A conversation with writer Steven Moffat and Reece Shearsmith for their production The Unfriend.
Steven Moffat and Reece Shearsmith open up about writing advice, how to create a character, and the art of the performer as part of a special event at the Chichester Festival Theatre for their current production, The Unfriend.
The event, Prologue, was exclusively attended by members aged 16-30, with the focus of the event to provide valuable information, and a behind-the-scenes perspective into the minds of the talent of the shows for aspiring performers, writers, or curious minds.
Chaired by Chichester Festival Theatre’s Helena Jacques-Morton the talk with Steven Moffat and Reece Shearsmith began with a question on the play’s inception and the transition for the Sherlock and Doctor Who writer from broadcast to the stage.
Reece began by expressing how the director of the production, and fellow member of The League of Gentlemen, Mark Gatiss reached out to the Inside No. 9 writer via WhatsApp with the script, asking him for his thoughts, and if he would consider the lead role of Peter.
“It’s a joy. It’s a great piece of writing,” Shearsmith remarked, accepting the role within minutes of receiving the play.
“I went to the pub with my wife. We ordered some drinks, and I got the text through that Reece said yes.” continued Moffat, “So I don’t know what Mark says to people when he sends a script, he must be like, if you don’t read it immediately it will simply explode. Because that was the fastest response forever.”
Reece resumed expressing his interest in this being a new production, and how this allowed him to make his mark on the role.
“I’m very excited to do a new thing. It’s rare that you get asked to do a new play.
“I did the same with Hangman by Martin McDonagh, that was a brand new piece. When you’re creating the part that nobody else has played before as invariably with theatre you are immediately compared to whoever played it last time or who has had it with much acclaim…”
Ironically, this idea of comparison in theatre worked its way into the anthology show Inside No. 9 in the episode The Understudy where Shearsmith and co-writer Steve Pemberton inject the concept with Macbethian elements.
“…I did The Dresser a few years ago” Reece carried on, referring to a personal anecdote of finding himself the point of comparison, “‘Of course, it’s not Tom Courtenay’, but having said that Ronald Harwood said that I was one of the better Norman’s.”
Steven comparably is finding the production a joyous experience.
“I’m absolutely loving it! Seriously, I haven’t had so much fun in years. Everything about it is brand new. I don’t know what any of it means. People use technical terms, and I haven’t a clue! It makes you feel young.
“The thing about television is, filming is not necessarily always the most exciting process. I mean, it’s exciting in some ways. It’s also deathly dull in others, and then it goes out and you wonder for years if anyone anywhere laughed.
“(The theatre is) so much more exciting. You go along and you hear people laugh, or sometimes your soul shrinks because they didn’t laugh when you thought they were going to and all those moments, it’s an absolute roller coaster.”
The comparisons between Steven and Reece, these two learned television workers with the theatre become the crux point of the talk, dissecting further the nuances between the two mediums.
“When I’m doing the long filming scenes, I start to start to crave the live immediate feedback from the discipline and precision of filming for the camera,” Reece explains.
This point is entirely understandable for the comic actor, given the lengthy filming blocks of television that he is acquainted with whether for Inside No. 9 or in adding to his filmography.
But what is most interesting is how Steven Moffat and Reece Shearsmith approach comedy, given the farcical nature of the production of The Unfriend starring Shearsmith alongside Amanda Abbington, Frances Barber, Maddie Holliday and Gabriel Howell with its dialled-up humour reminiscent of Faulty Towers.
“I think a useful rule is to stare out the window until you make yourself laugh,” Steven began.
“Oh yeah,” affirms Reece, “if in the rooms Steve (Pemberton) and I, when we’re writing together make each other laugh is invariably a big deal. Double tick (that joke) it’s in.”
Again, much like The Understudy, the dissection of Reece and Steve’s approach to comedy was tackled in my personal favourite episode, Bernie Clifford’s Dressing Room: “First rule of comedy. Be specific. You never say biscuit, you say Garibaldi.”
As Reece continues, transitioning into advice for prospective writers, he adds poignancy to his message.
“There are lots of books out there on how to write and the rules of writing, and we’ve never looked at those.
“And I think that’s partly, the singularity of your voice is what will pay out as being its own thing. If you’re passionate about trying to tell a story and you have it in your mind, I think that will just come through in your writing. Don’t chase your tail trying to tailor it like ‘Oh apparently they want another volcano movie.”
“Do what you want to do and if it’s a particular singular voice that you have, at that moment, I think it will alert people’s attention.”
Wheatley, the writer-director reportedly after receiving notes on his script would amend the scripts and resend the draft with all amended pages printed on pink pages as a clear indication.
Yet, as Reece adds, no changes were ever made, allowing the Free Fire director to allow his voice to remain, though the recipients of the amended drafts praise Wheatley for his amends, unaware of the placebo given to them.
Steven concurs. “It’s the height of arrogance to think you know what anybody else wants, and all research is ever going to tell you is how to have a hit last year.”
“But one of the things that’s absolutely necessary for television or theatre, or anything is you should be a fan of that media, you should love that.
“You should be wanting to recreate the moments of joy you had to your audience or reading or whatever, you should love it. It should be no hardship for you to do the easiest research in the world, which is watching the best TV shows and watching the best movies and watching the best plays.
“It must be awful learning to be a doctor you have to cut people open. If you’ve got to learn to be a writer, you just have to watch awesome things.”
“One of the very few things you can learn how to do from the best people in the world will demonstrate how to do it through your television set in your living room. So never get tired of that.”
“I would agree with most of the ‘How to Write’ books are clinically insane.
“I don’t know what most of them mean. I do not know. I mean the ultimate thing is when they are talking about a three-act structure, and you want to say, ‘Do you mean the Beginning, Middle and End?’, because that is how you put it in clear English.”
Not much could be clearer from this multi-BAFTA and Emmy-winning writer.
What is most interesting as Steven continues exploring answers is how he very much practises the same as he teaches. Throughout the talk, Steven was constantly referring to texts for further reading as if he himself is an encyclopedia of knowledge from passages previously absorbed.
Alan Bennett. Steven King. William Goldman. Neil Simon. All name-dropped by the Sherlock writer as further points of reference.
Though the lack of feminine representation could partly explain the criticisms the writer has been subject to, the informality of the event, and the off-the-cuff nature of his responses aren’t entirely reflective of his literary lexicon.
But in truth, it was the question posed to Steven Moffat and Reece Shearsmith by Cinamore that generated the most interesting response.
When asked about how over the course of their careers, and if Steven Moffat and Reece Shearsmith believe their voice as writers has changed, Reece paused and dwelled on his oeuvre.
“I’ve got generally better at writing longer form. And looking at scripts as a storytelling device rather than a sketch,” the Psychoville creator began.
Breaking down the construction of The League of Gentlemen, and how its wider narrative was intertwined with short sketches came with the restrictions of having four writers shape the show. Shearsmith, Pemberton, Gatiss, and Jeremy Dyson all influenced the moulding and crafting of the show.
“But it was that we house this idea of (sketch comedy) in this town, that felt like it was bigger than the sum of its parts actually.”
It is with this heavy heart that Reece reflects on his time creating The League, a show which concluded in 2017 after celebrating its 20-year anniversary.
“We just slowly got more intrigued with writing character that was less gaggy, and more comedy-drama, which you could say is the death of comedy. ‘If you’re doing comedy-drama, you’re not really doing comedy. Just doing drama that’s a bit funny.””
Fast-forward to Inside No. 9, Reece remarks how he is humoured by how transmissions are now bookmarked by content warnings despite the show being commissioned by the BBC Comedy department.
“The last thing (Inside No. 9) is is funny,” and with the latest series concluded but tackling themes of paedophilia, identity and self-awareness, cults and loss, the show is very much not a comedy at its core.
Though, as Reece and co-writer Steve Pemberton have aged, now fathering children, they have shifted their perceptions of the world, and how they showcase that in their writing.
“We’ve never shied away from writing anything that we think is a dark comedy. In fact, our whole raison d’etre is I really enjoy pushing the darkness in all areas. And if we can earn it and write it sensitively, we’ll do it.
“But I feel that we did there was maybe some in the middle years writing Psychoville where I got a bit squeamish where you just become aware of your own mortality.
“Suddenly you’re shying away from writing things, I said: ‘I don’t want people in the script getting cancer because that’s what’s gonna happen to loads of my friends as I’m in that age bracket.'”
Comparably, Steven Moffat reflects back on his debut writing credit, Press Gang, released in the 80s.
“When you’re young, you’ll have a very high opinion of your ability to fix the world, and you’re always making grand pronouncements about it. But when you’re older, you’re just realising the sheer impossibility of fixing the world, and you probably shouldn’t make any grand pronouncements about it.
“Also, I much more often write about young men and about my age or teenage kids. That’s the thing that’s happened a lot more recently. But really, for the most part, I think I’m pretty much the same.”
“I’m always trying to look for, I think, Reece and Steve are the same, we’re trying to look for the twist, for the clever bit, for the hook.”
And it is with this that Steven concludes. “I think storytelling, is storytelling.”
The Unfriend is showing at Chichester Festival Theatre until 9 July with limited tickets available.
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