still lives,” she says. “The newsagents we used I went to hundreds of times as a kid and one day when we found ourselves sitting outside Larkin’s Bar, where my mum and dad go every Friday night, I had to pinch myself.

“It may be the first and last time in my entire career that I get to film in Hull and there will always be something special about this series for me.”

Although the show might be an unashamed love letter to Hull, it is also one that contains references to meat pie vapes, Blue WKD hangovers and disappointing sex.

Hullraisers: an unashamed love letter to the city with WKD hangovers and disappointing sex

Following in the same vein as Fleabag and Motherland, Hullraisers looks set to join what is fast becoming a golden age of comedies devised by and written for female talent.

Here, much of the blunt humour is down to Lucy Beaumont. Also Hull-born, Beaumont’s star has been in the ascendancy for the last few years thanks to her Radio 4 series To Hull and Back, and Meet the Richardsons, in which she plays a heightened version of herself alongside her husband and fellow comedian, Jon Richardson.

Hullraisers might just be her finest hour. With Toni, her sister Paula, who is a matriarch in waiting, and their mutual single friend Rana, who is both a dedicated police officer and gloriously promiscuous, she has created a trio of unforgettable characters.

“Lucy was great to work with and while the script is definitely all hers, we were also given the freedom to improvise,” adds Brotherhead. “In fact, one of the first things she said was: ‘If a line doesn’t feel right, change it.’

“When I first read the script I loved that the men Toni and her sister are with are also good people and that they are in happy, functional relationships, because I think that makes them more believable.

“The show is very truthful – it’s how we all talk when we are with friends. There is a brutal honesty there but there is also real heart.”

Growing up in Hull, Brotherhead began performing in a Bridlington community arts centre where her drama teacher mum helped out. By the time she was in her teens, she was also playing in the all-girl electro band Ivy Sins, whose claim to fame was once supporting the American rock band Weezer.

“I’m not sure at what point I decided performing was going to be my career,” says Brotherhead. “It was just something I always did and something I could never imagine not doing.”

Heading south to train, since graduating from the East 15 drama school she has become a respected stage actor, appearing in productions at the Globe Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and on Broadway, where she played Jane Seymour in the acclaimed adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall.

Ever keen to capitalise on popular shows, publicity material now also describes her as “Bridgerton’s Leah Brotherhead”, although she is quick to downplay the claim.

“I didn’t even get to wear a fabulous dress,” she says of her role as Joanna in the hit series. “I was a villager who won the pig competition in the first season, so it wasn’t exactly Regency glamour.”

Like most actors, her career was put on pause when the pandemic hit, but there was an unexpected upside to the lockdowns.

“As an actor you spend most of your time worrying that you are missing out on a great role. For the first time in my career, I didn’t have to worry that my phone wasn’t ringing as I knew no one else’s was either.

“Of course I was worried about the future, which was why Hullraisers felt like such a dream. Right now I feel very, very lucky.”

Later this year, she will be back on TV screens in the ITV crime series Whitstable Pearl, and then she is due to fly out to Los Angeles to take over the part of Cathy in Wise Children’s acclaimed new production of Wuthering Heights, which premiered at York Theatre Royal last year.

“Those gigs are great and I am not even going to pretend otherwise,” she says. “I remember when I was working on Broadway and every Wednesday I was given an envelope with $500 in it on top of my wages. I was running around New York with what felt like the most amount of money I’d ever have in my life. I felt like the king of the place.”

However, for all the perks, Brotherhead admits the scars of the last two years remain visible and are unlikely to fade anytime soon.

“It does feel like a very different landscape,” she says. “Productions that pre-pandemic might have had eight shows a week are scaling back to four or six and many companies are walking a financial tightrope.

“This government seems intent on squeezing the arts and I am not sure why. Theatre, film and TV bring people so much joy, and after what we’ve all been through that’s the one thing we need.”

Hullraisers, Channel 4, Tuesdays, 9.45pm

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