The Cockfields. Image shows from L to R: Simon (Joe Wilkinson), Donna (Diane Morgan).

The Cockfields

Gold sitcom about an oddball family. 3 episodes (1 series) in 2019. Stars Joe Wilkinson, Diane Morgan, Sue Johnston, Bobby Ball and others.

Episode 1 is repeated tomorrow at 12:10am.

The Cockfields. Simon (Joe Wilkinson).

Joe Wilkinson interview

Joe Wilkinson is reunited with his Two Episodes Of Mash double-act partner Diane Morgan in The Cockfields, a new sitcom he has has co-written with David Earl.

The three-part Gold series focuses on a man who takes his girlfriend to meet his family for the very first time, at their home on the Isle of Wight. We met Joe near Great Portland Street in London to find out more.

Hi Joe. Thanks for meeting us here.

Ah man, this is great, I needed to find this road next week. I'm gonna be near here watching the football.

Of course! Makes sense, what with Rovers [his 2016 sitcom for Sky1, based on a lower league football team] and everything. Which team do you support again?

Gillingham.

Explains your Twitter handle!

Ha ha yeah. It basically all started '@gillinghamjoe' because I was at college and my friend said, "Have you got Hotmail?" And I went, "No...". I didn't know what it was, what it meant. And he told me it was a really good email. So I set one up, and chose that name because everyone at college called me that. So now I've had 'GillinghamJoe' on everything since then, and it looks incredibly unprofessional.

Ha ha, but maybe it adds to the whole...

Mystique?

Yeah! There are loads of descriptive Twitter bios, whereas yours is great ["I'm not ageing brilliantly if I'm honest"].

I do struggle with those who put everything they've ever done, going on and on with all the awards and whatever, and I think, "It's Twitter! It's a bit of fun. Muck about!"

Sure, it's not Wikipedia! So what can we expect from the new show The Cockfields then?

The Cockfields. Image shows from L to R: Ray (Bobby Ball), Andre (Jeff Mirza), Sue (Sue Johnston), David (Ben Rufus Green), Simon (Joe Wilkinson), Melissa (Sarah Parish), Donna (Diane Morgan), Larry (Nigel Havers).

The idea is that Simon, my character, takes his girlfriend Donna [played by Diane Morgan] to spend a long weekend with his family on the Isle of Wight. It's about the stresses of spending any length of time with your nearest and dearest, basically.

David Earl and I had always wanted to do a family sitcom, because it's the one universal thing that most people have experienced. Something like The Office is very relatable, but even then it's not something everyone's been through. So family was important, and when we were chatting together, we noted how we're all on borrowed time with our loved ones, basically. And that was when the penny dropped.

However much they do your head in, you haven't got forever with them, so you're really torn. And I think when you get to a certain age, you start to think about that more and more...

They're not gonna be there for ever, and so you're pulled between two thoughts: 1) 'I wanna cave your head in', 2) 'I'm gonna miss you as soon as I leave this house. I love you and I wanna kill you, but I'm gonna miss you one day'.

We tried to observe what it's like to spend time with your family, with any family. The characters are a combination of all of our friends and relatives. We've taken the traits of everyone we know.

We loved the inevitable, mundane conversation about the journey taken to get there...

Ha ha! Yeah, I've done that so many times. We wanted to write about what you actually discuss with your partner before you arrive. What's it like when you have lunch, when you unpack... we just mined those moments. Our dream is that people go, "That happens to me. I recognise that", because the comedy I love is always well-observed and truthful.

Sounds like a dream cast, too!

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

Oh, just a bit! I found it overwhelming, to be honest! We got everyone we wanted. We'd worked with Sue Johnston before [on Rovers], so that was a dream.

We didn't know who to cast for Ray, but I talked to Sally Lindsay and she immediately said Bobby Ball. And I suddenly thought, "Oh my god, that'd be great... but he's not gonna do it." And then he did!

And then there's Diane, who I've worked with for years, who's amazing.

And then we found Ben Rufus Green, who plays my step-brother - he isn't quite as well known, perhaps, but he's also brilliant. It's quite a hard part to cast, and I couldn't imagine anyone else playing him. He did it so well. People are going to love Ben - he's naturally very, very funny.

And Nigel Havers, as the model of a mid-life crisis; and Sarah Parish, who is just a monster here, but who is incredibly lovely in real life.

We were just baffled that we got everyone.

It's testament to the acting - it takes a good cast and solid writing to make us believe in this couple, who are introduced without much backstory. We're plunged into Simon and Donna going to your parents' house for your 40th birthday. We see their chemistry as the story develops - you don't need to spell out their lives together in flashback or anything.

Oh, well thank you, that's lovely. We felt that's just how most people live their lives. If you have a partner, you've probably lived through those moments of meeting your other half's family, and even if you don't, you probably know 100 couples like that! You don't need to know the full story of their relationship to get their journey.

The Cockfields. Image shows from L to R: Simon (Joe Wilkinson), Donna (Diane Morgan).

One thing we wanted to make clear is that this is a struggle, but it's never gonna split them up, which is exactly how most couples live their lives, I think. You go on that rocky road together, you're definitely gonna have a few words, but you're (hopefully) not gonna split up because of disagreements. My relationship is solid enough that we're gonna have those strenuous weeks or weekends where you go "Grrr... we're gonna kill each other", but then you get on with life. So we hope people will go "I know a couple like that!"

You mentioned Diane Morgan... In early sketches of Two Episodes Of Mash [a sketch show they created together] you'd often joke that you were definitely not romantically involved. And in The Cockfields you play a couple!

It's quite bizarre, especially since we joked for ten years that I was in love with her and she had no interest in me. Personally I think it's the other way around... ha ha.

In Two Episodes Of Mash she'd make me say at the start "Diane wants to have it made clear that we're not going out, otherwise she won't do the show". Rather upsetting on my side, that one!

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

Do you have a favourite sketch from Two Episodes Of Mash?

One of our first was about a falcon that had gone missing, and it's revealed that I'd been inappropriate with it.

Another favourite, just because of the reaction it got, was one where I got to throw a glass of water over her face, and the shock from the audience was hilarious. Because obviously traditionally you'd do it the other way around: the male in the double-act would get the water in the face. People would be genuinely shocked, aghast, like they almost thought she hadn't been party to the decision or something! Like, we talked about it beforehand, she's very aware of what's gonna happen... ! But they were still like "Oh my god, that's terrible!"

I'm so glad you remember those Two Episodes Of Mash sketches!

We love the Willy Wonka one most of all - the kid goes in and it's just an ordinary factory, with a staff room, some flatpack boxes. A glue gun.

Haha, yeah! I'm so touched, honestly. I'm really proud of that time, and we had so much fun.

Do you ever want to go clean-shaven but have to maintain the 'look'?

Ha ha, my wife wants my beard to be presentable, but work gets in the way!

I've got the beard long right now because I'm filming some Countdown tomorrow, and then I'm writing for a couple of months, so I'll trim it back.

I've just done After Life with David Earl, and he wanted me like this as well! When I haven't got a chunk of work, I look much smarter!

We remember you joking on Russell Howard's Good News about babies who turn their heads at you in shock, and you think, "I've still got it!"

Ha ha, you've got a better memory than me! I loved that one - that's very nice to hear.

You've appeared a lot as Rachel Riley's assistant, and guest team captain, on 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown. What's that been like?

8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown. Joe Wilkinson.

It's been amazing. The show was meant as a one-off, 8 years ago, but it grew and grew. They didn't think it'd have the legs, because essentially it's just a numbers and letters game. We thought we'd done all the jokes after Series 2! But we're still there...

And the guys that make it have given me a frightening amount of support. They're an incredible bunch of talented people... Deep down they must hate me. I come up with these mad ideas, and they always back me.

I go "Can I have a tank of 50,000 litres of water, and can I drown someone in it?" I've got this huge thing coming tomorrow... it's just ridiculous. And they just say "Yeah, OK", and find a way to do it. I'm like a kid in a candy store. I go "Give me an elephant and a panda and a swing." And they make it happen. It's like Willy Wonka, I can have anything I want! And it's a really creative thing - it's essentially a 5-7 minute set, every week, that you can do whatever you want with. It's been an incredible platform, I'm very lucky.

Our favourite moment is still you pulling out the letters EXGONADS...

Haha that was me and Josh Widdicombe, wasn't it? So lucky that it actually came out! The highlight of my life! The anticipation... no-one thought it was going to happen, no one!

People were shocked when you and Rachel Riley talked about your real-life friendship.

Yes! I mean, we've been working together for 8 years, she's a really nice person. And I'm also friends with Jon [Richardson], Sean [Lock], Jimmy [Carr]. But no-one can imagine me and Rachel in the same room. They think she'd run a mile.

We love it when things go tits-up and you start, "I'm gonna be honest with you, Jimmy..."

I went into this bookshop the other day, and this woman said to me, "I use one of your catchphrases all the time: 'Lower the pissing winch!'. It turned out her friend's surname is Winch. And I thought "God, what a weird world we live in".

Your assistant Fabio seems so deadpan, never breaks character...

Yeah, he's incredible. I'm friends with Rob... that's his real name. A genuinely lovely man, and I'm just so horrible to him. Before every show I say "Honestly, I don't mean it", and he goes "I know, don't worry". And then I'm always way worse than what I imagined I'd be. Genuinely one of the sweetest men I know.

What's next for you?

Filming Countdown, and David Earl and I have written a new pilot. We're gonna write more Cockfields too, in case it goes further. We love these characters, we've given birth to them, and they've become part of our lives. All through filming we were still making notes and coming up with fresh ideas for them! We want it to grow.

Published: Monday 11th November 2019