Sophie Willan’s larger-than-life comedy creation is Alma, a spirited, optimistic woman with a chaotic childhood, and an excellent line in fabulous furry pink coats. She’s doing her best despite life cruelly not living up to her glitzy expectations. In autobiographical flashbacks she’s darkly brutal – calling herself “the baby from Trainspotting, if she lived”. She was a latchkey kid living with drug addicts, with a Mum unable to care for her. Because of this she was largely truant, but famously once turned up to school drunk wearing only a bikini. Her life is hard, but she’s surrounded by powerful, extraordinary women. These are her outrageous Grandma Joan (a brilliantly cast Lorraine Ashbourne) wearing leopard print making fried spam, her big, butch, unapologetically sexy best friend Leanne (played by Jayde Adams in her element), and her Mum Lin (played by Siobhan Finneran, guest starring ill-fitting dentures) is a recovering heroin addict and arsonist dealing with drug-induced psychosis. Her family makes me think Alma’s own determined resilience is probably 50% genetic, and 50% learned the hard way because of her disrupted childhood.
Alma wants to be an actress but she’s got no qualifications, no job, and no money. She’s also dealing with a messy breakup from slightly pathetic drug-dealer Anthony. Alma pines for a ‘real’ family. It’s
been 5 years since her Grandma saw her Mum, so not only does she plan on getting her life together, but she wants her family back together too. Despite these set-backs that seem overwhelming, Alma is still confident, and sweetly optimistic, perhaps naively so. This makes her all the more adorable and relatable.
All the characters here are big, northern, and almost heading off into stereotype territory, but the portrait of each person is so detailed and affectionate. There’s a realness here, despite the characters appearing cartoonish at first glance. These Bolton residents would be at home with Caroline Aherne on the Royle Family sofa. An exchange that had me falling about laughing was “Have you ever made bread?”
“No but once I bought a loaf that wasn’t sliced.” “How was it?” “Hard work”. These characters are so beautifully drawn with such affection it’s clear this is semi-autobiographical. If an outsider had written
it would be crass and offensive, but the jokes here never punch down. It’s lazy to pigeonhole all ‘working-class comedy’ as the same, and of course they’re not, but Alma does remind me of a stonking and much-missed sitcom Raised by Wolves by Caitlin Moran, another affectionate semi-autobiographical work about a working class Wolverhampton family.
The humour throughout is so deadpan. The Jesus joke is so perfect it deserves a BAFTA alone; I won’t spoil it for you. There’s also a brilliant montage of a horrible drunken karaoke night but the joke is that Leanne is an actual opera singer (and that’ll be Jayde Adams’ real voice) while Alma is yelling Spice Girl lyrics at a baffled crowd of pub regulars. I love the emotional beats and the way the rug is pulled out from under the viewer, particularly at the end of the first episode, with Alma choosing which job to apply for.
The writer and star is Sophie Willan who grew up in care with a mum dealing with drug addiction, unable to look after her. She also did sex work to pay the bills when times were hard. She’s now a stand-up comic, and writes and produces theatre and TV. The pilot episode of Alma won her a BAFTA Craft Award in 2020 which is such a rare and remarkable achievement. It’s so important to have real stories from diverse backgrounds on TV, and it’s a pleasure to see that a hard life doesn’t automatically mean you have to write a misery memoir. You can still be fairly cheerful and resilient despite what life throws at you. You just have to hang on to your sense of self and whatever shreds of confidence you have left. Trust me, I know.
In the second episode watch out for Grandma on Tinder and Alma’s “trail-blazing, within a corporate structure” at SubNGo. Her boss there is another person in search of a family, but getting it all wrong. She also wrestles with the idea of being an escort, a decision Leanne says is “the worst rebound”. Alma is looking for money, sex and adventure, and really, who can blame her? Her transformation in the lobby of that fancy Manchester hotel is mesmerising. She looks like a Bond girl, but of course retains a version of her pink furry coat.
Alma doesn’t shy away from the bleakness of life, but there’s warmth and joy here too. It’s a show very much assured of its sense of place but there’s a universality to crap jobs, complicated family lives, unemployment, rubbish relationships, hidden sadness and life’s disappointments. Alma is quirky, sure, but actually she’s very normal and we can all relate.