Channel 4 has high hopes for its new sitcom, Pete Versus Life – but it’s a show that almost never got made.
With its gimmick that sports commentators are seen discussing the embarrassing escapades of the show’s hapless central character, the pilot script had been knocking around for seven years, languishing in TV executives’ ‘bottom drawers’.
Even co-writers George Jeffrie and Bert Tyler-Moore admit they had as much as forgotten about the show, all but giving up on it ever being made. ‘It had gone around everyone,’ Jeffrie recalls.
However, two things jolted the project back to life: Channel 4 appointing a new head of comedy – and a significant rejig for the main character.
‘The big thing that made it happen was changing the age of the character,’ said Tyler-Moore. ‘Originally he was a 35-year-old sports reporter called Bill, who’d be constantly arguing with his wife. But making him younger gives you more scope. He hasn’t got a girlfriend yet, so you can have different girls each week, or a settled job.
‘I’m not sure, who came up with the idea of making him younger – it may have been the script editor at the time. But I remember someone saying Channel 4 were after something about twentysomethings. And we thought, “Hang on…”’
‘It sounds like a stupid, mercenary thing to do,’ Jeffrie says about changing the character to fit a brief. ‘But the more we thought about it, the more it re-energised the show.’
Producer Phil Clarke, at Objective Productions, said the idea was revived after Shane Allen was appointed to the top comedy job at Channel 4. ‘Shane phoned up and said, “Have you still got that idea?”,’ he recalled. ‘I have to thank him for reminding us we had this idea, so I’m genuinely grateful. Six or seven years is probably a long time to go round the houses.’
The show stars Rafe Spall as the struggling and socially inept journalist Pete Griffin – coincidentally the same name as the lead character in Family Guy – who winds up in a never-ending cycle of embarrassing situations of his own making.
‘Although Pete does these terrible things, although he’s amoral and a liar, the audience still have to root for him,’ Spall said. ‘That’s a tricky conundrum. An inspiration to me, the writers, and all of us was Curb. You hate Larry David but you love him too.
‘That was a thing I wanted to do when I took on the part, I wanted to play this character who is, on paper, quite hateful, and lets himself down at every juncture, and yet you kind of want to root for him.
‘He's a nice enough bloke, he's just a bit of a liar, really. He gets himself into terrible situations by lying, and it's lies upon lies upon lies.’
Asked whether he had anything in common with his character, Spall said: ‘He's got the same hair as me. We've got the same voice and the same face, as well, but there's not a lot of me in there.
‘I'm not crushingly socially inept, and I'm not amoral. No, I really hope there's nothing much of me in there.’
‘But I can identify with one aspect of Pete's life, in terms of being a bit of a waster. No matter how successful you are, you'll always have periods when you're not doing anything, and your life revolves around getting up at 11am and watching the end of This Morning, and then Loose Women, and then having lunch, and then lying about. You cease to be a functioning member of society. You end up living in your pyjamas. It can be quite depressing.’
Not that Spall looks like having much idle time soon. He’s soon to play the young William Shakespeare in the Hollywood movie Anonymous, and he has started filming One Day in London, based on David Nicholls's best-selling novel, opposite Anne Hathaway.
He says he always knew he was going to wind up an actor, given that his father is Timothy Spall. ‘As long as I knew you had to do anything in life, I was going to be an actor,’ he said. ‘It was always in me.
‘Obviously it’s because I grew up around it, but then I’ve got two sisters who don’t act. What my Dad always said to me is “You can’t just want to do it, you’ve got to need to do it.” I think that’s true. It’s in me, and it’s what I have to do. I’m very lucky to be able to make a living out of it
‘I think I used to feel that I had to continually prove myself because of my surname, but now not so much. I sort of think I have. Not because I’ve been brilliant, but because I’ve stuck around for seven or eight years and people think I’m good enough to employ.
‘I’ve proved to myself – which is the most important thing – that I don’t need to trade on my dad’s name. I don’t need to prove it to anyone else.
‘I’m not denying that, early on, it gets you in the door having a famous dad – but once you get in the door you’ve got to do the business. I did do that, and I worked really hard, and I’m proud of myself.’
Approaching the role of Pete, he said: ‘I was keen to make the scenes as naturalistic as possible so when you have these cartoony thing on top of it [the commentators] it juxtaposes nicely. I think it works.’
Producer Clarke agrees. ‘The commentators are very cartoony. Sometimes when we were editing we fell in love with the graphics and commentators, then we fell out of love and think thy are on too much. It’s hard to balance it.’
He revealed that producers had considered employing real sports commentators, even talking to some, but changed their minds because they wanted to give the characters shady back stories that would only work with fictional creators.
He admits that in the pilot episode which kicks the series off this Friday night, they went for ‘the obvious joke first – having them commentate on Pete having sex’. He added: ‘We thought “Let’s do that now, get that one done.”’
Spall pipes up that it was the 18th sex scene he’s done in his relatively short career. ‘But this one was all right, as it had a comic edge to it. When you’re supposed to look sexy, it’s more difficult.’
‘There’s a farcial element to the show,’ Clarke dded. ‘In that the last scene tends to be an over-contrived climax, but hopefully you enjoy that part of it. And there’s an irony that in order to show Pete isn’t that good with women, we have to have him meet a woman in every episode.
‘Pete never learns his lessons, either. That’s a hallmark of a comic character; that they don’t learn from their mistakes. But I don’t think any of us do anyway.’
Writer Jeffrie adds: ‘Everyone's capable of being a shit, really, so it's quite easy to empathise with him. And at the end of the day he's always going to come out worst – if he was absolutely triumphing and a massive success, it would be really hard to care about him, but because he's a failure, it lets us off the hook a bit.
‘Curb Your Enthusiasm wasn’t really a model for the show, though it was an influence. Seinfeld was a stronger one. There’s much more a George Costanza thing with Pete, and the tone’s nicer.
‘George has the charm that the Larry David character doesn’t,’ Tyler-Moore continues, picking up his writing partner’s idea. The pair met on the comedy circuit, and have a list of credits to their name including Star Stories, Armstrong and Miller and My Family.
‘That was interesting,’ says Tyler-Moore of the much-maligned BBC One sitcom. ‘It’s interesting to write for a mainstream show and take those ideas away to Channel 4.
‘There are things we both learned on that show about developing a story and emotional stuff. Tom Anderson, who ran the show when we were on it, was the former head writer of Cheers, so it’s great to work for someone with that pedigree – and he had such anecdotes!
‘There’s a Curb writer on My Family now,’ Jeffrie says – before adding the unavoidable a tongue-in-cheek joke: ‘It’s got better writers than you’d think from watching the show!’
The pair are now working on another mainstream show, adapting the US sitcom Grounded For Life for BBC Two, The show, which ran for five series in the States and was notable for its heavy use of flashbacks, is about a couple who became parents at 17. Now their children are teenagers too, the parents struggle with responsibility.
The pair say they have to write together. ‘ It is really a very hard thing to do on your own,’ said Jeffrie. ‘You've got to challenge the joke, and you've got to hear the laugh. If you think something's funny and your partner doesn't, they're probably right.
‘Some writing duos write separately and then swap drafts,’ said Tyler-Moore, ‘but we do everything together. We sit in the room together, we map out the plots together, we write every line of dialogue together. I even have to sit the same side of George each time, or it just doesn’t feel right.’
- Pete Versus Life starts on Channel 4 at 10pm this Friday. Interviews by Steve Bennett