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|"FOOL IF YOU THINK IT'S OVER"
Graham Kibble-White on the struggle to bring a neglected comedy classic to DVD
Just before Christmas 2005, I find myself on the phone to Robert Bathurst. He's doing the usual promotional rounds, having been press-ganged into talking up his imminent role in The Comic Strip revival "Sex Actually".
I was aware he had a reputation for being a slightly nervous, guarded interviewee, and the encounter is bearing that out. Although he's far from unpleasant, his answers are, on the whole, perfunctory. Symptomatic of a man fulfilling a contractual obligation.
Then I mention Joking Apart.
"Ah! Joking Apart!" he exclaims, brightening considerably. "My favourite job ever."
As an actor best known for appearing in ITV1's much lauded and wildly popular Cold Feet, nominating an obscure, relatively short-lived BBC2 sitcom from the early 1990s as the top of his personal pops seems a trifle perverse.
"What's more," continues Bathurst, "there's a fan with a plan.
"Not only does he stand in the pub with all the others and go on about how Joking Apart was a good show, he's actually spent the last year organising to buy the DVD rights from the BBC."
Really? It's an odd turn of events, but perhaps no more than Joking Apart deserves.
A curious beast, the programme first arrived on our screens as one of a range of pilots transmitted in July 1991 under the title Comic Asides. Billed as a "bittersweet comedy", it detailed the fallout from a painful divorce, based upon the very real break-up of series writer Steven Moffat's marriage. The central character, Mark Taylor (Bathurst) was a TV comedy writer who was still painfully obsessed with his ex-wife Becky (Fiona Gillies). While she had successfully put their relationship behind them, he was finding it hard to let go.
Keen to find out more about the life and death of this relatively obscure series, I arrange to meet up with Moffat at a pub just off Charing Cross Road, London. The Press Gang, Coupling, Doctor Who and, of course, Joking Apart scribe arrives bang on time and, once supplied with a drink, he brushes off my reports of Bathurst's glowing testimony ("He's only downgrading Cold Feet because everyone loved it and upgrading Joking Apart because nobody did.") before taking me back to the time in his life when Joking Apart came into being.
It was the start of the 1990s, at a point where he had already clocked up two seasons of his acclaimed Central TV children's show, Press Gang. Fearful that the series - his first television commission - was nearing the end, he wondered what to do next.
"I was working with Bob Spiers a lot on the show," he remembers, "and he recommended me to a producer he'd just worked with, Andre Ptaszynski. They'd done a pilot and a series that no-one remembers now called Tygo Road with Kevin McNally. It wasn't that bad, actually.
"Back in those days I was quite new to the TV industry and I was thinking, 'Okay, what happens when Press Gang stops?'.
"I was so stupid. I look back on it in terror now, and I can't believe I survived any of this at all. Press Gang had gone over very, very well in the industry and I was being touted and romanced all the time, but I didn't understand what that meant, or what I was supposed to do about it. I really didn't."
Laughing, he adds, "I remember, someone phoned me once and asked me to do an episode of Stay Lucky. And I did that because I thought, 'Is that what happens then? I just stay here and people phone me up?'. Of course, now I'd know I should have been affronted they'd called me at home!"
With a move into sitcom now on the cards, Moffat wasn't remotely fazed at the prospect of taking on an out-and-out comedy.
"Well, I felt I could do funny," he sighs. "Again, young, arrogant, prat.
"I thought, 'I'm funny', there was an awful lot of humour in Press Gang, and I could have a stab at that.
"And, in fact, Joking Apart always went over very big with the studio audience, although that can be a false comfort at times. But it got very big laughs. Very big laughs. People would say, 'Press Gang is funny' but I'd never hear the laughs."
From a modern day perspective, the cast assembled for the programme - which aside from Bathurst and Gillies, also included Paul Raffield, Tracie Bennett and Paul Mark Elliott - doesn't look like a typical comedy line-up.
"I don't think the days of casting brilliant comedians in sitcoms was particularly around then," muses Moffat. "I suppose nowadays you're more likely to look for someone who's been around the circuit.
"But, if you look at it, sitcom actors of that time were actors - actor actors. That first episode in particular was cast on the basis of the project being quite Ayckbourn-y, with something of a drama sensibility. I guess plot-driven character comedy means you're not riffing on somebody's established comic persona, although clearly, doing that is the more successful way to go!
"Of course Robert Bathurst is now an official minor comedy treasure. He's someone that people like, and he's surprisingly famous. His mannerisms have become a thing we look forward to on television. But he wasn't then. You'd watch Joking Apart and go, 'That's Robert Bathurst doing a sitcom!'. It was an entirely different temperature."
With the pilot deemed a success, a full series was quickly ordered, however, for Moffat, an unexpected commission delayed its realisation.
"A third series of Press Gang suddenly happened, very, very shortly afterwards, which stopped me getting on with Joking Apart straight away."
As a result, it would be a further year before he could return to the sitcom. However when he did, he remembers, "I really had a whale of a time.
"I recall it being quite a pleasant summer where I was writing comedy and thinking it was funny, and handing it in to find other people were agreeing with me. It was quite a golden time. It was just extraordinary to be writing something that wasn't Press Gang."
Nonetheless, he's happy to admit: "I remember being sort of faintly disappointed by the very first one we did though, which actually I now think is rather good. But, at the time, I thought, 'It's not all that funny, is it? I expected it to be much funnier than that'.
"If you're watching Fawlty Towers you're thinking, 'God, that's very, very funny lots of times' - why can't a show be like that?' So I just took a leap into farce immediately, because I was also trying to be extremely funny as much of the time as possible. I'm not saying it was as good as Fawlty Towers, but that's what I was trying to do. And failing many, many times."
With farce came fiendishly complicated plots, something that was already becoming a hallmark of Moffat's work.
"I wanted it to be surprising," he explains. "And I wanted to recreate the sensation in the audience that I'd had when I'd enjoyed something.
"I love it when I'm really out-thought by the writers of a show. A beautifully plotted bit of narrative is actually better than anything else. It just is.
"There's a particular kind of laugh you can get from a studio audience that really means something - as opposed to the kind of chuckle you get generally - when a really well-turned plot moment lands and you think, 'Oh my God, that's what's happening'. That's an immensely rewarding thing to happen.
"People complain about endings a lot, but they don't know really what they're talking about. They talk about 'God out of the machine', but they don't actually mean that. What they mean is, you can't win the game with a new piece on the board. You have to have seen already what the downfall of the enemy will be, but not recognised it for what it is. That's what they mean.
"Across the board, you have to introduce the element that's going to end your show disguised as something that was self-supporting, there for its own reasons. A self-supporting gag. Done, we don't worry about it anymore, forget about that. Then - there you go - it's come back! People love that."
The first full series of Joking Apart was transmitted at the start of 1993 and despite winning a respectable audience share, in retrospect Moffat has some minor reservations about the show.
"I think if I was putting my current self back in those shoes," he says, "I'd be slightly worried that it was a hard sell. It was about a divorce, and perhaps innovating in 'feel-bad' comedy is not such a useful thing to do.
"I now wonder why you would choose to watch that show. Why would you want to be with those people? It wasn't so much that the characters were unlikeable, as we always saw them in an odd situation. None of them particularly liked each other. Mark and Becky had no reason to see each other. Robert and Tracy didn't particularly like Mark, Mark didn't particularly like them. Trevor wanted nothing to with any of them. It was bizarre.
"Every Joking Apart episode was, 'How the fuck to I contrive these groups of people to be together, given it's the last thing they want?'"
Despite these misgivings, the programme was receiving critical plaudits.
"Even back then the BBC were worried about sitcoms," says Moffat, "and for a sitcom, Joking Apart was getting very good reviews. Some fantastic press."
The commission for series two arrived some time around the transmission of episode four.
"We went on and did the second run as soon as we could," says Moffat, "and delivered it by the end of 1993. Plus, I did another series of Press Gang in between, so I was working quite hard.
"Having delivered it, we waited and waited. It would be over a year before its reappearance.
"What I've subsequently learned is Michael Jackson [who became Controller of BBC2 in 1993] didn't have faith in it - despite the fact he'd raved about it as a viewer at the regular BBC review meetings. However, put in charge of the channel he wimped out on it. He's famous for his television nous, is Michael, but he said, 'Yes, it's very good. I'll take it home and watch it, but who in our audience is going to tune in?'
"During that time I was just constantly being told it's being scheduled, rescheduled and rescheduled. I used to despair. It was horrible, absolutely horrible."
Ironically, during this period the show won the Bronze Rose of Montreux. Now unloved under the new regime at the BBC, it finally made its way back to television in January 1995. Although the second series again played out to critical acclaim, the decision had already been taken that there was to be no more.
"The gap in series killed it," reckons Moffat. "Absolutely killed it. Precisely what it killed is a different question. What would series three of Joking Apart have been? And would it have been any good? Maybe it was done by then. But, you know, at that stage in my career, I was much more rampantly ambitious and wanted everything to run forever."
As for the moment when the axe finally fell, he says, "It was exactly like being dumped. I gradually realised the reason no-one was phoning me was they didn't want to see me again."
In fact, that wasn't quite the case, and when he returned to the BBC in 1997 with a new sitcom, Chalk, the Corporation threw its weight behind the show, promoting it to the hilt. However, as Moffat admits with a groan, that turned out to be "a grand, epic disaster."
But more on that another time.
As for Joking Apart, the writer was able to revisit elements of it in what became his most successful series to date, Coupling, which ran from 2000 to 2004.
"I think it was the friendlier version of Joking Apart," he muses. "If that was the love story backwards, this was it the right way around."
Nevertheless, Joking Apart seemed destined to remain what Moffat felt was "the funniest show people have never heard of."
Or would it?
You wouldn't ever sensibly claim a latter day DVD release could ever sufficiently rehabilitate a TV series that had unfairly been allowed to languish in obscurity, but for fans of the show, it could at least provide some sort of epitaph. Of course, the sticking point is shows of this type are, by definition, the ones considered lacking in sufficient commercial clout to merit any sort of merchandising. So, what to do?
Step forward Robert Bathurst's "fan with plan".
Craig Robins is a former BBC videotape engineer who's worked in the broadcasting industry for over 20 years. He's devoted a year or so of his life to getting Joking Apart released on DVD, and - like Moffat before him - saw his marriage dissolve in the process. "I didn't ask Craig about that when we met," Moffat had told me anxiously, "which was a bit craven of me. I hope it didn't break up because he was doing Joking Apart. What do you think?". I'd replied that I wasn't sure, but I wouldn't rule it out. "No, I wouldn't either, " he said, obviously bothered by the notion.
Clearly, Robins is a serious Joking Apart fan, but far more savvy and grounded than the usual tub-thumping enthusiast rattling off petitions and scaring up letter-writing campaigns. Unsurprisingly, he knows exactly when he first became aware of the show.
"Oh, I remember seeing trailers for the pilot," he tells me when I call him one February evening. "I remember that very, very clearly.
"The BBC trailed it very heavily and I made a mental note that it was something I had to tune in for. When I actually saw it, I was so glad I did. I just thought it was fantastic and I couldn't imagine there wouldn't be a series."
When the resultant episodes rolled along, he remained just as impressed.
"I thought it was probably the best comedy I'd ever seen," he says. "Obviously farce is not new, but the actual handling of the subject matter was so different and, I thought, quite daring."
He remembers being perplexed when the second series didn't arrive as promptly as expected, but that, again, he'd thoroughly enjoyed it when it did. Following the show's cancellation, he'd occasionally give it some thought, but he was never especially consumed by it.
"I was always a fan," he explains, "and periodically I'd try and see if it was available on video, and would always be amazed that it never was.
"In 2004, I decided to dig out some of my old off-air tapes to show my wife," he explains. "That was when I realised I was missing two episodes," he said, "and made a note to try and find them. I went onto the internet where I discovered a lot of other people hunting for any episodes at all, let alone two.
"It was that, really, which started the ball rolling.
"While I was searching I read somewhere that the BBC no longer held the master tapes to the series, which I thought was extraordinary. I quoted that verbatim on a Coupling newsgroup, and within 10 minutes Steven Moffat himself had emailed me to say, 'Where the hell did you learn that?'"
The information ultimately proved to be incorrect, but contact had been made.
"When I realised there was quite a lot of people desperately looking for Joking Apart episodes, I wanted to mount some sort of a campaign to get the show released on DVD, or possibly repeated. But it so happens it never got to that, because a couple of months later I bought online a DVD of A Very Peculiar Practice. When it arrived in the post, I was stunned to see it was not a BBC disc, it was an independent release.
"Somehow - I don't know quite how - the light bulb went on. And I just thought, 'Well, Christ, if they'll sell A Very Peculiar Practice, they'll certainly sell Joking Apart without a problem'.
"I've worked in television all my life, so in terms of being able to edit packages together and do various things like the montage for DVD, I knew it wouldn't be a problem. I'd explored authoring DVDs, so I knew that was technically possible too, and I'd learned how I could restore video using a computer. So, in theory, I had all the tools I needed. The problem was, I didn't have the first clue about what was involved in actually trying to acquire the rights, who to speak to, how you'd market such a product, and all of that.
"I think, at the time, I didn't quite know what I was letting myself in for."
His first step was remarkably straightforward.
"I phoned up BBC Worldwide," he says. "Simple as that. I said what I was enquiring about and, 'Could you put me through to the right person?'. For six weeks I was just passed to different people. I think I must have spoken to about half of the company without getting anywhere. Then, finally, one day I got through to the right person.
"This was Molly Hope. Her official title is Publishing Licensing Manager at 2Entertain, as BBC Worldwide's DVD arm is now called."
(I later contact Hope, who declines an interview but is keen to stress: "Craig's situation is not a unique one for us and Craig indicated to me that he would not therefore be suggesting that this was a unique selling point in any publicity piece").
"I kind of half-expected her to say, 'Sorry, go away. Stop wasting our time.'," he continues, "But no. I was very upfront, I said, 'I'm just a private individual, I haven't done this before' and, to her credit, she took me seriously.
"She told me exactly what you'd have to pay for and broke it down into the BBC's chunk, the chunk you'd have to pay in royalties to the cast and production and how much you'd have to pay for the tapes themselves.
"I knew from that point it would be very, very tight. I certainly wouldn't want to imply I'm made of money. I'm not. I mean I have actually pretty well ploughed in every penny I can spare into this project, so there was always a limit to which I could go."
Having established 2Entertain would be willing to negotiate with him, Robins was told he would have to put forward a plausible business plan in order to secure the rights.
"This came as a bit of a shock to be honest," he tells me. "Christ, I'd had no experience of this, how do you put together something like that? I mean, they wanted to know what my sales projections were. How was I meant to know?
"It wasn't an easy question to answer. In the end I had to produce a figure and rather than just come up with something that was meaningless, I did try and justify my reasoning. Whether it's going to be accurate remains to be seen.
"Having spoken to some distributors, I came up with a number that didn't seem too unreasonable. But having established that I could break even on a relatively small amount, I was then told, 'The board have to be convinced you can sell enough to make it worth their while'. So, I was now trying to talk the figure up again.
"As for the sales projections that I finally went in with, I said 10,000 after three years. If I achieve that I will be very happy."
During this time, he'd made sure he'd kept Moffat up to date on his progress.
"When, eventually, I did get to speak to the right person, he'd found out on the same day. He fielded a phone call, so he knew I wasn't making it up."
Intrigued as what Moffat's reaction had been to someone championing his work in this way, I ask him what he'd felt when he'd realised the project was going to go ahead.
"Actually, I think it was in an email," he told me. "The thing is you read these mails and then you go back and look at it again. 'Is he actually doing it?' You read things with such a preconception that this can't happen. Then a couple of days later, you think, 'Fuck he's actually phoning people!'
"And even though I gave him some advice about who to talk to, I really, honestly never thought he would do it."
With an agreement made in principle with 2Entertain, he was indeed doing it, and having already taken delivery of Joking Apart's master tapes (he'd been able to persuade the BBC to hand them over early, so he could take a prototype disc to a distributor), he proceeded to piece the DVD together.
Aware that the only way to keep costs manageable was to do as much of the work possible himself, Robins had to grapple with the task of adding subtitles to the show - something 2Entertain insisted upon as a condition of the licence.
"I had a hunt around, once again, on the internet," he says, "to see if there was any software for doing this. And - believe it or not - I found a piece of freeware. Obviously it was a painful process, and it took 100 hours to do the subtitling for six episodes, which is mind-numbingly boring. I don't know how much it would have cost to outsource that. £30 an hour wouldn't be unrealistic - maybe more. So 100 hours of my time, probably saved me at least £3000."
Duplication and packaging also proved to be relatively inexpensive.
"Of all the things in the whole of this project, there are a lot of costs that you think are quite exorbitant, but the biggest value for money by far is the manufacturing. Very, very cheap in comparison.
"Bearing in mind the more you order, the cheaper they become per unit, I had 2500 made up front and it worked out at about 90p plus VAT per product. That's the whole thing, with the discs and covers printed up, shrink-wrapped, boxed and delivered to me. Now that's amazing value for money and, thank God, because all the other costs really mounted up."
Less reasonable was the expense involved in getting the BBFC to provide certification for the release.
"Since 1984, every DVD or video in this country, by law, has to have a certificate from the British Board of Film Classification. They have a price per minute for this, which you can work out via their online calculator. So, for a three-hour disc, which is what this is going to be, they charge around £1,000 plus VAT. Now, I don't think that's exactly the hardest job in the world, watching something and awarding it a certificate working to a pre-defined set of criteria. Yet, the hourly rate is crazy. I could have quite a lot of discs manufactured for that money."
Despite his financial limitations, Robins was determined he wasn't simply going to issue a "vanilla" DVD with no extra features.
"Although I know other people have done it, I could not in all conscience release something with only the episodes on it, even though I know the fans would kill just for that. I'm thinking, 'I'm a fan, I want to give the fans what I would like to have'.
"So, I've just recently done some extras. We've done four episode commentaries with Steven Moffat, Robert Bathurst, Fiona Gillies and Tracey Bennett. We recorded them in a studio in Denmark Street."
This meant more expense.
"Of course, I paid them for their time. I certainly wouldn't expect them to do it for nothing, although Steven waived his fee. I didn't ask him to, didn't expect him to, but he just did it off his own back. I'm very grateful for that.
"The big problem with a show this old, which was never that well known and the production company doesn't exist anymore, is you're very limited in what you're going to turn up in the way of other usable features. So therefore anything else I did had to be totally original.
"So, while I had the cast there, I couldn't miss the opportunity to do some kind of video interview. I finished cutting the pieces a couple of days ago and I've ended with a feature that runs between 19 and 20 minutes. It's a backgrounder, basically, and there's some quite nice information in there. When I was setting out, I didn't know quite what I would end up with, and I agonised over structuring it. It's all very well having interviews and clips, but it needs to flow, it needs have a logical progression. You don't just want to jump around from topic to topic. I've seen things like that done where a caption comes up for two seconds to tell you where you're going next. But you shouldn't have to do that."
Throughout the whole process, the BBC maintained a quality assurance stance.
"They wanted to approve the artwork," says Craig, "and then when the production was 100% finished I had to send them a check-disc so they could approve the content. I can't just go ahead and do whatever I want. If they don't like something, they will tell me and it'll have to be changed.
"Oddly enough, the only thing I've had to alter wasn't because of the Beeb, but Robert Bathurst.
"My hands were tied as to pictures I could use for the front cover. The BBC pretty well doesn't have anything, and there only seemed to be two suitable stills available. Out of those, one could only be used for series two, because it came from the very last episode, and basically Robert Bathurst is unshaven in that photograph.
"There was no way I could put that on the cover of series one, because you'd play the whole disc, but never see him looking like that. It would be bizarre. Unfortunately, Robert didn't actually like the one I had left. He said, 'I've hated that photograph for 15 years'. At this stage I'm thinking, 'Jesus, I don't have another'.
"In the end, once again it was a bit of wing and prayer, but I thought, 'My Photoshop skills are reasonable, can I give him a quick shave in the other picture?'. And that's exactly what I've done, so that will now be the series one photograph."
The final element for Robins to consider has been distribution.
"I discovered there are only two distributors in this country. Basically you cannot get a disc in the shops without going through one of them.
"At first, when I started this project I was convinced I absolutely had to have a distributor, and that it would fail if I didn't. I've changed my mind, since and now I actually think there are some advantages - some quite considerable advantages - to not having a distributor. The problem is they want to make money, and if you have only one disc in your catalogue, you're too small for them to even consider.
"So, it's all going to be done via the internet, by a website. It's now just a question of letting people know its out there and available."
With the end in sight, Robins is naturally feeling reflective.
"It's been an enormous amount of work," he sighs, "and I still have to question myself at times, like, 'Why the hell have I put that much effort in?'. But I'm someone who enjoys a challenge. I don't like being told, 'No, that's not possible'. I learned many years ago that when people say that, what it actually means is they couldn't do it and they'd like to think you couldn't either."
The End? Or just the beginning?
If the Joking Apart DVD turns in a profit - or just breaks even - Robins hopes it will be the start of something.
"I know there are a lot of people out there who feel various programmes have been neglected and overlooked. So I'd like to go on and perhaps issue more DVDs.
"I don't care, personally, if I make not a penny out of this. That's not my motivation. It's knowing the amount of pleasure this can give. I don't know if I can quite put this into words, but my reason for doing this whole project has been because I'd like to think there's someone else out there who would want to do it for me."
Time will tell if Robins' new DVD line - now titled Replay DVD - goes on to issue further releases. But even if it doesn't, even if the catalogue is destined only ever to list one item, what he's achieved already is something truly commendable.
I hope Joking Apart repays his faith and his huge investment. I hope this is the start of a whole range of Replay DVD products. And so does Steven Moffat.
"I would be absolutely delighted if this was a success," he'd told me as we donned our jackets, me getting ready to head home, he to Chelsea for sushi ("How media" he'd laughed). "But I think most of that delight will be for Craig. I want it to be a success for him, that would be wonderful.
"That, and I'll be quite pleased to finally get good copies of the episodes again."
JOKING APART SERIES ONE IS SCHEDULED FOR RELEASE ON DVD ON 29 MAY 2006. VISIT WWW.REPLAYDVD.CO.UK FOR MORE INFORMATION
THANKS TO STEVEN MOFFAT AND CRAIG ROBINS