Perrier-winning comedian Dylan Moran and creator of Father Ted Graham Linehan discuss grotty shops, Bill Bailey's genitals and the genesis of their co-written sitcom, Black Books.
Bookshops tend to be warm, inviting places where lovers of literature can browse to their hearts’ content, searching out their favourite authors in an atmosphere of gentle quiet. Not so the shop run by Perrier-winning comedian Dylan Moran in the sitcom Black Books, which he has co-written with the creator of Father Ted, Graham Linehan. The sign on the door says ‘closed’ - on both sides - and if you do venture in, Dylan’s character, Bernard Black, is more likely to growl at you foul temperedly from the depths of a murderous hangover than to actually sell you a book.
The show was originally Dylan’s idea and had its first, tentative airing during the 1998 Channel 4 Sitcom Festival at Riverside Studios. 'It definitely benefited from the process,' Dylan says. 'It helped by setting me a deadline.' The show needed something extra, however, and that’s where Graham came in. 'I’d never written a sitcom before,' explains Dylan, 'and Graham is an obvious master. Structurally it was all over the place. It was too formless, just a plinth for jokes.' Graham jumped at the chance to get on board and the pair hit it off both personally and professionally. 'I knew Dylan from his work, and the Irish connection,' Graham says. 'But I didn’t expect to click with him as much as we have. It was a sudden love affair.'
Dylan and Graham stress that although they are both Irish, it isn’t an Irish show. 'Bernard’s only Irish because I’m too lazy to do an accent,' Dylan says. 'He doesn’t need to be.' Graham agrees. 'Ted [of Ted and Ralph from The Fast Show] was Irish but that wasn’t why it was funny. It worked because of the characters. The Irishness isn’t important in Black Books, the characters and situations are.' Nevertheless, Graham and Dylan are Irish, as are a large proportion of comics working in England at the moment. Do they think there’s a reason for this? 'Irish comedians are just more conspicuous now,' Graham says. 'One thing that may explain it is the Comedy Cellar in Dublin, a small venue beneath a pub called The International Bar. It’s like a school. It’s not like Jongleurs where you sit down and have dinner — it only seats 90 and there’s no mike! Other comedians go and you have to impress them, you can’t be lazy. It’s like a greenhouse of comedy.'
The duo had a very clear idea of the style they wanted for Black Books. 'It’s a realistic sitcom,' Dylan says, 'with elements of the surreal. You achieve the surreal jokes through the realism by making it elastic. We are both drawn to surreal situations so the writing was a joy. I love Bernard’s dryness.' And is this dryness based on himself? 'I don’t think so, but everyone else does. When I say "Bernard" everyone else says "Bernard? What does he mean? It’s him, it’s Dylan!"' Graham agrees. 'It’s kind of Dylan’s stage character walking around in the world,' he says.
So what’s their working relationship like? 'I learned a lot about sitcom writing from Graham,' Dylan says. 'By the end of the process I knew about structure so it wasn’t a case anymore of Graham knocking my stuff into shape. We had jokes that came and went. Jokes in sitcoms only work when they’re not conspicuous and they reveal character. The characters can’t be wittier than people are in real life. They have to be character witty.'
Dylan had a cameo role stealing books from Hugh Grant’s shop in Notting Hill - is this where the idea of setting his sitcom in a bookshop came from? 'No,' Dylan insists. 'I was writing it before the film. I don’t remember where the idea came from though. I just love bookshops, especially the Waterstones on Piccadilly, which not only happens to be the biggest bookshop in Europe or something, but has a bar! I myself have been to book auctions. I knew that Bernard was on retreat from the world, so I thought a bookshop was right. He couldn’t sell computer games. Bernard loves books, he just hates people and so he doesn’t have many customers.' Graham agrees. 'I love bookshops too. I spend so much time in my local one I think I’ll ask if I can work there.'
Bernard is not completely alone in the world of Black Books. 'He has a friend who runs a nearby gift shop,' Graham says. 'We didn’t want any sexual tension between Bernard and Fran (Tamsin Grieg) though. Then it would just have been a "Will they? Won’t they?" kind of thing like in Friends.' Bernard also has an employee in his shop, the chirpy Manny, played by fellow comedian Bill Bailey. 'When Bill was suggested I knew he’d be perfect,' Dylan says. 'I was of course plagued with the usual comedian’s fear that he’d get more laughs than me, and I have to admit he is fabulous. He has a very small cock though.'
What about the design of Bernard’s shop? 'We wanted it to be grotty,' Graham says. 'In contrast to Fran’s place. We did make a bit of a mistake by telling the designers exactly what to do and it was terrible. When they did it on their own it was great. I think writers should probably just give feelings of how things should be. It can be hard to let other people do their jobs though. I think all writers tend to be control freaks.'
Dylan has now been a stand-up, an actor and a writer - what’s next? 'I want to do a Ground Force type thing,' he says. 'Or maybe a Changing Rooms but with toilets.' And Graham? 'Definitely gorillas. Something involving gorillas.'