Simon Nye – In Conversation

Since the very inception of Beyond The Title, we’ve heard from people who have enjoyed extraordinary routes into entertainment. Yet for award winning screenwriter Simon Nye, his journey is more fascinating than most. Born in Sussex in 1958 to two parents who were both teachers, his early relationship with popular culture was altogether more conservative than the traditional working class family. The trusted, established tones of BBC entertainment was always preferred to the more brash, commercial look of ITV and therefore much of Simon’s early inspiration came from BBC shows and their stars. Watching Frankie Howerd in Up Pompei was a complete revelation as this was the first time he had understood how to formulate and execute jokes. It was here that he realised that making people laugh could be a career.

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Graduating from the University of London where he studied French and German, Simon opted for a year in France where he worked in a hotel where he mastered the language which enabled him to become a translator of information including public notices and signs from French to English. Dealing with a whole host of different texts including literature offered the young Simon the perfect insight into the enigmatic world of publishing which inspired him to ponder a novel of his own. Originally he wanted to explore the trials and tribulations of living in a flat share and living with people who you didn’t necessarily opt to live with. Like a family, you’re thrust together under the same roof without anything in common and have to navigate a way of living with each other.  Devoid of gender, economic status or social commentary, the idea was merely a comedic tale on the flat share experience and the hilarious consequences which ensued.


First published in January 1989, Men Behaving Badly follows two young flatmates in a boarding house in London who both fall in love with two career women who live upstairs. Despite a reluctance to make the story about the gender divide, Simon recognised that creating a romantic element would offer the story weight. Centred on middle class louts Gary and Dermot, Men Behaving Badly takes a satirical look at attitudes towards heterosexual relationships in the latter part of the twentieth century and explores the power of friendships between the sexes. It occurred to Simon that the conversations and behaviour between men and women are completely different from those between friends of the same gender. It was this union that fascinated him in a way that made him feel compelled to explore what made men require this connection with others. Most of us have a friend who we can be entirely comfortable with and take part in banal conversations which are devoid of any sense or logic. This is what Simon aimed to capture in an entertaining, comic novel.


Literature adaptations are usually associated with the big screen but in the case of Men Behaving Badly, it made the somewhat surprising transition from novel to sitcom. Having never written for television before, Nye was a little naive to the process and required some consolidation in order to take it to the next stage. For this, he approached the newly formed Hartswood Films led by the legendary producer and script supervisor Beryl Vertue who had previously enjoyed a long association with the impresario Robert Stigwood and was responsible for overseeing the careers of comedy icons Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes and Frankie Howerd. Vertue agreed to take Simon under her wing and teach him the principles of TV comedy. On reflection, he is quick to acknowledge that to have such a great schooling from one of the true pioneers of comedy was a real blessing and she taught him everything he needed to know about the business of entertainment.


With Vertue’s support, Simon was able to refine the concept to make it fit the structure of a TV sitcom. This was the era when ITV were ploughing financial resources into studio sitcoms in the hope of delivering the same comedy reputation as their licensed counterparts. Harry Enfield was a rising star on the Alternative Comedy circuit and it was thought that a sitcom would only add to his comedy supremacy. Martin Clunes had previously played Harry in the family sitcom All At No. 20 alongside Maureen Lipman and Gary Waldhorn so was familiar with the rhythms of the genre. With Leslie Ash and Caroline Quentin as the love interests,  the sitcom was complete.


The series followed the lives of two twenty somethings men attempting to get to grips with adulthood on the backdrop of nineties Britain. This was the period of ITV’s substantial involvement into comedy and Light Entertainment. Former BBC senior management had been hired to reinvent commercial television’s role in the production of comedy and figures like John Howard-Davies were given a very definite aim. They were looking for conflict, slapstick and elements of Basil Fawlty which weren’t really akin with the Britain of the nineties. Harry Enfield is a supremely talented character actor and one of the sharpest minds in British comedy yet struggled with the fixed parameters of the sitcom format. Running for two series on ITV, Men Behaving Badly was promptly cancelled by the broadcaster. However, the legendary Beryl Vertue was about to do something extraordinary…


It’s very seldom for a rival channel to re-commission an unsuccessful formula but with the genial persuasion of Beryl Vertue, Men Behaving Badly was refined and given a new lease of life on prime time BBC1. The first change was to move the demographic from a family sitcom to post watershed which automatically increased the scope for humour and to seize upon the cultural zeitgeist of the time. With the inclusion of Neil Morrisey’s Tony who arrived at the start of series two, the show now had potential to be very silly as the relationship between Gary and Tony grew ever stronger. From farting into a birthing pool to faking orgasms, no subject matter was ever off limits in this postmodern take on the original bedsit sitcom. These elements, together with a highly experienced cast of actors made Men Behaving Badly into one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time.


As a sitcom, Men Behaving Badly never sought to make a socioeconomic or political commentary on the period in which it was produced. Simon had no intention or agenda to make a comment on nineties culture or where the country was at that time. Any conclusions or parallels drawn from the lives of Gary and Tony are coincidental to the social landscape of the time. Indeed you could argue that Men Behaving Badly was ahead of the nineties zeitgeist in that it pre-dated magazines like Loaded and FHM which heralded a new era of Lad Culture. Gary Sprang was living in a world before internet pornography was a viable option, a time when sexual indulgence wasn’t easily attainable and lustful thought was all that lower middle class men had. Therefore, by the end of the decade Men Behaving Badly had become the unofficial shorthand for nineties lad culture irrespective of its origins in unbiased family comedy.


For a writer, success becomes something of a poisoned chalice as once it comes to an end as there is an expectation that you will deliver another hit. In 2000 Simon wrote the bittersweet sitcom Beast surrounding frustrated vet Nick and his hatred of animals. Starring Alexander Armstrong and Doon McKichan, Beast ran for two series on prime time BBC1 and offered Simon the opportunity to return to the genre he loved. As a writer, he never felt the pressure of delivering something that would rival his previous work, simply because he loved doing it. The only pressure he felt was when the audience would arrive for the recording, expecting to be entertained and should a laugh not hit, ultimately it’s the responsibility of the writer. This was the only thing that made Simon concerned with creating a new series as opposed to worrying over damaging his sitcom reputation.


Beyond sitcom, Nye was also responsible for writing the ITV Christmas pantomime featuring a whole host of stars. He approached this in the same way as he created an episode of a sitcom but instead this could last for ninety minutes rather than thirty. Writing for an array of entertainers from presenters, comics and personalities was a unique experience for a writer who had spent years penning scripts for actors. Yet the logistics of the production were somewhat irrelevant to Nye’s writing process because as soon he handed it over, he relinquished all responsibility. In short, this was another enjoyable experience for Nye in a career that has spawned so many.


A writer of drama is forever on the lookout for new horizons to explore and in 2010 Nye turned his hand to period drama when he created critically acclaimed The Durrells starring Keeley Hawes and Daisy Waterstone. Having never tackled a costume drama offered Simon fresh incentive to make it his own, still with lashings of comedic moments but also the clever use of pathos. An overarching long running drama offers writers a broader scope to explore the characters and the world they live in, in a more comprehensive way. It’s possible to give more time to character development so that the protagonists become three dimensional. 


Set in 1930’s Corfu, The Durrells follows a family attempting to cope with the death of their father and husband as Louisa Durrell prepares to bring up her family alone. This was definitely a vast culture change from his sitcom pedigree and offered him more scope to explore the drama and character development in a more intimate way. Such a formula made The Durrells a Sunday night ratings winner for ITV and gave Nye the chance to step out from his sitcom shadow. As a writer, he’s never felt the pressure of living up to former glories for the simple reason that he’s forever on the lookout for new challenges and new horizons. Unlike actors, writers don’t struggle with typecasting and are able to constantly reinvent themselves for new audiences. This is what Simon absolutely loved about working on The Durrells and the drama shall forever occupy a very special place in both his heart and career.


Despite this brush with period drama, it’s obvious that Nye’s first love is situation comedy and in 2009 he was presented with updating the legendary series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin to a 21st century audience. Having loved the original series, Simon wanted to write it as a visual tribute to David Nobbs’ creation. This resulted in a long awaited reunion with the great Martin Clunes who had the daunting task of stepping into the shoes of the great Leonard Rossiter. The strains of modern society, social pressures that plague the minds of many professionals were still as relevant as they were forty years previously and therefore Nye concluded that the series was in need of revisiting. Beyond the media criticism, Simon maintains that there were still some magic moments in the series. However, constant comparisons to the original show ultimately led to its premature demise and possibly illustrated a lesson that occasionally classic comedy is best left in the past.


As a passionate TV auteur, Simon remains on the forefront of drama and after four decades in entertainment is proud to still be doing a job which he loves. He is extremely grateful to have a repertory of work which is still noticeable and loved by large audiences and as a writer, that’s all you can ask for. It was a pleasure to welcome the great Simon Nye to Beyond The Title and irrespective of his next challenge which awaits him, he must rest easy in the knowledge that he has made an extraordinary, indelible contribution to the history of British comedy and that’s something worth celebrating.