The Soul Brothers of British Comedy
Craig Cash and Phil Mealey talk to Nooruddean Choudry about Early Doors, the Royle Family and bringing the magic of television to the stage.
Craig Cash and Phil Mealey riff off each other like an old-school Vaudevillian act. It helps that they're surrounded by the velvety drapes and theatrical artefacts of the dead swish Lowry in Salford.
You could very easily imagine them on the same bill as a Morecambe and Wise or Abbott and Costello - although it's harder to tell which is the straight man. One will start a sentence, and the other will chip in and finish it. Together they have a self-effacing schtick and unassuming charm that belies their massive contribution to modern British comedy.
Along with the incomparable and hugely missed Caroline Aherne, they were the brains and heart behind the Royle Family's phenomenal success. It remains one of the most universally adored and influential sitcoms of recent decades, finding a wit and poignancy in working-class life that resonated with millions. They then repeated the trick with Early Doors, replacing the often trying but always loving dynamic of a family in a front room with that of a community in a pub. It was just as beautifully crafted, wonderfully observed and, above all, gloriously funny.
Early Doors last graced our screens back in 2004, but has made a very welcome return in the form of a critically-acclaimed and massively popular stage production this year. In fact it's been so well received that it's returning to the Lowry this summer after an initial sold-out run. But as Mealey explains, it was a long-held ambition that took some time and a lot of careful planning to come to fruition.
"We talked about it for a while, even back in the day when we had the show on the telly around 14/15 years ago. We toyed with the idea of doing it then. But then we started working on [the criminally underrated] Sunshine with Steve Coogan. It was one of those ideas where you thought: "Oh yeah that'd be great!", and then something else comes up. It was all new to us because we'd never even filmed in front of the studio audience. That's part of what excited us. But as with anything, the most important thing was getting it right."
If there were concerns from their most ardent fans about how the show would compare to the TV version, they were shared by its creators. "We cherished the television series and how close we got it to our original vision," admits Cash. "So we certainly didn't want to ruin it in any way. At the same time, we needed to bring something exciting and new to the stage. That was the challenge we were facing and we worked long and hard to create something we'd be really proud of."
"It's a fine balance. You're in danger of playing to the audience a bit," adds Mealey. "Almost trying to make it bigger and throwing it out there with catchphrases and slapstick set-pieces and all that kind of stuff. But we didn't want to make it a big panto thing and custard pie it. At its heart it's about friendships and the sense of community amongst the characters. They spend so much time in the Grapes because they enjoy each other's company - even if they do take the piss out of each other all the time. We wanted to keep that warmth."
It is interesting to hear two of the finest comedy writers of their generation talk about how it's not all about simply making people laugh. "You've got to let the pathos play out as well as the jokes," explains Cash, "because that has its own separate payoff. It gives the story more depth and it resonates with people. Hopefully, you don't even realise you're invested in the story because you're enjoying it so much. But if you're emotionally connected to the characters and their ups and downs, it's more rewarding at the conclusion of it."
It is easy to underestimate just how dearly loved Early Doors is amongst both the original audience and a growing, younger fanbase who have sought it out. It's one of those shows that has developed a 'if you know, you know' cult status amongst a band of committed followers old and new. That's reflected in the diversity of audience that the live show has attracted - something that's not lost on the writing pair."
It's massively encouraging. I can only guess that they've been handed down the DVD or something!" suggests Cash. Mealey points to the self-contained nature of the stage play. "I think a lot of it is word-of-mouth, with fans of the show saying, 'Look, you don't really need to know about the show to come and see it.' It's self-explanatory in a lot of ways. The backstory isn't essential. For example, you don't need to have any prior knowledge of Ken and Tanya's relationship to pick up on it and enjoy the show on its own merit."
The gender split amongst theatre-goers is also welcome. "I've been slightly surprised at the large percentage of women in the audience. I sort of imagined it would be mostly middle-aged men. But at least half, probably more, have been women. That was a surprise, but a lovely one," admits Cash. In many ways, it's a surprise that he's surprised. Cash and Mealey have always written surprisingly well for women, considering they are, well, men. Nuanced female characters have always been at the centre of all of their work.
As Mealey explains: "In both the play and the television series, women probably are the stronger characters. They always have a bit more substance to them than the blokes. If you take Ken's mum, right from the word go she's always been quite dominant in the sense that she's quite controlling and manipulative, but that's just in keeping with the character we've created."
"There are a lot of strong Northern women that you do grow up with, living with them or just getting to know them," adds Cash. "But we never purposely set out to give the women a stronger voice or anything. They're all just characters to us, and if they get out of bed wearing underpants or knickers it's like, who cares? I do both!"
Underwear aside, the success of the Early Doors Live has naturally resulted in a groundswell of feeling that the show should make a return to our screens. Social media has been awash with demands for its return, often directed towards a flattered but largely powerless Mealey. "I've no idea what [TV] think, you'd have to ask them. For instance, I don't even know if anyone from the BBC has come to see the show. I think part of the problem is we're not edgy enough. There's no middle-ground at the moment. It's all either edgy or one-dimensional slapstick, and we don't fit into either of those."
That said, Mealey can still see some interesting stuff making its way through. "I though This Country was good. That was very funny and really well observed. I wasn't sure whether I'd like it, and it took me a while to get into it, but I also liked Fleabag, once I got into what [Phoebe Waller-Bridge] was trying to say. But again, it does have a very middle-class thing going on."
On the subject of class, Cash contemplates the relative dearth of working-class humour on television. "I don't think [commissioners] can read working-class stuff as well as they can middle-class stuff. If you're middle-class, it makes sense that you're gonna relate more to middle-class scenarios." Mealey tends to agree. "I think the people who commission these things are from that demographic. They can relate to 'Andre is going skiing even though he can't ski', but maybe don't recognise that working-class sense of community and warmth."
A perfect - and retrospectively baffling - example of this can be found in the unlikely origins of The Royle Family. As much as it is now accepted as a work of rare and unfettered genius, it too faced an up-hill task to get commissioned by decision-makers who simply couldn't work it out. In fact it was only Caroline Aherne's persistence and not-insignificant negotiating clout that pushed it into being made at all."
It was a nightmare. They didn't want to do it," explains Cash. "We had a read-through at Granada, with Kathy Burke playing Jessica Hynes' role [Cheryl] at the time. The BBC bods came up from London and we all sat around and read it. They were like "What is this thing?! Nothing happens!" And we were saying "You've got to trust us." They weren't having it at all so Caroline turned around and said, well, I'm not doing another Mrs Merton Show unless you make it. Without that sort of bribery and corruption, nobody would ever have seen it!"
As for a new series of Early Doors, Cash isn't optimistic. "We don't have the weight of a successful series like that now. I don't think it will come back [to television] to be honest, because I don't think TV want it - well I *know* they don't want it because we asked them!" None of this is said with any noticeable bitterness or resentment, more a sense of wary resignation. In any case, they're far too busy wowing theatre-goers with this new incarnation, and as Cash enthuses, there's plenty of interesting future plans in the pipeline.
"It's been a great experience doing theatre, and one that I think Phil and I would like to do again. It's a nice new world and we enjoy doing different things. We're thinking of doing a musical next, or maybe even trying our hand at making a film. Something that excites us. We've got a few ideas on the go, but it's a case of throwing them about and seeing which one we like best. It's always a big decision because once we've set our minds on doing something, we take a lot of time over it to make sure we get it right."
With that, the Stockport pair amble off, sans bowler hats or canes, but every inch a comedy double act for the ages. They are the soul brothers of British comedy, able to combine working-class humour with an aching pathos like no one else can. The second limited run of Early Doors is not to be missed - and you wouldn't bet against them bringing their magic back to the telly too, given half a chance.
Early Doors Live runs at The Lowry, Salford between 24 July – 3 August. Tickets are available here.