“I Think I Saw a Bleak Norfolk Village on Property Ladder”

Ian Jones interviews Andrew Collins

First published October 2003

From Design Assistant on the NME in 1988 to drivetime DJ on BBC 6 Music in 2003, Andrew Collins’ career has led him through pretty much all the corners of the media industry. Long stints at the NME, Select and Q magazine (where he ended up editor), a partnership with fellow journalist Stuart Maconie (on The Hit Parade for Radio 1 and Movie Club for ITV), an ongoing stint as Film Editor for Radio Times, and a solo broadcasting career on Radio 4′s Back Row and 6 Music spanned much of the previous decade and the start of this one.

More recently he’s carved out a new reputation for himself as a writer: first for Family Affairs, then EastEnders, and in early 2003 as the author of Where Did It All Go Right?, a memoir of his childhood in Northampton. Now he’s got his first sitcom running on BBC3: Grass, co-written with Simon Day. OTT interrupted Andrew, busy at work on the follow-up to Where Did It All Go Right?, to ask him about the business of pitching and penning situation comedy.

OTT: You had quite a history of submitting pitches to the BBC before you got lucky with Grass. What prompted you to first try your luck with an idea – and then to keep trying?

ANDREW COLLINS: I fell into scriptwriting by accident (or good fortune) when Mal Young – former Brookside producer lured to London and charged with launching Channel Five’s first soap – convinced me I should try out for what would become Family Affairs. He’d always been a big fan of developing new writers and non-writers on Brookside and wanted to do the same on C5. (He and I had met when I interviewed him on the Brookside set for Q magazine, and we hit it off immediately, both being music fans.)

So, once I was writing regular scripts for Family Affairs, learning on the job (whilst still editing Q), Mal started encouraging me to think up some original ideas. (I was now on telly with Stuart Maconie doing the Movie Club, and on Radio 1 doing Hit Parade, feeling very much as if I had a foot in the door of the broadcast media.) Mal really was an inspirational figure, very much “If you want it bad enough, it could be yours.” (He had, after all, started out as an extra on Brookside, and then I think moved scenery.) So, I dusted down an old idea for an unfinished novel I’d started in 1988 when I was a freelance illustrator, before I’d even written a single published word for the NME. It was set in the future and was about a successful, reclusive novelist who decides he must assassinate the Prime Minister, who’s a mumsy daytime TV host. This was very much a product of the Thatcher era, but with some tinkering it seemed to make a decent enough comedy drama for the Major era. Mal encouraged me to work it up into a treatment (it became working-titled “Peter No-One”). Meanwhile I showed him another idea for a sitcom called “Mr Blue Sky” (about an eternal optimist whose life is falling apart – very Marion and Geoff before Marion and Geoff), which again, he helped me develop.

Mal was employed not by C5 but Pearson, and they were after new ideas for programmes. In the end, Mal was poached by the BBC before either of my ideas got much further (and I had received no development money for either – it was all speculative and anyway, I had a weekly wage from Q). When he arrived at TV Centre as Head of Drama Series he “took me with him”, as it were, and promised to put some actual development money into “Peter No-One”, which he felt he could sell to Jane Root, then the new head of BBC2. He also introduced me to the right people at EastEnders and got me a “try-out”, just at the point when I was becoming disillusioned with Family Affairs (under new management – Brian Park – and ratings mad). He didn’t get me the job at EastEnders, he merely put me in touch with them. There’s no way EastEnders would give work to somebody just on Mal’s recommendation. It was, as written about elsewhere, like an entrance exam for a university, which, happily, I passed.

So … I’d left my day job at this point and though I had a Billy Bragg biography to write, I was keen to make a go of this TV scriptwriting lark and became increasingly enthused about “Peter No-One”. It went from a one-off “TV film” to a two-parter to a six-parter, as Mal reckoned there was more potential to get a six-parter placed on BBC2 than a single film. I received some development money and set about writing episode one.

Next, Mal got me involved in a drama project that was being put together about the PR industry. Jenny Lecoat, former stand-up and now Family Affairs/EastEnders scribe, was the other writer involved. We, along with a BBC script editor and producer, sat around boardroom tables and thrashed out a workable premise and cast of characters for what was working titled “” (the name of the fictional Soho PR firm). Everyone was very upbeat – something I now take with a pinch of salt as the series never got out of development and that seems to be the way with 80% of stuff. Jenny and I were commissioned (and paid) to fully script an episode each of “”. These were then presented to Jane Root and she rejected them. That was that. Good experience and a bit of cash. Plus, Mal seemed still to be mad about me. EastEnders accepted me and I let Family Affairs go. (They’ll tell you they let me go, but hey.)

“Peter No-One” was ongoing. I worked on it every spare moment. The episodes were a bulky 50 minutes long and it was a bit like writing a film. A mammoth task which, to be honest, I wasn’t up to. EastEnders taught me a lot over the next two years, but I had only just started there. “Peter No-One” was also rejected by Jane Root, based on my finished script. I’ve looked at it again more recently and it’s a bit lumpy. I could do a better job now, but the idea had been superseded by events. (Cherie Blair announced she was pregnant, thus generating goodwill for Tony in the press – this happened in “Peter No-One”, with my PM faking a pregnancy to win an election.)

Undeterred, Mal put me with another script editor and another producer to work up another drama, potentially for BBC2, working-titled “Me Jane”. The idea of this was a romantic comedy written by a man and a woman, the woman being Lynne Dallow, an EastEnders writer I got on well with. We were, as is the way of these things, put together, but we all seemed to click and – again – the two of us went away and scripted two episodes. “Me Jane” was rejected by Jane Root. Spotting a theme yet?

While all this was going on, Watchmaker, the now-defunct production company run by Clive James who’d made Movie Club and once tried to sign Stuart and I to an exclusive five-figure TV development deal, paid he and I some development money for a sitcom set in a men’s magazine called “Bully for Men”. They wanted to place it with (I think) Daniella Lux at ITV. Again, we went away and wrote the first episode together but she wasn’t interested. They tried Sky, who wanted a star attached before they’d look at it. Our interest waned, and it seemed that Watchmaker had little clout in terms of sitcom, known only for entertainment shows. (They eventually folded, being absorbed into Chrysalis TV, and Clive put telly behind him.) Interestingly, Stuart and I later tried to adapt “Bully for Men” into an animated series, but that fizzled out.

So. EastEnders kept me in work and in food, and I learnt my trade there, seemingly pathologically unable to get anyone interested in any of my ideas, or indeed other people’s ideas with me as a writer. Other exciting stuff happened to me like Back Row, the Radio Times gig, and eventually 6 Music, but to be honest, I was fairly disillusioned by the whole commissioning process, especially at the BBC. My archive is filled with treatments and “spec” scripts that never were. At least I could say I was a professional scriptwriter now, with real episodes of actual, primetime telly transmitted with my name on. Once you’re in, the offers start coming – I turned down offers to write for Holby City, Doctors, Crossroads and Mile High for Sky One. I was always too busy on “other stuff” but it was gratifying to be approached.

Grass came out of the blue at the beginning on 2001. I felt slightly more optimistic about it because it had a star attached, Simon Day, but the whole time we were writing, I assumed it was for nothing. Just take the money and run, and be glad to have met someone off The Fast Show.

OTT: How did your perception of the BBC change with each sequential rejection?

ANDREW COLLINS: It didn’t really. I became hardened. I was disappointed at every turn, but never enough to stop trying. I watched a lot of drama on TV during that period and thought much of it lightweight and star-led (including stuff commissioned by Mal like Harbour Lights and Crime Doubles). I couldn’t understand why none of my stuff was good enough to get past Jane Root or whoever else held the power. I am a bounce-back sort of person. You have to be in telly. It’s not just writers who are being rejected, it’s producers and script editors, and – ultimately – someone like Mal. All my rejected projects at the BBC had Mal Young’s name on. I love the BBC with every bone in my body. What with Radio 4, 6 Music and Radio Times nearly all of my freelance/contracted income comes from the BBC. The way I look at it is, the BBC have at least paid me for all the development work I’ve done. Some writers could be in development constantly and not ever see their work made into television. I was lucky enough to have the experience of EastEnders while I was doing it.

OTT: The circumstances in which you became involved with Grass seem quite unusual, in that you were sort of “married off” to a work in progress. How did such an arrangement come about – and how did you feel about it at the time?

ANDREW COLLINS: You can’t operate without an agent. It’s all about who you know, or who your agent knows. Alex Walsh-Taylor, producer of Grass, knew my agent through various means, including Radio 4. When he needed a new co-writer for Simon Day he approached her with a list of possibles on her books, seasoned radio comedy writers mostly (and not me). The genius that she is, she instead put me forward as a drama writer. Alex probably said something like, “It’s a harebrained idea but it might just work.” She rang me up and said she had fixed up a meeting with a producer at the BBC.

The writer/ broadcaster/performer’s life is one long string of meetings. I went to this one with no big ambitions or hopes. The “work in progress” had actually stalled. It was mouldering in a BBC in-tray. It was Alex’s enthusiasm that re-invigorated it. He’d worked with The Fast Show gang on the final ever Fast Show (that best-of clips thing) and talked to Simon about the project and picked it up from there. Geoffrey Perkins was of course keen to get The Fast Show players into their own vehicles now that it was all over (see also: Happiness, Swiss Toni, Posh Nosh, Stan the Man), but Simon’s co-writer – a previous blind date – was a comedy gagman and their joint effort was half traditional sitcom and half Simon’s inspired monologues. My job was to plot out a drama and put Billy Bleach into it. It was a fascinating task. And I’d always admired Simon and had a soft spot for Billy Bleach’s skits. It was all very artificial but I felt I could stamp my personality on it.

OTT: How did your working relationship with Simon Day develop?

ANDREW COLLINS: Uneasily at first. I think he is naturally suspicious. Once we were sat in a room at Broadcasting House with a blank screen in front of us, with no Alex as chaperone, I took charge. Simon has no PC, no e-mail, only a mobile phone and a notebook. This gave me technological superiority, which was handy, as this was HIS project, HIS character. He knows Billy better than any of his repertoire, as he is most like him. Over the years, Billy has taken over from Tommy Cockles as Simon’s default stand-up character. I loved his monologues in the rejected pilot script, so we agreed to keep them and work on the background and plot. We treated Billy as a rounded character, not just as a funny monologue supplier.

Simon and I were kind of forced to bond, but bond we did, mostly over music. He quickly realised I had plenty of other strings to my bow (I was about to take Lloyd Cole Knew My Father to Edinburgh for one) and was anything but dependent on him or this sitcom for kicks. That was helpful. I don’t think he needs passengers. I had as much going on in my professional life as he did. More, in fact. This was very useful at times when he was effectively dictating speeches while I typed. I didn’t mind taking this subservient role, as I never felt subservient in the partnership.

OTT: How were you able to remain so involved, and so enthusiastic, for a project that’s taken almost three years from conception to screen?

ANDREW COLLINS: The time just flies by! As I say, my hopes remained so “realistic” throughout, I just got on with other things. It was undoubtedly more important to Simon than it was to me. That sounds a bit harsh, but it’s true – this was a personal goal for him. To have rejected Billy would have been to reject a part of Simon. Also, with his stand-up, The Fast Show tour and acting work on Swiss Toni, everything in his professional life is linked. My other work is very varied and keeps me pumped in different ways. Simon’s career is more focussed. Also, it never felt like three years. It was only when writing the diary for Radio Times that I realised I actually met Simon in January 2001. The World Trade Centre was still standing!

OTT: During commissioning you worked with two esteemed BBC comedy veterans, first Geoffrey Perkins and then Jon Plowman. What were both men like, and how did their attitudes and working methods differ?

ANDREW COLLINS: Because Geoffrey Perkins was (unbeknown to us) planning his exit from the BBC at the time, he can’t have been as passionate about Grass as we were. I only met him once – at a key meeting between he, Alex, Simon, Simon’s agent and I – and he was very urbane and helpful and jolly. Critical too. His comments though were spot on – in our first draft, there was too much straight monologue and not enough narrative. This, we amended for the second draft, by which time Perkins had hightailed it out of there. We felt slightly marooned, but Jon Plowman stepped in immediately and was an enthusiastic champion.

As described elsewhere, these middle-men cannot get a programme commissioned, that’s always the channel controllers, but without their support and nurturing, you won’t even get it in front of Jane Root or Stuart Murphy. Jon Plowman has been incredibly trusting. He only went to the shoot twice and his comments at the editing stage, apart from being astute and detailed, are few. He let us get on with it once he’d seen the storylines and we had our commission. He’s very empowering, to us, to Alex, to the director Martin Dennis. I like him. But then I would. I like the way he rails against bad TV critics.

OTT: The period that Grass was in development saw a lot of changes within the front line of contemporary TV comedy, with the emergence into the mainstream of figures like Peter Kay and Ricky Gervais, a primetime hit for BBC1 in the shape of My Family, pronounced failures such as Johnny Vaughan’s ‘Orrible, and the decline in influence of people like Lee & Herring. How did you root or relate your own work to any or all of these kinds of changes that were going on around you?

ANDREW COLLINS: ‘Orrible was in production while we were writing our pilot script at the BBC and Simon and I were quite jealous of the fact that they had an office with ‘Orrible on the door (and the fact that Johnny, who I know quite well, was the golden child). Tragically the finished product was not much cop, and Johnny shouldn’t have been the star. He isn’t a natural actor, he’s a showman. So a certain amount of schadenfreude was in evidence when he failed. (That’s something nobody in comedy likes to admit. My peripheral experiences with comedians are that they are very competitive and bitter about each other’s successes.)

I love The Office and Phoenix Nights and both gave us strength to hold out against having audience laughter on Grass. Swiss Toni was commissioned by soon-to-be-rebranded BBC3 and Simon was involved. This made us think Grass would never get commissioned. We were encouraged though by how traditional Swiss Toni was. We were more influenced by Happiness, whose second series aired while we were writing. We could see it turning into Cold Feet, more drama, less comedy, and felt that drama was our strength too.

OTT: What have been your impressions of BBC2 Controller Jane Root?

ANDREW COLLINS: Never met her. I wasn’t present at the read-through which won us a commission. I have watched a tape of it, and it’s a really spirited, funny read-through, with actors like Frank Harper and Ken Campbell playing parts. No props, just chairs and scripts and bigwigs just out of shot, laughing. I can only assume Ms Root was laughing along.

OTT: What was your reaction to finally learning Grass had been commissioned? Were there any strings attached to getting the green light?

ANDREW COLLINS: No strings attached, other than the distinct possibility (though at that stage not set in stone) that it would show on BBC3 first and BBC2 second. But without the two channels spreading the costs we might not have been able to shoot on location, and that was desperately important to us. This was always envisaged as a sunny, outdoor programme. Wide open spaces. It was originally set in Cornwall, but we moved it to Norfolk while writing it. I think I saw a bleak Norfolk village on Property Ladder.

I was over the moon when I got the phone-call from Alex. Even though the read-through had gone well there was never any guarantee that it would lead to a commission. To effectively get two was a jackpot. My only worry was that they asked for eight episodes and we’d only storylined six. That and the fact that I had landed my daily radio show on 6 Music and couldn’t work out how I would physically write the thing. (In the end I left Back Row and freed up my mornings. Something always has to give if you’re a jack of all trades like me. I gave up EastEnders to do 6 Music, and so on.) There was no other downside to the commission. Christmas came early.

OTT: As your scripts gradually became the property of others, such as the director and the cast, did you feel a loss of ownership and/or increasingly protective towards your work?

ANDREW COLLINS: Because Simon was present at all the castings and was obviously on set every day, I never felt we would lose Grass, and indeed, we didn’t. It turned out exactly as we’d dreamed it would, only better, thanks to the cinematic touches applied by director Martin Dennis (who’s most famous for studio-bound sitcoms, like Men Behaving Badly and Coupling – you could tell he relished getting into the field).

Obviously lines I’d written were cut or changed along the way. I’m used to all that, as a journalist as well as a writer. You have to be. I’d never been on set with any of my EastEnders episodes, even though writers are welcome as long as they keep quiet! I was always too busy to go all the way to Elstree. I went down for some of the studio filming on Grass in West London and enjoyed the process – and getting to stand in the sets for the pub and the cottage; an amazing feeling to have described a location and to see it there in living 3D. You realise how literally your words are taken. In one stage direction I wrote that one of the hikers Billy meets is wearing a jacket “covered in badges” and wardrobe literally covered the jacket with badges!

OTT: Were you able to attend or even influence the actual film shoots?

ANDREW COLLINS: Attend yes, influence no. Alex the producer and Martin the director are working to a tight schedule – there’s no room for mucking about. Hollywood films can go over-budget and over-time, but not BBC comedies. Although some decisions are necessarily made on the spot – dialogue changes when a line doesn’t “work”, occasional inspired bits of ad-libbing that are kept in – the shooting script is adhered to closely, in order to keep the production on track.

I was interested to see how precise the daily shooting schedule was: smaller, less narratively essential scenes that could be cut (if necessary) were always kept until the end, so that if time was lost during the day, nothing essential would be jeopardised. I was talking to one of the actors – Alex Lowe – on the first day I was there and he knew that a particular scene he was in (he’s the organic farmer, a fairly minor character in terms of the series) was expendable as it was the last of the day. He was right: it was. Alex is experienced enough to understand that. No actor knows, nor has any control over, what’s going to make the final edit. But Simon was present at a lot of the editing, and was invited to contribute thoughts and ideas. The buck ultimately stops with Alex, who’s there the whole time, and then Jon Plowman, who gives his own thoughts once a rough cut has been assembled. Luckily, Jon’s comments and ideas were never major, so the series Simon and I imagined is pretty much intact.

OTT: How did you feel in the lead up to, and on the first night of, transmission?

ANDREW COLLINS: In the run-up, I was excited. We had a cast and crew screening with canapés and booze and it was a happy occasion: the actors loved it (you might say, “well, they would”, but I spoke to a lot of them and they said they are generally very nervous about screenings and often hate seeing themselves on screen, but came along because they thought the scripts were very good, and all were pleasantly surprised how closely it had turned out to what had been on the page).

Then the previews started appearing and they weren’t as glowing as I might have hoped – worst offender, ironically, being Quentin Cooper’s in Radio Times! – and even though I remained positive that what we’d made was a very good, and very different, half-hour comedy vehicle for an existing character, I began to get nervous about the reviews. I showed the first two episodes to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and they enjoyed them and didn’t mind the lack of laughter – nor did they find the mix of drama and comedy uneasy. This was two days before transmission and it bolstered my spirits. Even though I had seen the first episode about five times, I excitedly watched it when it went out on 8 September at 11pm.

OTT: What would you say are the key lessons you’ve learned from the business of pitching and writing a sitcom?

ANDREW COLLINS: Stick to your guns. This is a lot easier if your co-writer is the star, and something of a hot property. However, we aimed high – location, a serial, no laughter, serious drama and pathos among the comic scenes, Faces song for the theme – and got what we wanted. Obviously we would never have pulled this off without the support of a good producer, a good director and a good executive producer to stand up the BBC bigwigs, but with no other experience of making sitcoms I’ve no idea what other ones are like! All I do know is that a lot of telly that I hate is that which seems to treat the audience like idiots, and I don’t think Grass does that.

There was a comment made, quite some way down the line, that it needed more female characters (this was when it was almost written!) and could we perhaps change one of the major male characters to a woman. This was obviously demographics wagging the dog, and both Simon and I stood firm. I’m sure there is research that tells us female viewers like comedies with female characters, but what about Dad’s Army and Porridge and Steptoe and Son?

The worse thing you can do is bend to pressure. We knew a serial would be more dramatic than a series, so that’s what we fought for. It means it’s harder to dip into, and that’s bound to be against scheduling wisdom with figures to back it up, but it’s what we felt was right. This makes it sound a bit too noble: it’s just a comedy with some drama in it, but if people don’t like it, we can’t blame it on the BBC or the system. As for pitching, I never had to pitch it so I don’t know. All I know is, everything else I’ve ever pitched has failed. Perhaps now I’ve had something made, doors will open for me …? My agent has already joked about “dusting down” “Peter No-One”!

OTT: Finally, in your article for Radio Times on the development of Grass you seemed to put across the sense of being terribly enthusiastic and surprised at getting commissioned. Do you think you’ll ever get used to or blasé about doing something you enjoy for a living?

ANDREW COLLINS: The day I do, shoot me. I get excited every day the microphone goes live on 6 Music. I get excited every time I see my by-line next to a review in Radio Times. I get excited when I see the spine of one of my books in a bookshop (and yes I do look for them) or a customer review on Amazon. I get excited when I read the character biogs I wrote for the Grass website. I got excited when my first review was published on Off The Telly, and I am excited to read my name in Creamguide. These are exciting things. That’s why I do interviews whenever anyone asks me and write back to anyone who gets in touch and why I spend way too much time speaking to students at things like the NUS Media Conference every year. I could still be drawing stupid cartoons of hippos for the covers of puzzle books – which was my first job out of college in 1987. Mind you, I got excited about those if I ever saw them in a newsagent’s too and they didn’t have my name on or anything.