Playaway – BBC CHILDREN’S TELEVISION. 1978. (VARIOUS SKETCHES)
Our first paid work was the Frankie Howerd Variety Show on BBC Radio 2. Consequently, we were asked if we would like to contribute sketches to BBC’s long-running children’s show – Playaway. Our first unpaid work had been a lunchtime play entitled The World’s Not Ready For You Yet, Sylvester. It was a one-man stage play, often it was a one-man audience in a room over a pub in Marylebone Road. Sylvester was a failed inventor. He lent himself and his useless inventions to a series of silly sketches which amused rather more children than the one-man in the pub.
THE Marti Caine Show – BBC 2 1979. (STAND UP ROUTINES)
Barry Took, who we always think of as our mentor (which used to annoy him), introduced us to Stanley Appel, the producer of the Marti Caine Show. In those days many BBC Light Entertainment shows found their home on BBC2. Marti was a singer-comedienne who had been discovered on ITV’s New Faces, the X Factorof its day. She was funny, likeable, but insecure. She seemed to find it difficult to learn the comedy monologues we wrote for her, and usually fell back on her northern club act material. This was our first and last experience of TV ‘Variety’. We realised we didn’t want to be sketch and gag writers, competing with dozens of others for thirty seconds of screen time. We were going to concentrate on situation comedy.
Holding the Fort – LONDON WEEKEND TELEVISION. SITUATION COMEDY, 3 SEASONS – 1980 -1982.
In 1978 Barry Took suggested it was time we got an agent. He introduced us to Linda Seifert, who represented us for the next 30 years. Linda introduced us to Humphrey Barclay, Head of Comedy at London Weekend Television. He was looking for a comedy pilot script to complete a series of seven new sit-coms he was planning under the banner of ‘Comedy Tonight’.
The project we took to Humphrey Barclay was called Holding the Baby, about a woman who returns to work leaving her husband at home with their new baby. This was still revolutionary television back then. The idea had been conceived when we and our wives were on holiday in Corfu. A throwaway line from Sally, 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 Barclay liked the idea and wanted to know what job this errant mother returned to? Strangely, we hadn’t discussed this. “Advertising?” one of us suggested weakly.
Humphrey wasn’t impressed. Luckily, 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.
ROOTS - ASSOCIATED TELEVISION. SITUATION COMEDY, I SEASON – 1981.
Nothing to do with African slaves, Roots was about a young Jewish dentist who wanted to be a film maker. The show was so successful that it was pulled from the prime time schedule after three episodes and completed its run on Sunday mornings. It enabled the writers to get a lot of family aggravation out of their systems, though.
Shine On Harvey Moon – Witzend PRODUCTIONS for CENTRAL TELEVISION. COMEDY DRAMA, 4 SEASONS – 1982-1985. REVIVED – I SEASON 1995.
This was largely inspired by an iconic photograph on the cover of Life magazine back in 1945, and much reproduced since. It showed a returning soldier rushing towards his welcoming family, who were waiting, arms outstretched, in front of a flag-bedecked prefab. For some reason we wondered what it would be like if his disappointed wife was thinking “Oh no! I thought he was dead!”
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of the Likely Lads and Porridge, were two of our comedy heroes. In 1981 they had just set up Witzend, one of the first independent production companies, in partnership with ATV and a brilliant business brain by the name of Allan McKeown. We heard they were looking for comedy shows, and eagerly pitched our comedy about a man returning from war to nothing – except hope. They were sceptical, but kept the faith. Shine On Harvey Moon was a massive hit for us and for their company, Witzend. Made without a studio audience, the first series of half-hour episodes caught the attention of the Head of Drama at ATV (the commissioning company) and subsequent episodes were an hour long. We like to think we helped create the genre of comedy-drama with this show.
Roll Over Beethoven – Witzend PRODUCTIONS for CENTRAL TELEVISION. SITUATION COMEDY, 2 SEASONS – 1983-1984
After the success of Harvey Moon, Witzend were eager for us to write a new comedy for them. Again, inspiration came from a serious source. We were interested in the lives of women who sacrifice their own happiness to look after elderly and ailing parents. What escape is there for them? Roll Over Beethoven was about such a woman, a stay-at-home piano teacher with a tetchy, wheelchair bound dad. Into her life erupts a reclusive rock and roll legend, who has bought the biggest house in the village, and wants to learn how to read and write music properly. Inevitably, they fall in love.
We’ve always been music lovers ourselves, and so every episode featured at least one original song, commissioned from proper songwriters. Again, this show was recorded without a studio audience, but still managed to become a hit.
Relative Strangers – HUMPHREY BARCLAY PRODUCTIONS for CHANNEL 4, SITUATION COMEDY, 2 SEASONS – 1983-1984
Relative Strangers was a spin-off of Holding the Fort, featuring Matthew Kelly’s character, Fitz, as a layabout who is discovered by a son he didn’t know he’d fathered. LWT’s new Programme Controller, John Birt, didn’t fancy the show, so producer Humphrey Barclay took the show to Channel 4, where it was a monster hit. Its first season ratings peaked at around 9 million viewers – a figure never exceeded on that Channel. Relative Strangers was nominated for an International EMMY in the USA.
The New Statesman – YORKSHIRE TELEVISION. SITUATION COMEDY, 3 SEASONS + 1 SPECIAL, 1987 -1991. I SEASON – ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for YORKSHIRE TELEVISION 1992, I SPECIAL, ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC1. 1994.
The New Statesman was conceived after a chance meeting between us and Rik Mayall, when we were all guests on the Terry Wogan Show (BBC TV). Rik told us he wanted a new series, in which he could play a truly nasty, evil, depraved character. We said this sounded like a typical Conservative backbencher of the time. Alan B’Stard was born a year later, the show was a huge critical hit, and won us a BAFTA in this country, and an International EMMY in the USA.
Snakes and Ladders – YORKSHIRE TELEVISION for CHANNEL 4. SITUATION COMEDY, I SEASON – 1989.
Snakes and Ladders started life as an unmade screenplay. After the success of The New Statesman, Yorkshire Television was open to new ideas from us and we adapted the movie into a rather whacky series that went out on Channel Four. It was set in a dystopic Thatcherite future, in which a sort of ‘Berlin Wall’ separates the impoverished North from the prosperous South, and followed the adventures of posh southern Giles St. Clair sand plucky Scottish Gavin Sinclair, when a computer mix-up exchanges their lives and fates.
Birds OF A FEATHER – ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. SITUATION COMEDY, 9 SEASONS, 7 SPECIALS – 1989 – 1999. 2 BAFTA nominations.
In 1989 we started our own production company, ALOMO, with Witzend founder Allan McKeown, and created Birds, the first sitcom we ever wrote for the BBC. Birds was inspired by Maurice’s sighting of two over-dressed women in a restaurant, one Christmas. They reminded him of gangsters’ molls, and this inspired us to write two great parts for Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, whom we had cast and admired in Shine On Harvey Moon. Lesley Joseph as Dorien, the friendly neighbourhood nympho, completed the trio.
SO YOU THINK YOU’VE GOT TROUBLES - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. COMEDY-DRAMA, I SEASON, 1991.
The BBC blanched when we said we wanted to set a sit-com in Northern Ireland, but we wondered what it must be like to be Jewish in a country split between mutually antagonistic Protestants and Catholics. The series followed the misadventures of Ivan Fox, an agnostic Jewish factory manager transferred to Belfast. All he wants to do is mind his own business, but the tiny Jewish community is hungry for recruits, and the solitary Ivan is drawn into his ancestral family. The series was critically acclaimed, and a massive ratings hit…in Ireland.
LOVE HURTS - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. COMEDY-DRAMA, 3 SEASONS, 1992-1994. BAFTA nominated.
We first met Adam Faith in 1981; he was lined up to play Harvey Moon, but by his own admission got cold feet. We nevertheless remained friends and a decade later he asked us if we’d consider working with him again. Adam had great charm and we could see he would make a wonderful romantic lead. We fancied writing a comedy drama with the lightness of touch of Moonlighting, the great American TV series that made Bruce Willis a star. Love Hurtsseemed to hit the mark for the viewers and the critics. Perhaps it was the first TV ‘rom-com’.
Get Back - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. SITUATION COMEDY, 2 SEASONS, 1992-1993.
In 1992 there was a major recession, which inspired us to write this series about a small businessman who loses everything, and has to Get Back to the council flat he grew up in. The series title, all the episode titles, and all the character names were derived from Beatles songs. Why? Because we wanted to.
Get Back wasn’t a massive hit. Perhaps it was too true to life for some of the audience. The cast was noteworthy though. It included Larry Lamb; Ray Winstone, and a hopeful schoolgirl wannabe, Kate Winslett, in her first big TV role.
WALL OF SILENCE - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. TV MOVIE, CRIME DRAMA, 1993.
Growing up as “secular Jews”, we were always fascinated by the lives of the ultra Orthodox Hasidic community who shared our corner of North London. BBC1 gave us the chance to delve into their secretive lives through Wall of Silence a TV movie about a mysterious murder in this normally law-abiding world. We followed the attempts of a gentile CID officer to unravel this crime in the face of a wall of silence. The film was well received except, predictably, within the Hasidic world, which considers television to be a sort of “sewer running through the living room,” as one rabbi put it.
Goodnight Sweetheart - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. SITUATION COMEDY, 6 SEASONS, 1 SPECIAL, 1993-1999.
One of our favourite projects, Goodnight Sweetheart was born out of a chance remark by Laurence. We were setting a scene of Love Hurtsin the East End of London, and Laurence commented, for no particular reason, that there were still streets in Whitechapel which hadn’t really changed since World War Two. Maurice said “I think that’s our next series.”
Goodnight Sweetheart followed the adventures of Gary Sparrow, who found he could walk down an East End alleyway and arrive in 1940 in the midst of the Blitz, where he fell in love with a young barmaid. Or as Maurice told the BBC’s Head of Comedy – “It’s about a man in love with a woman of eighty who might well be dead.” Head of Comedy was bemused. Could we guarantee it would be funny? We promised. He commissioned.
As we were really writing a series about adultery we knew we needed a star who could retain the audience’s sympathy. The only name we could think of was Nicholas Lyndhurst. Luckily he liked the idea as much as we did.
MOSLEY - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for CHANNEL 4. DRAMATIC MINI SERIES, 1998.
We grew up listening to stories about Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts, British Fascists who had terrorised our parents’ generation of Jews back in the 1930s. What fascinated us was that Mosley was a charismatic toff who at one time was the rising star of the Labour Party. When we started ALOMO we tried to produce a mini-series about him, but were told the subject was still too controversial, twenty or more years after his death. Several years later, with ALOMO perceived as one of the top Independent TV producers, we found a sympathetic hearing for the project at Channel 4, perhaps because the Head of Drama was also Jewish, and as interested as we were in Mosley’s journey from establishment figure to social pariah.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. SITUATION COMEDY, 2 SEASONS, 1998-1999.
We happened to read an article in the Sunday Times about people who remarried their previous spouses - instant comedy series, we thought. Unfinished Businessfocussed on Spike and Amy, a divorced couple who bump into each other, literally, in a car wash. To Amy’s consternation, she realises a flame still flickers. We were particularly pleased to attract two of our favourite theatre actors – Henry Goodman and Harriet Walter – to play our leads.
STARTING OUT - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. 1 SEASON, 1999.
After Unfinished Businesswe decided we wanted to write a show about “young love”, and use it to find and develop young writers to work on this and other ALOMO shows. We were also somewhat besotted with the comedy skills of Siobhan Hayes, who had appeared briefly in Birds of a Feather and more than held her own, and so we created the leading role for her. After Starting Out she went on to greater success in My Family, (which we didn’t write).
DIRTY WORK - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. COMEDY-DRAMA, 1 SEASON, 2000.
We always fancied trying our hands at a “Rockford Files”- style private detective show. Private eye shows have seldom succeeded in this country, perhaps because most of their work is seedy and second rate. But it was the seedy and second rate element that we thought would bring comedy to the mixture. We created the show with Sam Lawrence, a scriptwriter and crime-novelist, with the excellent Neil Pearson in the lead.
BELIEVE NOTHING - ALOMO PRODUCTIONS for BBC 1. 1 SEASON, 2002.
We were keen to work with Rik Mayall again, but Rik didn’t want to return as Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman. Instead we ventured into the world of academe, with Rik playing triple professor Adonis C’nut, the most brilliant and sexy Nobel prize winner on the planet. On the side Adonis was a member of a mysterious organisation that secretly controlled everything that went on in the world. Viewers took this organisation to be a fiction. The fools.
Mumbai Calling (Pilot) – ALLAN McKEOWN PRESENTS LTD for ITV – 2007.
Our old partner Allan McKeown, now based in the USA, re-entered our lives with the proposal to make a comedy series about an Indian call centre. Sanjeev Bhaskar agreed to play the lead role – an accountant from London, who has never been to India, but is sent out to run a call centre in the country of his ancestors. We co-wrote the pilot with Sanjeev and went out to the tumult of Mumbai to shoot the pilot episode. Quite some time later ITV decided they wanted to make a series called Mumbai Calling only not our series. Having found India an incredibly stressful working environment, we were happy to withdraw from the project. The series that emerged a year later didn’t cause many waves.
Birds of a Feather – RETORT for ITV – 2014.
In the wake of the successful stage production of Birds, the BBC showed great interest in reviving the series for television. We wrote a sample episode to show how Tracey, Sharon and Dorien live their lives today - Tracey had remarried and redivorced, Sharon had fallen out with her, and Dorien had reinvented herself as an erotic novelist called Foxy Cohen. To our surprise, the Controller of BBC1 hummed and hahhed, and offered us a one-off Christmas special. We thanked him kindly and took the project across town to ITV, where boss Peter Fincham took all of 15 minutes to order an eight-part series. The new Birds of a Feather hit the airwaves in January 2014, and exceeded all audience expectations. The first episode reached over 12 million viewers, and subsequent episodes never dropped below 10 million viewers. It was ITV's biggest comedy hit in twenty years. A second ITV series aired at the beginning of 2015, and a third is currently being written, taking the total number of episodes to the brink of 130.