Friday evening at Pinewood Studios, and the final episode of a new BBC2 sitcom, Count Arthur Strong, is being filmed in front of an appreciative studio audience, even if our enthusiasm begins to sag after the three-hour mark.
A giant of a man with a look of fierce concentration on his face and a well-thumbed script in hand, is striding around the sets, tweaking a line here, correcting a performance there, and encouraging us to laugh in the right places. Being part of a studio audience is probably something you should only do once in your life, he tells us. How we laugh, and forget our aching bottoms.
His name is Graham Linehan, a 45-year-old Irishman who is not greatly known outside the world of comedy, despite being responsible for some of the most successful sitcoms of recent times – Father Ted, The IT Crowd and Black Books. Outside of Twitter (of which more later) he keeps a low profile, unlike, say, Ricky Gervais. Gervais, by the way, has acknowledged that The Office was directly influenced by Linehan’s 1999 sketch show Big Train. He is the comedian’s comedian.
“I was sort of embarrassed you saw that particular episode,” he says when we meet up a few weeks later. “It was unrepresentative… it was tying up a lot of loose ends.” Actually, despite the inevitable stop-start nature of the filming process, it was funny. Count Arthur Strong, an elderly self-styled “showbusiness legend” from Doncaster beset by malapropisms, Tourettic tics and memory loss, is the creation of stand-up comedian Steve Delaney, and has been a fixture in Edinburgh since 1997 and on Radio 4 since 2005.
Now, with the help of Linehan’s magic touch, Count Arthur is coming to television. Delaney’s one-man show has been opened out to include his home, a local café and a cast of new characters – the original idea of an Alan Partridge-style chat show having wisely been jettisoned.
“I originally thought we’d take the Alan Partridge route,” says Linehan. “I wanted to create a fake light entertainment past for him, so we created a show based on 3-2-1 [the 1980s ITV game show hosted by Ted Rogers]. But I quickly realised that I didn’t want to do a parody of 3-2-1 every week.”
Linehan first started writing comedy back in the 1980s while working as a critic on the Dublin politics-and-music magazine Hot Press, where he met his future comedy partner (and, to some extent, mentor) Arthur Matthews. “Every Christmas Arthur would do a fake newspaper in Hot Press called the Border Fascist,” recalls Linehan. “He had one story that went ‘Local Man Declares War on China’ and the last line of it was, ‘We at the Border Fascist wish him all the best in this exciting venture’. I loved that… it was the real voice that would later go into [Father] Ted.”
Matthews was also part of a U2 parody band called The Joshua Trio, and Linehan would shine a torch at them “like The Edge does on the ‘Rattle and Hum’ film. And then we started writing sketches, and finally I was over in England writing for Select magazine and said to Arthur, ‘Why don’t we try to make a go of it?’. And to my amazement he came over, which I still think is the single luckiest thing that happened to me.”
From their shared flat in outer London suburbia, Linehan and Matthews sold sketches to Mel Smith, Harry Enfield and Alexei Sayle, as well as creating the most celebrated of the Fast Show characters, Ted and Ralph (the lonely aristocrat and his Irish estate worker, played by Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse). But it was with a different Ted, Father Ted, that the duo struck comedy gold. “Ted is this light innocent bloke who somehow ended up in the priesthood,” says Linehan, “and I had great affection for him.”
That affection has curdled in recent years. Strangely enough, just the day before meeting Linehan, I had interviewed Gabriel Byrne – the Irish actor talking angrily about his boyhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. Would Linehan have created Father Ted knowing what he does today? “No, no… I couldn’t,” he replies without hesitation.
“I was never beaten or abused by priests who taught me at CUS [Catholic University School, his secondary school in Dublin] – some of them were a bit eccentric but they all seemed harmless enough. But since Ted, and everything that’s come out, I’ve just come to really hate the church. I could never write Ted now because I’d be so angry my fingers would go through the keyboard.”
On the other hand, he argues, Father Ted, with its gently satirical tone, managed to mock the priesthood for a far larger audience than would have tuned in had he and Matthews taken a more belligerent stance. “There was a piece written recently that I was really proud of,” he says. “That Ted basically lanced a boil for Irish people. Also, another guy told me that hardliners on both sides of the Northern Ireland problem loved it… it brought a lot of people together, and I think that was only possible because we didn’t take the hard-edged satirical approach. We were just silly.”
Even sillier in its way was the BBC sketch show Big Train, with a seminal cast that included Simon Pegg, Julia Davis, Rebecca Front, Amelia Bullmore and Kevin Eldon, but which marked the parting of the ways for Linehan and Matthews. “Arthur did a second series but I just thought, ‘We did that experiment’ and I didn’t see the point,” he says. “Then Arthur went on to do a show called Hippies [set in 1969 in the offices of an Oz-style counter-culture magazine] and I didn’t have faith in the idea. I wrote the pilot but I didn’t think it had legs so I bailed on that. I then went off to do Black Books with Dylan Moran and have experience of working with another collaborator.”
Black Books, in which Moran played misanthropic bookshop owner Bernard Black, won Linehan another Bafta award to place alongside the two he had shared for Father Ted. He was to win a further Bafta with his next sitcom, his first solo project (which he also directed), The IT Crowd. He missed the collaborative process, but felt it was something that had to be done.
“Before I wrote The IT Crowd I had a bee in my bonnet about showing I could do it on my own,” he says. “But since then I’ve realised that the reason to do things is to enjoy them. The writing has to be fun because nothing else about the process is fun… it’s a pain in the arse.”
Linehan got the idea for The IT Crowd after an engineer came round to his house to fix his computer, and he asked the man why more IT engineers didn’t do more home visits. “He said, ‘They don’t have the people skills’ and that’s what kind of made me think, ‘There’s a sitcom in that’,” says Linehan. He’s quite a techie himself, although Linehan prefers the term “early adopter”. He is an enthusiastic tweeter, who once epigrammatically observed that “Facebook was just John the Baptist… Twitter is the real deal”, and who now has nearly 300,000 followers, including myself.
And in 2009 Linehan began a famous Twitter campaign in support of the NHS, while it was being pilloried by Republicans during President Obama’s attempts to reform the American healthcare system. “The brilliant thing about it was making a hash-tag go to the top of things that were being talked about. It was kind of like shouting over to the right-wing in the United States, ‘Fuck you – you’re lying’.”
It’s also thanks to the internet that Linehan felt able to move out of London, to Norwich. “My life is almost exactly the same as it was before, except now when I go for a walk I see nice things,” he says. “I’m surrounded by the same friends. Some people would argue that I’m not because they’re online, but I see the same friends on my phone and on my computer every day as I did before, so it’s been a very smooth transition.”
He is collaborating with his wife Helen, a former producer at the Cartoon Network and the sister of comedian Peter Serafinowicz, on a new project, a children’s show. They have two kids themselves, a boy and a girl aged seven and five. “I brought them to see Count Arthur being made,” he says. “I was showing them how it’s filmed and bringing home early edits where the sound isn’t uniform yet and stuff. And I was thinking the other day that they now know more about how to make sitcoms than most television critics.”
Other new projects include a sitcom with Adam Buxton and “hopefully a horror thriller type of deal, which is in its early stages”. In the meantime, his hit musical of the Ealing classic, The Ladykillers, is returning to the West End this month, and he hopes to develop his idea of finding writing talent on Twitter. “It just puts people on my radar,” he says. “If you can be that consistently funny [on Twitter] then maybe you could write a sketch show or something. The problem is that there’s no really good tool like Twitter to create a virtual writers’ room.”
He finds it melancholy to envisage a world without social media. “Imagine if Twitter was taken away from everybody now and Facebook,” he says. “I would find that a fascinating experiment, because what would we do? The way I see is that for the first time in the history of the human race we’ve all been able to share each other’s experiences and suddenly that would disappear and we’d all be alone again. It would be very sad.” Or maybe there might be a sitcom in it.