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25 May 2007

Not my family…

How much should a writer base his characters on people he meets and what about his relations?

By Richard Herring

‘I’ll have to be careful what I say around you, you’ll put me in one of your skits!’

It’s a refrain that every comedy writer will have regularly heard, from relatives, acquaintances, strangers on the bus. Yet this statement is usually made by someone so unexceptional and unamusing that they wouldn’t even make an effective straight man.

I considered writing a sketch about the phenomenon, in which I patiently explain to the expectant dullard why they could never be in a sketch. Then I realised if I did that, then they would be in a sketch. So I didn’t … until now. Damn!

Obviously, people only say this because they secretly hope they are enough of a character to be immortalised. Strange to think anyone would wish to be the next Basil Fawlty. Cleese based this character on an actual hotelier, but did he ever wonder if the real Fawlty would have been flattered or offended? One suspects the latter, whilst thrashing his television with a handy branch.

How much responsibility does a writer have to respect the privacy of the people who inspire them?
It’s something I have been considering recently, as my latest project ‘You Can Choose Your Friends’, a comedy about sibling rivalry and generational conflicts which is on ITV1 on June 7th at 9pm, took as its starting point my own family. It was, ironically, the unexceptional nature of my kin that made them the perfect template (much to the satisfaction of my father, who has always insisted I would turn him into a character).

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Whilst I made every effort to distance drama from reality, the issue became murkier when I blended some genuine family stories amongst the fictional. Then murkier still as some of invented storylines then happened in real life.

Aware that one relative would dislike being portrayed on screen, I made significant changes to their character. Is this more insulting though? Will they think that is how I perceive them?
Most of the family seem delighted. “Who’s playing me?” asks mum..

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“Mum, it’s really not you.”

“I know. But who’s playing the character?”

“Julia McKenzie.”

“Oh good,” she says, audibly flattered.

“It’s not you,” I insist.

Yet when we are filming, I am spooked by how Julia uses many of the same mannerisms as my mother.
But others seem to find them familiar. “They’re exactly like my family!” says the dubbing guy. If the characters are universally recognisable maybe I have done my job.

Still, as broadcast approaches I worry that my folks will disown me. Though I had so much fun with the fictional versions (especially given they said and did everything I wanted) that I might just pay the actors to substitute at Christmas. I bet Julia McKenzie makes a mean turkey!