‘A lot of sit­coms these days just aren’t funny’

As their mu­si­cal ‘ re­turns, com­edy duo Marks and Gran talk about past hits and the rise of ‘sad­coms’

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By BEN LAWRENCE one half of a suc­cess­ful com­edy scriptwrit­ing duo with Lau­rence Marks

Lau­rence Marks and Mau­rice Gran are fa­mous for be­ing Bri­tain’s most suc­cess­ful com­edy scriptwrit­ing duo. A suc­ces­sion of main­stream hits through­out the Eight­ies and Nineties — Shine on Har­vey Moon, Birds of a Feather, Good­night Sweet­heart — has en­sured their place in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Less well known, how­ever, is their part in a cur­rent­day mu­sic phe­nom­e­non.

Dream­boats and Pet­ti­coats, a nos­tal­gia trip for any­one who was a teenager in the Fifties and early Six­ties, started as a com­pi­la­tion CD 10 years ago and turned into a hugely suc­cess­ful juke­box mu­si­cal, scripted with their usual gift for ripe di­a­logue, by Marks and Gran.

After a sell-out stint in the West End be­tween 2009 and 2012 and a suc­ces­sion of mul­ti­mil­lion-sell­ing al­bums fea­tur­ing hits by the likes of Buddy Holly, Marty Wilde and Dusty Spring­field, the show is back. A new pro­duc­tion opens in 2017 and a 10th an­niver­sary CD has just topped the UK com­pi­la­tion charts, beat­ing an al­bum — Live Lounge 2016 — from Ra­dio 1 to the num­ber one spot.

Lo and Mo, as they are af­fec­tion­ately known by in­dus­try in­sid­ers, are too savvy to be sur­prised by this suc­cess, but they are not cyn­i­cal about it ei­ther. Both share an en­thu­si­asm for the hit­mak­ers of the pe­riod and take joy in trans­port­ing a gen­er­a­tion back to their youth. Gran en­coun­tered a man at one pro­duc­tion who had seen the show seven times, while Marks met a woman who summed up its ap­peal.

“It took her back to the time when she first met the per­son she was sit­ting next to. They wanted to re­live the mu­sic, the mu­sic which they danced to be­fore he pro­posed to her.”

Dream­boats and Pet­ti­coats is set in a youth club in 1961, a sort of tran­si­tional pe­riod when the Six­ties were yet to swing. Marks and Gran, both 67, are slightly too young to have had the ex­pe­ri­ences of the show’s char­ac­ters, though they both at­tended youth clubs.

“One of the girls in the show asked me how long it would take in those days be­fore you al­lowed the boy you were go­ing out with to sleep with you,” says Marks. “I said, ‘When you mar­ried him.’ There was a fear of preg­nancy.”

“You have to re­mem­ber,” says Gran, “that if you were at a youth club and you went out the back with a girl, she would be wear­ing a corset. She may as well have been wear­ing a suit of ar­mour. She was im­preg­nable!

“My sis­ter, who was slightly older than me, had boyfriends and my fa­ther was al­ways sus­pi­cious of any­one who came back to our house. My mother wanted a three-piece suite but we never got one. He would only have the two arm­chairs be­cause he saw a sofa as the devil’s work.”

Lo and Mo met when they were 11 and there is a sense of an old mar­ried cou­ple about them, waspish but af­fec­tion­ate. They are also splen­did com­pany, warm, smart, funny and, in the nicest pos­si­ble way, deeply scep­ti­cal. Gran is the more lo­qua­cious, while Marks oc­ca­sion­ally chips in with a la­conic com­ment.

They first worked to­gether with Frankie How­erd, an ex­pe­ri­ence which scarred the young Gran. “Tell him what you said on Desert Is­land Discs,” says Marks. “What did I say?” asks Gran. “I can’t have said that he was a mo­rose old f ***** on Desert Is­land Discs.

“He was a very in­se­cure, sad man, not least be­cause he was liv­ing a lie. He was in­dis­putably a comic ge­nius and I learnt a lot from him [but] he made me ill. I suf­fered from psy­cho­so­matic ul­cers. What we al­ways found amus­ing was that there was a dead squir­rel on his head and no one was al­lowed to men­tion it.”

After their break­through hit, Shine on Har­vey Moon (1982), a post-war com­edy drama star­ring Ken­neth Cran­ham and fu­ture Birds of a Feather stars Linda Rob­son and Pauline Quirke, Marks and Gran spent a pe­riod work­ing in Amer­i­can TV, which lent them ex­tra ku­dos. On their re­turn to Bri­tain, they had a meet­ing with Rik May­all which led to the cre­ation of The New States­man (1987), fea­tur­ing the de­spi­ca­ble MP, Alan B’Stard.

Both writ­ers speak with great af­fec­tion about May­all who died in 2014. The New States­man, per­haps the duo’s big­gest crit­i­cal hit, is surely ripe for a re­vival but Marks is adamant that they could not bring it back with­out May­all. “How could we?” he asks. Gen­er­ally, though, they are not averse to re­vivals. Good­night Sweet­heart re­cently re­turned as part of the BBC’s Clas­sic Com­edy sea­son, while Birds of a Feather has at­tracted rat­ings of up to 12 mil­lion since its re­vamp on ITV.

Marks be­lieves that the show, never a dar­ling of the crit­ics, suc­ceeded due to the real-life re­la­tion­ship of child­hood friends Quirke and Rob­son. “They were mag­i­cal. Right from the first se­ries they were do­ing things that weren’t in the script, habits based on their friend­ship.”

Do they be­lieve that the Clas­sic Com­edy sea­son — which, in ad­di­tion to Good­night Sweet­heart, in­cluded re­boots of Por­ridge and Are You Be­ing Served? — is a sign that the genre is in de­cline and can only thrive on past glo­ries?

Gran has mixed feel­ings. He is a big fan of the Chan­nel 4 se­ries Catas­tro­phe, star­ring Sharon Hor­gan, but dis­mis­sive of a glut of re­cent shows he de­scribes as “sad­coms”.

“They are full of de­pressed char­ac­ters and one fool to do the jokes,” he says. “They are not funny. They are whim­si­cal or cute, but not funny.” He doesn’t name names, but one could spec­u­late he is re­fer­ring to pro­grammes like the BBC’s Fleabag and Chan­nel 4’s black com­edy Flow­ers, which be­gan with the main char­ac­ter try­ing to hang him­self.

It may sound chippy on the page, but there is some­thing far too spry about both men to sug­gest any bit­ter­ness. Rather, you hope that the TV in­dus­try will pay at­ten­tion.

“You won’t make us sound like whingers, will you?” Marks asks me. I hope I haven’t, but there again, that’s all part of the charm.

They are full of de­pressed char­ac­ters and one fool to do the jokes. ... They are whim­si­cal or cute, but not funny.” Mau­rice Gran, 10th An­niver­sary (4CD) Col­lec­tion is out now on UMOD.

re­turns to ITV at Christ­mas

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