It's great – now make it funnier | Graham Linehan talks to Jay Richardson about The Ladykillers, The IT Crowd and Count Arthur Strong

It's great – now make it funnier

Graham Linehan talks to Jay Richardson about The Ladykillers, The IT Crowd and Count Arthur Strong

The brief was simple. Rewrite one of the finest British comedy films of all time. And make it funnier.

But if anyone is equal to the task of reviving the supremely dark Ealing Comedy classic The Ladykillers, it would be Father Ted and IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan. His stage adaptation opens in Liverpool in October – and with an impressive cast including Peter Capaldi, Ben Miller and the Vicar of Dibley’s James Fleet.

The 1955 film, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers as the members of a criminal gang who ineptly try to murder an eccentric old landlady when she discovers they’ve committed a robbery. Capaldi will reprise Guinness’ role of the sinister Professor Marcus, while Miller is the gangster Louis, originally played by Herbert Lom. ‘All these names, I’m just delighted because I like all of them’ Linehan enthuses.

He took on the stage job despite a heavy workload: He is currently developing a BBC sitcom pilot for bumbling thespian Count Arthur Strong, has plans for another with Adam Buxton’s spoof filmmaker Ken Korda, and has yet to write the fifth series of The IT Crowd – which he says could be the last.

But Linehan said the challenge to adapt a film which reputedly arrived fully formed in original writer William Rose’s dreams was too compelling to refuse, even though he was mindful of the difficulties the Coen Brothers encountered with their 2004 remake set in America’s Deep South. He recalls ‘[The producers] met me, and they said, “You like The Ladykillers don’t you? Could be funnier though couldn’t it?” And I just thought that was a brilliant pitch.

‘Because it’s an odd film, in that it’s got a wonderful shape, that slightly fairytale, dreamlike quality to it, and all these fantastic bold archetypes in it – the spiv, the conman major, the genius, criminal mastermind – really big characters. But it’s not a film from which many lines spring to mind, nothing like “nobody’s perfect” from Some Like It Hot. It doesn’t have as many zingers as you remember.’

Unlike in the film, Linehan decided to locate all the narrative in the landlady’s house, leaving the audience to imagine the robbery and affording him ‘a big doll’s house for me to play with, to see if I can get more comic scenes and set pieces out of these wonderful characters that already exist.’

As well as his work on The Ladykillers, Linehan is developing a planned TV series for Doncaster luvvie and Radio 4 favourite Count Arthur Strong.

A first pilot found the bewildered Count presiding over a gameshow. ‘It was fine, it had some really funny moments’ says Linehan. ‘There’s a bit where Arthur does The Windmills of Your Mind that I still take out to show whenever friends come round.

‘But generally, it felt like it would be a real strain to get actors to play gameshow contestants every week. We couldn’t have that flexibility that Alan Partridge had in Knowing Me, Knowing You, it would have been too difficult.’

Reagrdless, the BBC was impressed enough to ask Linehan and the charater’s creator Steve Delaney to develop it into a more conventional sitcom. And the pilot allowed them to ‘really sit down and talk about the character, to try to figure out more aspects of his daily life that we could use later. Again, Partridge was the model, the way they moved from Knowing Me, Knowing You to I’m Alan Partridge. We wanted to introduce the character than see what he was like in his daily life.

‘My mission has been to help Steve create an environment Arthur could have fun in. And that’s not necessarily something he’s used to, because he thinks very much from within the character. When he writes, he’s basically the Count. As soon as he starts doing the voice, the character just appears in front of your eyes. I’d love it if we got to a stage where he did become as real as Partridge because that would be a true achievement.’

This project and one provisionally called Outside The Box, starring Adam Buxton’s Ken Korda character, that Linehan characterises as ‘a parody of a certain type of show, a mix of The Culture Show and TFI Friday’, and which appealed for a studio audience of ‘self-consciously trendy hipster types’, is on hold till he has the time to write the fifth and possibly final series of The IT Crowd. Having attracted its highest ever ratings of 2.17million for the fourth series, he maintains ‘I’m desperately trying to get it done this year’.

‘I think one more series to really say goodbye to the characters and the fans. I’m not rushing into it because I don’t want it to be a zombie series where the show is dead but its body is still moving around. If I’m talking about super-injunctions, I want it to be the best possible super-injunction storyline I can do.’

A committed Tweeter, instrumental in organising the Twitter Joke Trail benefit gig for Paul Chambers, who was prosecuted for tweeting about blowing Robin Hood airport ‘sky high’, Linehan also employed the social network to spread a rumour that the IT Crowd was Osama Bin Laden’s favourite sitcom, a prank that spread like wildfire across the internet.

More importantly though, he’s been using it to crowdsource a writing team for the IT Crowd, including BBC Scotland sketch show Burnistoun’s Robert Florence and Iain Connell, having previously written the scripts alone.

Convening a virtual writers room with the online program Basecamp, ‘I would post a theme or an image or whatever had happened to me that I found funny and the others would suggest different approaches to it or different resolutions’.

He stresses that ‘I’m still writing the show. I use it more as an ideas pool when I’m stuck or to see if the storyline could go a different way’ and explains that he was dissatisfied with the ‘experiment’ and the existing technology. I wanted it to be a casual drop in and out deal like Twitter is,’ he explains, ‘but once you start having to involve lawyers and contracts it becomes really hard.’

Besides, ‘the thing that’s most satisfying is actually sitting in a room with another person and bouncing ideas back and forth, like I had with Arthur [Mathews on Father Ted] or Dylan [Moran on Black Books]. That’s so joyous.’

Even so, he believes that ‘we’re just waiting for the so-called real world to catch up with the digital. Once it does, there’s going to be a lot more collaboration, it’s going to be easier to work in groups, to get some of the good elements of team writing you get in America. It could possibly lead to longer seasons over here and you could actually pay people what they deserved to be paid.’

  • The Ladykillers opens at the Everyman and Playhouse Theatre in Liverpool in October.

Published: 20 May 2011

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