‘We spent a lot of time in terrible pain’: Sharon Horgan on making new drama Best Interests

BBC series, which also stars Dublin actor Niamh Moriarty, dances between comedy and tragedy in a remarkable way

If Best Interests, a drama about a mother who takes the British National Health Service to court after doctors decide to allow her teenage daughter to die, feels too harrowing to countenance, you’re not alone: even the cast can’t bring themselves to watch it. “It was hard enough doing it on the day,” Sharon Horgan says of playing Nicci, the mother in question. Michael Sheen, who costars as her husband, Andrew – a man devastated by his daughter’s illness but unwilling to back his wife’s appeal – is also avoiding it. “I’m more nervous than usual,” he admits. “I know it’s going to be a difficult watch.”

That’s an understatement. Best Interests begins with Nicci and Andrew on a train, giddily happy, slightly frisky and, as we soon realise, uncharacteristically carefree. Over the next four hours we see their relationship falter under the pressure of caring for their younger daughter, Marnie (the young Dublin actor Niamh Moriarty), who has muscular dystrophy, as consultants tell them her condition has progressed beyond all medical intervention – something that leads Nicci to mount a headline-grabbing, life-upending legal challenge.

It’s little wonder Horgan had doubts about taking the role in the first place. “I was really nervous about how much this was going to f**k me up,” she says. It ended up being as crushing as she feared. “We spent a lot of time in terrible pain. You have to go to some really awful places to get yourself into that mindset and stay there. Sometimes you come home and go, ‘What kind of a weird job is this?’”

Yet – and this is the caveat that makes the show not simply a gruelling experience but a life-affirming and thoroughly absorbing one – Best Interests is also very funny. There is droll banter about crisps in waiting rooms, there are silly jokes about knickers and, after the unthinkable finally happens, there is daft familial teasing. “People will be put through the wringer,” Horgan says. “But we want this to feel like a real family, and in real families – even when they are in the worst possible situation – people laugh.”


That said, desolation is never far away: at one point, Andrew is reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole at Marnie’s bedside when an inadvertently pertinent passage prompts a flood of tears. At moments such as these, the show dances between comedy and tragedy in a remarkable way. Thankfully, it is not quite the slapstick affair it could have been. “I remember doing a very stupid dance at one point. I don’t know if that’s still in,” Sheen says tentatively. I tell him it’s not ringing any bells. “That probably means it’s not there, so that’s good!”

Instead we have Sheen’s Andrew as a slouchy, goofy beta male, who enjoys 1990s indie music and the odd spliff, and is an expert teller of comfortingly lame dad jokes. (Such is the casual majesty of Sheen’s performance that he has already won the best-actor award at the French TV festival Series Mania.) Horgan is equally brilliant as Nicci, a weary but awe-inspiringly on-it woman suffused with the actor’s trademark wincingly honest wit. While Sheen is a garlanded dramatic actor who was well established in theatre before becoming film-star famous in the 2000s for his exceptional impersonations (Tony Blair, David Frost, Brian Clough, Kenneth Williams), Horgan is still best known for her pioneering TV comedy. From the gritty sitcom Pulling to the dramedy Catastrophe and the recent hit Bad Sisters, she is now a giant of the genre; as a serious actor, however, her career is only just taking off. “If you’re known for comedy, people don’t generally throw a lot of dramas at you,” she says.

In 2021 she was a revelation in the pandemic drama Together, written by her Pulling cocreator Dennis Kelly, yet Horgan feels Nicci is her “most dramatically led role” – another reason she’s not keen to watch it back. “I just don’t want to get all hypercritical on myself. I did it – there’s nothing I can do about it now!”

Horgan says she has always wanted to do comedy and drama simultaneously, and is happy the genre binaries are melting away. “Back in the day I used to do a lot more sitcom-style shows, and now it blends a lot: a lot of dramas are really funny and a lot of comedies ... aren’t,” she says, dissolving into laughter at her damning critique of the current comedy landscape. “What I mean is, some of my favourite things, like The Bear, there’s not many laughs in it.”

I speak to Horgan and Sheen separately over Zoom – the former perched on her bed, the latter bearded and avuncular in a tartan shirt, sitting in his office in Margam Park near his hometown of Port Talbot, in Wales, where he’s about to direct the BBC drama The Way. (So idyllic are his surroundings that he pauses to show me two gambolling baby deer from his window.) They may be miles apart, but the pair are very much on the same page when it comes to Best Interests. Instead of meticulously researching the kind of media-circus court cases that inspired the drama, they opted to come to the action unschooled, as they imagine Nicci and Andrew would have been. And while both were left awed by the parents with disabled children they met – “I just don’t know how I would have the strength in that situation,” Horgan says – they ended up drawing primarily on their own personal experiences.

Sheen found himself recalling his own family history while thinking about the cosmic horror of losing a child. “My grandmother’s son – my uncle – died of cancer while she was still alive. I always remember her saying a mother should not have to go to her child’s funeral. That just shouldn’t happen.” He was also reckoning with anxieties of his own. During the filming of the show, Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg was pregnant with their second child and the due date was fast approaching. Then the pregnancy turned out to be “not completely straightforward”, Sheen says. “There were some fears about our unborn baby, and if there are any kinds of complications or worries, that really weighs on you.” The stress filtered into his performance, especially when it came to the heartbreaking flashback scenes in which a six-month-old Marnie’s bewildered parents receive her diagnosis.

For Horgan, Nicci’s story was incredibly close to home. “My kid had meningitis when she was young,” she says. (Horgan has two teenage daughters with her ex-husband, the businessman Jeremy Rainbird.) “While we thought we might lose her – as I was watching them trying to find a vein and get some antibiotics into her – I remember thinking, I don’t care what happens – like, take off her limbs, whatever you need to do – just keep her alive.”

In Best Interests the story of Nicci, Andrew and Marnie (plus elder daughter Katie, played with mild insolence by Conversations With Friends’ Alison Oliver) doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In recent years its writer, Jack Thorne – one of the most respected figures in British TV – has dedicated himself to making programmes about people with disabilities, partly because of his own struggles: he suffered from a debilitating long-term illness in his 20s, and was recently diagnosed with autism. In 2021 he made Help, which starred Jodie Comer as a carer looking after a man with early-onset Alzheimer’s (Stephen Graham) in the pandemic, and last year he created Then Barbara Met Alan, a one-off drama about the founders of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network, a protest group in Britain fighting for disabled people’s rights.

According to Sheen and Horgan, Thorne’s advocacy for disabled people permeated the entire shoot. The cast was populated by actors with disabilities: Moriarty, who has a form of cerebral palsy called spastic diplegia, is joined by Lenny Rush, the Bafta-winning breakout star of Am I Being Unreasonable? who has dwarfism, and Mat Fraser, an actor and activist with thalidomide-induced phocomelia. Behind the scenes, things were just as inclusive. “Our set photographer was hearing-impaired, the person shadowing our director was a wheelchair user – there was an enormous amount of diversity,” says Horgan. “It just felt like this is the world we live in, and unfortunately TV and film doesn’t usually represent that.” There was an attitude of presumed equality. Sheen remembers coming to do a scene and “in the script there was no mention of a physical disability and then the actor who did it had a physical disability and it was not a thing. That was so refreshing.”

The show wears its politics lightly, though. Even the Christian pressure group Nicci turns to in desperation is portrayed with relative ambivalence – after all, says Sheen, “you don’t want to wink at the audience about how you feel about the characters”. Thorne is too clever a writer for obvious didacticism, and while you might come away feeling conflicted – or even disgusted – by the legal process that has lawyers brutally picking holes in the parents and consultants in court, it’s hard to envisage what could replace it.

What you will be invariably left with, however, is a sense of the existential struggle those with disabled children face in a society unwilling to accommodate them. Sheen remembers Thorne talking about the attitude towards disabled people in the pandemic – “that somehow people with disabilities were slightly more dispensable and anyone dying through Covid who had disabilities, it wasn’t as big a deal as people who didn’t have them”. For Horgan, playing Nicci alerted her to a system that “sees disabled life as less important. Everything she gets for Marnie is a struggle, whether it’s equipment or a wheelchair or education. Her life is battling.”

It’s a sad, outrageous truth, which this excellent drama unflinchingly captures. Yet the show is also keen to emphasise that this is just one element of life with a disabled child. Despite its tragic ending, the real beauty – and, for me, lasting impression – of Best Interests is the way it evokes the overwhelming joy that comes with parenting any child, whatever the difficulties. The worst of times, yes – but also the best. – Guardian

Best Interests is on BBC One at 9pm on Monday, June 12th