Back in 2001, Robin Halstead, Jason Hazeley, Alex Morris and Joel Morris launched super-funny website The Framley Examiner. As a new gag-packed Framley book is published, Morris explains how the project started out, and why a new book is in much-demand.
Twenty years ago, when we launched the spoof local newspaper website The Framley Examiner, the intention was to make ourselves and our friends laugh.
It was the very early days of internet comedy. If someone sent you a funny link, you'd have to go and make yourself a very strong, slow cup of tea, while you waited for it to download over a primitive clockwork modem that screamed like an electric cat. Framley's aim was to have as many jokes as possible packed into every page, thus making the wait worthwhile. And we were delighted when our pretend newspaper soon took its place alongside The Onion and Charlie Brooker's TV Go Home as the go-to website for maximum laughs per cup of tea.
Framley's target was the strange, almost psychedelic boredom of British smalltown existence. The site, dense with dream-logic classified adverts and news stories that ate their own tails, spawned two Penguin books; one of collected newspaper pages, another a history of the imaginary Framley area. Whenever we felt in the mood, we'd get together and do a few more pages, always to amuse ourselves and the people we knew liked the site. It was never a regular publication, or a duty, just a place to try out ideas and play.
We eventually went on to do other things, writing for TV and radio and film, including a lovely long period at Viz comic and creating the bestselling Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups, (which is sort of Framley for vintage children's books) but Framley remained a favourite creation. Maybe that was because it was so pure and silly, done for love, as a shared joke between four old school friends, with no expectation of anyone else really getting it.
Cut to 2020, and during the first pandemic lockdown, unexpectedly, various people had found their old copies of the book, and tweeted their love for it, swapping favourite jokes. One of our longstanding fans, Robert Popper (creator of Look Around You and Friday Night Dinner), even tweeted that Framley was 'the funniest book ever written' which was very nice of him. We were tagged into these threads, and there was the brief delight of seeing a little upswell of affection for something we'd not really thought of for years. A few people, intrigued, went searching for second-hand copies, flagging up with horror that the price of a Framley paperback had soared to ridiculous levels, as often happens with out-of-print books.
One of those people, we were delighted to discover, was Bob Odenkirk, the star of Mr Show and Better Call Saul. He had managed to get hold of a copy of the original Framley book, and was shoving it into friends' hands, with evangelical zeal. People, not all of them in Hollywood, started asking where they could get their own copies. The idea bubbled up that we could publish a compiled omnibus edition, with some extra material. That way we could give something to loyal fans, and reach people who'd missed it first time round.
The original book came out in 2002, within a year of the site launching, and we'd written loads more since then, almost doubling the size of a potential book. Framley was always about density; part of the joke is the sheer daunting onslaught of thousands of stupid ideas. We boasted that even our editor at Penguin hadn't ever read the whole of the first book. We suspect nobody ever has. This was a chance to make something even more stupidly over the top.
We also realised that some of our favourite Framley pages and jokes had only ever appeared online and never seen print; this could be a chance to get them onto the nation's toilet bookshelves, where they belonged. (We were also excited that if we got an omnibus edition out quickly, it could be in time for the 19th anniversary of the launch of the site, and the wrongness of the timing amused us as a perfect Framley joke.)
Even better, it was an excuse to get together and write some brand new Framley, something we'd not done for years. But simply because Framley had lain dormant for a while, didn't mean we weren't all privately scribbling ideas in notebooks while working on other projects. It was thrilling to admit that we all had jotters, smartphone notes and crumpled envelope backs with lists of "FRAMLEY IDEAS?", that we'd never shared. Framley had lived, quietly in our hearts, like an idiot king sleeping under a hill, waiting to wake and misspell headlines and sell inexplicable stuff in classified ads when the world needed it most.
We found an enthusiastic publisher in Unbound, who set to work motivating our fanbase. Thanks to their generosity and enthusiasm, we had the project funded in record time. Annoyingly, pandemic issues with book distribution meant we had to delay release until this year, meaning we missed the big one-nine, but you can't have everything. Apparently, 20th Anniversaries are more common outside the sealed bubble of Framley, and who are we to object?
But how does Framley look now? Is it even a joke, two decades later, that makes sense? Local newspapers with a staff and budget the size of our fictional paper are probably a thing of the past, but when we revisited Framley, the place felt strangely more authentic than it had seemed in 2001. Our imaginary world was a parody of the insularity of smalltown existence, and it was hard to deny that Britain had raised its drawbridge since then, becoming increasingly self-obsessed, detached and local, maybe even a few percent madder. The glimpses into each other's vivid and peculiar lives that we'd enjoyed digging out of the minimal absurdism of classified and personal advertisements were now available between the lines of social media. The stubborn curtain-twitching NIMBYism of the local paper's letters page or community news reports was now trending every time a Twitter storm broke.
We were excited to discover that Framley's parochial vintage madness didn't feel part of the past. It felt more like a warning from history. You might not read your local newspaper any more, you might sell your lawnmower online now, and find out what your neighbours are up to using WhatsApp, but in this 20th anniversary year, unexpectedly, we all live in Framley now.