IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVEN MOFFAT (part 5)
Sadly, we're reaching the end of the interview with the writer of Joking Apart. In this final part, Steven talls us about his favourite episode of Joking Apart, the likelihood of a DVD release of the show (which has since happened - check out Replay's website), Dr Who and future projects.
JOKING APART.CO.UK: Do you have a personal favourite scene or episode from the series?
STEVEN MOFFAT: I think the best episode – the purest episode – the one that sticks to the point and doesn’t lie, is episode five of the first series, when he sleeps with Tracy. That’s such an unexpected turn of events but is an absolutely, entirely logical and believable one….And I think there are some great gags. It’s just a very, very funny show….And you just don’t see it coming. I think that worked very well. I think there’s an argument that says that while the show remained funny afterwards, the story was sort of over by then. He’d done it. He’d done the same thing that had been done to him, and that was sort of the end of it. If you did it as a movie, you’d pretty much end there.
JA: I absolutely take your point, but I’m glad you didn’t stop there! Is it true, you had to write the very last episode in something of a hurry?
SM: Yes, that was really late. I’ve done worse since, but that was very, very late! I had written so little of it that on the day I said I’d hand it in, I had to write two thirds of it, and that was just monstrous! It was a very complex plot and I just couldn’t keep my head round it at all. I think it was the very first time in my life, I had to write any of it down. I had it all on post-it notes on the wall, trying to keep track of who is doing everything at what time, so that you get to the right joke. Frankly, I’ve been later and done more complicated stuff since then, but that was, up until that point, the most complicated one I’d done, and it was a horror!
JA: Writing is such a stressful business, what do you do for pleasure and relaxation?
SM: Oh, you know, go out and get drunk with my friends! Nothing exotic or interesting, sadly!
JA: Oh, I don’t know….That’s probably where you get a lot of ideas from, isn’t it?
SM: [laughs] Well, if I could remember them!
JA: It must be a very strange feeling when a series has run its course and you know you won’t be writing any more.
SM: That realisation came upon me slowly. I began to realise, it really isn’t coming back – we’re really not doing any more, are we? There was never a phone call saying, halt the presses; you must cease and desist; step away from the machine! I just gradually realised, no, they really mean it, we’re not coming back. So you leave at the end of series two thinking you’ll probably do another one, and then, you don’t. You’re sort of aware that’s a possibility but, even as matters stand right now, I don’t know if we’ll do any more Coupling, so that’s quite normal.
JA: Christ, that’s a horrible concept! Is there like a mourning period afterwards?
SM: Well, I’ve never had a situation where I end a series properly, really. I suppose I had a strong feeling that Press Gang wouldn’t come back, but I didn’t absolutely know. That’s the nearest I came to being aware that it was over. I was pretty certain Chalk wasn’t coming back unless a miracle occurred, but on Joking Apart and on Coupling, no idea. You live series by series.
JA: It’s strange in a way that Chalk, being the least successful of the shows you’ve done for the Beeb, had a BBC1 slot, and the others are tucked away on BBC2, where many people never notice they are there.
SM: [laughs] BBC3 at the moment!
JA: I find it hard to credit that I can still mention Coupling to various people and they haven’t a clue what I’m taking about, purely because some people never turn on BBC2.
SM: That’s odd. I have to say, I found that to be the case for the first couple of years but I very rarely meet anyone now who hasn’t at least heard of it.
JA: If you go hunting on the internet for references to Joking Apart, you’d be quite surprised how many postings you find saying the same thing: why isn’t available on VHS or DVD and why isn’t it, at least, repeated? Are you surprised there’s never been a commercial release?
SM: No. For an old show to be released on DVD, you have to have been a show that was well known at the time, and it really wasn’t. It’s one thing – and probably quite a risky thing – to release Press Gang which was a popular show, but Joking Apart just wasn’t known at the time, hasn’t become a huge nostalgia thing….I’d be astonished if it was released. (And astonished he was when it was subsequently released! It is available here)
JA: I’d like to see the BBC repeat it immediately after Coupling because there’d be a captive audience. Your star is very much in the ascendancy, Robert Bathurst is now so well-known; they’d be bound to have a hit this time round.
SM: I don’t know if they are bound to have a hit. I don’t get an automatic audience, and probably even Robert doesn’t get an automatic audience. You couldn’t really sell it as, “At last, the star of Cold Feet and the writer of Coupling come together!” [laughs] It’s more like, “Here’s the star of Cold Feet and the writer of Coupling, long before they were any good!” In publicity terms, it looks like you’ve dug out the school scrapbook! I’d love them to repeat it, but it’s an old show….
JA: But you could do it on the basis of, “Now a Steven Moffat double-bill….”
SM: A Steven Moffat double-bill wouldn’t be guaranteed any kind of an audience; a Steven Moffat single-bill doesn’t guarantee an audience! [laughs] Steven Moffat is, believe me, a name unknown to the vast majority of the population! BBC2 has to be quite competitive – I don’t think they are going to turn over half-an-hour of their evening broadcast time to a show from the early nineties that no one watched.
JA: And a show that half of the episodes would cost them nothing to show.
SM: Well, that’s true, but it would cost them viewers, possibly, or they might fear that it would.
JA: They ought to put it out on BBC3 then because they don’t have any viewers to lose!
SM: Yes, it could go on one of those channels. I think it should. But much as I’d love to see it go out again, I don’t see it going out again on BBC2. It would be good to get it on one of the cable channels, the digital channels – it should be doing the rounds there.
JA: Even if there were a DVD release, as Pola Jones Film Productions no longer exists, presumably there would be no unbroadcast material available for extras?
SM: No, I’m pretty sure there isn’t. There might be out-takes laying around on VHS somewhere, but that’s as much as there would be.
JA: Do you have any trivia you think would interest the fans?
SM: There was a Portuguese version!
SM: Remade in Portugal, yes! I’ve got tapes of that, which is quite bizarre!
JA: I’m sure.
SM: I remember it as a very happy time – it was tremendous fun to do – and a bit frustrating how it ended, but some of the details of the actual shows are a bit hazy in my head now.
JA: Okay, well let’s move onto the present: you are currently writing for Doctor Who. I know you are a fan of the show, so did you put yourself forward for the job?
SM: I enquired about it several times, as many of us had: are you bringing that back, I’d like a shot? And I know Russell. [Russell T Davies, principal writer for the new series] When he got it, I sent him an email saying, congratulations, and he sent an email back saying, if there’s more than six, I’d like you to do a couple….So only in that sense. I think Russell chased it quite vigorously and most prominently for quite a few years, and he’s obviously the right person to be in charge of that kind of show as he’s got so much experience at that level – you know, big film productions.
JA: Were you surprised when the BBC announced they were finally bringing it back?
SM: No, not remotely. It’s been coming back for years – it’s just been a rights issue. I think BBC Worldwide had hold of it for ages and they couldn’t get it back from them. It was just one of those shows that was definitely going to come back. They’ve been talking about it for as long as anyone can remember. It’s such a major franchise, and they know how big it is compared to, more or less, anything they’ve ever done. It’s maybe the biggest television show they’ve made, and forty-one years later, people still talk about it. It’s still a news item….And it wasn’t, if one is cruelly honest, for the moment-by-moment excellence of its presentation. It’s a legend bigger than it’s realisation.
JA: Considering the budget it was given – the same as a half-hour soap, I’m led to believe – the production team worked wonders to turn out what they did.
SM: Oh, yes, it was incredibly well done, given the limitations within which they were working….And given that often, many of the people that worked on it were looking forward to the golf course, you know! [laughs] It wasn’t the thing it became in the minds of the children who watched it and grew up and wanted to work on it – it was a different thing. It’s clearly just one of those legends that happen; through no coherent, guiding principle, it just sort of happened….And you know, there were things wrong with it but what it got right was charm and humour. You couldn’t really laugh at Doctor Who the way you could laugh at Blake’s 7, say, because Doctor Who was already laughing at itself. It was in on the joke and that’s one of its tremendous charms, I think – that it was cheeky about itself. If you are going to try and do something bombastic like Blake’s 7 or something like that, a few years later, it doesn’t just look cheap, it looks as though it’s cheap and doesn’t know it is!
JA: Do you find it ironic that the man who first axed Doctor Who, Michael Grade, is now Chairman of the BBC, just as it’s about to return?
SM: Who wouldn’t have axed Doctor Who when he axed it? I think the only mistake he made was not to axe it permanently, at that time. If he had, if he’d successfully taken it off the air completely, it would have come back years ago, but they allowed it, as a franchise, to die in public slowly over several years. If you look at Michael Grade’s position at that time, just one year before, Doctor Who is still a big, mainstream hit with a big, mainstream actor in the leading role and it’s still doing the business. One year later, after a recast, the ratings plummet, nobody thinks it’s any good; it couldn’t get a good review if it was reviewed by its own mother, and clearly it’s time to call time. What else would you do with a big, mainstream hit that was no longer doing the business? You’d take it off. So he did the right thing. Then, he got persuaded, bullied somehow, into bringing it back, which is nonsense. It’s lovely that they saved it and all that, but you get another series of the wrong actor trying to play the part and then you get Sylvester McCoy, God help us! And what you’ve got is a mighty franchise just dying in public….But hopefully, hopefully, it will be good this time - we’ll see!
JA: Well, it should be, with you writing it!
SM: Well, I’m only doing a couple, but Russell’s stuff is really good!
JA: Are your episodes going to feature old adversaries or original foes?
SM: I’m not telling you!
JA: Oh….! [laughs] What are your plans when you’ve finished writing for the good Doctor?
SM: I’m not sure. By the time that happens, there might be a decision on Coupling. I’ve been talking with the Old Vic, which Kevin Spacey took over – they’ve been talking with me about doing a play. That would be quite interesting. I’ve got a drama project in at the Beeb, which is looking promising. Unless I do another series of Coupling , probably not another sitcom for a while. I’ve done three on the trot and they are exhausting to do; and if you’ve managed to have one success, it’s time to shut up [laughs] and go and do something easier!
JA: Well, whatever your next project turns out to be, it’s bound to make good viewing. Steven Moffat, thank-you very much.