The success of the BBC TV comedy series Outnumbered came as no surprise to those of us who had been watching it since the first episode aired in August 2007. From the outset it was clear that this was something rather different. Although the show’s evening slot meant that it aired to a mainly adult audience, the stars of the sitcom were, undeniably, the three children played by Tyger Drew-Honey, Daniel Roche and Ramona Marquez.
While most of the attention focused on the two younger children, partly due to the eccentric characters they played, the rest of the cast were uniformly strong in their relatively straight roles. One of the most difficult parts, in many ways, was that of the eldest child, Jake, played by Tyger Drew-Honey. Jake occupied a kind of no man’s land, alienated both from the tedious, mundane concerns of his parents, and from the chaotic irrelevancies that occupied the butterfly minds of his younger siblings. Although able to understand both adults and children, he displayed no inclination to act as an interpreter for two generations between whom he appeared to feel trapped. In fact, his frequent annoyance and frustration with the rest of the family was almost palpable. Tyger Drew-Honey depicted Jake with good balance: the teenage sullenness was tempered with a restraint that reassured the viewer that his sulking was just the normal disaffectation of youth - that Jake was, at heart, a good kid.
However, the nuances of Tyger’s performances, and those of co-star Claire Skinner who played his scatty mother, Sue, and Hugh Dennis who played stressed father, Pete, were lost on some viewers. The two, rather bonkers, younger children captured the bulk of the attention.
It was rumoured from the outset that the young cast members’ performances were improvised and this possibility was widely discussed in the media. Oddly, the extent to which improvisation was involved seemed to vary depending upon whom one asked, and during which season of the show. It remained the subject of much speculation and argument.
Although the question had been broached many times before, it was one that we could not resist revisiting when we visited Tyger at the Surrey home where he lives with his mother.
“Yes, there is some sort of ambiguity to the level of improvisation in Outnumbered because some people think it’s totally improvised. Perhaps eighty per cent of it is actually scripted - although quite loosely scripted, because you can change the words a bit and stuff. For the other twenty per cent of it they’ll just leave the camera rolling for maybe 40 minutes and say, ‘Right, improvise,’ and the directors will dip in and out with suggestions and stuff like that. Basically, yeah, there are a lot of improvised scenes.”
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