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Why BBC’s Motherland writer loves living in Norwich

PUBLISHED: 19:30 16 April 2020

Motherland creator and writer, Helen Linehan, at her Norwich home. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Motherland creator and writer, Helen Linehan, at her Norwich home. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2020

As the next series of her hugely popular, tell-it-how-it-is parenting sitcom takes shape, Helen Linehan talks about living in Norfolk and Motherland

Motherland - Kevin (PAUL READY), Liz (DIANE MORGAN), Julia (ANNA MAXWELL-MARTIN) - Picture BBC/Delightful Industries/Merman.  Photographer: Colin HuttonMotherland - Kevin (PAUL READY), Liz (DIANE MORGAN), Julia (ANNA MAXWELL-MARTIN) - Picture BBC/Delightful Industries/Merman. Photographer: Colin Hutton

When her children were tiny Helen Linehan would jot down scraps of conversations, anecdotes, day-to-day events which made her laugh, or roll her eyes, or even despair. In the round of baby groups and breastfeeding cafes, nursery drop-offs and eventually the infamous school gates, she found plenty to amuse herself.

One day she pasted the accumulated notes and observations saved on her phone into a document and showed it to her husband. He was immediately impressed, which was quite an accolade when your husband is one of Britain’s top comedy writers. Together, Graham Linehan, of Father Ted and the IT Crowd fame, and Helen, who was a Cartoon Network producer before having their children, began writing the script which became the pilot episode of Motherland.

“We would sit in the kitchen together and he would be at the laptop and I would try and come up with funny lines,” said Helen. At first she was not convinced it would work.

“I stopped everything to have kids and I found the world quite bleak and lonely and the only thing you have in common with the people you are lumped together with is your children. Post natal groups, breastfeeding groups. You hang out with these people you would never dream of hanging out with in a world without your kids. I thought, would I want to sit down to watch this in the evening, after having been doing it all day?”

She was surprised and delighted to discover that many people did want to relax by watching a programme delving into the nittyness and grittyness of parenting after spending all day wrangling their own families. But from the very first episode of Motherland, in 2016, they did.

Along the way Graham and Helen had linked up with Sharon Horgan, of Pulling and Catastrophe fame, and Holly Walsh, who had been writing a similar series for the United States.“I was a massive fan of Pulling. I was just amazed they wanted to work with us,” said Helen.

Right now the scenes which will have mums laughing, howling or gasping in recognition, are being pieced together, tragi-comic joke by awkward character by shameful here-but-for-the-grace-of-God shortcut.

At the beginning of each series the writers share all their ideas. “We just splurge all our storylines out. Then we assign stories to characters. Then it starts to take shape. Hopefully!” said Helen.

“It’s our job to try and make it funny and believable.”

All the scenarios, from school fundraising one-up-womanship through deeply unsuitable emergency childcare solutions to unacceptably partisan cheering at the non-competitive sports day, are drawn from life. And they haven’t had to ramp up the humour and horror. “Some of them are too mad to use. They just wouldn’t be believable,” said Helen.

Her first school-gates experience came in London, where Motherland is set, but seven years ago the Linehans moved to Norwich.

“When they are at primary school you are much more involved, you are in and out of school all the time. I think that is why we are keeping the Motherland children in primary school. The storylines are infinite. We actually try to pull the children out of focus. The show is not about the kids, it’s about how kids ruin your life!”

So what does she like about being a mum?

“I don’t like anything about being a mum. It’s all a huge nightmare. I’ve actually just put my kids up for adoption,” she quips straight back.

Her son and daughter, aged 12 and 14, are actually at high school in Norwich.

“Graham never really liked living in London. We did live in Dublin for a couple of years and didn’t really get on with that,” said Helen. Then their daughter’s best friend announced she was moving to Norwich. And so Graham and Helen and their two young children followed ITV arts editor Nina Nannar, and her family, to Norwich.

“We came to visit them and went camping up at Waxham. Norwich just had this buzz. I booked to see a couple of houses and a few months later, with the children five and seven, we moved.”

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The children went to Lion Wood Junior School. “It was just like a warm welcoming hug, that school. It’s such a beautiful school,” said Helen, who has fallen in love with her adopted city and county.

“I love it here. The kids love it here.” There’s even a little Linehan caravan called Charlene at Waxham.

After a couple of years in Norwich Helen set up a business restoring vintage mid-century day beds, chaise longues, sofas and chairs, mostly from Germany – hence the name Stubenhocker, or couch potato. “I wasn’t doing anything,” she said. “My 20s was spent just having fun, my 30s having kids, and then you look around you and decide you have time to consider wallpaper or paint colours. I found I enjoyed interiors.”

However, she is now leaving Stubenhocker, to spend more time on Motherland. Part of the business has moved into The Post Room on Upper St Giles. “My writing has taken up all of my time,” she said. Commitments Helen will not be giving up on are her support of two local charities helping victims of domestic abuse – Dawn’s New Horizons, a support group with a community shop based on Cannerby Lane, Sprowston, near Norwich, and Orto Stella (Latin for rising star) founded in Norfolk to empower the working lives of survivors domestic abuse.

MOTHERLAND CHARACTERS - WHICH ONE ARE YOU?

The third series of Motherland is likely to air at the end of 2020 or early in 2021.

The main characters are:

Julia – so desperate to keep career and family afloat, she tramples over anyone she can exploit.

Liz – single mum who muddles through parenting with a heart-warming degree of success.

Kevin – kind and committed stay at home dad shamelessly used by his mum friends.

Amanda – supercilious leader of the terrifying alpha mums.

Anne – supportive to the point of servitude.

Meg - larger than life high-flying businesswoman and mother of five.

“I love all of them,” said Helen. “I think there is a little bit of every one of them in everybody. I suppose Julia is the one I most identify with. I think a lot of people would like to think they are more like Liz, but I love them all. I like writing for Amanda, it’s great to inflict pain on Anne...”

And do her friends ask whether characters or situations are based on their lives? “I haven’t got any friends left!” she laughs.

FATHER TED THE MUSICAL

Graham Linehan worked on sketches for Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones, Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, Steve Coogan and more before co-creating and writing Father Ted (ranked second only to Fawlty Towers as the greatest British sitcom by a panel of experts) and then writing and creating The IT Crowd. This year he has left the Motherland writing team to focus on finishing what he has called the real final episode of Father Ted, alongside Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews. Pope Ted: The Father Ted Musical, is due to be completed 25 years after the sitcom first aired.


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