Simon Nye talks about his writing career
Simon Nye is best known as the creator of the long-running sitcom Men Behaving Badly, but started out as a novelist. He has created many other hit sitcoms, including Is It Legal?, Beast, and the updated version of Reggie Perrin. A versatile writer, he has translated books on Matisse and Braque and plays by Molière and Dario Fo, written an episode for Doctor Who, and is much in demand for adaptations, including a new version of Richmal Crompton’s immortal Just William which was broadcast during Christmas 2010.
Here, distant cousin James Nye talks to Simon about his career in writing.
How did it all begin?
I always wanted to be a writer, I think. At the age of 15 I toyed with the idea of leaving school and joining the local newspaper. Even then it was a radical thing for a middle class kid to leave school before his allotted time – i.e. prior to going to university – so I didn’t in the end. But I’d already floated the idea that I knew I wanted to be a writer in some form or other. So I went to university and then did what I think writers should do, which is forget about it for a bit, and do other, slightly dossy jobs – which I did for five years.
I like to think that subconsciously I realized I wasn’t quite ready to put words down on the page – but also felt that I should earn some sort of living. I worked for a year in Austria as a lector in a language department, and then in West End box offices – mainly because it was a laugh, and there were lots of fun, vaguely thespian people who were having a good time – but also because you got free theatre tickets, and I thought that if I was going to do any writing it might well be as a playwright. I was by then a fan of Tom Stoppard in particular. He’s the sort of writer whose verbal pyrotechnics appeal to young writers who don’t really know what they’re doing. I still think he’s fantastic, but I now see him as a bit of a circus showman rather than what I think writers should be – people who write from the heart. But I should be so lucky! Fantastic writer that he is . . .
I went to lots of plays using the special box office hotline – just three numbers and you’re immediately wherever you want to go. At the age of 24 they offered me the chance of promotion to some sort of deputy box office manager, and even I realised, in my blundering way, that that was a pivotal moment, and that, flashing forward 40 years, I might end up a very bitchy box office manager (although looking back now that wouldn’t be perhaps quite so bad – at least you got out the house and met people and had a bit of a laugh) rather than the successful writer I wanted to be. So I decided to leave that environment and start to write – which I did for a couple of years. I wrote a very bad novel, and then a slightly less bad novel which was Men Behaving Badly.
What was the first novel? Did it never see the light of day?
No. I must read it again, because in my mind it’s a piece of monstrous nonsense. It was a medieval allegory – obviously! There was a character called Poet, and there was a nuclear analogy embodied by the threat of invasion by another nearby principality. Even as I describe it now – it’s hopeless! But at least I finished it. I did my 70,000 words and I sent if off to the one contact I had in publishing, who very quickly sent it back. To my credit I did immediately write another novel – knowing that you’ve got to get ‘back on the bike’ quickly after a rejection. So I blundered my way into writing Men Behaving Badly which eventually found a publisher.
How did you do that?
I found an agent first by working backwards through the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook from Z, and finally, at C, got to Curtis Brown who liked it, and quickly sold it to Penguin. I was perilously close to giving up though.
As far as my theory goes, I felt that novel writing was proper writing – that other forms were too short to be considered real writing. I know writers who’ve started out writing short sketches and plays and things, and there’s always a struggle to create longer forms that sustain themselves, whereas deep down in my writer’s DNA, sitting down for 6 months or more to write a novel is fair enough, whereas if you start with three minute sketches, it’s more of a struggle.
Who were your formative influences? I mean, I must confess I haven’t read the novel Men Behaving Badly (1989) . . .
I really do urge people not to! My second novel, Wideboy (1991), I’m slightly more proud of – it had at least a bit more self-confidence.
But were there any particular models – because it’s very difficult to just write a novel, isn’t it?
I started writing when I was 24 or 25 – so Martin Amis raised his ugly head in my list of influences, like his novel Money (1984). I remember thinking, I mustn’t write like that because it’s a very particular way of writing. It’s writing about writing really. It’s all about a style – but I liked the fact that it was funny. Further back, I wasn’t a huge reader – but Gormenghast was the reason I wrote my medieval novel, and I think it’s perhaps led a lot of young writers down a wrong path. I did start to love John Updike – his African novel, The Coup, in particular – and Saul Bellow too when I started writing the published novels. But in a way I knew that I couldn’t do that sort of writing and was destined always to be a bit more superficial than John Updike. And I’ve fulfilled that promise!
Before you did your box office stint, you studied French and German at university?
It was basically literature, with a bit of translation thrown in. And some of the heavyweights – like Gunter Grass – crossed my path, so I should really have no excuse not to be quite an ambitious novel writer. But I chose to go in the Lucky Jim tradition of the cheerful comic novel with occasional hints of melancholy.
I washed up at the Almeida theatre and got a bit of housing benefit. The forms even then were very complicated, so I really tried to live in cheap places. My money ran out pretty quickly though, so I did a translating course and became a translator for an insurance company and a Swiss bank. It was very unglamorous and made me realise pretty quickly that I wanted to get out of that kind of salaried, corporate slavery. Quite plush slavery: I used to translate in the morning for the Swiss bank, and do creative writing in the afternoon. Apart from being caught out a couple of times with the wrong computer screen up, it worked very well as a system.
Did you find that you took easily to the discipline that’s required to write a novel? How did you make yourself do it?
I never had the kind of job where I had to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to write and then go to work. I could actually write on the job. But I now marvel at the kind of discipline I had when I was writing the Men Behaving Badly novel, when I was a translating student. I did shun my friends for a while. It’s up for debate, but I think there is an antisocial strain that runs through lots of writers, and so it’s easier for them than most people to find the discipline to actually sit down and write.
But if you’re going to write a long form like a novel, the thing is to have the confidence to stick it out and complete it . . .
It helps if you’ve burnt a few bridges and it’s too late to be an architect or a doctor, or all those professions that are whizzing past you as a realistic option when you reach your mid to late twenties. So really there was nothing left other than grasping this particular nettle. There’s also a sort of novelty value, and the romance of the writer kicks in when you’re faltering. There are things that buoy you up a bit. If it’s raining outside, what better thing to do than gather your characters around you and start writing?
And it gave you a kind of pleasure rather than being a chore?
Yes – although it’s always a mixture. I always find the first half a struggle, almost like climbing a hill – it’s easier coming down. I don’t know why it is. You just reach some sort of psychological fulcrum, and then you’re down on the way home. So if you can grit your teeth and get through the first half, then you’re okay.
Although I guess you were analysing foreign literature at university, you didn’t do a creative writing course – which a lot of people do now. So how did you think about the process of writing a novel? Did you outline a structure, or did you just start?
I should have been much more thoughtful about it actually, because I was, as far as one can be, trained in analysing things at university. I’d passed judgement on many works of literature and didn’t apply the same rigour to my own work at all. I did do a plan of some sort, but I remember that probably the most exciting time of my life ever – in terms of writing – was just thinking ‘I must write something, and I must not care what I’ve left behind’. So I wrote the first ten pages of the Men Behaving Badly novel as a splurge of typing rather than considered writing. It was a way to find out what I found easiest to write. Fairly inconsequential dialogue seemed to be what flowed most easily! Then I went back and made it a bit more consequential. But generally I don’t like to leave a rough draft – I prefer to write something that is pretty much as it ends up in the finished version. Especially in tv-land, people like Russell T. Davies just write without any idea of where they’re going – but I can’t do that. I like to have a fairly orderly outline now, otherwise I can’t do it.
Men Behaving Badly was published in 1989. What response did it get?
I got a fairly vitriolic first review from Jeanette Winterson – a very long piece in the Sunday Times. I don’t know why. I was a first-time novelist, it was just a paperback. So it was a real baptism of fire, because they obviously decided to give her as many words as she wanted to put the boot into this admittedly not very good novel. I’ve had many bad reviews since, but in many ways the worst was the first. So anything I’ve had since then has been much more bearable.
Sure. She was never going to like a novel like that. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is one of my favourite novels, and I do think she’s funny and so on. But she’s clearly not going to enjoy a novel about two laddish blokes who are besotted with a woman who, because it’s described from their point of view, is, from Jeanette Winterson’s point of view, underdrawn.
So I licked my wounds, assumed nobody had read it (which seems about right actually, unless they’re keeping very quiet about it!) and carried on.
The next stage is it being picked up for ITV?
It was read by veteran tv producer Beryl Vertue who’d done all sorts, and was agent to Frankie Howerd and Spike Milligan, and she thought it would go well on tv. I had no idea about script writing at the time, but she nurtured me. We all need one lucky break, and she was it – and she’s still going strong.
ITV basically asked me to write half an episode on spec – which even then I realised was actually a bit cheeky – so I basically used bits of the novel and pasted them into a would-be script. They gently pointed out that it probably wasn’t going to get made if I couldn’t be bothered to put my creative energy into it. Eventually they found some money and I wrote a proper script. It sort of did the job, but I had the good fortune to be able to learn on air. I could just gradually get better at writing it at the expense of the viewing public really. I think by series 3 I did know what I was doing.
It transferred to BBC for the second series?
The third actually. When it dipped down below 10 million viewers on ITV, they felt the shame of that meant that they had to drop the series. These days, with so much competition, they’d be happy with something like 3 million. But ITV never takes decisions about axing things on artistic grounds – it’s all about the numbers. It was still quite rare in those days to switch channels though.
It was great after the isolation of writing a novel. It seemed to me the system at Penguin was you get one (but only one) nice lunch for each novel, whereas if you work in tv, you get casting, you get to meet interesting people, the entertaining and vivacious actors, and more money. It was altogether an improvement. Sooner or later though, you start to realise that perhaps the reason people write novels is that it’s entirely their own. With tv there’s always a sense that it’s a team effort that often inevitably involves compromises. It’s a pressure, but you can’t beat writing a novel. It’s the ultimate solo act of creativity, and for that reason it will always be special in all the range of writing that I’ve done.
But as far as I know you’ve only published one other novel . .
Yes! I don’t know why I’ve taken so long to get back. I suppose I now associate novel writing with those glib, celebrity novels by the likes of Alan Titchmarsh or Jordan. Perhaps they’re very good – I’m just guessing they’re not. I haven’t read them. But I think now I should wait until I have something worth sharing.
I read about a novelist who will only sign a contract for the novel he’s just written. He says he never knows whether he’s going to write something else worth publishing, so astonishes publishers by not signing contracts for several novels in advance.
We should all be like that, except that knowing the way people work, you do need that security, and you need to be motivated by the sense of having to avoid disappointing people if you don’t write it. Otherwise it’s easy to talk yourself out of doing things.
I’d actually written it in 1988 I think. I wrote the novel Men Behaving Badly in 1987, but it took a while to get a publishing deal, and then it was delayed because of missing some season or other. I’d written Wideboy, but they didn’t want to put it out immediately. There was a very slow pace to publishing, which again is why tv was revelation – the speed of movement from script to realisation to broadcast was very welcome. And from another angle, it was good for me to have pressure applied: you have to write 2 or 3 thousand words a week of quite intense gags if you want to write a series of six episodes at a reasonable speed.
On tv, Wideboy became Frank Stubbs Promotes (1993)?
Yes. It was a bigger transformation in a way. There were a lot of hours of screentime to fill, and I had to be taken aside and gently told that I couldn’t expect to write all the episodes myself. For the first time I was working with other writers, which was something different.
How to did you take to that? And who else wrote for it?
Alan Plater wrote an episode, and so did Alan Whiting. Good, solid tv writers. I remember Alan Plater had got to the stage in his career where he didn’t really care that much. There were fairly facetious stage directions in his script, which suggested he wasn’t entirely enjoying having to write an episode of someone else’s series. I was quite cross at the time. I felt it was bad enough having to share the whole creative process with actors, producers and directors and so on. But producers have a fear of piling too much pressure on writers – or giving them too much power.
But it also means that if things go wrong you can blame other people!
And of course the original writer isn’t necessarily going to be any better than the experienced, efficient drama writer who’s worked on Z Cars and knows a good story when he sees one.
How many episodes was it?
Two series. Some very good actors: Timothy Spall and Lesley Sharp. And Daniella Westbrook before she lost her septum. It was quite a happy experience really, apart from the initial shock of being told I couldn’t write it all myself. Apart from the odd spat, my experience of tv generally is that it’s not as cruel and back-biting as people might imagine.
How much was it an adaptation of the novel?
Actually the book wasn’t that useful as a source. It was a matter of taking the character Frank – who’s a bit of a chancer – and running with it really. In the novel the story is intercut with bits of a day in Frank’s life. I was quite surprised that they wanted to do it on tv because there was a long-running prejudice against media subject matter, and this was a guy who’d do anything, but was essentially an agent in the media sphere, and on ITV in particular that was regarded as not what people wanted to watch. In the end people didn’t watch in vast numbers, but I think there was enough going on, with some rather nice acting, to get us over that.
Your sitcom Is It Legal? ran from 1995-1998, and in the same period you wrote you wrote a comedy drama called True Love (1996) which became the series My Wonderful Life (1997). At the same time you were still writing series of Men Behaving Badly?
Yes. I did one a year. At one point – 1998 I think – I had a series on all four main channels, and I now look back and wonder how I found the time. I’m not comparing myself to Dickens or Balzac, but it’s amazing what you can do if you have to, or if you feel that people are waiting for it, or actors are expecting you to do another series this year.
Did you ever get involved in casting decisions?
I was involved right from the beginning in Men Behaving Badly. I can still remember Leslie Ash coming in and looking all gorgeous – so yes, very much involved. In fact, I do it much less now than I used to really, because it can be just exhausting, and you start to lose faith in the material if you hear it read unsuccessfully by lots of people. If the show is in production, then you really should be writing rather than picking the cast. However, if it’s a long running series, then it’s obviously rather crucial that you enjoy writing for the actors. It helps you write their role if the right person’s picked.
I’m not one of those obsessive writers who’d rather be writing than going to any meetings at all. On the other hand, they now have what they call ‘tone meetings’ where they discuss things like what colour the set should be, or . . . well, mainly just that, actually. But anyway, things that it seems to me can, and probably should be left to the respective experts in those fields. I say that, but then there is the risk that you turn up to the set and find that the living-room is tangerine! A part of me likes the right to distance myself from the production so that I can say, “Well, that was wrong, and so was that,” whereas, if I’d been to the right meetings I could have argued my point in advance and done something about it. So cowardice is very much part of the process if you’re not careful!
Going back to the transfer of Men Behaving Badly, it went to BBC1 and was broadcast in a later slot?
Yes, so it could be a little bit more risqué – without ever really swearing, or actually being very rude – though occasionally we edged into genuinely naughty areas. But basically it wasn’t as outrageous as some thought. Strangely, it was just because it was on BBC1 rather than BBC2 that people thought it was a bit rude. In fact there have always been far more outrageous things on the other channels, but it was the fact that it was on BBC1.
Slightly holy territory perhaps? And the Queen probably watches BBC1 . .
Yes. Maybe it’s the idea that the Queen might be watching BBC1, but doesn’t watch BBC2 at that time of night? But no, I think she’s probably more of an ITV person actually. The thing is, doing all these sitcoms meant that I reached a stage of achievement where I was allowed to do How Do You Want Me? (1998).
That’s my favourite of all the things you’ve written.
It’s my favourite too. There’s no laughter track, there’s a lot of freedom – we were more or less allowed to do exactly what we wanted. Of course, that could have gone horribly wrong. I’m not arguing that the writer should always given so much rope but, as a writer, I was allowed to make it a bit low key. Nobody came to me and said, You need to pump up the plot, Where’s the big climax? and so on.
You had a great cast, Frank Finlay was marvellous as Dylan Moran’s grumpy father-in-law, and Charlotte Coleman was great as Moran’s wife, but I did especially like Peter Serafinowicz as the scarily psychotic brother-in-law.
Obviously I abhor violence, and his was actually quite a loving character most of the time. He did occasionally lose it though! Although we didn’t want it to seem as thought there was any theme or message to it, I think people liked the fact that it did show that the potential horrors of the countryside, even though I wanted it to be more of a loving tribute.
But not a bucolic fantasy?
I did intend to write a more attractive portrait of rural life than it turned out. There’s a lot of nonsense peddled by writers about how the characters made them write like this or that, but on this occasion I was genuinely slightly surprised by what came out.
Maybe you identified with Dylan Moran’s character more . .
He plays a guy who used to run a comedy club in London. He was very urban and – actually the actor should have been a Londoner, but Dylan was the funniest and the best, so he got he part. And being an Irishman, it made him more of a fish out of water. In many ways, he was just in the wrong place. Anyway, I really enjoyed the whole process, but there were still lots of arguments about budget and so on.
It’s very well directed well. Lots of lovely shots of rabbits . .
It’s beautifully done by Jon Henderson. I think you can tell a good director just by the way they let the camera run on in the hope of some nice cadence at the end of a scene. He was very good at that, and he allowed the actors to feel that they could improvise a bit without getting taken over by the contagion of improv.
The whole thing’s quite wry.
But there are dramatic moments. We didn’t abuse our privilege.
There’s a whimsicality about it, but it’s not implausible.
You don’t formalize these things but I did think, if it couldn’t happen in real life, then we won’t do it. But in a sitcom you’re always knowingly going beyond what life is. When they put Dylan’s character Ian’s car in a tree, I was really impressed. I thought they’d put it in a small, low tree – but it was way up high. It looked beautiful up there. I must do it again actually. People will have forgotten by now. But anyway, you can argue that that’s not going to happen in real life, but despite that, there’s always an air of naturalism about the series.
But that was 1998, and 1999 was when we did the last Men Behaving Badly, I think. We had a bit of an argument between myself and the cast, so I stopped writing it for a while, but then I decided to do some more, pretty much to bring it to a conclusion in the traditional way with the birth of a baby. Generally speaking, everyone was quite keen to do some more, but the guys (Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey) were getting a bit too old, and it was looking a bit unsavoury.
Maybe in ten years time you might do Grumpy Old Men Behaving Badly?
I don’t rule anything out really! In fact the guys have always been up for it. These are big actors, and they get lots of work – Martin Clunes particularly – but they like each other’s company and they’re good friends, so they’ve always been up for various remakes, but we know it’s not quite right to do it yet.
Wasn’t there something you did with Neil Morrissey?
I did a couple of series of Carrie and Barry (2004), which was more or less his character spun off into a couple. It didn’t really work, though. In my love of the simple set-up, I just thought a sitcom about a couple would be good, in the manner of all those great American ones. They let us do two series, but I guess it’s a delicate, almost alchemical thing, and it didn’t quite come off.
And 1998 saw the first of your ventures into pantomime adaptations?
I love pantomimes, and like most people they were my first real experience of theatre. My parents were into amateur dramatics. I don’t remember seeing them in pantos, but the certainly took us too semi-professional performances. I still remember the thrill of sweets being thrown to us from the stage, and being invited to join in and shout back.
Yes. There’s the rudeness and innuendo. Everyone goes home happy. I still like them, and I was allowed to do four ITV pantomimes, but they never translate to tv that well. There’s the fatal chasm between the audience seeing the show in the theatre, and the audience at home. This is why so many people hate audience sitcoms. People think, I’m buggered if I’m going to join in with the fun, because I wasn’t there! – they feel left out. These days it’s genuine laughter on the soundtrack, recorded at the time. But of course people in the audience are going to a free show, and know that their duty is to laugh, so you could say it’s an artificial set-up. But I did pantomimes because I do like them, and it was also a chance to meet people like Ronnie Corbett. So eventually I did Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, Cinderella and Dick Whittington.
It was obviously a busy period. After your AA patrolmen sitcom The Last Salute (1998), you created Beast (2000).
Another one of my favourites – a sitcom starring Alexander Armstrong about a vet who hates animals. Doon Mackichan was his sidekick – she was great. I’ve literally sold it to American tv three times. They love the idea of ‘you British, with your doing a show about the caring profession in which they’re not caring’. But actually, for all the outrageousness of American comedy films, in tv terms they’re really nervous about doctors, dentists and vets not taking the job seriously. They think that’s just wrong on tv, whereas in Britain we think it’s quite funny. I did a pilot for NBC in which they tried to make him a vet who was a good vet, but hated people – which was not really the concept. So I wrote one pilot, and then it went away and an American writer did another pilot which was just terrible, and then I had another go at it.
They do seem to get it wrong quite a lot, with these sorts of transfers.
Yes. I think it’s often because the writers doing the American versions don’t really embrace it. They’re writers for hire, working on someone else’s material. Often it’s done as a sort of contractual obligation thing. Then again, the American version of The Office with Steve Carrell is a genuine triumph. It manages to take the best of the UK version. But they often do it badly, and the process is always flawed. I hear this from so many British writers, that they hear very late in the process that an American pilot has been made. Any wisdom that you might have picked up along the way of writing the original series is not exploited at all. They just do it, and they do it wrong. But the original version was a solo writing project and was good fun.
The Savages (2001) was my attempt to do Everybody Loves Raymond, which I think is a fantastically simple set-up. It’s about a family, but you don’t see much of the kids. But we just didn’t do it right. It’s one of those chemical things, where the stars just didn’t look like a couple, and the kids weren’t very good at acting. You compare it with Outnumbered where they’ve got it right, and it pales in comparison.
And then we come on to something that I remember with a lot of affection which was Wild West (2002).
I’m glad you liked that. They didn’t like it in Cornwall!
It was interesting too, in that Catherine Tate and Dawn French play a lesbian couple.
I did come under some pressure over that, and sometimes feel I caved in a kind of awful way. Nobody said, can you remove the gay angle. I think people felt, it’s on BBC1 and . .
The Queen might be watching?
(Laughs) Yes. No, I mean I think they just felt that people weren’t getting it because of the gay element – which is nonsense clearly. This was nearly ten years ago, but people knew about lesbian relationships even then.
I don’t think anything sexual was portrayed on screen. It was more Morcambe and Wise.
Well, we didn’t want it to actually be only about a lesbian relationship.
And I thought that was what was rather nice: they just happened to share their lives, and happened to be two women rather than a woman and a man.
Yes. They really liked each other, they argued occasionally – and I think the ‘problem’ was sold as one of clarity: it wasn’t clear that they loved each other. So I thought we’d have it both ways, that by series two they were a bisexual couple who’d share a bed, but get jealous when one or the other went off with someone else. So it wasn’t that we washed our hands of the lesbian element in the second series – it wasn’t excised.
And I suppose that added a bit of dramatic dynamism to the storyline?
Yes. I think we felt that the BBC wasn’t quite ready for a full-on lesbian comedy.
You don’t think that subconsciously you were try to please Jeanette Winterson after all those years?
I would run a mile in tight shoes to get her approval! But no. To be honest, we did an awful cheap lesbian gag in Men Behaving Badly in the early years, which I’m now ashamed of. But it did reflect the sorts of thing two lads of that type might say in private. In Men Behaving Badly it was a nerdy sort of fascination with lesbianism rather than the mere oafishness of shouting “lesbian!” across the street. I’m still not proud of it though. But there’s a sort of realism about it that doesn’t necessarily indicate approval. You can’t really have two blokes of that sort not expressing a laddish curiosity about lesbians. There’s already enough unreality in the fact that they’re not swearing. So you just can’t depart too much from what these men might actually be like.
We’ve missed out your adaptation of The Railway Children (2000).
My kids were getting older by then, but I became conscious that I wanted to do something really nice for a change. I suppose by then I’d realised that I was never going to be Samuel Beckett, or do the great searing, angry drama. So I might as well admit that something in me likes charming children’s stories.
Was it your suggestion? Because again, it’s a version of a book that had already been successfully adapted for film.
Well, exactly. But no. A producer came to me and took the view – which I didn’t share – that the movie was hugely overrated, and we could do better. By that stage the movie was 30 years old, so I did think it was reasonable to do a new version. I went back to the original book and tried to be faithful to it. There were a few departures in the 1970 film from Nesbit’s book – a fantastic book in its way – so I did think there was something to be said, rather than just doing another version of the film. And let’s be honest, it’s just the most fantastic final scene – which gives a great shape to the story.
What I like about adapting, especially older books, is that they’re not scared of emotions. I would be very anxious about writing a great big father and daughter reunion on a station platform. I’d think I couldn’t do it – it’s too melodramatic. But adapting a work like this forces me to, and to make sure I do it properly, and unashamedly go for the big emotional moment. Also, I don’t want to make a fetish of being versatile, but I just wanted to see whether I could do that sort of wholesome drama.
You did Pollyanna (2005) too?
Yes. I suppose I got a bit stuck in that period. By then I just enjoyed all the frocks, and some great actors show up for these things that wouldn’t be seen dead in a sitcom.
In spite of that, I think you were able to add some emotional depth to the sitcom genre. There’s a certain amount of sadness to Men Behaving Badly, particularly with the Martin Clunes character who tends to think he’s wasting his life.
Yeah. And, without over-stating the homoerotic undertones, it is essentially a love story about two men. They really do just want to hang out together. It gets complicated for them in series 5 or 6, where they really had to grow up and choose. It really was saying something about relationships, and that transition from your mates to your sexual partner – and that can be quite poignant. But I think you need a few episodes behind you before you can that sort of thing.
And most sitcoms are fairly static . .
And actually I like that. I find the idea more appealing that essentially we don’t change, rather than that there are great moments in which we grow and our characters shift. Because I don’t think the fetish in the feature film makers – for showing people growing suddenly – rings that true for me. I think we do stay the same more or less. There are just very small incremental changes, maybe, but not great dramatic shifts.
It was (executive producer) Tim Firth’s idea of a good but cheap television drama. The theme was ‘trapped’, so we were told to go away and write an hour long drama in which someone was trapped. It was kind of a red rag to a bull for some writers, and so Jonathan Harvey did an episode called Von Trapped – rather undermining the theme by taking the piss out of it – about a Sound of Music obsessive who went to Salzburg. So my contribution was about someone trapped in an ugly body. Martin Clunes played an inbred toff who had a very weird, misshapen head. So it was a retelling of Beauty and the Beast really. I don’t know what I was trying to say, except that . .
Equal rights for people with misshapen heads?
Yes! That we should respect the terminally ugly. Martin was very good actually as a weird-looking toff with a nice house who falls in love with a young woman. So it was an odd, one-off thing.
You also did Tunnel of Love (2004) with Jack Dee, and then Open Wide (2005).
They were both ITV one-offs, all of them potential pilots for series. Open Wide’s about a guy who falls in love with his dentist’s assistant, and the only way he can get to see her again is by deliberately damaging his teeth and making more appointments with his sadistic dentist.
When tv did more one-offs it was like a training ground for movie writing, and also it was good to break up the relentless hour-long dramas. They do suffer from not having the kind of production values of a proper feature film, and you don’t get time for the actors to really get under the skin of the characters. I miss them now though. They tend to not do them, or do them only if they’re violent thrillers or police procedurals.
You’ve never done anything particularly horrific or gory have you?
No. I’ve written an Edwardian sitcom for Channel 4 which has come out a bit casually violent.
What’s it called?
At the moment it’s just called Edwardian Sitcom! It’s partly inspired by the fact that the 1908 Olympics were held in London – which is becoming topical again. And there was a lovely amateurishness about the events and the organization of it. It was seen as a very British sort of thing, for which a few Johnny foreigners turned up who were allowed to do the odd thing. But it was basically us just winning a nice hatful of medals and proving to ourselves why the globe was so pink. Snobbery is always funny, and that confidence Britain had in the middle and upper classes is great for sending up. It’s still in production, and we’ve tried to find some new faces for the cast.
Yes, that was a real joy. It looks great and was nicely directed. They filmed the whole thing on location in Corfu for a month, which gives it a nice sunny feel to it, which you certainly can’t get filming on a sunny day in Eastbourne. Mercifully they were able to do the proper thing. I’m not actually interested in wildlife in the way that Durrell is, so I did wonder how much I was going to have to work to capture the fascination.
Was it something you pitched to adapt? Again, it was something that had been adapted before.
I hadn’t read it. I was asked to do it. But it’s a lovely book, and quite rare for something like it to work, because it’s completely formless. It tends to seem like a fairly amorphous chain of events, so it became an attempt to capture the essence of family on screen. I’ve made many attempts, and most have failed, but I think that was a good stab at it.
You had a brush with Hollywood when you contributed to the animated movie Flushed Away (2006).
Well, if I’d been able to stand writing the same scene again, I would have had a full credit. I do have a hankering for America, and the feeling that I should put my energy into trying to have a career over there. This was supposed to be a fast tracked movie because of rivalry with Ratatouille, but, especially in animation, they really do labour over it. I was only there, with the family, for three months, but I must have written the same scene about ten times! I was never quite sure why. Quite rightly, a lot of power still goes to the people who actually draw it, so you’d write the scene, they’d take it away, but somehow it wouldn’t be right.
I wanted to talk to you about resurrecting Reggie Perrin with its creator David Nobbs. You’ve got something in common with him. Although he’d written for tv before, his first series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976) was an adaptation of his novel The Death of Reginald Perrin (1975).
Actually the three original series of Reggie Perrin were each preceded by novels. Leonard Rossiter (who took the lead in the original) insisted that David write a new novel prior to each series so that the tv version would have the same depth as the first one. He thought that was the key to the success of the first series. I remember reading the first novel and loving it.
It’s a beautifully written novel.
David Nobbs is a great novelist – and is perhaps now more of a novelist than a tv writer. Generally remakes aren’t thought of as a good idea, but again, it had been 30 years since the original had been on, and it’s just a joy to write something which has a great big meaty character at the heart of it, and is really about something.
I’m old enough to have seen the original series on transmission, and I remember it seeming startlingly new and fresh. I was ten, and everyone was saying Reggie Perrin catchphrases in the playground: ‘Toothbrush, CJ!’ But also, you were having these subjective elements of seeing Reggie’s thoughts, like, famously, the trotting hippopotamus whenever his mother-in-law was mentioned. And I don’t think that sort of thing had been done in a mainstream sitcom before.
But the richness and emotional depth of the material would have made a wonderful comedy drama feature, without the laughter track and sitcom format.
You may be right. One of the reasons I agreed to do it though was that movies are endlessly remade, but comedies rarely. And the punter in me wondered how that would come out. I did underestimate – and I know Martin Clunes (who plays Reggie in the remake) certainly did – the animosity it would bring in people that loved the original and thought that you shouldn’t remake much-loved old shows. But it was a very prescient series. I suppose it’s a midlife crisis project really, but we’re more even corporate now, and perhaps we’re more desperate.
We were talking earlier about the news that people seem to be having their midlife crisis earlier . .
Yes! And his midlife crisis came out in a shocking way. I think there’s a lot to say. It’s a sitcom about someone who’s actually desperate. Melancholy does underlie many of these shows – Steptoe and Son is probably the ultimate melancholy half-hour – but they’re riveting and funny for all that. There are elements in the new version of Reggie that don’t work, and David has volunteered that they don’t. It turned out that I did most of the writing myself – but without his blessing I wouldn’t have done it.
Are you following the original novels?
Sort of, yes. We have Grot in the second series, which I think is the best of the original ones. The idea of nonsense products and consumerism gone mad seemed a great theme. To come up with new characters and give it different clothes, when you’d essentially done the same as David seemed more dishonest, so I did think it was legitimate to take the original and update it. I wonder whether it was a mistake really, and whether perhaps we should be creating anew rather than looking backwards? But it’s hard to make a splash these days. I really do want people to watch something that I write. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was a known show, it was watched in large numbers, and I was getting a bit tired of writing things that I really loved, but few people watched.
Are there any other projects in the works? You mentioned a remake of Just William.
Yes. That’s coming out at Christmas. The sentimental side of me wants things to have a summery sort of aura about them, and to be about families. But I love Richmal Crompton’s books – that’s the short answer. They were books I read as a child and I thought I’d like to have a go at doing them. It’s meant for the BBC1 teatime slot, and they’ve done it rather well. Obviously, having written a wholesome family show, it often makes me want to do something really foul-mouthed. You can’t always tell from a my CV, which shows only things that get made, but I have done things that are certainly a bit more dark.
While I think of it, what about your work for the stage? Your translations of Molière and Dario Fo?
People asked me, and I was very delighted to do some translating. I loved being a translator in many ways. You arrive in the morning, and it’s already there for you.
Were you very faithful to the text, or do you start, in the light of being a television writer, wanting to restructure it in any way?
Every adaptation I’ve done, I’ve stuck quite closely to the original and I’ve been told I should cut loose a bit. So maybe I’ve got the message now and will start by being more free. But you know, I started as a novelist and I do still think you’ve got to have a very good reason to depart from what’s there on the page.
So what other works are there that you might like to do for the stage?
I really was a proper translator, so I suppose I’ve been rather sniffy about people who do ‘versions’, who get a basic translation and then just run amok. This isn’t answering your question really, but I’d rather do something I like as it is, and then just translate it well. I’m not a great fan of Molière particularly, and also most of his plays, apart from Don Juan, are in verse, and I’m not very good at rhyming. I remember being in an Ionesco play at college. I’m a very bad actor, but I do remember being intrigued by all those. Then there’s Anouilh . . .
So something more modern?
Well, I think we’re all aware that perhaps we need a break from Jane Austen and Dickens, and there are all those classic 20th century books, like My Family and Other Animals. Obviously you have to get the rights and get the heirs to agree, which can be tedious and time-consuming, but there are so many great novels of the last century which we might be doing rather than reaching further back into Hardy-land or Brontë-ville. Similarly in plays, I am interested in restoration comedy, but I don’t know why we feel we need to go that far back for our revivals when there’s so much more recent stuff that’s good, but not often seen.
What is the current climate like for tv writers?
It’s actually quite a good time. I mean, I know that there’s a recession and that the squeeze is only going to get tighter, but for comedy writers it’s not a bad time. Drama is where it’s difficult to get anything commissioned. But as with everything worth doing, the thing is to persevere.
(c) James Nye 2010
Simon Nye talks further about Just William in the Christmas 2010 edition of Radio Times. Just William was broadcast daily from 28th-31st December, 2010. Much of Simon’s work is available on DVD. Especially recommended are How Do You Want Me?, Wild West, The Railway Children, and My Family and Other Animals.