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Interview with comedy screenwriters Marks & Gran

PUBLISHED: 13:19 20 May 2019 | UPDATED: 13:19 20 May 2019

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

© Thousand Word Media

Interview location: Great Barrington. Interviewees: two of the greatest living comedy scriptwriters; creators of TV classics Birds of a Feather, Shine On Harvey Moon, The New Statesman, and Goodnight Sweetheart. Subject(ish): Cheltenham's new international film festival. (Give me chance! I do get there in the end, says Katie Jarvis)

Maurice Gran (toasted sandwich) and Laurence Marks (ham, egg and chips) are lunching with me (Bibury trout, as you asked) at the Fox Inn, Great Barrington. They're explaining how they didn't meet Eric Sykes. (A small didn't amongst many dids.)

But they know someone who did did.

The story goes that when Sykes stopped writing for Frankie Howerd, the work was passed on to two upcoming talents, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.

All well and good. Except that Frankie, the perfectionist's perfectionist - who once caused a producer to have a nervous breakdown -

[Laurence: This producer was rushed off to Middlesex Hospital. We watched him. His coordination ceased.

Maurice: He couldn't control his limbs. Arms and legs flailing around. Frank was relentless. Not just his standards, but also because he was rude. Demanded reassurance all the time.]

wanted a permanent second opinion. So every time Ray and Alan produced a script, Frank would send them round to see what a somewhat-discomforted Sykes thought.

"One night, Eric was in his pyjamas and dressing gown, watching television, and there was a ring on the doorbell. And he says to his wife, 'Oh my god. That will be the boys. I can't go through this; it's too embarrassing. I'm going to step out onto the balcony - you get rid of them."

So Mrs Sykes politely tells them her husband is out. (Which is true. To a point.) And that he'll give them a call.

Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks at the bar of their favorite pub The Fox at BarringtonMaurice Gran and Laurence Marks at the bar of their favorite pub The Fox at Barrington

"Just as they were about to leave, they noticed that the English open table-tennis finals were on the television. As they were both keen players, they said, 'You don't mind if we watch this, do you?' She couldn't really say no, so they settle down to watch while she makes them a cup of tea.

"… And outside, there's a clap of thunder and the sound of rain lashing the windows."

*Guffaws all round*

I know! Yes, I do know! I should have started with a sensible explanation.

Like: Here I am, in Great Barrington, meeting two of the greatest living comedy scriptwriters, Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks; creators of classic TV series such as Birds of a Feather, Shine On Harvey Moon, The New Statesman, and Goodnight Sweetheart. We're meeting to talk - amongst other things - about Cheltenham's new international film festival.

But I keep getting distracted.

"There was a thing on 5 Live this morning, asking people what celebrities they went to school with," Maurice says. "I heard a phone-in, once, where someone had delivered a parcel to a Ms J Brand. And when the door opened, it was Jo Brand, who signed and said 'Thank you'. The deliverer dined off this story for a year!"

"Let me just remind you of the excitement," Laurence cautions, in a Laurence sort of way, "and I remember it as if it were yesterday, of being introduced to Peter Jones."

"He doesn't mean the shop. He means the actor."

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran with a friends dof called FifiLaurence Marks and Maurice Gran with a friends dof called Fifi

"I was 20-something; and the fact was, it seemed almost impossible to imagine you could ever be in a bar with someone famous like Peter Jones."

"Let alone in the bath, as you were."

"And meeting Barry. The man who really kicked our lives in a different direction."

Barry Took: the comedy genius, whom a young Laurence bumped into on a train to Manchester and dared to speak to. "Maurice has often said, 'Had it been me, I wouldn't have had the courage to speak to him'."* (Please see end of article.)

Barry Took: who agreed to look over the scripts the two of them had been writing in their spare time while holding down jobs in the civil service (Maurice) and journalism (Laurence).

Barry was so impressed with Laurence, he invited him out for lunch - Laurence had to bunk off work to go - at a posh trattoria. "It was so out of my league."

"They had cutlery and everything," Maurice elaborates.

__________________________________________________

Here I am, in Great Barrington, meeting two of the greatest living comedy scriptwriters, Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks; creators of classic TV series such as Birds of a Feather, Shine On Harvey Moon, The New Statesman, and Goodnight Sweetheart. We're meeting to talk - amongst other things - about Cheltenham's new international film festival.

Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks

I'm listening to the story of how they went from 10-year-olds who met at a Jewish Lads' Brigade in North London; to members of a Monday-night writing-group…

["A playgroup…"

"A drama group, Laurence."]

…to beloved comedy stalwarts.

"It never ceases to amaze me how many people know who we are. You check into a hotel and you get, 'You're not THE Laurence?!?'"

"I never get this," Maurice chips in. "Carol and I have just been on holiday to Thailand, where there was a couple in the hotel looking at us - both of us secretly pleased but also slightly annoyed. And they said, 'Excuse me' - to Carol! - 'You were cabin crew on BA, weren't you?'"

The truth is, they're no strangers to celebrity, Maurice and Laurence; and theirs was a stratospheric rise. After being taken under Barry Took's wing, their very first gig was writing 20 minutes' worth of radio material each week for the great Frankie Howerd; slogging away all night, because they were still holding down the day-jobs.

Somewhat overawing then - I suggest - when, one Saturday afternoon, they (Laurence, certainly, more used to a North London council flat) were invited to Howerd's Georgian townhouse in Edwardes Square, Kensington.

"The bathroom was Nouveau Up Pompeii. Pillars and gods and naked men with their genitals hanging out…"

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

"Models of," Maurice clarifies.

"Frank was morose. Insecure."

Even one-to-one?

"You wouldn't want to get one-to-one. It was best to stay two-to-one."

"But generous, in a way."

"He was a modern-day stand-up comic, really."

Dennis Heymer, Howerd's manager/lover (a fact kept from the public, even though Dennis, a theatre electrician, had left his wife for Frankie) poured them one of his killer drinks.

"And I do remember," Laurence says, "that one of the first things Frank said to us, our script in hand, was, 'This is very good'."

"No, that wasn't the first thing. That was the third thing."

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

Laurence nods. "The first thing was probably, 'Would you like to come upstairs?'"

And then Barry Cryer appeared from another room and took them to the pub round the corner, "Because we were in need of suck-eerr."

My gosh, I say. That must have been mega-stress. Going from complete unknowns to writing the lion's share of a twice-weekly Frankie Howerd script. 0-60 in 2.5 seconds.

""I have to say it was no pressure," Laurence contradicts. "I didn't recognise pressure. I was doing a job of work, and I was very tired because I'd been up most of the night trying to make Frankie Howerd funny. But for you," he turns to Maurice. "The pressure was very different. It was an illness; he made you ill."

"I called it a psychosomatic ulcer because I couldn't really eat; I felt ulcery… until the moment we went on holiday and then I didn't have it any more."**

**I hope you're loving this as much as I am. Because, by the time we're eating fruit crumble and bread-and-butter pudding, it's still only 1982.

__________________________________________________

Here I am, in Great Barrington, meeting two of the greatest living comedy scriptwriters, Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks; creators of classic TV series such as Birds of a Feather, Shine On Harvey Moon, The New Statesman, and Goodnight Sweetheart. We're meeting to talk - amongst other things - about Cheltenham's new international film festival.

I promise I'll try to fit some facts in. I really will! But, the truth is, I'm loving the anecdotes. Might as well not be here, really. Just leave my recorder running, concentrate on scoffing my lovely Bibury trout, and then simply send you the recording afterwards. (Which, to be fair, is basically what I am doing.)

Laurence does much of the talking: serious; incisive; probing.

Like when I ask how their writing partnership has lasted nearly 40 years- (next March) -and-counting.

"I always think of it as asking: How does your marriage work?" Laurence says. "How would you describe yours?" he presses me.

And Maurice, elaborating; throwing in hilarious anecdotes; killer asides.

Like when Laurence says of their working relationship:

"A partnership in comedy is like a piano: the left hand does the underpinning and the right hand does the flowery bits."

So which are you?

"Everything. You're sometimes the underpinning; you're sometimes the flowery bits."

"That metaphor didn't last long, did it, Laurence?"

They moved from North London to the Cotswolds in 93, with their respective wives. It was a joint decision - had to be; they don't socialise, but they need to work in the same room.

"The first place we went to was Thame," Maurice says. "In the square, there was a pub called something like The Friendly Welcome. Went in and they ignored us for 10 minutes.

"Then we decided: Oxford's nice. Went to this estate agent who said, 'It's an open-air lunatic asylum. Get out while you can. I sent someone yesterday to value a house owned by an Oxford don whose lights fused five years ago and he still hasn't got round to having them fixed. My colleague fell over a pile of textbooks on the stairs and now he's in hospital.'"

"Never been a mass shooting in Oxford," points out Laurence, reasonably.

There was nothing in Witney. "In Cirencester, all Carol could see were women in pie-crust collars with two strings of pearls."

"Not any more. Drug capital of the Cotswolds."

"And I'd paid for a day's parking. Never get that 50p back."

In the end it was Cheltenham - birthplace of The New Statesman: they'd first met Rik Mayall, back in 86, at a comedy symposium at the Queens Hotel - that grabbed Maurice and Carol. Laurence and Brigitte live in the wing of a stately home in Sherborne, outside Northleach.

"We must mention the new Cheltenham International Film Festival. I tried to persuade them not to call it CIFF," Maurice says, with a mental nod to Jif, Vim, Viss and Handy Andy. Maurice and Laurence are both involved: judging films, chairing events; met the festival founder/director, Leslie Montgomery Sheldon, through a film club that Laurence runs.

"Great name, Leslie Montgomery Sheldon."

"Leslie has backing from the British Film Institute and BAFTA to have an international film festival like Venice, Berlin and Cannes, but with warmer clothing. And his idea - which is a very good idea - is that it will feature first films, or second sometimes; champion new work, which quite often doesn't get much of an airing. There will be prizes. But also, which is a very smart idea, to have established directors come and talk about their early work. So Mike Leigh's going to talk about his.

"The hope would be, over a few years, to put it on the 'calendar'."

"If you want to premiere a film, you'd do it at Cheltenham."

"Leslie uses us as the sort of people who know how to get around Cheltenham. Which, now they've closed Boots Corner, is a moot point."

__________________________________________________

Here I am, in Great Barrington, meeting two of the greatest living comedy scriptwriters, Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks; creators of classic TV series such as Birds of a Feather, Shine On Harvey Moon, The New Statesman, and Goodnight Sweetheart. We're meeting to talk - amongst other things - about Cheltenham's new international film festival.

(Look, I've sort of done that, OK?)

We discuss comedy series they've loved - "Likely Lads. Porridge, to us, is still the touchstone." Python, where little was good, but the good was very, very good.

The Good Life, Rising Damp, Fawlty Towers.

Most comedy today, they say, won't be remembered in 10 years. Cheap comedy panel-shows with cut-price guests.

"If you look at all the comedy shows on TV, in this country, you won't find very many which are not known to be writer/performer shows."

Have they ever been tempted to perform their own work?

"We're not performers. The same way as I've never been tempted to take anyone's appendix out."

Their next venture is to put Goodnight Sweetheart onto the stage. "A jokebox musical." Maybe later this year. Maybe next. A question of logistics. 1940s' music coupled with a story that's funny, poignant, very sad, "And yet strangely redemptive."

They've written very successfully for the stage in the past - straight plays and musicals - prompted by Sir Alan Ayckbourn, who once ended up face-down in his plate (ill, not drunk) at a discreet Hay Festival dinner Laurence attended.

Do I have the time to tell that anecdote?!

Or the one where Ian La Frenais, disguised as a derelict, told them their idea for Shine On Harvey Moon needed a Nan. (Everyone has a Nan.)

"Are you writing a novel about us?" Maurice asks.

For more on Cheltenham International Film Festival, visit cheltfilm.com, email info@cheltfilm.com or call 01242 544555.

For more from Marks & Gran, visit marksandgran.com.

*Point proven, Laurence says, semi-bitterly, some 20-or-more years ago when Maurice found himself on a plane to Los Angeles sitting behind Walter Matthau, an all-time hero: "Had Maurice been me, we could have been writing movies."

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