The Duchess was one of those series that I really couldn’t switch off. Katherine Ryan, known for her hilarious satire, both produced and starred in the witty comedy, which explosively explores the concerns of single parenthood. In a similar vein to her stand up, The Duchess is unapologetically audacious and critical of social prejudices.
The semi-autobiographical comedy follows single mum Katherine and her 9-year-old daughter, Olive (Katy Byrne). As a character, Katherine is strong-minded, embodying a real and relatable “strong independent woman” sensibility that so often goes awry in film. Not only is she the owner of a successful pottery company, ‘Kiln’Em Softly’, she’s primarily responsibly for raising Olive, with little help from Olive’s father, Shep (Rory Keenan). A failed musician, he also falls short in the parental department.
The Duchess resonated with me as the daughter of a single mum; it felt authentic. Throughout the series, even from the first scene, the deep bond between Katherine and Olive is instantly recognisable, and growing up in household with only a mother and daughter myself, felt very relatable. Katherine puts Olive before everything, even before herself, and my mum is, and always has been, the same. Coming from a working class background, there were a whole array of challenges and judgemental people, but my mum always worked her hardest to ensure I had everything I needed and that I succeeded in anything I put myself up for. The support she has given me has been incredible, and goes to show that the stereotype that children from single parent households are held back or limited is completely false. Like Katherine and Olive, my mum and myself are best friends, and I’m beyond grateful for the upbringing I’ve had, even if it is still thought to be unconventional.
In an interview with her best friend and business partner, Bev (Michelle de Swarte), Katherine is attacked for not having a “proper family” in the way that Bev does. This scene stood out to me as something I have heard time and time again growing up. There’s still a commonplace narrative that to have a decent upbringing, you need to be part of a nuclear family, a narrative that is definitely untrue. Though Olive has her downs throughout, she is an all-round decent kid, highlighting the brilliant job her single mother has done, raising her with good values – something I also relate to.
Even when Ryan tackles the more negative side of Olive’s bildungsroman, she does it in a way that’s true to life. In an argument between the two, Katherine says “I don’t know when you started thinking you were the boss of this house”. Admittedly, I think I had that exact same argument with my mum when I was 9. When you grow up with this close relationship, sometimes it’s hard to let other people in, but growing up is challenging for anyone, so I don’t think this speaks badly of Olive as a character. Instead, it convincingly portrays the struggles of the process of maturity, and how there can be different obstacles to overcome when you have a different family network to the norm.
Katherine Ryan has created a wonderful TV series which is wholly relatable for those who have come from similar backgrounds. So often there are unnecessarily negative perceptions of single parents, so for many, this will be the kind of reinforcement they will need to feel validated, and it will undoubtedly be comforting that there is finally this positive depiction on screen.
The Duchess is available on Netflix.
Words by Courtney McLaven