Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode interview: The Movie Doctors

From their Movie Doctors book, to the mighty George Of The Jungle, we chat with Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode…

Fans of Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s film review programme (us included) may have noticed that the pair have been touring the past few weeks. Their Movie Doctors events have brought their on-air movie chats to venues around the UK. And there’s the small matter of a brand new book, that they’ve authored together.

We got to chat to Simon and Mark about it. And here’s how it went…I was thinking that if I was as good as Simon Mayo, I’d have a really good opening question that would relax you both, and get you to explain a bit about your book. In lieu of me being that good, could you do that bit for me?

Mark Kermode: [Laughs]

Simon Mayo: Is that an opening question?

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Told you. I’m not up to your standard. How should I have done it?

MK: The opening question from Simon would have been, ‘Simon and Mark, tell me a little bit about the book’.

SM: That’s right. You just have to have an open, bland question and see where it goes.

I can do that. Shall I try that again?

SM: Yeah!

Simon and Mark, could you tell me a little bit about the book?

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SM: Oh right! Yeah, well, okay… good question.

It came about because many years ago, everyone knows that Mark worked for many years to get a PhD. Therefore, he’s a Doctor. When I got given one by Warwick University, just because they wanted to give me a honorary degree, I referred to it in passing. Within a week, someone had talked about the Movie Doctors, and then it sort of disappeared because we’ve got too many other catchphrases knocking around!

Then we wanted to do some live shows, that were clearly not going to be radio shows. Nobody was going to be on the radio. We just resurrected it, and thought the medical analogy was worth running with, as it applied to so many different areas.

That’s my very long, boring answer. Here’s Mark’s version!

MK: That’s pretty much correct. It was a couple of years ago that we wanted to do the live shows, where we talked to audiences about films. One of the things that we learned from the radio show was the way in which people watch films, and the reason they watch them, is very diverse. We like the fact that we’re just having a conversation with an audience.

We had to have some structure to it. And because the Movie Doctors joke had been around for a little while we said why don’t we do that? Why don’t we do it like a clinic?

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What we wanted to talk about was the way in which movies affect people. I’m a film critic, so my side of it tends to be more earthy. But we were very interested in talking to audiences about what movies meant to them. So the idea of the Movie Doctors stage show, which is what this all came from, was we’d do a show, and talk about that. How do movies make you feel better or worse? How do they excite you?

And of course what happened, as is so often the case, is we did a couple of shows – more than a couple – and people brought along ideas. The ideas were much better than the ones we’d had originally. So we though that’s quite doable. People wanted to talk about the way in which they’d used films to cheer them up, or how films had made them cry. And so from that, we sort of decided we’d write a book.

Has this been a long time coming?

MK: We’d wanted to write a book together for a while. It’s complicated, because what we do is very different, and we’re very different people. What we do is different. And as a result of doing the live surgeries, we said why don’t we divide it like this? Simon would do what he effectively does on the radio show, which is to write about the way in which the audience responds to films, and what films mean to the audience. And I’ll do what I do, which is look at movies, and see whether they can be medically analysed. That was basically the very broad sweep of how it began.

Simon started writing his stuff, I started writing my stuff. Then what happened of course is that we’d send the stuff to each other, and then we’d rewrite it. As it went on, it became an ongoing dialogue.

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Broadly speaking, the roles were still the same – me complaining, Simon looking towards the audience – but actually, although you can hear two voices in the book, there are sections in it where even I can’t remember who wrote what in the end.

SM: That’s a far more fulsome answer. I think you’ve got the essence of it there.

Simon, you did a wonderful piece with the Big Issue, where you talked about the shyness of many people who work in radio. That even though millions are listening, it’s still you in a room talking pretty much by yourself. Mark, you said that you wanted to have conversation to the audience just before. But what defines your radio show is that you both take what radio affords you, and your conversation is with the audience.

How conscious, then, are you both of your audience when writing a book? And how does that compare to when you’re in a radio studio, with the two of you talking?

SM: Well I always think that I would do the same show… I did hospital radio years ago. A Sunday afternoon programme for Southlands Hospital. And I did university radio when I was at Warwick. Basically, you do the same show if you’re broadcasting to five people, which would have been quite a bumper crop back then I have to say. Or if you’re doing it to five million people.

I know this is a cliché, but you talk to one person. Obviously you’re aware of the fact that you’re getting emails in, and tweets, and correspondence from people who are listening. But radio, and its even more intimate cousin the podcast, is a one to one communication. Yes, we’re talking to each other, but we’re also talking to the one person. Which is the way it always has been, I think.

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MK: Can I say that firstly, I can’t believe we’ve been doing a tour called The Movie Doctors for this long and this is the first time that you’ve brought hospital radio up? We’ve missed a massive trick in not waving that around before!

SM: I’m keeping that back…!

MK: Why is that not the opening line?!

Beyond that, the key thing from my point of view is that the joy of doing the radio show is Simon, is because of Simon’s role – that’s been described invariably as the everyman – it means I don’t have to temper what I do.

From the very beginning of the first time we worked together, on Radio One, the freedom for me was if you’re in the room with somebody else who can talk directly to the audience, somebody who has an innate connection with the audience, who can translate the nerdy gobbledygook that you speak into something that the audience can understand.

That’s always been the case with the radio show.

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In the case of the book, it’s a very similar thing. I’ve written books before that I fully understand the primary audience for is people interested in movies. No matter how much the publishers like them to be seen as general… I wrote It’s Only A Movie, nominally an autobiography. But it’s not: it’s a book about all the movies that I watched growing up.

In the case of The Movie Doctors book, Simon’s writing half of it. Taking care of making it work for a mainstream audience is already done. Therefore, I can spend four pages complaining about Michael Cimino because it’s okay. There’s another four pages next about films that people actually like and care about.

I have to ask, then: who wrote the George Of The Jungle bit?

MK: Simon. But I agree with it!

SM: There is a deep joy in that movie, and it never gets discussed ever. It’s obviously not great enough to get on anyone’s the funniest movies of all time list, but I am quite tempted, now that you’ve brought that up… we finish the [Movie Doctors live] show with a five minute show reel of funny stuff that makes us laugh in the movies. Young Frankenstein, School Of Rock, things like that…. Actually, 20 seconds from George Of The Jungle would be very, very funny.

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MK: It is always funny to see someone flying into a tree. And it is! We did review it, I must have been at Radio One when I came out. We did agree that it was very funny. But you have championed it more than I have!

SM: I haven’t seen it for a long time because my DVD has gone missing. But the more you talk about it, the more I want to.

Whenever something is co-authored, I’m always interested in what the working relationship was. I interviewed Ricky Gervais a few years ago, and his first two films as director he also co-directed. He got different co-directors too.

He said the working on-set rule was that if either director didn’t like something, they could veto it on the spot. How does that work with you two, particularly with the book?

SM: Essentially, when you read through it, I think you can see which bits are mine and which bits are Mark’s. I would very rarely temper anything that Mark’s written because it’s a flow.

I think if there were doubts about a fact, or something that didn’t work, the editor would pick it up. Jenny Lord, who edited the book, she would have the final say. She would be the one who says we really need that out, there are too many points on that, maybe we could lose that altogether.

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So it’s a three-hander really, although we wrote the bits and pieces.

MK: Well, we wrote the book. And to be honest with you, what I like about this is in typical fashion, you have a slightly more benign memory of how it worked out. Bear in mind that it took us a year to do this bloody thing!

What actually happened was we both started writing, then we both started passing pieces to each other, and then we both started reading through each other’s pieces and commenting on them. There were some thing that we just flatly disagreed on. That Ricky Gervais thing does happen there. We both wrote things that got thrown out because they either didn’t work for us or for the book. At one point there was a version of the book where we were writing in the margins of each other’s copy. The book would have had scrawl all over it.

SM: Yeah. That was like an artistic decision, that it would feel a bit more like interjection and interruption, that sort of stuff. And I think it was decided that that might be a bit annoying.

MK: But what we ended up doing was having the arguments together, and ending up at something we both agree on. There are still a couple of moments in the book in which it says that ‘while Dr K thinks this’ or ‘Dr M says this’, but they are very few. If you saw one of the earlier drafts, it was literally like a game of Risk! Claiming land, left right and centre! It became a bit like a wrestling match!

But the whole thing had to tie up. One of the things I’m most proudest of with the book, and it may be a stupid thing to say but I am proud of it, is that it’s got a really good index. When you look at the index, you realise there are a lot of films in it. It starts with silent cinema, and ends with 21st century 3D movies. Although it’s meant to be something you dip in and out of, it does in the course of it cover a wide range of films.

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During that, as you’re cross-referencing backwards and forwards about stuff that you’ve written six or seven months ago, you find things in the book where you’re talking about the same movie but saying different things about it. We did straighten that out.

Also, I need somebody to say that’s not funny, or that’s really boring. I don’t think there’s anything in the book that either of us completely disagree with. Is there Simon?

SM: No, no. In comparison with writing novels, it was a breeze to be perfectly honest! It was great. I think it has a pretty coherent voice all the way through. Sometimes a pair of voices, sometimes one. And it looks beautiful. Obviously, what a great gift at this time of year!

It is a toilet book, and obviously you can dip into it. But actually it repays careful reading and contextual analysis.

MK: I can’t believe you just called it a toilet book.

I read it on a Kindle at first, but I think you lose something that way. I think the physical production values of the book are strong. There are lots of easy ways out you could have taken with this project, but from start to finish, it feels as if you’ve put a shift in.

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You’ve talked about the writing of the book, but then this is a really meaty 300-page plus book, that’s been carefully designed. When you were envisaging this a year ago, was it always physically this?

SM: I think it was. One of the reasons we went for [publisher] Canongate is they make beautiful books. I knew that we could write interesting words, I knew that we could choose interesting films, and I knew that the medical analogy could work. I had confidence with that. But we wanted it to look beautiful.

I think the people who listen to the show, I think that’s what they want. They want a book that feels right, to have the right heft, the picture quality needs to be great, the stills well-chosen, the paper quality has to be beautiful. And that’s what Canongate do, and that’s why we went with them. I think we’re both pleased with that.

MK: We didn’t start talking about this a year ago, we writing this a year ago! We started talking about the book two years ago, and quite genuinely, it took a year to write. The manuscript was finally finished in July of this year, and we started writing in July last year. Just because we knew that we wanted it to be solid. Neither of us wanted to do something throwaway.

We spoke to a few different publishers, but Canongate, just in the way their books were presented, we thought we wanted our book to be like theirs.

We also knew that in order for it to be any good… you said something about putting a shift in, which I appreciate enormously. Because we did: I am very aware that if you wander around the book shops at this time of year, there are books that have people’s names on that not only do I suspect they’ve not written, they probably haven’t even read them!

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We actually wrote this bloody thing.

For the tone stuff, we were looking at ways to make the dialogue in it between us work. And they said why don’t you two have a conversation, and we’ll see whether it could be transcribed. Canongate came along to several of the live shows, and helped very much with that. The bits in the book where it’s two of us talking, some of those were based on conversations we had. They were also very good at saying a graphic will work well here, or a chart.

But everything that’s written, the physical stuff, we did write. I wanted it to be substantial in both senses. To have substance in the writing, but also for the book to feel like a thing you’d like to hold. In a way, a Kindle would miss all that, because there is a heft to the book that’s physical.

I have to ask. Your live show is apparently PG-rated! I’m curious what you think the BBFC’s specific guidance would be for it?

MK: Who came up with the PG rating? That was probably just a punt, wasn’t it?!

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SM: On the ticket to the last show we did, it did say 8+. I think that kind of means that there is a clip from The Exorcist, but it’s just a vomiting sense! There might be the odd reference in Young Frankenstein. Basically, don’t bring your toddlers! It’s not a parent and baby show!

MK: I’ve done shows that are just me, with no clips or visual material, that theatres have rated 12 and up! And I’ve always though am I offensive to under 12s?!

We have had some young people coming along to [The Movie Doctors] shows. There was a kid who looked like he was about 11 or 12. But to be honest, much below that, why would you take an eight year old to watch two old farts talking about films? It doesn’t make sense to me.

SM: But if you did take an eight-year old who happened to listen to the show, they wouldn’t go ‘oh my goodness, what have I brought them to, this is disgusting’.

MK: There’s no profanity or swearing! There’s probably some mild peril and sustained threat!

One last thing. Mark, I’ve asked you this in the past, so can I put this to you, Simon? What’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

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SM: Oh, that’s a very good question. I’m not really the aficionado of Jason Statham movies. Mark, what should I say?

MK: I tell you, the really, really smart move would be to say Hummingbird.

SM: I think Hummingbird.

MK: It’s the one in which Jason demonstrates that he can branch out beyond the confines of mere action, whilst still keeping on board his fanbase.

SM: I think he branches out in that one, and shows that he can do so much more than just wear a vest.

He wears an amazing wig in that one too! Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode, thank you very much!

The Movie Doctors is available in hardback (the best version) and on Kindle (still fun, but not as good) from Canongate.

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