It’s a well-known adage: never work with children or animals. But Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s comedy series Outnumbered puts three children at the very centre of the story – and allows them to improvise into the bargain.
First screened in August 2007, Outnumbered marked the first collaboration in eight years between Andy and Guy, joint winners of the Royal Television Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award and creators of the hit Channel 4 series Drop The Dead Donkey which ran for six series between 1990 and 1998.
The series is based, in part, on their own experiences of bringing up young families. In fact, Andy had written a few scenes for his daughter Isobel, who was seven at the time, in the 2001 BBC sitcom Bedtime which ran to three series: “Co-star Kevin McNally suggested I didn’t show Isobel the script – just give her my thoughts. Isobel customised her lines, and it did look very natural.”
Guy: “That made us start thinking about the practical possibilities of getting genuine, realistic looking performances out of young children… You rarely get the feeling that children in sitcoms are real. They tend to be the same type of character – the smartarse who says adult things – and they are rooted to the spot, staring at the camera, because they’ve been told to stand in one place and say the lines. We decided to attempt to do something that hadn’t been tried before.”
Andy: “We write the storyline and we write the dialogue, but we try to create an environment where the kids will spin off into something or they’ll express themselves in a way that’s very individual to them. In most cases, the adults don’t get any real warning, and then we step into genuine improvisation. So there is a script, but we never show it to the children and they never learn their lines.”
What first inspired you to create Outnumbered?
Andy: “We wanted to create a show that would be an antidote to all the “How to be a Perfect Parent” books. So we set out to make something that said “You’re a rubbish parent… but so is everyone else”.”
When you made the original series, did you expect it to be so successful?
Guy: “We never expect a show to be a hit, we just set out to make it as well as possible and hope that an audience comes to it. Clearly, the main reason for the show’s popularity has to be the viewers’ recognition of the daily comic chaos of family life.”
How do you work as a writing team?
Andy: “We work by talking a lot, devising storylines. Then one of us does the first draft and the other reads it, together editing it line by line.” Guy continues: “I’m sure our families will recognise a lot of the scenarios, but only in as much as they are the kind of things that happen on a daily basis in every home in the country with small children. And because there are two of us writing it, we can always claim the other came up with a specific idea – particularly in the scenes which are about people’s partners! The whole process of writing a series takes about a year. The most challenging part is always the writing.”
How easy were the parents to cast?
Andy: “The adults were quite straightforward to cast. Hugh Dennis plays Dad with Claire Skinner as Mum. We were aware of their strengths, and we thought that they would both have the right mixture of fearlessness and the ability to adapt to what was going on around them. And they’ve both got great comic timing.”
Guy adds: “But we knew that the job would offer its own special challenges. It’s a fiendish job for actors in that you’ve got to be funny, you’ve got to be real and you’ve got to respond to what the children do while staying in character and I suppose we were looking for actors who would relish the thought rather than be scared by it.”
Andy and Guy, you’ve worked with the children for a number of years now and have watched them grow up. Do you draw on their real-life behaviour when thinking about storylines for their characters?
We know what their strengths are so, yes, we do draw on those – as we would with Hugh and Claire and other adult actors – but no, we don’t draw on their real-life characteristics.
Now that the children are older, has the improvisational element changed – did they get to see the scripts and learn their lines?
Inevitably, as the kids get older, their minds go off on fewer absurd tangents, so, yes, there is a little less improvisation but they didn’t get given scenes to learn overnight, they just skim-read them on the day. Two cameras are also used to record the children’s performances because each take turned out to be different, and this adds to the documentary feel. The cameras always run on the children first because until they are recorded, no-one knows what they are going to say.
Outnumbered is back on BBC on Wednesday 29th January at 9pm