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Outside the box – Mark Burton and Pete Sinclair and The Next Big Thing

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TV comedy writers Mark Burton and Pete Sinclair tell Jeremy Austin how they branched out from their day jobs to write a pop musical for the Off-West End stage

It must baffle musical theatre types – why, in a country that leads the world in contemporary music, do we find it so hard to nurture new musical theatre composers?

Television comedy writers Mark Burton and Pete Sinclair would probably baulk at the suggestion that their new musical, with the deliberately ironic title of The Next Big Thing, is bridging that gap. But certainly it is celebrating the evolution of British music from the Beatles to Britpop, with songs specially written for the show. And how many recent rock musicals can boast that?

As Burton explains: “I think it comes from a place of pride. In terms of Western music, the two great cultural factories producing great stuff is Britain and America. There’s some good stuff in France and Germany and Italy but really head and shoulders above everybody is British and American music.

“Even though we acknowledge through one of the characters the influence of American music, we are saying British music is great. Look at all the things that have happened in the last 30 to 40 years and the kind of influences on it.”

Burton and Sinclair have written some of the most biting and satirical television comedy of the past 20 years. They met as writers on Spitting Image in the late eighties, having individually worked on Weekending for Radio 4 and writing for Rory Bremner earlier in the decade.

They now work on Have I Got News For You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks and have written the television series Mike Bassett: Manager. Individually, Sinclair is the man behind Ardal O’Hanlon comedy vehicle My Hero, while Burton wrote the new Wallace & Gromit movie Curse of the Were-Rabbit and the hit Dreamworks animation Madagascar.

That is some CV, representing remarkable success in comedy writing for the screen. It begs the questions, why try to break into the equally unforgiving and far less lucrative world of musical theatre?

Gesturing at the comfortably refurbished surroundings of the New Players Theatre underneath Charing Cross Station, Burton explains: “In the first place me and Pete did it because we wanted to do it and to put it on here – and we enjoyed doing that. If it has an afterlife that will be fantastic and we don’t want to stop that but I don’t think we designed it to be commercial. I think we just did what we wanted to do.”

Sinclair agrees. And, he says, the experience of trying to get something on stage rather than on screen was an enjoyable one. It reminded him of his reasonably unsuccessful career as a stand-up comedian.

“The reason we wanted to do something for the stage was to come at it from the bottom up for once because we are so used in television to having to pitch ideas and you normally have to have a star attached and everything and it’s sometimes quite frustrating,” he says.

One of the standout differences has been that they have been able to create something from scratch and get it performed without having to pander to television and film producers’ insistence on a star name.

Sinclair continues: “People ask have we got any star names in it and I say we have but they’re not stars yet. And it’s genuinely true. It’s one of our bugbears in television that it has got to have a name to it – I’m sure it’s the same in West End theatre. But I basically think, why not cast these people? They’re really, really good. They will be the big names tomorrow. It’s been really nice to say there’s no criteria here apart from who is doing that audition best.”

Of course, that brings its own problems, as Burton points out. “We’re the ones to blame if it all goes wrong,” he says. “If at the end of the day the show doesn’t work, then that’s our fault. That in itself has a certain liberating feel because sometimes we watch things not work [which do have] our names on because other things have got involved and it’s not your fault.”

The Next Big Thing started life as a revue-style set of songs and some interlinking sketches that satirised the music industry. Burton, Sinclair and Willie Dowling, who arranged all the songs and composed several, sent it out to a variety of producers and the newly defunct Bridewell Theatre responded. It has been almost four years in its creation, as Sinclair recalls.

“December 19, 2001. I looked this up when we were doing programme notes. I looked back through my diaries – because I am quite a diary-keeper – and I did find that was the day when Mark and I first met up after Have I Got News For You,” he recalls.

“Mark had been saying for sometime, ‘I really think we should do a musical, Pete’, but it was that day that we did meet up and I said, ‘Okay Mark, what’s this musical idea? What are we going to do it about?’. And then the basic starting point was in those days, ‘Let’s just do some songs like The Rutles’.”

But their love of music took over and they drew on their experience of writing songs for Spitting Image and shows such as A Look Back at the Nineties and A Look Back at the Future. Rather than just ape Neil Innes and Eric Idle’s Beatles parody, they took it further and brought it up to date. But it was still a sketch show with music until Carol Metcalfe at the Bridewell suggested turning it into a bona fide piece of musical theatre.

Burton adds: “I think that the great thing about the Bridewell was the way they helped us develop it from another angle, which is as a piece of theatre. There was a bit of that gag writing thing of, ‘Yeah, write a few gags and a few funny songs and we can all go home – lovely’. And they were saying, ‘People will approach you, they want to take the characters seriously, they want to take the ideas seriously’, and that’s when we started to take it seriously.”

* Next Big Thing runs at the New Players Theatre until December 3

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