Am’st I bovvered, forsooth?
This summer, I watched a red-headed British actress dangle 30 feet above the stage of Wyndham’s Theater as Beatrice in a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” on London’s legendary West End. Suspended from a harness in the play’s famous Act 3, in which Beatrice overhears the news that her old friend and rival Benedick is in love with her, she alternately flailed her arms and legs, hung limp, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, and even attempted a “breaststroke” through the air — all in complete silence.
It was hilarious.
It was brilliant.
It was a little over-the-top.
It was Catherine Tate.
Tate’s name, which I soon learned is synonymous in Britain with sketch comedy à la Carol Burnett, didn’t ring a bell for me — but a couple of her YouTube videos did: On the last season’s finale of NBC’s The Office, Tate guest-starred as Nellie, the slightly unhinged Scranton Branch Manager hopeful.
That I proceeded to stream all three seasons of The Catherine Tate Show, Tate’s variety sketch show that aired on BBC from 2004-2007, is beside the point.
As is my constant urge to imitate her most famous character, the obnoxious be-uniformed, hoop-earringed high-schooler Lauren Cooper, who, when confronted with embarrassing circumstances, descends into increasingly agitated repetitions of the rhetorical question “am I bovvered?” (Brit slang for “am I bothered?” or “do you think I care?”)
Seriously, just come up to me any time and just ahx me if I’m bovvered. Ahx me if I’m bovvered. Look at my face. See my face? Does it look bovv—
Anyway, the point is this: I quickly realized what Brits already know — that Tate is not only a classically trained stage actress, but that she is also a virtuosic character actress, a chameleon of television comedy who seamlessly translated her on-screen talent to the West End stage.
Does my face look bovvered?
But the point is also this: Tate, who co-writes all her sketches, invented neither the notion of the catchphrase-driven character (what you talkin’ bout, Willis?) nor the blasé youth who just doesn’t give a damn. But she fused them perfectly in Lauren Cooper.
Lauren joins a select group of pop-culture rebels, real and fictional, dear to our hearts, who not only don’t give a damn — but who make that fact explicitly clear. By saying so. Sometimes repeatedly.
Do you think we quote Rhett Butler because, frankly, my dear, he gave a damn? Would Joan Jett be as awesome if she gave a damn about her reputation? Ditto, Eminem if he acted like shit fazed him?
Yet it’s tricky to pinpoint precisely what is so counterintuitively endearing about a character who is seemingly immune to embarrassment, and who undermines all threats in one fell, witty swoop.
Lauren claims not to be “bovvered” when the Queen (who played along) laughed at her in a live special. Similarly, Lauren wasn’t bovvered when her boyfriend dumped her immediately after she had tattooed his face on her shoulder. Oh, also, she wasn’t bovvered when he dumped her again at the altar.
Yet the genius of Tate’s comedy is that she keeps us guessing: just when you think the steely Lauren can’t be fazed, Tate lets us catch a glimpse of her vulnerability, usually relying upon the silent physical comedy that was on full display in her role as Beatrice. Lauren’s eyes widen as she watches her boyfriend kiss another girl; her posture stiffens when her friends discover she has been moonlighting as a bear mascot for a fast food chain; she struggles to gather herself after she falls off a treadmill and her shoelaces come undone.
Despite her insistence to the contrary, Lauren is most definitely bovvered.
Sometimes. I think.
You know what — it’s hard to tell.
And to further complicate her layers of acting, it is worth noting that Tate herself has a history of performing when she was at her most bovvered — filming season two of The Catherine Tate Show while suffering from acute post-partum depression.
Who told you I was bovvered?
American television actors would do well to take their cues from Tate and approach their roles with the nuanced seriousness that underlies Tate’s often outrageous, silly, and low-brow (yet utterly enjoyable) antics.
But which of her various characters would an off-the-cuff, off-duty Tate most closely resemble? And more importantly, would she be bovvered? I had to know.
No, I definitely did not wait outside Wyndham’s for four hours in a steady drizzle for a chance to take a photo with Tate. Who does that?
Ok, actually I did do that. Whatever.
After my glorious self-take photo with Tate in which we both awkwardly leaned over a barricade amidst the screaming masses, I shouted in Tate’s ear, “Are you bovvered?”
“No,” she said with full Lauren Cooper attitude, and then cracked a smile, most likely at my admittedly sub-par impression. “I ain’t even bovvered.”