I don’t know how I will ever tour again. I am always wiped out after one gig in a week, let alone three or more. But I had a relaxed day of reading books for the podcast and listening myself on the radio.
It was episode three of the latest series of Relativit
y today and it’s the one where things take a dark turn for Ian. I’d forgotten that this episode revolves almost entirely around Ian and Chloe (and the medical staff who treat Ian). I think I’d intended it to be a sub plot of an episode but realised that it needed a bit more space and that it would be interesting to concentrate on one thing. I guess I did that before with a bottle episode of four or so of the characters talking about the past, but I have always tried to make sure that this is an ensemble piece and not a case where a comedian writes a show for himself, where he gets all the funny lines. Given the calibre of the actors I have it would be insane to do that, so I was nervous of doing even one episode that mainly involved me, but it was the right choice and in any case Phil Davis steals the whole thing with his short scene at the end.
I also had to work around actor availability and Alison Steadman only had a couple of days to work with us on this one, so it actually gave me the freedom to write an episode without her in. We could survive one episode without her, but no more than that. It’s also what gave me the idea to have her on Zoom from another room in episode 2, giving her the opportunity to literally phone it in (though in the end she was in the studio to do this scene - but I liked it as a comedic conceit anyway).
I have left the editing up to our fabulous producer Polly Thomas and not even listened to any of the episodes until broadcast. I think it’s important to trust the people you work with to do a good job and that one person taking too much control over a project can actually ruin it. Again lots of comedians (including me in the past) can get insistent that everything has to be done their way, because that’s what they’re used to, but like the dictators that they could have been if they’d; chosen a different path, this can lead to stultifying situations. Make sure you’ve got good people and then trust them.
The good thing about this is that I have often forgotten lots of stuff about each episode and can be surprised by them. It was interesting listening to this one (and remembering that it was all about my character, who is very much a slightly more confident version of me - in reality I didn’t talk or joke much in any of these situations, but did think of jokes) because it felt like the writer had taken something from my life and put it on the airwaves. I was reliving some highly emotional moments and there were a few tears, though thankfully lots of laughter too. The bit that really got me, which surprised me, was the scanning scene, which I suppose was the moment where things started to turned dark for me. Ian and I were so confident that nothing was wrong that the bad news being broken (even if it wasn’t entirely processed at the time) was a real shock. I was silent and wondering why things were taking so long. Ian is providing a nervy monologue and trying to make the medical staff laugh and then has to face up to the news. So I think my tears came here because this time I understood what was happening, when at the time I was still in denial. That’s the moment where the floor fell away and aside from the tears I shed after I got the call from the doctor, I got through this experience by joking and distracting myself from what’s going on. I still find it hard to believe I had cancer. So maybe I’ve bottled things up a bit. This year has been more psychologically difficult than last, but I have remained pretty upbeat about the whole experience. Nearly everything that has happened after this has been positive.
And I was very pleased with this episode. Not only is my performance OK (though I really am lucky to be working with such great actors who make the job seem effortless, Emily Berrington is terrific in this show and it’s an utter thrill to do a scene as good as the final one with Phil Davis) but it treats a serious and dark subject with truth and humour and is also hopefully instructive. And kudos to Radio 4 for allowing a comedy about cancer, which includes so many mentions of balls and scrotums and a couple of jokes about the word cunt to go out at 11.30am without any censorship.
What’s this unusual sensation? Is it pride in my own work? Maybe. I have little to compare it with.
And this is RHLSTP book club at its best. A fab chat with Natalie Haynes
about her highly recommended book Stone Blind (sadly not about what happens if you clear too many)