‘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’
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