IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BATHURST
Continuing our interview with the star of Joking Apart, we kicked off by enquiring whether Steven Moffat asked Robert if he would mind appearing naked in the second series, or was it just dropped on him?
ROBERT BATHURST: We had recorded the first series and it took nearly a year to go out. We were due to go out in the autumn of that year, so we met in September. We were invited to the Café Royal for the BBC2 Autumn Launch. Steven and I went along, and I was late. Steven was standing there in the foyer, a bit edgy, and he said, “ Bathurst, if we do a second series, you are going to spend an entire episode naked!” That was his threat, which, sadly, he carried out. It was his revenge.
The evening at the Café Royal was one of the most depressing days of my life. First of all, Alan Yentob presented the exciting, new BBC2 autumn season with video clips. He didn’t mention us in the pre-amble and we weren’t in any of the video clips. When we’d arrived at the Café Royal, we said to the PR people who we were, and there weren’t any printed labels for us. No one had really quite known who we were. We brandished our invitations and sort of said, “We are legit, you know, we’re meant to be here. We’re in the autumn season – it says so.” And they went, ‘Hmmm’, and they assigned us a PR person, who hadn’t seen the show. Having sat through this rather humiliating experience of seeing a presentation of the autumn season which didn’t include us, we sat at our table, waiting for the journalists to be pushed in our direction.
The table next to us was Absolutely Fabulous, which was being launched, and it was, of course, crowded. Steven and I were sitting on our own….You’d have thought that we’d got stale fish in our pockets or something – nobody came. Well, one person from, I think, Portsmouth – some local newspaper – was persuaded, dragged to our table by our hapless PR who felt sorry for us, to talk about our new, wonderful show, which, of course, didn’t appear in the autumn season at all – no explanation for that – and we ended up going out in January. So that was a hideous occasion….
JOKING APART.CO.UK: And that rather set the tone for what followed, really.
RB: It did, absolutely! There was such excitement about the show - yes, marvellous, we’re going into the autumn season – and then, mysteriously, it just disappeared; it just doesn’t happen. During the broadcast of the first series, I used to get minutes of BBC meetings – a friend used to send me them - and there were all sorts of people being very excited about the show; people who, in subsequent years, seemed to just not schedule it….At all….So I thought I knew what the executives were thinking, but I’ve given up doing that because whatever’s said in committee possibly isn’t what they are really thinking. It’s just bad for the health, trying to second-guess what TV executives are going to do.
JA: Did you think you were bound to get a third series after the second won a Montreux award?
RB: No, because - and I don’t know it if happened at the same time – KYTV got a Montreux and they didn’t get picked up after that. Ours was a bronze, not a gold, but nonetheless….It was also entered by the BBC for the Emmys. Joking Apart and Ab Fab, were the two shows that were put forward by the BBC Comedy Department. By submitting it, there was an indication that it was reasonably highly regarded on the sixth floor.
JA: Which just makes it all more of a mystery.
RB: Yes, the whole thing was very strange.
JA: I take it that it was a bit of a kick in the teeth when they cancelled it?
RB: It had just become a rather grim inevitability. You must understand that these things didn’t happen suddenly. It was such a drawn out procedure. It would have been much better if they had just turned round and said, “No, we hate it - go and do something else,” but there had been so much positive talk about it and so much flannel from various quarters. And the endless re-schedulings in ’94, with no real explanation….It’s just yet another hard luck story, up to a point – you know, everybody’s got them. There are lots of shows that could have been contenders, but the frustration is that I think that Joking Apart is better than that.
JA: Which is borne out by the stats we were talking about earlier [see part two]….Do you have a favourite episode?
RB: I’ve always enjoyed the situation where Mark is stuck in Tracey’s en-suite bathroom with the mobile and Robert’s in the bedroom talking to him on the house phone. ….So, possibly, that one’s my favourite….Each time the scripts came flopping through the letterbox, I would go for a walk and read them, and would be howling with laughter. On many of them, I would just be laughing out loud, on my walk. And also, thinking, “I’ve got to handle this material – it’s great.” As I say, I think there are six or seven episodes which are classic farces that will endure.
In several episodes there was a moment when it became the purest situation comedy. There was one episode, where Paul Raffield [who played Robert] walked in through a door and got a round of applause. It was just situation crashing in on itself – brilliant writing. He didn’t have to do anything else other than just walk in through that door, but he was where he shouldn’t be, and the audience just fell about and they loved it.
The Montreux winning episode, I think was pretty good - hiding under the bed and all that sort of thing. I hated the opening sequence of the second series, which was trying to get porn into his jacket. It was done in the morning before the recording, without an audience. Bob Spiers wasn’t available to shoot it, so it didn’t have his snappiness. It also broke the rule which Steven’s scripts generally applied, in that it went at farce pace within the first two minutes. It was the sort of scene that may have worked towards the end of an episode. Normally, it’s pretty gentle to start off with, and this was getting ooh, er, at the top, which went very flat, and I felt so at the time. In the canteen afterwards, I said it was a rubbish way to start the episode and on seeing it, I still think so.
JA: But kind of redeemed by the last ten minutes….
RB: Yeah, sure, but what worried me was that it was the first four minutes of a new series - the last series had been two years before - and if there was any pre-publicity, a lot of people would think, “What is the fuss about?” because people are very quick with their remotes….So that did concern me.
JA: I take the point. Do you remember any amusing behind-the-scenes incidents?
RB: Rehearsing the second series I got just two notes from Bob Spiers. When it came to chat about character and nuance and stuff like that, I used to talk to Steven, who was always there. It was good that he was part of the rehearsal process.
Bob, from the very first morning, after the read through, would just be working out the shots. Bob’s great talent as a studio comedy director is, he gives the space around the lines for the reactions, and he’s great at covering everything. You shouldn’t be aware of his direction, but it’s masterful. Technically, it’s brilliant. But if ever I was to talk to him about any finer detail in the show, he was very impatient.
In the second series, he gave me two directions – one in episode two and one in episode four, which, put together, are the best notes you could ever get, really. Tony Gardner [Becky’s lawyer] had to run down a corridor and get his head stuck in a noose. It was the first day of rehearsals and I just queried something about this. And the only thing Bob said was, “Oh, just learn your lines!” And then in episode four, there was a difference of opinion between Andre Ptaszynski, Steven and Bob about the position of the word ‘no’ in a sentence. And this went on for an unfeasibly long time – about five minutes, they were talking about it – and then I just said, “Well, how about….?” And Bob just said, “Oh, just make it funny!” That was the only other note he’d given me in the entire series. So, “learn your lines” and “make it funny” is actually all you need to know as a situation comedy actor….
JA: Fair enough! To round off on Joking Apart, I’ve a couple of slightly oblique questions. Steven mentioned the possibility of revamping the show as a theatre play. Who would you recommend for the lead?
RB: Well, probably not a comedian. I know that they were looking at comedians when they were casting the part [for the series] and looking for fashionable names. So you’d probably have to go for someone unknown, like I was when I got it. I think it would be great - he writes farce brilliantly and it would work really well as a stage thing.
JA: And where do you think Mark and Becky would be ten years on?
RB: There was a hint at the end of the second series that they might need each other….But I should think they would have gone their separate ways. I wouldn’t have thought Becky and Trevor would be together, which would give me great pleasure! But no, I should think Mark has mellowed; I should think, rather like Steven, he’s probably ended up, would you believe it, having children and loving the whole thing, which is not something you would ever have put your money on when I knew him….
IN PART 4: Robert's career, post Joking Apart, plus the future.