“I wouldn’t recommend Catholic guilt for anyone,” says Aisling Bea, contemplating why she feels drawn to political and community activism. “But the one thing it does give you is a sense of like, god, do not leave this Earth worse than the way you found it. Give up a little bit of yourself or your time or your money. Because it’s not OK to hold on to it. It’s just not OK to keep thriving when other people don’t get to; to not bring people along with you.
“I definitely have quite a high sense of injustice a lot of the time, sometimes whether it’s helpful or not. I am a bit of a born protester, an up-in-arms person.”
Aisling Bea’s work has long been on the side of the angels. Whether as the writer and star of This Way Up – her comedy drama that deals with mental ill health, immigration, loneliness, family and inequality with a lightness of touch and real fire in its belly – or more recently taking aim at racists and Prince Andrew in an epic rap (“no one asked for”) on The Big Narstie Show, she has a gift for driving home a message with humour, charm… and force. It’s made her a popular guest on panel shows from Have I Got News for You and QI to RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.
Yet she’s not all talk. There’s action in her activism too. She’s speaking to The Big Issue in the week before Christmas, a couple of days before roping her celebrity pals Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, Nish Kumar, James Acaster, Joel Dommett and Ed Gamble into running a donation drive for her local food bank in Hackney.
“It was brilliant,” she says when we catch up again after the event. “I didn’t realise how viscerally people would react to turning up with a donation. People are just really good, generally.”
In the end, they sent five carloads of supplies to the food bank, made up from hundreds of people donating a little bit each. “It’s just a drop in the ocean, in terms of how serious the cost-of-living crisis is and how much the need has gone up,” says Bea. “But I think it’s important not to get bogged down by the seeming impossibility of it. We can do something within our power here.”
Aisling Bea first got involved with Hackney Foodbank during lockdown, when she stumbled across the service on one of her daily state-sanctioned Covid walks. She was blown away by the volunteers making sure that no one in the community had to go hungry, and particularly by Tanya Whitfield, their head of services.
“Tanya is just one of these formidable, amazing women,” she says, “and I met a lovely Labour councillor there too, Carole Williams. She works incredibly hard for that area.”
A lot of grassroots organisations have women at their heart with “big auntie energy”. They’re doing the practical labour that may not make big headlines, but literally keeps individuals alive. Like many women’s stories, their experiences are often overlooked.
“When it was only men running the show a lot of the stories we told were about jobs that women traditionally weren’t allowed to have or wars that we weren’t allowed to take part in,” says Bea.
Writing about and for women has often been belittled as ‘chick lit’ – a phrase Bea hates. “I hate the idea that that’s what our lives are reduced to, because we weren’t allowed to have big lives. So I like the celebration of domesticity and the stigmas and the smallness of our lives. That should be OK to be huge as well. You know, the real war is just trying to get through the goddamn day.”
The goal of the starry pre-Christmas food drive, then, was not only to bring in food donations and raise cash, but also to show the volunteers that they’re valued. Bea hopes it also removed some of the misplaced stigma around food bank use. She was recently filming for upcoming rom-com And Mrs with Billie Lourd (Carrie Fisher’s daughter) and Colin Hanks (Tom’s son) in a former school in the East End of London. As well as being their filming location, the building housed a food bank. So as the stars got ready in their trailers, lines of people waited for essential supplies.
“There were queues of people in dire need of food for their kids, or themselves or their families,” she says. “The queues were kind of incredible to see. And this is in London: a very, very wealthy city. But it’s got a lot of people struggling as well.
“The shame is not in any way about going to a food bank. The shame is that we’re in a world where that is happening. It’s terrifying.”
The experience, with its visceral sense of inequality, has obviously jarred Aisling Bea. The showbiz life “is generally a little bit egotistical”, she admits. That’s why she wants to make sure she’s doing her bit, contributing so she can “in some way correct that”. In the past, she’s lent her support to the campaigns for equal marriage and abortion rights in her native Ireland, performed at fundraisers for domestic abuse charity Refuge, worked with Sound Advice (a charity that aims to increase diversity in architecture), and spoken up for children on the West Bank.
“Being someone with a public profile it’s never going to be ego-free doing things for charity,” she allows. “There’s an element of putting your face on it to raise awareness and then an element of not wanting to make it about you. You do have to accept that you are some of the product as well.”
The question she asks herself: “Am I closer to a food bank volunteer or am I closer to a Tory politician rocking up and going, ‘Hey, guys, this is great’? It’s a hard thing to work out.”
In lieu of a definite answer, Aisling Bea will keep using humour as a weapon against injustice. At minimum, it’s a way to make sure people don’t turn off when you start talking about something tough. “If you’re on stage, and people start yawning, it’s so terribly embarrassing that it gives your body pure trauma,” she shudders. “So you do not take people’s attention for granted. It’s a very natural thing – we all switch off when things aren’t interesting, and it’s terrible, but that’s how the brain works.
“It’s OK to use humour [to engage people]. Nobody walks around constantly being sad all the time. You can’t exist like that. I think Irish people tend to have, like, a sort of sense of that humour: the darkness beside the light.”
That pitch-black Irish humour is the staple of Bea’s writing in This Way Up, which starts with her character Áine being discharged from rehab where she’s been treated for “a teeny little nervous breakdown” – and complaining that the establishment didn’t have a Jacuzzi. Putting “depression beside comedy” didn’t feel odd at all.
“It’s not a struggle to do that because that’s what I grew up with. It’s like what Lisa [McGee] does in Derry Girls. Like, I’m sure if you just randomly went and pitched a big broad comedy set in the Troubles, they’d be like ‘excuse me, I don’t understand’. But if you’re from Northern Ireland, you’re like, ‘that sounds brilliant’.” [This Northern Irish correspondent can confirm Bea is absolutely correct here.]
Given where we’re both from, it’s probably not a surprise that our conversation keeps circling back to what it means to be Irish. As a rule, ex-pat Irish just love talking about Irishness. But it is also clear how much that experience of national identity informs Aisling Bea’s attitudes, her understanding of her place in the world. It’s not just the sense of humour, it’s in her passion for community, and it’s the lens through which she views the immigrant experience.
“Irish people straddle this odd place currently, where I can be a very privileged immigrant,” she explains. “I didn’t have to fill out any forms after Brexit. Italian people did, people from everywhere else did. We sort of got away with this odd, like, privilege voucher.
“That’s a weird thing to have been at one time an oppressed people, now a broadly wealthy country with these sorts of benefits that other people don’t get to have. I’m carrying the history of our people, who would have had a terrible time 40 years ago coming over. But I have no part of that. I hope that I’m aware of how much privilege I carry around to feel a little bit, but not entirely, what some people have to go through.”
That Irish community spirit has also spurred her to be an avid supporter of (and subscriber to) The Big Issue. Of all the magazines she gets through her door, this is the one she reads first. “It really is an amazing magazine,” she says, before cheekily adding, “I’d be honoured to be on The Big Issue cover if you’d ever have me.” You know what they say, flattery will get you everywhere. If you’re Aisling Bea, that might even include the cover of The Big Issue.
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