Maurice Gran (left) and Laurence Marks

Living the Extravagant Dream

22nd March 2019

As two of comedy’s best-loved and most prolific writers prepare for a one-off appearance at Watford’s Palace Theatre, Kathy Walton talks to them…

Veteran comedy duo Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran still remember the very moment they began their careers as comedy writers.

“It was 10th March 1980,” recalls Marks. “We had both left our jobs [Marks was a researcher on ITV’s current affairs programme This Week and Gran was working for the Department of Employment] and Maurice came round on a Monday morning. I made us two mugs of tea in my sitting-room and we chatted about politics, the news and Saturday’s football”…

…“And then at 9.30am, I said: ‘We’d better go upstairs and make 15 million people laugh,’ ” remembers Gran.

Making the nation laugh – as well as finishing off each other’s sentences like an old married couple – is exactly what the pair have been doing ever since, with a list of long-running, award-winning TV comedies that is as long as it is varied, including Birds of a Feather, Shine on Harvey Moon, Goodnight Sweetheart and The New Statesman, to name but four.

Marks, 70, and Gran, 69, first met when they were 10 – “although Laurence being just that little bit older didn’t pay much attention to Maurice” – and then again as teenagers, this time as members of the Jewish Lads Brigade in Finsbury Park. Having joined for the football, they found there was “rather too much marching” so by the age of 14, both lads moved on to the local youth club, where to their delight, they found “table tennis, girls and a record player.”

By 1974, they were learning their comedy craft, individually, by writing sketches for the London scriptwriting club Player Playwrights. Realising that both men were making audiences laugh, the club secretary suggested they start writing together.

So, inspired by their heroes - the writing partnerships of Galton and Simpson (Hancock, Steptoe and Son), Clement and La Frenais (The Likely Lads, Porridge) and Barry Took and Marty Feldman (Round the Horne, The Army Game) – and with a combination of “absolute inexperience” and the chutzpah of youth, the pair took a day off work to write a half hour comedy monologue, which they sent to the BBC.

“We expected a large cheque and a series commission by return of post,” they recall. Instead, they were invited to Television Centre for tea and encouraging words from the then BBC Head of Comedy. Not quite the triumph they were envisaging, but a huge leap onto the ladder, nevertheless.

Several more near misses of this nature were to follow, until in 1977, a chance encounter on a train between Marks and Barry Took led, circuitously, to Marks and Gran being commissioned to write 20 minutes of “banter, sketches and monologues” for each hour-long episode of Frankie Howerd’s Variety Show on Radio 2. Ooo ‘er missus: the pair were finally on their way.

Still working at their day jobs and hiding their secret lives as writers from their respective bosses, the pair found themselves burning the candle at both ends to meet their twice-weekly deadlines. “By the end of the series,” says Marks, “Maurice was exhausted and suffering from stress-induced psychosomatic ailments,” aka ‘The Howerd Syndrome’, after the notoriously neurotic comedy legend.

Cue time for a joint holiday, during which a throwaway line from Gran’s wife about him making a better mother than she would, proved the lightbulb moment. “I think you’ve just created our first TV series,” replied Gran.

Their role reversal comedy Holding The Fort, which ran from 1980-82, charted the domestic ups and downs of a female army captain who returns to work, leaving her husband at home to bring up baby. Unthinkable back then! The series, which starred Peter Davidson, Patricia Hodge and Matthew Kelly, turned Marks and Gran into hot property. “As 1980 dawned, so did the realisation that we had been offered the chance to fulfil our most extravagant dreams – to become full-time comedy writers.”

Lo and Mo (as their joint email address styles them; Marks likes to confuse correspondents by signing off as ‘Mrs’) still meet every day to work – “talk” – at Marks’s home in the Gloucestershire countryside. Gran lives in nearby Cheltenham and, just like many married couples, they share a personal trainer and a credit card. When they recorded Desert Island Discs for Radio 4 in 2015, they split the permitted eight discs between them.

“Our relationship is just like most marriages, in as much as we don’t have sex with one another,” says Gran. “So no complications,” says Marks.

If their relationship is chaste, the imaginations of some of their best-loved characters certainly aren’t. Remember Dorien, the sex-mad neighbour in their much loved sitcom Birds of a Feather?

“We made her a cocktail of several women we knew.” Her name, her fingernails (“we once knew a woman who arrived one and a half hours late for work every day because of her nails”), her nymphomania (“based on someone Maurice was familiar with”) and even her Jewishness (“which both offended and gave great pleasure to the Jewish community”) were shaken and stirred together to create the force of nature that was Dorien. The first series of Birds (in 1989) was filmed in Pinner – “where Dorien could have come from.”

Fans of the series will remember that Sharon and Tracey, the ‘birds’ of the title, were devoted sisters and the wives of a pair of old lags who shared a prison cell. While Sharon lived in a council flat, Tracey had just moved into an Essex mansion, (presumably paid for by the ill-gotten gains of her husband), with its fabulous kitchen providing the backdrop to much of the series’ witty dialogue.

“When Birds was developing, we didn’t know where to set it. We told a chief inspector friend about our idea and he said ‘set it in Chigwell, because that’s where more large houses are bought without a mortgage than anywhere else in the country… and you can work out the rest for yourselves.’ ”

Of their considerable output to date, Goodnight Sweetheart (shown from 1993 to 99 and again in 2016), in which Nicholas Lyndhurst plays a time-traveller who flits between East London of the 1990s and World War II, continues to generate the most letters and emails from fans. Marks and Gran hint that it might return to the stage as a musical later this year.

Optima readers may also remember their stage plays Von Ribbentrop’s Watch and Love Me Do, both of which were performed, in 2010 and 2014 respectively, at Watford Palace Theatre, where the duo returns for a one-off afternoon show Meet Marks and Gran, on Wednesday 3 April.

And who will forget their 1987-92 comedy, The New Statesman, with Rik Mayall playing the odious Tory MP Alan B’stard, whose hobbies, as listed in Who’s Who, included ‘droits du seigneur and crushing the poor under my heel’?

When Mayall died in 2014, Marks and Gran were surprised to be asked by The Daily Telegraph to pen an obituary. Flattered, they politely declined, feeling that others were better qualified…only to have it explained to them that it was a tribute to B’stard, not Mayall, that the paper required.

And if B’stard were around now to provide light relief in these Brexit-obsessed times? “If Rik were still alive – and satire hadn’t been killed by TV schedules – we’d all discover how B’stard blackmailed Cameron into getting this country into this mess,” they say.

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran can be seen in their own show, Meet Marks and Gran, to be performed exclusively at Watford Palace Theatre on Wednesday 3 April at 2.30pm. For tickets (£10), visit www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk or call the Box Office on 01923 225671. The show is followed by afternoon tea in the café bar (suggested donation £5).

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