Freema Agyeman is in Dreamland. Literally and figuratively. The actor, who first found fame as Martha Jones in Doctor Who and has more recently starred in cult hit US series Sense8 and medical drama New Amsterdam, is back working in the UK. And her latest series, a sparky comedy set in Margate, reminds her of her youth.
Sure, she didn’t grow up in Margate. But she did grow up in a similar situation to the family at the heart of Dreamland – in which Agyeman stars alongside Lily Allen, Aimee-Ffion Edwards and Gabby Best as sisters struggling to be heard. The depiction of working-class women and familial relations on display were fully familiar.
Agyeman plays Trish – intense, driven and desperate that her third child with Spence (Ghosts star Kiell Smith-Bynoe) will be a girl. Her sister Clare is a local journalist, Leila (Edwards) is working the bins, while prodigal sister Mel (Allen, in her debut acting role) returns from Paris to rupture the chaotic happiness in Margate, with the sisters, Nan (Sheila Reid) and their mum (Frances Barber) and her girlfriend (Martina Laird).
“When I watched it, I immediately wanted to watch it again,” says Agyeman. “Which is always a good sign. I wanted to hang out with these people – they live, they breathe, their relationships and their lives feel real. I think the writing is sublime.”
Dreamland is written by showrunner Emma Jane Unsworth, Gabby Best, Sharma Walfall and Sarah Kendall, directed by Ellie Heydon and produced by Sharon Horgan’s Merman team.
“Hats off to team Merman who are so consistent in delivering authentic stories,” says Agyeman. “If you’re going to tell stories that are about women and female relationships, then it’s vital to have women’s voices. That’s not to say all of our experiences are the same, but there will be commonality – and that is going to lead to authenticity. There was also an incredibly collaborative culture on set.”
After years in the States, Freema Agyeman could not have chosen a better show to come home to.
“I was missing all things English,” she says. “When you take yourself out of context, you think: oh, I’m actually quite English in my cultural ways. I miss a good pub and I miss a good queue, I miss a good apology, a cup of tea, a roast. I want to do my things. So to come home and to be able to be closer to my people and my family and then get a job that is so English – it’s nice, I’m feeling nourished.
“Sometimes I’m excited by things because they’re so far away from my own life and existence and it’s nice to shape shift. But other times, it’s because you feel like you know the character already.”
Naming no names, Agyeman says Trish is an amalgam of three people she knows.
“I have one eye on whether I am diversifying enough, growing enough, learning enough. Am I challenging myself enough? But with this one, strangely what attracted me but also scared me was that it is so familiar to me. It’s the closest to my own real life and upbringing,” she says.
“I grew up on the council estate. In the script, it was written that people were outside in their front yards on chairs – and we had an old bed in our yard for years that all the kids would come and sit on and drink and chat and hang out. We cut holes in the back fences so we could get through to the neighbours’ houses more quickly. No one locked their doors. That’s absolutely true. You’d get a knock on the door and then it would just open. So if you were coming out of the bathroom without your towel you would have to leg it!
“So on one hand this was familiar and comforting. But I haven’t played a mum before. And I hadn’t done comedy before. So there was a lot to attract me in terms of growth, but also I felt like I was coming home.”
As for Trish – beneath her loud control-freakery is a proud woman keen to better herself.
“She’s so bolshy and seemingly tough on the outside, but there’s such vulnerability there, self doubt and bruising. She’s a fighter,” says Agyeman.
“What appealed to me as well was the discussion about social mobility and about regeneration versus gentrification. Dreamland is about community and the notion of belonging. A lot of these coastal towns are going through this kind of rebranding trajectory that brings socio-economic issues with it. I think it’s important that we’re having these discussions – and I like the way they’ve done it.
“They’re addressing all of these really important themes, but they’re keeping this comic element running through it. If we can laugh together… we can cry together, right? It’s a beautiful dance.”