Scenes from a marriage
What happens when a man stops behaving badly and settles down? Neil Morrissey is going to show us, in the Simon Nye sitcom Carrie and Barry. James Rampton meets cast and crew
Monday 23 August 2004
I'm in a cavernous church hall in west London, watching rehearsals for
Carrie and Barry, the new BBC1 sitcom from Simon Nye, the creator of
Men Behaving Badly, and things are getting pretty steamy. The married couple of the title are in bed, getting up close and personal and discussing possible means of contraception.
I'm in a cavernous church hall in west London, watching rehearsals for Carrie and Barry, the new BBC1 sitcom from Simon Nye, the creator of Men Behaving Badly, and things are getting pretty steamy. The married couple of the title are in bed, getting up close and personal and discussing possible means of contraception.
When Carrie, played by Claire Rushbrook, from Linda Green, suggests the idea of coitus interruptus, Barry (Neil Morrissey, from Men Behaving Badly) is more than a little put out. "Yeah, it's great," he snorts derisively, "if you're the kind of person who likes spitting out your food just as you're about to swallow it. You've initiated the launch procedure - you have to see it through to splash-down. You've put up the tent - now you've got to camp."
At that precise moment, Nye - bearded, balding and twinkling - wanders past me, muttering under his breath. "Pure filth this week," he mumbles, before adding hastily: "It's not always like this." Actually, on the evidence of the two further episodes I have seen, it is. Subjects covered in sometimes-gory detail include erections, vibrators, kinky lingerie, fruit-flavoured condoms and vasectomies.
Nye is a hugely prolific talent, whose CV includes Men Behaving Badly, How Do You Want Me?, Hardware, Beast and Wild West. His work could best be characterised by that old advertising tagline about cream cakes: naughty but nice. "Rude is what we like," says the 45-year-old writer. "Given that most people watch sitcoms with their kids, I'm quite surprised at their relish for rudery. They don't object, because they're grown-up enough these days to take it in their stride. Maybe they like to see characters saying things they'd never dare say.
"Viewers don't like to be needlessly provoked. If they're being deliberately goaded, then they'll write and phone in their droves. But if you're trying to show life in all its rich array, then people will go with you. You don't want to take the edge off so much that it becomes divorced from reality. People discuss sex in real life, so they should be allowed to discuss it on screen." It is that approach that distinguishes Nye's comedy: he is never blue for the sake of it - he always succeeds in injecting his crudeness with a vein of humour.
So, what does the new sitcom have to say about the state of modern marriage? Much of the show is devoted to exploring how couples stave off the tedium that can creep into even the closest, most long-standing relationships. At one point, Carrie sighs about the boredom of being hitched to Barry. "It just reminds me a bit of being on holiday with my parents," she says: "no hope of escape or reprieve - and the ever-present threat of Monopoly."
Nye reckons that the series, set in the nondescript west-London suburb of Northolt, "is poised somewhere between a celebration of marriage and a reminder of its pitfalls. We all want the safety of routine - that's why we want a long-term partner in the first place. But once you've got that routine, you realise that it's not enough, and you need to find something to spice up the relationship and keep it alive. The strapline for the series might be: 'You're a couple - what are you going to do about it?'"
Catching her breath between energetic bedroom scenes, Rushbrook says she thinks that Carrie and Barry is less cosy than some other three-piece-suite-coms she could mention. It has more needle than the 2.4 Childrens of this world. "It's not a picture of complete domestic bliss," she observes. "Carrie and Barry's relationship has some edge to it - it's not saccharine, like The Good Life. We're not Tom and Barbara - although that would be rather wonderful, because Tom and Barbara rock! Simon extracts great comic mileage from Carrie and Barry's squabbling."
In the first episode, for instance, Carrie gets her pent-up frustration about Barry off her chest with a good old-fashioned rant about the innate deficiencies of men: "They always achieve orgasm, don't they? Some achievement! Now do something useful and fix the boiler!" Rushbrook says that their bickering locates Carrie and Barry's relationship very much in the real world. "In so many sitcoms, the characters seem to reside in a sitcom-land bubble, where no strands of reality touch them. This is more real. In one bedroom scene, for example, while they're at it, Carrie's chatting about the new air-freshener she has just bought for the bathroom, and how a colleague got on her nerves at work. Simon writes with a light touch that suggests that this couple are so normal, they're gossiping away while making love. It's never pretending to be a romantic scenario. In other, more conventional sitcoms, there would be violins playing, and the couple would be surrounded by candles!"
So where did the inspiration for Carrie, a beautician, and Barry, a part-time black-cab-driver, come from? Nye is adamant that it is not drawn from his own marriage, to Claudia. "I didn't have a theme from my own lovely and successful relationship that I wanted to convey," he protests, with a smile. "There's not very much autobiography in there. I haven't called these characters Simon and Claudia. I'm saving a character called Claudia for a rainy day - it depends on how she's behaving! Inevitably, things from my own life bubble to the surface, but I'm not a taxi-driver, my wife is not a beautician, we don't live in Northolt, and we haven't got a hot tub.
"Having said that, I'm hoping a manufacturer may give us a hot tub for promoting their product on the show, but I'm not holding my breath. Even after years of giving Stella Artois free plugs on Men Behaving Badly, we didn't get a single free can. We got nothing from sofa manufacturers, either. I think they missed a trick there - they could at least have given us a pre-stained one like we used on Men Behaving Badly."
Talking of which, are the makers of Carrie and Barry worried that critics will make unfavourable comparisons between their series and Nye's most celebrated work? After all, the series share a writer, co-star, director (Martin Dennis) and executive producer (Beryl Vertue, Sue's mother). Nye doesn't mind the associations with the archetypal "lad-com", perhaps the defining sitcom of the 1990s. "You could say that Barry is a wised-up version of Tony, the character Neil played in Men Behaving Badly," he says. "I was aware that, by the end of that series, I'd painted Tony into a corner as a daft bloke, so it was nice to be able to write something else for Neil and give him back some of his brain cells.
"But I'd never complain about people making comparisons - Men Behaving Badly has done me a lot of favours, to say the least. I'm delighted to be known for anything - not many writers have that privilege. Also, if there is jitteriness in the corridors of the BBC about Carrie and Barry - which there is - then it helps that I've already had a hit."
Taking a fag-break in the vicarage garden beside the church hall, Morrissey expresses delight about returning to our screens in his first sitcom since Men Behaving Badly. After all, it makes a change from running his production company and, in Nye's words, "buying up all the hotels in Wales". The actor is clearly in his element on set and relishes the banter with his colleagues. At one point during our conversation, Mark Williams, the Fast Show star, who plays Kirk, the co-owner of Barry's cab, wanders over, and we chat about how po-faced many comedians are off screen. "Have you got your copy of Kafka?" Morrissey asks, mimicking an earnest comedian. "All right, then you come to the pub with us." The other thing Morrissey likes about sitcoms is that "acting doesn't take much time - unless, of course, you're Mel Gibson dragging crosses across the Middle East for two years. Oh no, I won't be invited to Hollywood now I've said that!"
Like Nye, Morrissey is not the least bit concerned about the umbilical link with Men Behaving Badly. "Through the narrow-minded stupidity of various journalists, comparisons will be made, because they're useless at writing and can't think of what else to put," he asserts in a tone that brooks no contradiction. "Journalists have all been to university, where they've all been taught to cross-reference, so no doubt that's what we'll get. But this is really very different. There is none of the unmarried-men-larking-about from Men Behaving Badly - this is deconstructing family life and the problems therein."
However Carrie and Barry is received, Nye won't have time to worry about it. He has his hands quite full already: he has penned two one-off dramas for ITV1, Tunnel of Love, which features Jack Dee and is set in a fairground, and Beauty, a quirky take on the Beauty and the Beast myth, starring Martin Clunes. According to Nye, the latter is "part of a trilogy on the theme of 'Trapped'. I decided to focus on someone trapped in their own hideousness. Martin, of course, assumed he was playing Beauty. When he found out he wasn't, there was a vigorous e-mail exchange about how much prosthetics he would need for the part of the Beast. I argued forcibly for none!"
As if that were not enough to be getting on with, Nye has also written Pride, likely to be BBC1's big winter drama, a big-budget Babe-style piece in which African lions animatronically chat away merrily. It features the voices of Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Sean Bean and John Hurt. "You'll believe lions can talk," the writer grins. "It's a very expensive production, and it's nice to work on something with wall-to-wall stars. You say, 'Robbie Coltrane would be good for this part', and, lo and behold, there he is. I felt like Captain Picard on Star Trek, saying, 'Make it so.' I also resemble Picard in baldness, but not, I hope, in a propensity for spouting philosophical twaddle!"
He does, though, share Picard's even-keeled view of the universe. Nye's last big BBC1 series, Wild West, with Dawn French, did not set the world alight, but the writer is admirably level-headed about it. "It didn't become a big hit, but I'm not complaining. I'm still working - and so many writers aren't these days. I'm enjoying my time writing, because I know it's easy to fall out of favour. If I were no longer getting sitcom commissions, I'd miss it, but there's always the memoirs.
"I hope there'll always be a place for me to run and hide. If they'd have me, I could write a light episode of Doctors or the comic bits on EastEnders - although, on reflection, that would be a pretty small job."
'Carrie and Barry' starts at 9pm on Friday 3 September on BBC1.
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