Jamie Demetriou and Robert Popper worked together to develop Channel 4 sitcom Stath Lets Flats. We asked the duo if they would mind meeting up to talk about how they scripted the show, and let us eavesdrop in on that conversation. Below is what they said, which includes plenty of funny tangents.
Jamie: Let's start off relaxed. What are some personality traits of mine that you like? Three please.
Robert: Three? Um, slow to anger. Slow to kindness, and slow to shame.
J: I love how long you've strived to become a burser and have never given up your dream. I also love your way with plant life...
R: Thank you.
J: ... and your way with plant death!
R: Let's do serious now. Why did you want to make Stath Lets Flats?
J: You made me! Actually, I wanted to impress a few uncles, and some dignitaries. One being Robert Popper.
R: I saw your Blap [pilot] on the internet system... and it was brilliant. And I wanted to meet you.
J: As I've said in other interviews, I met you through your books [Robert compiled The Timewaster Letters featuring prank correspondence], I guess as a kid. I was a big fan, and then you saw the Blaps and were the first person to reach out and give me a digital pat on the back.
R: And a cup of tea.
J: And a cup of tea, yeah. Well, not a cup of tea. We had watermelon juice and a bowl of fruit each, that was too big.
R: Too big, and the melons were rancid.
J: Yes, I think I just ordered everything that you ordered because I panicked.
R: What did we talk about? "It would be nice to work with you"?
J: I think you were just being nice. I remembered this the other day: you said "What ideas do you have?" And I said "I'd like to make a sitcom where I sing." And the conversation sort of ended.
R: Why, though? You've got like the best voice. You've got like the best voice of any comedian, any person I've ever met.
J: You've met Quentin Tarantino haven't you?
R: I have. And he's got a beautiful voice.
J: Famously a better singer than director. He's a baritone crooner. So me and Robert also met over...
R: He actually sings Egyptian music. He's a master. He plays the lute, you know. The Arab lute. He's brilliant.
J: Yeah, the next in his redemption quadrilogy is gonna be about an Egyptian lute player.
R: Trying to find the strings.
J: ... And that's how we met.
R: When we were doing Friday Night Dinner Series 3 you came along to an early read... I don't know why we did that, to be quite honest. Normally we just do one big read, but we did an early read.
J: I think you just wanted to hear it out loud. We've learned how useful that is.
R: We have.
J: Passed it on. That's what we did with Stath.
R: Not all the cast were around [for Friday Night Dinner's read-through], and I said "Do you want to come in and read a few parts?" And you were brilliant.
J: Well, if I was...
R: You was.
J: There are usually about twenty-odd random parts, and I tried to give a different voice to every single one. But, a spinoff from that was that Big Talk, the company that co-produced it with Popper Pictures - the infamous Popper Pictures - they started to get me in, as a result of that. I'd screen read through all their programmes, and come in and do sixty different voices.
R: Yeah, but you knew everyone beforehand, didn't you?
J: No. Those Blaps were the first things I ever really did. But I also used to have your Timewaster letters as a kid. Tash [his sister and co-star Natasia Demetriou] was saying in an interview recently that I used to come up and visit her in Leeds; wanting to be the cool, sort of intellectual younger brother. I used to sort of lick my fingers and thumb my way through a copy of Timewaster Letters and sort of laugh really loudly in the hope that someone would ask me what I was reading. To that point that I would sort of have to sidle up to their conversation and be like; "You're not into letter-based comedy are you?" More often than not, they weren't. It's not something that works read out loud by a teenage Greek boy.
R: Yeah, probably not.
J: You sort of need some other voice. But it was brilliant, and it was a massive, massive influence on me.
R: Oh, you can see it. I mean, Stath is all based on letter writing. Every episode begins with a letter. Then you act out the letter, and then you go into the paper-making process, the ink making process.
J: For sure. Every episode opens with an old man opening a big book in front of a fireplace... And you go into the book, and it tells the story.
R: Stath took bloody ages though, didn't it?
J: It did take ages.
R: Why did it take that long? Cause I came in later, you weren't...
J: Well it took, for me, it was about five and a half years. But throughout that process there were a few instances where your name was touted as potentially being attached. Because you were in to it. But I think you were busy with your own stuff, and it was also not in a shape where you thought it was ready to jump aboard. Is that accurate?
R: I don't know. I think Jon Petrie, the executive producer, asked me if I'd like to be involved. I said 'yeah'.
J: But you were asked earlier in the process, possibly.
R: Well I refused.
J: No, I think you were probably just... Maybe you did refuse. I think that you were sort of thrown by the singing comment from me.
R: I don't remember the singing comment.
J: I think the scripts maybe were in an odd state.
R: So, when we met, when we started, we just began. You came to my house, and this led to several months of extreme mucking around.
J: Yeah, that's about right. We spent more time discussing where to go to lunch, and more often than not concluding it should be a place called Chucks, which is now closed down. Which is a chicken restaurant in Muswell Hill. I don't think we ever enjoyed it.
R: No, and they used to play really horrible rock'n'roll blues.
J: Rupert, our mutual friend Rupert, refers to that music as chicken music. It's music to eat chicken to.
R: We sort of went insane writing, a bit. It took a long time, so we were up in the top floor of my house, which is quite hot.
J: Robert's office, when I first went in there is Shangri-La, it's full of sort of artefacts from Look Around You, Friday Night Dinner, and the time you worked on South Park and stuff. It's dreamy, I loved it. There were mad things to see.
R: And I had my own printer.
J: He had his own printer, which obviously took up a lot of the time. I did quite a lot of drawing.
R: He did a lot of drawing.
J: What's a good drawing we could talk about?
R: We could talk about, what's his name?
J: Ragelbiss. We probably spent more time plotting the story of this character, who is sort of a German, because we'd watched this video somehow of him.
J: No, no, I went to Berlin one weekend, and while I was there we discovered a guy called Peter Maffay, and Tabalulu the dinosaur.
R: It was a green dinosaur.
J: Yeah, it's sort of a - How would you describe what sort of genre of performance it was? A sort of dinosaur crooning. Sort of Eurovision type stuff, but with a great dinosaur.
R: But he was quite a big star. Peter Maffay. So we came up with Raglebiss. I still think we should do this, right. Go to somewhere like Germany, and film in like a market, and I'll be the dinosaur. We had the whole song, didn't we?
J: We did, yeah.
Together: "Where you go, I stay around ... I'll never let you down ... I'm Ragelbiss."
R: I just want to do it. Just imagine filming amongst lots of just German shoppers.
J: I can't express the amount of hours wasted in the week discussing how we're going to arrange our flights to eastern Europe to make this film.
R: We do have to make this.
J: I mean it's still going, clearly. Robert's holding his phone up to me, showing me flight times now.
R: Can we make this one day?
J: Yes. Exclusive! I think the only reason you got involved with Stath was to make Ragelbiss.
J: What other tomfoolery did we get up to? It's just hard to write, isn't it, when you're having a good time? Let's talk through what an average schedule through our day would be. So, I'd get to yours by ten, sometimes I'd walk from east London. For fun, I would get up about eight o'clock.
R: We'd have a second breakfast.
J: Well, we'd have a first breakfast first. Oh no, you'd already had a breakfast, and then you'd make granola for me, which is always very nice.
R: And then we'd sit down and we'd discuss what aspect of the printing process we'd need to cover that day.
J: Oh no, more often that not we'd discuss whatever letter you'd sent me from an independent corporation telling me that I owed them thousands of pounds, with an official sort of wax stamp on it.
R: What was that letter? You got a weird spooky letter, didn't you?
J: I got a number of spooky letters from you. You'd often fill my bag with newspaper, so I'd get home at the end of the day...
R: At the production company Rough Cut in the reception area they have like a tray of TV trade magazines. There's something like Film and Television News; that's like a newspaper, but mainly for technicians. I became obsessive. It's really thick, and they get it like every month, I imagine it's daily. And I became obsessed with it, because it's so fucking boring.
J: If it's boring it went through my letterbox at some point!
R: So I didn't tell you, but I was going to buy a subscription for you. I was gonna get you a subscription.
J: Robert's obsession with boredom and mundanity knows no bounds.
R: I did write a really spooky letter to you from, it was something like the Janus Foundation saying "we know what you've done and you must come and meet Mr Riley", or something strange.
J: This is still happening, by the way. I'm gonna go through my phone and see what the last one was. Here we go: "Highways England, Section 48 Planning Act 2008. Regulation Four of the infrastructure planning applications prescribed forms and procedure regulations 2009. A303 Stonehenge, Aimsbury to Berwick Down." I mean, it is hell to me. What else did you do a lot of, talking about that writing time?
R: We did a lot of songs.
J: Trump had just got in at the time, of course. There was a lot talk about that.
R: We had to ban that, all that talking about him.
J: The day that he got in, you had to go to an art gallery, to calm your nerves.
R: I couldn't cope with just how shit it was. And I thought I'm going to pretentiously do something to clear my head.
J: Yeah. It was so funny, trying to write comedy at that time. It was really bleak. There were some real grey clouds. I remember being on the way to yours, on the bus one day, and everyone just looking at each other. And you know, British public don't talk to each other, but everyone was looking at each other just shaking their heads. Just couldn't believe it. It did genuinely make it very difficult to have a giggle.
R: We did a lot of ideas things, and cards. We put a lot of cards up with ideas.
J: I think that a lot of the dad-based stuff got put to bed early in the process because it was too mad, more often than not.
R: Oh tell them the story about Hollywood. This is gold. This is unbelievable.
J: Oh, recently my dad and I had a heated debate as to where Hollywood is located in the world. And my side of the debate was that I, personally, from experience, believe it's in Los Angeles. My dad genuinely believes it to be in the Yorkshire Moors. He says: "It's where all those girls were murdered." He, somewhere along the way, got it in his head that Hollywood was in the Yorkshire Moors. So that is an example of something that couldn't have made it into the show!
But I think Robert is a natural and very good fit for the process, partly because he's a structural wizard. That was definitely something that I have missing. I think that that combination of structural sort of wizardry and the really good ear for language. Idiosyncratic language especially.
R: Well the thing is to make sure that it feels like your show. That it feels like you. That it's your voice. There has been letting agents in a couple of comedies...
J: Well I think the show is primarily not about a lettings agent, it's about a character and he could've been anywhere.
R: It totally is, but like for when people see it, they go "wicked! It's a show about a terrible estate agent..."
J: It's a way in.
R: That family is so specific. The way they see things, the way they talk. I think you're incredibly specific, on like wanting things to be exact. It has to be.
J: Yeah, I think there's definitely an anal specificity to both of what we do. Like Friday Night Dinner, for example; it's a language-based show. It is about the way they talk to each other, as opposed to what they say. I think that we both write stuff where the joke is irrelevant, it's about how it's said.
R: Often it's true, that. Yeah. The musicality of it as well.
J: Right, exactly. Intonation, yeah. The fact that this particular character is saying that, as opposed to you could put that line in anyone's mouth. sort of thing.
It took me a long time to make Stath - over the five years. To work out how to not just make it a sprawling stream of weird consciousness. And to lock down what the thing that's funny about it. And I'll keep learning. In the first series, there's some good stuff in it. There's some stuff I'm keen to change if we get to do any more.
R: I'd say you were very good at acting and writing and being funny. I have to say that, but it's true though.
J: Thanks Robert. I would really say the same thing, but you never do the acting part.
R: Well, I get bored.
J: Yeah, I've been trying to get him throughout the process, I do a monthly night with Cardinal Burns.
R: We could tell them about the guy with the concrete. Every day, if we'd go for lunch, we'd drive a certain route. And near me there's a family's garden, and there's his 'pots' in it. He put cement blocks in front of his garden and in front of his car, so no one steals it. But it's in his garden, and we used to like to imagine that every time he just drives to the shops down the corner...
J: ... he had to pick up about thirty five bricks...
R: Every time, he'd be like "Christ!" And his wife would say, "Why don't you just move the car?" - "No! It stays!"
J: Like a little boy desperate to hear his favourite joke, I used to get Robert to drive past there every day and act out the scenario. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. There were days where we'd sort of go and stand in the woods, like two terrifying men, trying to think of ideas for a half an hour and then realising how weird we looked, go home.
R: But then, I only worked on three with you. And you just went off and wrote the rest...
J: We must've done about two months just talking crap. Just to sort of generate ideas, and then we did the first three together and then I went off and did the second three.
R: They were brilliant. You don't need me, mate.
J: Well, you handed me the certificate.
R: Yeah, I did.
J: We had a graduation at Robert's house, where he and his family and my family came around and he said "you're allowed to write the next three episodes". And, yeah, he gave me a bowl of potpourri and sent me on my way.
R: God bless you.
J: God bless you. We haven't really promoted the show, have we?
R: Why not just tell them what we meant to say: "It's funny, keep watching."
J: It's on Thursday mornings at 7am, and it... Well, not every week. It's on Christmas day, for the next... There's five more episodes, so that'll be for the next five years, on Christmas Day at seven o'clock in the morning, but only when Christmas falls on a Thursday actually. So Christmas will fall on a Thursday once every seven years, is that right?
R: Well there's leap years, which'll muck it up.
J: Now we've gone too deep into this. It's on every Wednesday at 10pm on Channel 4. Please miss the last five minutes of Love Island to watch it.