- 20 Mar 01
NICK KELLY talks to GRAHAM LINEHAN about his new Channel 4 comedy Black Books, which also stars Dylan Moran.
One of the most eagerly-awaited comedy events of the year is upon us with the arrival this week of Black Books, the new sitcom written by Graham Linehan and Dylan Moran, and starring Moran himself and the English comedian, Bill Bailey.
The sitcom revolves around two characters with diametrically opposed personalities who work in a second-hand bookshop in London and the interplay between them and their put-upon customers. It has been mentioned that the plot outline has similarities with a certain Nick Hornby novel now a major film! about a second-hand record shop owner. Did Linehan have this in mind when he co-concocted the programme?
When it was being made, says Linehan, someone wrote a piece about it that said it was a bit like High Fidelity, which took me by surprise I wasn t expecting it but then I thought of course! . The one thing it has in common with High Fidelity is this feeling that people who work in book shops and record shops are the chosen ones who look on customers as people who ve just blown in off the street, and have no respect for them. I find that attitude very funny, especially when you see it somewhere like the Notting Hill Tape And Record Exchange!
Does Linehan frequent second-hand bookshops himself?
Not really, he laughs. I like books that look like they haven t been lived in yet! But you do see books like I, Claudius which you d never think of buying in a modern store!
As well as taking a co-writing credit, Black Books was also directed by Linehan a role he adopted for certain episodes of the inspired sketch show, Big Train, a few years back.
It was good fun, he says. Everybody reacts to direction in different ways. Bill [Bailey] was great because you just had to talk to him and explore why a joke was funny. Once he had it figured out he was absolutely hilarious. It was some of the most satisfying work on a set that I ve ever done.
His working relationship with the Perrier-winning Dylan Moran was also a case of great comic minds thinking alike.
It was good, he continues, but a bit odd for both of us going from writing partners to suddenly being actor and director. Apart from that it was fine. I love directing. I can t not direct anything I ve written I m finding myself less happy about handing my stuff over to someone else, unless it s to someone I trust completely, like Chris Morris. Then I wouldn t even need to turn up on set. But you d be amazed at how few good comedy directors there are.
Linehan was delighted to have the opportunity to be so hands-on with the show, though naturally he listened to his charges when it came to fine-tuning the subtleties of the script.
Some actors think that when a line s not working it s their fault, he says. Often it s simply because the line s not very good and it s not something people would actually say or because the joke is laboured. We just felt that the more we changed it, the better it would get. Though there were certain things we changed on the day even during the recording which tested people s patience.
Was any of it improvised?
No. Not at all. It was very tightly written. But if you have a line of dialogue that s not working on the night, you might change it, just by adding a word.
Black Books is Dylan Moran s first venture onto the small screen since the Simon Nye-scripted comedy drama, How Do You Want Me? Black Books, though, is a pig of a different snout.
For a start, we did it in front of an audience, says Linehan. I think things are funnier when they re done that way. Also, it heightens the performances slightly of the actors. But it s the product of both our senses of humour whereas How Do You Want Me? was the product of Simon Nye s imagination.
Black Books starts on Channel 4 on