In life and on TV Daisy May Cooper sees the funny side of life’s hardships

They say you can’t pick your family. British writer and actress Daisy May Cooper knows that better than anyone. Her ancestor – her “great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandmother”, she says – was Australia’s youngest convict, Mary Wade, who came to Australia in 1790 aboard the Lady Juliana, a Second Fleet prison transport.

“She was 13 years old and sentenced to death but was instead sent to Australia because King George III went mad and then made a full recovery, and they let everybody on death row be deported instead,” Cooper says. The upside? “She had a bit of a sense of humour,” she says.

Daisy May Cooper as working-class single mum Costello Jones in Rain Dogs.Credit:HBO/Binge

That sense of humour has stayed in the family’s genes, and for that Cooper is thankful, she says. A BAFTA-winning comedy actress, her credits include The Wrong Mans, the panel shows 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the comedy-thriller Am I Being Unreasonable? and now a new comedy, Rain Dogs.

“Mary Wade was absolutely terrifying apparently, but meant to be really, really funny, and I quite love her,” Cooper adds, telling her favourite family story: that Wade held up a carriage full of aristocrats and made them take off their clothes. “And then just laughed at the size of their willies. Then stole all the clothes,” she says.

When I point out that among Wade’s enduring legacies are thousands of descendants – including former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd – and a remand facility, the Mary Wade Correctional Centre, named in her honour, Cooper is speechless. “Oh my God, that’s insane,” she replies.

Just talking to Cooper, it’s easy to see Mary Wade’s wild sense of humour. Rain Dogs, which takes its title from the phrase which refers to a lost dog caught in the rain whose trail back home has been washed away, is a raw sort of comedy – unapologetic, almost shocking.

It is seen by many as something unflinchingly fresh in the scripted comedy sphere, but it is also a show which owes some of its DNA to Britain’s brilliant working-class comedy culture: think of masterpieces like Paul Abbott’s Shameless, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, even Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain’s Skins.

Described as an unconventional love story between a working-class single mum Costello Jones (Cooper), her young daughter Iris (Fleur Tashjian), and her gay best friend, Florian Selby (Jack Farthing), Cooper sees it as a story of co-dependency in relationships. “Especially with Selby and Costello, the fact that they’re on opposite ends of the scale, but they’ve both been neglected in different ways … they have managed to connect and really love each other.

“They are so flawed, and they haven’t been given the emotional skills in their upbringing to be able to have any sort of normal relationships,” Cooper adds. “I’m absolutely convinced they both suffer from borderline personality disorder. But I think relationships is a massive [theme] because neither of them wants to have romantic partners. And that’s all because they’re so damaged.”

Jack Farthing as Florian Selby in Rain Dogs.Credit:HBO/Binge

Cooper also believes the series is about how unconventional family structures form out of necessity. “They’re trying to create this nuclear family with this gay man, who’s not the biological father, and Costello, who’s deeply flawed. And they’ve got this child, they’re raising this child, who’s actually more of a parent than they are, but they’re trying to do it.”

They are so flawed, and they haven’t been given the emotional skills in their upbringing to be able to have … normal relationships.

The series was created by Cash Carraway, an Irish writer best known for Skint Estate: A Memoir of Poverty, Motherhood and Survival, about Carraway’s own life as a single mother living in poverty, and delving into a raft of complex themes including family estrangement, mental illness, alcoholism and domestic violence. Critically, Carraway’s work also found hope in the darkness.

“There’s something really lovely in the way that Cash writes, that she is not going to give the audience what they want, she’s not going to give you rainbows and unicorns, she’s going to write it as it is,” Cooper says.

“If that means that you’re unhappy with the ending, and you want it to be different, that’s not going to happen because it’s not real life,” Cooper adds. “And I’ve never worked with a writer who has taken risks like she in that. She writes for herself, not to please an audience. And I think because of that, she will please the audience.”

Cooper says she and Carraway connected immediately when they met. “We came from very similar backgrounds and there are some things I suppose that you have, being working-class, that you just immediately connect, it’s like having a download of information,” Cooper says.

“You get raised the same way, you have the same sense of humour because you have to laugh because things are so bleak. But she is one of the most superb writers,” Cooper adds. “What I loved about Skint Estate and what I loved about the script [of Rain Dogs] is I didn’t feel that it was poverty porn.

“From what I’ve experienced of poverty, it really felt like somebody had given poverty a real gritty voice that isn’t always bleak all the time,” Cooper adds. “Sometimes it’s funny because that’s what real life is, and only she could capture that because she’s lived it.”

British (and Australian) comedies live in the wilderness of discomfort, Cooper says. “I don’t know why, it’s always been that way,” she says. “We just love the very small nuance in the lines and things. We love awkwardness and we let that breathe, whereas it makes some people feel really uncomfortable. But for some reason, the Brits and the Aussies, we really love making our toes curl.”

“There’s something, with Costello and Selby, where they are trying to use humour as a distraction from how awful and desperate everything is,” Cooper says. “And there’s a real sadness actually about that, when that is all you have to keep you going. And even that isn’t really covering up how f—ing desperate it is.

“I wish more dramas, serious dramas had some comedy in it, because that’s the truth of life. I always thought it would be so nice for a police officer in one of these dramas to have a massive fart in the car when he has to go to some big court case.

“That’s real life, and that’s truth,” Cooper says. “That’s why I love Cash so much, because she writes so brilliantly, and because her writing is genreless. It doesn’t fit into anything because she writes what she knows, and she writes what she’s lived.”

Rain Dogs is on Binge.

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