Life’s Too Critical
Life’s Too Critical. Is the BBC’s new sit-com ‘Life’s Too Short’ all that bad? Gary Turk Sits Down With The Producers. Following a varied and critical response to Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant’s new BBC comedy, I sat down with producers Charlie Hanson & Katie Mavroleon to discuss how they felt about the shows mixed reception.
“Exploiting dwarves… that’s not the point, and it’s obviously not true!” Last month Ricky Gervais & Steven Merchant returned to BBC Two with their third sitcom, following The Office, and Extras. After the success of their first 2 shows, many people wondered if they could keep it up, or if would it be third time un-lucky. In the run-up to the show there was much gossip and speculation as to what it would be. Details were soon released, and it was not long after that people were starting to question the comedy duos motives with their new project. The new show, titled ‘Life’s Too Short’, was described as a mock documentary, following the everyday life of a fictional version of Warwick Davis. Immediately the press began labeling the show ‘cruel’ and ‘controversial’ before they had even seen a single episode, but why was that? Because Warwick Davis; is a dwarf. The show is co-created by Warwick Davis himself, and based on many of his own experiences. So it seemed odd whenever I read about him defending the show against being ‘degrading’ to little people.
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Ricky & Stephen Two Series Wonders
2001 – Their 1st sitcom. Follows David Brent and his team in an office. 2 series (and specials)
2005 – Sitcom about Andy Millman, a TV/movie extra, who eventually finds fame. 2 series (and specials)
An Idiot Abroad
2010 – Factual comedy. The duo send miserable pal Karl Pilkington around the world. 2 series (special coming)
Life’s Too Short
2011 – Their latest work. Sitcom following dwarf actor Warwick Davis, as his life falls to pieces. 2nd series to come.
Life’s Too Critical
“No publicity is bad publicity!” In an effort to perhaps widen the public awareness of the true nature of the show and its intentions, the BBC decided to broadcast a ‘MakingOf’ documentary, a week before it’s first episode. However, this did not seem to make much difference. The day after the first episode, the press were still going with the same ‘cruel’ and ‘controversial’ opinion they had about the show before, this time with added diatribe about how the show felt like bullying, and was seen to be exploiting dwarves! Headlines such as ‘Uncomfortably close to simply laughing at little people’ started appearing in the national papers. Much of the criticism was that the show was somehow offensive to dwarves. Personally I loved the show. Is that controversial? Am I cruel? I don’t think so. To me the show had everything I love about Gervais and Merchant. It was funny, filled with plenty of gags, hilarious characters, and that kind of awkwardness that makes you hide behind your hands, but still kept you watching with laughter. The performance from Warwick Davis was superb. It was the way he managed to be so arrogant, egotistical, and desperate; and then make you pity and feel sorry for him. It’s this kind of performances that displays the warmth and optimism brought out by Ricky and Stephen’s writing. The reason I am so shocked about all the controversy over the show is because the fact it is centered on a man with dwarfism is irrelevant. Yes it the basis of many of the situations; but it’s not what the show is about, or in anyway exploiting dwarfism. While doing publicity for the show, Ricky Gervais stated, “It’s not a sitcom about being short at all. It’s a sitcom about a man with a small man complex.”.
Meet Warwick Davis! One of the greatest things about this new show is getting to meet Warwick Davis. He may not be new to the film & TV but his face sure is. For years Warwick has been hiding inside costumes and behind layers of make-up, playing roles in Star Wars and Harry Potter. But who knew this little man had such big talent! When talking to Charlie Hanson, he mentioned to me how it took a while for Warwick to get used to talking to camera as a real person. However, this really does not show. This man has brilliant comedic timing, and bags of talent, and hopefully there is more to come from him yet!
Cameos Don’t Harm Anyone. Except maybe the celebs themselves! Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Cat Deeley, Sting!
These are just some of the names from the string of famous faces to pop up in ‘Life’s Too Short’ as themselves. Just like extras, the series is set within the film industry, giving Ricky Gervais ample opportunity to drop in a few of his famous friends. The cameos just add to the appeal for me. Who doesn’t want to see A-list celebrities making fools out of themselves? Seeing Liam Neeson trying comedy, and Johnny Depp getting into the mindset of a dwarf had me in hysterics! 2
Life’s Too Critical
‘The Guardian’ put it well when they wrote ‘It will tweak the cringe reflex that affects too many people when they encounter diversity’. It is often said that when it comes to comedy it is the audience who will draw the line. In the case of this show, I could only wish everyone, especially the critics, could draw the line between exploiting, and satirising. Overall, I found ‘Life’s Too Short’ to be a great satirisation of exploitation, and I only wish others could that too.
Charlie Hanson (above)
There have been many interviews with Ricky & Katie Mavroleon Gervais about this show, but you rarely hear (left) anything from the other people who play a part in putting the show together. I decided to speak to the shows Producer - Charlie Hanson, and Associate Producer - Katie Mavroleon, to find out what they made of the shows mixed reception… in that manner. So then they kind of decided to turn
it on its head really and make it a documentary, or a ‘mockumentary’, and the minute they made that decision everything kind of fell into place. It sort of worked better as it put the focus on Warwick’s character rather than a group of characters. Allowing his own eye contact and personality to shine through, and actually that despite it being a fictitious character loosely based on Warwick Davis, the warmth of Warwick Davis as a personality and as a man comes through the little monster that they’ve created, which is what probably makes it likeable.
How did you first hear of the idea, and what did you think of it? Charlie: Right, well I worked with Ricky and Stephen on ‘Extras’ and we worked with Warwick Davis in an episode, and within a year after that he got in touch about the fact that he had written his life story into a book, and was really looking to explore putting himself into a show. He had different talks with different people about adapting his book into some kind of story. So various conversations happened, some with me, some with Ricky, some with BBC comedy people, basically with Warwick touting his talent and his experience, and eventually came a point when Ricky and Stephen looked at it and said they would get involved. They weren’t necessarily going to write it at first, they might have executive produced it, but they decided they might as well write an episode. So we did a pilot about a year and a half ago, that they wrote, and it wasn’t a documentary at that stage, it was just a fairly straight forward traditional sit-com, with Warwick Davis as the central character. When we watched it back we thought it was probably too safe, and not interesting or different enough to pursue. Not the kind of thing Ricky or Stephen would necessarily want to do if they did it ⇑
How do you feel the show has been received overall by the public and the critics? Charlie: It’s been very mixed. Certainly I’ve had texts and messages, and met quite a lot of young people who all watched it absolutely love it and say that they’ve fallen over laughing at it. But I’m aware that certain sorts of critics have not been so kind. There have been people that have criticized it for being a cross between ‘Extras’ and ‘The Office’, which I think we said probably as part of the pre publicity, that it was a sort of development of ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras’ and the two rolled into one, and just a little bit more contemporary. I think that people in some cases wanted something completely new and different from Ricky and Stephen.
Life’s Too Critical
Continued from page 3 I mean no one criticizes Woody Allen for making 29 films where you hear Woody Allen speaking, whether it’s Woody Allen playing the role, or in the last 10 years the other actors playing the Woody Allen role. But I think in this case they’ve taken offense at some of the lines they can hear might have been written by Ricky Gervais. It became personal I think that people were ready to start ‘let’s attack Ricky Gervais now, he’s had lots of success, lets have a go at him’, so it got quite nasty. Katie: And it’s a shame, as they weren’t really focusing on Warwick, and it ultimately its Warwick’s show. But I think what the criticism has done is sort of create this huge debate that has ultimately made people watch it, weirdly. Charlie: Yeah, I mean the good thing is that because of the negative press, and then people writing positive things in response to the negative press, chat shows and radio shows were wanting to have Warwick and people to discuss the controversy. It meant that they were doing publicity and appearing on TV right up until episode 5, and normally when you do publicity for a show you would do all the interviews for the first show, and some more for the second show, and by the time the third show is on it just kind of carries on its own. But because of that controversy it kept it in the public eye and that actually meant more people ended up watching it on iPlayer, and in fact it went to number one on iPlayer partly because I think of all the press. They say it is better to be controversial and have a show that everyone is talking about whether they like it or not. No publicity is bad publicity, and I think most people are aware of the show having been on whether they liked it or not.
Like you were saying before, one of the most recurring responses I’ve seen to the show were people saying things like ‘Warwick has a likeness to David Brent’ and ‘the cameos are similar to those in ‘Extras’’. But just like Woody Allen, over time Ricky and Steve have become auteurs, and when they make a show, do you think people should know what to expect? Charlie: I think it’s fair enough that people can expect different things. The fact that there were celebrities in it was mainly because the personae that we were portraying was the Warwick Davis who is an actor, and works in films, so it was kind of inevitable that we would go down the ‘Extras’ avenue and show him at work. So on one hand you have ‘The Office’ side, which is Warwick working with his assistant trying to run an agency, and his wife, and the lawyer, and his accountant, and all his personal life; but then the kind of work relates to him working with famous people. It’s based on Warwick’s life so it was a natural move that it became a kind of cross between the two, but we didn’t see that as a negative like some critics did.
Charlie Hanson Producer
Charlie Hanson is a critically acclaimed comedy producer. He has produced some the most successful comedy programmes over the last 20 years. Life’s Too Short is the third time Charlie has worked with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. He recently collaborated with them on their first feature film ‘Cemetery Junction’, and he also produced their award winning sit-com ‘Extras’. Charlie also produced other shows such as: - ‘Birds of a Feather’ - ‘The Real McCoy’ - ‘Desmonds’ - ‘The Sketch Show’ - ‘Not Going Out’ - ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’ - ‘The Armstrong & Miller Show’ ……And many, many others! Charlie is known for spotting talent and for launching new comedy. He has worked with everyone from Harry Hill to Lee Evans, and Lenny Henry to Frank skinner. Charlie original comes from a drama and theatre background, and has said he prefers comedy that has characters that are real and believable, and that have something to say, as well as being funny.
Life’s Too Critical
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us about things that had happened, and a lot of those things were very true to their lives.
With ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras’ they were not very well received in the beginning for either of them. ‘The Office’ it was quite a few episodes in until it got any good press, and then ‘Extras’ didn’t really get praised until it’s second series. Did you keep this in mind when you were making ‘Life’s Too Short’, or do you think it’s still important what people think in the very beginning?
Katie: The material very much came from them; they weren’t making things up. Charlie: And from some of the other dwarves that worked on it as well, they’ve all experienced it. The bowling ball incident was based on a reality that dwarves are hired out for that kind of thing. There were certain things we didn’t do, like the stag night where people have dwarves handcuffed to the groom, and even more incidents that they’ve told us about.
Charlie: No, I think that’s true. ‘The Office’ was definitely badly received at the start, and ‘Extras’ grew. Most comedy series it often takes to the second series for them to take off, and you have some good episodes in the first series, and then it gets better once everybody gets to know the characters, including the writers. So I think it’s grown on people. There will be people who don’t like the uncomfortable humour of Ricky and Stephen, and there always have been. However successful a show is, there are as many people out there that don’t like it. There were a lot of people that didn’t like ‘The Office’ and a lot of people that didn’t like ‘Extras’, but in comedy I think you make a choice, and Ricky has always stated that he’d rather be a niche market for his fans. He doesn’t want to try and be all things to everybody, he’s not trying to have the next ‘Birds of a Feather’ or the next massive hit. He just wants to entertain the kind of people that have the same sensibilities that him and Stephen have.
So I guess it kind of helps that Warwick was involved in the writing, and that it came from his experiences, to justify it. Charlie: Yeah, exactly, but it’s not like Ricky and Stephen thought what the worst things they could do to a dwarf are. They are all things that at some point Warwick discussed had happened to him or people he has known over the years, and the way people have reacted to it. So all they tried to do was reflect that in a dramatic and comedic way. Katie: And challenge the viewers to see that, but unfortunately some viewers have taken that as exploiting dwarves, when that’s not the point, and is obviously not true.
Obviously it’s a TV show that is designed to entertain those that want to watch it. But no one has to watch it. Does it frustrate you when the press make a big deal out of a show, and bring it to the attention of people who wouldn’t normally choose to see it, encouraging them to complain?
It must be frustrating when people accuse a show of being ‘cruel’ and ‘controversial’ before they have even seen it, and I know that was quite common with this before it was shown. Charlie: People were expecting that. I think they were expecting it to be taking the piss out of dwarves. Most of the incidents that have been described as being kind of cruel are incidents that Warwick has experienced in real life, and they’re stories that he related to Ricky and Stephen. Warwick’s wife would visit the set at least once a week, and she talked to ⇑
Charlie: No, not really. I think its good we were still getting reviews until the last show. But there were certain publications where certain people definitely didn’t like it, and went on repeating the fact that they hated it every week. You can also sort of read between the lines that some of that was a sort of backlash towards Ricky.
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choosing to watch shows using on-demand services now.
But there is no doubt it’s true; there are member of the press, and public, that do not like the personae that Ricky has created. People ask me, they say what’s it like working with Ricky Gervais, as if he must be a monster. It’s because when he does awards speeches he puts on an arrogance that people think is real, and believe that he behaves like that in real life. So people have mistaken that, and there’s nothing we can do about that. That’s just how some people have perceived him, and it’s not like Ricky wants to do ‘At home with Ricky Gervais’ so people can see the real him.
Charlie: Well, it’s all relative really, because in the new year we’ll get the consolidated figures that will show how many people watched it when it first went out, how many people watched the repeat, how many people watched it on iPlayer, how many people watched it on ‘Sky+’, and all the other ways people watch TV now. The overnight ratings are no longer so relevant, I mean they are if it’s Christmas and you want to know if the BBC has beaten ITV, did they get 10 million against 7 million? But for example I know the first week when we came on, we weren’t up against ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’, so by the second week that was on ITV, so everything on BBC Two dropped dramatically, and that’s what happened in terms of the viewing figures. But then slowly the iPlayer built up and we became number 1 overtaking ‘Eastenders’, and you think well at the end of the day we’ll wait and see what it all looks like. But I’m not too worried as overall enough people have seen it and the word has got out there.
Well that’s the kind of things he’s mocking with this show isn’t it? Charlie: Well yes, exactly, he’s not going to do that!
What’s the best praise you’ve had for the show? Charlie: That’s hard to say as I haven’t read all the stuff that’s been written, only because there’s so much stuff, you’re aware of it coming out every week but I didn’t really go and look. I think there were some interesting blogs, for example by the actress who played ‘Amy’, [Kiruna Stamell] who wrote some interesting things because she has experience some of them. It’s not her story but she completely understands why it was good to put some of those things out there. It’s great if somebody like that, who is quite militant, can express herself, and is very much aware of the way dwarves have been treated in show business, and in life, can write in its defense. It’s people like that who are happy to have the whole thing aired. So from that point of view I’m glad that we’ve done it, and the best thing for me is the fact that I do think, and a lot of people think, that Warwick is a really good comic talent.
How do you think the show is going to be received in America? Charlie: I think it will go down well. There will be less controversy relating to Ricky personally I think. It is interesting because I spoke to HBO just before Christmas, and they weren’t aware of any of the negative things that had been in the British press, and when I told them about it they were kind of shocked. I think the way HBO handle it will be different. They don’t have the tabloid effect in the states, a TV show is not really going to be governed by tabloid journalists, or even ‘The Independent’, ‘The Telegraph’, ‘The Guardian’; those kind of newspapers. Reviews don’t make such a difference in the states, as everything is so dispersed. It’ll be dependant on how they trail it on HBO, the kind of advance publicity. I mean there maybe a kind of backlash, who knows, Ricky is doing the Golden Globes a month before it goes out. So it depends how that goes and what kind of publicity is generated from that. But that may all be helpful, we don’t know yet.
One of the things critics use to demonstrate the success of a show is the ratings of the first broadcast. But do you think that they can’t really be used as a good representation anymore? Like you said about the iPlayer, a lot of people are
Life’s Too Critical
Continued from page 5 Do you think they will get the idea that Ricky is playing a distorted version of himself, as it is played out very close to supposedly being him? Charlie: Yeah, I think so. That’s an interesting one, I think because Ricky and Stephen are supposedly playing themselves, in the same way Warwick is not the real Warwick Davis. The Ricky and Stephen you see is not the real Ricky and Stephen, but some people may think it is. It’s tricky. That’s why I’m looking forward to the next thing Ricky does, because it’s so different from ‘Ricky Gervais’, and then people will see him acting a character rather than seeing him do, as they say, another version of ‘Ricky Gervais’. I think in America they will be open minded, who knows, we don’t know if it’s going to be a hit. I think Warwick Davis will go down well in America. Katie: HBO likes kind of challenging stuff. I know a lot of the stuff they make is kind of pushing the boundaries, and they have different kinds of audiences to our audiences. Charlie: They have a more perceptive audience, but time will tell, you can do the follow up interview after that. Katie: They will love the celebs.
You are going to make a second series of life’s too short. Is that something you decided from the conception of the show, or is it something you decided later on? Charlie: No, we didn’t, I mean you obviously think that if it goes well yes, it would be nice to do that, but you don’t really know. We liked making the series with Warwick, and I think by the time we finished making it, we thought Warwick was really good, and we all enjoyed working with him, so we kind of had an inkling that it would be nice to do another series. But even then we kind of waited to let the show go on air to see how it was received, and despite some of the negative press, there’s been enough interest and people liking Warwick, and the scenario, to kind of feel we should do another series.
And even though it has had negative press, the people who have liked it, really liked it. Charlie: Yeah they have really liked it. It has sort of hit two extremes. It’s not something that you’re going to be indifferent to. You’re either going to love it, or hate it. The marmite effect.
The Marmite Effect. You can’t please all the people all the time, but ‘Life’s Too Short’ clearly pleased enough people for it to be commissioned for a second series. This may not please the critics, however I am certain there are more people who loved the show, than critics that didn’t. I have always been a fan of Ricky Gervais, and I really hope the press can stop attacking him so personally for how successful ‘he once was’. So what if ‘Life’s Too Short’ was not as good as ‘The Office’, it was still one of the best comedy programmes of 2011. This reminds of a time when Joseph Heller was told in an interview ‘”You’ve never written anything as good since Catch22”, to which Heller replied, “Neither has anyone else”.