Not Going Out creator Lee Mack: "Everyone told me British sitcom was dead"
The writer and star also opens up about the time he almost walked away from the BBC comedy – and why he writes in a shed
The shed door swings shut, a kettle whistles merrily on a camping-gas stove and the taptap of two Lancastrian fingers on a battered typewriter echoes across the lawn.
Lee Mack is writing another series of Not Going Out and all is as it should be in the world of light entertainment. “Well, it’s something like that, though I do spend a lot of time on Skype with my co-writer Dan Peak,” says Mack. “But once I’m in the shed then I do write. I get on with it.”
In the early years of the show, which began in 2006, Mack’s workday would see him make the short journey, still in pyjamas, from the kitchen door to the shed at the bottom of his garden where he created the entire second series.
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“I just sat in front of the computer from eight in the morning until about three or four in the afternoon,” he says. “I love that: a cup of coffee, pyjamas, ploughing through it in the shed.”
It’s not just sheds. Mack has written Not Going Out on narrow boats (“They’re very narrow”), in bed, in a tiny Oxford Street office (“There weren’t any windows”) and at Hampton Court Palace.
“Someone used to let me in,” he says. “I’d find myself walking down the corridors by myself at night. It was very spooky.”
Somehow, this has worked for 12 years. The last series, the eighth, peaked with six million viewers; most of us drawn by Mack’s relentless and largely successful search for constant laughs, a format he picked up from American television.
“Everyone told me that British sitcom was dead,” he says. “Then I looked at Seinfeld and Frasier and thought, ‘No it’s not, it just needs more gags.’”
The show has morphed from the original version, when Mack was matched against Tim Vine and Miranda Hart, with Megan Dodds as the landlady he pined for.
The present incarnation has settled into a classic British sitcom format, with Mack at home with his screen wife, Sally Bretton – who, as Lucy Adams, replaced Dodds in series two – and their three children.
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“Things have to change,” says Mack. “I was 38 when Not Going Out began, and I was playing a 34-year-old who had a thing about his landlady. How could I play a 50-year-old who had a thing about his landlady? It would be creepy.”
Bretton agrees. “The will-they-won’t-they thing between Lee and Lucy... We were getting old. Something had to happen.”
But one thing remains unchanged: Mack’s predilection for locking himself away. “I never go in the shed,” says Bretton. “But Lee rings up when he’s in there smashing his head against the wall and goes, ‘Arghhhh!’ Then he goes back to work. He’s very disciplined.”
The show’s success, and his stand-up career, have made Mack famous and wealthy, though he sidesteps questions about money. “I’m on £150 a week.”
Really? “OK. Compared with when I wasn’t a comedian, am I wealthier? You know the answer to that.”
He also claims not to be obsessed about viewing figures. “If someone said to me you can do the show for the next ten years at midnight – in other words, fewer people will be watching, but we guarantee its longevity – I’d probably say yes. Because what I’m bothered about is creating it. I love creating it.”
Not everyone approves. Last year The Guardian declared Not Going Out, “unoriginal, unfunny” and noted with distaste that, “The studio audience falls about laughing.”
Mack shrugs. “Early on in your career you think, ‘I wish they weren’t so sniffy about what I’m doing.’ And then you realise what’s really happening when you read a bad review – they’re actually reviewing the genre.
“The people who tell you what you should be thinking and doing are all saying, ‘Don’t do a studio-based sitcom.’ Great, that’s a massive advantage for me. Keep saying that, please! Because it stops all of the new comics who could be doing it. As long as they are doing lots of shaky camera, nuanced, whimsical stuff and not making sitcoms, then I’m all right.”
Mack, real name Lee Gordon McKillop, was born in Southport in 1968. His parents were publicans and he experienced a peripatetic childhood as they moved from pub to pub.
When he was 11 his parents separated – Mack left with his mother; elder brother, Darren, stayed with his father. Already obsessed with TV comedy, when he was 14 Mack had a revelation. “I was watching The Young Ones and I realised that it wasn’t just wonderful, it was what I should do.”
A year later, he’d left school and got a job as a stable boy where Grand National winner Red Rum was seeing out his retirement – all before his 16th birthday.
“I left school at 15,” Mack says. “It sounds Dickensian. The truth is I turned 16 in the summer – I’m an August baby.”
This August Mack will make his half century, but he already tells people he’s 50. “Maybe it’s a defence thing,” he says. “So when I wake up and I really am 50, it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Like his TV persona, Mack and his wife, Tara, have three children, Arlo, 13, Louie, 11, and Millie, six. He says he feels fit enough and, bad knee allowing, will run in the London Marathon in April.
He stopped drinking alcohol a year and a half ago. “I just decided to pack it in. I don’t miss it at all. It’s funny, because when you tell people you’ve stopped drinking, there’s an automatic reaction. People ask, ‘Was it a lifestyle choice or were you waking up in a skip?’”
Was he? “No. I would have been regarded as a ‘normal’ drinker. I’ve had a few wasted days where you go, ‘I’ll stay in bed today; I had a bit of a session last night,’ but I mainly just got fed up with the overkill of it in society, the way it’s thrust down our throats.”
Mack has long been surrounded by booze – in stand-up and, before that, in the stables. “The drinking culture was big. I’d turned 16, but I was just a boy. You go in there and you’re with hard-core jockeys who have been battered around by falling off horses. I would walk to the pub with them and I felt drunk after half a pint. It sounds overdramatic to say I went from a boy to a man instantly, but it’s sort of true. I was asked to mature very quickly.”
And, of course, he grew up in pubs. “My parents aren’t alive, but I remember them behind the bar. It was like a stage. They were always messing about. I thought everyone was brought up like that. I was surprised to find other people’s parents were boring.”
These days Mack is an ambassador for Alcohol Concern. “I’m not opposed to the consumption of alcohol,” he says. “I’m opposed to my kids watching TV at seven o’clock and being told to bet and drink.”
Mack feels so strongly about this, he reveals that he nearly pulled the plug on Not Going Out as they were working on series eight.
“We make it on the BBC, but then it ends up on commercial channels,” he says, in this case Dave/UKTV, “and is heavily sponsored by beer. This is my life. I spend ten months a year doing this, and suddenly I feel like I’m in a brewer’s marketing department, and my work is being used to sell booze. I said, unless that stops, we’re not going to make any more. But it became complex. It turned out we were contractually obliged. So I said, ‘All right, we’ll move it on. We’ll change the name of the show, we’ll make a new one.’”
Would you have done it? “Yes. But then Dave relented.”
The fierceness of his battle on this illustrates just how much Mack’s writing means to him. Sally Bretton says Not Going Out will last “for as long as Lee can bear to go and sit in that shed”.
Once a series script is under way, he rarely stops. Though he is ill at ease with his private life becoming “something for public consumption”, he admits that when his brother, Darren, died from an overdose of antidepressants in 2014, he did stop writing.
“If you’re a postman and your brother dies, you get time off work. It’s no different in this job. I stopped a recording of Would I Lie to You? and took time off.”
Did he take time off from being Lee Mack, the quick-witted joker? “That was fine. I have a very clear separation between my life and my work.”
It’s time to hoist him onto the roof of the shed for the cover photoshoot. Before we part, I thank Mack for being so open and honest.
“You get a lot of credit in showbiz for things that you don’t get credit for in real life. In showbiz, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s interesting, he wants to be honest with people.’ But ask yourself, would you have said that if I was a milkman?”
Not Going Out is on Thursdays 9.00pm BBC1