Lee Mack talks about the future of Not Going Out... will there be a Series 8, with Lee and Lucy as parents?
Hi Lee. It's been nearly ten years since Not Going Out started. When you started out, did you think it might still be running now?
When you start, you take it one step at a time. You're commissioned to do a script and all you want to do is make a pilot because there's a limit to how much you can get a sense of something from a page, because you're not getting the tone of the way it's been said or anything.
So when we got the pilot I was absolutely delighted because I thought, "It doesn't matter now. If it doesn't work, if they don't like it, or whatever, at least I've got no excuses, because it was made."
But of course the reality is once you've made a pilot you now want a series. If you're fortunate, you do get to do a series. Once it's made and you edit it, then you sort of go, "Oh, if we could just get recommissioned... If we could just get one more series, to put it on film..."
Then you do that, and it always goes on and onwards, the bars of what you think is acceptable as an achievement gets moved slightly.
Now we've been doing it for ten years [the Not Going Out non-broadcast pilot was recorded in 2005]!
The thing that just hit me the other day was, I was on your website, and noted that Only Fools And Horses made 64 episodes. And we're like one series away from catching that number ... and it's like "Oh my god!" If, when starting out, someone had said that to me; to think we'd make as many episodes as that... it'd have been unbelievable.
I don't know the figures but it'd be fair to say that most scripts don't go to pilot. So there's a lot more scripts commissioned that don't get turned into pilot. And then, if the pilot is made, how many of them go to series? Well, I don't know, but half seems generous, probably less isn't it?
And how many of them go to a seven series? So when I look at it, I go "God, we've done quite well." Especially when you consider we got cancelled then brought back.
It is a bit like climbing a mountain, it takes me a long time to write the show. What I'm most proud about, if I'm going to be honest, when I look back at it all, is just the amount of hours of writing involved in making that amount of television. I was an unruly little 15 year old kid. I really was. I didn't study. I didn't do anything. And so I was really bad at sticking at anything. That's probably why I failed all my exams. I went to university much later on in life, but from the age of 15 to 25 pretty much had no qualifications because my ability to sit down and get on with anything was zero. I'm proud now that I'm older I've been able do it for all those hours, to do the sitcom, because it's not my natural personality.
Going back to the horrific axing of the show...
'Horrific' probably isn't the right word. It really wasn't. I mean extremely annoying...
Well for fans it was like "noooo!!!"
OK, I'll go with that. Ha ha.
I should point out we did actually the pilot for BBC Two but when they looked at it they went "oh, actually this could work on BBC One." So my initial reaction to the cancellation was "damn, if only it had stayed on BBC Two we'd have possibly still been going..." You know, it was about viewing figures. That's what it came down to. We probably would have been left alone a little bit more on BBC Two and not been cancelled. I don't know, who knows! Everyone's got a certain figure they've have to reach but ...
You've been vindicated since you came back, with strong ratings...
I know you can look at viewing figures, it's sort of an obvious way to find out how many people are watching your show. But there's something like a tipping point, where something happens...
I've been involved in shows that I've been on a little while, and Would I Lie To You? is another one that we've been on for seven or eight years or so. For the first couple of series, viewing figures are fine but suddenly one year you'll have the same amount of viewing figures but suddenly more people are talking about it. So there's a sudden tipping point of interest.
I felt that with Not Going Out, in the first two series, we were pretty much ignored. Very rarely did anyone mention it to me or come up to me and say, "You're the guy from that sitcom." It was just on telly and it was doing all right and I was doing my best, but it certainly hadn't what we'd call 'broken through' .
But in the third series it all clicked into place. Suddenly everyone was... I remember the day that my wife and I went to the aquarium with the kids. For whatever reasons, probably because I'd been working on the sitcom, I'd not been out for a long time with the family, certainly not into town in a cramped place full of people.
Suddenly loads of people came up to me and mentioned the show. I was a bit gobsmacked, and so was my wife. Like, "Wow... no one ever recognises me from that show and suddenly everyone's recognising me from that show!" I felt like we turned a corner a bit in terms of people being interested in it. Then two weeks later we're cancelled.
Not at all. The same woman who cancelled it, also brought it back, so it's fair play. You have to credit someone who changes their mind. It's not often you get that in this job.
The Series 1-7 boxset is out now, for people to catch-up on the series they might not have seen yet. Do you have a favourite episode to point people to?
I think my favourite episode, and the main cast's favourite episode - we've talked about it, is the camping one [Series 5, Episode 3].
I've always had a sort of ambition to, perhaps like everybody in the world, to make a film, and this is the nearest we've got to it. Listen, I'm under no illusion, this is a studio based sitcom. But at least it had some of the conventions in it. It was on location - it wasn't in reality, but on the show it looks like it's all filmed on location, the majority of it in that car in the forest...
It was brilliantly directed by our director, Nick Wood. In the car in the studio, and outside in the forest... he just joined it together brilliantly well. You can't see the join. The quote is famous I suppose, but you can't see any join at all. So it looks very filmic, the whole thing, and I'm really proud of that one. So there's that one.
There's an episode called Winner [Series 3, Episode 2]... when I pretend to be blind and in a wheelchair.
Ah, yes, Winner probably our favourite episode!
I really like that one. It all just came together at the end really nicely when we wrote it.
I'm also very proud of the last two I did in this series [Series 7]. The one where... actually, I'm a little bit reluctant to talk about the plot because people might go, 'I haven't seen the ending yet, don't spoil it'... so spoiler alert coming up!
We filmed the last episode of the series, not the Christmas special which was the wedding, but the last episode of the series we filmed it in 'real time'. We've done one of these before where the whole episode takes place in a real 30 minute period, and that was when we got stuck with a pregnant woman on the cable car. It was done in real, fictional real time meaning it all it occurs in the 30 minute time - there's not stings, there's no time breaks. I don't think anyone really noticed that! I must point out in reality it wasn't filmed in 30 minutes. It was filmed over two hours and kept stopping and starting...
But we took it one step further for the very final episode. It all existed in real time in 30 minutes, but we really did film it in one take. Now, there was the odd pause... if something went wrong with the light or whatever, we just immediately picked it up and carried on. But apart from that it was done continuously. Now, that's not to say that at the end we didn't do pick-ups [re-filming certain lines], but we filmed the 30 minutes in 33 minutes or something. See what I mean?
Wow, we'll have to watch that one back with that knowledge in mind...
It was extremely frightening because I had to learn all of my lines in one go. I mean I already know my lines, but to do it in one hit. Usually I have a little brush up in the make-up room of what the next scene is. It felt a little like I was doing a play, you know?
Also, for the first time ever in the show, with with that one and with the wedding, I mildly - and I'm using the word very strongly - mildly dipped my toes in some more 'serious acting'. I'm getting in before anybody gets me and says, 'you call that acting mate?', but instead of gag, gag, gag it just slightly slows a bit. It was a slightly new territory.
Talking of new territory, you've announced you're going to film a new Christmas special. Lee and Lucy are married now, so are we going back to gag, gag, gag or will it be a different show?
We're in the process of talking about this at the moment, but I'm exploring the idea - and this doesn't mean this is going to happen - but I was always a big fan of the way things like Only Fools And Horses used to do a Christmas special. It was done not in the studio, so there's no laughter track - it was done a bit more filmic.
It looks different. It looks filmic. Everything looks a little bit more real. Now listen, we're just toying with the idea. We might decide to abort mission and just have a proper traditional studio sitcom again. But I just think ... yeah, it just feels a bit more special I suppose. A bit more of a Christmas special if it looks a bit different.
We've done Christmas specials before but they've always been very traditionally filmed in the studio with a real audience. You know, so it feels like a studio based sitcom? Even the wedding that we did last year a lot of that was filmed on location, but it was still played in to the audience on the night.
I'm toying with the idea because ... well, for many reasons. One of them being that we don't know what's going to happen next. It could be the end of the show.
It might be the end after this episode, in which case what a nice way to go out and make it feel a bit special and different. But also if we decide to spin it off into a different type of show... Who knows, you know? Anyway, I'm only thinking out loud.
The premise would certainly change a bit if you did carry on...
Well here's the thing, I've always wanted to do a family sitcom. I mean I want to make a sitcom about a family, as opposed to one aimed at family viewing. If a family watches it great, but I'm not...
What we haven't quite properly done in this county for a number of years is a traditional studio-based sitcom about the family. I'm talking about in the way that Everybody Loves Raymond ran for years and years. I feel like it's been a while since we've seen that in this country, right? My Family has been off the air now for a few years. We had Outnumbered, but that of course wasn't a studio based sitcom.
I just think there's room to have that American approach to sort of ... you can still make it slick and stylish and look great and well written and still be a traditional family studio based sitcom.
So the summary of this is that Lee and Lucy need to spend a lot of time in bed together quite quickly to have some kids?
Listen I don't want to give away any ideas for Christmas, but I don't think it's going to take a genius to work out what I'm possibly thinking...
Getting married is a big thing. How the hell can we top that? Ah, I know!
That is a possibility and it would also open the doors for future episodes for a spin off ... 'spin off' meaning a different type of sitcom about a family. The dilemma I'm always in with my show is that I want to do a family sitcom.
Is changing the format that people have grown to love a dangerous thing?
The dilemma is always that people don't like change. It's very hard and, trust me, I know because we've been through a fuck load of cast changes. I'm an expert on change now!
So people don't like change and it takes a while for people to get used to it. I remember in first series someone saying to me, "I'm wasn't sure about an American girl being a lead role in a sitcom, but as the series went on the character got better and better." And I said "we didn't film them in that order!"... People have this perception that things are getting better, but it's not that, they're getting used to it.
And please, if you're going to quote that, please stress they just weren't sure about an American character, not talking about the actress. It's quite an unusual thing to have a lead girl in a British sitcom being an American.
I get it all the time. "I didn't like it when so and so left, but actually now I think the show has learned to adapt and improved as a result." And I tell them "No, no, no, no! It is something that's ordinary. Your brain is changing as you're watching it and you're getting used to it. That's all it is."
I've had to come to terms with this. Miranda left, Tim's left... so we're used to that change. It's taken me all these years just to suss out how people's brains work when they're watching things...
But it is a big change to go "Let's have a family sitcom now with kids." That's a big change. If you start afresh, people come at it with fresh eyes... but if you do your old sitcom people might go "Well I preferred it when dot, dot, dot..." You know what I mean?
We've thought long and hard about it [every change] . We've spent a lot of time, more so than probably people think, but like for example Hugh Dennis is my new mate at the bar now. Now Hugh's brilliant, but I'm not going to have him sitting next to me every episode from day one because people would go "Hang on that's not the bloke that used to be sat there. I don't like this as much!" But if he's sitting next to you in the bar in one episode, then a few episodes later he's there again...
Like Katy Wix [who plays Daisy], we 'bled' her in slowly across a few series. She was a one-off in an episode, then she suddenly appeared a couple of times in the next series, two or three times. The next series she was there all the time. It wasn't until the fourth series she made it to the title sequence...
You slowly get people involved then people adjust slowly and they don't mind the change. Much harder when people leave because you can't bleed them out, they're just gone instantly. So that's the biggest shift for people to get used to.
Tim Vine did make a cameo appearance at the wedding. Any chance he'll be returning for more?
It was nice to bring him back, but no probably not. Listen, who knows... we're still good mates and we see each other all the time. We talk about darts more than sitcoms, so it doesn't come up that much for me to know the answer as to whether he would come back if I asked him, because I don't ask him. If I did he'd probably say "Ah, I don't think so...."
The real answer to that question is "almost definitely not, but who knows".
I'm really happy with the way it's going. Hugh's great being the bloke who talks to me in the bar. I think people really like the bar scenes, me sat in the bar thinking about life and talking to someone, and they missed it. When Tim went there was a sense from us the cast, as well as what people said about it, that it's a shame we don't do that anymore. And I though 'it's a fair point, it is a shame'. And so I put that back in. You can't talk to yourself [at the bar] because you sound like a loser.
Outnumbered seemed to be coming to an end, and I saw Hugh in the queue at the Job Centre and said "I've job for you mate". I'm a big fan of his fictional wife, Abigail Cruttenden. She pitched it really well. I really like her in it, so I'm sort of thinking it would be quite nice if possibly maybe we moved out so they live next door to us, we'll see...
Sounds like there could still be a long and exciting future ahead for Not Going Out then. Presumably if you do commit to more, that means you have to put stand-up on the backburner for longer...
I will always only do stand-up every few years anyway. I mean I could literally do nothing other than stand-up for the rest of my life and I would still only tour every few years because I don't have that massive feel or need to do it all the time.
I think the problem is I'm spoiled by working on a sitcom and on panel games with people like David and Rob because, as I get older, my priority in life is 'which is the most fun?'. The truth is that stand-up is great - it's really nice to be a stand-up - but I'd be lying if I said traveling round the country wasn't sometimes a bit solitary. You're on stage on your own. You've spent a year and a half writing on your own and going around trying it out. You know, it's a solitary existence!
When you get on really well with your team and you're having a laugh like on Would I Lie To You? and on Not Going Out you think "Well this is a nice and fun." You've got a bit of banter going on and it's more fun because you're not driving off halfway across the country to try your new material out on a wet Wednesday night.
If anyone said stand-up is the purest form of comedy, and the best form of comedy, I'd be struggling to argue with them. But in terms of just having a laugh at work you can't beat working with a bunch of people who are similar minded to you. So that's the problem. It depends what comes first, having a laugh or art. I know which one's winning in my head!
The Not Going Out Series 7 DVD, and the Series 1 to 7 boxset, are out now. Shop