Sunday, 14 June 2015

Lots Of Dots...

How writers write is seldom explored. There are good reasons: it’s not easily discussed, and it’s not very interesting. You might as well ask how sneezers sneeze or accountants account. It’s largely instinct (intangible) and craft (tangible, but prone to prescription). A writer, on her or his own, is a brain in a jar, generating and shaping and tipping out and re-shaping ideas quite privately. How that person writes is so internalised that the process is almost beyond description, and likely way beyond any entertaining or meaningful conversation.

But that answer doesn’t allow for how a twosome operates.

Writing partnerships are relationships; and relationships have dynamics, compromises, competing urges, blazing rows and moments of love. That’s more like it. Those elements are the makings of a story.

John Esmonde and Bob Larbey met each other at the Henry Thornton School in Clapham. Bob was two years older than John, but they shared a sense of humour and a love of football (later to pay off in their uncharacteristic pancake of a series, Feet First). After National Service (later to pay off in the far more successful Get Some In!), they met up, at the old boys’ club, playing football together (later to pay off in… well, read on) and making themselves – and others – laugh.

Being friends before we became partners was, I'm sure, a great bonus. The success we enjoyed together is partly due to having known each other for so long. Having been friends first made writing more of a shared pleasure.

At the time, John was working as a technical journalist, and Bob was employed by a printing block maker. Neither found it fulfilling.

Office jobs did nothing for us and not a lot for our employers, so – rather like Tom Good – we looked for a way out. We chose comedy writing instead of self-sufficiency and used all our spare time sending stuff here, there and everywhere. All of it was turned down, of course, but we stuck with it and, some four years, later sold our first comedy sketch to BBC radio.

Thrown these crumbs of success, they started writing more often – initially in the evenings, while maintaining their day jobs, until they started to fall asleep at work and took the plunge to become full-time writers.

Writing partnerships tend to work to one of two methods: one is the ‘type-and-pace’ method (Cleese and Chapman, Mitchell and Webb) where one notes it all down while the other paces the room, and the ‘write-and-swap’ method (Fry and Laurie, Bain and Armstrong) where both write separately, then swap material and rewrite each other’s work. Both styles require having first brainstormed the idea thoroughly. Esmonde and Larbey were of the former.

When we were creating a script, we’d take it in turns to do the writing. We used to write longhand, as opposed to typing the script straight away, which we always found distracting.

Their surroundings were deliberately unglamorous.

We rented a series of disgusting little offices and just used to go to work – sit in the same room, talk a lot, drink a lot of coffee.

Their first disgusting little office was at 47 West Street, Dorking, mid-way between their homes. Later, they moved to a little office above a greengrocer’s in Billingshurst – where Ever Decreasing Circles was written and (perhaps uncoincidentally) the exteriors were filmed. It was also disgusting.

It wasn’t long before there was fag-ash, cups that hadn’t been washed for days and bits of paper everywhere. Not many people came to our office, but those who did used to say, ‘Oh my God, how can you work in filth like this?’

One journalist who visited, Gordon McGill, described their surroundings as ‘an appalling place. Twelve square feet of squalor, smelling – as Esmonde says – as if an incontinent pig had died there.’ 

They started with the bit they found hardest: plot structure.

John and I always write a very detailed story-line before starting on the script. By that time we’ve a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.

Then they routined the scenes, playing the parts themselves ‘very badly, but to our ears they were perfect’.

We’d get into a stream of improvised dialogue and afterwards try and remember what it was that had made us laugh, then write it down. That's the hardest part.

Many writers stick to this rule. The simplicity of it is very appealing: use Take One. That’s the line or idea which came out unrefined, before being overthought or overstudied or over-written. What was the exact wording that made you both laugh? It’s probably right. Sometimes, it can be something apparently innocuous. In the last (longer than usual) episode of Ever Decreasing Circles, Martin’s employer, Mole Valley Valves, merges with Lee Valley Valves, and relocates. Martin is being forced out of The Close: his basic nightmare. Esmonde and Larbey had previously made great play of Martin and Ann’s night in Kidderminster (indeed, ‘Kidderminster,’ in the dialogue, comes to stand for ‘passion’), but now the writers needed a place name that smacked squarely of alien waters. A by-word for ‘not The Close’. Something cold, difficult, new – and funny. In the writing session, this happened.

How about, ‘I’ve just had Oswestry chucked in my face’?

This was, they decided, perfect. Oswestry, with its combination of far-away-ness and audible curlicue (comedy is music; it has to sound right: ‘Discuss the contention that Cleopatra had the body of a roll-top desk and the mind of a duck’ – thank you, Richard Sparks), hit the mark.

We both knew immediately that Oswestry was just right. I mean, there are times when Kilburn can fit the bill, and others when it just has to be Thames Ditton. Not only did Oswestry have the right ring to it but, being almost in Wales, it must have seemed to suburban Martin like East Africa.

This kind of detail appealed to Esmonde and Larbey. One Ever Decreasing Circles (the Gasthaus Glockenspiel episode, explored in the previous post as the possible bandage across a story wound) starts with a lengthy scene about a missing three-eighths grub screw. That's not funny per se but, coming from Martin Bryce’s mouth, it’s a hatch-down moment of terrible importance: his invaluable three-eighths grub screw lost, he needs to find it. Nothing can stand in his way. Detail. Detail.

Detail is the arena of quotable comedy. (See I’m Alan Partridge: ‘I gorged on Toblerone and drove to Dundee in my bare feet.’) Esmonde explained as much.

People ask where we get our dialogue from, but they don’t realise it’s all around you. Like a feller the other day in a shop: ‘I have here a statistic,’ he says, ‘viz,’ he says, ‘that there are more people in Italy kicked to death by donkeys than what die in air crashes.’ With jokes it’s either win or lose. But, if you write characterful dialogue there’s another level of funniness. We don’t think that people are innately witty when they talk. We prefer a laugh from the way a character says, ‘Well…’    

Bob Larbey backed this up, with a very fine example.

Once, working on The Good Life, we thought we would see if we could get laughs from a totally unfunny script. We wrote a whole page with nothing but ‘Good morning’ on it.

He slightly misremembered this, but it is a magnificent scene. ‘The Wind-Break War,’ arguably the finest episode of The Good Life, sees the Goods fighting the Leadbeatters quite needlessly over the positioning of a tall fence that accidentally casts a shadow over the Goods’ soft fruit. There is a fight, and a lot of wonderful passive aggression, and the Goods move their entire crop to defeat what they see as the Leadbeatters’ sabotage manoeuvre. Yet it’s nothing of the sort. It is a misunderstanding. And, when that’s revealed, the couples revert to embarrassment.



‘Looking at our scripts… Just lots of dots…’

That is (and it’s from the one published Good Life script) a minute of dialogue. Nothing, on the page, distinguishes it from small talk. Yet the context, timing and (crucially) performance of the scene make it as good as anything Esmonde and Larbey wrote. Somehow it advances everyone in it, without needing any exposition on the page. It does nothing and does everything. The characters are so well worked out that the scene can be set going, and simply roll to the front and collect its laughs. It’s close to perfection, but good luck justifying that.

The Good Life was, like that snippet, an idea that had travelled far enough from its inspiration to become a functioning organism.

The Good Life never set out on a theme of self-sufficiency. We started with the premise of somebody reaching his fortieth birthday. People think of it as one of those milestone ages, the ‘Oh, God, what have I done with my life? What do I do about it?’ John and I wanted to write about a man who was fed up with his job and fed up with himself. He could have become a lorry driver. [In the original draft, he was going to build a yacht and sail around the world.] But we added the self-sufficiency, which seemed a good idea. When we’d got him in our minds, it was he who decided what he wanted to become. The character takes over.

Plenty of sitcom characters come from real life. Famously, Basil Fawlty was found by John Cleese in Donald Sinclair, the insufferable hotelier of The Gleneagles Torquay. Just so Martin Bryce. In contrast to the oft-told story of the anonymous ‘referee on Clapham Common’ the writers repeated to the cameras, in conversation with Richard Webber, author of A Celebration Of The Good Life, John Esmonde offered this more revealing progenitor.

Bob and I used to play old boys’ football, and we had regular meetings to talk about subs, match fixtures, things like that. This [one] chap would arrive with a briefcase and give a dissertation on how to take a penalty. Now, think of that happening in someone’s front room. [He] was certainly no lithe athletic type, being unbelievably English in his fairness but, at the same time, really frustrating. He was always painfully keen. I remember one week we were playing a match and didn’t have a referee, so he decided that he’d be the ref and play as well. As you can imagine, that’s quite difficult. He even scored – after which he apologised to everyone on the other side.

The writers recognised the potential for comedy in their erstwhile colleague, and ran it past their bench test.

I have only two criteria in trying to think up a new idea: will the idea stay funny for more than a few episodes and do I think it's funny in the first place?

Yes and yes. So down to work.

When you first create characters, you think a lot about them of course, but you never know everything about them, so when you have an idea for a story – say, a dance – you have to work out whether your characters like to dance and, if so, how they dance. I don't suppose you'd covered that eventuality when you first invented them.

Martin, of course, is a man with a colossal catalogue of issues. In one episode, he tells Ann, ‘I’m writing a letter to The Times.’ ‘What about?’ she asks. His reply is both ludicrous and bang on: ‘Everything’.

Martin was terribly tortured. He had so many little bees and bugs in him. His hang-ups were amusing, yet totally realistic, because I’m sure there are plenty of people who can’t stand telephone wires getting tangled up, road-sweepers leaving cigarette butts behind, molehills, awkward-looking odd numbers – just some of the aspects of life that irked Martin terribly. [He] could see the perfect world on the horizon, but never quite reached it.

Once Esmonde and Larbey had established their protagonist, they went to work on his opposite number.

We got the idea of someone who wanted life to be perfect, who wanted life to fall into place around him, to the point of being neurotic. Then we asked ourselves, ‘What would rock that particular boat?’ The answer was a nearby Mr Perfect who breezed through life getting everything right.

A good test of character is always to ask, ‘What’s the worst thing you could say to this person?’ The answer, in Martin’s case, happens very early on – in the second episode of the first series.

PAUL: Isn’t it time we started to ease the world off old Atlas’s shoulders?

HOWARD (RISES): You’re absolutely right.

MARTIN SHOWS FEAR.

HOWARD: It’s about time we pitched in and did some of the work ourselves.

PAUL: Some? What good will some do? This man needs a total break from all of it.

HOWARD: That’s it! I formally suggest we take every job that Martin does for every club and every society and share them out among ourselves.

MARTIN’S SMALL ‘NO’ IS LOST IN A CHORUS OF ‘HEAR HEARS’.

Cutting Martin’s balls off – as happens here – by saying, ‘I’ll do it: you sit down’ is the most ruinous thing that has ever happened to him. Showing this worst case scenario so early on in the series serves to strengthen the character. Esmonde and Larbey knew this: they were at the top of their game writing Ever Decreasing Circles. Richard Briers described them at the time, without undue exaggeration, as ‘the best in the trade’.

They were also strict. If one of them disagreed strongly about something in a script, it was nixed. Likewise, they weren’t unafraid of killing their darlings if they didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

You can think of a funny line and then ask yourself whether so-and-so would ever say such a thing. If he wouldn’t, you have to toss it away.

Briers was a gift: it has been said many times before, but it deserves underlining. A brilliant piece of music played by an average musician is too readily an average piece of music. But hear it played with flair and guts, by a brilliant musician, and you’re gifted the thing the composer intended. Likewise comedy. To have something performed, semiquaver perfect, by an actor, is an unalloyed joy.

Seeing it is quite exciting. Sometimes we laugh.

Richard Briers was an expert at making an unlikeable character likeable. Tom Good is, in all truth, a bit of a shit. He ignores his wife for three years. Martin Bryce is impossible to live with: Richard Briers makes it possible. Esmonde and Larbey wanted Briers from the off, because they reasoned that he was probably the only actor who could make Martin in any way loveable.

They were right.

And there were at least two good reasons the writers kept their lead actor in mind. Firstly, if, as the writer, you can hear the character’s voice, it becomes much easier to write them, and they start to sound real. Half your job is in the bag.

Secondly – and this is the kicker – Ever Decreasing Circles (nearly called One Man’s Close, Close Connections and The Close Friend) might adhere to the (then) conventions of studio sitcom (four sets, four minutes of film per ep) but the the show isn’t set in The Close, it’s set in Martin. The ‘sit’ bit of the sitcom is its principal character himself.

A lot of series are about what people do… what they try to get done. This was about the inside of his head more than anything else. Things like colour coding, counting, clean shoes: everything in its place and a place for everything.

The show set in someone’s head wasn’t new then (see the truly amazing – and enough cannot be said about it – The Strange World Of Gurney Slade for an earlier example) and has been done since (the lovely chamber piece Marion And Geoff, for instance). But Ever Decreasing Circles externalised that idea, because the writers spread the world inside the man’s head into the world outside his head. Howard and Hilda are the best neighbours Martin Bryce could wish for; Paul Ryman the worst. Martin has angels and devils, and they live either side of him: on each shoulder, if you like. That such a simple idea could easily slip into caricature is obvious; that it didn’t is testament to the writing.

The last decision a writer makes is when to stop. Esmonde and Larbey halted after four series of Ever Decreasing Circles, just as they did with The Good Life. Enough, when it seems so, is enough.

We prefer to leave the public wanting more, rather than run out of things to say.

How did Esmonde and Larbey write? Very well.


A shipping container of thanks is shared by Steve Arnold, for pointing me towards a rich seam of Radio Times articles, and Richard Webber, whose book A Celebration Of The Good Life (Orion, 2000) yielded a great many quotes from Esmonde and Larbey for this piece. If you don’t own the book, correct your error at once. It is one of a kind.

Other sources: ‘The laughter lies in the toil’ (Gordon McGill, Radio Times, 27 March 1975), Television Comedy Scripts (ed. Roy Blatchford, Longman, 1983), ‘It’s a good, busy life for Richard’ (uncredited, Radio Times, 23 January 1984), ‘The luck of the insecure actor’ (Tim Heald, Radio Times, 20 October 1984), ‘Will Jacko say “I will”?’ (Jenny Campbell, Radio Times, 26 November 1988), ‘Funny line of work’ (William Greaves, Radio Times, 23 December 1989), Biography: John Esmonde and Bob Larbey (Television Heaven, 17 February 2005), Bob Larbey interview with Robin Kelly, Writing For Performance (2005), Comedy Connections (BBC, 2006), John Esmonde’s obituary (The Times, 12 August 2008).

2 comments:

  1. Another lovely piece about EDC Jason. Thanks for doing this.
    Don Satchley of the Mausoleum Club

    ReplyDelete