A running jump into the grave

David Renwick is brassed off. There's a beer can in the hedge, a crisp packet on the lawn. And Victor Meldrew, his great creation, is to die and now everyone knows how. Where will it all end? By Brian Viner

Thursday 22 September 2011 09:20

David Renwick, rather like his celebrated creation Victor Meldrew, is seriously pissed off. He sinks tragically into an armchair in the lounge of a West End hotel, orders a pot of Earl Grey tea, but looks as if a pot of cyanide might be more the ticket. Why? Because the damnable Daily Express has just blown, in detail, the plot of the final episode of One Foot In The Grave.

David Renwick, rather like his celebrated creation Victor Meldrew, is seriously pissed off. He sinks tragically into an armchair in the lounge of a West End hotel, orders a pot of Earl Grey tea, but looks as if a pot of cyanide might be more the ticket. Why? Because the damnable Daily Express has just blown, in detail, the plot of the final episode of One Foot In The Grave.

Renwick doesn't mind us knowing that Victor is to be killed off, or even that he is the victim of a hit-and-run accident. But he had hoped, not unreasonably, to keep certain twists up his sleeve. He has just phoned the Express and ranted, Meldrewishly, at somebody in the features department. "It's not about indulging me and my precious artistic integrity, it's spoiling it for the viewer," he laments. "They wouldn't do it with Inspector Morse, but they think 'oh well, it's just a sitcom'. And that frustrates and offends me."

Renwick is fiercely dedicated to his craft. So proprietorial is he about his words, that Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, the leads in One Foot In The Grave, long ago learned not to say so much as an unscripted "and" instead of a scripted "the". Moreover, he cares about the series enough to let it die. John Birt, when still BBC Director-General, saw Renwick at a reception and asked what he was working on. Renwick told him he was writing the final series of One Foot In The Grave. "I like everything in that sentence except the word 'final'," said Birt, who, for once, was expressing the view of practically everyone at the BBC.

But Renwick believes that he has run out of ideas. And that the only way to draw a firm line under the enterprise is for Victor to wind up with two feet in the grave. Victor was born 10 years ago, out of the works of Neil Simon. Renwick is a huge Simon fan, and when he embarked on his first solo sitcom project - after a long, successful collaboration with Andrew Marshall - he modelled his suburban curmudgeon on the kind of New York Jew who looms large, grouchy and dazzlingly acerbic in so many of Simon's plays. " The Odd Couple is a classic, they don't come better than that, and when I thought of Victor I saw Walter Matthau," he says. But it was a Scottish gentile he had earmarked for the part. And the combination of Renwick's invention and Wilson's delivery proved irresistible. The iconic Meldrew even copped a mention in Hansard as the series, at its peak, attracted 19 million viewers.

The significance of the final series, the first since 1995, is such that Monday's opening episode has been scheduled for 9pm, making it, momentously, the first programme to replace the Nine O'Clock News. This success makes it ironic that the American incarnation of One Foot In The Grave, its ratings in freefall, was cancelled earlier this year. "It was like putting a sick animal down," says Renwick, ruefully. "I used to get the scripts e-mailed to me each week, which was a dismal experience, though fractionally less dismal than getting the tapes of the finished show."

The project was initiated by the powerful production company Carsey Werner, who invited Renwick to New York to discuss it. "We met for breakfast at the Carlyle Hotel, and they said 'how do you feel about Bill Cosby playing Victor?' I spooled through my knowledge of Cosby, which wasn't great, but I remembered him being very funny in California Suite. So I said 'yeah, that could work'. And they said 'good, because we're having dinner at his house tonight'. So off we went to Castle Cosby on the Upper East Side, and it appeared that he had found something in the character that he could relate to. I had always thought there was a place for it on American TV. After all, I stole the character from them in the first place. But the person I had in mind was Alan Alda. With him, it would have been a lot funnier, and probably cancelled after one season."

With Cosby, the show ran for four seasons. But its essence was lost when Cosby decided he wanted to be more lovable. Renwick looked on, quietly aghast. "They'd asked me to be executive producer but I would have been in a cardiac unit after a week. I can't even cope with this Daily Express fiasco, so how could I have coped with that? Instead, I had a nominal consultancy role and each week I would reply to their e-mails with my comments, which were completely ignored. "One of the writers said to me, 'you have to understand that Bill lives on Planet Cosby.' And another explained that Cosby treats comedy like jazz. The script is like saying, 'this week is in the key of C'. The rest is improvisation. I went to a taping at which he did 20 minutes of material off the top of his head, nothing to do with the script. The network thought it was getting The Cosby Show mark two, and that's what it did get, but the world had moved on. That night at his house, Tom Werner mentioned Seinfeld, and it was obvious he'd never watched it."

Renwick, by contrast, has on tape all but one of the 170 episodes of Seinfeld, and 60 episodes of The Larry Sanders Show. For a comedy writer worth his own weight in Baftas, he is generous in acknowledging his influences, which include Bilko and Fawlty Towers, although it was radio that first inspired him, especially I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue. While still in his teens, he started sending in sketches, and received an encouraging and much-cherished letter back from John Cleese. "He said that my dialogue was good but the ideas were weaker, which was incredibly important advice. Even now when I find fault with my material, or anyone else's, it is when it is all dialogue and no ideas."

As Cleese recognised, however, the boy Renwick - a milkman's son - had talent. At first, his material was accepted by radio, then by television. He can even remember, with embarrassment rather than pride, his first telly gag. It was a knock-knock joke for The Cliff Richard Show ("who's there? Vera Cohen. Vera Cohen who? Vera Cohen on a summer holiday"). In 1974, Renwick jacked in his job on his local paper, The Luton News, and became a full-time comedy writer. He was still in his early twenties, but got an early break when he was summoned to Number One dressing-room at the Palladium to pitch gags to Ken Dodd.

"It was," he recalls, "one of the most frightening experiences of my life. Ken was legendary for using up writers like tissues, and sat there, unsmiling, saying, 'no, no, that's good, I'll have that, no...' It was bizarre. He went out and came back in a long, red, fluffy coat with his tickling stick, still listening unsmilingly to my jokes."

By 1978 Renwick was one of the main writers on The Two Ronnies (contributing the wonderful Mastermind sketch - specialist subject, answering the question before last). With Andrew Marshall he wrote Whoops! Apocalypse and Hot Metal, and more recently he created the offbeat drama series Jonathan Creek. But his greatest gift to popular culture will remain the stricken Victor Meldrew, whom he admits using as a mouthpiece for his own raging at the world. Was it cathartic, I wonder?

"Not really. I go out of my front door and find beer cans in the hedge and crisp packets on the lawn, and it depresses me like I can't tell you. What is the mentality of these people? But when Victor moans about things like that, there has to be a comic curve, which is normally him getting his come-uppance for complaining. It in no way gets the message across. People just think 'what a miserable old sod'. So it's not cathartic, no." Still, it won't surprise me to see Jonathan Creek performing a magic trick involving setting fire to the Express.

The final series of 'One Foot In The Grave' starts on BBC1 on Monday at 9pm

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