Wednesday, March 29

Daisy Haggard: ‘Forget work. Let’s just talk about Wotsits’ | TV comedy

In March, Daisy Haggard finished shooting the third season of Breeders, the uncomfortably honest comedy about parenting in which she stars alongside Martin Freeman. The plan was to spend the next few months working on her own scripts. Haggard is hot property as a writer these days, following two series of the excellent BBC sadcom Back to Life, the story of a woman who returns to her small town after a long stint in prison, which she created, co-wrote with Laura Solon and starred in. Now was the time to crack on: she had a couple of ideas for feature films she wanted to pursue and another TV show, and though she wasn’t thinking she’d make any more Back to Life – certainly not straight away – there was also clamour to revisit that.

April, Haggard admits, was pretty much a bust. There was Easter, the school holidays, and she had other highly important things on her mind, such as finding out when the reality show Love Is Blind will return. But “peak procrastination” arrived in early May. After several weeks of intense research, she adopted a rescue puppy: Betty, a scruffy, five-month-old dachshund-poodle-segugio-italiano-yorkie-bichon-frise-cocker mix with a broken elbow. Betty has landed in a loving, crowded home in the south London burbs, which Haggard shares with her partner, Joe, their two daughters, aged seven and four, and two previous rescue dogs.

“So I sit on a bed with a laptop and three dogs, holding rawhide bones and then writing with my other hand,” says Haggard. “It’s been said to me by my friends: ‘Well, you’re just doing a Daisy…’” She acts appalled: “I’m, like, ‘What do you mean?’ And they’re, like, ‘You create a bit of chaos and then suddenly you write.’ Because I wrote Back to Life when I just had my second child: she was a month old. And I wrote the second season in lockdown with both kids, no childcare and a puppy. But then I spent 20 years in a flat in Brixton in my pants not doing anything. So maybe there’s something going on there. Send that to a therapist.”

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With Martin Freeman in Breeders. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Sky/Avalon

We meet in mid-June at a photo studio near Brixton – is Haggard making better progress with her writing? “Whatever it is, it’s not working yet,” she sighs, before a look of determination takes over. “But it will.”

Haggard is 44, and describes her career until recent years as “loads of little moments with things… a bit bitty, yeah”. She’s being modest: she has reliably popped up in many of the best British comedies of the past two decades, among them Man Stroke Woman, Psychoville and Episodes. (She’d sometimes have people come up to her and say they thought she was brilliant in Smack the Pony, which, to be clear, she wasn’t in.) But Haggard is right that, with Breeders and Back to Life, she has found two shows that allow her to showcase fully what a deft comic performer she is.

“Daisy is a superbly nuanced dramatic actor who also has the most highly developed sense of, well, mischief,” says Chris Addison, who co-created Breeders with Martin Freeman and Simon Blackwell. “She’s got funny bones, Haggard; the kind of thing you can’t acquire – you either have them or you don’t. You could try to dissect it and figure out what makes her such a good comic actress but, ultimately, it’s just because she’s… Daisy.” Blackwell, who writes Breeders and has previously worked on The Thick of It and Veep, agrees. “She’s a great dramatic actor and a natural comedian,” he says. “That’s such a rare skill, to be emotionally real while nailing the comedy. It’s an instinctive thing and it makes her a total joy to write for.”

At the heart of Breeders is Haggard’s easy chemistry with Freeman, as the stretched, sometimes beleaguered, often apoplectic parents of two kids. The pair have known each other for years – Haggard is godmother to one of Freeman’s children – but had never worked together before. “She’s one of those people who has a natural intelligence that means she just gets what is required with very little explanation needed, ever,” says Freeman. “Also, she makes light work of it. There’s no overthinking. Sometimes no thinking full stop.”

Daisy Haggard photographed for the Observer New Review in London by Alex Lake, June 2022
Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

How is she as a godparent? “She’s crazy about kids, or mine, anyway,” Freeman replies. “She is this bundle of enthusiasm and fun. Daisy is the original Earth Mother. And also, very silly. To an Olympic degree. I take the piss out of her a lot. But often she beats me to it.”

It’s laughably easy to find people to say complimentary things about Haggard, and when you meet her it’s not hard to see why. She has warmth, self-deprecation and goofiness. We spend the first 10 minutes of the interview talking about crisps: for Christmas a few years ago, her husband commissioned a necklace featuring a Frazzle, a Walkers Square and a Monster Munch, which clearly delighted her. When we finally move on to other subjects, she seems disappointed. “Let’s just talk about Wotsits,” she says, “can we not talk about work?”

From those who know Haggard personally and professionally there seems genuine pleasure that the rest of us are finally twigging how great she is.

“No, things are going really well,” says Haggard. “But also, it’s quite nice when things go well when you’re in your late 30s, early 40s. My plan was the day I left drama school the phone would ring and I’d become a movie star. And then I worked in a gym for 10 years. I’ve quit so many jobs so many times and then had to go back to them and go: ‘Hiiii! Erm, that whole thing about me quitting…’

“So it’s nice to have this now because your feet are on the ground, my priorities feel very set and in order,” she goes on. “I feel, like, ‘Just take the moment, enjoy this, because tomorrow might be really different.’ Don’t expect everything to last for ever.”

Haggard’s father is Piers Haggard, the Bafta-winning director of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, and also the cult horror films The Blood on Satan’s Claw and 1981’s Venom, starring Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski, about a black mamba that picks the characters off one by one. But she contests the idea that she was born into acting. Haggard put herself forward for school plays but was never selected. Eventually, in the last production before she left, she was cast as Miss Hannigan, the main antagonist in the musical Annie.

School, more generally, was a struggle. “Yeah, I was pretty bad at everything,” Haggard says. “I had a really short skirt, though. I was reaaally good at that!” She laughs. “No, I just didn’t like school. I don’t think that school is for everyone. Is it? I mean, of course it is for everyone. And I am happy with the way it’s gone. If I really like something, I could devote everything to it, I’m up all night working. But if I don’t, I just can’t concentrate.”

Haggard was the youngest of her father’s six children, two of whom he had with her mother, Anna Sklovsky, an artist who makes stained-glass windows. “My parents were weirdly puritanical about television, but I did watch some very extreme horror films quite young,” she recalls. “I did watch Venom, probably way too young. We had the pretend black mamba in the dressing-up box along with Satan’s claw from The Blood on Satan’s Claw. So we had some very good props for our dressing up.”

There was a lot of craft and making in the Haggard household: “It was always, like, ‘What can you make with a margarine container? See you in two hours.’” And, aged 11, Haggard started work on her first script. It was going pretty well until she hit puberty and her writing took a somewhat gratuitous turn when a painter-decorator turned up in a scene and whipped off his shirt, Diet Coke ad-style.

After drama school, Haggard wrote in fits and starts. She thought there might be a comedy loosely based on the gym she worked in – “On reception, I hasten to add. I didn’t ever step in the gym” – but it didn’t quite come together. Another idea had interest from Channel 4, but nothing came of it. “I always wanted to be a writer, but I’d given up almost,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, well, that’s it now.’”

The idea that stuck came from Haggard noticing that women who commit serious crimes often face a more complicated rehabilitation when they come out of prison than men do. Back to Life is certainly not an obvious conceit for a comedy: it follows Miri Matteson (Haggard) as she attempts to re-enter society after a life sentence for murdering her best friend, Lara, as a teenager. Back home in Kent, living with her parents, Miri is excluded, attacked and betrayed by almost everyone close to her. Somehow, though, Haggard and Solon create pathos and humour from these bleak scenarios. “Back to Life’s ability to move you from tears to laughter within a line, let alone a scene, remains undiminished,” wrote Lucy Mangan in her Guardian review.

Alongside Adeel Akhtar in Back to Life.
Alongside Adeel Akhtar in Back to Life. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

“I’m obsessed with the underdog,” says Haggard, talking of Miri now. “And I think that people related to her optimism, and her determination. We really did put Miri through a lot. Then I suppose it is its own beast, isn’t it? It’s a bit spooky. A bit funny. A bit…? I’ll never write something that’s just one thing, but it would always have to be silly, because I think everything’s a bit silly.”

Many details from Haggard’s own life found their way into Back to Life. When Miri is lectured by her dad about how to pack the dishwasher, that is pure Piers Haggard. Haggard’s mother, though, is keen to point out that there is a lot of fiction in the depictions, too. “My mum has never pleasured an ex-boyfriend,” says Haggard. “She would like that known.”

Haggard retains a don’t-jinx-it bemusement about the position she now finds herself in. “I still think about that girl at school who was always at the bottom of the class, and always didn’t get into any school plays,” says Haggard. “It has been quite useful in life, because I never expected to be good at anything. I think it’s harder if you’re amazing at school, and then you go out and realise everyone’s amazing. I never thought I was, so I came out and went: ‘Oooh, let’s see how that goes!’”

While Back to Life is all-consuming for Haggard, Breeders allows her to show up and read someone else’s – typically Simon Blackwell’s – very funny lines. “I just get to go and do a job, rather than lie awake at night panicking about what someone’s wearing,” she says. The first series of the show, which aired on Sky in 2020, set out to depict the realistic underbelly of parenting. It found Paul (Freeman) and Ally (Haggard) with young children who wouldn’t sleep and were obsessed with unlikely, calamitous events, such as burglars and fires. Last year’s second series jumped the family’s story on about five years and went into more emotionally fraught and complex territory.

The new series of Breeders picks up where the last one left off. But while, up until now, most of the fireworks have been between Paul and his teenage son, Luke, this time the main clashes are between Ally and their daughter Ava. For Haggard, making Breeders has had strange, delayed parallels with her life at home. When she filmed her audition, she was rocking her three-week-old baby with her foot in a car seat, and keeping her older daughter placated by letting her binge-watch In the Night Garden. “Breeders has always been ahead of me, the kids have always been older than mine,” she says. “So it’s like a depressing prophecy of what my future holds.”

In particular, Haggard now understands the “ragey feeling” that sometimes descends as a parent. It’s a policy on Breeders that where child actors are involved, obscene words are switched with milder alternatives and then dubbed. “There was one point where I had to talk about ‘a clock ring’,” she recalls with a snigger. “And I’m such a bad giggler anyway, so about six hours later, everyone’s, like, ‘Fucking hell, just swear Daisy!’ Or you’re meant to be really angry and you’re, like, ‘How fudging dare you!’ So I was delighted that this series the kids were old enough that we could be a bit ruder.”

One of the satisfactions of Breeders and Back to Life is that both productions are set up to work “family-friendly hours”. Along with a wide selection of retro snacks and crisps, it’s something that Haggard insists on now. “Historically there’s been a weird idea that if you’re not suffering, then that’s not cool,” she says. “But why the hell can’t we have a nice time while we’re doing what we do? I really am over that now. Like, if someone said to me, ‘There’s this really gruelling, horrible job, but you’re going to be so good in it,’ I’d be, like, ‘Thank you. Someone else can do that! I’m going to stay at home and put my feet up.’ I won’t do that really horrible, dreadful experience. I would choose to have a nice time and go on holiday.”

With both Breeders and Back to Life having been taken on by broadcasters in the States, Haggard now has an American agent. The hardest part has been communicating with them that she doesn’t imagine her career as world-conquering. “No, I don’t think I’ll do much in my life,” she says. “I had a meeting with an agent and I’d just spent two months with my family in Greece or something. And this guy went: ‘Don’t you worry, if you come with us that will never ever happen again.’ And I was, like, ‘Ohhh-kay…’ Then he said: ‘You could do this, you could do this, you could do this, you could do this.’ And I said: ‘Oh, the thing about me is I don’t want to do everything. I just want to do a few things really well and then have a nice time.’ And there was this total silence. There was, honestly, tumbleweed.”

Haggard’s friends would probably call this “doing a Daisy”. She smiles. “Needless to say, I didn’t end up with that agent.”

Breeders returns on Wednesday 13 July on Sky Comedy and NOW

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