Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #028 with Kevin Cecil.
Kevin has co-created, written, script edited, and occasionally appeared in some of the most iconic comedy series of the last thirty years. Working alongside his creative partner, Andy Riley, his contribution to the British comedy landscape is HUGE! Most recently you’ll have seen his work as co-creator of Channel 4’s Year of the Rabbit and his adaptations of various David Walliams books.
I was fortunate to work with Kevin during one of my earliest jobs writing for the BBC2 sketch show, Watson & Oliver and first met him in-person during a panel event in my small Oxfordshire hometown (along with Paul Mayhew-Archer, Sarah Morgan, and The Dawson Bros.). He has always been hugely supportive of new writers and it was a genuine honour to catch up a decade later to discuss his career.
When did you start writing?
I loved watching and listening to comedy as a kid. My dad had a book called From Fringe To Flying Circus which had script extracts in it. So I decided to do that. I used to write funny things when I could. Often it would be stuff that wasn’t meant to be funny like homework.
When did you begin collaborating with Andy Riley?
Andy and I went to school together and then to the same university where we mucked about doing bits of stuff. He wanted to be a cartoonist but kindly went along with my pipe dream of us being comedy writers. He then became a very successful cartoonist as well.
What was your first credit?
Week Ending in 1991. In those days writers could just turn up to a long-since demolished BBC radio building in Langham Place and attend what was called the non-commissioned writers meeting to pitch ideas. The producer would say which ones they liked and you would have a day to write them up.
We had a very short sketch about joyriding broadcast on Radio 4 in our first week. The show went out two days after my twenty-second birthday in September 1991. Harry Hill made his Week Ending debut in the same episode.
I’ve read about Week Ending before and this idea of a physical space where writers off the street would pile in and pitch is unimaginable today, especially when you see how many submissions shows like Newsjack receive.
How many people would be there? Was it exclusively London-based or would you get people travelling?
Many, many people were there. It would be absolutely jammed and sometimes it would spill into the corridor, with a mixture of novice writers and veteran eccentrics. It was just as extreme as you might imagine. I expect people were coming from all over. I was getting the train from Didcot every week.
When did you make the transition to working full-time as a writer?
I left university in the middle of a recession so it’s not as if I was working full-time at anything else. I was a part-time receptionist in Swindon for a while. Andy and I were non-commissioned writers for Week Ending, making about thirteen pounds a week each. Then we got a minute’s commission which meant the twenty six pounds a week between us was guaranteed.
Then in 1992, Andy and I were fortunate enough to get on The Peter Titheradge scheme (now called The Radio Comedy Writer’s Bursary). We got paid six thousand pounds each for one year, unimaginable riches. That meant I could write full-time.
Do you remember when you first became comfortable calling yourself a comedy writer?
Not really. It’s not as if I ever had another term to call myself.
At what point did you sign with an agent?
We wrote a spoof Radio One rock documentary series called The Knowledge in 1993. We sent tapes of it to a few agents. Nick Marston very kindly took us on. Then a few years later we switched to his colleague Ben Hall and a few years after that to the brilliant Lily Williams who is still our agent now.
Can you explain a bit about the process you and Andy have when writing together? How have you had to adapt due to Covid?
We used to always write in the same room but over the years we’ve started writing up more things separately and then swopping over. We still plot together. We’ve also taken on more separate projects so Andy could write books and stuff. Like everyone else we’ve had to learn how to write over Zoom.
What advice do you have for writers who are considering working in a partnership?
Firstly, find someone as clever and talented as Andy.
Secondly, you have to treat what you do as belonging to the pair of you. It’s hard for it to work if you are too protective of the parts you’ve written.
It’s a very original show that grabs you from the first seconds. Where did that unique tone come from?
I think it was combining our style with Matt Berry, who was involved from the start and had plenty to do with the voice of the show. It’s the result of putting our styles together. And we had input from the producers Hannah Mackay and Ben Farrell and we all worked together to get the style. Then we started working with Freddie Fox and Susan Wokoma and we got inspired by them. It all feeds into the end result.
Staying on the subject of tone… along with “finding your voice”, tone is one of those things that new writers are asked to define and often struggle to understand. In your opinion, what is tone and how can a writer convey it clearly on the page?
Is the language of your characters distinctive? Do you have a unique view of the world that you can convey? Are you copying someone else’s style or developing your own? All these things can take time, of course.
Channel 4 recently withdrew from the second series of Year of the Rabbit. How are things looking at the moment or are you in the same position waiting to hear like the rest of us?
Yes, Channel 4 running out of money wasn’t the best thing to happen. Thanks for that, Covid. We have six scripts that we’ve written with Matt and everyone is very excited about them. I can’t give you any news right now. The producers are waiting for things to settle post the pandemic.
You were on the Emmy Award winning writing team for Veep. That must have been an incredible experience. How did the process differ to your work on British writing teams?
We were asked by Armando Iannucci if we were interested in writing for season 3 and of course we were. Veep wasn’t run like a typical US team show. It used Armando’s own system that he devised for The Thick of It. People write scripts and then it’s divided into chunks and sent to other writers for rewriting and alts. It’s great fun but long hours. Veep was filmed in Baltimore so sometimes you would be working there and sometimes you would be in the UK but working to US time.
We did it for two seasons and then Arm left the show and that was the end of our stint. My last day on Veep was the team getting the Emmy from Mel Brooks, which wasn’t a bad way to finish things. Mr Brooks gave me the winning envelope, which I still have.
Was this a similar experience to the one you had with Slacker Cats?
No, because we created Slacker Cats and wrote the pilot. We ran the show from the UK, along with the director who was in LA. For the benefit of the roughly one hundred per cent of your readers who’ve never heard of it, Slacker Cats was an adult animated sitcom on the ABC Family channel in the US which aired in 2007. It had a great cast including Niecy Nash, Emo Philips and Sinbad.
ABC Family Channel planned to rebrand to the ‘XYZ’ channel and become edgy with shows like ours. Then it turned out they couldn’t rebrand because cable providers would be allowed to drop them if they changed their name. So our rude show was totally out of place on their channel, they didn’t spend much promoting it and the rest wasn’t history.
You were brought in to work on Gnomeo and Juliet when it was, I believe, at the treatment stage. This is an aspect of being a screenwriter that I don’t see mentioned so often – the experience of taking on someone else’s project.
What was it like working on the movie and what advice do you have for writers who find themselves in a similar position?
We were asked to do a page one rewrite. That means we were asked to take Sprackling and Smith’s very funny premise and start from the top. When we got involved there were only gnomes in the story and we thought you needed more visual variety and have different garden ornaments. We spent around ten years, on and off, working on Gnomeo. There were a lot of different versions of the story over that time.
It’s hard to give advice about taking on another writer’s project because each time it’s different. Sometimes you’re augmenting and sometimes the producers want something more radical.
You have a style that’s often surreal and really pushes the boundaries of live action comedy so it’s not surprising that you’ve had success with animation. A few of your projects come to mind as being ones that would work as either animation or live action.
How do you decide what medium you’ll use, for example with shows like Rabbit, which is easy to imagine as an animated series?
Usually you know from the start. YOTR was always going to star Matt so it had to be live action. We once had a show which we pitched as live action and everyone said it should be animation so we changed it. We developed it with the Russo Brothers but it didn’t happen. I don’t know what happened to those Russo guys – hope they got over the disappointment and things turned out okay for them.
Do you have any plans to develop your own original animated shows/movies? I read that you were developing an adult animation for Fox, which sounded like a fun concept. Is this still in the works?
The Fox one is long dead. We are always happy to do more animation. There’s a problem with animated movies which is that they aren’t covered by the Writers Guild of America agreement. And they take a very long time to make. So Gnomeo has just arrived on Disney Plus but as a writer I don’t get residuals.
A lot of animation writers don’t get pension contributions or healthcare in the US. They’re the Deliveroo drivers of the entertainment world. Therefore, the incentive for me to develop a new animated movie franchise isn’t huge. That’s not the fault of the Gnomeo producers, who were great to work with and very good to us. It’s an industry wide issue that’s down to the movie studios.
You and Andy collaborated with David Walliams on the screen adaptations of his books. How did this relationship begin and what is the process like when you approach adapting such beloved stories?
We knew David because we’d worked with him and Matt Lucas before. Andy and I were asked to adapt Gangsta Granny and the next year we did The Boy in The Dress. Then Andy got busy with his own books so on my own I adapted Billionaire Boy, Ratburger, Grandpa’s Great Escape and The Midnight Gang.
The process is that I discuss the story with David and Jo Sargent the producer. Sometimes we’re looking to open up the story a little and make it more suitable for a broader family audience. That might mean creating new characters or tweaking existing ones. David is not at all protective and very open to new ideas. At the same time you have to be aware of what his fans love about the books and to keep those elements.
Once we have a plotline we’re happy with, I write drafts and David and Jo give notes on each one. Then David does a draft, then we have a table read (sometimes two) and after that we work on it together until it’s ready to film. I’ve recently been working on a film adaptation of one of his books and that process has been a bit different because films are.
Honestly, your CV is ridiculous. I can’t help but notice Friday/Saturday Night Armistice on there. This was a real favourite of mine and disappointingly, I hardly hear it mentioned anymore. How much were you involved in the series?
Thank you. I’m fond of the Armistice. We didn’t devise the format but we worked on it from the pilot to the end as part of the core team along with the producer and presenters – Sarah Smith, Peter Baynham, David Schneider and Armando. We used to have very funny ideas meetings on Sunday lunchtimes and then we’d write certain things up and also go to rehearsals and help out in whatever way they wanted. I loved doing it.
The highlight was probably The Election Night Armistice which was a three-hour live show on the night of the 1997 general election. When the show finished, we watched the rest of the election results in the Green Room with Steve Coogan and Valerie Singleton. Then at 6am I waited for a cab in BBC reception next to Douglas Hurd, went home, slept for two hours and went into town to write The Jack Docherty Show. I couldn’t do that now and couldn’t really do it then.
The Armando Iannucci Shows (which is on All 4) was such a creative, original, and influential show. One of the first things my writing partner, James Bishop and I ever wrote together was a piece called ‘The History of the Telephone’ that was 100% us trying to write a hybrid of TAIS and Mr Show! Which sketches did you work on?
For the Shows we’d go and have weekly meetings with Armando. He’d talk about ideas he’d had or areas he was interested in and then we’d pitch jokes and ideas for them. A lot of the sketches went through that process over a period of quite a long time. Armando would generally script them up and it’s all his vision of the world of course.
There were some threads where we went off and wrote material. We wrote a lot of Hugh, the man who remembers when the internet was in black and white and a lot of the cockney thug, which Andy was great at. We had been on holiday to Ibiza and Armando hadn’t so we wrote the opera bits of Ibiza Uncovered: The Opera. Oakie’s on the decks!
You were on the writing team for Tracey Ullman‘s Show. What was it like writing for the series, especially when Tracey’s original sketch show has such a legendary status? What were your favourite sketches to work on?
We were massive fans of Tracey, dating back to Three Of A Kind so it was great to write for the show and spend time with her. We loved working with her. It was very collegiate. Writers would write their stuff and Tracey would act them out. Then we’d all punch them up. We came up with the idea for and wrote the Judi Dench National Treasure sketches and I’m proud of those. They were good fun to write because you could be really destructive.
It had a brilliant cast. Kevin, Nick Frost, Miranda Hart – the whole ensemble were wonderful. It came about because the BBC asked a number of writers to pitch ideas for a new space show but they didn’t want anything that was too genre heavy. We had the idea of Britain going it alone and trying to trade with the rest of the galaxy (seems pretty topical now, right?) and they liked that and that it could have broad appeal.
Making the show was enormous fun because you’re on a spaceship all day. Then when it went out it divided people. It had great reviews from people like Nancy Banks Smith and it got good viewing figures. Miranda got nominated for a British Comedy Award. We got a fan letter from the people who ran the UK space programme. Lots of people loved it. But a core group of science-fiction fans took against it. It’s tricky when science fiction fans get upset – just ask the Star Wars or Doctor Who teams.
I remember a lot of people couldn’t help but compare it to Red Dwarf. We now have things like Avenue 5 and The Orville and it feels like there’s more… um… space for sci-fi comedy now.
Some people didn’t want a new show at that point, they just wanted Red Dwarf back, which was their prerogative. Of course we weren’t trying to replace anyone’s favourite show – we were just trying to do our own thing, hoping there was room for both. Hyperdrive was closely watched by the comedy crowd in the US, who really took to it – there was a lot of interest in doing an American version for a while. So maybe we inspired some of the new shows in some way.
It would be nice if Hyperdrive went on a streamer or iplayer and people could discover it. As it went on, we went heavier on the science fiction element. There’s an episode in season two about having a device to go into people’s dreams and then getting trapped which is a lot like the plot of Inception three years before that film came out. I imagine now people would just assume it’s a parody of it.
How different was the experience of making The Great Outdoors?
That was a three-part show on BBC4 which was repeated on BBC1 about a walking group. We wrote the pilot on spec because we weren’t sure if it would work or if anyone would buy it. The BBC said yes and we developed it more. Alex Walsh-Taylor did a great job producing it.
Another brilliant cast. It was interesting doing something that was almost purely character based. People have always been very nice about the show and we are very fond of it.
A lot of writers who are reading this will be in a position where they’ve got a few credits for things like Newsjack and now want to build their CV. In 2021, what’s the best way to do that?
You could write more broken comedy, work on entertainment shows, chat shows, award shows, podcasts. Do stuff that interests you. Make connections by working with people. We had the opportunity to write on Black Books because we’d worked with the producer on a pilot. You don’t know where things will lead.
Like a lot of British comedy writers, you had the opportunity to develop your craft and build the foundations of a career through sketch comedy shows. These opportunities aren’t so common these days. What kind of impact is this having on writers and the industry?
A bad one. Sketch shows are very important to the comedy eco-system and frankly David Attenborough should be making documentaries about the danger of them becoming extinct. I don’t think Andy and I would have got very far if we hadn’t been able to write on sketch shows.
In the rare case that a writer finds an opportunity on a sketch show (stay with me here…), they’ll usually be asked to present their ideas as toplines to a producer or script editor.
What advice do you have for presenting these ideas in the best possible way and how much should the pitch explain? Should a writer limit the number they pitch?
You need to succinctly explain what the concept for the sketch is. It could be worth giving an example of the kind of jokes it might have in it. You don’t need to go through the whole thing. How many you pitch depends. Will it just be you at the meeting or lots of people? You want to show you’ve done your homework but not bore people with too much.
Start with the good ones that you’ve come up with for that particular format, not things that got rejected by other sketch shows.
You’ve been involved in the BAFTA Rocliffe new writing completion for some time now. Can you explain what this involves and why new writers should consider entering?
It can be a good idea to enter script competitions. If nothing else, it gives you a deadline to get your script finished. If you are one of the winners, your script extract will be performed by an (amazing) professional cast and there will be lots of bigwigs in the audience. You get a ton of meetings out of it. Rocliffe are great at looking after their writers – you will get introduced to all sorts of people.
Farah Abushwesha, who runs Rocliffe, is wonderful and has brought forward loads of new talent. So go for it. I believe the next Rocliffe for comedy writing will be in 2022 but they do writing competitions in other genres as well.
You chaired the Rocliffe judging panel in 2019. What exactly are the judges looking for?
Something original and funny. You have to remember that each judging panel is different and made up of people with different tastes. Nobody really knows what they are looking for until they see it.
In my experience what really matters is the script itself. You will be judged on that. People tend to skim read the supporting documents as it’s almost impossible to judge them in that context. There’s a feeling from the judges of ‘let’s get the pilot right before you tell us what happens in season two’.
A big change to the industry during your career is the introduction of video sharing platforms and streaming services. Black Books continues to find new audiences on Netflix. What do you think is so appealing about the series all these years later?
The cast are amazing and I think the character of Bernard Black still stands for something. A lot of people identify with him. We came on board on the second series and co-wrote eight episodes. We would work through a story idea with Dylan Moran and then write a few drafts. Then Dylan would do a pass. There’s some turns of phrase that only he can come up with.
It’s great that Black Books is still being watched. Whenever it’s hot people will reference our heatwave episode.
Occasionally. I’m in those shows because the makers of them asked me. So a top tip is to have very talented friends who make shows that become cult classics. What tends to happen is that someone gets to know me in normal life and then they see the Robot Wars episode of Spaced and freak out. When Veep was in rehearsal in LA, we stayed in a hotel in Hollywood. One day I got stopped on the Walk of Fame by someone who recognised me from the IT Crowd. I can cope with fame as long as it only affects me every few years.
You were involved in so many of the shows that really shaped my love of comedy… Am I right that you grew up in Wantage?
I was born in the East End of London, on Inspector Rabbit’s patch, and lived in Romford, then Essex, then Buckinghamshire, where I did most of my growing up. When I was fifteen, my parents moved to Wantage in Oxfordshire but I stayed at my school in Aylesbury and lodged with my best friend during the week. I went to a state school so it was quite an odd arrangement, but I didn’t want to change schools because that’s where my mates were.
As someone who still lives in Wantage (at one time, apparently living doors away from your old home), it seems crazy to me now that the shows my friends and I were obsessing over were being created partly by someone who had shared that same small-town experience. It’s always been very inspiring.
What was your experience like in the town?
It was quite a solitary one because my friends were all somewhere else. I like Wantage though. It had the best shop ever called the Wantage Novel Library*, which was basically unchanged since 1936 and had twenty-year old chocolate boxes piled up on the shelves. My sister went to school in Wantage so she has lots of mates in the town.
You’ve achieved so much in your career but knowing what us writers are like, we’re never satisfied and we’re always looking to the next thing. At this point, what are your goals?
My goal is to keep working for as long as people will have me. I’m writing new scripts and I’ve got lots of stuff in development which I’m very excited about. I want to keep writing and improving and working with interesting people. It’s a huge privilege to be able to do this job for a living. Also, I’m not that old and we’ve established that I can’t do anything else.
*Unfortunately the Wantage Novel Library has now closed down. I still recommend a visit to the town but don’t expect to buy any massively out-of-date Riesen chocolate bars – Chris
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