I laughed at my brain tumour – otherwise I’d never stop crying: Actress Charly Clive was 23 when she got the devastating diagnosis. Here, she shares how she and her best friend have turned her story into a new BBC comedy 

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  • Charlie Clive discovered he had a pituitary adenoma in the back of his eye in 2015
  • She and Oxfordshire best friend Ellen Robertson named Growth Brittany
  • 28-year-olds appear in a BBC comedy based on the story of Charlie’s brain tumor

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Best friends Charlie Clive and Ellen Robertson thought carefully about what to call the tumor growing in Charlie’s brain.

Doctors had their own name for the golf-ball-sized growth sitting just behind Charlie’s left eye — a pituitary adenoma — but friends decided they needed something less scary. He flirted with it by calling it Terry Wogan (“Ellen says,” as Pitui-Terry Wogan does), but it just didn’t feel right.

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So Britney Spears fan Charlie, then 23, suggested Britney. Bingo! Not only was she ‘distinguished and fabulous’, but Brittany was also one of the survivors of life. Since then, they were a threesome – Charlie, Ellen, and Brittany with brain tumors – although Ellen takes pains to inform that this Britney was never friends.

‘She was right there, like that flatmate you didn’t really want or like, but still, allowed you to come to the pub with you.’

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Best friends Charlie Clive and Ellen Robertson (pictured) have appeared together in the BBC comedy Britney, based on the story of Charlie’s brain tumor.

What to talk about at such a young age? The pair, who met at school in rural Oxfordshire, are now actresses. Charlie’s biggest role to date has been in the critically acclaimed 2019 Channel 4 series Pure, while Ellen starred in the Agatha Christie mini-series The Pale Horse.

But this week they appeared together in the BBC comedy Britney, based on the story of Charlie’s brain tumor. The TV pilot (and yes, they’re expecting a full series) is an extension of a sold-out stage show performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.

The production is of course real. Viewers are taken inside Charlie’s mind and the show includes a scene where Charlie wears an inflatable sumo-wrestler suit on the day of his diagnosis. Poetry License? No, it really happened.

‘My dad’s partner gave him a sumo suit as a silly Christmas gift and so, on Doomsday, we took pictures of me in it.’

It was decided how these friends would tackle the biggest challenge of their lives: They would laugh through it, somehow.

As the women now 28 years old point out, what was the choice?

Charlie says: ‘It was a matter of laughing at the monster so you’re not afraid of it. When do you stop crying? It was easy to bring it to light.

His show isn’t really about brain tumors. It is a celebration of friendship. Ellen largely moved in with Charlie’s family during this time (‘to be in place when I exploded, so she could pick up the rubble,’ Charlie says).

The pair live together today, completing each other’s sentences as we speak on Zoom — and at one point both mimicking Charlie’s brain surgery (with gruesome sound effects).

Charlie (pictured) after visiting her GP discovered a mass on her brain about her lack of periods and a blind spot in her peripheral vision

Charlie (pictured) after visiting her GP discovered a mass on her brain about her lack of periods and a blind spot in her peripheral vision

Such idiosyncrasies rooted out their friendship, which began at age 14 when they wrote their plays (Finding Imo, anyone?) together at school in Abingdon. Charlie later moved to New York to study dramatic arts, and Ellen studied at Cambridge.

In 2015, Charlie came home for a visit, and went to see her GP (played in the play by Omid Jalili) who was told about her lack of period and a blind spot in her peripheral vision. An MRI scan showed a mass on his brain. She says, ‘They said that it broke my nose bone and was putting pressure on the optic nerve, and it was fortunate that we caught it.’ ‘The next step would have been to find it because I had gone blind.’

Worse, the tumor was so close to his carotid artery that removal could have killed him—and they still didn’t know if it was cancer. Allen stepped in in violation. She says, ‘I saw it as my job to make him laugh, which I always used to do anyway.’ They both talk about hanging in the balance, ‘almost like a fantasy world’, says Charlie. ‘As I was going through the tests, we would do doctors’ impressions and create our own scenarios.’

Friends get up at night and talk about watching TV. There is a touching moment when Charlie admits she was afraid to sleep, and Ellen knew it. ‘It’s hard when you’re thinking “What if the tumor grows another inch at night and I don’t wake up?” ,

Ellen recalls the anesthetist saying that Charlie's heart stopped during her operation on the operating table.  Pictured: Ellen and Charlie

Ellen recalls the anesthetist saying that Charlie’s heart stopped during her operation on the operating table. Pictured: Ellen and Charlie

Charlie was operated upon in March 2016, and Ellen recalled the anesthetist saying that Charlie’s heart had stopped on the operating table.

‘He wasn’t the smartest person we’ve ever met. She said “Oh my god, guys, she’s dead”. Charlie makes a jazz hand gesture. ‘And guess who’s alive again?’ Even in that darkest moment, there was a gleam of humor. Ellen laughs at the memory of the surgeon in her scrub, which has wells. ‘There was blood on them. I was transfixed. I wanted to ask “Is that Charlie’s . . . brain blood?” ,

The anesthetist gets two full scenes in the stage version of the show. ‘She’s the heartbeat of the piece,’ says Charlie. ‘A sexy Ruger bloc who is shit talking to people.’

The days after surgery were terrifying—and yet, they’ve been mined for comedy, too. Charlie’s face was bandaged, ‘as if I would have the face of Beverly Hills’, and she was warned that she could not sneeze. She says, ‘If I did, the pieces of my brain would have come out of my nose.’

Ellen reads her quotes from Harry Potter but ‘makes them blurry’, which further confused the already confused Charlie. ‘I was addicted to drugs and not myself, and in the most bizarre pain, focused on my face’.

Charlie credits his best friend as his savior, admitting that he's not sure how he would have got through it all without Ellen.

Charlie credits his best friend as his savior, admitting that he’s not sure how she would have gotten through it…

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