'I don't take credit for ideas...' | John Lloyd on the art of producing comedy © James McNaught

'I don't take credit for ideas...'

John Lloyd on the art of producing comedy

The new Mustard magazine has an exclusive interview with writer/producer John Lloyd, talking about his work on QI, Blackadder, Spitting Image, Not The Nine O’Clock News and writing the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy radio series with Douglas Adams. But the interview was so extensive it couldn’t all fit into the magazine – so here Chortle presents some of the material which had to be omitted...

Most people know what writers and directors do, but what about producers?

In TV and radio comedy, the producer has the best job: you generate the ideas, work on the script, cast the actors – on radio, you may even do the coconut shell sound-effects. Directors, in comedy at least, often tend to be more technical people who point the camera at things.

In film, it’s the other way around: the director is the big guy and the producer is the nuts-and-bolts person who organises the finance, the hiring and firing, and so forth. I get the best of both worlds, really, because I direct ads, which is the fun bit there, and I produce telly, with brilliant guys like Ian Lorimer on QI, to do the hard work of multiple-camera directing.

As for what producers do... it’s a paradox. They do everything and nothing. It’s their fault if the show’s no good. A director can blame a terrible script, but a producer has no excuse. I always take complete responsibility but, in return, I require – not people’s love or respect – but for them to do what I ask. Occasionally, you have to pull rank just to get things done.

The producer makes the map of the journey, but he doesn’t build the boat or trim the sails. I can’t compose songs, make costumes, act, or focus-pull even the simplest moving shot. But crews will do anything for a producer/director who’s polite and who knows what they want.

So you’re the steersman, giving it a light touch here and there to keep it on course. And you’ll make mistakes, because the picture of the destination in your head is like a distant shore that you’re trying to dimly discern through the mist.

Was there a formula to creating your shows, or was it a gut instinct?

The only shows I count as ‘mine’ are the ones I was in at the beginning of. I like starting with a blank sheet and trying to create something where nothing was before.

The first thing that comes to me, even before the concept, is the flavour. Programmes are a bit like food, and producing’s a bit like cooking. Every programme is created from the same basic ingredients, yet it results in everything from the worst show you’ve ever seen to something unforgettable.

So I start by thinking, ‘What’s not on telly that I’d like to see?’ You’re looking for an absence, a gap. Then, ‘What feeling should it have?’ People think it’s all about the format – the rounds, the team captains, the signature tune. But all great programmes are about tapping into some universal human need or emotion.

Blackadder is ‘the boss is an arse’. Spitting Image is ‘famous people are no better than us – they all go to the lavatory’. They’re very simple things. You’re looking for the feeling viewers will have, sitting at home on the sofa with a beer.

With Not The Nine O’Clock News, I wanted to see a show which: a) was 20 years ‘younger’ than The Two Ronnies (where people were still wearing cravats); and b) had a sense of going to your favourite rock concert, with girls and music and a terrific sense of excitement and joy.

Would you classify yourself as an ‘ideas man’?

I don’t take credit for ideas. They’re like fish floating past. The trick is to be open, to see them floating by and seize them. And then, if it turns out to be a poisonous fish, you need to make the best of it. It’s the difficulties that produce the wonderful, golden stuff.

Some years ago they asked a load of directors what film they would make with an unlimited budget. The resounding answer was that they wouldn’t want to, because if you can do anything, go anywhere, have any actor or actress you want, you get lazy and sloppy and there’d be no focus.

My main quality is that I’m extremely stubborn and don’t like to admit that a good basic idea is wrong. Most shows I’ve done – Spitting Image, Blackadder, Not The Nine O’Clock News – were very badly reviewed when they first came out and were considered to be failures. But I kept pressing on with them. I think creativity is about keeping faith with your intuition.

Do you feel you get enough credit?

Yes, and I get far more credit than most producers.

If you think of the wonderful producers who were around when I was young – Terry Hughes, Syd Lotterby, Ernest Maxin, Jimmy Gilbert, John Howard Davies – they were gods! I knew their names, but most people would never have known who the producer of The Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise or Porridge was. They’d have to be a comedy geek and read the credits.

I’ve had far more credit than those guys. Which could sometimes be an issue. For instance, we used to put the Not The Nine O’Clock News books on the desk of my boss, John Howard Davies. He’d be very annoyed because he’d produced Fawlty Towers and Monty Python and never managed to get his name on anything more than the Foreword.

I don’t know why I get so much credit; I don’t seek it. I think I’ve worked harder than many people, but let’s face it nobody normally thanks producers – why would you thank the boss?

Directors are quite different. Sometimes I’d watch directors bouncing off the set after the recording going, ‘Yes! I’m amazing,’ with everybody congratulating them. They’d be in the bar buying rounds of drinks and laughing, and I’d be going back to the office with my head in my hands thinking, ‘How on earth am I going to edit this?’

But I used to get a secret, slightly puritanical feeling from knowing that, if I hadn’t been born, these shows would have been very different, or perhaps wouldn’t have existed at all.

How did you start out in comedy?

When I started in the early 70s, I wanted to be a writer/performer, but you couldn’t do that in those days. There were no stand-ups of my age – they were all in their 50s and from the north, that was the tradition.

I was at Cambridge, where Footlights hadn’t been very successful for a while – the last really good one was Clive James and Germaine Greer, bizarrely. And it had been ten years since the world-famous A Clump Of Plinths with John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor.

I graduated in ’73 as with a very poor third-class law degree. I’d realised very early on that I wasn’t going to make a good lawyer; I spent my whole time doing plays, writing sketches and the gossip column for the university paper, that kind of stuff.

In my last term, I was fired from Footlights for, as I jokingly put it, ‘being too funny’. I ruined two perfectly good straight plays at Cambridge by getting laughs when I didn’t mean to. When I got to London, because stand-up wasn’t an option, we used to put on revues at places like the Bush Theatre, with seven of us in the cast and 14 in the audience, and lose all our money.

I was trying to make a living as a writer, and starving, when David Hatch – who went on to great eminence as Managing Director of BBC Radio and Special Assistant to the Director General – called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to be a producer. I said, ‘No, not really, I’m not sure what they do.’ They all seemed very old to me; they’d just bumble about in tweed suits and offer you cups of tea.

He said, ‘Look, we’ll give you some money to be a trainee producer, you can write as well, and if you do more than £1,800 worth of writing in a year, we’ll pay you extra.’ So it seemed like a good deal.

There I was, at just 23, having never wanted to produce or direct anything before, and I found myself completely riveted by it – it was really exciting and difficult and satisfying. It felt like what I was born to do.

And I had a great piece of luck. I started producing Just A Minute, which had been running for about seven years, and after my first week there was a review in The Times saying, ‘John Lloyd’s Just A Minute goes from strength to strength.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing!” But you can imagine how cross the rest of the department was, because (a) it wasn’t ‘my’ Just A Minute at all and (b) you never got reviews in radio, then as now.

Then I went on to the main producer-training programme at the time, Week Ending, a 15-minute topical show that went out late at night just before the news. There was a rotating cast, including Bill Wallace, David Jason – none of us could understand why he wasn’t amazingly famous – and Nigel Rees, with whom I went on to start Quote Unquote in 1976.

The cast were incredibly good at their jobs and used to putting up with producers who were wet behind the ears, and with a rag-bag of new writers doing one-liners.

On a topical show, you’re faced with very specific challenges. A stand-up can talk about anything: what it’s like in supermarkets, “Isn’t it funny about octopuses?”, whatever. In topical comedy, you’ve got to make some attempt to cover the main news stories, and it forces you to make jokes about things that you wouldn’t normally write about. You’re pushed into a very tight box, and that gives you discipline.

For the first time, I found that my training as a lawyer was useful, because legislation is about using exactly this word, exactly positioning that comma. Comedy is the same in that, to work effectively, it requires an exacting use of language.

In 1990, at 38 years old, you got two Lifetime Achievement Awards –one from Bafta and one from the Royal Television Society – and you quit making TV shows to direct adverts.

Quitting prefigured getting the awards, actually. By the end of Blackadder in 1989, I’d worked like a complete maniac for 15 years, and I was very, very tired. Still to this day I don’t know what was driving me, but I’d been sort of running away from a runaway train. Then I met Sarah and got married and thought, “I’m going to have a rest now.”

I’d discovered advertising two years before. I shot my first ad during Blackadder III. And I thought, why should I work 200 hours a week for ninepence when I can work a couple of months a year and be paid 15 times as much? Because I finally want to be happy, I want to have a nice life.

Early in 1990, I was doing a Dime Bar ad with Harry Enfield, where he was dressed up as a giant baby, with nappies and real babies all over the studio. My wife Sarah called up on the studio phone and said, ‘I’m pregnant.’ I couldn’t believe it – I’d never thought I was going to have kids.

Later that year, at BAFTA, Blackadder won three awards on the same night (including mine). It was a complete surprise, a wonderful honour and, at that moment, it just seemed like I was the luckiest man, the happiest man that had ever been born.

I thought, ‘My God, I can’t believe this! I’ve got a pregnant wife, a lifetime award, I’m not even 40 and I’ve got this great career behind me, I’ve got some money and I can do what I like, I’m free, it’s fantastic.’

It was kind of lucky that I got the lifetime awards after I quit. If I’d still been working in television it would have been a disaster, because I wouldn’t have been able to top it. But now, in theory at least, I could really enjoy it. Actually, it turned out to be a disaster after all - the beginning of ten years of real pain and struggle, but that’s another story…

Also around that time, you did the pilot of Have I Got News For You, as the question master. Do you regret dropping out of the series?

I often say Angus walked off with my life, my salary and my girlfriend (laughs). No, I don’t regret it. I was rather relieved to walk away. I didn’t like reading the autocue or wearing clothes that somebody else had bought. I felt very uncomfortable. I don’t think I did a very good job on the pilot. When I saw Angus in it, I thought he was brilliant.

I think Ian Hislop loves doing it. I’m a bit more like Ian than Angus, in the sense that Ian is not a showbiz person – you don’t see him at glamorous premieres. He’s a very hard-working family man who lives in the country and has great fun doing the odd bit of telly, but he’s not in it for the glamour. The other part of his broadcasting career is making very low budget, extremely interesting documentaries about serious subjects. He likes both things. Ian is a tremendous contributor to the culture in all sorts of ways.

I said no to a lot of jobs in 1989 – it wasn’t just HIGNFY. I turned down head of comedy at BBC. I was offered the anchor-man’s job on The Holiday Programme, a mainstream peak-time thing – they said, ‘Do the studio work, then six or seven times a year you can go anywhere in the world and make a film about it.’ But I’d just got married and didn’t fancy working that hard.

I don’t think I would have liked the exposure, then. Now I can handle it, I rather like it, in fact. I’ve been recognised twice in the last week. I don’t mind being stopped in the street at all: I genuinely like talking to ordinary people. Well, twice a week is no problem, certainly.

  • The full interview is in issue six of Mustard magazine, out now priced £2.50. Click here to order.

Published: 23 Jun 2011

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