Suburban sitcom Outnumbered could easily have flopped. Instead its child stars are up against Charlie Brooker for a comedy award



Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin's sitcom Outnumbered should have been a disaster. At least three-fifths of its humour depends on the improvisatory skills of a trio of child actors, one of whom was only five when the sitcom started two years ago. Little as contrary to sensible broadcasting had been tried on British television before. The safe money said it would flop.

But it didn't. Even though it was tucked away in BBC2's schedules after the Saturday watershed and was initially damned as insufficiently funny by some critics, the suburban-set comedy about a mum and dad losing a battle of wits with their three kids, has become a slow-burn success in the past two years. Its core demographic is a late-night audience after a hard day at the coalface of parenting seeing something very like their own experiences transformed into comedy.

"The terrible truth about Outnumbered," says Claire Skinner, who plays the mother Sue, "is that it shows that kids just run rings around their parents. The three children are on a seek-and-destroy mission and Hugh [Dennis] and I are their targets. We haven't got a chance. I think it's resonant for parents for that reason."

This week Outnumbered received five nominations for the British Comedy Awards. All three of the child actors – Tyger Drew-Honey, 13, Daniel Roche, nine, and Ramona Marquez, seven – were nominated as best comedy newcomers. At next week's ceremony, the boys will compete for the best male newcomer award against each other, but also against Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, 38, for his show, You Have Been Watching. "When the winner's announced, someone's going to cry," argues comedian David Schneider. "And it may well be Charlie Brooker."

As for Marquez, who plays the impossibly sweet Karen, she goes up against Rebekah Staton and Tanya Franks from an infinitely lewder sitcom about three thirtysomething women flatmates called Pulling. Skinner is also nominated as best comedy actress and the show is nominated as best comedy. All of which seems unfair on Dennis, who seems to alternate between being outnumbered by three screen children and outsworn by Frankie Boyle on Mock the Week.

Why has Outnumbered succeeded? "They say never work with children or animals," says Tyger, during a break from recording . "We've ignored the bit about children. That's one of the big reasons Outnumbered is a success – because the children bring spontaneity and innocence to it."

This is Hamilton and Jenkin's first sitcom collaboration since Drop the Dead Donkey ended in 1998. "In most sitcoms all the lines for children are written by adults," says Dennis. "So they are speaking the words of people 30 years older. And you really want kids to have their own voices." The idea was to get the children to come up with their own lines. "The younger kids are told the gist of the scene and they have to get that across in their own way," says Tyger. "And they go off in all kinds of weird directions. It's not quite the same for me. About 10 minutes before we film, they give me the page from the script. I'm not word-perfect, but that usually makes it more realistic."

As for the adults, they work from scripts. "We fit in with the children's schedules," says Skinner. "There's no choice. They are only allowed to work for 45 minutes and then they have to have a break or see their tutors. But during the filming, we riff off them. We're very much led by them."

On Outnumbered, while the children are away, the adults carry on acting. Jenkin and Hamilton, who direct Outnumbered, put strips of gaffer tape on their chests to which are taped little eyes representing the children. The adult actors are supposed to think of those eyes as their children. "We're often acting to thin air," says Skinner.

But not always. In one scene Pete carries his son out of a toy shop, with the virtuoso liar Ben clutching on to shelves and bawling: "Stranger! Stranger!" Dennis says: "Now Ben, stop that." "I'm not called Ben!" his son yells to passersby. In another, Karen asks her mum why suicide bombers think God told them to blow up planes. After all, she says, "God could do it much easilier than they could." As Hamilton says of Karen, "face of an angel, mind of a barrister".

But it is Tyger's Jake who proves the biggest intellectual threat to his parents. "I don't know what's going on in your tiny brain, Dad," he says, after winning one argument. Do you channel yourself into Jake? "Not really. I'm much more confident." Are your real parents like your telly ones? "No, my dad is 10 times more clued up than Pete and my mum is much more organised. She's very different from Sue." True enough: Tyger's real-life mum is former Penthouse editor Linzi Drew-Honey, whose 1993 memoir, Try Everything Once Except Incest and Morris Dancing, detailed her affairs and experiences as a stripper and porn star. Sue is rather less racy.

Last week, says Skinner, TV execs from Chicago sat in on the show to see how it could be retooled for US audiences. "I can't imagine it translating there to be honest," says Skinner. "It's all in Andy and Guy's writing."

alternate : przerzucać się (z czegoś na coś)

at the coalface : przy pracy, pracując nad czymś

barrister : adwokat

battle of wits : pojdynek na inteligencję

bawl : wydzierać się

clued up : zorientowany

clutch on to : kurczowo się czegoś chwytać

collaboration : współpraca

come up with : wymyślać, wpadać na (pomysł)

compete for : konkurować o  

exec : executive - producent

flop : klapa; okazać się klapą

gaffer tape : szeroka taśma samoprzylepna

gist : sens, istota, sedno

infinitely : nieskończenie

lewd : sprośny, lubieżny

racy : pikantny; pełen werwy

resonant : budzący oddźwięk

retool : adaptować

riff off : pożyczać od, podkradać coś

run rings around somebody : przewyższać kogoś (pod względem inteligencji, sprawności, szybkości, itp.)

spontaneity : spontaniczność

thin air : nicość

tuck away : chować

watershed : (w telewizji brytyjskiej) zazwyczaj godzina dziewiąta wieczorem, po której można emitować programy nieprzeznaczone dla dzieci

weird : dziwny

word-perfect : mający doskonałą pamięć

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