Making IT happen | Interview with Graham Linehan

Making IT happen

Interview with Graham Linehan

Comedy is a risky, capricious business. One minute, you’ve got Christmas specials and sell-out tours, the next you barely warrant a slot on an undiscovered satellite channel between repeats of Oh, Dr Beeching! and ‘Allo ‘Allo!.

Which makes writer Graham Linehan’s run of successes all the more remarkable. Best known for Father Ted, Black Books and Big Train, he’s also written for Brass Eye, The Harry Enfield Show, Friday Night Armistice, The Day Today, Smith and Jones, Coogan’s Run and The Fast Show, not to mention directing the pilot episode of Little Britain.

Now he brings to Channel 4 The IT Crowd, right. a fairly conventional sitcom set in the computer department of a faceless corporation, which happens to be run by Chris Morris.

But, as he explains, he never set out to be a comic writer. ‘I used to be a music journalist, and I found that my default position was a comic one. While I fancied myself as a proper prose writer, whenever I try to be serious or poetic it’s always embarrassing and pompous.’

So he decided to concentrate on comedy, and at just 25, Linehan wrote the first series of Father Ted with Arthur Mathews.

‘I don’t think I’ll ever have as pleasurable a writing experience as I did writing with Arthur,’ he said. ‘That was as good as it gets. Insane as it sounds, we would literally come to work and laugh for an entire day.

‘Actually, that is a misuse of the word literally. We didn’t actually just come in and laugh. We would tell jokes to each other, rather than just sit there and laugh at nothing for an entire day. I love people who misuse literally… “My head literally fell off”. I tried to put a few of them into The IT Crowd. Jen [the department manager], at one point, says “I’d literally rather sleep with a rat”.

‘Anyway, with Arthur it was pretty close to perfect. We were just laughing all the time. My sense of humour was getting better and better because I was measuring it against Arthur’s, which was so good. To make him laugh was a pretty big achievement in my book.’

The resulting show ran for three series before the death of its star, Dermot Morgan, at 45. ‘I always had a real soft spot for Father Ted himself,’ says Graham. ‘On that show, he was the one who had a lot of heart, and gave the show its emotion. Really Ted’s situation is very unlucky. I like almost all my characters, but I’ve a real affection for Ted.’

Whether through a fondness for the name Ted, or simply an inability to think of any other names, another of Linehan and Mathews’ comic creations were The Fast Show’s Ted and Ralph.

‘Arthur and I were having a discussion about what makes a good sketch, and we were on a train and passed by a big country house, and we thought about the relationship between the master of the country house and the groundsman.

‘It seemed like a good idea, because that was a relationship people could understand, and it hadn’t really been done a lot. And I forget which one of us said it, but we decided the master of the house asks the groundsman if he liked Tina Turner, and something about that idea made us both laugh.’

Graham’s next sitcom, Black Books, was written with Dylan Moran. Like Father Ted, and The IT Crowd, it featured a core of three people. In the new sitcom Jen, played by Katherine Parkinson, is the boss of geeks Roy (Chris O’Dowd from the film Festival) and Moss (Richard Ayoade, from Garth Marenghi, left).

‘The three people together, especially the thing of two guys and a girl, is a pretty powerful set up,’ says Graham. ‘I don’t know if it’s intentional, it’s sometimes just the way things turn out. It’s the right amount for a sitcom, though. It’s a manageable amount of people. I’m very interested in the mechanics of scriptwriting.

‘Seinfeld seems to be, on a structural level, the best-written sitcom ever. That’s a big influence. And I’ve always been a huge Woody Allen fan.

‘My writing was very influenced by him – especially the comic pieces that he did for New Yorker magazine. When I was a kid, I actually stole a lot of his material to use in debates in class. So I guess Jewish New York comedians are pretty big on my list of influences.’

But Linehan wanted to get away from his own roots with this show – until casting Chris O’Dowd, right, scuppered that.

‘I was getting a bit bored with the Irish thing,’ he said. ‘Every time it’s St Patrick’s Day, I get phone calls from about eight papers asking me to write something. And it’s quite annoying being defined simply by your nationality. So I thought I’d avoid it this time. But, as happens with the best-laid plans, Chris came in and just blew us away. He was so effortlessly funny that I just couldn’t say no to him.’

It wasn’t the only aspect of the show that changed. Indeed, the whole concept started as something entirely different, Linehan revealed. ‘It was originally set in a travel agents, and had one joke to do with being a travel agent, which was he’s on the phone to someone and he says, “No, no, I wouldn’t go to France, France is very rude at this time of year”.

‘That was really as good as it got. I couldn’t think of any more jokes to do with travel agents, and I didn’t want to do the research, because it bored the hell out of me.

‘So I decided to turn it into something I was interested in, which was technology, and how it affects our lives. Roy is certainly me before I got married. And Moss is me maybe when I was about 16. But they’re the same age, which is what makes them funny.

‘I’m certainly not out to offend anyone, If anything it’s a celebration of Geekdom in all its guises. The IT Crowd office is very like my office. Computer bits lying around, comics and CDs, a total disaster.

‘Oddly enough, although it’s about technology and modernity, it’s a very old-fashioned sitcom. Victoria Wood recently said that old-fashioned style sitcoms were dead because The Office was so good, you can’t go back to studio sitcoms. So I kind of hope that this is proof that that’s not true.’

‘Because The Office [coincidentally, produced by the IT Crowd’s producer Ash Atalla] was successful, everyone thinks they have to do stuff on location with a shaky camera, naturalistic performances, and very black humour. And I always think that if everybody’s doing one thing, it’s probably an idea to do the exact opposite. So this is unashamedly old fashioned.

‘I’m going to ask Channel 4 if they’ll let me put at the start, “The IT Crowd is filmed in front of a live studio audience, and contains no strong language or violence from the start”.

‘It is a reaction against how crass a lot of television comedy has become, really vulgar and crude and unpleasant. I do think one thing that comedy should be is sweet. That’s where I’m trying to hark back to, classic sweet sitcoms like Dad’s Army. I don’t think they’re dead, I think there’s room for everything.

‘The IT Crowd is very cheerful, very optimistic, with people you’re supposed to quite like. There’s a real thing at the moment that comedy should be dark, and I just think that is the last thing we need at the moment, because everything’s so grim anyway.

‘We’re facing all sorts of extinction threats, so why have a comedy that looks at the gloomy side of things. Bit of the Blitz spirit. I call it “singing in the Underground”.’

Writers are notoriously pessimistic about their projects, and Linehan admits to having worried about series in the past. ‘I guess every time I work on something there’s always a sense of disappointment in the sense that you always think “Well, this could have been better, or that could have been better”.

‘My instincts are that the IT Crowd is pretty good. I don’t feel that sense of embarrassment that I usually feel, but now that I’ve watched it a thousand times, I’m getting a bit sick of it, and I just can’t wait to get on to the second series. But I think we’ve created something potentially pretty special.’

The IT Crowd starts on Channel 4 on Friday February 3.

First published: January 10, 2006

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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