Something strange happened on British TV in 2011. As Sky threw a lot of resources at becoming a major comedy player, it commissioned a show that didn't fit with the rest of its shiny, friendly roster: This Is Jinsy, a cosmic mash of a sitcom/sketch show written and performed by two unknowns and aired not on Sky1 but Sky Atlantic, which at the time was not known for comedy at all.
Set on a dark, dank fantasy version of a Channel Island created using green screens, This Is Jinsy had elements of Python, Milligan, The Wicker Man, The Prisoner, The Mighty Boosh, Gormenghast and any number of other old cult hits, yet it carved out a world all its own. The recurring story of a pompous, uptight, ineffectual administrator (Justin Chubb) failing to control either his laidback deputy (Chris Bran) or the island's frowning, poorly dressed inhabitants was a classic sitcom set-up. But it was seen through a murky prism of bizarre costumes, disturbing props, and sketches and songs that bore no relation to the narrative.
Justin Chubb and Chris Bran, who had written and directed Jinsy's BBC3 pilot episode entirely on their own - and had then followed the woman who commissioned it, Lucy Lumsden, to Sky – had pulled off something extraordinary. They'd put their singular, twisted vision, their own little dream, on the screen. This Is Jinsy was fantastic. Nobody saw it, but those who did see it loved it. Then it vanished. Now it's back.
The explanation for the hiatus is mundane: Chubb and Bran were given ten months to write a second series, rather than the five they had for the first, so Jinsy was never meant to reappear in 2012. It didn't quite make it into Sky Atlantic's schedules for 2013 chiefly because the channel likes to pair comedies up, and This Is Jinsy is hard to find a match for. One of its potential partners, Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge, was itself put back when Steve Coogan decided to spend most of the year making films instead.
The good news about series two is that there's no sign of a difficult second album. Over lunch at Wimbledon Studios during filming, Chubb and Bran are nonplussed by the very concept of struggling with a follow-up, reporting that once they sat down to write, the ideas flowed just as freely as before. The result is a confident, slightly streamlined return, with former League of Gentleman writer Jeremy Dyson now on script-editing duty.
The endless battle between Arbiter Maven and his unfaithful sidekick Sporall is still at the heart of the programme, but now Chubb and Bran know who's playing the main supporting characters - myopic maintenance operative Soosan Noop and permanently damp lawyer Trince (Alice Lowe and Geoffrey McGivern) - it's what Bran calls "more of a gang show".
"All the characters go through the adventures together more than they did in the first series. That’s the biggest difference."
One of the skewed joys of Jinsy's arrival in 2011 was that, although the two lead roles were taken by Chubb and Bran, who were completely unknown before Jinsy and still do not have another TV credit between them, each episode featured an impressively famous guest star. David Tennant, Kevin Eldon, Catherine Tate, Jane Horrocks and Simon Callow all turned out. But watching the show, Chubb and Bran didn't seem like rookies nervously collaborating with their heroes. They more than held their own.
The second run has an even more ludicrously starry array of guest actors, among them Stephen Fry, Ben Miller, Olivia Colman, Derek Jacobi, Rob Brydon, Phil Davis, Eileen Atkins, Stephen Mangan and, taking over from Harry Hill as the island's cross-dressing dispenser of remotely operated electric shocks for minor criminals, Greg Davies.
Colman took the gig having been encouraged to do so by David Tennant, who was filming Broadchurch with her when she got the script. "She seems like such a vulnerable person," says Chubb. "She’s got these incredible big eyes and you feel like you want to protect her, and then on screen she’ll suddenly go into character and go into something completely different. She’s incredibly talented."
Some of the parts were written with a specific comedy A-lister in mind. Chubb: "The Stephen Fry role [Dr Ernvin Hule Bevelspepp, curator of Jinsy's Hair Mooseum] definitely was. We really had wanted it to be him. It was written with him in mind and how he might perform. You always have a wish-list of people you want to be in the show and we’ve got a lot of them. They’re all brilliant."
And they’d all seen the show already?
"Yeah, I think so. They seemed to know some of the little Jinsy phrases and customs."
Bran: "If not, someone always takes them into a room about an hour before the shoot and debriefs them on what might happen."
Chubb: "Like a decompression chamber. It’s kind of a friendly version of Scientology, to deconstruct the actor and put them back together in a Jinsy way."
Often, a Jinsy guest role puts august thespians in situations the like of which they have never encountered, no matter how long their career. "We found ourselves with Derek Jacobi dressed as a baby in a giant pram," smiles Chubb, "and he was as focused on doing a truthful performance as if he were dressed completely normally and sitting in a chair. You have to pinch yourself at those moments, when you’ve got someone of that brilliance doing stuff you’ve written. It's such an honour."
Was it a pram with a false bottom? Or did you just cram Derek Jacobi into a pram?
"It did have a false bottom. But in fact, the other version of the pram, the real one, I managed to get into fine. We probably could have pushed him into it successfully, but it would have been an awkward conversation. I’m sure he would have done it."
The guests all benefit from the guidance of Matt Lipsey, the man who has helmed both Sky series of Jinsy and has a pedigree that makes him one of the top comedy directors in the country: Little Britain, Psychoville, Saxondale and Man Down are all on his CV.
Chubb: "He’s an incisive actor’s director. A lot of the guest stars who’ve come in who haven’t worked with him before have said, 'What a brilliant director, I’d love to work with him again.'”
Has anything gone wrong? This all sounds too good to be true.
"Well, we haven’t quite got enough time to film it," Chubb admits. (They had seven weeks to film eight episodes.) "So sometimes there are compromises in just trying to finish a scene or get a performance and you wish you had two or three more takes. I think that’s probably true of most series now, the budgets are getting smaller and you just have to be on the ball."
You don’t often speak to people who say, “We had bags of time, it was brilliant.”
"Yes, it’s probably always like that. Unless you’re Stanley Kubrick and you spend three months on one scene and then use the first take."
That’s why Kubrick didn’t do TV comedy.
"That’s the only reason."
Another discipline Stanley Kubrick dismally failed to master was the comedy song. Tim Minchin and Flight of the Conchords have brought funny music back into vogue, but even if they hadn't, you can bet This Is Jinsy would have featured songs in exactly the same way, and they're even more in evidence this year.
Bran: "We kind of wrote them as we were writing the scripts. In between writing we'd stop for a break and write something of a song and just record a chorus or a bit of an idea. Then keep going back between the two."
I’m picturing a writing room that not only has a typewriter, but also a piano and a guitar.
Chubb: "Yeah! We have a drum kit, a ukulele, a metal guitar, some percussion instruments, flutes, a baby xylophone. Because we write in a little studio that’s within the complex of a music studio, there’s a lot of musicians and some writers around recording. We've got a darkened bunker we sit in to write, and it's got lots of instruments, and people lend us things to play. It’s a nice creative atmosphere."
When a track from the first series' spin-off album (a 32-track, 29-minute opus entitled All Islanders Sing Along Now!) comes up on my iPod shuffle, I happily let it play. I don't think, who are these twanging idiots just having a go. From the spot-on early Bowie pastiche of Fruit Suit to the scary psych-thrash of Face Cake, the wormwoody folk of Old Brown Corduroys and the, er, spot-on early Bowie pastiche of Soup of the Gods, it all stands up. It's beautifully done.
Chubb: "Oh! Well. Thank you very much. We take the music quite seriously, even though it's obviously with silly intentions. We try to record with a serious musician’s head on."
Bran: "We have done another Bowie tribute in this series, called Jumpers."
At Christmas 2011, Sky1 picked up on the family-friendly entertainment value of the Jinsy songs by packaging all the series one music up into one early-evening show.
Chubb: "That was fantastic! We were so chuffed they decided to do that. It was really nice to have a Neil Innes Book of Records type show."
Was that their idea, someone at the channel?
Bran: "Yeah, and that was our inspiration to, in this series, do a whole episode which is music: a festival on Jinsy that allows us to go into the Moosic Tavern for the whole time and have 5, 6, 7 songs."
The episode set entirely within the Moosic Tavern - which airs on 5 February - was supposed to be a "bottle episode", ie an instalment that takes place within one location to save money and shooting time. But then Chubb and Bran added more story and, Bran confesses, "got carried away with some FX of a singer's arm swinging around knocking over tankards", so it didn't quite work out that way.
But this brings us to what's set to be the musical highlight of the series: Rob Brydon as Rex Camalbeeter, singing the insanely catchy, mid-tempo country song Female Badger.
Bran: "He’s kind of Jinsy’s answer to Bruce Springsteen. A rugged man, singing about manly things."
Chubb: "A man trapped in a man’s body."
Bran: "Well, a badger’s body."
Ten months to write the series doesn't seem quite so luxurious when you factor in that Bran and Chubb had to write and record an album's worth of music before shooting could begin.
Bran: "There’s also a lot more songs in the narrative as well this time. So there’s about 30 pieces of music to write and record. It’s quite easy to write it on the page, but then we realise we have to create them for playback during the shoot."
Unsurprisingly, despite the workload the pair are keen for Jinsy to go on and on and on. Chubb: "It’s fun trying to think of different weathers and elements and moods and genres for us to write shows for. A bit like how the classic 70s era of Doctor Who always plundered different genres and tried to rewrite all the staples of literature. I think we could sort of do that - it’d be nice to try."
You should be in that, that Doctor Who show.
Chubb: "Well, we could do."
Why haven't you popped up in other shows, despite your sterling performances in Jinsy series one? People must have asked you to do stuff.
Chubb: "I don’t know. We don’t have agents, you see."
Bran: "We don’t pop up anywhere, we just pop up in Jinsy. It’s like a job for us, in the sense that it’s about the work and about what we do and not about us, really. That’s how we approach it."
So if they said, do you want to be in Doctor Who? You would say, no thanks.
Bran: "I would say I’m too busy making a third series of Jinsy or our next project, whatever that is."
It feels like too much to hope for that Sky might pour a load more money into a third series of a resoundingly niche show – although you could have said that at the end of series one, and here we are. If Sky do pull the plug, Chubb and Bran have plans for books, music-only projects, and a TV treatment that involves the pair of them piloting a spaceship.
All that probably depends on how much of a breakthrough they make with this series of Jinsy. "I was personally amazed at the response to the first series," says Chubb. "I didn’t think it would be nearly as visible as it was. It’s sort of bubbling away, and obviously it’s on a satellite channel, which it gives it a slightly lower profile. I was very pleasantly surprised at how many people were talking about it, sometimes in the Daily Mirror or The Sun or something, and I didn’t think that would happen at all really. Maybe we were lucky and the show was of a type that wasn’t being done at that time, so we had a little gap to come into and fill for some people.
"People who like the show are very into the detail, and love the idea of finding out more about the mythology and the places on the island."
It’s a cult.
"Apparently we're big in Finland. And someone sent us some pictures - their child had made Lego figures of us all, and the tower and things, and that was fantastic. It was kind of like: 'Oh! We could be marketed on a massive scale.'”
"You press my character’s stomach and he…"
Bran: "Vomits on you."
Chubb: "… weeps, pathetically. And a leg lift at the same time. Weeps and lifts the leg."
Have you been recognised in shops?
Chubb: "I’ve been recognised once, in Eastbourne Tesco Metro."
Bran: "I’ve never been recognised, because in real life I’m completely different. I’m a lot shorter and I’ve got a beard."
This Is Jinsy returns to Sky Atlantic tonight at 10pm.