Comedy Rewind

How Do You Want Me?

How Do You Want Me?. Image shows from L to R: Ian Lyons (Dylan Moran), Lisa Lyons (Charlotte Coleman). Copyright: Kensington Films And Television

No matter how many successes he has had since, Simon Nye will always be synonymous with Men Behaving Badly. One of the biggest television hits of the 90s, the show brought 'lad culture' to a mass audience and made stars of Martin Clunes, Neil Morrissey, Caroline Quentin and Leslie Ash, with a brief turn from Harry Enfield in the first series.

Not one to be pigeonholed, Nye carved a career outside of the show by creating several further sitcoms, such as Is It Legal? starring Patrick Barlow and Imelda Staunton, which ran for three series from 1995; while 2003's Hardware (headlined by Martin Freeman) and 2004's Carrie & Barry, reuniting him with Morrissey, ran for two series each.

In the early noughties, he penned sitcoms including 2000's Beast, starring Alexander Armstrong, and 2001's The Savages, starring Marcus Brigstocke, and in 2009 united with celebrated screenwriter and novelist David Nobbs to rework The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin for the 21st Century. Reggie Perrin sadly sank in the schedules, attracting less than favourable comparisons with the earlier incarnation, but did manage to clock up two series.

Is It Legal?. Image shows from L to R: Colin Lotus (Richard Lumsden), Stella Phelps (Imelda Staunton), Bob Birch (Patrick Barlow), Alison (Kate Isitt), Darren (Matthew Ashforde). Copyright: Hartswood Films Ltd

Simon Nye also wrote a string of traditional pantomime productions for ITV in the early noughties, featuring the likes of Paul Merton, Julian Clary, Frank Skinner and Ronnie Corbett, amongst others, to great acclaim - they are regularly repeated by the network each festive season to this day.

However, How Do You Want Me?, which he created in 1998, is perhaps his most esoteric work. Shot completely on location, it was Nye's first sitcom to be filmed without a studio audience and in hindsight, it is easy to see why Nye was later chosen to adapt The Durrells for television. Its DNA can be traced directly back to this series.

How Do You Want Me? centres around the romantic exploits of city couple Ian Lyons and Lisa Yardley, as played by Irish stand-up Dylan Moran and former child star Charlotte Coleman. After getting married in the first episode, they move to Snowle, a small village where Yardley's family live, so that she can take a teaching job.

Thespian Frank Finlay is her disapproving father, who takes an immediate dislike to Ian and sets about trying to get rid of him, even going so far as bribing him to leave. Emma Chambers and Peter Serafinowicz complete the ensemble as her scatty sister and bullish brother respectively.

The supporting cast is made up of future stars like Mark Heap, who plays Lisa's clingy ex-boyfriend, determined to win her back at any cost. Clive Merrison, a regular in Roy Clarke's Mann's Best Friend and Andy Hamilton's The Kit Curran Radio Show, appears in a recurring role as one of Lisa's colleagues.

How Do You Want Me?. Image shows from L to R: Ian Lyons (Dylan Moran), Lisa Lyons (Charlotte Coleman). Copyright: Kensington Films And Television

While the cast was made up of comedy veterans, the show was Chambers's only regular sitcom role outside of The Vicar Of Dibley, while for Finlay it was the only recurring sitcom role of his career. It marked Moran's television debut, having started stand-up in 1992.

Much of the humour in How Do You Want Me? is drawn from the comedy of manners, as Ian gets to grips with a country life for which he is woefully unsuited. His attempts to make life bearable are hindered by his new in-laws, who are determined to make his life as miserable as possible.

This was Simon Nye's darkest work to date, imbuing his characters with a nihilistic outlook on life that was leavened only by the strength of the central relationship. Nye commits to this tone to such an extent that even the series finale refuses to provide the audience with any relief, Ian being so emotionally battered by his treatment at the hands of Lisa's family he is on the cusp of leaving the village.

The show could be seen as an early example of the 'cringe comedy' genre, which encompasses the likes of I'm Alan Partridge and The Office, although tonally its influence can be traced back to the heyday of British cinema, with the unsettling folk horror of The Wicker Man perhaps being the most apt comparison.

How Do You Want Me?. Image shows from L to R: Ian Lyons (Dylan Moran), Lisa Lyons (Charlotte Coleman). Copyright: Kensington Films And Television

Similar to village life sitcoms such as The Vicar Of Dibley, Ian and Lisa's roles are those of straight men around whom the eccentric locals revolve. While our sympathies lie with Ian, Nye constantly shifts our perspective as the character's social faux pas with the villagers continue to blight his attempts to fit in. In that respect, the series is a comedy of manners; a subject that is arguably integral to a particularly English sense of humour, mining the social strata to draw out the excruciating realities of being an outsider.

The overarching plot involves Ian attempting to rebuild his life and a new career in photography, hence the programme's title. However, it is really a character study into the minutiae of small-town life with an undercurrent of black comedy fuelled by the hostility of the villagers. Nye sets it up in the first episode with a sinister encounter between Ian and Lisa's father, who demands that Ian "apologise". Later, Ian is taken in by the superficial kindness of Lisa's brother until he brutally beats him in a barn.

At this point it would be reasonable to assume that How Do You Want Me? is closer to kitchen sink drama than comedy, but Nye's ear for naturalistic comic dialogue is second to none. He proves that he is equally adept at writing biting banter as he is laddish lasciviousness, with the gentle humour of Ian and Lisa's relationship woven into the nexus of the narrative, which Nye revisits whenever the darker elements threaten to overwhelm the proceedings.

This somewhat isolated semi-rural life is something Nye went on to explore further in the 2002 Dawn French and Catherine Tate vehicle Wild West - another quirky, somewhat black sitcom that lasted two series.

Wild West. Image shows from L to R: Angela Phillips (Catherine Tate), Mary Trewednack (Dawn French). Copyright: BBC

In 2010, The Guardian ranked How Do You Want Me? number sixteen in a list of the greatest television dramas in history, placing it above the likes of Cracker and Prime Suspect - a unique accolade for a sitcom.

Nye himself claims it to be his favourite of the sitcoms he's created, explaining in an interview: "There's no laughter track, there's a lot of freedom - we were more or less allowed to do exactly what we wanted. Of course, that could have gone horribly wrong.

"I'm not arguing that the writer should always be given so much rope but, as a writer, I was allowed to make it a bit low key. Nobody came to me and said, 'You need to pump up the plot, Where's the big climax?' and so on. I did intend to write a more attractive portrait of rural life than it turned out. There's a lot of nonsense peddled by writers about how the characters made them write like this or that, but on this occasion I was genuinely slightly surprised by what came out."

It may not have been Nye's most successful series but, as evidenced by his enthusiasm, it was clearly a labour of love of which he remains extremely proud. As a viewer you couldn't ask for a better ensemble of comic actors, and their performances combine with the pathos Nye weaves throughout the series to soften the otherwise harsh and hostile characters.

Watched through the prism of today's sitcom landscape, the show emerges as something of an oddity - at once gentle yet acerbic, striking a tone that can be traced through The League Of Gentlemen and into the modern day with This Country.

Nye has largely left sitcom behind, now writing hugely successful dramas for ITV. How Do You Want Me? stands as perhaps the ideal distillation of both disciplines, juxtaposing Ian and Lisa as a comic counterpoint to a backdrop of bucolic bleakness.

Where to start?

How Do You Want Me?. Ian Lyons (Dylan Moran). Copyright: Kensington Films And Television

Series 2, Episode 6

In this episode, Ian is at absolute breaking point. Shunned by society and reviled by almost everybody in the village, he is torn between self-preservation and his feelings for Lisa. He must make the toughest choice of his life thus far as he attempts to reconcile common sense with his own conscience. Nye refuses to cave into cliché or catharsis for the audience as he brings his melancholic masterwork to a close.

How Do You Want Me? - The Complete Collection

Comedy drama slash sitcom from the pen of Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly). Newly-wed couple Ian and Lisa Lyons move to the rural village where she grew up, but he struggles both to adapt to country life, and to forge cordial relations with her family.

First released: Sunday 2nd July 2006

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