“Positive Comedy”

Graham Kibble-White interviews Steven Moffat

First published March 2001

The centrepiece of 1999′s Comic Relief night was a special edition of Doctor Who, “The Curse of Fatal Death”, written by Steven Moffat. The creator of BAFTA winning children’s series Press Gang, and BBC sitcoms Joking Apart, Chalk and Coupling, Steven is also a long time Who fan. In February 2001, on the cusp of Red Nose Day 2001, Steven kindly took time out from scripting series two of Coupling, to speak to OTT about his contribution to Comic Relief.

OTT: What were your perceptions of Comic Relief prior to your involvement (as a viewer, I mean)? What did you make of the whole tradition and those biannual nights of TV entertainment?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Well obviously I approved, and what I saw of the shows always seemed really good. I’ve never – to this day, in fact – sat through the whole night. But hardly anybody does and the night is designed with that in mind. The Cracker sketch [Prime Cracker from Comic Relief '97], I thought, was really excellent.

OTT: Before 1999, did you have any involvement with Comic Relief – aside from the contributions made by your missus [Sue Vertue, co-producer of The Vicar of Dibley and 1999's Comic Relief]?

STEVEN MOFFAT: None whatever. They chase up hit sitcoms – for obvious reasons – and I’d never had one of those.

OTT: So, what did it mean to you to be involved in Comic Relief? Is it a sort of badge of honour being asked to contribute?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Well … I was vaguely known to be a decent writer and I was married to that year’s co-producer. Hardly, a badge of honour, more a mark of convenience.

OTT: When writing “The Curse of Fatal Death”, what were your main concerns (simple entertainment, to encourage donations, dare I say – a tribute to Doctor Who)? And how much did the production team share your perspective?

STEVEN MOFFAT: My one and only concern was a good sketch, that would entertain the masses, and get nostalgic, drunk thirtysomethings reaching for their wallets and telephones. I tried to keep my fannishness from interfering with that. I wanted to celebrate the show as the public remembered it – a sort of sci-fi answer to the Carry On films – and not the curious mutation we fans have made out of it. (“It’s a serious grown-up drama. No, really, it is.”)

OTT: What was the brief from Comic Relief HQ? Are there specific guidelines or strictures in writing for them?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Not really. Generally, they want nice, positive comedy and were clear that spoofs should only gently lampoon their targets.

OTT: Do you think your contribution would have been any different if it had been for a “normal” comedy extravaganza, or even – gulp! – Children In Need?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Not sure. In normal comedy circumstances I wouldn’t opt to do a spoof, because I’m not very good at them. I’m also not very good at sketches. I’ve even got doubts about my place in comedy, so I probably wouldn’t be involved in a “comedy extravaganza” at all.

OTT: I’m surprised you say that – that you have doubts about your place in comedy.

STEVEN MOFFAT: Yes, that does sound rather mordant and odd. I didn’t mean it that way. I think of myself as a writer with a sense of humour rather than a comedy writer, happy to tell a story with lots of jokes in it. I wouldn’t know how to do the jokes without the story. Any clearer?

How about this: I used to have a long running argument with Geoff Hogg (film editor on Press Gang) about whether Press Gang was comedy. He insisted that it was and I said it wasn’t – it was just funny.

OTT: So, how did you feel about the prospect of your work being scrutinized by your “comedy” peers (Richard Curtis, et al)?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Well it always is scrutinized by someone. It didn’t feel a lot different from normal really – and if Richard Curtis made any suggestions I didn’t like, I just said it was a contradiction of Doctor Who mythology. Don’t expect he believed me for a second.

OTT: How do you feel the “normal” viewing public responded to “‘Fatal Death”?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Exceptionally well. The feedback was excellent – best I’d had up until that time.

OTT: And what was the response within the BBC and Doctor Who fan circles?

STEVEN MOFFAT: The BBC were very pleased and Doctor Who fandom was largely a bit sniffy. Not always unappreciative but a bit sniffy.

OTT: Were you at all concerned with what Who fans would make of it, anyway?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Not really. Some of them were my friends, so I cared about that.

OTT: Where were you on the night of Comic Relief in 1999 and what were you doing?

STEVEN MOFFAT: At the BBC, in a green room, drunk.

OTT: Alexei Sayle called The Young Ones “sell out shites for having anything to do with that guy [Cliff Richard]” (in relation to the first Comic Relief record, of course) and there have often been comments made of the ilk that there is an imbalance between the money raised for charity and the amount spent on the cocaine habits of the performers. Why do you think Comic Relief can sometimes provoke such strongly negative reaction from people in the industry?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Because some people are twats and in their hopeless naïveté mistake cynicism for sophistication. Comic Relief is a hugely effective charity that has done enormous good in the world. No question. No doubt about that. None at all. If it does that good by exploiting the talents of some cocaine addled comics, then so what?

I mean, really – so what?

Yes, if those guys sent their pocket money to the third world instead of up their noses it would really help. And yes, some of those people are performing in the show.


In view of this minor irony should we stop raising money and just wag our fingers sternly at over-spenders? We could send a message to the starving – sorry, no Comic Relief this year but we are going click our tongues reprovingly in the Groucho lavs.

Too bloody stupid for words. Twats. Tell ‘em from me.

OTT: Did your opinion of Comic Relief change much after participating in it?

STEVEN MOFFAT: No. I’d always written them a big cheque. This time I wrote them a big sketch and a big cheque.

OTT: Sorry, I can’t resist this, what did you reckon to the Mark Gatiss/David Walliams Doctor Who sketches from the 1999 Doctor Who Night?

STEVEN MOFFAT: Much better than mine. I think we were – by some way – the best Who sketch up until that point. Bit of a bugger we lost the crown so quickly.

OTT: And finally, will you be watching this year’s Comic Relief? Or are you not fussed?

STEVEN MOFFAT: I’ll watch. I know some of the people involved and anyway, it’s a funny show. I don’t know why people feel the need to pretend it isn’t, just because it’s also saving lives.