From naps to knickers: behind the scenes of The Sarah Millican Television Programme

Before you see her on the box, Radio Times columnist Sarah Millican needs some slap and a nap... being funny takes a lot of work

It always feels a bit ridiculous referring to The Sarah Millican Television Programme – it’s not too far from saying “Sarah has finished her dinner” or “Sarah would like to book in some sexytime please”. But calling it my show is equally wrong. There are literally millions of people involved in it. All of the obvious ones who’ll cry if I don’t mention them: producer, director and the assistant floor manager who at my behest before every recording says to me: “Don’t be s***” . But also all of the studio crew who make sure it’s properly recorded and not just a lovely play. And the whole production team, guests, audience and lots of technical people who are vital but so skilled I don’t even try to understand what they do. These people could be chancers, of course. We’ll never know.

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So I generally refer to it as TSMTP. The new series is seven episodes long: six and a Christmas special. It takes about four months to make: two months of pre-production, a month in the studio and then I believe some people have to edit it all. I mocked producer Mark (Barrett, new to this series and a joy to work with) for keeping the scripts after we’d finished recording – I assumed for nostalgic reasons. He said, “No, I have to edit them all now.” Oh yes, I should remember that – while I’m skipping out of the school gates happy my term has gone well, some poor devils are doing snippy snippy summer school.

My favourite days are the recording days. I’m always happiest before a crowd. Unless I’ve just slipped on a pasty and slid down into painful splits bringing someone’s nana with me because she was the closest. I mean being intentionally funny in front of a seated audience.

Two months to go…

Before the recording days, the shows are planned, the guests are booked and the jokes are written and tried in front of audiences at comedy clubs. Then the recordings begin.

Ready to roll… 10.45am

For me, a typical recording day starts when I rock up to the studio with more bags than I actually need (“Why doesn’t she just bring a case?” “She thinks this is better.” “Oh.” It is better.) Generally one of the assistant producers will meet me at the door, as studios are all like brightly painted rabbit warrens with pictures on the walls of celebrities when they had hair. Because of that, and because I’m a chatter, I never really pay attention to where I’m going if I’m with someone who knows the way. I have an app on my phone to help me find my car. Really.

Refining the script, 11am

The script meeting involves me, producer Mark, one of the assistant producers, our Comedy Dad Graham (Graham Stuart, our brilliant executive producer) and Jim, who is the Oracle (Jim Pullin, a hugely experienced comedy writer/producer whose brain we pick every day). In this meeting, I read the script aloud and, as we usually have too much stuff, we cut anything that we can lose. It’s also in this room that I try to keep as many swearies and rudies as I can. The others are usually a pushover because they like swearies and rudies, too.

Fuel injection, 1pm

At dinner time, one of the lovely runners comes in and asks us what we’d like to eat. Runners are our link to food so we’re always super nice to them. I always have the same meal. I think some people think I’m superstitious, when really I’m just a fussy fanny and fear change.

Keep out, 2.15pm

The meeting ends, we eat and then I curl in to a ball for 15 minutes for a post-dinner nap. The runners put a sign up that says “Keep out”. They are the providers of our food and guardians of our naps.

Togs time, 2.30pm

Next I go down to wardrobe to see Marcia who, alongside Kat in make-up, is in charge of making me look lovely. Marcia usually has a few things for me to try on, either a dress we need to see if I’m fat sitting down in, or sometimes a hand-made latex nurse’s outfit that we need to make sure is the right amount of slutty.

Checking my moves, 3pm

There is no audience for the rehearsal in the studio, so I do as few jokes as possible – the whooping of a few production staff isn’t enough for this ego. This bit is to run through a sketch we might be doing, but mostly about where I’ll be walking and standing. It’s surprisingly necessary. I never rehearse with the guests. I meet them to say hello and thanks, but I like to keep my powder dry, so to speak. If something funny happens off-the-cuff in a rehearsal, it’s near-impossible to re-create it later.

On with the slap, 6pm

The make-up room, like the wardrobe room, is quiet, the doors are locked, the women are wonderful and only last-minute tweaks to the script get through those doors. It’s a lovely, relaxing place to focus before the show.

Warm-up, 6.45pm

My brilliant warm-up man and friend, Jonathan Mayor, gets the audience going. He really sets the bar and I always hope to match it. At 7pm I get taken for my last wee by Andy, the assistant floor manager. I’d go alone (I do it all the time at home), but I don’t want a repeat of when I came backstage to change into my Downton Abbey outfit, nipped for a wee and, without my pass, got stuck between doors, eventually banging on the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra’s bit until a nice man let me through. In all my petticoats and everything.

Action! 7.15pm

Then we record the show. All of the work everyone has put in shows its worth and our audiences are, without exception, lovely. Generally there will be a few retakes when I’ve forgotten where I’m supposed to be walking. Think how bad it would be if I hadn’t rehearsed.

Off we pop, 9.15pm

Once we’re done, we have a debrief with the gang, then an actual debrief where I take all the knickers off. Comfy clothes back on and upstairs to the hospitality suite for a glass of pop and some crisps with the guests and production team. Then a lovely satisfied drive home to flop asleep on the sofa within minutes.

I believe I have a dressing room, but I never see it. From the paperwork, I know that it’s Star Dressing Room 2. I once asked who was in Star Dressing Room 1. The answer: no one. Then why am I in Star Dressing Room 2? “To give you something to aim for.”

The Sarah Millican Television Programme is on Tuesday at 9:30pm on BBC2. 


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