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!
      In the past, I was often accused of not taking things seriously enough, opting for a smart answer instead, which is precisely what Jazz does. At my worst, I couldn’t open my mouth without being flippant. Trust me, that’s intensely irritating to be on the receiving end of, just like trying to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak your language.
      Another thing I used to suffer from was this compulsive need to do something – anything – when something in my life was going wrong. I couldn’t stand that feeling of powerlessness, of doing nothing, so I would end up doing something very stupid and totally inappropriate, when the best thing would have been to leave well alone. If I had done, it probably would have resolved itself quite happily. But no, I’d have to interfere and balls it up, which, I know, cost me dearly. Sadly, I had to learn the hard way, but Jazz hasn’t yet heeded that lesson.

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!
      Actually, I tend to dislike any form of extreme attitude and I regard both sexism and feminism as just that. By making Jazz blame women for everything, I knew it would rile the feminists, but, at the same time, would hopefully show up his attitude for what it was. And the ending would have pissed off both camps.
      Of course, not everyone got it... Usually the very people who should have known better – the people I thought knew me. I lost track of the number of times I was asked if I believed in the nonsense Jazz was spouting. I... just found it staggering. In the end, I got so bored I’d just say, yes, which usually left them speechless. I’m sure some people were convinced I'm a total misogynist!
      What they failed to appreciate was this is a comedy, not a drama; it was never meant to be taken seriously. They couldn’t understand how I could write it unless I believed it, whereas the reality was that the things that Jazz and his cronies espoused were the antithesis of everything I hold dear – that was why I found them repellently funny. God knows, it was so over-the-top, I never... I couldn’t see how anyone could think I meant it. Let’s face it, over the course of the series, I put Jazz through absolute Hell. I mean, his entire life falls apart and it’s largely his own fault. That's hardly an endorsement of his views.

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!
      The gymnast girl was definitely a lot more fun, though. By the time I went out with her, she’d given it up, because as her chest had developed it had given her a balance problem... Or so she told me... Which is the very reason Sonia cites for taking up modelling.

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.
      I was also heavily influenced by another sitcom called Patterson which was written by the brilliant Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby. The same is true of that. Indeed, All That Jazz really started life as an homage to that series. It's a wonderfully whimsical romp which deserves to be much better known but unfortunately it was buried on Radio 3.

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.
      Thankfully, the Controller of Radio 3 stepped in and saved the day. He positively jumped at the chance of having something of this quality for his own station. Now I can't even begin to imagine what strings he had to pull to make it happen but I'll always be grateful that he did. Ironically, I probably wouldn't have caught it at all if it had it gone out on Four as planned and who knows, maybe Jazz would never have happened either? At the very least, it would have turned out differently.

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.

NC: Incredible! Why the delay?

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!
      Well, having spent about three weeks writing the first episode, I felt I needed to take stock and figure out how to sensibly divide the plot I had in my head into episodes. I may not excel at writing but I’m a master of procrastination! The problem with a serial is that not only does the story have to carry on from episode to episode but each part has to end at what feels a natural point. So it wasn’t until June that I started the second episode. In fact, I wrote three episodes in six weeks. After that, there was another long pause before finally rattling off the last three in another six-week frenzy in November and December.
      So overall, it was a very long and drawn out gestation period but I was amazed how fast I could write when I really knuckled down to it. Bear in mind, I was also working full-time in television while doing this.

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.
      I love comedy like that - where you laugh because the characters are in a hole and are squirming in embarrassment. I think that has a kind of universal appeal. I mean, we’ve all been in situations ourselves where we just want the ground to open and swallow us up, yet later, we recount the tale and laugh as loudly as anyone.
      And I love what I call confrontational humour; the comedy of conflict. There’s some of that in Joking Apart too, but perhaps the best example I can think of is Married With Children. Everyone in that series hated everyone else, which led to some classic, nasty one-liners. Being team-written, some of the episodes were very poor, but, at its best, it was superb.
      So it’s not surprising that All That Jazz feels uncomfortable in places. It was meant to - that was one of my aims. I wanted to write something edgy and bordering on bad taste... To be deliberately provocative... Something a million miles from twee bollocks like Terry and June or No Place Like Home. It certainly wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. I mean, my mother wanted to disown me! You either love it or you hate it - there’s no middle ground – which is fine by me. I’d rather write a show that some people hate rather than something bland which washes over you without leaving any impression whatsoever. When you put so much effort into writing something, you want it to be noticed.

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.
      The other person I wrote for was the late John Barron – he was another actor his with own unique style. I’d created a character who’s totally bombastic, very over the top, and I knew that if John played him as he had CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, it would work perfectly. I can't tell you how delighted I was to have him involved, especially as he had also been in Patterson. He actually asked me if I’d mind if he changed a few words here and there to tailor it absolutely to his style. Some writers might have been insulted but I was honoured that he took the trouble. Even more amazing, he was, at the time, performing in An Inspector Calls on stage in Leeds, yet he still came down to London on the train to play this little cameo, before heading back to perform in Leeds that night. So he must have really wanted to play the part!
      Something that struck me about John was how frail he looked – he walked in with the aid of a stick. But put him in front of that microphone and he came to life. I don’t know where that incredible energy came from. It’s a memory that will stay with me. Sadly, he died earlier this month [July 2004], which is a tremendous loss to the industry....But I think his performance in Reggie Perrin will live forever.

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.
      You know, I have to confess to being a bit crafty. [laughs] I put in stuff that I knew I didn’t have a chance in Hell of getting away with, so that if I was asked to tone it down, I could still keep in other stuff I really wanted. Amazingly, one speech, where Harry talks about his highly suspect method of contraception, nearly slipped through. We actually recorded it, but it was edited out of the final programme. I have a copy of the unexpurgated version and it’s guaranteed to make any woman wince! [laughs] I mean, it makes most men wince!

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!
      I also recall we made a hell of a mess of the studio. We needed some sound effects of punches and someone helpfully suggested that hitting a cabbage with a cricket bat would give us a larger than life sound. What they neglected to mention was that the cabbage would disintegrate into thousands of tiny pieces and cover the entire studio floor. The studio manager was aghast, especially when we went for a second take. It took us forever to clean up and I reckon there are still a few pieces lurking in various nooks and crannies even now.
      The script also called for a couple of crowd scenes. We needed an angry bunch of commuters and a pack of paparazzi converging on this gorgeous page 3 girl. So we got anybody we could find, the production team, the studio staff, anyone, and told them to ad-lib. The only trouble was, they took the instruction to get animated as a cue to start swearing. This made editing really tough because most of the stuff that we recorded was totally unbroadcastable. And guess who was the worst culprit? [laughs] In the final version of the underground scene, I swear I can hear myself shouting “wanker!”

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.
      And it had another advantage – it allowed us to use a revolutionary production technique. For donkey’s years, radio comedy and drama had been recorded as live, with all the music and sound effects being played in as the actors spoke their lines. The entire studio output was recorded to quarter-inch tape and if anything wasn’t right, they’d do another take and just splice them together. In days of old, this was the only way of doing it, and they stuck with it down the years, even though some of the edits were glaringly obvious. By today’s standards, the tape hiss would also be unacceptable.
      As All That Jazz was one of the first independent productions, we were able to do things our own way. With the advent of digital recording, we knew we could improve on the traditional method, so we opted to record all the dialogue without any effects onto Digital Audio Tape. They were all added later, using a digital editing system called Audiofile, which gave us the maximum control over the finished programme. This method wouldn’t have been possible if the dialogue was covered with laughter. We were actually ahead of our time, because a lot of radio production is done this way nowadays, but using computers instead of Audiofile.

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.
      Favourite scene... Possibly the pivotal one that ends episode four where Jazz and Annette are arguing and trading one-liners... Or, I don’t know... Probably, the restaurant scene in episode five. That’s wonderfully silly and builds to a frantic climax. Anthony Jackson gave the waiter this hilarious cod French accent and the music in the background is just so inappropriate. I should add that my script didn’t actually call for any music, so I can’t take the credit for that.

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!
      Also, I do consider that the show gets better as it goes on, as I am able to build on the mythology I’ve created and the helter-skelter of Jazz’s life spirals out of control, so in comparison, the opening fifteen minutes are far too slow. I would probably have lost half the listeners before it got going.
      And, in retrospect, I’m really not that keen on episode two; it’s definitely the weakest of the series. It was very much an afterthought and I should have dismissed it. There were only meant to be six episodes, but I came up with this self-contained idea of a typical day’s commuting for Jazz. Although it reinforces the idea that Jazz lives a million miles from his work, it doesn’t advance the plot one iota. That was a mistake. If I hadn’t lost the listeners in the first episode, chances are I would have done at this point... Which is a pity. If they’d hung around for another episode, they might have thought differently as the plot finally starts to gather pace and eventually leaves you breathless.

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...