I often get asked how I got into writing for television. 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 project in Shoreham-by-Sea. It was a large, converted barn where we kept teenagers, often in ‘special groups’ active and entertained with arts, crafts, music and performance workshops. We did a lot with improvisation and put on shows, which is a great way to instil confidence in young people. ‘The Barn’ had been always fun and vibrant and I’d been attending the place since I was 14.
Sadly, after a couple of years, the politics in the place went bad, and so a handful of us workers left and formed Dr. Kack’s Infamous Freak Show, a touring theatre company which played at rural fairs in the summer months and in rooms above pubs in the winter. Quite early on, we changed the company’s name to Cliffhanger, deciding it was catchier and easier to remember.
The group consisted of Peter McCarthy, Rebecca Stevens, Tony Haase and me. A few others came and went over the years but we four formed its core. (I took a couple of years out to work as a hotel waiter in Eastbourne before getting sacked for displaying my gymnastic skills during breakfast service.)
We started by writing and performing comedies in rooms above pubs in Brighton, charging something like three quid a head. As our shows started life as six-part-serials, each show ending with a cliff-hanger, audience’s had to turn up every week to see what happened next. Eventually, we would edit the serial down to a single two-hour show, then tour it the length and breadth of Britain for the rest of the year, ending up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We performed there for at least twelve years, on and off, playing larger and larger venues each time.
At the start of our careers, we’d been lucky to receive Art’s Council and Regional Arts funding. This was public money split between theatre productions, opera, ballet and art galleries. Grants were also awarded to smaller theatre productions as well as performance venues nationwide. Our company was classed as a ‘medium-scale touring company’ which qualified us for smaller grants to tour and perform in pubs, community centres and at outdoor festivals. We also did a lot of street theatre at that time. It wasn’t long, though, before we were able to earn a living all-year-round without arts subsidies. For, as our popularity grew, we found ourselves being booked to play much larger venues, both here and abroad. The Edinburgh Fringe festival acted as a showcase for companies like ours and was where we received offers to tour Europe, Australia and the USA, a few of which we took up.
It was while playing at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms that Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones came along to see a show (and laughed themselves stupid, obviously). They liked that our comedies toured with professional sets, lighting and special effects, not something companies as small as ours did at the time. Mel and Griff introduced us to their agent at the time, Pete Brown, and we were asked to write for their new TV show, Not the Nine O-clock News, with co-stars Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stevenson. We wrote a handful of sketches for the foursome but none made it to the screen.
Later, when Mel and Griff formed a duo for Alas Smith & Jones, we had better success, and even appeared in several supporting roles.
Eventually, we found ourselves touring Britain, Europe and Australia around writing and performing comedy for television. They were hectic times though lots of fun!
Near the end of 1989, I joined Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Blackadder etc.) to co-write Mr. Bean for Thames Television; a dream job that kept me busy, alongside other work, for 25 years. Early on, Richard became very busy running his Comic Relief charity, which left me writing the majority of the show’s material.
Throughout those years, I also wrote and/or performed for several other comedies. I popped up as The Great Ramondo in Only Fools and Horses’ The Jolly Boy’s Outing, for example. I made character appearances 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. 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, by the way, was written by Cliffhanger members, Pete McCarthy, Rebecca Stevens and Tony Haase. For that one I just threw on a costume and joined in for the hell of it.
Eventually, as much as I enjoyed performing, I found scriptwriting much less stressful and so took it up full-time. And so now, after thirty-something years in comedy, I’m writing mystery thrillers. They’re the kind of books I like to read, though I can’t help peppering mine with humour. Old habits and all that!