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Thursday 27 Nov 2014

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Home Time – Q&A with Emma Fryer

Home Time: from right - Emma Fryer as Gaynor, Kerry Godliman as Becky, Rebekah Staton as Kelly and Hayley Jayne Standing as Mel (image: BBC)

How did you come up with the idea of Home Time?

I think it was around the time I came back home to my mum and dad's house again, after yet another failed life-change. I realised I couldn't put 'only' in front of my age any more. Saying "I'm only 17" is a great excuse. "I'm only 21" works too, but when you're heading towards "I'm only 30" – that's just getting daft.

Also, I was thinking about the importance of people who've known you all your life. Having gone away and attempted to start new lives quite a lot, I realised anyone can move away and reinvent themselves, get cool hair and a good music collection. But the people you grew up with know the truth, they saw you through first perms, shell suits, doing a rap about recycling in whole-school assembly. They know that you once thought you could get pregnant from a toilet seat, and that the first boy who kissed you did it for a dare. They know the truth and like you anyway – they're good people to surround yourself with.

Increasingly, people who left home a few years ago are finding themselves returning. It could be because of redundancies, house prices, it's something that's happening more and more. Parents thought their kids would be pretty much raised and out the door by 18. But there are still people living at their parents house well into their twenties, sometimes thirties and it's OK. I do feel sorry for the parents though.

What is Home Time about?

It's about a girl who, at 17, suddenly left home with big but very vague ideas. She was feeling very special and now suddenly finds herself at 29 back in the exact same situation she left, and with nothing to show for it but a lot of smudged mascara. So it's about living in your teenage bedroom at the age of 29 and facing up to the fact that somewhere everything went wrong.

Home Time's about being lost, getting stuck and finally growing up, and I think that that's happening a lot later. It's about recognising the benefits of belonging in and being part of a place and not feeling entirely anonymous. Finally, it's about realising that you can let go of that exhausting teenage sense of special separateness. Those thoughts of "Nobody gets me, everybody's looking at me, I'm so different". Actually, you're not that different and no one's got time to look at you, they've got lots of work/childcare/shopping to do.

What was it like writing with Neil Edmond and working with the cast?

I met Neil three years ago when I was doing my first play and we got on really well. We've worked together ever since really. We did a project called WhereAreTheJoneses?, which involved driving around Europe in a small car, improvising a three-minute comedy episode every day for three months. By the end of it we were really psychotic. I thought, "if we can get on under those circumstances and not physically harm each other, then we'll be alright for most things." It's a joy to work with Neil.

When we were writing, we ended up with thousands of Post-it notes, with lists of characters, ideas, locations and plots. I stuck them on every available wall space. Then, when my flat needed a re-wire, I'd open the door to fear-struck electricians who saw a lone female stood in a flat with wall-to-ceiling Post-it notes of female names and maps. I looked like a stalker slasher psycho! Neil and I have known each other for three years, he was the first person I ever showed my writing to and I trust his opinion over most people's. We've spent so much time together, we have our own sort of shorthand language now of mainly grunts, swearwords and scribbles.

Neil and I thought that it would be funny if Kelly had caned it so hard she looked 50. We thought that a 50-year-old actress should play her. It's a nice visual gag, but it's a sketch gag. Across a series if you miss that one bit where there's an explanation, you'll spend the rest of the series wondering who this older woman is, is she an aunt or a teacher that couldn't let go? We resigned that one to the ideas graveyard, along with a stray dog called Levi and a detailed theme of doomed chimpanzee cosmonauts.

As for working with the rest of the cast, at the end of the first week we did a scene where the girls walk out of a nightclub and down the street looking for chips. The director genuinely didn't recognise us for a moment. She said "Oh my god, you're a group! A really scary looking group", and we felt like one. We still meet up for dinner – Hayley's very good at finding two-for-one vouchers.

Everyone took part in the series, my parents, my brother, my niece, my neighbours, my friends, ex-students, my best friend's dog. And not one of them moaned on the 4am night shoots when it snowed and we developed frost on our costumes.

Were you involved in the casting process?

Having been on the other side of the desk as an actor, you can tell if people are interested or not within a few seconds. There's a light in their eyes that quickly goes out. It really hurts and it's hard not to take it personally. But, having now been on the other side of the table, I wouldn't take it personally any more because you write these characters with specific ideas in your head and someone can be brilliant but just not how you imagined it.

Also the accent was tricky. It's like the Coventry City song says: "We speak with an accent exceedingly rare". People assume we all have really thick Birmingham accents. We did say, "If you can't do a Coventry accent, don't worry about it. Yet". So it was useful for the cast to work with a Coventry-based accent coach.

I knew that I wanted to work with a couple of people but didn't think it would happen – Phil Jackson as my Dad, that was just a daft daydream, but he agreed!

Sometimes, the initial ideas we had for a character's physical appearance went right out the window. For example, Kelly was supposed to be really short and scrappy, but with Rebekah playing her, she ended up taller than me. And I'm tall. She had some Nineties platforms that the costume designer found for us, they were in fact Mel B's cowhide moonboots from the first Spice Girl's tour!

The key thing with the cast was that they play the characters three-dimensionally. You can take a character like Becky and on the page she's just brutal, but if you've got a good actress playing her you can see that she's incredibly vulnerable. She gets hurt a lot and things really knock her confidence. She's just got this stupidly thick aggressive armour and it's nice to see moments when she is vulnerable, so we needed an actor that could do that. They're not nasty characters, they're just hurting in their own way, a bit lost and embarrassed like we all are.

Are you Gaynor?

I have been, I've been all of them. I've certainly felt as lost as Gaynor, I've certainly felt as sad and foolish. I was always leaving with some hare-brained half-notion of starting a new life somewhere else, but it always went wrong and I always came back. The difference between me and Gaynor is that I was always in close contact with my friends and family. Plus I was never away for very long because I always managed to fail miserably, but quickly.

Gaynor left abruptly and cut all her ties. The people that she's returning to aren't being nasty, they're just hurt because she left in a really brutal way. She never meant to stop contact, she was just waiting for something brilliant to happen so she could get in touch with good news, but it never did. And the longer you leave it, the more impressive this 'good thing' has to be, until it's too late just to call and simply say hello.

Why is Gaynor back?

Something terrible's happened and she realises that, when things go wrong, the one place you want to return to is home. It's the place where you feel safe, where people know the bones of you, where you'll be looked after. Whatever's gone on down south, it must be pretty bad because the shame of staying there outweighed the shame of coming back to her home town a failure.

There are increasing clues as the series goes on as to why she's back. Mel and mum Brenda are particularly keen to weedle it out of her, but Gaynor soon becomes re-entwined in being 17 again, settling old scores, chasing the one that got away, which is more comfortable than having to think about whatever it is she ran away from.

How did you get Home Time commissioned?

My first acting job was Ideal which was with Baby Cow Productions. Then Neil and I did WhereAreTheJoneses?, an online sitcom, for the same company. Henry Normal from Baby Cow asked if I had any ideas and I had Home Time and a comedy set in World War One. He said go for Home Time 'cos period costumes are pricey. We sent in a pitch and it went from there – I still can't believe it.

What scenarios or themes in Home Time are like your own experiences?

One theme that runs through it that I found was true of people my age is that however nice the people you went to school with were, there's always a fear of seeing them again. The last time you saw them you were 17, full of dreams, your skin was good and you were wearing fashionable clothes. But now you run into them in the supermarket and they're all successful and sorted and you've got no make-up on. You're wearing the free PlayStation t-shirt you use for decorating and you just don't want them seeing you like this. At that point you hide behind the dairy produce and think, "Something's gone horribly wrong in my life, this isn't how I thought it would be, it hasn't turned out right".

When you feel deep down you haven't achieved all that you should, you can become very quick to big up any success you have had. All four girls are like that in Home Time, the rest of their class or year have moved on, but these four are still trapped in the past, in this cycle of constantly trying to demonstrate that they're achieving all the things they said they would under the title 'ambitions' on their school-leaver's report card.

As for the female characters, I've been all of them at different times in my life. I've been Kelly, a bedroom DJ with aspirations who's too old but can't let it go. I've been Becky, I did an MA in Creative Business and Marketing just so I could dress for success and carry a laptop to work. And, on occasion, I've been exactly like Mel, doing nothing myself but happily sitting with a posh coffee, using other people's lives as a spectator sport. I've tried and failed at lots of things to try and emulate the successful, beaming people I've seen in magazines.

The dad, Roy, is basically like both of my parents. I've got a ridiculously understanding tolerant, good-natured, sweet mum and dad, but if you write both parents like that it just becomes The Waltons. So, Roy is both my parents and the mum Brenda is a work of fiction. We wanted to come up with the most difficult mum for someone in Gaynor's situation. Someone who can't help but drag her daughter over the coals, and who is compulsively sociable and gossipy, when Gaynor just wants to hide and keep everything a secret.

Why did you want a female ensemble cast?

I wanted to write something about a group of women who'd been friends all their lives. I think the reason her closest friends are all female is because they met when they were about seven (during the 'yuck boys' stage) and she left at 17 (before they'd got into serious relationships). Gaynor hasn't seen the girls since they were 17 and that gap of 12 years is an important one. Over the years, everyone else has gradually learned lessons and moved on without even thinking about the fact they've all grown up. The girls have missed out on that, so at that moment of meeting they're right back to being 17 again, full of childish regression, conformity and hurt teenage pride.

The series is partly about women who've been encouraged to feel like they can put life on hold and behave like teenagers for as long as possible. They're going to Prague to get their eggs frozen, so they can avoid responsibility until the last possible minute.

I think there's a big difference between the kind of friendship groups formed at, say, yoga, where you meet once a week in a wine bar and talk about telly and shoes, and the kind of friendships forged in the playground that last a lifetime. These women have gone through every stage of growing up together, know everything about each other and have come to define each other. Next to family, they're the most enduring and influential relationships they have. And like family, it's not always pretty.

What's your relationship to Coventry like?

I love Coventry, it's the place I'm happiest. It's the only place I really feel I know what I'm doing and where I'm going – both emotionally and physically. It's the only place I don't need a sat nav. Mastering the ring road was one of the proudest days of my life. My friends and family are all there and I'm very proud to still be working with some incredibly-talented young performers and writers that I used to teach – they're going to do great things. Coventry is a beautiful place and we made sure we captured that in Home Time. The memorial park and the canal basin look stunning. For all the outdoor scenes, the lighting designer washed everything in a 'Coventry Blue' in homage to Coventry City football team.

I'm very proud of Coventry and its history. It's famous for loads of things, music, 2 Tone, punk, The Specials, The Enemy; watch, cloth, car and bike manufacture; Frank Whittle, Philip Larkin, Pete Waterman, Mo Mowlam, Clive Owen, Lady Godiva. Fishy Moores chip shop is the stuff of legend. As for television made in Coventry, Keeping Up Appearances was filmed round the corner from my friend's grandma in Binley Woods. And The Armstrongs, but that's not comedy, that's real.

We're not trying to capture all of life in Coventry through the series. Coventry's a very diverse city with lots of different people living lots of different lives. You couldn't possibly sum up the whole city through a small group of fictional characters.

As the series goes on, Gaynor starts to realise that, as a teenager, you were trying to escape yourself, not your home town. I think that happens to a lot of people. In a way we could have set it anywhere because it's about everybody's relationship with their home town, not just mine.

Is Coventry the new Barry Island?

In terms of the brilliant success Gavin And Stacey's had, I very much doubt it. I hope it captures a similar bitter-sweet quality but Gavin And Stacey's a happier situation – young love – Home Time starts with Gaynor thinking she's in the worst possible situation, but as the series goes on she falls back into sort-of-being 17 all over again. Which is nearly a privilege.

What was it like filming? Were there any interesting moments?

It was a really strange feeling setting up cameras and filming in places I've walked through a thousand times before and a hundred times since. There were loads of lovely moments on set and some genuine surprises like Marion's (Gaynor's mum) proper potty mouth. She's incredibly elegant and eloquent, but capable of absolute filth. She's brilliant but when she makes a mistake, her language is remarkable.

What really stands out in my memory is how incredibly hard-working and valiant the crew and cast were. We hadn't anticipated filming in snow storms and like fools we'd written loads of outdoor scenes with people wearing vest tops. It could've been a nightmare but people kept smiling, even with frost on their eyebrows.

Would you like to continue being both an actress and writer?

I've been ridiculously lucky. It's an incredibly rare opportunity to get to do both and, if I ever got the chance again, I'd love to. It's hugely daunting though, because I'm quite shy and it does involve being in front of many, many people. In a way I prefer the being at home writing, although the catering's not nearly as good.

I've never written and acted before and you have to learn to keep your mind on the acting when you're acting. But there were a few times when I was trying to learn lines thinking, "Why did I make that sentence so complicated?" And why did I write myself the most unattractive character possible, all smudged, sobbing and bloodshot in Nineties jeans?

How did you get into comedy/acting?

I was a teacher before and I developed a stutter, so I did this all-female comedy night in Birmingham as a dare to myself just to see if I could do it. In typical Gaynor fashion, my poor old dad gave me a lift there and sat outside in the car for three-and-a-half hours. I was so nervous I had a panic attack before I went on and this one woman took the time to chat to me and calm me down. She's been a proper mate ever since and is in Home Time playing Siobhan Long. I didn't realise at the time it was a comedy competition but the audience were nice, it went well and everything started from there. I've been very, very, lucky.

What are your plans for the future?

It all depends how this goes really. If I get to work again, that'd be great. I'm doing a couple of projects and bits of writing with Neil. One project is about a woman who makes up ridiculous lies about doing good deeds to try to impress her ex-boyfriend who's saving people's eyesight in Africa. I always seem to end up playing liars. If this all goes wrong, I'd love to go back to teaching or maybe open a small B&B and learn to do really good fry-ups.

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