• Emma Thompson stars in 'Years and Years'. (Supplied)
Would we even have Phoebe Waller-Bridge without Emma Thompson?
By
Natalie Reilly

25 Oct 2019 - 2:36 PM  UPDATED 28 Oct 2019 - 9:08 AM

Watching Emma Thompson play an outsized, albeit distinctly inward-looking, politician in the UK drama series, Years and Years, with her pseudo working class accent and devil-may-care approach to policy making, it’s difficult not compare her to America’s first lady of acting, Meryl Streep.

Streep was nominated for an Oscar for her dead-on portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady in 2011, and while Thompson’s Vivienne Rook might be more comparable to Britain’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, with her bombastic embrace of ham-fisted nationalism, it’s clear there’s more than a hint of Thatcher in her overall ethos.

(Donald Trump is in there, too, of course.)

It might be tempting to consider Judi Dench the Streep of the UK, but it would be wrong. Dench excels at playing high-born women, blue bloods and royalty – glorious ladies, with little versatility. But Thompson has dabbled in the full spectrum of characters, from a housekeeper in Remains of the Day to a heartbroken wife in Love Actually.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the woman who has portrayed her fair share of Shakespearean heroines, and corset-wearing noblewomen in Howard’s End and Sense and Sensibility, (the former earning her an Oscar for Best Actress, the latter - an Oscar for best adapted screenplay) should be such a perfect fit for the role of a controversial ruler in Years and Years.

Thompson, who already portrayed a fictionalised version of Hillary Clinton in Primary Colours has an air of the unforced Alpha about her, owing largely to her formidable intellect, and her own irreverence about that fact. Only a precious few Cambridge-educated writers could take themselves less seriously than Thompson.

And it’s clear that what informs so many of her choices as Rook in Years and Years is her focused refusal of feedback or introspection. There is no afterthought, because there is no forethought – there is only the next thing. In villainy, this presents itself as ruthlessness; a lack of consideration.

But in comedy it can be channelled into wit – a lack of concern over other’s approval means you can always speak the truth. And though the truth is often painful, with time it becomes hilarious. Though Thompson does not often wait for time to soften her analysis, she is almost impossibly funny. Look at Nanny McPhee and Men in Black and Late Night. And then look and try to stop laughing at her Emmy-nominated stint on Saturday Night Live as a royal etiquette coach.

Look at her cameo on The Young Ones – a favour to her university pals and fellow Footbridge theatre cast mates, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Thompson plays a member of the ruling class on a university quiz show, replete with crown and utters her one iconic line with perfect smugness “Daddy sends hugs”.

One might venture to think of another recent UK actress, also awarded for her writing, and known for her intelligence and irreverent wit – Phoebe Waller Bridge – who owes not a small amount of her fame to Thompson, who acted on the same stages Waller Bridge did, some 30 years before her.

Would we have Fleabag, a narrative about a very clever, very self-destructive woman who is surrounded by uncaring friends and family, if we did not first have Emma Thompson pushing the goalposts out in her own charming, self-deprecating way?

Would we have Fleabag, a narrative about a very clever, very self-destructive woman who is surrounded by uncaring friends and family, if we did not first have Emma Thompson pushing the goalposts out in her own charming, self-deprecating way? Would we be ready for Waller-Bridge if we did not first hear Thompson banging on in her own witty way about how evil the current patriarchal capitalist system is, and how the earth we inhabit will one day kill us all?

Would we be ready for Waller-Bridge’s hot priest ‘horn storm’ if we did not first hear from Thompson about the perniciousness of Hollywood misogyny? Would we enjoy Waller-Bridge’s wicked irreverence if we did not first have Thompson appearing barefoot and slightly sozzled, wine glass in hand, onstage at the 2014 Golden Globes?

It’s hard to say.

Would we be ready for Waller-Bridge’s hot priest ‘horn storm’ if we did not first hear from Thompson about the perniciousness of Hollywood misogyny?

Though Thompson, who can muster up the bearing of a queen and the versatility of Meryl Streep, who once told Kate Winslet she’d stop speaking to her if she went on a diet, does not need to be reduced to her wit and Englishness so she can be compared to Waller-Bridge.

That’s because Thompson, who once wrote an op-ed detailing how we’ve weaponised our planet to ensure its destruction, is a true original and the first of her kind. And while Waller-Bridge is very much her own person as well, we know that most of us need to acquire a taste of something so unique before we can accept the full meal. And before Waller-Bridge gave us her three courses, including Fleabag, Solo and Killing Eve, the wickedly funny, smart feminist Emma Thompson provided us with that taste.

Years and Years premieres Wednesday, 6 November at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand with a double episode.

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