The Cockfields. Image shows from L to R: Ray (Gregor Fisher), Simon (Joe Wilkinson), Esther (Susannah Fielding), David (Ben Rufus Green), Sue (Sue Johnston)
The Cockfields

The Cockfields

  • TV sitcom
  • Gold
  • 2019 - 2021
  • 10 episodes (2 series)

Sitcom about an oddball family living on the Isle of Wight. Stars Joe Wilkinson, Susannah Fielding, Sue Johnston, Gregor Fisher, Ben Rufus Green and more.

Joe Wilkinson interview

The Cockfields. Simon (Joe Wilkinson)

The Cockfields, written by Joe Wilkinson and David Earl, returns to Gold this Monday 8th at 10pm. Set on the Isle of Wight, the sitcom about an eccentric but loving family stars Wilkinson as Simon and Sue Johnston as his mum, Sue.

Since it was commissioned, there have been significant cast changes, with Kim Cattrall dropping out and being replaced by Sarah Parish before the first episode in 2019. Bobby Ball's death the following year led to his role of Ray, Simon's stepfather, being taken over by Gregor Fisher in the new series, while Michele Dotrice takes the part of Sue's friend, Lyn, originally played by Maggie Steed.

Nigel Havers returns as Simon's self-centred father Larry and Ben Rufus Green is back as his touchingly innocent stepbrother, David. Simon has split with Donna (Diane Morgan) and is now engaged to Esther, played by This Time With Alan Partridge star Susannah Fielding. And Greg McHugh joins the show as Simon's annoying schoolfriend Tony.

Here, Wilkinson reflects on working with Earl and Ricky Gervais, the future of the Gossipmongers podcast, his TV pilots that haven't quite made it to series, forging a comedy career path for "bearded weirdos" and the horror of deploying cutlery to discharge a persistent turd from the toilet.

What are you like when you're when you're waiting for a series to come out? Nervous?

Yeah, terribly nervous, it's anxiety-inducing. Because it's so precious to myself and David, the cast and the production guys. The pair of us aren't full of confidence anyway. You try to black it out until the day, think about nice things.

The Cockfields has had so much disruption, what with Covid postponing filming and so many cast changes after only a few episodes ...

Absolutely, with the really tragic loss of Bobby being the main knife in the belly. We loved him so much and became really close. Weirdly, I was on the Isle of Wight when I found out, David and me were writing. That particularly was difficult to pick ourselves up from. We love doing the job but you just think "what's the point?"

The Cockfields. Image shows from L to R: Donna (Diane Morgan), Simon (Joe Wilkinson), Sue (Sue Johnston), Ray (Bobby Ball), David (Ben Rufus Green)

Even with the pandemic though, we were still writing. UKTV were really wonderful. They said 'keep going, write more'. But it was really hard in the beginning because of losing Bobby.

I guess unfortunately it fits in with the show's underlying theme, that you only have a limited amount of time with the older generation.

We will all lose our loved ones. That's what the show has always been about. Sometimes you forget that. It'd be very weird if families didn't wind each other up. But underneath it all, they're incredibly precious. And with Bobby, that was a bit too close to home really.

As the star and co-writer, was making The Cockfields particularly intense for you?

Yeah, it is harder. You're part of every decision. Every problem. And there are hundreds and hundreds of problems. The director Simon [Hynd], myself and David, we're involved in all of that, plus all the things that happen on the fly. It's all so important to you and it's exhausting.

I've acted in lots of things, which I've been really proud to be involved in. But, at seven o'clock, you can switch off and go home, think about other things or just learn your lines. When you're in the middle of it though, it is just really, really tiring. We had to keep giving ourselves a kick up the arse, tell ourselves how lucky we were to be making a second series of something. Lots of shows don't come back, you don't get a second bite.

When Simon's ex is described as a "bitch" in the new series, is that referring to Donna? It's funny, but maybe that's because it seems so out of character for all involved?

Well, the first series was Simon and Ray's journey. And the second series is a journey for Simon and his mum. We hint at Ray's heart problems but the bigger arc is between Simon and Sue.

The Donna story, it wasn't really directed at her, it's not meant to be that overt. That reaction is Sue's reaction to her son being hurt. People split up all the time and the ex is always going to be the devil to your loved ones. It feeds into Simon and Sue's story later on. It's a mum's reaction. Of course they're a turd in her eyes. She really liked Donna. But not any more because she hurt her little boy.

The Cockfields. Image shows from L to R: Ray (Gregor Fisher), Simon (Joe Wilkinson), Esther (Susannah Fielding), David (Ben Rufus Green), Sue (Sue Johnston)

You previously worked with Sue Johnston on your Sky One sitcom Rovers. Why did you want her on The Cockfields?

Oh, she's amazing. It was about hoping really, we didn't think we'd get her. She really liked working with us before and we got lucky. We wrote this and it was always with her in mind. You never usually get them.

But you have got them, it's a starry cast...

I don't know how.

I know you lost Kim Cattrall at the start but otherwise ...

We've had a bit of the Midas touch when it comes to casting. You put these feelers out. But when you get someone like Sue onboard, it's easier to cast others because you've got that royalty. She brings such weight to a project. I'd be remiss to say that getting her wasn't a huge advantage.

Presumably Diane Morgan was too busy to do the second series?

Yeah, she was very sweet and wanted to do it. But that is the problem with brilliant people. Others start seeing their brilliance and everyone wants them. Obviously, I've worked with her for years and wanted her involved. But that's life. We got Susannah instead, who was amazing.

Is David, Simon's stepbrother, based on the comedian Dave Edwards?

Yeah. The relationship between Ray and David is based on David [Earl]'s character Brian [Gittins] and the way he tells [Dave] to be quiet, keep his voice down, all that kind of stuff. It's funny because it's become a very recognisable relationship, which surprised me. People tell me that their dad speaks to their brother like that all the time when he won't shut up. And that's fantastic.

And is Nigel Havers still as cringe-inducing as Simon's father?

Oh yes, very much so. I spent a lot of time with Nigel, he's a lot of fun. He's got a lot of stories and he's perfect, him and Sarah Parish are so good. Their toxic relationship goes to the next level.

The Cockfields. Image shows from L to R: Larry (Nigel Havers), Esther (Susannah Fielding), Simon (Joe Wilkinson)

How do you find playing a straighter role, being the centre of a show rather than the oddball element on the fringe?

Myself and David, when we write these things, we don't write with ourselves in mind. We just write what we want to write. And the character just sort of fell into place. It was from our perspective, the writing came from our lives and relationships. So it was quite organic for one of us to play Simon.

When you've created it, to see other people bring the more comic engines to life, it's just a pleasure. There's no jealousy, over-preciousness or anything like that because they're making your words even better. It's a real honour to be sat in the middle, going "wow, look at Gregor doing that. Look at Ben and Sue doing that". You're a conduit for these brilliant voices. It's a real joy.

It feels modern, in terms of people retiring but living longer and their children essentially trying to become the parent to them in turn. But you also get that tension in a classic sitcom like Steptoe And Son.

Yeah. I was such a big fan of Steptoe, the perfect way [Harold] was trapped by duty and love. It's really similar and I hadn't actually put that together. Driven up the wall, your heart can't take it and you storm out. Which is why we're all buggered really isn't it?

Did them being a step-family come from your or David's personal experience or was it simply to add an extra angle?

It was from our lives but we did a lot of talking about different elements of our families. Everyone's a combination really, there's no character directly lifted from anyone. It threw up more story.

That relationship is really, really interesting because it comes with so many layers. The point that you meet that person, where you are as a child, how that informs your relationship and how tricky it is for the stepfather to come into that child's life at a certain age. Also, the relationship with the stepbrother. Just more tension really, which is what you want in a sitcom isn't it?

Similarly, the fact that it's set on the Isle of Wight. Am I right in thinking your wife is from there and David's family too?

Yes, that's right. My wife grew up there and David's got grandparents from the island. And his mum moved back there for a while. There's a bit of history. More from David's side growing up and mine only in the last 15 years when I've fallen in love with the place.

It was a really good chance to make them feel slightly more trapped. The Cockfields is always going to be about trips to the island. You're physically trapped, as well as emotionally trapped. If someone does storm off, they have to drive to the port and wait for the boat. That premise made us laugh.

The Cockfields. Image shows from L to R: Sue (Sue Johnston), Simon (Joe Wilkinson)

Can you describe your working relationship with David?

We started writing together probably nine, ten years ago. We used to go to each other's houses but I was living in central London and David was living in Sussex. It was a big old commute either way. And then one day, we started working on Zoom and it was like, "God, this is really liberating". We write on this software called WriterDuet where we type on the same document. It's basically a lot of talking and not a lot of actual physical writing. Huge chunks of it is planning and wondering "where the hell is this going?"

When we get to the point where we're actually writing, we do it at the same time. I'll write a sentence, David will say: "Hold on, I think it should be this" and change it. You really have to trust the other person and not be precious. We don't usually disagree on anything but minor things. Generally, we're pointing in the same direction.

You both appear in After Life. What can you tell me about your character Pat and where his relationship with Roxy (Roisin Conaty) is going in the third series?

I've seen bits and bobs and it's very funny, that I can tell you. But as for storylines, I'd have to chat with Ricky. Otherwise, he will physically harm me.

Were you pleased with how Pat's role grew in the second series?

Yeah, I was and it was such a joy to play. Working with Ricky is so much fun. He's so clever the way he works with people because he makes sure they're really relaxed. He gets the best out of them, not by shouting but by getting you comfortable on set in character. It's better when it's fun, simple as that. It was only on this series that I twigged that. I can't wait for people to see it. Another one of my glamour roles.

You've popularised "the bearded weirdo spot" as David O'Doherty dubbed it on 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown. Are you proud of that, that there's now a recognised way for leftfield comics to get on mainstream television?

That's lovely it's thought of in that way. I was very lucky working with [production company] Zeppotron. They really took a punt on me and I'm able to do what I want on these mainstream shows. I can be really bizarre and the show's really accommodating. Audiences slowly get their head around it and then see comedy in a different way, I guess.

Hopefully, more leftfield acts are now perhaps a bit more confident to go on these shows and think: "Well, I'm not gonna change what I do, there is an opportunity for it". If I was a small part of that, brilliant.

Image shows from L to R: Diane Morgan, Joe Wilkinson

Will you be returning to live comedy, either doing stand-up or something similar to the sketches you did with Diane as Two Episodes Of Mash?

Myself and David are having a bit of a writing hiatus because this has been such a big long journey to get The Cockfields to screen, we need to clear our heads a bit. I've been writing stand-up and have done a few gigs, with varying levels of success. Just to keep my hand in.

The thing I forget about stand-up is how bloody hard it is. And you forget how many great acts there are. I did a gig last night with Rich Wilson and was like, "fucking hell, he's brilliant!" It gives you a kick up the arse - you have to be really good live to survive. If I get enough time to get a load of material together I might do something with it. Sometimes stuff gets in the way. But at the moment I'm doing bits and bobs and loving it.

Griff Rhys Jones gets a bit of a slandering in The Cockfields. With your podcast Gossipmongers as well, what is it that you and David enjoy so much about celebrity tittle-tattle?

Griff Rhys Jones gets a dressing down because we like the rhythm of his name. No other reason. We've always taken random people and stuck an untrue story on them. I guess it's probably slanderous. But none of it's real.

Gossip is our ... I would say me and David spend the first hour of each day just chatting and gossiping. And that's why we've done two podcasts. Because we're like, "this is what we do for the first hour. Let's just record it".

So Chatterbix was basically just all the shite we talk and Gossipmongers is the behind the behind-the-curtain stuff. You know, which we all do. We all rattle nonsense off to each other that we've heard. But you sell it as the real deal. We're just a couple of middle-aged gossips. God, I'm embarrassed for us now.

I understand you've piloted a TV version with Baby Cow for Channel 4. How similar is it to the podcast?

It's really similar. Whether it goes ahead is in the lap of the gods. Just talking nonsense, then a few little TV additions. But we wanted to keep it as similar as we could really. Whether it works on the telly...

So you're waiting for Channel 4 to make a decision?

Yeah. It was good fun to do. The beauty of the podcast is that it exists whatever happens. It's such an amazing time where people can do whatever they want with podcasts. It's some of the most exciting stuff because there are no gatekeepers.


And they're very immediate.

Yeah, it's amazing. David is genuinely quite an early adopter. I'm a little bit behind. He was saying to me, "let's do podcasting". I hadn't listened to one up until about maybe three or four years ago. And then I was like, "wow, this is incredible". I'm really precious about them. The ones I love I'm almost knocking down peoples' doors for the next episode. I just love that there are guys and girls who can find an audience and tour off the back of it. The empowerment is so exciting. Sit in a bedroom with your mike and get 10,000 people listening. It blows my mind.

With the pilot, amazing if it happens. But it will always exist [as a podcast], which is the joy of it. No-one can take it away because it's just us sitting in our houses, talking nonsense.

I have to ask, what's your side of Poppy Hillstead saying she was fired from Gossipmongers via your and David's agents?

I can't talk about that I'm afraid.

Last year you piloted Joe Wilkinson In Cars With Other People's Mums for Dave, featuring you driving about with Seann Walsh's mum. Is that going anywhere?

I don't think so. It was a fun afternoon. Like many things it will probably never see the light of day. But his mum's a very nice lady.

Do you have a special bond with mums? You used to do that routine about connecting with babies.

I tend to get on with mums. I've always had a slightly older outlook on life and there's a weariness to my general demeanour that makes mums think: "oh, he's not a problem. He hasn't got the effort to cause trouble, he'll be fine". My lacklustre doesn't bring any fear.

David Earl & Joe Wilkinson's Summer. Image shows from L to R: Madam Haystacks (Joe Wilkinson), Brian (David Earl)

Am I right in thinking that Giddy Up Gunty, your 2017 Sky Arts short set in the Wild West with David and Jayde Adams was also being developed for a series?

Yeah. They were umming and ahhing about it. It got turned down and at the same time we got Cockfields, so that became the focus. It was a big, silly thing that I would have loved to have done. We're really proud of it but it didn't quite take off.

Are you hoping for more series of The Cockfields?

It's in the hands of UKTV. We've really enjoyed working with them and they're making nice noises. It's so tough building these worlds. And once you've built them, you fall in love with the characters, so not getting to spend anymore time with them is heartbreaking. So yeah, we'd love to do more.

Finally, off the record, can you tell me if the toilet bread knife was based on a real incident?

That was one of David's family. It was a real thing, unfortunately. I'm happy to go on the record about that.

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