Almost everyone over the age of fifty in entertainment has their own unique story about working with the great Frankie Howerd. But for writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, writing for the master of the double entendres proved an extraordinary grounding in entertainment and the beginning of a successful career spanning four decades. The Frankie Howerd Show gave the writing partnership their first television Writing credit and provided them with a springboard to bigger and better things.
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In 1980 ITV commissioned the first of many successful sitcoms for Marks and Gran entitled Holding The Fort starring Peter Davison and Matthew Kelly alongside Patricia Hodge as they all struggled with the trials and tribulations of bringing up a young family. Surprisingly, the inspiration for this did not arise from first hand experience as neither Laurence nor Maurice had started a family but the conversations that occurred with their respective partners spurred them into thinking about parental roles and responsibilities. Over three series, this formula proved a hit with the British public and made stars of Peter Davison and Matthew Kelly.
From sitcom, Marks and Gran plunged themselves into what was then considered to be relatively uncharted territory of comedy drama. ITV’s Shine on Harvey Moon gave Marks and Gran their second hit TV series but more importantly it introduced them to the two actors whom they would become synonymous with in the succeeding years; Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke. Robson had played the part of Maggie Moon since the very first episode and had asked best friend Pauline along to the rehearsals. As soon as Laurence and Maurice met Pauline they realised that she spoke their language and identified with the world that they were attempting to create. They instantly cast her as Veronica; Maggie’s best friend in the show and for the first time were able to witness the magic of the on screen relationship between Pauline and Linda.
As good as Shine On Harvey Moon proved to be, Marks and Gran quickly realised that the chemistry between Pauline and Linda was so unique that it would almost be a shame not to exploit it. They knew each other so well that they were able to know exactly what the other was thinking without them saying a word. They were almost like sisters which gave Laurence and Maurice an idea: a sitcom about two sisters who were forced to move in together following their respective husbands being sentenced to prison.
Like all great sitcom, the sense of entrapment is what gave Birds of a Feather its wings. Completing the trio of “the birds” was the middle aged vixen Dorian Green played by Lesley Joseph. Originally merely a supporting character, Dorian slowly became a favourite with the public and was the perfect ying to Sharon and Tracy’s yang. Her outrageous sex centered behaviour provided great contrast with Sharon and Tracy’s mundane life which offered the show an extra punch. As Laurence and Maurice explain, people sometimes thought it was the Dorian Green show which is possibly testament to Lesley Joseph’s seamless portrayal of the “tart with a heart”.
Birds of a Feather reigned supreme over the BBC One schedules for almost a decade including eight Christmas specials. Hence why Laurence and Maurice both admit that Birds…is their most famous show and one which receives them most acclaim. The decision to revive the sitcom after fifteen years was swayed by talk of a musical stage show based on the series along with the original cast. Unfortunately mitigating factors got in the way of the stage show coming to fruition, yet Marks and Gran promptly realised that there still might be the appetite for the three women from Chigwell. Now into its twelfth series, Birds of a Feather continues to go from strength to strength and an enduring classic is assured for Marks and Gran. A sure sign that they have undoubtedly made it into the British comedy hall of fame.
In amongst Birds of a Feather, Marks and Gran also found time to pen Britain’s first time traveling sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart starring Nicholas Lyndhurst. Unlike Birds of a Feather, Marks and Gran were shocked by the show’s success and were extremely thankful that they secured Nicholas Lyndhurst who was already a big star in Britain for the heavyweight Only Fools and Horses. Another draw of the series was the semi-science fiction theme which was present throughout. Goodnight Sweetheart follows the life of Gary Sparrow who becomes caught in a parallel time vortex between 1945 and the present day and his two-timing marriages to Phoebe in 1945 and Yvonne in the present. In 2016 the sitcom returned for a special to commemorate the BBC’s Sitcom Season and the pair haven’t ruled out writing more, so watch this space!
After forty years in the business, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran would be excused from taking life a little easier. Yet with a string of successful stage plays under their belt, they show no sign of slowing down and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for these two icons of sitcom. It was a great pleasure to spend time with Marks and Gran and long may they keep Britain laughing.