Giving their Best

Giving their Best

By John Winfield
June 12, 2023


Writer Jack Thorne and star Sharon Horgan explain how they approached the challenging subject at the heart of the BBC’s Best Interests, in which two parents find themselves at odds with each other and the NHS when it comes to their critically ill daughter.

One of the UK’s most celebrated drama writers, Jack Thorne is no stranger to sensitive subjects.

His credits are littered with series that have tackled the most challenging of topics, from racism and sexual abuse in the This is England TV spin-offs and alcoholism and childhood trauma in The Virtues – both of which he penned alongside Shane Meadows – to National Treasure’s study of a fading celebrity accused of rape and Kiri’s story of child abduction.

Now, with Best Interests, Thorne has brought his exceptionally nuanced style to a new but no less difficult issue. The BBC series stars Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen as parents Nicci and Andrew, who are told by doctors treating their critically ill daughter Marnie that it would be in her best interests to end medical intervention and allow her to die.

Jack Thorne

Thirteen-year-old Marnie, played by Niamh Moriarty, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a baby and has been in and out of hospital for much of her young life, and her devoted parents have become accustomed to a life of medical equipment and emergency situations. But after Marnie is rushed to hospital with a severe chest infection and put on a ventilator – immediately after Nicci and Andrew return from reluctantly taking a much-needed break – it soon becomes clear her condition is worsening.

This leaves consultant Samantha (Noma Dumezweni) with the unenviable task of telling the young girl’s parents that she believes the time has come to withdraw Marnie’s life support and allow her to die, reasoning that she will only continue to suffer.

While Nicci reacts with fury and insists she will do whatever it takes to keep her daughter alive, Andrew is more subdued – and thus the stage is set for a struggle not just between two parents and the National Health Service, but also between the parents themselves.

As well as taking viewers back in time to show the earlier stages of Marnie’s life and how her family have coped with her condition, Best Interests also jumps forward, revealing in the very first scene that the battle goes all the way to court. The flash-forward opening also shows that the issue has driven Nicci and Andrew apart, the couple arriving at the courthouse separately and locking eyes from a distance.

Sharon Horgan plays Nicci, who takes the fight for her daughter’s medical care to court

The original concept for the show came from executive producer Sophie Gardiner, MD of Chapter One Pictures, which produced Best Interests alongside Fifth Season and Thorne’s One Shoe Films. Gardiner was keen to get Thorne on board from the off, but he was initially concerned that the subject might be a little too dicey even for a writer of his experience.

“The idea was her idea. She thought there was a story worth telling,” Thorne says. “I’ve worked with and known Sophie for 20 years and immediately wanted to find a way to do it, but I struggled and I couldn’t find a way to do it. I got very worried about the idea of parents versus the NHS and how you tell that story; how to tell it without stigma and without ending up with, ‘These are the good guys, these are the bad guys.’ How do you get inside that?”

After a period of discussion, Thorne found his way into the story by deciding to focus on two parents having different views about what’s best for their child. “From there, it became a lot easier because it became about how we capture them,” he says. “And with Sharon and Michael, we got two incredible actors who were able to capture the complexity of that argument.”

Realism is key to the series, to the extent that all the nurses seen doing anything active in a medical sense are real paediatric ICU nurses, not actors. And the production team and cast alike conducted in-depth research into the issue, including speaking to the various parties represented on screen, from parents and doctors to the mediators who get involved when there are disputes between the two over a child’s care.

Niamh Moriarty plays Marnie, who has muscular dystrophy, and Alison Oliver is her older sister Katie

Of the latter, Thorne notes that “they were very protective of the bit that they do and how we express that in the drama.”

In addition, as is increasingly becoming the norm in film and TV, disabled roles were played by disabled actors. Moriarty brought her experience of living with cerebral palsy to the role of Marnie, while young Bafta winner Lenny Rush (Am I Being Unreasonable?) has a part in the series as George, a romantic interest for Marnie.

The supporting cast also includes Alison Oliver, the breakout star of Sally Rooney adaptation Conversations With Friends, as Marnie’s older sister Katie, with each family member’s perspective of the ordeal explored separately.

“I’ve spent a large portion of my life trying to tell disabled stories and trying to bring the disabled experience to the screen,” says Thorne, who is one of the people behind the TV Access Project. The body was set up last August as an alliance of 11 of the UK’s biggest broadcasters and streamers, which pledged to work together to “create a substantive and permanent structural shift to ensure access provision for disabled talent.”

Michael Sheen is Nicci’s husband Andrew, who sees things differently from his wife

Thorne continues: “The real challenge with this was that I didn’t want it to be a story that was about non-disabled people reacting to disability. So through the script process, we worked quite hard on trying to get Marnie’s story as complex as possible and to get as much time with her as possible so that we gave her life within it.

“A huge portion of that is the really complicated relationship between her and Katie, their sibling dynamic. Another huge portion of it is Lenny Rush – the superstar who’s just won a Bafta – as the love interest. So it was just about trying to make Marnie’s story as alive as possible while these deadly questions are going on.”

However, Thorne didn’t want to go as far as basing the story on any real-life case. “It didn’t feel appropriate – I wouldn’t want to tell the story of a real couple going through this, a real family going through this. I think it would be too intrusive,” he says. “I’ve told real stories and I’ve told stories that try to replicate real stories. I try to get inside the same truth, the same questions within those real stories.

“We spent a lot of time talking to people who have gone through this, and talking to doctors, so there are an awful lot of people whose stories have impacted on this show and are reflected in this show, but no one whose story is a direct reflection, because that just wouldn’t be fair. I hope those families will find their reflection, but not the truth.”

Meanwhile, Catastrophe and Bad Sisters star Horgan felt particularly close to her character because of an illness her now 19-year-old daughter suffered as a toddler.

Am I Being Unreasonable’s Lenny Rush plays George

“I felt like I connected with Nicci because my daughter was very ill when she was about 16 months old. She had Meningococcal septicaemia and we were in a position where we didn’t know if she would live or die for a short amount of time,” Horgan says.

“I really specifically remember the feeling of, ‘Whatever you have to do, I don’t care. Just keep her alive.’ It was such a strong memory for me; that feeling is in my bones and my DNA now, so that’s why I had this connection with Nicci. She’s so strong.”

Best known for her turns in several acclaimed comedies, Horgan admits she was anxious about taking a starring role in a hard-hitting drama: “I didn’t want to take the part! I was mid filming Bad Sisters and my agent said this script had come in from Jack Thorne. I’d wanted to work with Jack for so long, but then I was aware that I was mid doing something and they would be filming very soon after that ended. But of course I had to read it because it was Jack, and it just destroyed me.

“I felt really nervous, but then we [Horgan and Thorne] had a Zoom and I felt a bit less nervous. I felt really connected to Nicci and to her point of view. I really felt it deeply, and the thought of someone else playing her, I didn’t love.

“I know a lot of it is hard going, and it kind of has to be, but Jack and Michael [Keillor, director] talked about how important it was to show them being a family – to show the beautiful moments, the light moments – the moments of love and the joy of that. It felt like a really great way to approach telling that story.

Thorne was keen to portray the disabled experience accurately

Helping Horgan feeling more at ease was the fact she was joined in the cast by other typically comedic performers. “It’s cast beautifully against type I think, with Kevin Eldon [Big Train, Smack the Pony] and Pippa Haywood [Green Wing]… having unexpected people in it was a really smart and unexpected route,” she says.

A sense of humour was clearly welcome on set too, with the cast needing to find some levity amid the seriousness of the drama – though the script certainly isn’t without its injections of comedy.

“The weird thing is, I laughed more doing this show than I have on a lot of things. We just constantly laughed,” Horgan says. “The material was so tough and what was happening was so tough that we all went through the wringer, but we just laughed constantly. It was a really happy work environment, because we kind of needed that release from the heaviness of a lot of the material.”

Indeed, rather than worrying about not being able to rise to the emotional demands of playing Nicci, Horgan was more concerned about going over the top, such was her connection to the character.

“I knew just from reading it how I felt. It filled me with emotion, so it was more about how to hold that back than worrying about how I was going to get there.

“Michael Keillor was brilliant at making sure that when he had it, he had it. It never felt like he was putting us through the wringer just because a certain thing wasn’t right. He was very protective of us – if he felt that he got a really difficult scene in one go, he’d just move on.”

With the four-part series debuting on BBC One tonight, Thorne is clear that Best Interests doesn’t provide a neatly packaged solution to anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves in Nicci and Andrew’s situation. But he does hope it gets people talking during what he describes as a “very frustrating time right now” for people living with disabilities.

“I hope that what we’re doing is posing questions, not creating answers,” he says. “I don’t like drama that goes, ‘This is the answer to this problem.’ I hope what we’re doing is going, ‘This is the problem, this is the way one family navigated their way through it, but this is not necessarily the answer to how this problem will never arise again.’

“It is an impossible thing to navigate because it’s dealing with questions that no one can deal with.”