“We got paid for our first gag when we were still in sixth form,” says Joel Morris, writer, with Jason Hazeley, of Radio 4’s Scandi noir spoof Angstrom. “We sold a quickie to Russ Abbot.” Thirty years later, and buoyed by the runaway success of their ironic reworking of the Ladybird children’s books of the 1960s and 70s, Hazeley and Morris can look back on television triumphs that include Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe, That Mitchell and Webb Look and A Touch of Cloth.
There’s been one failure. “It’s true. We walked out of Danger Mouse in 2014,” Morris says cheerfully. Though it might have upset Hazeley: “My childhood dream was to work for Danger Mouse,” he says, “and we couldn’t cut it.”
Hazeley, 46, and Morris, 47, have been together so long they say it’s hard to tell the difference between each other’s lines, but off the page they’re a pleasing contrast. Hazeley is gawky and angular, Morris shorter and boyish. They met at grammar school in Chelmsford, a town described by Dickens, Hazeley points out, “as the dullest place on God’s earth”. For their own entertainment, they volunteered to help on a school newsletter. “Within a fortnight,” says Morris, “we’d produced a parody newsletter and, frankly, we’ve being doing the same thing ever since.”
Their latest project features the brooding detective Knut Angstrom and his younger blue-haired, multi-pierced sidekick, Mina Oblong. Taking the rise out of The Killing, Wallander, The Bridge and the rest is, you might argue, comedy’s equivalent of kicking a football at a barn door. The genre’s tropes – existential gloom, knitwear and grisly murders – are all easy targets, but Angstrom brings a particularly knowing silliness to Scandi noir.
“The other thing we wanted to parody was watching something that is just very long,” says Morris. “Some people really enjoy how a Scandi noir goes on for ten episodes on the back of a single crime. But, if you’re like me, by the time you get to episode five, you’ve forgotten what’s going on unless you’re binge-watching it. You’ve forgotten how far the conspiracy went up into the government. You’ve forgotten who is the secret figure with the file of disgusting sex dungeon pictures. We wanted to create that feeling of not quite paying attention to a box set.”
Everything we hear (the show is recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre) is supposedly written by a Brit, Martin English, under the pen name Bjorgen Swedenssonsson. “He’s just a hack who was previously doing The Bill or Taggart,” says Hazeley. “He’s never been to Scandinavia and all the research comes from Wikipedia. So, by episode two, he’s run out of ideas and put Benny from Abba in it. Because that’s obviously a character you need in a Scandi noir.”
The pair conjure up this daftness at two desks in a small West End office. They exchange ideas from behind their laptops, “like playing Battleships”, says Hazeley. The money from the Ladybird books has made the central London office possible. Previously they worked in public spaces with free wi-fi and a coffee shop, which is how they came up with the Ladybird idea. “There’s a gift shop at the Royal Festival Hall and we saw reprints of classic Ladybird books,” says Joel. “We went, ‘Oh, they’ll do loads more of these,’ and they didn’t. So we took them an idea for doing something new with the old artwork.”
The first edition was The Ladybird Book of the Hipster in 2015. “The public went berserk,” says Hazeley. “It was like Buzz Lightyear,” says Morris. “Shops ran out of stock.” Why was it so popular? “Some parodies are supposed to destroy the target, so you can never take it seriously again. But Ladybird books are pastiche; they take the form and enjoy it,” says Morris. “People know it’s not a ‘real’ Ladybird, it’s actually The Elves and the Shoemaker, and not a hipster boot emporium. They recognise the images, that’s the door that lets you in to the joke.”
That gentleness, and their insistence on the original illustrators being credited in the new versions of the books, meant Hazeley and Morris were warmly regarded by the Ladybird community. When Martin Aitchison, the illustrator of the Peter and Jane reading series, died in 2016, they were invited to the memorial service. “All the models for the Ladybird artworks are actual people,” says Morris. “We met the real Peter and Jane and it was really weird. I said, ‘I feel I know you. You were members of my family.’”
Like the Ladybird books, Angstrom’s humour is affectionate rather than angry. “We’re pretty lousy at satire,” says Hazeley. “We did one week on Have I Got News for You and, quite correctly, they never asked us back”. Essentially a couple of softies, they’re happy to gently take the mickey, out of themselves as much as us. “Really,” says Morris, “the big joke of Angstrom is the writer is out of his depth.” After a pause Hazeley says, “Hopefully no one will spot what we’ve done there.”
Angstrom is on Wednesday 10th January at 6.30pm on Radio 4