Monday 26 August 2019

The mother of all comedies

'Father Ted' writer Graham Linehan 'still can't believe' he persuaded his wife Helen to marry him. Now they've collaborated on a TV comedy show about their adventures in parenthood

Graham Linehan with wife Helen, who collaborated on the Motherland series
Graham Linehan with wife Helen, who collaborated on the Motherland series
Philippa Dunne, Diana Morgan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Paul Ready and Lucy Punch in the TV comedy Motherland.

Julia Molony

Graham and Helen Linehan are scoping out the restaurant of The Savoy Hotel in London, on the hunt for a late breakfast. They are both wearing dark suits, and dark hair styled into his-and-hers side-swept fringes.

Both tall, they make a striking couple. Graham is rumpled but charismatic behind black-rimmed glasses while Helen has an edgy beauty - all thick eye-liner, thick hair and creamy skin.

They live in Norwich with their two children, Wendy (12) and Henry (10), but have been in London for the Royal Television Society awards, where Graham picked up a gong. It is 10am the morning after when I meet them on their way into the restaurant, and they have the slightly edgy demeanour of the famished.

This is a jaunt for them - 24 hours away from day-to-day life at home with two kids where, up until recently, life was broadly organised as follows: Graham grafting away on scripts in the home office while Helen, who gave up her job working for the Cartoon Network when she was pregnant with their daughter, mostly occupied with running around after their two children.

"Mumming it," as she puts it. Though Graham says, "Helen's days are insane, she's like a pinball."

But it's all changed since Helen and Graham began working together - collaborating on the TV show Motherland. The concept grew out of Helen's experience of parenthood. She and Graham first had the idea several years ago. "It was just when I became a mum," Helen says, as they both tuck enthusiastically into their breakfast. "I found myself in this different world. You're thrown in with all these people that you wouldn't usually hang out with in your wildest dreams. And you're suddenly in cafes together and at yoga classes together... I was just desperate to sit down and talk to someone about something other than babies... You can't synch with your friends when you have a baby, so it's pot luck who you end up with.

"All I wanted to do was talk about The Sopranos or music. Hearing about other people's babies is the most boring thing on earth."

Almost immediately, she started mining the experience for comic material. This crystallised into an idea for a TV show when her children started school.

"I think moments of dipping my toe into fundraising and stuff like that. Some parents can be a bit mad. Especially a parent who has had quite a high-powered job. And then they invest all the energy that they put into that job into a fundraiser. And then you find that you've been sitting in a meeting for half an hour squabbling about how much a cupcake should be."

They soon became aware they'd struck on a rich seam for comedy. Motherland stars Anna Maxwell Martin as a harried working mother at the end of her rope, trying and failing to juggle childcare, PTA committees, corporate life, and the sneering judgments of the alpha-mums she is forced to confront over endless coffees in the local breastfeeding-friendly cafe. Her own mother flatly refuses to help look after the kids, and her husband, hilariously, is yet to be spotted at home. He only appears on-screen on the other end of a phone as she tries with increasing desperation to coax him back from work away-days, stag nights, and the pub.

"Men have this thing," says Graham. "They go into the office, shooting the shit with friends, occasionally making a phone call. And then when they phone home they're like.... [he pantomines exhaustion] UUUURGGGH! Whereas their wives are at home, their arms full of washing." Ah yes, the endless laundry. "It's just awful!" Graham says.

"If I had been in my twenties," says Helen, "and somebody had tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'This is just a little clip of your life - what it's going to be like when you've got kids.' I don't know if I would have had them."

Is Graham anything like the shirker father as depicted the show? "I'm always home!" he says, before adding, "Not that I'm doing any of the work."

Motherland is one of those shows that captures so much the contemporary mood - tapping an as-yet unexpressed wellspring of truth - that as soon as you see it, you wonder in amazement why no one has tackled it before.

Graham and Helen nurtured the idea at home. "It's great being able to take some of these things that normally would just be a little shared private moment between us," Graham says, and turn them into comedy. Then, they heard that writers Holly Walsh and Sharon Horgan (star of the break-out hit Catastrophe) had been developing a show called "Bad Mom in the States and, it hadn't quite worked out," says Graham. Since there seemed to be ideas in common they suggested they collaborate.

"I felt very out of my depth in the room with Graham and Sharon and Holly," says Helen. " I felt like I came in by fluke. I felt like I'd won a competition. At first I was a bit nervous." As it turned out, 12 years of marriage to a scriptwriter of such exigent standards as her husband had been a pretty good apprenticeship.

"I've read all of Graham's stuff, and he'll stand over my shoulder as I read it, waiting for me to laugh out loud," she says. "I feel like I've picked up a few tips on how to do stuff through him."

"Helen is brilliant at spotting what makes a good story in something that happens to her in real life," Graham says. "She has this thing of transforming everyday life, so that it acquires a comedy that is really great.

"We're very clear on what our skills are. I'm good at structure and making sure everything is in the right order, and Helen is great at finding those things that can happen. Stuff that's heavy with possibility. Helen is great at zeroing in on them."

Though it's set in the yummy-mummy paradise that is London's Queens Park, they were keen that Motherland shouldn't just reflect a narrow, affluent media-classes experience. The show is set around a state school, and one of the three main characters is the caustic-tongued single-mother Liz, played by Diane Morgan. "Our kids aren't at a private school," Helen says. "The school that Henry goes to, they have this policy that parents are not allowed to drop their kids off in their pyjamas. I don't think you'd get that in a private school."

Graham was already into his stride as a comedy writer when he and Helen met. He started his career as a journalist on Hot Press before he and his Father Ted co-writer Arthur Mathews sent a script on spec into Channel 4 that got snapped up, sending the inhabitants of the Craggy Island parochial house into the comedy Hall of Fame forever.

He was introduced to Helen by her brother, the actor Peter Serafinowicz, who appeared in an episode of Black Books, starring Dylan Moran. "I was with someone else, and it was a couple of years until we got together," Helen says. Though she might not have known it straight away, Graham had his sights set on Helen from the get-go.

"I told the person she was with, I said something like, 'As soon as you slip up, I'm going to be there'," he says.

"You stalked me for two years!" she tells him.

"I still can't believe my luck."

The pair were married in 2004 and soon after found to their delight that Helen was pregnant. But there was heartbreak to come. At their first trimester scan, they discovered that the foetus had acrania - a fatal abnormality which meant it would not survive outside the womb. Doctors counselled an immediate termination. Helen had the procedure as advised, recovered and the couple went on to have two children. When their eldest daughter was ten months old, they left London and moved to Dublin and were horrified to discover that under Irish law, Helen would have been obliged to continue with the pregnancy to full-term or face prosecution.

The experience has made them passionate supporters of the Repeal The 8th Campaign. And in 2015, they went public with their story to highlight why they believe so strongly that the constitution must be changed. Helen is furiously frustrated by the status quo. "Every time I think about it I think of everyday, the number women who have had to come over here," she says, looking dismayed.

"Because I'm Irish," says Graham, "it's clearer to me how much has changed that we're even able to see it [abortion] as a possibility. When I was a kid, above everything else, the abortion issue was bone-deep in people, it was bone-deep in me. I was a Catholic boy and I thought it was the most shocking thing because that's how it's presented - as the murdering of children."

It was reading John Irving's book The Cider House Rules that changed his mind. "It's written from the point of view of someone who does not believe in abortion. But in the end it's something he feels he has to do, because it's illegal. He can't let women get hurt by going to these quacks so he has to act. It's a brilliant thing of a man who is forced by injustice to act against his morality."

The issue "was one of the reasons we left Ireland", says Helen. Graham nods emphatically, his expression darkening. "I wouldn't bring up my daughter there."

Eventually, they settled in Norwich, where they have lived happily ever since. The decision to move there was a whim, says Graham. "Like everything else that we do."

"Our neighbours moved to Norwich, and our daughters were best friends. And I just went up to stay with them and I said to Graham, 'I really like it. It's a really lovely place'," says Helen.

Though it is the centre of the TV production world, London life didn't appeal to them any more. "We were just sick of seeing the drug deals outside our house and the police notices that someone had been assaulted."

Norwich feels much more family-friendly. "We were burgled once, but by Laurel and Hardy, it seems," Helen jokes. "They were just idiots. They spent a long time trying to tear the alarm off the wall. Time they probably could have used to escape."

"There was nothing to steal," says Graham. "Unless you want to get a couple of copies of old IT Crowd DVDs."

Motherland airs Tuesdays, 10pm on BBC2.

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