Ian Hislop and Nick Newman on The News at Bedtime
The News at Bedtime starts tonight on Radio 4. I chatted to writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman when the show was being recorded, and they revealed the surprising number of similarities between nursery rhymes and The News...
Comedy Blog: Tell us about the concept behind The News at Bedtime.
Nick Newman: It's quite a good way of tackling current affairs sideways - once you get into the world of nursery rhymes and the whole mental landscape, it's so bizarre, taking it seriously adds a new dimension to it. When you've got cows jumping over the moon and treating it as a serious space launch, it gets surreal and hopefully... funny.
Comedy Blog: Do you start with a nursery rhyme and try to find a 'current' angle, or do you do it the other way around by finding a current story and a character who would fit it?
Nick: The way we tend to write for the magazine [Private Eye] is the latter - you've got the events of the news, and if there's a 69 year old woman who's had triplets, you think "ah! That's a bit like the old woman who lives in the shoe". But with News at Bedtime, we tend to work the other way around because it's timeless, rather than topical (though there is an element of topicality about it).
Ian Hislop: You tend to think "well here's a traditional nursery rhyme, how would it be treated now?" - if Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall, the first thing we'd do is say it was the fault of the King's horses and men, they should have been there quicker; and poor old Humpty, he'd die; then you've have people complaining about the wall. We're trying to look at traditional stories with a modern eye - particularly a modern media eye, which is looking to find another story entirely (apart from the story you've got).
Nick: It's taking it to its logical conclusion. Following a very silly story through, taking it very seriously.
Comedy Blog: Have you found any modern stories that you thought couldn't possibly be turned into a nursery rhyme- or any modern stories that already resemble nursery rhymes?
Nick: Initially the Diana story was a sort of Cinderella story where Prince Charming ended up marrying the ugly sister... but the story has moved on from that now and we've played around with it in a slightly different way. But Peter Pan-
Ian: It's pretty much down the line, that one. You don't need to do much to the Peter Pan story, you just tell it again.
Simon Nicholls: Peter Rabbi?
Ian: Peter Rabbi - he's a different kettle of fish. Well, he's not a kettle of fish at all. That's just quite odd, in that we have Thought for the Day presented by this character Peter Rabbi, who is obviously a bunny... but is also a rabbi. I don't know how you'd justify that at all. But on the whole, most things fit both ways.
Nick Newman: There's an added element that we stumbled upon as we were writing, that within the world of nusery rhymes, there's also lots of little riddles and tongue-twisters and things like that, which, when you put them into proper presenter's mouths, sound very silly and I think very funny. It's done with great portentousness, the story of Peter Piper and the Pickled Peppers and Theopolis Thistledown, but presented by good presenters and brilliant actors, it worked.
Ian: Nursery rhymes tend to work on repetition, which is what a lot of news is, so we found you just have to put them into their mouths, so they say... "London Bridge is falling down!" "It's falling down is it Jim?" "Yes, it's falling down, John" "And they're going to build it up?" "They are, Jim!" "Clay and straw?" "Clay and straw!"... and all you're doing is mimicking the nursery rhyme. And because it's newspeople, it's seems very funny.
Simon: And just putting the rhymes into conversation is really nice.
Nick: A lot of the rhymes do have the sort of rhythm of a news story. They are... events unfolding. 'Who killed Cock Robin?' is a story which you could write as a contemporary news story.
Ian: "Who saw it? Who did what? Why? Very sad. Over to you John." - So a lot of it is about rhythm and repetition. Very similar to radio.
Comedy Blog: And also to rolling news...
Ian: Absolutely. "Let's tell it again - eight green bottles falling off the wall. Back to you John." "Well, there's seven now..." I mean, we eked that one out for a while! That's a whole episode!
Nick: It's such a mad word, nursery rhymes, when you think about it logically. There's actually quite an interesting story behind some of them. Like Humpty Dumpty - we all think it's about an egg falling off a wall. But really, Humpty Dumpty was a cannon in the English Civil War that one of the sides managed to blow up, and it fell down. So all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again - that's the origins of it. Some of these stories are true, and real news events. Part of the oral tradition of news!
Comedy Blog: You've got a fantastic cast.
Nick: We're very lucky that shows like The Thick of It and Getting On have created a great genre of naturalism which all of our cast come from. So you get a realistic-sounding news programme - which is exactly what we wanted. Even when they're doing the knockabout, silly, hitting each other with rattles stuff, it sounds real and sounds as if they mean it.
Simon: I remember that page one of each script has written in italics, "this is serious. Serious news..."
Nick: "... for dishes and spoons."
The News at Bedtime every weeknight at 6.15pm on BBC Radio 4.