Peep Show, Veep and Thick of It writer Simon Blackwell on Trying Again with relationship comedy
Screenwriter reveals what it was like to tackle more personal and emotive subject matter in Sky Living's Trying Again - and how the process became even more intense when he was doubly bereaved
Simon Blackwell is not a writer one would normally associate with tender relationship dramas. Great comedy – yes. But for his stuff - shows like The Thick Of It, The Old Guys, Peep Show and Veep - you’d normally need tissues to wipe away tears of laughter rather than those of empathetic engagement.
These are popular shows that speak about our world. But they are perhaps not the kind of thing would go to in order to truthfully explore the often untidy intricacies of modern relationships.
But now he has co-written Trying Again for Sky Living with his Thick of It colleague Chris Addison who here plays Matt, a likable man who works in a Lake District tourist office but appears to be struggling after his girlfriend (Jo Joyner) had an affair.
It is a tender, believable comedy that explores the frayed edges of a very convincing relationship which has been hit by the affair before the action starts. Addison’s Matt is sincere and sweet, but also a bit annoying and it is a feat of the writing that you can like both him and also understand why Meg was drawn into an affair with Charles Edwards’ doctor Iain.
“I wanted to find those messy emotions,” says Blackwell (pictured with In the Loop co-writers Tony Roche and Armando Iannucci) who located the show in a Kendal in the Lake District because he wanted the kind of place where their relationship is played out in a semi-public arena. Kendal is the kind of place where people know your business.
But the experience of writing it was transformed for Blackwell by the death within eight weeks of each other of his parents.
“There is more of me in it in terms of bit being an emotional piece,” he adds.
His parents had been happily married for 55 years and it probably does not need saying that it was an intensely raw and painful time for him, a time he will obviously never forget.
“If you are bereaved everything has a meaning,” he says. “Every song on the radio had a meaning because you are in a deeply emotional place.”
Still, he had huge amounts of support from the crew and Sky whom he says offered insight and constructive criticism to the whole project.
He is particularly pleased with the role created by Jo Joyner as one of what he describes as a long line of funny females he has written for, from Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Rebecca Front in The Thick of It.
“Women In sitcoms are often there to stop the fun – stop doing that interesting thing. We wanted strong female characters and for the women to be properly funny.”
He clearly believes that more women in comedy is a good thing, although he doesn’t want to get involved in the thorny question of whether BBC director of television Danny Cohen is right to introduce quotas for the number of women on BBC comedy panel shows.
“If it can make those shows feel like less of a boys club… and have more female comedians then it is a good thing.”
But we leave him biting his nails. Many of his other projects have been gang written shows – this bears his name prominently on the credits and coupled with the subject matter he admits to feeling a little more exposed when the reviews and viewing figures come in. He and Addison are keen to do a second series and are fleshing out storylines as we speak but a nod from Sky will depend on its performance.
“The main thing is I leave it on a cliffhanger but I really want to know what happened to Matt and Meg and everyone else in the show,” he adds. “I love the mess of this – I am someone who loves The Graduate but would love to know what happens right at the end of that film when Dustin Hoffman goes off with Elaine Robinson. What would their lives be like? You can see a clue in the way she looks at him. It would probably be a disaster but I would love to know….”
Trying Again starts on Sky Living at 9pm tonight (24 April)