Mr Flibble Talks To... Connecting the Dots
Comedy Connections producer Toby Stevens and director Angus McIntyre join Mr Flibble to chart the making of their Red Dwarf special.
27 August, 2004
Comedy Connections
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Interviewing two people is a tricky business - especially for a mute penguin with a highly-developed sense of self-interest. We start with how the Comedy Connections CONCEPT came about...

TOBY: I wish I could tell you that someone awoke, startled, in the middle of the night with a burning desire to link together the careers of British TV comedy stalwarts by wrapping everything up in some snazzy graphics. But it was a slow, stumbling journey from an idea first spoken in a development meeting. It wouldn't quite work at first. Eventually we focussed it on a single career - and the tube map metaphor started to serve us well as we developed the idea. We traced the career of, say, Ronnie Barker as the map's Central Line and the stations were the shows he'd been involved in.

Lucy Bacon, who had the first idea, a researcher called Laura Keenan and I did a lot of work at that stage and finally constructed a little map with Ronnie Barker as the straight line running through the centre of the page and his working relationship with David Jason weaving in and out from time to time. It was then pitched to BBC One. When it was finally commissioned we did the extra work that moved it from being a good idea to being a plausible 30-minute programme. I worked with a director called Graeme Hart to set a style for the show's interviews and we tidied up the looser ends in the concept, decided to make a single sitcom the focus of each individual programme and plumped for the group of comedies that comprised that first series. And our noble efforts began in the glamorous surroundings of a BBC Scotland Portakabin.

What are the aims of the programme?

We try to trace the roots and the legacies of a TV comedy. In practical terms that means we're doing a little bit of 'before they were famous', followed by 'the making of a famous sitcom' and wrapping it all up with 'where are they now?' - three separate half-hour shows shoehorned into one 30-minute slot where, clearly, it shouldn't fit. But that mix of elements has come about as a consequence of pursuing the connections of the show's title.

We noticed that it's very rare to find a successful comedy where everyone involved is new to everyone else. Invariably the writers have worked before with the producer, or the producer with the actors, or in the case of Red Dwarf most people's paths have crossed professionally one way or another. And if you look hard enough what seems to emerge is that, like painters and composers, TV people usually work themselves step-by-step towards their best work. The best creative output often has a genealogy, and if you look carefully at earlier work traces of the elements that went to make up the most memorable work are detectable.

We also made an early decision to interview insiders only - and the people who really have the inside story are the writers, directors and producers. Actors are interesting, but they're not often as integral to a show's genesis as the writers. They don't see the project through from start to finish like the producers. So we made a policy decision that without interviews with and help from the writers we wouldn't make the show. Then we found that the actors were as far away from the central story as we wanted to get. That means we've steered clear of 'commentators'. So Comedy Connections is the inside story, from the insiders.

Mr Flibble sneered - he wasn't interviewed, and he has all the dirt on the cast. Including what one of them did with a live rabbit and some lettuce. (Fed the rabbit. Actually not much of a story there.) I believe RED DWARF was on the CC wish list right from the start...?

There are lots of reasons to start looking at a series as a potential subject for Comedy Connections and Red Dwarf pretty much has them all. It's got connections aplenty with Rob and Doug having written for Paul Jackson from early on, the involvement of Rob, Doug and Chris Barrie in Spitting Image and the work Paul had done with Craig Charles and Norman Lovett; it's a triumph of will on Rob and Doug's part to finally get it commissioned after the BBC missed its potential again and again and again; there are lovely stories about the actors who nearly got the parts; there are cast changes once the show was up and running; and on top of that the show is massively successful and hugely popular.

When I went to London to pitch the second series to BBC One I'd already been in contact with Doug's agent to make sure that it was possible, in principle, to feature the show in series two. It feels like it's been a long time coming, so we hope we've done it justice.

ANGUS: Red Dwarf was always going to be a favourite because of its popularity and also because of its pre and post-Dwarf connections. I think before we did any research we all knew that Craig Charles went on to become Mr Robot Wars and that Chris Barrie was Mr Brittas at some point. As well as that we were vaguely aware that the writers had been involved in Spitting Image...

It was interesting for me to make this programme as I hadn't watched Red Dwarf when it was first aired except occasionally at friends' houses en route to the pub, and had never really progressed beyond the "Why's that guy got an H on his head?" stage. So the first thing for me to do was order up vast quantities of Red Dwarf from the BBC archives and sit down and try and become a Dwarfie in a couple of weeks... which of course isn't really possible - but I did try!

Then the next stage is to invite all the main people involved in Red Dwarf to be interviewed. Then we start tracing connections between cast and writers and uncovering pre-Dwarf archive. At this stage you are very aware that 30 minutes isn't really enough time to do Red Dwarf justice.

TOBY: You can never include everything you want to include in a half-hour Comedy Connections. We try to do more than skim the surface, but time restraints mean that sometimes we have to ignore subtlety and nuance to get the headline point across. That's a pretty useful metaphor. Comedy Connections is a little bit like reading nothing much more than the headlines in a newspaper - you get the general idea of what happened. But because it's half an hour we can only go into depth and detail in a few places. We know there's more to say, and alternative versions of the story to tell, and interesting things we're passing over, or all but ignoring, and we always have to leave shows off the graphic timelines that people have appeared in, written or produced.

In the case of Red Dwarf that restriction was enormously frustrating because we got interviews with everyone we wanted to feature. It's hard, as you can imagine, to have to ruthlessly gut a Rob Grant interview, to have to cherry-pick from the cultured musings of Doug Naylor, ignore Paul Jackson pin-pointing yet another salient point, to have to leave out Craig Charles at his most charming, Robert Llewellyn being urbane, Hattie being wonderfully self-deprecating, ChloË's latecomer's perspective, Danny being frank or Norman being Norman. And it would be lovely to have the time and space to have included a section of Dave Hollins from Son of Cliché on the radio, or to have popped in a bit of The Strangerers or the Tomb Raider movie. It would also have been great to go into more detail about the progress on the Red Dwarf movie. But time and money are our masters - and they're hard bastards.

What's the INTERVIEW process like - and how do the cast members differ in their approaches and responses?

ANGUS: One thing became clear to me fairly quickly was that the real-life actors' personalities weren't a million miles away from their Red Dwarf characters. In fact I'd go as far as to say they were fairly close... so obviously I had to ask them about this. They all tended to agree. Was it just good casting or were the writers taking notes?

During most of the interviews it was difficult not to laugh because they are all naturally funny people: Chris doing his impressions of the cast; Norman with his unique dry delivery; and when Robert slips into Kryten it is impossible not to lose it. As for non-cast: the writers' stories were worth a programme in itself, and producer Paul Jackson was your archetypal busy executive. I had travelled all the way to LA to interview him in his office - I was also interviewing him about the Young Ones for one of the other programmes in the series - and when I got there he told me that I had to cut the interview in half. "Something's come up Angus, sorry". Fortunately he's a bit like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction - he thinks fast and he talks fast, and so we managed to get through the two interviews in record time!

Mr Flibble began burbling about how he'd come within a feather of playing Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, but nobody was listening. You've had almost unprecedented CO-OPERATION from the makers of the programmes concerned - why do you think you've done so well at getting interviews with so many significant players?

TOBY: It sounds a bit facetious, but I think writing polite letters helps us a lot. We start, wherever we can, with the writers, producers and directors. There are a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, they're the ones who are really in the know and secondly they're featured far less often. This means they can be hard to persuade - they're seldom relaxed in front of camera when their business is behind it - but we're all so much more media literate now that at 10:30 on BBC One I think we can handle hearing from a hugely successful but seldom seen TV writer or producer about how they do what they do. As an audience we're probably more aware of their contribution now than we've ever been, theoretically if not practically.

Additional features on DVDs, directors' commentaries and behind the scenes books have opened up our knowledge of the contribution made by the crew. And there's something about asking a writer in the right way that can overcome that initial reluctance and begin to make them quite look forward to talking about their craft and graft. Once you've got the writers and producers on board, I think word travels and the actors tend to see your project as having a certain quality. You wouldn't search out the thoughts and opinions of the writers, producers and directors if you weren't serious about what you were doing - and that seems to go in our favour. It's been easier for series two because people we approach have seen, or can be sent, an example of the show. But people still say no to us, of course.

Has it been logistically difficult?

Sometimes, for a whole variety of reasons, people can't or won't be interviewed. That can give us a problem. For instance, our production period for series two coincided with Doug Naylor's trip to Australia to progress the Red Dwarf movie. We thought about going out there, just for his interview, but he was doing a lot of moving around and his timetable wasn't fixed. Then he was coming back in March, then April and eventually we found ourselves going into the edit without his contribution. But in that instance we were really fortunate and circumstances conspired, along with some hard work by GNP and ourselves, to mean that we picked up an interview with Doug and were able to include him in the show.

Then there are the diametrically opposed versions of the same story from two different people. We film the interviews and discover that certain incidents are remembered in differing ways by people who were working closely together. That can be tricky and often very confusing. But on the whole we find people are only too happy to help. And we try hard not to destroy that goodwill. In the process of making this series we talk to a lot of people who are very powerful in the television industry. We have to maintain a good reputation if those people are going to continue to help us.

You obviously have some impressive RESEARCHERS - tell us about some of the non-Dwarf clips you've uncovered...

ANGUS: Naturally, we have a first-rate team here at Comedy Connections HQ - but sometimes the best research comes straight from the source. During the interview Robert Llewellyn pleaded with us NOT to show a clip of an early Channel 4 programme that he had co-written, co-produced, and co-starred in called The Corner House which he described as "a sit-com without any 'com' and not much 'sit' - and not very interesting 'sit'!" Of course, we had to include it in the final programme!

As well as Craig Charles in cricket whites on Wogan, there's some great footage of the versatile Chris Barrie on Carrott's Lib playing three labour politicians at once. However, the one that always makes me laugh is Danny John-Jules as Barrington in Maid Marian and her Merry Men.

I guess everyone has to become a bit of an overnight Dwarf expert...!

TOBY: What's counter-intuitive is that it's sometimes useful if you have people involved who know nothing, or little, about the show. Then if the story, or point you're making doesn't make sense to them you know you haven't got it right. It's very easy to assume a basic level of knowledge in every viewer, but we have to be aware that we're making Comedy Connections for the first-timer as much as for the die-hard fan. So it's useful to have representatives of both groups involved in the show in some way - just to keep us right.

Of course what happens if we get our job right is that the Red Dwarf virgin says 'I never thought I'd like that sitcom, but I'm off to get the DVDs'. We got a letter from Graeme Garden when the Comedy Connections about The Goodies went out saying that their DVD The Goodies - At Last had gone up to number 7 in the Amazon DVD chart the week after the broadcast. We should get on to BBC Worldwide sales and agree some sort of cut on the sales increase!

What have you learnt from doing Comedy Connections?

Comedy is a serious business. Even making a bad or unsuccessful sitcom is hard, soul-destroying, life-sapping, back-breaking work. So your chances of making a good one are practically nil.

The best writers, producers, directors and actors give themselves the very best chance of success. It all starts with the script. If that's not good and funny you may as well give up and go home. Then the casting needs to be right. Sydney Lotterby, the director of many of our best sitcoms, said in interview 'if you've got a great script and great actors then your job as a director is to not get in the way.' Sounds simple enough, but the evidence suggests that it's a lot harder to do than it first appears.

Most of the people involved in successful comedies are very analytical, bordering on the self-critical.

Sustained success in comedy is never an accident.

Rain on a Portakabin roof sounds like gravel being dropped on a snare drum.

What shows have been on the 'wish list' that you've yet to explore?

We've been commissioned for a third series and we're looking at some sketch shows. None of the featured programmes are confirmed yet, though, so at this stage, no names. I'd dearly love to be able to think of a way of featuring shows where the writers, producers or stars are dead and so an interview is out of the question. Making a Comedy Connections about Hancock's Half Hour would be fabulous, but who could we interview other than Galton and Simpson - and would they be enough on their own? Similarly, can we do Yes Minister without Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington? 'Til Death Us Do Part without Johnny Speight, or Up Pompeii without Frankie Howerd and Talbot Rothwell? There must be a way, it just hasn't quite come to us yet.

American Comedy Connections would be terrific - Cheers/Frasier, M*A*S*H, Taxi, Seinfeld, Police Squad, and so on. The costs would be astronomical, so we're not stocking up on business cards quite yet, but if we make it to Hollywood we'll be sure to send you a postcard.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Toby and Angus, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble's very cross.