I often get asked how I got into television and why I switched to writing books.
Well, deep breath, and I hope you’re sitting comfortably…
I left Worthing Art college in 1973 and went to work at a Community Arts Workshop in Shoreham-by-Sea where we kept teenagers, often in ‘special’ groups active and entertained with arts, crafts and performance; improvisation, mainly.
The politics in the place went bad after a couple of years and a handful of us workers found ourselves out on our ears. So we formed a theatre company called ‘Dr. Kack’s Infamous Freak Show’ and toured rural fairs in the summer. A quirky and fun name for the group but not a very catchy one. A short time later we changed it to ‘Cliffhanger Theatre Company‘, which consisted of Peter McCarthy, Rebecca Stevens, Tony Haase and me.
A few other actor/performers joined and left the company from time-to-time (I took a couple of years out as a hotel waiter in Eastbourne and then a few months on maternity leave!) but for the most part it was the four of us.
Cliffhanger began by performing comedies in rooms above pubs in Brighton, charging three quid a ticket. We were onto a winner because most of our shows started life as serials, each show ending with a cliff-hanger.
Audience’s just had to keep coming back to see what happened next. Then we’d edit the shows together to create two-hour performances, and tour the length and breadth of Britain for the rest of the year, ending at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We performed there for about twelve years, on and off, playing larger and larger venues each time. The Edinburgh Fringe acted as a showcase for companies like ours and we’d be offered tours across Europe, Australia and the USA, a few of which we took up.
When we started out, we were lucky enough to receive Art’s Council and Regional Arts funding. This was public money split between opera, ballet, galleries and large and small theatre productions nationwide. Our company was classed as a ‘medium scale touring company’ and we received smaller grants to zigzag up and down the country performing in pubs, clubs, arts and community centres. Not much later, we were able to earn a living without arts subsidies as we graduated to performing in larger spaces; small theatre venues then civic theatres.
Early on, at the Edinburgh Fringe, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones came to see one of our shows (and laughed themselves sick, obviously). They liked that our comedies toured with professional sets, lighting and special effects, something not many small touring companies did back then.
Anyway, Mel and Griff gave us their agent, Pete Brown, and asked us if we’d write for their TV show, Not the Nine O-clock News, starring themselves, Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stevenson. We wrote a handful of sketches for them but none of our efforts got used, as I recall; I suppose we were young and inexperienced at writing for television at that time. But when Mel and Griff later teamed-up as a duo in ‘Alas Smith & Jones’, we all had more success writing for it. We even took on supporting roles in the show. As time went by, we found ourselves touring Britain, Europe and Australia alongside writing and performing comedy for TV.
Much later, I was asked to join Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Blackadder etc.) in co-writing Mr Bean for Thames Television. They’d commissioned twelve writers to come up with scripts for the series but it seemed I was the only writer that ‘got’ the character (their words.) So, that was the start of a dream job that kept me busy, along with other work, for 25 years. Early on, Richard Curtis found himself very busy running Comic Relief, which left me writing the majority of the show.
Looking back, I feel privileged and grateful to Rowan and Richard for giving me that opportunity. Over those twenty-odd years, I wrote and/or performed for several other shows. I was The Great Ramondo in ‘Only Fools and Horses’ The Jolly Boy’s Outing’, for example. I appeared in Waiting for God, Dear John, Sitting Pretty, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, The Fast Show, Mr Majeika, Alexi Sayle’s Stuff, Mornin’ Sarge, Wilderness Road. Friday Night Live, and more. I really can’t remember them all.
Cameo film performances included, The Tall Guy, and Morons from Outer Space. I co-wrote Bean, the Disaster Movie with Richard Curtis and am credited as co-writer on Mr Bean’s Holiday. The Mornin’ Sarge series was written by Cliffhanger’s, Pete McCarthy, Rebecca Stevens and Tony Haase. I put on a costume and joined in for the hell of it.
Eventually, as much as I enjoyed performing, I found writing much less stressful; I’d always been pretty terrible at learning lines, sometimes embarrassingly so, and so I took up scriptwriting full-time. And why am I now writing books? Honestly? After thirty-odd years I fancied a change and do something all for myself. So here I am, it’s official – I’m an author writing mystery thrillers with funny bits.