‘The Wrong Mans’ – Q & A with Mathew Baynton
With the long-awaited series 2 of The Wrong Mans returning last night and concluding tonight on BBC Two in the UK and then tomorrow night (Christmas Eve) on Hulu in America, Tellyspotting recently sat down with series co-creator/writer/star, Mathew Baynton, to talk about what’s in store for Sam and Phil in S2 and, basically, all-things comedy. Before we find out what bit of brilliance all Americans are in for on Christmas Eve, let’s do a bit of a recap of series 1 of The Wrong Mans.
The Wrong Mans, S1 recap
When we last left Sam Pinkett, he had pretty much come to the realization that there are consequences if you are witness to a fiery car crash on a desolate country road, innocently answer the dead driver’s ringing mobile and hear the words that would change his life forever, “If you are not here by five o’clock, we will kill your wife“. Unfortunately for Sam, his Berkshire County Council ‘office buddy’ Phil Bourne (James Corden) saw this as an opportunity to shed their respective mundane lives for the possibility for some excitement and adventure beyond what the mailroom has to offer and save the kidnapped woman.
As luck would have it, in their efforts to become heroes and rescue the kidnapped woman, they take a justifiably angry hostage themselves. On the run from both cops AND criminals, they stumble across their new BFF, an MI5 agent, cross paths with a Russian millionaire, interrupt an assassination plot and become wanted men themselves. When they find themselves with no where to run, they turn back to confront those threatening Lizzie and end with Sam taking a bullet meant for Phil, because ‘that’s what friends do’. Even so, I’m guessing next time, Sam will think about letting that call go to voicemail.
Tellyspotting: What comedies did you watch growing up?
Mathew Baynton: “I was real comedy obsessive so I kind of watched everything. The defining thing, I guess, most of all growing up was ‘Monty Python’. My Dad used to have the records and he would put them on cassette tape and when we went on holiday or, in fact, just driving around we always had them on in the car and I would sing along to the Traffic Light Song. That was probably the most defining thing. I’m a real obsessive of comedy so I was watching everything. ‘Father Ted’ is probably my favorite sitcom when I was a teenager and then getting into American stuff like ‘Arrested Development’ which, for me, is the high watermark of American sitcom.
TS: Were there any particular actors early on that you feel either directly or indirectly had an influence on the way you approach your acting craft today?
MB: “I always felt quite strongly that with a double act you have to establish certain rules and one of them with ‘The Wrong Mans’ was that anything that Sam or Phil does results in Sam getting hurt which is the kind of directing from Laurel and Hardy where you can’t really hurt Stan Laurel because he lives in a dream world but you can hurt Oliver Hardy because he’s the one that’s trying to be a respectable member of society. Sam is that in ‘The Wrong Mans’ because Phil is this fantasist, he’s almost invincible. He wouldn’t ever really know if he was in a humiliating or embarrassing situation where as if one of them is going to have to pretend to be a rent boy, it’s always going to be Sam because he will suffer through that situation and we’ll find that funny.”
TS: When creating and writing comedy, what is it about a Basil Fawlty or Edmund Blackadder character that allows an audience to feel empathy for them even though they are very difficult to “like”?
MB: “One of the truisms is that if you try to create a likeable character, the audience won’t like them. What comes out is bland and there’s nothing interesting in there. Audiences like characters who struggle. That’s what’s identifiable, I think. Not whether they are sort of nice or nefarious, but just the fact that they struggle. When they try to adapt to those struggles, whether or not it means that they behave in immoral or questionable ways, what we identify with is the fact that they’re struggling, because we all are. We’re all sort of out there in the world trying to get by, trying to be liked or trying to climb up a social ladder or whatever it may be. Going back as far as Chaplin, for example, that’s the endless identifiable aspect of that character that he could play for his entire career because we all identified with the idea of this tramp who wanted to appear respectable. Blackadder is sort of in the same situation, he’s just a bit of an asshole with it, but he is still someone who’s just trying to be respected.”
TS: You co-created and wrote ‘The Wrong Mans’ with James Corden and Tom Basden. Briefly describe how it came about and how you went about writing the series?
MB: “It started through random conversations on set without a thought of ultimately making it a TV show. It was just the two of us talking about other stuff that we were watching and ideas that we liked and sort of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote a TV show or a ½ hour sitcom that had the same visual ambition as a big American long-running drama. Those conversations turned into an idea and the point at which we were actually saying let’s write it and let’s try and pitch it was so far down that process that the whole kind of genesis had had no pressure on it. It had been allowed to happen really nicely and organically and slowly which, I think, massively helped it.”
“When it comes to writing, we’re always in the room together. We would never sort of send stuff to each other. We tried it once but it took so long to explain to each other what we’d done that it would have just been quicker to have thrown it into the bin and done it together. We just kind of riff in the room together, really.”
TS: It’s a bit of an understatement to say that ‘The Wrong Mans’ is ambitious when it comes to traditional situation comedy. How did it come about and how easy was it to ‘sell’ in the day and age of less expensive, safer comedy projects.
MB: “We were expecting it to be a hard sell and whether or not we had written a great script or people were just desperate to have James’ next thing or maybe both, I don’t know, but it turned out to be a very easy sell. Part of the reason we wrote it, actually, was when we were talking about making a comedy with that level of ambition we were saying to each other that isn’t it surprising that no one has done that and we figured the reason must be either writers, you know, writers are in the business of trying to get commissioned because that’s how they get paid so they will tend towards things that seem more ‘commissionable’ therefore, few characters, few locations. Basically, try not to scare the commissioner off the idea before you’ve even begun. So we figured, actually, that this created a gap for a show like ours and we’d be the one to do sort of the foolish thing and pitch a show that seems prohibitively difficult and expensive. And, if it’s partly because of the cache that James had at the time then that was a really great use of star power then we could get something made that probably two unknowns wouldn’t have been able to.”
TS: Can you comment on the importance of a strong ensemble/supporting cast to the overall success of a series like ‘The Wrong Mans’
MB: “A strong ensemble cast is immeasurable in ‘The Wrong Mans’ because we need great actors to fill all these supporting roles. Their job is to sell the stakes and the situation that surround the two comic characters. If we didn’t have brilliant actors making you believe in the jeopardy then Sam and Phil wouldn’t be remotely funny in contrast. The key to that, I think, from our point of view. In a way, one of the good things about being an actor who writes is you know what actors look for in a part as well. You know the kind of things that will make you sit up when reading a script and think ‘oh, I really want to get this job’ and we were really kind of aware of trying to make sure that all the supporting roles had something about them that was delicious as a prospect to an actor to come along and do even if it was just a few scenes. It would have something about it that was enticing. Other than that, we were just really lucky.
MB (cont’d): “The shorter commitment of UK comedy definitely especially if it’s a supporting role. Often it means you can fit it in with other things that you are doing. It doesn’t mean turning down that starring role in something else. It just means that if the productions can talk to each other. On ‘The Wrong Mans’, we have this lot that are already on other jobs but are keen to do it and tend to move our schedule around and try and make sure that we can find an afternoon here and a morning there and get them done. Dawn, for example, was doing a massive nationwide tour of her one-woman show and she came and filmed with us on her one day off. We filmed all of her stuff in that one day and we were just so grateful to her to spend that day with us instead of people that she loved. She was so great. She is the example of the perfect comedy professional. She loves her job and she does it with such grace and she puts everything in to it. As you say, in a show like ours where she’s not the name above the titles, that’s all the more impressive.”
TS: You’ve had the good fortune recently to be associated with some top-notch comedy with ‘Gavin and Stacey’, ‘Spy’ and, now, ‘The Wrong Mans’. As an actor, what do you look for in a comedy script? Does it help because you have written for comedy?
MB: “A little bit, probably. It gives you a fine-tuned ear to certain things. The thing that switches me off most regularly with scripts I read is where characters are sold out for the sake of gags. It’s a slightly kind of lazy thing where you think of a good joke within the context of a scene but you actually decide that just because it’s funny, it’s ok that it means the character is acting in a contradictory way that’s not deliberately contradictory but just accidentally because you want this joke that you like. That’s really common and the more of those you have in a script, the more it accumulates into something that will lose an audience because they just won’t buy it. I think the rigor of setting up the character in your story and staying really true to it and only doing things that fit rather than trying to shoehorn gags in for the sake of it. That’s the thing that I most often see that puts me off. The most exciting thing is when you read a voice that you haven’t heard before and it’s funny and it’s completely their own.”
TS: Things seem to be pretty well tied up at the end of series one. What can audiences expect for Sam and Phil in series 2?
MB: “The fun of it and the challenge of it was this idea whereas within sitcoms characters, the golden rule, the first rule of sitcom is characters mustn’t learn or change. We sort of defied that already. We had a narrative all throughout series 1 that left the characters different in the end from how they’d started. So, we wanted to honor that and not cheat the audience by just resetting them back to their original characters and pretending like nothing had ever happened. So, Sam is different. He is someone who has learned that he’s capable of being quite heroic when it really comes to it. But, he’s also kind of traumatized by what he’s been through and Phil, likewise, we meet him is series one as this fantasist who believes he can go on great adventures and be a hero. Now he’s been on one that has absolutely kind of rather than disavow him of his fantastical illusions about himself, it’s reinforced him. He’s even more confident that he’s this kind of badass Bruce Willis-type. He’s kind of even more laboring under his own fantastical delusions. So, both Sam and Phil are slightly more extreme versions of the characters from series 1. As a double act, they are almost pushed a little bit further to the poles that they already occupied. But, they are also in a completely different environment and responding very, very differently to that environment.”
TS: In series 2, it’s almost a complete role reversal when you see how the characters react in situations where Sam becomes Phil and Phil becomes Sam. When Phil is quickly faced with the reality of him Mum in the hospital in series 2, he almost has this “I want to go home” mentality.
MB: “When we hit on this thing about witness protection and then this idea that they were to try and get home, it immediately felt right that we have a sort of symmetrical shape to it where the small-town guys become heroes and then, ultimately, realize they are still small-town guys and they want to be back to who they are. The fact that they even have different names felt perfect to sort of speak to that theme. There not even allowed to be called Sam and Phil and everything they do in the second series is about trying to recover the identities they once had that, at the time, they probably didn’t love. Now they’ve come to think that perhaps norm wasn’t so bad. We just want to get home. Also, it was nice this time rather than trouble coming to them, they go looking for it because they’re on a mission. We felt like it would be a lot to ask the audience to believe that they just consistently unlucky and it would be fun this time to have them make a choice themselves into the fire rather than have it race towards them.”
TS: Are you more like the Berkshire County Council Noise Guidance Planner Sam Pinkett or the Sam Pinkett that we see at the end of series one that takes a bullet for a friend?
MB: (laughing) I’m probably the Berkshire County Council Sam, I imagine. Although, I think that’s a kind of theme of the show that heroes generally in the world are normal people who just happen to be somewhere at the wrong moment and do what any human being would do. Stories of true heroism. Not to get to dark, but people who were there at the 7/7 bombings who helped out just because they were there. These were ordinary people and faced with an extreme situation they just did what had to be done and, I like that situation. It doesn’t take special skill. It doesn’t take anything other than humanity really. So, Sam and Phil step up when they have to and, I hope, it I was ever in an awful situation I would step up too but, luckily so far in my life, I’ve only had to pretend.
I’m guessing he would. Check it out for yourself. The Wrong Mans concludes tonight on BBC2 and premieres Wednesday night on Hulu.