Jill Halfpenny, Hermione Norris and Katherine Parkinson are among the stars of a new BBC series that centres on the lives of pregnant women who meet at an antenatal clinic.
To say the BBC's latest drama In The Club is a family affair is an understatement. Written by Fat Friends creator Kay Mellor, produced by her daughter Yvonne Francas, and with younger daughter, Emmerdale actress Gaynor Faye, working as a script editor, it's a true family project.
And it's not surprising that there's such a convivial atmosphere on set in Leeds, where the cast are huddled on plastic seats and nattering between takes, given the series centres around six pregnant women – three of whom are played by Hermione Norris, Katherine Parkinson and Jill Halfpenny – who meet at a local NHS parentcraft (antenatal) class and share their anxieties and excitement about their new arrivals.
Today, six newborn babies provide plenty of 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from the cast and crew, prompting Mellor, who has also directed the first two episodes, to reminisce about when her two were small.
The series is fertile ground for the award-winning writer, with one of the characters in particular, a teenage mum called Rosie, played by newcomer Hannah Midgley, having a special resonance.
"The fact I was 16 when I had Yvonne, and then I later had Gaynor ... it's an experience that forms you as a person, I think," says Mellor, who, at the time, hid her pregnancy from everyone for five months, apart from boyfriend Anthony, who's now her husband.
"I was at college and fearful of people finding out. It was the inevitability of it that's terrifying really, because it won't go away; the bump just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It wasn't like I was an experienced, savvy young girl, I was much the same as Rosie."
As well as teenage pregnancy, the new series also delves into the impact of pregnancy on couples' relationships, money troubles and domestic complications. Stars Halfpenny, Norris and Parkinson share their thoughts ...
- In The Club, BBC One next Tuesday, 9pm
The lesbian mum
Katherine Parkinson (37) makes no secret of the fact that she's been enjoying the catering bus on set – but then, she jokes, she has a good excuse. "I'm like, 'I'm having a pudding. I have to eat for two!'"
Pregnant in real life with her second child, the drama's been a perfect pre-amble to her baby's birth.
"I was very surprised to get pregnant," says the actress, who came to prominence in The IT Crowd and already has a daughter, Dora, with her actor husband Harry Peacock.
"There couldn't have been a nicer set to be pregnant on," she adds. "In my first pregnancy, I was in the West End having a breakdown on stage every night. In hindsight, it wasn't the most comfortable experience and I remember worrying that my baby would come out traumatised because I had been screaming, but it hasn't." While Parkinson had a great time during filming, her character Kim, who's in a long-term relationship with Susie, played by Tara Fitzgerald, is having a much bumpier ride.
"Susie had a child she conceived 15 years ago by artificial insemination," she explains. "Kim is now pregnant by the same man, Neil, and Susie thinks she was also artificially inseminated, but actually, Neil and Kim have feelings for each other – so you could say things are a little complicated."
The troubled mum
Jill Halfpenny takes on the role of stay-at-home mum Diane, who, along with husband Rick, played by Will Mellor, adopted two children after fertility problems meant they thought they'd never conceive. Now pregnant with their 'miracle baby', Diane is cautious and has genned up on the labour.
But Halfpenny (39), who won the second series of Strictly Come Dancing, admits she was less studious in her own approach, when she was pregnant with her son Harvey, five years ago.
"The only thing I've noticed through other friends who are expecting [is that] the hysteria surrounding what you can and can't eat has just, in my opinion, become ridiculous," she says.
"'Oh my God, I've had three cups of tea today, I was only supposed to have two!' I'm like, 'Just chill out, it's fine'. I think my mam probably thought I was uptight, but even now, I'm looking at people five years on and I'm going, 'Really? I think you'll be fine, it's one piece of sushi'."
But her character Diane won't have much chance to fret over eating raw fish.
"Diane and Rick are really excited but Rick, unbeknown to Diane, has been made unemployed," reveals Halfpenny.
Being around so many babies could make you broody, but Halfpenny's unfazed.
"You get five minutes with the babies on set and then they go back to their mams, and when you're trying to do a job it's just annoying, isn't it?" she says. "Because they're crying, or they're not doing the thing that they should do, you don't get the cute time you get as a real parent. They're all gorgeous. They're lovely, but they're unpredictable."
The older mum
Cold Feet star Hermione Norris plays older mum Roanna, a businesswoman who is embroiled in a bitter fallout with her husband after starting a relationship with a toyboy – and finding herself falling pregnant.
Add two teenage children from her previous marriage who are "appalled", and you have a disaster on your hands. Perfect, then, for a TV drama.
"She's just on the roller coaster," explains the 47-year-old star.
"Her marriage was unhappy and she has fallen in love with an artist, who is probably young enough to be her son."
Unlike Roanna, Norris enjoys a happy home life and looks back fondly on her pregnancies with her children, son Wilf and daughter Hero.
"Giving birth is the most extraordinary thing," she says. "That moment in your life is the ultimate. That is it.
"In that moment, there is more drama, more emotion, more awe and bewilderment than at any other time in your life."
Like her fellow cast members, Norris, who is married to screenwriter Simon Wheeler, was chuffed to be handed a fully formed female character to play, and is a "huge fan" of the "really impressive" Mellor and the way in which she has become an "ambassador for women in television".
"It's nice to be with someone that involved, because if she's written it, produced it, directed it and she's ok, then you know that's a good thing," she notes.
Four well-known mums on their most memorable moments at antenatal class
Christine Frampton (26) is the wife of the world championship boxing contender Carl Frampton (27) and they live in Lisburn. The couple are parents to four-year-old Carla and are expecting a second child in November. She says:
"As first-time parents Carl and I were definitely happy and keen to go to antenatal classes, particularly Carl as he wanted to be a hands-on dad.
He says he wouldn't have missed the free tea and biscuits, but, honestly, there were a few men who nodded off on a few occasions so that was funny to see that. I thought the classes were very good and it was useful to get a tour of the labour ward so we would know what to expect."
Chick-lit writer and playwright Emma Heatherington is the mother of three children, Jordyn (18), Jade (13) and Adam (12). She and her partner, singer/songwriter Jim McKee are expecting a baby in three months and live in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone. She says:
"I was only 19 when I went to antenatal classes at the South Tyrone Hospital with my eldest Jordyn and I went with a friend who was also pregnant.
Even though there's a good gap between this pregnancy and my last, I won't be going again as I would imagine that things have changed quite a bit since then.
There's probably a bit of competition among the mums for the best looking bump as I think there's more pressure now to look glamorous!"
UTV news presenter Sarah Clarke (34) and her husband Rory (35) live in Belfast, and are the parents of Daniel (3) and eight-month-old Emily. She says:
"We attended antenatal classes at the Royal Victoria Hospital. They were really useful and the staff were brilliant and very friendly.
We learnt all about the stages of labour and I remember thinking, 'Yep, I'm going into the final stage now'.
But one day when having a class we heard this terrific scream and everyone's mouths just dropped open as we all thought, 'Is that what we have to go through?'
We were told that this poor woman was so close to having her baby that she nearly had it in the lift, but we were glad it went well for her."
Former Miss Northern Ireland Judith Wilson (28), now Grey, lives in Enniskillen with her husband Gareth (35), and they are the parents of two-year-old son, Wilson. She says:
"I do often meet some of the other mums that were with us at our antenatal classes at the local Stay and Play club and it's nice to see how they and their children are doing.
We both enjoyed the classes; Gareth was well up for it and actually was the one who probably asked the most questions, but even though it was enjoyable, you could see at times that some people, particularly some men, were very embarrassed at what was being talked about."
Others to have laboured on screen ...
- Only Fools And Horses (1981-2003) – Wheeler-dealer Del Boy put his swagger aside to marvel at the arrival of his and wife Raquel's son Damien
- The Vicar Of Dibley (1994-2007) – Ditsy villager Alice made the nativity play especially special when she gave birth in the middle of it
- Friends (1994-2004) – Rachel (played by Jennifer Aniston) and on-off boyfriend Ross had been keeping everybody guessing for years; would they eventually end up together? The plot thickened when she gave birth to baby Emma, conceived after the pair had a one-night-stand
- Mad Men (2007-) – After giving birth to her third child, prim Betty slipped into a strange dream-like state and had visions of the baby confronting her dead parents in her kitchen with a bloody mop
- Downton Abbey (2010-) – The youngest Crawley daughter, Lady Sybil, suffered pre-eclampsia during her pregnancy and died soon after giving birth to a baby girl