Hang on to your bonnets – Jane Austen themed improv show Austentatious is currently on tour across the UK, and to celebrate, TVO caught up with the team and decided to ask each of them just one question.
Imagine a cross between Russian Roulette and Smash Hits ‘Oh No Not The Biscuit Tin’, and you’re not too far off the mark, except with much better Regency get-up and nobody dying. And sadly fewer biscuits. This is the result…
The Velvet Onion: Were you a fan of Jane Austen’s work before getting involved in the show, and has all this improv on her themes changed your perception of her work?
Rachel Parris: Before starting Austentatious, I certainly liked her novels but had only read a couple. It was after creating the show that we all made an effort to get to know her work better – and having read her books, her letters and learned more about her world, I am a bigger fan now than I ever was. I think doing improv around her style makes me take notice of the less obvious sides of Austen – the moments of mournful feeling, the biting sarcasm, the fervent frustration. She’s known for light witty conversation but doing this show reminds you she wrote much more than that, and we try to incorporate all that into what we do. It’s a challenge!
TVO: What’s the best bit of improv you’ve seen come out of the group so far?
Andrew Hunter Murray: ‘Best’ is tricky, but the most effective was probably at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, when Joseph took all his clothes off to play a nudist. This sounds relatively easy, but when you consider the amount of buttons involved in a Regency costume, it’s actually extremely impressive.
TVO: You ask audiences to come up with titles for lost Austen works. What’s the weirdest one you’ve seen?
Charlotte Gittins: After six years, you could be forgiven for thinking we must have heard every possible title suggestion, but our audiences continually come up with mind-blowing new gems. We’d need an entire novel to run through all the weirdest titles we’ve received, but ‘Godzilla vs. Mega Darcy’ was definitely up there with all the great literary classics. Who better than Jane Austen to tackle the fractious romance of reptilian monster vs. bionic man in all its scaly, homoerotic glory? Somebody pass the smelling salts…
TVO: Do you prefer improv to performing scripted comedy?
Amy Cooke-Hodgson: I don’t think I can choose between them! There’s something very satisfying about rehearsing and crafting a sketch or performing in a comedy play – you get the chance to tweak the timing.
I was lucky enough to play the Queen in the UK premier of a long lost Cole Porter comedy musical for a six week run. Because it had never been seen in the U.K. before, there were no expectations of how the role should be played, which was a gift. It was a real lesson in making it ‘different every night’; the perfect opportunity to experiment with delivery.
TVO: You can only read one Jane Austen book ever again. Which one?
Cariad Lloyd: I know it’s obvious, but Pride & Prejudice is still my absolute favourite. I think the cool kids like Persuasion, which I do also love. But for pure joy filled writing and to simply spend time with as excellent a character as Lizzie Bennet, it has to be P&P for me. I always think of it as a gateway book for Jane Austen – if you’ve never read or seen anything she’s done, start here and you get exactly the style and why we’re still going on about her 200 years later.
TVO: If you were an Austen era tavern, what would you be called?
Joseph Morpurgo: THE GROG ORIFICE.
TVO: How much fun was Crosstentatious, and are drag shows going to reoccur?
Daniel Nils Roberts: It was loads of fun! Just for anyone who doesn’t know, Crosstentatious (as the name suggests) is an annual cross-dressing take on our show that we do for charity. Obviously it’s tonnes of fun squeezing into chest-hair exposing dresses and daubing on daft beards, but it is also a chance to turn the restrictiveness of Austen’s writing on its head. In many ways it’s a bit of a relief as a performer to be able to throw off the templates of cossetted female characters, and sombre menfolk, and mix things up a bit. There’s always quite a different atmosphere too – we do it late at night, so we get quite a different audience, and lots of returning fans, which means it turns into a baying hothouse of bawdy references and is all performed with a bit more abandon. And of course it’s lovely to think that such silliness raises lots of money for amazing charities (always Waverley Care when in Edinburgh). We’re sure we’ll be back next year – XL stockings at the ready!
TVO: What’s your favourite thing about going on tour, and what would you rather skip about the whole affair?
Graham Dixon: My favourite thing about touring is the games we come up with and play in our tour van. I wish I could say that we are doing something more rock and roll in our tour van, like sulkily recovering from apocalyptic hangovers and callously ignoring the desperate messages of spurned groupies, but the reality of the Austentatious tour bus is no doubt what anyone who has seen the show would expect. We are all massive nerds, so we spend our time playing adorable, esoteric word and guessing games. Every van journey turns into Boxing Day around the fire. The thing I could skip is actually doing the shows. Just get me back in the van so we can play “TV Commissioner” and “2.4 Children” (These are actual games we play).
TVO: Lastly, one for anyone and everyone… apart from Austentatious, what are you all doing next?
Many various projects! Joseph is doing his show Hammerhead at the Soho Theatre, Andrew is going on tour with his podcast, No Such Thing As A Fish. You can see Charlotte in Poland and Australia at various impro festivals, Cariad continues to host Griefcast, a podcast where she interviews comedians about death which is cheerier than it sounds! Rachel is gigging around the country and also performing in new improv troupe with Marcus Brigstocke, There will be Cake. Amy is also performing with improvised Enid Blyton, The Bumper Blyton Improvised Adventure, Graham is performing his Edinburgh show Graham Dickson is The Narcissist in London, and Daniel can be found in the long running improv comedy show Racing Minds. Basically we’re busy!
Prog-rocker Brian Pern is joined by East End know-it-all Billy Bleach, Northern poet Geoffrey Allerton and last but by no means least, reformed convict Tony Beckton, who you may recall appeared in Rhys Thomas‘ documentary series Bellamy’s People and more recently BBC Two smash-hit Nurse.
When we tried to reach out to Simon to find out more about his tour, Tony answered the phone instead. Admittedly a little bit too scared to ask where Simon was, TVO decided to ask Beckton for his thoughts about the tour – and this is the result…
The Velvet Onion: Er… hello, Mr Beckton. It’s an honour to speak to you. May I call you Tony?
Tony Beckton: Yes. Tony is fine.
Thank you. We don’t know if you’ve heard of us, but we tend to write about comedy. Do you like any particular comedians?
I used to like Dad’s Army before I went inside. And it is still on! I saw some geezer called John Bishop the other day, but he was a Scouser, so i turned him off.
You’re one of the most highly respected – and most feared – criminals of all time. How did you end up going on tour?
I was asked by the home office and my publishers to share my experience of the misery and pain of incarceration. What’s weird is virtually every place I am speaking at, I was in jail in the same town at some point.
How are you enjoying this taste of freedom?
Freedom is a double edged sword. There are so many changes in the world. Everyone staring at screens on the train. The coffee shops. So many different languages being spoke, I must remember not to speak my first language: the language of violence.
Glad to hear it. Back in prison, it’s fair to say you ruled the roost. Is life treating you as well on the outside?
Inside, I dreamed of the day I could feel grass beneath my feet, stroke a rabbit and feel the wind on my bonce. Now I can… amazing.
Councillors have given me tools to deal with my rage. Where once, I carried a shotgun – or a piece of lead piping – I now carry a mental programme to keep me and other people from harm. Other people have to count to ten when the red mist comes down. I count to a hundred.
The other day in Cardiff, a load of football fans come towards me chanting. I started counting. I was still there at five o’clock the next morning, but no one was hurt.
Did prison change you?
I am a changed man. I am completely rehabilitated. I still bear the scars, though. As do all the screws, nonces and librarians who crossed me. Prison has changed, though. It is full of Muslims and white collar criminals. I can never go back. I hate to think what will happen if the Old Bill come for me again. I will go out on my shield, but yes my rehabilitation is complete.
Err.. moving on swiftly. If you could go back to the point you got busted and never get caught, would you change it?
Makes no odds: I was a wild beast. A nobleman who scoured and plundered the land, taking what I wanted. Women… gold… I scalped a bookie once who nobbled my greyhound. Liars Charter. What a dog he was… I would have been nicked at some point though. I was out of control.
Indeed. The tour then. Are there any places you’re particularly looking forward to visiting?
Anywhere is amazing to me. Apart from Brighton.
What’s wrong with Brighton?
I was accused of killing a teddy boy down there on the dodgems. To be honest, I threw him in the sea. He’d rubbed candy floss on my new jacket. I was only 17. My first murder charge. I got a ‘Not Guilty’ – He got a seaweed salad. “It wasn’t me!” as Shaggy said.
Right. Err… You’ve got some very unusual tour mates. Let’s start with Billy Bleach. He must remind you of some of the blokes you saw inside?
He is a proper gentleman. And what a barnet he has got… staunch.
I imagine Billy would look up to you. Has your presence been rubbing off on his interactions with audiences?
He is a lot more confident than me. And he’s got the patter. I still struggle under the lights. Reminds me of being on the wall when the searchlights come on you. Sometimes… you piss yourself.
Northern poet Geoffrey Allerton is joining you too…
He is very scared of me. But also turned on by the violence. Like a lot of guys, I think he wants me to hurt him. His poems are good though. Really good…
Is poetry something you can get on board with? You did write a book after all…
I have written poems. But there is no money in poetry. I am doing a prison diet book, and a guide to masculinity.
We’ll keep an eye out for them. The big surprise of the tour is Brian Pern being involved. Are you a fan?
He is a mug who thinks he knows about jail, because he wrote a song about a Mexican priest who died inside after eating a sacred beetle. He started talking to me about the eternal soul of the unknown prisoner, and I slung a cup of soup over his silly Catweazle coat. He keeps away from me now…
The Windsors is currently charming audiences every Wednesday night on Channel 4, as the soap-style sitcom about the royal family is back for a second series. With a number of TVO regulars in front of and behind the camera, we thought it was high time we spoke to some of them about the show.
Next up is director Adam Miller, whose previous credits include Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show, Some Girls, Otherworld, Boomers and creating and directing something called Mongrels we definitely didn’t obsess about at the time. We chucked a big load of questions at him about his latest directorial effort, and this is the result…
Hi Adam! Welcome back to TVO. The Windsors is back for a second series, and with two episodes down, can you tell us what’s left to see this series?
An absolute bucket-load. Let’s just say you’re never going to look at Nicola Sturgeon the same way again. Or Camilla Parker-Bowles for that matter, who takes the Special Relationship with Donald Trump to a whole new level.
That’s one of the joys of the show; each one is absolutely jam-packed with treats – Kate tackling “The drug problem that is unique to Scotland”; Justin Trudeau on a pub-crawl with Beatrice and Eugenie; Pippa’s marriage, but who to?! Hugh Skinner showing off his Les Miserables vocals in Poundbury; Harry Enfield playing his own identical twin brother. Joy upon joy.
It looks like the show is an absolute hoot to shoot. Are you able to enjoy the process of filming whilst steering the mad ship?
Yes, a million times yes. Such fantastic people to work with, and on a show I truly love, I couldn’t be luckier. I mean we all have our hair-tearing moments, but I suspect any industry has that. Indeed sometimes our biggest problem is losing take after take to hysterical, tear-filled laughter. Have a look at the Ebola scene from series one – those aren’t tears of devastation on Will’s face.
The casting for the series is fantastic. How involved were you in choosing your royals?
Hugh, Louise [Ford] and Richard [Goulding] were already on board when I joined, having been so brilliant in a teaser that had already been shot. The rest were part of the usual casting process with the wonderful Nadira Seecoomar, although I see them all now and wonder what on earth took us so long. It seems so obvious. They really are the most extraordinarily talented troupe and such a privilege to work with. It’s a testament to their brilliance and Bert and George’s characterisation, that the appearance of every single artist on set is something I genuinely look forward to.
There’s been some new cast members since the first series, with Vicki Pepperdine joining at Christmas, and now Gillian Bevan, Corey Johnson and Kathryn Drysdale joining the team. How easily did they slot into the team?
Well, it’s a fiddly old show to drop into. Our unwritten (and probably rather obvious) rule is that whatever nonsense these characters are spouting, they have to take it seriously, because they believe it. The four you mention, and some you haven’t seen yet (including Harry Peacock), really ran with that and, as a result, look like they’ve been doing this odd, unique show for years. Hats off!
The series has had a really diverse range of critical and audience response. Has feedback from the first series played into the second?
There’s been so much love for this show, it’s hugely gratifying. But if you start making a show for the critics, and not for yourself, then you’ll probably never make anything good. If not everyone likes it, but some love it, then that’s bloody GREAT. We’re not making it for the ones that don’t like it.
You’re no stranger to controversial comedy, of course, after the delightful Mongrels. Are you drawn to pushing big red conservative buttons?
To be honest, I’m simply drawn to things that make me laugh. And the scripts for this just did, in such a big way. As for controversy, well that’s the job of comedy – if we didn’t live in a society that can ridicule the ridiculous, I fear there’d be a lot more Trumps around. We are an anti-trump. Thank god.
How quickly are you and the writers able to react to real life events? And how much of what ends up on screen was down on the page when you started to map out your shoot?
The scripts are very tight when we go into production – there’s very little in the way of improv, although everyone is welcome to make suggestions and those often make it in. As to staying up-to-date – well that’s a bit of a tight-rope to walk. Although I have noticed on shows before now that real life often synchs when you least expect it. That said we did go back and tweak a couple of bits from episode 1 to shine a clearer light on a Theresa May who, at the start of production, was a VERY different political beast to the one we know today.
Is there a particular sequence from this series that stands out for you?
There are so many joyous moments, but if you forced me to pick one, I’d tell you to watch out for Kate’s rather direct approach to tackling the ‘drug problem that’s unique to Scotland’, in episode 5.
At the opposite end of the spectrum you’ve had great acclaim for your work on BBC sitcom Boomers over the last few years, featuring a cast of television icons. Does directing on a show like that differ from The Windsors?
Well, the mechanics are basically the same, but every show I’ve ever done has a different process because of those in front and, most often, behind the camera. The Boomers cast were absolutely brilliant to work with, all legends, and all utterly charming. To work with two such casts in two years has been a great privilege. God that sounds like a wanky speech at an awards ceremony. True though.
Of course, you’ve been part of another royal family for the last few years now: namely The Velvet Onion! You’ve regularly worked with a number of your fellow regulars, including several of them in this cast. Do you feel part of the comedic family we write about?
It’s funny how small this industry feels at times, especially now I’ve been around a while, but one thing that seems to hold true is that the Onion Family isn’t just populated by the talented, but also by the lovely. Maybe that’s why there’s so much cross-over?
It’s been a tough decade for British comedy, with so few shows getting a deserved second (or third!) series. Is it gratifying to be returning for more with The Windsors?
Hell yes! I really love this show, it makes me LAUGH. And there’s precious little of that about in the world today. So to be told that we could make another, is to be told that I get to laugh again for five months. Gimme.
If there’s a third run, where would you like to take the family next?
America! The road trip and film please. Followed by the Grand Tour of Europe as a sequel.
And beyond the series, what’s next for you?
Lying down in a quiet room. Probably snoring.
Thanks to Adam for answering our questions. Catch The Windsors on Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4, and catch-up via All4 now.
The Windsors is currently charming audiences every Wednesday night on Channel 4, as the soap-style sitcom about the royal family is back for a second series. With a number of TVO regulars in front of and behind the camera, we thought it was high time we spoke to some of them about the show.
Next up is House of Fools, Murder in Successville and Year Friends star Ellie White, who plays Princess Beatrice, and her on-screen sister Celeste Dring, who plays Princess Eugenie…
Hi Ellie & Celeste! The Windsors is back for a second series. What’s new this year?
Celeste: Well the show takes a semi-fictional approach to what’s happening in the world, so you can expect a new, American love-interest for Harry and some familiar politicians having run-ins with the Royals.
Ellie: More of the same for Eugenie and Beatrice. They seem to spend most of their time trying to make up jobs for themselves – doing motivational speeches in Port Talbot Steel works for example – or fighting over unsuitable men – in this series, Justin Trudeau.
There’s been a really diverse range of critical and audience response to the show. Has that played into the second series for you all?
Celeste: I guess we’ve all felt a little bit more confident having been somewhat buoyed by the response – but no more than that really.
Ellie: I think you can’t really let anyone dictate what you do. I guess just continue doing what you think is funny and hope people agree.
You play Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, who are perhaps less well known than most of the other characters in real life. How do you go about making them so memorable?
Celeste: Well I can’t speak for Ellie, but for me I’d say my version of Eugenie is more modelled on the folks in ‘Made in Chelsea’ than it is the real-life Eugenie: the Chelsea lot are excellent models for rich, stupid, frivolous types.
Ellie: I mainly just try and pastiche most of the people I went to university with.
A lot of what your characters did in the first series was independent of the main plots, and yet the Princesses were an integral part of what made the show so funny. Are you more directly involved with everyone this year?
Ellie: We like to keep ourselves to ourselves. It’s better that way.
Celeste: I think the writers have been careful not to over-do it and stay true to what worked before. Part of what drives Beatrice and Eugenie is their desire to be more involved and accepted within the core of the royal family, so, I guess we can’t be too central else what would we be striving for?
You spend a lot of your time with TVO royalty Katy Wix, and I know Ellie has recently finished a West End run with her too. What’s it like working with her so closely?
Ellie: She is the funniest woman on the planet, so naturally it’s a dream.
Celeste: Katy is an absolutely mad joy. She is so funny and so unique. I don’t know what magic made her and I hope it never wears off.
How much of what ends up on screen is on the page? Do you get much chance to ad-lib or refine scenes together on set?
Celeste: Not massively – the scripts are pretty lean and strong (like a good horse) so they don’t need much additional stuff. Plus the turn-around time for shooting is incredibly tight so we have to get right to it.
Ellie: We don’t get much rehearsal time so a lot has to be done on set. It’s mainly scripted but the odd ad-lib gets in.
Is there a particular sequence from this series that stands out for you?
Celeste: Ellie and I fight over a boy in one episode which was a lot of fun to shoot. I got to do a hand-stand, by which I mean two of the crew had to raise my legs into position because I couldn’t do it. It felt very much like how a royal would expect to do a handstand.
Ellie: And I cried with laughter watching Fergie trying to get off with Justin Trudeau. Just the way Katy Wix spins on a chair. Unreal.
The show’s pulled together a genuinely impressive cast all round, some of whom I know that Ellie had worked with on previous projects. Was there anyone in particular you were very excited to work with?
Celeste: I love everyone but I suppose I am a quiet super-fan of Haydn [Gwynne, who plays Camilla – Ed.]. The woman has amazing craft and is just so compelling to watch – those eyes!
Ellie: Genuinely everyone is a dream. Everyone is extremely funny and extremely lovely. I was very excited to work with Vicki Pepperdine. She’s now my mother.
Yes, you’ve recently worked with Vicki on a short for Sky One, featuring Katy Wix too. Did that come about because of The Windsors and is there more collaboration in the pipeline?
Ellie: I’ve always thought that Vicki was extremely funny and also looked a bit like she could be my mum, so when I met her doing the Christmas special I asked if she wanted to develop something together and fortunately she did. She’s amazing and I love working with her so hopefully there will be more in the future.
Director Adam Miller is no stranger to us, either, thanks to his previous work on Mongrels and Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show. Does having a comedy director experienced in heightened parody help the process?
Ellie: Adam is so fantastic and has such a vision for the show. It’s interesting to see how things end up on the screen in the end because on the day they are completely different. It’s cut and edited so well.
Celeste: Yeah for sure. Adam’s very precise and creative – he really wrings as much out of a scene as possible so there’s not a beat missed.
Of course, Ellie: you’ve been part of another royal family for the last few years now: namely The Velvet Onion! We’ve been covering your work since we met you on House of Fools back in 2014, and since then you’ve constantly been on our radar and worked with a large number of your fellow regulars. Do you feel part of the comedic family we write about?
Ellie: It’s a privilege! It’s so lovely! I like them better than my real family.
And Celeste, you’re a little bit newer to our screens than Ellie, but a lot of what you’ve been involved in so far has been a bit Oniony – Sun Trap, Year Friends and Morgana Robinson’s The Agency. Are you keen to pursue working mostly within comedy?
Celeste: Yeah – that’s where I’m at now and I’m enjoying making my own work and stuff. My private dream would actually be to be in a gritty Shane Meadows film ha – but I don’t expect that’s on the horizon any time soon… Unless he’s a big fan of The Windsors which surely he is?
You’re both part of a brand new wave of alternative comedy, with your own regular double acts too. For anyone who hasn’t seen your live work, or shows you’ve written, how would you best describe them to the uninitiated?
Celeste: There is no question I am worse at answering than how I would describe my own work, but here goes… It’s loosely sketch / character comedy – increasingly though we’re moving towards stuff that’s less definable in terms of its form – i.e. what it can be labelled as. I’ve been told tonally it’s every day and surreal at the same time. If that’s not too vague / pretentious?… I’ll see myself out.
Ellie: I work with Natasia Demetriou, who is one of the funniest people on earth. We try and make characters that make us laugh, that I guess are a mix of people we see around and the slightly odder and weirder nature of our senses of humour.
Comedy has a track record of the old guard passing down the baton: have you found that older comics are supportive of your work so far?
Ellie: So so supportive. Every established person I’ve worked with has been nothing but interested and supportive of me as a comedic actor. That’s so important I think because it’s such a hard industry and it feels lovely to have people helping you along the way when they genuinely believe in you.
Celeste: Yes definitely. I think there’s this idea that comedy is hyper-competitive but that hasn’t been my experience. Everyone is very encouraging and supportive: although the comedy landscape has changed so much that I think we are all just trying to keep up.
It’s been a tough decade for British comedy, with so few shows getting a deserved second series. It must be gratifying to be returning for more with The Windsors?
Celeste: It’s a modern miracle! I’m really delighted – mostly for selfish reasons but also because George and Bert [writers George Jeffrie and Bert Tyler-Moore – Ed.] are so talented, kind and diligent.
Ellie: It’s lovely! More shows should be given second chances. It’s so hard to prove yourself in 6 episodes. Things grow over time. Comedy needs to be nurtured!
If there’s a third run, where would you like to take the princesses?
Celeste: Well obviously the princesses are so hard-working and prolific that there is little that they haven’t done but, as they have a keen eye for fashion, it would be fun to take them to London Fashion Week, or see them trying to design their own range.
Ellie: I’d love more love interests. Just so we can cast people we fancy as our boyfriends.
And beyond the series, what’s next for you both?
Celeste: Well right now it’s lunch, and then after that I’m working on a series for Radio 4 with my double act partner, Freya Parker, that will be out in the autumn. I am also writing on / being in a second series of Tom Rosenthal’s Absolutely Fine – a little web series for Comedy Central.
Ellie: I’ve got a few things in the pipeline which are exciting, but mainly writing and development and lying face down on my sofa.
Thanks to Ellie and Celeste for answering our questions. Catch The Windsors on Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4, and catch-up via All4 now.
This week sees the return of The Windsors to our screens, as the soap-style sitcom about the royal family is back for a second series. With a number of TVO regulars in front of and behind the camera, we thought it was high time we spoke to some of them about the show.
First up, is the delightful Katy Wix, who plays Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson. Here are her thoughts on coming back for more multi-millionaire hijinx…
Hi Katy, at long last, welcome to TVO! We’ve been covering your work since 2010 – and shamefully we haven’t caught up with you for a project before now! Do you feel part of the comedic family we write about?
I forgive you. Yes, I think I do, thank you. You have very good taste: I like all the people you like. If I ever don’t feel part of the family, I’ll let you know.
Of course, in that OTHER royal family you’re not a part of, you get to play Sarah Ferguson, who is quite a distinctive personality to begin with. How do you go about heightening her character in line with everyone else?
The storylines that Fergie has been given are already pretty heightened so a lot of the work is done for me. Because it’s slightly melodramatic in style, I think it’s just a question of really stressing the emotional crisis that she is always finding herself in. It’s campy but also with pathos, hopefully. I always thought there was something very vulnerable about their version of Fergie – she just wants to be loved and accepted.
Fergie is pretty much the royal they’d like to forget in the show. What fresh hell does the poor bugger have to go through this series?
Poor Sarah. She tries to hide in a box at one point to sneak into an event, which is very relatable. She’s still trying to flog her juicer and still in love with Andrew.
You spend a lot of your time with relative newcommer Celeste Dring, and fellow TVOer Ellie White, as Fergie’s daughters Eugene and Beatrice. What’s it like working with a new generation of comic talent so closely?
It’s great. We only get closer, it’s lovely. They’re not jaded (yet) and full of ideas and energy, but it’s also interesting to see what they subvert and take inspiration from in their live stuff. I hope I work with both of them again soon. They’re both a lot more sorted than I was in my late twenties.
How much of what ends up on screen is on the page? Do you get much chance to ad-lib or refine scenes together on set?
There is always time pressure with television so usually you’re just concentrating on getting the scene right once, let alone add anything new. But certainly now we’re a bit more confident with the characters, I think we’ve been quietly throwing ideas in.
Is there a particular sequence from this series that stands out for you?
Andrew and Fergie have some great scenes this time round and I really enjoy the scenes where it’s Fergie and her girls – I think we’ve found lots of interesting layers in their family dynamic.
The show’s pulled together a genuinely impressive cast all round, some of whom you’d worked with on previous projects like Fried and Together.Was there anyone in particular you were very excited to work with?
Well, I’ve worked with Ellie a lot and that’s always a treat. We made a little short film together a while back but then her lap top broke and we lost all the footage. I’ve a great admiration for everyone in the cast – I think they play their parts so brilliantly and it’s a genuinely lovely and harmonious atmosphere on set.
Director Adam Miller is no stranger to us, either, thanks to his previous work on Mongrels and Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show. Does having a comedy director experienced in heightened parody help the process?
His notes are really excellent and useful which doesn’t always happen with comedy directors. Often, you have a set idea of how you were going to make it funny as you’re learning it and then it’s a pleasant surprise when a note changes the scene in a way that hadn’t occurred to you, but still feels funny. Usually the notes are about driving home a plot point or moment. The first time we watched it back and realised how pacy it was, you start to think about how much plot there is to deliver in the most economic way as possible whilst still making it amusing.
It’s been a tough decade for British comedy, with so few shows getting a deserved second series – including your own sketch show with Anna Crilly, and the joyous silliness of Fried. It must be gratifying to be returning for more with The Windsors?
Sketch shows don’t seem to be as popular with commissioners at the moment and I’m sure it will change again. But to be able to do these big sketchy characters is an absolute joy, and with such talented people.
The show divided critics and audiences last year, and not just those predisposed to praising the royal family, but we feel there’s an incredible charm to the ride if you go along with the madness. Has audience response played into the second series at all?
Really? I don’t tend to read reviews – I wasn’t aware that it was such a divisive show! I wouldn’t have thought that public opinion had a direct effect on the creative process but I’m sure that the writers probably had a sense of which characters were well received and popular when they came to writing more this time.
If there’s a third run, where would you like to take Fergie?
I really hope there is. Perhaps she deserves some love that is requited now? It would be fun if she went on a chat show as a storyline or became a buddhist.
And beyond the series, what’s next for you?
Well, I’ve just finished a six month run in the west end so I’m tired. Filming Ellie White’s short film for Sky last week was tremendous fun. Beyond that, you know bobs and bits. I’m always starting things and never finishing them, don’t know why. I’m pitching an idea for a book I want to write, so we’ll see who bites…
Thanks to Katy for answering our questions. The Windsors returns on Wednesday 5th July at 10pm on Channel 4.
Prevenge – the directorial feature debut from Alice Lowe – is available on dvd and blu-ray now.
To celebrate, TVO cornered Alice once more to talk in depth about the Prevenge experience from conception to completion. With major spoilers (you have been warned), this is the result…
“It’s like the final push of labour,” Alice Lowe jokes as we catch up for the first time sincePrevenge was unleashed upon the world a few short months ago. “Or it’s like a child that’s graduated. It’ll be alright now. It can fend for itself. I don’t have to be holding its hand every step of the way.”
The last time TVO and Ms Lowe spoke, she and her co-star Jo Hartley, not to mention Alice’s adorable young daughter Della, had wowed audiences at a Q&A within Manchester’s arthouse HOME, and the film was just days away from wide release.
Now, at last, the film will be in the hands of fans as a tangible item: the download is already available, the dvd and blu-ray are shipping, and Alice’s direct journey with the film is almost at an end.
“It’s been nice to have a little break from it,” she tells us, “but I’m never going to get bored of talking about it. I’m still finding new things that people respond to.” She pauses for a moment of reflection. “At the end of the day, you don’t want the last project to be the only thing people are talking about. You just want to be making another one. And another one and another one. My head’s already in the next one now, so Prevenge feels like an old fashion you used to wear, or a band that you really like but you haven’t listened to in a while.”
You get over the nerves about it being any good… I’m kind of past that now.
Surely that distance offers a chance for a little objective reflection, TVO opines: not just on the enormous success the film has faced, but on the work of art a creator has made?
“I probably won’t watch it for a while,” Alice explains. “Because I don’t feel like I’ve got enough distance from it. If anything, you forget what it is to be an audience member watching it. People have a reaction to it, and you can’t put yourself in those shoes. You get over the nerves about it being any good, or people liking it, understanding it, being offended. I’m kind of past that now. And there’s enough people that I like who say they like it, and you can’t please everyone. If there’s certain people who don’t like it, I don’t mind at this stage.”
Those initial nerves, however, are something Lowe is keen to hold on to. While it feels a long time coming, Prevenge was Alice’s first feature as a director, and it just so happened to come along as an offer as the actress, writer and director was pregnant.
As such, the film is so closely rooted into the birth of Alice’s first child, who, of course, has been growing all the time since. As the challenge of motherhood naturally changes, it’s highly possible that Alice’s perspective as a filmmaker will too.
“When you make your first film,” she opines, “your lack of experience and naivety is actually a strength. You make a lot of mistakes, but sometimes those mistakes are quite good. A lot of established filmmakers talk about getting back to that initial innocence. That’s kind of like motherhood in that with your first child, you’re filled with a sense of wonder, because this has never happened to you before, and it’s completely new and magical.
“But as you go on, motherhood just becomes more complicated, I suppose,” she adds. “I think that’s probably true with making films as well. I’m just a little bit more jaded about this process now, so I will probably have to shake a few preconceptions that I might have in order to find that initial feeling again.”
What is clear, however, is that Prevenge has been taken seriously. It’s not just the UK tour, the rapid-selling vinyl release of the soundtrack, or the countless respected film critics across the world who have hailed the film as a visionary first attempt from a new director: audiences have loved it too. And unusually for a British film, let alone a comedy or a horror picture, the critical response has been deeply analytical and fascinated by the subject matter.
“That’s my secret fantasy,” Alice deadpans when TVO mentions this. “That people take me seriously.” She immediately bursts into laughter, before a spot of ego-checking clarification is required.
“I always say that when I write stuff,” she says, “I write with absolute seriousness. I’m often not thinking about whether it’s funny or not. I’m thinking about the story and the characters. Really early on we had a sniffy review from someone who said: ‘There was a weak one-liner about mascara’. And I didn’t write it as one, so if they didn’t laugh then how is it a one-liner? It might be one line…”
It’s fair to say that Lowe does not fall into a traditional comedic mould. Never one to chase gags, Alice suggests her writing stems from stories of human awkwardness, and that Prevenge was the product of something seismic within her.
“I think real life is stranger than fiction,” she states. “I was trying to avoid writing what I thought were film scene clichés, and was trying to be stranger about the interactions people have. All the interactions within the film are private. Anything can happen in a private moment. You only have to have a weird person suddenly throw a conversational bomb into the mix, and you’ve got a strange situation.”
TVO suggests one of the strengths of the film is that the naturalism makes the emotional drama of this hyper-surreal concept hit home. As Jon Pertwee once quite famously said of why Doctor Who worked best in a contemporary Earth setting: ‘There’s nothing more alarming than coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec.’
“Oh, you mean that a banal context makes strange things even stranger?” Alice responds. “I definitely think that’s true. Even my radio show [Alice’s Wunderland – Ed.] The whole way I was writing that show was mixed reality, whereby you create surrealism by paring a really mundane situation with a surreal figure or content. It produces strange effects that snap people out of their usual way of thinking, like dream logic.”
There aren’t rules of reality, or film rules you have to stick with. You can do what you like.
Indeed, one of the key factors in Prevenge’s success as a work of art is the deliberate ambiguity about the origins of the voice urging Ruth to kill her victims: is it her unborn daughter in some supernatural manner, or something inherently psychological? This reminds Alice of an encounter with an audience member in New York, who came up to her after the screening to ask a simple question: ‘Why didn’t the police come and get her?’
“In film, everything is a metaphor,” Alice suggests. “A film by natural is a dream. I don’t feel it has to be real or not real. I feel like that’s how I’m trying to make films at the moment. There aren’t rules of reality, or film rules you have to stick with. You can do what you like. Who wants to hear about police procedure? Watch a detective series on telly. These strange rules immediately make something less entertaining.”
Not to mention, we suggest, effectively the deeply claustrophobic tone of most of the film. Alice agrees.
“We did have another character that we lost,” she explains, referring to Jill (played by Sightseersactress Eileen Davis), who didn’t make the final edit. “She knew Ruth, and grounded her in reality. But as soon as you grounded her, you didn’t believe that character. When she’s just gliding around killing people without any consequences, it gives her this mystic, almost superhero status. As soon as you ground her, it starts to pull apart. Someone like David Lynch doesn’t bother with that shit. His characters are just there, don’t ask what time it is, or what their jobs are. They’re just in a strange timeless zone.”
Interestingly, however, one of the film’s key sequences breaks all of the façade away: as Ruth pretends to be flat-hunter Claire, and briefly befriends the flatmate of one of the people on her hit-list. For these few moments, in the company of Josh (a pitch perfect Mike Wozniak), Ruth lets her guard down, and for the first time since her partner’s death, enjoys herself, until it inevitably has to come crashing down around her.
“That was her chance,” Alice explains. “That was her window to have a normal life. Maybe even get a boyfriend. Someone who could look after her. I almost wanted it to be a gentle sitcom. I wanted it to be so domestic and nice, and go on for such a long time that the audience is almost relaxing. Then bad stuff happens. It was so important to have that scene, and see a warm side of her that doesn’t come out otherwise.”
As something of an anti-hero, Ruth’s journey plays out like a 21st century Alex from A Clockwork Orange: audiences are invited to be sympathetic to the character, even though she’s committing truly horrendous acts… albeit with a much stronger motive and far greater intelligence than Anthony Burgess’ hapless Droog. Here is a character who has suffered an enormous emotional loss, and it becomes clear that the challenge she faces is draining her as much as it is her driving force.
Nevertheless, Kubrick’s film, which also partially inspired the sonic electronic soundscapes on Prevenge’s soundtrack, has an ending that chimes with Lowe’s film. In it, (major spoiler alert), Ruth becomes the creature she wants to be, and audiences cheer what is, in essence, a cold-hearted killer.
“We called that ‘Back To Work’,” Alice reveals when the comparison is put to her. “We didn’t call it that on the soundtrack, but when we were discussing it, we said her ‘Back To Work’ theme should come in here, because you know that people are going to enjoy it. It does feel like we’re back in familiar territory. We talked a lot about the music and how it had a sense of pre-destiny. She can’t stop. It’s just going to happen, and the audience can’t help but be carried along as well. There’s a pleasure to that, like scratching a familiar itch.”
What many may not realise when they see Prevenge and identify Alice from her roles in Hot Fuzz, Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh or many other familiar productions, is that this isn’t just a vanity project, where a star actress puts in a half-arsed directorial job, and gets the writer credit while others refine the script uncredited. This is a full blooded attempt from a creative mind who has bided her time to be given the chance to do so, and as such has a hand in every aspect of the production, without detracting anything from the producers about whom Alice is consistently complimentary.
As well as working closely with composers Toydrum on the sound of the film, Lowe’s strongest collaborators on the style of the film were Director of Photography Ryan Eddleston and editor Matteo Bini. The trio focused heavily on the visual aesthetic, from the choice of lenses to colour grading choices, and multiple edits of scenes in order to best reflect the film’s mood. And while she’ll often downplay her own efforts, it’s clear this is an apect of the film of which she is, quite rightly, rather proud.
A lot of the projects I’ve done have been misinterpreted in some way. Prevenge was the first time I’ve really had this synergy… I felt like people were really listening to me.
“I never claim to be an expert in anything,” Alice states, “but I know what my tastes are. I think that’s all that being a director is, as much as it’s vaunted as this godlike status. It’s very easy for people when you’re starting out, to believe you don’t know what you’re talking about. I definitely had a vision for it. I always have a strong sense of my projects. I know what the colours associated with it are. All the songs. The tone of it. When I’m giving a script to someone, it’s nothing to do with the final package in my head.
“This is why I’ve started directing,” she continues. “I know that I’ve got a more complete vision in my head than just being a scriptwriter. How everything complements one another. I can’t show that to people unless I make it. A lot of the projects I’ve done have been misinterpreted in some way, for one reason or another. Prevenge was the first time I’ve really had this synergy with all those different things coming together, and I felt like people were really listening to me. I didn’t feel inhibited in what I was asking for, either. I pretty much got all the choices I wanted. I don’t know if that was just being pregnant and people indulging me!”
It helped that some of the key crew members were familiar to Alice from previous productions, and the cast were all friends.
“Even if they hadn’t worked with me as a director,” Alice considers, “which is a bit of a leap of faith, I suppose… they like me. They know I’m a good performer, so they were willing to make that leap. It meant I didn’t have to turn up and go: ‘Hi, you don’t know me. I’m not an idiot.’
“I’m sure that when we were filming some people actually had no idea if it was any good or not. Especially because everyone was so separate from each other and didn’t see any of the other bits. I think the one person who saw any rushes was Jo Hartley, because she had a spare half hour when we were filming. Everyone else just did a day on it and had no idea what it would be like! There are still some members of the cast who haven’t seen it, because they’ve been busy and couldn’t make it. I wouldn’t blame them for having no idea what the film was.”
“I like to film in a really relaxed style,” Alice continues. “We shoot the rehearsal and just keep shooting. I don’t like there to be a division, or when the shoot starts everyone thinks they’re acting now, and suddenly switch on and become a different person. I like to almost blur those lines, so people walk away wondering if they did any acting, or if it was any good.” She laughs, and in her inimitable sardonic style adds: “It’s a sense of ‘Was that it?’”
The results, however, speak for themselves. Prevenge has wowed audiences across the world, and is set to find many new friends as it makes the transition to home media and streaming platforms. There’s also a strange joy in watching the film take off at the same time as the film industry is sitting up and paying attention to the former Ealing Live and Mighty Boosh crowd that The Velvet Onion has at its core. Simon Farnaby is now scriptwriting Paddington 2 with former Boosh/Garth Marenghi director Paul King, and alongside Julian Barratt, was responsible for Mindhorn. Following Sightseers, Steve Oram got rave reviews for his challenging debut Aaaaaaaah! and is currently planning his second feature, while Gareth Tunley and a cast primarily made up on TVO regulars, ditched the comedy and made psychological horror thriller The Ghoul, which had rave reviews at its initial screenings and is set for wider release in the Summer. And then there’s the continued efforts of Ben Wheatley and Richard Ayoade for good measure. Suddenly, with Prevenge as the most delicious of proverbial cherries on top, it feels like the Onions are finally getting the respect they deserve.
“It’s a really nice thing,” Alice explains. “A lot of potential that could have been lost has come back to life, really. I don’t want to sound too bitchy about it, but I think I was trying to fit myself as a square peg into a round hole for a long time. I wanted British TV comedy to be what I wanted it to be, which is pretty strange and with dark narratives. And now it’s a massive relief that I’m in the right job.
“Jo Hartley gave me this book, because she’s a bit of a guru in her spare time. I call her The Blue Fairy, because she’s that person who makes you feel really uplifted about how the universe works. She gave me this book by Florence Scovel Shinn, and its full of stuff about non-resistance. Jo always says ‘Go with the Flo’. When you find your right path, it’s easy. It’s not that you don’t work hard, but it feels easy, because it’s what you should be doing. That’s what Prevenge felt like. Don’t get me wrong, I have worked my arse off, but it hasn’t felt like work to me.”
“I think that’s probably true of someone like Gareth Tunley,” she adds, “who is such an intelligent person with so many hidden depths. Of course The Ghoul was the right step for him. Part of you thinks: ‘You should have done this earlier, Gareth! Why didn’t you show us what you could do?’ But you can’t hurry this stuff. It’s a natural evolution. Sometimes a penny drops about who you are and what you should be doing, and it comes at just the right time. It’s really nice that we’re all doing stuff we enjoy, and getting a bit of recognition for it doesn’t hurt either.”
The recognition has also led to new opportunities, with the production company behind it leading the pack by giving Alice another feature to develop. Alongside this, she’s working on a comedy drama concept for TV, and an exciting acting project this summer, which we’re sure TVO will be shouting about in due course, but not just yet! Alice has also directed a music video for collaborators Toydrum, featuring Prevenge’s Kate Dickie, but again, more on that soon. In the meantime, as she prepares to put the film behind her, TVO asks Alice to reflect on what she hopes its legacy will be.
“I’ve done a few projects where I’ve thought: Maybe that’s the thing that goes on my gravestone,” she admits. “Maybe that’s the thing that defines my work. It’s really funny, because now I’m mainly getting asked about Prevenge. I don’t often get asked about Sightseers or Garth Marenghi or whatever. I mean, I love it when I am, because it’s something different to talk about! But it’s a nice thing that people are interested, or bothered to find out what I’ve done before and follow it. I feel liberated. I don’t feel indebted to anyone. With Garth Marenghi, I didn’t write it, so I felt lucky to be involved in that. To an extent it’s the same with Sightseers, because someone else directed it, and I’d co-written it with Steve. With this, I felt a calm sense of realisation that I’ve done it. Nobody can say I haven’t pulled my weight with this to get the job done!”
“I wanted it to have a cult vibe to it. I want people to still be interested in the film in ten years. That would be my ambition: that people would see it as part of the development of British filmmakers, or even just my own work, and come back to it. I just want to go on and make films, and make lots of different types of stories, and just have fun. You have that moment when something does well, and you can capitalise on it. I’ve always been really bad at doing that in the past. I’d always run away and try to hide, because I prefered to be the underdog coming out of nowhere. You can’t do that all the time. So, I’d hope that it’s part of a beginning of a career, and not just that one fluke film that woman got to make.”
TVO is confident that it’s the former, rather than the latter. Prevenge is done and dusted, and is out there for you all to enjoy. Here’s to the next one!
This week sees BBC Four air a special tribute to fallen prog-rock singer Brian Pern, who died last month aged 66 following an unexpected segway mistake.
This exclusive documentary for BBC Four also features Brian’s final prophetic interview, which has never been transmitted before as well as the true story behind his untimely death and the making of his last album ‘Heaven Calling’ released just 271 days after his 66th birthday .
Brian’s friends, lovers and fans speak candidly about Brian’s life and work in this poignant documentary and discuss what the future holds as the remaining members of Thotch plan a tribute concert at the Royal Albert Hall in Brian’s name to raise money for Segway Awareness.
Of course, as much as we’ve played along (even interviewing Brian himself in 2014), Pern is actually the creation of comedians Rhys Thomas and Simon Day, who have created one extra outing for Pern – a character they’ve been working on for ten years.
Jam-packed with big name guest stars, the final special once again features TVO regulars Lucy Montgomery, Tony Way, Matt Lucas and Steve Burge alongside Michael Kitchen, Nigel Havers, Paul Whitehouse, David Arnold, Jane Asher, Christopher Eccleston, Surrane Jones, John Thomson and Alan Ford amongst others, and sees Pern’s bandmates, life-partners, and associates bid him an occasionally fond, and sometimes bitter farewell.
To celebrate the end of an era, we caught up with series co-creator, co-writer, director and star Rhys Thomas to talk about the final days of a rock legend.
Hi Rhys, welcome back to The Velvet Onion. When we last spoke about Brian Pern, you’d just locked down Series Two. Since then Brian has become a cult phenomenon. How does it feel to be behind something that can trend on Twitter?
Nice. It was a surprise, especially when we were under the impression that no one really knows what it is apart from comedy obsessives rather than the general public. I think it took the BBC by surprise too, as they didn’t really know how big the fan base was. We’ve never won any awards, had millions of viewers or been cutting edge, but it trended ALL DAY! Can you believe it? I loved the fact that people played along as if Brian was real and the press have kept it up too.
Indeed! TVO played along with Brian’s ‘death’, as it were, and we were amazed at the places our obituary popped up – even legendary rock bands were sharing the news. It feels like lots of people were keen to go along for the ride and genuinely mourn this character. How was that from the inside?
It was fun. Not sure how Simon felt about it… I think people thought he’d died!
His performance as Brian is astounding. He’s really made what could be a two dimensional character on paper come alive in way that he’s perhaps never really been allowed to do to this extent in his previous work…
To be honest, I think the scripts have come on so much in Brian Pern, which has helped the character become less two dimensional. When it started online and with Series One, Brian Pern was effectively a monologue. Brian was talking to camera and had little or no interaction, which is why it’s that way. Adding family members, a band, and some real storylines is what has made Brian come alive and as an actor given Simon more to play with. And having other great actors in there has raised his game and the results are fantastic.
How do you feel he’s developed as a performer in the two decades you’ve been working with him?
I think the scene in the car at the end of the last series is the best acting he’s ever done. He was so brilliant. Dave Angel is bloody funny. Shame they didn’t make a series of those.
There was an air of finality about the third series, which was only cemented by the dvd and blu-ray release. At the time, did you think that would be the end of Pern?
There was the idea to do the death episode around the same time as Series Three, but at the time, it was the last one, yes. It still is the last one. For me, this Tribute is a little extra thing, it’s not the final episode. The ‘last’ episode is the final episode of Series Three.
So what made you bring him back for one last outing?
I always wanted to do the ‘Afterlife of Rock’, when Pern had died and the effect it had on the rest of the band, and the manager’s plan to cash in. Then of course, real rock and pop stars started dying last year, and it became topical in some ways. The BBC had a bit of money left over to make a low key special – just talking heads, but I ended up going way over the top and getting the Royal Albert Hall involved!
Some of the all-time great sitcoms and comedy characters have short lifespans, even when they’re phenomenally successful. And this time around you’ve gone and killed him off for good. Was this decision more practical or is it to leave the audience wanting more?
A bit of both. It’s a lot of hard work for me. It takes up a lot of time to write, produce, direct, write the lyrics to songs, design the album covers… I have genuinely run out of ideas for Brian. It’s all been done. What more can we do? I also want to do new things and we’ve been doing this for five years now, ten if you include the online shorts back at the beginning. I also miss performing, and making Pern means I don’t have any time to do that!
Does it feel like 20 years since your big break?
Yes. Still bubbling under after all of these years! I’ve enjoyed writing and directing more than anything else, but I do miss working with Charlie [Higson] and Paul [Whitehouse] on Down The Line and things like that. Wish we could do some more.
We’ve talked before about the family feel behind Brian Pern, with your longstanding collaborators on board like Tony Way, Steve Burge and of course, your wife Lucy Montgomery. How do you feel your working relationships have evolved over the years?
Firstly, they make me laugh more than anyone else. And sometimes with Pern, it’s all about the big guest stars and we have to big them up, but Tony, Lucy and Burge are my best friends and they don’t always get the credit they deserve. Tony wrote his bit for this special, and it’s one of the highlights.
Lucy will genuinely make you laugh and cry in this episode. I think she’s the funniest person on telly. Steve Burge is one of the few people who can write funny songs that aren’t cringeworthy… I hate ‘comedy songs’, but what he does is so unique. We all get together in bit parts… one day we will have the main parts! Yeah! Fuck the old guard. Move over dudes! It’s our turn.
We hear ya! Though you mention the big stars there. The procession of guests involved surely helped reached audiences who might otherwise not have tuned in. Everyone’s been fab, but are there any people you’ve been particularly chuffed to bag?
All of them to be honest. It’s so low paid and small [in profile], that most of them would be better off staying in bed! But I think they responded to the scripts really, and to be honest, once Michael Kitchen was in it that attracted some of the bigger actors. Roger Taylor and Rick Wakeman in the first series helped get bigger [rockstar] names. Paul and Simon’s Fast Show connection helped too.
The guest stars fit into two categories, the people who play themselves and the straight actors playing parts. Working with Phil Collins was a thrill. He’s another of my heroes and, like Peter Gabriel, it’s great he’s in on the joke when clearly Genesis were a bit of an inspiration behind Thotch. He’s also one of the few rock stars who can genuinely act. He’s a big comedy fan too. I remember seeing him in The Two Ronnies sketches when I was about 5 years old and just assumed he was a comedian too. I’d love to do more things with him in the future.
Dear Rick Parfitt, too, who sadly died last year. Billy Bragg of course, who is known for being quite serious, and Chrissie Hynde was funny too. Then there’s the straight actors playing parts like Chris Eccleston, Michael Kitchen, Suranne Jones, Jane Asher… to be honest, it’s hard to pick a favourite because they have all been great sports. It’s fun on set and very relaxed, and because I write, direct and produce, there is no stress through having to refer to someone else and no egos to get in the way. It’s just a laugh.
Each series has had a distinctly different feel to it, too, perhaps because your other career as a documentary filmmaker has allowed you to offer various facets of the artform up for spoofing. Given the tribute nature of the final episode, has this allowed you more scope to play with conventions you’ve not been able to in previous series?
As this is a spoof of one of those rushed tributes, there was more to satirise, so this has a very different feel to previous episodes. As far as my ‘other career’ [Rhys directed three award-winning documentaries about the rock band Queen], that was just a one off. I don’t consider myself a real documentary maker.
One of my personal favourite aspects of Pern’s world is how many references to your own passions you’ve managed to cram in. As a dyed-in-the-wool Queen fan myself, and a lifelong Whovian, it sometimes feels like there’s a whole extra layer to the show that people like me can pick up on. How much do you enjoy putting those little extra gags in?
Queen and Doctor Who were my childhood and teenage obsessions, so there are lots of those. We have two Doctors in the last episode, and a funny clip from The Visitation. All of this comes from the editing and writing… I make sure there are lots of layers for people like us! It would be hard to do that in any other comedy format.
Given this is likely to be the very end for Brian Pern, is there anything you wish you’d managed to do with the character that never came to fruition?
Not really. There was an idea that Brian and Thotch are cajoled by John Farrow into playing a wedding in some Middle Eastern country for millions of pounds, only to discover that the father of the bride is a terrible dictator with an awful human rights record. It was based on something Sting and Elton [John] apparently did in 2011 or so according to The Guardian. Brian refuses to play, the dictator threatens to torture Brian and his band unless he plays, so the band have to escape.
It’s like a road movie. But way too expensive. Even though Brian is dead, we could still revisit unknown parts of his past and use archive to tell an ‘unknown’ story – so there is always a way…
We’ll watch this space. In the meantime, what do you hope Brian’s legacy will be?
I hope people look back and say: There was a funny programme.
Speaking of funny stuff, what’s next for you post-Pern?
A comedy drama called Trailer Park which has been around for ages, but is finally happening. I am going to write that, for the makers of [BBC One drama] The A Word. The plan is to get some of the Pern cast in that, but in new roles.
I’ve also got a sitcom pilot called Scaffs for the BBC, and another end of the year review 2017: A Year in the Life of A Year. I’m also co-writing a script for American TV that’s a secret at the moment, and trying to sell Brian Pern to the USA. Maybe we can do what they did with The Office and make a few pence.
As always, we’ll be right behind it! You moved to LA a few years ago, even though most of the work you and Lucy are doing is still based in the UK. Why did you decide to upheave?
We moved last year for a change of scene, really… just for a year or so. Now we’ve both got jobs here – all will be revealed at some point! But we’re still working on ideas at home. There’s no reason why you can’t work in more than one place.
Does it make collaboration with your peers harder?
Not really. I wrote all of the new Brian Pern here [in LA], sent the first draft to Simon, he read it, added a few lines and sent ideas of his own, and then I put it together, we came back and filmed it. It’s surprisingly easy. And it also it means you appreciate London when you come home.
We look forward to seeing you back here soon. Until then, Rhys Thomas, thank you.
Brian Pern: A Tribute airs on BBC Four at 10pm this Wednesday, 29th March 2017. You can see a preview clip below. The first three series are available to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray, and Series Three is also available via the BBC Store.
The Edinburgh Fringe is now well under way and there’s a whole host of hilarious shows to savour.
One such show is the latest solo hour from Marny Godden: one third of sketch trio The Grandees who has previously appeared in The Day They Came to Suck Out Our Brains, Umbridge Swain and Kill Phil, as well as at the sorely missed Forgery Club.
We caught up with Marny at the end of her first week at the Fringe to find out more about her latest comedic tomfoolery, Where’s John’s Porridge Bowl?…
Hi Marny, thanks for catching up with us. Are you excited to be back in Edinburgh?
Yes, especially being on the free fringe with Heroes of the Fringe. Such a great vibe all round. Loving it so far.
You’re now over a week into your run – how is the show developing?
The show’s coming on nicely… There are a couple of new characters I’m still developing and this is the perfect place to do it. I’ve spent most nights staying in and thinking of new material to try the next day which keeps everything fresh and will hopefully develop into not just a good show but a great one…
What TVO finds particularly joyous about your work is that you’re completely unafraid of clowning, which often feels like a bit of a lost art. What draws you to the sillier side of comedy?
Thank you for saying! There’s something very alluring about walking into the unknown for me. With clowning you can pretty much take you and the audience anywhere as long as you surrender to the moment and trust your impulses. Who knows where it’ll take you…
This is your second Fringe in your own right following a couple of runs with The Grandees. What changes when you go solo?
Way more stage time. Much greater responsibility and sometimes it can be a bit lonely. Much more play with the audience. You can grow a lot more on your own, well I have. It’s inevitable really.
The Grandees were notably tipped for great things by James Wren, who famously did the same thing for Garth Marenghi and The Mighty Boosh, and you worked with him on Umbridge Swain a few years ago. Do you get the same vibe from James that TVO does: like he’s the coolest “comedy dad” ever?
Yes, he’s way cool. I have huge respect for James and Mark at The Hen and Chickens. Some of my favorite people in comedy.
Of course, you first came to our attention via your collaborations with Phil Whelans on The Day They Came to Suck Out Our Brains and Kill Phil. Phil has an extraordinary comic mind, so what was working with him like?
He’s one of a kind and very good at what he does. It was so much fun, we mainly laughed and he encouraged me to take risks and be as stupid and bold as I wanted. It was great.
These little connections got you onto our radar, and keep you in our extended family. Are there any of our regulars you’d love to work with in the future?
Any of them! They’re all legends.
Speaking of the future, what are your plans for beyond the Fringe?
I want to focus on getting some stuff on tape, so I shall be making so funny shorts to start and then see where that leads…
But right now, back to Edinburgh. Have you got any survival tips for the festival?
Well, looking out the window as I type this, this year’s a wet one and a windy one, so wrap up. Stay off the booze, if you’re a performer. Stay on the booze if you’re not… and come and see my show!
Are you hoping to catch anyone else’s shows whilst you’re up there?
Yeah a ton of them. I want to see all my friends shows, which is basically everyone at the Heroes of the Fringe.
Naturally, we’re coming to see you… and though you’re on quite early we have to ask: what’s your tipple?
I’m not boozing till the last week, however one of my characters AKA Mr Wilmot Brown, would love a gin and tonic.
Finally… our hardy perennial: If you were a pub, what you be called and what kind of pub would you be?
Nice question! I’d like it to be called ‘The Green Witch’ because I’m from Greenwich. I’d be green inside, very friendly and magical.
Marny Godden, thank you.
Marny Godden: Where’s John’s Porridge Bowl is at Heroes @ The Hive until August 28th (except 15th). Tickets are a mere five pounds, and can be found over yonder.
The Edinburgh Fringe is now well under way and there’s a whole host of TVO related shows to savour.
One such show is the latest hour from Jonny & The Baptists: the musical satirists who we’ve long since dubbed Honorary Onions. Frequently sharing the bill with many of the acts we cover on these pages, as well as touring the UK steadily over the last few years, the duo have gained a cult following with their politically charged songs and the occasional bout of cheeky madness.
We caught up with Jonny Donahoe (Jonny, natch) and Paddy Gervers (‘& The Baptists’) as the Fringe was kicking off to find out more about their new slice of comic gold…
Hi gents, thanks for catching up with us. Are you excited to be back in Edinburgh?
Absolutely. Edinburgh is one of the greatest cities on earth, and being back at the Fringe is a bit like putting on your favourite hat: it’s familiar, it smells nice, all of your friends are there and it has a healthy attitude towards the arts. On second thoughts, a hat is a terrible analogy.
Your latest show is called Eat the Poor. What can you tell us about it?
Eat The Poor is all about inequality, homelessness and the wealth gap. Britain has now been getting steadily more unequal for 37 years and it is breaking our society apart piece by piece, so we’ve spent a whole year travelling round the country researching why we’ve let it get this far. Also there are songs and jokes. And swans.
There’s lots of new songs too. What can we expect to hear this time around?
This is our most narrative-driven show to date, so we’ve tried to cram in a balance of storytelling songs, rabble-rousers and (for reasons that will become clear during the show) some slightly more ‘musical theatre-y’ ones. Of course you can also expect some big silly ones that may be more akin to our previous shows (I’m looking at you again, swans) but we’ve tried to push the boat out be more musically ambitious this year. We’re hugely excited to see what people think!
Musical comedy often pushes political buttons. What drew you both to expressing yourselves in this way?
Well we were both brought up learning music and it’s an enormous part of our lives, so when we first started working together we wanted to write both comedy and music without sacrificing the quality of one for the other. It became political in an instant – the conversation very much went like this:
“Hey what do you want to write about?”
“I don’t know, what’s going on in the world?”
“Great let’s write about that.”
I think there’s something about music that can grab people, be it from protest singers or comedians or just good ol’ fashioned bands. Music is a medium which (quite literally) people listen to.
Given the chaotic nature of the last few months, has it been harder to write a topical show because everything was changing so fast, or easier, because it made you reach for more universal truths?
A little of each really. People often say ‘Wow there’s so much going on at the moment! I bet you don’t even have to write material’ – which we suppose makes sense. There is a minefield of topics to draw from and perhaps it has made us try and write more about the roots of societal problems as opposed to the results, but at the end of the day we’d much rather live in a safe, functioning world and have absolutely nothing to write about. Then we could all just be happy and play table-tennis.
A lot of comedians haven’t really drawn on the current climate for humour yet: they’re just angry and more politically charged than ever… presumably like the rest of us! Yet what I’ve found in the past is that, when I’ve struggled to put across a point intelligently and get people to engage with it, it’s often comedy that elicits a response. Do you feel the genre, particularly musical comedy like yours, helps audiences get a grasp on their emotional and intellectual response?
Very much so. People are more receptive to considering ideas when they can laugh about it or tap their foot to it. If someone likes your joke and has a bit of a giggle, they may well think a bit harder about where that joke comes from or if they agree with it. The same applies to songs – if you can enjoy it both on a musical level and an ideological level then you’re on to a winner, but even if you only emote with one of those things it definitely opens you up to the other. Life is more manageable with humour, and so are opinions.
In your last show, you discussed writing a letter to Matthew Hancock after he infamously dismissed climate change. He’s now been made Minister for Culture. Scared yet?
Don’t even start. It’s a bad omen for things to come isn’t it. ‘Minister of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries’ is an important post, and we might as well have given it to an egg.
TVO has seen you live many times now, and what always strikes me is that your shows are honed to perfection but still maintain an edge where absolutely anything could happen. Are you happy to go off the beaten track for the sake of laughs?
Utterly happy to. We’re genuinely best friends, so getting to be on stage together is a constant delight, and because a lot of the songs are ‘locked down’ we try to keep each other on our toes for all the other bits. If we can make each other laugh then that’s lovely, if an audience enjoy that then it’s joyous. I think it can be easy to get sick of shows if they’re totally nailed down – we just try to stave that off for as long as possible. Also we often forget lines, so sometimes it isn’t…erm…by choice.
There’s a wonderful chemistry between the two of you that’s really quite infectious. How did you start working together initially, and what do you each think draws you to the other?
We’ve sort of known each other for about 15 years, but six years ago we met properly at a wedding. We got hammered and ended up getting tickets to see Pulp the next week. Then we went there, got hammered again and did that whole ‘Hey you, you know what we should do? We should start a BAND – wouldn’t that be great? You and me, BAND FRIENDS’ etc. and a few days later we actually went through with it. We just sort of hit it off and immediately trusted each other, dropping everything else to try and make this work and it’s brilliant. We each get to work with our best mate and then when we write comedy about our friendship it comes from honesty. Also we’re both big fans of pool. And darts. And drinks. Oh hang on we’re both just big fans of pubs.
This is far from your first Fringe. Do you feel like veterans yet?
Veterans sounds a bit glamorous for two tools with guitars. We just like spending our summers singing funny songs to people and telling weird stories together. As long as Edinburgh will continue to have us, we’ll keep coming and maybe one day ‘veterans’ will fit the bill. But for now we’re more like the problem locals at a very, very large pop-up bar.
Have you got any survival tips for Edinburgh?
See your friends. Yes, see their shows, but also just spend time with each other. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in everything that you forget to enjoy yourself and that’s the recipe for disaster. Other tips include always asking for salt ‘n’ sauce on your chips, trying not to chain smoke, and remembering there is a hospital for when it all goes wrong (we’ve been there a lot – it’s a damn good hospital).
Are you hoping to catch anyone else’s shows whilst you’re up there?
A whole host of stuff actually. It would be impossible to name them all, but we’re particularly looking forward to Bridget Christie, John-Luke Roberts, Josie Long, Nish Kumar, Rachel Parris, Ria Lina, Colin Hoult, Thom Tuck, Stewart Lee…the list goes on. Outside of comedy though we’re going to be trying to see a lot of theatre at Summerhall – their programme this year is exceptional.
Naturally, we’re coming to see you. So the all-important question: What’s your tipple?
How extraordinarily kind! Jonny’s a Tennents, Paddy’s a Guinness, and we expect to know yours in return.
Finally then. We have a long running question we ask most people at some point, and given your previous stance on categorisation of these establishments, this could be interesting. If you were a pub, what would you be called and what kind of pub would you be?
Our pub will be called ‘The Questionable Phoenix’, with the motto ‘We think he’s just a pigeon’. It will sell real drinks (none of this craft nonsense), be dimly lit, have plenty of pool tables & dart boards, a decent beer garden and two clumsy landlords. Everyone’s welcome – especially dogs.
Jonny & The Baptists, thank you.
Jonny & The Baptists: Eat the Poor is at Summerhall until August 28th (except 16th and 23rd). Non-edible tickets are available over yonder. You can also buy audio cds and downloads from Bandcamp.
The Edinburgh Festival returns for its 69th year shortly, and a bevvy of TVO favourites are heading on up there to make people laugh. As part of our celebrations, we’ve been catching up with a handful of great performers we’re sure you’ll want to go and see at the Fringe.
And while we’re itching to see all of this year’s new shows, the ‘big’ news perhaps is the return of Katy Brand after an 11 year absence from the festival. Naturally, TVO had to talk to her about it all. Here’s what she had to say…
“I just sort of stopped for a while.”
That’s how Katy Brand describes her – thankfully temporary – retirement from the live comedy scene six years ago. Now she’s back with a brand new hour: I Was a Teenage Christian, in which she takes a look back at her real life experiences as a God-bothering teenager, and the result is her first turn at the Edinburgh Fringe for 11 years.
“I’m really excited about it,” she tells TVO when we catch up. “A few nerves, of course, but I think there would be something wrong if I wasn’t nervous about doing a new show. But I am curious to see what has changed, and what has remained exactly the same. I think that probably applies both to Edinburgh, and myself…”
Indeed, things have changed dramatically. The Fringe has been a big behemoth for many years now, but it seems to grow in stature every time it comes around. There’s more choice, and more competition. And for Katy, the last time she was there was for Celebrities are Gods in 2005 – a show that morphed into Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show for ITV. Eleven years ago, Brand was a character comedian, but now she’s taking to the stage as a comedic raconteur. The change, however, was a natural one spurred on by the end of a cycle.
“I have more confidence in my own instincts, instead of feeling buffeted around by what other people need of me.”
“I wasn’t finding performing sketches live very enjoyable by the end of my tour in 2010,” Katy reveals. “And I didn’t know how to continue to perform live in a different way. And then I wrote my book and did a tour of literary festivals, where I spoke as myself, and I found it very freeing and spontaneous, which is what was lacking from the sketch shows. I felt that if I had an idea for a show, then I could see performing as myself as a real option. And two years later, I had the idea, so here we are!”
Brenda Monk, it seems, was the sincher. Released in 2014, Brenda Monk is Funny was Brand’s debut novel, telling the story of the girlfriend of a successful stand-up comedian who realises that his best material consists of recycled versions of her own restless, smart-arsed energy, so decides to keep the jokes for herself and become a comic in her own right. Much like Brenda, Katy hit upon the realisation that she could be doing something better, and that immediately began to inform her writing and performing.
“I think writing my novel was probably the turning point for me,” she explains. “By the end of the third series of my sketch show, I knew I wanted to write longer form formats. I kept delivering 12 page sketches! So I was writing pilot sit-com scripts and film scripts and so on, but it was hard and slow, as development for the screen almost always is. And then the chance came along to write a book and get it out there, so I grabbed it.
“It was creatively very freeing and satisfying,” Katy continues, “and it re-ignited the pure pleasure of writing. The feedback was good, and so that gave me a real confidence boost. So I think that’s what’s changed: I just have more confidence in my own instincts, instead of feeling buffeted around by what other people need from me.”
And what a time to return. Storytelling is the new rock-n-roll in comedy, and taking audiences on a journey is what audiences – and critics – are latching on to. TVO wonders if a shift is happening, and Brand agrees.
“I think that’s absolutely true, yes,” she states. “There is certainly now a kind of sub-genre of stand-up which is about telling a story, building a narrative, and then being funny about it. I think that has always been present in Edinburgh though – it’s part of the joy of the Festival. The challenge of constructing an hour, taking the audience on a journey. Of course, there will always be a big place for proper set-up-punch stand-up, and quite rightly so, but it’s great that the definition of stand-up is broadening.”
We felt like we were God’s army, that Jesus was genuinely about to return, and we had to save as many souls as we could.”
For Brand, her first big story is of her teenage brush with Evangelical Christanity. It’s a surprisingly personal choice, that tackles a difficult period in her life, but one that Brand is open to exploring.
“It is personal,” she suggests, “in that it’s true and it’s about me. But at the same time, it all happened so long ago I feel quite detached from it from an emotional point of view. I think it was such a strange chapter in my life, and I was so obsessive about it, that it seemed ripe for comedy. Also, I found parallels with teenagers being radicalised now, and so it felt relevant to explore it a bit.”
The topic is, it’s fair to say, a fascinating one. TVO mentions that they too, had a religious dalliance as a teenager, but it seemed at odds with interests in romance, loud music, and of course, comedy.
“I think a religious phase of some sort is very common for teenagers,” Katy says. “Since I have started talking about the show, so many people – friends and strangers – have said they also flirted with religion a bit, although not to the extent I did. Teenagers are confronting their own mortality for the first time, I think. It’s the time it really starts to hit home that they will die one day, and so I think a fascination with the afterlife is widespread. Vampires are another common obsession, for the same reason. I think it’s to do with wanting to feel important and immortal, and religion will do that for you.”
For Katy, the dalliance was rather intense, as Evangelical Christianity tends to be. In the UK, of course, we associate it most strongly with America’s notorious Bible Belt, but as Katy explains, it still felt just as intense in Hertfordshire.
“I went to church four times a week,” she reveals, “even when there was nothing going on. We spoke in Tongues, prayed out demons, evangelised on street corners. We tried to live as if we were Biblical disciples of Jesus, except we were in the Home Counties and still maintained an interest in which cut of Levi’s was the coolest. It was a little bubble in a lot of ways. We were given a lot of responsibilities – we felt like we were God’s Army, that Jesus was genuinely about to return, and we had to save as many souls as we could.”
In the end, however, it was Brand’s interest in religion that severed her ties. “Once I started studying Theology properly,” she explains, “I was much less welcome at my church, and I started to find it all a bit childish. I was loving University life, and I wanted to throw myself into that, if you know what I mean.” She stops for a moment, then adds: “They also tried to ban Harry Potter. And frankly, I liked Harry Potter and wanted to read the next book. If they had managed to ban it, I’d never have found out what happened next… can you imagine? Intolerable.”
“Ealing Live was like comedy college for me.”
Personally, and maybe this is the Hufflepuff in us, TVO finds it slightly more intolerable that ITV never released the third series of Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show on dvd: now seemingly lost into the ether, or the ITV vaults, at least. Featuring a bevy of Onion regulars, in retrospect the show was a real breeding ground for comedic talent, a lot of whom came up from Ealing Live alongside Katy. All these years later, Brand is still proud of the show.
“I’m extremely proud of it,” she explains. “I was so pleased so many people I knew were willing to come in and take part. Ealing Live was like Comedy College for me, and when I joined I was awestruck by the ability, talent and skill of those other performers. For me, it was an absolute no-brainer to try to get those people involved – they were the best around. I felt very lucky to have got a series. It could have been any of us. I was delighted they were up for it, especially as they all had their own things going on, and were very busy themselves.”
Well, quite. The Ealing Live scene remains the core of what we do at TVO, and Katy is perhaps one of its most unsung heroes. As time has gone by, however, it’s rare to get more than a handful of them together in one production, let alone in the same place for an evening. Lots of the team have spoken about it feeling like one big family, and Katy is quick to agree that – in spite of the haphazard nature of get togethers these days – the love for one another remains strong.
“Whenever we see each other,” she explains, “whether through work or social gatherings, it’s like no time has passed. There’s a real shorthand there. For example, I was at a screening of The Ghoul recently – Gareth Tunley and Tom Meeten’s film. It was so great to see people I hadn’t seen in ages. It’s like nothing’s changed. They’re just good, talented, decent people. And always up for a pint and a packet of crisps for tea.”
TVO is, understandably, glad to hear it. And since we last caught up with Katy in depth for Mongrels second series, she’s continued her association with the TVO crowd through shows like the sublime Psychobitches.
“I loved played Emily Bronte,” Katy says when we mention the show. “Although sitting with our heads stuck through a hole in the back of a sofa was murderously uncomfortable, and I was pregnant at the time so the contortion was not pleasant! But we knew it was funny, and that made it a joy. That whole show was great: just amazing women in ludicrous outfits walking back and forth from make-up to costume to set. I was quite star-struck actually. And Jeremy Dyson was a superb director. He was quick and efficient because he knew exactly what he wanted and he knew when he had got it, which made everything more fun.”
Brand also got to extend her talents by writing and starring in two of Sky’s short anthology series: the festive Little Crackers and Dave Lambert’s sublime Common Ground. And with great results already, it’s pleasing to note that dramatic comedy writing is an area that Katy is keen to explore further.
“I love the crossover of comedy and drama,” she states, “and I am glad that British TV is finding space for it now. The success of comedy drama in the US has helped a lot. Writing in which the jokes arise naturally from the action and the characters has always been my preference as a viewer, and it is what I would love to do as a writer.”
There’s also room for Brenda Monk – Brand’s stand-up character in her debut novel – to return in a second book, and potentially more to follow.
“I would like to follow Brenda through her whole career,” Brand explains, “over the course of several novels. The next one will be Brenda Monk is Famous, where suddenly she is playing huge venues, getting recognised in the street and dealing with online abuse. Then maybe Brenda Monk is Fucked? Brenda Monk is Forgotten? Then a big comeback for her late in her career – I need to think of a word beginning with ‘F’ to describe that – suggestions welcome… I can’t wait to get started on it.”
And she’ll have lots of time to do that in the Autumn, alongside her new role with Sharon Horgan and Clelia Mountford’s Merman production company which was announced recently.
“My role is to help them develop their comedy slate,” she tells us. “There will be plenty to get on with there. It’s a part time job, so I also have plenty of time for my own projects, so I will be getting stuck into more script writing, and possibly a tour of my Edinburgh show. We’ll see. I am open for business, so am up for anything that looks creatively rewarding. I have several scripts and projects in development, so I will be picking those up again and taking them further, hopefully.”
But first, Edinburgh. Brand is quick to reel off the shows she’d like to see, including Harriet Kemsley, Katherine Ryan, Grainne Maguire, Marcel Lucon, Sofie Hagan, Bridget Christie, Stewart Lee and Tony Law to name but a few that spring to mind. Brand, it seems, has caught her second wind, and her enthusiasm is infectious and much deserved. And for anyone uncertain as to whether or not to check out her Fringe show, she concludes our catch-up by summing it up as thus:
“Come along and hear me talk for an hour about what a dick I was. I was a massive, massive dick for Jesus.”
Katy Brand is back. Amen.
Katy Brand: I Was a Teenage Christian is at Pleasance Courtyard at 16:45 from August 3rd-14th and August 16th-29th. Tickets are on sale now.