It's a well-known adage: never work with children or animals. But Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin's new six-part comedy series, Outnumbered, puts three small children at the very centre of the story and allows them to improvise into the bargain.
Outnumbered marks 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, as Guy, the father of twin daughters, explains: "We've been talking about doing a comedy half-hour for some time and since we both have young families that seemed a good place to start. So we began nurturing the idea a while back."
In fact, Andy had written a few scenes for his daughter Isobel, who was seven at the time, in Hat Trick's 2001 BBC sitcom Bedtime which ran to three series. He explains: "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 continues: "That made us start thinking about the practical possibilities of getting genuine, realistic looking performances out of young children. But we noticed this great dichotomy between the representations of parenting in sitcoms with the complete chaos of real life.
"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, bounced some ideas around and we got very keen on this idea of involving improvisation very quickly."
He continues: "It's a very natural evocation of the daily rollercoaster of family life with all the chaos and all the little details, whereas a programme like My Family, for example, is a studio-based sitcom so has to be more formal.
"Outnumbered is also about the experience of bringing up very young children – which brings with it all sorts of practical problems in terms of getting performances out of the children and the hours they are allowed to work."
Outnumbered is set somewhere in South London – but filmed in Wandsworth – where two middle-class parents engage in a battle of wills with their three small children – two boys aged seven and 11 and a five-year-old daughter.
It explores the everyday problems of fibbing, that scary first day at secondary school and nits. Dad works in an inner city school, where a typical school holiday sees five arrested, two become pregnant and one pupil shot. Mum, meanwhile, is a part-time PA with a very demanding boss.
Other topics explored include racism, child abuse, new-age weirdness, weak bladders, death and heaven, bird flu, contagious diseases, bullying, obesity, parental competition, romantic nights in, divorce, journalism, running away, atoms, underage drinking, gin, corn-fed organic chickens, Nazis and ratbags.
To give the feeling of being a fly on the wall, the children were allowed to improvise their lines, as Andy explains: "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."
Knowing that this would be what would make the project so unusual, and difficult to explain to the commissioning editor at the BBC, Andy and Guy arranged for a sample pilot to be filmed at Guy's house last September, co-funded by the BBC and Hat Trick.
The adults were quite straightforward to cast. Hugh Dennis plays dad with Claire Skinner as mum. Andy elaborates: "We were aware of them both and 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."
But they knew that the job would offer its own special challenges. Guy explains: "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."
When it came to casting the children, the casting director avoided stage-school talent, instead undertaking a lengthy audition process which involved lots of game playing, determined to find children who would enjoy the filming process.
So, the three juvenile leads came out at the top of the fairly exhausting casting process: "They're all really interesting to watch and they've all got very interesting, funny personalities – confident, but also excellent actors."
Tyger Drew-Honey, who plays 11-year-old Jake, will also soon be seen as a regular character in Hat Trick's The Armstrong & Miller sketch show on BBC One.
Daniel Roche has appeared in a number of commercials and in an episode of Casualty.
But the youngest child, five-year-old Ramona Marquez, is in her first acting role. She was spotted by Guy's wife at a birthday party: "She had an interesting personality and was sure of herself without being precocious."
And so a 20-minute pilot was shot and delivered to Lucy Lumsden at the BBC, who quickly commissioned a six-part series, as Andy explains:
"When the BBC saw the pilot, they thought it would sit quite happily in the bedtime slot and decided to run it more as an event across three consecutive nights on two consecutive weeks – so that is what they commissioned. It's a good slot to launch new comedy because it's far away from the feeding frenzy of the mainstream slots."
He adds: "Although it's scheduled after 10pm, there's no swearing or violence or sexual content – I don't know what happened there! But it means the show can be watched by anybody; parents who've been through the experience of struggling and failing to raise kids in a proper way, but kids seem to like it as well and they root for the children, so I think it probably does appeal across the generations."
Andy and Guy work by talking a lot and devising storylines. One of them then does the first draft and the other reads it, together editing it line by line.
Guy says: "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!"
Filming took place over an intense four-week period. Of course, performance regulations mean that children under nine can work a maximum three hours a day in 45-minute chunks:
"It was a bit like having Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to work with. Three hours – that's your limit – then you have to whip them away," laughs Guy.
So, there were scripts, but the children did not have to learn any lines. Instead, they were given a verbal outline of whatever situation the characters found themselves in and were then encouraged to express things in their own way – often with surprising results.
Andy adds: "We decided we'd try and create an atmosphere on set in which the children could relax and be themselves. Filming comes with a lot of ritual and paraphernalia, and we tried to get rid of as much of that as possible."
Crew and equipment were kept to a minimum to avoid pressurising them, and a subtle lighting plan was devised, as Andy explains: "This enabled us to follow the action rather than having certain spots where people had to be at certain moments."
And there wasn't a make-up artist: "Being primped and prodded by a stranger before going on set is one of the things that generates tension," Andy explains. Two cameras were used to record the children's performances because each take turned out to be different, and this adds to the documentary feel.
For Hugh, Claire and Samantha, the odd shooting schedule took some getting used to. Even though their lines were entirely scripted, they often had to react to the part-scripted, part-improvised dialogue of the youngsters.
Guy comments: "It was a real assault course for the actors. It was like being a real parent. You don't necessarily know what trouble the kids are going to throw up." And, despite the elements of improvisation, there is a distinct narrative arc running through the series with some quite adult themes.
The father of two young daughters and a veteran of such comedy shows as Mock The Week and My Hero, Hugh Dennis is used to filming in front of a studio audience – but Outnumbered is much more intimate, with no live audience and no laughter track – especially important as there are lots of scenes where everyone is talking over each other.
"In My Hero, I'm out for myself and it's all rather one-dimensional, whereas actually families don't really work like that at all – they're sort of chaotic. Children say unexpected things and one moment you're thinking about how you've got to get dinner or you've got to do some marking, and then a child comes in with a knife and you've got to deal with it – you're just kind of spinning from one thing to another."
He laughs: "We would be sitting there with the cameras ready to roll, and Andy and Guy would be over in the corner whispering to the children and you would wonder what on earth they were up to – which means your reaction is completely spontaneous.
"We were based in two semi-detached family homes in Wandsworth – one was used for filming, the other was a big green room where we ate and relaxed between takes. But we were tightly enclosed, the kids wandering around with their chaperones, and it actually felt like a commune – or a very big family.
"Over the course of shooting, you start to feel as if you have responsibility for the children – not to the extent that you would tell them off, but almost!"
Hugh describes the Dad, Pete, as: "Slightly hopeless in some ways. He's a bit confused and life seems to have taken him rather than him dictating the direction in which it goes.
"I can sort of relate to that, as one of the problems with being a parent is feeling constantly tortured by the idea that you've probably done the wrong thing.
"Dad is trying his absolute best, but the two parents are struggling and the kids are trying to run rings around them."
Hugh admits that he himself is a bit of a soft touch as a dad: "I find my children very, very entertaining. I'd like to think I'm tougher than the dad I play in this, but I can't be cross with my daughters, which is something my wife gets quite cross with me about!"
Hugh is, however, a hands-on dad, taking part in the school run and watching "those helicopter parents who hover above their children and are overly solicitous."
He was also able to show the girls the pilot for Outnumbered: "They found it very strange, because now that they are ten and eight, they understand about acting.
"There was a stage when they were much younger and Meg thought that I lived in the television for a while. I think it must be very strange for them to see me in a different family set-up and with another mum as well!"
Hugh thoroughly enjoyed working on Outnumbered: "It was a very, very happy shoot and for someone like me who is very used to improvising, it was perfect. Andy and Guy are incredibly clever, which makes you feel very confident.
"Each day on set, I had absolutely no idea what the final programme would look like. Normally, when you shoot a sitcom, you're in a studio with six cameras on wheels with red lights, and you know when you're on camera. But, in this case, there were two cameras and I decided just to carry on like I do in real life – which was a great release.
"It was also a very quick experience, as we shot six episodes in four weeks and there was no time to agonise about anything."
He continues: "Claire was also fantastic and I learnt a lot from her. She manages to convey a huge amount by doing very little things. The mum and dad do the classic thing that parents do – try to present a united front, but, in the heat of the moment, they find themselves going off on their own and then requiring the other one to support them, however ludicrous it might be.
"But what makes it really interesting is that there isn't any obvious strain in their relationship. They're clearly very happy as a couple. They might both be making terrible errors, but, as neither of them are very judgmental, they're not blaming each other. They're in it together, but they're both a bit rubbish – as are most parents in real life – which makes Outnumbered very realistic.
"It's hard enough bringing up children – especially when they ask questions like: 'Is there a God?' I've read parenting books where you're meant to stay calm at all times, which just isn't possible because you're only human."
Hugh admits having occasionally resorted to bribery to get his children to do what he wants, although he has never offered one of his children as much as a fiver, which his character does in the series:
"I feel that that would be a bit of a slippery slope! But I suppose a star chart is a form of bribery. And I have had those moments where a child comes in holding a really dangerous bit of equipment – a power tool, in this case – and I've had to be quite resourceful to make sure they put it down!"
Hugh is having a busy time at the moment, with a 12-week run of Mock The Week on BBC Two, and an eight-week run of The Now Show on BBC Radio 4.
He concludes: "Outnumbered was very new to me, as I'm used to doing sitcoms and radio, not comedy drama. I would love to do more of it!"
Claire Skinner is a mother and feels that Outnumbered differs from other family comedies in that it is very child-centric: "It's got some lovely, natural performances from the kids and Hugh and my reactions to them are very fresh as we were never quite sure what they were going to do from take to take."
She loved the relaxed atmosphere on set, carefully nurtured by Andy and Guy: "Being on set was all about ensuring the children didn't get bored or fed up. As far as they were concerned, most of the time they were just playing about and having fun. It was great to be surrounded by happy children which made it a really fun shoot."
The little girl, Ramona, plays Karen, who has quite a talent for interrogation: "She came up with some really hilarious lines. She was trying to remember insults and she came out with words like 'ponk' and 'tight bum' which were my two personal favourites! She still makes me laugh whenever I think of her!"
Claire recognised many of the scenarios in the series: "Situations like reloading the dishwasher just after my partner has done it. I think most people will be able to relate to things that happen. The family gets pushed to the ninth degree, and there are some wonderful observations on family life – I know Hugh and I found them very familiar!"
It was the first time Claire had worked with Hugh: "He's a very, very funny man! There were lots of times when I looked at his face and I thought: 'I just can't do this!' He just has funny bones and it made it quite difficult sometimes to keep a straight face, but also made it really good fun to work with him."
Claire finds Outnumbered very appealing: "The way in which the children perform will take viewers by surprise. It's unlike anything else I have ever seen on television. It is such fertile ground and, as long as you keep the children happy and happy to play along, then it could run and run."
Andy and Guy have worked with Samantha Bond – who plays Auntie Angela – before as Guy explains:
"We wanted a big, powerhouse performance from the visiting Auntie. Samantha is a terrific actress, and we thought that she would relish the challenge. She came in and seemed to find it exciting and interesting." Andy laughs: "Well, she's used to dealing with James Bond, so she's good in difficult situations!"
Guy adds: "David Ryall, who plays the grandfather, is a bold and terrific actor, and we've tried often to work with Hattie Morahan who plays Jane – although Andy has worked with her in radio. She came from the lead in Sense And Sensibility to us, and is going on to do Bike Squad for Hat Trick – which I have written."
Andy hopes that the show captures family life in a way not seen before, at all its most deliciously chaotic:
"That will principally be down to the performance of the kids who are hiccuping, chewing hair and kicking balls around the kitchen – things you tend not to see kids on TV doing. This is family life as we've all experienced it."