Living the dream

Living the dream

By Michael Pickard
April 3, 2023


Dreamland marks the first comedy for former Doctor Who assistant Freema Agyeman, who has been busy saving lives on screen in the US since 2018. She tells DQ about returning to the UK and stepping into a new genre.

If it hadn’t been for Covid-19, Freema Agyeman might still be starring in US medical drama New Amsterdam. But like many people the world over, the British actor used the pandemic to look at life from a new perspective.

Agyeman’s breakout role came when she won the part of Martha Jones, a companion to David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, in the long-running BBC science-fiction series Doctor Who. She later appeared in Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood and had a regular role in crime series Law & Order: UK.

Yet for the past decade Agyeman has largely been working across the Atlantic, starring in shows as diverse as Sex & The City prequel The Carrie Diaries and Netflix sci-fi drama Sense8. Then, in 2018, she won a role in New Amsterdam, a series based on the story behind one of America’s oldest public hospitals.

The job demanded 10 months of filming every year to meet the demands of the US broadcast network cycle, with 22 episodes produced in the first season alone. Agyeman was always grateful to have landed as stable a job as anyone can have working in television while she lived “the dream” working in New York.

Freema Agyeman and Lily Allen in Dreamland

But being 3,000 miles from home was brought into sharp focus when the pandemic arrived, as she considered how she was missing adventures with her family and friends. It was with that in mind that she decided to leave New Amsterdam at the end of season four to return to the UK, and quickly landed one of the lead roles in new Sky comedy Dreamland, which debuts this Thursday.

“I love my lifestyle; I absolutely do. But I suddenly started to think, ‘Well, maybe I could still have that but just a little bit closer to home,’” she tells DQ. “And so I left there in April 2022 and then started work on Dreamland in July, and it was a world of difference. Suddenly I was doing rehearsals, which I’ve never experienced, and the whole thing was wrapped up in two months.”

Set in the English seaside town of Margate, Dreamland is pitched as a darkly comedic exploration of multi-generational female relationships and the secrets, lies, loves and aspirations of a family of four sisters. Agyeman star as Trish, who is pregnant for the third time with partner Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe). Her sisters Clare (Gabby Best) and Leila (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) support their mum (Frances Barber) and nan (Sheila Reid), but when estranged sister Mel (singer Lily Allen in her first screen role) reappears in their lives, she threatens to destabilise the entire family.

Distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution, the series comes from producer Merman (Motherland, This Way Up), which established an “incredibly nurturing, open and permissive” environment in which Agyeman could take her first steps into comedy.

“I was definitely new to the comedy world. I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “And while I was used to shooting scenes out of chronological order, which is the way telly pretty much does it everywhere, I was more used to doing it episode by episode. But when we started on this job, you’re shooting whole episodes out of sequence, shooting a scene from episode four, then episode six and episode two. But I never felt like I was floundering.”

Agyeman starred alongside Ryan Eggold in New Amsterdam

The actor admits that while she likes scaring herself by taking leaps into new genres or character types, she might not have been brave or ambitious enough to audition for Dreamland were it not for producer Jane Bell, who put her name forward for the series.

Then, when Agyeman read the script, she was “champing at the bit” to land the role. “I was fuelled by an enthusiasm for the work because I completely recognised these characters,” she says. “It’s the closest role, storyline or script I’ve ever read to my own life. Suddenly I was like, ‘This is a side of me and my career that I get to explore, where I can actually use my own experience from which I’ve never had the opportunity to do before.’”

Agyeman grew up on a council estate where, like in Dreamland, there was often an open-door policy that meant neighbours could walk in and out of each other’s homes without notice. She would also have old beds and sofas in her front garden where she could sit, drink and chat with friends.

“This is Merman being the real deal and telling authentic stories with all the nuances and the detail,” she says. “There’s one scene where Clare has a ‘fatberg’ explosion in the kitchen and I’m like, ‘Yep, I know what that’s like.’”

Based on the 2018 Bafta-winning short film of the same name, Dreamland is written by showrunner Emma Jane Unsworth, Gabby Best, Sharma Walfall and Sarah Kendall. Agyeman describes the scripts as “beautifully written, moving, funny and well-observed.” It also tackles themes of regeneration vs gentrification, social mobility, community, class, womanhood, sisterhood and parenthood – but under director Ellie Heydon, the series finds the fun and laughter in many dramatic situations. “Life can be difficult; life can be absurd. But if you can nail the truth of those situations, you can make people laugh at them because they can recognise and relate to them. And the characters and situations are completely relatable,” Agyeman says.

Agyeman played Martha Jones, a companion to David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, in Doctor Who

Before rehearsals, the actor did her “homework” to prepare for playing Trish, but unlike on a drama, where the aim is to build up character, she found that with comedy, it was helpful to strip away those layers. Just as she would visit London’s Old Bailey law courts in preparation for her role on Law & Order: UK, she also spent time watching co-star Smith-Bynoe’s stand-up routines.

“You come in just as open and as free as you can be, and extra aware of other people because so much is about timing,” she says. “The challenge here came from trying to be as relaxed as possible, because sometimes when you have that tension and nervousness, you can use that in a dramatic situation. But in comedy, it’s kind of a hindrance. We were just playing, exploring and getting the measure of each other because it’s like a dance and there’s a rhythm.”

After Dreamland, Agyeman’s next steps might both take her back to the stage after she made her West End theatre debut opposite Stockard Channing (The West Wing) and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) in Trafalgar Studio’s run of Apologia in 2017. Meetings are underway on one potential project, while another sees her working with award-winning playwright Frazer Flintham to create a one-woman show.

In turning creator, Agyeman says she has been inspired by peers such as Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and Billie Piper (I Hate Suzie) – “and I just love their vibe,” she says. “When you’re writing things that are close to home as well, you can’t beat the authenticity that comes through from that.”

Now, as new inhabitants prepare to enter the TARDIS – Sex Education’s Ncuti Gatwa is filming scenes as the 15th Doctor alongside Millie Gibson as his new companion ahead of their first episodes of Doctor Who airing during the 2023 festive period – Agyeman admits she hadn’t realised the “magnitude” of appearing in the iconic series.

“I remember feeling like I was just doing a little telly, just for us in this little bubble in Cardiff. Only when it came out did I recognise and realise the magnitude of it,” she says. “All I would say [to the new cast] is enjoy it in the moment while it’s happening. Enjoy the fact you’re stood in that TARDIS, in that world, and really appreciate the magic of it, because when it comes out and the world floods into it, it’s a different experience. Enjoy that time when it’s just yours.”

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