IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVEN MOFFAT
GETTING A LAUGH FROM THE PAIN OF DIVORCE
Steven talks to Tom Harris about the series, in an article that was first published on 12th February 1995, just after the broadcast of the last ever episode of Joking Apart.
There can be few more traumatic blows to a man’s self-confidence than to find his wife is leaving to live with her lover. When it happened to Steven Moffat, his way of coping was to turn it all into a TV comedy.
“Within a year of her leaving me, it had been sit-comised,” says the Paisley-based scriptwriter, with a grin that is only slightly wistful. What he calls “the worst experience of my life” may still hurt at times, but the success of Joking Apart has helped him get rid of the bitterness. The second series romped to a close last week, and Moffat is now developing ideas for a possible series three.
Joking Apart derives its cutting edge from distant memories of sexual jealousy, wounded self-esteem and revenge fantasies. Moffat’s way of dealing with it was to pick up each situation or fantasy and take it to the most extreme and ridiculous limit. The result was a bedroom farce for the 1990s, each episode prefaced by a stand-up routine performed in a nightclub by Mark, struggling to come to terms with losing Becky. The ensuing action invariably involves one character being forced to hide in a bathroom or kitchen, while another misinterprets a massively contrived situation.
“It’s not the story of a divorce, it’s the tall story of a divorce,” says Moffat. “What Mark does is the absolute worst things that I could have done in the same situation. Fortunately, I never did any of the things that Mark does.
“Farce has always been the expression of nightmare logic. It’s where every decision made is the wrong one, and where every bit of luck is bad. If I had really done what Mark did, and found out where my ex and my 'replacement' were living, what’s the worst thing that could have happened? I could have ended up under their bed, while they made love on top. So that’s what happened to Mark. Except that Mark was also videoed spying on them.”
Moffat accepts that people will assume Joking Apart is autobiographical, which is partly true. The main character, after all, is also a TV scriptwriter. But he is careful to avoid talking specifically about his ex-wife. “Her name’s Betty, and she’s a welder from Northampton,” was his flippant rejoinder to a persistent reporter at the press launch of the series.
"It’s been years since we’ve been in touch," he says now. "She knew at the time that Joking Apart was being made, and I think she was fairly uncomfortable at the prospect, but I haven’t spoken to her since."
As a dumped husband, he has not found Joking Apart entirely therapeutic.
"When I came to write the second series, when the whole thing was largely over with, I started having dreams about the break-up and it was all brought back to me.
"What has happened is that I’ve turned the worst experience of my life into something I enjoy. I enjoy the series and I’ve met a lot of friends through it, so some good came out of all the awfulness of my divorce. That’s the nearest to therapy it has got.”
Moffat, a former teacher, says he now has "the best bloody job in the world. People are fond of saying that working in show business isn’t glamorous and that writing comedy is a serious business. Bollocks!
"It’s not really like a proper job, although it is immensely tiring. In the period between 1987 and 1993, I worked solidly, non-stop. The only time I had off was for my divorce, and that wasn’t exactly restful."
Now, at the age of 33, life is good. Moffat works from his home, where he likes to sleep long and work late. When he has a script to write, he can still be sitting at his Apple Mac until three or four in the morning. But, just to remind him of the need to work to earn his crust, his computer’s screen-saver flashes the lyrical message "Work you lazy bastard!" at regular intervals.
"It doesn’t have any effect at all, actually," he observes casually. After the post-marriage trauma, he is enjoying life as a single man. "I went through this tremendous phase of microwaveable frozen dinners," he recalls with obvious enthusiasm. "I thought they were fantastic."
On the mantelpiece he keeps his BAFTA award, presented to Moffat as creator of Press Gang, the ITV show that was judged best children’s series in 1990. It ran for five years before the network pulled the plug. He has also scooped awards as one of the writing team on Dawn French’s Murder Most Horrid, and has been asked recently by her husband, Lenny Henry, to write something for him.
His work involves regular trips to London, but he has never been tempted to move south, claiming that the difference in mortgage costs more than outweighs what he spends on airfares. He has not time, however, for Scottish writers and politicians who exaggerate the differences between Scottish and English cultures.
"This idea that London is totally different, with totally different people living in it, is just bollocks. London has largely the same feel as Glasgow. People in Scotland and England speak the same language, read the same newspapers, watch the same television programmes, have the same culture.
"How the hell could independence for Scotland be a forward step? If an island this size can’t get on with itself, God help us."
He rejects any criticism of Joking Apart as an 'English' comedy, although it is unashamedly middle class. "If it had been filmed in Scotland with Scottish actors, it would be exactly the same. I wouldn’t have had to change a single line."
If the BBC approves a third series, will it mean more painful memories, or is he now completely laid-back about the whole experience?
"I’m thinking of using a dream sequence where Mark is driving his car in his pyjamas, laughing gleefully," he muses. "He’s driving to the hospital where Trevor (Becky’s lover) is recovering from a terrible accident which resulted in him losing his testicles."
(This article appeared in The Sunday Times on 12th February, 1995)