James Morton: Games for a laugh

After a false start 20 years ago, comedy writer John Morton’s career has reached Olympic heights with his acclaimed BBC series Twenty Twelve. He tells Matthew Hemley how he developed the show

A year after giving up a successful English teaching career to pursue a dream of being a writer, John Morton was penniless and living in a rented room. In fact, work had been so thin on the ground that, upon completing his first tax return as a self-employed man, he was forced to enter his earnings as zero.

To rub salt into the wound, tax officials did not believe him, and subsequently demanded that he send them all of his rejection slips as proof of his lack of work, or, as Morton remembers, “to prove I was as big a failure as I claimed to be”.

It was another – what he calls – “sobering moment”, the first being when he tried to withdraw cash from an ATM, only to be told he had no money to take out.

“I had sold my house and moved into a rented room, and people said that was brave – brave meaning completely mad,” he recalls. “But I knew I was not going to end up in the gutter, as I had a teaching qualification so I could have got a job doing something, somewhere.”

That was more than 20 years ago, but, in fact, he never had to use his teaching skills again because, a few years after his decision to stop being a teacher in 1990, Morton’s comedy, People Like Us, was picked up by BBC Radio 4. It then became a television comedy for BBC2 in 1999.

Today, his other credits include the BBC1 comedy Kiss Me Kate and, most recently, the documentary spoof Twenty Twelve. That comedy, which began life on BBC4 before moving to BBC2 for its second series, is about the organising body of the 2012 Olympic games, and stars Hugh Bonneville as Ian Fletcher, head of deliverance.

His team, as fans of the show will know, usually struggle to get things done. There is Siobhan Sharpe, head of marketing company Perfect Curve, who gives the impression she is listening but does anything but, and Kay Hope, head of sustainability, who spends most of her time explaining that ‘sustainability’ is not the same as ‘legacy’.

Each week, the hapless team is confronted with another major issue, such as the Algerians demanding a Shared Belief Centre that faces Mecca.

“Finding the Olympic stories has never been a problem,” Morton explains. “What has taken the time is finding a level of reality which feels real enough for an audience to say, ‘Okay I will book in for a ride here as this feels like it actually might be like this’. In other words, it’s a parallel universe to the real organisers, which feels, hopefully, realistic. But it’s things which might have happened or could have happened but didn’t. It’s about finding that line between something that is too silly, which you don’t believe, and something so realistic it’s not funny any more.”

The first series consisted of six parts, while the second was made up of four. In actual fact, seven episodes were initially ordered for the second series, but because Bonneville was filming Downton Abbey at the same time, he was only around to film four last summer – and it was these that ended up making the second series.

The remaining three episodes – to be filmed this month – will be shown as a third series in the run-up to the start of the Olympics in July.

In the show’s production schedules, Morton allows around one month to write one script for an episode.

“But the truth is it’s longer than that,” he reveals. “When we get the schedules I say a month but I end up burning a lot of midnight oil, as it takes me longer. I get the feeling I am very slow. You hear writers saying it pours out of them, but I have never had that. I don’t know why.”

The series has accrued legions of fans since it began, and when the show is on television, Twitter is awash with people quoting the characters’ catchphrases.

Bonneville’s Ian Fletcher always says, “So that’s all good then”, while Kay Hope, played by Amelia Bullmore, is often heard saying, “I really think that”.

“They are all little motor noises which give away a little bit of their character,” Morton says. “People do that all the time in real life, I am sure.”

The character of Siobhan Sharpe, played on screen by Jessica Hynes, even has her own Twitter page, followed by almost 2,000 people. Her tweets mainly consist of the things she says in the show, including her catchphrase, “Here’s the thing” and lots of use of the word “totally”.

“I was amused by someone on transmit, who could not listen and who had hoovered up all those Americanisms, even though she is from Harpenden, or so I’ve always thought,” Morton laughs. “She has learnt a lot of theory but does not have any of that human touch.”

“I could talk at length about all of them. And what Hugh does with his role is even more brilliant in a way, in terms of the number of words he has to say and because he has to be the straight man in a ship of fools, and yet be funny all the time doing it. Between lines, when you cut to him listening to another character, he does a wonderful thing of letting you in on what is behind the eyes – what he must be thinking but not saying. It’s a beautifully detailed thing.”

Casting, Morton shares, was extremely important. He says casting director Rachel Freck – who he worked with on People Like Us, which starred Chris Langham – “worked really hard” to get the right actors in place. “We had a lot of auditions before we found our way to those people,” he adds.

The cast was not in place, however, when Morton began writing the series. Now, he says he “can’t imagine those characters without those voices”.

“The actors have been incredibly respectful of it as a show,” he explains. “They have tuned into the rhythm of the whole show and bring their own tics to the roles, some of which they are conscious of and some they are not.”

The cast, he says, is “incredibly hard-working”. Each episode is shot in four days – which Morton describes as a “short period of time”.

In this time, because of the fact that the show is filmed in documentary style – a mockumentary – the actors, he says, have to “do something very precise, which makes it look like it isn’t precise”.

For example, they have to learn all the “ums” and “ers” that have been written in by Morton, who also directs.

“And each day I will look at the monitor and think, ‘I can’t believe I have got these people’,” he confesses. “I have never lost that sense of gratefulness and admiration of them.”

Speaking about his role as director, Morton says it was something he fell into, and describes it as a “high-risk thing”, claiming “if it’s no good, you are exposed and can’t blame anyone”.

“Directing is not something I set out to do,” he admits. “Years ago, I didn’t know what directors or producers did – I did not know what the difference was. But I am grateful to be allowed to do it. It’s about finding those tiny, detailed things which turn it from going ‘clunk’ into ‘ping’ – doing that routinely is what it’s about, really. But it’s not easy – I don’t find it easy anyway.”

Having directed and written two series so far, Morton is looking forward to working on the last three episodes. And, as you might expect, he is going to miss the characters he has created.

“I am very fond of them all now,” he says. “This show is satirical but it’s not pure satire. It’s not like a Ben Jonson play, where you hate all the characters and all are venal and trying to shaft each other, meaning the pleasure is in watching all those people get their just deserts. With my characters, despite the fact they are all fallible and useless, I always hoped people would like them and ultimately that they sort of wanted things, at least for one show, not to go wrong.”

Totally, John. We do. And I really think that. So that’s all good, then.

* Twenty Twelve will return to BBC2 in July

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