Screenterview: Andy Hamilton5th October 2017
I meet Andy Hamilton in the Camden office that he shares with his writing partner, Guy Jenkin. Together, the pair are responsible for hit sitcoms such as Outnumbered and Drop the Dead Donkey, as well as the 2014 film What We Did on Our Holiday, which stars David Tennant and Rosamund Pike. Hamilton is also known for his frequent appearances on panel shows such as Have I Got News for You, The News Quiz and QI, as well as his Radio 4 comedy Old Harry’s Game, in which he plays a cynical Satan.
When we meet, Hamilton is warm and welcoming, with his dry, understated wit reminding you just why he belongs in comedy. Over the course of our conversation, we talk about life as a writer, his comedy origins, and the future of all things funny.
Outnumbered was a huge hit, with over 30 episodes. How did the idea originate?
The idea originated because Guy Jenkin (my writing partner on that show) was starting to go through the maelstrom of life with small children – my kids were already quite big by then, but I could remember enough of it, and we were remarking that there’d never been a show that captured the daily rollercoaster of life with small kids. We started exploring the reasons why not, and a lot of it was to do with the fact that the kids never looked natural on camera, for all sorts of reasons – they’re saying lines that they’ve had to learn, they’re standing on a mark…I’d had an experience on a show called Bedtime, where I’d done a scene with my daughter Isobel when she was seven, where we’d not shown her the script, we’d just prezi-ed the sequence of the dialogue. She gave it back to us, but slightly customised in her own version, and Guy said “Well, why don’t we try a whole show like that?”. We stripped out all the things that we thought were likely to make kids feel less natural on camera, and we just gave them a summary before the scene began. That was how it originated, from a conversation about why parenthood with small children hadn’t been properly captured, and we sort of took it from there.
In Christmas 2016, Outnumbered returned for a special. Bringing it back, what were your main motivations?
Ideally, we’d like to be able to drop in on those characters every couple of years and just observe how the family has developed, because every family faces different questions and different potential problems at various stages, so that was… is our plan. In the end, it won’t be up to us, but that’s what we’d like to do.
As a comedy writer, do you feel as if you have a role to play in current affairs, or at least how the public views the news?
With Drop the Dead Donkey, it was different because that was a workplace sitcom, but the stuff they were dealing with was the news, so it was perfectly natural that a lot of their workplace conversation should revolve around the news. What we tend to do in our other work in sitcoms is to do so when it feels natural for someone to refer to something. In the Christmas episode of Outnumbered, there were brief references to Brexit and Trump, just because there’s not many conversations that they won’t sneak into, but we didn’t set out to make it highly topical – in fact, the Brexit joke was a reflection of the notion of the idea that everyone was fed up of talking about Brexit. But I suppose, instinctively, we tend to weave in conversations about what’s happening in current affairs, and maybe that’s our background that makes us do that.
How would you describe your co-writer relationship, and what is the dynamic like?
People often ask us that, and I suppose it’s one of those things where it’s a bit like asking a centipede how it walks – if you stop to think about it, you probably wouldn’t be able to do it. We’ve been writing together in various forms for nearly 40 years, we get on really well and although we don’t have identical tastes, they broadly coincide. It’s a promiscuous marriage in the sense that we both go off and do other things – sometimes on our own, sometimes with other people – so we don’t see each other every day, 52 weeks a year, because that might be a bit much, but it just works. The nice thing about working with a co-writer is that you only need one of you to be on form on any given day. If you’re writing on your own and you’re having a bad day, nothing’s gonna get done, but when there’s two of you, it just means there’s less chance of things grinding to a halt.
“The nice thing about working with a co-writer is that you only need one of you to be on form on any given day”
When you were co-writing and directing What We Did on Our Holiday, what were the key differences in the way that you wrote for cinema?
There were lots of new experiences that came with making a feature film, but fundamentally, when writing, it’s the same basic questions of character, plot and structure. I suppose the biggest difference is that in the longer, 90-minute format of a feature film, you maybe need higher dramatic stakes than you would in a domestic sitcom. In a sitcom, you can build plots around quite minute things, but with a film, it does need big forward movement. It has to feel like it’s building to something, and you do need a climax. It’s all really interesting and enjoyable, but in terms of the actual story-telling, it’s still the same basic questions: is this going on too long? is this moving forward? are the characters coherent?
Did you write Outnumbered with Hugh Dennis (Pete) or Claire Skinner (Sue) in mind?
I can’t remember precisely when they came into our thoughts, but it was quite early. We had to make a sample, because we couldn’t convey to broadcasters exactly what we meant – the naturalism of the people. They just said “Show us a script!”. Well, we couldn’t show them a script because it doesn’t give you the full originality of it, so we filmed a sample of ten minutes, in Guy’s kitchen, with the kids. We had auditioned for kids and chosen them by then, and Hugh and Claire did that. By that stage, we were one hundred percent certain that they were the people we wanted.
When you’re writing for radio (a non-visual medium), does this affect the style of humour that you write?
Radio affords you certain freedoms. There is room to be surreal on radio, in a way that would cost billions of pounds if you tried to achieve on screen. With Old Harry’s Game, if I want to, I can have someone being attacked by 100,000 lobsters, and that’s just a sound effect. After that, again the fundamentals still apply (is it funny enough? is the dialogue sparky enough?) but the main thing is always characters – characters and then plot. Sometimes, a sound effect can be funny; you’ll never know if it’s accurate, and many of the things they use as sound effects in radio are not the thing itself – for rain, they used to use frying eggs. In TV or cinema, you might think of a brilliant comic moment, but you then have to think about how to execute that visually. Sometimes the answer is that you can’t afford to do it, or that you can’t without maiming somebody. Radio is freer in that sense.
A lot of people might recognise you from panel shows. I imagine that there’s a big difference between writing comedy for a sitcom, and the on-the-spot jokes on a panel show. Which do you prefer, and why?
In the days when you had your occupation written on your passport, it said ‘Writer, and that’s what I am – a writer who sometimes dabbles in a little bit of performing. Panel games are the least demanding kind of performing, as very often, you just turn up and do it on the day – with the exception of Have I Got News For You, where you will have to read the newspapers. I like to turn up with three good jokes in my head, about the main stories that are likely to crop up – I may never get the chance to say them, but it’s just a security blanket. The great thing about panel shows is it only needs one of you to be saying something funny or interesting at any given moment, so you are sharing the responsibility. They’re a great counterweight to staring at a script and trying to get it right, with all the refinement and sweat that goes into writing a script, but if someone pointed a gun at me and said “You’ve got to choose one or the other!”, I’d probably choose writing – I do enjoy just getting up and mucking about, though.
“In TV or cinema, you might think of a brilliant moment, but […] you can’t [do it] without maiming somebody”
Where did your interest in comedy originate?
Growing up, I was a child of the sixties, and the telly was my best friend – I don’t mean I was lonely, but I watched a lot of telly –
– so did I, still do…
[laughs] I grew up watching shows like Steptoe and Son and Monty Python, so I was always interested in comedy. Then, when I got to Cambridge, I joined a group called CULES (the Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society), which is a charity that does shows primarily for prisons, old people’s homes, hospitals… people who couldn’t get away, basically! I joined as a driver, but then I started to do a bit of performing. The sketch material that they had was pretty old, so I started writing sketches, and every now and then, we’d put on a show in a commercial theatre, to raise money for the charity. We went to Edinburgh twice, and in the second year – my last year – this brilliant young radio producer, Geoffrey Perkins, said “You should think about doing it for a living.” That was in ’76. That was how it all started. I was always keen on comedy, but I hadn’t imagined that that would be where I ended up, until Geoffrey posed that question to me, and I thought “Oh, maybe I’ll give it a go.” That’s where it originated, probably in my front room.
Do you have any particular advice that you’d offer to people looking to get into comedy?
The hardest thing for people starting out, is not getting disheartened, and growing a thick skin, because even if you become hugely successful and established, there will be lots of rejection. Even the top writers, the majority of the stuff they write doesn’t get made. The other thing I’d say is to never wait by the phone; if you’re a writer and you hand something in, never wait by the phone thinking “When will they phone me and tell me what they think?”. Always get onto writing something else, because people are slow to respond – that’s just human nature.
As an art form (if you can call it that), comedy evolves with time and with trends…
…yeah, it’s an art form! [laughs]
Definitely! Where do you see the future of comedy?
I honestly don’t know. It will have future, I’m quietly confident in that, because people need to laugh at the world around them; they need to laugh at their own lives and there are perennial subjects that people will always want to laugh at. At the moment, there’s been an explosion in standup, and it’s a career choice for a huge number of people. In a way, it doesn’t matter; if they have a good time doing it, that’s fine, but realistically, that many people cannot go on to have sustaining careers as stand-ups. The best ones will rise to the top, so I don’t think it’s a problem for the industry, but people have to go into it with realistic expectations.
There are more outlets where you might make something and put it on. I think that the economics are still being worked through. I’ve just done a podcast – an unusual three-part documentary with Michael Burke [laughs] called Inside Donald Trump. That was really interesting, because there is a community out there that likes listening to podcasts, but podcasts at the moment are mostly people sitting round a table talking. Putting in a narrative piece, with over 40 characters on our podcast, was really interesting, but I think that that’s part of the future – that people will be listening to stuff and watching stuff in loads of different ways, not just on telly. I think telly will survive, but there might be a lot more bespoke comedy, where a niche audience gets to enjoy something that it really likes. I don’t think it’s worse or better, it’ll just be different, but it’s interesting for me, because until a few months ago, I couldn’t have told you what a podcast was. If I were starting out now, I think it would be better in the sense that I would probably have got to make my own programmes earlier, but it would be worse in the sense that I probably wouldn’t have been paid!
And finally, who never fails to make you laugh?
Ooh, loads of people – Frasier, Hancock, Bill Kerr, Alan Partridge… Loads of people that will always make me laugh.