Youngsters run the show in Hat Trick's new, groundbreaking comedy.
Youngsters run the show in Hat Trick's new, groundbreaking comedy.

Perhaps because of the difficulties of working with youngsters, family-based sitcoms from The Cosby Showto 2 Point 4 Childrenhave tended to depict child characters in situations that don't chime with the reality of home life.

Outnumbered, a new Hat Trick comedy for BBC1, aims to rectify that by putting three children at the heart of events and to a large extent letting them run the show.

It's the brainchild of Drop the Dead Donkeycreators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin and is in part based on their own experience of bringing up families.

'We'd been talking about doing a comedy half-hour for some time and since we both have young families, that seemed a good place to start,' explains Jenkin who has twin girls. 'But we noticed this great dichotomy between the representations of parenting in sitcoms with the complete chaos of real life.

'You rarely get the feeling that children [in sitcoms] are real,' he continues. 'They tend to be one type of character - the smartarse who says adult things - and they are rooted to the spot, staring at the camera, because they've been told to stay where they can be lit. We attempted to do something that hadn't been tried before.'

In fact, Hamilton had already written a few scenes for his daughter, Isobel (who was seven at the time) in 2001 Hat Trick/BBC sitcom Bedtime. He recalls: 'Co-star Kevin McNally suggested I didn't show Isobel the script - just give her my thoughts. Isobel customised her lines and it did look very natural.'

Outnumberedis set in London suburbia where two middle-class parents engage in an everyday battle of wills with their children (two boys aged seven and 11 and a five-year-old girl) who in turn wrestle with nits, lying and going to school.

'We had to rein in the storylines to keep them wedded to real situations,' says Jenkin who co-wrote, directed and produced with Hamilton. 'The central idea is to show parents as incompetent as the rest of us.'

To capture this mayhem the duo proposed allowing the child actors to improvise their lines. Believing that a verbal or scripted pitch to the BBC wouldn't convey what they were trying to achieve, Hamilton and Jenkin developed the idea with Hat Trick co-founder Jimmy Mulville. They arranged for a 10-minute pilot, filmed at Jenkin's house last September and funded 50-50 by Hat Trick and the BBC, with Hugh Dennis ( Mock The Week) and Claire Skinner ( Sense and Sensibility) as the adult leads.

Says Jenkin: 'It ended up at 21 minutes but we had proof of concept - and Lucy (Lumsden, BBC controller, comedy commiss-ioning) greenlit six half-hours pretty much immediately.'

When it came to casting the child characters, the team deliberately steered clear of stage-school talent and undertook a lengthy audition process which involved game playing and improvisation. 'We wanted kids who would enjoy the filming process,' Jenkin declares.

The youngest child was spotted by Jenkin's partner at a birthday party. 'She had an interesting personality and was sure of herself without being precocious,' he says.

With performance regulations that require children under nine to work a maximum three hours a day in 45-minute chunks, production was never going to be straightforward.

'It was a bit like having Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to work with. Three hours - that's your limit - then you have to whip them away,' Jenkin quips.

Hamilton adds: 'We decided we'd try and create an atmosphere on set in which the children could relax and be themselves.'

Crew and equipment were kept to a minimum to avoid pressurising them, while DoP Martin Hawkins devised a subtle lighting plan. Hamilton explains: 'This enabled us to follow the action rather than having certain spots where people had to be at certain moments.'

There wasn't even a make-up artist. 'Being primped and prodded by a stranger before going on set is one of the things that generates tension,' says Hamilton.

However, it was useful to deploy two Digibetas to record the youngsters' performances, for which each take turned out to be different.

For Dennis, Skinner and Samantha Bond (who plays a sister-in-law) the odd shooting schedule took some getting used to. Even though their lines were entirely scripted, they often had to react to the part-scripted, part-improvised dialogue of their young co-stars.

'It was a real assault course for the actors,' says Jenkin. 'It was like being a real parent. You don't necessarily know what trouble the kids are going to throw up.'

Instead of a script, the youngsters were given a verbal outline of the issue facing their character for each scene and encouraged to express things in their own way.

Unusually the series airs at 10.30pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on consecutive weeks in the slots previously occupied by Bedtime. 'The aim is to make it an event,' says Jenkin.

Outnumberedhas been edited at comedy specialists Suite without a laughter track. 'It wouldn't have worked because there are many scenes with everyone talking over each other,' Jenkin says.

Hamilton hopes that the show captures family life but in a way not seen before. 'That will principally be down to the performance of the kids who are hiccuping, chewing hair and kicking balls around the kitchen,' he says. 'Things you tend not to see kids on TV doing.'

TX: Outnumbered
Producer: Hat Trick Productions
Broadcaster: BBC1
Written, directed and produced by: Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin
Commissioner: Lucy Lumsden, BBC controller, comedy commissioning
Executive producer, BBC: Jon Rolph
Director of photography: Martin Hawkins
Second camera operator: Pete Welch
Editor: Nigel Williams, Suite
Duration: 6 x 30 minutes
TX: 10.30pm, Tues 28, Wed 29, Thurs 30 August and Tues 4, Wed 5 and Thurs 6 September.