Shine On Harvey Moon

Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran

 

 

 

Maurice Gran is part of one of the UK's leading Comedy writing partnerships, with Laurence Marks. Through their production company Alomo ('Lo' for Laurence and 'Mo' for Maurice) they introduced a more American-based system of writing, where having created series they subsequently brought in teams of writers to develop shows in the long term.

Early work included contributions to "The Marti Caine Show", followed by their first sitcom, "Holding The Fort" which starred Peter Davison, Matthew Kelly and Patricia Hodge.

Their most notable early success came with "Shine On Harvey Moon" in 1982, which outlined the exploits of Corporal Harvey Moon as he returned home after demob at the end of WWII, and attempted to rebuild his pre-war life. Although originally airing in the traditional thirty-minute sitcom format, no studio audience was present for the recordings. Later series adopted an hour-long format, the first time this had been tried with a series of this type.

The duo continued to create and write further sitcoms throughout the 1980s, including a spin off from "Holding The Fort" called "Relative Strangers" which featured Matthew Kelly's character, Fitz. Other series included "Young, Gifted and Broke", "Roll Over Beethoven" and most famously "Birds of A Feather" and "The New Statesman". The former starred Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke (who had also featured in "Shine On Harvey Moon"), whilst the latter told the story of an extreme Thatcherite MP, with Rik Mayall in the title role.

The 1990s saw the creation of possibly their most "Cult" series, combining the a wartime setting with time travel to create "Goodnight Sweetheart", starring Nicholas Lyndhurst. Further comedy drama beckoned in "Love Hurts" with Adam Faith and Zoe Wanamaker, and more controversially the sitcom "So You Think You've Got Troubles" featuring Warren Mitchell as a Jewish Factory Manager relocated in later life to Belfast.

More recent work includes the Beatles-influenced "Get Back" with Ray Winstone and Kate Winslett, "Unfinished Business", and "Starting Out".

For the big screen they contributed to the screenplay for "Bullseye", and Alomo was also responsible for the Robert Lindsay vehicle "Nightingales", with Laurence acting as Executive Producer
 
Laurence Marks used to work as a journalist for the Sunday Times. On 28 February 1975, his father was killed in the Moorgate train crash. Laurence was given the job of conducting a year-long investigation for the newspaper into the cause of the crash, with access to the transcript of the inquest into the 43 deaths. Although the inquest and the Government Inquiry recorded a verdict of accidental death, Marks concluded that the crash occurred because the driver committed suicide. After completing the report he decided that he needed a complete change of career, and began writing comedy scripts with childhood friend Maurice Gran, creating such classics as "Shine On Harvey Moon" (1982)
 

The original New Statesman ITV series was part of a purple patch for Marks and Gran, one that stretched over two decades. Marks remembers: “There was never a chance to say, look guys, we are going to do a stage play. Throughout the eighties we were on a very pleasant treadmill of returning TV series after series. Holding the Fort we did three series, Shine on Harvey Moon we did five, Relative Strangers went to about two, Birds of a Feather was… forever and a day.”

The nineties continued in much the same vein, although the pair tended to create hit comedy series, such as Goodnight Sweetheart, then pass them on to other writers while they looked for their next big idea.

The roots of this comedy hit factory lie in a London writers’ group called the Player Playwrights, where the duo started attending weekly sessions in the early seventies. Then in their twenties, they originally met at a boys brigade aged 11 but had never written together before. Gran says attending the group was like “doing a degree in drama” and the regular script critiques knocked their craft into shape.

A chance meeting for Marks with Barry Took in 1978 on a train got them their first proper gig, writing for Frankie Howerd’s radio show. Marks continued working as a crime journalist and Gran in the Department of Employment but the comedy moonlighting took its toll.

Gran recalls: “Writing wasn’t something you could do justice to part-time. You can’t do a job, come home, have your dinner and then at eight o’clock sit down and have to write a ten-minute Frankie Howerd monologue for broadcast the next day. I was really under pressure. I couldn’t eat for a week.”

They impressed enough to get a sitcom commission from LWT, Holding the Fort, and quit the rat race. There was an early wobble with a flop follow-up series set in a dentist’s. “Of course we were upset but we had a pretty good idea going into that all was not well,” says Marks. The grafting paid off - postwar comedy-drama Shine on Harvey Moon in 1982 was a massive hit from the off, with 17.5 million viewers for its first episode. “I don’t think we ever thought we’d fail,” says Marks. Gran agrees: “We were very, very confident. That was based on ignorance, arrogance and stupidity. We didn’t know how thin the line was between success and failure.”

To get them through the times they crossed that line, they were thankful for the trust from senior figures in broadcasting at the time, the like of which they say writers rarely enjoy today. Having conquered the British schedules, Marks and Gran avoided the allure of movies. “It is not a writer’s medium at all,” adds Marks. “The time you wait for the reward you get, for me is not worth it.” But they did jet to LA in 1986 and join the team on US sitcom Mr Sunshine. A useful experience but not one they wanted to repeat.

“The American system only works because it’s such a wealthy industry,” says Gran. “Writers can be so well paid for spending four-fifths of their creative effort working on each others’ shows.”

Their Hollywood experience did, however, sow the seeds of their hugely successful production company Alomo, showing them how to sustain long series runs by farming out writing. With hit shows like Birds of a Feather taking care of themselves, they had the freedom to take on different genres.

“We wanted to do a drama,” recalls Marks. “You need to do drama in order to be accepted by the establishment in television. It was the drama Love Hurts that really won us the writing award at Bafta. I don’t think you’re considered serious enough if you just write comedy, which doesn’t bother me any more but perhaps it might have bothered me then.”

They’re loath to talk about their writing technique but Gran does give an idea of how the two friends bounce off each other: “We are always in the same room and we argue all the time because that way our ideas have to be robust in order to survive. We spend as much time as necessary on story and character. We don’t like to start something when we don’t know how it’s going to end.”

However, they are reflective about whether the place for writers such as themselves in the industry is a viable one today. Gran says: “Most of the time for comedy, there’s only the BBC - it’s like a Marx Brothers film with everyone trying to get through one tiny little doorway. If you’re not a writer-performer today, you’d better be a writer who is pretty well strapped to a performer, because the people who make the decisions seem to find it easier to relate to writer-performers.”

In fact, it seems for a moment that the pair may have turned their back on TV comedy for good. Marks ponders: “What’s left for us to do in TV? Maurice and I have been very fortunate in as much as our work has been seen by 20 million people in one evening - that is never going to happen again.”

But then the renewed energy they’ve found through theatre and a recent radio play seems to have given them fresh vigour. Marks adds: “It’s easy to talk about what isn’t happening. I’d rather talk about what is happening.” They hint that this may include a return to our TV screens of B’Stard after all, if the timing is right.

For now, though, back as “jobbing writers”, they have the task of keeping B’Stard’s three-month stage run topical. Marks enthuses: “In TV, everything ends with making the programme, in the theatre everything starts with the night you open the play.”


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