'Three is the ideal number for comedy' | The Rebel creator Andrew Birch on writing his sitcom © UKTV

'Three is the ideal number for comedy'

The Rebel creator Andrew Birch on writing his sitcom

Next month The Rebel, Gold’s sitcom starring Simon Callow as the irascible Henry, kicking out against convention in his old age, returns to TV screens. Here creator and writer Andrew Birch talks about the series and how he hopes it might change the way society – and TV commissioning editors – view older people…

 Did you find it easy returning to The Rebel for a second series?

The character of Henry just came flooding back. There is no shortage of subjects for him to rant about. He’s still getting angry about things in the modern world, such as the lack of compassion and the lack of interest in older people. 

Anger like that never goes away. In fact as you get older, it just mounts up and gets worse. That’s especially true with someone like Henry who is so pig-headed and his own worst enemy. 

Does it help that you can now envisage the actors playing your characters? 

 Definitely. It’s more fun now because when I’m writing, I can hear their voices. I start laughing to myself because I know what Simon is going to do with Henry. The producers are currently encouraging me to make him worse! 

Why does Henry chime with audiences?

 He is an Everyman. He voices things we’re all concerned about. His anger is so predictable. He’s quite innocent, and his anger is the anger of a toddler. I think we can all relate to that! Lots of people have told me that Henry is voicing what we all would secretly like to say. That seems to appeal to people.

What is making Henry irate in this series? 

The state of the NHS. Henry’s Old Labour and supports the NHS all the way. But like many of us, he doesn’t like the fact that the NHS is being privatised not so stealthily. And he naturally reacts against any authority, so he has a go at doctors and nurses when they try and tell him what to do. 

 Where does his anger stem from? 

 I’m sure there is some deep Freudian reason for his anger. Perhaps he didn’t get on with his father! But also Henry was an early Mod. He was one of the first generation to rebel against the Establishment, and that has just continued.

 The British have a great tradition of rebellion. The government tries to put a lid on it, but it continually breaks out. You can’t put a lid on it forever – it will always boil over in the end. 

 How similar are you to Henry?

Initially, I thought I was not very similar. I thought he was just a character I invented for The Oldie magazine. But as time went on, I realised how similar I am to him. As I’m writing Henry, I’m thinking, ‘God, I’d love to do this!’

 For example, what he does in the bank – I’d love to do that. When he is denied a loan, he ends up decapitating the cut-outs of smiling employees that stand around the bank. He can’t bear the horrible bonhomie of banks. 

Through the character of Henry, are you making a point about the way society treats older people? 

Yes. As you get older, you can be terribly patronised. We reach peak influence in middle age – then it’s downhill all the way and you’re treated like a child. 

It is like Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man – we all end up how we started. Being patronised drives Henry mad – and it drives me mad, too! 

 What does Simon bring to the role of Henry? 

He’s just marvellous. He’s completely in Henry’s skin. He is Henry. He looks like the cartoon character in his dated clothes. 

The moment he did the read-through, I realised that he was perfect in every sense. With his booming voice, he was swearing with all his might: wonderful!

Do you have a favourite scene in the second series? 

A highlight for me was a night shoot when Henry rushed into the sea fully clothed. There was a body double for that scene, but Simon insisted on doing it himself. 

It was 10 o’clock at night by Brighton Pier, and he just dashed into the sea and dived straight into the water – not just once, but five or six times. I really take my hat off to him. He’s so up for it. 

I also really like him personally, he is such an interesting and erudite man. I’ve had lots of great conversations with him. I’m very fond of him as a person, not just as an actor. 

Why does the triangular relationship between Henry, Charles and Margaret works so well? 

As a cartoonist, I find that three is the ideal number for a strip. That translates well into sitcom. Two people would just be knocking spots off each other, and four would be too many. 

With three, you can always have two ganging up against one. That works really well in comedy. 

Do you think the success of The Rebel might encourage commissioning editors to veer away from their fixation with youth? 

 I hope so. Commissioners have been obsessed with youth for a while, and older characters have sometimes been neglected. I hope this gives a new impetus to using older actors. 

These characters don’t behave as old people are expected to. It’s a new look at older people. When people get older, there are fewer restraints on them, so they just revert to what they have always been. They behave like children – but there again, don’t we all?

• The Rebel returns to Gold at 10pm on Wednesday November 8. Read an interview with star Simon Callow here.

Published: 25 Oct 2017

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