Review: The South Bank Show: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

*Contains spoilers*

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s distinctive and groundbreaking artistry – and their extraordinary body of work – has long deserved emblematic elevation to the highest echelons of British culture. For some that defining moment of ennoblement occurs when an artistic reputation has reached such an exalted position that it necessitates an in-depth documentary profile to reflect on and pay tribute to it.

‘The South Bank Show’s symbolic laying out of the metaphorical red carpet for Pemberton & Shearsmith as “two of the country’s most original and versatile television screen writers and actors”[1] (as Melvyn Bragg’s introductory voiceover describes them) is ridiculously overdue but very welcome recognition for the creative partnership who have given us such remarkable televisual output for 20 years.

03_13_thesouthbankshow_s09(c) Directors Cut Productions/Sky Arts

For the ninth series of Melvyn Bragg’s revived flagship arts programme on Sky Arts the pair are finally honoured with a film that takes an orthodox but serious and considered look at their achievements. The fact that they’ve been held in high critical regard since the early days of The League of Gentlemen as well as widely respected and admired by their peers within the industry – as evidenced by the multiple awards they’ve received over the years – one has to wonder why it’s taken this length of time for an intelligent arts documentary appreciation of two of British television’s most brilliantly original talents.

Highly anticipated by their many fans and admirers, ‘The South Bank Show’ episode on Pemberton & Shearsmith is the third in a quartet of programmes for series nine which focus on some of Britain’s leading TV writers. As such this profile is primarily concerned with their writing partnership (their acting is only briefly discussed towards the end in the context of ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’s compelling two hander) and the main focal point is their most recent – and continuing – work, the anthology series ‘Inside No. 9’. It’s the linchpin of the documentary and examined in detail through interviews with both writers and via numerous illustrative clips. Probably it’s most interesting dimension is the exclusive behind-the-scenes access given to ‘The South Bank Show’ as it follows Pemberton & Shearsmith at work, finalising revisions to a script in their North London office as they prepare for series five of ‘Inside No. 9’ and on set as they shoot a new episode. For this reason the film is not a comprehensive survey of their entire career because notable aspects of it are only briefly alluded to or not mentioned at all. This documentary’s brief is to capture them at a very busy and creatively significant time (the interviews themselves were shot on an empty stage at Ealing Studios as the new series of ‘Inside No. 9’ was being filmed) and accordingly it is a fascinating and vital look at Pemberton & Shearsmith’s creative process.

The programme has a circular structure which is bookended and dominated by ‘Inside No. 9’. ‘The League of Gentlemen’ is explored as well, with additional perceptive comments coming from Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Jon Plowman (the only interviewees to appear apart from Pemberton & Shearsmith) but ‘Psychoville’ is only fleetingly acknowledged which is a great pity because it’s a sublime and underappreciated part of their exceptional canon.  Presumably this is because the documentary is bound by the time constraints imposed by ‘The South Bank Show’s three commercial breaks, which reduces what is ostensibly an hour long profile to 45 minutes.

03_01_thesouthbankshow_s09(c) Directors Cut Productions/Sky Arts

The extensive interviews with Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith underpin and frame the show. They are the points of departure which shape the order and sequential flow of the profile. The estimable Melvyn Bragg conducts the sessions in a relaxed, unforced way, intuitively and intelligently using questions as open-ended conversational talking points. Despite the visual formality of the conventional interviewer-interviewee mid shot set-up, Bragg’s tone and manner allows Pemberton & Shearsmith to respond discerningly, reflectively and at length. The decision to film the interviews with Pemberton & Shearsmith separately is significant. It helps to reinforce the idea that they are not, in any traditional understanding of the phrase, a professional ‘double act’, even though they sometimes undoubtedly get predictably associated, even labelled, with the clichéd aspects of that characterisation in some people’s minds because they’ve always acted together in their creative endeavours. The fact that they’re interviewed separately gives them the space to convey their own individual personas and firmly establish they’re a creative partnership of equals, not a ‘comedy-horror duo’. This solitary interview set-up does not disavow the strong bond and interconnectedness between them though. Indeed the two interviews are intercut to form a sequent conversational pattern strongly suggesting trains of thought criss-crossing and running along the same tracks. The two interviews are spliced and edited in such a way that what emerges is a shared sensibility, a simpatico relationship, a creative bond of ‘one mind’ which indelibly links and unites them.

What makes the interviews with Pemberton & Shearsmith (plus the cameo contributions from Dyson, Gatiss and Plowman) so strong is their assessment, analysis and dissection of their own writing. It’s placed under pronounced analytical scrutiny of a kind it’s not had before due to ‘The South Bank Show’s declared intention to put the spotlight on it. We get a precise and astute distillation, with Pemberton & Shearsmith drawing out its component parts, its development and refinement over the course of their careers and what they aim for and try to achieve in their storytelling.

Their interviews reveal the degree to which they’re driven by a determination never to rest on their creative laurels, always firmly setting a course against predictability and spurred on by the fear of being accused of repeating themselves or of taking  formulaic routes. The documentary is peppered with Pemberton & Shearsmith talking about writing as a “challenge”, “an exercise” or a “thrill”, ruminating on pushing themselves, discussing the satisfaction they get exploring different ways to tell a story and the excitement they feel from finding solutions to narrative predicaments. They make it clear in the programme that seeking new challenges and pursuing ways of taking their work up a notch each time has always been a key motivating factor in terms of their creativity.

Pemberton & Shearsmith’s interviews focus on ‘Inside No. 9’ for a large part of the profile and surveys four specific episodes in some depth (‘Sardines’, ‘A Quiet Night In’, ‘The 12 Days of Christine’ and ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’) The series marked the transition from seeing themselves as actors who wrote to writers without the need for parenthetical qualification. ‘Inside No. 9’ has seen them hit new heights in terms of storytelling technique, with the self-contained nature of each episode giving them a bigger canvas on which to extend their range tonally and across varying styles and genres. It has allowed them to experiment with narrative, and as Shearsmith notes, with the “types and ways of telling stories”[2]  Pemberton in particular credits the series with boosting his confidence as a writer: “It meant the writer in me just woke up and went ‘Yeah you can do this’”[3] and for strengthening his and Shearsmith’s creative partnership: “The writing has got stronger and has lead the way in terms of our creative vision”[4]

03_02_thesouthbankshow_s09(c) Directors Cut Productions/Sky Arts

Reece Shearsmith acknowledges at the start of the documentary that ‘Inside No. 9’ was a conscious decision to get back to the simplicity of the written word and the controlled restraint and resolution offered by the beginning, middle and end structure of one-off stories after the episodic and serpentine narrative, character profusion and multiple arcs of ‘Psychoville’. ‘The South Bank Show’ elicits meditative responses from both writers about their anthology series, providing us with a deeper understanding of how ‘Inside No. 9’ provokes their imaginations, enriches their inventiveness and adds new layers of nuance to their writing. Melvyn Bragg’s understated inquisition produces an authoritative summation of the series’ methodology by Steve Pemberton that pares it down to its essence, both in terms of the construction of a ‘No. 9’ script and the creative intentions built into it. The time constraints imposed by the allotted 30 minutes for each story demands a tight, lean script where every line counts, with its compactness cohering with and consolidating the series’ elemental link – the ‘twist’ or more generally, a surprising or unexpected ending. The twist or the surprise is the device that, as Pemberton puts it, gives their anthology series an ‘anchor’. Seeding provides a trail to that unexpected resolution – the verbal and visual clues interwoven into the script – which the series has become renowned for. When asked by Melvyn Bragg whether the twist in a story is integral to the series Pemberton responds by asserting the importance of seeding to a ‘No. 9’ script. It is the ‘thing’ of it, as much as the celebrated ‘twist’. The seeding in ‘Inside No. 9’ does several things: It grounds the motivations and intentions of the story’s characters, deepening and layering complexity onto them; it heightens the intensity of the audience experience, making them fully engaged, attentive and alert to the subtle indicators scattered throughout the script. Seeding gives each ‘Inside No. 9’ a built-in rewatchability for anyone wanting to spot all the fine-drawn shading missed on an initial viewing. Steve Pemberton makes it clear in the documentary that the twists or surprising endings – and the seeding which leads you to them – ensure the one-off stories never feel transient or slightly disposable. The journey you are taken on is what counts, even more than its conclusion.

Whilst ‘The South Bank Show’ devotes much less time to ‘The League of Gentlemen’ than ‘Inside No. 9’ there are some equally instructive observations made about its genesis, development and ingenious artistry by Pemberton, Shearsmith, fellow Leaguers Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss and their long-time executive producer Jon Plowman. In elliptical fashion the documentary – helped by a handful of archive photographs – gives us a brief and very familiar history of The League: Friendships formed at Bretton Hall as they bonded over shared interests and obsessions; their professional debut on the Fringe circuit and the Perrier Award win at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997; a montage of tightly edited clips from the TV series as Melvyn Bragg’s voiceover intones customary phrases regarding its ‘cult status’ and ‘sinister characters’. At first it appears all we’re going to get is a prosaic and reductive perspective, but this predictable retread on The League happily shifts onto far more rewarding territory when illuminating interviews with each of the protagonists, and one of their longest-serving collaborators, intervene to provide some welcome – and much needed – ‘insider’ elaboration on the subject.

03_14_thesouthbankshow_s09(c) Directors Cut Productions/Sky Arts

‘The League of Gentlemen’ TV series broke new ground for what was ostensibly a sketch show commissioned and produced by the BBC’s comedy department. It wasn’t like anything that had come before, even with allowing for the edgier BBC Two 10 pm time slot. There was a virtuosity to the writing and an authenticity in the performances that took the series far beyond the parameters of conventional comedy. In the documentary, Pemberton cites how the local shop proprietors’ characters, with their sketch-based one-joke starting point – their deep distrust and fear of strangers – inspired the ‘Wicker Man’ elements and folk horror sensibility intrinsic to the show. The strange and striking atmosphere that overhung the programme – both the undercurrent of horror and the tinge of Loachian (Ken Loach) naturalism intimating a bleak small-town mentality filled with failure, brutality, decay and ferality – was a one-off. Jon Plowman pinpoints its uniqueness and the distinctively original approach that The League took with their series: “What made them different was they were going for an atmosphere first and comedy second. They didn’t really follow the rules about what works and what doesn’t”[5]

The profile’s interviews with each Gentleman also outlines how fundamental the performances and writing were to the series’ innovative brilliance. Shearsmith points to the “kernel of humanity”[6] in what were outwardly grotesque characters, with the performances engendering empathy for some monstrous creations – you really cared about what happened to them. Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith truly inhabited the characters they played, giving them a genuine emotional depth, crucial in achieving the tightrope balance between comedy and drama that the show became known and rightly acclaimed for.

Although the writing was a conduit for showcasing the acting range and depth of the three performers in the quartet, it was more than equal to the consummate playing. From The League’s early years on the fringe, the four had paired off into separate writing partnerships – Dyson & Gatiss and Pemberton & Shearsmith. One of the most salient moments in ‘The South Bank Show’ programme comes when their long-time colleagues reflect on Pemberton & Shearsmith’s supreme gifts as writers. Dyson and Gatiss speak discerningly and concisely about what makes their writing so special: Dyson attesting to their ear for “overheard dialogue and truth”[7] whilst Gatiss incisively describes how they push observational detail to rarefied heights and accentuate the comedy of social embarrassment by fantastical degrees – “They have an amazing ability to transform naturalism into fantasy. Little fragments of real life they can twist into a little thing that then becomes sort of… like something from folklore”[8]  Few have encapsulated Pemberton & Shearsmith’s brilliance with such unerring clarity. That it comes from two of their closest friends and creative collaborators makes it one of the highlights of the documentary.

The actuality sequences of Pemberton & Shearsmith in the creative citadel of their Muswell Hill office finessing an ‘Inside No. 9’ script and at the apogee of their creative efforts, on set filming one of the new episodes for series five, contain some of the most fascinating and entertaining moments in the profile.  Strikingly, the camera also follows them purportedly off-duty when they take themselves off to isolated spots in North London – places that are suffused with gothic atmosphere. Shearsmith takes a walk in the evocative nature’s cathedral of Highgate Woods while Pemberton soaks up the dark ambience traversing (what looks like) Highgate Cemetery. Visually and psychologically it is perhaps the most memorable and telling segment in the whole programme, subtly hinting at the inherent nature of those who create: That they have minds which are never switched off, are constantly looking for inspiration and always open to the possibility of a creative thought spurring their imaginations at any given moment. That they are in fact never ‘off-duty’.

03_12_thesouthbankshow_s09(c) Directors Cut Productions/Sky Arts

Both writers imbibe the gothic setting that each pays a visit to and muse on how it inspires them. Reflecting on the passion they each have for gothic horror, which both locations they wander around indelibly evoke, Shearsmith shows us a treasured relic from his childhood – an exquisitely rendered and beautifully drawn version of the ‘Creepshow’ comic (featured in the 1982 anthology horror film by George A. Romero) that he drew when he was only 12. The layers of loving detail in it mirror the exacting levels of detail he and Pemberton always bring to their writing. Pemberton amusingly engages in a one-way conversation with an aloof black cat ensconced next to a grave in the cemetery. Although the animal reacts with a haughty indifference to the question as to whether it’s benign or evil, Pemberton indulges his love of the gothic – and the trope traditionally given to black cats – and ascribes it ‘evil’.

The whole sequence creates a tremendous frisson of excitement. Filming Pemberton & Shearsmith in the physical terrain that is a source of inspiration for them – and closely aligned to their dark imaginations – leads with logical progression into a montage that strongly evokes ‘Inside No. 9’ imagery or directly references  several of its stories.

A series of filmed images glide by, some visually replicating recognisable ‘No. 9’ moments, others showing everyday objects in mundane settings (a mobile phone on a wall, a wheelie bin in a residential street) The muted colours and fragmented, softly-focused visuals generate a dreamlike quality and suggest a stream of consciousness state, helping to implicitly intimate the concept of ideas flowing through the creative, active minds of Pemberton & Shearsmith. The montage links back to the preceding ‘gothic as inspiration’ segment with its thematic centred on the gothic horror inspirations of the writing partnership. Together the consecutive sequences bring the worlds of ‘Inside No. 9’ into sharp relief as Melvyn Bragg’s narration relays how they “range from the high gothic and other-worldly to the seemingly everyday”[9] with the creativity and imaginations of Pemberton & Shearsmith alighting on and constructing these worlds.

‘The South Bank Show’s invitation to go behind the closed doors of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s inner sanctum gives us our first ever glimpse of the pair’s fabled writing room, the proclaimed ‘creative heart’ of ‘Inside No. 9’ – a small office in North London – where ideas emerge and discussions develop before crystallizing into fully formed scripts. Although Pemberton & Shearsmith have talked about the writing process many times in interviews and have occasionally made passing reference to the cubbyhole in Muswell Hill where they write, ‘The South Bank Show’s visit is the first official step over this particular threshold by a camera crew – and a coup for the documentary. The veil is lifted on ‘a typical day in the office’ for Pemberton & Shearsmith, a very particular – and actually rather atypical – office life hitherto conducted in private.  We get the chance to witness their office ‘tradition’ – a mischievous custom the first to arrive pulls on the later arrival, which usually involves assuming the role of a dead body or, on this occasion, Shearsmith undertaking a literal masked ambush on Pemberton. It is a ritual that they have only tantalisingly mentioned in passing until now.

03_05_thesouthbankshow_s09(c) Directors Cut Productions/Sky Arts

It’s the attendant minutiae of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s creative process captured in the profile that really draws fans in and exerts an absorbing, fascinating hold. Seemingly trivial details like this quirky, off-the-wall way they start their working day, Shearsmith’s extraordinarily detailed ‘Creepshow’ comic or Pemberton’s childhood poem about television that was published in the ‘Chorley Guardian’, actually reveal distinctive layers to their creativity and the instincts shaping it, allowing us to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of their remarkable and off-centre inventiveness.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing about the scene in their office – thanks to a fleeting shot of the front page of the script they’re working on – is finding out the title of one of the new ‘Inside No. 9’ stories for series five – ‘Misdirection’. The word alone is enough to make fans at least momentarily ponder whether they’re being drawn into a Pemberton & Shearsmith set-up. The online ‘SoundCloud’ commentaries for series two of ‘Inside No. 9’ and the brilliantly conceived and executed pre-broadcast publicity for ‘Inside No. 9 Live: Dead Line’ are proof they are well-versed and highly skilled in the art of the prank. As they’ve always been understandably protective about releasing information on new ‘No. 9’s ahead of time (aside from to the audience at a BFI preview) it comes as a real surprise the pair were willing to indirectly divulge a title from the forthcoming series so far ahead of transmission. Its testament to the power of their work and the strong grip it exerts that the first thought crossing at least some fans’ minds was that Pemberton & Shearsmith might possibly be indulging their mastery of deception on the viewer.

The scenes of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith intensely engaged at work on ‘Inside No. 9’ in ‘The South Bank Show’ are unprecedented because outside cameras have never been in their office before yet alone on set during the filming of a ‘No. 9’. The sequence of the pair rehearsing a brief scene for ‘Misdirection’ with the director and production crew mesmerises because a light is being shone on a formerly secret, hidden space for the very first time. It is the kind of access that recalls the behind-the-scenes programmes shown in conjunction with series two and series three of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ from Griff Rhys Jones and Adam Buxton respectively. We have previously also been given glimpses into the inner workings of their creativity via the DVD extras for both ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and ‘Psychoville’. Sadly with the diminishing returns of DVD and blu-ray sales and the resultant budgetary constraints, extras are more or less non-existent now on most commercial releases of any TV series fortunate enough to make it to disc format. Even the very welcome and highly regarded commentaries from Pemberton & Shearsmith are probably lost to the past. The likelihood of any extras on an ‘Inside No. 9’ home media release in the future, yet alone delivering the sort of behind-the-scenes coverage that DVD extras once did, is sadly remote (although we can but hope). This is why the actuality sequences of the pair in ‘The South Bank Show’ documentary are so treasurable. Seeing them at decisive points of their creative process brings a multidimensional definition to the profile, complements and enhances their interviews and gives context to the meticulous care the two deploy in delivering each ‘Inside No. 9’ to the TV screen.

‘The South Bank Show’ on Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith was pure pleasure from start to finish for their many admirers, with the extended interviews and exclusive footage offering up exhilarating insights into the professional life of a writing partnership at the peak of its powers.

03_11_thesouthbankshow_s09(c) Directors Cut Productions/Sky Arts

Its priority was to document and analyse the success of ‘Inside No. 9’ so it largely focused on Pemberton & Shearsmith’s current creative work. Prominence was given to the creators’ thoughts and feelings on four episodes in particular and the writing methodology underlining the series.  That the documentary was shot parallel to the production of series five of ‘Inside No. 9’ illustrates an important component of this ‘The South Bank Show’ was to capture Pemberton & Shearsmith’s creativity in action. It meant the profile – given it was only 45 minutes long – did not have time to consider or explore their whole career at length and was certainly not commissioned with that intention. ‘The League of Gentlemen’ was assigned a lengthy appendix midway through but ‘Psychoville’ received only a short sideways glance – a mere footnote of acknowledgement.  Sadly archive content was completely absent (unless one counts the many TV clips from their formidable body of work) No rare or previously unseen footage from their early Fringe years, just a handful of photographs from the Bretton Hall days and a scattering of early League of Gentlemen publicity shots. There must be a wealth of material out there waiting to be harnessed – not least from Dyson, Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith’s own personal archives – for possible future documentary purposes* (*see concluding  last paragraph for some brief speculative reverie)

The main focus of the programme was to examine the pair’s contemporary cultural status as influential television writers. As such they were positioned alongside established TV dramatists Jed Mercurio, Jack Thorne and Heidi Thomas, the other subjects in this series of ‘The South Bank Show’. The balance between drama and comedy has always had a memorable presence in Pemberton & Shearsmith’s work.  The nuanced interplay they achieve between the two and the way in which their writing so often veers into drama was, if anything, not discussed enough in the documentary. It was left to Jon Plowman’s comment towards the end to articulate what fans have long understood and appreciated about them: “Quite often I look at a script and think in no other world is this a comedy. That it has an emotional depth, that it’s sometimes about love, it’s about death, it’s about loneliness… They have real dramatic skill now. I’d say they’re up there with the best.”[10]

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s conscientious mindset and sheer work ethic has been brought to bear on all their creative undertakings since the start of their careers. Hearing and seeing this – as well as their enduring friendship – burning ever brightly after 20 years of consistent success is what lingers most in the memory in this fine, if slightly curtailed and restrictive,‘South Bank Show’ profile.

We’ve waited years for a serious documentary on them so let’s hope the baton can be passed and a commissioning initiative taken in the not too distant future. *A League of Gentlemen anthology taking its template from the mid-1990s Beatles Anthology series perhaps. With accompanying coffee table book?

03_04_thesouthbankshow_s09(c) Directors Cut Productions/Sky Arts

Footnotes

  1. Melvyn Bragg, ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  2. Reece Shearsmith, ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  3. Steve Pemberton, ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  4. Steve Pemberton, ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  5. Jon Plowman, ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  6. Reece Shearsmith, ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  7. Jeremy Dyson, The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  8. Mark Gatiss, The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  9. Melvyn Bragg, ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)
  10. Jon Plowman, ‘The South Bank Show’, Sky Arts/Directors Cut Productions (first broadcast 30th July 2019)

Presenter…Melvyn Bragg

Editor…Melvyn Bragg

Producer and director…Suzannah Wander

Executive producer (for Sky)…Shirley Jones

Production company…Directors Cut Productions

‘The South Bank Show: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’ was first broadcast on Sky Arts on 30th July 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The South Bank Show Live’ – RTS early evening event

King’s Place, London (27th June 2019)

Sky Arts and RTS present ‘The South Bank Show Live’, a live edition of Sky Arts and Directors Cut Productions’ ‘The South Bank Show’.

A complete verbatim transcript of ‘The South Bank Show Live’, a live panel discussion chaired by Melvyn Bragg in conversation with Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Jed Mercurio and Heidi Thomas, held on stage of Hall Two at King’s Place, London on 27th June 2019. ‘The South Bank Show Live’ was produced by the RTS, Directors Cut Productions, Sky Arts and Premier.

SP – Steve Pemberton (Writer and actor)

RS – Reece Shearsmith (Writer and actor)

JM – Jed Mercurio (Writer)

HT – Heidi Thomas (Writer)

MB – Melvyn Bragg (Writer, broadcaster and presenter of ‘The South Bank Show’)

‘The South Bank Show’ is one of British television’s longest-running arts programmes – and the longest continuously running arts series – with only the BBC’s ‘Arena’ (and the now discontinued ‘Omnibus’) offering a similar mix of both high and popular culture explorations and bridging the divide between the two. What made ‘The South Bank Show’ a rarity was that it was a flagship arts series on ITV, normally noted for its predominately populist commercial fare. After 21 years a financially straitened ITV took the controversial decision to axe the show, at a stroke reducing its arts output to precisely zero. Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, who’d devised, written and presented the programme from the start, brought the rights to the brand and in 2012 ‘The South Bank Show’ was revived and reinstituted on Sky Arts, revitalizing and refreshing the series.

Perhaps reflecting the predominance and prolific status of drama in the terrestrial TV schedules and its increasingly high profile role and importance to the satellite subscription channels and streaming TV services, the ninth series of ‘The South Bank Show’ on Sky Arts focuses on some of Britain’s leading and most successful television writers, including importantly for fans who’ve eagerly awaited a serious and long overdue profile on the pair, the writing partnership of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith.

Ahead of the scheduled broadcast of the ninth series the Royal Television Society (RTS) hosted a live version of ‘The South Bank Show’ to promote the new episodes – ‘The South Bank Show Live’ – at King’s Place, London. The onstage format of a panel discussion offered a condensed preview – a live abridgement – of the new set of ‘South Bank Show’ film profiles on the television writers selected for the series – Jed Mercurio, Jack Thorne (absent due to the opening night of his new play) Heidi Thomas and Pemberton & Shearsmith.

The discussion was chaired by Melvyn Bragg who expertly prodded and probed his guests about their creative craft from a range of angles: What strictures are involved in writing for television; their childhood viewing habits; if direct experience informed what they wrote; challenging ‘comfort TV’ and audiences; the difficulties posed in writing adaptations; developing characters and whether or when to kill them off.dscf1232(c) Dodoswords

The assembled audience was rewarded with a stimulating meditation about all aspects of writing for television and the writing process itself.  The format of a panel discussion helped to highlight where the writers intersected creatively and how they differed in approach regarding their work. The criss-crossing of ideas, perspectives and personal experience was totally absorbing and when it was opened up to questions from the audience, extremely informative: What advice would they give to new writers trying to break into TV; how did they handle interference or ‘advice’ from above over submitted scripts; how did they deal with writers’ block. Their views were sought concerning the threatened demise of traditional TV scheduling and whether it would have an effect on TV writing;  what influence they had on the casting of their productions; what they thought of the social media phenomenon of squalling fans demanding rewrites and reshoots of shows they were unhappy with.

Mercurio, Thomas and Pemberton & Shearsmith have invaluable frames of reference to reflect upon and debate the subject of writing for television, with a depth of experience and unrivalled knowledge to draw on. It meant their contributions during the panel discussion and the Q&A were thoughtful, detailed and enlightening. Heidi Thomas exuded benevolence and wisdom when she spoke and was particularly engaging when she discussed the methodology of her writing. Jed Mercurio gave nimble and succinct summations of his career journey and development as a writer. Dryly witty with an entertainingly cynical edge, he also made some tellingly wry observations on the TV industry. Steve Pemberton was ebullient and expressive, eloquent and analytical on the techniques of constructing a script and the strategies deployed in writing. Reece Shearsmith was more leery and downbeat than his writing partner, armed with sardonic asides and an amusing line in self-deprecation, but also incisive regarding his influences and articulate and perceptive in explaining what he and Pemberton want to achieve in their writing, both in terms of format and narrative.

The very first question Melvyn Bragg posed to the panel that evening was why did people need stories. We’re living in times as precarious and scary as I can remember. It’s as if there’s a time machine pulling us back to the past of the 1930s, or even further backwards to the Dark Ages. It’s less the lunatics have taken over the asylum, rather charlatans, narcissists and psychopaths are figuratively lying in wait in the shadowy recesses of our homes, ready to murder us in our beds. Things feel that close and threatening. A nihilistic endgame where everyone loses. Chaos and hopelessness appear to be inescapable. Whereas stories give us a beginning, a middle and an end – they promise a resolution. They may not resolve themselves in neat and comforting ways but they offer relief from that sometimes overwhelming sense of being thrall to a chaotic existence.

Stories inform our humanity. They anchor and deepen it. Storytelling can engage us in different ways: As cathartic release or empathetic response; negotiate difficult, perhaps even painful feelings and experiences; help us to understand a little better and a little more. More generally stories provide respite for 30 minutes, an hour or longer – something that can do more good than is perhaps fully appreciated and understood. As both Pemberton & Shearsmith said during ‘The South Bank Show Live’ – “… what we try to tap into is just serving that up to an audience who might be curious to see what happens next and see if we can entertain them and inform them along the way.”[1] (Pemberton)  “If you can do that to an audience and hook people in and take them away from their business of their day, that’s a lovely thing, it’s a service.”[2] (Shearsmith)

Stories have a transcendent power. They’re therapy for the heart and soul. And they are needed more than ever given the times we’re living in.  Those distinctive, individual voices such as Jed Mercurio, Heidi Thomas, Jack Thorne and Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith offer us truths in a world being choked by lies, fake news and ‘alternative facts’. Watch ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’, ‘Cold Comfort’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Tom and Gerri’, ‘Zanzibar’ , ‘Empty Orchestra’, ‘A Quiet Night In’, ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ et al for a dose of restorative self-care.

The transcript below is a verbatim replication of ‘The South Bank Show Live’ panel discussion and audience Q&A which I’ve endeavoured to make as accurate as possible. A complete video of the event was put online by the RTS about a week after it took place, which of course greatly diminishes the relevance of – and indeed any need for – this particular transcript. The video in question includes the whole of the panel discussion and all of the audience members’ questions in full rather than the subtitled summaries which the BFI deploys when they put up videos of their Q&A events.

I’d transcribed about half of the panel discussion when the RTS made the video publicly available. Even though the readily accessible video nullifies any potential usefulness my transcript of the evening has for fans as a reference source regarding what was said and by whom I decided to nevertheless finish transcribing the rest of the audio recording I’d made of the event. Stopping midway through would cause my niggling, conscientious mind to itch like mad and above all I wanted to complete the transcript for consistency’s sake on my blogsite.

Since October 2017 I’ve transcribed a total of seven ‘Inside No.9’/’The League of Gentlemen’/Reece Shearsmith events. They’re all up on my blogsite, available for fans – or any connoisseur with a passion for original and innovative television – to either read from beginning to end or leisurely scroll through and dip into. Transcribing interviews, panel discussions and Q&A events are a big commitment to undertake. At a bare minimum any such transcript is several thousand words in length – often more – because the conversational discourse runs for an hour or longer. It’s an exacting labour of love to transpose talking voices to the written page with only a pair of headphones and a pen and paper to aid you.

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My writing – the long-form reviews of work I revere and the transcripts faithfully recreating those cherished creators’ spoken words – fulfils a need in me to have a creative fix of my own. It’s prescribed within parameters that are intently focused on one particular subject matter – the work and careers of The League of Gentlemen, especially Pemberton & Shearsmith’s partnership – and meticulously detailed in terms of treatment. I indulge my amateur scribing – the only form of creativity I feel equipped to even attempt – as a much needed distraction from the crushing negativity and discontent hanging over much of my professional and personal life. I constantly battle my berating inner voice which tells me I have no writing ability, that what I write is mediocre at best, hampered by unoriginal ideas and riddled with hackneyed phrases. I’m acutely aware I’m not a professional writer and fully subscript to all my doubts and low self-esteem regarding my writing (including the transcripts) by defining it as mere ‘appreciation’.

For interested fans the unedited transcript includes tiny slivers of extra material during Melvyn Bragg’s introduction cut from the video. This hopefully makes the transcript of interest to committed completists, who savour every additional detail however nanosized they are.

The Dodoswords blogsite is where my reviews of the work of creators I’ve admired for 20 years sit alongside the transcripts of events focusing on and celebrating their exceptional talents. My passion and admiration for their singular and sublime artistry is expressed in my writing, however inadequate and imperfect that may be.

Introduction by Melvyn Bragg

MB: … I’m going to stand and talk about a couple of minutes or so, two or three minutes at the most. Then there’ll be clips, a 6 minute compilation of the work of the four people that we’re talking about and then a discussion that will last 40 to 45 minutes and then questions that will last as long as you keep asking questions that they want to answer, so quite relaxed in that sense. But a few things that I want to say, thanks to Sky Arts. Since – which are pertinent to what is happening this evening I hope – since 1978 ‘The South Bank Show’ has covered both high and popular culture, bringing the two increasingly together, that’s been part of the message, so that the distinction disappears, bringing it to a mass audience… recorded over forty years and made them part of the same culture.

No-one would deny now that so-called ‘popular music’ has as long a shelf life and as much intrinsic value as classical music. Nor in this context, that television drama can hold its own with the best out there on the stage. I’m pleased that tonight marks the launch of our eighth season under Sky Arts following 32 seasons with ITV. Over the last 8 years we’ve made over 40 new ‘South Bank Show’ films, 200 ‘South Bank Show’ originals, each season we’ve had the ‘South Bank Show Arts Awards’ and we’ve done various scholarship films. This season we decided to profile some of the most powerful and celebrated British television writers working today, whose dramas have drawn record viewing figures and won awards for excellence and praise for their excellence across the globe.

For over 40 years we’ve prioritised television drama on ‘The South Bank Show’. In our opening series on ITV our first drama was not something on the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) but our first drama was a film with Dennis Potter about his television work. Since then we’ve profiled many celebrated television dramatists including Alan Bennett, Lynda La Plante, Kay Mellor, Andrew Davies, Paul Abbott, Abi Morgan, Russell T. Davies, Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright and many, many others. In fact I think it’s time for a dedicated channel for British drama to show these writers again and again as you could go into a bookshop and pick up a paperback again and again, because the work is so good. There’s nothing patronising about the reason we started with television drama. At the time I’d been going to the theatre quite a bit and I discovered again and again and again that it wasn’t as good as what I’d seen on television. It wasn’t as well written, it wasn’t as well directed, it wasn’t as well acted and it wasn’t reaching the big audiences, but that apart from the other things and today is still the case. And television drama has always been at the centre of this country’s cultural conversation, for over half a century. And never more so – or rarely more so – I think than now and that’s to do with the quality of the writing. In this series of new films we feature three distinct authorial voices and one highly original writing partnership. Before I welcome them to the stage here’s a short preview of these four new ‘South Bank Show’ films…

(A six minute compilation of the new ‘South Bank Show’ films on Jed Mercurio, Jack Thorne, Heidi Thomas and Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith – premiering on Sky Arts in July and early August 2019 – is played on screen before the guest panel of writers are welcomed to the stage by Melvyn Bragg)

MB: Sadly Jack Thorne can’t be with us tonight. He’s got one of the best excuses in the world. His new play is opening tonight, is on now at the Royal Court Theatre. But I’m delighted to welcome to the stage, the creator and showrunner of ‘Line of Duty’ and ‘Bodyguard’ and much else, Jed Mercurio (audience applause) and the writers and the stars of ‘The League of Gentlemen’, ‘Psychoville’ and ‘Inside No.9’, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (audience applause) and the creator and writer of ‘Call the Midwife’, who also adapted ‘Cranford’ and ‘Little Women’, Heidi Thomas (audience applause)

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MB: Heidi, start with you. In the interview you recently said – no you said it at an awards ceremony – people need stories. Can you develop that?

HT: I think people do need stories. I think since society first became society it’s been about people sitting round together listening to the person who had something to say or to think. And I think for me in a world where people need stories, they need them for distraction, they need them for inspiration and sometimes they just need them to pass an hour that would otherwise be painful to them and I think that’s as valuable as anything and then if, as a writer in a world where people need stories, you can find stories that need telling as a sort of symbiosis, I think that everybody benefits from.

MB: Jed.

JM: Um, well I don’t know whether they need stories but there’s something about the experience that clearly creates this kind of relationship where people keep coming back to stories. Um I guess because it’s a form of information exchange and we’re hungry for information and I guess that if you look at it most of the stuff that drives our appetites is there because it’s evolved. It’s just the best explanation for any human characteristics, that it’s gone through some evolutionary process. So the ability to process information and draw conclusions and look at scenarios being acted out and develop strategies is something that clearly we’re hungry for, that we want to see examples of how not to get eaten by a bear I guess.

MB: There isn’t any better way of passing information is there really because stories are in everything, in every area, not just what you do, a dramatist, but it’s there in science, in everything you can think of. This is the story, this is what happens if you go from A to B to Z, that’s the story.

JM: Well I would say the best way of passing information is through mathematics but yeah tonight we’ll go with yours Melvyn… (audience laughter)

MB: Steve, what about you?

SP: Yeah, I mean you know, narrative is everywhere as Jed just said. You know, you watch a football match and that has incredible narrative to it. You know, the Women’s World Cup at the moment or, you know, the Tory Party Leadership conference, it’s got an amazing narrative. We want to know what happens next.

MB: Or not (audience laughter)

SP: Or wish we could actually change the story. Um but yeah I mean I think it’s… you will find narrative in everything and as Heidi said, what we try to tap into is just serving that up to an audience who might be curious to see what happens next and see if we can entertain them and inform them along the way.

MB: Reece.

RS: Yeah, everything they all said (audience laughter) It gets harder doesn’t it for people like us who try to create stories because everyone’s so sophisticated and the tricks that you find yourself employing are apparent to people now and I think everyone’s attention spans are so short as well. You’ve got to be very pithy in hooking people in to your story. You get sent a YouTube clip that’s 30 seconds long – ‘I can’t be bothered with that, it’s too long’ – and delete it. And so, you know, you’ve got to really hook people in and I think that’s hard, especially with writing the way we try to write which is to surprise and write the kind of things that we used to enjoy watching ourselves, where you can’t not half watch it, you’ve got to sort of properly engage in it, it’s exciting. If you can do that to an audience and hook people in and take them away from their business of their day, that’s a lovely thing, it’s a service.

MB: Television is a fairly strict discipline or put it another way, a very strict discipline, especially if you’re a writer, where you’ve got breaks and so forth. Does that impose itself on you when you’re writing? Do you think that is a big factor or can you fall into it naturally -three acts, four acts? Which one of you wants to start? We’ll start at that end this time. Jed?

JM: Um. Well I’ve written most my stuff recently for the BBC where there is no commercial break to worry about so I tend to write in fairly free form. I don’t worry about the act structure. I know there are sort of real act structure ideologues who don’t actually write TV but they do inflict their opinions on people who do write TV endlessly and it’s… I think you have to look at it probably with a little bit more sophistication than that. The imperative with commercial television is to create a hook before the ad break but because so many people fast forward now I don’t know that it’s as important as the executives think it is… Actually you don’t need to worry about your first 30 seconds cos people just, they just land 30 seconds in if they’re going at times 12 or times 13. You see a car advert and you press play and then you think I’m right in the middle of the ad breaks. They’ve kind of like smuggled another Volvo advert in midway through so you just become inured to it. It’s when you see kind of whoever’s back on in a bit of police tape and then you think okay I’ll start watching again.

MB: You were going to say?

HT: …What I find is there’s a lot of emphasis, as Jed said, with academics and people who teach screenwriting and often charge a lot of money for teaching screenwriting and they’ve never written for the screen and so they sell a prescription essentially. I have never found that to be of any assistance whatsoever and early on in my screenwriting career I would read Sid Field etc. But I find – certainly for me – it’s not about structure it’s about texture. You go by the feel. You think does this feel as though its dragging, does this feel as though it’s pulling you in or pushing you away. So it’s about… for me it’s like running a cloth through my hands. You feel it, you’re feeling your way and I think… I’d like to say one learns to trust one’s instincts but inevitably the more experienced you get the less you trust your instincts because the more often you see it go wrong or right and so it’s also about constantly questioning what you’ve accomplished so far within the body of an hour, which is about – for a first draft for me that would be about 65 pages – but I then cut down as I get further on. But rules don’t, they don’t help me.

MB: Well I’m going to persist in this once more… If you’re writing a stage play I presume that they’ll say well we don’t want it to last more than three hours by the time of an interval or something… but the business that you’re in, its 22 minutes and out. Even with you its 58 minutes and out. That is, if it isn’t the difference… then let’s move on but it does seem to me to say this means you have to do that, that and that in a way that you don’t in other media. I’m not saying it’s lesser or more it’s just… that’s the way it is and I’m wondering what influence…

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SP: But it’s changing though with the streaming services. I think we’re all quite jealous. I mean we don’t write for Netflix but the idea that you can have an episode one week which is 69 minutes and the following week 49 minutes depending on how you felt…

MB: Do you find that attractive?

SP: Um I do find it attractive on the one hand but equally I like the form. When we’re doing ‘Inside No.9’ we know that we’ve got to hit that 30 page mark, 31, 32 and I like that. I like having a structure to an episode. When we did something like ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, which had 12 – one scene for each (of the) 12 months – it was really nice to be able to parcel all these scenes up into 12 and to know roughly if you were in August and you’re on page 6 obviously that’s not very good. So we kind of, we use those scenes to give us structure and I think putting a box around something makes you more creative somehow.

JM: I think also we would all recognise that the precise delivery time is hit in post-production. You know, you don’t do a script and sort of like go ‘Oooh that’s 59 minutes’ (audience laughter) It’s like you shoot the thing, you cut it together and if its 63 then you know you’ve got to get 4 minutes out if you’re trying to hit 59. And sometimes that’s easy and then you’re struggling to put stuff back in because you’ve done a natural edit and its 52 or something. So you then go through a process and as long as you’ve got enough time then – as in enough editing days – you can fine tune it and you can always tighten things up in a way which doesn’t affect the way that you’ve told the story. Its little things like how long does it take for someone to walk across a room.

MB: Can we go back to when you started and what you got from where you started from. Reece did you grow up watching a lot of television? What set you off wanting to write?

RS: Um. Well I think curiously it was – cos we’re doing them now – ‘Play for Todays’ and the dramas of Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood and comedy that was, that had an edge to it and a bite to it and plays that you wouldn’t normally see. I knew there was something different about watching an Alan Bennett play on TV. It just felt, the language felt different. It felt richer somehow and I don’t know what that was about but it appealed to me because it was a voice that was around me in the North – I was from Hull – and um so I think it was that, um, the darkness of Alan Bennett and then when comedy was around I was watching ‘The Two Ronnies’ and Victoria Wood. That was the sort of stuff of my childhood but again with Victoria’s stuff that definitely resonated with it being a sort of northern voice but a savagery to it as well that was hidden in the… in-between the sort of…

MB: Resonated in the sense that you said ‘I’d like to write like that’ or are you just…?

RS: Yeah a little bit… I still don’t really consider myself as a writer. I don’t know what I’m doing sat here but I do feel like that definitely informed my taste and I enjoyed watching that sort of thing and I thought if that’s – when I thought I could be an actor – that was the sort of stuff that we started writing and had a collective love of it. That was what was weird about us four as The League.

MB: Heidi did you have a direct watching television background?

HT: I think I did. I was an early reader and I loved to read but my mother had a wonderful habit and… younger people you do have to cast your mind back to the days of pre-video or anything. There was this serendipity about television. Suddenly my mother would say ‘There’s a film on this afternoon’ and we would drop everything and watch ‘National Velvet’ or something. But I remember once being fetched out of bed at about half eight-nine o’clock at night and my mother said ‘You have to come and watch this film. It’s one of the best films ever made’ and it was ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ with Charles Laughton and I was seven or eight and she made me watch the whole film. I’d never been up so late in my life but I sobbed throughout saying ‘He does turn into a handsome prince doesn’t he? Promise me he turns into a handsome prince’ and it’s relentless. There’s no way he turns into a handsome prince. It’s utterly harrowing, most unsuitable for a child (audience laughter) and I loved it. There was something for me in that about the power of performance to bring a story alive. I mean this was black and white on a screen about this big but it completely elevated me and I think it made me realise that stories do not always resolve the way you want and that doesn’t make it any less powerful and I think that’s always stayed with me.

MB: Curious that you should mention that. I saw that when I was a kid at the weekly cinema and on nights I looked under my bed before I got into bed… I’d never been as scared from a film as Laughton playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was terrifying. Jed.

JM: Yeah I watched a lot of TV as a kid. I mean it was um, I guess it was my only real access to the arts. You know I went to a very ordinary school, didn’t really do drama or have much access to creative things and, you know, I was a sciencey kid anyway so TV was my only exposure to storytelling um apart from, you know, maybe occasionally going to the cinema and so I kind of didn’t really return to the influences until much later in my career and I think that it was probably the American television that I had the best relationship with. I remember not being a great watcher of the BBC and thinking it was all a bit middle-class and a bit, it was just… it was like watching a play which is just people talking about the past. It’s just, god have a car chase (audience laughter) It’s the sort of thing as a 12-year-old boy I wanted to see and the Americans were giving us that. So that’s probably been the biggest influence.

MB: And you Steve?

SP: Yeah I watched TV avidly, especially in the summer holidays when TV was yours, you know, as the kid. In the evening it was the one remote control… on the side of Dad’s chair, you watched what the family watched but in the summer holidays it was curtains closed and you had Laurel and Hardy on…

HT: ‘Banana Splits’.

SP: ‘Banana Splits’ (audience laughter) ‘Flashing Blade’ um so and Mum going ‘You’ve got to go and play outside’ and flinging the curtains open… ‘No I just want to watch TV’ and um and then, you know, the other side of that is late-night horror movies on BBC Two, like you say, on a tiny TV, when we shouldn’t have been allowed to watch them. But I think going back to your point about ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, films which don’t give you that neat ending I think stay with you much longer and I think there’s a huge lesson that I learnt watching ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’ as probably a 12-13-year-old boy which, both of which – without giving spoilers away – have these horrific endings that you can’t process as you’re watching them and that stayed with me for the rest of my life and something that ties a nice neat bow on the end um is, you know, too easy to forget.

MB: Does this idea that goes around – and see what you make of it – write what you know. Have you found that’s been any help?

HT: I started writing very young and I didn’t know much so I think I would have got to a dead end quite quickly if I’d only written something that I know but I think – perhaps instinctively – even now I look for what I know within what I don’t know. There’s always a sort of navigating moment where one identifies with something. For example, when I was adapting ‘Little Women’, it was a book I thought I knew because I’d read it over and over again from childhood and when I came back to it as a woman of 55 to adapt it for the screen I had to navigate through it by looking for what I knew and for what I remembered and what I actually found – which was so much richer – was a very complex novel about love and grief and loss and growing up. That was for me… at all times I was looking for things that did feel familiar so I think it’s about finding that balance. I mean I have led quite a tedious existence. If I wrote about what I know it would just be really boring (audience laughter)

MB: That’s what you’ve done, not what you know. What you know includes what you’ve read and… what other people have told you…

HT: I think sometimes I find things that I don’t know. There was a scene, again in ‘Little Women’, which in the novel is just one line where it describes how Jo used to go to her father for consolation after the loss of her sister and I lost a teenage brother when I was still in my teens and I was able to put words in their mouths that I, that existed within me but had never found their expression before. So I suppose that was the case of me using something from my personal lexicon if you will, to create dialogue and put something on the screen.

MB: Jed.

JM: Well I had an unusual route into writing for TV. I went to medical school and I practised as a doctor and I got involved as an advisor initially and so I was very fortunate that the first thing I wrote was very much about my primary experience of working in the NHS in hospital medicine in the sort of early to mid-90s. So that absolutely informed my first series because it was revisionist of the dramas that were on at that time which… they’re still going, those juggernauts that will last forever. ‘Casualty’ and ‘Holby’ will be on long after the world is dust (audience laughter) and these other medical dramas that try and approach it differently just come and go and they’re just not, you know, these things are like cockroaches, you just can’t kill them. So I was kind of reacting against something that was already part of the TV orthodoxy – even the TV dogma – so I had an enormous advantage.

MB: That was ‘Cardiac Arrest’ but what made you want to do it in the first place? You’re a doctor, you also trained to be an RAF pilot which you managed to do both at the same time. Anyway never mind, it’s unimaginable I suppose, as far as I’m concerned, to do those two things. But what made you want to write it?

JM: It was actually a response to the advisor role which was asking for doctors to come forward to volunteer to advise on a medical drama that was in development and as it turned out – I know that production companies rarely do this – it was just a big lie because they didn’t have anything very significant in development. They were kind of scrabbling around a bit and so I started giving them advice on how you might do something about the field that I knew which was hospital medicine from the viewpoint of the junior doctors and there just came a point where they felt that it would be better unfiltered. Rather than them talking to a writer who would then put the doctors on a pedestal and make the nurses lovely and all those things, that actually it might be simpler for them if I did it and I then just became quite convinced that I needed to get the message out. It felt like an opportunity.

MB: The message being?

JM: The message being that what was being portrayed on television was um very much a sanitised version of what was going on in hospitals to the extent that its reference points seemed either to only have existed decades before or may be to never have existed. And so what was happening was that medical dramas were just feeding off other medical dramas about how doctors behaved, how consultants behaved, how nurses behaved and so forth. So it felt like it was an opportunity to put out there something that changed the conversation around the working conditions in the NHS.

MB: And it had that jarring effect when it came on?

JM: Yeah it completely solved all the problems in the NHS (audience laughter) Everything’s fine now (audience laughter)

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MB: Would you have anything to say about that Steve?

SP: Yeah well obviously Reece and I came to writing really via acting, you know, so for us I think it was a question of how do we give ourselves the roles that no-one else is giving us…

RS: It’s all we do it for (audience laughter)

SP: … and then gradually over time I think the writer has stepped forth and hopefully improved and now we don’t think of being that way. Yeah we certainly, the first things that we wrote were all about Restart rooms, really bad theatre companies, strange northern towns where you couldn’t wait to get out but you couldn’t somehow escape (audience laughter) so all of those things were brought to bear, you know, they were our first impulses and now we’ve ended up with ‘Inside No.9’ where we kind of write about anything. You do have to be drawn, something has to draw you to the subject in the first place and like you say you find – even if it’s something you don’t know much about – you find your way into it via a character, by something you’ve read, via another piece of television you’ve seen or a movie you’ve seen. There’s all, that thing, there’s your life experiences which, you know, as a writer might be quite limited and what you draw from other people’s as well.

RS: It can backfire cos I remember when we finally did ‘The League of Gentlemen’ on TV and we… I was sat, felt like vindication that I was filming our own television series and I was in a Restart room doing the Pauline sketches where I had experienced them in real life and I thought ‘I’m back on the fucking dole’ (audience laughter) It’s like being back in there so it was full circle. It was like a depressing week. It’s reliving it. Yeah that was very much taken from real life.

MB: The… you’ve all written comedy. I mean you er… is that a, are you in a different place, different gear from that? What about you? Start with you again Jed.

JM: Yeah I tried to get a lot of humour into ‘Cardiac Arrest’, the first series I wrote, and inevitably a lot of it got cut out for the time reasons, basically the thing that we were talking about, about cutting stuff down to fill the slot, so… there was definitely a desire to have um comedy counterpoint the darker elements of that and also just the gallows humour felt like something that was important as a way of challenging the very earnest way in which people talked on medical dramas. You know the way medical dramas tend to work is that someone comes into hospital with their medical problem and then what happens is remarkably they find someone who gives a shit about their personal problems and then gives them a talking cure for the episode whereas in real life that just doesn’t happen. You go in with a personal problem no-one gives a toss, so that earnestness was something that I wanted to challenge and the way to challenge it was through humour.

MB: Yeah. And to challenge comfort TV. You two, you’re challenging it and doing the same thing there aren’t you?

SP: Yeah I mean we like to, you know…

MB: What has been called comfort TV… I can’t remember which one of you said it. Yeah. Yes.

SP: I think we stumbled upon this format which allows us to take risks with how we present a half hour of television so we’ve enjoyed doing that over different episodes but, you know,  humour is something which any drama should have and drama is something that any comedy should have… they really, you don’t separate them in your mind and sometimes when you’re trying to come up with a joke it’s the most serious-minded thing and you construct it in a… we’re not sitting around killing ourselves laughing. I remember…

RS: God no (audience laughter)

SP: … the first joke in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ which is a guy reading a letter on a train and it was taking us into the… we knew we needed a hard joke to come in on to show people it was a comedy and we just sit and pondered it  and thought right when you’re introducing a… we watched the opening few minutes of things like ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Northern Exposure’ and ‘Tales of the City’, anything where a character comes into a world and in a number of them they use narration, so we had this character reading a letter and then as you pull out you see it’s the old lady sitting next to him on the train (audience laughter) who’s reading his letter and it worked a treat but it was constructed. It was done, you know, it was not just ‘Oh I’ve got a great gag’, you know, and we’ve all got the mate down the pub who tells … who’s the funniest guy around the table. I mean, you know, I have and it’s never me but that person wouldn’t necessarily know how to take what skill they have and create something with it and I think that’s what you learn over many years, months and hours of writing.

MB: There’s a deep yearning for comfort TV. I mean ‘Call the Midwife’ is called ‘comfort TV’. It’s very difficult to watch a lot of the time. I mean there’s people in agony giving birth, there’s people – you saw a tiny clip with the thalidomide baby – and on it goes. Does it being thought of in that way upset you or is there something about the public that’s going to find that, if it possibly can, in whatever circumstance?

HT: Well I think it goes back to what we were saying at the very beginning which is what are stories for? Do people escape into them, do they feel inspired by them, consoled by them, whatever. And the funny thing is I’ve never actually written comedy and in fact over recent years I’ve got a reputation for making people cry. The episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ are judged according to, you know, is it tissues, is it toilet rolls, is it kitchen roll, how much are people crying and… but in a weird way people are consoled by their own tears and I think time and time (again) when I get personal letters from people it’s often because the show’s given them a form of catharsis. Perhaps they’ve wept over somebody dying in ‘Call the Midwife’ when they didn’t weep 20 years ago over a death of a friend. I mean that’s a very raw and reductive way of putting it but I think people are comforted when they feel something even if that feeling is sadness or empathy, a painful empathy for somebody’s who’s, you know, suffering in some way.

MB: But in terms of what the audiences will take, some of the – from the very beginning – some of the episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ were way ahead of what people had seen about childbirth on television. I mean it was close-up, literally close-up and it was agony and it was serious agony and you feared for the life of both the people concerned.

HT: And quite rightly. It was 1957 and gas and air hadn’t been invented. You know there was much to fear. But I think one of the interesting things for me about ‘Call the Midwife’ is that when we were writing it we presumed it was going to go out at 9 o’clock. That was the slot we were prepping for. So in other words post-watershed and about 20 minutes in the first episode there’s a character who hops up on a bed and removes her unattractive drawers and says ‘I’ve had some shocking discharge’ (audience laughter) and we thought that was fine at 9 o’clock but there was a collective gasp because nobody had said ‘discharge’ at 8 o’clock (audience laughter) which was when we were put on and when we found out the show was actually going to be on at 8 o’clock on a Sunday night Dame Pippa Harris and I wept in the office because we felt (A) the show had been underestimated in terms of what we were hoping to achieve in terms of candour and perhaps pushing the envelope a bit in terms of women’s health particularly but also we thought that if we did get a second series we wouldn’t be allowed to do the things we’d done in the first series. And what we have found over time is the audience can take an awful lot. They can take the word vagina and, you know, and we show placentas on a regular basis. We’ve got, you know, numerous placentas made of silicone. We show that. We can’t show a lot of blood interestingly and I remember once saying there was loads of blood on telly last week and they said ‘Ah but that’s crime’ (audience laughter) that’s alright’. So there are physical rules but I’m always guided by… I remember hearing an interview that Charlie Chaplin gave when, sort of in the late 1940s, so he’s a man reflecting back on his career and he said the most brilliant thing. He said ‘I have never written down to my audience’ and I thought that was fantastic. You respect your audience, understand that they can take hard things, perhaps, you know, perhaps wrapped in an attractive wrapping… There are times in ‘Call the Midwife’ when I think some people may not want this but if they… I say it’s sort of a bit like a trifle. You can scoop the top layer off, the fluff and the cream and just enjoy that if you want to but underneath there is, there are harsher truths… or fruit.

MB: How much do you er… Jed, how much are you involved with your characters to the extent of saying I won’t let him or her go because the audiences, not because they’re popular… but the audiences, I’ve got somebody there the audience identify with, are very fond of, very interested in the development of and is there ever a tension between it’ll be good if they were killed off or it be better if they stay alive?

JM: Well it’s always got to be about what’s in the best interests of the series. Clearly it’s not in the best interests of the character to be dead so the way I would approach it is look at what new story you get from that and if the audience’s got a real attachment to a character it means they’re then invested in whether there’ll be justice for that character or if there’s a mystery around it they’ll be invested in finding out what might have actually befallen them.

MB: Yeah. Can we just talk for a moment about adaptation. You’ve both done adaptations… you might want to comment on it. You did D.H. Lawrence and you’ve done ‘Cranford’. Is that an entirely different operation?

HT: I think I use the same skills and the same approach, certainly to storytelling and mostly I’ve done adaptations that have not been obvious. They’re either unfinished or as with ‘Cranford’ it was an amalgam of three novellas. So I think it’s also very interesting that nobody’s first big job is an adaptation, it’s something you come to much further down the line and yet even from other writers you hear ‘Oh well it’s so easy for you’, ‘It’s much easier when somebody’s done the story and written the dialogue’ but to take a novel or a novella and convert it into a piece of screen drama it’s like taking, you know, a 1930s dance dress and turning it into a trouser suit, it’s a different genre. You have to dismantle it and reconstruct it. So um, but in many ways it’s about, you know, how do we introduce these characters, how do we get into this world, what happens when we’re in there, how do we pull away and get perspective on it and that’s the same whether you’re creating original material or working with something written 150 years ago.

MB: Yeah but the one difference… you’ve got working for you… that you would respect… do you feel I can’t let this work down? Does that enter into it?

HT: Oh I mean completely. You can’t… there’s two, you know, big terrors in adaptation. One is you can’t let the book down and the other is you can’t let the readership down because people expect certain things of an adaptation of a book that they know well, whether it’s Lawrence or something like ‘Little Women’. I don’t know how I had the nerve, you know, it’s one of those things where you think I love this book so much I couldn’t resist the offer to adapt ‘Little Women’ but I knew there were 10 million women worldwide who would bay for my blood if I got it wrong and that took a lot of the pleasure away (audience laughter) It really did and… but it is about trying to identify that which is sacred within the book and burnishing and nurturing that to the best of your advantage knowing that ultimately every adaptation is judged not by what you put in but by what you leave out.

MB: What about ‘Lady Chatterley’?

JM: Yeah I mean that’s going back and probably I was susceptible more to the commissioning preferences then. You know it’s, I’m in a fortunate position now where I don’t have to do adaptations.

MB: So you had to do it because it was a job that came your way at a time you wanted a job?

JM: Yeah it was an opportunity and I was sort, you know, I’m a full-time working writer and the time it came we had no idea of the future of ‘Line of Duty’. I think we’d shot series two but we had no idea what was going to happen next and, you know, if series two hadn’t been successful then the series would be over. So it was an opportunity to do something where fundamentally it was greenlit. You know the channel had decided that they wanted to include it in a series of adaptations of early 20th century novels and if I didn’t do it they’d offer it to some other creator of dodgy thrillers or whoever else it would be that was in line.  So I thought well I read this as a kid. Basically the only major literary figure that I ever felt any affinity for because we’d done Lawrence for English ‘O’ level, which was the last English I’d done, and I grew up in a small mining town in the Midlands and he wrote about working class characters so there were a lot of affinities there that made me feel that it was a good project to take on. But I completely agree with everything Heidi just said about the different um interpretations of how an adaptation is successful. You don’t normally get criticised for another story you could have told for a piece of work you’ve done because nobody has any idea what else you could have done whereas if they’d read the book they’ll have an opinion and obviously the critics think they’ve read the book and so they’ll have an opinion, which just proves they don’t know anything but they’ll still put it out there, so it’s a bit of a… I do find it a bit of a poisoned chalice.

MB: Yeah. Do you feel that you’re working, I mean you take things from other film directors and you, you don’t adapt and change them. Is there any similarity to what Heidi and Jed have been saying in what you two do, Reece, Steve?

RS: Well Steve did adapt ‘Mapp and Lucia’ so that was…

MB: Of course yeah… but ‘Inside No.9’…?

sbslivecarr1(c) G. Carr

RS: ‘No.9’ is a magpie’s nest of… as all our work -written work – has been really. The sketches of League were four young men that were just given a television series and suddenly were able to do that bit from ‘The Shining’ and do that bit from ‘Don’t Look Now’ and we were just enjoying all our references laid bare and in the hands of Steve Bendelack, who directed it – who got all those references – it was a joy to do. But you look back on it now and it’s quite a strange mix of things. It looks like an artist’s palette with the splodges of everything on it and I think we tried to hone and be more disciplined about how we take our inspiration and, you know, tonally ‘No.9’ is really great to write because we get to change up every week, so we can do the more psychological one that we can think is a bit more of a Pinter play and then we can do something that’s very broad and slapsticky the next week so…

MB: Or a silent film?

RS: Or a silent film yeah and that was a great thing to do. It’s funny talking about the time slot that you get, that’s an interesting thing because a lot of ‘No.9’ is very, I think, not that dark at all. I mean I’ve got a twisted sensibility but… (audience laughter) My threshold is different to everyone else’s but sometimes I think this could be on at 8 o’clock easily and people would like it. We got, we’ve been pegged at a certain time with the expectation of this darkness and I think that sometimes goes against what we do, especially with it being deemed a comedy. I mean none of them are very funny but sometimes I think we get away with – we affect people more because they – it comes in the guise of a comedy so you’re geared up to watch extensively the slot that ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ is in and then you get something that makes you cry and that, it blindsides you a little bit because you’re not prepared for it and I think that works in our favour sometimes.

MB: The business of you and Heidi – and I’d like to bring in the others – you work against, inside and against – institutions. What does that give you Jed?

JM: Well I think there’s still a lot of drama that represents institutions in the way they want to be represented. You know when we started doing ‘Line of Duty’ we sought the co-operation of the Metropolitan Police to be advisors on it and we very quickly realised that that is PR led. If you’re, if you’re giving a version of the police that they want to propagate they’ll help out. Now I’m not saying that, you know, that they should stop investigating crimes and help out TV shows (audience laughter) but the fact that they do help out some TV shows and they very specifically wouldn’t help us out, it is, I think it says a lot and, you know, I also – in writing about medicine – I tended to tell stories which were about the darker side of medicine. The way in which say negligence is covered up and the… all the political manoeuvring around those things and actually those things have remained prevalent in our institutions all through my writing career. There are maybe a few things that come and go with fashion but fundamentally the institutions are there to promote their own well-being, not to do the job they were originally founded to do and that’s something that I think a lot of drama doesn’t really tackle and obviously there are lots of reasons for that.

MB: Do you find the same with the… you’re a great advocate of the NHS?

HT: I am an advocate of the NHS. What’s interesting with ‘Call the Midwife’ is that it’s a drama, well we’ve now covered eight or nine years of history, we’re in series 9. With every series another year passes by and when we started the drama was set in 1957 when the NHS was up and running in the most spectacular way. But over the nine years that we’ve been, you know, in the East End watching midwives at work, hospitals at work, there’s huge change, even within people’s expectations. You know at the beginning of every series I say ‘What’s the prescription situation?’ because sometimes prescriptions were free, sometimes they’re being charged for. It was a constant political hot potato so every year I read Hansard and see what they were arguing about. But I think the thing about the NHS is – to my mind – it was part of the engine of social change and development in mid-century Britain. So often we see the NHS operating hand-in-hand with what we would now call mental health services and there are different rules in play. There are different rules for the poor. There are different rules for women. There are different rules for the mentally-challenged and constantly what I find is not, I’m not writing a drama that’s set in an institution or is about institutionalised medicine but it’s what are the axes between medicine and society and how is our perception of ourselves and society affected by medical change.

MB: Steve and Reece when you’re creating characters, do you stay with the character that you have created or do you change them or do you develop them between you? How does it work the two of you working together on a character?  We had a little bit in that snippet…

SP: Yeah well we often don’t decide in advance which character we’re going to play and I think in that way… one of the earliest things we discovered is that if you write every character as if you are going to play them as the actor then you will make each character interesting because no-one wants to be stuck as an actor with a duff… (audience laughter) you know, ‘Yes Sarge’ kind of character. And I think that’s stood us in good stead and we will look – once we’ve finished – when we’ve got six scripts say for ‘Inside No.9’, we’ll want it to be a fair distribution of characters and we’d want to play different types of characters. So we have a kind of horse-trading session where we kind of, you know, it’s a bit like a card game, ‘Okay if I’m Hector then you can be Edward’ and um we’ll share them out and it seems to work.

RS: Yeah. I mean we’ve… to go back to that point of killing your characters, we very deliberately in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ killed off what we thought were our… cos we got a bit annoyed that people thought it was catchphrasy and a bit easy so we killed Tubbs and Edward – the local shop people – in the beginning of series three thinking… it was a stupid idea, we shouldn’t never have done it (audience laughter)

SP: We brought them back.

RS: We brought them back immediately (audience laughter) but yeah we thought we don’t want to be, at any level, that we were treading water or we’re doing the same thing over and over so we thought we’ll get rid of our most popular characters (audience laughter) Stupid idea (audience laughter) Don’t do it.

MB: Well we’ve talked for the length of time we said we’d talk. I’ll come back to the panel at the very end but if you’ve any… can we put the lights on and have questions. There’s a microphone around if anyone wants to ask a question… I don’t know who’s got the microphone. Yes, somebody at the back. If you see a hand can you pop a microphone into it? That’s the best way…

Audience member: I just want to ask what would your advice be to new writers trying to get into TV? Specifically with regards to rejections please. Thanks.

SP: Well I found that, you know, writing off letters as an actor you get the rejections… are more painful cos its literally they send back your CV with a staple through it. As a writer I found that when you did get a rejection at least somebody would write something, an opinion of what you’d done and I think having that process, if you do get someone who writes you a nice letter back or seems to understand at least what you were trying to do – maybe it wasn’t right at that time – its finding the right people to work with, which is essential and the right producers and executive producers. And they are the doorway between you in your office and your blank pages and this commission and um so I think if you’re lucky enough to find somebody in one of those positions you keep working with them, don’t you?

dscf1231(c) Dodoswords

HT: I agree and I remember after I started to make some headway in my own career, a writer who was sort of starting out said ‘But I just can’t get the meetings with heads of drama’ and in actual fact I would say, for example, I executive produce ‘Call the Midwife’ with Pippa Harris and we met on our first TV jobs, you know, in the days when people wore leggings in the office. I mean this was about… I think it was about 1991-1992 and we’re sort of executive producing together now but we started our relationship when she was so junior she didn’t have a desk. We used to sit on a chair in the corridor and meet. So I would say look for other people who are starting out to make those connections with, as Steve said. And the other thing that – while I have the platform – is a lot of new writers come to me and they say ‘Well I’m developing a series and I’ve written 8 episodes but it’s a 12 parter’ and I say ‘Stop’. Nobody wants to read your 8 episodes. You write one really good spec script that you feel represents you well and the first thing I would say is – I do also know new coming writers who go direct to producers – and if you put some energy into trying to find an agent who can do that for you, once you’ve done your first spec script and developed other ideas, the agent will then work for you while you write a second thing and a third thing and start to practice with your own voice because I think having two or three irons in the fire when you start out also helps you cope with rejection because nobody ever had three projects rejected all on the same day, all in the same week. So there will always be, you know, you need to sort of cast your net wide and stay very focused because everybody gets rejection when they start out and, you know, the business needs new writers. It really needs new writers and just keep at it really.

MB: Who’s next?

Audience member: So if you could go back in time and start your careers again is there anything you’d do differently or change anything about them, about writing and stuff?

JM: Yeah I’d miss the middle bit out (audience laughter) um I think it goes back to the first question about coping with when things go wrong. You do learn from that and its, you know, I still get rejections now in terms of projects that I really believe in and people don’t want to make them for whatever reason and you’ve got to find the right relationships and that’s something I probably learned after the event. You know it’s that classic thing ‘Experience is the quality you have just after you needed it’ and the fact is that there were a couple of projects that I got involved in after I became established where in retrospect I was working with the wrong people on the wrong thing and so it… that ended up being a number of years before I corrected that. So it’s just an endorsement of the advice the others have given.

HT: I once went five years without a green light and that wasn’t at the beginning of my career it was the middle passage. I got off to a flying start. I was, looking back, I was quite lucky, but five years without a green light whilst being constantly commissioned is really hard and most of us will encounter that at some point.

JM: You end up taking adaptations (audience laughter)

MB: Over there.

Audience member: Hi. You’ve talked about time slots. Do you think the TV schedule is fixed or do you think the death of appointment to view is going to change TV writing?

MB: Who wants to take that on?

JM: Well apparently appointment to view’s dead so my stuff knackered isn’t it.

HT: We all work for the BBC don’t we? I mean I think people are curating their own viewing now in a completely different way and I think what’s going to change television, you know, with people viewing when they want – what they want, when they want – is my fear is it’s going to reduce the dialogue we have with each other… I was born in 1962 and in the 70s TV was the glue that kept everyone together, but I had lunch with a friend yesterday I hadn’t seen for a while and the whole conversation was ‘Have you seen?’ ‘No but have you seen?’ and he’d watched six things, I’d watched six things and even though we have similar tastes there was no dialogue because our recent experience of the medium was not overlapping in any way and that’s what I regret rather than it being about the academics of which slot we aim for – if those slots are going to be superseded – is where is television going when there is so much out there and we’re collating our viewing schedules at random.

RS: Yeah I don’t think that the new um way of consuming telly – with the fact that you can, you know, just decide what your night’s menu will be – is seemingly having any effect on the time frame of programmes. They all just seem the same. You’ve got your hour, your 45, your 22, your 30. That seems to, I’ve not heard any whisperings that that’s going to change for any reason.

JM: Yeah and pre versus post watershed. I mean it certainly hasn’t affected the vast majority of commissioning that goes on.

MB: Right in front of you…

Audience member: I’m an actress primarily but I’ve just suddenly written two short films – 10 minute films, someone’s interested in them – and what interested me was that I was able to choose all the actors that I wanted and that made me feel really relaxed because I chose them. Do you as writers have any influence on the casting of your writing?

RS: Yes (audience laughter)

Audience member: Well give me a part.

RS: We cull anyone we don’t want.

SP: It’s one of the great joys…

RS: It is yeah.

SP: … once you’ve finished the slog writing the scripts is to have this, you know, this kind of ‘Spotlight’ and we have so many brilliant actors in this country. We’re working our way through them in ‘Inside No. 9’ and um it’s a real joy and I think to work with people who you’ve worked with before is a real joy as well. So there’s nothing, you know, we try not to go back on ‘Inside No. 9’ but um its… when you know that everyone’s going to be making the same programme it’s so important because that’s something that can often happen on a big production, small production whatever, if different actors are in different shows and different producers think they’re making a different show to the director and things that millions of pounds are spent on them don’t have a centre and they can fall apart very easily. So yeah I think it’s great to be able to pick who you work with.

dscf1235(c) Dodoswords

HT: I love finding new talent because we have, sort of, a younger and an older generation, certainly within ‘Call the Midwife’. When we cast a new, you know, new midwife a couple of years ago I was looking at the tapes and somebody will shine out at you and they perhaps not done anything on camera before and that’s beautiful because then you start to look for the resonances between that actor and the character, especially if they’re young and inexperienced. Sometimes you have to almost coax them along and make sure you’re giving them the material that they can work with and I find that as thrilling as, you know, someone like Miriam Margolyes going on chat shows saying ‘I want to be in ‘Call the Midwife’ cos I had always wanted Miriam Margolyes to be in ‘Call the Midwife’ so it was a brilliant marriage but you know she will be fantastic, but when you bring somebody out, almost out of drama school and you find out that they’re fantastic it’s so, well, inspiring. It gives me a real shot in the arm really.

MB: What about working with a – for a while anyway – with a set, with a cast, a company like… Jed, when you work with ‘Line of Duty’ for instance?

JM: Yeah I mean I think that it’s no accident that we have the same three leads. I mean they’re really good actors but also they get on really well with each other. We all get on very well and if that hadn’t happened one of them would have been, you know, killed in some (audience laughter) in some completely unexpected way that propelled the story forward (audience laughter) But um yeah I think that… I’m in this very fortunate position to be a showrunner so I am very involved in the cast and in the casting and so um it’s about finding people who are the right fit for the world of the show. You know, people who are credibly part of that and a lot of that is then defined by the kind of actors you already have, you know, because we have three actors whose acting style is, feels very authentic to being police officers. We can’t necessarily bring someone in who appears like they’re from a very different background or from a very different way of approaching the scripts or the performance requirements. So it ends up becoming kind of a synthesis between the existing cast and the script and the new people coming in.

MB: But it’s rather like a rep company. Directors who run theatres have rep companies and they use it to great advantage because they know… its shorthand of talking that can get more out of them the more they know them. Is that not a factor as well, the positive factor?

JM: Absolutely yeah. I mean that was just a specific example of kind of character continuity within one series. Obviously if you then are working on something else and you start to look at casts, so in say ‘Bodyguard’, Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes were both actors I’d worked with before and once they were mentioned in connection with the series then it was just helpful to have had that experience. You know, you know how hard it is to film television drama, you need people who aren’t nuts and aren’t lazy and, you know, you just don’t know sometimes so if you have worked with someone and they’ve passed that particular test then it’s helpful.

MB: So the ‘nuts and lazy’ test is early on is it?

JM: Apparently it doesn’t apply to being the leader of the Conservative Party (audience laughter)

HT: I think the other thing though with the rep company set up is we don’t, as the writers, don’t always have control over whether people stay or not. You know for me ‘Call the Midwife’ has run for nine years and has been an exercise in noble forbearance when young ladies come on the show and three years later they decide it’s time to go to Hollywood and every time it’s like a stab through the heart but I’ve now learned that that actually refreshes the brand and refreshes the company and you bring in new characters and new stories, but I now know the signs and when I see the signs coming I think ‘Oh Hollywood beckons’. I start to think of how I will move them to one side and it’s like a bereavement but I’ve also become quite sort of ruthless about it and I just have to prepare for the worst but it’s not always the choice of the showrunner who stays really.

MB: And… someone down here. Can you keep your hand up?

Audience member: Hi Reece and Steve. I was just wondering you do such brilliant things with the format of the episode of ‘Inside No.9’ when you kind of do things that you wouldn’t expect looking at the format, like the silent episode, the live episode, the episode where – I think it’s called ‘Twice Removed’ – where the timeline is, of what actually happens, is kind of fractured to such great effect. I was wondering when you look at those kind of episodes do you, does the idea for ‘this is a great thing that we can do’ come first or is it does the format fit the story or the other way round, if that makes sense?

RS: Yeah a bit of both. Um we wanted to do a, we thought it would be good to do a silent episode so that was let’s just see how far we can get and then um… We enjoy now thinking about how to tell the stories and grab the audience in a different way, you know, people are very sophisticated, like I said earlier, so to think about how you’re actually consuming the story in a different way. Doing the live episode of – for the Halloween last year – it was fine and we didn’t really want to do it because we thought well everybody does it now… ‘Eastenders’ do it, ‘Casualty’ do it and we thought… but to do it and have a reason to do it, it suddenly caught fire in our imaginations when we thought well the thing, the reason why you watch those things is if it’s going to go wrong. Is it going to go right? Am I going to see an actor fluff his lines, that’s the most that usually happens and then we thought well let’s take advantage of it perhaps completely breaking down and having the test card come up and ‘We’re very sorry’. We were getting texts on the night of people ‘Oh I’m so sorry. You worked so hard’ (audience laughter) so it was delightful because it worked absolutely as a prank type thing but it propelled the idea of the whole episode which was great. That was an example of just enjoying the way of storytelling and, you know, the backwards episode that we did where every 10 minutes it went from the end to the beginning. That was a new way of revealing information and hopefully it was a complicated thing to do but it was… It’s just all about those new half hours. The ‘No.9s’ are really hard because each week it’s a whole other world, whole new world and it’s just to not be boring and not repeat ourselves and it’s an exercise in that isn’t it?

SP: Yeah I mean the format on its own as interesting isn’t a story and it doesn’t drive the narrative so it’s interesting to come up with, you know, a new device for telling a story but you still need the story to tell because people are forever coming up to us and going ‘I’ve got a brilliant idea for you. No.9 bus’ (audience laughter) There you go… so you have to…

RS: So yeah then what?

SP: … you have to, you know, make it work but in answer to your question, um yes we often in those stories where there is an interesting narrative device it usually is that first and then how do we make it work to tell the best story.

MB: Yes over there.

Audience member: Hi Heidi. I’ve got a question about your writing process. Curious about how much of it you’ll be happy to reveal. With such a long running programme I’m kind of curious how you keep each episode… give it a fresh concept or something like that but also because this show seems so… the characters are very rich, very sort of anyway identifiable in some way and whether they’re leading it or whether you’re coming up with a theme and then beating the whole thing out or… yeah.

HT: It’s a good question because at the beginning of every series I think how did we do it last time because it seemed to work and we’re doing another one. I think what’s enabled ‘Call the Midwife’ to go on for such a long time – cos we’re making series 9 now – is because we do a Christmas Special every year, every series covers a year in time so I always start with historic and medical research and I like to have two stories for each episode. One will be what you could broadly call an ‘A’ story which might… it’s usually a medical story but it might not be a birth. Then there will be – and that can take us into a new world, for example, a character lives on a barge or we might visit a culture we haven’t seen before like the Sikh culture. Then there’ll be a ‘B’ story where we try to use our standing sets for reasons of economy cos it’s the BBC, so that has to sort of have a smaller physical scope and then I lace around that the series arcs or personal little stories for characters that might not span a whole series but might pick up from episode to episode. So that’s how you collate the raw material and then I’ll write… I write the lion’s share of the episodes but not every single one because I love bringing guest writers on who maybe haven’t written for this sort of slot before, like if there’s maybe a 5 or 6 page treatment they’ll come back to me with a 14 or 15 page treatment and then I’ll oversee the drafts, but I mention that because it’s not dictatorial on my part. There’s always a dialogue either between myself and the guest writer or between myself and that episode because we’re character driven and we don’t have a format and like a lot of BBC dramas there’s no compulsion to create a hook in the middle of episode or a series beat. Things can spread to fit the space available. It might be more appropriate to have a slower pace for example and we’ve never had a format but time and again I find out there are rules that I didn’t know I’d written. Like after a couple of series we realised its totally counterproductive once a lady… once you can see the baby’s head you can’t cut away to another strand in the episode. That baby has to be born because nobody wants to leave the delivery room unless it’s to either see another baby being born or somebody dying (audience laughter) So it’s only when I write an episode and think this birth is not landing and I’m like oh that’s because I’ve gone off to the horticultural show (audience laughter) you know, just as the shoulders are being born and so I think that’s it. There’s no format but there are rules and if you respond to the rules your drama creates its… it will, you know, it will retain its balance I think. And the other thing, as I’ve mentioned before, don’t be afraid of change. Over a nine year period things will change. I mean the look of the show is completely different, the colour palette is different but I got half an episode on the invention of tights (audience laughter) and sometimes little things like that you think actually it makes it a bit fun because in the next episode there’s a baby with no limbs found dead on a draining board so let’s go with the tights (audience laughter) … so in the next episode, sorry, we can really go into those darker places because when, you know, the series arc as a whole is not bludgeoning and without, you know, without remorse really.

MB: At the front there. Hello is there a microphone? Oh there you are.

Audience member: Steve you mentioned earlier about the construction of a joke and how difficult it is when you’re sitting there. I wanted to ask this quite simple question about how you all deal with writers’ block when you’re just sitting there and can’t think of anything?

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SP: We are very lucky in that we are a writing partnership so what we do is that we talk and talk and talk and, you know, if we don’t actually write anything or we don’t even turn the computer on the day hasn’t been wasted because we will have had discussions around it. Um I have written things on my own and found it really hard to dig your way out of that um but, you know, the greatest tyranny is the blank page and you just have to get something on the page and I know that’s the most basic piece of advice and I have to tell it to myself every single time I sit down to write. But once you start, even if you don’t know where it’s going or you think it’s not right or you know it’s not feeling, just keep going, push through it is the best way because it’s in those revisions and corrections and seeing what you’ve got at the end um that will spur you on to make it better, but you can’t make a blank page better. It still remains a blank page.

HT: Somebody once said to me – because I have writer’s block every day of my life – there’s an hour where I sit there and think ‘I don’t know how I’m going to start today’, but somebody once said to me the most brilliant thing – and I will say it to any writer -which is first drafts don’t have to be perfect they just have to be written because once you’ve got your first draft, however ragged and full of holes it is and however much you’re embarrassed by it when you re-encounter it, you can then start to make it better. If you haven’t written it you can’t make it any better and I found that sometimes has been like the little lifebelt I cling to. On a bad day just write anything…

SP: Absolutely, yeah.

MB: Jed?

JM: Yeah it’s a process. You know, I think that um you, well you never write a perfect script. You just don’t. So you’ve got to just keep exploring the story and even if you go back over your day’s work and realise it hasn’t worked and you’ve got to start again then you’ve learned something you didn’t know. So I think you just have to accept that it’s something that doesn’t work like a production line. You have to figure some things out and sometimes you spend more time figuring things outs than actually writing them and other days you’ve figured a few things out and so there’s a lot of natural story that allows you to flow through the plot.

RS: We’ll often write a script that’s got the written word and then ‘blah blah blah brackets a joke here’ (audience laughter) or we’ll write something and think that’s not right but we’ll go back and we never do (audience laughter) So these terrible scripts are our scripts (audience laughter)

MB: At the back there.

Audience member: Just talk(ing) about scripts. I wondered how much – I was going to say interference but maybe I’ll just say input – you get from your uppers? And maybe that’s a really naïve question…

MB: It’s a very loaded question.

Audience member: … Do you listen to them? Do you react to it? You know, what stage of the script gets delivered on screen?

SP: Well from our point of view, you know, we started out as a team as The League of Gentlemen and we were a core already so we weren’t kind of in the market for somebody else to come and tell us what our comedy was and we were very, very lucky to get collaborators and collaborators are totally essential and we’ve managed to keep that going by and large and like I said earlier about finding good producers and executive producers to work with. I have had experiences of notes which er – on other things that haven’t been necessarily my own, you know, creation, I’ve just written stuff – and it’s very, very hard to deal with that, with that rejection essentially. It’s bad enough having your idea rejected or ‘we’re not going to make it’ but then once you’ve written it to have it rejected again and the worst thing I think someone’s said to me was ‘I think you’re two or three drafts away’, thereby meaning that the second and third draft I did you were still going to send it back to me (audience laughter) so you’ve pre-decided that this isn’t any good and yeah its… I don’t know, you guys may be will know more about drama compared to comedy but I think it’s…

MB: Heidi what about you?

HT: Well I remember writing one kind of drama that was never made, about the love life of the young Benjamin Disraeli and it wasn’t going well, which wasn’t for want of subject matter. But the script editor sat me down and I thought oh this is a ‘talking to’ meeting and he said ‘Now listen Heidi’. He said ‘I think what you need to do is write out all your characters in the form of a bar chart’ and I still don’t know what he meant (audience laughter) I’m going back about 18 years now and if you knew, I think… well what his crime was wasn’t in not liking my script but it was not knowing me well enough to know that I failed CSE Maths and that was like lower than GCSE Maths… a bar chart was going to be of no use to me. I work in a different way. And I think… now I’m very lucky. I don’t, you know, I’m actually sort of training up script editors because script editing has become a sort of an entry level job in our profession. I don’t think that’s a bad thing but sometimes I know a bit more than the script editor so nobody makes those sort of suggestions to me anymore. But I think you, I think when people try to give you advice you have to try not to perceive it as interference but as somebody genuinely trying to support you and sometimes it just helps you to acknowledge that what you’ve written is no good and that’s the beginning of improvement hopefully.

RS: You can get good notes that do highlight something that you had a niggle about yourself, then and so you think, yeah that’s, they’ve… you know, they’ve honed in on something that we weren’t sure about so there must be something wrong with that thing. But it’s when you don’t trust the judgment of the person it’s hard to navigate, cos you think well I’ve been working on this for so long, you’ve cursorily looked over it and I don’t believe… I don’t want to unpick it because of this thing you’ve said. So we don’t (audience laughter)

MB: What about you Jed?

JM: Yeah I think that it’s definitely part of your job and its part of the process that people are going to give you feedback and I think as a writer you’ve got to develop the ability to do that. You’ve got to be able to not only accept feedback but seek it. You won’t develop as a writer unless you have an opportunity to hear how people are reading your scripts and what their interpretation is of what you’ve written. Sometimes it’s very illuminating when they say ‘I just don’t get what’s going on in this scene’ and you ask them what’s confusing them and sometimes it can just hone in on something that shows that your intention as a writer isn’t coming through. But I also understand that the question is also about the terrible notes you sometimes get from executives and how you deal with that and there is no way of dealing with it. All you can do is move on, you know, it’s… They’re never going to say ‘Oh you know what? I’ve just had this incredible epiphany that I’m an idiot’. No executive’s ever going to do that. They’re going to stick by their notes through thick and thin and, you know, sometimes you get people who just constantly give terrible notes because they don’t get what the piece is or they want it to be something else and it’s not just at the script stage. Often the most damaging notes you get are once you’ve finished principal photography and you have that time where you show an assembly to a representative of the broadcaster who then says ‘Well can this happen here and can they not be in it and can they go over there and can we have some ADR where this is explained and blah’.

MB: There’s time for one or two more questions from the audience and then a final question up here…

Audience member:  Hi. My question is um how do you react about season of… ending season being rewrite and reshoot because of the pressure of thousands and thousands people off internet that are not happy about the characters die or something like that and would you be able to do it, rewrite and reshoot seasons of episodes?

JM: What? After they’ve gone out?

HT: I think people suggested it for ‘Game of Thrones’ didn’t they? People were not content and there was a social media backlash where it was suggested it should be rewritten and reshot (audience laughter) If you tried to please…

JM: Yeah I think the clue to whether that is valid is contained in the two words ‘social media’ (audience laughter) It’s like, you know, on Twitter people are telling you the Earth’s flat. I mean forget it.

HT: I think if we started to buy into that you’d never finish, you know, because you’d rewrite it and reshoot it and then…

JM: If they pay for it, if like these muppets on Twitter (audience laughter) are prepared to crowdfund. I would love to reshoot everything I’ve ever done (audience laughter) so if they can crowdfund what the budget is, yeah great, game on (audience laughter)

MB: One more down there… there’s one at the back, one at the front.

Audience member: A question for Jed actually. What would your advice be for somebody who came from a completely different career and decided to get into writing? How did you do it and what would your advice be for somebody else looking to do the same thing? And for Reece and Steve, maybe more so Reece – cos I know Steve came from an acting theatre background – in terms of acting and writing your work, how do you develop those acting skills for the work you’re writing for yourselves?

JM: Yeah sure… yeah I mean I suppose I was very fortunate that the first thing I was writing about was something that I knew a lot about. I was writing about the life of junior hospital doctors and that happened, fortunately, to be the job I was doing at the time so therefore not only did I have a lot of input into what the texture and the authenticity of the world would be but also I was getting ideas every time I went to work. Um I think it’s different if you’re going from a job that has nothing to do with what you’re particularly writing then I don’t think it particularly makes any difference. I think that you have to move forward in the way that any writer would.

SP: Do you think you can hold down a job and write in the evenings and weekends?

JM: Yeah. Well that’s what I did…

SP: … That’s a good, you know, halfway house.

JM: I think certainly a lot of the newer writers I work with aren’t at the stage where they can give up on doing other work to make ends meet. Um I think it is a really important part of our industry that we allow people to come through who are possibly socially economically disadvantaged. I mean it’s very easy if you come from a rich family and they’ve got… they’ve brought you a flat in London and you can just fiddle around with your craft for years on end and it doesn’t make any difference but I think the people coming from, certainly the background I came from, then the ability to earn money to sustain a career is absolutely crucial to whether you’re going to be able to develop a career and so if you do have another way of earning money so that you can write in your spare time. I mean I was a junior hospital doctor. I was working long shifts but I could still carve out an hour here and there or a couple of hours or, you know, if I was off at a weekend I could spend six or seven hours writing (a smattering of applause from the audience) Don’t clap… don’t encourage the class warrior in me (audience laughter) You do not know how far I will go (audience laughter)

MB: … A lot of us start by having a job to keep us going and writing because we really want to do it and the two can run alongside each other for a long time. And all you do is pile into it and hope you get to the end of the job and the end of the – in my case – novel. But it was common in my time. Most people I knew who were writing novels had a job as well. I mean it was common for a lot of people for a long time and then it’s become slightly… Anyway can, if there’s a very urgent question great. Otherwise I’d like to ask one last question and maybe… no, you’re a very urgent question.

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SP: Reece didn’t answer his question about how to…

RS: Oh what was the question?

Audience member: Thanks Steve.

RS: Can you say the question again. I’ve forgotten it.

Audience member: … going into acting without the… if you don’t necessarily… have any training in acting but yet you also want to be a part of your work.

SP: Well we trained together so we are… we did both train doing drama and did it at college so we were…

RS: It was a sort of halfway house because it was a degree course. It wasn’t quite… the Rada but um, so we thought we would, trying to be actors, we did do three years. You had to write essays at the end and you got a degree but as Steve always said it’s like having a degree in washing up (audience laughter) but, so I thought, I think you’ve just got to… I remember the crossroads at school thinking I was either going to do something with my art, cos I can draw a bit, or try acting and I just remember thinking I might regret it if I never… this is the point where, you know, the life has got these forks in the road and you decide to go down one or the other and I remember thinking I’ll try and do… and I was hedging my bets because it was a degree course but that was where I pursued the acting rather than the art and it only worked out really when we started doing our own thing. I came to London and tried to be an actor and was in ‘London’s Burning’ and TIE (Theatre in Education) and not very good things and you’re one of many people and it was really hard as an actor and then when we had our thing which came about by accident really – ‘Do you want to do these sketches on the fringe?’ and we’d been writing a bit. We pursued that and then that become everything. It became ten years of The League of Gentlemen. So we were sort of… our… then our work preceded us and we were thought of as actors with that in mind rather than just ‘Who’s this person coming in?’ you know, this other person which, you know, when we had our thing we mined it and then we were notable because they’d seen the work already.

MB: Can I just ask you finally, all the new stuff that’s coming in – the Netflix and the Amazon and the Apple and all. Is that going to affect you as writers? Does it give you more opportunities or do you rather balk at it?

JM: More opportunities for rejection, yes (audience laughter)

SP: I don’t know. We haven’t gone down that road… I suppose that there are…

MB: It’s a road that’s coming. I just thought you’re very successful dramatists and you’re commanding and doing great work. Is this going to change the way you offer your work? Is this going to change the way you set about, ‘well I can do sixteen episodes now’ and is it going to have any big effect on you or is it just going to become part of the landscape and there you go and nothing much has changed as far as you individually are concerned?

JM: Well I think one of the things it has changed is the way in which television is consumed. I mean I remember years ago where executives would sincerely advise you not to make things too complicated, not to have too much serial story because the audience wouldn’t remember what had happened last week and had no opportunity to catch up. Whereas now the streaming services have driven the mass consumption of this kind of technology and by streaming services I would also include BBC iPlayer which was in the vanguard. But what it does mean is that people now do catch up, they do jump into series once two or three episodes have gone out. If they watch an episode and they’re really curious about what went before they’ll go back and watch not only previous episodes but previous seasons and that has enabled writers to push the boundaries of complexity.

HT: I think it’s also… um I’m writing a storyline in my 69th episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ at the moment and what you realise with the boxset generation is that you can never repeat yourself. You can’t say ‘oh we did that sort of case in series two’ because somebody might be watching series two this week and people binge watch and, you know, they might be watching series two and series eight within weeks of each other. But I think the other thing is it is changing the way television is commissioned. Amazon and Netflix for example, they don’t develop and we’re all used I think to the BBC culture where you have an idea and even at quite an early stage in your career you can be paid to write a pilot, you can even get paid for a treatment. There are literally hundreds of scripts in development at the BBC at any given time but Amazon, Hulu, Apple etc they want projects, they won’t, they don’t sort of indulge you over – or keep you prisoner – for two years. They want to see a first episode and then they will greenlight it and I think we’re all going to have to be quite nimble to deal with that and I do worry that it could mean, I don’t know, on one hand you could say it means there is a great desire for content and more projects will be made and, you know, we need more writers. On the other hand without the development process will nascent and emergent writers perhaps get the support that our generation got when you’re sort of paddling in the shallows and maybe stuff doesn’t get made and it’s frustrating but you’re learning and earning at the same time and I think with the streaming channels it’s all a bit more all or nothing and that could long-term have a detrimental effect on the writing experience, but I don’t know.

RS: There’s a funny gag in ‘Family Guy’. It cuts to an office and a woman answers the phone ringing. She goes ‘Hello Netflix. You’re greenlit’ (audience laughter)

MB: I think that’s a good ending. Thank you very much (audience applause)

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Footnotes

  1. Steve Pemberton, ‘The South Bank Show Live’, King’s Place, London (27th June 2019)
  2. Reece Shearsmith, ‘The South Bank Show Live’, King’s Place, London (27th June 2019)

Inside No.9: Going Live – BFI and Radio Times Television Festival

BFI Southbank (13th April 2019)

*Contains spoilers on ‘Inside No.9 Live: Dead Line’*

A complete transcript of ‘Inside No.9: Going Live’ discussion and Q&A with Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, director Barbara Wiltshire and producer Adam Tandy, conducted on the stage of NFT 1 at the BFI Southbank, hosted by Justin Johnson, as part of the BFI and Radio Times Television Festival (12th-14th April 2019)

SP – Steve Pemberton (Actor and writer)

RS – Reece Shearsmith (Actor and writer)

AT – Adam Tandy (TV Producer and series producer of ‘Inside No.9’)

BW – Barbara Wiltshire (TV Director)

JJ – Justin Johnson (BFI lead programmer)

The BFI & Radio Times Television Festival has firmly established itself as Britain’s leading TV festival, showcasing the very best of British television and providing a prestigious platform for the industry’s most celebrated programmes and acclaimed creators. For the first time since the Festival’s 2017 inauguration ‘Inside No.9’ featured in its programme of events for 2019. It was designated a prime spot, highlighting No.9’s exalted position within the televisual culture of the UK.

Last year’s live episode – commissioned as a ‘Halloween special’ – was put under the spotlight in acknowledgement that it was a key television event of last year – a technical and artistic triumph which exemplified the ambition guiding Pemberton & Shearsmith’s inventive genius.  No other TV show across the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival firmament was afforded such focused attention for one 30 minute broadcast, demonstrating the full extent of ‘Inside No.9’s  heightened reputation for experimental storytelling and the finessed nuances, telling detail and multi-layered complexity woven into each of its stand-alone episodes.

‘Inside No.9: Going Live’ was an anatomy of a programme, taking an in-depth look at ‘Inside No. Live: Dead Line’ from conception to broadcast and the reaction to it during and post-transmission. The event began with a screening of the programme itself accompanied by a synchronised audio recording of the TV gallery as they monitored the unfolding action scene by scene alongside the all-important running time, gave instructions and cued in sound effects, pre-recorded play-ins and archive clips from the control room as the live broadcast went out. It was surreptitiously obtained by producer Adam Tandy, who made a secret recording of the feedback as he sat in the gallery during transmission. He undoubtedly fully understood the significance of what Reece and Steve as creators and ‘Inside No.9’s production team were attempting to pull-off and decided to make a recording of the inner sanctum of the TV gallery for posterity’s sake.

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Listening to this audio recording as it played out in real time over the transmitted show one was struck by how calm and cool-headed the people in the TV gallery sounded and how smoothly the live broadcast went – seemingly without a hitch. It was textbook professional perfection from the pre-opening titles countdown to the end credits roll. Even the running time catch-up required in one scene was handled with sangfroid composure by Shearsmith and Stephanie Cole.

It was both insightful and a delight to hear this TV gallery feedback. It gave the assembled ‘Inside No.9: Going Live’ audience a rare aural glimpse into a hidden side of broadcasting. In addition to the amusing directing asides – asking for a ‘ghost’ to be moved into position on set or requesting less movement from Steve nervously waiting in a studio corridor as the seconds ticked down to the start of the live broadcast – what really came across in the control room audio recording was the technical challenges involved in coordinating this complex live transmission. The live studio scenes, specially recorded inserts and archive clips had to be timed with pinpoint precision so that they aligned, combined and merged into a unified narrative which came together as ‘Inside No.9 Live’ reached its climactical conclusion.  As director Barbara Wiltshire noted during the ‘Going Live’ discussion, the strong collaborative instinct of Pemberton & Shearsmith – the approach they take with all their work once it reaches the production stage of the process – meant enough time was allocated for rehearsals in the studio ahead of broadcast:  “Reece and Steve were really keen that we had time to play when we got to the studio…we had about three days in the studio which is a real luxury today to have that.”[1]  The amount of run-through time gave the production team space to try different things and discover what worked best and helped ensure confidence was high, with everyone fully drilled in what was expected of them on the night.

‘Inside No.9: Going Live’ anatomized the live episode, exploring it in magnified detail. ‘Inside No.9 Live’s genesis was the idea of a live broadcast going wrong. It was this starting point which sparked Pemberton & Shearsmith’s imaginations and lit their passion and enthusiasm after feeling less than enthused when initially offered the chance to deliver a live episode of their anthology series. During ‘Going Live’s discussion we learnt how this original concept developed and grew via Google when they searched for examples of incidents and accidents at TV studios: The infamous Bobby Davro clip was something the pair were keen to include early on and the haunted TV studios themed story took root after Steve and Reece found material online about reported paranormal activity at Granada Studios over the years. Then the ‘Most Haunted’ episode that investigated Granada Studios haunted status added grist to their creative mill.

Authenticity was vital to the success of ‘Inside No.9 Live’. Series one’s ‘A Quiet Night In’ was played uninterrupted for over 3 minutes before the recognisable broadcasting procedures trope of the standby programme – used when technical faults mean the scheduled show can’t be broadcast – breaks down and the convincing plausibility of ‘Inside No.9 Live’s broadcast going disastrously awry is shattered as hyperreality takes over and the narrative splits into several different realities.

In the ‘Going Live’ discussion, Steve and Reece made it clear the liveness of the Halloween Special was the ‘thing’ of it. Watching the broadcast seemingly ‘going wrong’ in real time made it a shared experience for viewers and their reaction and response as it unfolded was central to ‘Inside No.9 Live’ as it pushed the interactive elements to the fore. This was why a prime moment was Shearsmith’s live tweet and the reason the scripted meta reality of the backstage scenes made references to Twitter and the ongoing social media reaction to what viewers were watching as it transmitted live on BBC Two.

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The referenced and actual audience reaction during and following the broadcast became an important part of the programme’s narrative and one which grew and diversified as the interactivity enshrined in the live broadcast continued afterwards as viewers affected and stimulated by what they’d seen – or what those who’d missed the show heard about subsequently – kept on reacting to it in all sorts of ways: There were tweets from people reporting they’d stopped trying to catch-up with it on BBC iPlayer because of the technical breakdowns (it had already fooled a fifth of the audience watching on the night to switch off); the Wikipedia pages for Pemberton, Shearsmith and Stephanie Cole were updated to include their onscreen ‘deaths’ during the broadcast; some ‘Inside No.9′ fans searched online to find out which of the Granada Studios’ incidents featured or mentioned in the programme had actually happened and what ones were creative licence.  What was reality and what was fakery were still exercising viewers’ minds.

The phenomenon of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ becoming a shared – almost communal – experience through its interactive routes in and how this expanded its narrative beyond the live broadcast itself was succinctly expressed by Steve Pemberton at the ‘Going Live’ event: “It became part of the narrative in a way in that the audience’s response to the show… that is all part of the story… we did something that can only be done live at BBC Two, at 10 o’clock, at that moment…”[2]

‘Inside No.9: Going Live’ celebrated ‘Inside No.9 Live’s uniqueness as a television event and foregrounded the incredible effort, skill, dedication and inspired creativity which lay behind it. The discussion and Q&A were a penetrating insight into how successful it had been in achieving what Pemberton & Shearsmith set out to do with it – the audaciousness, cogency and meticulousness of the pranking reached the sublime – and what a compelling impact it had made on everyone who’d watched it.

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The transcript below is a full and unabridged replication of ‘Inside No. 9: Going Live’s discussion and audience Q&A. A video of the event has already gone online so the transcript may be excess to requirements for some. However completists will hopefully find the additional material at the start and end of the event – plus all of the audience members’ questions – of interest.

‘Inside No.9: Going Live’ at the BFI Southbank, as part of the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival – with Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Adam Tandy and Barbara Wiltshire.

JJ: So please join me in welcoming to the stage… we have the director of ‘Inside No.9’, Babs Wiltshire and Adam Tandy, the producer and Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (audience cheers and applause) So thank you for letting us… have that very unique insight into the making of a TV show…

AT: One off…

JJ: … and, um, Adam perhaps you’d (even) say super at the end of it?

AT: That’s my only contribution to the night was just saying ‘Super, well done’ to everybody at the end. I’m afraid Babs has to take the lion’s share of the credit for the gallery and also

Claire McCarthy. Are you here Claire? There you are. Our producer Claire McCarthy, thank you so much (audience applause) … our two gallery PAs… Sandy, where are you? (audience applause)

JJ: Just to start off by saying, in terms of, um, if there’s one thing that’s a complete cardinal no no as a producer, I know that other people have… you never ever tape a gallery.

AT: No because…

BW: Thank you Justin. Thank you very much.

JJ: … and Adam you did that.

AT: You don’t… Yeah because… I did it for archival reasons and I did it very quietly and secretly, but then I thought well it was such a smooth, great show, I thought people might want to hear it and I probably let it out of the bag earlier than the 30 year rule would normally allow. But the reason you don’t do it is because it puts people off if you’re recording them and you’re actually trying to do your work. I mean obviously it’s different for actors cos actors are, well they’re actors…

JJ: So Babs, if Adam had come to you beforehand and said ‘Can I record this?’ what would you have said?

BW: Absolutely under no circumstances (audience laughter) If something had gone wrong it would have been a stick for him to be able to beat us over the head with. So…

AT: Evidence.

BW: Yeah, evidence… so that’s never…

JJ: So how long after the event did you discover that he had recorded it?

BW: When he said ‘Do you want to come to the BFI…?’ (audience laughter) ‘I was thinking, you know, people have already seen the episode, do you think they might like to listen to the talkback?’  But yeah but obviously that can’t happen, but no it can (audience laughter)

JJ: … So how did you react when you discovered that?

BW: Um I said ‘Can I hear it first?’ and then actually the truth of it is when we actually heard it back it was such a, it was such a seamless show that, you know, considering everything that could have gone wrong, but nothing did.

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SP:  You re-recorded all your stuff didn’t you? (audience laughter)

AT: We’d been in ADR for months.

JJ: So, um, Reece and Steve, if I can move onto you in terms of, obviously you had a frenetically busy year last year in terms of you’d just at the end of the previous year done The League reunion, the shows and you were in New York, you were doing various other shows, you were writing season five of ‘Inside No.9’ and then you had to prepare for this and this is obviously a hugely complicated thing to try and pull off. I wonder if you’d just tell us a little bit about where the idea of doing it live came from and how you actually then tried to put the different pieces in place?

RS: Yeah well it was… we didn’t, um, think of doing it live. It was asked of us, wasn’t it? ‘Could you do a live one?’ ‘I suppose so…’

SP: It was a suggestion…

RS: A suggestion of would we like to do a live one and we thought no originally. We thought everyone does it now, ‘EastEnders’ do them, so (audience laughter) and, you know, not to belittle ‘EastEnders’ but it’s not, it doesn’t feel as a new… a brilliant unique thing that people could tune in and we didn’t really think it was a… We just thought it would look like a ropey version of ‘Inside No.9’ and that was not what we’d want to put out. But then we thought well one of the great… the reason to do it suddenly we were excited by the idea if we did it we’d make great play of the fact that it was live and if it went wrong, then suddenly we… that excited us and so we set about with that premise and that unlocked just the enthusiasm to do it at all.

JJ: And could you just give us a little bit more insight in terms of the actual story and the whole concept of the haunted studio and all that kind of stuff.

SP: Yeah well once we decided that something was going to go wrong, one of the first ideas is that we would then cut to a repeat or something that had been set up in case… because live broadcasts do go wrong…

AT: We have standby programmes yeah…

SP: And you have to have a standby programme. Our first idea…

AT: Do you know what the standby programme for this was?

SP: What?

AT: ‘A Quiet Night In’ (audience laughter)

SP: Was it?

AT: Yeah.

SP: So you might have seen it twice (audience laughter)

AT: Yeah.

SP: Our original idea was to have a cut to an episode of ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ (audience laughter) That Mrs Brown would open the door and this ghost would come in and machete her head off (audience applause) … No not any comment on that but just, um, we just thought that would be amazing and if we could get them to be in on the joke with us and then we thought ‘hang on, hang on’… and so we decided to use a repeat of our own series but put something digitally in there. And then we were just googling stuff about what goes wrong in, um, in the recordings of live episodes and found all these different stories of things happening and things going wrong…

RS: And we knew of the Davro clip of course…

SP: We knew of the famous Davro clip…

RS: ‘Bobby!’ (audience laughter)

SP: … which used to be used in health and safety briefings…

AT: Yeah it’s very much a ‘how not to do it’ clip and, er, it didn’t actually happen at Granada. We have to be fair to Granada, it actually happened at the BBC but in Manchester.

RS: It’s really funny, I mean not funny but there’s a bit at the end where it comes up with ‘Where they went wrong’ with what ultimately happened to Bobby and the first thing is ‘Last minute good idea’ (audience laughter) and, um, ‘pillory not checked’ and all those  things.

SP: So then it… I just read that it happened in Manchester, then read about the haunting, the supposed haunting of Granada Studios and thought ‘could we, dare we’ take the reality of what’s happened at Granada, albeit fudging it slightly with the Bobby Davro clip because we were desperate to use that (audience laughter) and just to create something that might be… that people could then go and google. We were excited about that…

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RS: And there had been ‘Most Haunted’…

SP: ‘Most Haunted’ was real and we just made up this… well from that ‘Most Haunted’ when they talk about this member of crew…

RS: ‘Is it a heart attack?’ (mimicking person featured in the ‘Most Haunted’ Granada Studios episode) (audience laughter) ‘Member of crew, yes that’s right’ (mimicking again) (audience laughter)

SP: … We created Alan Starr and er… the hard thing was really you have no way of driving a normal narrative and this was never a normal narrative show because it was like a mosaic of different… archive clips, of backstage stuff, of…

AT: But all heading in the same direction basically.

SP: Well yeah it’s hidden. There’s a bit of narrative which is hidden in this collection of clips so… It was a real challenge but really exciting at the same time.

JJ: And obviously you’re including this moment where you’ll be yourselves and you’re referring to Adam and you’re referring to Plowman and you’ve got Stephanie Cole in there and I guess the big thing about this is that it could have taken a very kind of post-modern twist if actually something really had gone wrong and I guess… how did you kind of prepare for the fact that you’re showing something going wrong that actually really could go wrong because it really is live in fact.

RS: Well in a funny way that sort of, because it was all about it going wrong and getting that right, the reality of it actually really going wrong never… didn’t ever really rear its head as a phantom… I think… There was one point when we were… near the point when it was going to go out when suddenly there was a question mark over – I think it was what you were saying Adam – what would, actually they’ve asked what’s going to happen if it goes wrong, what would we play in and suddenly we had to decide didn’t we…

AT: Well I thought if we just showed a bit of ‘A Quiet Night In’ it would look a bit random but it would at least tie in with the rest of the show if we got to 9 minutes in. So that seemed like quite a good thing to have standing by.

BW: We also did have the dress rehearsal.

AT: We had the dress rehearsal as well.

BW: … We would have jumped in… so there was a… cos… yeah once we’d gone wrong we wouldn’t ever have wanted the BBC to then take us back off air…

AT: It would have to have gone catastrophically wrong for us to have to play in ‘A Quiet Night In’ for real.

BW: Yeah.

RS: The hardest thing was keeping it on time I think, that was the sort of challenge and as you actually could hear with the… cos if you do things live I think the tendency is to gabble and it gets quicker and you finish too early. So there was this slight concertinaing of the scenes and we were told to speed up on it quickly in that scene where I talk about – to Stephanie – about ‘Black Mirror’ and she did it quick as well so were back on time again, so that was fine.

JJ: And presumably one of the biggest risks of all was actually to lose the audience because they genuinely think there was a mistake.

AT: Yeah but only 20 percent of the audience (audience laughter)

RS: I mean… I was hoping, what I had planned and hoped would happen is that you might begin to think when the sound goes ‘Oh this is all part of it’ but then when you stay with the repeat of ‘A Quiet Night In’ for so long, longer than you’d normally dare to do it, that’s when I felt people would think ‘Oh it really has, it’s gone wrong. Turn off’ and happily a fifth of the audience did (audience laughter) So I was proud of that. I thought… it must have felt real, must have finally felt that it really has gone wrong…

JJ: And that link with Twitter as well. I mean obviously Twitter was live at that point… people confused, bemused and of course your reaction to it… I mean it all kind of… it all feeds that authenticity…

SP: It became part of the narrative in a way in that the audience’s response to the show, whether they switched off, whether they were told by friends to switch back on again, whether they abandoned it and only heard a week later, whether they still never know (audience laughter) That is all part of the story and that is really tremendously exciting and in an age of streaming television we did something that can only be done live at BBC Two, at 10 o’clock, at that moment and that felt really exciting to us.

JJ: And for those of us who don’t sort of speak ‘gallery speak’, can you tell us what ‘GRAMS’ are?

AT: Yes its short for ‘Gramophone record operator’.

BW: So all the… all of the sound effects, every phone ring, every conversation on the phone with… that Stephanie had… they’re all… GRAMS effects.

SP: I thought you were baking in the gallery, measuring out… the ingredients…

JJ: Was there anything when you were setting this up that you just couldn’t do because either… it wouldn’t work out or…

AT: The massive thing that went wrong was that we weren’t at Granada.

RS: Because we were to begin with weren’t we.

AT: We were yeah. We’d done a recce there. We were good to go and it was great because they were about to start redeveloping the studios, the old studios where we’d actually shot League of Gentlemen Christmas Specials, it’s where we’d put the Denton set there and, er, what was the other one, what was the other set? It was just the Dentons wasn’t it?

SP: The Local Shop.

AT: And, er, what happened was, that they were going to redevelop it, they were going to dig up the car park, which was where all the bodies were buried in this enormous thing and I was thinking ‘well we can make something of that’, we can go there, this abandoned TV studio – given the shortage of studio space that seemed realistic – and, um, we’d do a live OB from the abandoned Granada Studios. And that all felt like it would fit in and then four weeks before transmission we got a call from Granada saying ‘Oh they dug it up a bit early and we don’t think you can get your trucks into the studio.’ So Claire was left with a problem of going round all of the remaining studios that we could find and to choose a replacement studio.

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JJ: And one of the things about, um… the BAFTA Awards, the eligibility criteria…

AT: Very strict.

JJ: … that you have to have 70 percent of it live. Is that right?

AT: Yeah.

JJ: And how much did you achieve?

AT: Its… it depends how you measure it really…

BW: 69.9 percent.

AT: Yeah you can stretch a point and you can take… because Christian Henson, our amazing composer, is playing live music actually over quite a lot of the VT so if you count that and you count all of the stuff we were actually doing live on the night it’s just under 70 percent. So…

JJ: 69.5…

AT: Yeah something… we’re about 25 seconds short I think.

JJ: If only you had known that before.

AT: What would we have done? I mean there wasn’t really anything we could have done live.

SP: You could have let Stephanie slow down and not… (talk at speed) like she was commentating on the Grand National (audience laughter)

AT: Yeah but then BBC Two would have taken us off the early air so…

JJ: Before we open up to the audience… Babs from your point of view, as someone who’s very experienced at directing… ‘Would I Lie To You?’ and a lot of those kind of panel kind of shows… doing something like this, it’s very different. But does it feel very different or do you just have to keep your mind focused as if it was just the same sort of concept, if that makes sense?

BW: Well I suppose that this had lots of different elements to it. So you had the sitcom directing to bring to it which is one style and then you had the backstage element which was lots of hotheads and, you know, the roaming cameras at fixed points which was another thing plus the special effects – loads of the special effects were live – um, so yes it did bring lots of different elements together…

AT: Plus location filming and video effects and things which all had to be prepared before the day, so there was a lot to it.

JJ: So how long did you actually have at the studio itself?

BW: Well we were really lucky on this production I think in that Reece and Steve were really keen that we had time to play when we got to the studio, so that we hadn’t made all our decisions in the rehearsal room. So we had about three days in the studio which is a real luxury today to have that, which was great. So we could play with where the ghosts were being placed and how exactly those backstage elements were working and most of the sitcom scenes – what you would expected the main story to be – were fixed in the rehearsal room I’d say. But yeah, so it was a unique and a really lucky… to get the opportunity to come and work on a project because I don’t think they come around very often. It was really, really special.

JJ: And season 5 is in the bag.

RS: Yeah… speaking of things in bags, I just thought you’d like to see… (Reece produces the latex head of himself used in ‘Inside No.9 Live’ from a bag and places it on the table in front of the panel, where it takes pride of place for the rest of the discussion and Q&A) there he is… my head (audience applause)

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SP: Where’s the hair?

RS: The hair? They couldn’t afford the hair… it got took back…

JJ: One of the directors you’re using in season 5 is a young, up-and-coming director, Steve Pemberton (audience laughter) How was it working with him Reece?

RS: Oh he’s very good. I mean he’s very much an actor’s director (audience laughter) so I was getting lots of notes. No. It’s great. I think season 5 will be good. It’s still in the post-production so it’s being put together now but we’re excited. We think it will be good.

JJ: So I’m going to ask if anyone wants to ask any questions. I’m going to suggest – we have talked about it before – but I’m going to suggest that if the question is ‘Will there be any more League of Gentlemen?’ we’re just going to move on very, very quickly because we’ve kind of done that one many times in this room. So let’s have… there’s a guy four rows from the front here and then somebody over there, if you want to find somebody over there in the corner in the dark somewhere.

Audience member: You did a League of Gentlemen film. Have you ever considered doing a film of ‘Inside No.9’?

SP: Um, we haven’t really up to this point no, because we seem to have got into this sort of 30 minute format which suits these stories quite well, so you get an awful lot of storytelling  and it feels like very rich but you’ve only been watching it for 30 minutes. Doing a film is very different structure and the, um… getting the funding to do a film is very, very difficult and very time-consuming. So I wouldn’t rule it out but at the moment we’re just focusing on doing, you know, six episodes a year cos that is two films essentially.

JJ: A question over there…

Audience member: The details of the haunting in this – the suicide of the cameraman – seems quite similar to … Mr Pipes in ‘Ghostwatch’. How much of an influence was ‘Ghostwatch’ on this?

RS: Well we know, obviously we know, it’s great ‘Ghostwatch’ and we loved it but it wasn’t… I think if anything the homage to ‘Ghostwatch’ was it being reputably live…

AT: Which ‘Ghostwatch’ wasn’t…

RS: But ‘Ghostwatch’ wasn’t of course. People think ‘Ghostwatch’ is this brilliant prank but ‘Ghostwatch’ went out as ‘Ghostwatch’, this drama, written by Stephen Volk. I think people must have arrived a minute in and not seen the beginning – in fact it was a written thing – and thought it was this amazing live event that looked like a precursor to ‘Most Haunted’, which is the genius of ‘Ghostwatch’. But we were trying to play a different trick where we went full bells and whistles of announcing this – we were doing this live thing – and, you know, had lots of press saying ‘Do you think… what will happen if it goes wrong?’ ‘Well we hope it won’t go wrong’, knowing it would of course. But yeah, Pipes obviously, you can’t beat Pipes but certainly some of the ways – the subliminal ways – that they hid him in ‘Ghostwatch’ were very much on our minds when we were thinking where would we place our ghosts in this. We’re trying to do it sort of subtly and then on a repeated view you could catch some more. There’s one in here that I’m sure no-one has spotted, which I’m very pleased about (audience laughter)

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JJ: You’re not going to share it with us?

RS: I’m not going to tell you where, of course not.

JJ: Okay, a question right at the back there… keep your hand up, yeah, and… and then somebody over this side, there’s a guy with glasses over here…

Audience member: I was just wondering because, um, how many people did you tell that it was going to go wrong? Because I remember Derren Litten tweeted and said he went round your house, even you told him it was just going to be Arthur Flitwick, just this like normal story and it went wrong…

AT: That was the cover story we stuck to I think to pretty much everyone.

SP: We told, cos we were on tour when we were preparing it, so we told Mark and Jeremy on the tour bus what we were doing and we said to Mark – cos we do have a League WhatsApp group, that’s a real thing (audience laughter) – we told him we were going to make this comment and he said ‘Oh do you want me to actually message you?’ ‘No what’s the point of a private message coming in at that exact time’ But it was very nice that he offered. But apart from that we didn’t want to ruin it for anyone. Didn’t tell anyone, didn’t tell our families, didn’t tell anyone at all. And in fact where we live we had a power cut so poor Alison and Adam – who are here tonight – missed the beginning of it because the actual TV went off, um, and then when they got it on they were like ‘Oh thank god’ and then the sound went off (audience laughter) That’s part of the narrative I think, is not knowing what’s coming.

AT: I was sitting in the gallery just basically leaning back and then out of the corner of my eye watching my phone, which was going off with text message after text message of condolence (audience laughter)

RS: And I had my phone on cos I had to do my live tweet and Derren Brown texted me ‘Oh my god it’s so fucking upsetting for you’ (audience laughter and applause) No, that was brilliant because that’s the kind of thing he would do and we got him.

JJ: Okay so there’s a guy with glasses over here and there’s another one over there which we’ll get…

Audience member: So are the things afterwards, like your Wikipedia files have been changed, part of your plans as well?

RS: Um, no. Someone did that. We don’t know anything about that. We died, yeah we died on Wikipedia.

SP: That was hilarious. That was absolutely hilarious (audience laughter) Stephanie Cole…

RS: Electrocuted… no her throat was cut, you were electrocuted.

SP: … her throat was cut. No we loved that. That was nothing to do with us but again that’s part of the narrative of the show now and I’ve taken screenshots of that because they got changed back again. Miserable Wikipedia (audience laughter) But, er, very, very exciting that people… because it was an interactive thing, so that’s exciting.

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Audience member: On the point of BAFTA, I think the fact that they changed their mind for ‘Killing Eve’ and let that come in…

AT: Well it wasn’t that they disqualified us…

Audience member: No but I think this is one of the best TV moments…

RS: Correct! (audience laughter and applause)

Audience member: … not only of the last year but in such a long time. I was at university watching it and in that little continuity announcer bit I burst into the kitchen, told all my friends – unfortunately they didn’t care – but I came back (audience laughter) So I think that, I think it’s a bit shocking, well anyway…

AT: Well it’s not shocking because we didn’t… enter because the rules are very strict so we just didn’t, we didn’t enter the programme. It’s not that they said no, it’s just that they didn’t…

Audience member: But I think it’s absolutely amazing. But my question was, doing the tour, that was live stuff again, how was the feeling on set before you’re about to go doing something live? Was it any different to doing it (on) stage or was there something different because it was going out on TV?

RS: It was really frightening. I found it much more frightening than anything I’ve ever done. As Reverend Neil I realised the teacup was shaking as I was doing it, I thought ‘I better put that down’ (audience laughter) Genuinely the adrenaline build-up to it going out live was palpable, quite frightening.

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AT: And you’ve got a lot of business to do in that first scene, haven’t you Steve?

SP: Yeah, there was cracking eggs, putting the radio on. Sometimes that radio wouldn’t go on properly or I would push it off or, you know. There was an awful lot to do and I think when you’re doing a live show, for example, League of Gentlemen, if something goes wrong you incorporate that into the action and you get the audience to acknowledge it. We desperately didn’t want anything to go wrong that we hadn’t planned to go wrong and, er, so from that point of view, really, really terrifying and nerve-wracking and that countdown, I mean, you could all probably feel that tension – we were hearing all that – you know, two minutes to air, 90 seconds and then 10, 9, 8 and then the tap on the shoulder and walking out was absolutely one of the scariest things I’ve done. But having said that, at the end when it finished and we called, you know, ‘That’s a wrap’, literally we punched the air with how exciting it had been. It was really a lot of adrenaline all the way through.

JJ: And from the sound of the VT, Adam I believe… got some drinks on for you as well…

AT: Yeah, very few drinks (audience laughter)

JJ: Okay… let’s use two last questions. So one question in the very, very front row here and then, um… you’ve got somebody lined up, okay…

Audience member: Quite simple question this. Given the difficulty of putting something on live and then all of the trickery and cunning that was being employed here, was there ever a concern that the audience might – once they’d got past the point of understanding the premise – think that it just wasn’t live at all and that it was just all going out on VT?

AT: I think there were a few people who afterwards refused to believe that the show was live. That’s your fault because you were so good.

BW: Most of the questions afterwards were ‘So what was live?’ you know. I think lots of people thought the special effects must have been pre-recorded elements, that we wouldn’t have risked doing those live. So most of the questions afterwards, people in the industry would say, you know, ‘Tell me which bits were live?’

AT: There were people in the industry who were absolutely convinced that it was entirely recorded. I definitely saw comments from people.

BW: And I think early doors we were really keen to… anything that could be done live we were going to try, you know, that was our aim to do everything live that we could.

AT: There was one thing that I think we thought that we might do live, which was the night vision thing…

RS: The very end, yeah.

AT: … that we’d actually pre-recorded a version of that in case we couldn’t get it to work on the night, but actually what we ended up pre-recording was so oddly convincing as a piece of live TV that we just thought we’d use it, with all the interference and everything and I think that…

RS: One of the hardest bits in it at all was the headcam on my… that was live and I was, I couldn’t tell what I was beaming out to the world…

BW: Rogue cameraman…

RS: Yeah, I did it a few times and sort of got the sense of… and trying to reveal that head but not see Steve creep in for the jump scare… That took a bit of, a bit of skill actually (audience laughter and applause)

AT: Did you audition for ‘Peep Show’? (audience laughter)

JJ: And our final question is up at the very back over there…

Audience member: Yeah it’s just kind of looking ahead a bit more. Who’d be kind of one actor/actress you’d love to have in a future episode that hasn’t already been in one?

JJ: Because you must have had an awful lot now of your wish list, in terms of over four or five series?

SP: Yeah, well we don’t do it that way round honestly. We write the characters and then think about who would be good, um…

AT: It’s not true in this case because you did write that part for Stephanie.

SP: Well yeah. Well it was a placeholder because the script had to have a real person and jokes about that person, so we definitely hoped that she would do it but we didn’t know even if she was available.

RS: Then we’d get Pam Ferris (audience laughter)

SP: But yeah, Pam Ferris, she’d be on the list… there are so many hugely talented people that we don’t really have a wish list…

AT: We’re still spoilt for choice.

JJ: Bobby Davro’s still around…

SP: He very graciously gave us permission to do that er…

RS: He said ‘Oh not that again’ (audience laughter) but he was happy to…

JJ: Anyway, so a big thank you for being here. It’s really one of the great television moments of last year and we’re so grateful here at the festival to be able to celebrate that and hear a bit more and then have that access to the extremely illegally captured gallery feedback… So a massive thank you to Babs, Adam, Steve and to Reece. Thank you very much indeed (audience cheers and applause)

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Footnotes

  1. Barbara Wiltshire, ‘Inside No.9: Going Live’, BFI & Radio Times Television Festival, BFI Southbank (13th April 2019)
  2. Steve Pemberton, ‘Inside No.9: Going Live’, BFI & Radio Times Television Festival, BFI Southbank (13th April 2019)

 

In Conversation: Reece Shearsmith: Guru Live Glasgow 2019

Guru Live Glasgow 2019, BAFTA Scotland, Gallery 4, The Lighthouse (30th March 2019)

A complete transcript of In Conversation: Reece Shearsmith (including an audience Q&A) Reece was interviewed by Muriel Gray as part of BAFTA Scotland’s Guru Live Glasgow 2019.

RS – Reece Shearsmith (Actor and writer)

MG – Muriel Gray (Broadcaster, journalist and writer)

Towards the end of the interview conducted by Muriel Gray for BAFTA Scotland’s Guru Live Glasgow 2019’s ‘In Conversation: Reece Shearsmith’, Reece confessed that when he isn’t working he just stays in, happily ensconced at home with his magic tricks. He pointed out it was “a weird thing” for him to go out as he had that weekend for Guru Live. The 400 mile journey he’d made from London to Glasgow was clearly appreciated by the interviewer and the many fans gathered in Gallery 4 of The Lighthouse in Glasgow’s city centre.

By ticket demand alone, ‘In Conversation’ had already proved to be Guru Live’s most popular session, selling out almost immediately when it was put online. What made this ‘In Conversation’ so special was that it gave people the chance to hear Reece Shearsmith talk in person in a solo capacity about his career and the creative process in general and prime examples of his work in particular. He has only done a handful of live events like this before, where the platform is his alone and he single-handedly holds forth on topics related to his professional life.

A knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan of Shearsmith, interviewer Muriel Gray provided a loose-formed but clear-sighted structure and direction to the conversation, giving Reece plenty of opportunity to talk at length and in telling detail across a range of subjects. This approach produced layers of gold for fans who listened intently as he offered insightful analysis of ‘The League of Gentlemen’, ‘Psychoville’ and ‘Inside No.9’. Light was shone onto the painstaking finessing and overarching demands behind Shearsmith’s phenomenal and sublime body of work: The scrutiny and precision of the writing process; the creative ambition that inspires Pemberton & Shearsmith’s storytelling innovations and inventiveness; the work ethic which propels the pair’s labour of love efforts and passion and the striving never to repeat themselves. There were also hints at the undeniable pressures on creativity in a TV industry with dwindling budgets (in public service broadcasting at least) and tighter and tighter production schedules plus glimpses into the stresses and anxieties on those whose professional lives and artistic visions involve leading “the life of the mind”.

Fans took immense pleasure from the fact Reece entertainingly proffered several revelations during the discussion: He and Steve almost brought back 1980s TV anthology ‘Hammer House of Horror’ but a reboot of the series fell through; there is a Pemberton & Shearsmith completed film script of something that is currently dormant  but it is “a really good script” which “might be made”; Reece and Steve’s appearance on ‘The One Show’ days before the broadcast of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ was an under the radar and in plain sight audacious piece of pranking to try and get the presenters to ask them if ‘they believed in ghosts’. It was done so they had that TV moment to edit into the climactic final minutes of ‘Dead Line’. Amusingly the presenters were deliberately kept in the dark about the set-up.

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These titbits were one of the highlights of this Guru Live Glasgow event. It was an absolute privilege to listen to Shearsmith engage so intelligently, keenly and openly for over an hour of enlightened and enlightening conversation. He may well prefer to spend most of his free time at home or professionally shut away in a “monastic cell” of a writing room with Steve Pemberton in Muswell Hill, but when he chooses to publicly converse he can communicate in such a mesmerising and vital way that he can keep a roomful of people completely enthralled.

Below is a transcript which is as close as possible verbatim replication – unedited and complete – of that captivating conversation.

Reece Shearsmith in conversation with Muriel Gray at The Lighthouse, Glasgow as part of BAFTA Scotland’s Guru Live Glasgow 2019.

MG: Hi everybody. So fantastic to see you. Welcome to Guru Live Glasgow. Just to tell you… this is kind of the boring stuff. We’ll be releasing podcasts of today’s sessions, plus lots of original content from all the coming weeks. There’s details of all our platforms you’ll find on our BAFTA website. The BAFTA website is your friend. And also if you wanted to tweet… as we want to see all your highlights, if you just tag @BAFTAScotland on Twitter using the hashtag #GuruLive and then you can follow BAFTA Scotland on Instagram and share your snaps. No bottoms please. Now there’s virtually no point in me introducing this next guest because if you don’t know who this is you have been living in a cultural wilderness for years, wandering alone in a desert of no talent, because this is one of the most important writers, actors, comic dark forces that we have ever produced in the UK. He is of course the wonderful – and you will have to tell your grandchildren you were in the same room as him – Reece Shearsmith! (audience cheers and applause)

MG: It’s actually Reece Shearsmith. Actually in Glasgow. Thank you so much for doing this.

RS: You’re welcome.

MG: It’s so brilliant. Reece, we’ve tons to talk about. We’re going to keep a kind of industry focus on this because this is what everybody’s here to do.  I’m just going to start by saying… you’ll get your chance for questions by the way, so don’t worry we’ll come to you. Um, League of Gentlemen, Psychoville, Inside No.9. All absolutely impeccable. One of the things that surprised me is you’ve always been bubbling in the background there, just being absolutely adored, revered by critics, viewers… It seemed to have taken quite a long time to get noticed. I know it sounds stupid. You’ve won tons of awards, but you know, like me, you’ve been doing this wonderful work for years and ‘Inside No.9’ particularly was a real slow-burner before all the proper award ceremonies and everything. That’s really bugged me.

RS: Good. It has me (audience laughter) Well I don’t know, without turning into Ollie Plimsolls (audience laughter) I think, well you know, I wake up every day pleased that they’re still deciding that there’s a place for me and Steve’s voice and vision and that we’re allowed to occupy writing this dark comedy stuff that we do. And you know it was never a decision to think that no-one’s doing that so let’s do a dark comedy. It was just our sense of humour and that’s what people have decided it is and yet, you know, I think maybe tonally people have us pegged in a certain area and that’s why it’s never, it doesn’t ever broaden out. They’re happy with the weird fans that like our stuff and that’s it and there’s a lid on it… And I think that there are some episodes of No.9 that are very silly and our work is sometimes really silly and then also very dark and dramatic as well and that’s… It’s a hard thing to categorise and therefore maybe they, it suffers slightly from being pegged as one thing that they think only a certain amount of people will enjoy. Where I think if you dared to show other people or your friends that you think might not like it, you would find something in it because it’s just human nature, you know…

MG: Well that’s a really good point because you’re not really allowed to be a polymath are you? The whole point is if you peg yourself ‘I do this, I do that’, the fact is No.9 isn’t just comedy. There’s incredible dark pathos in it. There’s real drama and they can’t bear it when you nimbly skip between the two really can they?

RS: Yeah well… I mean, we try to do that and I think, you know, we were talking earlier, I think it’s just to do with the confusion, you know, it’s on 10 o’clock on BBC Two, which is the decision that’s been made that it’s too… there are things in it that are quite horrible and yet at 9 o’clock on BBC One… even in ‘EastEnders’ sometimes, you get quite horrific things but you’re sort of geared up for it because that’s… your mindset has gone into it with alright this is one of those ‘Waking the Dead’ where there’s going to be a body in it, child abuse and all these horrible things. But we smuggle in horrors into a comedy where your mind is sitting down to watch what you think is a real light-hearted thing and so the sucker punch of it affecting you where you’re not steeled for it I think is all the greater. So that’s may be why it is as affecting as it is because you know we don’t just do comedy. In fact we haven’t done comedy for about 20 years. So it feels like it’s always truthful. We try to do it truthfully. Our writing has really changed over the years from being sketches and a one joke thing to very quickly realising there’s more mileage and it was more interesting to take a character from its initial joke and take it out of the initial joke and give it a life that continues outside of its initial joke and can you do that? Can they become a three dimensional character that you care about over time?

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MG: But what was it… going from four writers of The League of Gentlemen… Jeremy Dyson was the fourth… who didn’t appear, to two? I mean writing by committee. I can’t imagine how the four of you writing…

RS: Well we never did. We wrote as pairs. Steve and I wrote together and Mark and Jeremy wrote together. And er… we would… the hardest part of writing The League was always coming back together to see if we could pool the material of what we’d written and how it would all fit, if it could fit, because it was all disparate sketches. The League obviously was just a series of sketches with weird characters and situations… and the not very clever idea that we housed it in was to put it into a town, just have them… for the radio we called it Spent and we thought it would be a sort of literary joke, the idea that it was on its last legs. But it was more than we didn’t just want to do disparate sketches so we thought let’s put it all in a town and then Benjamin could arrive and he could be the eyes of the audience experiencing these weird people. We had Barbara who was there to take us round the town as a taxi driver. So that was the nuts and bolts of it and then that idea became bigger than the sum of its parts… Royston Vasey became a weird place that these things could happen in and yet it was only ever the characters and sketches that were that…

MG: And yet it did sort of become, there was a narrative coming through it…with Mickey Love… it became really, really tragic so…

RS: … The writing of it and that was… obviously we’d just write lots of disparate things but then the discipline was… oh that’s a shame, that’s a brilliant historical sketch that Mark and Jeremy have written but it doesn’t fit and so we had to have, the parameters on it were, you know, some things that we thought were great we couldn’t do and that was surprising to us as young writers because we thought ‘why can’t we do the things we’ve written’, that we think are really good but it was a good lesson in learning that you’ve got to know what your thing is and stick to it in the allotted world that you’ve decided upon. In the end we managed it in League live to do some historical stuff and fit those things in that we wanted to do but it was as much about what you could do as you couldn’t. But suddenly writing ‘Psychoville’ only with Steve was much easier in a way than… because we didn’t have the two other voices, you know, suddenly we were able to… and follow through that big arc of story, quite consciously writing something that was much more narrative driven than League. It was always there creeping into The League with the third series which became more of an ongoing story but um we suddenly felt that we should write something that was… it was sort of the early days of ‘24’ and box sets world and we thought it’d be nice to do something where you couldn’t wait to watch the next one. So it was an exercise in that and then we went back to single stories with No.9 cos we got so sick of having to write such a big sprawling thing, that it was nice just to do one offs.

MG: Let’s have a clip from ‘League of Gentlemen’ actually first, because we’ve got some clips…

RS: Good.

(A clip from the first episode of ‘The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials’ is played – featuring Geoff, Mike and Brian, in which Geoff attempts to make a pitch for a business loan)

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MG: That character recurs a lot, I mean, this brings me… we were talking about it earlier…  you play, all the way through, even in ‘Psychoville’ actually… there’s always a character that you develop that’s really a furious, angry man. Really, really furious and barely holding it together… would you like to discuss that? (audience laughter)

RS: It’s not a big leap of the imagination is it to realise… there’s a lot of that in me and you know, I did Mr Jelly as well, who’s another very angry character and Ollie Plimsolls. I’ve always enjoyed the disproportionate rage… so, I don’t know where it’s come from, I’ve obviously, I’ve got pent up fury but I enjoy, I like playing the sort of, the build-up. I think it’s to do with the drama of taking something… where it’s got a lid on it and it’s keeping it bubbling and then bursting it in inappropriate moments.

MG: It usually ends up in terrible tragedy as well so, I mean, you’re invited to laugh at them and think they’re despicable and you end up…

RS: I think that… yeah it always surprised me about The League. I mean there was such joy for the… when we brought it back, it seemed like people really, that knew it cos its years old now, its 20 years ago, people might not know it anymore, but I was always surprised how much love there was for these characters, although I wasn’t as well because we did try to, however grotesque and, you know, it was broad and some very, sort of big make-up… like Mr and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle , some of it… Tubbs and Edward, but they are big characters and yet they’re hopefully, there’s a kernel of truth in the performances that allowed you to sort of see beyond the cartoon-like initial joke and stay with them long enough to start to care and then you’ve got it all to play for if things start to happen to them that… and you’re feeling things and you’re conflicted. We did the character of Herr Lipp and in the film, we explored what it would be like to be, to acknowledge that you’re just a set of innuendos, that’s your character trait and people feel sorry for him and – a known pederast murderer – and Tubbs and Edward and Pauline, who was the biggest monster of them all and people began to feel conflicted about how she was being… her plight that we put her through, having her sacked and her job was everything and suddenly you see this monster as a human and that’s, that’s when you’ve got them then cos you think you can, then you can manipulate the feelings. It was joyful to play with their initial joke and sort of try to make them real cos that’s something you can really explore and start to mine their character more and it doesn’t feel then it’s just a one joke thing that you’re just repeating. We were never big on, we were always fearful of it turning into something that you could predict and that was just the same every week and I really I hope have never done that. We’re fans of things that maintain a level of scrutiny on the writing and don’t just churn it out. You know if I’m ever accused, I’d be mortified to think that people thought it was lazy because we really try hard to not be.

MG: That’s a great point to bring up here because there’s a… you know I think this… occasionally you get someone that ‘bursts onto the scene’ inverted commas, just because they appear on TV… people will go ‘this brand new face’ and actual fact they’ve spent years and years and years…

RS: An overnight 10 years success.

MG: Exactly yeah and I think one of the greatest skills a writer or an actor, any artist at all has, is the concealment of process. It’s the art lies in the concealment of art so… I remember seeing you on a couch on some breakfast show… somebody, you know, ‘oh it must be lovely fun’ but it’s not just fun is it, it’s absolutely sweating every single detail.

RS: It is yeah. I mean, you sort of don’t want to reveal the magic trick of it really because that’s what… I really, I hate it when I’m doing plays and in rehearsals they want to bring in cameras to take little shots of us rehearsing to put on the website just to start to advertise it… we haven’t even… we don’t know what we’re doing yet…This is… I saw Michael Gambon interviewed where they were asking him about… I think it was on a ‘South Bank’ (Show) and they were asking if they could come back and he was like… he absolutely wouldn’t want them in the backstage area… “It’s magic what we do here”. I thought yeah it’s good, keep a lid… don’t expose all of it because it’s literally like a magic trick. I mean some people love magic because they don’t know how it’s done, others think it’s dumb because they’re being tricked and they want to know it and they go ‘Show us what’s up your sleeve… oh yeah, see… its shit… I loved it for a minute when I didn’t know, now it’s just crap because I can see the mechanics of it…’ and I think that about the process of just sort of revealing everything. I mean there is no magic to it. Its toil and its hard work. I mean it’s not… my brother’s a fisherman so I know what real hard work is, but I can’t pretend that this is like the same thing that he does but it’s exhausting of the mind, you know, we sit and we agonise, even more so now with No.9 with the pulling the rug over people’s eyes when they’re all geared up to look for the… surprises, that’s a harder thing to hide now because people are on to it. But it is a lot of work and we don’t have much time to film them anymore. The budgets go down and down every series and we did this last series in 28 days which is really quick. We had five days an episode and one episode we did in three days and that constraint we really felt this time and it was much harder work. So it’s not just pissing around laughing and doing take after take. Although Peter Kay does that (audience laughter) We don’t, we haven’t got time.

MG: We have a good clip to show… actually… I can back that up cos I was lucky enough, honoured enough to work with you…for two lines…

RS: Yes. You were in No.9.

MG: I’ve never been quieter on a set in my entire life. I was terrified… the great Fiona Shaw and you acting and there were no laughs at all…

RS: Yeah it’s funny because you’re making comedy and the thing that you… well I say that… not that funny some of them. You’re trying to do good work and it can be stressful and yet on the other side of it, the dexterous thing to try to do on set is to keep it feeling fun and free and you are trying to do, make it enjoyable… I’ve been on sets where it’s gone wrong and there’s an atmosphere… never on my things… acting on other people’s things and someone’s kicked off or there’s been a… and it just descends as a gloom and you can’t be funny anymore. It’s a real skill in keeping that buoyant and they do talk about filming like it’s a slow motion emergency and you do have that terrible ticking, gut-wrenching feeling of the day’ being lost waiting on things. But its stuff to have just put behind you when you’re in front of the camera doing it. You’ve got to make it all go away and in the moment look the most relaxed you’ve ever been. It’s a fairly counter-intuitive thing.

MG: Again… it’s the concealing of the effort, I mean…

RS: Yeah.

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MG: Its um… you know, actually we’ve got a clip actually from ‘Car Share’, which really went viral and actually I want you to look at this in a really different light from what we’ve just been talking about because I spotted this right off. I just checked with Reece that I was right, is that you’re trying to get this right and you’re annoying Peter Kay. Honestly, watch this and see what you think.

(A clip from ‘Peter Kay’s Car Share’ is played, featuring Reece as Stink Ray singing along to ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’ in the back of the car as John (Peter Kay) gives him and fellow passenger Kayleigh (Sian Gibson) a lift to work)

MG: That’s not the clip I’m talking about. The clip I’m talking about you need to go on YouTube and see the outtakes of that scene… because that’s the edited version, which is brilliant, which is in the show… if you look at the outtakes where Reece is really concentrating trying to get that funny and then Peter Kay keeps laughing and you get really annoyed with him cos you’re making a show.

RS: Well yeah. I mean I was… it gets frustrating… there’s a point where corpsing becomes not a good thing and you think actually I can’t… I don’t think I can ever recover from it and that’s scary when you’ve got that fear of ‘Actually I’m going to laugh’…and you start seeing people get naturally annoyed with it and it’s like not funny anymore and yet that only makes it worse… it’s a delicious, terrible feeling and er Peter was, he is a giggler and he laughs a lot and I suspected he was not going to get through this… I didn’t help it (audience laughter)… He gave me the permission to go further with it which was maybe what he was after, but he knows what he wants and he can get cross when… if you go too far with it but that day he was laughing his head off…

MG: Find it… its really brilliant outtakes. Talking about the low budget, the cutting, the constant budget for ‘Inside No.9’, this slightly bugs me and I’m going to suggest this might be the case, but because you’re so unbelievably highly regarded by your peer group as well as an audience, you can get these massive names on, who I know do ‘No.9’ for rate, so you can get somebody who would normally charge, you just couldn’t possibly afford them right, and… that’s slightly using you really… because you could snap your fingers and anyone will come on ‘Inside No.9’.

RS: Well… that’s lovely to say. I mean we do hear now that more, that actors are aware of when it’s casting or when it’s about to be cast and say ‘Have you thought of me for it?’ which is lovely. And I know why, it’s because it’s an appealing thing for an actor to come and do a week in a thing and it’s generally done in five days. You can fit it in… but no-one has turned us down… and we’ve always manage to get people. We never write them with anyone in mind. We always written them and then just hope, nearer the time, the two week window that you’ve got when you approach cast… and actually filming it, then you start asking if you’re free for… you can’t hope to have people keep things free for months in advance. So we’ve always been lucky… Yeah we do get good names on BBC Two for them and that’s a thing, that’s, it’s not the be all and end all of it but its lovely to think that there’s a thing like it because it’s nice to get these guest casts that are different every week and it’s one of those things you don’t really see as much on TV and that was why we wanted to do it. It was just a little playhouse where you could, where the writing was the thing and it’s sort of slipped into being always these surprising twists but that wasn’t the sort of the opening gambit. That wasn’t what we went in pitching, it wasn’t ‘oh we want to do ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. It was more just storytelling and having a place where you could do the one-off half hour, like… it was a massive tradition in the 70s and there’s a long history of TV that is that, brilliant television and it just didn’t seem like it was around and partly I think due to the thing of the boxset – hook people in, write stories that have returning characters because ‘that’s your only way an audience will stay with you’ mindset, which is still around but maybe less so, I’m not really sure. It’s great to hear they’re doing a ‘Twilight Zone’ again and there is more and ‘Black Mirror’ is one-off stories but there is a thematic thing across those. Our things have no link other than Steve and I write them all and are in them all and tonally there’s a thing about that that’s us so that’s your link and way in but it was really just the opportunity of telling some stories and playing with television, playing with the way that you can tell stories on television and the concept of what it means to be beamed into people’s homes and experience a programme. I mean never more so than when we did the Halloween Special last year where we… I mean we didn’t want to do it live, we thought it wouldn’t be a… well ‘EastEnders’ do live ones now, it’s naught to do a live one and then we thought why would we bother. Again because we didn’t want to feel like we just done it like everyone else would just do it. So I said well the only real reason to do it is if it goes wrong, that would be exciting cos then you’re playing with the very idea of it. So then there was this big elaborate lie that we had to spin because we were so fearful that it would get out. If it got out then everything has gone about it, if you knew it was… so it was imperative that we, that people believed we were doing a live one and fingers crossed that it all goes right on the night. And we knew we would get questions about whether it would go wrong cos that’s what they ask ‘Are you frightened it’s going to go wrong?’ ‘Well yeah… we’ll stumble through and I think that’s why people…’ Anyway, we went on ‘The One Show’ deliberately…we don’t like doing press… we went on ‘The One Show’ to seed the idea of the ghosts. If anyone’s not seen it then I’m spoiling it, sorry, but um, we knew there’d be a bit in it where… it was an ironical nod to what happened in the programme, that the ghosts get us at the end, that if we went on ‘The One Show’ promoting it and we asked… the presenters didn’t know anything about it, but our producer knew their producer and they have a meeting where they talk about what questions they’re going to ask the guests and we got their producer to ask, to say to them ‘and ask them if they believe in ghosts’, maybe, cos its Halloween and blah blah blah. Not sure that they would cos there’s a list… they may or may not do it and we thought ‘please god they ask us’. And they did… because the first thing we thought we can’t let them in on it because they’d be suddenly shit actors (audience laughter)… So they did and they didn’t know and they fell into our trap and they asked ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ ‘No not at all’, then I thought ‘Brilliant. Got it’, got that moment on television that we could then put in the programme at the end. So it was an elaborate hoax… which worked. I was really pleased because we wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I thought, well when it’s two and half minutes into ‘A Quiet Night In’, a repeat of an old one, you’re never going to think it’s now, that this is still part of it, it’s absolutely, it’s too long and happily a fifth of the audience turned off (audience laughter) So really I was pleased about that… because it meant we’d done it correct… it’s not really what you’re striving for…

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MG: Twitter went mad.

RS: Yes…

MG: ‘My god, what’s happening, what’s happening?’

RS: I did my tweet… that went out on the night…

MG: I know. That was the real sort of double bluff.

RS: The mad thing about that was I had to have my real phone to do the tweet so people were texting me when they thought it had gone wrong (audience laughter)… ‘Oh fucking hell. I’m so sorry’ (audience laughter)… so I loved it…

MG: I’ve got so many brilliant clips… this one with Alan Partridge because this ties into an angry man with issues… here’s Reece on ‘Alan Partridge’.

(A clip from ‘Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge’ is played, with Reece as professional controversialist Jasper Jones being interviewed on North Norfolk Digital radio by Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan)

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MG: And again you should watch that whole thing… When you did the updated, the recent League of Gentlemen series, I bet you were worried about diluting the legacy because the legacy is so, so enormous and so loved and also the other thing is – I can’t believe its 20 years, that’s terrifying – there’s jokes in there, there’s characters in there, in the original series, that you couldn’t do now… and I just wondered how on earth you… you sort of had to deal with that because you wouldn’t want it to be diluted and you want it to be as strong and authentic but you just can’t do those things…

RS: Yeah well… I don’t know… We decided that we couldn’t, if we wanted to do it at all and there’s been a few years where we could have done a return to The League because you can just pick your 20 year anniversary. It could be when we first did it, when no-one saw it, it could be when we first did the radio, it could be when we first did the TV, it could be when we first did the Edinburgh. So there was time, years were rolling on, it was like it could be this year if we all decide to do it and stop doing other things and we eventually thought ‘Well let’s write it’. Jeremy said, let’s just write it and if we don’t like it and think it’s not going to do us any favours, we won’t do it, no-one’s making us do it. So we did. That’s what we did. And that was very freeing to think it wasn’t this big… you know, you shouldn’t think about yourself in the terms of being like an iconic thing. We just did it again the way that we’d always done and thought ‘What would these characters that we left 20 years ago be doing now?’ But we knew we couldn’t come back toothless and not be the thing it was as otherwise what is it? I mean you’d instantly be disappointing, for the fans are expecting to see these people doing the things they did. But time has moved on and I think, you know, we tried to, without becoming Jim Davidson… where you start to rail… actually I’m becoming like, I’m railing against everything that I used to think was liberal and now I’m finding truth in all these sort of shorthand things that people get incensed about on Twitter. We just, we really had to think carefully and then we ignored those thoughts cos we thought ‘What are we doing… why are we second guessing?’ You can’t second guess what anyone’s going to think about anything and you’ll offend someone somewhere about anything. You know, you do a joke about a cat in a house, ‘Well my cat died in my house…’ ‘Oh sorry’ (audience laughter) So you can of course always highlight someone’s beef with what you’re doing. Comedy anyway is very anger-making. A lot of people get very cross with comedy in a way that you just allow dramas to flow by. You know, you watch a half-hour, an hour and a half of a programme and think ‘It hasn’t really got going yet but I’ll give it another watch next week, see if it gets going’. It’s like well apply those rules to a half-hour of comedy. You can’t and you’ve got to hit the ground running and then you’ve got the people’s opinions about what’s funny. So, you know, we did, we agonised over, not agonised. There’s some lines in Herr Lipp, in the new one where we thought ‘Should we, is it all going to be hijacked by him, by somehow celebrating a paedophile?’ You know, that’s the thought that we had, that we thought people might somehow take it and run with it and twist it. But we just thought no, just do it, just say it, it’s what he was and that’s what’s funny about it. It’s a dark comedy and you’re set up for those moments and in the end we just thought we can, I think we can, we’re grown up enough to be able to hold two different ideas in our head and not find it offensive, because that’s the problem with the world today. People can’t think about two things at once. If you are able to think about it then you can see a way through… an understanding what the humour is, where the humour is coming from, we thought.

MG: Well it’s right and… Papa Lazarou isn’t black… Papa Lazarou is a demon…

RS: Well yeah. We never, in a single ever conversation about that… yeah you could say he, it is in black face cos that’s the look of him… but it was always, in our mind, it was like a clown, it was like a dark clown and we wanted it to be just a monstrous demon… and I don’t think anyone ever really had a problem with that. We never had a complaint and it comes from a place like the Child Catcher… a sort of demon from your worst horrors. He’s beyond that… and he was an existing character and we thought it would be, what would it say if we didn’t do it… I don’t know, we just felt we were able to bring him back in a way that was satisfying and not offensive, I don’t think.

MG: That absolutely delighted me as well because I was bracing myself for the kind of the new Twittersphere to be complaining about Barbara’s trans issues… and I didn’t see anyone complain and that’s because, here’s my theory for what it’s worth, is because none of its unkind. It’s really dark, it’s really, really dark and ghastly but there’s nothing unkind. I know it sounds stupid but it isn’t.

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RS: No, I think, I mean there are… its brutal some of The League.

MG: Brutal, but that’s not the same.

RS: No, it’s not the same and I think there is, we did care about the characters…

MG: Yeah.

RS: You know, of all the people who are monsters in League, Barbara was always the most sane one…and spoke her mind and was very happy with it… and we thought there was room in the world to be able to look at the absurdity of the day-to-day changing of what you can and can’t say as an idea and that was how we managed to bring back that character and do it. People may think it’s tin-eared and we’re old men trying to still have our cake and eat it. We didn’t feel like it was like that and we felt it was true to the legacy of it if you like, that we were able to do it.

MG: The broad cross-section of what you do… Just… theatre acting as well… if anyone gets the chance to see Reece in the theatre, its utterly off-the-scale brilliant but you’ve never tried directing and I quite like that. I really admire that because not everybody can do everything.

RS: Yeah exactly. We did a couple of episodes of No.9 in series three but it’s not something I’m that bothered about. I mean it would be enjoyable to do it if I was only doing directing but to do both, I didn’t, I found like neither got my attention… yeah exactly right, you don’t profess to know everything. We’re not, I wince sometimes when I see the programme and it starts and it says ‘Written by’ and then our names are on at the end ‘Starring’ and ‘Exec producing’. It’s like Orson Welles type megalomania. But I hope that when we start we step back and we become just actors in it and that we let the directors that we’ve chosen bring their thing to it because you presume that people know better than you do about some other things. And your hope is it’s all better for that than, it’s better than what we imagined when we wrote it in a room in Muswell Hill. You want it to get, along the way bring all these people in that are raising their game and making this nice thing and I think people want to work, er, that extra mile on it. You know, its tight and the work is hard and we overrun sometimes and that’s never nice to have to ask the crew to do that, but they, I’ve never seen to see anyone mind and I think it’s because they believe in it. Loads of people wanted to work on The League when it came back cos they were all fans of it, so it was like a cherished job to want to be part of and that’s lovely to think it’s, people are not, it’s not a journeyman thing, where they’re just drudging to work and it’s another one. So that, cos that spills into the way that we think about TV. We try really hard to be fans of it and write it in a way so you watch it and it’s not like everything else, it doesn’t wash over you. It’s hard to do. Television is so disposable, its next day’s chip paper and to have anything that leaves any mark for any length of time is a real achievement I think… so to have done it after The League , again with things we’ve done that seem to have had a resonance, is a remarkable thing I think that people are still bothered by it because you’ve only got that… you play your hand once, ‘Alright they’re the dark comedy ones’, so that’s what that’s going to be for the rest of time and it sort of is but it’s how you return with and move it on and that’s, that’s been the hard part, being the creator of it, to think and we still keep doing it.

MG: But you’re wrong to say its ephemeral because I mean there’s… The League of Gentlemen things have gone into common parlance… ‘Are you local?’ ‘You’re my wife now, Dave’… its all common parlance, the same way that Douglas Adams’ books are common parlance and as soon as that happens there’s nothing you can do about it, it just belongs to another generation even though they don’t know where it came from.  It’s true, I mean everybody knows ‘Are you local?’

RS: Yeah.

MG: And you started that…

RS: I know, its funny isn’t it? It did become…

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MG: Television doesn’t disappear now because of internet and that’s the thing. You know, it used to. Absolutely… you know, the reel-to-reel 35mm thing…

RS: It depresses me in a way that you think ‘My god, what was that moment in that ‘Armchair Thriller’ where the woman…’ and then within about 30 seconds you can find it… (audience laughter) Imagine not knowing for about a day (audience laughter) … or being puzzled by something… “I wish I could remember that thing”…

MG: Talking about television which is where all your screenwork has been, um, it’s in a really bad place right now. Sorry… it’s not in a bad place, some of it is… scripted isn’t because of all these new streaming services. But terrestrial, conventional television is in a very peculiar place. It’s going to have to either catch up with streaming or it’s going to have to change. You’re feeling the pinch at the BBC, are nicking all your budget, er, I know you’ve got Netflix but that’s just a purchase… So, I mean, are you, I mean please say yes to this, are you looking to that new future of the delivery mechanism of going to somewhere like Netflix or Apple or Prime to make new material? Because why stick with the BBC? Sorry BBC, if they’re not… seriously, if they’re taking you for granted… is there a better platform?

RS: I don’t know. I mean we plod on. I used the word ‘plod’ and you rolled your eyes before. We plod on doing our… we’re very happy with our lot, you know. I do… um, pleased to be at the level we’re at, writing these things in a room and they’re undiluted… we get very little interference and that’s why they’re, they feel authored and they feel like they’re our thing and that’s… But you can’t really get your handle on, your claws into it. I mean, we submit them and the producer has very few notes. But it’d be hard to say ‘Can the ending not be that?’… They’re too tightly conceived, so, er… and that is a very cherishable situation to be in. You know, that’s all you’re striving for. I tell Jeremy and he’s like ‘What, you just write them and they’re made?’… That never, never happens of course. The hell of unpicking your vision or changing the way you think you wanted to tell a story because someone else has said not on a read through could be galling and, um, is for when, if you end up writing a thing… that’s like ‘I’m writing this now, it’s not the version that I imagined, that I want to write’. We find it hard writing our own thing. We often get asked to write other things and we invariably we’ve turned them down because we haven’t got the excitement or the fire to want to write it and yes that’s luxurious I know to be able to be in that position. I’m not sure every writer was a genuine writer that could cast their eye on… ‘Will you write me a thing about an old people’s home?’ ‘Yes fine’ and just do a brilliant version. You’ve got to have a reason to want to do it, it has to bubble out of you with a passion and that… I can’t write any other way. I’ve turned my eyes onto certain interests in No.9 and am able to vent in, with those different storytelling aspects week after week and it’s fantastic cos it keeps changing it up but, um, so I’m loathed to dare to rock the boat and move to like a situation where it would be like ‘Okay, let’s have a look what you’ve got… it’s very, very, er, promising’. Suddenly it would be at the behest of possibly, the situation we haven’t had for a long time and now would be difficult to take, where it would be like ‘You don’t know everything you know’ and ‘I think this is not right yet’. And that is valuable of course. And the good thing about notes, because it’s not always bad, is when you get one and it niggles in an area of the script where you think yourself you’ve had a question mark over it and then you’ve got to take that and own it and think yeah there’s something wrong with that bit and I don’t know what it was but the fact they’ve highlighted it as well, there’s something about it and that’s an itch you’ve got to return to and scratch.

MG: I see your point, you know, about the autonomy… about the artistic autonomy you’ve got with the BBC… but it does… it rings a bell… a 22-year-old producer leaving Dennis Potter in reception… which is the most awful story… Dennis Potter, one of the greatest, you know, television playwrights ever, you know, some 22-year-old said she’d get back to him…

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RS: Yeah. I’ve been in meetings where we’ve pitched ideas… we very nearly – don’t know if I should say this – brought back ‘Hammer House of Horror’. Hammer… and me and Steve for a long… lots of meetings about that and, er, it all fell apart through various reasons, but I was in meetings about… we wrote two scripts, the pilot, which was really good, actually one of the most horrible things we’ve ever written (audience laughter) and um, it was a sort of ‘Monkey’s Paw’ thing and I was telling them the notes, the ideas… ‘It’s a W.W. Jacobs thing.’ ‘Sorry, who’s that, what’s that?’ ‘Oh for fuck’s sake’ (audience laughter) That’s hard to go… cos ‘You’ve not heard of that reference at all? You know Alfred Hitchcock?’ (audience laughter)

MG: The best one I’ve had, from a 19-year-old, was ‘I don’t need to know the references to know it’s good’.

RS: Brilliant.

MG: I’d suggest otherwise.

RS: That’s hard that because you’ve got to think… I know Ben Wheatley, he does great work and he gets notes and he goes ‘Yeah, brilliant’, he absolutely plays the game. He nods and smiles and goes ‘That’s a brilliant idea’ and then submits the same script with different coloured pages… (audience laughter) … the same script…

MG: … I was saying you didn’t direct but you do direct when you’re actually acting because I remember saying to you, just an act of two lines, going ‘Is that her joke or your joke?’ and you went ‘ Oh it’s mine’ so that’s direction.

RS: I went ‘It’s my joke’ (audience laughter) … Oh yeah, I mean there’s a big thing in the writing of our things because we’re actor writers. It circumvents a lot of rewriting I think. I mean, there’s always rewrites on our things but as we go we’re rehearsing it cos we’ll write a scene and then we’ll do it and instantly that tells you a lot. It tells you so much about a script because actually… it just feels wrong, you go ‘oh you don’t need that. You go from there to there and I can do that in a look’… and that’s an instant rewriting of a version of events where… because the writing is important but it’s ultimately how it’s, it’s on its feet delivered is how people will consume it and experience it. That’s a big shorthand that we have, just by accident, by the fact that we write it and act it as well. We’re always very happy for any actor to be in it… to look at the script and say if something’s not sitting right in their mouth, how to say a certain phrase, we’ll say ‘change it’. We’re not prescriptive about every comma and full stop…

MG: Really?

RS: Not massive. I mean sometimes if it’s an approximation all the way through we will go ‘Will you learn it’ (audience laughter) cos otherwise it’s like ‘What you’re doing? You’re impro-ing it’… Here and there, if people have got a better idea we don’t go ‘No you can’t. We thought about this in a room 8 months ago and every word is absolutely perfect.’

MG: I’m surprised… It’s like John Byrne’s famous phrase… ‘I think you’ll find that’s a comma, not a full stop’ and, you know, I kind of guessed that’s what…

RS: …Yeah, it depends. It’s a case by case because sometimes it is important… a word we’ve toiled over is said and we’ve gone in and gone ‘Can you actually say that cos that’s funnier…’ They might not know why but it just is… it’s like whether or not it matters or not.

MG: Um… got another clip. Impossible to pick something from ‘Inside No.9’. Every single one is different, it’s brilliant, but this is from ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ which is genius.

(A clip from ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ is played – an ‘Inside No.9’ episode from series three. Louise (Keeley Hawes) confronts her husband David (Reece) over a ‘Lost’ poster he’s made for a shoe he found, in an attempt to reunite the shoe with its rightful owner)

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MG: And once again… I mean genius, I mean mental illness or, you know… BBC Two could not afford her (audience laughter)

RS: … Amazing to get Keeley to do it, yeah… we tried to get her a few times I think… for other parts and she wasn’t free but finally managed to get her in that… Its lovely… we get to, for having so many years only acted alongside ourselves over and over, it was such a refreshing thing to have casts where (you’re) the same character for a week and we have a different…

MG: And they never intimidate you?

RS: No, no. It’s not, because they’re creeping in on our terms aren’t they. Often times they’re more nervous about the tone of it than we are because we sort of flit between week upon week and a nice thing that gives us renewed energy when we film the No.9s is that we have, er, the changing cast week upon week, so Steve and I are flagging as we go through filming for the length of time we do, but then each week is a renewed… we’ve got to sort of go welcome the new cast and start again so it’s like a new production. It literally is, so that gives us a new kick in our step and we start again each week. So, but they’ve always been, everyone’s been… no-one has… I remember we, I met and had a long talk with, um, Helen McCrory, she wanted to meet. I mean, I knew her… I’d done ‘As You Like It’… to play my sister in ‘The Harrowing’ and she wanted to meet before and talk about it cos it was ‘I want to get the tone. I don’t want to arrive on the day and then just talk about it. I want to just know what I’m doing going into it.’ But she was very rigorous about the part. She said… ‘What church am I going to?’ I said ‘I don’t know, it’s just a line’. But she was very, she’s great…

MG: Can I ask you a really dull, prosaic question – asking for a friend. When you’re writing… partnership… who paces and who actually types?

RS: Um, Steve does a lot of the typing but we do swap. I feel like I’m pacing more than he is but then he’ll go ‘You do it. I’m so tired.’ We’ve got like a, it’s a cell, a very monastic cell that we write in, in this room in Muswell Hill and it’s, er… there’s nothing in it. There was a wardrobe, which was where ‘Sardines’ came from for No.9. We used to stare at this wardrobe every day… and, er, we have just the laptop and a few post-its and that’s it. It’s really sparse. You can’t even make a cup of tea in it. There’s nothing in it.

MG: Cos people that write, one that paces and types… often fall out about that… you know… ‘You haven’t written it down properly’. Anyway…

RS: No… we’ve never really… fell out.

MG: The thing you said about your brother, I think there’s something wrong there because if your brother catches fish, when he stops catching fish at the weekend he’s off duty but when you’ve got a creative mind, it’s not being pretentious I really mean this, being creative is working 24/7 all the time, because you don’t stop. Every time you see something… you’re seeing something that could be possibly an idea and there’s something rather gorgeous for people that work really hard, certainly manually or physically or anything, that when you’ve stopped catching… fish that’s it over for the day. It’s never over for you.

RS: Yeah I know. That’s true, yeah. It’s… that line in ‘Miller’s Crossing’ isn’t it? ‘I shall lead the life of the mind’…it’s in ‘Barton Fink’… ‘I will show you the life of the mind’ and its, yeah, it is, it’s a funny thing cos you do, I’ve got that, you know, that mad thing of waking up and in… the dark stumbling and writing a thing down and my wife… ‘What’s happening? Are we being burgled? … ‘No, no. I’ve just thought of a thing’… So that’s always going on and it’s hard to turn off. I very quickly can turn off though. I can get into tracts of not doing, I’m loving not doing anything, I mean we are, we’re in the edit, I’m in every day actually (audience laughter) … It’s not doing it. I mean, it’s not, um, the doing of it, which is always a terror because that’s the time where you’ve got to do the best you can do it so you’ve got, you’ve gathered the pieces to then… can be put together to make the programme. You just want to be, you don’t want to let yourself down… The horror of being in the edit and thinking we didn’t get a thing or I didn’t, I let myself down because I didn’t know it well enough. I’ve seen things and I can see when I don’t know it well enough and it pisses me off that I wasn’t more rigorous with the lines… so I really make sure now that I can enjoy it and have all the choices by really knowing it because you can’t do as well as… you can do it if you don’t, if you’re slightly reaching for the lines. This is all acting, but you just have to know it backwards and then you can explore and on a hairpin try different things. You only get about two takes. We don’t go more than two takes. You’ve got to go ‘Right yeah, moving on’… That’s it. That big moment we spent so long in that room writing. I’ve done it now. I’ve had two goes at it and that’s it and let’s hope to god it’s there.

MG: I know. I got my line wrong.

RS: … You didn’t. Did you?

MG: Yes. You gave me a lovely story about Gemma Arterton and doing a four hour set-up at Bond.

RS: Yes, that’s true.

MG: To make me… not so nervous cos you’re so sweet. Um, you’re never going to get bored with ‘Inside No.9’ because of the variety…

RS: Yeah, it does reset itself.

MG: Yeah, cos it’s not ‘Black Mirror’ which, you know, is techno fear and, it’s, you know, it’s not ‘Twilight Zone’ which has got to be twist of the tale. You can do anything you like so that actually could go until you’re 90, but I imagine at some point you’ll never get bored with the content but you might get bored with format and so I suppose the next step obviously is features. You know, to make a feature and people have been talking about feature League of Gentlemen, which I think, you know, my personal (opinion) is a bad idea, but anyway. Um, you must have a million ideas for that and are you prepared to sort of dip into that nest of serpents that is the film world?

RS: Yeah well it’s… again it would be, it would be deciding to embrace the process that you would have to embrace to do such an endeavour and, er, it shouldn’t stop us. We have had talk and we wrote… but we did write a thing and it’s stuck in the ether of not being able to be made and it’s a really good script as well, but it might be made. And that would be great if it happens but I just… we’re mortal and they take so long. Talking to Jeremy about how they got ‘Ghost Stories’ finally made. Its 5 years of their lives, you know, but sort of waiting on whims, ‘It’s all gone away. Oh, it’s all back’… and it’s really hard to sort of countenance that it does… taking the energy of that. It’s worth it, it’s great. Ben does it, Wheatley… in the end you’ve got this thing that’ll last and is there, but seen by far fewer people than if it was on television…

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MG: … Yeah I agree and you’ve only got one gear.

RS: Yeah, yeah. It’s hard. It’d have to be really good. I think we would like to do something but maybe just a low budget thing just experience doing a 90 minute thing, that’s a different way of doing it.

MG: Just before we take questions, I suppose just one last question which is as an actor rather than writer. You must get pursued to, you know, even to have parts in Hollywood movies and so on. Have you ever been… I’m guessing you probably just say no?

RS: Yeah… I do… well not that many Hollywood movies… I’m not interested in going away from the family. I try never to go away for more than a week, literally, and so I’m very… I’m like Bob Mortimer. I just stay in all the time. This is a weird thing for me to have come out this weekend (audience laughter) So yeah when I’m not doing the acting I’m very happy being at home, just pottering around doing my magic tricks and looking… at my horrors.

MG: Yeah. Don’t ever take a role in ‘Game of Thrones’… Anyway, right, this is the audience’s chance. So we’ve got a roving mic so if you want to put your hand up and I will pick you out…

Audience member: Yeah I just wondered if you ever run out… or worry you’ll ever run out of ideas?

RS: Yes (audience laughter) Of course, yeah. I mean that’s the tyranny of the No.9s is that they consume storytelling and ideas… I’m often thinking ‘god, we could have done this, it could have been a whole series’ but… the flipside of it is it’s great to be able to have the… those peaks in those stories that you couldn’t have if you had to reset, if it was a sitcom or a situation that was going to be ongoing. They’re only good because you can conclude with sort of some great, extraordinary moments but, er, yeah, you just have to think you will not run out of ideas but you maybe just need to recharge your batteries and let the well fill up again, you know, and just have moments of just going away from it for a while otherwise you start to think, you’re thinking too much like everything is like everything. You know often with a few of the No.9 ideas we had for series five, we got so far down the road and suddenly our eyes, the veil parted and we sort of realised it was the same story done in… with the nuts and bolts of something we’d already done. And that’s even harder now because we’ve done 25 of them or whatever it is and its, to sort of tell something that feels very different every time, with us being in them as well, there’s a lot of things against us now cos of the fact that there’s been so many. It is harder… the invention and the spark of the germ of an idea can come from the most odd place so you just hope as long as you’re still in the world, although I’m not am I? I just said I’m in the house all the time (audience laughter) … you do sort of see things that just will kick off something, you know, and often times you can think of a thing and it might not be right, you know, pursuing something. We’ve had ideas for stories and they’ve gone down dead ends but a bit of that story when we were pursuing it has found its way into something else, so nothing ever wasted.

Audience member: Hi. I was just wondering, in League of Gentlemen Live Again, the musical number between Tubbs and Edward, what was the process behind creating that?

RS: Um, well Steve wrote the tune. I was in New York when he sent me it and he sang it on his phone and he said that we should do a… I think we talked about doing a musical thing with Tubbs and Edward before so it was, it just felt a nice way of bringing back those characters and the start of Act Two we wanted to start with a bang, you know, so full on Les Mis idea for those two and we just felt  it felt right. In some ways I wished we’d tried to do the whole hog and done the whole thing as a musical (audience laughter) … so yeah it was just that really and we’d sort had done a bit of that… in the panto version of the last time, we did some musical number. We’ve always done songs in The League. It just felt right that we should do that.

Audience member: Just following on from the first question. I was just wondering with The League you obviously had a lot of ideas and (you) talked about it earlier, about, um, sort of keeping them or like throwing them away cos they didn’t quite work. Have you ever brought something back… for No.9 and things like that, if that makes sense?

RS: Er, yes. Well… I mean, Silent Singer in ‘Psychoville’ was a character we’d done for years in our lives and we thought that would be a funny thing to give to the world, um, but no. Some things have crept back in. I mean, I’d always wanted to do a Fritzl No.9 where the reveal would be that someone was keeping someone trapped and we tried an idea with that same idea as the reveal, er, it’s a funny idea so it might be used again, but it didn’t quite fit for that idea but that reveal ended up in the one that we finally did with Steve being the wedding photographer and that was an exercise in sort of hiding the, what was really happening in a story that looked like it was something else. And so some ideas do find their ways back into being useful but we’ve never had a character – a full-on character – that we’ve not been able to use because they’re mainly born out of the stories.

Audience member: I just wanted to ask you about ‘Dead Line’. When I tuned in to watch it I felt so gut-wrenchingly sorry for you… and going from that to being so terrified I couldn’t sleep for about six hours. So my question is how did you and Steve feel through the running of the show when obviously there’s a lot of scenes you two were just together on your own? Was it hard to switch off about what was coming next and just be in the moment?

RS: It was very funny because they’ve um… We’re screening ‘Dead Line’ at the BFI next month and I think that they’re going to, they’ve got the gallery, er, you know, the gallery where they’re calling the shots, the audio of it. I think they might play a bit of it which is good and it’s actually very, it’s quite frenetic but in-between it’s all very ordered. Its strangely not as sort of panic stations as you might think it would be. It was, because we had the reset time, it didn’t feel – and this was fantastic – that once we’d started that was it we were off for a whole live half-hour, because we had the moments of respite where we had the archive stuff to be able to go to and that just gave us a bit of breathing time to get to the next place we needed to be in, in Maidstone… But what it did do, what the scary element of the whole night that we had to get right was not to spread or be too short, because when you’re filming live what happens is everyone gabbles and it ends up 20 minutes long because ‘Ooh oh I’m doing it live I can’t leave it’… it’s too quick and so they were instructing us in-between each gap… ‘We’re on course, its fine’ or ‘You’re too long, can you tighten the next bit’. So we had a scary bit where it was too long… the bit where I wander over to Stephanie Cole and she’s sat before she cuts her own throat – I can’t believe we made Stephanie Cole cut her throat on television (audience laughter) – and that was the bit where they said we’ve got to speed it up, we’re a bit over so we suddenly had to, me and Stephanie, had to do that bit a bit quicker than we would have normally done it. But it was fine. It was good fun. I mean other than me having my phone on and getting real-time texts from people. It was much calmer… I was more, I was really scared at the start, the build-up to it… knowing that we were going out live just became a big thing in my mind and I remember as the vicar, having my cup of tea and I was shaking with the tea. I thought ‘I’m never like this’. It was really weird.

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MG: Not even on stage?

RS: No, no, not on stage. I mean the first performance of everything I get a bit nervous but generally then I’m fine, but I was actually literally rattling the tea (audience laughter) That was scary and then once we’d got into it, it was fine.

MG: Did you keep your head?

RS: Yes.  Of course I did. Of course I did.

Audience member: Hi. As a sort of a writer-actor are you motivated more by writing like characters for you to play or more from like telling a story? Does that make sense?

RS: Yeah. That’s a good question. I think we do, er, it’s both really but there is the element of ‘and what’s the part for me in it?’ So we do ultimately think… it’s funny, I don’t know whether we have a weird sort of rule where we’re not, where we don’t really talk about what part we’re, that’s in there that we’re writing in the story that is for you or me, for Steve or I.  But it’s funny that it’s not, um, it’s not the driving force. More and more we’re quite happy to just write the right story without shoehorning in a part for me or Steve because that has to be the way round… We hope that people like seeing us in it as well but that’s become less of an important thing than it being a showcase for me and Steve and more just getting the story right and getting good people to do it. But we always end up with a script where there is two obvious people that we could play and invariably always the other way round. You know, we’ve… you could always swap, if you look at the parts that we’ve played and just play the game of swapping them you’d probably, you would buy it… It might be that you watch it and think I can’t imagine it any other way, but we’ve always had the conversation about ‘Well I could do that one’… ‘Oh I’ll do that one because that’s a bit like that one’. And in the end it becomes a pragmatic thing about feeling tonally over the six you’re not repeating yourself a little bit. I mean of course we are cos we’ve done so many now it’s hard to do anything different… different pair of glasses. That’s all we’ve got left (audience laughter)

Audience member: Hi Reece… you’ve actually mentioned this… see the scene where you walk towards Stephanie Cole… how there’s the piece of camera equipment that’s covering your face. Basically my brother seems to think that’s not you in that scene, that it’s a double. So… (audience laughter)

RS:  No it’s me… it’s definitely me… why wouldn’t it be me?

Audience member: I don’t know,  cos you can see you walking in and walking out…

RS: No it’s me… yeah it was definitely me… We thought it would be, yeah… It was quite, you know, that looked so… I mean obviously it was very deliberately that we didn’t see my face… we just wanted it to look messy… yeah, no it was definitely me.

Audience member: You’re obviously a huge fan of old horror films and TV shows. I just wondered what it was like working with David Warner?

RS: Oh David Warner. Yeah, he was great. We worked with him on The League film because he was in that as Doctor Pea and, er, we asked him back to do, um, Andrew Pike, the judge in ‘Elizabeth Gadge’, which is probably my favourite No.9 that episode. I loved him in it. I knew he’d be brilliant. He’s so funny and he never gets asked to do it and I just knew that he would have such a devilish time with it and he really delivered it. He was sort of the David that we know from ‘Time Bandits’ really in that, in that part… he was quite evil but he was actually really funny as well and ‘The Man with Two Brains’. He’s done lots of really good, funny parts. Iconic… and so humble with it, you know. I’m still in contact with him. I can’t believe I’m talking to him. I was obsessed with ‘The Omen’ when I was young and two weeks in I finally asked him about the decapitation scene in ‘The Omen’… and I said ‘Have you still got the head?’ … He said ‘I lost it in the divorce’ (audience laughter) But yeah he was lovely.

Audience member: Just briefly, are there any other shows or films you would like to bring back? You talked about ‘Hammer House of Horror’. Is there anything you would… like passion projects you think should be rebooted, that you would like to do?

RS: That’s a good question. We get to do so many sort of tonally different things that I feel like I’m a magpie doing versions of all the things I used to like. I think they should, well definitely, obviously, bring back ‘Columbo’ (audience laughter) because that would be a brilliant show to watch again… but that is a lovely format to always watch, to know the murderer and see how it unravels… you don’t see that very often.

Audience member: …That’s been really interesting… hearing you talk. Thanks so much. It’s just some of the episodes, sort of the ‘Zanzibar’ one and the cryptic crossword, it’s just kind of amazing how clever they are. I’m just wondering if you sort of revel giving yourselves those kind of challenges on top of the… you know, the  normal kind of 30 minutes… it’s amazing… the stuff you get into them?

RS: Yeah, I mean its wearisome isn’t it to think… It’s hard enough anyway just to do one and then to sort of set the parameters of like, let’s do one in iambic pentameter and that was a challenge… and the silent one we did which was an exercise in ‘Can we get to the end without speaking?’… and it annoys me cos I read things like ‘It’s such a shame you had to do the line that you had’… ‘Well that was deliberate you fucking idiot’ (audience laughter)… so anyway… you see why I’m so angry? So yes it is hard, it’s a challenge but one of the beauties of, you know, the joys of it is that we are able to set ourselves those challenges and just try to tell, because its relentless and its story after story after story. We didn’t want to feel it, it just falls into something that you can expect to see done in a certain way so it’s always nice to slightly shake up the way we deliver the story. So, um, doing the Shakespeare one, you might say it’s just all gimmicky, it doesn’t really count but I feel like we really tried to make it worth the while investigating that way of doing it and it just gives it something else, gives it a different way of experiencing the characters and the story that week. But it’s not everything. I don’t think it has to be the be all and end all.

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Audience member: Hi Reece. In ‘Psychoville’, your daughter, was she scared of you as Mr Jelly?

RS: Yeah I think she was yeah. She’d seen me as Geoff as well when she was really little and that was (audience laughter) traumatising… um … we needed… a little girl to be, the thing that the BBC were worried about was… when it says Mr Jelly pulls the girl’s hair when he’s combing the hair with the hook hand… he had an attachment that was a comb and he was just really roughly… and they were like ‘You can’t be seen to be doing that to a child’ and I said ‘ But with my daughter I do that every day’ (audience laughter) and then it sort of… from that sort of idle threat it was made real and she came and did it. She was more nervous about suddenly how many more people there are on a set, cos you watch it, things and you think it’s just them don’t you, not 25 people all silently looking at you when you’re doing it and that was unnerving for her. She was six or something, she was really little and I think it’s a really good performance cos she did it quite, you know, from not knowing what, to repeat things, you know, suddenly you get into the thing of continuity and being able to do things over and over…so, but she was a bit scared… she’s told me that she was angry… Amanda Abbington was playing her mum in it. She was cross with Amanda cos she was shouting at me, her dad (audience laughter) so she was on Mr Jelly’s side (audience laughter)

MG: Okay. So thank you so much… I just want to thank you so much for coming up. Unbelievably honoured to have you here Reece. Everybody, Reece Shearsmith (audience cheers and applause)

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An Evening with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton: In conversation and Q&A at the Phoenix Cinema

#Phoenixrising fundraising weekend, Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley (17th March 2019)

A transcript of An Evening with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton – Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s two part interview with Dr Matthew Sweet and an audience Q&A – at the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley, as part of the Phoenix Cinema’s #Phoenixrising fundraising campaign.

SP – Steve Pemberton (Actor and writer)

RS – Reece Shearsmith (Actor and writer)

MS – Matthew Sweet (Writer and broadcaster)

The Phoenix Cinema is Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s local cinema and they have helped its charitable cause many times, taking part in The League of Gentlemen, Psychoville and related events in the cinema’s distinctive art deco panelled, red, bronze and gold hued auditorium. As a long-time fan of theirs I have visited the Phoenix on those occasions and over the years learnt more about the cinema that Steve and Reece have so often championed.

It is one of the earliest purpose-built cinemas in Britain and has stood in its prominent position on East Finchley’s high street since 1910. It faced the threat of demolition to make way for an office block in the 1980s and was saved thanks to the widespread opposition of local residents. This proved a major turning point in the building’s history, signalling a new course which allowed the Phoenix Cinema to truly come into its own as a cinema with the local community at its heart and soul. The Phoenix Cinema Trust was born – its purpose – to give the Phoenix charitable status, with community and educational activities to the fore and a focus on maintaining the cinema’s independent distinctiveness. It is this cherished independence which the current Phoenix Rising fundraising drive is striving to protect, following a recent cinema chain takeover bid. And this is the point where Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith come in: An evening dedicated to them – with screenings of prime examples from their canon, an illuminating discussion centring on their extraordinarily productive career and ending with an audience Q&A – was the climax to a Phoenix Rising fundraising weekend held at the cinema.

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The much heralded event sold out in a matter of hours with fans eager to be part of something that promised to be a very special occasion. And so it proved to be, even exceeding the high expectations of everyone lucky enough to be there. It was a night crammed full of insight and observation, nuggets of information and small gems of revelation.

It was such an exhilarating experience to be sat alongside several hundred fans watching three assiduously chosen episodes on the big screen (‘The Lesbian and the Monkey’ from ‘The League of Gentlemen’s third series, the ‘Rope’ episode from series one of ‘Psychoville’ and ‘Inside No.9’s series four ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’) that tracked and perceptibly delineated Pemberton & Shearsmith’s development and growth, as they honed their narrative skills, storytelling inventiveness and structural experimentation.

These exemplary works – and the post-screening discussion which followed – illustrated their partnership is one which constantly seeks out new challenges, always striving to set higher standards for themselves. As ‘Inside No.9’ director David Kerr observed during the Q&A at the end: “Reece and Steve are really hard on themselves in the writing process. They don’t let themselves off the hook”.[1]

Host Matthew Sweet (who revealed during the course of the evening that he’d seen an emergent Pemberton & Shearsmith in The League of Gentlemen on stage at the Pleasance at the Edinburgh Fringe) conveyed deep respect and admiration for the duo’s exceptional talents and was extremely knowledgeable about the trajectory of their career and progression and transition as writers and actors. It was noticeable how well thought-out and considered the event was – from the screening selection to the conversation afterwards. Sweet’s keen appreciation and effusive regard for Pemberton & Shearsmith’s work provided space for the pair to give highly considered responses – thoughtful, perceptive and sharp. They were given time to talk at length, allowing them to delve more deeply and analytically, as they explained their creative processes, writing strategies and collaborative approach. It helped to reveal their mindset to a far greater degree than I’d seen or heard before. The connectivity that wedded their work as it evolved over the past 20 years was also discerningly foregrounded: Their characters have always had an emotional depth and a sense of an interior life, even at the sketch format level and they have always worked at trying to surprise their audiences and deliver the unexpected, ploughing their own furrow against the grain of expectation.

To sum up the evening: It was an event which generated an incredible atmosphere of excitement – the reaction to the three screened episodes was nothing short of joyous. There was a genuine feeling of love for Steve and Reece in the auditorium, not only from the gathered fans but also from people they’ve worked with: Directors’ David Kerr and Matt Lipsey’s comments during the Q&A were not only astute but also truly touching. For every fan there it was a night that will last long in the memory. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith gave their time freely and generously to their local cinema and a charity they care deeply about. In doing so they helped generate not only much needed funds for the Phoenix but an experience that fans will cherish for a long, long time.

As always with the transcripts I do for events like this, I have aimed for as close as possible verbatim reproduction of what was said during the evening by all the participants. I have tried to make it as accurate as I can, replicating the words in complete and unedited form. Any gaps that are there are because I couldn’t make out the spoken word or phrase.

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If you enjoy reading or dipping into this transcript please can you think about making a donation to the Phoenix Cinema’s Phoenix Rising campaign. The event I’ve transcribed was a fundraising one so keeping to the spirit of that evening and Steve and Reece’s long association with and support for the Phoenix Cinema, every donation – however small – helps.

Here is the Phoenix Rising JustGiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/phoenixrising

Part One

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith in conversation with Dr Matthew Sweet, at the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley (following the screening of ‘The League of Gentlemen’s series three episode ‘The Lesbian and the Monkey’)

MS: (It was interesting) watching you two responding to that. I don’t think you’ve seen that for a while have you?

SP: Not in years.

MS: What came flooding back?

SP: Shame (audience laughter)

RS: Filthy, horrible episode (audience laughter)

SP: It was a kind of a… remembering all the different influences that went into it because, you saw at the end there, ‘Don’t Look Now’, with the red paint spreading over the painting and a lot of Dr Carlton came from a documentary called ‘A Change of Sex’ which we used to watch and so many lines were taken from that verbatim.

MS: “Got out now”, that sort of thing.

SP: “Go out, would you”.

MS: She died recently…

SP: She did yes, but her legacy continues.

MS: In a way that I suspect she wouldn’t have expected it to. What about you Reece?  Really. Shame? I can’t agree with that.

RS: Yeah, pretty much shame. I mean it’s, it’s a very strange programme (audience laughter) It’s been so long, it doesn’t feel like we had anything to do with it you know, but it was a real attempt to try to not do the same format as the first two series and so it does feel very different. We stayed with Pauline for that whole story, so that was a marked difference in the way we were going to do that series and you know it divided people, people didn’t like it and some people now really like it cos it was very different to the sketch show format of the first two. But yeah, it was good. It made me laugh. I laughed at Mr Foot’s brother Peter, which I’d forgotten about. It was a funny idea.

MS: It’s a big change isn’t it, because as Reece says, it’s a big shift this series structurally and I suppose in terms of what those characters are doing because suddenly they seem much more horribly real, they have desires and emotions perhaps that we didn’t expect, hadn’t suspect that they had… for each other.

SP: Yes it was an interesting process, having done two series and they’d been, you know, pretty successful and, um, but with a sketch format you feel there’s only so far you can go with characters and I think what we did between the end of the second series and the start of this third series was the Christmas Special, which was an hour long and we gave the characters a bit of room to breathe and we really enjoyed that didn’t we?  So when it came to a third series we just decided we didn’t want to repeat the same format again and we wanted to spend more time with less characters and I think it’s that progression and that narrative progression that you’ll see tonight as our lives flash before our eyes, but this is where it started. And we came up with this idea of ending each episode at the same point so that by the end of the sixth episode you’d built together a story of what had gone on. So it was, yeah, it was ambitious because it did divide people. We re-did the theme music, it was a different format, we killed off Tubbs and Edward immediately, which my mum was furious about (audience laughter) Never forgiven me for.

RS: Our mums are in the prison, aren’t they?

SP: They are, yeah. All four of our mums.

MS: What are they in for?

SP: I had to high five my mum when I was playing pool. I turned to do it in one of the takes like that and she was just watching the monitor (audience laughter) But no, happy times.

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MS: I found myself a bit, looking at all the background detail in it as well. I wonder how much, how much kind of effort did you put into that? Is that all there in the script? You know, ‘Bulls Behind Bars’ magazine, for instance. Lorraine Kelly on the wall.

RS: Ainsley Harriott House, where Geoff (lived)… on that estate. Yeah, we tried to keep every frame, if possible, to have some other extra joke in it that you could get if you went back and had a look at it. But it was a pass that we would do after we’d written the main script, then we’d think, right we’ve got… an exterior of the high street here, what can we do in this bit. We’ve always done quickies. They’re not always the most successful, but they’re the hardest thing to write aren’t they?

SP: Yes, sorry. I’ve just noticed my shoelace. I got distracted (audience laughter) But yeah, we have always…

RS: …Get it done up (audience laughter)

SP: Yeah, but it was… it is something we do go through. We try and put that detail in the script and… I have to say I really enjoyed it. I think it’s held up. We chose this episode because we thought it’s never been repeated and it’s not one we’ve seen a lot of and we’re not sick of it yet so it was good stuff. I have to say, doing the sex scene. Well we did two, didn’t we. One with Mark, which is more of a love scene. When we were watching that back, we were watching the rushes in black and white and that carrot didn’t look (audience laughter) like a carrot. We were so shocked. And then the other love scene… we laughed about it on the page but on the day it was quite grim (audience laughter)

MS: How did you prepare for it? They’re called fluffers, aren’t they? (audience laughter)

SP: Reece.

RS: Yeah. No, as I said in a recent live tour, I do regret that (audience laughter) As an actor I regret that (audience laughter) It was fine. We thought it would be. It’s so cruel of Ross to do that and we thought it would be a great trajectory for the end, where she’s running to try and stop her life from being ruined by Ross. Because by then we’d embraced the fact that he was a baddie even though (he’d) started out as the voice of reason and suddenly he’s the villain of the piece because everyone loves Pauline (audience laughter)

SP: Sorry (audience laughter)

RS: Wrongly (audience laughter)

MS: Do you think your sense of humour has shifted since this moment? Do you think, because it is cruel, isn’t it? There’s such moral cruelty in what goes on between these people.

SP: Yeah I think it probably has shifted a bit. Yeah, I think we are… I think we have pulled back from that certainly because it’s not funny to be so cruel. I mean, this is very… You’ve got a lot of different styles going on in ‘The League of Gentlemen’. You’ve got very broad stuff, you’ve got very big background humour, like you say and it wasn’t ‘let’s be cruel’. It was kind of let’s just go a bit deeper with these characters because when you’ve just done a sketch where the joke is this woman is meant to be helping unemployed people and actually she’s not very nice to them, that can only take you so far. So it was an experiment really to see how emotionally and psychologically complex we could take these essentially sketch characters. But I do think over the years and through, you know, ‘Psychoville’ and into ‘Inside No.9’ that we have matured as writers and I think we have. Yeah, we wouldn’t write something like that today, I don’t think we would, even though we really enjoyed watching it.

MS: But I wondered whether the… both the humour and horror of this particular episode comes from that feeling we have of those sketch characters attaining this life. Everybody else who you’ve written since then has begun with it but somehow we watch it happening and there’s something shocking about it.

RS: Yeah, I guess. I think it’s again to do with the format because we stayed with them. I remember it was a weird thing to film it because we were in the same… as the same characters for a week, you know, we’d never done that. With The League it was so many, every day was spent completely chopping and changing with… in the make-up, getting changed… for the (different) sketch show characters and it felt like we were much… suddenly we were doing a drama cos we were with these people, an arc of their story and it just felt different. But yeah it is cruel and I think we wouldn’t… It feels like what it was which was we were… I mean, even in this third series, we’d done two before it, but we were excited that we were on telly and we had the opportunity to do sketches and scenes and characters that were sort of plucked from all our influences and our… and the things that we remembered from kids and wanted to do and do ‘Don’t Look Now’ and do ‘The Shining’ twins and it feels like that, it feels like a patchwork of all our things that we loved and we were able to do them. It’s just like we were playing. And I think we’ve been a bit more distilled in more recent times and the No.9s especially have become more… each one, each episode is its own sort of exploration of one thing rather than lots of little things.

MS: Did they become more real to you Steve? Because I’m thinking that, you know, I can remember 25 years ago, in a rather hot upper room in the Pleasance in Edinburgh, and the three of you running on and off stage and attaching sellotape to various parts of your faces, um and that kind of quick changeover, which I suppose you were back doing again when you toured recently. But did they suddenly become more like real people to you because of having… concentrating on them in this way?

SP: I think they always were, from the very early days, um, I think there’s something about taking a character you’ve done on stage, without any make-up and costume, and then giving them that sort of visual life and their home life and suddenly deciding (designing?) what their environment is. That definitely took it on a level, when you could look in the mirror and not just see ‘oh it’s me with a big pair of glasses on’ but the full… you know, I would see Pauline staring back and that was great. I really enjoyed that. But yeah we tried never (to) make the characters simply sketch characters. We always tried to give them a bit of depth and I think the reason for that was we used to do a weekly show and so whenever our friends had seen a sketch that they’d enjoyed, for example, the Local Shop, we went ‘oh they enjoyed that, let’s do another one’ and we’d take the characters a little bit deeper. So by the time we’d done three sketches of Pauline bullying Ross, we thought oh okay people will be a bit bored of that now, let’s do one where Ross bullies Pauline and suddenly that complexity came out. So I think it was there from the early stage days.

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MS: And how do they, how have they attended you, these characters? As I watch you, you know, there are so many people that you’ve brought to life from Royston Vasey and I’m wondering how they, are they in the muscle memory? Do you know when somebody says one of their names to you, do you know where your mouth should be, where your shoulders should be, what your lips might be doing? (audience laughter and applause as Steve does Pauline’s exaggerated lip movements)

RS: It was funny doing the new… the three anniversary specials cos we suddenly thought what do we… I remember Mark saying ‘What’s the voices?’ and he couldn’t remember how to do it. And it was… there was a minute where we thought what, do we actually remember how we do these characters, but we were very quickly back… what they were. I think it was a brief conversation about are we better actors so we have to do less somehow now cos they were very broad and huge, but of course…

SP: No was the answer to that (audience laughter)

RS: Exactly the same.

MS: And what was it like to bring them back on the screen and on stage? Let’s talk about the Specials first because one of the things about Royston Vasey, I always feel it has some kind of relationship with the real Britain. It does reflect something about us, doesn’t it?

SP: Well we definitely went down that road and an awful lot has changed since we did the first three series so we definitely felt we’d seen enough political cartoons that used Tubbs and Edward and ‘This is a local country for local people’. So we thought we want to reclaim that and we did allow the whole sort of where we find ourselves at the moment to influence what we were doing in those specials. But first and foremost we went ‘What are these characters doing now?’ It’s fifteen or twenty years after we last saw them, what are they doing now? And how has time changed us. I mean it was funny watching that clip of Pauline in prison and we thought it was the funniest thing that she would say ‘I’m going to be fifty soon’ and now we find ourselves being fifty and it’s not so funny anymore. Well Reece isn’t there yet.

RS: A few months. Not long.

SP: But um, you bring your experience to it, you bring the life you’ve lived in the past 20 years, all that comes into it and I think, um, yeah it was wanting to be true to what we originally did but give it something extra and that’s what we tried to do.

RS: Yeah, I remember we… Jeremy said ‘Well look, we don’t have to do it. We’ll just write it, if we think its rubbish we just won’t hand over the scripts’. And that was very freeing to think yeah we don’t have to do it actually. No-one’s making us do it. So we were the arbiters of whether we thought it was good enough and it was a scary thing to try to bring it back and not unravel the good will, because of course in everyone’s mind it’s brilliant ‘The League of Gentlemen’. I don’t remember it being that good (audience laughter) but it was…and it’s a scary thing to return to it and invite ‘There you see, should have left it’. And that’s what could have happened but I think we just about got away with it, so it was very pleasing to think we did it and we’ve done it now so that’s that.

MS: How did it feel on the last night of the live tour? Mark threw Hilary Briss’s hat out into the audience…

SP: I think what got all of us was we decided, we’d arranged for Jeremy to come on stage and take the final bow with us and we hadn’t done that in any other show and just seeing him in the wings and coming on, we all welled up. It’s not the end of Royston Vasey or the end of The League of Gentlemen but it’s the end of that particular chapter where we brought it back and we enjoyed celebrating what we’d achieved all those years ago.

MS: Well I think that might be the end of this kind of strove of the evening. You will get your chance to ask questions of them. I’m not going to hog them all night I promise. But now we move forward in time and get two more episodes of something. We won’t say what it is, sandwiched back to back.

RS: Exciting.

MS: So we’ll see you in an hour. So please thank these gentlemen (audience cheers and applause)

Part Two

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith in conversation with Dr Matthew Sweet, at the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley (following the screening of ‘Psychoville’s series one ‘Rope’ episode and ‘Inside No.9’s series four ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’) Followed by an audience Q&A.

MS: Very powerful, very moving and it also demonstrates to us I think, in you creating those two characters from the fag end of variety is that you can do all of those things, you know, you’ve got those skills, you can do the kind of front of cloth stuff as well.

RS: Yeah, well we wanted to make it feel authentic, that was the… it could have fallen if it had been not quite right, cos you know, it’s one thing to do it and think well sort of, I don’t know who that is, but if you can get it right. It was great. I think it just about feels like they could have existed as a real double act and it was good to do the dancing wasn’t it?

SP: We’re hoping for a Summertime Special. We’re still waiting for that but, er, it was great. It was great to come up with those routines and, um, and to do something. In fact… one of them, the one with the hats, we actually did as The League of Gentlemen but not quite in that way. We Cheesed and Crackered it up a bit.

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MS: We should be very careful to say that it isn’t based on anybody in particular is it? But there was a Cheese and Onion…There was Barry Cheese and Mick Onion who did have a kind of a brief flowering (on) early evening ITV.

SP: Weren’t they on one of those ‘Opportunity Knocks’, ‘Search for a Superstar’ or something?

MS: Mick is retired now and plays the mandolin but Barry Cheese I think has been working recently and one of his jokes here: ‘I was in bed the other night watching ‘Countdown’ and got aroused. Seven letters that’ (audience laughter)

SP: Very good.

MS: It does reflect something very real. I mean what are your feelings about that generation, that generation that kind of just stepped out just as alternative comedy was coming up and… (cleared) the pitch a bit.

SP: That’s right. Well it was, you know, when we were in our sort of 20s and wanting to do comedy and that was what was on the television, it was really frustrating. We were tearing our hair out a little bit that we couldn’t get anywhere and yet this was the mainstream and now that it’s sort of died off, that kind of comedy, you feel very nostalgic for it all of a sudden. So, um, yeah, I don’t think we had any animosity towards it but again I don’t think it’s the kind of thing we could have written. If we had written it when we were doing League of Gentlemen it would have been much more savage and bitter and angrier towards those people, whereas I think there’s a lot of affection towards them.

RS: Yeah it felt very weirdly… I mean it’s not really… watching it feels weirdly autobiographical cos there’s those young pictures of us and we look so old in it (audience laughter) and its like we had… we’ve had that life a little bit in embryo  but it felt like we were doing, we were reflecting on it a little bit.

MS: So you think in some parallel universe where ‘The Young Ones’ never happened that could have been you?

RS: Yeah.

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MS: Well maybe it wouldn’t have been such a terrible fate. One of the things that we were watching, that, the episode of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ where suddenly ‘The League of Gentlemen’ gets this sort of structural complexity, that is one of the great pleasures I think for us as viewers of ‘Inside No.9’. That these stories have surprises, there’s a kind of puzzle box quality to some of them. There’s a real kind of, you know, you’re real virtuosos I think in the structure of comedy writing nowadays.

SP: Well thank you.

RS: I mean we showed the ‘Psychoville’ one cos that was the… in seeing those three tonight, that’s been the stepping stone of how we’ve arrived at ‘No.9’ really cos we wanted to do, as The League progressed and we felt more that we shouldn’t just do sketches and we should do a narrative story and then the next step was to do an experiment in writing a big long story with ‘Psychoville’ that was, you sort of had to watch the next one to have the story unfold. And then by accident we had to write the Maureen and David episode because they had run out of money and they said could you do one where it’s just you two in a room and we’ll get a bit more money across all the series so it could be a cheap episode. So that was, it came out of a money saving thing didn’t it? And we hadn’t actually done one with just those two so we did, we wrote that little play really and got Mark in, which was great to have him back. And, er, he’s never put us in ‘Sherlock’ but um (audience laughter) I’m not bothered (audience laughter) and then from there we, when ‘Psychoville’ ended and they said ‘What next?’, cos we thought we were going to do a third ‘Psychoville’ but they said ‘What next?’ We thought about doing, um, one-off stories because we’d liked doing that one and that was, in the room wasn’t it, what we came up with. It was not really thought through but we thought that would be a, to do an anthology series, which was not particularly in favour. I mean they seem to be everywhere now but when we mooted it they were like ‘oh um, yeah maybe’ and we’d written, what was the first (ever) one we wrote for ‘No.9’?

SP: I think it was, um, ‘Nana’s Party’.

RS: ‘Nana’s Party’ and it wasn’t even used until the second series, yeah. But that was the idea, to just do one-off stories because we began to enjoy writing more narratives and staying with the same characters.

MS: Let’s talk about that episode of ‘Psychoville’. As you say it does stand alone. Who, how did you come to the conclusion that you ought to do it in, as a kind of homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’, which he tried to, if the technology had allowed him to make it all in one take, he would have done, but a reel only lasted 10 minutes then. He had to find his way to all of those semi-invisible cuts, but you could do what you could.

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SP: Well we wanted to do 30 minutes unbroken take and the dolly that was manoeuvring the camera round just ran out of juice really, so it has to be powered up. So the first take is about 22 minutes I think, then when the lid goes up and just covers the lens briefly there’s an invisible cut. So we filmed it over two days and essentially we kind of thought, um, it’s a bit like when we did the live episode of ‘Inside No.9’. Your initial thing is no we don’t want to do it because it won’t look very good. So the idea of inserting a one, you know, a one set story into this multi kind of stranded episodic thriller, it didn’t seem right to us did it, but when you think about it and you think let’s use those restrictions and make them into a positive. So if we’re going to do something with only two characters in one room let’s do it as one take and let’s make that the challenge. And from that point, well into our heads came ‘Rope’. So we watched ‘Rope’ which starts with a body going in a chest and a swinging door going into the kitchen and we said let’s start (with) David and Maureen, that’s how it begins and that was… sometimes you just need that impetus to start writing.

MS: And as you watch it Reece are you remembering the anxiety of it and the kind of the ballet with the camera?

RS: It was. I mean I just whispered ‘You know I can’t believe we did this.’ It was quite a challenge. I mean not just to learn the lines and not ever… you couldn’t go wrong at all cos you have to start again. But it wasn’t just us, it was everyone. All the boom operators and the… it was a big ballet of everything going on as we were. As the camera moved in, stagehands came in and moved the furniture away so they could get past and as it came back out they slid it back in again. It was just this huge operation to make it look, in the camera, like it was seamless and we did… there was one time we got right to the end didn’t we and Mark got the line, his last line…

SP: He got the last line wrong… reset.

RS: Reset and we had to do it again. There’s no get out cos there was no way of cutting into it.

SP: But to be fair I don’t think we could have done it with anybody else because we had one day’s rehearsal. Mark was doing something else at the time…

MS: One day?

SP: Yeah. So we went to where he was filming and we did two or three hours with him in the room just with the director Matt Lipsey.

RS: Who’s here tonight.

SP: Who I believe is here tonight.

RS: Where is he? There he is. Well done Matt (audience applause)

SP: Thanks Matt. You’ll remember we went from that rehearsal, we had one day to prepare in the studio then the next day we shot, we shot it. So it really is, looking back now, it’s incredible how we did it. But if it hadn’t been the fact it was Mark and we just had that shorthand, we could just get on with it and we went back to our old League of Gentlemen sort of ways of rehearsing things and… it just came together really well and it’s an episode we’re really, really proud of and what’s interesting is, as Reece said, you can see the genesis of each programme in the previous programme. So you can see how that became ‘Inside No.9’

MS: I hear Mark was very pleased to be in that episode of ‘Psychoville’ because people think he was in all of it and they congratulate him for…

SP: And ‘Inside No.9’, he gets a lot of praise (audience laughter)

RS: He’ll never be in that (audience laughter)

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MS: As you say, you can see each one in a way emerging from the other, so did doing that, the ‘Rope’ episode of ‘Psychoville’, give you a taste really for these other sorts of experiments that you’ve done with ‘Inside No.9’ – the silent episode and the episode that’s shot like a 70s studio drama?

SP: Yeah absolutely, I mean, I think it was. Playing with the form is something you can do very easily in an anthology. So we definitely took inspiration from that. In a way it’s kind of, it was the idea of going back to an older, you know, plays on television. We grew up watching ‘Play for Today’ and the likes of, um, ‘Armchair Thriller’ and, you know, those anthology series we’d loved growing up, of course ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. But doing, you know, sometimes in order to move forward you have to look back and it was the first episode that we did, which was in a wardrobe, twelve characters in a wardrobe, just for half-an-hour. You use those limitations and you can get a really interesting structural narrative, you don’t have to be cutting all the time to different locations.

MS: In a way Reece I think that one of the delights of ‘Inside No.9’ is that you and Steve have really kept the tradition of the single play going in a slightly covert way, but there it is.

RS: Yeah I think so. I mean it’s hard because people are sophisticated and they’re onto it now so as far as keeping the… but what’s enjoyable is that we can reach peaks in the drama of it that you couldn’t do if you had to reset for the next week and it was the same characters again. So you can do, you know, quite extraordinary things that have no consequence at the end. So that you’ve got these huge revelations about the characters that might or might not die and you don’t really know what’s going to happen because anything could. And that’s very freeing but equally it’s really, it’s a lot of turnover of storytelling because each week you’ve got to start again which is… I’m always saying but it’s like doing six pilots and so it’s hard to keep coming up with a new story where we think we haven’t used that, the nuts and bolts of that before, cos sometimes we start writing something and we think this is sort of that one wrapped up in a different setting and you can sort, we can sort of tell and we’re very mindful of not, of trying not to repeat ourselves. But yeah its completely…its Nigel Kneale  and its ‘Beasts’ and its ‘Twilight Zone’ and ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and its all those things that we loved watching and its sort of television-made because we remember that kind of television being pleasing to watch.

MS: Those, some of those, not the Nigel Kneale one, but some of the ones you mentioned were made by many, many hands. This series is a great devourer of stories. You’ve just wrapped on the latest series of it…

RS: Yeah we finished last Friday.

MS: Is it a kind of monster that you have to feed now?

SP: Yeah, yeah for sure and its hungry and like Reece said the audience are getting to, you know, know our style now so it’s really hard to be constantly inventive, but I think you can tell, even looking back at ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and what we did with Pauline and Ross there, so we’ve always loved writing narratives where the audience don’t know where its heading. Similarly in ‘Psychoville’, it was really nice to have that revelation that Maureen had been behind, you know, the killing and that she actually is the one that had driven David into this interest in serial killers. So we always like to feel in our writing like there’s a point where we can be ahead of the audience. That gets harder and harder each series that we’ve done but hopefully series five, which we’ve just wrapped on, will… we’ve got a few gems in there. I’m sure everyone will enjoy it (audience applause)

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Audience Q&A with Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

MS: I think its time, high time, I think probably, to throw things over to you. If you’ve a question for Reece or Steve stick your hand up and perhaps a roving mic will come to you or you can just shout. Is there a roving mic? There are two, hey. So let’s set up one at the… there’s one on the edge there, over there… the nearest one and where’s the other mic? There, okay. So there’s one down here on the second row.

SP: Never seen so many hands go up at a Q&A.

Audience member: Hello. So you said it devours stories and it’s like doing a whole series of pilots, ‘Inside No.9’. Have you ever been tempted to do like a series, to spin one of them off into something that was longer?

RS: No because I don’t think we’ve got the power to go ‘Yeah, we want to, we’re going to do six of these’ but, um, I often think, just idly thinking oh you could do more with some of the characters that we’ve done, used and then ditched. No, I would have loved to do six half-hours on Mr Warren and Mr Clarke doing witchfinders, a witch trial ever week… but, um yeah, no it’s just my fantasy really. But it is a lot of characters and you do get fond of every one. There all our babies so it’s nice to think we could return to them but we haven’t yet thought we could spin them out for a full… as I said its sort of hard… they are what they are because they’re their own self-contained half-hours where you can kill them off at the end or do whatever and it might be harder actually to do a longer thing with them where you’re resetting in a sitcom kind of way so… yeah it’s a nice thought but I’m not sure that we could actually do it if we really were made to.

MS: We’ve got one down here.

Audience member: Random, but basically I remember watching ‘Psychoville’ with my gran and realised how much she looked like Maureen, which really freaked me out. I just wondered have you ever met someone in real life and just gone like ‘Oh my god, you’re actually that character’?

SP: I did see someone in a restaurant in Spain who had David’s exact haircut (audience laughter) I could not believe my eyes because, I mean, I decided for ‘Psychoville’ to shave my head completely so that it’ll fit for Mr Lomax, it’ll fit for David, it fit for George, who had a comb over. So I went the full bald head. But this guy had chosen to shave. But characters come from all over the place and, um, yeah. I don’t think that you, not usually do we base it on one person. It might be the voice of one person, the attitude of another, um, and yeah, I think the nice thing about doing ‘Inside No.9’ is you haven’t like… In ‘The League of Gentlemen’ of course and ‘Psychoville’ we were playing multiple characters in the same half-hour so you have to go to quite extremes in order to delineate them. In ‘Inside No.9’ I don’t think we feel that pressure anymore and I think that’s calmed our performances down and we’ve enjoyed being, you know, a bit more natural, a bit more like these two so…

MS: Reece, can I just say that like the question here, Maureen… reminds me of my own nana who lived in (Brick Dike?) Lane in Hull. I think… you might actually have met her (audience laughter)

RS: She was an amalgam of lots of people… My mum says ‘Oh my god Reece, you look like me’ (audience laughter)

MS: Let’s have another one. Let’s have one from the back there shall we, on the edge…and lets set up another one over in this area, yeah, we’ve got one over there on the corner on the front row.

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Audience member: Hello. First and foremost, I work in live television so we watched your live episode and may I say that I was completely fooled and was gutted for you…anyway my question is, how important is it, because obviously all of these series, the production values are really high, um, which is a really important part of comedy I think because it kind of gives it… it kind of anchors it in some way. So how important is it to have someone like Jon Plowman, whose name I noticed at the end of each of those, whose name has been at the end of millions of wonderful comedy in Britain over the years and who’s obviously brave, you know, because obviously ‘League of Gentlemen’ was very extraordinary but it was wonderful and very British actually. I have some American friends who absolutely love it. But they love it because it’s so British. So is it important to have that kind of character around you guys and how, is there somebody coming up in his wings?

SP: Well let’s hope so because, in answer to your question, yes, hugely important that we found in Jon Plowman an executive producer who just trusts talent. He doesn’t over-interfere, he doesn’t try to micro-manage. If he gives notes on scripts or on edits there’d be one or two things he picks up on. He doesn’t try and break down what we’ve created and reimagine it in his own sort of way which I think, you know, a lot of other, speaking to other writers, they get that level of interference. So Jon has been a huge blessing for us to have worked with him. But also going to your thing about the production value, I mean we get the same budget as most other BBC comedies. I don’t think we get more money. It’s just that we work with some really talented directors, designers and everyone just pulls, you know, together and makes every single penny go on the screen. So we’re very, very fortunate.

Audience member: Hi. I just want to ask you what was it like working on the ‘Doctor Who’ series?

RS: Oh. What (having) been in it? Well I enjoyed it. It was great. I mean I finally… Mark asked me to be in something he’d written (audience laughter) and… no I loved it, it was great. It felt very privileged to be part of it. You feel like you’re entering a big, er, such a huge machine, an iconic thing… I had Peter, you had David, didn’t you?

SP: David Tennant. Yeah, I did yeah. It was brilliant to do, but there’s an awful lot of green screen stuff and you don’t understand half the script but you go along for the ride and um, yeah, something we’re both really proud to have done.

MS: Okay we’ve got one down here. And there’s one on the end there, isn’t there. Yes.

Audience member: Hello. The ‘Inside No.9 Live’ special, the episode that was in that episode, are we ever going to see it? (audience laughter) Why did you dangle such a huge carrot? It’s like the cruelness of your other characters (audience laughter)

RS: I wish now that we would have done the whole of ‘Dead Line’ and then when it went on iPlayer that was… you got ‘Dead Line’. Only people that watched it live on the night saw the thing (audience applause) It would have been brilliant wouldn’t it, but obviously you couldn’t do that but that would have been great to have that normal episode and then this other thing happened on the night that you saw if you saw it on that night.

SP: What we did was that we picked one of our ideas that we were genuinely considering to do as an episode but we didn’t feel we’d fleshed out well enough, cos we knew it was sacrificial. So, um, yeah, we might talk about how on earth his head ended up in that microwave (audience laughter) We might try and work out that puzzle because we’ve got the beginning, we’ve got the ending. We just don’t know what the middle is.

Audience member: Hi there. First of all I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone in the room when I just want to say, just thank you for the amazing work you’ve done over the last 20 years (audience applause) And I was asking kind of friends and family before I came here tonight for questions they might want to ask and it’s interesting that a lot of their questions focused on four particular episodes of ‘Inside No.9’. And there’s one in each series which I would argue stand out, in almost near unanimity that they kind of stand out. So I’d like to ask, before you film a particular episode or a particular season, are you aware of kind of which episodes may resonate or really strike a chord with your viewing audience?

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SP: Well I think you’ve got to name which ones the four are (audience laughter) Let’s see if we agree…

Audience member: Second of season one ‘A Quiet Night In’, from season two ’12 Days of Christine’, season three ‘Riddle of the Sphinx’ and season four ‘Bernie Clifton’.

SP: Ah interesting, yeah. Well they were all sort of episodes twos in a way. Um, no, we don’t know and we don’t ever make the series and know what order the episodes are going to go out in and we also don’t know which ones the audiences are going to really raise up and celebrate, you know. ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’, we didn’t realise would tap into such a love for that kind of comedy and for those characters and would move people in that way. Um, but yeah we try to imbue all of them with, you know, with as much craft and as much love and passion and I don’t honestly think there’s one that we go ‘Oh that’s a crap one, that’s a shit one’… so you may, with your friends and family, have one in each series (audience laughter) which you don’t like. No I think it’s, you know, the audience will tell you that, you can’t pre-determine it at all.

Audience member: So just very, very quickly, just on behalf of a friend of mine, Andrea, who’s a recent convert, why Bernie Clifton?

RS: Oh well it… um, it came from, er, we saw, um… no,  it was Jim Davidson in the ‘Big Brother’ house said to one of the Nolans… um, in a devilish way… in one of the episodes he said ‘Ask her about Frank Carson’s dressing room’ (audience laughter) and it was this intrigue about what happened… there was a story (behind it) … a Nolan and her husband and Frank Carson’s dressing room  and it was a recurring thing and they got into, they had a big argument  about it in the end and we just thought it was a funny thing, there was this seeded thing about Frank Carson’s dressing room, what was the story of Frank Carson’s dressing room and then we thought that would be a thing that was hanging over Len and Tommy and we just made it Bernie Clifton. And he came to the show didn’t he, he came back. He was in our dressing room, he came to ‘The League of Gentlemen’. It was lovely to see him and he was very, very flattered. He was nervous when he heard there was a title of ‘Inside No.9’ but in the end I think he was very… He liked it and he sort of appreciated that – the world that we explored – because it was his world, wasn’t it.

Audience member: Hi. From taking originally The League from stage to screen and then all the way through to now, um, as writer performers, how have you dealt with sort of communicating your vision to directors? They’re all beautifully directed episodes, from day one… through to presumably the series five are also beautifully directed. How do you work with directors on making your vision on the page work and their vision entangled in yours and what not?

SP: Well, good question. We do have a couple of our directors in here tonight. Is David Kerr in here somewhere? We should get the microphone to David. In answer to your question, we like to think we’re very collaborative and if the script is, you know, is good enough and it’s clear what the vision is, um, and we work with the directors and directors bring new things to what we’ve written. But I think also it’s very beneficial that we’re there throughout, that we are in as actors so that, you know, we work as a group to ensure that whatever we’ve had in our heads gets through. But David tell us what it’s like working with Steve and Reece? And then Matt Lipsey, you’re on next.

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David Kerr: I mean as you can probably imagine it is a dream job because as a director what you yearn for is a perfectly honed script that makes a lot of sense, has great characters and by the time it arrives to me its, you know, almost immaculate I would say, um, because Reece and Steve are really hard on themselves in the writing process. They don’t let themselves off the hook and as you can see through their endless inventiveness they keep coming up with new ideas so by the time it reaches me it’s pretty fully formed. But I can think of something which was… ‘A Quiet Night In’ cos that was raised earlier and I think that really came together when I found a location for that which kind of expanded the scope. I mean certainly the through line for the event was very much there in the original script but when we found a location we had to adapt the action to make the most of our location. So I spent a day with Reece kind of crawling around and checking eyelines and ‘That’s a brilliant cover, we can stash a body in there’ and you know ‘But you can’t see him from there, that’s brilliant’ you know, so really just kind of road testing the action in that space. But, um, no they really are the most generous kind of collaborators. I think before I worked with them I thought they’d, you know, be incredibly specific and say ‘This is how you must do it’ and ‘Don’t, you know, don’t step away from that’. They’re incredibly generous and kind of gave me lots of space, so yeah, a total joy.

MS: Where’s Matt?

RS: Matt’s at the back there, look.

MS: Can we get the mic to him, see if he’s… oh its going all the way is it? Is there a song to cover this?

SP: (singing) Misery might let you win a Bafta… (audience laughter)

Matt Lipsey: They’re a couple of wankers, what can I say (audience laughter) Wouldn’t surprise anyone in this room to hear that they’re two of the most collaborative and generous people that you could ever hope to meet. And, er, the process is made so much easier because they have trust and trust comes from a deep confidence and whether that’s innate or whether you’re aware that you have it, that’s the sort of generosity that comes and it makes everyone’s job a joy. What we do when its at its best is a process of collaboration and you two guys intrinsically understand that so, you know, when I or the Director of Photography or designer or whoever it might be comes onboard they’re invited to bring their talent to it and we become greater than the sum total of our parts and there is nothing else like it. It’s a joy (audience applause)

RS: Matt’s right cos we write the scripts and you write it and you hope it will be the thing you imagine but what you’re actually hoping is that it will be better than you imagine. That’s what you’re striving for, that everyone will bring something to it that you can’t, that we can’t know. And you don’t just presume it stops being good at the level of our goodness. Everyone brings something to it and that’s what everyone seems to do with our, with people that we work with, everyone raises it and pushes it and pushes it and they’re always better than we imagined.

MS: Very good. Let’s have a couple more. Yes, we’ve got one down here and… one there. Oh yes, cos you were about to ask one weren’t you. Okay let’s pass that mic down that way. Yes, let’s have yours.

Audience member: Hi. My friend Sally and I are extremely big fans and feeling a little bit giddy, so sorry… um, I was just wondering if either of you had an idea for an episode that you were really interested in doing but the other vetoed? (audience laughter)

SP: Er, no we don’t have a veto. We genuinely talk a lot so… there will be, you know, we do sort of have a pitch for an idea and sometimes we might decide we’re not ready to write it and then… we’ve talked about something in maybe the first batch of scripts (and thought)… nah, that’s maybe, it’s not there yet but we’ve come back to it, so nothing’s ever wasted. I think you must always keep all your notes and all your material. Never throw anything away. But we don’t veto each other, we just talk, you know, and it comes out of discussion really and when we both get excited, that excitement, we feed off each other. Not literally (audience laughter)

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RS: And its good sometimes, you know, if… one of us has got an idea that they really are excited about that’s great, it’s like used as an idea in the room and… might not know it inside out. I mean I really wanted to do the witch trial one, cos that just interests me but Steve didn’t go ‘no you can’t do that, I’m not bothered about that world’. It was like ‘oh great, what shall we do?’ and same in the new one, we’ve done a recent… we’ve done one that’s all about football and its very much Steve’s episode really. I’ve got no particular interest in it. But we’ve done a version, it’s a world that he knows inside out and it was worth exploring. So we do absolutely just embrace the ideas in the room and if they work and if we talk for long enough we can find a way through and get a story there.

MS: You’ve got it back now Sir.

Audience member: Evening guys. How long does an episode of No.9 take, including the whole rewrite and do you already know where it’s going to end or do you start with a premise and just… interested in how that all plays out?

SP: Yeah, good question. I mean sometimes we do know what the end is. Sometimes it starts with an end and you work backwards from that. So, for example, ‘The 12 Days of Christine’ we didn’t get to November and think ‘oh hang on this would be a… (audience laughter) Where do we go from here?’ We knew how that was going to end. Other times you don’t know. You just, like ‘The Bill’ for example, we knew it was a good premise, we knew we were excited to write this argument about these people in a (restaurant) we didn’t know where it was going to end up, but we knew we couldn’t just end with one person paying the bill cos that would be anti-climactic. So yeah, you know, in terms of how long it takes, if you’ve talked enough and you’ve debated and you feel excited, we could have a first draft script within five or six days, you know, so we try and write six pages a day or five pages a day and if you’ve got a solid idea then there is no reason why you can’t write five pages of dialogue a day and the important thing is getting your first draft on paper, you know, and then from there you can see what works, what doesn’t, where you feel you’re running out of steam, where you need to change things up but, um, yeah, that’s what I would say and then we’ll look at it again and, um, yeah.

MS: Who sits at the keyboard?

RS: We both do. I mean we get tired and there’s like a… our office is very bare, there’s nothing. There’s a computer in it and a chair and a slightly longer chair and a big wardrobe. There was a big wardrobe, it’s gone now. It vanished (one day)… and er so… we’ll write… and swap round afterwards and type for a bit and we’ll just swap… and we’ll just keep going. But its… we’re often sat going ‘How many pages? How many pages?’ trying to get to the end and then let’s go back and actually have we got a story in there.

MS: Okay, we’ve got one down on the second row here. If that mic can come forward, yeah.  Brilliant. And can we set one up over here somewhere, wave an arm. We’ve got one right arm waving over there. Go ahead.

Audience member: Thank you. I just want to start by saying some of those episodes are some of the most accomplished  episodes of TV comedy that I’ve ever seen and thank you very much for selecting those. It’s been lovely to follow you guys over the years and your journey and how it seems that the BBC in particular has an immense amount of trust in you. Um, in the last episode there was a particular reference, unless I misunderstood, where your character Reece, he said that comedy or producing things on TV, is now a business and you often hear now that the BBC is perceived as being run by people with spreadsheets and its very difficult to get anything original made. Um and I just wondered, you’ve both been in the business a long time and what is your take on that? Do you think that’s true or is it just looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses?

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SP: Um I think it depends, you know, who you’re speaking to. We’ve been really fortunate. We’ve had one person at the BBC we’ve always gone back to and worked with and that’s Jon Plowman, as we talked about earlier and he’s been a conduit between us and the BBC as an organisation. So we’ve never really got that involved in whatever bureaucracy and red tape has been going on there. Um, I mean, things are changing in television so quickly now with all the different streaming platforms. The BBC is already an outdated model, as Tommy would have said, so, um, yeah. Things are going to change and they’re going to change over the next few years. But in terms of our experience, we have been incredibly fortunate and that’s why we continue to make these shows because we can get our vision from the page to the finished product without interference and that is gold. That’s worth more than anything. Um, other people might say something different but we’ve had a good…

RS: Yeah I think it has been Jon that’s been our champion in the room where people will have said ‘This is just too weird, we can’t do this’ and he’s gone ‘I think…’ He’s just been the person who’s just been our voice, holding out for them to say yes cos it’s so much easier to say no and not be blamed. I think that happens a lot and you know we are very fortunate cos we’re still occupying a little space where they keep saying ‘yes’ to our work. I mean we’re white men in our fifties… I mean what are we doing? It’s amazing we’re still… so yeah I’m just pleased that they like it enough to keep saying yes. But I can imagine it’s really, really hard to get a start now because there’s so many hoops and people and opinions and boxes to be ticked. I think it is like that. I think it does, it can become not about a pure authored voice and that’s hard… because you’ve not got a thing, the germ of the idea that might have been great. You often see things and think that probably was good one time but it’s been so plateaued and all the edges taken off it to get it on television and it probably was good if they left it alone. That’s what you want people to do, just leave things undiluted. That’s what The League was, that’s why it was extraordinary I think, cos we were left. No-one said ‘Oh maybe you should get forty people in it rather than just you three playing it’ (audience laughter)

MS: Yes. Who’s next? Yes.

Audience member: Hi, hello. It’s really lovely to see you talking tonight. Thank you. Okay, so I have a lot of experience in TIE (Theatre in Education) I can’t watch Legz Akimbo or Ollie Plimsolls. I have my hands in front of my eyes. It is so to the bone. Not all of it obviously. What was your experience of TIE? From watching it I can’t believe you haven’t had any. You must have done it. What is your experience of that? Do you think there’s a place (for) it nowadays? Please say yes, I still do it, so… (audience laughter) Um, yeah, so it’s brilliant.

RS: Well of course TIE – Theatre in Education – for those who don’t know. I mean it’s… I sound like Ollie Plimsolls (audience laughter) Yeah, we done it, we did it. We toured in a van. I mean one time we did do (it) together in a van in Germany. We both toured. Steve did it first. It was ‘White Horse Theatre’ in Germany and we started out so young doing it that the first, you played Rick Smith didn’t you in ‘Neighbours with long teeth’. It was about… racism… it was about vampires living next door and why you should accept them (audience laughter)

SP: “But I don’t like them. They’re different to us.” (audience laughter)

RS: And they learnt a lot. He played Rick Smith who was the young boy that lived next door and who became… who started to go out with the girl that lived next door called… who was a vampire and then I played Rick Smith in a following version of it and Steve came out to Germany and played my dad in it. So it… it was great fun but we learned to hate each other and everyone in the van, you know,  it’s just that life of being on the road in a little van, the earnest theatre director. It was… there was a lot of mileage for comedy in it, you know, and it’s a very recognisable thing. So Ollie was a real person that I worked with for a while and he… and I think he’s quite pleased that he’s Ollie Plimsolls and he… I think he dines out on it a little bit. But it was a great character cos he was clearly very angry that I was getting on and doing better than him (audience laughter) and it was just a funny thing cos he did once put me on the spot with it. It was when we got the radio series and I was still working with him and he said ‘He’s going off to… (audience laughter) so we won’t be seeing much of him’ (audience laughter) So that was Ollie.

MS: Is he still exploring issues? (audience laughter) One at the back there. Let’s get the mic up there… we’ve got time for two more questions. So we’ve got, I’ve already said you up there Sir, didn’t I.

Audience member: Hello.

MS: Where are you?

Audience member: I’m at the back here. I’m going to keep it brief cos I’ll miss my train (audience laughter) I’m asking this on behalf of my son… He is a big fan of yours but he’s got school in the morning so he couldn’t come. What was the significance of the hare in every episode? And two in ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’…

RS: Very observant. Yeah.

SP: Well we knew there was no connection between the episodes. They were totally random each week and er just thought it be lovely to have one object or one prop that we put in every single episode. We didn’t realise that we’d carry on doing it throughout the series but we managed to and it was just a little game we played. We didn’t announce it, we just allowed the audience to find it and thankfully you did so… and in terms of ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’, because there was two of everything. It’s all about ultimately twins, twinning and we thought it would be fun to have two hares. And then the hare got a starring role in ‘Tempting Fate’ so, you know, from little acorns great oaks grow (audience laughter)

MS: Excellent. So who gets to ask the last question? Perhaps on the third row here. Let’s get the mike down here.

SP: Better be good (audience laughter)

MS: Yes. This pause is creating the necessary tension. Yes here it goes. It’s nearly there, yes and now it’s there.

Audience member: Um. First off, I have school in the morning and I’m still here. You guys are worth it, its fine. Um and first before I ask the question, I’m just going to say with ‘Dead Line’, when you guys died, I was wondering if you realised… that on ‘Wikipedia’ for about two hours after, someone had changed all your, like, details and said ‘Reece Shearsmith died, Steve Pemberton died’… we all had a bit of a laugh about that… my question, I was going to say, what… is your guys’ best advice for acting and screenwriting?

RS: Acting and screenwriting. Well acting, listen and respond (audience laughter) Steve will do screenwriting (audience laughter)

SP: Well I think we’ve covered a few of those things. Well in terms of writing, don’t throw things away. Get a first draft down as quickly as possible and then rework it. Don’t get stuck on the second sentence and think it’s got to be perfect and this is still advice that I have to tell myself now, you know, because the temptation is to want to make it perfect first time round. Um and just be true. Don’t listen to, you know… listen to advice and criticism but try and find your own voice and what inspires you and makes you laugh. You know you can draw on all kinds of other things that you love. You can draw on ‘Inside No.9’ if you want or ‘League of Gentlemen’ but make it your own voice and try to know who your characters are and make them as coming from you and in that way you’ll produce good stuff.

Audience member: Thank you.

RS: Now get to bed (audience laughter)

(Audience cheers and applause as the event ends)

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Footnotes

  1. David Kerr speaking at the Phoenix Cinema during an audience Q&A with Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (17th March 2019)

 

 

 

An Audience with The League of Gentlemen – Comedy Genius season at the BFI

BFI Southbank (6th December 2018)

A transcript of two interviews – and an audience Q&A – with The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith) conducted on the stage of NFT1 at the BFI Southbank, hosted by Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson.

JD – Jeremy Dyson (Writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)

MG – Mark Gatiss (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)

SP – Steve Pemberton (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)

RS – Reece Shearsmith (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)

DF – Dick Fiddy (BFI consultant)

JJ – Justin Johnson (BFI lead programmer)

‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’ at the BFI Southbank was one of the most keenly anticipated – and popular – events in its recent Comedy Genius season. Tickets for it sold out before there was even a chance to put them on sale to the general public.

The BFI have championed the Gents’ work (as a quartet, duo and solo) like no other cultural institution has, apart from the BBC. Collectively, individually and via the long-established creative partnership of Pemberton & Shearsmith, the various members of The League have regularly been invited to preview their most recent projects on the stage of NFT1 ever since the Christmas Special in 2000.

‘An Audience with’ signalled the end of a hectic twelve months for The League of Gentlemen as a renascent comedy troupe, having revived their exalted comic legacy with last year’s outstanding Anniversary Specials. Coming almost a year since the BFI’s preview of two of the three Anniversary episodes, ‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’ was the bookend to an extremely productive year for the Gents, which saw them undertake a live tour for the first time in 12 years with ‘The League of Gentlemen Live Again’. The announcement of a League tour was made by Steve Pemberton on the very same stage, as a surprise exclusive to a delighted audience at the BFI’s Anniversary Specials screening.

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I have aimed for as close-as-possible verbatim reproduction of ‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’, hopefully capturing almost everything said on stage that evening in the transcript below. Some words and lines have been left out – spoken elements that couldn’t be vouchsafed as completely verbally accurate rather than phraseological guesswork.

‘An Audience with’ was divided into three parts – two interviews conducted by Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson respectively and then an audience Q&A at the end. As it transpired – due to one careless comment and one highly insensitive question from a couple of members of the audience – this last section produced a few uncomfortable moments in what was a thoroughly entertaining and extremely illuminating evening, covering the Gents’ formative comedy influences, the creative processes and logistical planning involved in staging the ‘Live Again’ show, feelings about the recent tour and what they think of their now iconic status as quantifiable ‘comedy legends’. The three part structure of the event was broken up and supplemented with the playing of several long clips from ‘The League of Gentlemen Live Again’ show, filmed at one of the Hammersmith Apollo dates The League played at the very end of the tour.

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Due to how popular the BFI’s ‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’ proved to be, many fans who would have loved the opportunity to attend were left disappointed. This (almost) complete transcript hopefully gives people the essence of the event and a sense of the tremendous atmosphere engendered that evening in NFT1. The Gents spoke knowledgeably about comedy in general and with affection, insight and humour about their recent live show and tour in particular. Both the interviews and Q&A were filmed that evening by BBC Studios so there is a chance the recording might be made available online at some point in the future.

I decided to transcribe ‘An Audience with’ (as I have with several other League and ‘Inside No.9’ events) in order to provide a complete – or as near complete – record of it for fans and anyone else who may be interested. Often when filmed events like this are put online they are usually in the form of edited highlights rather than a complete and full-length version. As a long-time Gents’ fan my aim has been to try and make sure there is a fully documented record of an event such as this, available as a transcript. When it’s looked back on, ‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’ may well prove to be of especial interest to fans – and all those League fans to come – because, as the Gents themselves said, they have no plans to work together on another project for the foreseeable future. So this BFI event may well be The League’s last public outing for a while.

One aspect of ‘An Audience with’ that really stood out was that, in the many interviews I’ve watched or read, The League of Gentlemen have never spoken at this length about comedy before and in such an undiluted way: Their childhood memories of watching or listening to it; their growing awareness of specific comedy figures and the ones they liked in particular or were influenced by. Usually the focus has been on the horror saturated elements of the films and TV they consumed and absorbed. It was so refreshing to hear them talk in depth, from a different angle, about some of the things that lit their creativity and inspired their own unique comic vision.

The other thing which makes ‘An Audience with’ so striking and memorable is the almost magical nature of their long-lasting friendship and how strongly it comes across when they are together on stage at an event like this. The untouchable chemistry that exists between the four of them is apparent from the moment they start to speak. They generate such a deep-rooted sense of a united kindred spirit that words aren’t always needed for them to be in sync with one another. The creative kinship they’ve forged over the years is one that exists almost telepathically between them. When one of them alludes to or reminisces about something, it connects with all of them, allowing the conversation to flow and move seamlessly on, with a rhythm and structure of its own. It is quite mesmerising to watch and listen to. The enthusiasm and energy they spark off each other is practically intoxicating at times. Surely this close and enduring relationship is one of the reasons why The League of Gentlemen managed to return so convincingly after almost 15 years, with artistic integrity undiminished, their collaborative brilliance not only still intact, but supremely, intensely, sublimely back with a vengeance.

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Part One

An Audience with The League of Gentlemen at the BFI Southbank, with Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, interviewed by Dick Fiddy

DF: Well, this is slightly different. We know a lot about the horror influences on The League and people have often spoken about the dark side of the comedy, but I was wondering about the lighter side of the comedy, what you found funny when you were growing up?

MG: Christie. Crippen.

DF: Can you remember being…as small children, what made you laugh? Was there anything in particular?

JD: Rude and dirty things. Benny Hill. Benny Hill absolutely, early discovery. Carry On films.

MG: Spike Milligan, very big…’Q’. All the ‘Q’ series…I absolutely loved that. I used to have a kazoo. I used to do that (mimes sound of a kazoo) I loved Spike Milligan.

SP: Laurel and Hardy. Summer holidays. Curtains closed. Laurel and Hardy films.

DF: On the telly.

SP: On the telly.

DF: I mean they’re on ‘Talking Pictures’ TV now, but they’ve disappeared from the mainstream.

SP: Yeah. They used to be a staple of summer holidays. ‘Tarzan’, ‘Laurel and Hardy’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

MG: ‘Singing, Ringing Tree’.

DF: Just to put in a plug, we have got a Laurel and Hardy season in January. Thank you.

RS: Um, yeah. ‘The Two Ronnies’.

DF: I was thinking that maybe you just missed out, or just got the tail end of that thing which I think my generation went through a lot, which was the fact that a lot of the TV comedy shows we’d come to on vinyl because they actually released…the Pythons released albums, the Goodies released albums, ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ released albums and that was…there was no VHS, there was no way of recording. That was the way of catching up. Were you part of that? Did you have those albums?

JD:  Yes. As well as Python. I mean Python was massive when I discovered it. I would have been about eleven and got all the vinyl out one summer. But we had Hancock on vinyl and listened to ‘The Blood Donor’ and ‘The Radio Ham’ over and over again. We had a great one called ‘You Don’t Have to be Jewish’…it was an American revue so I guess it had been a stage show and that was really good. The thing is, you would have listened to them over and over again and you’d get the rhythms of comedy.

MG: We had Jack Benny 78s I remember listening to.

RS: How old are you? (audience laughter)

MG: It was brilliant. It was exactly that thing…I remember, very heavy records. Very precious in case they smashed.

RS: Shellac.

MG: But Python. Oh my god, I knew those records absolutely backwards. “Morning super”, “Morning wonderful” and then ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’, but particularly for me, ‘Rowan Atkinson Live in Belfast’, 1980. I played that till it was worn out. I loved it.

DF: But were these things that when you met, you had in common? Did you all gravitate towards the same comedy, because you did sort of have a shared interest in horror and the darker stuff but was there a shared interest in comedy?

SP: I remember Mark and I were in the same year at Bretton Hall and there were a group of drama students who were quoting Monty Python and we got as far away from them as we could, because it was that very extravagant  quoting and kind of ‘Look at me’ – “The Knights who say Ni!” Mark and I would sort of look at each other and sort of nod silently…we get this but we don’t have to kind of parade it around.

MG: There was a lot of that, yes because it was, but it was more…

JD: Victoria Wood…

MG: …it was the same with horror things, there was a kind of…you sort of think ‘Oh god, other people like this. I’d no idea’. Victoria Wood particularly and Alan Bennett and all those sort of things. It was just lovely to find other people who knew it or got it or had the same sort of…we always talk about this as our great shared experience, that we all remember watching ‘Carry on Screaming’ on the same Bonfire Night, 1976 I think and we all were there in our individual houses and then years later discovered that we all watched it at the same moment, you know. So there was a lot of that going on…

JD: And there were things that were kind of quasi-comedy – on the edge of being comedy – like Mike Leigh, so ‘Nuts in May’ was a thing, was one of those…

RS: It’s Harvey Denton innit?

JD: Yeah essentially.

SP: Alan Bennett’s plays. ‘Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and that series of plays I think he did for LWT. They were very big influences. And something like Victoria Wood…it was the fact that you could buy the script book and you could have it and you could like pour over it in the same way you could with an album or…like you say, this was before you could record stuff, so having…And I’ve still got the same scripts books I had…

JD: And the other thing we did pre-video was taping stuff off on cassette…off the TV with a little portable…holding that…I had loads of ‘Rising Damps’.

MG: ‘Ripping Yarns’, I did that too…and the great thing is, I was talking to someone the other day, a friend of mine who did that with ‘Doctor Who’ and every time he watches ‘Death to the Daleks’ he can hear his grandma say ‘Rubbish’ (audience laughter)…a particular moment…if I was recording and my mam said something it was there forever…It’s amazing, it was the moment of broadcast…she’s wrong actually.

DF: I was thinking there’s some people who seem to have survived time better than others…

MG: Here we are.

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DF: Like there’s some comedians you probably did grow up with and I was just going to throw a few names at you to see if you still think they’re funny or did you think they were funny at the time. So let’s start with Les Dawson.

MG: Yes, genius.

SP: Very funny, just had that quality that you wanted to laugh as soon as you saw him and he was very funny doing something like ‘Blankety Blank’, where he would take the piss out of it and not take it seriously at all. And the character stuff, you didn’t think of him necessarily as an actor, although he did do ‘Nona’, but very underused as an actor, so the Cissie and Ada scenes are brilliant.

MG: It’s a bit of a cliché I think but that thing they always used to talk about, people like Max Wall for Beckett and Les Dawson was like that. He could have done any of those, cos he was just really, really good.

JD: And he was a great writer. He wrote a lot of his own material and I had one of his books, ‘The Spy Who Came’…

DF: He wrote ‘Come Back with the Wind’. He also seemed post-modern in the way that the sort of mother-in-law jokes he made, they were just so surreal and extreme that you thought he wasn’t like the comedians that had come before making those jokes.

JD: And he was that that great thing, he was an autodidact, he’d obviously read a lot and so he had amazing vocabulary and he’d would use that to comic effect.

SP: What’s an autodidact?

JD: He taught himself.

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SP: I knew. I was doing it for your benefit (audience laughter)

MG: As with the piano, it takes great skill to do that wrong.

DF: Okay. How about Dave Allen?

SP: Brilliant.

RS: Brilliant. We tried – and it was such a sad story – cos we wanted Dave Allen to do the part that Freddie Jones does in our Christmas Special and we heard a no, a flat no from him and years later we heard he’d never been asked. It’s the agents that stopped these things.

MG: It was perfect…he was fantastic Dave Allen. I mean, such a fierce, frightening presence, ‘Goodnight and may your god go with you’. What we used to love was it was the brilliant mixture of those sketches and the sit-down stand-up and then he would tell genuinely, genuinely spooky stories and then pull the rug out at the end…I remember the tension in our house when he’d just tell those stories…

DF: He took the lights down didn’t he?

MG: It was amazing. Such a skill. I loved him.

DF: Plus he had the missing finger, the missing half a finger. He had all these different stories about how he lost it.

MG: There was one…my absolutely favourite sketch, it was so simple, one of his ecclesiastical sketches and there’s the Pope is in the middle of this conclave of Cardinals. It’s all dumb show and Dave Allen just goes (mimes smelling something horrible) and turns to the man next to him (and mimes silently mouthing ‘Have you farted?’ and mimes silently mouthing back ‘No’) (audience laughter) and it goes all the way around and eventually gets to the Pope who goes (mimes nodding yes and smiling) (audience laughter) It was so naughty as well. It felt so forbidden didn’t it?

SP: Well some of the stuff with Bernice and the Christmas special was… asterisk ‘Dave Allen’…

MG: Copyright ‘Dave Allen’.

SP: …like when she gets a drink from the…

DF: What about Beryl Reid?

JD: You sort of knew her as a presence on other things, didn’t you.

MG: She was always drunk as I remember.

DF: You must remember her from ‘Doctor Who’?

MG: Yes of course and she was definitely drunk in that. She had a very interesting presence though because she was very…she was a character actress and she was in a lot of serious things like ‘Sister George’ and ‘Tinker Tailor’ but then she was also on ‘Blankety Blank’, absolutely plastered. I don’t suppose we knew her as much as a…doing stuff as in other stuff in those days.

DF: When she was on ‘Doctor Who’ apparently, she was the one, when she had to mention the warp drive, she said ‘Is that off Regent’s Street?’ Very witty woman. Talking earlier about vinyl and you yourselves have now moved into vinyl. Can you tell us a little bit about this massive box you’ve just released?

SP: Yeah well it constitutes the radio series, then the three TV series exactly as they were broadcast but purely audio versions and we didn’t really think there’d be a market out there for such a thing but obviously there is and it’s the cool thing to do now, bring out vinyl so…it’s a beautiful box set.

JD: Graham Humphreys has done beautiful artwork for each of the discs…

DF: I think he’s here as well. Are you here Graham? (audience applause)

SP: The best looking thing that we’ve brought out.

MG: But if you want the same experience you can put the DVD on and close your eyes (audience laughter)

DF: Well I think we’re going to move on to the next part of the evening, but before we do that I just wanted to ask you who are the people now that you are finding funny, who are the people that you watch, what shows?

MG: Do you remember ‘Norbert Smith: A Life’…and Melvyn Bragg asked him that question “Those three fellows now, ‘Can’t do better than a Kwik Fit Fitter’ (mimes elderly man) (audience laughter)

RS: I actively try to avoid seeing anybody else (audience laughter) Reeves & Mortimer are back. Yes. They’re so funny. I was crying with laughter last night.

MG: What about Gein’s Family Giftshop?

RS: Yes, they’re great.

SP: Yes, very good.

RS: They do dark comedy.

JD: I’m a huge fan of a lot of the animation, mainly cos of my kids, so ‘Adventure Time’…is absolutely terrific. So original.

MG: Give us some names. I’ve not been out of the house for years.

DF: Well for me it’s mostly, a lot of American stuff. I like ‘The Good Place’ very much. I mean, I like ‘Mum’.

MG: You know what I love. I love Melissa McCarthy films. I just think she’s really, really funny and they’re very big, stupid films…

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DF: And on that bombshell…we’re going to finish there for a while, let you see a bit of the live show and then Justin will be back with the boys later. But please thank The League of Gentlemen (audience applause)

Part Two

An Audience with The League of Gentlemen at the BFI Southbank, with Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, interviewed by Justin Johnson.

JJ: Please join me in welcoming back The League of Gentlemen (audience applause) Are you going back to the same seats or are you going to change it round? So it was obviously great to see some of that show. That was from the Hammersmith Apollo. That was the last few days of the show, wasn’t it? I think you had already done quite a lot by then. But it was this time last year, where if I remember right, you’d given an exclusive to somebody to announce the shows and Steve gave us the exclusive instead by announcing them on stage here. And I wonder if you can just tell us if at that stage had you actually thought about the shape of the shows at all or if it was something you had just decided you were going to do?

SP:  No. We didn’t know whether to come up with a big concept for the live show or whether to just go off and write material and in the end that was what we decided to do. So we just took one character at a time, what do we want to do with them on stage and we decided early on to follow the sort of…the first tour, in that the first half was going to be black and white and the second half was going to be colour. So we start with the tuxedos and it seems to give a good shape to the overall evening.

JJ: And that was a kind of nod to the fact that when you first started off you were performing sketches with the black ties as The League, so you were kind of coming full circle in a sense.

SP: As modelled by Reece tonight…

RS: Yeah it was how we used to do it above pubs and in Edinburgh so it felt quite nice to do a sort of an acoustic version of some of the classics. We tried to not repeat any sketch we’d done already on stage, so even though we did Pam Doove, we hadn’t actually done it on stage before. The only one we did do from the past was that card game, ‘Go Johnny Go Go Go Go’…we changed, we changed…early…the first few shows, about a week wasn’t it? We did the charity ladies…we did…the bag…which sketch was that…That Merrill’. We thought it was funny but it was very rat-a-tat…it didn’t really give the audience any…or maybe they were just not laughing, there’s no room to find it funny so in the end it feels like it’s not working, it’s quite quick-fire, so we cut it and we put card game in instead…

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SP: We cut card game in rehearsals but we put Mr Foot in instead of the charity shop.

RS: Ah yes, that’s right. Yes, Mr Foot.

MG: Already forgetting.

RS:  No memory of it.

JJ: In terms of putting the show together, how long did you actually have to work on it and how did you put the material together? Were you all together in the same room or were you kind of going off and doing bits…?

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RS: Yeah, about April was it? I came back from New York at the end of March and we started to think about it.

JD: We’d written…we did some stuff earlier in the year, because we wrote the…we started with Les and we wrote the ‘Mr & Mrs’ so we were gradually kind of…

JJ: And was there, I mean, how does it work in terms of, does one of you kind of hold the material together to make sure it’s kind of got somebody kind of looking after it or is it really sort of all of you feeding in at different points?

RS: Yeah, we’re just putting it together. I mean one of the big things about putting the live show – and the last ones as well – is the logistics of ‘who’s off’ to be able to get changed and allow someone long enough for costume changes, so it becomes about the balance of thinking well Mark can do that…whatever it might be and a big breakthrough was Mark suggesting that the…because the initial sketches for Bernice was she was doing her agony act but it was one sketch, it was all those things that she did that were peppered in the end throughout the whole second half but Mark said what if they’re on film and they’re split up because that returns to Bernice backstage…and that helped us, gave us time to do the changes…

MG: You know there’s an inevitable thing, you’re putting it all together and you go ‘Ooh it’s very mucky isn’t it?’ and when you…a loose assembly of trying to think what the order is and everything, you also look at the stuff and just think ‘Is there too much of this?’

RS: Yeah it was really vile (audience laughter)

SP: Too much jizz…

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RS: It was horrible…

SP: In fact we changed the Chinnery sketch for that very reason because there was some bodily fluids involved in the Chinnery…and that’s why we ended coming up with Plop Plop.

JD: In fact it was just good natured…good natured fun…

MG: Good natured decapitation.

JJ: And when you’d finished the…specials and you’d kind of tied all those loose ends up…did you know you were going to kind of continue on some of those storylines in this or was that something that came later as well?

RS: Yeah that came later.

SP: Yeah, it just felt like, I think it was the image of coming from what we’d just seen there, the filmed version of the wife mine into an actual wife mine felt quite an exciting way to start and then dealing with stuff like the Pauline issue which, you know she’d obviously, we’d killed her off in the…which is still canon by the way, she is dead (audience laughter) but we thought for the live show we’ll bring her back…so it was just, yeah, trying to work out what we could do that rewarded people who’d seen those specials, but at the same time, was gettable, wouldn’t exclude you if you hadn’t…

JJ: And in terms of just the very kind of basic practicalities of putting on a show like this, obviously you have to have written it by a certain point because people had to go off and make sets and costumes and all that kind of stuff…but how much time was there between actually writing the script and then…into rehearsals and so forth…and dealing with things like props and so forth?

JD: It didn’t feel rushed or cramped…

MG: There is to and fro in that sense. I remember in the first tour, the Hilary Briss song, we had dummies of Steve and Reece that were hanged, it cost a lot of money and in the end we didn’t do it. I remember them lying about in rehearsals for ages. It was quite expensive, so there’s still stuff you can do but obviously you want to give people an idea of what it’s going to be…logistically, but then there’s always room to sort of move things around…

RS: We had two weeks (rehearsal) in a sort of church hall and then we did a tech week in Purfleet.

JD: And that was a lot of fun, the tech week, because that was really making the show wasn’t it, cos the technology’s moved on so much since we did the last tour, when you were still having to tour physical bits of set. You can do so much with projection now and that was really exciting. We were able to, you know, they were a terrific team, they were kind of working stuff up as we were rehearsing which was really impressive.

JJ: One thing is, having seen it on the big screen here, some things that maybe if you were in a theatre you normally would not be thinking about, you can see how brilliant for example the prosthetics are in terms of, Mark, when you’re doing Toddy’s Bingo there, like your hair and stuff, how seamlessly…

MG: It looks better from a distance…I mean it’s that thing you have to accept that with filmed theatre, is that it’s a staged version but you know, you just don’t have time…that was a brilliant thing, it’s just very simple, you can actually do this with a bald cap and actually once the glasses are on…it’s pretty seamless that. Its not at all bad but obviously it doesn’t look like TV quality. I mean its not meant to because you’ve got so little time to do those changes.

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JJ: And those changes. Do you have like a team of people there kind of helping you put your bits on and stuff, cos you know, pretty quick some of them…

RS: Oh yeah, really fast some of them. We had, was it two…

SP: There were four people helping us.

MG: They’re like pit stops. There’s always a point in rehearsal where you think it’s impossible, this change is just too much and then about a week later you’re standing in the wings going…it suddenly happens.

JJ: And you were playing kind of a variety of different kinds of venues, sometimes…the biggest you had…was Manchester Arena, which is eight, nine thousand and maybe the smaller venues you still have a couple of thousand. Does the dynamic change when you’re in a big, big space compared to the more intimate…

RS: You don’t get a sense of one collective laugh back if it’s an arena so you sort of do it by muscle memory, you think normally that’s where…leave a gap and carry on, that’s all you can do cos you can’t…The O2 was weird, you couldn’t hear anything…it’s like oh god, they hate it. They’re always laughing in their own universe…you can’t get a sense of it.

MG: Its like you look at a star and its not there anymore, it takes so long to get there (audience laughter)

JJ: That must be weird when you’re used to feeding off those laughs…

RS: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think it was always better in a theatre environment cos you can hear it and you can time it, and you feel like you’re in control. But it was odd…they were all enjoyable cos it was always going down well but you just had to hope, you couldn’t hear it back.

MG: We became properly luvvie about the great theatres. We knew them when we got to them. Sunderland Empire, just fantastic, beautiful Victorian designs and they knew what they were doing. It’s just huge but intimate and the acoustics brilliant and you felt like the audience were absolutely there. It was really special. Sunderland’s very special.

JJ: In a moment we’re going to watch Herr Lipp. That obviously is a moment that requires some audience interaction. I mean, with the big arenas as well, were you still doing that as normal, going out into the audience and so forth?

SP: Yeah, yeah, it was the same in any theatre but the difficulty was, cos I spent every second I was on stage, up to that point, scanning the audience. I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing…in the bigger theatres, they’re so far away you can’t actually see anybody so it would just be pot luck and I would sort of dive in and try and find a couple, always worked best with a couple. Unfortunately, the night we filmed it I wasn’t able to find a couple. But, um, yeah, it was a part of the show which…

RS: So you picked father and daughter? (audience laughter)

SP: It was a daughter-in-law (audience laughter) but yeah it was part of the fun of doing that kind of thing is you never know what you’re going to get and you’ve got to work with it so…After about three or four shows I started to realise what was working well, what wasn’t and then you kind of adapt and you have a sort of stockpile of lines that you can use in different situations.

JJ: I guess you have to expect that if they’re in the audience they’ve paid to be there, they’re going to know the joke and go along with it. But did it backfire at any point?

SP: There was one or two sticky nights early on. I think there was a poor girl who was absolutely terrified and she opened – cos they had to read German off the screen – and she opened her mouth and no words came out whatsoever. And I just got the audience to shout it out for her. But I would say nine times out of ten it would be very good.

MG: The problem always, and I remember this with the first one, it’s actually more when they’re slightly too into it. You kind of want someone who’s half terrified and half up for it. If they’re a bit kind of cocky, it’s like ‘no don’t do that’.

JJ: Did you find it kind of physically kind of exhausting in terms of, night by night, all the different characters? I mean if you’re in a play normally, at least its one voice, its one performance, but actually having to throw yourself into all these characters.

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MG: It’s not picking up bricks though is it?

SP: It’s not so much doing the show, it’s the preparation and the travelling around and the hanging around before the show. Once you step foot on stage, you don’t get tired really cos you’re non-stop doing stuff…The show itself was a joy to do. It was just kind of getting to 3 o’clock in the afternoon and thinking ‘right, what am I going to do now till 7 o’clock?’

RS: But we’d often do the first with the Legz Akimbo…the dance at the beginning…go off to …run back on to do card game…Mark… coming off after the second time…’Exhausted!’ (audience laughter) Already exhausted. It was tiring.

MG: What was that one…did we do it for the filmed one, from that horror film, what was it called?

RS: ‘The Terrifier’.

MG: Reece showed us this clip from this…

RS: I watched this film called ‘Terrifier’…it feels like a 80s film but it’s not, it’s a modern film but there’s a bit in it where this man has flayed this woman and is wearing her skin…sort of being a lady and walking (mimes preening and touching his body) (audience laughter) We watched that, I sent it to Mark, that bit. So on the night we preserved it in the show. So we (mimes the bit of the man ‘being a lady’)…we did the dance of Ollie (audience laughter)

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JJ: …Do you have the full kind of tour bus and everything?

RS: We did yeah. It was great. It didn’t start…after about a week we said ‘fuck this’…kind of like a converted ice cream van and we got a big bus with fourteen beds…big tour bus with a big room at the back for watching telly with a big screen and a kitchen. And it was great…it was the best way to spend a summer, such fun.

MG: We became completely obsessed with watching ‘Whodunnit?’

JJ: Jon Pertwee?

MG: (Does the ‘Whodunnit?’ theme tune) (audience laughter)

JJ: …I’d forgotten they used to ask a member of the public to be on those panels…

MG: We only watched series two, we didn’t get that far, but yes we knew about that. Strange.

JJ: Did you have like riders and stuff like that?

MG: I asked for Jeremy.

RS: Haribo.

MG: What were you saying earlier? I loved what you said about the separate WhatsApp group.

RS: Oh yeah, it’s what he said to me. The tour manager said if you need anything extra then I’ll set up a WhatsApp group…I said ‘What do you mean?’ (audience laughter)

MG: I said ‘Have you got any missing episodes of ‘Doctor Who?’ (audience laughter)

JJ: And he was a proper kind of professional tour manager?

RS: Yeah, oh yeah, yeah. He was very discreet (audience laughter)

JJ: …what the Rolling Stones want is different from what The League of Gentlemen want.

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RS: Of course. I just want to be in bed by half eight.

MG: Literally during the show.

JJ: Are there any characters that you particularly, generally just really enjoy writing for most? Is there a character that you most enjoy writing for when it comes to the shows or the live show?

RS: I mean it was great to do Legz Akimbo again…a bit of a greatest hits, but a bit more new stuff and I always like doing Geoff. It’s great to relive…sort of doing the ‘Best Man’ again but doing it slightly different…

JJ: It’s fantastic you’ve answered that. I was hoping you might have said that cos we’re going to play one final clip which is with Geoff and Mike and Brian and then Herr Lipp and then we’re going to come on to any questions from the audience. So you can either take a seat down there or stay up here and watch, it’s up to you… (audience applause)

Part Three

An Audience with The League of Gentlemen at the BFI Southbank, with Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, with an audience Q&A hosted by Justin Johnson.

JJ: When you’re performing stuff live like that are there times when you just start to corpse at each other’s material, even when you’ve heard it? I mean, a few times obviously Steve’s having a bit of a laugh. I think…one bit where I felt Reece was just having a little bit of a smile to himself at one point, just one tiny moment. Are there points where you start to kind of laugh on stage?

RS: Oh yeah, definitely.

MG: We’re very disciplined (audience laughter) We try to…the one thing we can’t bear is fake corpsing. You see that in shows, where people do it at the same time points every night. In Pop, in the first half, it came…we actually thought, people were coming several nights they’d think we were doing it deliberately. It just became one of those…

RS: A hurdle.

MG: It was a hurdle…mostly because Steve was behind Reece doing all kinds of stuff. Every night was dangerous, wasn’t it? We got very hysterical. But sometimes it just takes you off-guard, doesn’t it. The oddest thing suddenly throws you.

SP: I think in that sketch there, I just remember now what happened because I’d spotted a couple in the audience I was going to pick. All through the Geoff sketch I was (scanning) the audience and I’d spotted who I was going to pick and I came on to do Herr Lipp and they’d gone (audience laughter) They’d walked out and so I thought shit I can’t pick them so I randomly picked (these) other people. I didn’t really get a good look at them, hoping they were a couple and then she said, which we had to cut out of the thing, ‘no he’s my father-in-law’ so when it came to all this sexual stuff…(audience laughter) I was making myself laugh thinking ‘oh this poor man sat there’ and also I’d forgotten her name in the whole panic of it all cos we’re filming this, I’d forgotten her name and halfway through I started calling her Anna and so there’s so quite beautiful edits. Her name’s Ellen and I started calling her Anna so we couldn’t do that so we had to re-jig it all and we had to take a bit out so that’s why I got a bit hysterical towards the end of that sketch.

JJ: And you had Babs Wiltshire directing that and she also directed your live ‘Inside No.9’.

SP: She did yeah (audience applause) Yeah she’s fantastic. We wanted someone who was more of a sort of multi-camera director for that set-up and obviously Babs is the best in the business.

JJ: Before we open up to the audience, one last thing…cos I know someone’s going to ask it if I don’t, but obviously whenever you do a reunion show or you come back and do a tour like this, people are always hungry for more, but I’m guessing now tonight in a way is kind of putting a lot of stuff to bed in terms of you’ve had your kind of reunion year and certainly for the time being, there are no plans to do any more. Is that correct?

RS: Yeah I think so.

SP: Well I can exclusively reveal… (audience laughter) that we’re not doing it for the foreseeable future.

JJ: Right. Is there anybody who’d like to ask any questions but not about their future plans as The League of Gentlemen. There is a hand at the very, very back of the centre block and then we’ve got one…over there…

Audience member: How did the song between Tubbs and Edward come about? And it’s ridiculously catchy.

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SP: Well I think I wrote it, didn’t I and I can’t write music or anything but that kind of call and response song and the notion of him being stuck on the surface and her being stuck below. I don’t know, it’s one of those moments I was just…cos Reece was away doing a play in New York, I was on my own and obviously just missing him (audience laughter) and this song came into my head and so I recorded it and I still love it.

RS: I got this big long message of Steve singing it…

SP: I sang it into my phone and sent it to Reece and thought this is just an idea and he said ‘I love it’ and we sent it to a composer and he composed what I sang and yeah that’s how we did it.

RS: It was the perfect beginning of the second half.

JJ: So for all the songs you have in the shows, do you write those yourself always?

JD: The same process, cos the Les (McQueen) was the same thing. We did the Les song…the composer was terrific…Ian Masterton, and he turned it into proper music.

Audience member: Why do you look way better dressed as women than any actual woman? Just curious.

MG: Only you can answer that. Not sure that’s quite true.

Audience member: I was wondering is there any techniques that you used from Bretton Hall that you now still use?

MG: Yes, Legz Akimbo Theatre Company (audience laughter)

SP: No we did a lot of, at Bretton Hall, we did a lot of improvising and a lot of having to sort of jump into a situation and think on your feet and that has stood us in good stead  because that’s essentially what writing is, it’s jumping into a situation, going what could happen next, what would happen if this were to, you know, happen next. So we’ve not had (any) sort of formal acting coaching like you get at the sort of big London drama schools but what we got was far more valuable I think, in that sense of being able to just get something on its feet and very quickly put it together, because we’d never worked with a director for example, so for the live shows – any of the live shows – for the live shows we’ve always just done it between us. It’s always been about the four of us in a room and I think a lot of that came out of Bretton Hall.

MG: I mean we did have this conversation every time we’ve done a tour, someone says “Do you want an outside director?” and the idea of someone coming in and just sort of workshopping things, it would just kill us. Quite genuinely we just did it very quickly, just get on with it. That’s the main thing, just get on with it.

JD: I loved the fact that on this it was exactly the same even though the scale was huge, it was just the same as the Canal Café. The process was identical.

MG: That is weirdly a legacy of Bretton Hall…was that we just got on with it, did it ourselves and we still do that and it’s been really valuable.

Audience member: So you’re all from Northern, working class backgrounds, which tends to be under-represented in comedy in general. So I was wondering, now that you have such varied careers and you’ve done so, so much work, how do you feel that still comes out in the work that you do now?

MG: Well we try to ruthlessly suppress anyone coming up (audience laughter) I feel very strongly about this. I’ve just done a play in Nottingham and there was a lot of talk, I was doing lots of interviews around it about the arts outside London and I think it’s hugely important that the things that actually nourished us and gave us a chance…I mean we went to Bretton with grants. Can you believe that? It was thousands of years ago, it seems inconceivable now. We didn’t have student debt, something like that. But there were so many fires lit in our imaginations as kids and growing up like that by those opportunities, just art centres and drama club and all those sort of things. It’s hugely important because people like us would not be here if it wasn’t for that and the huge danger is, first of all, it’s a soft target, the arts always are and they’re the first things cut because they know people will always take up the slack…someone’s mum and dad will always drive you to the town or something. So they cut the money, cut the money, but then it also means it becomes incredibly narrow and only people from a much more privileged background can get into it and I think we’ve really got to fight that because otherwise it will remain hugely under-represented (audience applause)

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Audience member: You were talking about costume changes earlier in the stage show and one thing that’s always remarkable, and on the television as well, is that there’s only three of you in front of the camera. It feels like there’s way more characters. Have you ever been tempted to or have you ever experimented with the idea of using the miracle of television to double up and maybe have Herr Lipp alongside Pauline or Edward alongside the Reverend or do you shy away from that because it’s not compatible with your stage background and the sketch, the intimate sketch?

MG: There’s definitely a scene where Iris is at a checkout with…Alvin.

JD: We avoided it. We did avoid it generally just for budgetary reasons because, you know, it was always just the same logistics applied as on stage…

RS: We did it on (the) film quite a bit. When all the characters…yeah it was purely the time it would take to do the split screen aspect of it…and also maybe not having the characters’ worlds and their jokes colliding with one another.

MG: Although it would be nice to do a sort of a Prince and the Pauper with a terrible line down the middle…

JD: The thing I remember when we did it, when we consciously did it in the film with you and Papa Lazarou…and the remarkable thing is…yeah, there’s three of you isn’t there, there’s a multiplicity thing…but you don’t even feel anything, from the audience’s point of view, they’re not actually getting any added value from that because they are just seeing the characters, you don’t even have to stop and think about it.

RS: We did it a bit in the live thing when Edward is with Lazarou at the end with the projection hologram. We said if we ever do another tour in 20 years we could just have three holograms…we don’t have to turn up then. Well we couldn’t, we’d be infirm by then.

Audience member: Going back to like, comparing your past two tours, did overall, with the exception of the script and the show itself, was there any differences with the tour experience or was it a bit like more nostalgia?  Was it all kind of the same kind of thing you did or was anything really different like fans or stage door or anything like that or just the whole process in general?

SP: No it was quite similar I think…

MG: Everyone was older…

Audience member: Apart from us younger fans who were just born.

RS: I think we sort of…we quite consciously orchestrated the entire experience again to have the same experience we had had last time and have fun with it. It was lovely…what a way to spend a summer, just being on a massive bus watching horror films…But it was lovely, nothing was changed. I think we were a bit scared about whether, what the reaction would be to begin with.

Audience member: About whether people would still like it?

RS: Yeah exactly. We didn’t know whether, how many people…

Audience member: I still can’t believe you filled out the O2.

Audience member: I noticed the book analysis of the series in the BFI shop and I noticed as well that Mark and Jeremy are thanked but Reece and Steve aren’t (audience laughter) I was curious to know how…

MG: I don’t remember exactly why but we did the interview and Steve and Reece didn’t. I can’t remember why…

Audience member: I was just curious to know if…

RS: Very mean spirited isn’t it to not give thanks to us (audience laughter) We did have some hand in it.

Audience member: My question was just, if you had any feelings about people writing about your writing, cos I imagine that’s…

RS: It’s all bollocks (audience laughter) Of course you can obsess over a thing and find meaning in it. It’s lovely to think ‘Is that what we meant?’ But a lot of it is a version of events that has been extracted from a rendering that wasn’t necessarily there when we wrote it.

MG: The second series, there was a documentary which Griff Rhys Jones narrated and we always do this, the line was “The blend is interesting – comedy and horror” (mimicking Rhys Jones) It’s like…

RS: That’s the formula…

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MG: That’s the formula, like we don’t know, there’s a gap there and that’s, you know, it was never, it was never like that. We just did what made us laugh. So I think the danger always with that sort of analysis is that it becomes over-analytical, as Reece says…you just think… there are things you don’t know you’ve smuggled in, the same old things keep turning up, the same old patterns always happen but more than that, it’s just what made us laugh. It defies analysis I think, otherwise it just falls apart doesn’t it.

JD: Yeah and how can you analysis Papa Lazarou…

JJ: The semiotics of Papa Lazarou.

Audience member: Just a point, author of the BFI book here…

RS: Oh right. I want a word with you (audience laughter) But thank you. It’s a very good book, thank you.

Audience member: Apart from that…I’d just like to ask, some of the characters, for example, Bernice, but also increasingly Ollie, I get the feeling you’re using them to get something off your chest (audience laughter)

RS: What a weird thought.

Audience member: I don’t know why I thought that, particularly that they’re both played by Reece, who also plays Geoff.

RS: But I mean, Bernice is a vessel for saying the unsayable and that was what we…we went back to that from the last…when there was a great sort of moving on of the character. I mean in the Specials she was made mayor of the town but we thought it would be nice just to be able to return with the live show because it felt right. That was the first incarnation of Bernice, that she was an agony aunt…

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JD: Yes she was…derived…she was in the very first show, before we were even…

RS: And who played her Jeremy?

JD: I did. It was the one voice I could do.

MG: And obviously based on Denise Robertson from ‘This Morning’…

RS: Yeah, but I mean I don’t know whether it’s me channelling personal opinions…

MG: When we did the Specials…we explicitly put in this thing of…Edward says “It’s time we took back control” and that’s partly because he looks like Michael Gove…because it’s true Royston Vasey was predicting this shithole we’ve found ourselves in (audience applause) It’s quite nice to be able to use something like…to get these things off your chest without having to take the blame.

RS: I’m not sure about Ollie though…

Audience member: So out of the four of you, who do you think will be first to die?

SP: …I’m not going to die…

Audience member: Now we have confirmation that you won’t be coming back at least for twenty years…

MG: We’ll be dead (audience laughter)

RS: What a horrible thing to ask. I hope you’re pleased with yourself (audience laughter)

Audience member: Last year when we watched the Specials someone asked the question, something like…was there any characters that you had stories for or ideas for which just couldn’t happen. Obviously now we’re not going to see you guys for at least another twenty years, can you say any of those stories, because as much info is the best…

JD: There was a whole Alvin story which was quite sad wasn’t it?

MG: It was a bit too similar to the Pauline dementia story…

SP: Well the whole thing had a melancholy around it didn’t it. Has anybody got a nice question?

Audience member: I was struck by the grace with which you dealt with all of us queuing up to get the DVD signed and also just referring to what you said about your influences and how you heard people and were replaying those sketches, you are in that position now of those people that everybody emulates. How does that feel and actually what happens if you hear someone try and emulate like that in front of you?

JJ: I mean do people quote lines back at you in the street and stuff like that?

RS: Yeah it’s hard for us, cos we’re just in here doing it, it’s hard to take a step back from it and think of the work that we’ve done…it’ll be lovely to think that it will be remembered.

MG: ‘Reece Shearsmith, who died today’ (audience laughter)

JJ: Is it funny to think of the fact that…there are probably out there some Mark, Reece, Jeremy and Steve…listening to your material and are going to be another generation…

RS: Yeah, you know, would be a lovely thing to think…I couldn’t believe the response that we had doing the live show, that there’s anybody with any interest still, so it was amazing, genuinely. I can’t believe we sold out the O2 (audience applause)

MG: It’s genuinely, it’s very humbling this experience. It was lovely to meet people, it was really lovely and you do think about that…and we have over the years…we did ‘Horrible Histories’…they were all so sweet and lovely…I remember saying to Steve, I said ‘We’ve become venerable’. It’s just a moment like that, it’s quite something and it is really…

JD: But to us it’s only like 5 minutes, that’s the thing. It’s bizarre and using the words ‘Twenty years…’

MG: ‘Right, not long now’ (in stereotyped Northern accent) (audience laughter)

JJ: We are going to wrap it up there. I just want to thank Reetu Kabra and Katrina Bell who have both been fantastic in helping put together tonight (audience applause) And a really, really massive thank you to The League of Gentlemen (audience cheers and applause)

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Inside No.9 Review: ‘Inside No. 9 Live: Dead Line’

*contains spoilers*

“I knew this would happen. Makes us look stupid” (Reece Shearsmith: ‘Dead Line’)

“What are they saying on Twitter?” (Steve Pemberton: ‘Dead Line’)

The way it was done, the sheer audacity of the whole thing left one almost open-mouthed in admiration and amazement. The chutzpah of Pemberton & Shearsmith and the ‘Inside No.9’ production team to attempt it and what’s more triumphantly pull it off in this digital age of non-linear broadcasting, social media cynicism and the conspicuous spoilers of excessive press coverage takes a stroke of genius of Wellesian proportions.

Who could have predicted THAT ‘Inside No.9 Live’ Halloween special?  The power of it pulled you in to its brilliantly constructed orbit and did not release its grip until the end credits had faded from the screen. Following its transmission a small scattering of tweets announced they hadn’t been taken in and claimed they knew exactly what the creators were going to do. Oh really? Putting these attention-seeking, self-declared seers aside, overwhelmingly the response to ‘Inside No.9 Live’ from fans and critics alike was unrestrained praise, more deserved hosannas thrown in the creators’ direction and a ‘hands held up’ acknowledgement they’d been duped by the trickery.

‘Inside No.9 Live: Dead Line’ was a mesmerising interplay of manipulation, misdirection, experimental narrative form, meta winks and nods, archive footage, intertextuality, urban myth, superstition and audience interaction contained within the running engine of a live  broadcast. Its ambition dazzled and astonished in equal measure.

The way it built and developed was dizzying in its complexity. The control and precision involved, the minute detail and hair’s breadth timing took the meticulous construction of masters.

Not only was ‘Inside No. 9 Live: Dead Line’ a creative and technical coup for Pemberton & Shearsmith, they succeeded in making it event television in its truest sense – that increasingly rare occasion when a programme, bound by the moorings of scheduled television, unifies viewers through a shared experience. ‘Dead Line’ unnerved, thrilled and delighted those watching as it transmitted live. This at a time of increasingly fragmented audiences and disconnected viewing habits, where the linear broadcast tradition is no longer the norm for many people.

When the live Halloween Special was announced by the BBC several months ago it confirmed the broadcaster’s high regard for the No.9 series. The live edition would mark ‘Inside No. 9’s 25th story, a significant milestone which made you appreciate No. 9 had already produced 24 sublime, completely unconnected stories – an extraordinary rate and range of creativity and imagination.

Offering Pemberton & Shearsmith the challenge of a live broadcast was a rare honour in the modern broadcasting age. The few programmes who’ve had it bestowed on them, such as ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Coronation Street’, were to mark  and honour significantly bigger anniversaries than a 25th episode and commissioning it as a Halloween special acknowledged its creators’ horror predilections.

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The media build-up in the weeks leading up to its broadcast date was couched in very particular terms. A perusal of the material initiated during this period – the BBC’s official press release and its online replication by TV and comedy websites as well as Pemberton & Shearsmith’s Abney Park cemetery photoshoot to which the media were invited and where a number of pre-arranged interviews were conducted – set the frames of reference around which the publicity was generated for ‘Inside No. 9 Live’. It helped fix expectations for the Halloween Special in the minds of the audience and put down markers surrounding anticipation of the live broadcast. In interviews, Pemberton & Shearsmith emphasised the frisson of excitement and sense of trepidation involved in broadcasting live due to the possibility of something going awry (“We did think, ‘Is it just a headache for us? Does the audience just grimly watch on thinking, is anything going to go wrong?”) (Reece Shearsmith) [1] (“It’s much more like how they used to do it in the old days. A lot of prep, a lot of build-up and one chance to get it right”) (Steve Pemberton) [2]

The pre-broadcast publicity also made sure the synopsis for ‘Dead Line’ (the established title of the live episode) and its featured characters were outlined in enough detail to prime viewers as to what they’d be seeing as the live broadcast kicked off: Arthur Flitwick (Pemberton) finds an abandoned mobile phone in a graveyard and attempts to contact its owner, plunging him “into a nightmare of his own making” (as the BBC’s media centre release stated it). The other featured characters were a reverend (Shearsmith) and one guest actor, Stephanie Cole, as a parishioner. It firmly established a belief that the Halloween Special would take its lead from the bygone years of television where live broadcasts featured programmes shot within the confines of a multi-camera studio and bound by theatrical conventions. Pemberton & Shearsmith spoke about how ‘Inside No. 9’ was in many ways a throwback to this era of television (“Also it harks back to the ethos of ‘Inside No. 9’, which is ‘Play for Today’ and ‘Armchair Thriller’ thing”) (Reece Shearsmith) [3]

The one notable thing that the production team were reticent about was the studio they were going to use for the broadcast. Elliptical reference was made to it not having been finalised yet. Series producer, Adam Tandy, in a ‘Radio Times’ interview, where he talked about the logistics of “extra safeguards” being in place to ensure things didn’t go wrong (again those at the heart of the ‘Inside No. 9’ Halloween enterprise made sure press interviews anchored the connotation between live television and the chance of mishaps) enigmatically mentioned the studio chosen for the broadcast (“And I can’t confirm exactly where we’re filming it. We’re still trying to sort out the contracts and haven’t paid for it yet. Also, we don’t want people turning up on the night.”) (Adam Tandy) [4] ‘Inside No.9 Live’s central premise – spectres contaminating the studio equipment and disrupting the transmission (which was how it unfolded on the night) made Tandy’s “we don’t want people turning up on the night” line a sly wink-of-the-eye seeding.

Then a couple of days ahead of ‘Inside No. 9’s live broadcast a bizarre news story appeared in the ‘Daily Star’ (and then repeated in ‘The Sun’ the very next day) The headline ran ‘Spooked by Hilda Ogden’ and under the subheading ‘Inside No. 9 Halloween Special’ it reported that “Corrie’s ghosts have scared off the cast of the cult comedy.”[5] It revealed how the site of the old Granada studios was the location Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith had wanted to use for the special but BBC bosses had done a U-turn after it emerged some of ‘Coronation Street’s dead cast members reportedly haunted the place. Adding more spice to the phantasm brew the article informed readers a Catholic priest had been called in to perform an exorcism there in 2017 after a band rehearsing at the disused location were spooked when some of their equipment exploded: “BBC chiefs decided they could not risk any on-air mishaps or glitches when the live show goes out on Sunday.”[6]

A piece of tabloid frippery – the Granada site was nixed due to logistical practicalities (as producer Adam Tandy explained in a post-transmission ‘Broadcast’ magazine piece) but the hyperbole added even more grist to the programme publicity mill. The ‘Inside No. 9’ angle in the ‘Daily Star’ story must surely have come from the production team, as it was so perfectly aligned with what transpired during the live broadcast on the evening of the 28th October.

The anticipatory conditioning produced by the publicity added layer after layer of expectation onto the Halloween special, building a framework of plausibility around it in order to influence viewers’ receptiveness as they watched ‘Inside No.9 Live’. The meticulous care involved in the set-up – its multilayeredness, scope and the carefully staged release of information – was pranking of the highest order. “A lot of prep, a lot of build-up” indeed. The seeding was a mix of truth, embellishment, nuanced suggestion and fakery and it was worked quite brilliantly by the creators and their producer: The excitement attached to a live broadcast partly because of the possibility of something going wrong; the safeguards in place for that eventuality; alluding to “like how they used to do it” televisual past of live broadcasting with multi-camera filming and theatrical conventions to the fore; establishing the scenario and characters of ‘Dead Line’ in order to secure the audience’s prior knowledge; late in the day references to hauntings and ghosts (Pemberton & Shearsmith’s appearance on BBC One’s ‘The One Show’ another case in point); the question mark hanging over the studio location.

Journalists who disseminated dutifully and produced the write-ups were magnificently manipulated as Pemberton, Shearsmith and Tandy, in cahoots with the BBC’s publicity department, harnessed mainstream and social media and seeded away mischievously, prodigiously propagating duplicity. The misdirection was exemplary in aim, execution and effect. Most people readying themselves to watch the live special really did expect a traditional multi-camera live studio experience. Even the continuity announcer’s “stand by studio” as the broadcast was about to begin chimed with those conventions from the past.

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The pretence was an act of creative genius by Pemberton & Shearsmith because in truthfully revealing the starting point of ‘Dead Line’ – what viewers actually watched in its opening few minutes – there was a credibility which grounded the manipulation with a credence that audiences might not otherwise have accepted, given ‘Inside No.9’s reputation is about ripping away the comfort blanket of expectation.  With ‘Inside No.9 Live’ Pemberton & Shearsmith’s epithet as mirth-makers of the macabre was transformed into that of magicians of Mephistopheles (its etymological breakdown being ‘mephis’ – disperser/scatterer and ‘tophel’ – plasterer of lies)

‘Inside No.9 Live’ begins in accordance with what viewers had been led to expect. Arthur Flitwick enters his flat (a No. 9 jack-o-lantern pumpkin next to his front door), unpacks his shopping including a mobile phone he’d found in the graveyard of the local church, turns on the radio and busies himself in the kitchen. Suddenly a disquieting, disembodied voice is heard to utter “he’s stopped breathing” (possibly “and stop breathing” –  it is too indistinct to be sure) It’s muted, an almost imperceptible aural interference (easily confused with the voices on the radio) but it is there, coming from nowhere, seemingly floating in the ether, a queasy invasion of an ordinary domestic setting. It is an off-kilter moment that catches us unawares. The story then continues normally enough. We are introduced to a second character – Moira O’Keefe – who Arthur calls on the mobile phone, her number being the last one dialled on it. Five minutes in – as Arthur is paid a visit by the local vicar, the slightly creepy Reverend Neil (who’s been enrolled to help reunite the mobile phone with its owner) – the sound cuts out, leaving the actors silently conversing in character and viewers perturbed that important plot elements might be being missed. Brief fragments of conversation between the vicar and Arthur fade in and out before we cut to a continuity caption screen “We are sorry for the break in this programme and are trying to correct the fault” and a convincingly apologetic continuity announcer. A return to the developing three hander of ‘Dead Line’ is briefly attempted before BBC Two admits defeat and announces the postponement of the live episode. Instead in its place they repeat ‘A Quiet Night In’ (the irony of which is pleasingly indicative of the playfulness to come) from series one. At precisely nine minutes in, as the opening titles for ‘A Quiet Night In’ roll, the convincing fissuring of the live broadcast is accomplished with pitch perfect authenticity.

Playing with the recognisable live broadcasting tropes of technical faults, false restarts and unscheduled replacement programmes, which the watching audience is undoubtedly familiar with, the duplicitousness is the culmination of the misdirection and seeding we’d been fed in the weeks leading up to the event. The unfolding brilliance of the narrative disruption is so very finely tuned and consummately timed that it’s a stunningly choreographed technical feat in itself.

The turbulence in the minds of viewers caused by the apparent shattering of their broadcast experience, of the promised and looked forward to live edition of ‘Inside No.9’, was a bold strategy to undertake and Pemberton & Shearsmith are magisterial in the way they push it as far as possible in a daring ‘who will blink first’ game with the audience. Not only is a tightrope being walked by appearing to run a repeat almost a third of the way into the scheduled live programme but ‘A Quiet Night In’ is shown for as long as running time practicalities would allow – a minute and a half – to lull us into accepting that what is happening live before our eyes is real – namely, an actual safeguard solution initiated because of a live broadcast technical disaster. It ran the risk of disappointed viewers switching their TVs off or changing channels, but the creators hold firm in carrying out their sublimely conceived mischief to the hilt.

It is then that Pemberton & Shearsmith finally show their impeccable creative hand as the playfulness becomes clear and the true intentions of ‘Inside No.9’ are unveiled, when a ghoulish apparition in Victorian dress suddenly appears on ‘A Quiet Night’s In’s playout, eerily superimposed onto the original programme.

The beautifully delineated build-up routed through the lead-in hoax ‘Dead Line’ subtly imparts narrative elements that dominate the live special once the carapace of pretence has been broken with ‘A Quiet Night In’s ghostly takeover: Flitwick has a distinctly Dickensian ring to it and the name Evangeline (mentioned as being the daughter of Elsie Mitchell, who is the owner of the lost mobile phone) is decidedly old-fashioned. This understated evocation of the past – the Victorian past – gently seeds the main thematic at play in ‘Inside No.9 Live’, namely, the past haunting the present in insidious ways. It is this intersecting of the past and the present – the clash between old versus modernity – which is slyly advanced in the opening minutes of the fabricated story when we hear the disembodied voice (“stopped breathing”) and again when Arthur answers the ringing mobile phone he found only to hear a morass of white noise (and barely distinguishable vocals) at the other end of the line.  These strange, brief and elusive interludes kindle a feeling of an oblique counter live broadcast being attempted, one that once we’ve seen the Victorian wraith inserted into ‘A Quiet Night In’ implicitly infers figurative and literal  ‘ghosts in the machine’ machinations. There is even a touch of meta intertextuality pitched into the mix of the fake ‘Dead Line’ as Arthur Flitwick’s phone number is a direct reference to The League of Gentlemen’s infamous character, Pop.

Dead Line

When the predetermined expectations of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ are overturned and a story saturated in hyperreality is unleashed, the lightly scattered nuances encountered in the counterfeit tale are carried over and foregrounded. For the remainder of ‘Inside No. 9 Live’ Pemberton & Shearsmith’s storytelling expands to new experimental heights. Taking advantage of the scope of multimedia, the Halloween special is transformed into a cleverly constructed, playful and stimulating work, dissecting and rupturing narrative form, using the template of postmodernism. There are several distinct realities interacting and interceding on the other in the live broadcast, all of which play a part in creating the overarching hyperreality of the piece.

The hyperreality has been with us from the start – or taking into account the pre-broadcast manipulation and misdirection of the publicity build-up, even before that – because Arthur Flitwick, Reverend Neil, Moira O’Keefe and the mock ‘Dead Line’ are an essential part of the thing too in terms of the immersive ‘liveness’ of the event as it unfurls in intense, unpredictable, unforgettable ways.

Pemberton & Shearsmith’s creative intentions for ‘Inside No.9 Live’ are two-fold: Devising an episode where the viewing experience is greatly enhanced by watching it live and producing a story which achieves the distinctive high standards its creators have an enviable reputation for.

Seeing it as-it-happens in the context of ‘Inside No.9’s live broadcast crucially allows doubt to be put in the audience’s mind over what is real, what is fake – where does the reality of what they’re watching begin and end? Viewers are propelled into an absorbing, mesmerising mind game being played on them by the creators as each of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ concurrent realities are built, developed and carefully interwoven into the disruptive narrative as a whole.

The invigorating, heightened form of experience that ‘liveness’ brings adds piquancy for the audience during those moments which entertainingly fixate on and emphasis the fact it is live. The apotheosis for this is reached with Reece Shearsmith’s live tweet to viewers during the show as he plays himself stranded in the dressing room of the television studio due to ‘Dead Line’s technical breakdown: ‘Are me and Steve Pemberton on BBC Two now?’ It is a moment of pure meta origami, so extraordinary are its intricate layers: Shearsmith, playing a version of himself, invites the audience to take part and respond to what they’re watching live – to play an active role in the meta reality of it all.  Moments like this help to make the fact the Halloween special is live an integral part of the experience and how it is best appreciated.

Dead Line tweet

Pemberton & Shearsmith’s other main aim for ‘Inside No.9 Live’ is to ensure the story – and the way it is told – has their prerequisite hallmark of invention, complexity and meticulous attention to detail. Their tale for Halloween takes the trope of supernatural hauntings and transforms it into an extraordinary postmodern viewing experience of immersive hyperreality. Not only do the creators take the conventional parameters of a live broadcast and shatter them they also give us their own idiosyncratic take on a ghost story for the multimedia age.

The writers’ penchant for experimental storytelling is showcased to brilliant effect in ‘Inside No.9 Live’. Its hyperreality (which is the overriding ‘thing’ of the live special) is realised through the interplay of various realities criss-crossing within the complex narrative once the game is afoot and we’re in post-technical breakdown/post fake ‘Dead Line’ territory. Relocated to the innards of the television studios through a roaming camera’s eye, live time is signalled by a digital code clock display on the top right hand corner of the screen, informing viewers that ‘Inside No.9’ is still on air, still live, still happening, but in a very different way to what audiences had been lead to expect.

The constructed realities exist as distinct elements at first – separate entities in the interruptive narrative structure of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ as a whole. As the live broadcast continues there is leakage as the narrative builds and develops which starts to obliterate the space between them. The realities deployed by Pemberton & Shearsmith in the Halloween special can be defined as mythos/myth reality, meta reality and established reality.

Mythos/myth reality:  Superstitious notions surrounding the existence of ghosts and haunted places cursed by bad luck no longer have the social and cultural hold on communities that they once did. Urban myth has replaced folklore and traditional beliefs and it is here stories concerning supernatural experiences and rumours about paranormal activities coalesce, to be enjoyed almost ironically, as a form of popular entertainment and tabloid excess.

Assiduously chosen archive footage is the audience’s gateway in to the mythos reality constructed for ‘Inside No.9 Live’, one reflecting the urban mythology about ghosts, with its strong link to popular culture: Bobby Davro’s wince-inducing accident during the filming of a 1990s television game show is the first archive clip viewers see. Its inclusion at first appears to be completely random and rather odd but it’s entwined into the enveloping narrative, its relevance later seeded by Pemberton, with the accident being an example of the ‘curse’ that’s befallen Granada studios; several well-chosen and cleverly edited sequences from a 2005 edition of ‘Most Haunted’ investigating ghostly goings on at the Manchester studios of ‘Coronation Street’ includes the startling revelation that the Granada studios are sited next to a Victorian mass grave.

The archive recordings are used to aggrandise the urban myth about Granada studios being haunted and struck by bad luck because of it. The clips provide ‘evidence’ to furnish ‘Inside No.9 Live’s ‘ghosts in the machine’ thematic with ‘facts’, giving the mythos reality thread the semblance of ‘truth’.

Dead Line

The hyperreality which distinguishes the live special – where the line between reality and a simulation of it is eroded, making it harder for viewers to perceive what is real and what isn’t –  culminates in the seamless editing of a faked news report straight into an authentic clip. The fictitious news report concerning the suicide of Alan Starr, a television studio props man suffering from a diagnosed psychosis, who’d been convinced ghosts had infected the TV studio equipment, is audacious approximation of fake reportage to that of genuine archive footage. Placing it directly before a real clip – a 1980s ‘Granada Reports’  news story about a fire at a warehouse used by Granada studios to store sets and props – helps to blur the line between fact and fiction, dissolving reality to the status of myth/mythos.

The inclusion of archive material in ‘Inside No. 9 Live’ is reminiscent of the documentaries of film-maker Adam Curtis, who makes striking use of old film and TV clips to help explain how power works in society. In choosing an array of archive clips for the live special Pemberton & Shearsmith are attempting to show how myth is shaped and developed to a level of prominence, attaining the stature (and weight) of reality behind it to exert an influential grip on the imagination.

What’s more, the decision to feature old clips in the live broadcast was a creative one done to convey how archive footage is used to reconstruct the past in the present. Archives represent the past captured and preserved forever. Film and television recordings are a powerful manifestation of and link to the past – a representation of the images and voices of the dead emblematically caught and trapped in celluloid, video or digital aspic. Pemberton & Shearsmith subtly suggest that the dead are mechanically ‘imprisoned’, with the potential to be reanimated and resurrected repeatedly. It is an idea they posit as a figural ‘ghosts in the machine’ adjunct to the main literal ‘ghosts in the machine’ theme of ‘Inside No.9 Live’. In the closing moments of the special, just after viewers have witnessed Pemberton & Shearsmith’s apparent deaths on live television at the hands of the studio invading ghosts, there is a brief clip of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s 25th October 2018 appearance on ‘The One Show’ immediately followed by their ‘A Quiet Night In’ characters’ gunshot-to-the-head deaths replayed again and again and again.

The juxtaposing of these recordings are as if the ghosts infecting the TV studio equipment have again intervened in the live broadcast to insert their own dark, mockingly ironic joke at Pemberton & Shearsmith’s expense. Inserting these particular clips into the narrative gives explicit expression to the figurative ‘ghosts in the machine’ symbolism attached to archive footage as the mechanical representation of the dead, which enables the past to be placed into the present in potentially disquieting and disturbing ways.

Meta reality:  Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton playing recognisable versions of themselves in ‘Inside No.9 Live’ is self-referentiality at its most sustained and brilliantly realised. ‘Inside No.9’ has never been as playfully knowing as it is here, with the meta designed to serve a purpose beyond humorous intent. Seen waiting around in their studio dressing room after the live broadcast has been unceremoniously halted, searching the abandoned studio backstage and interacting with guest actress Stephanie Cole (also playing ‘herself’) the duo’s established personas are ones which many viewers – and fans especially – would be familiar with as they’re the clearly defined heightened versions of themselves which Pemberton & Shearsmith have developed and played with since The League of Gentlemen (utilized for elements of the DVD commentaries and extras and most significantly in ‘The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse’ film)

Dead Line

The pair perform their meta selves to the hilt: Shearsmith is prickly, full of pent-up anger and quick to deliver to a barbed remark (“Start again? Pathetic”; “No-one knows that anyway. Who fucking cares?  It’s not even Halloween.”) Pemberton is placatory and even-tempered, a yang to his writing partner’s yin. The meta reality strand of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ recalls Pemberton & Shearsmith’s extraordinary ‘SoundCloud’ commentaries for series two of ‘Inside No.9’ which they posted online for fans. A sublime meta creation of edgy pranking, it pushed the boundaries of discomfort due to the highly convincing enactment of a bickering, needling relationship tailspinning into resentment, toxic anger and finally violence. The ‘SoundCloud’ commentaries were such a memorably visceral experience because the meta made it feel so close to the bone. Similarly, the meta reality constructed for the Halloween special intensifies viewers’ experience of the live broadcast because the watching audience is almost made to feel like they’re an unseen character in it. Much of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s dressing room conversations (seen from a high angle camera to make viewers feel like they’re eavesdropping on them) centre around what viewers are thinking and saying online about the disaster of the abandoned live broadcast of ‘Dead Line’. As they wait around with nothing to do, they spend time on their smartphones gleaning the social media reaction (“What’s going on with ‘Inside No.9’? Is this part of the twist? Oh do fuck off.” Reece Shearsmith) (“I bet everyone thinks we’ve deliberately done it.” Steve Pemberton) Pemberton & Shearsmith’s meta foregrounding of the audience as they anticipate predictable social media cynicism in relation to ‘Inside No.9 Live’ increases viewers’ sense of participation in the live viewing experience. The creators’ references to them is an act of inclusion which helps to make the audience feel they’re interacting with the live event, most tangibly when Reece Shearsmith’s tweets during the live broadcast, soliciting viewers to respond. ‘Inside No.9 Live’s meta reality intensifies the audience’s emotional investment which comes from watching it live. They’re truly immersed in the experience of the liveness.

Pemberton & Shearsmith holding forth on the “totally impenetrable” ending advanced for (the fake) ‘Dead Line’ and Stephanie Cole’s shortcomings as Moira O’Keefe are the pair’s amplified versions of themselves having playful fun at their own expense (“I’ve got no interest in television.” Reece Shearsmith) and sharing that joke in an almost conspiratorial way with viewers. The meta reality implicates the audience in the ‘liveness’ in a participatory manner, almost as if they’re guests with a part to play. It involves a level of complicity on the part of the viewer – a willing party privy to the knowing intrigue created by Pemberton & Shearsmith. The audience recognises Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are portraying versions of themselves – their meta ‘parts’ – but there is ambiguity about how far the exaggerated elements of their personas are pushed into the realms of invention. The hyperreality of the live special embraces those feelings of doubt in viewers’ minds about how real or contrived Pemberton & Shearsmith’s meta ‘selves’ are. It is another layer amongst a multiplicity of layers created by the complementary realities in ‘Inside No.9 Live’.

Dead Line

The intertextual referencing of other horror/supernatural works dotted around the meta reality thread adds further nuances to the narrative palette. They’re an acknowledgement by Pemberton & Shearsmith of their creative influences and inspirations and are, by implication, visual citations which the audience is encouraged to pick up on and identify: The wallpaper in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s studio dressing room is an exact reproduction of the hexagon patterned carpet in the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’; the ghostly image of studio props man Alan Starr (who we’d earlier been told had killed himself at the television studios) looming into view in the background as the camera tracks across the empty studio, his face framed by the window of a door, recalls the creepy appearance of the menacing Peter Quint at a window in the 1961 film ‘The Innocents’; Steve Pemberton’s practical joke on Reece Shearsmith – jumping out in the dark at him wearing a scary rubber mask – is a direct reference to BBC’s 1992 ‘Ghostwatch’ in which the exact same prank is pulled by Craig Charles.

Established reality: The deception generated for the ‘Inside No.9’ episode that never was – ‘Dead Line’ – is the live special’s established reality and remains a reference point even when the mythos/myth and meta realities take over and drive the narrative into hyperreality experimentation. Not only does the pre-broadcast publicity misdirection leave remnants because ‘Dead Line’ became a stated ‘fact’ in the weeks beforehand, but in its few minutes of existence before rupturing ‘Dead Line’s conventional narrative offers subtle portents (oblique allusions to the Victorian age, technology being subjected to snatches of audio interference) of what is to come. The unsettling ‘ghosts in the machine’ intrigue advanced in the post-‘Dead Line’ reality threads are forged in the established reality of those opening scenes.

The hoax ‘Dead Line’ is revisited in the midst of the two simultaneous realities with the partial playback of the rehearsal tape. Pemberton & Shearsmith’s painstaking attentiveness is such that the contrivance of ‘Dead Line’ is still crafted with an exacting level of detail, maintaining adherence to the illusion as real – that it was the ‘Inside No.9’ story they’d planned to broadcast live. The faking of this established reality is observed with utmost care. The ‘fact’ a ‘rehearsal tape’ exists sustains the pretence to its logical conclusion –  the recorded rehearsal of ‘Dead Line’ was the workaround solution in place in case things went wrong with the live broadcast.

The rehearsal tape gives viewers the opportunity to see ‘Dead Line’s interrupted story re-established, with Pemberton & Shearsmith providing enough elliptical exposition in the lines exchanged by Arthur Flitwick and Moira O’Keefe to stitch the broken tale back together again and move it forward with credible semblance. The plot progression involving a will bequest as a motive for murder was subtly seeded in ‘Dead Line’s first scene, with the advert for a will-writing company playing on the radio in Arthur’s kitchen. Pemberton & Shearsmith even layer the ‘fake’ script of ‘Dead Line’ with their customary meticulousness so that the established reality of the rehearsal tape is convincingly played out to the audience.

The established reality of ‘Dead Line’ briefly reignited through the rehearsal tape breaks down and is overtaken by meta reality when Stephanie Cole brings a halt to proceedings to ask about her character’s motivation. The earlier disagreement between Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith over what Shearsmith termed the ‘impenetrable’ ending then resurfaces as the tape continues to run and one form of reality replaces another.

Dead Line

As the live broadcast’s hyperreality narrative progresses we see the differentiated realities begin to bleed into each other as Pemberton & Shearsmith weave the threads together. This helps the audience start to see the events unfolding before them in connective rather than fragmentary terms as ‘Inside No.9 Live’ evolves from a high concept game of pranking into highly effective storytelling, which is what Pemberton & Shearsmith want to achieve above all else: The meta reality of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith as ‘themselves’ in their dressing room sees Pemberton reading out urban myth stories he’d googled about Granada Studios being haunted, mentioning the suicide of a studio props man and the warehouse fire which destroyed costumes for ITV’s ‘A Jewel in the Crown’ drama series. It’s a forward signal to a part of the mythos reality strand which comes near the end of the special –  the faked news report about (the fictional) Alan Starr’s suicide and the archive ‘Granada Reports’ clip about Granada studios’ warehouse fire. The diffused mixing of meta and myth realities heightens the uncertainty which is the key to the live broadcast – how much of it is real and where does the fabrication begin and end?

The Victorian costumed apparition spotted in the corner of the TV studio green room is a visual representation of the mythos reality invading the meta reality of the studio setting, which it increasingly does as the live broadcast continues. The myth reality interpolation of the meta reality begins to dominate ‘Inside No.9 Live’ as the creeping unease – suggested by the prowling camera moving and observing every corner of the abandoned television studio – becomes an ever more menacing and palpable presence.

The climactic manifestation of myth reality’s physical and elemental permeation of meta reality occurs when Stephanie Cole’s meta self is possessed by unseen ghostly forces and becomes Alan Starr’s unwitting conduit (“Alan says they’ve always been here, before us, before the studios. We shouldn’t be here, this is their home.”) When she talks about the ghosts infecting the cables and television equipment and that the technology makes them stronger we hit a Knealesque seam of malignant strangeness, where the seemingly defunct title of the prank ‘Dead Line’ takes on dreadful new significance: The ghosts (the dead) invade the present and modern technology (television studio cables) is the route (line) they use. This is the moment in the live broadcast when the story – beyond the live phenomenon of the Halloween special – asserts itself, intertwining the threads of the different realities tighter and tighter together as the narrative gathers momentum towards its fatal conclusion.

With ‘Inside No.9 Live’, Pemberton & Shearsmith’s mission to find ever more imaginative ways to tell a story hits new heights of the sublime. Reeling off a list of superlatives feels superfluous when trying to describe the mesmerising impact of the Halloween special, both as a live event and as a work of artistic ingenuity.

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The logistics of the special – and its ambition – were on a scale not attempted by ‘Inside No.9’ before. It was not just the risky tightrope walk of the live broadcast itself but the scrupulous misdirection set-up of the pre-broadcast publicity behind it. The press releases and media interviews were a platform of inspired manipulation, the success of which was essential to the whole daring enterprise. The subterfuge needed to pull off such an inspired broadcasting hoax  must have taken intensive planning and a lot of hard work. That it was done with such aplomb is testament to all of ‘Inside No.9’s talented production team.

‘Inside No.9 Live’ also gave Pemberton & Shearsmith the welcome opportunity to experiment with narrative form once again and the hyperreality of the thing, in  conception and execution, involved a rich tapestry of complexity which was honed to perfection. The meta playfulness was one of the most striking elements of the Halloween special (and the first time meta has been used in an ‘Inside No.9’ story, although the standout online commentaries for series two of ‘Inside No.9’ may have sparked Pemberton & Shearsmith’s mischievous inclinations) and gave the episode some its funniest – and edgiest – moments.  The pair also anticipated the audience’s immersion and online interaction, informed and invigorated by the live experience, by skilfully interweaving it into the script. The fake elements punctuating the narrative were carefully placed, unobtrusive, delicately drawn and persuasively subtle so as not to draw attention to themselves. All of these components added shading and depth to the live special, as part of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s expansive creative canvas.

The multiple levels on which the narrative operated – the intersecting, competing realities  – and the degree of detail behind each of them – was quite extraordinary. The writing attained a density of layering and insightful juxtaposition that served both the brilliant execution of the live broadcast and the strength and supremacy of the story. It’s further proof – although surely none is needed – of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s remarkable talents as writers, which just seem to grow and expand with every new series of ‘Inside No. 9’.

There was an undeniable frisson of anticipation and excitement as ‘Inside No.9’s familiar opening titles began to roll at 10 o’clock on the evening of 28th October 2018. Just the fact it was being broadcast live, a comparatively rare thing nowadays (not pre-recorded and broadcast ‘as live’) gave it a significance that was the starting point for Pemberton & Shearsmith’s conspiring inventiveness. But what made it such a memorable, utterly unforgettable ‘event’ was the astonishing way it played with viewers’ expectations – and with narrative and broadcasting conventions – to completely upturn our perception of reality. The resulting palpable tension and audience exhilaration as it unfolded live on air was the singular artistry of Pemberton & Shearsmith at work and the Halloween special was their most ambitious ‘Inside No.9’ yet.

Even if you weren’t in front of a TV screen tuned to BBC Two and somehow managed to forgo the live thrill of the thing – and luxuriate in the unpredictability of it all – the exceptional quality and inherent rewatchability of this remarkable piece of pranking genius still makes it an unmissable creative work in the ‘Inside No.9’ canon. Accepting that, nothing can quite recapture what it meant or felt like to experience the maximum impact of it’s ‘live time’ broadcast.

Dead Line

Footnotes

  1. ‘The Times’ – ‘The Scariest Thing about Halloween? Corpsing in a live show’ (Dominic Maxwell) (26th October 2018)
  2. BBC Media Centre – ‘Q&A with Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’ (17th October 2018)
  3. As above.
  4. ‘Radio Times’ – ‘It’s Hard to Scare Us’ (Frances Taylor) (27th October-2nd November 2018)
  5. ‘Daily Star’ – ‘Spooked by Hilda Ogden’ (Peter Dyke and Edward Gleave) (26th October 2018)
  6. As above.

Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Barbara Wiltshire

Producer…Claire McCarthy

Series Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Composer…Christian Henson

Cast

Arthur Flitwick/Himself…Steve Pemberton

Reverend Neil/Himself…Reece Shearsmith

Moira O’Keefe/Herself…Stephanie Cole

Alan Starr…Robin Berry

Laura Howarth (news reporter)…Chandrika Chevli

Older woman in radio advert (voice only)…Yvonne D’Alpra

Younger woman in radio advert (voice only)…Emma Stannard

Radio presenter (voice only)…Rich Keeble

Ghost…Sophie Juge

Ghost…Connie Wilkins

BBC Two continuity announcer (voice only)…Beccy Wright