David Schwimmer: ‘Why my BBC Christmas drama about poverty should replace Doctor Who’

Sobering Christmas story

Schwimmer is speaking in his capacity as executive producer of LOVE, a BBC2 film which offers a sobering indictment of poverty in Britain and the scandal of families trapped in temporary accommodation – some 320,000 people are known to be homeless or in temporary housing according to figures last week.

The Christmas-set film tells the story of Colin, a middle-aged man, and his elderly mother Barbara, relocated from their previous housing, and a young couple, Dean and Emma, preparing to welcome a new child into their family.

Testimonies of families Written by Alexander Zeldin, Artist in Residence at the National Theatre in 2017, LOVE is based on the play of the same name which opened at the National Theatre in December 2016 in a co-production with Birmingham Rep.

Zeldin based his story on the testimonies of families living in limbo. It’s a bleak tale of inhumane benefit sanctions, hunger and the daily struggle for human dignity in a world where Fairy Liquid substitutes for shampoo – redeemed somewhat by the titular bonds of familial love. ‘

Repeat it in Doctor Who slot’ plea “They should totally repeat it on BBC1 on Christmas Day,” says Schwimmer to a suggestion that the turkey-choking, hour-long drama might fill the gap left by the absence of a Doctor Who Christmas special.

Schwimmer’s involvement was secured after he forged a friendship with kindred spirit Zeldin. Alongside his screen work, Schwimmer is co-founder of Lookinglass Theatre, a non-profit Chicago company which stages plays about race and America’s social challenges, which the actor often directs.

Mother-in-law tip off “My mother-in-law (Jennie Buckman, former head of acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London) saw Alex’s play Beyond Caring when it was at the Yard Theatre and said it was one of the best plays she’d ever seen,” Schwimmer, 52, explained. “I just cold-called his agent and said I’d love to see a script of the play because I thought the subject matter would resonate with people in the States.” Zeldin jumped on a plane to Chicago and set about adapting his story of temporary labour, (“or what you call zero hour contracts”, Schwimmer adds), to a new, racially-charged urban landscape. “We had a transformative experience, it was one of the best plays we’ve ever produced in 30 years,” enthused the actor.

Will & Grace role “A friendship emerged. Alex and I are very like-minded. We are both committed to a kind of story-telling that makes those who are marginalised in society more visible.”

Schwimmer, who has a guest role in the new series of Will & Grace and demonstrated his serious acting chops as Robert Kardashian in the The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, is on a break from talking about Friends reunions or Twitter goof-offs.

Universal appeal

Some may question what exactly the New York born actor and director, who made a series of short public service films addressing sexual harassment in the workplace after the Weinstein scandal, knows about welfare benefits and housing issues in Britain. But the struggles depicted in LOVE, shown as part of BBC2’s Performance:Live slot next month, are universal, said Schwimer, who will use his Hollywood muscle to get the film screened in the United States.

Homelessness responsibility

“We’re hoping that for people who watch LOVE on the telly around the Christmas season, that it’s a very personal experience for them,” he said. “If there’s anything to be done it’s the simple act of next time you’re passing a homeless person on the street, check your response. Think about your personal responsibility to seek solutions.”

Schwimmer, who made his West End debut in 2005 in Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s), will be back on the stage in London, thanks to his alliance with Zeldin. “I’m hoping Alex and I work in that capacity where he will direct me as an actor and we’ll be able to work at the National Theatre together. That’s very much on the cards, it’s just working out when that can be done.”

Cheap theatre tickets essential

However getting a broader range of audiences to see the work is essential for Schwimmer, who hopes the NT can replace Travelex’s £15 tickets guarantee which is ending. “The National already does a lot and when we did Beyond Caring I stipulated that a number of tickets were set aside at every performance for actual temporary workers, who normally didn’t ever see a play in their lives,” he said. “It was transforming and empowering for them to see their lives reflected back on stage.” “It’s doable but it takes a lot of work and energy and constant fundraising, donorship and sponsorship but it is all possible.”

Zeldin & Schwimmer are the new Friends

Schwimmer is clearly fired up by the passion of Oxford playwright Zeldin, an intense figure sitting beside him, who welcomes comparisons between LOVE and Loach’s similarly-themed I, Daniel Blake. Zeldin said: “Theatre as an art form sometimes need a kick up the arse because it can become quite bourgeois and boring. I’m not afraid of saying that and I’m not afraid of being political. Everything you see in LOVE – I’m convinced we got it right.”

Cathy Come Home comparison

Both are excited by the possibility of a TV audience of millions seeing LOVE, a work shot in 12 days on a tight budget, using the theatre actors who developed their roles through extensive rehearsal and improvisation. They would like it to have the impact of Loach’s groundbreaking Cathy Come Home. “To get more eyeballs on your story beyond a theatre audience that has to be able to afford to pay is tremendous. We’re honoured the BBC approached us and want more people to see it,” said Schwimmer. “I’m really keen to have David involved in every project I’m doing,” added Zeldin, whilst his new buddy affirmed: “I believe in Alex’s talent and vision. I told him that whatever I can do to help facilitate your vision, as a friend or in an official capacity as a producer, I’m on board.” Or I’ll be there for you, perhaps, as the song goes.

Performance Live: LOVE is on BBC2, Saturday December 8 at 10pm