We would like to start with some general information about Pozzitive Productions – the history, how it began, the founder…
I started work as a Radio Producer at the BBC some time in 1985, no 1987, I started writing director at 1985, and did start the job as producer in 1987 and meanwhile Geoff Posner, who is the other half of Pozzitive – which is where the name comes from coz he was nicknamed “Pozzi” – he was producing television shows that… I don’t know, he did the pilots of “Black Adder” and the show called “The Young Ones” which was Rik Mayall, he worked with Harry Enfield and French and Saunders and Victoria Wood and Lenny Henry and lots of pretty-big UK comedy stars. And then when I left radio I went to producing a show called “Spitting Image” which was that puppets, that puppets satirical show and then met up with Geoff to work with the comedian called Paul Merton who’s on a show called Have I got News for you for years… You might not gonna know, no idea if any of these are on your readers minds… and so we formed a company then and we do television and radio, worked a lot with Victoria Wood and Steve Coogan and so…. and then, also, as well as doing television we just never stopped doing radio, coz I left radio but I just carried on doing that and television so, yes, we do a lots of radio shows, still, lots with UK comedians and sitcoms as well.
But the focus on comedy was always there, from beginning on?
That’s what we do, yes, yeah don’t do any other.
Well, yes, it’s the best as it’s the most funniest one…
Yeah, sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. (laughs)
And Pozzitive Productions is a second company then?
Well, no, it’s all the same. It was called Pozzitive Television coz we thought of… when we realized we’ll do lots of radio as well so sometimes we just call it Pozzitive… it’s just coz it seems odd to say television on the end of a radio show – that’s the only reason.
Your personal background, your career [David laughs when hearing “career”], did you study “production” or is there a special course you attended?
No, I did physics at University, sort of quantum physics, subatomic physics… but I was also writing and, you know, being in shows – there wasn’t a specific production course.
The job of a producer itself would be interesting to know about – your daily business…
The first thing is that in radio the producer is also the director, it’s the same thing. So, I‘ll start from scratch, I suppose… you, as producer, you might think up… it depends, you might think up a show, you might think of a format and sort of get cast and writers together to make a format or somebody will come to you with the format, or in the case of Cabin Pressure the writer will come with the script for you to read. And then as producer you’re script editing it as well, so in sort of term to make sure the script is as funny as possible and work with the writer to sort of unpick any problems or a sort of, you know, checking it’s all the right, the right feel… and then you try get it on. You try to get the BBC to agree to it to make it – which is the hardest thing. In fact it was initially turned down then in sort of…. send it in again… And then you cast it, so, you know, you get the right actors to be in it and then you set up all the recordings … you see what I do on the night which is, you know, so directed eh thing… and then you edit it, do the paper work and then eventually vaguely get paid ….. [we are laughing a lot about that – hopefully he gets paid!] … hopefully exactly … so it’s a whole mixture of jobs which is one of the things I really like about it coz every time, you know, when you are sort of working on a script you think “oh, this is brilliant!” and then when you’re rehearsing it you think “oh, this is delightful!” and you edit it, you know, so I like every bit of it, which is lucky but it changes all the time.
Are there many scripts, formats, ideas coming up to you?
Well you get sent probably about 10 or 15, all producers do, wanna-be sitcom scripts each week but it’s unusual for any of those … they’re just coming from people who aren’t writing professionally. It’s unusual for any of those to be even near to being producible. And then the main thing is to just you have to go and see which is a good thing… lots of comedians and lots of stand-up comedians and lots of stuff and just keep putting yourself up…and Finnemore has got a funny idea [yeah, it’s brilliant!] Well…you think so? [Oh yeah, it’s absolutely great! We love it!]
Who finally decides if a script becomes a format, a comedy? Is it your decision or does the BBC finally decides?
No, the BBC would decide. In America you have production companies where they pay to make it, they pay for it and then they sell it. So if it’s very successful they sell it to millions of millions of networks around and that’s entirely profit. In the UK producing doesn’t mean what you might imagine it means as someone who funds a production. It means that in theatre and I think it can mean that in film but it doesn’t mean it on radio or television. So here, no, you try, you think up, you get the show together, you get it all ready, you get the script or you get actors interested and then everyone has the same experience – you go to a broadcaster, BBC or Channel 4, and say will you let us make it. And you might pay for a bit of a script or some 5minute thing but not the main thing. If they say no it doesn’t happen.
They commission very very little and everyone is trying to get stuff on all the time as they should… logically, you think only the best of get through… but I don’t think that’s true. But that’s what they get through. [This is the hard side of the job] It is, yes.
Concerning Cabin Pressure – how did the collaboration with John start? Did you know each other?
I met him once because he came to a recording or something else I was doing, can’t remember what. We were chatting afterwards and he was just saying “Oh, I’m a writer!” and I was going… and I was doing what I’m always do in those situations which is go “That’s nice!”. [We laugh a lot when in that moment David made this facial expression and gesture of being pleased and obviously impatient at the same time when John told him] Because you never know if they gonna send you an amazing script the next day, which in fact is exactly what he did. And I think….he had submitted it to… the rest of it is very very boring… there is the BBC as the broadcaster and the people who pay for put it out. But there is also – we are an independent production company – but there is also what’s called “inhouse BBC producers” and they are our own rivals if you like, you know, coz we’re all rivaling for the same projects. And I think that he’d given it to them in the first instance – and they said “No. No, thanks very much!” So, he thought “oh who’s that bloke I met in the pub. Oh he’ll do!” and sent it to me. And I, I read it – this was the one that turned out to be Abu Dhabi, the first one – so he sent it to me and I read it straight away and just knew it was tremendous so I rang him up and said “Yeah, let’s try and get this on!”. And then, yeah, you know, we worked on the script a little bit and then we gave it in and overexcited and the commissioning editor, Caroline Raphael, whose always been a huge supporter, a very important executive, she was there on the last, the final recording, she said “Oh this is great, this is a great script!” so went up to controller at Radio 4, the person who decides – and he said “No!”.
And then I did something unusual because normally, I mean, obviously scripts do get turned down, all the time. And I did something unusual which I don’t normally do coz you can’t really whine or moan when that happens because they’re in charge, but on this occasion I’d said to… I said to him, you know, can I… I think that’s a wrong decision, I think it’s a really really… no, I said to him, I’m not going to do this very often, you know, once every five years, once every ten years a sort of go… no really really you must think about this again – and it’s great that he did. And then they commissioned it, yeah…. [Thank you for doing this! What a pity it would have been!] Yeah, it was close. I am sure there are other productions, shows that were equally wonderful and just never got made coz it’s, you know, there’s no science to it. But no, it was very good that he reconsidered it. I still got that note to John that sort of the email that said “Oh, they said no!”.
How does the casting process work? Do you have any influence on that or is the decision made by the BBC?
It’s all me, it’s entirely me. Yeah, they have nothing to do with it.
Concerning Cabin Pressure – did you work with the actors already before or just thought about voices that might fit together?
When you’re casting a sitcom, I mean… it’s been in consultation with John, you know, we talked about people we would really like to be in it. Sometimes, I think, one or two of the cast he’d heard their voice in his head in specifically when he was writing it. And then you make a little shortlist of people you think would be great, and then you ring their agents and see if they….ok, well to role about that one: when you’re casting the lead parts in a sitcom you want people who are, you know, good and famous and famous because they are good. And then you offer them the part, you don’t sort of say come in and audition – excuse me… where it’s for other parts in television – in television you do auditions, in radio less so although I do do auditions for some parts.
Yes, so I sent the script to the agents and they read it and liked it also so that they could be in it – so that’s the main casting. And then a sort of guest casting after that – it’s that’s people I… I mean, you know, again John sometimes has suggestions and we talk about it. I always, you know, go through with him. And then it’s just actors about work with the right to say no. Most of the time that are people have worked with before or people I know who are brilliant because I have seen other stuff they do.
The team, the actors of Cabin Pressure, it was the crew you preferred?
No, I hate them all. (laughs)
Well, no [laughing, too] – was this team the first choice and they all said “Yes, we do it!”? As it might be quite difficult as they might have other projects or maybe just do not want to do comedy etc.?
Well, one of the good things, the great things about radio, Radio 4 in particular – as this is the only national speech network in the UK…. there aren’t that many in the world I don’t think that do drama and comedy – is that actors in the UK, tend to – likely even very very famous actors are off doing movies or long running television series – like doing radio. There are a number of advantages: you don’t have to learn the lines, you don’t have to get into make-up or costume, for actresses they can do it quite late on into their pregnancy, which is, you know, for actresses between under the ages of 20 and 40 that’s quite important.
And the other thing is that Radio 4 actually has a listenership of… it can be 2 to 3 million when Cabin Pressure goes out. And actually, compared to television, network television, that’s not bad, it’s a lot more than Channel 4 has to the time. And also, that audience is quite influential. It tends to be a sort of the social groups, who are more in charge of stuff, more deciding stuff. And so from that point of view, a lot of people hear it that are quite influential and they don’t have to…the downside is they don’t get paid very much. Compared to telly it doesn’t scale at all. It’s like, you know, it’s a quick, you know, it tends to be done all in a day, you know, with the whole thing is done in a day, so for one day’s work they can pack quite a punch. So people do tend to say yes if they like a project.
The recording itself – it’s been done in a day, as you mentioned. How is the general process? As we know from John’s twitter we know he always delivers his script quite late?
Well, yes, I mean… but before transmission… so, that’s good… John is one of those rare writers who as well as being very very funny, it simply gets better the more time he puts into it, you know, if you give him another hour and then it will come back and be just, you know, a tiny bit funnier – some lines will be adjusted, some redundant words will be cut out, another little joke which links to something else will be slipped in… so I try not to… I try to give him as much time as possible because then it will be funnier. But, no, the certain point – we have to get the thing printed to get ready to do it. So, for a typical evening recording we meet at one, sit around a big table and rehearse and read through the two scripts and, you know, make any sort of slight script tweaks and any directorial notes.
And then we go to the actual studio, out to the stage and then we are doing two scripts a day usually. We do two shows in a day which is very busy. And then we rehearse it with all the technical stuff and all the sound effects being played in, as a soft re-rehearsal with the engineers as well to get a lot sort of smooth in coz you wanna be ought to hear the sounds we’d been talking about, otherwise it doesn’t make sense when people wouldn’t laugh as much.
This all happens on the day of the recording? Are there any preparations/pre-productions in advance, where do the sounds come from?
Well, yeah, we prepare those in advance to the script, yes, with another engineer – or studio managers they’re called – preparing a load to get those together. So sometimes they’re very simple, you know, it’s stuff we’ve done before like the flight deck door opening or something. In Cabin Pressure they are not massively complicated compared to some shows but sometimes, they, yeah, take a while – I think it was Johannesburg, where he leaves a white wine bottle cooling in the engine and then they start the plane in a hurry and it blows up backwards into the screen of the bloke’s Mercedes… and that was quite a complicated sound, as well like a jet engine started, and then the wine bottle flying through the air towards us, smashing the car setting alarm of fussing through. So that takes really preparation.
And, yes, then we rehearse it all and again, more notes, getting the sounds all coordinated and everything by which time a sort of fling bring in sandwiches by which time in sort of the audience is almost coming in, very little rest and then you see the recoding process we do.
So the actors do see the script on the day of the recoding or do they get any “pre-scripts” in advance?
Yeah, I’ve sent them drafts in advance, a sort of in a million, a few days before, but it’s not the final version at all, it’s got changing in some times [John has new ideas 10 minutes before – David laughs about that saying:] Yes, yes I think Xinzhao-X was written overnight.
Well it happen…I mean, a lots of it did get written and then a sort of the day before we had us… we sort of had a re-go and it was very late, in fact – it was the hell! And I was kipping there in the middle of the night and we finished about six in the morning and then we had to be at the studio about nine because it was an afternoon recording. Yeah, that was harsh. Seemed it worked alright.
How many people are working normally in a team for a Cabin Pressure recording?
Me, Katie, who does all the up… I will show you… (David walks out and gets a script showing us Katie’s work) – I mean, this is her script. (We are allowed to have a look at this interesting original script! David goes through the script with us, searching for notes to show us more about Katie’s work). One of the many things she is doing is timing… it’s all the time. Green is when there’s a retake, or where I re-did it; she notes retakes on the front … so this isn’t a very exciting audio [there aren’t a lot of notes]… at the end… [David browses in the script] it’s anything I’m gonna show you… words how she marks fluffs and restarts… [David, humming, turns page after page but can’t find any notes] they must have made more mistakes?!
Well, I decide when we do retake but she marks it on…somewhat like here – there’s a fluff…it’s called – I don’t if you have that word probably when that goes “habpf” so John went: “Because just now Skip told me….eh, hrm, blblb [David pretends a fluff]…because just now Skip told me they did offer him the job”. So she marks where the fluff happens in that way. That tiny tiny thing is all RS1, restart one. So sometimes they made whole string of cock-ups and that’s just fun… oh, too many pages to look through…
Anyway, so Kate’s just up and there are two engineers – Gerry and John – and then usually a runner who is just someone helping to look after everybody – and that’s it.
And there are sitting above the audience in the recording studio?
In television it would be called the control room or the gallery, in radio turns to be called the cubicle. Because also Jo, John and I we’re listening to the sound that is actually going on, that’s actually has been recorded, that’s being mixed, which is different to what you hear in the audience. It’s balanced slightly differently.
So yeah, Katie is next to me, that’s where we are and that’s it, sorts of a front of house staff.
Do you prefer recording in front of an audience or rather recordings done in the studio?
Well, I divide them into audience and non-audience, so shows that don’t have…that aren’t meant to have the sound of an audience. We don’t do shows were it ends up sounding like is has an audience but wasn’t done in front of an audience. We don’t do that, it’s a little bit pointless. Because you would just spend days and days and days in sort of put the sound of an audience, it’s easier to get 200 people sitting there… But in terms of do I prefer audience or no, I like both, it just depends on what the show is. You know, with non-audience it’s really good fun as well, but it takes a lot more to post-produce to do afterwards, because all you got, may have are 8 or 9 different takes on something and cutting together tiny little bits. Plus you have to layer on all the sound effects. So that’s fiddlier. But both could be good fun.
Are there any problems you can encounter with a live audience?
That they don’t laugh? That’s a big problem… [It depends on your jokes, David] Well, quite, yes, that’s the hidden secret. I mean, effectively we only really get one take of most of it. You know, you can retake bits, but after a while it gets… so I think that’s the… and because it’s double recording, it’s really tight for time. I try on run it so that it sort of feels leisured or relaxed, but actually there isn’t a minute to spare. Apart from we spend a whole days long… so yeah, that’s the biggest problem… the sort of if they don’t get it right the first time…
And that also influences your casting, because you’ve got to cast actors who know, who can work in front of an audience, who get it right the first time broadly, and can also read and talk to the mic and have contact with the audience which is very skilful. And some people can’t do it at all.
So is it an advantage having actors coming from a theatre background, because they are used to work in front of audiences rather than coming from film?
Yeah, I think it is. Although the one’s that I’ve discovered aren’t always that good than the one’s doing lots of soap operas, because soap opera acting is very small scaled, it’s quite introspective and they work very very fast. And they tend not to rehearse, it tends to be quite understated and naturalistic, and they are not used to audiences, they are not used to timing things and cross laughs and they are not used to kind of selling it without being to big… that’s quite subtle. It’s a bit boring.
Concerning the size of an audience – do you always record at RADA Studios?
If I can, yeah. I really like the way it sounds. And it’s a good contact between… because it hasn’t got a very high stage. So you sort of feel quite close.
So 200 is about an ideal size?
Yeah, any less than a 100 in it and it would stuck… well, it depends on the size of the room. But I don’t like… yeah, there are places that are sort of smaller, they sound more intimate, but I don’t think that works for comedy actually, I’m not particularly interested in that… and you don’t want a 500 or 600 seats because there is no point, all those efforts of getting all those people to come and see it. I don’t mean Cabin Pressure, I mean in general.
So I really like RADAs. Well, I think there is a radio theatre at the BBC, but I don’t use that.
Rada Studios are quite nice, not too big….
Yeah, and you feel you seeing everything… I like it, it’s quite compact…. [Quite close to the actors]… not dangerously close.
What would you say is the most perfect criteria for a recording?
Gets laughs! … That it’s fun, that it’s what I had in my head, what I heard in my head when I thought it would be…. [And an audience which is clapping and laughing] Yeah, I mean, it’s also where stuff happens that you couldn’t predict, you know, sort of in terms of a performance. When an actor has a sort of really great idea for something that really works well.
Have you ever thought that Cabin Pressure would be that successful?
No, I didn’t really think about it coz Radio 4 is sort of like one of the UK’s secrets. It has very very good actors in it and the shows are often really really really good. But you know people are… just of sort people who like it, really like it. People who don’t listen to Radio 4 have no idea. So it’s quite a sort of secret thing. Well yes, it was quite surprising. [We, unfortunately, don’t have any comparable kind of comedy in radio in Austria, it is not usual.] It is unusual but it is actually quite a core part of the UK comedy scene coz awful lots of writers and performers start on radio and always have done. Not everyone but a lot. Way more than you’d imagine.
What’s your favourite character on Cabin Pressure?
Oh, I hate them all!!! [We are laughing a lot in the moment.] Well, out of the principals that I don’t really have a choice, I like, in terms of sort of people who were in shows, I liked in the terms of the writing, I liked that Gerry who is in Uskerty. He just seems so cheery, he is so happy, that made me laugh. And I like Mr. Leeman in Boston. Who else really? …just in terms of what he was doing. And I actually liked Madame Szyszko Bohusz in Gdanks. Just because she was so implacable, there was nothing you could do that would make her right. And so she made me laugh.
I really enjoyed casting all those, getting what I think is just the right person to play, it’s really pleasing. Like say Peter Duncan in Ipswich that’s a guy called Alex McQueen, who is also in The Thick of It in the loop. He was just the voice I sort of, you know, John and I heard when we were reading the script. When he was around able to do it – that was great.
What’s your favourite episode? Is there one in particular?
Obviously everyone likes Ottery St. Mary. One of the things about Ottery was that it was so hard, it was really complicated. Ben was doing Frankenstein in the West End and he knackered his voice. And the night before the recording, probably know all this, but the night before the recording he had to cry off. So we got brilliant actor called Tom Goodman-Hill, who I worked with a lot, to do both, Newcastle and Ottery. And he was really good natured about it, he knew that he was sort of standing in. And then we realized that in Ottery, by chance, most of the Martin scenes were separate from the Caroline/Herc scenes. It almost split into two when you analyse it. So we suddenly thought, well, if we for another quarter of an hour of stage time, we could record the Martin scenes. We could re-record Martins dialog with Ben. Tom was very good about it, he didn’t mind. So we redid Ottery. Then John could rewrite it slightly. So that were the light scenes that people liked like the yellow car, Jelly Babies to manual and all that in the van. So, that was a really good sequence anyway. And then we redid it and it was putting it all in and getting it all to fit into two recordings and it was done in different venues as well, so we had to do quite a lot get it to match. So I think I feel affectionate of it, because it was such a bugger to put together.
Although, I really like Paris, because that was best Taliskar mystery, coz I genuinely couldn’t…you know, I’m the first one to read a script, well John may showed it to other people, but I was…I genuinely couldn’t work it out ‘til the end, so it was very pleased.
And I think there are some great moments, I think the moments lots and lots and lots stick in the mind of course…But there was one moment were the audience gave a very good reaction and it was in St. Petersburg when… One of the things John is brilliant at, it’s a bit nerdy, but he is very very very brilliant at – we call it seeding, s-e-e-d, as a new plant to seed, that’s got to grow later on in the script. And all writers do it, everyone is coming, you know, someone mentions “Oh that’s a new hat! – Yes, it is!” or something…and then later on the script the whole thing’s based on the fact he’s got a new hat…Johns genius is to seed stuff in that’s so funny that you don’t realize it’s been seeded – and then it becomes plant. So in St. Petersburg he does the thing where Douglas does the walk around at the plane and then says…Martin ”is everything alright?” and says “yes, although there’s an Arthur sticking to it” because Arthur has got his tongue stuck on the plane. And it was so funny and the audience laughed. Then finally at the end – you might recall it – that Douglas basically gets Gordon… he freezes the joystick with holding these asbestos gloves and then he pours the Vodka and Gordon’s hands freeze and he won’t let him go ‘till he admits to get off the plane. But the whole thing about hands or skin sticking to frozen metal had seeded 20 minutes ago. And when the audience realized that they gave an extraordinary noise – which I didn’t put in transmission because it wouldn’t make sense at this time – but they sort of went “Haaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” – that was a good moment. I liked that, yeah!
There was even a great moment as well at the end of Yverdon-les-Bains where he said “I let you know” and then normally it finishes on a big joke and then we play the signature and on this I waited coz it’s me who times the cueing “Did you get it? Did you get it? – They gonna let me know.” Cue the sick… At which point the audience went “Nooooooooooo!!!!” which, again, I didn’t use in the transmission because it wouldn’t had made sense. But it was a great moment, it was very funny! (We all are laughing so much when he tells that remembering this special recording we had the chance to join)
What was the worst ever happened during a recoding? Was there ever anything not working?
No, I don’t think so… no, I mean, just sometimes it was very complicated. I think there was one very complicated thing where Timothy West, who plays Gordon, and Anthony Head, who plays Herc… and… I think there was one show where no one was ever in the room at the same time. I think it may have been…Rotterdam or something where the stuff had to be recorded in one week and then played and then someone else who is in another one and then someone else had to stand in for someone else – oh yeah, we did the whole show, yes in Rotterdam the bits where they’re having the competition took between Herc and Douglas to see who gives the smoothest announcement… I don’t think Anthony was ever there. That way, that was done by another actor called Paul Shearer who played…reading it in for him… who also played in St. Petersburg the Australian. Yep, that guy.
And then we re-recorded Tony on another week and cast all… I lost track at the point one who was playing who… oh yeah, and then we had to get Mrs. Birling back who’d also played someone else in another show… it was very complicated but it was awfully. She played the lady who’s having the piano, it was also Mrs. Birling. A very complicated series, it was a mess, we did it then, somehow.
Do you listen to Cabin Pressure when aired on radio?
No, I hate it! (laughs) No, well, sometimes it could happen to listen to when it goes out because it’s to just to check, coz it’s a different experience when you’re editing it, you know, it’s all nice speakers and it’s all quiet and you’re concentrating… so when you hear it again else on the radio, when you hear people clashing around and they’re doing other stuff it’s useful to remember. But now I tend not to listen, I just overthink oh no, all that comes after that and every syllable… it doesn’t make me laugh… not how it should be.
What about future projects, comedy series maybe coming up soon?
Yes, well, lots of stuff but I don’t know whether of these will be heard then… I mean just more radio sitcoms and sketch and stand-up shows, yeah, we’re doing all the time…
Any future projects or plans with John?
Hope so. Ah well there are but I really shouldn’t talk about it coz he haven’t written anything yet (laughing)… (But there will be?) Hope so, yeah!
What a great meeting and interesting information! Thank you so much, David!