In conversation with John Lloyd
PAUL HAMILTON of Bedazzled, the Peter Cook Fanzine, shoots the breeze with JOHN LLOYD, comedy producer extraordinaire. The picture on the left is an accurate likeness of Lloyd done by Walery of Piccadilly Circus
Like a cherub’s piss whistle, the TV CV of writer-producer-director John Lloyd is small but perfectly formed: Not The Nine O’clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image, A Life In Pieces and, er, that’s it. I had interviewed Lloyd before for Publish and Bedazzled, the (ahem) ‘coughical Peter Cook fagazine’, about his collaborations with the magic Wisty ‘un, and was impressed by his singular lack of pomposity, his generosity with his thoughts, and his readiness to blow any trumpet other than his own. (It was only with the greatest reluctance that he would admit to being responsible for anything remotely creative or original.) A Decent Cove, I thought; the sort of chap one could have an interesting chat, an even more interesting drink and then go off with to merrily let off stinkbombs at a gala film premier or a funeral service.
The past decade has seen John Lloyd curb his workaholic tendencies to concentrate on producing a family instead of more TV series. He has developed a profitable sideline in directing television commercials to subsidise this tide change. In his absence, TV comedy has been descending the long bloody slide to redundancy. Chris Morris and Caroline Aherne notwithstanding, British TV comedy is a bloated, poisoned corpse festered and raddled by instantly forgettable knuckle-dragging pub quizzes and postmodern (whatever that means these days) chat shows, all with the same fat, rich, stupid faces making the same poor stupid witless cheesy carefully-rehearsed ad lib’s.
I began the interview asking him if he’d been anywhere interesting lately. The answer sounded like the title of a long-lost lump of avant-garbage by rockin’ combo The Fall…
LLOYD: David Frost’s Summer Garden Party. Wonderful. It’s held in this square opposite his house in Chelsea and its quite phenomenal because anyone who has ever been famous in the whole world is there. Frostie, although he’s got a bit of a mixed reputation partly through Private Eye making mock of him, is a fantastically nice bloke, a very loyal friend, and if you ever get on the list for his garden party you’ll never get knocked off it because he won’t forget you when he doesn’t need you any more. I mean – God – I don’t think I’ve worked with him in about 12 years, but he still asks me along. There you’ll see some of the Royal Family, three or four Prime Ministers, Elton John…
HAMILTON:… Martin Bormann…
LLOYD:… Bormann, he was there; looking rather well, I thought. Gandhi was there, looking a picture in his lovely little gold-lined casket. There’s Fergie, half the Beatles…This year there must’ve been over a thousand people there. I had a peculiar conversation with Terry Waite. I don’t know him from Adam so I introduced myself – “Hello, Mr Waite, I used to produce Spitting Image” – and he went (bellows) “Ohhh! That wonderful sketch you did about me and Runcie! It was the funniest thing we’d ever seen.” The sketch was tiny Archbishop Runcie in church praying away, and then you’d hear the sound of big Terry clumping up the aisle behind him, carrying two bags of Duty Frees: “I managed to get the gin and the whisky but I couldn’t get the 200 Silk Cut.” The reason they found it so funny was that Runcie and Waite used to do these mercy missions all around the world and when they came back, Mrs Runcie – Rosalind – would always say, “Did you remember the Silk Cut?” Quite unwittingly and by accident that sort of thing would happen on Spitting Image. You’d think up the nuttiest, maddest idea and – blow you down – they would turn out to be true.
HAMILTON: A favourite Spitting Image sketch for me was the ’20 Drunken Greats’ album, and there’s Ollie Reed, Dennis Thatcher, and Peter O’Toole or someone in a shopping trolley, all smashed out of their minds yelling tunelessly into the night air.
LLOYD: Ah, that one was a bit after my time.
HAMILTON: These mad, red-eyed drinkers in the streets on Saturday nights always sound to me like they’re calling Rodney Bewes. (Laughter. Both faux-pissheadedly crooning “Rod-nib-heyewwes.”)
LLOYD: …But the thing with David is he loves the bizarreness of it. The sheer incongruousness of (Frosts voice) “You, Lloyd Honeygan – do you know the Bee Gee’s?” and there they’ll be – Barry, Maurice and whatever the other one’s called. One time Frostie got quite sozzled and he introduced me to this bloke. He said (slurred Frost Voice) “And errrm…Do you know – John! Lloyd! Comedy! Genius! – do you know errr…King ?!” I looked at this bloke and it was King Constantine. Frostie couldn’t remember the fucking guy’s name! All he knew was that he was a king. (Laughter.) I guarantee you that, at David’s parties, if you don’t recognise them, they are fantastically powerful.
HAMILTON: You’re not dissimilar from them – and you have one-up on the likes of Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie – in that you’re rich but not famous. You’re not going to get people in the street coming up to you and saying “I have a cunning plan”‘ or “Tally-ho! With a bing and a bong and a buzz buzz buzz!”
LLOYD: And Cleese getting “Oi! Monty, show us your funny walk!” all day long. A lot of those guys find it dreadfully painful. After the first six months – when it’s wonderful, apparently – they go off the idea pretty quickly. Except Angus Deayton, who loves it. He’s got a great life and he’s very cheerful.
I wanted to be famous badly in my twenties. I liked the idea of being a David Frost-type frontman for a show. In about ’87 I did some presenting and found being looked at very disturbing. You go to the pub and someone goes, “Oh! How are you” … “I’ve never met you before.” … “Well, where have I seen you before?” It’s strange, a bit like if a pretty girl’s in the street and everyone’s looking her up and down, you know? Peculiar. It didn’t suit me, the idea of being famous. Didn’t like it.
HAMILTON: I’ve done loads of research on you so what’s all this guff about you being brought up by a malteser?
LLOYD: I lived in Malta when I was small – nothing to do with packets of Maltesers. My Dad was in the Navy and we were stationed there when I was eight and nine. I didn’t really go to school till I was nine and a half because we were always going round the world.
HAMILTON: Did you have an idealisation of England in your mind as a boy whilst you were overseas? Was there a ‘home’ in your head?
LLOYD: Hmm, not really. I was born in Dover which is a pretty grey town at the best of times. I just remember 1950′s England as being amazingly grey. Grey towns. If you went to lunch with your parents – we lived in Norwood for a while – and you’d go to some caff with pretensions to grandeur with their lace tablecloths. The mushy food. People nowadays would not accept the food that the average English person shoved down then. Lunch was mince. Perhaps some cabbage to go with it. There were no hamburgers then. If you wanted a pizza you’d have to go to Italy. I’d never heard of pizza until I was twentysomething.
We always used to go on holiday to Ireland – a country I’ve always liked a lot, wonderful people. But again, we always stayed in this place called The Hotel in Duncannon, Wexford. They’d have a tennis court but there’d be holes in the concrete, holes in the netting. And the food! They always gave us milk that smelled like it was three months old, and you could bounce the fried eggs off the floor. The cream was off because then only Americans had fridges. And then you’d get chucked in the sea by your dad and you’d come out blue, it was so freezing.
It’s amazing how colourful life is for kids now, the variety of possibilities that weren’t open to me as a kid. My hobby in Malta was collecting lollysticks off the streets. Me and my two friends would go round and pick up suck-lollysticks out of the gutters and drains and see how many we could get.
HAMILTON: Were they the ones that had jokes on?
LLOYD: Yeah, some were but most of them were just sticks. The idea that anyone would allow a child to do that today – ‘Get that out of your mouth! Go and wash your hands!’ But then it didn’t seem to matter very much that we’d been stricken with impetigo. Such a simple thing but I remember those times as incredibly happy, albeit with a diseased face caused by sucking sticks that have been up goats’ arses. (Laughter)
I did a Goldfish commercial with Billy Connolly and there was a young actor in that, and he said before the age of five the children’s only present for Christmas and birthdays was a tin can sellotaped up with a stone inside it – and they had a whale of a time rattling these things.
We moved house recently and being, you know, a modern indulgent middle-class parent my children have got stuff – you know, a computer, software, electronic toys – but I tell you, for the first three months we were in this new house all they wanted to play with was the boxes the stuff came in. They made a huge den out of the removers’ boxes and had an absolutely brilliant time. And so did I.
Materialism – though I’m not disapproving in a spiritual or ethical way – is counterproductive; it doesn’t actually make people any happier. It’s a very temporary thing. The things that really make people happy are immaterial – like friendship and love. Sex, I suppose, is sort of material.
HAMILTON: This is strange, you saying this when you’re basically earning a crust making little films telling us to buy things that won’t make us happy.
LLOYD: It’s completely, utterly amoral and without justification apart from the fact that I’ve put in my time as a public servant on very small wages for very long hours, and this is a way for me to see my children which is more important to me than certainly any sort of career I might have had. And it’s important to them.
HAMILTON: How much do you get for directing an advert – 89 million quid, isn’t it?
LLOYD: 89 million pounds exactly, and all I can eat. So many things in this world are the wrong way up, it’s mad. You have these runners on films who are paid nothing – ��30 a week or something. You know, they don’t have any shoes yet they’re expected to get to work under their own steam, whereas the director is paid a fortune, is whisked to work in a limo, gets pocket money and free meals, but the people who desperately need free meals have to pay for their own lunch. It’s not fair, is it?
HAMILTON: It’s criminal, isn’t it?
LLOYD: (Peter Cook Cockney voice) “Criminal, yess…” And this is the way of the world: the more worthless your profession – PR people, advertising and marketing people, bankers, for God’s sake! – the more you’re paid. It’s an inverse law of worth. It’s rotten to the core, really. And I know it sounds awful and pretentious but, you know, advertising’s going to happen anyway, so if I can get in there and at least make it as honest as I can and also to add value – make them funny, entertaining and not ruin your day. ‘Cos for most people advertising is entertainment; they like them, the funny ones particularly. It is selfish, ultimately. I suppose I should be working in a relief camp or making important documentaries about the meaning of life but just in the last few years I’ve been too busy having a family and thinking.
HAMILTON: Paul Morley said something similar recently. He’s written a book with the brilliant title of ‘Nothing’ – so if your asked what are you reading? You can say “Nothing by Paul Morley”. He said that for about 15 years all he cared about was pop music, the cultural zeitgeist, style, all that stuff, but now he says that what is more fascinating and important is the family.
LLOYD: I must say, my children have taught me all the worthwhile things that I’ve learned. Everything that’s of value ultimately I’ve learned by watching them, being told things by them, learning how to behave towards children – or trying to. It’s a fantastical, mystical, amazingly rewarding experience. And if you behave well, kindly, patiently, intelligently unpatronisingly towards your children they give you so much back; they give you forty times more than you give them in terms of attention, of love.
HAMILTON: How old are your children?
LLOYD: Nine, seven and four.
HAMILTON: Ah! They haven’t yet reached that horrid age where if you mention a poem they go, ‘Poetry’s sad. Get a life.’
LLOYD: I read that every day you spend with your children before they’re three and you’re completely there for them and not thinking (impatient voice) ‘Yes, alright, I’ll do Lego with you but only 20 minutes because I want to read the paper’, then that time and commitment repays itself in adolescence. People will have shit relationships with their adolescent children because they had shit relationships with them before. Parents are all screwed up, angry, tired and selfish and so we’ll shout to the children, ‘shut up, go away, do it yourself’ and getting obsessed about ‘Tidy your room and do your homework’. Who likes to do homework? I never did.
Nobody has any working philosophy for life. It obsesses me, this. If your lawnmower doesn’t work you either take it to someone who can fix it, you fix it yourself or buy a new one. The same with an aeroplane. You wouldn’t get in an aeroplane that only had one wing. But when it comes to human nature, people just accept their faults: “Well, I fucked up my marriage, I can’t talk to my kids, my dad hates me. But I am the way that I am. I’m greedy, selfish, fearful, lazy, spiteful – and you can’t change human nature.” Why don’t they decide, “Well, what’s wrong here? That road rage stuff I do every single fucking morning just makes me feel unhappy and tense” – why don’t they get rid of it? With marriage, after the honeymoon period, everyone starts yakking on about how they’ve married a lunatic, a slattern, a drunk or whatever, and they just moan on and on and making excuses for themselves. They’re always looking outwards and see how wrong everything else is, but if they fix themselves first, the problems start to go away. I can’t control the world. I tried for years and years as a satirical television producer to better the world. I just made it worse, actually.
HAMILTON: D’you think?
LLOYD: I think Spitting Image kept Mrs Thatcher in power for years longer than she would naturally have been. We offered her a safety valve. At the time we did the show she was widely hated. We used to get hundreds of letters every week which could roughly be divided into two piles. There were the “You cunts! You Bastards! You Should all be shot!” category, and there were the others that said, “I was going to kill myself last week because I’ve been unemployed for 4 years, my wife’s left me and I’m such a useless person, but I thought I’d just watch Spitting Image before I go, and I had such a good laugh about Thatcher being beaten over the head with a truncheon that I thought I’d give it another week.” So from completely prejudiced, ludicrous rantings to heart-warming letters from people who felt disenfranchised and used those Sunday nights to get the bile out of their systems.
HAMILTON: So Spitting Image acted as a kind of anaesthetic, numbing people from going out and rioting?
LLOYD: Yeah, we thought we’d be making Thatcher squirm and bring down the Government but really we made it better for them. Although we had writers from every political colour, from extreme right-wing to Communist, it generally panned out as a left of centre show, but we did Neil Kinnock a great disservice, I think. We’d just have him going “Lovely voters, lovely lesbos, lovely, lovely lesbos” in a pub and – because the Opposition never do anything anyway – we made him and the labour party look totally ineffective, thus making Thatcher look more powerful. I was on Breakfast with Frost not long ago and Portillo was there and he said, “This Blair government need a damn good kicking. You should bring back Spitting Image.” That’s the certain way to keep Blair in power for another 10 years.
HAMILTON: We’re back to David Frost again. Is it true he has a little curly tail?
HAMILTON: Tail or not, why is it, with all his dosh, David Frost propels himself out of bed at the dawning of every Sunday morning to present a show that no one watches?
LLOYD: Everybody’s money is relative. People get used to any amount of money. Someone wins ten million on the lottery and it’s gone in three years. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and like they say, “Money doesn’t make you happy but at least you can be miserable in comfort.” I was talking to Griff (Rhys Jones) the other day, and he’s just sold his share of Talkback productions and made himself ��23 million or something, but that won’t change him a bit. He’ll have a week of going ‘YES!!!’ but it won’t make him get on better with his life or stop the worry. Those that don’t have it want it desperately – even if it’s 10p off a tin of beans – and those that do have it will always want more. I don’t know anyone whose happy with the amount of money they’ve got.
As for David Frost getting up at 3 am and all that – well, he’s a broadcaster down to his toenails and he loves his job. I don’t think at his time of life he’s going to give it all up and take up quantum physics or abseiling. I often wonder about movie stars like Tom Cruise who must be worth, I dunno, hundreds of millions of dollars. All these stars own a handful of Islands and stuff. Probably half their films are absolutely awful and very hard work, so why do they go on doing it? Because it defines their life. A movie star perpetually worries about ‘I’m only Number Three on the chart and last year I was Number One!’
HAMILTON: There’s no point in climbing a ladder if you’re not going to be happy on it.
LLOYD: And what about all those on the bottom rungs? You’ve got this Peter Cook thing in your life which is a wonderful obsession but what have most other people got to spend their time on? Pub, a football team, read a couple of crappy thrillers. The human mind is extraordinary and capable of so much and it’s not being used. I don’t mean that disparagingly because at the top there are people doing crap movies, crap TV, running crap governments, who have never really thought to any great degree about the meaning of anything very much. People are just going along a tramline, doing things by rote, like their fathers did or how the newspapers tell them. It’s rather depressing really. The principle difference between us and children, apart from height -
HAMILTON: And mountains of pubic hair, garages of the stuff…
LLOYD: …and that, of course, is that adults are in possession of more information. They’re not more intelligent – they’re less open minded than children – and about 98% of that information is wrong, in my view.
HAMILTON: A bit like the scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life where all these bigwigs are having a boardroom meeting and number seven on the agenda is the meaning of life. One exec’s findings are, “One – people aren’t wearing enough hats. Two – the meaning of life cannot be found because humans are too easily distracted by trivia.” Another bigwig asks, “What’s that about hats again?”
LLOYD: There was quite a famous journalist who wrote for the Daily Telegraph and was noted for his waspish, sharp and nasty views and writings. Can’t remember his name. Anyway, he got a fatal disease – I think it was cancer – and he wrote a full page article, an incredibly moving piece saying that now he was facing death he was changing his outlook on everything. As John Diamond says about his cancer, he has been more happy since he knew he was going to die at any moment than he has ever been. Jonathan Swift said, ‘May you live everyday of your life,’ and that’s important. Anyway, this article about what he thought the meaning of life was inspired more letters to the Telegraph than any other subject and a few days later a double page was given over to readers’ responses. Amongst these insightful, truthful and touching stories was a letter from one guy who wrote that he too had looked for the meaning of life. He had studied religions, science, philosophy, name it, and his conclusion about life was the one question – “Why?” and only one answer: “To love.”
I was really broken up by that. The sense of hopelessness and despair when a crisis comes – like when your parents get sick or a friend dies and you go to the funeral and think, “What the fuck was that all about?”, and suddenly the panic, the dread of the Universe and the meaninglessness of it floods in on you – it’s too late, then! I’ve spent years sitting down, before the big crisis happen, trying while the sun’s still shining to find something to cling onto for when the rain starts falling. The money I make from advertising I spend on books and any free time I have I spend reading them. And if there’s any time after that I try applying what I’ve read to real life. Philosophy means ‘the love of wisdom’ and why aren’t people interested in that? Mention it to people and they say, “Oh, Philosophy’s boring.”
HAMILTON: The image of Philosophy is white-bearded pooftahs roaming around in togas. Philosophy along, with Sociology, is being cut from school curriculum’s.
LLOYD: That’s so mindless. That bloke who’s the Chief Inspector of Schools, I read about his ideal for education: “Lots of lovely dates learnt by rote; times tables; spelling – very important to be able to spell; long division.” You know, utterly vacuous. What education should be about is endless curiosity about the nature of the world. I’d make Philosophy and Human Behaviour a compulsory subject. I wouldn’t bother to teach History; I think it’s pointless. History is just the record of human crime. It’s battles and murders and pogroms, but there’s a secret history and that’s the record of human goodness. The little acts of kindness aren’t recorded anywhere. Little deeds of altruism: The lady in the baker’s shop who runs after you saying, ‘Here you left a fiver on the counter.’ That sort of thing is never recorded, but that’s what actually keeps the world going.
HAMILTON: Do you think there’s been a slow concrete wave of cynicism that’s engulfed us, smothered us?
LLOYD: Yeah. If this were the 18th century people would be interested in these things. There’d be an alchemist’s lair upstairs, a giant telescope on the roof, we’d be in a salon discussing literature and playing the spinnet. But now, you know, you go in to any newsagents and there’s naked birds on every single magazine from Wildfowling weekly to Yachts Today. There’s a fucking naked bird on every cover as if the only thing anyone ever wanted to do was shag. What’s up with people, what’s up with the world, that they haven’t got another idea?
HAMILTON: Bob Dylan in 1985, said we’re living in the age of masturbation. Do you see the situation getting only worse?
LLOYD: Cycles are part of how the world operates and we’re going through a very materialistic and meaningless bit of history at the moment. But I think it’ll turn around. We are up against the buffers, materially speaking. Like, when you’ve just got your record collection it’s made redundant by CDs so you buy the records again in that format. And then they unveil the MiniDisc.
HAMILTON: And DVD’s are here now to replace your videos.
LLOYD: Absolutely, and it’s our fault. We get the culture we deserve. But here I am, banging on about how crap the culture is; I should be out there, making good programmes, making an effort. Yes, Lloyd, that’s the answer: Get off your fat arse and stop making money doing cheese commercials. And I’m definitely going to do that. This year.
HAMILTON: What are you doing?
LLOYD: I’m going to start a company that’ll make radio and TV programmes.
HAMILTON: Plus there’s a film with Rowan Atkinson that you’re going to direct.
LLOYD: Well, I don’t know if that’s going to happen now. We’ve spent four months trying to rewrite a not-very-good, overcomplicated script and I think Rowan’s gone a bit cold-feety about it. It’s a spy movie based on the Barclaycard telly ads we made, and though I don’t want to be a movie director I do like the idea of making a good movie. It’s difficult to do a great movie because you have to have a great script, there’s no two ways about it. Hitchcock’s three secrets to great movie making were a script, a script and a script. In that order. You have a crap script, you get a crap movie. The problem with the movie business is this thinking that “We’ll start with a crap script; don’t worry, we’ll fix it as we go along,” which they never do.
HAMILTON: Casino Royale was the classic example of that attitude.
LLOYD: Was it?
HAMILTON: Yeah. Charlie Feldman produced What’s New, Pussycat from a Woody Allen screenplay, but as filming progressed Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole said, “Oh this script’s useless. We’ll improvise some funny stuff and make it good.” And Allen had no clout, this being his first film. The film was a box office hit and Feldman, believing lighting can strike twice went totally bananas. “I’ll get the hottest directors doing scenes by the best writers, get the top stars, loadsa sexy chicks, make it freewheelin’ and groovy. It’s godda be a smash!” Of course, when Casino Royale was put together it was a totally incoherent mess, with all these embarrassed-looking stars walking about, wandering what the fuck’s going on. It’s money madness.
LLOYD: What moguls don’t know is how much people don’t like modern movies. The crew I work with in America – normal working-class New Yorkers – they hate the movies, they think they’re rubbish, by and large. This never shows up in the figures. MI:2 in its opening weekend took 31 million dollars or something preposterous, so the Big Boys think everything’s fine. I said to my producer on this film, “I don’t want to do a film like MI:2 because it hasn’t got an idea.” He replied, “So what? Millions of people went to see it so why do we need an idea?” I hate films like that. I hate it when I’ve spent an evening watching a load of crap and a few explosions, and when you go to the pub to talk about it you can’t think of what to say. I don’t want to impose another one of those on the world. I remember my dad taking me to see Lawrence Of Arabia when I was about 10. Unforgettable. I love that film. The Magnificent Seven, The Godfather. It’s my pleasure and my duty, I suppose, to entertain people. That’s why I do it; I love it.
HAMILTON: Apart from the Coen brothers I don’t think there’s anyone making intelligent mainstream films. It’s just soulless, aggressive, big bangs, big tits, cheap laughs, no brains nonsense.
LLOYD: Yes, it’s just appealing to immediate, visceral sensationalism, The Navajo have a proverb: “Everything easy is evil, everything difficult is good” and that’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If something’s a cinch, then it probably isn’t worth doing; you’re just wasting your life. Things are constructed to be difficult for some reason, be it a painting, a movie or building a wall – it’s tough work, an effort, but the reward is immense. I don’t want to sound like an old buffer, but people don’t want to put the work in. They don’t want to study for seven years to do something really fucking well, whatever it is. They want it all now : “Where’s my Porsche?”
HAMILTON: Like instant talent: “I’ve just bought a guitar. Sign me!”
LLOYD: I started in broadcasting in radio. Five years in the radio. I was happy there, felt privileged to be there. Nowadays people are in radio for a year and they want to get straight in to the telly and then making their first film. We’re getting films made by 24, 26 year olds who don’t have anything to say. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be allowed to do movies but they haven’t had much of a life and their work reflects that. It’s all gangsters and shagging.
HAMILTON: Shallow, like Pitt the Younger’s ghastly teenage poem in Blackadder: ‘Why do girls hate me?”
LLOYD: Yes. I’m fascinated by the process of creativity. Cezanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire something like 2,000 times from every conceivable angle – “What is it? What is it about this mountain?” – and he went on and on doing the same thing, trying to find the secret of whatever he was looking for.
HAMILTON: Talking about creativity, I’d like to know about the Meaning of Liff, the book by you and Douglas Adams. It’s an extremely funny and original work using the simple idea of ascribing definitions to strange but actual place names.
LLOYD: All great ideas are simple, and that applies to the laws of physics as much as great jokes. If you’ve made up a really good joke you automatically think, “I must have heard it before, it’s so perfect”, but you haven’t. Well, you might have, but not usually. E=MC2 – that’s how the Universe runs and it’s only four letters, for God’s sake. Incredibly simple, yet very hard to achieve that kind of simplicity.
The Meaning of Liff came out when Douglas Adams and I had booked a holiday on the basis of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy book we were going to write jointly in Corfu. Then Douglas sacked me – the bastard! – but, as I was poor and I’d already spent all the money, I went away and whilst Douglas was sitting in the villa typing and looking out of the window being a novelist, I was in the taverna getting drunk. When he got fed up of being a novelist, which would be after ten minutes, he would come down and join me and get drunk as well. We used to play word games, one being a game his English master taught him. During a free period or at the end of term he would ask the class “What’s a York? or a Richmond?” We loved this game and by the end of the holiday I’d written a load of them down. At that time I was doing Not The Nine O’Clock News and we did these spin-off big fat calendars with two jokes a day that used to eat up the material like nobody’s business. I reached a point where we were out of material and I thought, “Oh, lets use those definitions.” The Chairman of Faber called me up: “Those dictionary definitions are the best thing in it. You should do a book of them.” Writing Meaning Of Liff with Douglas was the nicest job I ever had because Douglas by then was seriously well off, had houses all over the world, and he was all “Johnny, I’m afraid I can’t reach you. Unless of course you come to Malibu. I’m staying at Donna Summer’s beach house for the summer.” We wrote the first one in Malibu and the second volume at Palm Beach near Sydney on another book-tour-cum-holiday of Douglas’. Those Liff definitions…You’d be staring at these town names and trying to think of things there are no words for and you’d be stuck for a week when suddenly you’d get ten in a row.
HAMILTON: Do you remember what a burbage is?
LLOYD: No. Go on.
HAMILTON: “The sound made by an elevator full of people all trying to breathe through their noses.” (Laughter)
LLOYD: The wonderful about writing that book was I’d say, “Hey, Douglas, you know that thing in the lavatory when such-and-such happens?” and he’d be “No! That’s never happened to me.” The best are the height-of-embarassment ones that touch a nerve, when the reader thinks ‘I’ve done that, I didn’t think anyone else knew I did that”.
HAMILTON: How did you write it? Did you rip a map of Britain in half and delegate, like; “I’ll do Lancashire, you do Dorset”?
LLOYD: No. Douglas is a very old friend of mine but he is the laziest person. So I would buy a gazetteer and pick out the interesting names. Like, Mapledurham has got to mean something. I’d put these names on a series of cards and provide him with, say, fifty to work on – you know, definitions of Berriwillock or Moffat. Then I’d collect the cards and do a draft, then we’d do a re-draft. Jon Canter, who has a particularly bitter Jewish sense of humor, supplied a couple of excellent ones like Lemvig – “someone who can be relied upon to be doing worse than you”. (Laughter. Hamilton hands Lloyd a copy of Liff to leaf through. He reads “Kowloon – one who goes to an Indian restaurant and orders an omlette.” (More Giggling.)
HAMILTON: I’m afraid that’s me. I’m also a Nybster – the type who uses the lift to go up one floor.
LLOYD: Of all the things I’ve ever done, I think I’m most proud of this book.
HAMILTON: Have you any Grand Doomed Projects?
LLOYD: Doomed? Yeah. Only I do so little that what I choose to do – I’m very stubborn – are things I totally believe in. So if I do a crap first series, which is often the case, I don’t give in, I just go on past the point where most sane people would say, ‘Oh, this is never gonna work, this is awful!’ However, I did do a show called Stephenson’s Rocket which is said to be the worst half-hour of television ever made.
HAMILTON: Who was in that?
LLOYD: Pamela Stephenson, when she was famous, after Not the Nine O’Clock News. She got pally with David Mallet, a pop video director who did Kenny Everett’s shows, and Mallet was the sexiest director around. I got big-headed, thought I was a genius because I’d got a BAFTA award. We all thought we were geniuses and, of course, the show was absolutely awful.
HAMILTON: Was it just one show?
LLOYD: Yeah, a pilot. David was used to pop video budgets and spent the entire budget on the opening number of the show and we ran out of money. A terrible mess but for one good, salvageable moment: It was a mock ad for the Super Absorbo Tampon, where we saw Pamela dreamily taking the Tampons out of her dressing table and going outside in a white swimsuit – because with Super Absorbo you could do whatever you wanted – and dived into a swimming pool whereupon there’s this SSHHHLURRRP!! And there she was, like a beached sardine, at the bottom of an empty pool.
If that show taught me anything it is A Star Can’t Save Anything At All. I’ve since been suspicious of star-based projects; I’d much rather work with people I’ve never heard of that I like.
HAMILTON: What you were saying about carrying on with an idea… I recall the first series of The Black Adder being, um, well…
LLOYD: …a shambles. Total shambles. That came up after the last series of Not the Nine O’clock News. I worked far too hard on that show; I felt about 80 years old. Richard Curtis and Rowan came up with this show, the original title was King Edmund And His Three Friends – a rather weedy thing. They did a pilot with John Howard Davies producing and I didn’t think it was very interesting, really It wasn’t about anything, it was set in a mythic period of history. I didn’t want to do it but I succumbed to their kindly blandishments. They wanted castles, horses, huge-scale sets. The sets were so big we couldn’t fit into the studio a bleacher for an audience. The series consequently had no audience, which meant the cast had no focus. Rowan is used to performing to an audience; that’s what edits his performance and makes it real…
Someone told me there’s only seven magic tricks in the world but there’s loads of variants, and I think that applies to jokes too.
HAMILTON: Yes, I had heard about there being only seven jokes and I’ve tried to list them. I came up with Slapstick, Exploitation, Class Consciousness (which may be an offshoot of Exploitation, come to think of it), Concealment, Crime, Dramatic Irony and Misunderstanding (be it with language, customs, foreigners).
LLOYD: Yes, and Surprise should be in there. But you can simplify it further. The Greeks believed everything came down to Sameness and Difference, and that’s the essence of the Universe. I think they’re probably right. One joke is when you think something is definitely the same and it turns out to be different. A pun is very good at Sameness and Difference. A pun is like a Stargate; it’s a wormhole that connects two entirely different universes instantly. John Cleese is very anti-puns but he’s not right. Good pun is mind-expanding and can suddenly take you to different pictorial worlds. But if you know what the Seven Jokes are, it wouldn’t help you one bit to write a funny line. Nobody knows where that stuff comes from.
HAMILTON: How do you write comedy? Do you have to be totally relaxed, phone off the hook, peace and quiet? Or do you work best under pressure in an office full of noise? You told me that when you wrote with Peter Cook, Peter worked in a ‘drinky-too-muchy’ kind of way.
LLOYD: Yeah, Peter couldn’t really write sober. I mean, not totally sober, He’d try for an hour and then he’d have to have a vodka and tonic or something.
The great skill in going to work is principally getting rid of your personality and allowing the thing to operate for you. You see that in music: You let go, you don’t think, you just do the work. Mozart said he couldn’t work unless he was totally relaxed. He would say, ‘I never composed anything; I was just listening to God.’ And certainly with Cooky, he just let go. He was speaking far too quickly for any of his comedy to be consciously thought through. But I’m not a Peter Cook. If I write, I’m generally doing a technical job. For example, in Blackadder The Third, Blackadder wants to stand for a rotten borough and become the MP for Dunny-on-the-wold, and I said to Richard Curtis, ‘Most people won’t know what a rotten borough is so you’ll have to explain it – but for God’s sake, don’t make it a boring history lesson.’ He said, ‘Well how can you do that? It’s just boring – “a rotten borough is -”.’ So I went home that evening and wrote that scene where Blackadder goes on about the electorate being a small dachshund called Colin, and the Prince Regent, confused as usual, going ‘What about this robber button, then?’ and doing chicken impressions. It’s a neat piece of technical writing, going from A to B, very enjoyable to do, and in the pleasure of doing it these things occur to you – we’ve got to say that rotten boroughs had very few electors so you just exaggerate that, and Exaggeration must be in the list of Seven Jokes somewhere.
But writing a movie for Paramount four or five years ago was absolutely hellishly hard because – ‘It won’t come, it won’t come!’ – and if you can’t think of a joke there’s nothing to be done. I think being drunk is one way of doing it, definitely.
HAMILTON: Is it easier writing on your own?
LLOYD: No, much easier with somebody else. Much quicker too. Bouncing ideas off one another is a very effective way of doing it, particularly if one person is very meticulous and organised and the other one’s a bit mad. Like Cleese and Chapman. Cleese is the ordered, anal one – ‘What exactly is the line we’re going to write now?’ – and Graham would be absolutely drunk as a skunk all day and come up with (drunken voice) “stupid fackin’ ideas.” He’d go to the pub at lunchtime and take his willy out and put it on the bar with Keith Moon and all that kind of thing, but he was a very bright guy and he used to do all the broadsheet crosswords over lunch – Telegraph, Times, FT, Guardian – just on his own. Fantastically bright guy.
Blackadder improved with the second series when Ben Elton came on board as a co-writer. Ben and Richard got on like a house on fire.
HAMILTON: Is it true that they wrote independently; Curtis would write three scripts, Elton’d write three, and they’d swap over and re-write them?
LLOYD: That’s exactly the process.
HAMILTON: And neither would get possessive or precious about their own lines: “You can’t cut that gag, that’s my best gag”?
LLOYD: They didn’t have that problem with Blackadder II. Later on it got a bit sticky. We had two year gaps between series and at the time of Blackadder II none of us had many strings to our bows – apart from Rowan who was red hot at the time, like Ali G was last year. However, between II and III Ben had something like four books out, Richard had Comic Relief, I’d done Spitting Image. The net effect was that we had gotten bigger egos and more used to having our own way, so we were much more reluctant to surrender any territory.
The majority of the second series’ scripts were extraordinarily good, despite them having utterly different writing styles, but later on the first drafts wouldn’t be very good. They’d be cobble jobs of Richards fluffy sentimentality, all fluffy teeny-weeny-nosey, and Ben’s whacking great huge arse gags. I’d be going through the scripts, saying, “I think this knob gag’s too rude”, and they’d both be, “Well we like it”, and I could see in their faces that they’d had a conference beforehand – “Ben, that knob gag has got to go,” “Well, if I can’t have my knob gag you can’t have your fluffy gag.” My role was in smoothing out their writing styles in rehearsal so the end result would seem like the work of one writer.
HAMILTON: Homogeneous, like Clement and La Frenais or Galton and Simpson. This morning I watched the Blackadder Goes Forth series for the first time since 1989 and I’d like to know about the decision to kill off the characters in the final episode. I can’t think of another comedy series where that happened and to such an effect. I think the Young One’s were killed off but they were more cartoony so you didn’t give a shit about them dying. But the end of Goes Forth was a heartrending moment because it seemed to say it doesn’t really matter how dumb you are, or how privileged, or how smart and clued-in to the way of the world as Blackadder was. Nothing really matters because at the end there’s only death. That sense of futility and injustice was so poignantly captured. It was tough to laugh in the last half of that episode because you knew what was coming.
LLOYD: None of it was really intended in that way. We didn’t know if they were supposed to die or not. It was meant to be ambiguous There were a lot of people in the editing suite that day to put that scene together. The scene where they come charging out of the trench was done in a separate studio because it required a big set. The actors were alone but for a floor manager in this completely dark studio with explosions going off. It was a spooky experience for them. We slightly muffed the camerawork – it wasn’t perfect – so we had a pretty lame shot, to be honest, of these people running across the set. In the editing suite we played the tape of Howard Goodall playing the theme on a piano, recorded in a gymnasium; a liquid, lonely sound. Then the editor said, “What if we played this shot in slo-mo?” “Oh, that’s a good idea.” And if the music’s slowed down as well it suddenly becomes stronger. Someone then suggested taking out the colour, draining it out to black and white. And the production secretary said, “I know. We could have some poppies. I know where there’s a slide of poppies.” There was about five or six people contributing bits and when you put it all together, blow me down, it’s the most moving thing you’ve ever seen. It’s something no one person can claim credit for. It was a group effort, a well-knitted, bonded team of people who really believe in what they’re doing. And luck, too. You watch it and it’s like being in church. There’s the sudden sense that you’ve touched something that isn’t usually touched. A kind of Epiphany, I suppose, where you realise you’ve put your finger through that invisible membrane into a reality of something. It’s extraordinary and to this day I feel a fantastic privilege that I was allowed, as it were, In the room where something as wonderful as that happened.