IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVEN MOFFAT (part 4)
In the penultimate part of our serialised interview with thewriter of Joking Apart, Steven talks about the third series that never was, the cast, and the possible return of the show!
JOKING APART.CO.UK: Were you ever led to believe you would get a third series?
STEVEN MOFFAT: I think at some point it was regarded as inevitable, especially after the Montreux thing, and then it just didn’t happen. In fact, I think the last thing we heard from them was, ‘We’ll be ‘phoning you very shortly about the third series’, and then it just went very quiet. It was like being dumped really.
JA: Kind of ironic!
SM: And I don’t know how well we would have survived into the third series anyway. I think the story was done, really. I think there’s an argument that the story was done by episode five of the first series, but that’s a separate issue.
JA: Did you ever get as far as thinking about plots for the third series, because presumably, ending series two as you did, you must have had an idea where you were going?
SM: I didn’t much, no, I have to be honest. And really you end series….You worry about the ending and you worry about sorting it out when you arrive on the next one. You do. You can’t justify what you do at the end of an episode because it will be really good when you see it again; you have to make the ending work for itself. So to this day, I’ll end a series in whatever form and worry about what’s going to happen, later…..So I didn’t have much of a notion, no. And I’m not altogether sure it wouldn’t have just started spinning its wheels a bit. There was no particular reason for those four characters to keep hanging out with each other. Mark wasn’t that enamoured of Robert and Tracy; Mark and Becky were divorced; Trevor was just on the periphery, being the new bloke who wasn’t comfortable with anyone….And I’m not altogether sure in what pub they were all ever going to meet! One of the difficulties writing that show was working out: ‘And how do they all end up in each other’s arms again, this week?’ when there didn’t seem to be much reason. They’d have a much easier time of it if they just didn’t all meet.
JA: Did you ever envisage Mark & Becky getting back together?
SM: When I was writing it, I certainly didn’t. That was why, at the beginning, I always used to start the show with, “my wife left me”, to make it a foregone conclusion there isn’t going to be a return….This is how it ends….So I didn’t think that was going to happen. But having said that, if I’d written another series, I’m not sure where else we could have gone. I think you’d have to start doing something like that – and it would have been slightly false – but what other movement is there left for you? It’s like when they brought back The Office for those Christmas specials. I just knew it was going to have a happy ending because they had already done the sad one. You’ve got no choice. You’ve done the sad ending, what else have you got to do? You can’t blow up the world, you can’t have aliens invade; you are going have the happy ending.
JA: Did you give working titles to the episodes? Press Gang & Coupling both have individual titles but with Joking Apart you can only ever refer to it as, say, episode three of the first series.
SM: Yes, it’s annoying, isn’t it? No, I never had any working titles for them at all and it was deeply, deeply difficult. The real reason you have titles for episodes is nothing other than it’s easier to talk to people on the production, while you’re making it, in terms of a title….Because if you say episode five – no, I don’t mean the fifth one we’re making or the fifth one I wrote, I mean the one that’s actually going to go out as episode five. There will always be three numbers attached to any given script. It may be episode two in terms of writing, episode four in terms of production and episode seven in terms of transmission order, and people just get hopelessly confused. So it was hell doing that, and that’s why I always stick titles on now, just so that I can talk to Sue about the episodes, without having to resort to, “No, I mean the one….no, the one with….no, the one before that!” That’s what it’s all about. We’ve actually got a slight confusion this year on Coupling. Sue didn’t want me to, but I got my way in the end: the last episode is called “Nine and a Half Months” and the first episode is called “Nine and a Half Minutes”, and Sue just keep saying, some admin guy, somewhere, is going to get those two episodes muddled and the wrong episode is going to transmit! We live in terror….
JA: Which studios did you use for Joking Apart?
SM: It was the BBC studios and we tended to move around a bit.
JA: So you were at Television Centre?
SM: Yes. I think it was Three or Four, and I remember it was Studio One for series one, episode five.
JA: That’s a huge studio. Presumably you didn’t really need it for that episode?
SM: I think it was just the one that was available that week. It’s bloody massive – scarily big!
JA: Absolutely. On a related topic, I’ve just discovered how close the Chelsea locations were to each other, so either you had a really efficient location finder, or perhaps, one of the production team happened to live right there?
SM: Yes, the director, and he wanted them close to his house, which was just round the corner.
JA: That was Bob Spiers?
SM: Yes. So we ended up shooting these massive buildings and trying to make them look smaller. I think Robert and Tracy’s house was bloody enormous, but you have to pretend it’s just a two storey thing.
JA: Yes, I noticed how cleverly shot everything had been – it’s amazing what you managed to hide! Moving on to the style of the show, you wrote it in a very theatrical format. Have you ever thought about adapting it for the stage?
SM: Yes, that has come up several times, but there’s just never been time. I wouldn’t mind revisiting the material at all – it was good stuff, and it’s a shame that so few people have seen it.
JA: Which, of course, would make a stage play so much more viable.
SM: Yes….So I have thought about it….Or maybe a film….Or, I don’t know, remake it! [laughs] Would anyone notice?
JA: The show is such that it needs superb actors to pull it off. Could you possibly find a more perfect cast than the one you had?
SM: I don’t know. Recasting is always such a tremendous risk, and it’s quite likely not to work. But if you were doing it now, you would have to, time having relentlessly passed. The key to any television series is you write for the cast you’ve actually got. You don’t just take lines intended for somebody else and shove them into the new guy’s mouth – it doesn’t work.
JA: Sure. At the time, did you write with particular actors in mind?
SM: Well, from very early on, because we did the pilot first. So, at the very beginning, no, but by the time we got to the making of the first series in ’92, those scripts were written for that cast.
JA: What was your involvement in the casting process?
SM: I was there throughout it, the same as any show. It tends to be four people - the Casting Director, the Producer, the Director and the Writer – and we all just sit there and see endless people.
JA: Presumably, there must have been some well known actors you passed over for the roles?
SM: I can not now remember what major stars we turned down – probably, quite a few….That is such a long time ago.
JA: Sure. Now I have to say that I thought the supporting cast were a revelation. I knew of Tracie Bennett from Coronation Street, although, in my eyes, that would have been to her disadvantage as I don’t have any time for soaps. But I thought that both her and Paul Raffield were just amazing.
SM: Yes, they were great….And great fun to work with too.
JA: Paul had had a brief role in Press Gang – is that right?
SM: He did that second – he did that after the pilot for Joking Apart.
JA: Of course! So that had no bearing on his casting for Joking Apart – it was the other way round! A personal admission: I have to confess to finding Fiona Gillies stunningly sexy in the series. Would you put that down to the writing, the acting or both?
SM: I think it’s down to Fiona being very sexy; it doesn’t have anything to do with me!
JA: But you concur with my view….?
SM: Oh, she’s a lovely girl, yes, but I can’t say lustful things about her – she’s a friend of mind!
JA: Yes, indeed! Now, for Robert, in particular, the role must have been incredibly demanding because he’s so rarely off-screen.
SM: Yes, until the last episode, where he was able to read the newspaper that week – he was quite enjoying himself! It was a big load of work for him, every week. Those shows, as you know, are recorded in front of a studio audience and are all done in a couple of hours, so the pressure was hugely on him.
JA: I discovered a quote from Robert, saying: “Joking Apart was the most enjoyable job I will ever do. I could retire knowing that I had done the most enjoyable job I will ever do.” Were you aware of that?
SM: Yes, I saw that. That was very sweet of him. [laughs] He did love doing it – he was seriously into it….And despite the fact he’s had this immense and utterly deserved success since, in much bigger shows. I thought he was completely wonderful in Cold Feet. And he just carried on – he’s one of those guys. I don’t think he’s ever really been out of work, Robert. Even when he wasn’t a well-known actor, he would go from job to job without seemingly any effort whatever. He’s a terrific actor and he’s done brilliantly….But he was a major, major fan of Joking Apart – he really loved doing it. We had an awful lot of laughs. It was very, very good fun.
JA: Of the five, it’s really only Robert you could call a household name these days. There’s no real justice, is there?
SM: There isn’t. Very, very few people get to household name status. It’s very tough, very competitive. You’ve got – especially for women – a very narrow window in which to make your mark. I think, they all work. Tracie does pretty well. I don’t know what Paul does, I haven’t seen him for a while. It’s very tough out there.
JA: From what I could glean from the Internet, Paul seems to be primarily theatre-bound these days.
SM: Well, that’s where they do most of their work, because television is relatively rare in most actors lives.
JA: You’ve already covered this to a certain extent but you keep in touch with most of the cast.
SM: The last couple of years have been a bit hectic, so I haven’t seen….I’m always bumping into Robert at the British Comedy Awards these days, and other functions, and we’re always saying, we must go to dinner, and all that, but I’m just very bad at keeping in touch! [laughs] They were all at my fortieth birthday a couple of years ago, which was very weird, seeing them all, together again. I haven’t fallen out of touch with them, but I haven’t seen them as much as I should have; with your workload and your young kids, you know how it is!
JA: Of course. The cast worked so well on screen, I can’t believe they didn’t work equally well off screen.
SM: They were all very good friends….And still are, I think. It was a very good laugh, working on that show. Paul Raffield, in particular, is just such a funny man. We did have a riot!
JA: I kind of imagined you did else that chemistry wouldn’t have come across the way it did.
SM: To us, it seemed great….Probably to anyone else, it looked like a bunch of luvvies hugging each other! It was a very good fun show to work on.
JA: I assume, because of the way it was written, there wasn’t much room for ad-libbing?
SM: No, there was no ad-libbing.
JA: Did you make any changes in rehearsals?
SM: Not very much, to be honest. I’m not a big fan of it, really, because what seems funny in a rehearsal room rarely seems funny anywhere else. And to this day, I’m not. A couple of times on Coupling I’ve had to rush home and re-write a scene because it wasn’t working, but unless it’s not working….I don’t like comedy business coming in. I don’t like: “It will be even funnier if I….” When people are new to comedy, you have to say, actually, the less you do, the funnier it is….And there’s a process during rehearsal where people forget what’s funny and start adding other bits of business or funny voices or funny looks and it starts getting less funny, but everyone starts laughing again in the rehearsal room and gets confused where the gag is.
JA: Is it true you made a Hitchcock-type appearance in the show?
SM: Did I?
JA: In the restaurant, in episode two, there’s a reaction shot of a nearby table after Mark comes out with his “oral sex” line.
SM: No, I’m not there.
JA: Blimey, it must be someone who looks remarkably like you!
SM: I didn’t even make it there that day – my taxi driver got lost! I was going back to Glasgow and was going to drop in on them on my way to the airport and I couldn’t get there in time, so I phoned them up and said, I’m just going straight to the airport….So it’s definitely, definitely not me!
JA: Fair enough! So that probably wouldn’t count as one of your fondest memories of the show, but what would, if that’s not an impossible question?
SM: The rehearsals were particularly good fun. That was just lovely….And it was great fun going up to Birmingham and doing that first show - the pilot. That was a laugh….
JA: That was done at Pebble Mill?
SM: Yes….Oh, it was just all fun, really….It was a fun show….That’s not a very useful answer!
JA: Well, I did say it was an impossible question!
SM: For the first time, I’d been with a cast – and perhaps the last time – who were about my age, so that was quite fun. The Press Gang lot had all been so much younger, and now, of course, on Coupling, they’re so much younger again, so I feel slightly more the daddy, which is a shame! So we were all just knocking about together, and after the show, we’d go up to the bar and we’d all get really leathered….A process that continues to this day, I must say! I used to love that – you do a sitcom, you get six wrap parties a year – you just go and party after every episode!
JA: I would imagine Robert needed a drink or two afterwards to counter the adrenaline!
SM: It would take three vodkas for him just to get down to normal!
IN PART FIVE: Steven's favourite episodes, Dr Who and the future