IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BATHURST
Continuing our interview with the man behind Mark Taylor, Robert tells us about a typical week on Joking Apart, the curse of the stand-up and a possible reason why there was no third series.
JOKING APART.CO.UK: Some people believe that to play a part really well you have to put a lot of yourself into it. Was there anything of yourself in Mark Taylor?
ROBERT BATHURST: Yes and no. I never know enough about myself to know how much of me was in there. Of course, there are some primal instincts in there, which Steven [Moffat] writes very well, which, of course, I could understand. But, no, I never consciously invested any of myself in that part. They cast somebody who they think is right for the role, so there might be elements, certainly, but I don’t know. Luckily, I haven’t been through a divorce.
JA: As you rightly mentioned before, the pace builds and becomes manic. So how much rehearsal time did you have in order to get it so spot on?
RB: You get a week. You be expected to turn up Thursday morning off the book, as it were – knowing it….Ideally know most of it by Wednesday. So Tuesday, you’d just have the lines; Wednesday, you’d be starting to be free of it. Certainly, Wednesday night would be a long night, just pacing round the kitchen, making sure you knew it….And then Thursday, go in, knowing it. The technicians would come in on Friday, and the producer and everyone else. The technicians….you don’t worry about making them laugh because they’re only interested in the odd wanking gag. Then Saturday, there might be a bit of a rehearsal and if there’s anything very technical, you might have to go into the studio; and Sunday would be all day technical stuff. We’d record them on the Sunday, then have Monday off….So, effectively, you’d get Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to rehearse it, and tinker around with it on Friday.
But what was good about it was, the writing was solid. Steven would hardly want you to change a preposition, you know, and it’s very rare that you get writers who are like that. So often, in rubbish stuff, the director will say, “Well, the writing….it’s not set it stone. Kick it around and make it your own,” and then your heart sinks. What you want is for them to say, “This writer does not want a single word or bit of punctuation changed”.
JA: Absolutely. When he spoke to us, Steven was quite adamant about that.
RB: Yes, quite right. I like that; it’s good. If you can find a writer who’s like that, then there’s a reason that he’s like that. If you disagree with it, then there’s discussion, but I really think that the scripts he wrote for Joking Apart were really well written all the way through.
JA: Although the show was well written, it was the victim of some truly baffling scheduling by the BBC. That’s something, I imagine, that must have really irritated you?
RB: Yes, it was deeply frustrating. Apart from any delay after the pilot, there was a year after the recording of the first series before it went out. Then there was, I think, a year before we recorded a second series, and then, in ’94, it was rescheduled seven times, I seem to remember. Every so often, I’d get a call from the producer saying, it’s going out at this time. The publicity people would be alerted, then we’d get a call saying no, it’s not, it’s been put back. That happened six times, I think, altogether – seven reschedules in a year or so – which, for anybody, would be very, very frustrating.
It was extraordinary and inexplicable, and just one of these things that happen. I mean, a lot of shows are left on people’s desks and they hardly get seen, and Joking Apart was certainly one of those. Meanwhile, they were making about four series of The Brittas Empire, and you thought, “Bloody Hell! Come on, surely….?” To my mind, our show was a very superior product, and it upset me that other shows, which I, personally, felt were broader and less interesting, were getting precedence.
What’s more, Seinfeld also turned up, and there was a perception - which was always ill thought through - that it was about stand-up because of the stand-up stuff in it, which it never was. I think there was a comparison made in people’s minds with the two shows because it involved somebody standing over the microphone, when, in fact, the comparisons were pretty minimal.
JA: So, is this why, or so I’ve been told, that you are not so fond of the stand-up element of the show?
RB: Well, there’s that, plus it was a puzzle, because when we first did them, I said, “Well, what are these about?” I remember sitting there in the canteen at Acton Rehearsal Rooms and saying to Bob Spiers and Andre [Ptaszynski] and Steven, “Can you just tell me, is it in my head? Am I in a club? Am I a person who goes off and does stand-up? Is it imaginary or is it real?” And they said, “Well, hmmm…..Not absolutely sure! Tell you what, just do it, because we want something to drop into the studio audience.”
They wanted a link. Certainly, in the first series, it was a shorthand way of cutting to the narrative. So we recorded these things just to feed into the studio audience. They said, “Well, look, afterwards, we’ll re-shoot it how we think it should be, so well….er….just do them. Just do them for now.” And then, at the end of each series, their tune was the same – and I’ll never be persuaded like this again - they said, “Well, actually, it would save a lot of money if we just use the original.” And I should have said no, because what is it about? I didn’t know what I was doing when I was doing them. I just did them because they were going to be dropped into the studio audience. So, as a result, these things went out, and they set the tone….A tone, which gave the show the wrong emphasis. People would say, “Oh, that’s the show about the stand-up”, which was entirely wide of the mark.
JA: You’d now like to go back and redo these as a video diary, I’m led to believe.
RB: I had a thought a couple of years ago, which I got my agent to float. I said, “There’s a possibility of redoing them, with me, much older, talking about my callow youth and all the ghastliness that went on.” I’m now not convinced that that’s a good idea – I think that we should probably just leave the show and let it run as it is; let it be judged as it was, rather than try to re-touch it….But it would certainly take the curse of the stand-up off it.
JA: Do you understand why they never repeat the show?
RB: Well, no. As was pointed out, and it’s something I’ve been pointing out to Steven, they’ve paid for repeats of the second series and never shown them. When the show went out, of course, the [audience] figures, on a BBC 2 level were alright, but they were pretty minor. But I remember they had a thing called the AI – that’s the Appreciation Index – and the AI was great on it.
There was just a moment when we could have got Friday nights. They were talking in terms of putting it out at a decent time on a Friday evening, and I think it was The Brittas Empire that got in there, but I can’t quite remember. And I’m thinking, “Now look! That’s it, then....” because it was just at the point when it could have turned.
JA: Unbelievable! With proper scheduling the series could have been huge.
RB: Did I tell you about my last conversation with one of the BBC executives? It was at the Christmas party in ’93 and we were all queuing up like people before royalty to meet these executives. We’d recently shot the second series and we were happy with it, and he was happy with it. He said, “Okay, right, Joking Apart, yeah. What we do is, this Spring, we show the first series, followed by the second series, and in the summer, we’ll do the third series.” And he drew this little wavy graph with his hand – a sort of media graph – and with an upward flourish of his hand, he said, “I want the viewing figures to go like Everest!” All I said was, “But Everest goes down the other side,” and he cut me and never spoke to me again.
We didn’t go out that Summer; we didn’t go out that Autumn; we limped out the following January, a year and a bit later, and the rest is history. Considering the show was all about somebody who couldn’t resist one-liners, Steven said, at least we went out on a one-liner.
JA: What is it, in your opinion, that makes Joking Apart such a great series?
RB: I think it will sustain, in the sense that so many other shows have cultural reference points in them and they are the trigger laughs of that era….Political references, cultural references about entertainers or whatever….There’s none of that; it’s just pure situation comedy. The word ‘farce’ has been used in the pejorative by so many people, and when reviewing Joking Apart, a number of newspapers referred to farce as an art-form. They actually said it was good farce; it wasn’t used as a term of abuse. Of the twelve episodes we made, I think a good seven of them could be regarded as classic farces that will endure. That’s the reason why I loved it. It was pure, good, farcical comedy which actually made people laugh out loud.
There was one episode where I stuffed an avocado into Trevor’s face. Somebody said to me, “God, I was watching that!” His wife had divorced him and left him for another man, and the children were upstairs in bed. When I shoved that avocado in Trevor’s face, he was standing up in his living room, screaming and cheering so loudly that his children came running down, asking him, “Daddy, are you alright?” [laughs] So it had a very good effect on people like that.
JA: Aside from the writing, wouldn't you agree that the cast was absolutely perfect.
RB: In a sense, it’s not for me to judge, although I can be sort of objective about it now. I haven’t seen it for a long time, so I can’t really tell you, but all I know is that, at the time, the episodes themselves seemed to work, and when doing them – which is not a good yardstick to tell whether a show is any good or not, because the studios can be, often, a bit hysterical – but when doing them, the atmosphere was absolutely electric and fantastic and terrifying.
JA: Do you stay in touch with any of the other cast members?
RB: I do, yes. Fiona has just produced a short film with her husband, which I did a bit on. Tracie, I speak to every now and again. Paul, I see occasionally. Paul is doing lots of theatre and he’s now a Doctor. He’s got an LLB in law and did his doctorate in legal history, and he occasionally comes up on the Today programme as a sort of rent-a-quote lawyer.
JA: So he went the route that you never did….RB: Well, sure. Yes, absolutely. He studied law as well at university….And I saw Paul-Mark Elliott the other day. He seemed well and is doing stuff. So, yes, I do. And we are all, you might say, fellow-sufferers. The show, in a sense, is unfinished business, because it was never really seen – it was never given a good whack – and so we sort of share that frustration.
IN PART 3: The truth behind Robert's nude scenes in Joking Apart