Interview With Steven Moffat for the Guardian Guide
In 1989 I was a recent, highly qualified graduate, so, naturally, spent most of my time watching children’s television. Amongst the shrieking, spiky haired presenters and the poorly animated cartoons, I discovered an unassuming comedy drama about a school newspaper, called Press Gang. It was subtle, sophisticated and much too good for kids. Best of all, it was my secret.
Thousands of others must have felt the same as the show quickly achieved a cult status usually only conferred on science fiction. It spawned fanzines, conventions and unhealthily obsessed fans. It won BAFTAs and it launched the careers of some impressive unknowns: Julia “Absolutely Fabulous” Sawalha, Lee “Secrets and Lies” Ross, Paul “Let Him Have It” Reynolds and Dexter Fletcher from the Cadbury’s chocolate advert.
But, the really impressive thing was the script. It was tightly plotted, had three-dimensional characters, witty one-liners and a degree of hard work behind it that most children’s television writers deem unnecessary. Amazingly, it was the first professional work, of Steven Moffat, who began writing it when he was just 24.
“I used to be absurdly young,” agrees Moffat, “I recently saw a photo of myself in a dinner jacket during Press Gang. I looked like a 12 year old who’d stolen his dad’s suit.”
Moffat, now hardly a pensioner at 35, still looks like he might be fidgety if forced to wear a tie. He lives in his native Glasgow and is, at first glance, the unflashy, casually dressed, “wouldn’t stand out in a crowd” stereotypical scriptwriter. But there is a quirkiness about him. Like his scripts his outward conformity quickly reveals a naughty non-conformity. He’s like a grown-up version of a character from Gregory’s Girl.
Even his big television break has a typical unlikeliness and understated charm. “My dad is a primary school head,” he explains with the ease of someone who’s told the story a hundred times and is no longer sure whether it actually happened, “His school was used as a location for Harry Secombe’s Highway. Dad mentioned to the producer that he had an idea for a show based on a children’s newspaper. Two years later they came back looking to make it, but dad wasn’t interested in being a writer, so he said “my son can do it””.
And so Moffat junior who had only ever written a couple of fringe plays became a TV scriptwriter. He made few concessions for his teenage audience. “Press Gang had the dirtiest jokes in history, we got away with tons of stuff,” he reveals, gleefully. “We nearly got away with a joke about anal sex, but they spotted it at the last minute. It was something like, “I’m going to butter you up... that’s an expression!”” He chuckles and then laments , “So close, so close!”
He had no idea that the show would be so popular. “We didn’t know until it was over. I thought it was just a home movie I made with my mates. Until I went to the conventions there was no proof it wasn’t just on a bunch of tapes in my room.”
The downside to an impressive debut is that everything that follows can suffer by comparison. When I tell him that many Press Gang fans think that his subsequent work hasn’t been as good, he coolly states “it is the condition of being a fan to say it used to be better. People who discovered Joking Apart think that Press Gang is a rather wet series about teenagers.” He knows that his fans compete. “I saw a heated discussion about the relative merits of the two series on the internet. I thought, “I’ve got 14 fans and they’re all fighting each other.””
Joking Apart was a dark and slightly peculiar sit-com about an embarrassingly messy divorce, which was clearly based on personal experience. “The sit-com actually lasted slightly longer than my marriage,” he blankly comments. The result was by Moffat’s own admission rather uneven. “I’m not sure having invented the feel bad comedy was really a great move. The best of Joking Apart is very funny, but it makes you feel shit when it’s finished. That’s not what you want to watch a comedy for.” It is rare that a sit-com will portray the misery and embarrassment of sex realistically, or dare to be serious without having a pratfall punchline. Moffat is pragmatic, “It’s the show’s strangeness which made me fonder of it. I’m very proud of it. It’s good and innovative, it’s just not likeable. They remade it in Portuguese - it was much better, it ends happily, it’s not as dark or ground-breaking, but it’s probably more fun!”
His new series Chalk, is again based on experience, but the situation, a secondary school is certainly more accessible. Thankfully Moffat, who taught for three years, has not used this as a soapbox from which to satirise the government’s educational policy, preferring to concentrate on being funny. And yet beneath it all is a much more broadly satirical swipe at the implicit pointlessness of the way we are educated. “Secondary School is a big waste of time,” he opines, “What are French teachers doing? None of us can speak French. How much maths can you do? Do you know any history? What is the point in training people to do things that none of us can do? The system seems designed to qualify you for the Indian Civil Service in 1911. We all leave school unable to drive! Now that would be quite handy.”
Moffat has some doubts about the first episode, but thinks that over the course of the series he has got this one right. A second series is already in production. Although pleased with his cult status he is ambitious for more, “It’d be good to write a series that’s genuinely successful, rather than having a small underground fan base who spread the word amongst themselves.” With a slot on BBC1 and providing Moffat’s quirkiness shines through, there is every chance Chalk might give him the ratings-busting success he craves and deserves.