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‘The Netflixisation of the royal family is so interesting to watch’: Emma Sidi on playing Emily Maitlis in Prince Andrew: The Musical

Emma Sidi: ‘There were moments when you’re laughing and then you actually gasp a little bit’  (The Other Richard)
Emma Sidi: ‘There were moments when you’re laughing and then you actually gasp a little bit’ (The Other Richard)

Ask a young Emma Sidi which comedian had the “perfect career” she one day hoped to emulate, and she’d name a little-known sitcom actor best known for comedies like Green Wing and Peep Show. “I remember saying Olivia Colman,” she tells me with a laugh. “I was saying that in a particularly realistic and humble way, and them being like, ‘Olivia Colman? Who’s Olivia Colman?’ ‘She’s this comedy actress and she just does TV but I just think she’s fantastic.’ And they’re like, ‘I’ll look her up.’” A Hollywood career and an Oscar under her belt, Colman is viewed a little differently these days. “Now if you were to say Olivia Colman, people would be like, ‘Get over yourself,’” says Sidi.

She’s joking, but you can see the ways in which her own career has emulated Colman’s. She has become a staple in UK comedies with cult followings (Ghosts, Stath Lets Flats, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared), as well as doing character comedy on stage, pushing the boundaries of the “romcom best friend” in Starstruck, and starring in her own bizarre yet brilliant short La Princesa de Woking (a Spanish-language telenovela set in her hometown in Surrey). And now, like Colman, she’s even taking on the royal family, although not in the same way as The Crown or The Favourite. Nope, Sidi is playing Emily Maitlis, circa the Newsnight interview with the Duke of York about his friendship with the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and the sexual abuse allegations against the royal himself, in Channel 4’s Prince Andrew: The Musical.

If that title fills you with fear, you’re not the only one. When Sidi was offered the role in Kieran Hodgson’s Christmas comedy special, she felt it too. If done wrong, she knew this could be a disaster. “When I first got the offer, my initial thought was ‘This is quite a controversial topic,’” she says. She filmed her all-singing, all-dancing opening number, then worried how the show would turn out. “I was quite nervous to watch it in terms of ‘How will this actually go?’” Fortunately, she loved it. “There were moments when you’re laughing and then you actually gasp a little bit,” she says. “There’s no messing around with that tone.”

Like many of us, Sidi remembers watching the Newsnight interview out of mild curiosity, then realising in real time that this was “the most extraordinary pop culture moment of the year, or the decade”. As a character comedian, she was fascinated by Andrew’s baffling, implausible answers, which she describes as “comedy at its finest”. What also stuck with her was an admiration for Maitlis and the way she “so doggedly pursued the story” in the interview without pressuring her subject.

When it came to playing the journalist, Sidi went back to her character comedy background, picking out Maitlis’s “laser eyes” to mimic. Demonstrating, she moves her head back slightly and shoots me an unwavering stare. She then snaps back into a smile. “It’s just like taking little gestures or habits that people do, and bringing them into something that’s way more ridiculous. And by that, I mean a song and literal dance.”

Sidi is quick to play down her musical theatre skills (“I love it because I’m not good at it!”), and says her doubt in her own ability compounded the nerves that came with the controversial project. But she insists that the show is shocking without being disrespectful to Andrew’s alleged victims, instead taking aim at “the concept of the royal family”. “I think when you hear the title of it, you think, gasp, this is about this event. It’s much more about the personality of Andrew, or the imagined personality of Andrew, and that interview and the fallout. I think somebody asked me who’s playing Epstein; that is so far from what this is.”

It may be a pantomime take on the royal family, but Prince Andrew: The Musical taps into the same public obsession as The Crown, one that has left us all “mad for the royals”. Part two of Harry and Meghan’s Netflix documentary dropped online just hours before our interview, and Sidi theorises that this too has amped up our fascination with the monarchy. “I think the Netflix-ise – hang on, I’m making this word up as I say it – the Netflixisation of the royal family is just so interesting to watch.”

‘Prince Andrew: The Musical’ stars Sidi, Munya Chawawa, Kieran Hodgson and Jenny Bede (Channel 4)
‘Prince Andrew: The Musical’ stars Sidi, Munya Chawawa, Kieran Hodgson and Jenny Bede (Channel 4)

Sidi will be dabbling in streaming TV herself in January, with a small part in the Disney Plus superhero comedy series Extraordinary. But for the most part, she’s stuck to classic BBC Three and Channel 4 sitcoms alongside an overlapping cast of comedians. Some of them she came up alongside in the Cambridge University Footlights, including her boyfriend, Stath Lets Flats star Al Roberts, who plays her partner in Starstruck and King Gary. Everything is connected: Roberts performs with Liam Williams in the sketch trio Sheeps, and it was Williams who wrote Pls Like, the show that gave Sidi her first major TV role.

A mockumentary about YouTube content creators, the series saw Sidi play a Zoella-esque lifestyle vlogger called Millipede. With internet culture moving so rapidly, she jokes that the 2016 pilot now looks like “a dated relic of how the internet used to be”. Starstruck creator Rose Matafeo had a small part in Pls Like, too, marking one of the first times the pair appeared in a project together, despite sharing a flat in real life.

A line-up of only white men would shock you to your core now, and five years ago it wouldn’t at all

Series three begins filming in the new year, but things will be a little different. Sidi moved out last year, a behind-the-scenes development that is mirrored on screen. “Rose and I used to live together; we don’t any more,” Sidi explains. “I almost think this series is a bit like that. It’s the growing up series, a bit like how we’ve grown up in real time with the series.”

Starstruck is full of nods to classic romcoms, from Notting Hill to Love Actually, but Sidi is proudest of the way it subverts those tropes and “doesn’t talk about the one thing that actually makes it really different, which is that the two leads are non-white. That is never mentioned, and that is actually totally different to basically all famous romcoms in the UK. Representation is just terrible in those old films.”

Sidi (right) with Rose Matafeo in ‘Starstruck’ (BBC/Avalon UK)
Sidi (right) with Rose Matafeo in ‘Starstruck’ (BBC/Avalon UK)

What has frustrated her is the way some people – including critics – have managed to miss the point of the show. She tells me about a positive review of Starstruck, recalling in an incredulous voice how it said that “Kate and Jessie look nothing like Instagram girls. In fact, so far from it”. It was a comment that angered her – after all, “People don’t talk about Nikesh Patel’s frame.” She looks exasperated. “It just feels really irrelevant; it’s literally just our gender.”

Sidi’s been speaking about sexism in comedy throughout her career. In a 2019 interview, she told the Evening Standard that female comics are often “pigeonholed” and reduced to a simple adjective: “quirky”. Does she still feel this way? “I think line-ups have gotten way better. A line-up of only white men would shock you to your core now, and five years ago it wouldn’t at all. But the second we get complacent, people just love talking about appearance when it comes to women. And that means words like ‘quirky’ or ‘not like an Instagram girl’.”

Sidi stresses that she knows she’s not “incredibly unconventional in the way I look” – if anything, the comment was frustrating because it was sold as a compliment. “That review is saying, ‘Oh, it’s refreshing,’ but there’s something really patronising about being refreshed by women not having had plastic surgery, or not all looking exactly the same way they do on this social media site. It’s a f***ing sitcom! ... Plastic surgery, Botox, it doesn’t appeal to me because it feels like a cheat. It feels like you’re saying that people are right in saying that we should all look a certain way.” She exhales deeply. “I can’t imagine ever not being frustrated by it.”

My mind goes back to Colman and the way she’s resisted letting her appearance define her. I can see Sidi, with her comedy roots, taking and creating roles that challenge her and the stereotypes around her. That’s why she still performs improv, she explains, as an “outlet” to keep the creative juices flowing. Sidi would never compare herself to Colman now, but who knows? Maybe she’ll be the one blowing a raspberry on the Academy Awards stage one day.

‘Prince Andrew: The Musical’ airs on Channel 4 on 29 December