Mum’s the word: The Replacement stars want to tackle sexist views of motherhood

After this workplace thriller starring Vicky McClure and Morven Christie, you may never look at maternity leave the same way again...

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The Replacement is one of those dramas that is destined to become the catch-all reference for workplace trauma, the way Single White Female remains, 25 years later, the go-to shorthand for an invasive female friendship.

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The story is simple. Ellen, played by Morven Christie with a witty but nerve-jangling intensity, has just secured a big commission at her architecture firm when she unexpectedly falls pregnant.

She wants to return to work as soon as possible, but in the meantime Paula – played by Vicky McClure with an air of magnetic self-possession – who is the same age but a mother already, is brought in to learn Ellen’s job and cover her maternity leave.

From there things move so fast, from the odd trodden-on toe to a full-blown conspiracy, that the first episode left me with a mild feeling of emotional motion sickness. It’s a cracking drama – tense, chic, amplified but subtle.

When I meet Christie and McClure in a London hotel, they’re fresh from a session with the press that has left them, let’s say, slightly speechless with rage. Christie describes how, “the theme of motherhood creates this umbrella that makes people think they can stand underneath it and ask what are essentially very intrusive, sexist questions. I’m, like, get your umbrella out of the way, let me rain on you for a second.”

The truth of this observation hits you immediately. Few critics used Christie’s work in The A Word as a way in to an in-depth discussion about autism; or McClure’s performance in This Is England as an excuse to talk about the British class system.

It’s a kind of questioning by stealth. “When I played Lol in This Is England,” says McClure, “a lot of the questions were, ‘How does it feel to be [director] Shane Meadows’s first female lead? How could I possibly know? I play the lead, and I am a woman. Forever and amen have we been answering the same questions. It’s getting to the point where I think, have I not answered them properly? Or is it still just a massive shock that we’re here?”

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Vicky Mcclure as Paula, and Morven Christie as Ellen

Christie recalls a young male journalist who asked her nothing but “questions about motherhood, about how I could connect with motherhood when I wasn’t a mother. When I said maybe it was a bit disappointing that the whole conversation was about that, he said, ‘Well, motherhood is the most important role in a woman’s life’. Oh, OK. So I should get pregnant or kill myself? Those are my options? It’s not like this is just a woman on woman thing, this is society as a whole.”

McClure notices the close questioning about children you get from everyone, and not just professionally. “Me and Morven have sat down so often and said, ‘Having a baby is a wonderful thing, but whether or not we have children in the future is nobody else’s business, and it will continue to be nobody else’s business.”

Christie adds, “And it’s always, ‘Have you had kids yet?’ Like, if you’re going to have them in the future, it’s OK. Everybody needs to find a box to put you in, but that need to find out what your future is doesn’t exist in the same way with men.”

Both actors have such keen insights into their characters, the dynamic between Ellen and Paula and the forces driving them, that to have it reduced to, “How do you play a mother when you’re not one?” must be beyond frustrating.

The director of The Replacement, Joe Ahearne cast both of them without audition, so sure was he that they had what he needed. And the way their conflict escalates, in a glance, an innocuous remark, in the way they’re positioned in a room, is marvellously sinister.

“People weren’t used to seeing me smile,” McClure remembers. “Nobody had really seen my teeth before.”

“That’s not even your own smile!” Christie says, “that’s your Paula smile.”

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It’s actually pretty rare to see the myth of maternal solidarity challenged, even though, as Christie says, “one of the things that shocked me, when I was playing Alison in The A Word, was the judgement of mothers on other mothers. It’s so under-the-skin nasty.

“I think it comes from the fact that there’s maybe nothing quite like motherhood to make a woman feel that she’s failing. If you can pass judgement on somebody else, you can make yourself feel a bit better for a brief moment in time.”

There is nothing I love more than righteous female outrage, but I should say that this is all delivered with a lot of vaudeville exasperation, a certain delight in the daftness of the world.

Christie is very active on social media, but says she never gets trolled or hassled, except, “if you work with quite well-known men, who middle-aged women really fancy. They develop an immediate hatred for you and your character.” Like who? “James Norton. It’s amazing. We were on set on Granchester, and James was talking about selfies. I put a picture of him on Instagram, and the comments underneath… ‘Oh, what lovely long fingers he’s got’. ‘Why are you photographing him, you harridan?’”

Another caveat – both actors have a pitch perfect sense of the absurd, and find dark amusement in almost everything. Since McClure lives in Nottingham and Christie in Glasgow they are known for being “down-to-earth”, which is a code for “unlikely to be found drinking in a Soho club with a load of other actors”.

Christie describes her life outside work as a kind of Scottish triathlon, “swimming in the loch, running up hills, going to the pub with my mates. Lochs are amazing, it’s like I’ve dug myself a hole to swim in.”

“That’s how I feel about the Nottingham Caves,” McClure adds opaquely. I think down-to-earth is the wrong phrase – Christie and McClure are more like artists than exhibitionists.

The casting is inspired, and The Replacement will inspire some intoxicating, Hitchcockian paranoia.

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This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine, March 2017