It is small-screen law that anything involving Olivia Colman is now Event Television. But Flowers, which starts on Channel 4 tonight, and screens every night at 10pm throughout the week to Friday, can lay greater claim to the label than most. Following the success of BBC drama The Night Manager, this is Colman’s return to sitcoms – barring a brief appearance in the last series of Peep Show, it’s her first new comic role since Rev. She plays Deborah, a brittle, over-sexed trombone teacher with a penchant for eccentric knitwear.
Her husband is Maurice (The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt), a terminally depressed and – as it turns out in the show’s bleakly funny opening montage – suicidal children’s book author. They have a nominally open marriage but the fact that they live in the middle of nowhere and have no friends means that Deborah’s effortful stabs at seduction are trained mainly on the neighbours’ builders. As if that set-up weren’t reason enough to watch, also living in the tumbledown house in the middle of nowhere are Maurice’s Japanese illustrator, Shun, who doubles as the maid and object of Deborah’s suspicions, Maurice’s senile mother and Deborah’s vixenish sister Viv, played by Anna Chancellor (“Duckface” from Four Weddings And A Funeral).
The children of the house are the 25-year-old twins, Amy (Sophia Di Martino) and Donald (Daniel Rigby) who frequently steal the scene from their parents as they compete for the heart of their cool neighbour, Abigail (Georgina Campbell from Murdered by My Boyfriend). As family sitcoms go, it’s convoluted – and gloriously, darkly dysfunctional, like The Royal Tenenbaums meets The Twits meets The Young Ones. Written and directed by Will Sharpe, who calls it “an ultimately uplifting show about melancholy”, it’s less sitcom than comedy-drama, combining funny and tragic, grotesque and beautiful in a uniquely British way. Basically, it's not Game of Thrones. Di Martino, 32, is the stand-out new talent on the impressive cast-list, and as Amy – a wild-haired, tortured musician who writes songs called things like “Penny’s Passage” – wrestles with her sexuality, thunders away at the piano and owns a medieval crossbow and a canary called Godiva. “She’s got a great emotional story, interesting points of view and she’s really funny,” says Di Martino of the character. “I was really excited when I first read the script. To start a comedy off with a guy trying to hang himself from a tree is pretty bold.” Amy is a joy to play, she says, though she is also full of sadness. “She’s a frustrated and creative woman who’s kind of festering away in the attic before her time.” Until, that is, she falls in love with Abigail. In the third episode, she comes out to her father by asking him to read an erotic poem she has written for her crush. “It’s really sweet. I just loved filming those scenes. Both characters need to confide in each other but it’s so painful and awkward and so much effort for them to do it.”
What’s it like to have Colman and Barrett as your on-screen parents? “Dream family, right?”laughs Di Martino. “I learned loads. Olivia is so brilliant and so emotive. I watch her in awe, thinking ‘I wish I could do that.’ I don’t think I learned her secret but watching how she goes from being hilarious to making everyone cry in the space of a few minutes is… just wow. She’s great to watch.” Born in Nottingham, Di Martino (the starlet name comes from her Italian father) “did all of the school plays” but never considered being an actress. “From where I come from, it’s such a ridiculous thing to want to do. It’s sort of a dream job rather than a real one.” She studied media and performance at Salford University and got an agent while she was still a student, when she was cast in a promotional video for the university. “Because the director liked the fact that I had pink hair at the time.” Shortly after that she embarked on her “medical drama years” – appearing in Holby City and Doctors, before playing Polly Emmerson in Casualty for two years. She hasn’t stopped working since. Next she appears as Ava - “an Italian force of nature” - in The Darkest Universe, a comedy sci-fi film, also directed by Sharpe, which premieres at London Comedy Film Festival this month. And she is now writing a feature film and a sitcom, inspired by the twisted likes of Julia Davis. “Dark is my favourite kind of comedy. When it’s done well, it’s the best kind.” In the meantime, Amy seems likely to be the role that makes Di Martino’s name. And the Flowers have the potential to join the Royles, the Steptoes and the Monsoons in the roll-call of great British screen clans. Deborah and Maurice’s wedding anniversary bash in the opening episode is up there with Abigail’s Party for the most awkward social gathering I’ve ever seen. Watch it every night next week or binge on it on All4 from Friday. Flowers starts on Monday 25 April on Channel 4 at 10pm