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24 September 2014
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Coupling is back!

Writer Steven Moffat

The series has always been a show about real life repeated as farce.

From the beginning the writer Steven Moffat based the characters of Steve and Susan on himself and his wife, Coupling producer Sue Vertue. And five years down the line, he is still doing that:

"In the past I've described the series as being 'My life as told by a drunk.' Like most writers, I write about what has happened to me as that involves the minimum amount of research.

"As it happens, Sue and I are married, so I imagined a scenario about what would have happened if we had met ten years earlier."

He was inspired by, "the permanent exhaustion of new relationships and the baggage they bring with them - and the strange way in which girls seem to have lots of exes as friends - which Sue certainly did.

"When I wrote the first series I did it mainly from a man's point of view - until Sue began to chip in with simple facts. She told me that a woman would never go and have a facial just before a first date as it would make her face go blotchy and red, for example!"

Steven continues: "Coupling involves three super-confident and three super-terrified people. Sue is a very confident, Alpha female in the way that Susan is and I'm very crap in the way that Steve is.

"Where Patrick or Jane are unhindered by self-doubt, Sally and Oliver are riddled with it.

"When writing comedy, you have to have the confidence to believe that there is only one type of relationship in the world, and we are all having it, that all men behave in the same way and so do all women.

"I fill the script with universals and people seem to watch!"

Those early days of first moving in together are long gone. Sue and Steven are now happily settled with two young sons and the characters lives have moved on too:

"You can't keep writing about people dating five years on. It is healthy and proper that it should change.

"Now the series is about the different stages of coupledom - the old couple, the new couple, the stranded singleton with a new admirer who shows the same male crapness with women."

How does Steven feel about exposing so many personal aspects of his life and that of his friends, especially when his mother-in-law Beryl Vertue is executive producer?

"There are a number of things that are deeply embarrassing and really did happen. I like to keep the audience guessing which bits are autobiographical.

"I have been working with Beryl for many years and we started developing a feature film script together before Coupling came along.

"In some ways it is quite strange to write about my marriage - but then Beryl did produce Men Behaving Badly so she's pretty unshockable!"

In fact one of the real benefits Steven finds in writing the series, as a self-confessed typically inhibited British male, is that it gives him the opportunity to say all those things he usually would not dare say out loud:

"Coupling allows me to write about things that annoy me - especially the experience of reaching your mid-30s and getting together after long periods of bachelordom.

"When I met Sue I was living in a fabulous, minimalist bachelor pad in Glasgow. I moved down to London to be with her and before I knew it I was living in a massively feminised house where shoes were left all over the place and every surface was covered with cushions and vases."

He has also been able to bring up some other subjects that bug him:

"In the last series I decided to put in a plea for putting locks on loo doors - and within days my mother-in-law had put a lock on her loo in Surrey!"

Coupling's floor manager Mary Motture admitted to rationalising her cushion collection and Sue laughs: "I haven't bought an ornament since reading the first episode - and I make sure I don't leave my shoes lying about the place any more!"

However, Steven adds: "Whilst in many respects the series had moved on tremendously and away from our own settled life, for this new series I have drawn on our own very personal experiences of getting pregnant and having our first baby."

Indeed in this fourth series the revelations are getting ever more intimate and the birth in the final episode is lifted directly from life:

"The scene is verbatim. It's what I said and what Sue said, word for word, just for the hell of it."

In fact there was hardly a dry eye in the house as the scene was shot and memories flooded back.

Similarly Steve's nightmares about the baby were also Steven's:

"If you take most men aside when their wives are pregnant, most men are pretty frightened and worried and faintly disgusted by the whole experience."

Steve's level of anxiety is so high he is expecting the birth to resemble the John Hurt moment from Alien.

Pain relief or natural birth? That is one of the decisions facing the parents-to-be as they take part in an antenatal class:

"That's lifted directly from life. At the time like all the men in the room, I kept quiet. But writing Coupling allows me to get my real feelings about the whole experience off my chest.

"The women were constantly being told that if they breathed properly they wouldn't need any pain relief. The men were all thinking, 'Are you mad? If you could rid yourself of pain by breathing properly, we would all be doing it! Take the pain killers!'

"I've now got the opportunity to say that out loud!"

To date, Steven has written 28 episodes over four series of Coupling:

"Being the only writer on a successful show is very rewarding. Writing so many also frees you up as you can write more atypical episodes, which is fun to do."

The introduction of a new male character in this new series gives Steven a new angle.

Coupling returns without Richard Coyle, who played Jeff, but with Richard Mylan as the new character Oliver, utterly inept in female company, who meets Jane on a blind date. She describes him as, "half puppy, half idiot."

Aware that fans of Jeff might need time to adjust to his departure, Steven talked about his plans on the BBC America noticeboard:

"There will be a new character - Oliver, Jane's worst possible blind date - and I'm having a whale of a time writing him. I miss Jeff, but it's invigorating to have a new wind blowing through the show.

"We've cast someone we think is going to be wonderful. And after you've all got tired of wearing your black armbands, I think you might think he's wonderful too…

"To be honest, it's kind of nice for everything to be a big scary risk again."

Steven stresses that Oliver doesn't just slot into the dynamics of the established friendships:

"It isn't until episode five that he becomes one of the group. After all, they barely know him and it's only then that the three boys end up in the bar together."

Steven admits that he was disappointed when Richard Coyle decided not to return - not even for a couple of days filming so he could be written out.

It meant he had to wrack his brains over how to write Jeff out of the story - he was, after all, Steve's best mate.

Then Ben Miles mentioned that a friend of his had said it would be really funny if Jeff came back as a woman.

It turned out that the person who had made the suggestion was the talented comedy actress Samantha Spiro, best known for appearances in Cold Feet and recently, for playing Barbara Windsor in Cor Blimey.

The cogs whirred in Steven's brain - and a pregnant and astonished Sam found herself being invited to audition for a very unusual role…

British Coupling continues to do very well indeed on BBC America and remains one of the BBC's best-selling programmes.

However efforts by NBC to re-make the series with a raft of writers and an all-American cast did not end happily. After enormous hype, 13 episodes were made but the series was pulled after just four were shown.

Steven comments: "We were told that they wanted it to be very like the British show, with all its bad language and post-watershed rudeness.

"I was interested to see how it would develop, but it seemed to me that they took away the charm and likeability of the characters in an effort to be as rude if not ruder than the British version. Some of the jokes were just plain crude and way too rude."

He stresses that he did not have that much input into the final version:

"I've got a T-shirt made to that effect."

He says he had been hoping to make a lot of money, so not doing so was disappointing.

"The critics who liked it and wanted to think they were in the know said it wasn't as good as the English version, and everybody else said that it wasn't as good as Friends."

Steven is now busy with other projects. It was announced at the Cannes Film Festival that Hartswood Films' first feature film Me Again, written by Steven, is due to go into production this autumn. It will be produced by Beryl Vertue and directed by Stephen Hopkins, whose The Life and Death of Peter Sellers caused quite a stir on the Croisette this year.

Meanwhile Steven is also working on some episodes of the new Doctor Who which he says will be like it always was but with fewer shaky walls:

"There's no point in doing it if it isn't the same, so it will be the way you remember it when you were 11 - although I'm not sure if Bacofoil will take over the world."

As it happens, Steven admits to being a lifelong, huge fan of the show.

He wrote the Comic Relief special, Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death, which was shown in 1999 and starred Rowan Atkinson.

He had also written a Dalek into episode two of Coupling before he was offered Doctor Who and made frequent reference to the cult series in past episodes of Coupling.

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