The mother of all battles

Actors and real-life professionals meet in the story of a woman fighting for her child
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A mistake at a fertility clinic results in an embryo being implanted in the wrong mother. This blunder means that a white woman gives birth to a black baby. Discuss.

A mistake at a fertility clinic results in an embryo being implanted in the wrong mother. This blunder means that a white woman gives birth to a black baby. Discuss.

Or, rather, create a television drama based on this dilemma of maternal identity. The situation has arisen three times in recent years -in Holland, America and Britain - although you may not have heard of the British case, as Oliver Morse, producer of a gripping new Channel 4 drama Born with Two Mothers explains: "The press injunction about the British black-white mix-up was prohibitively worded, forbidding any publication of anything to do with the case."

The press blackout intrigued Channel 4's head of documentaries, Peter Dale, as did the whole legal and ethical ramifications of the case. Now, if ITV were to attempt to make a drama out of this unfortunate situation, you could imagine Michelle Collins as the white birth mother, perhaps Sophie Okonedo as the black genetic mother, and a whole raft of supporting thespians as the doctors, lawyers and psychologists involved. There would be melodrama, synthetic tears, and, possibly, even a happy ending.

But Channel 4's Born with Two Mothers is a rather different beast. OK, we do have Okonedo - the Oscar-nominated star of Hotel Rwanda - as the genetic mother, but then, with her raw intensity, Okonedo was made for roles such as this. Instead of Collins, we have Lesley Sharp - the discerning viewer's Collins, you might say.

Okonedo says: "As soon as I read how they were going to film it, I wanted to do it." She is referring to the matter that sets Born with Two Mothers apart from conventional dramas: the two couples involved are played by actors, but the professionals reacting to their dramatised situation are real doctors, barristers, psychologists and social workers. There's even an actual judge, who must decide between the two mothers, albeit a retired one. "We couldn't use an active judge because our programme would have created a legal precedent," explains Morse, who pioneered the mixing of actors with real-life professionals 20 years ago.

The new drama follows two couples who are attending the same IVF clinic, one played by Okonedo and Lennie James, the other by Sharp and Adam Kotz. But a doctor alerts the hospital authorities that there may have been an mistake. "We didn't tell the doctor beforehand what the problem was going to be - we just said, something is going to happen in your hospital, and you're going to have to troubleshoot it," says Morse.

"We wanted to give them the freedom to make the decisions that they would make in real life." In the event, the real legal advice the doctor receives is that the other couple involved must not be contacted or informed of the mix-up until the baby is born. "The doctor was astonished by the legal advice," says Morse. "He didn't know that, with IVF, the law prohibits disclosure of information."

The film concludes with a court case. Before the case comes to trial, both couples are visited by experts - a real psychologist and a real "court guardian" (whose job is to ascertain the best interests of the child). Indeed, one of the fascinating elements of Born with Two Mothers is how well the professionals - just being themselves - and the actors gel. "The script ran out of dialogue half-way through, as the actors took their problems to the professionals," says the director, Ian Duncan. "Every scene involving an actor with a professional was ad-libbed. We realised that we couldn't do more than one take - it was filmed like a fly-on-the-wall documentary in that sense. We just left the camera running."

The final scenes in court have an intensity often lacking in conventional drama, because those involved don't know which way the judge's decision will go. "The judgment was not a conceit," Duncan says. "It was for real."

'Born with Two Mothers', 21 April, 9pm, Channel 4