In May 2004, the creator of All That Jazz had the privilege of interviewing Steven Moffat about the stylish comedy, Joking Apart. So Neil Cooper decided it was also time to turn the tables on Craig and discover the background to his radio sitcom, All That Jazz. Here, he speaks exclusively about the series as he goes on record for the first time.
NEIL COOPER: What is All That Jazz about?
CRAIG ROBINS: It’s a quirky, modern-day parable of one man and his relationships with women, and how he unfairly blames them for all his problems. Inevitably, there’s a heavy undercurrent of sex. After all, writers are generally advised to stick to what they know... But I thought, what the Hell, and wrote about sex anyway.
NC: So you didn’t have many girlfriends when you were younger?
CR: Well, enough to keep up appearances, but I wouldn’t say I was exactly shagging for England! Especially, as Bennie [Craig's partner] is bound to read this...
NC: Did you base the lead character, Jazz, on yourself?
CR: Sure, in many ways Jazz is an exaggerated version of myself, but I could hardly give him all my faults else he would have driven the listeners mad. Having said that, I think he may still have done. But he’s also kind of engaging. Basically, he doesn’t want to grow up – he’s a big kid, which is exactly what Bennie's family said about me. They meant that in a nice way... I think!
NC: Is Jazz’s pessimism also an extension of yourself?
CR: No, if anything I tend to be ridiculously blasé. For Jazz, I played up the fact that some friends of mine had described me as the unluckiest guy they knew. I can’t say I ever paid much attention to the idea….At least, not until the night when of one of them used those terms to introduce me to a girl I fancied like mad. I certainly didn’t get lucky that night... In fact, my mate ended up going out with her, the git!
NC: Jazz also comes across as terribly sexist. Is that something you’re ever guilty of?
CR: You’d have to ask Bennie! I’ve been known to quote Robins’ Law of Women which, I guess, is pretty sexist: looks times niceness of personality equals a constant. I’d also add, if you discover one that exceeds the constant, you should marry her. But I can excuse myself for saying that as I was very much younger when I dreamt it up... Plus it happens to be absolutely true!
NC: You’ve said that Jazz is partly based on yourself but the show is so bizarre surely nothing else could have stemmed from your life?
CR: Oddly enough, some of it did. Most things have been thoroughly twisted and distorted beyond recognition, but then they had to be, because I can’t imagine the reality of my life would be of any interest to anyone. So, yes, some of it was vaguely real; other bits were what you might call surreal observational humour; and some of the characters weren’t just products of my imagination. Occasionally, real life events would even make it into the script, unchanged. I mean, I really did get did get drunk at the tender age of eighteen months on a bottle of eau de cologne I’d pinched from my mother’s dressing table! Not that I remember anything about it... Then again, I was paralytic! Maybe that’s why I’m teetotal now?
NC: One of the characters in the series is a nymphomaniac page 3 girl and former gymnast. Where did the idea for her come from?
CR: She’s kind of a combination of three of my exes, though like most things in the show, a very distorted version of reality. I tried to make sure that if any of them heard the sitcom, they’d wonder if Sonia was partly based on them. They were certainly all vain enough to believe it. I would have denied it, of course. I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted them to sue me! There was much speculation at the time amongst my friends as to the identity of the three girls, but no one ever guessed them all. Even my best mate only got two of the three, and he'd had one of them!
NC: You really went out with a page 3 girl?
CR: Like I said, it’s a distorted version of reality, so that’s stretching the truth. Oddly enough, and this is sheer co-incidence, I know a guy - Dominik Spitzer - who married a page 3 girl and his nickname is Jazz. Mind you, I have to say it’s co-incidence because I’m buggered if I’m paying him royalties! As for the nympho, she was real enough - frighteningly real, in fact. I was sixteen at the time and, whilst most sixteen year olds would give their right arm for that, she just scared the shit out of me! I just... I really didn’t know how to handle her, which you’ll find reflected in Jazz’s reactions. This irony is, of course, a few years later I would have begged for the chance – I just met her too early in life. You know, I also suspected this girl was a bit of a schizophrenic, which made her truly scary. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last long!
NC: Okay, so Sonia has some sort of basis in reality but does that justify making her a crude stereotype?
CR: She’s not a stereotype for the sake of it - there’s a very valid reason. Sonia is meant to represent every man’s fantasy, the kind of girl men would kill for. Yet look at the way Jazz sees her. In fact, if you remember, Jazz’s best mate even spells out this paradox.
NC: Something Sonia has in common with most of the other characters is that they are all very two-dimensional. Was there a reason for that or is that just your style?
CR: Are you trying to say I’m rubbish at characterisation? Damn, I thought I’d got away with it..! To be fair, I think I would be terrible at writing drama; I’m not that great at writing comedy..! It was very deliberate. I wanted the show... I wanted it to have a vaguely cartoon-like quality; to be somewhat surreal, where slightly far-fetched things can happen yet don’t seem out of place. In that respect, it’s a bit like One Foot in the Grave, although obviously not in the same league ‘cos David Renwick is just a genius. I wanted Jazz and his wife to seem like the only real people in the show, so everybody else necessarily became these vague caricatures, painted with the broadest of strokes.
NC: Radio 3? I didn't know they did comedy.
CR: Well, that's the point - they don't! Patterson remains the only sitcom they've ever broadcast and there's unlikely to be another. I was completely unaware of the unique story behind it for years until one day I got chatting with the show's producer, the late, great Geoffrey Perkins. He revealed that the series had actually had been commissioned for Radio 4 by the Head of Light Entertainment, David Hatch, much as you would have expected. Now he wouldn't be drawn into detail about precisely what went down or why but in the course of production, some unnamed person high up decided that it was not suitable for Radio 4 and effectively, that was that. Patterson was destined to moulder away in the archives for ever more, unheard and unloved, which would have been a travesty because it's truly inspired stuff.
NC: Fascinating! So how long did it take you to write?
CR: Oh, absolutely ages! If I’d been trying to make a living out of writing, I would have starved before I completed an episode. The first scene was actually written fully six years before the final one, as was the crucial scene that ends episode four.
CR: It does seem kind of crazy, doesn’t it? The trouble was, I went through a very black period of my life, and writing was the last thing on my mind for a good couple of years, really. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, I stumbled across the folder with all my notes in and I thought, hey, this isn’t bad. A little later, I was on the ‘phone to a girl I used to know called Becki Hope, and was sounding her out with some of the ideas, which, amazingly, had her in hysterics. Now I’d always had a knack for talking total bollocks and during another call to the same poor girl, I just started ad-libbing some rubbish about how the telephone had almost made me celibate... And I thought, I could use that in the sitcom! I scribbled down what I could remember as soon as I was off the ‘phone. I think this, more than anything, gave me the boost I needed to get off my arse and do something about it... So you've got Becki to thank for it... Or blame, depending on your point of view...
NC: So that was when you started writing in earnest?
CR: [laughs] No, there was another delay! Shortly afterwards, I changed jobs and moved to another town, so once again the sitcom took a back seat for a few months. Now this sounds totally bonkers, but I assure you it’s true: it was one in the morning on Christmas Day and I was letting my dog out in the garden before going to bed, and I just started talking to myself... I was suddenly being Harry. Don’t ask me why or where the lines came from, I couldn’t tell you, but if someone had come along the alley at that point, they would have thought I was mad! But I just knew that I had to write it all down. I think I ended up going to bed at about four after that... But that was it. I spent much of Christmas and the New Year, writing! As you can tell, I must have been truly sad!
NC: Was it difficult keeping your focus over such a long period of time?
CR: Not that I recall. The truth is, it was never far from my mind, and I’d be forever scribbling down the odd line... Mind you, the gap between writing the first scenes and the rest of the sitcom had a curious consequence. In the first draft, I’d abbreviated the lead character’s name to just his initials, J.A.S. But when I returned to it after such a long break, I couldn’t remember for the life of me what that stood for. And to this day, I still can’t. So J.A.S. mutated into Jazz.
NC: Why did you choose to write for radio when you worked in television?
CR: Stupidity, really! The reason for writing the sitcom was primarily to challenge myself, and to make that challenge harder, I opted to do it for radio. I love some of the things you can do with the medium, but with no visual gags and no audience to pad things out, you end up writing twice as many lines... Clearly a case of temporary insanity, because it turned out to be one of the toughest things I’ll ever do.
NC: The humour in the show is incredibly black, almost uncomfortable. Was there a reason for that?
CR: I’m just a fan of that style. One of my all time favourite sitcoms is Joking Apart. That show is based on the break-up of the writer’s own marriage which is about as dark as it gets, but it’s unbelievably funny. Most episodes ended in the most excruciatingly painful humiliation for the lead character, and you’d be crying with laughter.
NC: You mentioned Joking Apart, which starred Robert Bathurst. Is it true he nearly played the part of Jazz?
CR: Yes, which is very embarrassing! Both he and Steven Pacey were on our shortlist. As I remember it, it got to a stage where every role bar the lead had been cast. It is a hugely demanding part - he’s in every scene bar one - and radio doesn't pay well, so potentially it was always going to be a tricky part to fill. A couple of other actors, who were better known at the time, had already turned the part down, so the decision was taken to provisionally offer the role to both Steven and Robert, in the hope that one of them would agree. Steven's agent came back to us first, so he got the nod. Unfortunately, when the call was made to Robert's agent to say the part had been filled, it transpired that Robert had also been willing to do it. I did feel quite badly about it, and in retrospect, undoubtedly, it wasn't the best way to go about it.
NC: So you didn’t write the part of Jazz with anyone in mind?
CR: Not as far as I remember... A couple of the other characters, I did, though. The part of Harry was written for Danny Peacock so I was thrilled when he agreed to do it. He’s a writer as well as an actor, so I took that as a real compliment. I’ve always admired his work in The Comic Strip and the like, and he’s got one of those faces that makes me want to crack up. He could play Hamlet, and I’d laugh. Plus he’s got that unique, entertaining delivery of his.
NC: What would you be most proud of about All That Jazz?
CR: I’m not sure I should be proud of any of it. It was years before I dared play it to Bennie, in case it gave her the wrong idea about me! But if I had to choose one thing, I think it would be Harry, the priest. All of the other characters – and I would include Jazz in that – are nothing special, but Harry is just tremendous fun. Making Harry a priest is like employing a Dalek as a babysitter! Writing for him was an absolute joy, he’s just so immoral, and that made it incredibly easy – he almost wrote himself. Anything appalling you dreamt up, you could just give it to Harry and it was bound to be totally in character. At some point, I seriously contemplated giving Harry his own series where he would go from unsuitable job to unsuitable job, but by then I’d realised writing was too much like hard work, so it never happened.
NC: I thought Harry was inspired writing, but weren’t you worried about being accused of blasphemy?
CR: Oh, I knew I was on seriously dodgy ground but that just made it all the more exciting – you know, a bit like scrumping apples as a kid or playing knock-down ginger! Radio comedy had been stuck in a conservative time warp for years because the audience was predominantly middle-aged. So a skinhead yobbo of a priest with absolutely no interest in the Church was always liable to give some of them heart-attacks! I mean, at the time, it would have been pushing it on even on television which was considerably more liberal – bear in mind, this was pre Father Ted.
NC: What are you memories of the recording?
CR: If I answered that fully, you’d need to publish a book! It was certainly an enormous privilege to work with people I’ve long admired, like John Barron, Nick Courtney, Danny Peacock, Anthony Jackson... And it was somewhat bizarre to hear them speaking lines I’d written, but a massive thrill. It seems unfair to single out any of the actors, because they were all terrific, but I do remember being knocked out by Wendy van der Plank who played Sharon. She’d never done any radio before and was largely unknown, but she came close to stealing the show. She really threw herself into it and I thought she was hilarious... She was just great!
NC: Did you make any other appearances in the show?
CR: Oh, yes! Do you think I'd miss that opportunity? We probably breached Equity rules but I’m the voice on the tannoy in the underground in episode 2, the Dalek-like voice of the drinks machine in episode 3 and a DJ on the radio in the background in episode 4. Oh, and I also did the voice-overs on the titles, just for good measure!
NC: Usually sitcoms have a laughter track. Was it a conscious decision not to have one on All That Jazz?
CR: Actually, there was one; I just don’t think the audience realised it was supposed to be a comedy..! No, it was decided that laughter would get in the way and hinder the flow. The way the show is written demands pace, and it really wouldn’t have worked as well if the actors had needed to keep pausing.
NC: Do you have a favourite scene or episode?
CR: Blimey, that’s a tough one..! Er... I kind of like episode three as it was an attempt to do a farce in sound – an exercise in stupidity, if ever there were one... But my favourite episode would probably have to be episode six. There are some really sharp, vicious exchanges early on and the concept of the training course with Major Disney is just so daft it appeals to my sense of the ridiculous... And, like I said, John Barron as the Major was brilliance personified.
NC: Is there anything you would have done differently if you were writing it now?
CR: Oh God yes, probably most of it! The worst thing, without a doubt, was having a smattering of topical references: Margaret Thatcher, for instance. I was naïve - nothing dates a show faster than that. Mobile phones were portrayed as new fangled gadgets and the automatic ticket barriers on The Tube were also a novelty, whereas now we think of them as having been around forever. Anyone under twenty-five would think it was set on another planet!
NC: Have you any plans to write anything in the future?
CR: I always intended my crack at writing to be a one-off - you know, just to prove to myself I could do it - but the bug does kind of get you. So I do have a few other ideas, but God knows if I’ll ever develop them. It’s an amazingly tough job... And I know this sounds like a crap excuse but I really don’t have the time right now. Besides, when there are brilliant writers around like Steven Moffat, what’s the point? They’ll always be so much better than me...