Alison Bell on Australia’s new witty “mum-splaining” satire: The Letdown

Alison Bell playing Audrey in ABC TV’s The Letdown

The seven-part comedy series, The Letdown, for ABC in Australia and Netflix internationally, was produced with funding support from Screen Australia in association with Create NSW. Ahead of its release on ABC on Wednesday 25 October at 9.35pm, we spoke with the series co-writer, actor and producer Alison Bell about the series.

Are you determined not to be defined by motherhood?

Singularly. Yes. But I’m very happy to be a mum. I guess I just try to maintain all the other things I am as well.

The Letdown was one of six Comedy Showroom pilots which aired last year on ABC as part of a joint initiative with Screen Australia. Did you ever think it would be picked up for a series and how did you take it from a pilot to full season?

I hoped. Didn’t expect, just blindly hoped we might get the chance to explore the characters and the ideas in the pilot further.

Both you and Sarah are co-creators and writers. Can you tell us how  you writer together, what’s your process?

Our process varied. We were sometimes in the same room writing, sometimes in different countries, (a lot of skyping!). Create NSW sponsored some time together by giving us a glorious office [at Charlie’s] in the home of Australians in Film, in LA, where Sarah lives and me and my family happily visit.

That time was, I think, the most efficient, productive time of the writing process. We were together everyday, writing, talking… mostly talking. And that’s how all of our ideas are born, telling each other stories of our own lives, (or the lives of family/friends – no one’s safe), often sharing anecdotes with the objective of making the other one laugh, and from these stories our characters and scripts are made. But in practical terms we tried doing a draft each of an epsisode, and then handing it over to the other for the next pass, and back and forth it would go. We ultimately settled on a more organic process. We’d work on the plot and structure of an episode together, then Sarah would do the first pass of a scene or storyline she was more connected to, I’d do likewise, then we’d swap and add/edit. It was a very collaborative process.

Did the fact that you also star in the series affect the writing process?

When we started writing I wasn’t Audrey in my mind. I thought I’d likely play someone in the show, but wasn’t sure who. So initially me acting in it had no bearing on the writing. But after it was decided I’d play the role, after we shot the pilot and started working on the series proper – probably. I tried to put that out of my head and just write the story, but occasionally that was hard, (read: approaching sex scenes. Ha!)

In this way it was great writing with Sarah because she’d push the character in directions I might not have.  Indeed that’s the joy of writing in a team, bringing different points of view to a project. I felt that benefitted the writing of Audrey greatly. Because she’s not me, nor is she Sarah, she’s a bit of us both, and which made her ultimately someone fictional.

The series also includes a diverse representation on mothers. Can you tell us how you chose the women you did and how you researched them?

We were pretty strategic about the characters. We knew that comedy and drama would come from contrast. So we went about creating a disparate group. We started with ‘types’ but were very eager to push beyond two dimensionality and give each woman some complexity, something surprising. We created them by drawing on people we knew, or qualities we were familiar with. We also did loads of research about mothers/motherhood. We read (too) many articles/blogs/books/stats on motherhood.  So these characters were born of empirical and experiential sources both.

Including you, The Let Down stars some well known Australian actors like, Patrick Brammall, Lucy Durack and Noni Hazlehurst. Did you have any of them in mind while writing the series?

Kind of. A few friends we wrote into the show and hoped they’d be available. Patrick, Leon Ford, Sacha Horler, Sarah Peirse. Others we didn’t dream would say yes, (Noni!). And there were auditions for the rest for the roles. We certainly tried to get as many of our friends as possible in for the auditions! So we ended up with a sensational bunch of people involved.

There are some very clever, hilarious and quite poignant moments in the series. Did you set out to achieve this balance of comedy and sentiment from the outset? And how did you test your writing?

Our intention was always to write truthfully, but to give it a comic edge. And the subject matter lends itself to drama and comedy both. I don’t really think we’d get close to presenting the truth without serving both. We tested our writing out on each other, really. And I did a lot of joke testing on my incredibly obliging partner, John Leary. Who is an enormously funny man, and who’s comic sensibility (and honest yet suitably sensitive responses) I trust.

The series will screen on both ABC’s iview and Netflix international. Can you share with us how that distribution deal came about?

Our producers, both Giant Dwarf and the ABC took the show to Netflix International.  The pilot episode proved a very useful pitching tool. And thankfully the Netflix executives saw potential in what we were attempting to do and could see care of the pilot, the style and tone in which we wanted to do it.

What’s next for you?

Back on the stage. Right now I’m rehearsing Three Sisters for the Sydney Theatre Company, which will be on at the Sydney Opera House in November/December.

Catch the first episode of The Letdown on ABC on 25 October at 9.35pm. Netflix will stream the series internationally outside of Australia and in Australia following its premiere season on ABC.

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