Breeders star Daisy Haggard: ‘You don’t see people swearing at their kids on TV’

The ‘Episodes’ and ‘Uncle’ actor, who also created and starred in ‘Back to Life’, talks to Ed Cumming about the dark side of parenting, finding success in her forties and why people should be kinder

Thursday 12 March 2020 07:39 GMT
‘If you can’t be kind, shut up. There’s no point. Life is short and I don’t know why people feel the need to be cruel to each other’
‘If you can’t be kind, shut up. There’s no point. Life is short and I don’t know why people feel the need to be cruel to each other’ (Sky)

There were moments, pushing a buggy around the park, when I thought I was never going to be able to do anything again,” says Daisy Haggard. This was a couple of years ago, when after nearly 20 years in the business the actor was at a stage of life where appealing roles for women can be thin on the ground. Her career up till then had been solid if not quite stellar, anchored by roles in Man Stroke Woman, Psychoville, Episodes and then, from 2013 a lead opposite Nick Helm in Uncle. When that finished in 2017, she was far from a household name and nearly 40, and it wasn’t clear what would come next.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, came Back to Life. Written by Haggard and her friend Laura Solon, this six-part series starred Haggard as Miri, who returns to her parents’ home on the Kentish coast after serving an 18-year prison sentence for murder. It was exactly the kind of off-kilter, authored comedy BBC Three was designed for, built around Haggard’s wonderful lead performance. With natural comic timing and a fabulously expressive face, she had never had trouble stealing scenes, especially as the withering Myra in Episodes, but this was a more rounded display, funny but also touching and tragic.

Through a mixture of word-of-mouth recommendations and Haggard’s tireless advocacy on Twitter, the comedy drama became one of the sleeper hits of last year. We are meeting to discuss her new role, opposite Martin Freeman in Sky One’s Breeders, but it doesn’t take long for Back to Life to come up, in part because her efforts paid off. Showtime picked it up in the US, and it has been recommissioned for a second series, which she is currently writing.

“I worked harder [at promoting Back to Life] than I’d worked at anything else online,” says Haggard, over coffee in central London. She is warm and amusing company, despite saying that her children have given her three sleepless nights on the bounce. Unlike some actors who find success straight out of the blocks, Haggard seems genuinely thrilled at the reception Back to Life has had, with enough perspective to know that things might not always look so bright.

“It did feel like people who liked it really liked it,” she says. “And people who didn’t like it kept quiet, which is how I want them to be. It’s lovely because Laura and I just wanted to get it out, and I didn’t think about what people would think. I had always been writing, but it’s really hard. You plug away and not everyone’s lucky enough to get something made, and I had a few things that didn’t happen. Having children focused me. Before them, I had all the time in the world, living in a flat on my own. But I didn’t get as much done. If you only have one hour a day when you’re not with your kids, you have to make it count, so you really nail it.”

Even so, she says, she was fortunate that her script attracted the attention of patient producers, Harry and Jack Williams at Two Brothers, and Sarah Hammond, who took the time to help perfect the script and shoot a teaser. Between Sharon Horgan, Julia Davis and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it seems like a good time for inventive, authored comedies by women on this side of the Atlantic.

“It feels like [things are getting better],” she says. “It feels like we’re letting more people who aren’t white men tell their stories. We have to be constantly pushing for more voices to be heard.” She reaches over the table in mock-concern. “Are you going to be OK?”

Haggard’s experience as a parent has come in handy for Breeders. She plays Ally, wife of Freeman’s Paul, as they try to juggle careers, families and their marriage, while raising two young children. The idea came from a dream Freeman had, which forms the opening scene. A harassed young father trudges upstairs to confront his noisy children. Don’t swear at them, he tells himself. Don’t do it. Then he opens their door and unleashes a broadside of invective at his stunned offspring. It sets the tone for a series that is more honest than many about the bleaker aspects of childrearing.

“You don’t really see people shouting or swearing at their kids on TV,” Haggard says, “so it’s refreshing to show the darker side of things. It’s uncompromising. Every parent has moments when you let yourself down or don’t do the right thing. Watching Breeders, you’ll either feel smug because you haven’t been as bad as Martin and me, or you’ll recognise it.”

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In places, the first few episodes are harrowing to an interviewer on the cusp of becoming a father for the first time. “Oh don’t worry, it’s great, too,” she says. “It can be a slog but you also have these hilarious little idiots around. My two-year-old has this new thing where she turns to me and says, ‘Mummy, I like you,’ like some old sot in a bar. And the other day my eldest was wearing a jumper she liked so she said, ‘Mummy, if the boys touch my jumper, they’ll never see their parents again.’ She’s really macabre. She says these really cool dark things with a twinkle in her eye.”

Haggard has spent plenty of time around children other than her own, too. She is the youngest of six, by her admission the only child her film director father Piers failed to deter from the entertainment industry. She went to James Allen’s in Dulwich before Lamda, and worked at all kinds of jobs, including looking after children, while she was starting out. She’s married to Joe Wilson, a musician, and their children are now five and two.

Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard in ‘Breeders’
Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard in ‘Breeders’ (Sky)

“My life is more like Ally’s, but I’m more like Miri,” she says. “I’m a relentless optimist and I think Miri is, too. I think I’m quite sunny. Ally is tougher and cooler and more sarky. She’s better written than I am. I would never want to upset anyone because I’d never want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

In the days after Caroline Flack’s death, Haggard tweeted her support for Caroline’s Law, a proposal to hold corporations more responsible for the kind of abuse the presenter endured at the hands of the tabloids. “It’s so sad and horrendous,” she says. “I haven’t personally experienced [that kind of online bullying] but it happens a lot and it’s horrible. If you can’t be kind, shut up. There’s no point. Life is short and I don’t know why people feel the need to be cruel to each other. It’s toxic and results in horrible things happening.”

Ever the optimist, Haggard is relishing the fresh opportunities the past few years have provided.

“It’s nice to feel you’re 41 and things are happening at a time when you’re told as a woman that that’s when it’s all over,” she says.“If it had happened earlier I wouldn’t have been as grounded. There’s a healthy sense for me that I could end up working on the gym reception again at any point. I’ve never assumed everything’s going to be OK. It’s been a slow build, so I’m going to enjoy it.”

Breeders begins with a double bill on Sky One on 12 March

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