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THE KING OF TV COMEDY
24 Sep 2014 : Paul Byrne
Or pretty darn close to it. The mischievous brain behind such pivotal TV gems as The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, Blackadder and Q.I., John Lloyd flew into Dublin recently for an IFTA In Conversation With...event. Paul Byrne caught up with him to talk funny, family and physics.

Woody Allen reckons comedy is tragedy plus time. For John Lloyd, it would seem disaster rather than tragedy is the real spark for creating laughs. A great believer in the old Navajo saying that anything easy is evil and anything good is difficult, many of John Lloyd’s most celebrated creations struggled through difficult births. So much so, friendships were quashed, enemies were forged, and on quite a few occasions, John found himself getting sacked, sometimes by those closest to him on the project (including, in one instance, a girlfriend).

Pull
The Irish have always been a big, big part of comedy, from Dave Allen to Father Ted, and well beyond. There's a conspiratorial twinkle in the eye that's impossible to resist.

It was all part of the process,” says the 62-year-old writer, producer, presenter and author, in Dublin for the IFTA event. “At least, that’s how it felt at the time. Looking back, I’m sure I could have been a little bit more diplomatic there, a little less aggressive here, and maybe even a little less rude too, but a part of me also feels that the work would have suffered if I hadn’t pushed and pushed. That we often ended up with a show that worked usually smoothed over any such cracks, and made you feel that all the headbanging was more than worth it.

In the case of John Lloyd’s glittering career as a TV comedy producer, thanks to a blistering talent for breaking new ground - with such landmark hits as Not The Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image and Blackadder - meant the headbanging was indeed more than worth it. Lloyd is only second to Dame Judi Dench when it comes to BAFTA wins. Along the way, all the madness and mayhem was turned into moolah and something approaching a Midas touch. So, if anyone knows where TV comedy is going right now, it’s John Lloyd. This is the man who was pivotal in regard to where it’s been, after all. “I don’t actually watch TV these days,” he chuckles. “I know that’s something everyone my age tends to say, but it’s true. It must be about two years now since I’ve sat down and watched TV for a whole evening. As it is, I catch snippets. I ended up watching half of a Downtown Abbey episode the other night because my wife loves it, and with my three kids, we’ll watch clips on YouTube, or grab a boxed set of this or that. It’s the way people live now."

I can remember my father coming home, and he could sit in front of the TV from the moment he finished his dinner to the moment he went to bed. And that was with just three channels. You could still hop around those three stations and wile away an entire evening. People don’t tend to do that now. There’s so much choice, and you can control when and where you watch it. It breeds a different kind of product, of course, and I truly feel for those starting out today, trying to make something original. The need to have a hit from day one is immense. The bottom line now is ratings - it’s not about how much people loved it, but how many. That’s a dangerous path, because new ideas don’t get a chance to grow, to find their feet. And this is happening all over the world. I had the same experience in Kiev a few years ago...

Lloyd is happy to admit that many of his own creations weren’t all that wonderful in their early incarnations. “Look at something like Blackadder,” he states. “The first series of that show was pretty dreadful. But the second series just clicked, because we had found the right formula. Which, we realised afterwards, was taking the Fawlty Towers dynamic, and sending them on a time-travelling journey through history. Rowan Atkinson was really playing Basil Fawlty, Baldrick was really Manuel...” Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews reached a similar conclusion long after Father Ted was done and dusted. They had recreated Only Fools & Horses’ core trio as Irish priests. “Isn’t it incredible, how we all end up with the same basic stories?” laughs Lloyd. “There are only a handful of stories, as they say, and we just keep dressing them up in new clothes.

Talk of Linehan and Mathews leads us to the Irish wave that seemed to take over the UK comedy scene at the end of the 1990s, with the likes of Dylan Moran, Tommy Tiernan and Jason Byrne hoovering up stand-up awards just as Father Ted and So Graham Norton were becoming TV staples. Back then, comedy was the new rock’n’roll, and every new Irish comedian was Elvis. Was the Irish comedy invasion of the UK just a media invention, or was there really something in the Guinness at that time? “The Irish have always been a big, big part of comedy,” says Lloyd, “from Dave Allen to Father Ted, and well beyond. There's a conspiratorial twinkle in the eye that's impossible to resist. So, I don’t think it was any great shock to anyone within the industry when the likes of Dylan and Graham were becoming major players. It was more coincidence than any kind of masterplan that all these wonderfully funny Irish people started having success at the same time.

Still, it did reach a point where the Edinburgh Comedy Festival’s So, You Think You’re Funny? competition was redubbed by many within the industry as So, You Think You’re Irish?. “With the Irish, it’s always been a case of funny until proven otherwise,” continues Lloyd. “Like the Scottish, and the Welsh, and the Australians, there’s definitely something wicked about the humour. And who doesn’t like a little bit of wicked in their humour?

Having spent much of his childhood taking the Holyhead ferry back and forth for family holidays in Ireland, Lloyd has some insight into that wicked sense of humour. And how it might just have been a survival mechanism. “My father is Anglo-Irish, and we have relatives scattered all over Tipperary and beyond. My brother still lives there, having taught in Trinity, and gotten married and settling in Carlow. Having that mix in the family meant that you would have your Georgian portraits and silver teapot down at one end of the house, and then all the rustic beauty of a stone cottage down the other. Wonderful, in retrospect, but it all felt a bit bonkers - a little bit schizophrenic - growing up.”

Lloyd’s passion for flirting with disaster may have come from that Anglo-Irish father, a naval officer who, called upon at the 11th hour to go into battle, found himself the captain of a beached and battered ship after the coxswain took a wrong turn and headed straight for “a strange cloud formation” that turned out to be the White Cliffs of Dover. H.L. ‘Harpy’ Lloyd offered up his resignation, but the Royal Navy allowed him this one mistake. “There was a perfect example of a disaster that was actually a blessing in disguise. If my father and his crew had taken the right turn, and gone into battle, they all would have most likely perished. I’ve always felt that my own disasters are really just blessings in disguise. Often, when I look back, if I’d gotten what I wanted at that particular time, it would have left me with a true disaster later. I feel that way about relationships, about work, about so many, many turns in my life.

It was after taking what felt like some very good turns in life - marrying the love of his life, Sarah, becoming a father, achieving success, wealth and awards - that John Lloyd hit a brick wall. Waking up one Christmas eve in his early forties, despite having everything he had ever dreamed of, John Lloyd suddenly couldn’t see the point of it all. Crying under the desk in his study became a regular occurrence. Worse of all, Lloyd couldn’t figure out the reason behind the slump. Reasons to be uncheerful followed. A planned radio station in 1992 had to be abandoned after a year’s planning, £4million was raised and a hundred comedians signed on when the Radio Authority refused Lloyd a license. To add to the tailspin, Hollywood wasn’t working out either, exemplified by a Paramount boss throwing Lloyd’s script into the swimming pool - and, effectively, the planned film out the window - mainly because he had missed the deadline. “And that’s when I set out to try and find the meaning of life,” deadpans Lloyd. “I just needed a good reason to go on, somewhere between science and religion. So, I started studying physics, and I started exploring other ways to think, other ways to be. And that just led me on and on, through science, history, biology, chemistry, everything. It was a slow process, a brick-by-brick rebuilding of how I thought, and what I believed, and who I am, and why.

Not that Lloyd was about to forget what he was instinctively good at - making great TV. Out of this journey of self-discovery came Q.I., the TV show that Stephen Fry was born to present. The title stands for Quiet Interesting, and is a deliberate reversal of I.Q. It’s chuckles on the chalkboard, learning with wry, crisp and dry laughter. And the perfect platform for Lloyd to package his own quest for answers as Mensa for the masses. Lloyd was just glad to be back at his desk, the turning point having arrived when he found himself buying a large Dutch dictionary, fully intending to try and read it from A to Z. “Yeah, I realised at that point that I should probably try and get out more,” he laughs. “Get back to doing what I love to do...

Are there TV sitcoms today that make Lloyd laugh. The panto archetypes of Mrs. Brown’s Boys and Miranda wouldn’t look out of place on 1970s primetime. “You’re absolutely right,” says Lloyd. “There’s a real 1970s feel about those shows, and I think it reflects on the need people have right now for warmth in their comedy. They don’t want to be preached at, they don’t want to be confronted or challenged - they want silliness. And lots of it. The deliberately shambolic nature of something like Mrs. Brown’s Boys is very comforting for a lot of people. They’re in on the joke. You don’t get that kind of warmth in The Office, or Veep, or so many other great shows. You only have the look at the difference between The Thick Of It and Yes, Minister to see where comedy had gone. That gap needed to be filled. People needed cuddly characters again.” The seeds for such old-fashioned familiarity in a sitcom were sown with Father Ted, a show that was both adored by critics and embraced by audiences. “Graham and Arthur did manage to straddle both worlds with Father Ted,” says Lloyd. “They dealt with the big questions - about God, about religion, and so forth - but, at the same time, there was just this wonderful slapstick side to Father Ted. A truly exceptional comedy, one of the true classics.

As one might expect with John Lloyd, the interview continues past our allotted time, and well beyond the usual topics. It’s beginning to feel like The Museum Of Curiosity around here... John reflects on how we can’t control everything around us, but we can control how we react. There’s the greatness of Harry S. Truman’s advice for rearing kids - “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is find out what they want and then advise them to do it”. About how a simple idea - such as taking all the wasted coffee beans thrown out by Starbucks and co can be turned into biofuel - can create change, and a career. How people waste so much time talking about things they can’t change, such as the current crisis in the Ukraine, rather than taking time out to figure out what changes they themselves might need."

By the end of our conversation, I feel that little bit wiser. Which is, I conclude later on, just what John Lloyd would have wanted.



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