Si Hawkins Circuit Training

Circuit Training 150: To the Secret Gardens! With Jack Docherty

Jack Docherty

Is that a stony bridge Jack Docherty is hunkered beneath? Very appropriate. Back in August the Absolutely star, Edinburgh Fringe favourite and unsung influence on lots of excellent comedy (everything from Big Night Out to Succession) invited Circuit Training to Edinburgh's Dean Gardens, for a welcome break from the relentless drama of the Fringe.

Where are Dean Gardens? Well, this inner-city oasis isn't accessible to everyone, as Docherty will explain, but it can be enjoyed from above. Head east beyond the Traverse Theatre, peer down while crossing the mighty Dean Bridge and you'll get a good look at these glorious 19th century 'pleasure grounds', which provided a splendid setting for our verbal ramble. Docherty's sibling holds the hallowed key.

Jack Docherty

The statuesque comic/actor has traversed some enviable corners of the comedy business over the years, too. As well as Absolutely's early-90s success and some notable writing work elsewhere, Docherty fronted a David Letterman-style chat show, from 1997-99, moved into producing, and more recently returned to acting with the popular Scot Squad, which has just begun its eighth - possibly final? - series.

We met a few days after I'd watched Nothing But, Docherty's fabulous theatre show about the vacillating lovelife of a veteran comic, which may be semi-autobiographical; or not. That's hopefully set to re-emerge in a new form, and Docherty has other intriguing projects in development. First though, we found a couple of scenic benches to talk early days, glory days, and got distracted by an inquisitive dog.

Bench One - a lovely weir, Absolutely and the lure of London

How long have you been coming here then, Jack?

It's quite recent, as my sister only just moved here; but I come here all the time, in all kinds of weather really. It's just a great spot, bring a book when the sun's shining and sit here all day. It's just great, in the centre of Edinburgh, to have a little oasis.

What actually are these gardens? There's a special key for the gate...

Dean Gardens is one of the many private gardens that Edinburgh has. So obviously there's a certain guilt attached to it, because it's exclusive and you have to join, but they're little private gardens for all the houses that don't have gardens, as so many don't in the city. It's really beautiful.

Jack Docherty

You're usually in London now though?

I moved to London when I was 20. Because Moray [Hunter] and I had been writing for lots of comedy shows. Spitting Image we did for a long time. And Smith & Jones, Lenny Henry, Max Headroom, and Radio Active. And in those days - I tell young kids today - there wasn't even a fax.

When I started writing in 1980-something, we would literally post our scripts in an envelope down to the producer and the producer would phone us, we'd do our rewrites and post them. It was just impossible, we had to be in London. So just financially it kind of made sense, then they gave us the BBC Radio internship.

Was that delay quite nice though, between sending scripts and getting the feedback? Nowadays that response can be brutally quick

You've got a day's grace, exactly, when you think what you've done is good. I always remember Rob Grant - the Red Dwarf guy, I worked with him a lot on Spitting Image - told me, there's about five seconds' grace when you type "The End." Then you go 'oh no - we're not gonna get that person, the special effects won't be any good, that bit doesn't work,' and your whole life's ruined. But you've had five seconds where it's blissful.

I wasn't sure what to expect from your live show, but straight away you could tell it was really beautifully written.

Thank you; I'm gonna take that praise, I'm not going to be Scottish, and go 'oh, you know...' I do think it's well written. And I've had a lot of writers that I admire who've come and said it's clearly got such a love of language. I tried to make it novelistic, to get it so that you can really picture things. And of course, also the big laughs.

I notice you put it in the 'theatre' section of the Fringe Guide...

Yeah, that was a big debate. I couldn't work out whether it should be in theatre or comedy. But in the end, I just took their advice, if it was in comedy people might think it's stand-up. So to begin with, there were a couple of nights where I could see people going 'what's he banging on about, lost love, difficult relations with his daughter - and who the fuck's Virginia Wolfe?'

One night my son was there and it was two guys who were clearly policemen, literally going for the first ten minutes, 'fuck, he's not doing the... fuck, what is this?' They thought I was going to be doing a stand-up show as the [Scot Squad] policeman, which I'd done two years before in 2018. But slowly, I got them. And they were loving the story. But now the word is out.

It's quite dark in places, and risky, as people will assume it's autobiographical. There's a bit where you're with two younger women...

That was the bit that I was most worried about, yeah. I talked a lot to this young writer called Maddie Mortimer, who's a really good friend of mine, she's only 26 and she's just been longlisted for the Booker Prize! She's an extraordinary writer. Anyway, we wrote a script together that's been picked up. It's really interesting for me, 60 now, for us to be writing together, with that kind of breadth of experience.

And also just realising that, oh, you can do things again. She would come up with an idea and I'd think 'they did something like that in Spaced' and she'd go 'What the fuck is Spaced?' She literally wasn't born. Anyway, long story short, she script-edited the show. I had the eyes of a 24/25 year-old woman on it. And she would spot those bits.

Your character doesn't do anything really cancel-worthy, but he's definitely flawed.

Exactly, it's him being a bit terrible. And also I'm just trying to admit that, unfortunately, that is what guys of my age, some of them still think. It's slightly riffing on the whole thing of: how did you get to that point where you abuse your power? You could see some of these performers: how'd you get to be Louis CK? What leads you to do that? It's insanity. But actually, it's a continuation of that thought: 'I am this golden god!'

Nothing But. Jack Docherty

Clearly some celebrities think people should be happy whatever they do...

Yeah, you kind of go 'hang on...' So I wanted to try and dip my toe into that.

Was there anything in Absolutely that's aged badly, in that sense?

Nothing in Absolutely, no, that was very cartoonish really.

Speaking of which, I didn't realise you script-edited Vic Reeves Big Night Out. Would Big Night Out have happened without Absolutely coming first?

It would have, yeah, because we were all just part of the same wave, I think. Because the '80s had been so satirical - politics and Spitting Image and Ben [Elton] - everything had been driven by a kind of anti-Thatcherite movement. Then everybody said, 'let's get surreal again, let's get strange, let's get silly.' And, there was us. And then there was that whole decade, Mighty Boosh, League Of Gentlemen, all those really successful shows.

For me, Absolutely felt like Monty Python must have done 20 years earlier, these amazing performers we'd never heard of.

For a lot of people it came out of nowhere, the Celtic show. Back then, you'd be disappointed with 2.83 million.

Absolutely. Copyright: ABsoLuTeLy Productions

I don't think there's been anything quite like Absolutely before or since.

We went out on a limb and just kind of followed our noses and did exactly what we wanted to do. We didn't worry about things like, oh, we'll link the sketches, Python have done that as well, Spike Milligan did it before Python - we didn't care.

So we would do all that kind of stuff and just thought, okay, we'll go for it. And it was pretty obvious pretty soon. One of the most delightful things was that we heard via Lise Mayer, who I knew, that Alexei Sayle had called her up in the middle of the first one going, 'Are you watching this? This is great'... our job here is done.

So yeah, it took a while to go mainstream. It was very culty to begin with.

I suppose you'd be Absolutely's John Cleese?

I suppose I would be yes. And John Sparkes would be Palin. Because he's such a good actor. And Morwenna's everybody else. And there were six of us, and we did do cartoons. So actually, there's a few comparisons.

Do you still get the catchphrases?

Jack Docherty

Yeah, we still get it, but it's so long ago, and I haven't seen it - you don't watch your own work. So the weird thing is that people will come up to me in a pub in Scotland and quote lines and I'll think 'Well, that's got to be a line from Absolutely.' Someone will go 'have you sufficient underpants?' and I'll go, 'he can't actually be asking me that - but I'll have no recollection of whatever sketch that is'.

This live show is also incredibly funny - the guy next to me made an incredible noise - but goes deep too.

I did want to try and move my writing slightly towards more drama, so I've been delighted at the people who responded to it, from TV or drama. It is kind of satisfying, because you've got no self-esteem and you doubt yourself.

So what's the other project you mentioned?

The thing I'm doing with Maddie, it's a comedy drama called Father/Daughter. It's quite a start to her career, long-listed for the Booker Prize, and this show hopefully becoming a series.

Could you offer her any advice, in terms of career progression?

Well, we started doing this before she wrote her book. So I was originally thinking, 'I'll mentor her, help her on her way.' Now I'm clinging to her coattails. She's been absolutely invaluable in my show.

It being comedy drama, did it confuse punters?

I had one the other night, there was such a commotion at the door, I saw a woman and then suddenly she was pulled back and the doors slam shut. And then again, very obviously, about five minutes later, two guys walked out, and one just stood right in front of me and [gives the finger], the audience are laughing.

And of course I went with the obvious joke, 'well, that's Grindr for you' but he takes terrible offence, turns back to try to have a go at me, then he's bundled out - 'what the fuck is that?' And of course, it turns out later, the two women weren't allowed in because they were falling over drunk, but they were the partners of the two guys, so then texted them saying 'they won't let us in, come out...'

Bench Two - Under the stony bridge, with Bowie, Vic, Bob and a dog

Image shows left to right: Si Hawkins, Jack Docherty

I imagine you got the Big Night Out job because Channel 4 thought the scripts would be a crazy mess? Whereas they're famously very thorough.

Yeah, it was free money basically. It was me going, 'that's very funny. That's hilarious...'

So you could see it was funny on the page?

Yes, it was sort of sitting there as well going - what were those characters? The Stotts. On stage [Vic & Bob] would show their inexperience by being at the back and too far away and not coming 'on'. And so I'd just say, 'just have them walk into the camera more.' You just make it televisual, trying to move it from stage onto telly a bit more.

But of course, they did not need me at all. Because if I wasn't there, Charlie Higson was there playing other little parts. And he knows them inside out, and he would give his advice. So it was more just I think a thing Channel 4 wanted, 'oh, have somebody attached to it who'd done a sketch show before,' I think we'd done two seasons at that point.

It's a fair point though, you'd taken some really weird material and made it accessible.

I think they saw that weirdness, yeah, but their show would have been exactly the same without my contribution. But it was such fun doing it.

Did you enjoy doing the chat show? A lot of comics don't.

Not really, no. I always feel guilty saying this because... once a week I think would be a great job.

It was every night wasn't it? That American model.

Yeah, there wasn't enough money to do it, there weren't enough guests, all of that. And - it always sounds a bit arrogant - but I felt frustrated talking to people who'd done stuff; get Paul Whitehouse on, 'I want to do your job! I want to be back making sketch shows. Why am I talking to you about you making sketch shows?'.

And whilst it's fun, you know, God, you meet some people. I mean, there's not many jobs where you get to hang out with David Bowie and smoke a pack of cigarettes or whatever.

Image shows left to right: Si Hawkins, Jack Docherty

Did you really?

Backstage, he was on and we just hung out for a whole evening. So you know, I can't really complain. I met the Pythons, Jones and Palin, a lot of fun with them, the people I loved as a teenager. Even bands like Status Quo, I first saw Quo when I was 13.

So, that's great, but it's a bit relentless. And I think you have to be... the people who are great at it like Graham, Jonathan as well, they're basically heightened versions of themselves, where I was playing the role of a chat show host. Which is not really going to cut it, in the end.

Is it an ego thing? Although I suppose the guys who enjoy doing it must have big egos too.

I think Graham is very good at it now because he corrals it so much, he really doesn't make it about him. Whereas I'd do sketches, fucking ludicrous things; the moments I liked were the moments the audience hated, and the channel hated. When we fucked with it.

We had Martin Clunes on and I said okay, I'm gonna ask you about Men Behaving Badly, you just go 'I don't want to talk about it.' Then I'll ask you about Doc Martin, go 'I don't want to talk about that,' keep saying 'I don't want to talk about that.' And then we'll just sit in silence and we'll slowly raise the sound of a tap dripping in the background, it'll be really fucking awkward - we just found it the funniest fucking thing in the world.

The audience were sitting there, and they'd focus group it: 'We do wish he'd asked Mr Clunes about his time on Men Behaving Badly.' Of course they do! But you know, it's just more fun for us to dick around with it.

Like David Letterman's original morning show - it only got good after they cancelled it.

Absolutely, because it didn't matter. The focus groups had no control anymore.

What did you do after that?

After the chat show? I did producing for a while, things like No Holds Barred [with Ashley Jensen and Bill Paterson]. And then we wrote The Cup, with Steve Edge, then I produced The Old Guys, for Sam [Bain] and Jesse [Armstrong], and Simon Blackwell wrote a couple of those.

That's right, you'd worked with them before.

On the chat show, yeah, we gave so many of those guys [work]... Mitchell & Webb, and Cecil & Riley, Armstrong & Bain. So that was great. Producing, again, it's probably not quite me. I love the creative aspect of it.

Do you feel you finally made your Magnum Opus, with this live show?

It feels the most 'me' kind of thing. I love doing the broader comedy as well. And I love doing Scot Squad, we're about to do the next series, and I love that. But it's quite interesting that the sort of stuff that I watch and read and like is maybe more like the [live] show I'm doing at the moment, I spend a lot of time reading novels and not necessarily watching live comedy. So I guess it was just my desire to try and do something like that. I've never quite had the confidence to do it. But now I do.

So how you do you decide if it's a theatre or comedy show?

Well, I think if you've got 15 serious minutes in the show, that makes it theatre. No, that's not the case. I think I went for 'theatre' because it's a narrative, it was more as a little safety catch that people knew that it wasn't out and out comedy, it wasn't me doing stand-up or characters from Scot Squad, or Absolutely.

At this point we break off to ask a passerby to take a picture, she recognises Jack from the telly, and her friendly dog photobombs us - even in a secret garden Jack stands out.

Jack Docherty

I suppose this is quite a stony bridge we're currently under.

Well, the actual stone bridge [as immortalised in Absolutely] is not too far down there - back in the days when we just took all our own stills and stuff - over this very river. My gran's house was right there and looked on it.

That's another hidden treasure, for another time.

Yeah, Edinburgh really is full of secret places.

Jack Docherty

Published: Monday 9th January 2023

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