Sunday, August 31, 2008

What's So Funny?

[Geoffrey Perkins, comedy writer and producer, died in a road accident on Friday]

The death of Geoffrey Perkins has left a huge gap in the world of British television. He was one of the greatest comedy producers of the last twenty years and his death on Friday in a road accident, at the age of just 55, is a blow that will be felt right across my industry. Geoffrey was the original producer of Father Ted, and later, as head of comedy for the BBC, was responsible for countless hits such as The Fast Show, Catherine Tate, My Family, Coupling and 2 Pints of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. Before that he worked in radio, where he produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s also credited with creating the hysterical ‘Mornington Crescent’ game in my favourite radio programme I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue; sometimes, when it comes on the car radio, I can laugh so much I have to pull over for fear of crashing.

Geoffrey’s death happened in the same week that both the BBC and ITV announced they were looking for more situation comedy – that is, narrative shows filmed live in front of a studio audience. A few years ago people thought sitcom had lost its sell-by date, overshadowed by the new shaky, single-camera style of such masterpieces as The Office. Studio comedy is notoriously difficult to get right, partly because of the presence of the audience sitting, arms crossed, demanding a great gag every twenty seconds or so. A good sitcom also needs two or three classic moments every episode – that’s a lot to ask. Audiences also have to grow to love the characters; perhaps that’s why some of our greatest sitcoms, like One Foot In The Grave, have needed two or three series to really take off with viewers. The pool of good British comedy producers is pretty shallow, so imagine how great the loss of a really fine talent will be.

Unlike Geoffrey, who sat immersed in comedy throughout his career, I’ve been a butterfly in television, flitting between drama, music, entertainment, arts programmes and documentaries. After 30 years of trying, I have no doubt that of all television, comedy is the hardest to nail. I don’t know whether I find everything funny, or don’t find new work funny enough but, for whatever reason, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in the genre.

I’ve been given plenty of opportunities: I produced a series for the BBC called A Kick Up The Eighties. It was the show that brought Rik Mayall to television as the weird “reporter” Kevin Turvey, dressed in a cheap C&A anorak we bought together in Glasgow; it also discovered Tracey Ullman. I spotted her in a studio theatre play and she auditioned for me, finally getting the job over another newcomer I’d seen in the Cambridge Footlights that year, Emma Thompson. Later I worked with Lenny Henry, David Jason, and even the great Stanley Baxter. I’ve loved every second of these experiences, but somehow I always felt a bit of an imposter. I’m probably not strong enough to cope with the pressure and the precision. Comedy is a pretty serious business. The audience, both at home and in the studio, can be utterly unforgiving. The difference between funny and dull is often a single word, a split second in timing, or a wrong camera angle. As the producer, you have to worry about every line, every nuance, and at the end of the day, when the script has been printed and the actors rehearsed, all you can do is just wait for that reassuring chuckle or, if you’re very lucky, a belly laugh.

To me Perkins, and comedy creators like him, are the gurus of my industry. The ability to predict what other people will find funny is one of the secret magic arts, and one that I’ve never managed to properly crack. I wish I had half that man’s talent.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bomb on a Train

The other day someone put two bombs on board the 9am National Express train from Newcastle to London.

The culprit was an elderly man. He climbed on board with a bulging Ikea carrier bag, and lumbered into the restaurant car to order breakfast. The bag was clearly heavy, and as he wedged it in the gap behind his seat he sighed, “God, those bombs weigh a ton”.

It’s not the sort of conversation you normally overhear in the restaurant car. Usually it’s “Would you like one poached egg or two, dear?”, “How’s the baby coming along?” or, “Do you think Keegan will ever manage to get another striker?”. Through the shocked chorus of cutlery dropping onto plates, Eunice, formidable ruler of the restaurant, didn’t blink an eyelid. “I’m sorry, Sir, what did you say?”

The bomb man looked about seventy, and was perfectly charming – a most unlikely terrorist. “Those bombs weigh a ton. I’ve got two of them in there”.

You and I would have run screaming towards the nearest communication cord. At Heathrow the whole place would be evacuated and the man shot by marksmen. News helicopters would be circling overhead. But Eunice, product of years of training and experience, simply said “I see, sir, and can I ask why?”

“They’re Second World War. I’ve just bought them and I’m going to the Imperial War Museum to have them checked out”. Eunice called her train manager. He too was impeccably polite. “I’m sorry, sir – you really should have had them checked out before you got on board. We’re going to have to ask you to leave.” And so, with wonderful British phlegm, the train discreetly made an unscheduled stop at Newark Northgate and the man got off, bombs dragging along the platform behind him.

I wonder what he did next. I suspect Newark’s taxi drivers would have been a bit nervous of the cargo. Perhaps he tried to hitch a lift down the A1 with an armoured truck. Maybe he’s still there. Sadly, unless the chap reads this blog, we shall never find out. But it certainly livened up the journey for Fahima, our redoubtable production manager, who was sitting in the restaurant car and witnessed the entire drama.

Much to our annoyance, Fahima and I are now spending a considerable part of our week on National Express. I do enjoy my 9am breakfasts with Eunice, and dinner on the way back with Gina and her wonderful chef Caroline. It beats the Ivy any day. But twice, sometime three times a week, is a little too much for the waistline. This is all because, sadly, the North East no longer has its own television studio.

You may have read that we are now in production with a new dating show called Loveland, starring Cilla Black. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have to shoot it at Elstree studios, because there’s nowhere suitable up here. So, however successful our production company Standing Stone becomes, we’re going to have to be satisfied with planning, producing and editing our shows locally, but spending large amounts on studios, sets, lighting and so on, down South. One North East please note: we’re on the verge of something big, but now need the resources to move forward.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Going for Gold

I nearly choked on my Weetabix. Having spent last week on holiday in Italy, the Olympics had pretty much passed me by. With Britain languishing below Ukraine in the medals tables, and Italian television not exactly concentrating on rowing or sailing, I’d assumed most of the British teams had got stuck at Terminal 5 and never made it to Beijing. Then, calmly having breakfast at home on Saturday morning, I heard the BBC commentator shout out, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” and watched our rowers draw level with the Australians. “Wherever you are, shout and scream at the television,” he ranted, “We can do it”. In London’s Earl’s Court, thousands of Aussies were hurling cans of Fosters at the screen. By the time our lads had crossed the line, I was dancing round the kitchen. The dogs started howling, convinced the Italian sun had gone to my head.

British victories happen so rarely, we can be forgiven a moment of euphoria. The BBC said that we hadn’t won as many medals in a single day for the last hundred years. That’s an even greater achievement than it sounds, because in the 1908 London Games virtually anyone who owned a pair of shorts could take part. In the Tug of War, Britain managed a clean sweep of gold, silver and bronze because we entered three separate police teams. The Americans, our only serious competitors, withdrew from the competition complaining that the Liverpool Police wore spikes on their boots for extra grip. The judges rejected the protest on the grounds that the boots were standard police issue.

It’s a shame the Tug of War has lost its Olympic status because it was up there with Polo and deer shooting as Britain’s best chance for glory. My grandfather was a tugger (I’m guessing that’s the word). I have a silver tankard at home commemorating his second prize in the 1890 Royal Tournament. He bequeathed his sporting ability to my Father who managed not only to play cricket for Surrey second XI, but was also a professional Football League referee. Indeed I have a newspaper photograph of Dad at Highbury in 1927 refereeing the first ever match in the world to be played with a white ball. He’s quoted in the Daily Mail saying he thought it would never catch on.

Poor Dad, I was such a disappointment to him. He tried hard to teach me how to hold a straight bat, but I’m afraid our sporting genes skipped a generation (my daughter played hockey for England). My Mum, who also came from a sporty family, complained there was no point washing my rugby kit – it came out of my rucksack in the evening as pristine as it had gone in. My parents knew that when I joined the school rowing team, it was just a motley group of rugby skivers (our boathouse down at Blaydon allowed us to get away from school for a whole afternoon). I remember the abject embarrassment on my parents’ faces when they came over to Cumbria to cheer us in the Talkin Tarn Regatta. Their exhortation “it’s not the winning but the taking part” must have taunted them as we coasted in half a mile behind the tailenders.

So, as Britain soared up to third in the medals table yesterday, I was rather hoping this national sporting resurgence wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan. Perhaps our success might rub off on the other teams I support? I’m writing this just as Newcastle United are running onto the pitch at Old Trafford for their first game of the new season. I’ve supported them all my life, and I’m still waiting for my first glimpse of silverware.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Case of the Disappearing Dates

One of the perils of the blind date is the disappearing partner. You’ve just ordered the meal and she receives an unexpected text. Her dog’s been run over, her flat is on fire, and her sister’s husband has just been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Don’t believe a word of it. You’re her date from hell and the text from her best friend is the prearranged escape route.

I’ve spent the last few days discovering the perils of dating. Not for myself, I should point out. Jo and I are very happily loved up at the moment; indeed, I’ve finally consolidated our relationship by proposing to her. This week she and I met scores of people rather less lucky in love, all of whom are so desperate to find Mr or Miss Right, they’ve responded to our adverts for participants in our new television dating show which is to be hosted by Cilla Black.

There were quite a few tragic tales: the single father whose girlfriend left him at the altar with their two-year-old; a 37 year old woman with sad eyes who has only ever had three boyfriends, all of whom cheated on her; a gorgeous lady who fell in love with a handsome Swede and moved to Stockholm to get married, only to find out that her new husband expected her to let him continue enjoying the corporal delights of his former girlfriends. It was sad to meet so many charming women with the relentless chiming of the mid-thirties clock in their ears. Most of them deserve love, and some of them may well find it through our show, called Loveland.

We heard some great stories of thwarted romance. A chap who, late for dinner in a restaurant where he was to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, screeched into the only available parking space to find himself in a furious row with a man already trying to reverse in. He arrived at the table to discover he’d punched his girlfriend’s father. Or the teenage girl who turned up for Sunday lunch at the home of her new boyfriend’s parents, to be greeted at the door by a completely naked father. Her boyfriend had forgot to mention that his parents were naturists.

A large pretty girl told us of a blind date in a Toby Carvery. The boy ordered just a salad then, when she started piling her plate at the buffet, he popped out to the loo and never came back. She had to telephone her father to rescue her and pay the bill. In fact, more than half the people we met had been victims of the disappearing loo trick. It normally happens shortly after the start of the date. So boys: order wine by the glass, just in case.

We had a glorious selection of people: “glamour” models (“I’ve only spent £20,000 on my body so far – I’m just 18”); a bald fat Russian (“She must speak Russian, and cook, and must be clever for our children”); and a whole cast of wannabe actresses seduced by the chance of getting on the telly (“I was at the Sylvia Young stage school – but I really do want a date, honest”).

As we listened to the stories, I felt relieved that I no longer have to take part in courtship rituals. Once, on a candlelit date with Jo, a young admirer at the next table slipped her a note (“Don’t want to interrupt your meal with your dad, but are you free later?”). Thankfully, she said yes to my proposal, so a large engagement ring now defiantly fends off all comers. And the increasingly big bump in her tummy helps too.