Snappy lines and sparkly headbands: Katherine Ryan and Katie Byrne as her daughter in ‘The Duchess’ on Netflix © Simon Ridgway/Netflix

Some plot premises are so outlandish that if we were to take them seriously, they would imply that the central character is insane. But perhaps in the case of Katherine (Katherine Ryan, who also writes), it simply means she’s a terribly modern woman when it comes to notions about conception, parentage and child-rearing. Hard to tell in this bizarre and filthy comedy. 

Katherine’s small, brilliant daughter, nine-year-old Olive (Katy Byrne, excellent) is the product of a one-night stand (literally, standing in an alley) with Shep, a member of a boy band, Tru-Se. (That’s true-say, not trews or truss.) Katherine lives in an imposing north London villa that doubles as her ceramics workshop and office for her company, Kiln’em Softly. Occasionally she sits down at a pottery wheel, or handles a glazed vase, but it doesn’t explain where the money for the Hampstead lifestyle comes from. Perhaps Shep (Rory Keenan) gave her everything; he lives on a canal boat, and says things like “Worms are 100 per cent core strength.” 

A T-shirt bearing the slogan “World’s Smallest Pussy” is Katherine’s idea of a look suitable for the school gates. She describes Millie, the girl who’s been bullying Olive, as a “tasteless little ditch-pig”, and conducts open warfare with Millie’s mum Jane (Sophie Fletcher). Michelle De Swarte more than holds her own as Bev, Katherine’s co-worker and best friend.

So to the plot. When Katherine and Olive decide “they” want to have another baby, their first choice is artificial insemination. This is despite the fact that Katherine has a steady boyfriend, Evan (Steen Raskopoulos in a role so thankless he may as well be a coronavirus superspreader). Evan is super in love, super-attentive, super-handsome, so obviously she’s not going to want to have his baby. In fact, even Shep might be a better bet. After all, it worked out fine the first time. 

The hitch in the plan is that any interaction between Shep and Katherine swiftly degenerates into vituperative obscenity. But Ryan’s actually funnier when she drops the brash comedic persona in favour of witty observation, as in the crisp description of Shep’s boy-band career: “Last one to get up off the stool.” Or the riposte when Shep petulantly remarks on the time he’s put into parenting Olive already. What would he have been doing instead, “Smoking hash on a dinghy?” Time will tell if this dirty Duchess adds up to more than snappy lines and sparkly headbands.


On Netflix from September 11

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