As the last ever episode of the IT Crowd aired last week, writer, director and all round comedy legend Graham Linehan speaks to Jennie Pritchard about Twitter wars, TV criticism, and why he just doesn’t want to go it alone anymore.
When I tell Graham Linehan that my mum has made him some blackberry jam, I am fully prepared for him to look at me aghast and run a mile. At the very least I am ready for an awkward pause and a polite ‘no thank you’. What’s the standard response to a stranger offering you fruit based preserves made for them by your insane mother?
Linehan is overjoyed. “She made jam? That’s amazing!” I reluctantly admit I have the jar in my bag, would he like to take it home? “Yeah, are you kidding me? Of course!”
With such a formidable back catalogue, I half expect Linehan to be a terrifying presence. This is, after all, the man who single-handedly wrote and directed all four series of The IT Crowd. He is the father of Father Ted and most recently the director and co-writer of BBC2’s Count Arthur Strong. His writing credits include Black Books, The Armstrong and Miller Show, Brass Eye and The Fast Show. He’s kind of a big deal.
Yet, though his work could forgive an air of towering bravado, not a trace of it accompanies the figure whom I meet in a small cafe in Norwich. On Count Arthur Strong he works with the character’s creator, Steve Delaney, and for many years was partnered with Father Ted co-writer, Arthur Matthews and it’s easy to see why he works so well with a partner: he is charming, warm and personable.
Not that one could never accuse Linehan’s independent work of being lacking. The four series of The IT Crowd are testament to his skill as a solo writer, yet it is Linehan himself who admits that the appeal of working alone has simply worn off. “Something about the climb this time, it seemed too steep”, he says of trying to write a fifth series of the Channel 4 sitcom. “I was looking up at it and going: I don’t know if I want to go up there again.” Instead the feature-length special tied up the characters and said goodbye to the show once and for all.
Linehan is in no way bitter about the show, but there is something in the way he talks about The IT Crowd which suggests it’s been a long, tough road. When we meet, the finishing touches are being made to the special. It seems an exhausting process, laboured with time and filming constraints, last minute rewrites and good jokes left by the wayside. Though he assures me that he’s pleased with the finished episode, I get the impression he’s just happy to be moving on, “When I was writing with Arthur that was the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s just easier, more fun, and also someone else is carrying a bit of the weight.”
As we speak, Linehan apologises repeatedly for going off on a bit of a tangent and occasionally on a bit of a rant, though each diversion is justified and enjoyable. He shares his frustration at the gall of the US TV execs who decided to remake The IT Crowd without, unbelievably, even bothering to run it by him. The abysmal result is a word for word rehash of the original UK pilot and Linehan shudders at the way they blindly repeated the show’s early mistakes, neglecting his involvement completely. “What I would have said was take it and make something new of it”, he says honestly. “So in the end I looked at it and I wanted to cry when I saw how close it was to ours.”
But on the whole does he agree with the common allegation that the UK is lagging desperately behind the US in terms of programming? With behemoths like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad to contend with, does the UK need to step up its game?
He reasons that the comparison isn’t strictly fair. Given our finances and markets, and the general lack of appetite for our programming outside Britain, it’s frankly astonishing that we produce anything at all. We should be championing the good that is produced, rather than condemning the mediocre. LA, he argues, is an entire city based on entertainment, acting as a giant magnet for the best minds in TV and cinema. They don’t hang about here, they go towards the fame and the fortune, particularly the fortune.
In hushed tones he explains that the fees he gets are laughable in comparison to the money paid out in the US: the pay for a pilot episode equalling about the same as a whole series over here. He glances about, perhaps concerned that his thoughts will be overheard and misconstrued. But he’s certainly not being ungrateful, merely illustrating the gulf between the worlds either side of the Atlantic.
So with this in mind, are critics unfairly consigning many a struggling series to the scrapheap? Linehan is all too aware of frustrating ignorance that sometimes accompanies TV criticism. Time and time again his shows, recorded in front of a live audience, are criticised for their ‘canned laughter’.“The thing that amazes me about TV critics is the way they always use that term. Go to one studio recording. It’s your job! So why haven’t you been to one studio recording to see how it’s done?” He’s exasperated and you can see why.
Count Arthur Strong featured the laughter of a live audience, pleasantly reminiscent of old fashioned prime time entertainment, much like Arthur himself. But once more reviewers, even from The Times and The Independent, dragged the show down and tarred it with that lazy, insulting accusation. “I think the truth of it is that TV criticism isn’t really respected by a lot of editors, so they’ll hire any old idiot.” He says, hastening to add that there are indeed some excellent exceptions, “But lots of the time I justthink: if they weren’t writing TV criticism they wouldn’t have a job. This is the last rung on the ladder for them.” I wonder if many TV critics just don’t have a sense of humour and he agrees that it’s possible. “A.A Gill is hilarious, he hated Seinfeld. I mean how could you hate Seinfeld and be a TV critic? I used to worry that he really didn’t like us, then I read that he didn’t like Seinfeld and I thought oh well then, I’m fine.” He laughs. It’s true, being hated by A.A Gill puts you in rather good company.
It is difficult to see how anyone could hate Linehan. So it was utterly bizarre when, at the beginning of August, a landslide of abuse was piled upon him on Twitter. Linehan defended the journalist Caitlin Moran’s decision to leave Twitter for a day, in response to the sexism raging on the site. She was being accused of attention seeking and he questioned whether her “feminist” critics were picking the wrong battles and he found himself accused of being a woman hating rape apologist.
“I guess I just need to make sure next time I say someone shouldn’t be abused for going off Twitter for a day, I just need go off Twitter for a day”. He laughs but it’s clear that these bullies raining abuse on female figures makes him very angry. “They hate women who have got any kind of profile. That’s the thing that really annoys me. There was an interview with one of them in the Evening Standard yesterday who was slagging off Helen Lewis, who is a brilliant woman. And as someone pointed out on Twitter, interesting that this female “activist” has managed to get into the paper by slagging off another woman.”
What is particularly frustrating about these bullies targeting Linehan is that fact that he so willingly connects with others on twitter, politely thanking fans and dutifully engaging with critics. To see those just spoiling for a fight take advantage of that is shameful.
Nevertheless many of the messages directed at him online are ones of admiration and praise: fans desperate to be noticed by their hero. As they eagerly anticipate the next series of Count Arthur Strong, what else is in the pipeline for a figure who, despite the occasional negativity that floats his way, is dearly loved by many?
Along with his wife, Linehan is in the early stages of planning a children’s show about a little girl and a space travelling, Gaga-esque pop star, who jet around the universe performing gigs. It sounds mad and fantastic, but quite a way off yet, with Linehan currently working on a first draft of the pilot. Good children’s shows take time, and he’s keen to make sure he has the same level of dedication as the makers of Adventure Time and Horrible Histories.
Linehan might just be the perfect candidate to create an excellent children’s programme. His shows are invested with a joyous silliness and kindness which appeals so much to adults, tapping into what is so great and appealing about being childish. From Father Ted, through The IT Crowd to Count Arthur Strong, his work somehow just nails what it is to make people feel good.
The day after we meet I get a text from him, telling me that he and his family are enjoying the jam my mum’s jam for breakfast. I tell her and she’s ecstatic because that’s what Linehan does best, and long may he continue to do so.
Photo by Karen Robinson