Cotswold character: Sit-com scriptwriter Maurice Gran

As writer of some of our best-loved sit-coms, Maurice Gran is always looking for inspiration, though real life isn't always that forthcoming...

You couldn't make it up

I can relax. Even were I to trip spectacularly down the glamorous stairs in Cheltenham’s Hotel du Vin, landing in strikingly comic fashion, it’s unlikely I’d find myself written into a Maurice Gran script (clearly to be played by Kathy Burke).“It’s very rare anything happens in real life that you can use directly,” Maurice says, as we take tea in one of the hotel’s stair-less side rooms (well, you can never be too careful). “It’s not through reticence. I just don’t think, for example, that John Sullivan ever saw anyone lean backwards onto a bar which wasn’t there.”

Except that Maurice did see two women – one dressed in gold lam�, the other in silver – in a London restaurant once, looking exactly like gangsters’ molls, who provided the inspiration for Birds of a Feather. 

And then there was the vignette on a campsite where a somewhat pompous fellow camper sat down with a bowl of soup on a sun bed, which promptly folded up on him. “It was hysterical. I cherished that for ages and eventually it ended up in a Birds of a Feather, but much changed.”

Life, it’s clear, has a long way to go before it sharpens up its comic timing enough to qualify as fiction – but it did make a special effort a few years ago. For an incident dropped into the laps of Maurice Gran and his writing partner Laurence Marks, which eclipsed even the most fervent imagination. It was an incident that forms the heart of their new stage play, Von Ribbentrop’s Watch.

“Laurence took a watch, which he’d bought in an antique shop in America, to a mender’s because it was gaining time. And the guy noticed it had an interesting inscription inside it. The implication was that this watch was very valuable, if Laurence was prepared to sell it.”

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So wherein the problem? Well, the watch was indeed worth a small fortune; but its value lay in that inscription: the initials JvR and the small swastika beside them. The original owner was none other than Hitler’s Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, hanged for war crimes after the Nuremberg Trials.

“Laurence asked me what he should do and I said I didn’t really see how he could sell it, knowing the sorts of people who would buy it. It was a dilemma – except that we had the option, or the privilege if you like, that we could turn it into a drama and profit by it that way without having to sell it to some slavering neo-Nazi.”

The characters in the play don’t have that route open to them. Gerald Roth is a businessman, floundering in the credit crunch, about to sit down with the family for the Passover dinner. He has something to tell them all: it could be that his financial troubles are over, thanks to a valuable watch left to him by his father. But… And so the drama revolves around finding a resolution to this ultimate of moral dilemmas.

Having so generously provided Gran and Marks with a plot for once, Real Life was on a roll, and happy coincidences began to queue up. Firstly, out of the blue, Radio 4 approached the two of them for a play, providing the ideal opportunity to premiere their new comedy-drama over the airways. “Then Laurence found himself sitting next to one of the governors of the Oxford Playhouse at a theatre do, and she asked, ‘Have you ever thought of writing for us?’ So it was really a series of serendipitous occasions. The drama had a tailwind behind it… Or is it a headwind? Any sort of wind, really.” And so it is that Von Ribbentrop’s Watch (the stage version being somewhat different from its radio twin) opens in Oxford this month as an Oxford Playhouse production.

Laurence, Maurice concedes, is Head of Luck. Certainly, it’s been his convenient ability to be (sit-com style) in the right place at the right time that has helped them throughout their stellar career.

The two met as 10-year-olds, members of the same Jewish Lads’ Brigade in North London. It wasn’t bonding at first sight, but their paths continued vaguely to crisscross (“I was never going to escape from him”). Then, some years later, they happened to find themselves on holiday at the same Butlins, and clicked. They embarked on different career paths – Maurice as a civil servant in the Department of Employment and Laurence as a local newspaper reporter – but met up every Monday night at a drama-writing society that Laurence had stumbled upon.

“This group used to have monthly sketch-writing competitions – which was why I started writing comedy. Had they been gothic horror competitions, I might have started writing gothic horror. Laurence and I entered these competitions separately and started to win. After we’d won them all for about 18 months, the guy who ran the group said to us, ‘You should start writing together’. It had never crossed our minds before that.”

They began to amass a wodge of material; and that might have been the end of the story, had Laurence not had his ‘luck’ dial turned to maximum. On a train one day, he happened to sit next to Barry Took – and that great English comedian offered to look at their stuff.

Too neat a coincidence for non-fiction?

“Yes. So much so that I didn’t believe Laurence when he told me.” It was Took who got them their first work – part-time while still pursuing their ‘grown up’ careers – writing for Frankie Howerd (“which was very strenuous; I had a psychosomatic duodenal ulcer as a result of it”) and then Marti Caine. When London Weekend Television commissioned them to write their own pilot show in 1978, they thought they’d made it. They were half-way through the dress rehearsal, “When this hard-faced man barged into the control box and said, in time-honoured fashion, ‘Right! Everyone out!’ It was the time of the huge ITV strike so the show was aborted. We were devastated.”

Unbeknown to Maurice and Laurence, however, the director had taped the performance and, three months later when the strike was resolved, the tapes went up to Michael Grade who commissioned a whole series. Holding the Fort, starring Patricia Hodge and Peter Davison, became a hit and the boys gave up their day jobs.

Their incredibly popular Birds of a Feather arose out of an incident in a restaurant one Christmas, featuring those two previously-mentioned, ‘extraordinarily overdressed’, women. “I’ve told this story before and I’m always expecting it to rebound on me,” Maurice says, “but they looked to me like gangsters’ molls. And then I saw their husbands: one was a big man who was very pale, and the other was a weaselly man who was very suntanned. So I immediately deduced that, some years before, they’d robbed a bank together and the very pale man had been locked up and the very tanned man had got away with the money. And now the very pale man was out of prison so the very tanned man had come back with his half of the money.

“I was very pleased with this fantasy I’d made up to entertain myself, and I was queuing up behind them to pay the bill when one of them said, ‘What are you doing Boxing Day?’ and the other said ‘I may go back to Marbella’.

“It was only when I recounted it to Laurence, apropos of nothing, that he said it would make a great show for Linda (Robson) and Pauline (Quirke). 

“Similarly, when Laurence made some fey observation that there were streets in the East End of London which looked like the war hadn’t ended, I said to him, ‘That’s a series!’. And that became Goodnight Sweetheart.”

Linda and Pauline were well known to the lads – they’d been in Shine on Harvey Moon (another Marks/Gran script) “So we knew they were good together and we knew that, if we could find them a show, it would be a hit.” They weren’t wrong, of course: Birds of a Feather – featuring two sisters whose husbands are serving time – became their signature show.

So how much input do actors themselves have? Do they ever refuse to say a line they don’t believe in? 

“I don’t think it’s happened to me 10 times in 30 years that an actor has said, ‘My character wouldn’t say that’. With Linda and Pauline, we could see they understood the Birds of a Feather milieu only too well: they came from Islington – working-class girls; they had experiences in their lives which were relevant. And we found it very easy to catch their way of speaking.

“When you’re writing comedy, the rhythm of the line is so important. Quite often in rehearsal I don’t even watch; I just listen. I’m obsessed with the music of comedy. But equally, of course, you wouldn’t have Sharon saying, ‘I feel fatigued’; she’d say ‘I’m shagged out’.

“When you read our scripts, you realise that even the most degraded half-human speaks in strangely grammatical sentences because that’s the way we choose to write. And if you go back to Porridge, Norman Stanley Fletcher speaks like a professor of literature. Writing is not just about echoing the way people speak on the street – and you couldn’t do that, anyway, because people eff and blind all the time.”

Maurice Gran certainly doesn’t eff and blind. Not even when you get him onto the ‘Don’t get me started’ heading, which includes the rise of the producer (“It’s very rare now that even a highly-acclaimed writer, can go to the BBC and say ‘I’ve got a great idea for a series’. It’s much more likely that a producer will say ‘What we want is..’”), the fall of the BBC, and the predominance of “shouting drama”.

“I often catch the tail end of something like Holby to see these once-good actors desperately wading through this dreary treacle; and I think: once again this is all to do with the BBC’s abnegation of its role as our national theatre.”

So what’s next for Maurice and Laurence? Well, Von Ribbentrop is not their only play that will be touring this autumn. The Rock ‘n’ Roll musical they co-wrote – Dreamboats and Petticoats – is on its fourth tour, as well as showing in the West End. Tomorrow, Maurice and Laurence begin the next stage – turning it into a movie.

The two of them, who live close to each other in Gloucestershire, meet most days to write. Do they laugh out loud? “We don’t rattle the windows but, yes, of course we laugh. I wrote a line today that tickled me for a column in the New Statesman magazine about the election: Rupert Murdoch has promised to throw his influence behind the government if Vince Cable would change his name to Vince Satellite. I was glad I thought of it before anyone else!”

Favourite joke?

He tells a hilarious shaggy dog about Lenin in Poland which, tragic to say, there isn’t room to repeat here.

“Too long? OK, then, how about this one: Tommy Cooper says, ‘I went into a chip shop and asked for cod and chips twice. “And the man said, ‘I heard you the first time’.”

Ah, the old ones are always the best.

So we know we find Maurice Gran funny. But what makes him laugh? The Mighty Boosh, Little Britain, Armstrong & Miller?My kids loved The Mighty Boosh but I never got it. I thought it tried to trade on charm rather than content. Little Britain started brilliantly and probably became a bit of a victim of its own success. I like Armstrong and Miller, which really is a mainstream good old-fashioned solid show.”

n Von Ribbentrop’s Watch   by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran  is at the Oxford Playhouse from September 9-18;  Tel: 01865 305305; n Dreamboats and Petticoats  is at the Everyman, Cheltenham,  from September 6-11;  Tel: 01242 572573;

Von Ribbentrop’s Watch  by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran is at the Oxford Playhouse from September 9-18;  Tel: 01865 305305;

Dreamboats and Petticoats  is at the Everyman, Cheltenham,  from September 6-11;  Tel: 01242 572573;