INTERVIEW / Plowman's half hour: Jon Plowman is the straight man behind the funny women played by French and Saunders. Life's a gag, the TV producer tells Sabine Durrant

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The Independent Culture
Murder Most Horrid and Absolutely Fabulous have several things in common. They both rest on the shoulders of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. They're both predominantly directed by Bob Spiers. And they're both produced by Jon Plowman - the man behind the original French & Saunders series, behind Smith & Jones and Fry & Laurie, behind Comic Relief, the man who is BBC Head of Comedy Entertainment. He must be very powerful, this Jon Plowman. 'You could look at everything I've produced over the last few years,' he says, trying to help, 'and analyse a very sick man who has a very sick, sad sense of humour and lives a tragic life, surrounded by a lot of very dominant women'.

There was only one woman in Plowman's new office at Television Centre last week, and she seemed to be there in an assistant's capacity. But it was hard to be sure because the office still seemed as if it belonged to someone else, half mess, half empty space. 'It looks as if it was left-over from a sitcom about a hotel reception,' says Plowman from behind his new big broad tidy counter. 'It used to be inhabited by three people and 400 computers and 10 telephones and now it's just me and Kate.' At this point the domination theory gets up and leaves the office when Kate announces she is going out for a while. 'Get that woman back to answer the phones,' barks Plowman.

Plowman's is a funny old job - an invisible job behind big scenes. For Murder and Ab Fab, he's responsible for all the boring bits like budgets and contracts and getting the programmes in on time. He's also, he says, 'the fuck monitor' - a sort of laughing policeman who has to keep his ear out for unnecessary swear words: on his desk lie notes on one episode of one programme that overstepped the mark (Which? 'Not saying') - four neatly hand written pages of notes. Whereas other comedy producers at the BBC work on shows with innate dynamics of their own, Plowman channels his skills, his tastes and his sense of humour into star vehicles, 'shows where if the talent got run down by the bus that's it, no more shows'. He's the serious one behind the jokers, the bloke at the back at the press conferences, the straight man.

Not that he isn't making up for it now. Someone should give him his own show (they could put it out at midday and call it Plowman's Lunch). With his pale floppy hair and fuzzy green home-knit woolly ('Actually, its a very, very trendy American cardigan, but I know that on film it'll look like this man reads Woman's Weekly), he looks like a comic - or, more accurately, a character in a comic. He even talks like he has a boiled sweet lodged in his cheek. As he trots through his career-resume ('Born: Welwyn Garden City, Educated: state system; University College, Oxford. Assistant director to Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court . . . basically freelance theatrey directory person . . . Arts Council drama office . . . Producer . . . producer . . . producer'), he keeps hamming his elbow falling off the desk, or contorting himself to see if his chair is swivelling down, or taking his glasses on and off for the camera. At one point, he forces one eye open with two fingers and rolls his eyeball round as if playing with a contact lens ('It's an old trick, but it might just work'). It's like watching Ronnie Corbett, pretending to be serious, and failing.

Which is rather like the programmes he makes: the characters' lack of sense of humour is as funny as anything else in Absolutely Fabulous, it's the seriousness of murder in conjunction with the plot's interaction with it that makes Murder Most Horrid so killing. Plowman claims to abide by no rules: 'The John Cleese three rules of comedy are 1 No puns, 2 No puns, 3 No puns; the John Lloyd rules of sitcom comedy are that it works when you've got people who hate each other trapped in a situation. And the Jon Plowman rules of comedy? There aren't any.' But his programmes, he claims, coincide precisely with his own taste: 'I haven't made a programme since I've been doing comedy stuff that hasn't made me laugh,' he says.

At the moment, his laughing muscles are exercised most vigorously with Murder Most Horrid, the second series of which begins on Thursday, though he stops joking when he starts talking about it. Earlier, he'd said how Ab Fab worked so well because it doesn't try too hard to be liked . . .

'It says, 'Look, here are two disgusting people, they're not role models, they're dreadful, but laugh at them.' So much comedy, particularly American comedy, says these people are warm, they're lovable, they go for what is called 'warmity', that terrible thing at the end of an episode when the audience stops laughing because the cast is doing a moral, they're hugging each other and not going into denial and going on 12-step programmes.' For Murder Most Horrid though, he felt the pitfalls were harder to avoid.

'When the idea of doing six comedy murders came up, we thought that'll be fun and it'll be quite easy in a way - Kind Hearts and Coronets, you know. But it's actually much more difficult than that and the difficulty is in getting the moral thing right. You don't want, at the end of half an hour, for a murder to have taken place and for the audience to feel dissatisfied, to be feeling, 'Bloody hell, murder's a bit heavier than that,' or 'She shouldn't have got away with that, the bitch, it's outrageous.' It's a very odd thing to say about what might appear to be a light, frivolous film, but it's got to be morally acceptable. You have to get the highs and lows right, to set up an atmosphere and establish characters in which it's all right to laugh at the idea of death, at the idea of killing somebody. And you only have half an hour to do it.' Plowman looks very serious for a moment. But then he laughs.

One thing is pretty clear about the sad, tragic world of Jon Plowman: he loves his job. When he worked in theatre, first at the Royal Court, later at the Lyric and for Wild Cat in Scotland, he admits that his colleagues at the time 'probably would have said that I lacked a certain earnestness', but he seems to have found the right niche now. 'I'm working with my mates,' he says. 'let's be honest about this. I mean, there's a lot of po-faced stuff that says doing comedy is jolly hard work - I've just been doing it myself - and that it is the most difficult thing to do in the world. And yes it is all of those things, but it's fun, going in and hearing them read things and watching them be funny. You'd be barmy to say it isn't fun.'

(Photograph omitted)

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