Called to the bar

Everyone's a regular in The Grapes, the pub setting for Early Doors. Happily, nothing's changed in the new series, Craig Cash tells James Rampton

The new series of
Early Doors, Craig Cash and Phil Mealey's BBC2 sitcom, opens with a typically understated gag. In a parody of US shows such as
ER and
NYPD Blue, a caption on the screen reads "previously on
Early Doors".

The new series of Early Doors, Craig Cash and Phil Mealey's BBC2 sitcom, opens with a typically understated gag. In a parody of US shows such as ER and NYPD Blue, a caption on the screen reads "previously on Early Doors".

The camera then cuts to the interior of The Grapes, the down-at-heel Manchester pub where the comedy is set. There is only one punter in the bar - the professional moaner Tommy (Rodney Litchfield) - and silence reigns for several seconds, broken only when the equally dour landlord Ken (John Henshaw) looks up and asks: "Do you want a crisp, Tommy?"

This is a show that makes a virtue of the fact that nothing happens. It deftly conjures up the stasis that prevails in this boozer, resolutely untouched by the painters and decorators since about 1968. The characters never leave The Grapes. They are trapped in this never-changing snug bar, doomed to repeat the same tired anecdotes about the local one-way system, neck Guinness and pork scratchings, and listen to Sir Cliff's "Miss You Nights''. This is the pub that time forgot.

Cash, who with his former long-term collaborator Caroline Aherne has already created at least one good sitcom ( Mrs Merton and Malcolm), one very good comedy show ( The Mrs Merton Show) and one great sitcom ( The Royle Family), is taking a break from editing to tell me about the genesis of Early Doors. Some interviewers find him lugubrious: one thought that the "languid northern drawl" of Cash's character Dave in The Royle Family was "not much of an act". But that is to misunderstand his underplayed, slow-burning sense of humour: Cash doesn't have to wear a red nose and revolving bow-tie to raise rich, sustained laughter in his audience.

Cash, who in this series directs, co-writes and stars as the ironic saloon-bar philosopher Joe, starts by explaining just why he loves the pub at the heart of Early Doors. To most of us, The Grapes may seem like Sartre's definition of the underworld in his play Huis Clos - "Hell is other people" - but to Cash it's a dream destination. "I relish that pub culture,'' says the 44-year-old who, with his down-turned mouth and appearance of permanent bewilderment, has a naturally comic look. "It's a great part of British life that has been passed down through generations. Pubs like that are a dying breed - they're being turned into wine bars, sports bars and'' - he pauses to underline his distaste - "eateries."

What's so bad about them? "These days, there's always bloody food being served in pubs," Cash says. "That gets my goat. What's food being sold in a pub for? You have your tea and then you go to the pub. All you need is a chippy for on your way home. Food in pubs is an absolute no-no."

Uncharacteristically animated for a second, Cash continues: "These good old-fashioned pubs are in danger of dying on their arses. It'll only be a matter of time before they're wiped out - we should support our local," he cries. Then he grins: "Look at me, starting a bloody campaign - 'Together we can do something about it' - all we need is a slogan and we're away!"

Cash, who frequented such pubs in his home town of Stockport, emphasises that for the verisimilitude of the series, it's vital that The Grapes is irredeemably dilapidated. "I like the fact that it's on its arse, because that gives the punters something to moan about. Those old-world British pubs are the best because people are not interrupted by any other distractions - they get a chance to talk. I like to have a pint and pontificate about the world. There are so many of the world's problems that I've solved during the course of a night at the pub. The good thing is, the morning after I haven't a clue what I've solved, so I can go on solving things seven nights a week.''

Cash loves the fact that The Grapes is "a Tardis of a pub. Time has stood still there. It's very nostalgic, but then The Royle Family was nostalgic. Nobody sits around and watches telly together as a family any more - they've all got tellies in their bedrooms and there are computers all over the shop.

" Early Doors is written from a memory that appeals to a lot of people. Most people who like it seem to be mums and dads. They come up to me and say, 'I know a pub just like that. We've got a miserable sod just like Tommy who comes into our pub.' Older viewers find it warm because of the nostalgic element."

The other factor that distinguishes Early Doors is the calibre of the writing. Cash and Phil Mealey met as 15-year-olds, stacking shelves in the local supermarket. Mealey was persuaded to jack in his career as an engineer to co-write the series. "I said, 'Do you want to come and sit in a pub for the next year?' The pub or engineering - not a difficult decision," Cash says.

The acid test is that the new series of Early Doors, is full of quotable dialogue. With echoes of Alan Bennett or Victoria Wood, Cash and Mealey have succeeded in crafting a northern England universe which, while clearly fictional, has the ring of authenticity about it. The first episode shows the writers' ability to load even the most inconsequential lines with comic freight. The regulars are nattering about the death of a tortoise belonging to Joan's (Lorraine Cheshire) mother. "He just went into his shell," sighs Joan's husband, Eddie (Mark Benton). A few minutes later another regular, Debbie (Lisa Millett), arrives breathless with the news that the entire estate is swarming with police. Ken deadpans: "You don't think they've set up an incident room for Joan's mother's tortoise, do you?"

Cash, who left school with no qualifications and was fired from jobs as a screen-printer and wood machinist before finding work as a DJ, was going to collaborate with Aherne on Early Doors, but she pulled out after a row. He admits that it was hard to get the show commissioned without her. "The BBC must have thought, 'Now the big talent's gone away.' The perception was not so much Lennon and McCartney, more Lennon and Ringo. It did take a while to convince them. At first, they said, 'Eh? What's this? A load of people talking in a pub? Is there a laughter track?'"

Aherne and Cash had been close since they discovered a shared love of larking about and invented the character of the spoof agony-aunt granny Mrs Merton on a local radio station in Marple some two decades ago. They have been a supremely fertile double act: the style of naturalistic humour that they pioneered on The Royle Family paved the way for landmark shows such as The Office, Phoenix Nights and Marion and Geoff.

Cash, a father of two, says he and Aherne are still friends. "We're still on good terms. The row was no big deal. It wasn't a case of, 'Right, bollocks to you.' I speak to her often - but we don't talk about work. We usually talk about my kids.''

Can they collaborate again? "We had a thousand rows when we were working together, and if we worked together again we'd probably have a million. But I'd never rule it out, because we had such good fun and such a successful relationship. Some of the best times of my life have been working with Caroline." With Early Doors, however, Cash has proved that for him there is life after Aherne.

For all that, he's not confident about the range of his acting. "Bloody hell, I can't be doing with accents! I always say to casting directors, 'I can't play anyone who lives beyond a five-mile radius of my house.' Why do I cast myself in things I've written? It saves time explaining to other people how you want it played."

So what will Cash do when he finishes fine-tuning Early Doors and gets away for a break? "I've been toying with the idea of going to Ireland to drink the Guinness, but that's a bit like taking coals to Newcastle. I've just been working on a pub sitcom for a year where all I do is drink Guinness all day, and where do I go on holiday? Ireland.

"My wife wants to go to a place where you can eat in the pub, so no doubt we'll have a fight about that. She keeps saying to me, 'It's 2004, it's not 1968 any more. Things have moved on.' But I don't want them to move on. 'Is it not 1968 any more, love? It is in our pub.'"

'Early Doors' starts on Monday at 10pm on BBC2

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