Meg Carter talks to Tim Dynevor about his solo debut - and the new face of the TV sitcom
A regular short cut through the beauty department of Selfridges has taken 35 year-old Tim Dynevor from jobbing actor to sitcom writer. Just five years ago he was a temp. This Sunday (March 8) his first solo project, Slap! - Loves Lies and Lipstick, debuts on Channel 4.

Slap! is a curious variation of a much-maligned TV genre. Set in and around a Manchester department store, action centres on the shop staff, the bank next door and cafe across the road. Are You Being Served II, however, this is not. Characters who at first seem stereotypes hide a variety of deceptions behind a workaday facade: like Simon, aka Simone - by day a humble bank clerk, by night a flamboyant cross-dresser, and his workmate Dan. Dan thinks he can pull creative colour consultant Sheryl by pretending he's a footballer. Sheryl would rather be an actress. Simon, meanwhile, is after Sheryl's man-eating boss, Janeen. Or rather, Janeen's after Simone - if she can come to terms with the possibility of her latent lesbianism. Confused? You will be.

"I was nipping through Selfridges on my way to work when I heard two assistants talking," Dynevor explains. "'Jane - did you get laid Saturday night?' said one. 'No,' her friend replied, 'Sunday morning - he was pissed the night before'. It got me thinking about real lives the behind manicures and make-up."

A trained actor, Dynevor had already penned a thriller called My Venetian Friend during a three month tour of Italy appearing as Boy in Waiting for Godot. Four years ago he packed in acting and got a job as a storyline editor on Emmerdale. His big break came when cast and crew found themselves short of script. With no writers available, Dynevor stepped in just half an hour before cameras were due to roll, coming up with a three minute scene in the Woolpack.

Now a script writer on Emmerdale, Dynevor claims his soap experience proved invaluable for sitcom.

"Slap! has a linear structure unlike many sitcoms which revolve around a single situation you drop into each week," he says. "I'm no gag writer. The comedy comes from who these people are, or rather who they pretend to be. They're all trying to be something they are not. It's therefore not really a situation comedy in the traditional sense."

He's not joking. For many years, the sitcom formula remained relatively unchanged. The focal point was usually a sofa in an unfortunately-decorated living room (George & Mildred, Bless This House, Terry & June, Sykes). Or, in the Eighties a kitchen or dining room table (Butterflies, The Good Life, Bread). Oh yes, and a cast of social stereotypes.

Small wonder, then, that "sitcom" became a dirty word. And why today's best sitcoms are not really sitcoms at all. Take How Do You Want Me?, the new series by Men Behaving Badly writer Simon Nye - it's "comedy drama". And Drop the Dead Donkey? A "topical satire" based in a newsroom.

"Only Fools and Horses, One Foot in the Grave and Father Ted follow the same rules as drama," explains Slap! producer Richard Georgeson, now head of development at production company Planet 24. Forget random jokes, these shows fire their comedy strategically - only when justified by character and plot.

"Many new sitcoms come across as bug-eyed and shouty - desperate to get laughs from the first minute. The ones that work best are more measured and self-assured," he says. Small wonder, then, that Channel 4 is packaging Slap! as a "comedy soap". And series director Charlie Hanson thinks they've got it right.

"Slap! is not a traditional sitcom," he says. "It's one of a growing number of serial comedies - like Watching, Game On and Dressing for Breakfast - with more than one storyline and plots that grow towards a crunch point."

This broadening of the genre is proving attractive to a younger generation of writers, Hanson adds. Apart from a few one-offs, almost all the successful sitcoms of the past 30 years have been written by the same 20 or so writers - Clements and Le Frenais, Marks and Gran, David Renwick are the most ubiquitous.

Hanson, who's past credits include Birds of a Feather, Desmonds and Chef, blames the British commissioning system for this limited pool of talent. In the US, he points out, sitcom is an industry in its own right with broadcasters committed to long runs of successful series and dozens of writers employed on the best shows.

"Here you shoot six, wait a year and then might get a second series. There you might do an initial eight but if it's doing well you'd be extended to 13 during the first run." Established US sitcoms are made in batches of 26.

Gone are the days when commissioners made quick decisions on instinct, Hanson adds. "Now, even a BBC 2 controller wouldn't have the power to say 'Yes, I'd like another series' without first going to a planning committee and financial meetings."

It's a criticism which Channel 4's head of entertainment Kevin Lygo is all too aware of. "When a channel gets a sitcom that works everyone basks in the glory - it bonds an audience to a channel more than almost anything else. When they work they work better than almost any other form of TV," he says.

However, soaps and more recently real-life documentaries have stolen the sitcom's place in viewer's hearts. It's hard to make an impact in a seven or eight part run once a year when a soap is aired almost as many times in a single week.

"Our plan is to shake up how sitcoms are conceived and produced, moving away from studio-based productions to explore a wider variety of styles in the same way This Life shook up the way people approach soaps," says Lygo.

"US sitcoms are enjoying a 'golden age' while many of ours are coming to the end of their natural lives. But the moment is ripe for a fresh approach."

'Slap! - Loves Lies and Lipstick' starts on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9.30pm

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