It's one of the oldest theatrical adages: never work with children or animals. Well, I've worked a lot with children over the years, and after my latest experience I am beginning to wonder whether those of us who subscribe to this belief might just be mistaken.
Then again what I am referring to is working with the children in the BBC1 comedy series Outnumbered. And I don't think that the way these children are required to act in the show has ever been tried before.
Suddenly everyone is talking about Outnumbered. If you haven't seen it, it's about daily life in the Brockman family – Pete, Sue, and their children Jake, Ben and Karen. They live in south London and I play Sue's sister Angela. To that extent it's a family sitcom in the tradition of Not in Front of the Children or My Family.
Just how different Outnumbered is from those shows became clear when I was first approached by the writers Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton. Yes there would be a script – but it wouldn't be shown to the children. They would improvise. So the adult actors know where the writers want the scene to go, but then they have to sit back and wait to see what journey the children take them on.
There are two cameras running at all times and the scene is always shot on the children first – because until they are recorded the rest of us have no idea what they are going to say. There is no rehearsal, and if a re-take is called for it will bear no resemblance to the first take.
Consequently, when the cameras are turned on the adult actors, they have to try to remember what the children had offered up in all the various versions and what their own spontaneous replies had been.
This is quite a challenge, made none the easier because you are frequently addressing your improvised lines to a bearded Andy Hamilton, or to the six-foot Guy Jenkin before you on his knees. Child actors need regular breaks – but the show must go on, so we keep recording with often Andy or Guy standing in.
All mildly disconcerting. But not quite as disconcerting as having a six-year-old simply walk away from you as you attempt to explain your views on the existence of God. Ramona Marquez, who plays the deadly serious Karen, had been told that she didn't like her aunt Angela and consequently didn't smile at me once for six weeks. This one piece of information meant that she disagreed or argued with every single thing I said.
It is without doubt the absolute sincerity of the children – Romana, Tyger Drew-Honey and Daniel Roche – that is behind the compelling charm of Outnumbered. And they serve as a wonderful lesson to the rest of us.
Woe betide any adult thesp who attempts "acting" in the midst of such truth. The children are walking examples of the "less is more" school. Each brings with them an absolute honesty. They have mastered the art of simply "being" in front of the cameras - and that is an art most of us spend a lifetime trying to acquire.
'Outnumbered' continues on BBC1 on Saturday evenings and is repeated on Wednesdays on BBC2; Samantha Bond's latest film, 'A Bunch of Amateurs', is out later this monthReuse content