Where there's a Willbond... | Ben's long wait for his TV break

Where there's a Willbond...

Ben's long wait for his TV break

Success at the Edinburgh Fringe is often seen as a passport to instant TV fame. Ben Willbond won the Perrier best newcomer award and – whoosh – now he’s got an ITV2 show with his name in the title. And that ‘whoosh’ took a mere eight-and-a-half years.

‘Yes, it has been nearly ten years, and yes, people do take the piss quite a lot,’ he concedes. ‘I just think that’s how long these things take. But it hasn’t been for want of trying.’

His co-stars in Laura, Ben and Him – Laura Solon and Marek Larwood – haven’t quite had such a long wait. Solon hit the headlines when she became only the second solo woman to win Edinburgh’s top prize in 2005; while Larwood has first made an impression as a third of We Are Klang who first went to the Fringe in 2004. They, too, have a TV show in the works.

But Willbond has had to subtly reinvent himself since securing that 1999 accolade, as half of the Ben & Arn double act. ‘After winning the Perrier newcomer, I did Priorite a Gauche for a couple of years with Arn Widdowson,’ he says. ‘Then I decided I wanted to do something else and I had to start at the bottom again – three or four years at Edinburgh before people got that I do this sort of sketch comedy.

However, his slow progress to the screen has its upside, too. ‘We all have a backlog of all sorts of ideas,’ he said. ‘I’ve been waiting to do this for as long as I can remember, so there are loads of ideas I’d always wanted to make.’

‘We wanted to mix traditional stuff with weird stuff, and we wanted to keep it moving fast. You can’t hope to please all the people all the time, so we haven’t tried too hard to do that. If you don’t like one sketch, it’ll move on quickly and you might like the next.’

‘And we also wanted to go back to basics. So many people want catchphrases and recurring characters, but we have a sense that characters don’t have to keep coming back – you might just see them once.

Despite this Willbond admits it’s those characters who do make repeat appearances that he enjoys most. ‘The ones with storylines are the one I’m most pleased about,’ he says, ‘as you get to see the story develop. But they’re not done to death, and because people might not watch the shows in sequence, the sketches have to stand up on their own

‘My favourite characters are a couple Laura and I came up with – a couple who live in the countryside and are in a desperately unhappy marriage – The Glastonbury couple we call them [below]. Much of this was improvised, and it is quite understated; it’s all about he body language. It’s more sombre than some of the sketches.’

Willbond, Solon and Larwood wrote the series, too. And rather than some TV executive simply plucking the names of three acclaimed comedy performers at random and hoping they’d create some magic, the trio came together on their own terms – and then pitched the idea to the suits keen to built up comedy programming for ITV2.

‘I met Laura on the circuit doing some club nights, and after she won the Perrier we started to talk about a character sketch show,’ Willbond said. ‘I kept talking to her on and off. After we started to work together on her Radio 4 show, the TV idea was a natural progression. And then we thought to ourselves we’d like to work with Marek, too.

‘We pool all the ideas, then separate to write, sometimes in various combinations of pairs, before going though all the work again. I want other people to come to it and say what they think – I’ve never been fiercely protective of my stuff. None of us are massively precious.’

Willbond has appeared in the supporting cast of some of the most acclaimed comedies of recent times – playing a newspaper’s harassed night editor in The Thick Of It, and a TV director in Ricky Gervais’s Extras. But this – with his name on the title – is a different kettle of fish.

‘Obviously I’m nervous about how it’s going to be received,’ he says. ‘But I’m also very proud of it to show people what I can do.’

And if it works, it could help him get his next idea to the screen. ‘I’m working with Justin Edwards on the Radio 4 sitcom Double Science, based on characters we did at [the now defunct weekly character comedy showcase gig] Ealing Live. It’s really good fun. We’re pushing at it because we really want to get it right and pitch it on to TV. It’s really enjoyable to do work on a sitcom, and to get the characters fully formed. The challenge of making a half-hour sitcom is what I love doing.’

Until then, you can see how he does with the short-form comedy in Laura, Ben And Him with sketches such as these:

Published: 10 Mar 2008

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