“It’s Probably Had Coupling Taped Over it”

Steve Williams interviews Lee and Herring

First published November 2000

After OTT published its retrospective on Lee and Herring in September 2000, both Stewart Lee and Richard Herring got in touch with the site. Obviously, we weren’t going to let them go without exploiting their generosity in some way, and so in October we took the opportunity to question them about their work.

OTT: Lee and Herring appear to have suffered from internal politics at the BBC – note the long gap between Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy, and the lack of any programmes for the last 18 months or so. How much impact do the various BBC mandarins have on specific programming and is it simply a case of – say – Jane Root, saying “I don’t like it”?

STEWART LEE: They have an enormous impact. David something (can’t remember) commissioned Fist of Fun series one off the back of the radio shows, and supported it. Then the second series was inherited by some other controller – I forget his name – who decided it was too “youthy” and insisted on set and signature tune changes. For me, this is where me and Rich went wrong. Rich and our producer were keen to make the changes – but I didn’t want to do the series at all. We did the series under the changes imposed, and for me this is where everything went wrong. I look really uncomfortable in series two (I didn’t want to be there) and they only gave us three months to get the whole series together. As for TMWRNJ, Mark something was in control of BBC2 when it went out, and really liked it. At the end of TMWRNJ1 he took me, Rich and our manager out to lunch in a posh restaurant in Notting Hill and promised a longer run, proper trails, Friday night repeats etc, and was really keen. Everyone else came out of the meal really happy. I said: I’ll believe it when I see it. As it turned out, TMWRNJ2 wasn’t trailed, ran for longer but over 13 weeks interrupted by sport, and the Friday night shows were usually cancelled. Then Jane Root, the new controller, cancelled the programme. To be fair, Jon Plowman and the bloke who produced The Young Ones, Paul Jackson, did try to get her down to the live recordings to show her that the show was working, but she never came. By the end of the series they became like skeletons at the feast, supporting us, even though it was clear our death warrant was marked. The closest I’ve heard to an official explanation, second-hand via the producer Bill Dare to the actor Trevor Lock, was that TMWRNJ2 “didn’t perform well in the post-Simpsons slot”. Three of our projected repeats in the post-Simpsons slot were cancelled, the “post-Simpsons slot” often wasn’t the “post-Simpsons slot”, due to the insensitive way The Simpsons is also treated by schedulers, and our trailers, for some reason, didn’t mention the Friday show. On two different occasions I was planning to do the edit for the Friday show on Thursday, and then found out by looking in Time Out that it was on Thursday night. We were doing a show where even the people in it didn’t know when it was going out.

RICHARD HERRING: We have been in favour and then someone has moved on, then out of favour and then someone has moved on, back in favour and now once again out of it. Jane Root doesn’t like the show, but I think mainly ‘cos it wasn’t her original commission so she wouldn’t get any real kudos if it was a success. She’s a bit clueless about comedy and was rude enough to turn her back on me when being introduced to me and Steve Coogan in the summer of ’99 (that’s when I thought we probably hadn’t got another series). She did offer us a pilot of Hostages, our hostage sitcom but we decided that it was unlikely she’d commission it so we turned it down. I now hear that Paul Jackson is going to Australia and he was our main ally and support at the BBC. Stewart is insistent that he won’t work for them again. I would do, under the right terms.

STEWART LEE: That said, to be given TMWRNJ3 would probably have been counterproductive. Rich and I are both now working on more satisfying things, for less and more money, together and apart, that a third series would have kept us from. Also, because the BBC have lost most of what we have done, should we ever become successful, there isn’t a huge wedge of embarrassing juvenilia anywhere in the vaults. It’s probably had Coupling taped over it.

OTT: What programmes of yours are you particularly proud of?

STEWART LEE: The first series of Fist of Fun and some bits of TMWRNJ2 – “When Things Fall Over”, Jesus, lettuce, some film parodies.

OTT: Did it ever frustrate you that your audience was so young around Fist of Fun? Or did you enjoy filling their minds with strange ideas?

STEWART LEE: It didn’t frustrate me per se – I think kids often pick up on good things first – but I think the demographic of our audience was used by lazy journalists/TV execs to write us off, as you say in the comparison to The Goodies in your piece.

OTT: Sorry to go over old ground, but we’d like to know a little more about your involvement with On the Hour. Does it bother you that people often seem to forget about your contributions?

RICHARD HERRING: If they do then it’s a little irksome, but inevitable and also the reason that we ended up pulling out ‘cos we weren’t getting the credit. I think it would have been even more annoying if we’d done The Day Today ‘cos the same thing would have been true. It’s annoying when people think we’ve been influenced by The Day Today or even things like Father Ted or The League of Gentlemen, because in fact our work on On the Hour was an influence on those people (a bit). It’s a shame we haven’t worked with some of those people again, though I’m hopeful about working with Coogan and it’s only him and Chris Morris that I would love to work with (and Rebecca Front obviously, but I am working with her).

STEWART LEE: I don’t really care to be honest. Time will show (Patrick) Marber to be a dishonest opportunist and a liar, and Chris (Morris) didn’t really know what was going on.

OTT: Also, do you feel that the post-OTH work (like I’m Alan Partridge, really) has been – er – true to the original creative vision … or something?

RICHARD HERRING: I love I’m Alan Partridge. I thought it was magnificent. I don’t know if we had a real creative vision, but I think the way Alan Partridge has taken off was predictable but it’s also slightly gratifying that we wrote most of his early material and thus had a hand in what it has become. Good luck to everyone from that show I say (even Marber). It was one of those great things where all the right people were together at the right time and if nothing else I know what I did to help shape it. That’s all I care about now. Other people’s opinions don’t bother me too much.

STEWART LEE: I really like everything all the post-OTH people have done, except for (Saturday/Friday Night) Armistice, which was a load of smug shit, and wasted the talent of its contributors.

OTT: Richard, now you’re writing a sitcom (Sky One’s Time Gentlemen Please, with Al Murray), how can you make the transition between writing for TV comedy and a stage act?

RICHARD HERRING: I have always written for lots of different media. If you mean was it hard to transfer a stand up character to sitcom, then it wasn’t really, because Al’s character is so multi-layered and developed. And it was fun to think of the personalities that would compliment him and rub him up the wrong way. I think the plays I wrote were a good training ground for sitcom, though the brevity of the episodes and number of them (22) makes this easily the hardest and most draining thing I’ve ever done. It’s a year of working on this and nothing else and the last six months have been very intense.

OTT: We’d like to know about the Brian Cant and Rod Hull references.

STEWART LEE: Cant was got ‘cos he used to narrate old kids’ TV, when we were growing up, and Hull came about because Kev (Eldon)’s Rod Hull impression was so shit we wanted to do more with it.

RICHARD HERRING: Funnily enough neither of us really like jokes about old kids’ TV shows and stuff, but I suppose what we did was far enough away. And I loved the psychology of the false Rod. Such a shame the real Rod died. Both for the obvious reason and also ‘cos I think the sketches we were going to do in TMWRNJ might have really caught the public imagination.

OTT: What do you rate comedy-wise at the moment?

STEWART LEE: Graham Linehan, John Shuttleworth, Ross Noble, Trevor Lock, Lee Mack, Al Murray, Garth Merengi.

RICHARD HERRING: Loads of great stuff I think. My favourite show has been The Simpsons for some good time. I am eagerly looking forward to the re-release of Spinal Tap with the extra scenes (sorry not very of the moment) and I like Larry Sanders and Seinfeld. But I think The Royle Family and Coogan’s stuff and (Peter) Baynham’s stuff and Linehan’s stuff are brilliant. I am enjoying working with Al Murray who I also always admired. I think we’re doing a good job together.

OTT: Finally, Rich – that routine you did on the radio when you phoned up Lynne Franks’ PR and asked if, ‘cos Jennifer Saunders’ character was based on Lynne Franks, they had someone based on Julia Sawalha working there. Good that, wasn’t it?

RICHARD HERRING: I only vaguely remember. My Julia Sawalha material has come back to haunt me now. But luckily Julia (mainly) sees the funny side.