Tag Archives: Catastrophe

For better or worse

With season four of Catastrophe set to be its last, creators, writers and stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney reveal the secrets of the partnership that drives the hit comedy-drama both in front of and behind the camera.

In this age of partisan politics, Russian bots and fake news, Twitter wouldn’t be the first port of call for many internet users looking for a cordial interaction. Yet it was the social media platform that became the unlikely launching pad for one of the most acclaimed sitcoms of recent years when US comedian Rob Delaney struck up a conversation with Irish writer and actor Sharon Horgan via the site.

Discovering a shared comedy chemistry, the two strangers went on to create, write and star in Channel 4’s hit relationship comedy-drama Catastrophe, which returns to screens for its fourth season on the UK network tonight.

Delaney, who rose to prominence via his jokes on Twitter and was once named by Comedy Central as the platform’s funniest person, recalls the pair’s initial connection fondly: “I wrote to Sharon because she had made [BBC3 comedy] Pulling, and that was the greatest sitcom I’d ever seen, so when I saw that she followed me on Twitter, I was like ‘Wow.’ So we met, we chatted and it was really fun.”

While the idea to collaborate on a series didn’t come immediately, “we just sort of knew that we’d like to work together at some point on something,” says Horgan.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney came up with Catastrophe after meeting on Twitter

The rest, as they say, is history, with the duo birthing a show that centres on the inventively named Sharon and Rob, who find themselves facing parenthood after a fleeting hook-up during the latter’s business trip to London.

However, things could have turned out very differently had execs at the BBC – who must now be kicking themselves – not decided to pass on the Bafta-winning series after Horgan and Delaney wrote a pilot for the pubcaster. “We took it to the BBC, who said, ‘This is great – we don’t want to make it,’” Delaney jokes.

Asked why the BBC wasn’t keen, Horgan says: “I don’t know. They’ve been lovely about it. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing for them at the time. I can’t remember.”

“Great networks,” adds Delaney, “can obviously make horrible mistakes.”

C4 made no such error, with Catastrophe airing for three lauded seasons to date and covering topics such as sex, fidelity, divorce, depression, drugs and alcoholism as Sharon and Rob, married since season one, raise their family in middle-class London.

After season three ended with Rob facing a drink-driving arrest having relapsed into alcoholism, the new run sees him struggle to regain the trust of his wife, who finds herself having her own brush with the law. “Season four is about the struggle of staying together when there’s no other option,” Horgan explains. “They’ve both fucked up but they’re both trying to stay together.”

Season four picks up after Rob (Delaney)’s drink-driving incident

Delaney picks up: “At the end of season three, they’ve realised, ‘OK, this is our pile of garbage,’ and they both have to weave it into a tapestry and use it as a blanket. They love each other, and it’s about enduring love – and real love takes work.”

The theme of sticking together is one to which Horgan and Delaney will no doubt relate, with the duo involved in an intense working relationship as the driving force for Catastrophe both on- and off-camera.

Horgan’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the show goes further still, with her prodco Merman (Women on the Verge) coproducing along with Avalon Television and Birdbath Productions. And early last year she struck an overall deal with Amazon, which holds the rights to Catastrophe in the US. ‘Busy’ doesn’t quite cover it. “It’s a lot harder work than I thought it would be, fucking hell!” she says of running her own production company. “It’s really hard work, but it’s fun and rewarding, and it’s exciting getting work picked up.”

Discussing their writing process, the pair reveal that they speak all the characters’ lines out loud, accents included. “We do all the voices, it’s pretty great. You should hear Rob doing my mum – he doesn’t sound anything like Mrs Doubtfire,” Horgan says sarcastically.

As for how much they are like their characters, Delaney explains: “We are Sharon and Rob, but I’m as much Sharon as I am Rob, and we’re also [supporting characters] Chris and Fran, and little Jeffrey.”

“One thing we really try to do is not have anybody sound ‘clever’ or written, so we make sure to say things out loud, then transcribe, then read it out loud 100 times so it doesn’t sound like some smart, clever writer or anything like that,” he adds.

Horgan has a two-year overall deal with Amazon Studios

“That’s the difference,” says Horgan. “When you’re writing on your own, you can’t really do that, unless you’re insane. The thing with Rob is he doesn’t always know when amazing stuff is coming out of his mouth – so I just immediately start writing it down.”

Episodes come together via “really, really detailed outlines,” says Horgan, with Delaney agreeing: “We outline like crazy people, write terrible first drafts and then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.”

Script notes from collaborators are also crucial. “We love notes,” says Horgan. “If we send in a draft of anything and we don’t get notes back, we’re immediately suspicious.”

“Yeah, like either the person is stupid or lazy,” adds Delaney.

When it comes to plot points, Horgan and Delaney admit to drawing quite heavily on real-life experiences, both their own and those of people they know, although they add that this has decreased as the show has gone on. “There are always parts of us in there,” Horgan explains. “That’s helped us – if you’ve lived it, you can be braver.”

One wonders to what extent this might apply to the show’s infamous sex scenes, which are characterised by their mixture of realism and hilarity. “I think we both wanted the sex to be like, ‘Oh Christ…,’” says Delaney, placing a hand over his face in faux embarrassment.

“We didn’t want the sex to ever look pretty,” adds Horgan. “We wanted it to look real and rank.”

And while she notes that such scenes between Rob and Sharon have become less frequent as the series has gone on, fans of sexual slapstick can rest assured that other characters carry the torch in season four, including a very public liaison involving Fran, played by the always excellent Ashley Jensen (Agatha Raisin, Extras).

Mark Bonnar and Ashley Jensen play Chris and Fran

Jensen returns to the show as part of a strong supporting cast that also includes Mark Bonnar (Unforgotten) and Daniel Lapaine (Black Mirror). But one actor who will unfortunately be missing from the show is Star Wars legend Carrie Fisher, who played Rob’s insufferable meddling mother, Mia. Best known for portraying Princess Leia in George Lucas’s original sci-fi trilogy, Fisher died at the end of 2016.

Like Horgan and Delaney’s meeting, the improbable casting of a Hollywood star came about in unconventional circumstances. “We were at an awards show for a gay magazine – the Attitude Awards,” Delaney recalls. “[Fisher] was presenting an award, and her speech was so funny that Sharon leaned over to me and said, ‘We should get her to play your mother.’ And I was like, ‘Ha ha, you’re drunk.’

“But anyway, we sent her all the scripts and the pilot, and she agreed to do it – probably because she enjoyed spending time in London,” he jokes. “She would improvise – ferociously. It was scary at first, but then we knew to prepare for it and she was just so wonderful.”

Horgan continues: “The first scene she ever did was between me and her on the phone, and we ended up just insulting each other. We just went at each other. This was the first time we’d ever met, and she definitely called me a c**t.”

She adds that Fisher’s passing will be addressed in the final episode of the new season. And with Horgan’s Amazon deal and production commitments, plus Delaney’s increasing presence in Hollywood – he recently appeared in Deadpool 2 and has been cast in the forthcoming movie about disgraced Fox News exec Roger Ailes – Horgan has revealed in an Instagram post that this will be the series’ last outing.

“We’ve been doing it for five years and we’ve made four seasons we love,” says Horgan. “We give it an ending.”

Delaney adds: “We’re very proud and we’ve made exactly what we wanted to make, for better or for worse. We’ve said what we want to say.”

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Making his Mark

From Line of Duty and Home Fires to Apple Tree Yard and Unforgotten, actor Mark Bonnar is never far from television screens. He discusses his career, new projects including Porridge and working on Catastrophe.

Under the skills section of his CV, Scottish actor Mark Bonnar lists an unusual talent. “I can juggle,” the 48-year-old says while making coffee and checking the baby monitor to see if his son is settling down for his nap. Bonnar is married to fellow actor Lucy Gaskell (Cutting It, Casualty) and the couple have two children.

Multi-tasking is clearly not a problem for Bonnar. He’s been quite busy lately, appearing in Channel 4’s Bafta-winning sitcom Catastrophe, psychological thriller Apple Tree Yard (pictured top) and cop show New Blood on BBC1, and ITV crime drama Unforgotten. He’s also starred in Line of Duty and Psychoville (both BBC2), plus Grantchester and Home Fires (ITV).

Mark Bonnar (left) alongside Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

Bonnar also began shooting the new season of Shetland last month and has just spent seven weeks on a new six-part season of Porridge for BBC1, written by the show’s original creators Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The actor reprises the role of Officer Meekie from the pilot, which was screened last year, alongside Kevin Bishop as Nigel ‘Fletch’ Fletcher, grandson of Ronnie Barker’s iconic character Norman Stanley Fletcher.

“It’s a lot like the old rep routine where you make it up as you go along,” says Bonnar of filming Porridge. “Tuesday night and Wednesday we’d be rehearsing through, then doing tech for the cameras because it’s multi-camera, like the old live studio audience thing. Then we’d pre-record all the bits you can’t do in front of the audience, and then Thursday there’d usually be another light run.”

The Porridge pilot was a “terrifying experience,” he admits. “I haven’t been on stage for five years. The Old Vic was the last time. This was completely new to me and I wasn’t sure how to pitch it but I watched Kevin [Bishop] very closely and he’s a past master at this sort of thing. He started mucking around quite early on in front of the audience and they loved that.”

Coronation Street and Phoenix Nights star Ted Robbins was the warm up.

The actor portraying Officer Meekie in the new version of Porridge

“He really takes the audience through the story, because there are big gaps between the setups so they’ve got a lot to remember,” says Bonnar. “Ted’s got a gazillion jokes but also, before we start on the next scene, he’ll say, ‘Now, remember what’s just happened in the scene before?’ so they’re with us, and that’s invaluable.”

Porridge is up there with Dad’s Army as one of British TV’s national treasures and, in portraying Officer Meekie, Bonnar follows in the footsteps of the great Fulton Mackay.

The actor says the script and certain mannerisms of his character are done in tribute to Mackay. “It would be churlish to try to completely reinvent the character. The physical aspect of Meekie is the thing that probably informs the character. It’s not great naturalism. It’s heightened comedy.

“The first thing I did when I was in Fletcher’s cell was move like a flamingo or a bird of prey. The physicality informs me a lot. You kind of rely on that and work from the outside in. I haven’t gone away and thought about where he’s from or what his favourite colour is; that would be pointless. When you’re doing your lines, you stand up tall, because he is a tall character, and you move your head – it’s quite birdlike.”

When it comes to learning lines for TV drama, Bonnar has a distinctive approach. “I record the scene with gaps for my bits, that’s how I’ve always done it. If I haven’t got the time to record, I will learn the lines, but I like hearing everybody else’s words and my cues. It’s like having a rehearsal in your head every time.”

Bonnar in Jed Mercurio’s police drama Line of Duty

He recalls making his first ‘live’ recording at the age of 10. “My granddad had an old tape recorder and I went off to a room somewhere and recorded a radio show. It’s me doing all the ‘Hey, this is Mark Bonnar and welcome to my show’ rubbish, but I sang all the songs as well. There’s me singing Blondie and Ian Dury, and I thought, ‘Yes, I even had cool music taste back then.’”

Bonnar won a school prize for drama aged 12 in a show called Hooray for Hollywood. “It was a kind of a mishmash of songs and sketches. I remember donning a massive moustache for a scene from Murder in the Red Barn.”

He left school at 17 and worked for the library service and in the planning department at Edinburgh City Council, where colleagues persuaded him to pursue a career in drama. He completed a year’s National Certificate in drama at Telford College, followed by three years at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. In his final year, he won the Carlton Hobbs BBC Radio Award, which gave him a six-month stint with BBC Radio in London.

“I did 50 plays – everything from playing the orangutan killer in Murders in the Rue Morgue to the mouse in Alice in Wonderland.

“I love radio. As a listener it’s the most imaginative form because it’s all in your head. As an actor you can just really concentrate on delivering the story right into someone’s ear.”

The Scottish actor also appeared in ITV crime drama Unforgotten

Bonnar has a long list of credits including everything from Rebus, Silent Witness and Taggart to Casualty, Midsomer Murders and The Bill. He says he rarely turned down a job in the first 10 years of his career.

“You do whatever comes really. I occasionally turned stuff down because I wanted to feel like I was progressing in each job. The only power you have as an actor is to say no and yes. I think I said no a lot less in the early days because I was hungry for work; now I’m still hungry for work but there has to be something that really makes me want to do it.

“I’ve played quite a few psychotics, people who are deranged or twisted, and I enjoyed that –they were the most fun to play. But if something comes my way, there has to be a new take or slant or something about the character that appeals, that hasn’t been done before or is shown in a new way or the story is amazing.

“Apple Tree Yard was another brilliant step in a new direction because I hadn’t played somebody like him before. [Protagonist Emily’s husband] Gary is a slow-build character. He’s undemonstrative, he’s kind of in here,” Bonnar says, pointing to his chest. “There’s no ‘tits and teeth.’ People usually give me tits-and-teeth parts but it was great to play someone I haven’t done before who isn’t vindictive, who hasn’t a nasty streak. He’s just a flawed human being, as we all are.”

Catastrophe stars and writers Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan deal a lot with flawed humanity in their hit comedy, which recently aired its third series with a fourth planned.

Bonnar, who plays Chris, says it’s always “a joyous experience,” working on the show. “What [Horgan and Delaney] do is push everything to the degree where you go, ‘Oh Christ, I remember feeling like that.’ It’s so beautifully crafted, structurally but also dramatically. They’ve got an amazing talent and ability to make you cry and snort wine back into your glass at exactly the same time. The comedy and the familiarity of it, it’s perfectly human.

“There’s an atmosphere with Catastrophe of generous concentration because it’s a serious business getting it right. Rob and Sharon have said this and on set they’re quite prescriptive about what they write because what they write is brilliant and so they very rarely allow any improvisation. Now and again you can slip something in but you wouldn’t want to, it’s like gilding a lily.”

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Brits dominate Rose D’Or scripted

Mum
Big Talk Productions’ Mum aired on BBC2

The Rose D’Or Awards were dominated by the UK last year with wins in nine out of 11 available categories – and following this week’s release of the Rose D’Or shortlists for 2016, it looks like the UK stands an extremely good chance of repeating its success.

One thing is for sure, the UK will win both the sitcom and the newly created drama series categories. In sitcom, the three shows slugging it out are Episodes from Hat Trick Productions, Mum and Raised by Wolves, the latter two from Big Talk Productions.

In drama, the contest is between Happy Valley, River and This Is England ’90. The winners will be revealed in Berlin on September 13.

Looking first at the dramas, Happy Valley (written by Sally Wainwright) and This Is England ’90 (Shane Meadows/Jack Thorne) have already received plenty of plaudits. River, a six-part drama for the BBC, is probably the least-known of the three, despite being written by one of the UK’s top talents, Abi Morgan.

Having started out writing for theatre, Morgan’s earliest credits were in TV (Peak Practice, My Fragile Heart), but more recently she has moved effortlessly back and forth between film and TV. Her best-known films include Brick Lane, The Iron Lady and Suffragette, while stand-out TV credits include novel adaptation Birdsong, The Hour and River.

River
Six-part drama River earned positive critical notices in the UK press

Regardless of whether River triumphs in Berlin, Morgan certainly got the thumbs up from critics. In the UK, The Daily Telegraph critic Michael Hogan said the series was “beautifully written by Abi Morgan, stylishly directed and superbly acted. [Lead actor] Stellan Skarsgård delivered a powerhouse performance: sad and soulful in one scene, sardonically spiky and manically energetic in the next. With his craggy face and crumpled demeanour, the haunted detective prowled the streets of London like a wounded bear. I’m torn between wanting River to get recommissioned and wanting this series to stand alone as six near-perfect episodes.”

Aside from its UK screening on the BBC, River has also been available via Netflix internationally. In Canada, Globe and Mail critic John Doyle added his voice to Hogan’s, calling the show a masterpiece of melancholy crime drama: “It is the sort of drama critics rejoice in seeing. It is a stunningly successful hybrid of Nordic noir and the traditional, gloomy British police procedural. It is about solving a murder, but mainly about the intricacies of the human mind dealing with loss and terrible grief.”

The Rose D’Or sitcom category, meanwhile, brings international recognition for Stefan Golaszewski, writer of BBC2’s Mum. Golaszewski previously wrote Bafta-winning sitcom Him & Her for BBC2. In Mum, he tells the story of a woman seeking to rebuild her life following the death of her husband.

Catastrophe
Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is set for third and fourth seasons

When the show was commissioned, Shane Allen, controller of comedy commissioning, said: “Commissioning Mum was a delightfully easy decision after seeing the sure-footed pilot. Stefan is a unique author and this is a very confident next chapter in what promises to be a distinguished career in comedy. All his hallmarks are there – painful authenticity, comedy grotesques, emotional tenderness, revelation and depth – it’s a class act. I think it will connect with a lot of people as a refreshing take on an overlooked stage in life.”

Conveniently for the sake of narrative flow, last year’s Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is also in the news this week, with Channel 4 commissioning a third and fourth season of the critically acclaimed show. Created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the second season of Catastrophe was C4’s second-highest performing comedy of the year. The show has also been streamed in the US by Amazon Prime and picked up for adaptation for French-speaking Canada.

Announcing the news, Phil Clarke, C4’s head of comedy, said: “I am thrilled to commission a third and fourth season. It’s a welcome return for the brave, razor-edged, excruciatingly honest and painfully funny portrayal of a modern, long-term relationship.”

Raised by Wolves
Big Talk Productions’ Raised by Wolves

Critics have also been effusive in their praise of the show. The Guardian’s Will Dean said it “inverts the classic romcom with sexual honesty, a barrage of swearing and a wonderfully dysfunctional support cast. Catastrophe is a modern great. All 12 episodes [the first two seasons] were superb in pretty much almost every aspect. At its heart it’s an ordinary love story, couched in some first-class swearing, about sexual honesty, served with a side-plate of adultery, lust, elderly parents, flirtatious colleagues, money worries and a dead dog. The love story we deserve.”

The Times’ Hugh Rifkind added that it is “the funniest British comedy of the past five years. I shan’t say more, because it is so funny that me telling you the funny bits would be considerably less funny than you actually watching it, which is definitely what you should do. It’s tight and sparse and there’s never a wasted moment. In a nutshell, the best bits are about all the terrible things you never quite say to your friends, family and significant other, and what would happen if everybody just said them.”

Announcing the recommission, Horgan and Delaney said: “We are thrilled to be making a third season of Catastrophe. Rob and Sharon are a blast to spend time with. And we’re not talking about ourselves in the third person, we’re talking about the characters. We’re eager to breathe life back into Rob and Sharon. Okay, now we are talking about us. In the first season Rob and Sharon went through a lot (us) and even more in the second season (back to the characters). We’re looking forward to putting Rob and Sharon (both us and the characters) through further pain for your enjoyment (now we’re talking about you).”

This is England '90
This Is England ’90, written by Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne, is up for a Rose D’Or

Delaney recently took part in a panel session at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, during which he talked about the challenges of delivering great comedy. He talked about the need to keep ego under control, even when the world is telling you how great you are. “I had this fear of becoming this walled-off guy who wouldn’t listen. So I’m a real believer in humility,” he said.

Explaining why he persisted with comedy as a career, Delaney said: “I realised after the global financial collapse that no career is safe, that everyone else knows how comedians feel. So I thought I might as well do exactly what I want to do.”

He was also very refreshing on the subject of encouraging diversity, observing that it is “insane” not to draw on diverse voices. “My advice is to be selfish, make money by embracing diversity,” he quipped.

Finally, in the UK, there are reports that the new season of BBC period drama Poldark will go head-to-head on Sunday night with ITV’s new period drama Victoria (September 4, 21.00). Fortunately, most of us have time-shifting technology these days, so my guess is that people will store Victoria so they can avoid the ad breaks.

Poldark is written by Debbie Horsfield while Victoria is created and written by novelist Daisy Goodwin in her screenwriting debut. Alongside the likes of Sally Wainwright, Sarah Phelps and Abi Morgan, these shows may be indicators that female writers are starting to hold more sway in primetime – a section of the schedule that, from a writer’s point of view, can sometimes resemble a London gentleman’s club. Or Muirfield Golf Club.

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