Daisy Haggard: ‘Seeing the love for Back to Life spread has made me happy'

The star and creator of the word-of-mouth TV hit on researching with ex-cons, mature sex and why she got kicked out of school science class

Scotland-born, Dulwich-raised Daisy Haggard trained at Lamda and is best known for appearing in TV comedies including Episodes, Green Wing and Uncle. She’s also had leading roles on stage at the National Theatre, the Royal Court and the Almeida. She’s currently starring in the BBC comedy Back to Life, about a woman returning home after 18 years in prison, which she co-wrote with the comedian Laura Solon.

Back to Life has been a word-of-mouth hit. Does that make it even more gratifying?
Putting yourself out there is quite frightening so it’s lovely when it strikes a chord. People have been recommending the show on social media, then their friends have liked it. Seeing that escalate and spread has made me really happy.

How did the premise come about?
I’m fascinated by how we judge women who commit crimes or do anything bad, compared to how we judge men. I’ve also always adored stories about new beginnings.

You created the show with Laura Solon. How did that work?
Laura let me steal her amazing brain, but she’s in LA, so a lot was done over email or Skype. I’d also just had my second child, which was ideal timing [laughs]. I had a baby with reflux and a four-year-old with a chest infection, so I was awake for about a year. I’d write at random times of night through a sleep-deprived haze, with my daughter watching Masha and the Bear next to me.

You spoke to some ex-cons for research. What did you learn from them?
Mostly the seemingly mundane details of what it’s like coming home after a long time away. The problems registering with a GP. House insurance issues because there’s a convicted criminal living there. Not knowing what to wear when you’ve suddenly got a choice of clothes. And what they crave to eat: fresh, crunchy things like celery, apparently. A lot of that made it into the show.

Watch a trailer for Back to Life

Did you base the characters on anyone in particular?
Well, I’m not too dissimilar to the heroine, Miri. I share her optimism. My dad’s eco-consciousness made it into the character of Miri’s dad. Their row about rinsing plates before putting them in the dishwasher was genuine. This is the third time Geraldine James has played my mum. My real mum’s getting a bit jealous. I always had Adeel Akhtar in mind to play Billy [Miri’s neighbour and love interest] so basically stalked and begged him. I think he said yes partly to shut me up.

The bedroom scenes between Miri’s parents are refreshing to see. Were you keen to show mature sex?
We wanted the main sexual relationship to be the parents’ and not Miri’s. She’s not at that stage yet anyway – holding hands is enough for her. It felt right to explore the parents’ sex lives instead and for it to be a complex relationship in which the woman has the most voracious appetite.

Do you regret Miri giving herself a DIY haircut, meaning you spent the entire series with a wonky fringe?
Oh my God, yes. I wrote myself a part, so theoretically it could have been all billowing hair and flattering designer dresses. Instead she chops her own fringe and wears baggy old clothes. But I like having a central character who wears no makeup and looks like a real human.

You insisted the shooting schedule was parent-friendly. Is that something you’d like to see more in the industry?
I’m a big fan of the continuous day where you have no lunchbreak, push on through, then finish early so everyone can go home to their families. The crew were outstanding about making it work and I got home for my kids’ bedtime. I’d love the whole industry to be better for parents in that way.

Will there be a second series of Back to Life?
No word yet but we’d love to. We know where we’d go with the story, if we were so lucky.

Back to Life took over Fleabag’s slot in the schedules and has been compared to it. Is that a blessing or a curse?
A blessing. Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] did something amazing with Fleabag, so it’s an honour to be mentioned alongside it. But I also can’t wait until there are so many female voices on screen that we don’t need to compare them. Fleabag used to get compared to Girls but they’re completely different shows. The most important thing is we have more and more of them. The bigger the variety of voices, the better.

You’re currently filming the new Sky comedy Breeders. What’s that about?
Me and Martin Freeman play a married couple with two children. It’s written by Simon Blackwell [The Thick of It, Veep, Back] and it’s about the exhausting, frustrating reality of life with kids. It’s funny, clever and I get to have my own fringe. Martin’s brilliant to work with. You have to up your game next to him.

Daisy Haggard in Back to Life.
Daisy Haggard in Back to Life. Photograph: BBC/Two Brothers Pictures/Luke Varley

So you’re basically the new Benedict Cumberbatch?
I am Benedict Cumberbatch. Please don’t make that the headline.

You spent five years stealing scenes as Myra Licht in Episodes. How was that?
I basically pulled wibbly-wobbly faces, made silly noises and didn’t have to worry too much about learning lines. It was surreal to work with Matt LeBlanc. I used to be obsessed with Friends, so would just go red and giggle when we spoke.

Who are your comedy influences?
I grew up admiring Victoria Wood and used to watch Whose Line Is It Anyway with my dad. More recently, I’ve loved the work of Julia Davis, the first series of Transparent and a HBO show called High Maintenance.

Your father, director Piers Haggard, didn’t want you to become an actor. Why not?
I’m the youngest of six and he thought none of us were interested until I came out doing ridiculous dance routines to Whitney Houston. He encouraged me to write but thought acting was a tough profession. He wanted me to be a doctor but I got kicked out of science for drawing willies, so he relented. But he was very strict about it. He was once late for a play because he stopped to buy a notepad and pen so he could give feedback on my performance. If that doesn’t toughen you up, nothing will.

Do people ever recognise you as the voice of the Ministry of Magic lift in the Harry Potter films?
Gosh, no. I feel embarrassed about that. I went into a room and said a line. I didn’t go on set, never met anyone, but it’s my top hit on IMDb. I was in Doctor Who as well, but these things don’t mean anything to my children yet. I’m the voice of the mum on Hilda [Netflix children’s cartoon] and that’s the first time I’ve registered on my daughter’s radar.

What’s next for you?
A two-month holiday with my kids and my man. It’s been a wonderful, busy, stimulating year but now I need to hang out with my gang, watch Peppa Pig and be vomited on. It’s a glamorous life.

Back to Life continues at 10.35pm, Mondays, BBC One and the six-part series is available on BBC Three and iPlayer


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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