It's March 2007. Catherine Tate is appearing in a Comic Relief sketch with Prime Minister Tony Blair, who playfully mimics her famous catchphrase: "Am I bovvered?". The legacy of the Iraq War will be debated on a Question Time special less than a week later.


Meanwhile, the television phone-in scandal is leaving competition hopefuls outraged – even Blue Peter is embroiled in the controversy. Against this backdrop, BBC Two premieres a fittingly chaotic sitcom titled Fear, Stress & Anger.

It's a family affair (in more ways than one, as you'll soon learn). The story follows married couple Martin (Peter Davison) and Julie Chadwick (Pippa Haywood), who are reluctantly shambling into the throes of middle-age. Both are grappling with the gnawing feeling that their best days are behind them, with two highly dependent offspring – Chloe (Georgia Tennant) and Lucy (Daisy Aitkens) – doing nothing to abate their existential dread.

For creator Michael Aitkens, the show borders on autobiographical. Not only are the Chadwick daughters inspired by his own – one of whom co-stars – but patriarch Martin is faced with a problem that had been plaguing him at the time. "I was pissed off," he told over the summer.

"I’d had a very good run in the ‘90s, churning stuff out left, right and centre... then you suddenly find the people you're dealing with have been replaced by some 12-year-old from Durham University."

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And so, Fear, Stress & Anger began as a "joke" project where he could channel his frustration at the new regime, chronicling the fading fortunes of an ageing screenwriter. Eventually, Martin's job was changed to "something in advertising", a sector in which Michael's contemporaries had also reported being sidelined. And when his aunt called to chastise him for "whining" too much, the creator decided to split focus between a "neurotic couple" and their children.

Pippa Haywood and Peter Davison star in Fear, Stress & Anger
Pippa Haywood and Peter Davison star in Fear, Stress & Anger. Hartswood Films/BBC

He didn't have to look far for inspiration. His daughter, Daisy, had recently moved in after graduating from drama school, and was struggling to make ends meet as a bar worker and children's entertainer. "I'm sure that's why he wrote a part around me... So he could get me out! Like, 'Oh Jesus, give this girl some money, someone'," she told us. "Obviously, because my dad was writing Chloe with me in mind, when it got to the casting process he felt this pressure to give his daughter a job."

However, Michael wasn't the only one looking out for family. After Peter Davison was cast as Martin Chadwick, he suggested "without pressure" his own daughter, Georgia Moffett (now Tennant), for the contested Chloe role. "Of course, there's always an underlying thought that you are applying pressure simply by saying it, but it just seemed to fit perfectly together," he recalled. "I just thought it would be lovely to work with her."

Ultimately, Daisy lost out on the chance to play herself! "Georgia's younger than me, so it made sense for her to go for the [younger role]. So then, when I auditioned for Lucy, I just did an impression of my sister," she said. While both women were put through a formal hiring process, there remains a certain cosiness to the casting that would probably cause a stir on social media today. It didn't go unnoticed at the time, either.

In an interview with Radio Times on the week Fear, Stress & Anger debuted, co-star Pippa Haywood was asked for her thoughts on nepotism in the television industry. She playfully responded: "Well, I'm very put out that no family members of my own are in there. I should at least have got a granny or a dog in there, but no." Alas, those roles went to the late Eileen Essell (more on her later) and a fluffy Tibetan terrier loaned by an untraceable company called Animalation.

"In those days, you didn't have to be so careful. I think if it was to come up today, there'd be a few pernicious remarks about how Georgia was my daughter and Daisy was Michael's daughter," said Davison, who firmly stands by lending his support. "Your inclination as a parent is always to help your children and I don't think there's anything wrong with that... I mean, who would say ‘I'm not going to help my child get a job?’."

Tennant remarked: "Obviously, it was a massive advantage having my dad go, ‘Could you please see my daughter for this part?’. But equally, that had happened before and I had very much not been successful. So it could have gone either way, clearly... It definitely helps with getting in the room and I don’t think there’s any point in pretending it doesn’t. But I think you very quickly don't get to go in those rooms anymore if you're not good."

Georgia Tennant and Daisy Aitkens star in Fear, Stress & Anger
Georgia Tennant and Daisy Aitkens star in Fear, Stress & Anger. Hartswood Films/BBC

The heightened sensitivity around this particular topic saw 2022 dubbed 'Year of the Nepo Baby' by New York Magazine. A debate continues to rage over whether talent naturally rises to the top in show business, but Daisy cites herself as living proof that an industry connection doesn't guarantee you a career. "I didn't go on to work much as an actor, so I can't say that it was the golden ticket to everything," she laughed.

Concluding our discussion of the elephant in the room, Michael said: "They weren't amateurs. They were qualified for the parts – that's our story and we're sticking to it."

Fear, Stress & Anger premiered on BBC Two on Thursday 22nd February 2007, prompting then-Radio Times columnist Alison Graham to question whether sitcoms had "entered some kind of space/time continuum". For her, it represented "Terry and June for baby boomers" – that is to say, it was a tad dated – although I'd argue it lacks the comforting quality of that earlier show. In fact, the married couple featured here seem perpetually on the brink of a catastrophic nervous breakdown.

Martin never fully recovers from a sudden demotion at work, which leaves him logging on from home for less money and reporting to his former assistant, Gemma (Katherine Parkinson). "He's not going to rise any further up the ladder... In those days, you were basically fired from the job if you were taken on as a consultant. Really, it's a slow decline in your future," explains Davison, distinguishing his character's plight from the flexible office hours many have come to enjoy lately.

Pippa Haywood and Peter Davison star in Fear, Stress & Anger
Pippa Haywood and Peter Davison star in Fear, Stress & Anger. Hartswood Films

On the contrary, more time at home seems only to intensify a growing sense of obsolescence, which results in some truly manic behaviour and outrageously bleak musings on later life. "All that effort and struggle to end up as decaying organisms waiting to be mulched up and ploughed back into the ground to fertilise the next generation of greedy, mediocre nobodies," laments Martin at the end of the first episode.

"Obviously, I'd been suppressing this middle-aged angst for some time and it was a wonderful outlet to play this man who was permanently frenetic... it seemed to come very easy to me," said Davison, who also hailed his "fantastic" co-star in Haywood (her representatives did not respond to a request for interview time). "It was very equal in terms of our combined angst. She had as many moments of craziness as I did and plenty of scope to display that."

Indeed, the series does subvert the worn out sitcom trope of 'Foolish Husband, Responsible Wife' – recently parodied in the darkly comic Kevin Can F**k Himself – by giving Julie her own variety of psychodramas. She too finds herself in a career cul-de-sac, grinding away on planning applications at the town hall, with domestic chores, money woes and love rivals among the other factors driving her into light alcoholism and a brief experiment with unprescribed medication.

Georgia Tennant and Pippa Haywood star in Fear, Stress & Anger
Georgia Tennant and Pippa Haywood star in Fear, Stress & Anger. Hartswood Films/BBC

Tennant described Haywood's performance as so mesmerising that it almost made her forget her lines, but it was another co-star that she became "mildly obsessed" with. Despite being 84 years old when the show was filmed, Eileen Essell was a recent discovery to casting directors. She had bid farewell to a theatrical career in the 1950s to focus on raising a family, but returned to the stage in an amateur production four decades later. A talent agent happened to be in the crowd.

"Hold on for that big break," she told aspiring actors in the Radio Times, following back-to-back roles in Ali G Indahouse, Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Fear, Stress & Anger posed a unique challenge, however, as the sitcom's beloved Gran could no longer communicate due to dementia. "To be able to emote and have that much of a character whilst never opening your mouth... I don't know how you can be that talented," gushed Tennant, who became Essell's pen pal after production wrapped.

Davison added: "They decided very early on that they were going to get an actress in to play that [role]. They could have almost got an extra, but that would have been a mistake because she contributed – even in her silence – enormously to the show. I never heard her complain, 'Why don't they write me a line?' I think she revelled in the idea that she was this silent part of the show." Upon my first viewing, I was half-expecting Gran to utter something at a pivotal moment, but alas, it never comes.

Georgia Tennant, Eileen Essell and Peter Davison star in Fear, Stress & Anger
Georgia Tennant, Eileen Essell and Peter Davison star in Fear, Stress & Anger. Hartswood Films/BBC

That's a good thing too, as it would have betrayed the reality of a tragic situation many people find themselves in – and one that Michael is all too experienced with. He based the character on his own family's "Granny Margaret", who he had looked after for a considerable period before she was relocated to a nursing home in Winchester. "She just didn't speak for a year before she died... but she still used to have us in absolute stitches sometimes because of the way she behaved," he explained.

One unusual hobby Margaret developed towards the end was spending her days in the care home elevator, which is where Martin and Chloe find Gran in the first episode of Fear, Stress & Anger. Her son is so concerned that he moves her into his unruly family home, not realising that – in her own way – his mother was quite content where she was. "I found it really quite sad and touching when they were talking to her in the lift, and I'd forgotten that it was based on real life," continued Michael.

He isn't the only one to be moved by those scenes as they also resonated with his lead actor. Davison explained: "I'd lost my mother about eight years before [the show] and I just remember thinking... 'I wish I'd said this to my mother'. I regret not expressing myself probably as much as I should have done to her. So some of those scenes were actually quite heartfelt. It was almost like I was talking to my mother, I suppose."

The addition of Gran to Fear, Stress & Anger maintained a recurring theme in Michael's work – that is, a curiosity about ageing and later life (see Waiting for God). It dates back to childhood, when his "strange and eccentric" family contained a large number of older people with stories to tell. "They'd been in wars, they'd been on archaeological digs, they'd just done a lot of fascinating things," he shared. "I'm not very good at writing young people because they're not interesting enough half the time."

Georgia Tennant, Daisy Aitkens and Peter Davison star in Fear, Stress & Anger
Georgia Tennant, Daisy Aitkens and Peter Davison star in Fear, Stress & Anger. Hartswood Films/BBC

Perhaps that's why Chloe and Lucy have smaller roles than their parents, often popping by simply to ridicule (or contribute to) their burdens. Daisy clarifies that the characters are "dialled-up" versions of herself and her sister, who weren't so uncaring in their own teenage years. "The fact that they're slightly awful people makes it funnier," she accepted. "I think characters like that are around a bit more nowadays – with Succession taking it to the extreme – but back then it was quite fresh."

Chloe appears more human in episode three as she struggles to grasp Martin's driving lessons; a subplot which eerily echoed reality. "I didn't know how to drive, so it became my dad actually teaching me how to drive and then filming it for a comedy show," relived Tennant. "You wouldn't want him to teach you... he's a proper perfectionist and I was not living up to it because there was a camera on me. I couldn't work out how to get the biting point, kept stalling the car, and they just kept it rolling."

As if mimicking Tennant's motor, Fear, Stress & Anger also came to an abrupt stop. Shortly after its finale aired, it was nominated for the comedy prize at Monte Carlo TV Festival's Golden Nymph Awards – described by Michael as the "best jolly ever" – where it competed against the likes of Peep Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But that wasn't enough to stop the axe from quietly falling.

Michael has no memory of why that decision was made. At the time, his instinct was to "shove aside" any projects that hadn't gone as hoped and move swiftly onto "the next thing". But the loss clearly stung as he "didn't like hearing the theme tune for many years" – and given it was 'Don't Stop Me Now' (the Queen and McFly versions), it would have been tough to avoid.

He finally rewatched the show last month, in preparation for this interview, and thoroughly enjoyed it – so much so that he contacted producer Sue Vertue for more context on its fate. "I'm outraged in retrospect," he added.

(L-R) Daisy Aitkens, Pippa Haywood, Peter Davison and Georgia Tennant at the 2007 Monte Carlo Television Festival
Daisy Aitkens, Pippa Haywood, Peter Davison and Georgia Tennant at the 2007 Monte Carlo Television Festival. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Davison has his own theory on what happened: "We got tangled up in a strange rivalry between BBC One and BBC Two. BBC Two said, 'Oh, we don't think it's quite the right thing for us'. So it was offered to BBC One, who basically said, 'We don't want it because BBC Two did it'. I've never understood this but... they don't want to take BBC Two's leftovers, and in the same way, I think probably the reverse is true. But it really should have gone to a second series."

In the years since its cancellation, Fear, Stress & Anger has all but disappeared from the public consciousness – not helped by the fact it isn't available in any format, be that streaming, digital purchase or physical media. Michael is annoyed that "you can't find it anywhere" and he has every right to be. In this day and age, when so many distribution options exist, it feels past time for the democratisation of entertainment content.

The show lives on, however, in the friendship between stars Georgia and Daisy, who remain very close to this day. They had never met prior to filming the show, but struck an instant rapport and have since worked together as writing partners. Among their credits is 2017's indie romcom You, Me and Him, starring Tennant's husband, David (who you may have heard of). To them, Fear, Stress & Anger is not at all forgotten. Georgia concluded: "It was quite a pivotal, important job, I'd say, for all of us."

Fear, Stress & Anger is not currently available to stream. Check out more of our Comedy coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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