IN CONVERSATION WITH BOB SPIERS
From Seaside Special to Absolutely Fabulous by way of Fawlty Towers and The Comic Strip, the director of Joking Apart Bob Spiers changed the face of British television comedy. With the kind of CV that arguably will never be matched, Bob ensured that he left us with a stunning legacy of laughter before passing away in 2008 simply far too early at the age of 63.
One of Bob's final professional engagements was a commentary recording for the DVD of Joking Apart's second series in which he gave the viewer an insight into what set him in a class of his own.
But long before that, the journalist John Lyttle had also attempted to discover the secret of his success for an article that was originally published on 7th January 1993, the day of the broadcast of the first episode of Joking Apart.
Bob Spiers has spent the morning rehearsing with French and Saunders. ‘Let’s see, the next series….We’ve already done the pre-filming, now we’re working on the musical items and the stuff that’ll be done in front of the audience. The stuff in Jennifer’s flat, a two-hander about ladies who organise society parties. Hmm, and a pop video…. The band’s called Dickens’ Daughters. More? Huh, film parodies: Thelma and Louise, Misery and In Bed With French and Saunders. We’re busy, very busy.’
Bob Spiers is perennially busy, very busy. Not that you’ll find his name in the standard television reference works or singled out in reviews; but since the mid-eighties, he’s become the director of choice for personalities as diverse as The Comic Strip, Ruby Wax, Alexei Sayle and French and Saunders, together and separately: witness Dawn French’s Murder Most Horrid [Steven Moffat wrote for this series], not to mention the recent success of Jennifer Saunders’ Absolutely Fabulous, BBC2’s highest rating show of 1992.
Tonight, BBC2 transmits Spiers’ latest, ‘a carnal comedy’ entitled Joking Apart. It’s a consciously slick effort about divorce, jealousy and the methods of modern love; the ‘hero’ (Robert Bathurst) is the sort of stand-up comic you itch to knock down, professionally committed to transforming his private life into public spectacle. ‘It’s adult, sexy,' Spiers says. ‘I think it’s timely and dramatic as well as funny. Hopefully, it moves the sitcom thing on.’
He’s entitled to a deciding vote. Indeed, with the exception of one-time director-producer Paul Jackson (currently playing executive at the new London franchise-holder, Carlton), ‘friendly rival’ Geoff Posner, Victoria Wood’s long-term behind-the-camera collaborator, and certain influential performers, few people have done more to shape the public face of contemporary British television comedy.
Peruse the Spiers CV, close to being a Greatest Hits catalogue. You may not want to hum all the tunes – the man was partially responsible for Seaside Special – but you can’t deny his range: Dad’s Army, The Goodies, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers, Five Go Mad In Dorset, Didn’t You Kill My Brother?, Lazarus and Dingwall, the clinically disturbed Little Armadillos, Ben Elton’s stage hit Gasping….The list rolls on, relentless, implacable, impressive.
So - what’s the secret? Explain the career longevity, the genre-hopping, the ability to move from old-fashioned, sequin-strewn Light Entertainment (‘I did a lot of Cilla Black shows’) to today’s New Comic Establishment? Tell us, Bob, how you can slip from low slapstick to lower sexual innuendo, reversing into high weirdness, then up, up, up to the dizzy heights of true wit?
‘Hmm?’ The silence stretches out like a snake; a veritable boa constrictor. Fine. Next question. When you read a script, how do you know that it’s funny? ‘Argh. I haven’t a clue. No….you just know.’ Okay. Try this. What makes you different? Silence. Then, with utter certainty: ‘I do it on instinct. I don’t copy anyone or anything. I don’t watch other people’s comedies. I’m too busy….and too, oh, ah, self-conscious.’
Howard Schuman chuckles at the recounted quote. Spiers directed the writer’s four-part award-winning Upline, a rare directorial venture into not-so-straight drama, inexplicably unrepeated by Channel 4. ‘Bob, articulate? No. In an age of self-promotion, he’s the least able at selling himself. But a natural, a visionary? Yes. Definitely. He just doesn’t carry a neon sign exclaiming ‘Artist’.
‘Yet, when you look at The Comic Strip films, you can instantly identify his work. He’s incredibly visual. His camera moves. The editing, design, the pacing is impeccable. And he’s the first to go to the dark side, to the sinister, with hesitation. It’s very rare – a comedy sense with bite.’
One reason Spiers is ill at ease with words is because, to borrow a Hollywoodism, he ‘thinks with his eyes’, a trait associated with American, not British, directors (perhaps because even British visual media is so damn literary). Most television comedy is a mournful matter of idiot-simple composition – a master shot, a medium shot, a reaction shot, oops, here’s another joke. Not for Spiers. For him, the camera bobs, dips, weaves and tangos, refusing, as Spiers notes after many hesitations, ‘to be a passive observer. It should move, push, participate.’
What the unfettered lens increasingly observes is parody, pastiche and grotesque exaggeration, the preferred modes of modern comics, now too all-knowing and media-literate to be wholly original. Yet the spoofs have their own validity, from the heartless precision of Ruby Wax’s fake home video of a quarrelsome Irish family, to the demented liposuction sequence that adorned Episode 2 of Absolutely Fabulous: there lay Jennifer Saunders, speeded-up and reduced to nothing but a pair of collagen-enhanced child-bearing lips and two mad, staring eyes. Funny like a nightmare.
‘Of course, Bob would be drawn to that material,’ says Howard Schuman. ‘He has very strong political and moral ideas. He’s exactly the right person to dissect the mindless fashion set, whom he knows inside out. That’s his other great visual gift – extraordinary detail.’
Which is not to suggest that Spiers is, heaven forbid, auteur. ‘Think of the people I work with. It’s there in the scripts. I’m in safe hands. I simply have to bring it out.’ But it’s also true that his technique and temperament suit perfectly his writers and stars. (And suit the times, too. Today, even a mainstream success like Waiting For God will stop for a prickly plot about, say, imminent death. Sitcom is yielding to serio-com.) Well, I began by working in the fields they grew up watching and now enjoy satirising; the old sitcoms, the pop programmes. I mean, I’ve worked with Pan’s People. It all comes around again and I call upon it a lot. Remember when Dawn and Jennifer did the Abba take-off? My type of background was useful then….And the girls have their finger on the pulse.’
They certainly do. The bulk of Spiers’ best work has been with women, where the real action is. Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall may be content to recycle their Dangerous Brother personas for Bottom but, as Spiers retorts, ‘the girls take risks. Murder Most Horrid, for instance. Dawn did six characters in one run, finishing with one character on a Wednesday, playing another on Thursday. The emphasis is different. Ruby, Jennifer, Dawn and Victoria Wood – they look at something from every angle.’
‘Bob likes women,’ says Joanna Lumley, star of Absolutely Fabulous. ‘He likes women for what they are. Some directors don’t. There’s this amazing hangover of what women should be on screen. I was once told, ‘You mustn’t frown if you’re playing anger – it makes you look ugly.’ None of that with Bob. He has a way of looking dreamy and blue-eyed, but somehow egging you on. He has this flawless – how can I put this? – unmarked sense of humour. He knows how and when to let things run free.’
Still, attempt to draw Spiers on comedy artists or try to get him to analyse their gifts, and a stuttering silence reigns. He makes his involvement sound like directing traffic, not talent. ‘Oh, Bob knows what he’s doing,’ says Lumley. ‘He may not say anything, but he understands certain performers’ unreconstructed, not to say shambolic, ways of thinking. If he says something isn’t right, believe me, they listen.’
One final effort then. What is the secret of good comedy? Spiers gives the enquiry some thought. And some more. ‘Well, if you think a gag isn’t going to work, shoot it separately, so you can have a second go at making it work in the editing. If it still doesn’t work, at least it’s removable.’
Beginners take note.
(This article appeared in The Independent on 7th January 1993)