We were both recruited into the newly formed Finsbury Park Company of the Jewish Lads Brigade, in 1960. We’d joined for the football, but found there was rather more marching up and down than we had bargained for. We graduated to the local youth club a few years later, where there was table tennis, girls, a record player and very little marching. As the 1960s developed into the greatest decade ever, we played together and separately in a number of football teams and pop groups, and both dreamed of lives that were other than nine–to–five.
In 1973 we had the good fortune to stumble upon Player–Playwrights, a scriptwriting club that met, and still meets, most Monday nights in central London. Over the subsequent months, in a semi–derelict theatre in Fitzroy Square, we were exposed to short plays, long plays, good plays and bad plays, written and performed by members of the club, professional and amateur.
Although by then Laurence was a journalist, and Maurice was selling the occasional short story to top shelf magazines, neither of us even fantasised about a career as a playwright, although we were both enthusiastic fans of radio and television comedy. But after a few months hearing other members’ scripts, we decided separately to take the plunge, and enter the regular sketch–writing competition.
To our surprises, one or the other of us won the next half dozen contests. At that point, Don West, the Secretary, a gifted playwright and a very nice man, asked us if we’d ever considered writing together. We hadn’t, but the idea appealed. Our comedy heroes included the writing partnerships of Galton and Simpson (Hancock, Steptoe and Son), Clement and La Frenais (Likely Lads, Porridge), and Barry Took and Marty Feldman (Round the Horne, The Army Game). With these titans in mind, we took a day off work and wrote our very first script: a half hour comedy monologue, entitled The World’s Not Ready For You Yet, Sylvester, about a failing inventor who attempts suicide via his own inventions, and, of course, fails.
We had no idea how long it should take to write a half–hour script. We finished the first draft by lunchtime, and the rewrite in time for afternoon tea. The script generated a satisfying number of laughs from the Player–Playwright membership, so we put it in an envelope and sent it off to James Gilbert, BBC Head of Comedy, expecting a large cheque and a series commission by return of post.
What we did receive, a few weeks’ later, was an encouraging letter, inviting us to Television Centre for a chat and a cup of tea with Mr Gilbert. We were slightly disappointed, not realising that if TV comedy writing is a version of Snakes and Ladders, then we had reached square 93 with our first throw of the dice.
We arrived at Television Centre on Friday, October 11, 1974. We’re sure about the date, because it was the day after the second General Election of that year. In the BBC lobby we found ourselves sharing a banquette with Miners’ Union Leader Joe Gormley, and eccentric Tory peer Lord Hailsham. They were about to go into the post–election studio as political pundits, but they looked more like a rival comedy writing team.
We were thrilled and overawed when we were ushered up to the comedy department, past photographs of most of our comedy heroes. Jimmy Gilbert was a charming and knowledgeable enthusiast, producer of such classics as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and The Two Ronnies. Although we quickly realised he wasn’t about to buy our script, he gave us much wise advice about how we could improve it. We rushed back to North London to carry out his instructions. He didn’t buy the rewrite either.
Over the next few years we wrote and submitted several sit–com scripts, all of which were turned down by BBC and ITV, but always with words of encouragement. But you can’t eat words of encouragement, and by 1977 we had accepted we were unlikely to become well paid jokesters. Maurice decided to concentrate on his secure if dull Civil Service career, while Laurence moved from local journalism to an enviable researcher’s job with This Week, ITV’s flagship current affairs programme.
Then we discovered that God – if she exists – has a sense of humour. Laurence was due to fly up to Manchester to carry out an interview for a high–profile edition of This Week, but he overslept for the first time in his life, and missed the flight. He phoned his boss, expecting to be fired. Instead he was told to get himself to Euston and take next available train up North.
When Laurence sank into his first–class seat (those were the days), sitting opposite him was none other than aforementioned comedy legend, Barry Took. Laurence was star struck and dumbstruck. Luckily Barry struck up a conversation, and Laurence mustered his courage to reveal himself to Barry as a frustrated comedy writer. To Laurence’s amazement Barry offered to read our rejected sit–com scripts, and on his return to London Laurence dumped a foot–high stack of manuscripts on Barry’s doorstep.
We heard nothing from Barry for several months. Then one afternoon Laurence’s phone rang and a mellifluous voice said: “Hello, this is Barry Took. I don’t suppose you remember me,” which must be one of the daftest statements ever made. Barry followed this up with the even dafter statement: “I’ve read your scripts and I think it would be a great loss to British comedy if you two didn’t persevere.”
Barry emphasised that this was just his opinion, and he had no power or position within TV to help us. Thankfully, this statement wasn’t quite accurate. A month later he told us to expect a phone call from Richard Willcox, the producer of the Frankie Howerd Variety Show, a prestigious series for Radio 2. Richard was looking for new writers, and Barry had championed our cause. Richard asked us to write a sample monologue. He was rightly underwhelmed with our effort, but gave us a second chance because Barry believed in us.
With Barry’s considerable guidance, our second attempt made more of an impact, and Richard commissioned us to write twenty minutes of banter, sketches and monologues for each of the six hour long episodes. We were delighted, verging on ecstatic. But we still had our day jobs, the workload was heavy, and for the next two months we found ourselves toiling into the small hours. It was all worth it for the indescribable thrill of hearing an audience of strangers laughing at our jokes.
By the end of the series we were both exhausted, and suffering from stress induced psychosomatic ailments, known in comedy circles as Howerd Syndrome. We were also wondering – what next, if anything? Then, to our amazement, Frank asked us to write his script for the Royal Command Performance, which that year was honouring the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday. Frank’s eight minutes provided the hit of the night. Everybody was talking about it the next day, but we daren’t bathe in the glory – our bosses knew nothing of our secret lives
Our relative success with Frank led to an offer to do a similar job for Marti Caine, this time on BBC TV. Marti was a popular singer and comedienne, who had stumbled to fame when she deliberately fell down the stairs on ITV’s New Faces, the X–Factor of its day. We liked Marti, but realised that we didn’t enjoy being two of a rabble of writers all contributing ideas and gags to a variety show – especially when the star of the show usually forgot the script and fell back on her club act.
We decided that variety wasn’t our bag – a term people used back then, we’ve no idea why. We wanted to focus on our first televisual love, situation comedy. Barry told us that in that case we needed an agent. He introduced us to several, and we immediately hit it off with one Linda Seifert, who said “Let’s give it six months and see how it goes.” Linda represented us for the next 30 years.
Within weeks Linda arranged a meeting with Humphrey Barclay, Head of Comedy at London Weekend Television. Humphrey was looking for a comedy pilot script to complete a series of seven he was planning under the banner of Comedy Tonight, in the hope that at least one pilot would grow into a hit series. The idea we took to Humphrey Barclay we called Holding the Baby, about a woman who returns to work, leaving her husband at home with their newborn. (This notion was still revolutionary back in the 1970s)
The idea was conceived when we and our wives were on holiday in Corfu, recovering from Frankie Howerd. A throwaway line from Maurice’s wife, to the effect that he would make a better mother than she would, lit the spark. Maurice replied: “I think you’ve just created our first TV series.”
Humphrey liked our proposal and wanted to know what job this errant mother returned to. Strangely, we hadn’t considered this. “Advertising?” one of us suggested weakly.
Humphrey wasn’t impressed. Fortunately, we had read a magazine article about an American Army Captain, female, who had returned to work in similar circumstances. Humphrey perked up, and Holding the Baby became Holding the Fort. We put all our energy into producing the best script we’d ever written. To our relief, Humphrey liked it. Considerately he asked us who we saw playing the leading roles. He then ignored our suggestions, wisely, and cast three up–and–coming actors: Peter Davidson, Patricia Hodge and Matthew Kelly.
By the time the show was in rehearsal, labour relations within ITV had deteriorated rapidly. A few hours before our first ever sit–com was to be taped in front of a studio audience, and half way through the dress–rehearsal, a bitter strike erupted that was to last three months. It was 1979, the Winter of Discontent; rubbish went uncollected, bodies went unburied, and there was nothing on ITV but a test card – although this attracted a regular audience of over a million.
Fortunately, Derrick Goodwin, the director of Holding The Fort, and another of our heroes, had defied union rules by taping the incomplete dress rehearsal. The ITV strike lasted until almost the end of 1979. When the unions returned to work, fortified by massive backdated pay hikes, Michael Grade, Controller of Programmes at London Weekend Television, viewed the six completed pilots, plus our half of a dress rehearsal. For some reason – perhaps because he is a saint – Michael chose to commission a series of Holding The Fort. As 1980 dawned, so did the realisation that we had been offered the chance to fulfill our most extravagant dreams – to become full time comedy writers.