Steve Pemberton interview: Psychoville, comedy horror, series endings and more

With macabre comedy Psychoville back on our screens for a second season, we chat to writer and performer Steve Pemberton about the series…

A comedy that provided laughs and chills in more or less equal doses, Psychoville was one of the very best comedies to appear in 2009. Now back for a second series, co-writer and performer Steve Pemberton again appears as infantile serial killer, David Sowerbutts, and obsessive toy collector, Oscar Lomax, with the new run also introducing another quirky character, make-up artist, Hattie.

We caught up with Mr Pemberton to talk about the creation of the second season with co-writer Reece Shearsmith, starting with just how the pair set about writing a follow-up to the successful first series…

Was it difficult to come up with a way into a second series, given that the first one was so self-contained?

We just needed some big over-arching mystery for the series, and we gave ourselves that at the end of series one by introducing the locket. The great thing about that was, it could mean anything, which gave us great scope.

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So, we had that in place, and we knew it was essential, so we just needed story ideas. And I have to say, once we got started, it flowed quite well.

You’ve got a few new characters in here, which complement the ones you’ve already got. Was it difficult to come up with new ones who would fit in there?

It’s always a nightmare coming up with new characters. The ones you’ve already done, you’ve dressed them, acted them out, edited them. You’ve seen them completely come to life over the course of twelve to eighteen months. So, to sit down with a blank piece of paper and come with new characters that can sit alongside those established ones is always very tricky.

It’s just starting. You have to begin.

The great thing about the first series was that the characters were seemingly unconnected. They didn’t really interact with each other, but were all a bit crazy. We knew we had to create characters without knowing how they’d fit together in the main plot, if, indeed, they do at all.

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So, in the case of Hattie, who we have right away, who’s this make-up artist who has to marry her gay best friend’s partner, I had that story in the back of my mind since The League Of Gentlemen. There was a character in League we did called Tish, and then I got to do this storyline, which felt right for Psychoville.

When you’re looking at characters to play yourself, you want to have contrasts. So, Hattie was a great contrast to David and Lomax, the other characters I play.

So, that came together quite quickly, and with the case of Jeremy Good, who’s Reece [Shearsmith]’s character who works in the library, that had a very long, slow gestation period. Reece wanted to play a teacher character, or someone in authority who got undermined.

This would have been great in a drama, but it didn’t have any real comic spin on it, so coming up with something trivial like the missing library book. And going in a library you do get a sense that they are quite despotic, you know? [laughs] That you would be in trouble if something happens to a book. So, we took that to extremes. It’s a very mundane setting, this librarian who cannot rest until this book’s back on the shelf.

And he’s a real mix. As I started writing it, I thought why not throw in the Silent Singer, who’s this mythical creation we had between us for a few years. The Silent Singer came on when we were writing League Of Gentlemen, to alleviate the boredom. I’ve got photos of Reece looking absolutely identical. And the very lo-fi nature of the Silent Singer in the show, is due to the fact that we had a dressing-up box of stage props that we used on the Gentlemen shows, and that’s what we used.

It’s a very unnerving figure, and people won’t know where it’s come from. It came from our reality. Well, our reality. Not real reality!

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That was going to be one of my questions. Just what the inspiration was for the Silent Singer? It’s both scary and hilarious at the same time.

Yeah, like I say, it was just what was in the dressing-up box.

When we were at college, if someone went to the bathroom, the other one would get a pair of shoes, kneel on them, put a red coat on, get a knife, like the character out of Don’t Look Now. We’ve always enjoyed scaring each other by dressing up as these characters, usually the Don’t Look Now dwarf.

We kept that idea going. Reese would be standing behind me for ages and I’d be thinking, “Where’s he gone?” And I’d turn around and the Silent Singer was just there, singing his heart out. And I’d just go, “Not now, Silent Singer.”

It’s just stuff we used to do to make each other laugh, and that’s the great thing about working with someone I’ve collaborated with and been friends with.

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It’s not as easy as it sounds, but we can transfer the stuff that makes us laugh into these award-winning television programmes. How do we do it? I don’t know!

So, what’s the writing process like between you two? Is it totally collaborative, or do you tend to write parts separately and then compare notes later?

It’s very collaborative. We are in the room at the same time, working on scenes together. We don’t act it out, as such, but we just build it up line by line until we get it to a point where we both agree that it’s finished.

Sometimes, if one of us is away, the other can write a scene, but if there’s two of us working on a scene, it has two ticks, you know? We rent an office in Muswell Hill. We go there every day and just start writing.

The great thing about Psychoville, of course, is that it does mix horror and comedy so well. Was there ever a point where you had to convince the BBC to let you get away with some of the more macabre moments in it, or was that never a problem?

In the context of the show, there’s nothing that’s ever felt gratuitous. We’ve always been very lucky, working with just one person, [producer] Jon Plowman, so we don’t have lots of big general meetings with lots of voices. That’s something that’s essential when you’re working on something that’s a very authored piece.

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You need to just be able to get on with it and keep your vision intact. Jon would give us a few notes, but generally speaking, we’re trusted. By this stage, they know what they’re going to get, where the line is. We haven’t had to have that many arguments about stuff on taste or decency grounds, no.

People use the word “sick” a lot, but that implies that it’s vomit-inducing, which I don’t think it is. It’s the kind of stuff that you would see in a drama a lot of times, but because it’s in the context of a comedy, and because it has a sort of horror element, you’ve got all these genres working together. It unnerves people, and unsettles people.

And that’s just what we’re going for. We want it to be something you won’t forget and that isn’t like anything else you’ll see on television. So, if it is unsettling, that’s another word for “sick.”

Do you think that having the comedy element in there allows you to get away with more?

Maybe it does. It can make the funny stuff funnier and the horror stuff more horrific. But sometimes we’d like to end a horrific scene on a funny line or on a gag. It’s a delicate balance, but you want it to be scary and very funny at the same time.

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We’ve just got an instinct, and we’ve been ploughing this furrow for a long time, first with League Of Gentlemen and now with Psychoville, and it’s just something that comes very naturally to us.

We love the comedy, but at the same time, we never really wanted to write a straightforward sitcom. We wanted to bring in all these horror elements, and nobody else is really doing it. So, we’re happy to stay in that territory.

One of the big new faces in this series is Imelda Staunton. What was it like getting her on board?

Well, it was thrilling, when you’ve got actors of the calibre of Imelda and Eileen Atkins and Dawn French.  It’s very, very exciting, because you know they’re going to bring a touch of class to the show.

When we started writing this character, originally it was going to be male, and we decided to make it a woman. And the second we made that decision, we just went, “This would be great for Imelda Staunton.”

We’d just done a short film with her, and so we knew we had an instant in to be able to ask her, and from the point that we decided she’d be great, you can’t write scenes without seeing her. The stuff where she says, “I want to be like Judie Dench” (she’s obsessed with all this technology), the idea of this quite small woman wanting to be very powerful just added so much humour.

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And the brilliant thing about Imelda is that she can do the comedy and the drama of it. She’s a brilliant actress, a crossover actress. There’s not many of those around who are equally at home doing comedy and serious stuff. So, when she finally said yes, we were thrilled. If she hadn’t, it would have been a blow. But, thankfully, she did.

The conclusion of the first series was met with a bit of a mixed response from audiences.

Yes, that’s a polite way of putting it! [laughs]

But what did you make of those responses? Was the negativity something you took to heart?

It was upsetting, very upsetting. Because we’d had such a wave of adulation and excitement about the programme and people were genuinely- they loved it. And to feel that you’ve made a bum choice, that you’ve put a foot wrong, it upset us. We didn’t quite understand it.

One of the problems was, no one knew if there was going to be a second series or not. If you’d have known there was going to be a second one, then it would have felt like, “Oh, God, how frustrating.”

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A cliffhanger.

Exactly. It was a gamble we took, and the reason we did it was because that first series could have been self-contained and it could have ended with the revelation of who the blackmailer was, and why he was doing it, and that would have been it. But it would have been back to the drawing board for me and Reece. We’d have had to have come up with a new show.

We felt these characters were better than that. We felt there were more stories to be told, and so that’s why we brought in this cliffhanger ending, and also to tee up a possible series two. So, we did it with the best intentions to carry the show on. We didn’t do it to piss people off.

And hopefully, they’ll see, now we’ve worked our way through the Halloween special and into the second series, that we do have a longer term vision in mind.

But, yeah, we didn’t like having to read [some of the responses]. Especially when people said stuff like, “I’ve wasted my time watching these seven episodes. It’s been a waste of time.” Well, that’s a bit of an extreme reaction. It’s been great up until that last ten minutes. It shouldn’t really ruin it for you.

But we’ve listened and we’ve addressed it. As you’ve probably seen in the first episode, we have Mr Jelly say, “Sorry. What a pathetic ending.” So, we enjoyed doing that, as our little revenge!

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Do you think that if you hadn’t have given it that cliffhanger at the end of the first series, it would have made it too difficult to convince the BBC to commission a second run?

Well, that’s what we thought. That’s what we were worried about. We were worried they’d say, “This isn’t an ongoing story. This story’s stopped.” So, it may well have done.

At the end of the day, we took a gamble and it paid off. We have got a second series and fans who deign to watch it, who haven’t given up on us, they will get a lot from it. It’s even better than the first one. We don’t regret doing that at all, because it got a good result.

One of the other things you’ve been involved in as well, of course, is Whitechapel. How does that experience compare with Psychoville, given that you’re acting in that, as opposed to writing it, too?

Well, obviously, with Whitechapel, I just serve the writer and director’s vision, and so you go in and do your job. I only have one job, whereas on Psychoville I have many jobs. I have to worry about every shot. I have to worry about what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow. I have to worry about other people’s performances and whether this bit of the script’s correct, and whether the story makes sense.

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Psychoville is something I completely live and breathe as I do it. Whitechapel, I just go in and do my bit. I think they’re great stories. There’s a third series coming up, which I haven’t got the scripts for yet, and the character I play, there’s a great cross-over there. He’s a Ripperologist, and has this obsession with crime and serial killers, and at the same time, while I was doing that, we’d already written the character of David in Psychoville.

There’s a nice cross-over between them, and, in fact, there’s a scene in series one where I’m reading a Jack the Ripper book in Psychoville, and it’s the exact book my character had written in Whitechapel. I took the prop and used it. I liked that little crossover, there.

And talking of David, who has a penchant for song and dance, have you thought of doing a kind of live tour for him?

[Laughs] We have talked about the possibility of doing a live show. I think it depends largely on how well this second series goes down, and whether there’s any interest in carrying the show on into a third series. It wouldn’t be a full-blown musical, but there would certainly be musical interludes within it.

The song and dance thing came about because we wanted to do this traumatic scene where David pushes Nurse Kenchington, who’s Eileen Atkins’ character. We thought it was a great contrast to have them rehearsing this rather benign musical, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat, and because David can’t get the colours right, that’s what leads to these acts of violence.

And doing Les Misérables [in the first episode of series two] just carried that on, really. It was brilliant fun to do, because Les Mis is so ridiculous anyway. It’s so overblown and quite pompous. I do like it, but it is very, when you listen to the soundtrack- [sings something loud, melodramatic, and very funny]. It fits David’s character perfectly. It’s a softer side to David that we see sometimes. He’s interested in serial killers, but he’s really a big softie at heart. And as long as he’s around, there’s always going to be a big musical number not far away.

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He has a very flamboyant streak.

Yeah, and that comes out when he’s doing his performances. But as soon as he finishes, he’s back to his normal deadpan, slouchy self.

Would you ever giving Psychoville the same movie treatment you gave The League Of Gentlemen?

Yes, it’s possible. Reece and I just go with the flow. If someone came and approached us about it- It’s quite exciting, now that Hammer have got off the ground again and making movies. That would be a natural home for us.

The good thing about TV is, you get the green light, and you know you’re going to do it. Movies take a hell of a long time to develop and get the money, and they can be on and off. You can spend years waiting for something to happen, so you’ve got to take that as a long term strategy, I think, unless you’re the sort of person who can instantly open and get a budget, and I don’t think we’re in that category.

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But who knows? We could be doing stage, screen and big screen.

You mentioned Hammer just now, and Psychoville demonstrates that you’re really big fans of classic horror. Do you keep up with modern horror as well?

I do keep up to some degree. Reece and I both have families now, so sneaking off to the cinema and seeing everything, which we used to do years ago, isn’t so much of an option anymore. I’ve enjoyed Japanese horror. The Grudge, The Eye, Dark Water. Stuff that is very unsettling, creepy and unnerving. I think that’s a great shot in the arm for horror.

I haven’t seen stuff like Paranormal Activity as yet. I saw a very disturbing film called Martyrs, which is a French movie. It’s an endurance test and I almost turned it off a few times. But I stuck with it and it does stay in the memory, even if it is pretty horrific on many, many levels.

I’ve seen a great variety of stuff. Scream 4‘s coming out and Reece and I might go along and see that. I’m looking forward to seeing Wake Wood, the Wicker Man-ish film. I do fancy that.

It’s just, like I say, you can’t go out every night when you have kids. But it’s exciting, and everything we watch feeds into what we do, because in Psychoville, there’s room for everything.

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There’s a definite touch of Japanese horror around the Silent Singer.

Yeah, it has that element, and a David Lynch feel to it, as well.

We’ll look at specific things from time to time. When we did the Halloween special, we looked at a lot of specific horror films, and as the Psychoville series goes on, there’s a lot of Kubrick in there. We just enjoy drawing on these greats, the Hitchcocks and the Kubricks and the like, and let them inspire us, because they’re masterpieces.

Hopefully, people will hear us talking about these things and go back and look at the original films as well, because there are a lot of movie references in our work and we’re very up front about that.

Steve Pemberton, thank you very much.