“I imagine that once this show goes out, BBC3’s future will be certain. And it’ll be shut down entirely.”
So says Jonny Sweet on the set of Together, a new sitcom he wrote and stars in which hits BBC3 tonight at 10:30pm – and although he’s joking, the future of the beleaguered channel (which you can read about here) looms large in this gentle comedy. But more of that later.
Together tells the story of Tom (Sweet) and Ellen (Cara Theobold), two young people living in London struggling to find their place in the world until they meet each other – but then the action takes an interesting turn. Instead of actually seeing their time spent together on dates, we see all the moments before and afterwards, with the pair’s bizarre friends and family setting increasingly ludicrous obstacles to their happiness.
Said obstacles include an allergic reaction to seafood that all goes a bit Elephant Man, a bike/car collision, an unintended attack on the wigs of leukemia patients and something to do with pigeons (which series producer Lucy Armitage tells me is the centrepiece for the finale).
Having seen the first couple of episodes it’s a fairly gentle ride, and not always laugh-out-loud funny. Together also suffers slightly from comparisons with comedy behemoth Gavin & Stacey, a similarly premised series that started on the same channel with a much stronger first episode.
However, Together does still have a lot of charm, with an unusually accurate depiction of living in London (I’m not just saying it because my old tube stop is a key location, honest) and a ramp-up of humour as the series progresses. In other words, watch this week, but also next week before you make up your minds.
Another thing that makes the series stand out from the pack is its double focus, sometimes manifesting itself in split-screens as Tom and Ellen go about parallel lives, which creates a much more balanced love story. Interestingly, this conceit comes intact from a previous incarnation of Sweet’s romantic comedy, when it was Radio 4 series called Hard to Tell starring himself, Alex Macqueen, Katy Wix and Vicki Pepperdine, which ran for two series.
“What was lovely, was when we all got here we had an existing set of relationships,” says Pepperdine, who play’s Tom’s mum.
Vicki Pepperdine and Alex MacQueen
MacQueen (best known as Neil’s dad in the Inbetweeners but Tom’s dad here) added: “We had an initial rapport that we could draw upon. That can make it a lot more pleasant than it would otherwise be.”
In fact the only major new cast member is the Syndicate’s Cara Theobold, replacing Fresh Meat’s Charlotte Ritchie as northern artist Ellen.
“I feel like I’m the special child,” she tells me during a break in filming. “I am the newbie, but I was very welcomed by everyone. And because I hadn’t known anything about the radio show it does feel like a new thing, at least to me.
“I think they are quite separate, and it’s been developed a lot since then. But it sounds amazing, and I’ve been working with a lot of the same cast, who are all brilliant.”
Cara Theobold as Ellen
“I think the radio show was slightly wackier, and slightly less rooted in the romance at times,” Sweet agrees. “So I think that’s a key part of it – making that relationship between them work and feel like you really want them to get together. I think we’ve also tried to make it a lot more visual than the radio. Weirdly!”
He adds: “I don’t know how Radio 4-y the original sitcom was, but, I was never asked to put in any ‘youthfulness’ by BBC3.”
After a little cajoling I also manage to find one other change that the programme-makers were glad to see; a little bit of “Oh my God”-ing.
“We’re allowed to blaspheme!” executive producer Ben Cavey says wryly. “On Radio 4, you’re not allowed to take the Lord’s name in vain, more than 3 times. So we now blaspheme.”
Jonny Sweet as Tom
It’s sounding more BBC3 already – but now the million-dollar question: what do the cast and crew feel about the future of the channel their programme airs on, which looks increasingly likely to be online-only after the BBC Trust’s consultation period closed last month?
Sweet sighs. “I’m a big fan of BBC3, and loads of my favourite shows have started there, or been on there entirely,” he says.
“So… I’m a big fan of it, and I would like it to stay as a TV station. But if it goes online, obviously I’d be delighted to be on that as well.”
Laughing, he adds: “I felt like a politician in that answer.”
Executive producer Ben Cavey is more circumspect, however.
The cast of Together
“I’m not anti the idea of the BBC having a great online identity, whether it’s called BBC3 or the iPlayer or whatever they wish to call it,” he tells me. “I just haven’t seen the proposition that makes me feel that it could be as great as Netflix.
“At the moment, all I can do is fear for a channel that’s been great for new talent, and shows that I’ve been really proud of. It’s scary that there might not be a home for those shows – or certainly not a home that’s prepared to fund and promote those shows properly.”
In an uncertain future, here’s hoping the BBC will find some way of keeping it together.