“I’m a bit sick of Zoom,” groans Anna Maxwell Martin cheerfully, scurrying around her trailer as our video call begins, and moving nearer the loos for better reception.
She’s delighted to be back on set, although filming in a socially distanced world is strange. She parades the visor she’s obliged to wear in between shoots. “We’re supposed to be in bubbles. I keep getting in trouble for chatting outside my bubble.”
Maxwell Martin is light-hearted, joyous – about as far from her most famous role, fraught slummy mummy Julia in the BBC comedy Motherland, as you can get, even if she does do a good line in self-deprecation.
“Over lockdown we did a lot of awful Zooming. The quizzes! God. I don’t have a very good attention span. If I’m bored I’m like, this category is boring, move on!” What’s her favourite quiz category? “Smut. My category is SMUT,” she cackles.
Maxwell Martin, 43, who grew up in Beverley, Yorkshire, doesn’t really have an accent – “Never did much, maybe because Dad was from Northern Ireland, and Mum’s Scottish” – but she feels very much a northener. After reading history at Liverpool University, she came to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She got her big break playing Lyra in the stage adaptation of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre aged 26, and then came several period dramas including the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, for which she won a BAFTA. She has another for Poppy Shakespeare, a 2008 drama in which she plays a mental health patient.
She’s increasingly chosen gritty and unlikeable contemporary characters, including the frosty DCS Patricia Carmichael in the most recent season of Line of Duty, but is now best known for Motherland, the wildly popular BAFTA-winning sitcom written by Sharon Horgan of Catastrophe fame.
Her latest film is Say Your Prayers, a Hot Fuzz-style dark comedy, in which she plays a bigoted, potty-mouthed policewoman investigating a murder at a literary festival.
Maxwell Martin is utterly relieved to be back at work, her two daughters, Maggie and Nancy, aged 11 and 9, happily back at school. “It’s been a bit of a s**t-show, yeah, but was anyone going to handle it any better?” She cocks her head to one side contemplatively. Lockdown was “full of pluses and minuses,” she concludes. She spends a while convincing me she became a sourdough bore before falling about laughing. “No babe; I didn’t make sourdough!” She looks at me fondly, like I’m a mad aunt.
There wasn’t much bread-making, or boozing: she intended to drink every day over lockdown, but got bored. Instead, Maxwell Martin started writing her own work for the first time, “a sort of comedy, very dark,” which is sitting on people’s desks right now.
Wasn’t that hard with the children? “Some of it was really tough. I felt like I could cook them two meals a day, but not three. I couldn’t do lunch. I was like, just go scrabble around the kitchen. You’re meant to be at school; this isn’t my job. God, teachers are so amazing, aren’t they? To be on all the time. I don’t have the skillset, darling!” She guffaws, though I’m not sure I believe that – Maxwell Martin seems very on, and I mean that as a compliment.
Much of the teaching was done by her ex-husband, the director Roger Michell, known for Notting Hill, among other things. “We didn’t isolate from Rog, oh no. I don’t have the patience for teaching but he does.” The couple met in 2003 when he cast her in a National Theatre production.
Maxwell Martin revealed they had split in April, but said they had been separated for some time. She’s not exactly tight-lipped about their separation, just carefully vague, even when I ask if they’re now technically divorced. “Look, if it were just me, I’m a blabbermouth, I’ll say all sorts. But this is such a personal situation for other people.” Clearly the split hasn’t been too acrimonious though.
Not only was Say Your Prayers directed by her stepson, Harry (“it wasn’t weird at all”), she’s also just done a film with Michell, The Duke, which premiered recently at the Venice Film Festival. “People can make of that what they will,” she offers, not unkindly.
The thought of Julia, Maxwell Martin’s appallingly self-involved character in Motherland, coping with lockdown is delicious. “She’s a horrible, self-centred person, although that’s good fun to play,” she says, a cheeky glint in her eye.
“As she becomes friends with Liz and Kevin, we like her more. They’re a proper sweet trio.” Liz (Diane Morgan) is a down-to-earth mum who can’t stand school-gate politics and keeps everything in the freezer, notably cheese. Kevin (Paul Ready) is a stay-at-home dad who tries just a bit too hard.
What kind of mother is Maxwell Martin? “I’m in the Liz camp.” Does she have many ‘mummy’ friends? “Absolutely; those friendships are so important. Motherland isn’t a parenting show; it’s about finding your tribe. When you start, you go through a few where it’s not your vibe, talking about tutors, vaccinating. Then you find your people and it’s great.”
A drinking, swearing tribe
What’s her tribe like? “We’re a drinking, swearing tribe. I don’t think we talk about the kids a lot.” Maxwell Martin might not bang on about her kids but ask her what the hardest thing about parenting is and there’s an instant shift; a rare moment of vulnerability. “The hardest thing about mothering is suppressing the idea all day, every day, that something might happen to the person you love most in the world. You have to blissfully skip through your day – make sure they’re normal, that they do all the stuff they want to do – and not be crushed by the feeling of… I’m not saying all this very well...” She’s still chuckling, but looks like she might cry.
We discuss the division of labour that some felt became more sexist under lockdown. I suggest there are certain things that it is simply hard for people to understand if they’re not usually the parent doing those things, like singing Wind the Bobbin Up with small babies at playgroups. “To be honest, darling, I’m not sure I want a man who wants to sing Wind the Bobbin Up. Maybe I’ll use that as a litmus test going forward.” Another cackle.
Hashtags? No thanks
She’s not dating yet, but what would she look for in a new man? “Someone who doesn’t use a lot of hashtags? #freedom #conkersinautumn. No thanks!” She never felt compelled to do “the LA thing” before, but she’s going out there for a bit next year and says she might do “a bit more of all that.”
Is this an age thing, a post-divorce thing? “I do feel more ambitious than I’ve ever felt. I never had the confidence to write my own stuff before.” She looks serious suddenly. “I don’t think I had much confidence generally actually. I’ve always had confidence acting, but I mean, confidence in myself. I have way more now. I don’t know why. Maybe you just get to your forties, and think, oh! Life really is for taking opportunities, and just go for it.” And then she chuckles again and heads off, visor on neatly, back to work.
Say Your Prayers is available on demand
Motherland v The Duchess
Motherland made Anna Maxwell Martin an instantly recognisable face. But now there’s a new school gates comedy on the block: The Duchess, written by and starring Katherine Ryan, and it is even edgier and more offbeat than its predecessor. Here’s how the two shows compare:
While Motherland (BBC Two) centres around the ongoing struggles of Julia (Maxwell Martin) to juggle work and childcare, at the heart of The Duchess (Netflix) is acid-tongued single mum Katherine’s quest to provide her 10-year-old daughter with a sibling – without having to face the messy business, or future contractual obligations, of actually having sex with anyone.
Motherland is bursting with sharp quips, witty put-downs and deliciously observed characters. It takes real life and dials it up a notch or two for laughs. The Duchess turns the dial further. Katherine’s ex is a washed-up former boy band member who now lives on a houseboat (naturally). In Motherland the reaction to the Alpha bullies at the school gate is an eye roll and maybe two fingers behind someone’s back, in The Duchess we watch Katherine Ryan take revenge on a bully by planting naked pictures of herself on the other woman’s husband.
Julia and her posse of fellow hapless parents dress in the unremarkable style of anyone who knows their outfit will be covered in porridge and toothpaste before they’ve left the house. Not so Katherine, whose school gates garb is wildly and thrillingly inappropriate. Like, wouldn’t anyone wear a tutu on the school run? Or knee-high Gucci socks? Or a sexy black mourning outfit for a friend who isn’t actually dead? Picture Villanelle from Killing Eve dropping off a child at school and you get the idea.
The parenting styles
In Motherland, Julia ricochets from one parenting fail to another: whether it’s a childcare crisis (which it usually is) or a kids’ birthday party gone awry, her general demeanour is one of high stress, constant exasperation and pending nervous breakdown. Her children are props to be dragged around behind her. Katherine, however, has proper conversations with her daughter. (Though improper would be a better description of their subject matter.)
We don’t need to worry too much about how babies are actually made in Motherland: the main problem is that they have been made at all. Not so with The Duchess, whose protagonist must grapple with what to tell her daughter about sex, how to make another baby with an ex she despises, and how to keep her new boyfriend happy when he’s sleeping in her child’s single bed.