On Air: Mister Men behaving badly
Simon Nye is too busy writing jokes to misbehave. James Rampton talks to the saviour of the sitcom
Monday 26 October 1998
In his own mild-mannered way, Nye is a bit fed-up with this. "I'm getting tired of being described as the quiet one who writes the wild show," he sighs. "I'm such dull copy, I want to spice my image up. I always toy with the idea of coming to interviews in a torn T-shirt and drinking a can of lager, but I'd just look like a middle-class boy pretending to be hard."
Perhaps a more appropriate title for Nye would be Mr Sitcom. After all, he is perhaps the first writer in British television history to have had sitcoms on all four major terrestrial channels in the same year. Over the past 12 months he has given us Men Behaving Badly and The Last Salute on BBC1, How Do You Want Me? on BBC2, My Wonderful Life on ITV and now Is It Legal? on C4.
But he seems quite content with the sobriquet of Mr Sitcom. "Being called Mr Anything which isn't Mr Grumpy, Balding or Middle-Aged Writer is quite nice," he laughs. But isn't there a danger of overwork causing Mr Sitcom's head to explode? In the past six months, he has penned no fewer than 18 half-hour sitcom episodes - to say nothing of a full-length panto (Jack and the Beanstalk) for ITV. Oh, and a comedy pilot about a vet, for a US network. Even prolific writers such as Lucy Gannon and Lynda La Plante don't begin to approach the number of television hours he turns out each year.
Nye is the first to acknowledge the risks. "People tell me I look washed out, but having a lot of work actually helps because you become less soul- searching. A lot of comedy is about exuberance and thrust. If you've got a whole year to write six episodes, you lose that sense of thrust. Whereas if you only have a week ... actually, a week would be a dream."
So how does Nye keep up a pace that would exhaust a 30-member American writing team? "There are only a limited number of things you can write about without doing a Daniel Day-Lewis and immersing yourself for a year in a particular world," he says. "Someone suggested that I write a sitcom set in a sort of eco-pod biosphere. God knows what it's like to live in one - only six people in the known universe do. You'd be guessing the whole time. So I turned that one down. Sitcom characters should be like the people from next door dropping in - even if you don't want them to. `Oh no, it's those bloody women from Birds of a Feather again'."
The other thing that distinguishes Nye's sitcoms is the dark edges. Ian in How Do You Want Me?, for instance, endures a savage beating at the hands of his brother-in-law - hardly the staple of your regular three- piece-suite-com. "The comedy of embarrassment is very much what I do. There's something worrying about jolly characters - they're tiring. Anxious people are more intriguing. I divide characters into the suffering and those that make other people suffer. The more intelligent you are, the more you suffer.
Is It Legal? is a case in point. "Bob and Stella [decent, but fatally frustrated lawyers] are more aware than the others of the tragedy of their own situation. I see that as a fair reflection of life." He goes on to cite other examples of tragi-coms. "Think of Rising Damp, which was incredibly dark. Without writing a thesis about it, even Blackadder was a real manic depressive with an abuse problem and a sadism complex."
Viewers obviously get a frisson from watching sitcom characters like Gary and Tony cause outrage with impunity. "It's liberating to see people say things we would like to say," he says. "Certainly, a lot of people wanted to say the things Alf Garnett said, and we we're all dying to tell the Germans what Basil Fawlty told them. And every frustration you've ever felt is legitimised by seeing Victor Meldrew's behaviour."
Perhaps wisely, Nye is quitting while he's ahead and ending Men Behaving Badly after a three-part special this Christmas. "Also," he says, "I feel it's unseemly for these men in their mid-thirties still to be doing these things - in fact, it's been unseemly for many years now. Anyway, the characters have been doing a lot of growing up recently - Gary realised he was starting to wear cardigans - and the essence of good sitcom is that people don't change."
Even as Men Behaving Badly comes to an end, Nye continues to get his collar felt by the PC police for supposedly encouraging laddish behaviour. "I had hoped they would realise it is a satire," he says. "Can you think of any sitcom characters you should copy? Sergeant Wilson perhaps."
For all its success over here, Men Behaving Badly never made it over there. The American version was pulled after a series and a half. Nye ruefully reflects on the wheelbarrow-loads of dollars he could have walked away with if the series had been a hit in the States. "I could have bought Runcorn - although it's obviously unhealthy to own small towns unless you're a benevolent dictator. But you could never be that as a comedy writer; you'd be crabby after failing to come up with a joke that morning and just take it out on your town."
Nye talks like this all the time. He is an arch and artful commentator, whose softly-spoken manner belies an acute awareness of people. It's probably a hopeless task, but if anyone can help drag the reputation of the Brit- com out of the mire, Nye can. "Let's face it, there's a lot of lazy sitcom writing around," he admits. "Lots of shows look like they were made up in the cab on the way to the studio - and they probably were. We're all victims of that.
"But it is not true that sitcoms are an inferior form of writing," he says, his voice for once rising with passion. "They last longer than any other form on television. They're not repeating episodes of The Onedin Line, but they're still repeating Dad's Army. People are not now using James Onedin's catchphrase - `hoist the mainsail' - but they are still saying to each other `stupid boy'."
Mr Sitcom to the last.
`Is It Legal?' starts on Wednesday at 9.30pm, C4
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