Sky comedy-horror The Baby lays bare the pitfalls of motherhood. Shilpa Ganatra ducks behind the highchair.
The horror in Sky’s new series The Baby comes even before we properly meet the demonic cutie himself. It is in the opening scene, when a poker night hosted by fun-loving thirtysomething Natasha (played by Michelle de Swarte) goes terribly wrong. First, her friend’s new baby ruins the vibe, then she finds out that another pal (Isy Suttie) is pregnant. A nightmare situation for Natasha, indeed.
Things get worse when, as Natasha takes time out at a seaside cabin, a baby boy literally falls into her arms. He soon demonstrates his ability to wreak havoc when those he encounters die at his whim and, worse still, Natasha can’t get rid of him. If ever there was a metaphor for the upending of lives that parenthood causes, The Baby is it.
For Naomi de Pear and all at Sister (which made Chernobyl and The Split, among others), comedy-horror appeared an apt medium to deliver a fresh perspective on contemporary motherhood.
“We were looking to make a show about motherhood, but we didn’t want to make one about a tired, normal mother coming home from hospital. This felt like a radical way to do it,” says De Pear, who is pausing her maternity leave to discuss the eight-part series. “It captured that feeling of what it’s like to come home with a baby. You do feel like you’ve just caught a baby off a cliff, and you have no idea what to do.
“There is that sense of paranoia that everyone’s looking at you. And you do think the baby has mystical powers. Comedy and horror are a great way of looking at the emotions and politics around motherhood that everybody experiences, but in a heightened way.”
While becoming a parent is typically portrayed on television as a joyous thing, programmes that have explored the wider repercussions and take a less romantic view, such as Breeders and Catastrophe, have arguably resonated better.
In a similar vein, co-creators and married couple Siân Robins-Grace (the series writer) and Lucy Gaymer (the producer) began the project as a way of acknowledging the ambivalence around motherhood. The idea came when the pair – who met while working at the production company Eleven – were hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru in 2019.
“Lucy turned to me and said, ‘I’ve had this really cool image for an opening scene. It’s the image of a baby falling out of the sky and a woman catches it in her arms’,” says Robins-Grace. “I thought that was a great idea. We spent the rest of the hike plotting a short film around that image.
“We asked ourselves who would be the most interesting person to catch a baby from the sky? Probably a woman who doesn’t want to have a baby. Then we built out from that. We realised the subject matter was a question occupying us and lots of people around us.”
Certainly, The Baby is a 360-degree examination of motherhood: we soon meet Natasha’s sister, Bobbi (Amber Grappy), who is trying to adopt, and their own mother (Sinéad Cusack), who never quite drummed up the maternal spirit. There is a host of mumsy mums who have their own ways of coping with their little terrors. Tellingly, the series also brings up the question of bodily autonomy – especially timely since the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US.
There is sensitivity, too, for the tribulations of new mothers – at one point, Natasha’s friend Mags (Shvorne Marks) tells her exasperatedly, “All I want is a best mate who doesn’t judge me for being a mum. Because – you know what? – I already feel like I’m failing at it. All the time.”
HBO in the US and Sky Studios in the UK came aboard early on. Gabriel Silver, director of commissioning for drama at Sky Studios, says: “At that stage, I didn’t fully know the scope and story, but we knew it was going to be genuinely surprising and have a completely new angle of attack.
“It felt absolutely like Sky could do this. There are a couple of shows, such as I Hate Suzie, that Sky put out in recent years that meant we could test what’s expected of us and be provocative in ways that aren’t just budget-related or to do with high-octane action – we could be culturally provocative.”
The script was then fleshed out into a sprawling eight-part series – aided by an all-female writers room, which enriched the story with its range of experiences and perspectives. Although forming writers rooms for comedy dramas is usually an American practice, “that’s changing and they’re more common in the UK, especially as TV series need to be delivered to short order”, says Robins-Grace.
“Traditionally, the auteur was a bigger deal in the UK, probably because a lot of TV writers came from the theatre. But writers rooms are a great way of getting a lot of voices into a story and working with people at different experience levels. Plus, writing can be a solitary process – when you’re working with other people, it’s more fun.”
While the pandemic had an impact on filming, another aspect to grapple with was having a baby as the main character. Twins were enlisted to act as doubles, alongside a lifelike doll that could stand in when needed. “We looked for triplets, but we couldn’t find any,” says De Pear. “It’s often the case that one of them looks a bit different and they’re not completely identical. But the twins that we cast, Arthur and Albie [Hills], were so angelic that aspect ended up being less challenging than some of the more mundane things, such as organising the many different locations.”
While the dialogue is rooted in smartly observed authenticity, the show’s narrative was given the space to follow the comedy and/or horror the story called for.
To help realise the desired tone, greater collaboration was needed between the production crew, who were largely female. “It wasn’t intentional, but we were very determined to have a diverse crew, to have people who were invested in the themes of the show and to give newer talent a shot,” says De Pear. “We always hire on merit but, yes, it did therefore end up being a quite female-heavy crew.”
With fortuitous timing, the series is being released as the horror genre stretches its tendrils towards a new generation. Stranger Things is the prime case in point, but the Chucky reboot and Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Netflix series, Cabinet of Curiosities, are also on young adults’ watchlists.
But that’s not the main appeal of the show, insists Silver: “The thing I’ve learnt from this job is that it’s incredibly reductive to talk about the genre, because there are so many different kinds of horror,” he says. “Also, it isn’t that this particular genre only appeals to a certain demographic. For instance, some of the horror in The Baby is a deliberate harking back to classical horror, which may be more familiar to older audiences than younger ones.”
If all goes well, there may be more infant-related creepiness, as Silver sees scope for a potential second series. “I don’t want to presume what form that would actually take – that would be entirely in the gift of Siân and the creative team working on it. But I’d definitely say there’s more to uncover.”
In which case we await… The Toddler, perhaps?
The Baby aired on Sky Atlantic on 7 July and will also be available to stream on Now TV.
RTS bursary scholar making waves
In 2014, Florence Watson from Liverpool won a place in the inaugural year of the RTS’s bursary scheme, which offers financial support and career guidance to students aiming for a career in television. Her aim came good – recently, she joined the production team of The Baby as script editor, before being promoted to story producer.
‘Working on The Baby was definitely a career highlight,’ says Watson. ‘I was working for Sister, which is one of the best production companies in terms of its output and the bravery it shows with its stories. All of its shows have really interesting angles. The Baby’s angle on the joys and horrors of motherhood was definitely interesting, and relevant to where I was at in my own life.’
In a neat cycle of events, Watson is also on the RTS Education Committee, ‘which is essentially about finding other students who are doing TV-relevant degrees and offering them a bursary,’ she explains.
After graduating in 2017, Watson worked as a script editor on Hollyoaks, then on Call the Midwife, before joining the team working on The Baby. She has now settled into a staff role as a development executive at South of the River Pictures, the production company owned by Olivia Colman and her husband, Ed Sinclair.
The RTS’s bursary schemes support students from lower-income families and, for Watson, ‘it ultimately led me to the career I have now’, she says. ‘I was able to use the money to start my career in a way I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
‘With my first instalment, I bought myself a camera so I could shoot my own short films. And, in my last year of university, I used the money to travel down to London during half-term to do some work experience in a production company – that was my first ever proper TV experience.
‘It’s not only the money that made a difference,’ she concludes. ‘Things such as workshops and the community of recipients – as we all keep in touch – have helped, too.’