Picture the scene: you’re in the dole office, waiting for your turn to collect your benefits payment.
Suddenly, the woman in front of you breaks out into an argument with a jaded worker behind the front desk – set to song. “Don’t blame us, you’re a lazy cunt,” sings the man probing her about why she can’t find a job. She retaliates with the same line, a ska-infused backing track coming out of nowhere to accompany her.
Next thing you know, everyone in the queue is singing along – hell, even you are, despite having never heard the song before – and the joy of sending a communal, harmonised “fuck you!” to the system puts a smile on everyone’s faces.
No, this isn’t a fever dream. It’s one of the best scenes from episode two of BBC Three’s Mood, a new musical drama plucked from the wildly imaginative mind of the show’s star and creator, Nicôle Lecky.
The series thrusts us into the desperate world of East Londoner Sasha. She’s a mixed race 25-year-old singer and rapper who dreams of making it big, but still lives at home with her white mum, stepdad and step sister – until she gets kicked out, that is. All she does is smoke weed and get into trouble, her family argues.
“I’m just trying to live my truth!” retorts Sasha, before rage packing a suitcase and slamming the door on stability.
Alone and vulnerable (although she’d never admit it), Sasha meets Carly, an influencer who seemingly has it all, not least the huge online following. She convinces Sasha that she, too, could have it all if she were to get into the social media game.
The game’s big-bucks boss level? DailyFans, AKA BBC Three’s non-litigious version of OnlyFans. Pretty soon, Carly’s bending Sasha over on a livestream, spanking her as part of an “ebony and ivory” double act that’s as uncomfortable emotionally as it is physically.
Mood started life as Superhoe, Lecky’s critically acclaimed one-woman play that debuted at London’s Royal Court theatre in 2019, and is already drawing comparisons to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum. But while all three shows were conceived via the one-person-show-to-TV pipeline, aside from the fact that they’re all helmed by women and expertly written, Lecky’s Mood is worlds apart from Waller-Bridge and Coel’s creations.
Firstly, there’s that musical element, with songs that could be chart-toppers serving as Sasha’s inner monologue, sometimes through music video-ready performances, or occasionally soundtracking real-world action.
Then there’s the fact that Mood is 100 per cent drama (that is, not many laughs here), unravelling the knotty distinction between sexual empowerment and exploitation in the age of social media. You’ll finish an episode with lyrics like the aforementioned “you’re a lazy cunt” or “I’m a loser, I’m a fucking loser” stuck in your head, while also musing on what it means to have agency in the sex industry. Range, babe. Range.
Ahead of Mood’s launch, Lecky, a 31-year-old East Londoner, made a pitstop at FACE HQ to give us the lowdown on her genre-defying series. From falling down OnlyFans rabbit holes to writing songs over Zoom, here’s how your new favourite TV show came to fruition.
Hey Nicôle, congrats on Mood! We can’t wait to see more. When you first wrote and performed Superhoe, did you ever imagine it would be picked up for TV?
It had a few iterations. At first, I did it as just myself in the script, with no director at all. Then I did it with Talawa, a black-led theatre company, and they really championed me. I put on a three-day workshop and from there it got picked up by Royal Court.
In the meantime, I got BBC to read it and they commissioned a script. So when I did it at the Royal Court, it actually already had a TV script commission. As soon as I finished performing, I wrote the first episode straightaway. Once it was commissioned as a pilot, it took four or five months to get it greenlit. That happened at the end of 2019.
Wow! So that all happened and then the world lurched into lockdown a few months later. What was that change of pace like for you?
It was really an interesting time for me, in that I had to sit in the house and write. It didn’t change the reality of what I was doing, but there’s a different pressure. It’s different to writing in a room, choosing to be there, and then maybe you can go to a cafe or take a nap or whatever.
Knowing I was in my office, in my house, confined and expected to be creative was definitely challenging. You need creative stimulus, don’t you? I did manage to escape to Barbados to write the last couple of episodes, though!
Music is such a huge part of the show. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process when it comes to writing songs?
I worked with a guy called Kwame, or KZ Did It, who was the music producer across all the music for the series. I also worked with additional producers: a guy called Benji, Ethan P. Flynn and Kamille, who’s a singer-songwriter in her own right – she collabed on a few songs. So I worked with a few people, actually, and that was the joy.
Some of it happened over Zoom, but then once things opened up, you could go to a socially-distanced space that was all sanitised and stuff. When we did, it was just so much fun, because you’re like craving humans.
How did it feel writing for TV compared to writing for theatre?
I think when you write a play, often it’s just like you and the page. For TV, there’s a lot more voices. There’s hundreds of people involved in a TV show versus a theatre production. The thing for me was that, obviously, it was just me on stage, doing all the characters, the voices, the songs and the music, and writing everything myself.
The TV show was just much bigger and I was like: “Oh, I need to cast all of these people!”
That was a lot of fun, because we were doing that in lockdown. I was getting all the tapes and auditioning people on Zoom, finding the people that very much lived in my head and then being like: “OK, I think that’s you!”
As an actor, I just think it’s so much fun and also, I think you’re more empathetic. It’s a heart-in-mouth [moment], seeing people forget their lines and [then] it’s like: “You’ve got it!”
I’ve been in that position where it’s like: “Oh my God, I hope I get this part.” And then people were doing that for my show. That was just totally new. A few years ago, I was working as a hostess, with no money, wondering: “How the hell am I going to get by?” It’s a total flip. It’s very surreal.
Like Sasha, you’re from East London. Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and how those experiences informed what you’re doing today?
Big question! I dig it. I had just a normal education, but was always very much creative, like writing. I was always very good at English and drama – that was my shit – but I was quite academic. The thing I loved was performing. I just always wanted to dance and sing and act – I was one of those kids, for sure.
Before I was born, my dad was a DJ. He kind of left home at 18, 19 and travelled the world, DJing little gigs. He wasn’t famous or anything, but he had a huge love of music and I feel like that has inspired me in a way. And I always really loved film. I loved recreating characters and stuff.
Then I went to Mountview drama school [in Peckham, South London]. I didn’t really know about drama school – somebody just sort of on a whim was like: “You should go to drama school.” I really didn’t know you could go and do that as a degree. And so I got a scholarship and went there.
But, you know, I’m not from any kind of privileged upbringing at all, so I’ve always had to really grind and work jobs. I don’t have the Bank of Mum and Dad. That hustle mentality is very much embedded in me. I’ve had a job since I was 14.
And how did that feed into the show?
The character’s from East London, but the family [situation] is totally different. The similarities are that [Sasha] is very ambitious. But she’s self-conscious. She has this ambition and this talent, but she can’t really get it out there. She’s got low self-esteem in that way.
But I’m also very ambitious and I want to sing and act and all these things. We’re similar in that need to share your voice or share a vision. And also her struggles: nobody in my family had any like connections to “the biz”, so it was purely me going to classes and meeting people. That’s how I fell into getting an agent and that sort of thing.
Even in episode two, when she goes to the dole office, I went to the dole office when I was auditioning [for projects].
That scene is amazing, by the way.
Well, that comes out of my misery at being in the dole office office and looking around like: “Why the fuck am I here, man?”
I think I’m quite positive about people in general, in terms of: if you give them enough, they can have this magic. I know it sounds really wanky, but there’s something that everybody can do well, it’s just they don’t have the support.
That’s why when I wrote that song, I was like, yes, it’s in a housing office and you could write this really miserable song. But actually, I feel everyone’s got this thing inside of them. That’s why it’s this ska, very upbeat, Cockney musical vibe. But it is shit!
We shot that scene on Roman Road [in Bow, East London] and we had someone dressed up like Boris [Johnson], which you don’t actually see in the end. Someone stood outside saw him and went: “Boris, you’re a fucking cunt!” They saw the cameras and [crew], and I think they actually thought it was Boris Johnson. This poor man was like: “It’s not me!” We had to tuck him away in a room.
You could have started a riot! When you’re writing, what comes first: the music or the concept of the scene?
The concept will always come first. When I write the script, I call them placeholder songs, so I write the narrative and then I’ll write lyrics, but they’ll be temp lyrics. I’ll be like: “This is what is happening, then I think she needs to say this…” And then the action continues.
I always wanted the music to be quite interwoven in it. It’s this inner monologue.
You’ve said previously that when you performed the play, people would come up to you afterwards to ask when the EP was dropping. Are you going to be releasing the music from the show?
Definitely. That was really important with the TV show. I listened to Hamilton before I saw Hamilton and I was just like: “I can’t wait to see it!” I think it furthers the life of [a project].
Sometimes I watch a TV show and it’s just, like, over. I always want to watch it again; you want to stay with the character. Sasha goes on this huge journey, but ultimately her story is quite positive. So that’s what I wanted the music to do. I want people to be able to continue the experience of the show. So yes, the music will be available…
Very exciting news. Aside from the music, the other interesting thing about Mood is that it tackles social media and sex work. What made you want to take on this theme?
I saw a website – and there are quite a lot of these websites – where they shame women for secretly being sex workers. They’re like: “They’re on Instagram and they’re say they’re a dancer, or a singer – but they’re not singer, they’re actually in Dubai working as a sex worker.”
I saw somebody on there that I recognised off Instagram and I did not think they were a sex worker. That person denied it, [but] whether they are or not doesn’t really matter to me. It just led me down a path where I could so understand why those women were doing it. But I wanted to get under the skin a bit more.
We haven’t seen a very nuanced portrayal of it. You always see these educated women who love sex work, they go into it and they’re very supported or whatever. Or you see these drug-addict sex workers. I felt like the balance wasn’t there to represent the majority of people who are doing sex work – some people are really happy to do it, some people aren’t – and also just how easy is to fall into doing it.
That was really important to me to see when I was researching it.
How did you investigate further?
I was on websites and things like SeekingArrangement with a fake profile, and the offers that were coming in… I don’t think I personally could do it, but I definitely can understand why somebody would do it.
There was one guy who was like: “I just want my dick sucked every month, for 700 quid a month.” I was getting all these messages while I was writing the play and I was just like: “Fucking hell, it’s a bleak world, isn’t it?” Young women getting these messages…
It just inspired me to keep going. That’s why I talk about sofa-surfing in episode two, because again, a lot of young people are sofa-surfing, but they don’t even know they’re homeless. I just have so much empathy. We’re so shit supporting young people and young women.
The show is coming at a time when OnlyFans in particular has blown up over the pandemic – which feels like an obvious response to people losing their livelihoods. It also illustrates the fact that it’s an industry that often offers something to people who are actually quite vulnerable. But when we talk about it, it’s usually wrapped up in all this language of empowerment.
That is essentially the question across the series. [While doing research] I met women that were really happy doing what they were doing. And then I met women who were not. I think you can watch the series and make up your own mind, whether you think it’s exploitation.
Sasha’s met this young woman who’s convinced her that this is a good idea because she does it. Through their friendships, she’s like: “Actually, yeah, this is great for me.” But you have to look at the fact that she’s been kicked out of her family home, she doesn’t have that emotional support. She’s just broken up with boyfriend, she doesn’t have finances. So there are a lot of things that lead her to make that decision. And ultimately, that is a truism.
For me, it doesn’t matter how many people I met, finance was a huge motivator.
OnlyFans is also a very grey area because of the way it interacts with influencers. With some of the content, is it sex work or is it just a bikini picture on Instagram? And is that different to a bikini picture on OnlyFans?
Over the past couple of years there’s been a lot of conversation about how women express their sexuality – the debate around Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP, for instance. What are your thoughts on that?
I flip. On the one hand, I’m a grown woman, and if I want to get my titties out and shake my arse and portray my music however I want to express my art, I say:, who can get in the way of that? If that is how you feel empowered, then can anyone tell you you’re not empowered? It just sort of doesn’t make sense to me.
But then on the other side, I go: “But kids gonna see it!” Then I have to go, is that my hang up or…? With someone like Cardi B, you could say, yes, she’s sexualised. But she’s also a boss. She’s decided to be like that and, I mean, I don’t know her personally, but I can’t imagine anybody telling her: “You need to do this and you need to do that.” Because she’s in control, again, of her own finances, her own business, she’s in a position to make that choice.
It’s [problematic] when you get into this area where you have a lack of choice. If you are young and you’re being told to put on a bikini and shake your ass, and you’re like: “Oh, my God, I want to die.” Then, for me, that’s not empowerment. You are being exploited. And [at the same time] I don’t want to police a woman’s sexuality. It’s also a question of whether you have responsibility over who consumes your work.
There’s also an element of race in the show. Sasha meets all of these white influencers who get more opportunities, but at the same time, her ethnicity is sexualised.
Because again, it’s true. I definitely don’t go out of my way to like, “oh, I need to talk about race”, as such. I just talk about it how I see it.
And for somebody who’s mixed race or black in this world, there’s no way your race is not going to come into play. That’s just the politics of what it is. So when she’s doing online stuff, she’s heavily fetishised and sexualised because of her race, being called caramel that and chocolate this, blah, blah. And she’s processing it in the series.
A character in episode four, who is a black woman and a sex worker, says to her: “You think you’re the same as Carly, who is white. But actually, people don’t call her the n- word.” That is the fact of the matter.
And it’s a confusing space for her to be in. She’s the only brown person in her own family dynamic, so she is searching for where she fits in – and she hasn’t found that space.
Both Superhoe and Mood earned you a lot of comparisons to Phoebe Waller-Bridge. How do you feel about that?
Well, she’s fantastic, so it’s no bad thing. But I think it’s reductive, in a sense. Like, how many cop dramas are there with male cops? But you don’t make comparisons with males.
So I always find it quite a weird thing to say to someone, because actually, our experiences in life are very, very different. But obviously, we’re both writing and we’re both women. For some people, that’s enough. It’s like: they write, they have hands and a vagina. That’s essentially what it is.
You’ve been working on Mood and Superhoe for a long time now. Have you thought about what you’re going to do next?
I have, like, a million projects! It’s about choosing what the next one is. I’m itching to make the next one, because I’ve learned so much that now I just want to take it all and do it again.
TV? Music? Theatre…?
TV, music, theatre and film! I want to keep executive producing. I want to work with other creatives that I think are great to collaborate with. And it’s really important for me to bring the next people through. [The team for] Mood was pretty diverse, but I want to do better. I’ve got to do better. It’s about levelling the playing field.
Mood is on BBC Three from 1st March