IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVEN MOFFAT (part 1)
In May 2004, the writer of Joking Apart, Steven Moffat, generously found time to talk to us. As you might expect, Steven is both articulate and informative. He could have kept us entertained for days and still not exhausted all the possibilities, so we kept the discussion principally focussed on Joking Apart. Nevertheless, our conversation was still too lengthy to publish here in one hit, so we've serialised it in five parts. Here's part one, which covers, amongst other things, how Steven got started, reviews and his influences.
JOKING APART.CO.UK: Did you always want to be a writer?
SM: Yes, that was pretty much my only ambition when I was young.
JA: But I believe you started off as a teacher….That’s quite a leap to successful sitcom writer.
SM: You’ll find most writers have been teachers at some point. When you’ve an arts degree, there’s not a lot else you can do that easily - that’s all you’re really qualified to do, quite honestly!
JA: So how did you make that transition?
SM: It’s quite a long story and I’ve told it too many times but very, very briefly, I’d been trying to get various things off the ground, then I got a shot at doing a children’s telly series called Press Gang, and the moment I got that shot, I quit the job & concentrated on that. It was quite involved because my father’s primary school was being used for Highway, which is a Harry Secombe show from quite a few years ago. While the production team were there, he was talking about this education kit he was working on which was based on a school newspaper, and said he thought it would be a good idea for a television series. The producer agreed and the producer’s girlfriend, who was Sandra Hastie, got in touch with my dad to buy the rights….But she didn’t have any money, she couldn’t buy them…..And he said, well you can go and develop it but you’ve got to give my son, who’s an aspiring writer, a shot at doing the first script - for no money, obviously – which was an easy thing for her to agree to because she fully intended to not commission me….But as it worked out, she really liked the script so I ended up doing the series.
JA: So it was quite a lucky break.
SM: It you don’t count all the unlucky breaks, yes! I had been trying for quite a while and by that stage I was pretty good, so I found I was able to impress them. It’s all the writing you do before the script that gets you through, that makes the difference.
JA: How old were you when this happened?
SM: I must have been 24 or 25.
JA: Do you remember how you felt seeing your first show go out on television? Was it akin to losing your virginity?
SM: Yes, it was quite exciting. I remember watching it dozens of times afterwards on tape. It was a long time ago, it must have been, what, ’88? Yes, it was very exciting. Everyone phoned me after the first episode; no one ever phones me now! Yes, that was a big deal….That was a very big deal, in fact - it was huge….
JA: If there was some luck involved, you certainly made the most of it – the series you’ve written have won acclaim or awards or both. It must be a hell of a burden trying to maintain that standard.
SM: You’ve conveniently forgotten Chalk, there, which won neither acclaim nor awards! That’s not what you think at the beginning when you’re coming up with something new....and it’s high time I did! Then, you’re thinking, “Am I getting it on?” That is the big, exciting part, if somebody actually says, yes, and you start to make a show. You start worrying about acclaim and awards later. But at the beginning it’s quite literally, “What am I going to do for a living next year?”, especially once you’ve acquired the house and the kids and the mortgage. That is what you are working towards, you not actually worrying about whether or not people think you are wonderful. There will always be enough people who don’t, to keep that in perspective.
JA: Yes, comedy’s such a subjective thing….Do you take much notice of reviews?
SM: Across the broad spectrum, if you look at the generality of reviews, good shows get good reviews and bad shows get bad reviews - individual reviews don’t count for much. If you’ve done a good show, generally speaking, it will get, on average, good reviews, I suppose.
But, you know, reviews are written by people who can’t transcribe the name of an actor, correctly spelt, from one piece of paper to another, and why we should really be listening to them, I don’t know. I mean, I got some reviews, lately, for my Stephen Hawking drama…..which I didn’t write! It was written by Peter Moffat! If you really are dealing with people who can’t get that right…..I mean, this is not the cutting edge of journalism – there’s a press pack lying on the desk and they’ve got to copy it out - you know, it’s not difficult….So, it’s impossible not to get affected by them. I suppose at this stage on Coupling I‘m not really that bothered, because it’s such an established success anyway, that you don’t worry about it….And I frequently avoid reading them, if I’ve heard they’re bad!
JA: Something I’ve become aware about you is that you have a very loyal fan base, and you make yourself amazingly accessible to them through your participation in newsgroups and so on.
SM: I’m not the only one to do that. There are plenty of writers who do that. Now that it’s dead easy, you just pop on and say, hello - it’s not that uncommon. I think Aaron Sorkin did it on The West Wing newsgroup. It’s quite fun.
JA: Do you consider it’s important to keep in touch?
SM: I’m not sure it’s important; it’s quite enjoyable. It’s quite interesting to see what people are saying. It only gives you a very distorted impression of what the general audience are saying because these are people that really care….And, of course, that puts them in a different category from people who just watch it because they’ve got ironing to do and they want something to distract them. But you get some sort of notion of…..a vague picture of how the show is going down….maybe….
JA: I noticed you’ve just being doing an online Press Gang quiz.
SM: Yes, I just wanted to see if I could do it! It took me ages to do the second one! That was another displacement activity - I’m supposed to be working, and I’ll do anything other than work.
JA: You’re talking to an expert at that! I don’t know if you are aware of the longevity of some of these postings. There’s one posted when you were very drunk, after Joking Apart had won its Montreux award.
SM: Oh really?
JA: It’s still there. Of course, everyone will go looking for it now!
SM: I think I vaguely remember I did that, yes.
JA: That sort of thing is great because it reminds us writers are human; they’re not these mythical creatures that only leave their desks to come out at night.
SM: Well, yes, but it’s no great leap. I mean, we are not like the stars. We’re not like the folk in the show, who sort of have a reason to be inaccessible because they are recognisable in the street. The likes of me, we can get away with anything, because no one knows who we are. So it feels a very ordinary thing to do - to talk to people. I mean, people get very, very used to it - the fact that you are there - so it stops being a fuss.
I was talking to some writer the other day who said, I wouldn’t want my email address to get out because I would get abusive emails. And I was saying, I’ve had my email addresses out there, I’ve done Dr Who spoofs, I’ve done this for years and that for years – I’ve never had an abusive email in the entire bloody time I’ve been doing it. I’ve pretended that I have, to stop people doing it in future, but I’ve never ever actually had anyone be rude to me or unpleasant at any point, or even demonstrate that much interest that I’m there! It’s no big deal….
JA: Do you have writers you would quote as an influence, or maybe just admire?
SM: It’s always a dangerous thing to say someone influenced you, because they might be terribly insulted! I really enjoyed the work of William Goldman - I think he’s an amazing writer….Andrew Davies, especially for A Very Peculiar Practice, all those years ago - that was one of my favourite shows.
SM: I met him the other day!
JA: And the first series is just out on DVD.
SM: So I heard. I’m going to get those, I love those shows….And there are a lot of other people I forget about whenever I’m asked that question.
JA: Looking at the style of Joking Apart, were you into Alan Ayckbourn at all?
SM: I’ve seen a fair bit of it over the years but I wouldn’t say I was an expert or an afficianado or anything, although I do think he’s brilliant. Really, oddly enough, no. I can see why people ask that. Since Joking Apart, rather than prior to Joking Apart, I’ve read and seen some of his stuff, which is very good….But no, I wasn’t. He does do sort of tricksy things, and I suppose my stuff is reminiscent of his in that I’m doing tricksy stuff, especially on Coupling, with time and so on. But I think these are just the things you do to try to liven up a very ordinary story about dull people having sex.
JA: So what would you say were your favourite sitcoms, past or present?
SM: Cheers and Fawlty Towers, I think, are my two favourites.
JA: I’m sure almost no one could fail to find Fawlty Towers funny, apart from my mother.
SM: Yes, well that’s a strange disability!
IN PART TWO: Steven's technique and the origins of Joking Apart