Scotsman piece about YCCYF and mau
THERE comes a time in many an actor's career when the question arises: to be naked or not to be naked. Richard Herring appears to have fewer qualms than most at getting his ripened frame out for the cameras. In You Can Choose Your Friends, his new ITV comedy, Herring takes an almighty tumble out of a bathtub, his hairy rear on show for a good few seconds more than might be deemed necessary. "Everyone gasped at the time thinking that I had done myself an injury but it was just a brilliant piece of stunt work," Herring tells me. "I really don't they think they could have found a stunt double for that body but I've done some nude stuff on TV before, and on stage in Excavating Rita I was completely naked, so just showing my bum isn't too much. I was making Anton Rodgers fall into a pond and walk around in his pants, so to be fair I thought I should show the cast that I was willing to humiliate myself as well."
A sense of humiliation is something Herring has often had to get used to through his 39 years. Some might think that it's bad enough to have both parents as teachers, but when one of them (daddy) is actually the headmaster of your school, that can only roll out a barrel of terror: "I think that massively, emotionally scarred me for life without me realising for a long time."
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Not that his father was a brute of a man - indeed Keith was well-liked as the boss of the archly titled Kings of Wessex School in Cheddar, Somerset - but fellow pupils were wary in Son of Herring's company. "I tried to be funnier and more subversive and naughtier to show the other kids that I wasn't just the junior version of the headmaster," he recalls. "It was an odd experience, and into my adult life I have assumed that people just make a judgement about me and don't trust me."
Herring's brother and sister followed their parents into education, leaving Richard as the black sheep maverick who took to comedy in both performing and writing, but perhaps it's not such a crazy notion when you consider other influences along his family tree. "My dad's dad was also a headmaster and quite strict, but very clever and interested in writing. My mum's dad was this working-class roadworker fella but I always found him very funny and he made me interested in the nature of comedy. His comedy was a throwback to Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, but he inspired me with performing while my other granddad helped with the writing."
When his siblings and parents got wind that Herring was working on a family-based comedy drama, there must have been some sweaty palms and furrowed brows among the clan at the prospect of their idiosyncrasies being aired for an ITV audience. On his excellent website blog, Warming Up, Herring writes fondly of his kin's quirks. After a particularly raucous festive period involving an exploding Christmas pud and a smashed cafetière, Herring wrote: "It's good to know that my family manage to come up with this knockabout comedy without even trying, making my job a lot easier. Even though the family in the drama are in no way my own family. Any similarity between the clumsy grandfather and my own dad is entirely coincidental."
Getting You Can Choose Your Friends to the point of an airing has been something of a saga for Herring, who both wrote the show and stars in it. Initially the BBC were sniffing around, but couldn't quite make up their minds (no doubt bringing back some horrible memories for him of when a new controller arrived at the corporation in 1999 and canned the growing cult show This Morning With Richard not Judy in which he starred with comedy buddy Stewart Lee) so when ITV's recently ensconced director of entertainment and comedy, Paul Jackson, took more than a passing interest, Herring was enthused. "He saw the script and said he'd like to commission it, not as a pilot half-hour but as a 90-minute comedy drama, which was exactly what I wanted to do. I obviously like Paul Jackson because he keeps giving me work but he's very sharp and correct."
The piece stars Anton Rodgers and Julia McKenzie (together for the first time since their Fresh Fields/French Fields days) as the heads of the Snell clan, with Herring as baby of the family, Ian. When the Snells and their partners and offspring gather in the family home, the bitter resentments and seething frustrations are given an arena in which to be played out. "It's very encouraging that they've gone and done something with someone like me," Herring says. "It's very difficult for me to judge the piece but I think it's quite different from other things on ITV. There's a lot of talking and, pretty deliberately, nothing really happens in it. There's the implication that the usual kind of things that happen on dramas on TV will happen here - that there'll be sex and car crashes - but none of it transpires, so it's just about enjoying the wittiness and warmth and edge to it."
It certainly has warmth and wit, and for an ITV which has recently brought us Ben Elton losing the plot all over again with Get A Grip and Liza Tarbuck sleepwalking her way through the pitiful Bonkers, you can argue with vigour that Herring's piece has an edge. While you can imagine Ma and Pa Herring settling down to watch the wacky japes of the Snells with little discomfort, I can't really picture them in the front row of their boy's stand-up gigs, rolling with the punches as they watch him find comedy in the murky terrain he pokes around in for his Ménage à Un show, which begins a Scottish tour this week. Things such as, you know, having sex with the stigmata of Jesus, taunting a car wash over the double entendre in its name, and railing against the injustices of a world which can't find him a life partner yet allows Maxine Carr to meet someone willing to wed her.
"I thought very hard about the Maxine Carr material and early on when I did it, a guy came up to me and said, 'Would you do that joke if you'd had a daughter that died?' His had, though not through a murder. And I said that I would because it's really not about the girls; but as a comedian I think you should be allowed to talk about anything. If the wrong person hears that joke and misunderstands it, it's not nice, but as long as you the comedian can justify what you're doing and you know why you're doing it then it stays in. It's not a joke to shock for no reason. And anyway, the brunt of the joke is me."
• Ménage à Un is at the Stand, Edinburgh, 22 May; the Stand, Glasgow, 23 May; the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 31 May; Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, 1 June. You Can Choose Your Friends begins on ITV1, 7 June.