“When I read the script before we film, I am breathless with laughter. Literally falling off my chair, I kid you not,” admits actor Tanya Moodie, trying to contain her giggles as we speak on the phone.
She is, of course, talking about Motherland – the hilarious cult BBC Two sitcom that’s currently experiencing a well-deserved bump in popularity following the arrival of its third series (which is also undoubtedly its best yet).
Many new fans came to the school gate comedy show when the first season went on Netflix during lockdown, and with it’s razor-sharp script and sideways take on middle class parenting, it’s not hard to see why viewers have fallen in love.
“With everything the nation has been through, it’s such a welcome respite to sit in front of the telly and watch people crack these one liners, make a bit of a tit of themselves and deal with the bits of daily life we haven’t been able to,” Tanya says.
″There’s no car chases, skydiving or anything like that, it’s just doing the school run and crying in the loos. It’s really straightforward.”
Tanya’s character – Meg, the party-loving mum who seemingly has it all – joined Anna Maxwell Martin’s Julia, Lucy Punch’s Amanda and co. in the second series, and quickly established herself as a fan favourite.
In the current run, Meg takes a more central role as she’s diagnosed with breast cancer – something that is dealt with in a typically Motherland fashion, with Meg announcing the news to her friends in the middle of a party where everyone is having headlice treatments.
Here, Tanya reveals the secrets of the show’s success and explains why the final episode of the series might signal the right time to close the school gates for good…
There’s lots of laughs on set and sometimes it’s really awkward… They don’t necessarily come from the written jokes, they’re from a hilarity they create – someone will say or do something and we lose it. I remember once, Paul Ready who plays Kev, was delivering his lines as if he was in a really serious American Western or something, and Diane [Morgan, who plays Liz] literally couldn’t speak, she was laughing so hard. It can just be something as innocuous as that.
There’s lots of improv on the show… One of my favourite bits was in the Mother’s Day episode where Philippa Dunne (Anne) is at the café, where she’s saying “one more sleep” and then lists all the things that she does on Mother’s Day. Philippa had another like 30 seconds work of improving and they cut it. I remember watching that scene back on telly and was like, that was such a shame because she kept going on and on and it was so funny!
It does get fraught sometimes because we just get tired… You’re doing the jokes and stuff, but when the camera is off, sometimes you’re sitting in a corner. You just get tired, particularly with the last series where we were filming other stuff at the same time. There was also an understanding that everyone is really supportive and you see when your colleagues are tired. I just have so much respect for them all.
If I could play any other character for an episode, it would be Mrs Lamb… She’s so humourless and completely dry, and such a dark horse. Like during Amanda’s surprise birthday party where she’s sings For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow in this operatic voice. We imagine this whole private life she has that we talk about a lot.
Lucy Punch is probably the one actress in the whole group who I’m the most awed by… She always nails it, which is almost unheard of to work with a professional who every single take, nails it, and then the next take, she elevates it. She has just got that character so down pat that you feel like you are acting opposite Amanda! She’s so funny and so on it.
I’ve never seen casting so perfect in all my life as Joanna Lumley as Amanda’s mum… I was absolutely holding my breath during those scenes. I was on the edge of my seat because she’s such a master. It was so impeccable that casting, and they were so lucky that a) Joanna was free, and b) she said yes.
The other actors were great in supporting me when I joined the show… To be honest, it was pretty scary. I’d seen the first series and it was absolutely impeccable, so was like, ‘Oh great, I’m going to be the element that comes in and ruins it’. But at the same time, when you look at the creators and the writers, they’re all so good, at the top of their game, so I can trust these guys. If they’re going to add in another element, they’re doing it for a reason and they’re gonna do it well. Then I go into work and I’m with all these actresses I’d admired from afar, I was quite awed by that. They were like, ‘Don’t worry about it, don’t get your knickers in a twist about being the new kid on the block’. The whole energy was refreshed.
I’m most proud of the feedback to Meg’s breast cancer storyline… There’s been people who have written me very personal messages saying that they’re going through it right now or their parents are, and they say we’ve really shown what it’s like. I’m really happy that that’s happened – I didn’t expect it to. I didn’t finish filming and say ‘I really feel like I’ve nailed what it’s like to go through this journey’, because it’s so subjective and unique to people.
I didn’t think I was like Meg, but my daughter thinks I am… I don’t party like Meg does and I’m not a massive drinker and don’t do drugs. But my daughter is always saying how loud I am. I suppose Meg’s partner and my partner have vague similarities in a way, but I’d have to ask my friends.
I fell to pieces in my second audition for Meg… I went to the first audition, I thought I had no way of getting it, so I was just going to really appreciate having such a good time. I just went nuts! Then I got a call back. I didn’t expect that. So, I went and did a second audition and I fell to pieces – I was so nervous. I’ve been a Buddhist now for nearly 30 years, so I have this thing where I try not to get attached, do my thing in the moment and really trust the outcome. But I went into the second audition feeling really attached! I didn’t do a great audition, so I called my brother, who is an actor, writer and producer in Toronto, and he said to me, ‘Phone them up and go back, say you want to do it again’. Literally after I got off the phone with him, my agent phoned and said they wanted to see me again. That was a sign and I really had to practice, so I went into my Buddhist practice to absolutely not be attached and really enjoy it…. and here I am.
Shooting during Covid was weird because we had no idea what the fuck the director looked like… You get new people on set and you don’t know what they look like for ages because they always have masks on. And when they did take them off, you’re like, that’s not what I thought you looked like!
We film the show in real people’s houses… I get the impression that there’s like an agency where you can volunteer your house, and your home is like an actor for hire. I’ve never met an owner of any of the houses we use, they’ve always been off – it would be too much for them. The houses you see are nothing like the house normally, they completely redress it like the character’s house – repaint walls, put up new art and change the furniture around.
None of us know if there will be a series four… You just don’t know until you know. I think there’s a will there, but in this world it’s about whether there’s a way. I also think that some things have a natural life span. I know what it’s like when I binge a series and I really like it, I want it to go on and on forever. But then I see some other series and I go, I think that’s resolved, but then it goes on.
Motherland airs on Mondays at 9pm on BBC Two, with all three series available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.