Martin Freeman and his co-creators recall how they drew on their own experiences for Breeders, the no-holds-barred Sky One comedy.
I opened the door and f****** exploded.” Dreams can be wild – stories that our minds involuntarily create as we sleep. While most of us forget them the next morning, Martin Freeman had one five or six years ago that became the inspiration for a TV series.
“I knew I had gone through this many times in real life… I was going up the stairs to go and shout at my children,” he recalled. “With each step, I was talking myself down: ‘You know you’re better than this, and they won’t respond positively.’
“I thought I’d got the better of my temper before I opened the children’s bedroom door…”
The opening scene of Breeders, a raw, pacey, sweary comedy about parenting, produced by Avalon and FX Productions and broadcast on Sky One, was taken directly from Freeman’s dream.
Created by Freeman, director Chris Addison and writer Simon Blackwell, the 10-part series aired last spring and is an uncompromising look at modern parenthood. A second series was commissioned in May and is due to air later this year.
Addison and Blackwell have impeccable comic credentials, having collaborated with Armando Iannucci on such masterpieces as The Thick of It; Blackwell wrote for the brilliant Peep Show.
“Audiences have thanked us for saying the things they didn’t think we were allowed to say”
“That scene became the opening episode of a comedy that spoke to what it truly means to be a parent in my and Chris and Simon’s shared experience,” said Freeman. “We found enough common ground between the three of us – all the stuff you don’t say in polite society and all the truths you’re harbouring about how you sometimes speak to your kids.”
Freeman plays fortysomething passive-aggressive parent Paul, juggling the stresses and strains of fatherhood, work and maintaining his relationship with his wife, Ally, played by Daisy Haggard.
There is a lot of Freeman in Paul, who, alongside Haggard, Addison and Blackwell joined broadcaster and journalist Edith Bowman to discuss Breeders for an RTS event. He acknowledged that he is, in effect, playing himself. “If there is ever a character that is as close to me as possible, then it’s Paul, and it’s unashamedly so.”
He added: “I enjoy playing a character close to myself because it takes off the pressure of, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do a limp or an accent or whatever’.
“Paul’s not me but he’s quite like me. The idea was to get as close [as possible] to the truth of parenting in a comedic setting.
“I loved Outnumbered [the mould-breaking BBC One sitcom created by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin that ran for five series]. They struck gold but what was always missing was: why is someone not threatening to put someone’s head through a window?”
Breeders appears to have been cathartic not only for audiences, especially those stuck at home with their offspring during the pandemic, but also for its creators.
“[Our meetings] felt like therapy – we all said, when we talked about our various [parenting] experiences, that it felt like we were in a sort of support group,” remarked Blackwell as he recounted the trio’s early brainstorming sessions for Breeders.
“Audiences have thanked us for saying the things they didn’t think we were allowed to say,” said Addison.
Haggard was similarly impressed with the show’s realistic tone – and, despite having recently given birth to her second child, was keen to audition for Breeders. “I could hardly walk and was exhausted, but I read the script and it was brilliant,” she said. “It made me laugh so much but I thought: how am I going to do this? I already had a three-year-old.
“I remember sitting at home on the floor, rocking the baby in a car seat with my foot while my husband held the script out in front of me so I could read it.”
In common with Outnumbered, Breeders strives for naturalism. While Outnumbered contained a lot of improvisation, Breeders “is pretty much scripted – but the naturalism of it is a testament to the cast”, said Blackwell.
Sometimes, though, it is better if nothing is said at all. If a picture paints a thousand words, a look on the actor’s face can sum up an entire scene.
“Once we get into the edit, sometimes we might lose a line because we’ve got a look that does the job,” Addison said.
With so much swearing in Breeders, the programme’s makers had to devise a way to conceal the four-letter words from the child actors who are a key part of the show.
Freeman revealed that “we would do our non-swearing version with the kids. Then we’d take the kids out of the room, do our swearing – they’ve got headphones on, so they don’t hear any bad words.”
Haggard, grinning, noted how they would substitute polite words for four-letter ones – using the word “clock”, for example.
Addison explained that the mezzanine-styled set was a device to give the feeling that the characters were always under pressure and in the presence of each other: “It gives you nowhere to hide. If you look down the stairwell and you see the den at the bottom, it is full of crap – all that plastic stuff that kids accrue.”
Another important device in Breeders is the flashback and the flashforward, which help hit the balance between humour and drama. “You’re allowed, when you flash away from whatever the crisis is, to get some comedy in there,” said Blackwell.
He added: “Parenting young kids is such an intense experience that we wanted to have that pace and that volume of story. It’s quite fragmented in terms of style, flash backwards and forwards and sideways.”
A case in point was the very first episode, which depicts Paul and Ally’s tortuous struggle to get to sleep – and to get their kids to sleep – while other characters and side stories are introduced that were not part of the main storyline.
“It makes it more interesting than it would be if you just filmed it as someone’s story through the night, unable to sleep,” he suggested.
But the show is not all humour. Bowman pointed out that “you laugh your pants off but there are some brilliant emotional threads in there as well”.
Blackwell said it was important to keep Breeders feeling authentic: “If you do push things too far and it stops feeling real, then you pull it back until it feels real and universal and primal. We wanted to make it feel serious in certain points, but equally, if you push it too far, you end up in soap land.”
Report by Omar Mehtab. Breeders was an RTS event held on 11 January.