Graham Linehan: out for the count
‘The IT Crowd’ is at an end, but his ‘Ladykillers’ is a West End hit. Now the ‘Father Ted’ writer is preparing a new sitcom – and it involves working with another Arthur, he tells JAY RICHARDSON
EVER SINCE Father Ted heralded Graham Linehan’s arrival as a writing talent, the Dublin-born humorist has been consistently successful. With Dylan Moran he created Black Books for Channel 4, then wrote his own sitcom, The IT Crowd, and in the past year his stage adaptation of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers has been a West End success.
A passionate advocate of Twitter, with more than 175,000 followers, he has used it to campaign for freedom of speech, spread a rumour that The IT Crowd was Osama bin Laden’s favourite sitcom, and recruit collaborators from both sides of the Atlantic.
Still, the 43-year-old has not yet emulated the creative partnership he had with Arthur Mathews, with whom he created and wrote Father Ted, after they met at Hot Press magazine, in Dublin. They developed the series in London, where they were sharing a flat, and contributed sketches to Alas Smith Jones, Harry Enfield Chums and The Fast Show, among other series.
“Every sitcom I’ve done with a writing partner, they’ve always brought the character,” he says in his west London home. “Dylan came with Bernard in Black Books and Arthur had Ted; he used to do the character in his stand-up. It’s hugely reassuring, because I’m not sure character is my strong suit, and it’s good to have someone who can provide the colour for scenes.
“Because Arthur had Ted’s voice, that was how I heard him, because he would do him when we were thinking up lines. It made writing easy, because you always knew what Ted would say. It was the most fun, too, sitting in a room together and just bouncing ideas back and forth.”
He has spoken with regret about his and Mathews’s creative drift apart. Now he has found himself another Arthur.
Created more than 15 years ago, and “entirely inhabited”, according to Linehan, by the Leeds-born actor Steve Delaney, the shambling thespian Count Arthur Strong is an established live favourite in the UK and a fixture on BBC Radio 4, for which he has recorded seven series. Finally, after years of anticipation and a discarded pilot in which the count hosted a game show, Linehan and Delaney are bringing him to BBC2 with a sitcom that begins shooting at the end of the year.
“I’m really looking forward to getting to know Arthur better, creating an obstacle course for him to stumble on,” Linehan says of a character who is a bumbling faded variety act, prone to delusions of grandeur, selective memory loss and the blurting out of malapropisms. “Every time Steve channels him and does the voice I’m cracking up, and I suddenly know what the next line should be, or the next scene, exactly how and where he can be funny. Steve has an approach to Arthur that is instinctive and warm, and I’m looking forward to getting deeper into that.”
Linehan has always specialised in creating the daft, terrible situations his characters become ensnared in, and this TV series is going to be a two-hander. “Because Arthur can’t be embarrassed, we needed someone embarrassed on his behalf.” That comes in the form of the character Michael, the financially strapped son of a famous comedian who is compiling his late father’s memoirs. He learns that his dad was once in a double act with Arthur and wants to meet to fill in the blanks of the story. “He thinks it will take a couple of days. But, Arthur being Arthur, it ends up taking far longer, and he has to move in with him, more or less.”
Linehan is wary about revealing who will play Michael – the contracts are yet to be signed – and the supporting cast are not household names. “But it’s a really good squad we’ve gathered,” he says.
“Arthur would describe himself as an actor, but he doesn’t have any jobs. His real profession is ducking and diving and trying to get through the day in a variety of ways. In the local newsagent, all the cards in the window offer different services, and every single one is written by him.” He’s Sgt Bilko, the classic wheeler-dealer of US sitcom, played by Phil Silvers, says Linehan. “Except instead of trying to make $1,000 in Las Vegas he’s trying to make £50 collecting bottle tops.”
Another inspiration is Alan Partridge – Linehan and Mathews appeared in Steve Coogan’s comedy – at least in terms of the character’s depth and adaptability, exploring nuances of his personality with each new show and format. Unlike, say, Father Ted, which surrounded the eponymous Everyman with cartoonish priests, Linehan sees the count as a “strong character at the centre, with a surreal side to him, because of his hazy memory and problems with English, but with so many other interesting sides to him being revealed week after week. It won’t be like Ted or even The IT Crowd. It’s going to have its feet planted in the real world. Arthur will be the strangest thing about it.”
There’s an enthusiasm here that was absent from The IT Crowd’s abandoned fifth series. As well as his Ladykillers commitments and the difficulties of reuniting the cast, given Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade’s burgeoning Hollywood careers, Linehan sought to work with other writers on the show for the first time, convening a virtual writing room through the internet. The group included the script editor Andrew Ellard; Rob Florence and Iain Connell from the BBC sketch show Burnistoun; the American stand-up Rob Delaney, recently voted, with some hyperbole but also some justification, the funniest person on Twitter; and the emerging ensemble the Dawson Brothers.
In theory, this radical approach could drastically reduce the costs of sitcoms and mimic the established US writers’-room model – delivering more episodes in a series, more series, more money on screen and longer-term contracts for more contributors. Sadly, in terms of The IT Crowd, it was a noble failure, as the reality of contracts, lawyers and finding the appropriate software to facilitate the collaboration meant the project lost “the silly, childish atmosphere” where everyone could pitch outlandish ideas. “It’s something that should be done at some point, but the technology isn’t there yet,” says Linehan. “I might have been a bit too precious about it, a bit too controlling, and it’s something I’d love to try again.”
It’s a process Florence and Connell have adopted since, as they’re supervising scores of wannabe writers online, producing an experimental, open-sourced script to pitch to BBC Scotland.
Linehan offers a tantalising glimpse of another venture. “I’d love to work with Neil Hannon on something. I’m looking into that at the moment.” Given the acclaim that greeted the Divine Comedy composer’s musical version of Swallows and Amazons and the affection in which his Father Ted theme tune and spoof Eurovision entry, My Lovely Horse, remain held, it’s an exciting prospect.
Until then, Linehan’s focus remains on introducing Count Arthur Strong to a wider audience. Delaney based the doddery old blowhard on characters from his Yorkshire childhood. But his cowriter has never met anyone quite like him.
“The only aspect that’s familiar is that sense of dealing with out-of-control older people. Arthur is a great way of spending time with them without actually spending time with them. I’ve never seen anyone like him on TV. But I have a feeling that when people get to know him, they’ll start saying about other characters, ‘Oh, he’s an Arthur Strong type.’ They’ll be seeing Arthurs everywhere.”
Four to the fore: Classic Linehan
THE TIGER STORY
FROM THE DAY TODAY
Written with Arthur Mathews, this absurd 1993 sketch shows the fantastic news spoof’s ambition and pervading insanity. A report states that police are dealing with noisy neighbours by releasing a tiger into offenders’ houses. Using a real tiger, it took an entire day to film.
FROM THE FAST SHOW
In another Linehan and Mathews creation, this time from 1996, the aristocrat Ralph (Charlie Higson, right) represses his love for his gamekeeper, Ted (Paul Whitehouse, far right). When a snooty Simon Day belittles Ted, Ralph explodes.
GRAPES OF WRATH
FROM BLACK BOOKS
Written with Dylan Moran in 2000, this scene features a prim cleaner (Kevin Eldon) disturbing the filthy bookshop of Bernard (Moran) and Manny (Bill Bailey). “I want to clean your dusty cups from the inside out,” he tells a terrified Bernard.
THE WORK OUTING
FROM THE IT CROWD
Rather than admit he pulled the emergency cord in a theatre’s disabled toilet, able-bodied Roy (played by Chris O’Dowd, in 2007) claims that his wheelchair has been stolen. Lent a new one, he pitifully waves to the ushers as a lift inches him into a disabled patrons’ minibus.