Laughing with the sitcom kings
MARKS AND GRAN
THERE IS something of the double act about comedy writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. And it is understandable considering that they have written some of the best loved, longest running sitcoms on British TV, including Birds of a Feather, now receiving a new lease of life on ITV.
But before the revival of Birds, Marks and Gran had partially given up on television. Executives were turning to a younger generation of comedy writers. So the veterans turned to the stage, for which they have produced two jukebox musicals — the Olivier-nominated Dreamboats and Petticoats and its miniskirted sequel Dreamboats and Miniskirts — and, via radio, the plays Von Ribbentrop’s Watch and their latest, Love Me Do. A love story set in London during the Cuban missile crisis, its theatrical opening is at Watford Palace next month.
“You realise it’s about the first thing we’ve done that hasn’t got any Jews in it,” says Gran, mindful of who he is being interviewed by. You’re still Jews though, I say. “Apparently,” he replies.
“We had this debate last Thursday,” says Marks, who describes his lineage as rabbinical. “My sister Shirley asked us if we still felt Jewish. We were sitting in Stanmore eating salt beef at the time.”
Today there is no salt beef on view. We are in the canteen at the ITV premises on London’s South Bank. Marks has with him a pile of scripts printed on pink paper. They are for the new series of Birds of a Feather, whi c h b e g i n s s h o o t i n g i n October and will start on ITV just before Christmas.
They are a complementary yet contradictory pair. Marks is pale and long, Gran is tanned and round. Marks is measured and thoughtful, the fast-talking Gran has a jittery impatience about him. He is also the more cautious of the two when it comes to expressing satisfaction that they are not only back on television, but responsible for ITV’s biggest comedy hit in decades. For including the repeat showings, the new Birds of a Feather is pulling in audiences of up to 12 million.
Crucially the show has kept its core characters, including Lesley Joseph as Dorien, a role that Lo and Mo, as the writers are known in the biz, based on the Jewish female denizens of a Finchley tennis club. “Expensive hair, nails, tracksuits and racquets — and more interested in the tennis coaches than the tennis,” says Gran.
A third of its viewing figure would constitute a hit these days. At BBC1, which reportedly only offered the show a Christmas special, controller Danny Cohen must be kicking himself.
Yet it is only a few years since the Marks and Gran story was looking very different. “We had closed our production company and were perceived as retired,” Gran recalls.
Pitching to a younger generation of executives, who were minded to turn to a younger generation of comedy writers, had become no fun at all.
“You get to the stage where you think you just don’t want to go through this nonsense any more,” Gran says. “But
Funnyoldgame:Laurence MarksandMauriceGran and( below) Birds of a Feather stars Lesley Joseph, Pauline QuirkeandLindaRobson