Five years ago, Shane Allen, who had recently been appointed to run TV comedy at the BBC, met Peter Kay, with whom he’d worked for many years at Channel 4. He hoped to secure Kay’s next project for his new employer.
“His initial verbal pitch,” recalls Allen, “went: ‘It’s about two people in a car on their way to and from work, just talking to each other. I know that sounds crap, but you’ve got to trust me.’ I’m very glad I did.”
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Peter Kay’s Car Share, as the show became, reaches its final episode on Monday 28th May as one of the most popular and critically praised comedies in TV history. More than eight million viewers are desperate to discover if supermarket assistant manager John Redmond and promotions rep Kayleigh Kitson (played by Kay’s co-star, co-writer and friend Sian Gibson) will finally embark on the relationship they’ve flirted with since he began driving her to and from work in an initiative by their employer to reduce traffic.
This finale is consciously Kay’s gift to the show’s fans, who were so disappointed when the last episode of series two left the romantic tension unresolved that 100,000 people signed a petition demanding a proper pay-off. Kay revealed on Steve Wright’s Radio 2 show that he never meant for it to end like it does. “It just developed into this. I didn’t realise people would think of it more as a romance.”
“It’s absolutely about giving the audience what they want,” says Allen. “He was blown away by the response to the series. He never ever takes anything for granted, feels very lucky to be doing what he’s doing and doesn’t ever count his chickens when it comes to the audience response. He listened to the fans, and in many ways it was the hardest episode to write and make because of the weight of expectation on it, but I think it’s got the perfect blend of hilarity and heart.”
But though the last show may be Kay’s thank you to fans, he is characteristically doing little to put them out of their speculative misery.
Kay also prefers broadcasters not to show previews of his work to critics – although, with typical idiosyncrasy, he unexpectedly held three screenings of the Car Share finale at the Blackpool Opera House last month in aid of the Lily Foundation, which helps children with a degenerative condition called mitochondrial disease and is a favourite charity. Appearing on stage, Kay appealed (successfully so far) to the live audiences not to spread plot-spoilers.
Watch the trailer for the finale below.
The Blackpool speech intrigued and relieved his admirers and the media, as Kay had not been seen in public since last November, when he cancelled – citing “unforeseen family circum – stances” – a 112-date live arena tour that was scheduled to start in Birmingham in April this year and end in London in June 2019.
Kay also premiered in Blackpool the first of the two farewell specials, Car Share Unscripted, in which he and Gibson improvised in the car for half an hour. That episode, which was shown on BBC1 on 7 May, exposed the show for the first time to hostility, with some viewers objecting to John and Kayleigh mocking a transgender love story told in the “Your Song” slot on the show’s fictional radio station, Forever FM. But, by breaking with the chronology of the second series, the 11th episode did nothing to settle the question of whether John and Kayleigh will become May’s happiest TV couple, aside from Harry and Meghan.
The ad-libbed edition was an extension of the subtle ways in which the scripted shows (written by Kay and Gibson with Paul Coleman and Tim Reid) vary the basic set-up of the co-workers cruising through traffic in the red Fiat 500L, numberplate WR62 XDF. Episodes have varied between drives to work and back home, with one of the best episodes featuring the couple travelling at night to a fancy-dress party, with John as Harry Potter and Kayleigh as Hagrid. The different times of day also provide a variety of hosts and playlists on Forever FM, the show serving in part as a satire of local radio.
The traits in Kay to which those who know or have worked with him refer most often are “insecurity” and “privacy”, although, to guard the latter, almost no one will go on record about the former. So often is Kay unsure about his work, though, that he always feared Car Share would be a disaster. This was one reason why the first series, in 2015, was made available on iPlayer as a box set in advance of the screening on BBC1 – then unprecedented for a BBC project.
Allen says that the idea for this “came from Peter himself in early negotiations, as something he wanted to try out”. The main reason was “Peter’s trepidation around moving from Channel 4, where he’d done all his work to date, to the much bigger spotlight of BBC1. The idea was that premiering the whole series on iPlayer ahead of transmission would act as a soft launch for the series, as he wanted people to have the chance to watch more than one episode before making their minds up about it. He hoped people would warm to the core relationship of Kayleigh and John through binge-watching.”
Kay’s apprehension came from the fact that Car Share was, in tone and look, such a departure for him. At Channel 4, he had established himself as the heir to Ronnie Barker, his comedic hero, as a chameleon comic-actor, with Phoenix Nights, Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere and Britain’s Got the Pop Factor… and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice. In these shows, Kay played multiple roles, often in heavy disguise, whereas Car Share, notes Allen, was “low key, two people and very naturalistic, with Peter playing a character that was closer to his true self than any other character he’d done before.”
The idea that Kay’s uncertainty about the show was partly a result of its unusual degree of self-revelation is striking, because the comedian has done more than almost any public figure except the Queen to protect what his “true self” might be.
Preparing this article became a familiar process of approaching people who have worked with Kay, but either didn’t respond or declined to comment. Even though it was stressed that there would be no personally intrusive questions and the subject would only be the success of Car Share, one regular past collaborator replied that this was “not something that [he] would be comfortable talking about just now without Peter’s permission”. The agent for one of Kay’s close colleagues even asked me whether it was necessary for this piece to be written at all, a suggestion that was rejected on the grounds that it’s one thing for a celebrity to request privacy, but quite another to attempt invisibility.
One aspect of Kay’s private nature is the rare degree of control he exerts over his television work. One leading TV comedian says, “Normally, the BBC is all over everything, deciding how and when something will be previewed, trailed, publicised. But with Peter, they just have to let him do whatever he wants. I think the BBC was probably as surprised as everyone else when he announced he was showing the final episodes of Car Share in Blackpool.”
But, while acknowledging Kay’s “perfectionism”, Shane Allen rejects any suggestion that the comedian is difficult: “He’s the most unstarry person I know. He cares very deeply about what the audience will think, so he pours his heart into it all and his quality bar is extremely high. But he’s an absolute dream – he’s tremendously thoughtful and always really delightful to deal with.”
It’s also clear that Kay’s humour has been lucrative. In March 2017, returns filed at Companies House showed that businesses run by him had assets of just under £30 million.
Allen also says Kay’s “comedy knowledge and frame of reference are second to none”. His breakthrough, in Channel 4’s Comedy Lab show The Services (1998) – in which he played seven characters (with a young Sian Gibson also in the cast) – felt like a conscious attempt to match the versatility of Ronnie Barker, whose 1973 series Seven of One also showcased seven characters, including the debuts of Fletcher and Arkwright, whom he later played in Porridge and Open All Hours.
Car Share consistently placed itself within traditions. Cutaway sight gags glimpsed from the car – such as the shop called Halaldi or the casually defecating dog in Car Share Unscripted – nod to the weekly anagrams of the hotel sign in Fawlty Towers. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that Car Share is ending after 12 episodes, the exact number reached by John Cleese and Connie Booth’s perfect 70s sitcom.
Car Share also extends a geographical trend in the genre. Although there have been classic British sitcoms set in the South (Dad’s Army, Porridge, The Good Life, The Office) or South West (Fawlty Towers) of England, a notable number of the biggest hits have been located in the North (Last of the Summer Wine, Open All Hours), North East (The Likely Lads) or North West: Dinnerladies, The Royle Family, The League of Gentlemen, Early Doors, Phoenix Nights and, now, Car Share.
“You can’t deny the huge influence that the North has always had and continues to exert on comedy,” Allen says. “People like Caroline Aherne, Victoria Wood and Peter Kay are great observers of everyday characters with their absurdities, eccentricities and turns of phrase, which they incorporate into their work. There’s a general richness of character to draw on.”
Certainly, if we imagine a version of Car Share in which the characters were middle-class southerners sharing a ride to their shift at a Hertfordshire branch of Waitrose, the tone of the show would immediately shift to satire. Northern characters seem to suggest authenticity to – and draw warmth from – viewers across the country.
And warmth, Allen thinks, is the key to Car Share’s appeal. “Peter’s always wanted it to be feelgood, to cheer people up, something to look forward to during the working week. It was really important to him that Sian, a best mate from way back, played Kayleigh, as he knew their natural chemistry would come across on screen. Audiences love those fully rounded characters they can take to their hearts, the ones that can make them laugh and cry: Denise Royle and Derek Trotter had that quality.
“Lots of comedy can play at a more frivolous, superficial nature at one extreme or be unrelentingly dark at the other, but the sweet spot is in creating those characters who can be by turns hilarious and poignant about life.”
Peter Kay’s Car Share: the Finale is on Bank Holiday Monday 28th May at 10.00pm on BBC1