You have 15 pages to impress director Declan Lowney with your script before he relegates it to the pile. It’s not that surprising, given the projects in which we’ve found him. The Wexford-born director, famed for his unpeeling of dramatic layers to reveal (oftentimes black) humour, seems to have traded on the cultural feelings that bind him, leaning into others who feel the same. It’s the stuff of leavened comedy, it’s yeast in self-pity.
The greatest artists of any kind are the ones who have something to say. In Lowney’s art, his words are alternate, irresistibly so. Each of his works are resolutely personal. “And what do you really think of the show?” he asks throughout our conversation, reminding me that while everyone sees the world through their own eyes, looking back at what you’ve created seeks the mystery of recognition itself. I really loved it, I say, comparing his latest work, though I don’t like to, with mega-series such as Fleabag and Broad City. He laughs with relief, his dishevelled white curls swaying. “The beauty of all the pieces I’ve worked on has always been the script,” he smiles, drip-feeding laughter. “In a lot of ways, this interview would be far better if you were talking to the writers instead of me.”
In conversation, 63-year-old Lowney is jovial and interested. The room is filled with sunlight in his Los Angeles home, a natural next step for him and his family following years of back-and-forth from London. He likes it there, the weather’s great and the work is better. Well, usually. “Do I look really red to you?” he laughs, citing Celtic skin as the cause for deep, fuchsia undertones. “I wouldn’t mind but it’s not even sunburn – it’s been raining the past three months.”
So we saw, I say, the recent so-called Irish wave at the Academy Awards providing a birdseye view of the most Hollywood night of the year. “It’s been brilliant,” he beams. “My niece was the production designer on An Cailín Ciúin, so I got to see them.” His son works in the business. Ted – named after Dermot Morgan’s greatest character, as Lowney’s wife discovered she was pregnant one day before Morgan’s death – also “shoots and edits, directs and influencers”. Is dad able to pass on some knowledge? “It’s tough to do that,” he laughs. “He’s already so much bloody better than me.”
The case for Lowney as one of the greatest living Irish filmmakers has certainly been made, whether or not Lowney himself wants to hear it. His best work, such as the career-making Father Ted (1995), beat-shifting sketch piece Little Britain, (2005), box office hit Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, (2013) and more recently, the beautifully charming Ted Lasso, (which, at the time of writing, boasts 94% on Rotten Tomatoes) are phenomenally composed, breathing through the pauses, finding life in every yawning crack.
Even the more minor items in his back catalogue brim with goodwill; his long-running Warburtons bread advertisement campaigns which featured Sylvester Stallone, The Muppets and Peter Kay won the coveted Best Ad of the Week Worldwide in Adforum. His six BAFTA nominations and two wins (Father Ted in 1995 and Help ten years later) and recent international Emmy (For Ted Lasso in 2020) confirm his global standing – all the more reason for Beyoncé and U2 to request him personally to direct their global audience presentations.
“Lowney does it loud, he does it broad and he does it well,” a 2018 Evening Standard piece read in a review of his direction of Idris Elba’s childhood memoir In The Long Run, a piece described by The Sunday Times as “the most surprising sitcom of the decade.” His latest piece, about which we are meeting today, brings him home. Set in Dublin, the writing was “so brutally honest and upfront,” Lowney couldn’t help but commit. “I hadn’t read anything like it in a long time.”
Given the thumbs-up by AMC Networks’ IFC in June of last year, Sisters is a macabre dramedy about two women – one down-on-her-luck Dubliner who is repeatedly mistaken as 10 years older than she is (Susan Stanley) and a Canadian sweetheart, unrelentingly preppy, positive and polite (Sarah Goldberg) – who discover they are half-sisters; they embark on a cross-country trip to contact their wayward father (Donal Logue). The comedic timing sits somewhere between buddy comedy and Glinda-and-Elphaba-style riffs, mimicking the pace of real-life best friends Goldberg and Stanley make their writing debut.
Running for six half-hour episodes, the Irish-Canadian production is entirely binge-able, never leaning into Oirish territory, instead unfurling a precise, warped and affecting tale about what it feels like when life’s expectations are compressed by reality. It also focuses on jagged, forgiving woman love at its core, evident in the cracks which quickly appear in each other’s lives, as they are pushed back together by the new family they find in one another.
As with Fleabag, the painful themes of Sisters would be difficult to absorb if it weren’t for how legitimately funny the show is: smutty, wisecracking, observant about the ugliness of both life and death. In one of the show’s most visceral scenes, Goldberg’s character Sarah bleeds heavily on to the passenger seat of the van they drive to meet their father. It’s just a “mini abortion,” she says. “Just the pill kind. You know if you catch it early they just give you a couple of pills and then you bleed in a few days’ time.”
It feels both radical and profound to see an abortion played out on screen, spoken about as breezily as a common cold. And abortion as a silver lining at that – the sort of nasty zinger to which we’ve become accustomed in woman-centric comedies: dirty jokes with a feminist backhand, using shock to slice through anxiety and anger. It’s both elegant and vaudevillian, a formal risk and a slap in the face of modern misogyny. Susie and Sarah then take swigs from a litre bottle of vodka. They move on and so do we.
The show continues to handle scenes of a delicate nature well with the introduction of a domestic abuse plotline, by way of Stanley’s character Susie’s mother Cheryl, whose arc encounters narratives of humour, rage and heartache. She goes back and forth on what to do, just as anyone in an abusive situation might, allowing us to not make sense of the situation together. “That’s what I mean about the brutal honesty,” Lowney says. “There’s one scene where the main characters meet other women in a cottage, and they all just talk about these topics, with no judgment. And they’re not particularly shocked or outraged with their behaviour. It’s just how these women have dealt with it.”
I had a bunch of older brothers who were very funny at home and that sort of trickled into me being a bit of a class clown
Mortality and our relationship with it form the series’ skeletal frame. Episode one, “They F*** You Up,” opens with Sarah lying with her dead mother on a hospital bed, shifting immediately to her speaking at the funeral. The series later takes a turn to feature a wake, several near-death experiences, a medical abortion and the figurative death of a relationship. It parallels the Irish obsession, Lowney smiles. His keenness to commit to Irish reality is palpable (when Sarah first arrives from Canada in a taxi from the airport and a nice coat, Susie’s mother responds with “I didn’t know you were rich”). Inevitably, death would find its way there. It’s the sort of commitment Lowney makes when creating a piece set to riff off the culture. It must be real, or he isn’t interested.
In Sisters, the chaos is internal, battling between social norms and repressed desires thirty-something-year-old women face, much of which is filtered through the lens of Lowney’s comedic eye. It’s clear as we speak, that humour (even the reluctant kind) has framed his decision-making. “I had a bunch of older brothers who were very funny at home and that sort of trickled into me being a bit of a class clown,” he says. “You know, I was nicknamed Clown-y Lowney for a long time.” With comedy gigs, he says, timing is everything. “It’s all about keeping that lightness on set,” he says. “You can’t take forever or else the comedy goes off the boil. Three or four takes and you’d want to be moving on.” Being fast on your feet is essential for keeping the show on the road, he finally says, to ensure “no gags get squandered”.
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The light is dimming behind the standing desk Lowney was at throughout our conversation. He smiles, as he often does, as we say goodbye – finishing on one final note, about why he’s stayed in the game all these years. “To me, it’s still about captivating an audience, that still fascinates me. I got the bug when our newly opened local film club in Wexford drew me in with, essentially, a few images on a bedsheet in the early 1970s, and in many ways, I’m still trying to do the same today.”
Sisters runs on RTÉ One from March 30th, with the full box set dropping on RTÉ Player afterwards.