Harriet Thorpe – In Conversation

The history of British comedy is packed full of multi talented supporting artists who perfectly shape their role as second fiddle to the top billed star. Many of whom have made their indelible mark on the genre by creating a three dimensional character who becomes part of the secret of a show’s success. Despite never making top billing, these actors remain crucial to their art and frequently reach a brand of unique cult status among ardent comedy fans. Star of stage and screen Harriet Thorpe landed right at the centre of Alternative Comedy following graduating from drama school alongside the all conquering Jennifer Saunders. Despite undertaking different courses, the pair bonded over a mutual love for the arts and unbeknown to either of them, this would be the start of a long and successful friendship.

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This relationship became instrumental to Harriet’s career in comedy in 1985 when she was cast in French and Saunders’ first forè into sitcom for Girls On Top starring the double act alongside Ruby Wax, Tracey Ulman and Joan Greenwood. This was the first time that a sitcom had featured an all female cast Harriet thrived upon the opportunity to be in the company of the same sex in what remained a male dominated industry. Produced by the great Paul Jackson, Girls On Top ran for two series on ITV and offered Harriet the opportunity to work alongside future collaborators for the very first time. Unbeknown to all, this would provide the creative springboard for the same cast and crew to flourish in the coming years.


Harriet had now established herself as a certified character actress and it was only a matter of time before a sitcom role came calling. Embracing the ‘keep fit’ phenomenon of the late eighties and early nineties, The Brittas Empire centred on the bizarre happenings of Whitby Leisure Centre under the incompetence of manager Gordon Brittas played by Red Dwarf star Chris Barrie. Harriet secured the part of the sexually frustrated receptionist Carol who was attempting to cope with her seemingly endless amount of children which forever remained the subject of her stresses. When pondering the role of Carol, Harriet concluded that there’s nothing funny about an overly emotional woman but someone trying not to cry could be extremely comical. Therefore the infamous character was born with her frequently sped up utterances of “yes, Mr Brittas” in between bouts of emotional breakdowns which became a popular aspect of the series. This formula endeared the character of Carol to millions of comedy fans all over Britain and catapulted The Brittas Empire into one of the best sitcoms of the nineties.


Not content with just one successful sitcom of the era, Harriet was instrumental to two following accepting a part from old friend Jennifer Saunders. As a satirical response to the PR phenomenon of the eighties and early nineties, Absolutely Fabulous took a comedic glance at a world of excess, notoriety and spin which reflected the disposable concept of celebrity. Harriet was cast as the dim-witted socialite Fleur with a slight speech impediment which forced her to roll her R’s. Together with Helen Lederer’s character of Catriona, Fleur became a cult figure in the series who appeared in all seven series of the much loved sitcom. Although Fleur and Catriona were never part of the nucleus of the series, the dynamic between them elevated the pair to cult heroes. Harriet remains so grateful to the great Jennifer Saunders for giving her the opportunity to contribute to such an important show in the evolution of British comedy which was made even better to do so in the company of great friends.


Cameos in numerous films, such as Calendar Girls and Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet catapulted Harriet into the acting elite and it was merely a matter of time before the stage came calling. A soaring passion for the Arts makes Harriet the perfect candidate to inhabit any character role. Unlike most character actors, she remains comfortable to come out from behind the mask of a character but is easily at home in an acting role. This is a talent which she has honed throughout her career and despite forever being associated with sitcom, she has many different strings to her bow. Appearing as Fraulien Kost in the first stage revival of Cabaret at The Lyric Theatre in 2006 and Mrs Lovett in the national tour of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd helped to make Harriet Thorpe into one of the most versatile actors of her generation. However, resting on her laurels has never been an option for one of the most versatile comedy stars of her generation.


Fully embracing the many benefits of new technologies, in 2020 on the eve of lockdown Harriet was part of a Zoom call with friends; Sherrie Hewson, Dee Anderson and Debbie Arnold. The conversation was hilarious which encouraged them to ponder if they should publish their next get together online. The Wonderbirds Show’s title was inspired by the legacy of Dee’s late father Gerry who created the legendary Thunderbirds and remains a lively platform for entertaining discussion. To Harriet, technology should be for everyone and the rise of online platforms is an exciting aspect of the times that we’re currently living through. Forever active on social media, Harriet is extremely passionate about staying relevant to trends in entertainment with a desire to contribute to future fads, fashions and technologies. There’s so many layers to the remarkable career of Harriet Thorpe and with a constant eye on the future, so much to keep adding to her wonderful repertoire of work. It was a real privilege to interview one of the most versatile and enduring comedy stars of her generation and looking forward to her next chapter.