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Kate O’Riordan on “Smother”, Writing and the Power of Irish Women

Smother was intended to be a show about stepmothers, but then the series, aired by Irish broadcaster RTE, took a completely new turn, explains Irish writer Kate O’Riordan who is behind the show. The novelist, who started in television by adapting “Involved”, her first book, into an ITV series, had several TV credits before Smother, the most well-known and successful internationally probably being Mr Selfridge with Jeremy Piven in the lead. Smother is an Irish whodunit with a focus on motherhood and family psychology, as well as on who killed the patriarch Denis. We talked to the author from her kitchen in Twickenham, which she described as the home of rugby in the UK.


Aside from Smother and you are behind many other TV series – among them are the highly popular Mr. Selfridge of which you are the showrunner and the main writer. But this show is very different – it is a whodunit. What are the challenges of making a show like this?

Mr Selfridge is deceptively easy. To do this kind of warm Sunday show with a huge cast looks so easy as it does not have a lot of plot, but keeping that tone was very difficult at times. It was hugely successful and sold to 200 countries or something. I really have got to the point where I have to sit down and watch it all again because I think I could watch it with joy now. Smother is a very tough hybrid. It is a mix of family saga and introducing a modern Ireland to a lot of people who have Irish roots and still think that everybody lives in white-washed cottages with thatched roofs, it is representative of a very modern Ireland, but we had to keep the thriller element going the whole way through. They were two shows that could not be more different. But I did not find it difficult with either of them.

It’s also a family drama. Denis (Stuart Graham) reveals that he is getting a divorce from his wife Val (Dervla Kirwan) on her 50th birthday and then all hell breaks loose. How did you get the idea for the show and starting it with this catastrophic birthday party?

We always had a birthday party. But originally, we had a different idea. I think it is in the States, that they refer to a stepmother as a ‘smother’, and we were thinking about doing a show about women who were all stepmothers. But we decided to keep the mother and the matriarch theme right through the episodes because we thought that it could confine us story-wise if we did that. Plus, we did not have the thriller element at the very beginning and that sort of took over really.

In Ireland, it was like who shot JR; everybody was talking about who killed Denis. And I thought that that never really was our big idea. It was about a controlling, debonair man and a very strong, flawed female character and how a state of a marriage, who had suited one another, but then the thriller thing took on a whole new dimension.


There is a lot of focus on the female characters – Val and her three daughters in particular – Jenny (Niamh Walsh), Anna (Gemma-Leah Devereux) and Grace (Seána Kerslake). Do you like writing shows with a focus on women?

Yes, I do. I really do. We have not had a fair crack of the whip really over the years, and I know that we are more than making up for it now. I write novels too, and I always have a very strong female protagonist. I never like writing women as victims or that everything bad is being done to them and they really are good. I like to look at women as flawed themselves and sometimes they are victims of circumstances but they do not always choose the perfect or most elegant way of dealing with it or getting out of things. 

We do not want to reveal the end. But it is a show that celebrates motherhood in different ways. How did being a mother influence you while writing the show?

Not in the least (laughs). Although, my kids are grown up now and they would probably look at it and go: ‘My God, mom, there is a bit of that in you for sure.’ I think all mothers can be quite controlling and very protective of their families so that probably influenced me but apart from that, I am always just thinking about the story. What would I like to watch? 

How important was it for you to go home to Ireland and create this show?

It is very important for me to go to Ireland. I live in London, but my mother lives in Ireland still and I am married to an Irish man from the same town and we have been together since Jesus was a boy. So I go back quite a lot and I will be there next week. COVID has obviously interfered hugely with things and my sister, who lives in Paris, and I try to have somebody there every month because she is not as mobile as she was.

Do you think there is anything particular about Irish women that you wanted to portray?

Yes! There is! Honestly, it would be their sense of humor and their earthiness. They are down to earth and they are cutting through the bullshit. I think they are very good at that. A lot of my friends are Irish, and they just know if there is something veneer about a façade and sometimes you just cut the legs from it. I think Irish women are really good at that and they might phrase it as a compliment but the person knows exactly that they are pulling them up on something.

You have written a season two of Smother. What can we expect? Who are the returning characters?

Most of the main characters will return. We are actually on series three now. It will start in February. So series one already feels so distant.

You also developed your 2016 novel “Penance” into a series. What else will you be working on in the near future?

We did Penance for Channel 5 in the UK and we did a three-part and it aired the year before last, so now I am developing other stuff with ITV, and at some point, I would like to get back into a book.

Do you feel you have had any particular challenges because you are a woman in the business?

Yes, there is no question. You would like to think that things are getting better, but I still see with the commissioners in the UK certainly and I am sure in Ireland as well and you see it at seminars, that it is the male voices still that is the most heard in the room – unless you are super successful as a woman. The male voices are still the ones most listened to and they are still the loudest. I have just come out of a writing room, where we had a handful of men but mostly women and it was for three weeks straight and I noticed that I still do it and I noticed that all the women do it; as soon as a man opened his voice to speak, even if we were in the middle of something, we were shut down. The men actually noticed that themselves, which would not have happened five years ago. But they would then say: ‘I am sorry I just realized that I am talking over you.’ But they continue talking anyway, so I don’t think things have changed that much.

You began your professional life with West Cork Travel, in your native Bantry, before moving to London and becoming an airline sales manager. How did you find your way into becoming a professional writer?

I was actually also in Los Angeles a year where I worked in the Irish travel business. I went from Cork to Los Angeles. It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to write. I never thought about TV, but I did think about theater and I did have a few shows done on stage. Just fringe shows. When I came back we went to Canada but we could not get work permits so we ended up by default in a way back in London and then just ended up staying there. I was always writing short stories and sending them off and some would get published and some would not. Then, when my son was born, he regularly had asleep every day at two o’clock, which my daughter never obliged after him. That was it. I wrote the first novel in the two hours that he slept and then late at night and on weekends.

You made your debut in 1995 as a novelist with “Involved”. Now you have written six novels. How did you like the change from writing novels to the collaborative art of writing a TV series?

It is very lonely writing a novel and there are times when it is a good place to park yourself and meander and heal your wounds like if you have lost someone close to you. But it does take a very long time. It is very intense. There is just you. You could be writing fresh air for all you know. You have no idea. There is no feedback. But you write a script and within a week, you have got far more notes than you would ever hope to have. But at least it is communication. At least it is an opinion and you are not just writing into the void. So I think I am actually starting to prefer writing scripts to be honest with you. I like the company of it.

How did you transition?

I was invited to a course by ITV, which is one of the big channels in the UK, to see if I would like it and because I always found the dialogue in writing novels one of the easiest tasks, I kind of wrote like I speak, so it probably sounds quite natural while you are reading it. So I just found that the medium of script just worked for me.