The Unlikely lads: Does Ralf Little's new sitcom hit the right note?
Tuesday 09 September 2008
The actor Ralf Little has been practising what he calls his "Oasis swagger". In Massive, a lively new BBC3 sitcom, he and Carl Rice are playing Danny and Shay, two likely lads from Manchester who decide to chuck in their menial jobs as clerks in a warehouse and set up their own record label instead.
Their progress is, however, thwarted at every turn by the inept criminal activities of Shay's dodgy ex-con dad, Tony (played with relish and a glorious 'tache by Johnny Vegas). The show's executive producer Kenton Allen hits the nail on the head when he describes Massive as a story "about rock'n'roll lifestyles on a Primark budget".
The series certainly has a ring of authenticity to it – no surprise given the history of its writer Damian Lanigan. In November 1984, his band The Twentieth Legion performed at the Hacienda. Suitably encouraged by this one-night stand at the legendary Manchester club, Lanigan briefly considered setting up his own record label, but thought better of it when he eyed the strength of the local competition: Rough Trade and Factory.
Key to Danny and Shay's new venture, which they christen Shady Music, is projecting the right image – hence the laddish gait, a Northern version of what Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities calls "the pimp roll". "We've been doing the proper Liam and Noel strut in our skinny jeans and Northern Quarter tops," reveals Little. "We've been swaggering about like an out-take from an Oasis video. The only problem is, we can't do it properly because, quite frankly, these jeans are too tight."
Despite the restrictions imposed by their trousers, Little and Rice have taken on absolutely the right mindset for their parts. As Danny and Shay, they exude the perfect "Manc" cockiness. During a break in filming, Little tells me that Massive had to be set in Manchester – the city is a central character in the sitcom. The defiant, up-yours spirit of the place infuses the script.
"Manchester has such a great sense of identity," reckons the actor, who is Manchester born and bred. "I have a mate from Bedford, and he has no sense of belonging. I like being a Manc. I like the attitude of, 'yeah, we can do this'. You might be totally untalented, but if you've got the belief, you'll end up doing it anyway. These two lads, Danny and Shay, haven't got a clue about running a record label. But they love music, so they just go for it. That's very Manchester."
The city, which was at the centre of the indie-rock explosion of the late 1980s and early 1990s, also has a rich heritage of musical innovation. The 26-year-old Little, who played Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook in Michael Winterbottom's movie about Factory Records, 24-Hour Party People, says: "Manchester has an unrivalled musical tradition. I think we even edge it over Liverpool... It's about self-belief. There's just a swagger about Manchester. When Joy Division got together, none of them could play their instruments. They were Manchester kids who had nothing to do, so they decided to form a band and just figured it out as they went along. That can-do attitude is what Manchester is all about."
Rice, another native Mancunian, who previously appeared in the BBC3 sketch show Scallywagga, chips in: "When you hear the word 'Manchester', you immediately think of music. The Sex Pistols performed their first ever gig here, and bands like Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays and Oasis all created huge new scenes. Manchester is constantly bubbling with new ideas. It has a vibrant youth culture, and the music captures that. So much film and TV is now being made here, too – there's a real buzz about the place. I used to think I would have to move to London for work, but that's not the case anymore. It's all happening here."
And it's not just the place but the rapport between Danny and Shay that's pivotal to Massive, believes Rice: "A lot of sitcoms like The Office or Blackadder feature not very likeable characters. But this has a Gavin and Stacey feel – you'll genuinely like these people. Danny and Shay are such close friends, they can say anything to each other and it just washes over them." Little agrees: "They [the characters] have this terrific banter that informs their relationship. Shay thinks he's a great purist about his music, but Danny tells him, 'Just because it's rubbish doesn't mean it's art.' No matter what comes at them, they always maintain their wit."
Little and Rice have really hit it off. "We want to go away and write something together after this has finished filming," says Rice. "But we'll probably just end up in Benidorm with Johnny Vegas drinking pints of Skol and eating chicken in a basket."
Alongside the city of Manchester, the other big star of Massive is the aforementioned Vegas. The 37-year-old actor, who is sitting outside his trailer in a grubby white vest and tracksuit bottoms, characterises Tony as "a laid-back professional thief who sees going to jail as an occupational hazard. Conventional life has never appealed. He tried to hold down a job once, but it only lasted a day. There would be a lot of empty chairs at Shay's parent-teacher evenings – Tony would always be in the school store-cupboard nicking all the paper-clips. It's like Absolutely Fabulous. Shay is like a parent to his dad and is the voice of reason that Tony loves to ignore."
And that's the appeal of Massive – its wry and warm characterisation. It's not aiming to be a biting parody of the music business, says David Kerr, the series' director: "It's a simple tale of two likely lads chasing a dream. They don't harbour the Thatcherite dream of shed-loads of money or the hip-hop fantasy of bling and babes. At the start of the series, they just have the most rubbish jobs imaginable and think: 'anything would be better than this.' And it is. Maybe by series five, they'll be bigger than EMI!"
'Massive' starts on Sunday at 9pm on BBC3
Family guy: the rise of Ralf Little
The Royle Family
Landing the role as Antony, the picked-upon son in the Bafta-winning The Royle Family (left), alongside Caroline Aherne and Ricky Tomlinson, had Little hanging up his white coat and stethoscope and abandoning the medical degree he'd just started.
Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps
Little's second long-running BBC comedy role was as hapless Jonny, one of five twenty-somethings living in a Cheshire town.
24 Hour Party People
Little had to learn the bass for his role as New Order bassist Peter Hook (right) in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People about the Manchester music scene.
Finding himself tangled in more family affairs, Little plays the youngest of three wheeler-dealing Nottingham-based brothers in BBC drama series Paradise Heights.
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Little was nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance in Ayub Khan-Din's play.
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