Motherland’s Sharon Horgan and Anna Maxwell Martin reveal the “dirty side of parenting”

Writer Sharon Horgan and actor Anna Maxwell Martin talk their new BBC comedy and realistic portrayals of motherhood

(Radio Times, TL)

Sharon, what inspired you to write Motherland?

Sharon Horgan: I’ve wanted to write something about motherhood for years but hadn’t found the right route in to explore this world, the “Motherland”, which is a certain time of the day when the only people around are mothers, students or unemployed people. But then we [Horgan has written the show with Father Ted writer Graham Linehan, Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh] thought about the character of Julia – whose mother cuts her loose and suddenly leaves her without childcare.

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Anna Maxwell Martin: Julia, who I play, is – like everyone I know – trying to juggle work and home life, and the practicalities of childcare, pick-ups, drop-offs…

How did you get the role, Anna?

Anna: I just auditioned 20 times.

Sharon: We actually did something together yonks ago – do you remember Free Agents? It feels weird that you auditioned and we weren’t just like, “Anna Maxwell Martin wants to do it!”

Anna: I auditioned in an absolute mega-grump. I was having a bad work day. You reach a certain age and think, “I don’t want to audition any more; I don’t want to whore myself in front of these people.”

Sharon: But your audition was perfect, you found a way to play Julia that we never thought about. Because you’re mainly a dramatic actress, you don’t have any of those little comedy tricks we’ve seen a million times.

Anna: I do feel a bit bad now… But it got me the part. I’m not very good or very funny – just really, really, grumpy.

Sharon, did you ever want to be in it?

Sharon: It’s a bit 50-50 whether I’m in what I’ve written. With this it would have felt a bit weird, perhaps because in Catastrophe I’m a parent. I did regret that a bit in the edit because it works so well. The great thing about the show is – I hope – that people really relate to it.

Anna: I’ve never had a response like it! Out of all the work I’ve bust my ass on; the crying I’ve done on bleak dramas… But this, mums were flinging themselves at me going, “When’s the series? We loved the pilot so much.”

Sharon: I actually thought of you the other day – I’d just dropped my daughter off at school and I was late, so I was walking like the clappers, and I was exhausted. It wasn’t even nine o’clock and I was already exhausted.

Anna: Those first couple of hours in the morning are just absolutely crushing. Juggling a job and kids is really hard. Not to play a violin, but it is, you know?

(BBC, TL)

Are you alpha mums?

Sharon: Oh God, no. To be honest, I’m surprised that I enjoy being a mum so much. I thought I was entirely non-maternal. I remember telling my sister I was pregnant and her genuine shock – I mean, I was shocked as well. So I never aimed to be a perfect mum. It’s not hard to look at what other people are doing and think they’re doing it better…

Anna: I think that’s really insidious with your first kid. You think, “Oh, that kid’s in a Bumbo. Mine’s not in a Bumbo!” Sharon: Unfortunately, you make mistakes with your first kid. You f**k them up a bit, but they end up being very sensitive and wonderful people. Then with the second one you just give up and they become funny little brats.

How old are your kids now? Have they seen Motherland?

Anna: My girls are six [Nancy] and eight [Maggie] – they’re probably not old enough to watch it but they love it. And it’s nice for them to see what I do – one of them once said when asked what my job is: “A man in a car picks her up and he drives her to a car park and then she goes into a caravan.”

Sharon: Mine are nearly 14 [Sadhbh] and nine [Amer] and they absolutely love it. My older girl asked to see Catastrophe and I found a bit that’s suitable, but I wouldn’t let her watch it as a whole – I don’t want her to see me and Rob Delaney have sex.

Anna: Mine find everything about what I do embarrassing. I did Bedtime Stories for CBeebies so that the kids could enjoy it but they hated it! I think they’d just rather I was at home.

How do you balance family and work?

Sharon: When I’m away, it’s hard. While I was filming Divorce in New York, I was back and forth, and the kids came back and forth. But that was a horrible time. Anna: When I first had kids, I tried just filming close to home in London. I’d leave the house at half six and I’d get home at nine o’clock at night. I didn’t see them anyway. But I was still doing the packed lunch and desperately trying to get home in rush-hour traffic. I realised it’s actually easier to go away and then come home and spend proper time with them.

Sharon: I consider giving up work every single time I’m on a job, if I’m honest. And then I change my mind. I was filming in Atlanta this year and it was two months back and forth. I remember thinking, “I’m never going to do this again.” It was hellish, but then my kids got to come to Atlanta and experience that.

Liz (Diane Morgan), Julia (Anna Maxwell-Martin), Kevin (Paul Ready) in motherland (BBC, TL)
Liz (Diane Morgan), Julia (Anna Maxwell-Martin), Kevin (Paul Ready) in Motherland (BBC)

Why do we rarely see an honest depiction of parenting on TV?

Sharon: Because it’s hard to show women looking like they’re doing a bad job of being a mother. And that’s why I’m amazed that the BBC let us do whatever we wanted; there’s no sugar-coating it. There’s no, “Right, in this episode can you make sure you give your daughter her five-a-day?” It’s just showing the sort of… hell of it. We actually did a really early version of it in the US for ABC but it didn’t work because we were monitored so heavily and weren’t able to show the dirty side of parenting.

Anna: Because lots of mums are drinking wine, straight after the half-past three pick-up. Obviously not me…

Have you seen a depiction of motherhood on TV or film before that was relatable?

Anna: I saw Kramer vs. Kramer the other day…

Sharon: Gosh, I don’t know… The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, anything animated family-wise is pretty spot on. I guess when you think about Ab Fab, they were bad mothers. Or Roseanne Barr was a brilliant badass female role model, but those shows were few and far between. It’s great because TV commissioners today are much less likely to say, “Oh s**t, we already have a female show.” If it’s funny and it feels relevant, they’re behind it. So in comedy, there are definitely more honest and interesting female roles because there are more women writing. It’s no longer about male writers having an idealised version of a woman.

Do social media add to that pressure to have the perfect family?

Sharon: I follow a woman on Instagram whose portrayal of motherhood made me feel so inadequate I had to stop looking at her posts. The trips to the seaside, the painting, the cultural activities…

Anna: My friend posted something the other day about her wonderful husband blah blah… When I told her it was really sweet she was like, “He’s actually doing my head in at the moment, that’s just my Facebook personality”. It does make you feel inadequate for a bit and then I realise no one’s actually living that life.

Sharon: I hope everyone knows that. I hope it’s not like glossy magazines used to make me feel, where you look at those pictures that have been airbrushed and go, “That’s what I should be aiming for.” I’m glad not to have to put a brave “Stepford” face on my life.

Anna: Me too, although maybe I should – the whole of the film and TV industry is at my school gates. It’s like one long audition, which I’ve failed because I’m always looking horrendous in a tracksuit and Ugg boots.

Did your mums work?

Sharon: My mum didn’t. I mean, she worked with my dad on the turkey farm we lived on in Ireland. She had five kids and she was always there. A constant.

Anna: My mum was a research scientist but stopped for myriad reasons and was also around. I lived in a cul-de-sac in Beverley in East Riding and I was like a dog. I’d be running around outside with the other children, go in, have a flapjack, go back out. So I don’t really remember being around my mum at all, even if she says she was a stay-at-home mum.

Sharon: Where I was, there was nothing to do, it was just turkeys and lots of grass. There was only one bus a week on a Saturday, at 1pm – that was our only way out of the place.

Anna: I remember sitting with my mates waiting for a Sunday bus for five hours. You’d just sit and wait. Our kids don’t know how lucky they are. They’ve all got Uber accounts now.

Would you ever want to give it all up and move to the country?

Anna: Yes, I would! I’d be happy quilting and gardening. I love mowing the lawn.

Sharon: I think I’d walk into a lake with stones around my ankles.

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Motherland Tuesday 10.00pm BBC2 (11.15pm Northern Ireland)