Writing to Type: An Interview with Paul Mendelson

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First posted: 8/8/02 Updated 22 July 2003

This interview with My Hero creator Paul Mendelson was conducted in May 2002, before news of My Hero‘s fourth season was announced.

downththetubes: How did you start out as a writer?

Paul Mendelson: Well, I was in advertising. And I was pushing 40, and everybody else was about 12, and I thought I must try and write something else because my future is not necessarily in advertising all my life. I wasn’t hugely political, so I thought well I’m not going to run my own agency.

I’d written this short novel which was about a house haunted by a Jewish mother and I’d just written it for my own amusement. Then I was doing some commercials with Nicholas Roeg, the movie director — he did The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now. You may remember them, they were about a little girl who had an imaginary friend called Eric, who only turns up when there’s Heinz spaghetti.

Well, I created Eric and Nick directed those commercials. And I said to him “Look I’ve got this really good idea I think it would make a good situation comedy in America.” because it had a Jewish theme so I thought probably more American. He read it and he came back to me nearly a year later and said “Look, I’ve had no luck in America because I don’t know the people in television, but I’m in the next office to Verity Lambert.”

Nick was finishing off a film called Castaway and Verity Lambert, the producer he met was finishing off a film called A Cry in the Dark, a Merryl Streep film about a dingo baby. He showed this novella to Verity and they called me up and said can you come for a meeting. Well, it took me a nanosecond to decide whether I’d come for a meeting with Nicholas Roeg and Verity Lambert!

So Verity said she really loved it, turn it into a half-hour comedy pilot script. So I said of course. I’d never written anything longer than 30 seconds!

So I wrote it with creative help from her, she’s a brilliant script editor and we took it to the Head of Comedy at the BBC and he said “Well, you’ve done everything wrong. You’ve got children, animals, ethnic humour, suspension of disbelief and special effects. Everything! Go away and try again.” So I went away and tried again, and I thought well that’s my brief; to write something without children, dogs or Jews, so I wrote May to December.

May to December Title Card

downththetubes: Was this based on your friend who’s a lawyer?

Paul: Actually, before I was in advertising I was a lawyer. So that wasn’t too hard. I worked in a small law firm and I did family law. Not for long, because I hated it. I was a law graduate and then went on to do advertising.

So I didn’t have time to research, I had to write what I knew which is why its also set in Pinner which is where I lived. It’s really bizarre. I didn’t think they’d shoot it there but the director happened to like Pinner!

So I’ve actually got a series a bout a law firm that’s like the one I worked in, shot round the corner from where I lived, which is weird.

Anyway, so I wrote May to December and we didn’t even go to pilot on that. I wrote the first episode, and the Head of Comedy said “I love the first episode, write a second because sometimes the first one’s great but the second one doesn’t take it any further. I’ve got my cupboard full of second episodes which are useless.”

So I really worked hard at the second episode, which coincided with me being made redundant from the advertising agency, so that concentrated the mind, and wrote that one. Then I wrote four more and he commissioned it and we went to series and we did six series. It’s been on radio and its been shown all over the world and we nearly got an American version off the ground — I wrote a US pilot with one of the guys who wrote Taxi, who is still a close friend.

Well, after two series of that we went back to the same Head of Comedy at the BBC with the same script of So Haunt Me, which he’d rejected for having children, dogs and Jews and everything and he said “Oh, I really like this”, and commissioned six! So then we did a pilot because of the special effects — the director did a terrific job on that.

So Haunt Me Title Card

He actually shot it so the ghost looked ghostly — he filmed it totally separately from the rest of the recording, which is a very expensive process. When we came to do it for real, when John Stroud was directing it, I think we all decided that you could accept she was a ghost without having to see through her. You could just do other special effects and that ran for three seasons.

When it screened, it was the highest rated comedy for five years it had about 14 million viewers, so I was right in thinking that putting Jewish humour into a series which wasn’t all about Jews would get a big audience.

downththetubes: Why did it stop?

Paul: I don’t know, exactly. I think there were powers that be that didn’t care for it so much. I’ve actually just written a film version, which is about a black family haunted by a Jewish mother. I doubt whether anybody will make it, but it’s a good script.

downththetubes: What’s been the highlight of your career so far? What are you most proud of?

Paul: In the writing? I’m proud of bringing back family audiences. Well, not single-handedly, that sounds bad but My Hero certainly has been getting family audiences. I’m proud of May to December in that I was able to combine humour with pathos and actually make it, I think, quite a charming series, which people weren’t used to. People still tell me they have a great affection for it, so in that sense I’m very proud.

Actually, do you know, it’s so hard to get anything on television that I’m just actually proud to have been able to support my family by writing comedy. But I also write for radio. My first radio play was called I Can’t Be Another Hypochondriac, based on my own experiences of having testicular cancer.

And I wrote the second series of May to December while I was creative director in an advertising agency undergoing radiotherapy and we got a BAFTA nomination.

So if anything that’s the thing I’m most proud of because, I’m not saying it saved my life, but the series certainly saved my sanity. I was off work for a week while I was having the operation, I didn’t take any other time off work and I was busy writing and doing my job and having my treatment and things like that. It was wonderful for me.

downththetubes: When it comes to writing do you set yourself a daily word rate? A target?

Paul: When I’m writing a script, I work out that there’s about 350-400 speeches in a script. If I’m writing a first draft over five days I’ll say if I’ve done 80 speeches a day I’ll have done what I need to. I might write more, but I don’t want to write less. Funnily enough, I don’t know anyone else who works it out in speeches.

downththetubes: You mentioned ratings, but what one thing does every comedy writer need to be a success in today’s television market?

Paul: Resilience. Because it’s everybody’s whipping boy. You do a mainstream comedy and you know you’re going to open the papers and they’re going to crap all over it. Then the interesting thing is, if you get three or four series under your belt and it’s a hit the same people will call it a classic. I had that with May to December. I had quite good reviews actually, but one or two of them weren’t so good. But I remember the same people and the same newspapers saying this is a classic.

The good thing is I don’t think TV critics make a huge difference, actually. Because you’re not really paying any money to watch something on television so it’s not like going to the theatre — you might take some notice.

If you don’t notice a bad review you can bet your life your mother’s going to phone up and say “Oh did you see the Daily Mail?” “Yes I did actually!”

downthetubes: So if you were starting out in comedy writing today what would your one piece of advice be to somebody who was wanting to be a comedy writer?

Paul: Be true to your own vision but accept the opinions of those you respect. Because it is a collaborative process. You know, because you’ve got a line and you worry the line to death because you think “Is this funny?” And you lose sight sometimes of what you initially were aiming for.

downthetubes: I love that process, when I’m working with an artist on something it’s great to actually get the chance to sit down and iron out a script.

Paul: On My Hero, Paul Mayhew-Archer and I tend to work independently, then work with each other’s drafts, but I’m about to work with someone collaboratively and I want to do that more because actually I’ve been doing this for a long time and it can get very lonely. I write totally in cafes for that reason. I’m quite gregarious, and to sit on your own all day, it’s dull! I’m writer in residence at Pinner Tesco’s café at the moment — it’s not exactly the Left Bank. Say hello to the girls there — they come to see my shows!

I sit there with a wooden board, because it’s better for your back, I sort of write at an angle. I just sit at write with my tea and stuff. At least you have the feeling of people around you. But I want to do more collaborative work.

downththetubes: What’s next for you?

Paul: Hopefully, more My Hero! I’ve got some other projects that I’m working on. I’m writing a series for Radio 4, and I’m trying to get some film projects off the ground. But I’d like to write some longer form stuff.

downththetubes: Paul, thank you very much for your time.

Here’s some links that might help you in your quest

BBC New Writing
Drama, Entertainment and Children’s Programmes Room 222 Broadcasting House W1A 1AA 020 7765 2703
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