Comedy Interview: James Bachman

James Bachman in Saxondale

It’s been a few months since we delved into the world of comedy when back in the summer we spoke to Richard Herring and comedy troupe The Cowards.

This time round we’ve been talking to comedy writer, performer and former blogger James Bachman. We first came across James in Edinburgh in 2003 and have marvelled at his now nearly constant popping up-ness in some of the best new television comedies including his regular role as the ‘third man’ in That Mitchell and Webb Look. He’s currently on tour with The Two Faces of Mitchell and Webb which reaches London on December 12.

Introduce yourself please!

To who? Erm… Hello World, I’m James Bachman! That feels a bit grand. Hello Londonist.com web-surfer, thank you for accidentally surfing your way to an interview with someone you’ve never heard of. If there is a picture attached to this article, look at it. That is me: I’m the bloke at the beginning of every episode of ‘Saxondale’, and the third man who isn’t David Mitchell or Robert Webb in That Mitchell and Webb Look. The Third Man. I like that. I’m The Third Man. What I’m sort of saying is that I’m like Orson Welles. And I think that’s a fair comparison.

We first came across you as part of Population:3 in Edinburgh, what happened to the three of you, will you work together again?

Population:3 (the silly theatre company that I was the token man in with Lucy Montgomery and Barunka O’Shaughnessy) was always a means to an end, really. Barunka and Lucy decided to write the first show, Gladiatrix, when Lucy had left drama school and wasn’t getting any acting work. It was intended to be a showcase for Lucy’s performing and their writing, and they needed a man to play the man part so asked me. Barunka wasn’t even going to be in it initially, as she didn’t want to be a performer, but she was persuaded by the director Cal McCrystal to silently shuffle across the stage every now and then, and when she discovered that she sort of stole the show, decided she wanted to be in the show a lot more next time. So we devised The Wicker Woman together and The Elephant Woman the next year, both of which went really well in Edinburgh and achieved our cynical aim of getting us noticed by various TV producers and casting directors. The three of us genuinely wouldn’t be working the amount we are now without those shows, but I guess now Barunka’s doing Respectable and Bo In The USA, and Lucy’s doing TittyBangBang, there doesn’t seem much point in spending sixteen thousand pounds to go up to the Edinburgh Fringe again. Also the comic style of Population:3 was very theatrical and there was never an obvious way to transfer that to any other medium. We made a few attempts at scripts, including an Avengers-style project about specialist Post Office workers who deliver undeliverable mail called The Dead Letter Office that I still really like, and a pagan village-set sitcom called My Two Wives, but none of them went anywhere. The closest we got to putting Population:3 on television was when Harry Thompson pitched a Comedy Lab in which we would perform a cut-down version of The Elephant Woman in somewhere like Wilton’s Music Hall in front of an audience in Victorian dress, but sadly he died before it could happen. A terrible shame, because Harry was really the only producer who had a sensible idea of how to put our stage shows on screen. Anyway, the marvellous Congress of Oddities are now developing a Victorian music hall show and they deserve it much more than us. That was a very long way of answering your question. Basically, we’ll almost certainly work together in various combinations in the future, but there’s unlikely to be a Population:3 re-union.

How does writing for TV differ from stage. Which do you prefer?

Well the last couple of stage shows I’ve done have been devised – we’d improvise scenes for three or four weeks before we came to a structure for the show and then began to write it down. Also the things I’ve written for TV with Mark Evans or others have normally been sketches or non-narrative. I guess the main difference though is that if you write in a TV sketch ‘two men are stood on top of a mountain’ a team of highly-trained artisans will make you a fantastically realistic mountain top that will magically appear in the studio when it’s time to film it, whereas if you write that in a stage show you’ll probably have to make it and will end up using a cardboard box with a bit of grey and white paint on and you inevitably cut that bit because it looks shit. Although the reverse is often also true: there are bits in The Wicker Woman that we did with puppets and cloth and balsa wood that would be far too expensive to do on TV. So I guess there are advantages to both. But for me, nothing is more exciting than writing something for TV, having proper people realise it, seeing it filmed just how you imagined and shown to an appreciative audience and then – and this is by far the greatest bit – getting paid a stupid amount of money.

Do you think everything you’ve worked on has been good? If not, what’s your most embarrassing ever involvement in a programme?

Oh definitely not. I’ve been swinging wildly between shit and Shinola for my whole career in comedy. I don’t really have much of an embarrassment gland, and I don’t find myself tortured with shame and humiliation as the memory of having worked on Mad About Alice pops into my head, but there have certainly been some wasted hours of television that I’ve been involved with, and Mad About Alice is one of them (which was a shame because everyone in the cast and crew was very nice). The oddest job I ever did was probably The Richard Blackwood Show. There we were, Mark Evans and I, two white middle-class public school educated Oxbridge nerds, writing for Richard Blackwood. Luckily the excellent (and extremely childish) Curtis Walker was there to street up our jokes about crumpets and Ancient Rome.

Various websites mention Zoom, a sitcom you had in development several years ago. What happened to it?

Zoom was a very silly, joke-packed, adventure-sitcom about two men who live in a flat and by the end of half an hour may end up having to save the world. If you need a comparison, think The Goodies meets Mr Don & Mr George. Mark and I wrote two episodes of it for the BBC through the lovely Absolutely Productions, which is the company set up by Jack Docherty, Moray Hunter, Morwenna Banks et al, but then it sort of fizzled out after the commissioning editor described it as “too funny” which I never really understood. Also, we’d written it to star ourselves and I think four or so years ago that was a bit of a hard sell. Anyway we still really like it, and the producer who developed it with us has not given up hope. We might try and do it for radio. Who knows? TV development is (a) very slow and (b) a lot about having the right idea at the right time, so we can wait. Our aim with the show was to kick against the then current trend for very naturalistic comedy like The Office and try and make every line in the script either a joke or a set-up for one, and four years ago the lack of soap opera-y characters might have seemed a bit unfashionable. But in a year where the naturalistic character-driven Extras is followed on BBC2 by the classic joke-filled That Mitchell and Webb Look, I think Zoom may have more of a chance of appealing to a substantial section of the audience.

How do you feel about having become a sex symbol?

Have I? When did this happen? I wasn’t told. It’s a phrase used to often. Robert Redford is a sex symbol. I’m not.

Have you appeared in any TV commercials?

Two. My first ever paid acting work was in a Doritos Dippas commercial for Holland and the Benelux countries. It also got shown in Iceland, I believe. Even though I had never seen it, much reference was made to it and mockery was made of it by Mark Evans and in my first Edinburgh show. I finally got a tape about a year ago, and it’s not that bad. It sits on my MySpace page now if anyone’s interested. The other ad was a French ad for Renault, I think, with Dominic Coleman (from Swinging) and was filmed in Paris on September 11th, 2001. In the middle of filming loads of people started rushing round shouting in French, and we finally got someone to tell us in English. It was a very surreal experience, especially because we had to carry on filming. I’m not sure if it ever got shown. Maybe they thought it was tainted. Perhaps you can see the apocalyptic terror in our eyes.

Apart from appearing in Mitchell and Webb every week what else have we got to look forward to from you? We saw you in a Radio 4 comedy pilot, Bleak Expectations and loved it.

Bleak Expectations seemed to have an appropriate title when the recorded pilot was first given to Radio 4, but since then minds have changed, and opinions softened, and it has been given a series in the new year. Mark is spending most of the winter writing the other five episodes, and if they’re as good as the pilot (which I’m sure they will be) I think Bleak Expectations could be one of the best radio sitcoms of the year – and should be taken to television (for which it was originally written) immediately. I return as Harry Biscuit (though Mark keeps threatening to kill me off if I annoy him) along with most of the other characters from the pilot, including Geoffrey Whitehead whose turn as the headmaster was so enjoyable that he’s going to be written into each episode as one of six brothers. I’m also on tour round the country in The Two Faces Of Mitchell And Webb at the moment (I’m writing this in a rather marvellous hotel in Belfast, although unlike Robert Webb’s my room does not have two showers and a pool table). We’re only on day eight of a forty-seven date tour so I don’t know how much I’ll be enjoying it by the end, but so far it’s been fun. Both That Mitchell and Webb Look and That Mitchell and Webb Sound have second and third series respectively next year, and Saxondale returns for a second series in the autumn. And I can be seen as a seedy sandwich-eating agent in Mark Watson’s new BBC3 pilot Living With Two People I Like Separately But Not As A Couple, and as a Jersey taxi-driver with two lines in Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s first film Magicians. Oh, and I’m supposed to be developing some projects with the BBC and with Tiger Aspect which I’ve been very, very lax about. So I’ve had a great 2006, and 2007 looks pretty busy too.

What other comedy acts are you a big fan of?

Mitchell and Webb, obviously, though as their radio, TV and stage bitch I am required to resent them tremendously. The Boosh, whose last Edinburgh show I saw three times, and who were kind enough to put me in the “Old Gregg” episode of their second series which gave me more public recognition then almost anything else I’ve done. Anna Crilly and Katy Wix, who are two of the funniest women I’ve ever seen. Barunka O’Shaughnessy, who is the funniest woman there is. Tom Meeten, who manages to make showing his balls to an audience into sophisticated comedy. Simon Farnaby, whose eyes are so small he looks like he’s laughing all the time. Richard Glover, who does a better Sir John Mills than Sir John Mills did. Tony Law, who may in fact be the funniest Canadian alive. Robin Ince, whose ability to keep being as funny in the third hour of the Book Club as he was in the first is astonishing. Stewart Lee, whose deconstruction of the song “All Things Life And Beautiful” using a Venn diagram still has me disappointed with any comedy I ever write. Shaun Micallef, an Australian comedian whose second series of The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) is the funniest sketch show I’ve ever seen. Simon Munnery, who needs no explanation. Then the obvious ones: Monty Python. Fry and Laurie. Armando Iannucci. Steve Coogan. Eddie Izzard. And loads and loads of American stuff: Woody Allen. Seinfeld. Curb. Scrubs. Arrested Development. Aaron Sorkin. Joss Whedon. Tina Fey. Not all ‘comedy acts’ but still up there with the funnies.

What’s your favourite place to see comedy in London?

The television. (See above.) And the Lowdown at the Albany where I’ve done the Book Club, the Pros from Dover, The Odditorium and much more.

What one thing would you change about London?

I’d make it so the Establishment Club still existed and I was a member. It’d be nice to go there of an evening and listen to the Dudley Moore trio. That, and a 24-hour Tube. I can’t believe we don’t have one. Although I do think the London Underground is basically the most impressive and fascinating underground railway in the World.

Without comedy, you would be…?

I’d like to think a musician but probably a computer programmer. So thank you, comedy.

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  • Stephen

    This man is a comedy god!