It could be you

Porkpie scrapes out an existence as a penny-pinching pensioner - and then he wins the Lottery, in a new C4 sitcom. James Rampton talks to Porkpie's creator, Trix Worrell, about making people laugh and cry
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A lonely, crotchety old man - "a penny-pinching old git", in the words of his creator - earns his living as a lollypop man and is so parsimonious he lives by candle-light. This does not sound like a very promising starting- point for a sitcom, but there again I'm sure the pitch for Steptoe and Son - two bickering rag-and-bone men living in penurious squalor - didn't have commissioning editors jumping for joy, either.

Porkpie, the aforementioned curmudgeon, is in fact a slyly likeable old devil who enlivens the sitcom of the same name, a spin-off from Desmond's. As played by the lively Ram John Holder, he's the sort of bolshy pensioner who warns visitors to his spartan flat not to switch on any lights, "unless you can pay for it". Porkpie's situation changes dramatically when that sparkly finger descends from the heavens and points him out as the winner of a National Lottery jackpot. His mood, however, remains petulant.

"He's peeved that it's happened to him so late in life," laughs Trix Worrell, Porkpie's creator. "And it's a miserable existence. Once you've bought the house, the car and the yacht, what do you do then? You lose all your friends because everyone has an agenda."

Perhaps surprisingly, children flock to get a piece of the sour Porkpie. "They follow him around like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn," says Worrell, "whether they're black, white, pink or yellow. They love him because he's fallible. He's an adult who gets things wrong, and kids love that."

Unlike some of the blander-blend, three-piece-suite sitcoms on ITV or BBC1, C4's Porkpie does not serve up purely sugar and spice and all things nice. According to Worrell, "Mainstream sitcoms are so staid. But comedy can be pushed. You can make people laugh and cry at the same time. If the Americans do it, it's called schmaltz, but they really can do it." As any episode of Cheers or Roseanne proves.

Worrell is in a good position to comment on the state of sitcom, having created Desmond's. Although that too had an unpropitious "sit" - a bunch of people sit around shooting the breeze in a barber's - its "com" worked so well it ran for six series and 72 episodes until the untimely death of its star, Norman Beaton.

"I find the state of affairs with ITV sitcoms particularly depressing," Worrell continues. "Because of the ratings war, they don't give sitcoms enough time to develop. There's no sense of adventure. In the present climate, things like Minder would never have got made. That took three series to kick in - then it ran for 11 years. The other thing is ITV is terribly driven by stars. You'll never get burgeoning, up-and-coming actors into a show. They won't do anything unless it's got David Jason or Joanna Lumley in it."

Echoing Janet Street-Porter's attack at the Edinburgh Television Festival on the "M people" who run TV, Worrell accuses ITV of being "too male and middle-class. I'd like to crack a series on there, but I've never even got a smell of it. In one way, Channel 4's a godsend. But in another, it's a curse because people can say, `Ooh, that's a minority show, go and do it over there'. It lets ITV off the hook big-time."

Worrell is a man with big-screen credits to his name. He wrote the script of For Queen and Country, a well-regarded story about a Falklands vet (Denzel Washington) trying to come to terms with post-war life on a dilapidated South London estate, and two more of his screenplays - The Gun and Meet the Clan, with Whoopi Goldberg - are in production. Some might have considered sitcoms a come-down - but not Worrell. "In the end, it's all writing," he observes. "When I told my friends I was doing a sitcom after For Queen and Country, they said, `Hang on, you're dealing with stereotyping here'. But what you can do with comedy is make people laugh as well as getting your point across. My writing is character-driven as opposed to farcical plotline-driven. I want to progress my characters, rather than keeping them on the same riff. Look at Only Fools and Horses: when Rodney left home, there was no sitcom anymore. Or Moonlighting: Bruce Willis spent all his time trying to get into Cybill Shepherd's knickers. When he finally did, that was the end of the series."

In Porkpie, Worrell certainly has a meaty character to get his teeth into. "I do love the character," the writer asserts. "He's one of those people that life has mistreated. The guy's had a miserable life, and it's made him a cantankerous, penniless pensioner." And as the success of Steptoe Senior, Alf Garnett and Victor Meldrew shows, there is a great deal of comic mileage in a cantankerous, penniless pensioner.

`Porkpie', Mon 8.30pm C4