Helen Linehan: Norfolk based Motherland series creator

Motherland creator and writer, Helen Linehan, at her Norwich home (photo: Denise Bradley)

Motherland creator and writer, Helen Linehan, at her Norwich home (photo: Denise Bradley) - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

As the latest scenes in her hugely successful tell-it-how-it-is parenting sitcom take shape, series creator and writer Helen Linehan talks about Motherland, mothering and more

Some of the cast of Motherland (photo: BBC/Merman/Colin Hutton)

Some of the cast of Motherland (photo: BBC/Merman/Colin Hutton) - Credit: BBC/Merman/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 cafés, 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 is 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?”

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

She was also amazed that people would 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 pilot episode of Motherland, in 2016, they did.

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Right now the scenes which will have mums laughing, or gasping in recognition, are being pieced together, tragi-comic joke by awkward character by shameful here-but-for-the-grace-of-God shortcut. This season Graham is not involved, instead concentrating on finishing what he has called the real final episode of Father Ted, Pope Ted: The Father Ted Musical, 25 years after the sitcom first aired.

“We get together and share all our 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. We struck a chord with people.”

Plots 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 which of the main characters is Helen’s favourite? And which is she most like?

“I love all of them. 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 friends ask whether characters or situations are based on their lives? “I haven’t got any friends left!” laughs Helen.

When we spoke she had just been away with some mum friends and their children – a scenario which sounded worryingly familiar to anyone who watched the episode where Kevin organises a supposedly relaxing trip away which simply highlights the monstrous selfishness of most of the mothers.

“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.

Now her own son and daughter are 12 and 14 and 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.

Then their daughter’s best friend announced she was moving to Norwich. And so Graham and Helen Linehan 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.”

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 Sands.

After a couple of years in Norwich Helen set up a business restoring vintage mid-century day beds, chaise longues, sofas and chairs, much of it 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 will move 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 of domestic abuse.

Graham Linehan

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. He is now working with his Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews on Pope Ted: The Father Ted Musical.

Motherland who’s who

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

The main Motherland characters are:

Julia – so desperate to keep career and family afloat, she tramples over anyone she can exploit; frazzled, frantic, selfish, funny, friendly, sympathetic.

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 - overpoweringly successful and overpoweringly commited to ensuring no mum is left behind.