That's dead funny

Radio 4\'s new pathology comedy

Comedy writer Laurence Howarth (pictured) reveals how he found the inspiration for his new Radio 4 sitcom Rigor Mortis while watching an old episode of Quincy and why comedy provides a more accurate insight to the world of the pathologist than any earnest drama.

"It occurred to me that it would be quite funny to do something that played on the interest in programmes like Quincy and Silent Witness," says Howarth, revealing that he only switched on the television to distract him from the blankness of the page on which he was supposed to be writing. "Those programmes treat pathology with huge reverence and earnestness and, whenever you get that,you can flip it into comedy very easily.

"Also, I wanted to get away from that cosy, sitting-on-the-sofa familiarity of sitcom. I think there's a danger they can seem a bit fluffy and insubstantial. I like sitcoms that have a bit of harshness and weight to them.

"I think you get something here without trying.However ludicrous the events that happen may be, you still have that lovely base of something very stark and sober.

"It's also, I think, an idea you can explain to people very simply ­ 'Funny Quincy', say ­ and generally it gets a bit of a laugh, which I take to be a good sign."

Like many radio comedy writers, Manchester-born Howarth's apprenticeship took the form of contributing gags to Weekending ,Radio 4's topical satire show, which ran for 21 years from 1970 He went on to develop a successful career writing for Dead Ringers and The Sunday Format on Radio 4 and Alistair McGowan's Big Impression and Alter Ego for TV.

He's also performed as a stand-up and, he's taking a sketch show to the Edinburgh Festival this year with his double-act partner Gus Brown (who plays a policeman in Rigor Mortis).

Rigor Mortis is Howarth's first sitcom but it is a genre he loves. "I think sitcom is the Holy Grail for a lot of comedy writers, outside of film, perhaps,because it's the big chance to create not just jokes and characters, but also a whole sealed little world, with its own rules and peculiarities.

"With sketch comedy, you can make people laugh at characters, but it's pretty hard to make people care about them. They don't spend enough time with them. That's what appeals to me about sitcom ­ the depth and range of reactions that a good sitcom provokes."

Howarth went as far as attending two post-mortems at St Thomas's Hospital, London, as part of his research. "I thought in advance that I would find it all very difficult, particularly the mortuary visits, because if there's footage of an operation on the news, I can't watch. But actually it wasn't too bad, and once an autopsy is under way,you kind of forget you started with a person and now their organs are laid out in front of you.

"The smell is pretty bad and it stays with you for days.I can only describe it rather melodramatically - as the smell of death. I'd never seen dead bodies before, and that was odd. They seem very small and, I know this is a stupid thing to say, so still. For that reason,one of the slightly freaky things is that when the body has to be moved, you suddenly see traces of the life and motion that are now so palpably gone.

"The research was vital,since I'd ignored the writer's maxim,'Write what you know' entirely by writing about a subject of which I was basically ignorant.It also provided me with quite a few little touches and anecdotes. The jargon's very handy, too, for gag purposes.

"The main thing that struck me - and the thing pathologists find ludicrous - is the way in which, on programmes such as Silent Witness, every case is a murder. The people I was talking to had rarely seen a murder victim. That was a different and even more accurate angle I could put on the material.

"These people hate those programmes but they were intrigued when they found out I was there to research some background for my sitcom and a couple of them even turned up to the first recording."

One thing Howarth hasn't had to tackle is physically replicating the pathology lab environment - corpses and all - for his radio audience.

"As a writer, I've almost had the opposite problem of doing so much radio that, when I come to TV, I have to remember to write the visuals. I'm more used to the language way [of getting laughs ]. In radio, you can do anything. You don't have to worry about realising everything visually.

"I think radio is probably a more rewarding medium when you're creating comedy because, I suppose, more of it is down to you. With TV, there are a lot of people involved and you have to get a lot of details right.

"I like sitcoms which are, it's a difficult word to use, intelligent. I love Frasier . I think there's not very much of that style here. We've done quite well recently with these rather painful, embarrassing shows that humiliate people. Frasier has some of that but it also has that real elegance about it.

"I think at the moment that's what I should be aiming for. It's got a very'written' feeling, whereas now everything is a bit more fly-on-the-wall reality-TV. Frasier is quite consciously written. It has that verbal level of sophisticated edge but still has ideas within each show, not just the hilarity of a situation."

* Rigor Mortis, starring Peter Davidson, starts on Radio 4 at 11pm on Thursday June 12.

First published: May 24, 2003

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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