When it comes to casting a weepy dramatic series about a dying child, you wouldn’t think Sharon Horgan would be the obvious first choice as leading lady.
The actress and BAFTA-winning creator of darkly comic delights such as Bad Sisters, Catastrophe and Motherland is better known for near-the-knuckle humour than tearjerking drama.
But she’s a revelation in BBC1’s Best Interests, an emotional new four-parter about parents living through a nightmare.
Created by Jack Thorne, the writer of shows including National Treasure and Enola Holmes, it follows a couple asked to make an unbearable choice – whether to let their beloved but very sick daughter die.
Nicci and Andrew (Sharon and Michael Sheen) are the parents of 17-year-old Katie (Alison Oliver) and her sister Marnie (Niamh Moriarty), who’s 13.
Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen with Niamh Moriarty as daughter Marnie in Best Interests. Sharon is better known for near-the-knuckle humour than tearjerking drama, but her portrayal of Nicci, Marnie’s mum, is faultless
Marnie was born with the life-limiting condition congenital muscular dystrophy and doctors including consultant Samantha (Noma Dumezweni) believe allowing her to die would be in her best interests.
Her parents disagree, and their fight to save her exposes fault lines in their relationship and finds them on opposite sides of a bitter legal fight.
Sharon says she mined her own history to find the horror Nicci feels at the potential loss of her child.
At times it’s unbearably moving but it’s also very funny, very real and very human
Sharon’s daughter Sadhbh, 19, was diagnosed with meningitis as a toddler, giving her and her now ex-husband Jeremy Rainbird the terrifying experience of watching their baby fight for life in a Paediatric Intensive Care Unit [PICU].
‘In a much smaller way, I’d sort of been in Nicci’s position,’ says Sharon, 52, who also has a younger girl, Amer.
‘When my daughter was first taken into hospital my reaction was, “Whatever happens, save her life. I don’t care what you have to do. I don’t care if she loses limbs. Do whatever you have to do, just keep her alive.” I think that’s Nicci’s position and I could completely relate to it.’
Despite the grim subject matter, Jack was eager to cast Sharon as a signal to viewers that Best Interests wasn’t all doom and gloom. He says finding the humanity in Nicci and Andrew included showing them being able to laugh in desperate circumstances.
‘Casting Sharon was crucial,’ he says. ‘We wanted someone who wouldn’t think this is a misery story, who sees it as a human story.’
Marnie was born with the life-limiting condition congenital muscular dystrophy and doctors including consultant Samantha (Noma Dumezweni) believe allowing her to die would be in her best interests. Her parents disagree, and their fight to save her exposes fault lines in their relationship and finds them on opposite sides of a bitter legal fight
Sharon confirms that there were plenty of laughs during filming in locations including London and Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. The PICU scenes were filmed on a purpose-built set rather than in a hospital, to protect the real families whose children are unwell.
The actors were all really supportive of each other, and weirdly we laughed so much,’ she says.
‘When we were in the offices that surrounded the courtroom set we were on the floor laughing, trying to gee each other up. There were lots of hugs and stuff that made it easier.’
The weaving of humour and tragedy is what drew Michael Sheen to the role of Nicci’s husband. ‘It’s unbearably moving at times but it’s also very funny, very real and very human,’ he says.
Noma Dumezweni plays consultant Samantha in the four-part series
He says Andrew is a guy ‘who likes a drink, likes to have a little spliff [marijuana], a little dance. He’s able to let go of things momentarily and get some respite. Whereas Nicci finds it harder to do that.’
For Jack, Best Interests also highlights what he perceives as discrimination against the disabled by society in general, and by a health service that views their lives as less valuable. He wants this drama to ‘present the complexity of the issue around patients’ best interests’.
Unsurprisingly, Sharon found it an exhausting job, particularly after working for ten months on Bad Sisters, which won the BAFTA for Best Drama in May.
She was run down, and broke out in mouth ulcers and cold sores. And after filming such a heart-tugging story each day, she sought solace at home.
‘I went home at night and just accosted my daughters,’ she laughs. ‘I leaned into being a wreck, because I thought, “There’s just no way around this!”’
- Best Interests, Mon-Tue, 9pm, BBC1.