This interview is from our archive. It was published in 2009 (Series 2).
John Finnemore interview
John Finnemore, who writes Cabin Pressure and stars in the show as excitable steward Arthur Shappey, kindly let us ask him some questions about the comedy...
Hi John. Thanks very much for talking to us. You've written for all sorts of comedy shows, from The Now Show to David Mitchell's Soapbox. Perhaps we could start off by asking how you got into writing comedy...
I started doing comedy - both writing and performing - at university; then after I graduated and moved to London, I did live shows at all the usual places - Canal Cafe, Hen and Chickens, Edinburgh - and I also made a list of all the sketch shows on either TV or radio at the time, and wrote and sent off three sketches in the style of each of them. I didn't get anything on either of the open-door radio shows at the time; but I got two out of three accepted on Smack the Pony, which was supposedly closed door. So, you never can tell. Having said that, it took me about four years after that to be able to make a living out of it, and it was a pretty precarious living for the two years after that.
As you say, you perform as well as write. Which do you prefer?
Performing is massively more fun to do. Writing is a lot more fun to have done - in the sense of the feeling that you've done something you found incredibly difficult at the time, but is now more or less the way you wanted it.
Where did the idea for Cabin Pressure first come from? Were you once an airline steward?
Sadly never, but my father was an airline pilot, so the original inspiration isn't hard to find. But on big airlines like the one he worked for, a captain might not fly with the same first officer twice for months or even years; hence the idea of a tiny charter outfit with only two pilots. And once I thought of that, it seemed like a perfect sitcom setting: it's got hierarchy, confined spaces, boredom (in a good way, hopefully), high stakes, a weekly 'mission' - all the stuff you need. I couldn't believe no-one had done it before. (There's The High Life, of course, but that concentrated on the cabin crew. And apparently an American show called Wings, which I've deliberately never seen so no-one can accuse me of ripping it off...)
Your show is recorded in front of an audience. Did you deliberately set out to create a live audience sitcom?
Yes, I did. I think that should be the default position for writers and producers, really. I mean, there are plenty of good reasons to do a non-audience sitcom, and plenty of sitcoms that would only work that way: The Thick of It, People Like Us, Sports Night (which of course did have a laugh track at first, until they saw sense), but I think the burden of proof should always be on finding a reason not to do it in front of an audience. It's also terrific fun to record it with an audience, a great incentive when you're up in the middle of the night getting nowhere with the script - a perfect carrot and stick combination: ("If you make this good, you get to be on stage when it's performed to an audience. If you don't make it good, you have to be on stage when it's performed to an audience...")
The actors are a perfect fit for the characters they play. Did you write with them in mind, or were they cast after you'd written the series?
One of the three was the voice I'd always had in my head when writing the part. The other two were cast afterwards, but as you say we simply couldn't have done better. I still can't quite believe these three brilliant and in-demand actors are doing my stupid sitcom!
The fourth main character, Arthur, is played by yourself. Did you always plan to play him?
Yes, I have to admit I did. My cunning plan, which I commend to other writer / performers, was to write leading roles for the producer to cast with exciting well-known actors, and then to point at the supporting role and go "er... and I thought, maybe, I could do that one...?"
We think you play Arthur brilliantly. He's a bit of an idiot though isn't he? Hopefully you don't share too many characteristics with him in real life! Is he, or any of the other characters, based in part on anyone you know?
I'd be quite happy to be more like Arthur. He may be dim, but he's utterly content. As Neil Innes sang: 'How sweet to be an idiot'... But no, I'm afraid the boring answer is that none of them are based on anyone. I think quite an important factor in designing a sitcom is to make sure that all your characters are the way they are for a reason that supports and broadens the show, and you're lucky if you get that by creating four characters from people you know, and shoving them in a situation together.
We're very excited that Cabin Pressure is back for a second series. Did you find this new series easier or harder to write than the first?
I found both series enormously hard to write, but then I find almost everything hard to write. I sort of think if you don't find writing really really difficult, you're either Peter Cook, or you're not doing it right. And not many people are Peter Cook. (Although it is, of course, also possible to find it very difficult, and still not do it right; and that may well be what I'm doing.) It took me about nine months start to finish to write the new series. If I were a lady, I could have made a whole actual person in that time.
Ha ha. So what is in store for listeners in the new series John?
I think summaries of the plot always sound desperately unfunny: "This week, Martin has a bit of bother with a Bactrian camel, and Arthur comes to 'grips' with a tube of super-glue!!!". But I will say our guest stars this series include Phil Davis, Alex McQueen, Michael Fenton Stevens, Paul Putner, Simon Greenall and Alison Steadman. That, surely, cannot be bad. (No camels or super-glue, though. That was a joke.)
Wow, that is a fantastic line up of guest stars! So, here's a question we're really interested in knowing the answer to: Do you think Cabin Pressure could transfer to TV?
I think the scene in which twelve Scottish cricketers in swimsuits carry a fire engine across a Saharan airport, after which an aeroplane drives along a desert road, would maybe present some budgetary problems. But in general, yes, I suppose it could.
Excellent. We will continue to keep our fingers crossed then. So, what else have you got coming up John? We hear you're working on a TV show called George and Bernard Shaw?
I was, yes, and it got really quite far down the development road - Richard Wilson doing a read-through in front of channel heads and everything. But then, alas, a sitcom covering similar territory got commissioned, and that was (probably) that. So now I'm working on a couple of new things, and in the meantime I'm writing sketches for Mitchell and Webb, and doing the odd Now Show.
Best of luck with the new projects - make sure you leave time for a third series of Cabin Pressure! Just before we go, one final question if we may... excluding your own, what are your favourite comedies?
I made a list once, and there were forty-eight. So, rather than inflict that on you, here are ten of my favourite specific sitcom episodes. In a random order, and only one allowed per show...
People Like Us - The Vicar (Series 2, episode 1)
Arrested Development - Pier Pressure (Series 1, episode 9)
Yes Minister - The Skeleton in the Cupboard (Series 3, episode 3)
Fawlty Towers - Communication Problems (Series 2, episode 1)
Porridge - Pardon Me (Series 3, episode 4)
The Simpsons - Homer vs the Eighteenth Amendment (Series 8, episode 18)
Ever Decreasing Circles - Snooker (Series 2, episode 5)
Frasier - Frasier's Imaginary Friend (Series 5, episode 1)
Father Ted - Flight into Terror (Series 2, episode 10)
Dad's Army - A. Wilson (Manager)? (Series 4, episode 12)
Nothing very obscure there, I'm afraid; and tomorrow I might choose ten different ones, including The Thick of It, Seinfeld and Blackadder. But as it stands it would be a very, very good evening in.
Definitely. What a brilliant list John! You clearly have excellent comedy taste. Thanks very much, and cheers again for talking to us. Best of luck with the new series!