Fred Barron on his new sitcom

He worked on Seinfeld, then created My Family - now Fred Barron writes about his new BBC One sitcom...

Maybe it's my background in journalism or perhaps it's just laziness, but I've always found it more interesting and a lot more fun to report on the world around me than to make stuff up.

From the underground Boston newspaper of my first film, Between The Lines to the New York denizens of Seinfeld to the showbiz politics of The Larry Sanders Show, nothing I could imagine has ever come close to the real life characters I merely had to observe.

Then a few years ago when my father, a curmudgeonly dentist who used to smoke cigarettes over his patients, passed away, I decided to write something about him.

Again, I didn't have to make anything up. Of course, in writing about him, I also had to include my mother, a woman who never met a meal she couldn't ruin; my siblings, one gloriously manipulative and the other painfully smart; and myself a troublesome teenager who avoided responsibility at all costs.

The American networks thought it was way too dark. No one wanted to see a show about a dentist. Where were the hugs and reassurances that everything was okay? ‘Where's the love?’ they asked. ‘I dunno,’ I answered. ‘It's there. It's just not obvious.’

One network executive who ‘really saw the show's potential’ suggested I change it ‘just a little’ and make my father a grumpy but loveable child psychologist with a radio talk show.

‘You mean Frasier with kids,’ I offered. ‘Exactly,’ the exec answered. ‘Now that's a show people will want to watch.’ Unfortunately, it wasn't one I wanted to write. Fortunately, my original idea was exactly the kind of edgy pre-watershed the BBC was looking for.

The result, of course, was My Family which over the past six years and 72 episodes has consistently been the highest rated sitcom in the UK and has been voted one of the top 25 British sitcoms of all time. So much for Frasier with kids!

After four years running My Family I decided to create new programmes for the BBC. But still, I haven't finished writing about my family life. While the My Family character Nick was based on me as a teenager, this time I wanted to write a show about me as an adult, or rather about my attempt at becoming an adult.

The show is called After You've Gone and tells the story of Jimmy Venables, who gets divorced and ends up sharing a home with his mother-in-law. It was a complete joy to write, but the real pleasure and surprise came with the casting.

Nicholas Lyndhurst of Only Fools And Horses read the script and decided to return to television to play the working-class Jimmy, and the wonderful Celia Imrie signed on to play his patrician mother-in-law Diana.

Even though Celia was younger than the Diana I'd imagined, the chemistry between the two actors was palpable and I immediately rewrote her part, tailoring it to take advantage of Celia's vivacity and wit.

The same thing happened when I met with Dani Harmer, the star of Tracy Beaker, who came in to read for the part of Jimmy's daughter Molly.

Though the character was originally written for a pre-teen, Dani brought a smartness to the role I'd never imagined and once again I happily rewrote the script, making Molly older and sharper than she was in my first draft.

When I was a kid, my mother used to curse me by wishing I'd have a kid as exasperating as I'd been growing up, and with newcomer Ryan Sampson as Jimmy's son Alex, who's based largely on one of my own kids, we found the perfect match for Jimmy.

As well as a stellar cast we have a great team of writing staff. And as for me, I'm just waiting for my family to expand a generation so I can start writing about being a grandparent.

Published: 23 Dec 2006

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