Monday 28 Jul 2014
Tuesday 15 September BBC THREE
In the new series of How Not To Live Your Life, writer Dan Clark aims to balance making his flawed anti-hero Don Danbury more likeable with putting him into some extreme situations.
Don Danbury pretty much has it all – a big house inherited from his late grandmother; a friend and housekeeper of labrador-like loyalty in the shape of his gran's former live-in carer, Eddie; and a beautiful lodger, Abby, for whom he has held a long-time infatuation.
All Don, the central character in Dan Clark's BBC Three comedy How Not To Live Your Life, really needs is a decent personality and some social skills, writes Programme Information's Tony Matthews.
"Don is completely incapable of doing anything right," says Dan, who both writes the series and plays the main character. "He has no structure in his life and is basically a bit of a git. But, in my head, I've always thought he has the potential to start getting his life together. The thing that separates him from normal people is that he simply doesn't have that part of the brain that says: 'No, you can't say that'."
It's perhaps surprising that a growing number of viewers seem to have taken a shine to the tactless Don. "I think a lot of people were wondering why they should like him when, in the first episode, we didn't show any of his more endearing qualities," says Dan, "There aren't many, admittedly, but he does have some. I've also had people tell me that episode one was their favourite because it was when he was at his most despicable. I like to write for him because I get to act out things that maybe I've thought, but know better than to actually say or do."
Dan reveals that the forthcoming series will not feature Abby (played by Hollyoaks star Sinead Moynihan), or her pompous boyfriend Karl (Finlay Robertson), who provided Don with stiff competition in the lamentable personality stakes. "When I sat down with the producer and script editor, we asked ourselves if we wanted to do another six episodes of the love triangle where Don tries to get Karl out of the picture to get to Abby," Dan explains. "We hadn't actually made our minds up, when Sinead's agent phoned to say she was pregnant and was unlikely to be available. As the BBC wanted the show delivered quickly, it kind of answered our question. We've written it so that Abby splits from Karl and goes travelling, leaving Don heartbroken...
"When I started to think about replacing them, I got really excited about developing a female character who gives Don as good as he gets," says Dan. "This new character, Samantha, played by Laura Haddock, is more comedic than Abby, who tended to be an observer of Don's behaviour. Laura's quite new and, although she hasn't done comedy before, I think we've found a gem. There's a more traditional love-hate kind of thing between Don and Sam that you might see in Moonlighting or Cheers; as a writer I found that more satisfying. It also helps make Don more likeable – not that I was trying to soften him, but people seemed to like the parts where he was more vulnerable. We still take him to some pretty extreme places, but he's more of an idiot than cruel."
Dan has also worked on developing the roles of the faithful Eddie (David Armand) and expanding the contribution of Mrs Treacher (Leila Hoffman). "We've now got a kind of four-piece ensemble and I feel, in terms of jokes and comedy, that we've got a much funnier show because of it," he says.
Often compared to a young Rik Mayall, Dan has a wide range of comic influences. "I've always been drawn to flawed central characters like Alan Partridge and David Brent," he says. "It's dangerous territory because you're setting yourself up – some people might not want to spend half an hour with someone who isn't a nice guy. In my twenties I got into Woody Allen, Chris Morris and Bill Hicks; very clever, cerebral comedy. Then a couple of years ago I found myself coming back to big bolder comedies. I was a big fan of American comedy, things like Friends and Seinfeld."
After arriving on BBC Three, How Not To Live Your Life was repeated on BBC Two. Looking to move things forward, Dan describes working out what the audience thought of the show as a real eye-opener. "I was desperate to see what people were saying, so I went online and read the reviews... emotionally; to be reading one minute 'this is brilliant' and the next 'it's the worst thing I've ever seen' is not good for your nerves. It's really difficult to take in what people like and dislike, but at no point have I ever thought I have to please everyone. You need to be true to your instincts or you will just lose your comedic voice.
"It was the first sitcom I'd written on my own and I'm still growing as a writer. I felt I'd started to get a sense of what was working and what wasn't when we were editing the first series. Very few sitcoms are completely rounded and brilliant from day one and the first series was kind of finding its feet. There are a couple of episodes that I'm immensely proud of, but there are things I felt could have been better."
Series two has more ambition he feels, despite being made on the same budget. "It was a huge constraint," says Dan. "My goals were bigger and I wanted to use more locations, more characters and guest stars – Julian Barratt from the Mighty Boosh is among those guesting in the new series – but at times I've had to go off and rewrite a scene back in the house because we just couldn't afford to be on a beach in the Bahamas!"
Concentrating on How Not To Live Your Life means Dan has had to set aside other work, but he's keen to get back to his first love: "I haven't done any stand-up since last year, so I intend to get back on stage, which is something I really enjoy. Working on a sitcom, you're in front of a camera. It's long hours and you have to think about what you're doing. When you get up in front of an audience it's so instinctive, you get immediate feedback and it's much more fun."
Longer term, he is exploring the possibilities of working with other writers: "I'd like to do a studio audience sitcom, which I think would be fun. I'd also love to nail, whether writing, co-writing or producing, a mainstream sitcom on BBC One; something that appeals to younger people but my mum could also watch. Only Fools And Horses was one of the few mainstream sitcoms that cooler people liked, as well as mums and dads."
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