IN CONVERSATION WITH STEVEN MOFFAT (part 3)
Continuing with the serialisation of our extensive interview with the writer of Joking Apart: Steven kicks off part three with a revelation about the series that will come as a major surprise to most fans.
JOKING APART.CO.UK: We’ve already discussed the parallels between Mark and yourself; so did you ever do any stand-up?
STEVEN MOFFAT: No, I didn’t…..And In fact, if you watch carefully – I mean, it’s not clear enough in the show and that is a fault of it – Mark doesn’t do any stand-up either. That’s just his thought processes - that’s just inside his head. You never actually see him do any stand-up; he’s a comedy writer, and he has what would be an appallingly bad stand-up routine going on in his head.
JA: Now you’ve brilliantly anticipated one of my questions – was it imagined or was it real?
SM: No, it wasn’t real, it wasn’t meant to be real, but people took it to be real, and I think, probably, both Robert & I feel, was a mistake. We shouldn’t have done that. I think it puts too much emphasis on those jokes being real stand-up jokes and made him seem like in his spare time he was the worst comedian in the universe, which was not a good way to proceed the fact. Robert keeps going on about the idea – which I don’t think we could ever sell, but it’s quite a good one – that we should try and get them to repeat the show and he, for free, would redo all the stand-up routines….Just send him home with a camera and he would do it – and these are his words, not mine – as my current, older, fatter self, reflecting on my failed marriage, and just do it to a camcorder, so that he’s doing it as a diary of his past, and we get rid of the stand-up routine altogether….A quite pleasing idea!
JA: Mmm….I can see how the confusion came about.
SM: It’s simply not clear enough….And indeed, again, what I said earlier, people don’t watch television that carefully – you can’t just rely on them looking for your clever subtext. To be honest, I was very close to eliminating the stand-up routine from the second series because it was just getting in the way….And Seinfeld did it so much better. Even they stopped doing very much of it because the last thing you want to do, especially in a fast moving farce, is keep stopping for someone to stand up and do some….appalling stand-up, basically! I think it worked quite well in the very first episode, I think it linked that together quite nicely with all the leaps forward in time and so on; thereafter, I think it was a burden on the show. If you notice they only appear at the beginning of episodes towards the end, it doesn’t get used later on.
JA: Interesting….In fact, there were quite a few stylistic differences between the two series, the main one being that you, by and large, dropped the dual timelines in series two.
SM: No….Why was that?….It just felt slightly odd to come back a year later and still be doing flashbacks to the old relationship. It just felt as though we should have moved on from that….I think that was the reason - it’s all a bit vague in my memory now. There was a time where in order to give Becky & Mark some kind of reality of having been a couple, you had to see some of them being a couple, because two thirds of the way through episode one, they are splitting up. So unless the show did some of their relationship, you wouldn’t have any investment in it, you wouldn’t have any feeling about it, comedic or otherwise….But by series two, people had got the message: they were a couple….They were a couple for a reasonable amount of time and now it’s over.
JA: That is one of the series’ strengths. You went back and showed there was some depth to this relationship. We became involved because we had been intimate with the couple at all the crucial times….What you said about the stand-up being imaginary explains why in the pilot it was shot against black.
SM: Yes and that didn’t work at all. In the first one we were just thinking of doing that in a sort of limbo but it seemed terribly dead when we looked back at it. It didn’t seem to work, so it became a rather crappy-looking nightclub after that, and then, I think, probably became much too real. As I say, it was an idea that should have been abandoned, or done as a voice-over, or done in any form other than a stand-up routine.
JA: Did you shoot that in a real club because it looked so convincing?
SM: For the pilot, it was just against drapes in the studio; for the first series, it was in a real club; for the second series, it was actually in the studio – we did it in one day and just set up a place with lights and so on. I think we might have occasionally used – you can probably answer this more than I can – shots from the first series of the audience or whatever stuck into the second series stuff because we certainly weren’t on location for the second series. I remember we were doing it in the studio with an attempt to recreate the look of that place.
JA: Which is why it looked a little different, but the reverse shot of Mark grabbing the microphone seemed identical – that’s actually from the first series.
SM: I think it is, I think that’s how we did it….Unless we got a lot of people to sit down, but I can’t imagine we would do that if we had the shot already.
JA: Returning to the darkness of the show, the climax of the first episode sees Becky telling Mark the marriage is over. The humour stems from the fact that, unbeknown to her, it’s being played out in front of all her friends. That’s undoubtedly funny, but it’s so dark that it seemed to me the audience didn’t know whether they should be laughing, they seemed almost embarrassed, so it didn’t get the level of laughter it deserved. Did that come across to you?
SM: I don’t recall that being true, but you might be right. It got a bigger laugh, I remember, when we did the pilot than when we did the actual show. I can’t remember if they were edgy on that. The other thing is, you almost certainly aren’t listening to the first take. Contrary to what people think, we don’t actually stick laughs on, so it might just be the audience responding to a second or third performance.
JA: So you don’t try and lift the laughs from the first take, then?
SM: Well, in theory, you’re supposed to, but mostly it’s not worth it. It’s quite hard to do, and what you end up doing is lifting a laugh from somewhere else to try and repair it, but unless there’s an actual hole in the sound, you tend to leave the laugh alone. If there’s an actual big hole because the audience are bored to death, then you fix it with a laugh, not otherwise. What you hear is what happened on the night.
JA: The series was commissioned on the basis of the pilot. How long after it’s transmission did you know you had secured the series?
SM: We did the pilot in 1990 and they were interested in going straight away – they were pleased with it. But in that time I had signed to do series three and four of Press Gang, which we did all as one run of twelve episodes, and so I wasn’t available for about a year. Then after that, I went onto it – they were still keen – so there was quite a delay. It’s not until 1992 that we make the series.
JA: There were some daffodils in Robert & Tracy’s garden at the end of episode three which would suggest you were shooting early in 1992. But the series didn’t go out until January ‘93….What was the reason for that?
SM: Why did they wait? I don’t know, but that’s nothing compared to series two which was delayed over a year before it was shown. It was never anyone’s priority; it was never a show that was much loved at the Beeb in those days….So we took what we could get, quite wisely, and kept moving….Whereas I am terribly aware how different it is doing Coupling, where Coupling is shown usually within weeks of us finishing. We are usually scrambling to finish the edit. Joking Apart is not the only show that’s been treated that way. I remember speaking to Andy Hamilton who did Drop the Dead Donkey. He was saying the real reason why they put all those topical references into Drop the Dead Donkey was, the last show he and Guy [Jenkin] had done together – I think it was Shelley or something – had waited two years before it went out and he was damned if it was happening again! So he created a means to stop the delay in transmission.
JA: Clever! I remember that when they repeated the first series of Joking Apart, they announced that it would return for a new series in the autumn. But the autumn came and went and still no Joking Apart.
SM: We were delayed something like seven times. I mean, we had something like seven broadcast dates. I knew that was when the writing was on the wall and this would be our last series, because they just didn’t like us that much.
JA: Bizarre. I believe they even had an option to repeat series two, which they had already paid for.
SM: They could still repeat it for no money.
JA: They still have the rights?
SM: Yes. They bought the right to show it twice and showed it once. [laughs] That’s real loathing, isn’t it? They wouldn’t bother to show it now but for years we kept saying, you could show it again. I think it’s one of the few shows that won at Montreux, and didn’t get a repeat!
JA: It’s seems incredible to me that you’ve got a great show, it’s won a prestigious Montreux award, which let’s face it, very few shows do, and still the BBC do their worst with it.
SM: For whatever reason….The guy who didn’t want it was Michael Jackson, whom I know – he just didn’t buy it. He now thinks he was wrong all those years ago….Well, he says that to me, maybe out of politeness, I don’t know! But he didn’t quite get it. He didn’t think it really fitted into the profile of the channel. And some people did used to say of it – to some degree they say the same of Coupling – that it’s BBC One and a Half, it’s not BBC Two. It’s sort of a bit too mainstream for BBC Two and not mainstream enough for BBC One. And that’s an expression that’s dogged my career – it’s just not quite landing on one channel!
JA: If Joking Apart was being made today, given the enhanced profile that you now have and Robert Bathurst as well, do you think they would be so reckless with it?
SM: There are still shows that get reckless treatment - these things happen. Occasionally you get shows – and we all know what shows they are – where you think, “That’s a really great show….What happened to that one? Why did that one fall through the cracks?” And I sort of think – and I don’t think I’m being conceited in saying it – Joking Apart is one of the shows that fell through the cracks. Given that, in that comedy era there wasn’t a hell of a lot going on, and it was at least critically respected and had won an award and all the research they had done on it had been outstandingly good - people really liked it - it was just an oddity that it just somehow didn’t connect. The ratings were never good – and that’s quite important – they were always poor and the second series, I think, had poorer ratings than the first, but then it was two years later. It was a show you could barely remember. And that really hurt the second series too because you really did feel that Bathurst had been banging on about this sodding divorce for an awfully long time! Within the context of the show it wasn’t very long, but within what feels likes its context, the real life context, it felt like: “Will this man ever shut up?! She’s left you, get over it!”
JA: I agree with you that the scheduling was incredibly damaging, but BBC Two is also a strange channel in so far as a lot of people just never turn it on.
SM: Yes, that would seem to be the case. I never quite understand how that works. I mean, I check everything except for, obviously, Channel Five for something to watch! But some people just don’t watch things over on BBC Two. In general, the BBC doesn’t do that with good shows. In general, they keep good shows alive and they chase them. Joking Apart was just unfortunate – I can’t claim that’s a pattern of behaviour on their part - and they were always pretty positive about me. They were always quite keen for my next project and all that, it didn’t adversely affect me. I think, as a show, it was underrated and undersold.
JA: Indeed, when the show went out, they gave you a name check. They trailed it as “bitter-sweet comedy from Steven Moffat”, so they must have thought a lot of you.SM: I was certainly one of the supposedly bright young things in those days, and that’s still the case now. You know, you’re mercenary to the extent where you’re more worried how you’re doing than the show is doing. [laughs] You have to be because that’s how you make your money.
IN PART FOUR: Steven talks about series three of Joking Apart