'I stopped being precious about my work years ago' | Interview with comedy writer Simon Blackwell as his show Breeders returns

'I stopped being precious about my work years ago'

Interview with comedy writer Simon Blackwell as his show Breeders returns

Parenting comedy Breeders returns to Sky One later this month,  with the timeline advanced so the young children of series one, Luke and Ava, are now aged 13 and 10 respectively. Here showrunner Simon Blackwell talks about mining his real life, the writing process and swearing in front of the children…

What differences are there between the first and second series?

We challenged ourselves to come up with fundamentally a new sitcom, because the dynamics are so different with the children being older. We deliberately tried to make it difficult for ourselves, and I think that paid off. That’s often creatively a good trick. Rather than just think, ‘We’ve had a successful first series, so let’s just carry on with that’, we wanted to change it up and challenge ourselves. We were keen not to repeat ourselves or get into a rut.

What did you make of the reaction to the first series?

A lot of parents got in touch saying, ‘Where are the hidden cameras?!’ A lot of non-parents also got in touch saying it was the most effective birth control ever, to see how your life could get exploded by kids.

It’s multi-generational, though, because it’s as much about Paul’s parents as it is about his kids.

I love writing Paul’s parents, because they’re basically my mum and dad.  They are the easiest ones to write. But it’s also quite sweet, I’m sort of having a bit of a conversation with my dead parents, being played by Joanna [Bacon] and Alun [Armstrong]. Joanna in particular is my mum. That’s my mother’s voice. If I’m not looking and I can just hear her, it’s quite spooky.

We also wanted to show how parenting, particularly being a dad, has changed so much in one generation. Suddenly we need to be a different kind of dad, and we often fail at it. Jim says at one point, ‘I went out to work, your mum did the rest.’ Modern parenting is a mystery to them, and we liked the idea of showing that contrast.

One of the strengths of the show is it shows failure. Like every politician’s career ends in failure, every parenting career ends in failure. Because it just does. You can’t do it perfectly.

The good reaction we got to the show was that we let people off guilt a little bit, because they could see that we’re a massive family of failures. You attempt to fail as little as possible, but you will fail. You will affect your children adversely as well as positively. You just have to accept that, and do the best you can.

It sounds quite bleak, but it’s actually really positive because nobody’s perfect – you wing it, you do your best, and if your kids are still talking to you at the end of it, you’ve won.

Tell us a little bit about this series.

Series two is fundamentally about  the different challenges you get with older kids. Ava is far more independent. Luke is much more anxious. It’s very difficult to watch your kids go through that stuff. This generation has the vocabulary to talk about mental health, which is a good thing, so rather than just saying, ‘I’m scared’ or ‘I’m shy’ they can actually articulate the things that anxiety does to them emotionally and physically.

Tell me a bit about the writing process.

We established a writers’ room atmosphere in the first series that I really liked where people just chatted, and it was anecdotal tales of our childhoods and our kids. During those discussions, suddenly something would come up where we’d say, ‘That’s a story.’

It’s an unusual way of working, but it seems to be a good way of doing it. Then  individual writers go off and do their episodes. We don’t pass them around like I used to with The Thick of It, for instance. I have a final pass on each episode just to keep the voice of the show consistent, which is one of the main jobs of the showrunner. You shouldn’t be able to tell separate episodes were written by separate writers.   

It’s not a model of a writers’ room I’ve ever been in before, but it seems to suit the show. People open up, and it’s a safe space in which to talk about, for example, your children’s mental health. You need some confidentiality, and you need some trust in the room, as people are being very open and honest. That trust resulted in some really truthful stories.

Some things are directly lifted from our lives. In the first season, the going to A&E a lot with an injured child, and then thinking the doctors are going to assume you’re being abusive, that happened to me because our youngest son was always falling over. We were constantly at A&E at King’s College Hospital. You want to go in and go, "We’re not hitting him!" but that’s probably the worst thing you can do!

In this series Paul finds out that Luke has been planning to buy some weed, because their Apple accounts are somehow mixed up, and Paul receives Luke’s iMessages. I’m not going to say that happened to me and my son, but… it did happen to me and my son!

But most of it is a slightly fractured mirror… a lot of the stuff we talk about is anecdotes and then you have to make them into a proper story.

There are kernels of stuff from our lives in there, certainly. But more so in the first series, because we had more boozy lunches! This one was a much more sober job of work…

[Our approach] sounds quite drama-like, but it is a comedy. I prefer a comedy where it feels real. All the emotional beats are there, and if you took the jokes out, it would play as a drama. But we do have the jokes in there and I don’t think the jokes undermine the drama, hopefully they complement each other.

I did a similar thing with Back for Mitchell and Webb on Channel 4. That’s more gaggy, I guess, but there’s still an emotional undercurrent there.

Sometimes you’re on the set, and you think, ‘You know what? This line sounds like a written joke,’ and you lose that. If anything sounds like it’s written, you feel like it’s not coming organically from the character or from the situation, like you’ve shoehorned in a joke.

I come from the school of Armando Iannucci, where 90 per cent of what you write never gets on screen! I stopped being precious about my work several years ago.

Also  performers need to feel comfortable with what they’re saying. They need to feel their character would say it like that. If it’s not feeling right on the day or in rehearsal,  that’s when those kinds of changes get made.

Is series two as sweary as season one?

It is… but I wouldn’t want it to become a thing. The Thick Of It became a bit of a thing with the swearing and [that attention] slightly cheesed us off because there was a lot more happening in that show other than just cursing.

But that show, like this show, is about people under pressure and when you’re under pressure, you’re sometimes not polite and calm. It’s partly there rhythmically – sometimes sticking a swear word in there just makes a line better – but it’s also just how people speak, and how people under pressure speak.

To be honest it doesn’t stand out to me as a particularly sweary show but the thing about the first series was that you saw Paul swearing at very little kids, so that was quite shocking.  Even though, in reality, the kids weren’t there when he was swearing, but because of the magic of our editors, it looks very much like they were.

That was deliberate, particularly in that first scene in the first episode, where he’s walking up the stairs saying, ‘Be better. You don’t have to do this,’ and he gets into the room and says the most vile things.

The swearing isn’t the worst thing he says. The worst thing he says is, ‘I’m going to leave, and you’ll be crying, and your mum will be crying.’ There can be almost a demonic power in language that isn’t swearing, making it much worse.

What else do you think sets it apart from other parenting shows?

I think it probably shines a harsher light on parenting than we’ve seen before. We’re looking at some truths that are slightly uncomfortable. But there is a warmth there as well. I hope there is! I think a kind of bleak warmth is what I write.  I think that’s what Back is as well, I think it’s bleakly warm.

Is it harder to parent teenagers than small children?

I think it’s as difficult at every stage, but just a different kind of difficulty. It doesn’t really stop, either. My kids are 25 and 22 now and I still worry about them as much as I did when they were five and two.

When they’re babies it can be absolutely terrifying because you are handed this human being and told, ‘This is your responsibility’  And that’s very, very, very scary.

The challenges of parenting teenage kids are really difficult, particularly in the world of social media. There’s a peer pressure on kids that’s piped to them 24 hours a day. And also, that any mistake you make online exists forever. That’s a terrifying thought, because I made a lot of mistakes, but thankfully they weren’t recorded for posterity, never to be wiped.

It’s also very difficult to police as parents, because they understand it and you don’t, really. They could be on some chat server that you’ve never heard of, and you wouldn’t even know.

• Breeders returns to Sky One and streaming service Now on Thursday May 27, with all 10 episodes being made available on demand.

Comments extracted from an interview supplied by Sky’s press office

Published: 13 May 2021

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