‘At no time did we believe we couldn’t make it – and so we just carried on’

Never give up. That’s the advice comedy writer Laurence Marks has for those who wish to follow him and his partner

Thursday, 21st April — By Peter Gruner

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Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

THEY were two working-class boys from Finsbury Park, who, through trial and endeavour, went on to become masters of TV comedy.

Now Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s new book, Shooting the Pilot, describes the long and difficult road to success, and gives tips for today’s young and aspiring television writers.

There’s also a foreword by One Foot in The Grave writer David Renwick.

Speaking to Review, Marks talked about their early rejections and why writers should never give up. Among their creations was Birds of a Feather and the 1980s-90s award-winning political satire New Statesman, starring the late Rik Mayall as MP Alan B’Stard.

This newspaper has previously charted how Marks and Gran met as young teenagers at St John’s Court in Princess Crescent, the council flats where Laurence grew up. Maurice lived just round the corner in Finsbury Park Road.

Tragically, Marks’s father Bernard was one of 43 people who died in the Moorgate tube crash of 1975.

Laurence attended Holloway County school and Maurice Gran went to William Ellis in Highgate.

They also were members of the Jewish Lads Brigade, which met weekly at the former Finsbury Park Junior School in Blackstock Road, now City and Islington College.

Much of what they wrote, including sitcoms Shine On Harvey Moon, Holding the Fort, Goodnight Sweetheart and Birds of a Feather, were inspired by the local community. Indeed, one of the stars of Birds, actress Linda Robson, is an Islington resident who attended the famous locally based Anna Scher theatre school, which is still going strong.

The 1982 Harvey Moon series, about life in London after the Second World War, was motivated by a photograph in a magazine of a soldier coming home from war, which Laurence picked up in a antique shop in Camden Passage.

Marks and Gran started writing together in their early 20s and went to the Players-Playwrights, a writers’ group that in those early days met at the British Drama League offices at Fitzroy Square, Camden. For five years they wrote, usually at night, while holding down full-time jobs.

Maurice was manager of the Tottenham Job Centre while Laurence worked nearby as a reporter on the now-defunct North London Weekly Herald.

They spent much of the 1970s failing to sell any of their first four sitcom attempts. Then in 1979 they managed to penetrate the office of Humphrey Barclay, the head of comedy at London Weekend Television. He liked their fifth sitcom idea enough to commission it. Between 1979 and 1993 they went on to create a dozen original television comedies, winning two British Academy awards and an International Emmy.

Their book features the original pilot scripts of six of their most successful series. Each script is preceded by an illuminating essay recounting how the show was developed and cast, and the impact chosen actors had on the scripts.

Marks, who today, like Gran, lives in Gloucestershire, said: “My advice for any writer of comedy is simply don’t give up. We had five rejections, albeit nice and encouraging ones, but had they affected us we would have packed it all in and I would have remained in journalism.

“But we were determined and we were also lucky. At no time did we believe we couldn’t make it and so we just carried on. I would say you need three things to get to the top: talent, drive and luck. Probably any two would do, no matter which, but if you stop writing you will never be recognised.”

He added that he believes it was harder back when they started because there were not as many TV stations and no satellite channels.

“The truth is, comedy has always been the most difficult genre in which to succeed, and nothing has changed. Someone once told us that since about 1950 every hit comedy has been written by writers that you could count on the fingers of two, perhaps three hands. That describes just how difficult it is. But someone’s got to do it and why shouldn’t it be you?”

Shooting The Pilot. By Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, Fantom, £19.99
Their new musical, Bringing on Back the Good Times, which opened in February, will be touring the country throughout this year

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