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The Cafe: Hoping for a big splash

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Co-writers Ralf Little and Michelle Terry talk to Matthew Hemley about their new Sky1 offering, The Cafe, a comic take on life in a typical British seaside resort, in which they both play leading roles

It’s Monday morning and Ralf Little is a little confused. He’s trying to explain the timescale of co-writing his first television sitcom script, The Cafe, but specifics are getting in the way. At first he’s convinced it all began in 2008, before telling me a little while later to “hold on a second” because “that can’t be right”, and moving it all a year earlier. So now we’re in 2007, except a few minutes later we’re back in 2008 again.

Some research of my own confirms that it did, in fact, all begin in 2008, because this is when he starred in the play 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover alongside Michelle Terry. And it was then that the actors met and revealed to each other that they had a desire to write, which resulted in them teaming up to create The Cafe.

“We just got on really well,” Little explains. “We made each other laugh, and I think it was me who said to her I have always wanted to write. She told me she had too, and so I asked if she wanted to write something together.”

But, Little adds, there was one caveat. “I said, I just want to be clear, straightforward from the start, that I do have a tendency to be lazy,” he reveals. “I told Michelle that part of her job might involve, every now and again, giving me a kick up the backside, saying ‘We need to get some work done’. She accepted. And it turned out she didn’t have to do too much backside kicking. But that honesty from the start put us in good stead.”

The Cafe is a six-part comedy set in Weston-super-Mare, and revolves around a coffee shop on the seafront run by three generations of the same family. Sarah, the youngest of this generational trilogy, has recently returned to the area following several years living in London, and is trying to pursue a career in writing.

This hook for the show came when Little asked Terry, who is originally from Weston-super-Mare, but who studied drama at RADA in London, what it would have been like had she had to “come back ten years later with her tail between her legs”. Then, over a series of meetings in cafes and pubs, Little and Terry developed the idea of the cafe as a place for them to establish an array of interesting characters. And when I speak to Terry, after my chat with Little, she tells me that these characters are rooted in reality.

“Most of them are amalgamations of people we know,” she says. “And as actors, you know the things that get your imagination going. We tried to create characters that would interest us. You start with the human and then see what situations you can put them in.”

With a pilot written, Little and Terry started to look at getting some feedback for their first writing effort. Little admits that, given his background in television, he knew people to show it to, and the pair was able to take advantage of this. Then, when he was filming the 2009 Christmas edition of The Royle Family, he presented the script to Craig Cash, who, as well as being a co-writer of The Royle Family and one of its stars, also has his own production company, called Jellylegs Productions.

Little and Terry heard nothing for some months, until one day in early 2010, Cash rang Little and told him he had read the script and liked it.

“He then mentored us with notes and we made a couple of changes,” Little explains. “Then Craig had a meeting with Sky, following which we had a meeting with Sky. They told us they loved it, so we did a table reading of it later that year. After that we thought they might say they wanted to do another reading of it, but half an hour later Craig came down and said they had commissioned six parts.”

Terry adds: “We started it as a hobby, and it snowballed. At no point did we think it would be made.”

The commission from Sky came in November last year. Then, with a full series in demand, Little and Terry knew that they had to concentrate full time on writing the sitcom, meaning everything else – their acting commitments – had to be put on hold.

“There was no option to do anything else,” Terry tells me. “We had to invest the time in it. And now, whatever the outcome, we know we have put everything into it and could not have done any more.”

Coming up with six episodes, Little adds, was difficult. “We knew what we wanted to say and what we wanted to achieve, but making that happen on a moment by moment basis was tricky,” he says. “And we needed to put the hours in. We tried to be strict and say, ‘That is not good enough’. We didn’t want a character to turn up tenuously just to move the story along, and we didn’t want to write something where you put things in just to facilitate the story. We knew where we wanted the characters to go, but finding a way for them to naturally arrive there was where the hard work came in.”

Fortunately, Terry had done some writing at university, and, as actors, they are both used to reading scripts, good and bad.

“I have seen a gazillion TV scripts, and so you know what you don’t like and what to avoid, and what works,” Little says.

He adds: “Michelle always had ideas. I don’t have a great imagination. Something like The Mighty Boosh I could not write in a million years. I don’t have the mind. Michelle is great with ideas, and my strength is to spot how things will fit together and work with what we have already got.”

In The Cafe, Terry, who is best known for her theatre work – having appeared in productions such as Tribes at the Royal Court, which earned her an Olivier award – plays Sarah, the character returning to Weston-super-Mare following some time in London.

Little plays her former childhood sweetheart Richard, who is challenged by the arrival of another love interest, John (played by Daniel Ings).

However, while Little knew from the start he wanted to be in it, Terry was more unsure.

“I was worried that if I knew I was going to be in it, I would apologise for it or have somehow undermined it,” she explains. “It’s hard to write for yourself and part of the joy of being an actor is that you are not yourself, so it was easier to think that I was not going to be in it, and to think of other people in it. But the longer you work on something, the more difficult it becomes to let it go and not be part of it.”

Little adds: “I am a born show-off and Michelle has no ego whatsoever. But I always planned to be in it. Michelle was keen to write it and cast it as we see fit – but I said early on we should write it for us to be in.”

But he adds: “We had to be careful not to write for ourselves and we did try and avoid that greatly. I was not sure if I was going to play John or Richard until late on in the process.”

When The Cafe moved into production, Little reveals that Cash, who is the comedy’s director, was very generous with both him and Terry, in that he allowed them to be part of every decision about the series, from casting down to costumes.

Little was aware that Cash and his Royle Family co-writer Caroline Aherne had been allowed to do this on their own show, but says this was the case because both Cash and Aherne are so established and respected.

As first time writers, Little says he and Terry did not expect to have any creative involvement.

“But not only were we allowed it, it was expected of us,” he says. “We were in this amazing privileged position of being first time writers allowed a hand in everything. And with the three of us there was not one single falling out. If I didn’t like something, and the other two did, it was two against one and fair enough. And if one of us really didn’t like something, the other two would try to think of something else to do that would make everyone happy.”

Terry adds: “Doing the writing was amazing, but actually letting it go was difficult. But the joy was everyone was allowed to be creative in this.”

For the series, a cafe was built on the seafront in Weston-super-Mare.And, Terry explains, it took the local council some convincing to allow this to be built.

“We had to convince them the show was something positive and not a judgemental show or smug programme,” she says. “It’s a love letter home in a way.”

And both are clearly now hoping this love letter will be recommissioned for a second series. But they also know this depends on a successful first run.

If it does come back, Terry believes she and Little will be able to make use of the skills they have picked up writing the first.

“It was the steepest learning curve for both of us, and the best thing will be to be able to do it again and do it better,” she says.

Little agrees, but even if a second series doesn’t happen, he knows they could not have done any more.

“Let’s say no one watches it and critics hate it,” he says. “Michelle and I have worked our bollocks off, to put it in a not particularly classy way. We tried to never compromise our quality. We may have missed the mark, but we know that was our philosophy. We tried to produce something we could be proud of. And we are proud.

“It just needs to go out now and everyone else needs to like it.”

* Sky1’s The Cafe starts at 9pm on Wednesday, November 23

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