'The telly lot are never going to make any sketch shows'
The world of comedy can seem obsessed with youth, driven by the perpetual quest for the next big thing in a sea of rising stars. Against this prejudice, you might think encroaching middle age might be a drawback - but for Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller, it was a godsend.
After four years on Channel 4, they feared they had run out of things to say, and declined to make any further shows after 2001. ‘We did keep getting asked, which was hugely flattering, but we genuinely didn't think we had enough new material for a new series,’ says Armstrong.
But by 2007, when BBC One came calling, they had changed their minds. ‘We realised we were slipping into middle age – suddenly we had wives and families and there was a lot more to write about,’ Miller says.
They certainly had a high-profile slot for their comeback – immediately after Have I Got News For You o a Friday Night.
Miller says: ‘Have I Got News For You has a really intelligent audience that loves comedy. It's a show that doesn't pull any punches in terms of its quality and we try to cast ourselves in that mould. The second you start talking down to the audience you've lost them – you always need to fight hard to stay ahead.’
But being intelligent doesn’t mean being obtuse, as Miller explains: ‘We try to write about subjects that we all share. Our script editor Jeremy Dyson always says that every sketch must have a kernel of observed truth, something people can connect with.’
Armstrong and Miller are also executive producers for the series, which is more than a vanity title bestowed on its stars.
‘We spend an enormous amount of time on the series,’ says Armstrong. ‘Every department has to put up with us on their back until the shows are signed off. I daresay it's quite annoying but I think your role as executive producer is to care desperately that the show is as good as it can possibly be.’
Producer Caroline Norris agrees about the extent of their contribution: ‘They're both very interested in the production aspect of the series,’ she says. ‘Ben especially is very keen on the directing and has just directed his first feature film, Huge.’
The show starts with the writers, of which there are many. Armstrong says: ‘Ben and I will meet all the writers to go through their ideas. We like to go through every detail and develop as much of a back story to each character as well, to land people right in the thick of every sketch. The only thing we set out to do is to keep hold of the things that we found funny.
Once they have their sketches, the dup try them out in front of a live audience at venues such as The Hen and Chickens in North London. ‘It’s one of the best things we do,’ says Miller. ‘It gets us used to performing in front of an audience, and is the only true way of finding out if something funny on paper is as funny when it's acted out. You can tell immediately what does and doesn't work and then can go back to the drawing board again.’
Once location filming is over Ben and Xander record most of their sketches in front of a studio audience on a Friday night. ‘It means we work our socks off all week,’ says Miller. ‘It is absolutely terrifying if you're not fully prepared, there are a lot of people there waiting for you to make them laugh, and you can't get away with comedy that's just baffling – ultimately it makes them cross, which you definitely don't want.’
Their most popular characters are arguable the World War Two pilots who use 21st Century slang.
Norris says: ‘It's fundamentally about 19-year-olds – those who were risking their lives in the war and the 19-year-olds we have today, the direct comparison is what makes it so funny.
‘Writer Simon Blackwell who was the genius who came up with the characters said he got his inspiration from two teenagers on the back of the bus and the way they spoke – he's incredibly clever and picks up all these little sayings and then puts them in a sketch.’
Armstrong agrees: ‘The pilots highlight how our generation has evolved into this terrible state of self-regarding compensation culture from the selflessness of the previous generation. The pilots in this series have a whole list of disorders they suffer from, which somehow should excuse them from any responsibility. Notes from their mum, asthma, learning difficulties... it's a wonderful performance piece but a nightmare to learn.’
There are also some new characters in the second series, with Amrstrong saying one of his favourites is a doctor/aid worker who ‘moved to Botswana and is intoxicated with Africa and slightly intoxicated by himself’.
‘He has a view of Africa that basically seems to be cobbled together from Comic Relief appeal videos and the Lion King,’ he said. ‘I think my favourite sketch with him is when there is an aid-drop, and the villagers start meticulously unloading and loading it. He looks off into the distance, squints and says, “Chaos”.’
Ben says one of his favourites is the Old Clubber: ‘I feel a bit like him on the rare occasion I go out. He's that fortysomething who's dancing away and having a great time even though everyone around him is about 20 years younger.
‘We hope this series gets the balance right between recurring characters and doing something new. When you know the characters you know what the punchline's going to be and you know what the catchphrases are. It's important to have some of those but there needs to be enough new material in each show to give it a variety of pace.’
As well as a third series already commissioned for next year, Ben and Xander will be taking the show on tour, marking a return to their early days of live performance. The pair have been performing together since 1993, when they both left Cambridge and started working together at a Notting Hill comedy club, before taking their first
‘When Ben and I first went up to Edinburgh in 1994, nobody was doing sketch comedy up there and it just disappeared into the mud,’ Armstrong explains. ‘But it did mean that for our second Edinburgh show in 1996, we had a platform to build on.’
Miller adds: ‘That year in Edinburgh was really hard. I remember somebody saying to us, “Why are you are doing this? The telly lot are never going to make any sketch shows”. But then suddenly The Fast Show became a huge hit, and the tide began to turn. I think everything that's happened since has really been because of the success of The Fast Show.’
- Armstrong & Miller return to BBC One on October 16
Published: 7 Oct 2009