Peter Learmouth Interview, Part 2

Peter Learmouth is one of the most prolific sitcom writers over the past forty years, starting with Cowboys for Thames Television in the early 1980s. In part one of this interview, I looked at his early career and how he started off. By 1982, Peter had begun scripting episodes of Thames’ Keep It in the Family, with two shows in the fourth series.

‘Job References’ sees Muriel Rush deciding it’s time to go back out to work, leaving her husband fending for himself at home; Dudley ends up doing anything but his work, such as fusing the lights in the household. Meanwhile, in a ‘A Snap Decision’, Dudley – whilst packing to go on holiday to Portugal – finds a photograph of his daughter Susan sunbathing topless. Ever the protective father, he wants to know how this has happened and why his daughter is in a state of undress.

What was it like scripting episodes of other people’s sitcoms, writing for well-established characters? Peter Learmouth explains. “It was ok. Not that difficult. Working with people like Glyn Houston was a thrill, having seen him in so many great British movies. The end results were patchy, but one does one’s best.”

Following Keep it in The Family, 1983 brought the opportunity to write an episode of the Jim Davidson sitcom Up the Elephant and Round the Castle; entitled ‘Never on a Sunday’, Jim London tries to have a peaceful day of the rest after overdoing it at Constable Terry’s wild party the previous night.

Working with different casts and crews over his career, I asked Peter if there had been any awkward moments or difficult people to deal with. “Not really. I love actors. They go through bad times, the same as all of us, and can occasionally be ratty, but I still count many of the people I’ve worked with as great friends. You might want to ask them if I’ve ever been awkward to work with!”

In 1989, Peter’s second sitcom creation arrived on the screen; Surgical Spirit was produced by (former London Weekend Television Head of Comedy) Humphrey Barclay’s independent production company for Granada Television; I asked Peter if there were any particular differences in the production process between the long-established Thames and the relatively-new independent companies.

“No, I can’t say I noticed anything in terms of ITV. Cowboys was done at Thames TV, which had a great reputation for a certain kind of comedy, and the show seemed to fit right in. Surgical was produced by Humphrey Barclay Productions for Granada, and Humph just had a taste for smarter, more thoughtful comedy. You’d have thought Surgical was more of a BBC show, but I think (if I remember correctly) they turned it down – which turned out fine for me, because working with Humphrey Barclay was absolutely the best time of my life. Humph is the nicest man on the planet.”

The series featured Nichola McAuliffe as senior surgeon Shelia Sabatini at the Gillies Hospital; Sabatini has a sharp way of words for whomever is around her, much to the annoyance of surgeons George Hope-Wynne (David Conville) and Neil Copeland (Emlyn Price). Her fellow consultants think she is a ‘ghastly woman’ for unearthing their lazy and hypocritical behaviour.

As well as dominating the operating theatre with her forceful personality, Sabatini engages in salacious gossip; usually with her best friend, theatre administrator Joyce Watson (Marji Campi). Meanwhile, a further theme was Sabatini’s relationship with Jonathan Haslam, the theatre’s anaesthetist, who thinks the world of her; played by Duncan Preston, he would be the perfect foil for McAuliffe’s character.

I asked Peter whether Surgical Spirit was influenced by the various medical comedies which had preceded it, such as Richard Gordon’s Doctor series and Rude Health; in addition, did it make a conscious effort to reflect how an actual hospital might operate and to avoid the familiar tropes associated with the Carry On films? “I’d worked as a theatre technician in a couple of London hospitals (one very small, one huge), so Surgical was entirely based on my experiences. I wasn’t really influenced by any shows that had gone before, although I’d watched and enjoyed them all, of course. I do remember Richard Gordon, the author of all those fabulous ‘Doctor’ books, wrote Humphrey Barclay a lovely letter to say well done to everyone on the series.”

As the series progressed, Peter Learmouth was to take more of a back seat role with other writers coming in to script episodes; most notably, Graeme Garden – a medical student himself before going full-time into comedy in the 1960s. I asked how significant Garden’s input into the later episodes of the series had been; Peter explained, “Graeme is a lovely, very smart man and I had some great times with him, sitting in the bar at the Britannia Hotel in Manchester till all hours. He wrote some excellent scripts for later episodes of Surgical Spirit, but the show had been going for a few years before he joined us.”

Through Granada Television came the opportunity to move into comedy dramas; in 1993, Peter would write the Rik Mayall Presents episode ‘ Briefest Encounter’ with Mayall as Greg and Amanda Donohue as Siobhan. Having met at a party, Siobhan brings Greg back to her flat for what he thinks will be an evening of passion; unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan. I asked what the brief was for this eclectic series of one-off plays?

“There wasn’t one. ‘Write something for Rik’ is all I remember being told, over a lot of drinks in a bar somewhere. The original producer was James Maw, who delighted in pushing the boundaries, but he left Granada before we went into production and Andy Harries, who was also very adventurous, took over.

“The tone was really my reaction to having written a lot of sitcoms. I wanted to try something different. That show contains my one and only (so far) ‘fuck!’ on TV. I thought they’d cut it but they never did. Now, of course, it’s almost de rigueur. Not back then.”

In 1999, Peter Learmouth created Let Them Eat Cake, produced by Tiger Aspect Productions for BBC1, starring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Set in France seven years before the French Revolution, the premise focused on Colombine, Comtesse de Vache (Saunders); ambitious and immoral, she knows all the deepest, darkest secrets of her fellow aristocrats.

The Comtesse is assisted by her servants: Lisette, a former sex worker Lisette and Monsieur Bouffant, the Comtesse’s couturier (Adrian Scarborough). She also has rivals: Madame de Plonge (Alison Steadman) and her naïve but very sharp-witted daughter Eveline (Lucy Punch). The series saw guests appearances from Richard E. Grant as the Marquis de Sade and Kathy Burke as Colombine’s estranged sister Cecille.

I asked Peter about the show and what he thought happened with the series in general. “I put my heart and soul into those scripts and the critics clobbered it. It could have done with a little more support from the powers that be, as well as certain other people, but I shall say no more. I still think it’s great.”

What are his thoughts on sitcoms nowadays, whether the genre is now more reliant on set-pieces or verbal humour? Again, I put this to him. “I honestly don’t know, I don’t watch it very often these days. As Jennifer Saunders says, comedy, especially on TV, is a young person’s game. I’ll leave it to them.”

Finally, I asked Peter for his thoughts on the best written and best performed sitcoms he’s seen. “Wufff! That’s a big one. I wouldn’t dare opine. I’ll just list some of the ones I like. From America, I’ve always loved Friends. As for British sitcoms, Steptoe was brilliant…..anything with Ronnie Barker or David Jason in it…early Ab FabYes Minister. Too many to mention, actually.”

Peter Learmouth’s writing career has been long and varied: working with an Oscar-winning screenwriter, scripting for established series, writing for one of the UK’s leading comedians turned actor, creating a show which allowed other writers to come onboard and finally, using historical events as the basis for an alternative version of yesteryear through the characters’ eyes.

Thank you to Peter for his insight and time for this interview and giving an inside view on sitcom writing, creation and television production.

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