Motherland star Tanya Moodie and co-creators and writers Helen Serafinowicz and Holly Walsh reveal some of the secrets behind the BBC2 comedy.
For any horrified parent who has suddenly forgotten to dress up their child for World Book Day or faced a battle with nits, there is plenty to enjoy – and commiserate with – in Motherland, the BBC2 comedy about a group of parents dealing with the daily chaos that comes with raising children who go to the same school.
That’s not to say the show should appeal to only that demographic, with its band of likeable and equally unlikeable characters facing numerous incidents – dealing with an appalling parent, divorce, health issues – that are likely to ensure there is something for everyone to relate to.
Now in its third season, the series first launched in 2016 as a single pilot episode before a full season debuted in 2017. Season two followed in 2019 and then a Christmas special last year, before a further five episodes arrived last month.
Produced by Merman (Frank of Ireland, This Way Up), the cast is lead by Anna Maxwell-Martin as Julia, Diane Morgan as Liz, Lucy Punch as Amanda, Tanya Moodie as Meg and Paul Ready playing stay-at-home dad Kevin.
Speaking at a recent Women in Film & TV event, actor Moodie joined co-creators and co-writers Helen Serafinowicz and Holly Walsh to talk about how they navigated the Covid-19 pandemic to create the third season and the show’s approach to tackling real-life issues.
After a last full season in 2019, season three was written entirely during the coronavirus lockdown last year.
Holly Walsh: We met up for about two weeks in real life and it felt illegal; it felt really naughty when we met up, even though we were technically allowed to. It was so weird seeing people in real life after doing most of it on Zoom.
Helen Serafinowicz: We’ve always got storylines in our back pockets and overspilled stories that we didn’t use from last season. There was a lot of material when you’re a mum. We had some new stuff as well.
Walsh: We wanted to push ourselves a little bit more in this season and include some bigger storylines and topics that maybe we hadn’t gotten to in the first two seasons. A lot of that revolved around Meg, obviously, with her big story of having cancer, which is something a lot of us felt like we needed to write because it was something that had happened to a lot of us or friends of ours. It felt like a very important thing to talk about: what happens when things get scary as a mother. We wanted to give all the characters a little bit more depth and we were so lucky because we’ve got this insanely brilliant cast, which is just brilliant to write for. We were also pushing ourselves to find funny, clever, good and truthful ways of telling stories about mums. We pushed ourselves a bit more this season.
After the writers met up, they then all joined together with the cast over Zoom.
Tanya Moodie, who plays Meg: I hadn’t seen anyone since the previous season. Season two was Meg’s big debut so I still very much felt like a debutant, like a novice, like a proper learner. I was like a little church mouse in that Zoom. The women I work with, I’m in awe of them. They’re all so brilliant. I was really quiet and like, ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me, please don’t fire me. Please don’t write me out.’ And then they were like, ‘Tanya, you have cancer.’ I just said yes to everything.
The show tackles the Covid-19 pandemic in the first episode of season three, though its not coronavirus but an outbreak of nits that spreads among the show’s younger characters.
Serafinowicz: We started off thinking people will be sick of it by the time this comes out. But because we were writing it as things were happening, we were just writing it in the unknown. You just didn’t know how long it was going to go on. It became that elephant in the room that we had to at least nod towards.
Walsh: Someone said, ‘Don’t do it.’ So we did do it, we just did it in a roundabout way. We filmed it in November and by then everybody knew that this wasn’t just like a one-hit wonder, where we’d all reminisce about ‘that time last year where we were all stuck indoors for six weeks.’ By that point, we thought this is going to be fairly common and a big thing in all our lives, so it felt like we could do a little nod to it. We deliberately didn’t go down the, ‘What’s it like to be stuck indoors in Covid restrictions,’ because we wanted it to be watched in five years’ time when people would still find it funny and it wouldn’t feel too dated. We tried to do it so if you were in Covid you’d find it funny and if you weren’t, you’d still find it funny.
The characters and the situations they find themselves in are sometimes based on the writers’ own lives.
Serafinowicz: There are a couple of divorces happening in our writers’ room, so I guess it’s inevitable that your personal things might creep into storylines. I’ve got a decorator called Gary but I’m not in love with him.
Walsh: Motherland is always a balance between really specific and also massive, huge sweeping statements. We’re always trying to balance the bigger picture and the tiny picture all at once. Everything that we’ve gone through or our friends have gone through ends up getting funnelled into it in some way.
Moodie also contributed to a season three storyline where, in episode four, one of the kids at the school makes a racist comment to Meg’s daughter.
Moodie: The storyline came out of a real experience of a friend of one of the writers. That’s not happened to my daughter. However, I have several friends whose lives have mirrored that storyline and I myself have experienced that kind of prejudice. It was easy enough for me to make that kind of contribution to that particular storyline. Everything else, they’re all universal experiences. Even the cancer storyline, mercifully, I’ve not experienced that myself, but I’ve lost count of the amount of extremely close friends who have. That kind of thing is all around us.
Walsh: Episode four, which we wrote with Tanya, was the hardest one to write and the most rewarding one to write, because we had to listen a lot as writers. Even in the filming of it, we were really changing stuff and listening to how it sounded out loud and adjusting things. That was by far the toughest episode to write and probably the one I’m most proud of in the show, along with bits of other ones. But as an episode, that was a really collaborative episode. Our show is best when it’s really collaborative. That’s how we should be making TV.
At the heart of Motherland is an ambition to reflect the times the show is set in while relating those experiences with being a parent.
Walsh: We have a responsibility to try and reflect more than just a tiny little bubble or talk about things that are out of our comfort zone and need to be talked about a bit more. Trying to make a funny version of that is really hard and I don’t know if we always put it off, but it’s a good challenge to do. It’s always a risk when you take something on that’s scary, but I loved the process of it and it’s what we need to be doing as writers.
Moodie: All those big issues, they’re only really relevant to us [in the show] at the school gates. It’s a trickle down so we end up just catching whatever little drips are actually relevant to our lives. That was the big thing I learnt about contributing to episode four was that racism and the Black Lives Matter movement are the big issues [in society], but then how do they actually just come out with people in a playground? You realise these things are not solved in an hour, a day or even a month or a year in your life. You just deal with what’s in front of you. Most of those things, particularly mums like this, with so many things to deal with, there’s a degree of having a bit of a Teflon skin because you try to focus on what’s important.
Moodie joining the cast in season two and confronting issues of racism in season three speaks to the writers’ aim to make the show more diverse.
Walsh: We definitely dropped the ball in the first season [with the all-white main cast] and we talked about that before the second season, saying we were trying really hard to tell a story about mothers and women and we lost sight of what that meant and who we needed to include in talking about it. In the third season, where we did the storyline, we wouldn’t have done it if Tanya hadn’t been on board with it. We just needed to be collaborative. Tanya was so great and patient and fun to work with and always knew how to make it funny and where we should draw the line.
Moodie: When they said they wanted to look at racism, the most important thing we kept talking about was at no point in real life would these women, who are friends in a school group, try to solve big issues. You’re just getting on with your life and these things happen. If you’re going to get terribly upset about something, when it really wears you down and you’re like, ‘No I really want to look at this issue in my life,’ there are very specific conversations you have with very specific people in your life, and even then, you don’t dwell on it because it’s a lot to carry. That’s why in the storyline, Diane’s character, Liz, was trying to be that great friend but Meg was just like, ‘This is not worth it, this is not what I’m interested in dealing with.’ Yet there was also the other side of the coin with Amanda [Punch], who says, ‘Well, the jury’s still out on whether or not what he said was really racist’ and it was a really simple thing of Meg saying, ‘I don’t think the jury’s still out, trust me on that one, Amanda. Let’s move on because there’s no point having a conversation about it.’
Talking to friends who have been through this, the main issue is always the school’s response. It’s not like, ‘I have to change the attitudes of the parents whose kid did this.’ That’s impossible. You can’t change the way people talk amongst themselves at home in their own houses and you cannot change people’s attitudes overnight. We just need the school to recognise they have to put things in place to go, ‘Don’t do that. We don’t do that here. OK, let’s move on,’ but the schools generally have dropped the ball.
Through the series, Motherland refuses to become too sentimental as the writers carefully choose those moments that are infused with emotion.
Serafinowicz: Julia’s relationship with her mum is very much a reflection of my relationship with my mum. I would never put her in a home because I love her too much. But she’s really annoying. A lot of women have that dynamic between them and their mums, especially when they are mums themselves. But I wouldn’t put her in a home, definitely not, just like Julia.
Walsh: We have really sentimental moments in it, but they’re not what you usually see on screen. They’re just three people sitting on a sofa watching television, falling asleep together. That’s as sentimental as it gets in Motherland. That’s as sweet as we’ll ever give you. We really also went out of our way never to have the kids in the show. You see the top of their heads or you see the occasional bit if you need it just to set something up. But it’s never really about the kids. Not having them in it means you just assume all the nice stuff happens off-screen.