The writer-producer on Blackadder, QI, Spitting Image, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Not The Nine O'Clock News, The Meaning of Liff and Peter Cook's Life in Pieces.
~ 15,000 words ~
Originally published in Mustard #06
Part I: On Producing
Part II: Early Career
Part III: Douglas Adams and Dr Snuggles
Part IV: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Part V: The Meaning of Liff
Part VI: Not the Nine O'Clock News
Part VII: Blackadder
Part VIII: Spitting Image
Part IX: Peter Cook: A Life in Pieces
Part X: Adverts, BAFTAs and Lifetime Achievement Award
Part XI: Have I Got News for You?
Part XII: QI
Part XIII: Museum of Curiosity, names and CBEs
Part XIV: What's Next
Most people know what writers and directors do, but what about producers?
In TV and radio comedy the producer is the best job: you generate the ideas, work on the script, cast the actors – everything down to doing the coconut shell sound-effects. The producer's job is fun; directors are often more technical people who point the camera at things.
In film, it's the other way around: the director is the big guy and the producer is the nuts-and-bolts person who organises the finance, the hiring and firing, and so forth. I get the best of both worlds, really, because I direct ads, which is the fun bit there, and I produce telly, with brilliant guys like Ian Lorimer on QI, to do the hard work of multiple-camera directing.
As for what producers do... it's a paradox. They do everything and nothing. It's their fault if the show's no good. A director can blame a terrible script, but a producer has no excuse. I always take complete responsibility but, in return, I require – not people's love or respect – but for them to do what I ask. Occasionally, you have to pull rank just to get things done.
The producer makes the map of the journey, but he doesn't build the boat or trim the sails. I can't compose songs, make costumes, act, or focus-pull even the simplest moving shot. But crews will do anything for a producer/director who's polite and who knows what they want.
So you're the steersman, giving it a light touch here and there to keep it on course. And you'll make mistakes, because the picture of the destination in your head is like a distant shore that you're trying to dimly discern through the mist.
Was there a formula to creating your shows, or was it a gut instinct?
The only shows I count as 'mine' are the ones I was in at the beginning of. I like starting with a blank sheet and trying to create something where nothing was before.
The first thing that comes to me, even before the concept, is the flavour. I start by thinking, “What's not on telly that I'd like to see?” You're looking for an absence, a gap. Then: “What feeling should it have?”
All great programmes are about tapping into some universal human need or emotion. Blackadder is 'the boss is an arse'. Spitting Image is 'famous people are no better than us – they all go to the lavatory'. They're very simple things. You're looking for the feeling viewers will have, sitting at home on the sofa with a beer.
With Not The Nine O'Clock News, I wanted to see a show which: a) was 20 years 'younger' than The Two Ronnies (where people were still wearing cravats); and b) had a sense of going to your favourite rock concert, with girls and music and a terrific sense of excitement and joy.
Would you classify yourself as an 'ideas man'?
I don't take credit for ideas. They're like fish floating past. The trick is to be open, to see them floating by and seize them. And then, if it turns out to be a poisonous fish, you need to make the best of it. It's the difficulties that produce the wonderful, golden stuff.
Some years ago they asked a load of directors what film they would make with an unlimited budget. The resounding answer was that they wouldn't want to, because if you can do anything, go anywhere, have any actor or actress you want, you get lazy and sloppy and there'd be no focus.
My main quality is that I'm extremely stubborn and don't like to admit that a good basic idea is wrong. Most shows I've done – Spitting Image, Blackadder, Not The Nine O'Clock News – were very badly reviewed when they first came out and were considered to be failures. But I kept pressing on with them. I think creativity is about keeping faith with your intuition.
All great programmes tap into some universal human emotion.
Do you feel you get enough credit?
Yes, and I get far more credit than most producers. If you think of the wonderful producers who were around when I was young – Terry Hughes, Syd Lotterby, Ernest Maxin, Jimmy Gilbert, John Howard Davies – they were gods! I knew their names, but most people would never have known who the producer of The Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise or Porridge was. They'd have to be a comedy geek and read the credits.
I've had far more credit than those guys. Which could sometimes be an issue. For instance, we used to put the Not The Nine O'Clock News books on the desk of my boss, John Howard Davies. He'd be very annoyed because he'd produced Fawlty Towers and Monty Python and never managed to get his name on anything more than the Foreword.
I don't know why I get so much credit; I don't seek it. I think I've worked harder than many people, but let's face it nobody normally thanks producers – why would you thank the boss?
Directors are quite different. Sometimes I'd watch directors bouncing off the set after the recording going, “Yes! I'm amazing,” with everybody congratulating them. They'd be in the bar buying rounds of drinks and laughing, and I'd be going back to the office with my head in my hands thinking, “How on earth am I going to edit this?”
But I used to get a secret, slightly puritanical feeling from knowing that, if I hadn't been born, these shows would have been very different, or perhaps wouldn't have existed at all.
How did you start out in comedy?
When I started in the early 70s, I wanted to be a writer/performer, but you couldn't do that in those days. There were no stand-ups of my age – they were all in their 50s and from the north, that was the tradition.
I was at Cambridge, where Footlights hadn't been very successful for a while – the last really good one was Clive James and Germaine Greer, bizarrely. And it had been 10 years since the world-famous A Clump of Plinths with John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor.
I graduated in '73 as with a very poor third-class law degree. I'd realised very early on that I wasn't going to make a good lawyer; I spent my whole time doing plays, writing sketches and the gossip column for the university paper, that kind of stuff.
In my last term, I was fired from Footlights for, as I jokingly put it, 'being too funny'. I ruined two perfectly good straight plays at Cambridge by getting laughs when I didn't mean to. When I got to London, because stand-up wasn't an option, we used to put on revues at places like the Bush Theatre, with seven of us in the cast and 14 in the audience, and lose all our money.
Then you went to the BBC?
I was trying to make a living as a writer, and starving, when David Hatch – who went on to great eminence as Managing Director of BBC Radio and Special Assistant to the Director General – called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to be a producer. I said, “No, not really, I'm not sure what they do.” They all seemed very old to me; they'd just bumble about in tweed suits and offer you cups of tea.
He said, “Look, we'll give you some money to be a trainee producer, you can write as well, and if you do more than £1,800 worth of writing in a year, we'll pay you extra.” So it seemed like a good deal.
There I was, at just 23, having never wanted to produce or direct anything before, and I found myself completely riveted by it – it was really exciting and difficult and satisfying. It felt like what I was born to do.
And I had a great piece of luck. I started producing Just A Minute, which had been running for about seven years, and after my first week there was a review in The Times saying, “John Lloyd's Just A Minute goes from strength to strength.” I thought, “Wow, this is amazing!” But you can imagine how cross the rest of the department was, because: a) it wasn't 'my' Just a Minute at all; and b) you never got reviews in radio, then as now.
Then I went on to the main producer-training programme at the time, Week Ending, a 15-minute topical show that went out late at night just before the news. There was a rotating cast, including Bill Wallace, David Jason – none of us could understand why he wasn't amazingly famous – and Nigel Rees, with whom I went on to start Quote Unquote in '76.
The cast were incredibly good at their jobs and used to putting up with producers who were wet behind the ears, and with a rag-bag of new writers doing one-liners.
On a topical show, you're faced with very specific challenges. A stand-up can talk about anything: what it's like in supermarkets, “Isn't it funny about octopuses?”, whatever. In topical comedy, you've got to make some attempt to cover the main news stories, and it forces you to make jokes about things that you wouldn't normally write about. You're pushed into a very tight box, and that gives you discipline.
For the first time, I found that my training as a lawyer was useful, because legislation is about using exactly this word, exactly positioning that comma. Comedy is the same in that, to work effectively, it requires an exacting use of language.
A lot of people my age have fond memories of the cartoon Dr Snuggles. I remember watching the episode about the river, which, years later, I found out was written by you and Douglas Adams.
Yeah, Douglas and I were best friends in the mid '70s. He was six months younger than me and came out of Cambridge a year later. We didn't know each other that well at university, but afterwards we became incredibly close and shared a house for a couple of years. At Cambridge you meet so many talented people who come from such amazing backgrounds – sons of famous actors or bank chairmen – whereas Douglas and I connected, I think, because we came from comparatively modest backgrounds. But Cambridge does give you ambition; you come out thinking, 'God, I could do anything!'
So we did a lot of writing together in the evenings. We both struggled to make a living, even though he did some work with Graham Chapman and Ringo Starr. So anything that paid got us terribly excited. We wrote a sitcom pilot called Snow Seven and the White Dwarves about two ill-matched astronomers sharing an observatory on the top of Everest, and a film treatment about the Guinness Book of Records, which very nearly got us a trip to Bermuda.
I used to sit for hours in the evenings trying to write quickies for Dave Allen or one-liners for The Two Ronnies – I only ever got two of those on, but I still get payments for them – '5p for sale to North Africa', that kind of thing. Douglas was very bad at it: he couldn't see the point of copying other people's styles
Then we got a call from a Dutch producer with the wonderful name Joop Visch (pronounced Yoop Fish) – he had an assistant called Wim Oops and a secretary called Veronica Plink! (laughs) He was a really clever guy, very smooth, very good-looking. He said he was doing this huge worldwide series about a crazy 'Professor Branestawm' character called Dr Snuggles, and would we like to try writing for it? It was £500 an episode between us – a fortune! I was earning £1,800 for a whole a year at the BBC.
We worked very hard on it in the evenings, and it was the most fun we'd ever had. Douglas and I both had strong visual imaginations, hence Douglas's science fiction skills. And we'd both been academically focussed for so long, so it was fun to do something that was for children and didn't involve sitting in libraries.
We wrote two episodes. The one you mention is 'Dr Snuggles and the Nervous River', where all the animals were thirsty and the plants were dying because the river had rolled up back into its cave in the mountains and wouldn't come out. Dr Snuggles investigates and it turns out it's because people are polluting the sea and the river is frightened to go there. It was very unusual at that time to do a kids' cartoon with an ecological theme.
Soon after that, Douglas started writing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series. How many episodes had he written before he called you in to help?
He'd finished four of the first series but was massively behind, which was driving everybody crazy. Poor Geoffrey Perkins would be recording the first half of an episode whilst Douglas was in the back room trying to finish the second half. So he got a bit of the way into the fifth episode, then said, “Johnny, I'm stuck. I've proved I can do some writing on my own. Why don't you do it with me and then if there's another series, we can do it together.”
It had taken him 10 months to write those first four episodes, and we knocked off the last two in just under three weeks. And had a great time doing it – we laughed a great deal. It was like coming home. We'd both gone off and done different things, then come back to this partnership which had been very creative but hadn't produced anything.
When the series went out it had reviews in all the national papers. Extraordinary for a radio series to get noticed – nobody could understand why. Perhaps it was the great title.
Then all these publishers rang up offering book deals, and Douglas changed his mind, saying he thought it was better if he did it on his own. Which was really very depressing at the time.
But I have this mantra: 'Disaster is a gift.' If I hadn't been fired from Footlights, I wouldn't have gone into radio. If I hadn't been fired from Hitchhiker, I would have just been known as Douglas' No. 2; the slightly shorter, balder, not-so-talented one. And there never would have been Not The Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image, Blackadder, QI – even I can see that's quite a good list. So, looking back, I see my life as a series of ghastly mistakes that somehow turned out okay in the end.
All Douglas' characters were based on himself;
he was a very complex person.
You also wrote with Andrew Marshall, who, legend has it, was the inspiration for Hitchhiker's Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Andrew could be quite amusingly gloomy, though he's actually rather cheerful these days – wise, gentle and funny. The story goes that Marvin is based on Andrew, but the truth is that all Douglas' characters were based on himself.
Douglas was a very rich, complex personality, and tremendously bi-polar. In one mood, he was ridiculously overconfident, incredibly ambitious and daring – a large, bombastic, cocky sod – and that's Zaphod. And at other times, he'd be sunk in gloom, his back always hurt – Marvin's “diodes all down my left side”, that's Douglas.
Even minor characters like the captain of the B Ark, who spends all day in the bath, are Douglas. I know; I shared a house with him. He would sometimes be in the bath for seven hours, having endless cups of tea and musing about stuff. They were all him, apart from the girls, who are the least well drawn characters, because girls to Douglas were, 'Ooh, she's gorgeous over there, the one at the bar,” – that's Trillian.
As is Mustard tradition, here's a question from another interviewee:
No, there were no expectations of that. I'd heard the first four episodes and thought, “This is really good, maybe our friends will like it”. But the most we could hope for was getting a decent review in a paper and the chance to do another series. If we were very lucky, maybe they'd give us a go on something else – we had bottom drawers full of ideas. But the idea of it becoming this ridiculous, global, everlasting phenomenon – no!
We didn't even think in terms of 'success'. I remember later on, in my mid-30s, when I was recovering from a broken heart, after becoming a very successful producer and winning an awful lot of awards, it occurred to me that a good programme and a successful one are not the same thing. That's something that's at the heart of BBC culture, so I'm amazed I hadn't really noticed it.
You and Douglas Adams wrote together again on The Meaning of Liff, apparently whilst on holiday together?
Yes, it was another ridiculous series of events. I'd got the boot from HHGG and was very cross with Douglas for a while. But we had already booked a villa in Corfu to co-write the first novel. My agent managed to get my half of the money for the advance – £1,500, which is all I've ever been paid for Hitchhiker.
But I've never resented it. I've never made enough money to stop working. I've never been spoiled or thought I'm a genius 'cos millions of people round the world tell me I am. I'm still struggling on. Every day is still as hard as it was 25 years ago, which keeps you going, it keeps you fresh, keeps you interested.
Anyway, we'd booked this villa, so we both still went. And it was great. There was a wonderful young British couple next door whom we got on really well with. And Douglas had invited strings of girls along: "Oh, I'm writing my novel in Corfu." So some lovely girls came out to stay for a week each, and we were there for a month.
So Douglas the great novelist-to-be sat on the veranda with his typewriter, sunglasses and a giant trilby that you could see from the beach. Meanwhile the girls and I would stumble down to the taverna on the shore and get pissed all day with the mad owner, Manthos, who taught me some wonderful rude Greek. We'd muck about, play Scrabble, talk, drink lots of retsina. And every so often Douglas would come down just before lunch, exhausted, having written two sentences, and say, "Oh God, I suppose I'd better have a glass of wine..."
And that's where we started what became The Meaning of Liff. It was a game Douglas's English teacher used to get the class to play at school. You know, "Tell me what an Epping is." We had a huge laugh playing it, and I wrote them all down. Then later, when we came to do one of the Not The Nine O'Clock News calendars – a hell of a big job, a joke for each day – I found these Liff notes and stuck them in the calendar as the 'Oxnard Eglish Dictionary'. Matthew Evans, the MD of Faber said, "This is the best thing in the book, John. You ought to do this as a book itself."
When Douglas heard about it, he rang me up and said, "Let's do it together." It was 1982 by then and he was making his first attempt to get the Hitchhiker movie off the ground. He said, "Oh, Johnny, I'm sorry I've got to go to LA: I've taken Donna Summer's beach house in Malibu – have you heard of Malibu? I'm afraid I've got to be there for most of the summer. Can you bear to come out there?" So I had six weeks in California! Best job I ever had, really.
The Deeper Meaning of Liff was quite a few years later wasn't it?
Yes, 1987. With the second one, Douglas had a similar problem: he was on a book tour in Australia. He'd rented a massive house in Palm Beach: eight verandas and its own foreshore. So I was dragged out there (very willingly, I must say) to do it. It was marvellous. As usual, he's invited lots of other friends. We laughed a great deal, we never ran out of things to say.
The only thing was that Douglas was quite lazy. If he could possibly get out of actually doing anything, he would. In Malibu, he and Jane would go out shopping all day, have lunch with Hollywood moguls, and I'd sit on the deck and type jokes. Then Douglas would come back and say, "I think it's time for a little Martini, don't you?" (laughs). But the thing is, he was so brilliant that he would cram the same amount of work that had taken me a day into an hour. So it worked out pretty well.
As a co-writer, Douglas was great, as he was so full of ideas. He'd spew out all this stuff and I'd make it neat and tidy. As a producer, he could be difficult because he was so disorganised. He only managed to produce one radio show, and really Geoffrey Perkins and I had to do it for him. He had too many ideas, and went rushing around like a headless chicken running for a bus. But as a co-writer, I have nothing but praise for him. There was no pain, no fighting, no sulking – which there can be a lot of in comedy, especially when you work in groups.
You were then offered your own TV series and you came up with Not The Nine O'Clock News..?
A few things had happened. On top of the Hitchhiker disappointment, two of my radio shows went to TV without me: Quote Unquote, which I'd started in 1976, and a radio pilot I'd just made of To The Manor Born. I thought it was really unfair, so I went to see my head of department, David Hatch, and he said, “Now, John, if you play your cards right you could be deputy head of this department in seven years!”. So I quit. (laughs)
I went up for several jobs, including one of the boys who sat behind Esther Rantzen in That's Life – I got down to the last three. I also went into BBC TV to see Jimmy Gilbert, a revered producer who started at The Frost Report. My intention was to bang on his desk, saying, “You're stealing all my ideas”. I was hoping they might feel guilty and start me as a floor manager or something.
But before I had a chance to speak, Jimmy said, “What kept you? We've earmarked six half-hours for you, is that enough?” The only deal was that I had to meet some bloke from current affairs called Sean Hardie, who kept putting jokes into Panorama, so they didn't know what to do with him. They put us together because I didn't know anything about television, and he was very experienced but hadn't worked in comedy.
So I went and had lunch with Sean, an extraordinary guy, who has remained one of my best friends. We talked and talked; it was like I'd met my other half. The lunch lasted about 11 hours, in a restaurant called The Gaylord in Mortimer Street, which is famous for having invented Chicken Tikka Masala and now, I suppose, also for being the place where Not The Nine O'Clock News was conceived.
There's another lesson: I quit without a job to go to, which was mad. I had a steady job, with a great track record running all these radio shows, The News Quiz, Quote Unquote, Wits End. But as Julia Margaret Cameron, the pioneering Victorian photographer, said, “Leap, and the net will appear.” I think that's a great way to live. If I meet anyone in their 20s, I say go on, get out, don't be a runner for 40 years. A big problem in the media now is that by the time people get their chance they've had all the originality knocked out of them.
There were some huge comedy names amongst the Not The Nine O'Clock News writers.
There was Steven Fry, Clive Anderson, David Renwick and Andrew Marshall. Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin were quite main writers. But Richard Curtis wrote more than half of the show, so he was an absolute lynchpin.
Were there a lot of egos?
Not really; they weren't really allowed an ego, because it was a producer's show. The actors weren't allowed to come to the edit and the writers didn't generally come to rehearsal, because there were so many of them. We'd stay up late at night, stealing all the best ideas from the sketches, then take them into rehearsal and workshop them, try different punchlines.
Richard had a hard time on the show. He worked like hell and didn't get a great deal of say in what happened. We all – particularly me – rode roughshod over the writers. He often came to rehearsals as Rowan's right hand guy, but he just sat quietly in the corner and waited for what was missing while Rowan, me, Mel and Griff kicked it around trying to shape the material.
We were all very young and grateful to have work. There were some differences of opinion and not everybody liked each other equally, but everyone got on pretty well and the upward curve to success was extraordinarily quick.
So the success came straight away?
The first series won an Emmy, but it was very badly reviewed. Peter Fiddick in The Guardian said “This Nine O'Clock News lot are wankers.” I couldn't believe it! I didn't know you could say 'wankers' in The Guardian in 1979. So our contemporaries thought it was a bit of a flop, but the ratings weren't bad and by the second series, it was absolutely huge. Pam was one of the most famous people in the country – the cast were mobbed on trains. It was like The Fast Show rolled in with Little Britain.
Does having a huge hit make it harder to keep the quality up, or is it easier?
Somebody once said it's much harder to deal with success than failure. I think unalloyed success is very bad for people, especially in comedy. You start to believe your own myth and nobody dares tell you what to do any more.
I'm very fond of Richard Curtis – we patched up our differences long ago – but I can certainly say that he wouldn't take the kind of input from me now that he used to. He's his own boss, the most successful film writer, probably, in British history. But as a lifelong editor I know that everybody needs someone to lean on, to criticise. Everyone can be better. I think that's something that Richard learnt on The Boat That Rocked, which was the first film he had complete control over.
I've always worked in teams. There can be good teams and bad teams, but I absolutely believe that it's the group that makes the show, and I'm only one of many. You're a fool if you think you can do it on your own.
Did the atmosphere change in the later series, after all the success?
There seems to be a classic pattern to new, innovative shows. In the first series there's a freshness, a verve, a dangerous quality. And yet it's a bit incompetent, because mistakes are inherent in doing something new.
Then the second series is this golden thing from nowhere. From the very first show you think “Woah – this is amazing.” You have a terrific sense of being like a surfer: you didn't create the wave, you're just riding it. Ideas just dropped into our lap. A terrific fizzing of ideas and fun.
Then the third series is done under terrific pressure. In 1980, everything happened at once. The album got huge, we wrote the first book. So the third series went off the boil for a bit, because we were so shattered and we had used a lot of the ideas in the book.
We came back in 1982 for the fourth series with a new director, Geoff Posner, who we immediately realised was the real deal. Geoff is the guy you get in if you want to direct the Queen's Jubilee Concerts. He did all Victoria Wood's work, and Lenny's.
That fourth series is easily the most professional. Beautifully shot, incredibly well acted, a very well edited, controlled thing. But the new sketches all seem rather like things we'd done before. It's that terrible thing in comedy when you realise what your own joke is.
Somehow, the soul had gone out of it. At the end of that series, Rowan gave us all the sack, saying, “I don't want to do this anymore”. At the time it was really heartbreaking. But looking back, he was absolutely right. Cleese did the same thing with Python, but the rest of them staggered on for their fourth series and, again, it was incredibly professional but not as funny.
That's the firework curve of the creative process: struggling up from nothing to do something dangerous and messy, then this wonderful efflorescence of genius and effortlessness, then suddenly it doesn't have the spark anymore, and then it's gone. So thank God we weren't still doing it 10 years on.
Did the topical stuff make it harder, because you wrote so close to filming?
Sean would be at the film editors' all week, compiling funny clips that we could re-voice. Then we had a pile of funny photos. Our main writer for that was a wonderful bloke called Laurie Rowley, who'd originally been a shower fitter in Leeds; he kept winning the caption competitions in Punch, so I'd given him a job in radio.
Over lunch we'd write 15–20 jokes, record them in the evening and pick the best ones. We got better at topical sketches, but there weren't that many of them and they were always going to be at least a few days out of date. It was more contemporary than topical.
It was, nonetheless, horrific pressure, because we were never really prepared. The truth is, it didn't really matter if it was topical or not; we usually hadn't written the sketches anyway.
Rowan, me, Mel and Griff would kick the script around, trying to shape the material.
I vividly remember watching the trucking sketch, with the squashed hedgehogs
Not The Nine had a joyous rudeness. It wasn't nasty, but it had a terrific sense of 'fuck you'. The trucking song is a good example. Great music, with lyrics from Richard Curtis, fantastic photography. Nobody in light entertainment had ever shot something like that with a big truck on a real motorway, Rowan actually driving the truck because he had a HGV1 licence. Pamela in the sexy little cut-off shorts – it had everything! Sex, jokes, satire, the royal family and squashed hedgehogs with their guts coming out. It was wonderful.
Sean did all of it – I was lost in admiration. I just thought, “This is the best job in the world.” We had the best actors, the best writers. We were all getting on so well.
We got a lot of complaints about the hedgehog getting squashed. So we did a cheeky apology, saying, “We'd like to point out that the hedgehog run over by Princess Anne was stuffed. If you'd like to complain about the people who stuff hedgehogs, please write to 'We want to know who stuffs hedgehogs, Not The Nine O'Clock News, BBC...'” (laughs)
It's extraordinary what we could get away with. And it seemed to be naughty and provocative without ever having to say 'cunt'. You didn't have to be particularly nasty about anybody. It was positive in a way that I don't think a lot of comedy is now. I mean, The Office is a brilliant piece of work, but it makes you want to kill yourself. It's more like a tragedy than a comedy. Whereas Not The Nine is “Woah! Girls! Rockers! Hedgehogs!”
Why did the cast change between series one and two?
It didn't really change much, although the pilot was very different; that had people like Willoughby Goddard and John Gorman in it. But Rowan was in it. Griff was a radio producer with me, so I asked him. I'd asked Mel, but he couldn't make it. I couldn't find a girl at all. We were going to do a whole series, but Jim Callaghan called the election in early 1979, and the BBC thought it would be too politically dangerous to put the show out, because we were bound to comment on the election and it would be unbalanced.
So they scrapped it and said, “Come back after the election,” which was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I wouldn't have had a career otherwise. We wouldn't have got beyond episode two. So when Sean and I reset it in the autumn, we still had Rowan, Mel was now free, we had Chris Langham, whom I knew well and who'd also been in the first episode in a very small part, and Pamela, whom I'd met at a party. We'd asked all sorts of famous women, like Victoria Wood and Susan George. Pamela was an unknown in this country, but I thought she was great. So we had the four of them, and Griff used to come in on Saturdays and do little bits.
Then after the first series, my boss John Howard Davies said, “You've got to get rid of this Langham bloke, he doesn't fit”. I was very reluctant to do it, even though Chris, as is well documented, had done a lot of drink and drugs, and hadn't yet got his act together and gone into AA. He was quite a tricky guy, but also very gifted. And I thought it was important to have some grit in the oyster.
But they said no, get rid of him, he's wrong, get somebody else. So we promoted Griff into the fourth spot as a regular and that was how it remained.
Did you have an explicitly political remit?
Yeah, political with a small 'p'. It wasn't left-wing or right-wing. The objective was to change what people were allowed to laugh about. We tried not to do clichés – no jokes about the Andrex Puppy. We wanted to be more truthful about real events in the world.
Sean knew a lot about this stuff, he's fiercely clever and well informed. It occurred to us that the traditional political stereotypes – that Tories were chinless, land-owning upper class, and that Labour were rough diamond, working class people from the north – had turned turtle. The Tories were now Mrs Thatcher, a lower middle class grocer's daughter from Grantham, and Norman Tebbit, a trade unionist. Whilst Labour's Dennis Healey had been to Oxford, was very intellectual and had an upper-class voice.
There's a rather brilliant sketch, one of the few that made it into the series from the pilot, where Rowan does his Tory monologue: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am a golfer!” It was a grammar school boy made good, a PR man. Rowan did that in 1979, but it's so like the Tory party now. That's Cameron, Clegg. We were decades ahead of our time! I've never thought of that before.
So the agenda was mainly to push the writers away from the cliché. They would commonly say, “But comedy deals in cliché. People won't get it if the Labour party are all upper class and the Tory party are working class.” So we were pushing, pushing all the time.
And the same thing was happening, almost exactly contemporary with us, in the Comedy Store in London. Before that, common wisdom was that no left-wing person had a sense of humour: all humour was right-wing – it was all about cripples, black people, fat people, and the illiberal perspective was what made things funny. Then people like Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton, Keith Allen, French & Saunders, and Rick & Ade started making jokes from a completely different angle. Not only was it funny, it was a relief that there was another way to do it.
Now, anyone who's seen as even slightly right-wing is considered not funny at all. Simon Evans could be booed off stage for saying things that aren't allowed in the lefty post-hippy climate. And even Michael McIntyre, in the comedy community, is thought to be too middle-class. It's gone turn and turn about, so now the common wisdom is that only left-wing humour is funny and right-wing humour is propaganda, un-PC dinosaur bollocks.
After that, you, Rowan and Richard went on to do Blackadder?
When Not The Nine split up, we weren't actually getting on that well. I was cross with Rowan for having collapsed the series. Everyone else had scattered. Pamela had gone off to marry Billy. Mel and Griff, terrified they'd never work again, went off and started the radio production company that became Talkback.
Sean Hardie and I went off to try and create another programme. We spent two miserable weeks in St Tropez, sitting by a swimming pool not having a single idea. We realised we'd run out of things to say. I remember that period of inactivity as being ages, but it can only have been a few months.
Then Rowan and Richard came to me with something they'd written called Prince Edmund and his Two Friends, which was a bit weedy. I didn't like it. But they begged me to do it, so eventually I thought, “Oh hell, you don't meet people this good that often” and gave in. They'd made the pilot by then, with John Howard Davies.
That first series was a bit lumpy. We were very cocky, we'd won two BAFTAs for Not The Nine. I think Rowan had won best comedy performer. So we thought we knew what we were doing. And like all comedy writers since television began, we cried: “Oh, why do we have to have an audience? Because if we didn't, we could be so much cleverer and subtler”. Big mistake.
We went off to Northumberland with this massive crew and overspent the budget by 200 per cent. And because the sets were too big to fit a studio audience in, you could indulge yourself and it could overrun. We never finished on time, so we had to pick up the next week and it got longer and longer. It took months and months to edit.
And Rowan's not the best guy at making up his mind, so there was this ghastly time of panic with Richard and me staying up till three in the morning trying to plan and think up extra jokes, slipping the script under Rowan's door in the morning. Then we'd sort of improvise it.
So, it was overblown. It got very bad reviews, but it still won an Emmy.
So another original but wobbly first series, rebooted for the second series?
It was very original, it was different, it was odd. But it wasn't right yet. We had to sack Rowan – ha, served him right! – from writing it. He wanted to be John Cleese, and for this to be his Fawlty Towers. But John is a writer, Rowan is not; he's a performer. He writes brilliant letters but he doesn't write scripts.
The Young Ones had just started the previous year, so Ben Elton was hot, but I couldn't have been more surprised when Richard told me he'd asked him to co-write Blackadder. A brilliant idea! And suddenly it was just like the second series of Not The Nine: fantastic! Those first scripts that came in were the best I'd ever seen.
And then Michael Grade told us we weren't getting a second series, because the first one didn't do much in the ratings and was too expensive.
So we had this horrific weekend, where me, Richard and Ben went through the scripts, taking out all the expensive bits: any explosions, location filming, cutting down the cast, no dogs, no horses. The best of the many brilliant ideas that weekend was, rather than doing realistic location filming, why don't we do it as Shakespeare would have done it? A scenic panorama with a single craggy tree.
Then I rushed over to John Howard Davies and said “You can't cancel us, we've cut the budget by two-thirds.”
He read the scripts, liked them, and went to speak to Michael Grade. Again, it was just a hair's breadth. If that hadn't happened, I'd probably just be a one-trick pony. I'd have done Not The Nine O'Clock News and been forgotten.
How did Curtis and Elton collaborate on the scripts?
They would discuss what they wanted to do over the series and come up with six episode ideas between them. Then they'd go away and write an episode each, and continually swap over re-editing each other's work.
I don't know who started which script and they wouldn't have told me. They were certainly bits that were obviously written by one or the other, giving it this funny cobbled effect that we had to try and smooth out. But now, when I look at the shows, I find it difficult to imagine who wrote what. It has a very consistent tone to it.
That series set the template that the next two followed. Did that make it easier?
Yes and no, because we'd changed the characters. Originally they wanted to stay in the Elizabethan era, but I said no, let's not get stale, let's move on another 200 years. So they made Rowan a butler to the Prince Regent. But in the first series he talks like a Lord; butlers don't talk like that. He has to be in a different relationship, so we had to unlearn all those things and start again.
Also, we only made Blackadder every two years, so each time we came back, there were bigger egos because we'd all become terribly famous in the interim. Everybody was used to having absolute power. It would take a couple of weeks to get back into the collaborative mindset, but what you get in return is amazing. Half a dozen of the most intelligent, funny, nicest people in the world working together. And that's why Blackadder has lasted, why there's so much to it. There probably isn't an episode that is perfect from beginning to end, but there's 15-minute chunks that are about as good as it gets in sitcom.
You did a bit of writing on Blackadder as well...
I've always done that on everything. It's part of my job because I'm really a script editor – a script editor with power, in a way.
Didn't you write the whole 'rotten boroughs' conversation?
Yes, but only out of exasperation. I'd said to Richard, “We have to explain what a rotten borough is.” And he said, “How can you explain that and be funny? It's really boring and for God's sake, people know what one is.” That sort of conversation, tetchy.
So I said I'd do it. I went home and wrote it that evening, under the pressure, and it's a pretty funny little scene, isn't it? It was a mechanical process: you've got to get from here to here in the shortest amount of time possible, and get some jokes in it.
There's a lot of team effort in Blackadder. Which is not to minimise Richard and Ben's amazing achievement, without whom it would never have happened. But it's no good going round saying, “Those bloody actors won't do what they were told,” because those bloody actors made it what it is today. Writing wise, Stephen and Hugh above all.
How much was changed by the cast in the rehearsal period?
Oh, tons. Richard and Ben had much less experience of writing characters back then. Something I learned on Blackadder is that sitcom is about character. Inexperienced writers usually think it's about the situation, the plot. And because Richard and Ben were brilliant sketch writers they used to start with set pieces. “Here's a funny idea, Dr Johnson's forgotten to put some words in his dictionary. And Blackadder seizes on this to humiliate him because he's jealous.”
And then the actors would come in and say, “But my character wouldn't say this line”. Richard used to get very cross. And I'd find myself caught in the middle, because we wanted funny lines, but they've got to be real, believable.
Comedy writers hate actors who ask, “What's my motivation?” “Your motivation is do what you're told! Why don't you do my joke? I've written a funny joke!” But that's bollocks. It's not about the jokes. Fawlty Towers has no jokes in it at all. The plot is very simple: Fawlty wants to place a bet on a race, Manuel forgets, Sybil finds out. Everything else is about the characters, the people.
So, yeah, if the actors came up with funnier lines, which they often did, they'd be used. For example, in the third series, Stephen Fry wasn't in it much – he only had a guest part as the Duke of Wellington. He was a bit miffed because he had a big part as Melchett in series two, and now Hugh Laurie, his best friend and biggest competitor, had got the plum part – as big as Rowan's part. So he wanted to make a big splash, and one of his lines was: “Your Royal Highness, the king your father is mad.”
He said, “Richard, this is such an unfunny line. Can I say something a bit more interesting?” And Richard says, “What's wrong with that? We've got to explain that George III is mad”. And Stephen says, “Yes, but couldn't I say,” – he appeals to me – “Something like: 'Your Royal Highness, the king now believes himself to be a small village in Lincolnshire with spectacular views of the Nene Valley'?”
Well, how could I resist? Stephen's very good at parodies and it's exactly the way Blackadder sounded: ornate. So there was plenty of that. Richard thought I was ruining it. But he's since said that, much as it was miserable for him when it was happening, he looks at it now and thinks, okay, John was right. Just as I now think Rowan was right about Not The Nine.
Stephen Fry was a bit miffed when Hugh Laurie, his best friend and biggest competitor, got the plum part in Blackadder the Third.
Did cast input actually change plots?
Oh yeah, all the time. Because the plots were never very good to start with. I don't think Richard and Ben were terribly interested in the plot. They wanted to get the set piece: Blackadder teasing Dr Johnson; Sir Walter Raleigh boasting about his adventures. They were superb at that, and at the dialogue and jokes. But dialogue and jokes do not a sitcom make, so we'd have this pile of funny scenes that didn't really hang together.
We would go backwards really. We would get jokes with a rough plot, then a lot of the rehearsal was spent getting the characters right. And once we knew who the characters were and why they did what they did, that tended to push the plot.
The character development would generally come from the actors, and the more serious the actor the more pressure there was. Tim McInnery, as well as being a very funny guy, is a real actor's actor. He wants to know what the haircut is, what kind of walk the character has – he's brilliant at it.
As you probably know, in series four's original script his character was called Cartwright. Stephen said, “That's a rather boring name, why don't you call him Darling or something, that'll at least be funny.” That came from trying to find the character. 'Cartwright' has no colour to it, but now every time Blackadder calls him 'Darling', it's ironic and cruel. Which gives us a relationship. Darling hates Blackadder because he's jealous of him, because he's a real man, a front-line soldier.
And Blackadder has a lovely airy tone with him that takes you back to his braggadocio, derring-do character in the second series. That's the old Lord Edmund: “Hello Darling!” The gene is still there; a slightly cruel, witty man. But most of the time, Captain Blackadder's in despair; he's come to the end of a genetic strand that's not going to recur.
Tim also spent ages getting his hair right: that crinkled, tight arsed, fiddly haircut. The character punches way above his weight. You watch him acting his socks off when Stephen's doing the talking, it's wonderful. Because acting isn't just about delivering lines, it's about being there and being real.
As each series goes along, Blackadder becomes a more decent person, whilst at the same time decreasing in social standing. Was that on purpose?
In Shakespeare, it's known as the intentional fallacy, isn't it? The question of whether it matters if the author consciously chose the underlying themes and imagery or not. I'm not sure how conscious that was, I'm not sure if it even matters. But yes, it's definitely there.
It's particularly noticeable in series four, which like series two features Bob and Flashheart. But this time Blackadder recognises Bob as female right away and doesn't take advantage of her. Plus he now hates Flash, rather than admiring him.
I don't think we consciously crafted these supposedly 'brilliant' playwright-type structures, but we were certainly trying make Blackadder more than a mere extended sketch. We could see that, if he was a butler, for example, he'd have a different attitude, a different turn of phrase and so on. Those things are taken on board and to some extent dictate the action.
Here's a real comedy-nerd question. In the series four episode 'Corporal Punishment' Blackadder and a guard, played by Jeremy Hardy, talk about a lawyer whose name is clearly dubbed over as 'Massingbird'. Why the dub?
The original name – I can't remember it exactly, I think it was double barrelled – was a barrister friend of Richard Curtis. Dick often put friends' names into sketches; he did it all the way through Not the Nine O'Clock News. It's a simple way of coming up with fresh character names that aren't clichés.
Richard thought his friend would be very flattered to have his name in Blackadder, which at that stage was huge. But when he told him – after it had already been recorded – this guy was horrified. As a barrister, he wasn't allowed to have his name used in case it was classed as advertising: some technical thing that lawyers weren't allowed to do in those days. He also worried that, if his clients heard his name in a silly context, they'd all go elsewhere.
So whether for legal reasons or personal, Richard rushed in and said, "Help, help! Change this!" And we got the actors back in to dub it over. Not very well, evidently.
What scenarios were being considered for other series of Blackadder? Rumours included a '60s rock band.
Yes, a sort of Beatles with a drummer called 'Bald Rick'. That was one possibility. I always liked the idea of Homo-Blackadder, set in the Stone Age, with Baldrick the monkey, and Homo-Blackadder appearing out of the forest.
We also got quite far talking about one set in the Second World War, with a platoon of Dad's Army soldiers in a seaside resort. One day a German submarine lands on the pier, captures them, and takes them to Colditz, where they have to escape. I thought that was quite funny.
Rowan's worried we're all too old now, particularly the actors. In fact, somebody told me only yesterday, about Johnny English 2: apparently they did research on the target market and the 13-year-old boys said they “hated that bit where the old guy kisses Rosamund Pike” (laughs).
So Rowan thinks that even if we could get everyone back together – and I think the hardest thing would be persuading Richard and Ben – we're all looking a bit old. But Hugh Laurie is huge, Rowan has aged very well. Tony's getting on, but then he's about to marry a woman 30 years his junior, so he looks very well on it.
But we're probably done now. We ended on that last scene in series four, and there's something about it. People say it's so moving because everyone dies. But they died in all the other series, we just never got it right before, it was a bit silly. That moment is genuinely touching and I don't think we could do better than that.
We've seen glimpses of other Blackadders: we got a 15-minute episode of The Cavalier Years and in the Christmas Special we got to see a bit of Space Blackadder.
I always thought that one was very funny. I'd love to do the space series. I just don't think you can go back. It's like people trying to get me to do Spitting Image again. To be as good as people remember it, it'd have to be four times as good.
There was also the one-off special Blackadder Back and Forth, which... wasn't very good.
Well, I was sacked from that. It was driven by the government, who wanted something to fill the Millennium Dome. Ben wasn't free, and he and Richard didn't want to do it, so I got the job.
Because they didn't want to write it, we were going to do a sort of historical sketch show, linked by Blackadder and Baldrick. Then when Ben heard it was going to be done under the Blackadder name without him, he came back with Richard. The other writers who'd been commissioned were let go, and I didn't hear any more.
Then by the time they'd got it going I wasn't free, but I wasn't wanted anyway. It was very much “let's get rid of John – he's annoying”. I was dreadfully hurt and cross, but I bit my tongue and didn't do anything about it. I actually went to the first day of the read through, and it was fairly obvious that the actors weren't terribly happy.
Because however difficult Blackadder was – and we did get cross with each other, heated arguments and pain on all sides – the point was: it worked. And I think Richard and Ben decided they could do it better on their own, which proved not to be the case. Because although it's a very professionally produced piece of work, it isn't funny. There are funny moments and it looks great, but it doesn't have the Blackadder spirit. I think Rowan hated doing it. He hates it even being shown. He doesn't consider it part of the canon.
I understand that the group rewriting process had been very painful, particularly for Richard. So I quite understand he didn't want to go through that again. But without it, it didn't really work. Anyway, thankfully, we've long since made up and forgiven each other.
Where did the idea of using puppets come from?
I'd been in radio for five years and I knew people who did brilliant voice impressions. But they didn't look anything like the people, and we couldn't possibly afford make-up like Mike Yarwood had – which is still less than you get these days with Rory Bremner or Alastair McGowan. You couldn't spend hours in make-up for every sketch, you had to be very quick.
The idea of puppets came up early on in Not The Nine. Sean said there were these two brilliant guys, Fluck and Law, who do fantastic magazine covers for Newsweek and so forth, using Plasticine models. We realised that if we could get them to make puppets like this and add our voice actors, it would bring their work into three dimensions.
So we went to see Roger Law, who was teaching at Holborn College Of Art, and said: “We've just got this new television series. Would you make us some puppets?” He asked what the budget was and I said, “About £200”. Roger said, “What, per puppet?” and I said, “No, for all of them”. And he just laughed, saying, “It takes blooming months to do these models, can't possibly do that.”
So I went away with my tail between my legs and we got the props department to make these two puppets out of expanded polystyrene. One was of Dennis Healey I think. They were awful. Massive things, like Easter Island statues. Nobody's fault – we didn't know what we were doing. We recorded a couple of things then dropped them. But we still liked the idea.
Then when Spitting Image came up, the guy who put up the first amount of money – Martin Lambie-Nairn, a brilliant graphics designer who designed the original Channel 4 logo – had the same idea, and went to Fluck and Law with £10k.
They'd only made models before and didn't know anything about puppets. They spent Martin's 10 grand in a twinkling, trying to get the technology right. Then Clive Sinclair, of the C5 and the ZX computer, put up the next £60k and from that they got one half puppet of Nancy Reagan as a parrot. And that's round about when I came in again.
On Spitting Image we called ourselves 'Her Majesty's loyal opposition'.
So do you think of Spitting Image as having been your idea?
When people ask me that I sort of grind my teeth a bit and say, “It depends what you mean.” I did think of a similar idea, but didn't get it off the ground. Martin says it was his idea, because he put up the first lot of money, but that's not fair either. So the credits on Spitting Image, instead of 'based on an original idea by...' say 'based on an original lunch with Martin Lambie-Nairn', which was really what it was.
Any fool can have the idea for a puppet show about politicians. You try making the puppets, selling the show, getting it right, making it funny, defending yourself against the politicians and terrible reviews, and staying on air. That's the hard bit.
Spitting Image is made up of literally millions of tiny ideas from dozens of very bright people struggling to get every little detail right, and in the end that's what counts.
Why do you think there isn't that sort of aggressive political satire on TV any more?
Because broadcasters now are fantastically cowardly, particularly when it comes to the press. The BBC are terrified of anything The Daily Mail thinks. Satire, by its nature, tends to be anti-establishment and the press, certainly at the moment, is pro-establishment. It's pro-banking, pro-big corporations, against reforming the voting system, and against liberalism.
So although they may say they'd like to do it, I don't think any broadcaster has really got the courage to weather the storm. The television landscape is very different now. The BBC has been so weakened by politics. What happened to Greg Dyke would never have happened before Mrs Thatcher.
The BBC used to be a law unto itself. That's why politicians disliked it so much. It was a publicly-funded organisation that vocally stood up to the government of the day. Politicians considered it annoying, but they couldn't do much in a democratic country with a free press and a diversity of views.
That isn't the case anymore. Now it's considered unpatriotic for the BBC to criticise the government policy of the day. But God, does it need it! On Spitting Image, we used to call ourselves: 'Her Majesty's loyal opposition' because the Labour Party were doing such a feeble job.
That's what we considered our role to be; putting the other point across, albeit in a funny way. A great deal of political thought went into Spitting Image, and there were a diversity of views amongst the production team and writers. We had the most divisive government in the last 100 years, so there was a lot that needed to be aired.
Do you think political satire can make a difference?
No. Not really. If anything, political satire acts as a safety valve, so it's doing the people in power a favour. Rather than the people rising up and hanging them from lampposts, they just get mocked a bit. I have long held the view that if it hadn't been for Spitting Image, the Tory government would have fallen much earlier. Perhaps that's arrogant in a strange, reverse way, but the more horrible we were about Mrs Thatcher, the stronger she appeared.
People portrayed as weak always complain about it, whilst those portrayed as strong – even if as murderous bastards – always like it. David Owen thought his puppet was terribly funny because his character won all the time, whilst David Steel hated his.
I spent a long time trying to change the world by direct action – political satire and comment – but I don't feel I made any difference. I've made far more difference learning how to be a good father to my children, which is a much harder job than making jokes about politicians with big noses. You have more effect on things that you can fix personally rather than just shouting about how wrong the world is.
How was directing Peter Cook in the Life in Pieces series of five-minute shorts?
I didn't really know much about Peter before I met him, because I was at school when the 60s satire boom happened and we weren't allowed to watch television. So I got to know him quite late in his career, and I got on amazingly well with him. We used to laugh and drink an enormous amount. He was a fantastically good bloke.
For various reasons too complicated to go into now, we found ourselves doing some writing together. He used to blather on and I'd laugh myself silly, tape record it, then take it away and tidy it up. Because Peter had not been writing anything down, not paying attention, probably completely pissed, he was none the wiser as to what he'd said and what bits I'd added.
Those Life in Pieces scripts were really good. I can't understand why the BBC have never repeated them. You can see them on YouTube. They're really original and interesting, they make me roll around laughing, still, to this day.
The concept was that Peter, as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, is being interviewed by Ludovic Kennedy. We shot the two of them separately. Peter Fincham (who produced the series) actually did the interviewing of Sir Arthur, and then Ludo came in on another day and we did the other angle with him asking the questions - and then cut the two halves together.
The editing was fantastically hard because, when there's no audience, getting the comic timing right is really difficult. But we discovered that, by putting Ludo's quizzical cutaways at just the right points, the thing could be twice as funny. Peter's performance didn't work nearly so well on its own. It's looking at Ludo going, "Really? Hmm..." that makes it really hilarious.
Some people found Cook difficult to work with, but you obviously didn't?
No, not at all. I never found Rowan Atkinson difficult either, and he's famously hard to direct. I'm told that Harry Enfield can be very difficult, but he never has been with me. Maybe it's their directors who're 'difficult'? Or maybe it's because I'm directing more as a friend and co-writer than some auteur in jodhpurs, I don't know.
When an actor and director are working well – especially if you've written and planned it together too - it doesn't feel like two people really, it feels like more one unit.
I did have one slightly alarming experience on a commercial with Spike Milligan, but even that was over in five minutes. John Cleese once yelled at me on the phone, but rang back a few moments later to apologize – he said he'd suffered 'an ego attack' – and it was fine after that.
Did you and Cook write anything else together?
We wrote a big thing for HBO, called The Dark Horse from the Grass Roots, which was a brilliant idea where he was going to stand as a politician in the American elections. We were going to go to Nebraska and make nonsensical speeches to large crowds from the back of a lorry and record their reactions. Then there would be a narrative strand, a documentary thing.
But the production executive at HBO lost faith that Peter would ever finish the script – he was a bit like Douglas in that respect – so they took it to somebody else and made a series with a different script but the same idea. Peter was very cross about that.
So Life in Pieces was the only thing that made it to air. When Peter died we were working on a much bigger thing: a sort of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling's History of the Universe. There were a number of ideas floating around, but sadly, for obvious reasons, it never came to anything.
In 1990, at 38 years old, you got two Lifetime Achievement Awards –one from BAFTA and one from the RTS – and you quit making TV shows to direct adverts.
Quitting prefigured getting the awards, actually. By the end of Blackadder in 1989, I'd worked like a complete maniac for 15 years, and I was very, very tired. Still to this day I don't know what was driving me, but I'd been sort of running away from a runaway train. Then I met Sarah and got married and thought, “I'm going to have a rest now.”
I'd discovered advertising two years before. I shot my first ad during Blackadder III. And I thought, why should I work 200 hours a week for ninepence when I can work a couple of months a year and be paid 15 times as much? Because I finally want to be happy, I want to have a nice life.
Early in 1990, I was doing a Dime Bar ad with Harry Enfield, where he was dressed up as a giant baby, with nappies and real babies all over the studio. My wife Sarah called up on the studio phone and said, “I'm pregnant.” I couldn't believe it – I'd never thought I was going to have kids.
Later that year, at BAFTA, Blackadder won three awards on the same night (including mine). It was a complete surprise, a wonderful honour and, at that moment, it just seemed like I was the luckiest man, the happiest man that had ever been born.
I thought, “My God, I can't believe this! I've got a pregnant wife, a lifetime award, I'm not even 40 and I've got this great career behind me, I've got some money and I can do what I like, I'm free, it's fantastic.”
It was kind of lucky that I got the lifetime awards after I quit. If I'd still been working in television it would have been a disaster, because I wouldn't have been able to top it. But now, in theory at least, I could really enjoy it. Actually, it turned out to be a disaster after all - the beginning of ten years of real pain and struggle, but that's another story...
My life is a series of ghastly mistakes that somehow turned out okay in the end.
Many people still love the Barclaycard ads with Rowan Atkinson – “smell those Tuareg campfires, unmistakeable.” Did Barclaycard ask for the whole Blackadder team?
No, the Barclaycard ads were originally designed to be for Michael Palin, who was going to replace Alan Whicker. But the agency had got the gig without actually asking him! Mike and I were friendly, so I contacted his agent. She wrote back very sweetly that Mike doesn't want to do ads, but as it's you he'll have a look at the script. But he wasn't interested. In fact, he hadn't done an ad since 1968 or something, and had no desire to do any more.
So the agency had this huge campaign that they'd won for Barclaycard, but no star. They were absolutely appalled, because a lot of people would have lost their jobs if we hadn't solved it. So they said, “Do you know anyone else famous?” I said, yes, a few! I suggested Rowan, because we'd just done Blackadder together, he was right at the top of his game and, up to that time, he'd never done a really good ad.
So I got Rowan, his agent and the two agency guys to come round to our kitchen in Fulham. Rowan said, “Well, the scripts are a man in a white suit going round the world. It's a bit... er... Michael Palin-ish.” Because the agency hadn't done much with the script; they'd just whited out 'Michael' and put 'Rowan' over the top (laughs).
We started from first principles. What does the product do, what are you trying to get across, what benefits does it have? It's for international travel, but also it's like an emergency service, your best friend when you're in trouble. So who could the main character be? An explorer, a commercial traveller – oh, a spy, that's a good idea. It was very unusual. You never normally have the star, director and agency making a ground-floor start, with no script or concept.
So the origin of it had nothing specifically to do with Blackadder, although obviously the character owes a considerable amount to that Blackadder style. Whereas the later incarnations of him, in the Johnny English movies, he's more like Mr Bean. Which it wouldn't have been if I'd been directing, but unfortunately I was fired from both Johnny English movies by the film company. I'm always being fired by film companies. They're not really my kind of people.
It seems you're always being fired from things that then turn out to be not be very good.
Well, I didn't want to say that, Alex! (laughs)
The thing is, what commonly happens is that people offer me jobs saying, “You're a comedy genius!” And I say, “No, no I'm not. A genius is someone who doesn't have to try.” I'm just very hard-working and insanely dogged.
They hire me on the project then say, “No, we don't want you to have opinions or tell us what to do, or disagree with anybody, we just want you to make it really funny.” I say, “Look, I don't sprinkle magic fairy dust. It won't become good by me being terribly nice to people, it comes good by fixing it. The plot isn't right and the cast isn't right...” And people hate that.
In ads, the agency often ask “How are you going to light it?” And I say, “I'm going to light it well.” “Well, what genre of lighting?” But that's not the point. I'm going to light it so people don't notice it's being lit. That's what I do as a director, make myself disappear, so that people are, first of all, concentrating on what you're trying to sell them and, second of all, laughing.
So I get fired. I absolutely hate being sacked. It's caused me far more misery than I deserve, I think. I should just say, “It's their loss,” but I've never been able to do that. I don't go around saying, “You see, without me, Blackadder Back and Forth wasn't very good.” I just think, guys, doing things well is difficult. It's not that I'm difficult, it's doing it well that's difficult.
Also around that time, you did the pilot of Have I Got News For You, as the question master. Do you regret dropping out of the series?
I often say Angus walked off with my life, my salary and my girlfriend (laughs). No, I don't regret it. I was rather relieved to walk away. I didn't like reading the autocue or wearing clothes that somebody else had bought. I felt very uncomfortable. I don't think I did a very good job on the pilot. When I saw Angus in it, I thought he was brilliant.
I think Ian Hislop loves doing it. I'm a bit more like Ian than Angus, in the sense that Ian is not a showbiz person – you don't see him at glamorous premieres. He's a very hard-working family man who lives in the country and has great fun doing the odd bit of telly, but he's not in it for the glamour. The other part of his broadcasting career is making very low budget, extremely interesting documentaries about serious subjects. He likes both things. Ian is a tremendous contributor to the culture in all sorts of ways.
I said no to a lot of jobs in 1989 – it wasn't just HIGNFY. I turned down Head of Comedy at BBC. I was offered the anchor-man's job on The Holiday Programme, a mainstream peak-time thing – they said, “Do the studio work, then six or seven times a year you can go anywhere in the world and make a film about it.” But I'd just got married and didn't fancy working that hard.
I don't think I would have liked the exposure, then. Now I can handle it, I rather like it, in fact. I've been recognised twice in the last week. I don't mind being stopped in the street at all: I genuinely like talking to ordinary people. Well, twice a week is no problem, certainly.
After 14-years away, you came back to TV with QI. Was it a hard sell?
Actually, no. Certainly, compared to Spitting Image it was an absolute piece of piss! With Spitting Image, we went to practically every ITV company in the country before we finally found Central.
With QI, I took it to Peter Fincham at Talkback, who's an old friend. They'd just sold Talkback for £62 million, so I tried to get a couple of million off him up front, but he wasn't up for that! (laughs) He took me to see Alan Yentob, another old friend, who also liked the idea.
So the three of us set about selling it, which involved wandering along the sixth-floor corridor at the BBC. First we went to see Lorraine Heggessey at BBC1, who didn't get it, though she later became my boss at Talkback and one of the show's biggest fans. And at that meeting she did buy another QI project that's not yet been made: Class War, a game show between teams of very upper-class and very working-class people, which I still think is a good idea.
Then we went a few doors down to Jane Root at BBC2 and she bought the pilot on the spot. It was the best pilot I'd done since The News Quiz in 1977. It was so exciting, like discovering a new chemical element. They were all on fantastic form: Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Alan and Stephen. Jane bought 12 shows, which is unheard of for a first series. I remember that summer, on holiday in Cornwall, showing it to all my friends. Anyone who came to the house, we'd make them sit down and watch it.
Jane had a thing called 'The three million club': if you got more than three million viewers, you were a special friend, and we got 3.1 million that first show. It's always been really successful; the show, the books.
People think, oh it's a bit niche, a bit middle-class, it's for old people. But it isn't. We have 9-year-old viewers, bookies watch it – they know it's a revolutionary show that says most school is a waste of time. Most TV is vacuous crap, but here's this warm, smart, accessible show. It's proper old-fashioned telly and it's radical and different. And it's stealth learning – we're educating people without boring them, giving them a taste for more interesting conversations.
Is the stealth learning an attempt to make a difference in the way you think Spitting Image didn't?
Oh, yeah. It's not just a vehicle for Stephen Fry to become even more of a national treasure! (laughs)
QI has done really well, but it's done nothing like as well as I thought it would. It's been 10 years since the pilot, and I thought by this time I'd be a billionaire with a network of 1,000 schools around the world, creating an elite group of people who thought more intelligently, openly, creatively and kindly. I don't know – maybe that's still possible. I think it's the way everyone should be educated. There should be a GCSE in QI; a degree in interestingness.
We do sixteen shows a year now, which is a lot of content. What we say about language, biology, molecular chemistry, you name it – it educates by drips. You hear people saying, “Yeah, I know something that rhymes with purple, it's kirtle, which is something to do with a horse's saddle... how do I know that?”
What's good for us is that it's still hard work and still a struggle to make ends meet every year, so you don't get spoilt. You can't afford to rest on your laurels or get depressed or think you're a genius.
Is QI going to run out of popular myths, or is general ignorance boundless?
Human ignorance is boundless, but unfortunately general knowledge is quite limited. You can't point out that a certain cliché is wrong if people have never heard of that cliché. For years we've been thinking that we're going to run out of popular myths, but it hasn't happened yet. And the general ignorance this series are the best yet. They're all about very simple things.
QI moved from BBC2 to BBC1. Why did it then move back?
BBC 2 asked us before BBC1's new controller, Danny Cohen, was even sitting in the seat. Nobody was minding the store, so nobody was in charge to defend BBC 1's position. And BBC2 really, really wanted it back.
And from our point of view, it's better to be on BBC2. Although one could make a family show out of QI, part of the fun is that it's slightly naughty, slightly rude. And you can do jokes at 10pm on BBC2 which wouldn't feel right at 8.30pm on BBC1.
Even though it obviously does better in the ratings on BBC1, I'd rather do a show that gets a million fewer people but that's more itself. Over the last two years, in recordings that are often incredibly raucous and filthy, we've been thinking, “Can't use this, can't use that”, whereas now we can relax, thinking, “He's just said schmuck is Yiddish for penis. That's fine at 10pm on BBC2.” Which is a terrific relief.
Wasn't QI originally going to be a radio show, with you as the chair?
When I first took the idea to Peter Fincham, I said it's a huge idea – I had a map of all the things we could do; in the middle was a website, then radio, television, educational videos, shops, university subjects, merchandising, corporate videos, a whole range of things. I wanted to start with radio, to build up the research in private. But Peter said there's no money in it, and even though I thought that wasn't the point, he was very persuasive, so we went straight into TV.
Do you think you get enough credit for QI? Even the book covers feature Stephen & Alan's faces and names rather than yours.
Well, it's obviously a commercially good idea to remind people that it's from the show that Alan and Stephen are on. But it is always an awkward relationship between the writers and stars. Unlike in America, over here it doesn't matter if you're the producer or even the executive producer, the back-room guys get paid a tiny fraction of what the talent gets – even if you invented the show, as I did with QI.
The talent know this, and they're usually happy to help with things like the books. When we did the first Not The Nine O'Clock News book, they said, “Absolutely, we'll do a picture for the front cover.” And they also did photo sessions for the spoof ads in the books. We were all good friends, the series was a huge hit and they were grateful because none of them, apart from Rowan, were likely to have become instantly famous like that.
But then the book started to sell in ridiculous numbers – it sold 800,000 in a couple of months. So with the second book people said, perfectly reasonably: “I'm not going to do this for nothing because you're making a lot of money off our faces.”
Similarly, as the QI books got their own momentum and fan base – and as people realised Stephen and Alan just do the forewords – we tried not to cheat by trading on their good names. The new books, including the reissued first book, don't have famous faces on the front, just cartoons of schoolboys and things.
Does writing QI require a different approach to other scripts?
As Alan Moore said in your interview with him, there's really no such thing as genre. It doesn't matter what you're doing; doing it well is the same in any field, any job. Doesn't matter if you're an architect, painter, bicycle mender.
Can you describe the researching/writing technique on QI?
Both in the books and the show, we take very complicated information and strip it down to the most concise, clear, jargon-free expression of an idea or concept. The best research is written in language that an intelligent 12-year-old can understand. Trying to get the QI books that simple is fantastically hard.
Churchill had this great line: “The old words are best, and the old words when short are best of all.” He was a big fan of Anglo-Saxon words: cat rather than feline, dog rather than canine – saving a syllable.
We encourage the researchers and writers to have a 'styleless style', so when you read a QI book it definitely has a tone, but it's impossible to tell which of us wrote any one paragraph. It just feels like the voice of QI.
You can also see it in The Meaning of Liff. The language is as simple as Douglas and I could make it. “The first tiniest inkling that something's gone terribly wrong.” I suppose 'inkling' is an unusual word, but it's not a complicated word.
How many researchers/writers work on QI?
Up to 10 people on TV. For the books, John Mitchinson clumps all the information together, breaks it down into bits and does the first pass to create the spine of the book.
Then my wife Sarah – who was a publisher for 10 years and is a brilliant editor – goes through it, cutting out redundant phrases, correcting typos and pointing out anything she can't understand. Then it goes back to John for a second pass, and then it comes to me for the final polish.
And in the process I'm learning about the subject myself, which is a very unusual way of editing. Normally an editor might think, “Well, this is a book on neuroscience, I'm not expected to know everything, so I'll just leave these bits alone.”
Or if you've got a famous author, someone like Joanne Rowling, you wouldn't dare say, “This chapter's a bit long.” But a professional editor knows that sometimes making it 15 per cent shorter makes it 30 per cent better.
Sometimes making it 15% shorter makes it 30% better.
On these projects, do you consider yourself a writer or an editor?
I'm not really a writer. This is only writing in the way that a corporate annual report or a slogan on the side of a bus is; it's not like a novel or a play. It's rather as if I'm still in the sketch-writing stage, not having progressed to sitcoms. I hope I will one day, but not yet.
At one of the BAFTA awards, Rowan said that I'm “not just a comedy plumber”, but that's what I think of myself as: a handyman. Like with Peter Cook's stream of consciousness, which I would take home and edit. In a craftsman analogy: you have a Ferrari, but it's in bits. You clean it up, put it on bricks, fix the tyres.
You didn't need much of that with Peter, because he was such an extraordinarily clever guy, but everyone can do with a bit of ordering. With a great performer-writer like Peter, it's a badge of pride if they don't notice that you've changed it a lot. They remember they were very funny about secret mushroom farming or whatever, and say, “I'd forgotten it was so good.”
It's very common in comedy writing teams that one guy is the mad creative one, often very unstable, perhaps drinks too much. And the other person is the sensible tidy one. I'm not saying I'm all that stable, but I am a pedant and a perfectionist.
In Museum of Curiosity, are you going to have a different resident curator every series?
That's the theory, although we so liked having Dave Gorman that it's going to be very difficult to replace him. We liked Bill and Sean and Jon too, of course, they've all been terrific in very different ways.
If QI had been a radio series, does that mean there wouldn't have been a Museum Of Curiosity?
Yes, probably. So that worked out quite well, I got to have both.
You're named after your great uncle, Brigadier-General John Hardress Lloyd. Do you use 'Hardress' much?
No, never. John and Hardress are family names that have attached themselves to first-born male Lloyds since at least the beginning of the 17th century. My father's genealogical research goes right back to the town of Ardres in northern France and (or so he claimed) a bloke called D'Ardres, who came over with William the Conqueror. Or possibly it's from the ancient Welsh 'hardd', which means handsome.
Everyone in the family has hated having the name, except my son Harry. When he was born we couldn't decide what to call him. Sarah and I were still arguing about it whilst standing on the steps of the registry office on Marylebone Road.
Eventually we said, okay, we'll call him Hardress, after Dad. My Dad was really touched when we called him up and told him that Harry was going to be christened Hardress. "Oh my dear chap!" he said. "I am pleased. But the poor little bugger will be terribly teased at school, of course. I was, weren't you?" My Dad never called himself Hardress either: his friends all knew him as 'Harpy'.
But Harry has never been teased about it, in fact. He rather likes it. Things have changed now; because of multi-ethnicity (and fashion) half the people in every school have weird names. The odd one out now would be someone called 'John' like me.
You got a CBE in 2011. Was that for Museum and QI's educational content?
I haven't the faintest idea. "Services to broadcasting," it says. I know that quite a large number of my friends wrote to whoever it is you write to. I didn't know it was happening. I thought it was a wind-up when I was told. I'm still a bit baffled, although I do very much think of myself as a public servant. It's a real honour, I have to say. Can't deny I'm pleased.
I've done a lot, going right back to The News Quiz and helping out with things like Bean and Hitchhiker. Perhaps I should have been given it for 'services to export', considering all the people I've helped start out who've gone on to make tons of money.
Actually, the best thing was it got me mentioned in Private Eye for the first time, which is one of my proudest moments. They did a spoof New Year's Honours list and under my name it said, 'for services to bringing down the government' (laughs).
What's next on your life's to-do list?
I would like to start writing a novel I've been planning since the late 90s. It was the same year I had the idea for QI, so I've had to park it for 12 years.
What's it about?
Well, this is going to sound awfully pretentious, but it's an enormous saga that takes place across space and time.
It's so real to me. When I got really pissed off with the way life was, I would escape to this universe and just wander about in it and see what people were up to.
During Fierce Creatures, Cleese told me I should write and direct a movie. And I said, “I don't think I'm talented enough to do that, John.” And he replied: “Yes you are, you're just a coward, you won't take the risk.” It was hurtful, but by the time I got home that evening I realised he was right. I wasn't brave enough to stick my head above the parapet. I'd rather moan on about getting fired.
Rowan's done Mr Bean; that's very Rowan. Douglas did Hitchhiker. Richard did Four Weddings. These are very direct personal expressions of who they are and how they think. Richard Curtis is very like his Hugh Grant characters: the charm, intelligence, modesty and the slight agonies. Douglas is like all his characters, and Rowan is a curious cross between Blackadder and Mr Bean.
I've never done something that's just my thing. It's part of my philosophy that everybody has at least one unique piece in them that it's their job to ex-press. And I haven't done mine yet.
John Lloyd interviewed by Alex Musson
Mustard gets Quite Interesting
Mustard was asked to design the poster for John Lloyd's Edinburgh Fringe show Liff of QI.
Blackadder action figure
Comes with cape, spare codpiece, bottle of his own urine and a rotting severed head.
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