'Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?'
Brian Boyd joins Father Ted creator Graham Linehan on the set of his new sit-com about a lowly IT support team banished to a dingy basement office
Chris Morris has just said "these" instead of "those". Oh dear. The stage manager walks on to the set, whispers something in his ear and the lights dim. The warm-up man reappears and sings a song then the lights go up again and this time around Chris Morris says "these". Everybody claps.
This is what happens at the live filming of a sit-com. It's Teddington Studios, Middlesex, on perhaps the coldest night in the history of the world. A big crowd has been sitting for hours watching the assemblage of the an episode of The IT Crowd.
To say it packs a bit of a punch in front of and behind the camera is a slight understatement.
It is written and directed by Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books). Production wise, Ash Attala (The Office) and Derrin Schlesinger (Nathan Barley) are involved. It stars not only Morris (in a very rare appearance in something he hasn't written himself), but rising Irish actor Chris O'Dowd (last seen playing an Irish comedian in the Edinburgh Fringe satire film, Festival) and the massively talented Richard Ayoade, from the award-winning duo "Garth Marenghi".
The small set is divided into two - a basement office and a top-floor office and the cast throw themselves between the two, acting out all the interior shots. Because no one in the studio audience knows what anything is about, Linehan comes out to explain who is who; what will be happening; gives a bit of a back story and generally makes everyone feel very welcome.
The minutiae of it all is fascinating. In one scene, one of the characters has to crumple up a sheet of paper and throw it into a waste paper bin. Except the ball of paper just refuses to hit its target and because the next scene is waiting, the actor just can't try again. When the show is finished, and we're all filing out, someone remembers this missing shot and the stage manager (standing for the actor) casually throws a ball of paper into the waste paper bin getting it right first time to a thunderous ovation.
The IT Crowd is about two information technology workers in a large company who, because of their all-consuming geekiness and complete lack of social skills, have been banished to a dingy basement office.
Whenever anyone from the floors above rings them to get help, all they ever say is: "Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?".
Into their stygian world comes Jen (played by Katherine Parkinson), a career woman on the march who because of some dreadful administrative error has ended up as their new boss - or "Relationship Manager" in Human Resources speak.
The geeks, Roy (Chris O'Dowd) and Moss (Richard Ayoade), know everything about computers - Jen knows nothing about them. She's also a woman - a species Roy and Moss aren't really used to dealing with.
"IT WAS ORIGINALLY about travel agents," says writer Graham Linehan of the show. "I had this idea of people in an office surrounded by pictures of tropical paradise. I had this travel agent on the phone saying to someone: 'No, I wouldn't go to France. France is very rude at this time of year'. But that was all I could get out of it. So I decided to turn it into something I was interested in, which was technology. It's something which affects all our lives now."
He also had a computer problem and a real IT person came to fix it. "I was sitting beside this guy at the computer and we had this two-hour conversation. I found it really difficult to understand him and it was clear he was frustrated by how little I understood of what he was saying to me. The mix of the two incidents made The IT Crowd."
Having had Irish leads in his last two sit-coms (Dermot Morgan in Father Ted and Dylan Moran in Black Books), Linehan strictly did not want another Irish actor.
"Well, if truth be known, I was thinking of playing the Roy character myself. I raised this at an early meeting and I was met by a very long silence. When it came to casting Roy, I really didn't want anyone even remotely Irish. This is about three people in an IT department - the part didn't even require any Irishness. Chris O'Dowd, though, came for an audition and he was just so brilliant in the role - he got it immediately - that I had to lift my anti-Irish ban."
O'Dowd, from Co Roscommon, and a graduate of the LAMDA acting course, was most recently seen in RTÉ's The Clinic. He also once worked as a Bob Geldof impersonator.
AS GOOD AS O'Dowd's performance is, you can't help feeling that the real star of the show is going to be Richard Ayoade. Linehan had seen the Garth Marenghi live show and came away thinking that Ayoade would make a great geek. While O'Dowd is extrovert and animated, Ayoade is uber-geek in the style of an Open University presenter.
"Richard actually came up with the theory as to how his character, Moss, walks. He said that Moss should walk with this arms rigid by his side because Moss would think that if your arms moved you would displace more air thus slowing you down."
Despite being about information technology, Linehan says it's a resolutely old-fashioned sit-com. "I think a lot of TV comedy has become unnecessarily vulgar and crude," he says. "People think they're pushing barriers, but they're forgetting it has to be funny first. There's nothing wrong with looking up to Dad's Army. I also think that because of the success of The Office, everyone is now trying to do stuff on location with shaky cameras and naturalistic performances. So, in that sense, The IT Crowd is old-fashioned. It's not dark humour by any means. It's cheerful and optimistic if anything. I even had a rule on it that there was be to no bad language - and especially not the F-word. But there was something in episode three that I just had to make an exception for. That's the only time the rule was broken though. I'm even thinking of asking Channel 4 if they'll let me put at the start of each programme: 'The IT Crowd is filmed in front of a live studio audience and contains no strong language or violence from the start'."
LIKE A LOT of classic sit-coms, The IT Crowd makes use of the "trinity" set-up. "Three people together - especially two guys and girl - is a good set-up," says Linehan. "You see it best in Seinfeld, which for me is one of the best comedies ever written, at least structurally so. Seinfeld and Woody Allen would be my two big influences."
From Dublin, Linehan began writing sketches for Alexi Sayle and The Harry Enfield Show before teaming up with Arthur Mathews to work on Father Ted. Since then, he's worked on Black Books, directed the pilot episode of Little Britain and more recently has been directing advertisements and working as a film script editor. "They're all really bad films, I don't mind saying that," he says. "Most of them go straight to DVD and some of them are obviously tax write-offs."
He is justifiably happy with how The IT Crowd has turned out - even if one swear word did seep in and he ended up casting an Irish lead. He doesn't feel real-life IT professionals will have anything to worry about it.
"It's done with a lot of affection. I think they'll get that straight away," he says. "I certainly never set out to offend anyone in the same way that we never set out to offend any of the clergy in Father Ted. If anything, this is a celebration of IT people. It's basically Father Ted for geeks."
The IT Crowd begins on Channel 4 on Friday, Feb 3. The first episode will be shown on its website one week before going out on television. Future episodes will also be available on the website
one week before transmission. www.channel4.com/itcrowd