views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Honest to God With.... ManMoth Productions
17th November 2012

Views From The Gods recently pitched up in a King's Cross pub and had the pleasure to talk to theatre group ManMoth Productions. The four we chatted to - writer/director/founder Steve Jordan, producer/script editor Ellen Gallagher and actors Cliff Chapman and Adam Joselyn - are gearing up for a repeat performance of Dead Static, a sci-fi adventure they first took to this year's Camden Fringe, where they first caught our attention. [Our original review can be found here.] They'll be staging their reworked production at the Hen and Chickens Theatre, Islington, from Tuesday, 11th December until Saturday, 15th December.

In the meantime, read on to hear about the foursome's opinions on geek culture, how the board game Mousetrap informed their latest play and the group's run-ins with The Inbetweeners cast...

(L-R) Ellen Gallagher, Cliff Chapman, Adam Joselyn, 
Steve Jordan

Photography supplied by ManMoth Productions.
(L-R) Ellen Gallagher, Cliff Chapman, Adam Joselyn, Steve Jordan

As good a place to start as any, we were interested to know the genesis of both ManMoth in general and Dead Static in particular.

SJ: I was at Middlesex University in 2005 with (co-founder) Patrick Baker and we both did a Creative Writing BA. We were budding comedy writers and desperate to put something together. That's when we started working on A Hero's Journey, our first production under the ManMoth banner. We were really pleased with the outcome - Cliff was in that as well...

VFTG: Playing an evil Peter Davidson.

EG: And my mum made the costumes.

SJ: It's an amazing costume! And we were really just desperate to get our writing out there. It's really hard to get an audience and to get a reaction from that and see what works - and what doesn't.

EG: It could be funny to you or your mates and parents, but not to anyone who doesn't know you. The Camden Fringe is a great way to get it out there and road-test your writing.

SJ: Exactly. Me and Patrick were just making each other laugh and thought: "This is alright, but can we make anyone else laugh?" And we made about five other people laugh. And next year it might be ten, so we continued, but this year he didn't have the time.

EG: He's in a fabulous band, Butterflies On Strings.

SJ: He's just far more talented than me.

EG: The way that Dead Static got generated was on a road trip with me and you [Steve]. In the car you started bouncing this idea around and I was saying: "Yes, it's great", and that's how the whole idea of two guys on a spaceship with a finite amount of time came about.

SJ: Yeah, and then I had to decide whether I wanted to wait a year for us to get our heads together again or do something myself, so I had this idea ready to go. I've got it into my head now I want a new play every year, which I might regret now but at the moment, I want just just keep writing really.

ManMoth's first show, A Hero's Journey, also played at the Camden Fringe. It followed teacher Matthew (Richard Jackson) keen to prove his worth, hampered by his own self-loathing personified by the aforementioned evil Peter Davidson's fifth Doctor (Cliff Chapman). It gave the group a valuable grounding in the practicalities of theatre, especially props.

SJ: Dead Static came about because I learned various lessons after Hero's Journey - the theatre space, the props...

EG: I think the worst decision in Hero's Journey in terms of pragmatism was having a set of Mousetrap fully assembled and moving it on and off the stage quickly. My heart was in my mouth by the end.

CC: There was glue there by the end, wasn't there?

EG: But it dried and the glue came off, and the smallest and most insignificant prop became the biggest nightmare.

SJ: We had a lot of prop problems. And we didn't just want it to be a lot of pop culture references, we wanted some visual comedy as well. Unfortunately, it led us down some very dark roads in terms of props. One of the first thoughts about Dead Static was: "What are we going to do about the set. It's science fiction, it's going to be a nightmare!" And we had some rubbish ideas about getting a Macbook and putting something round it.

EG: Well let's put it this way - tin foil was involved.

VFTG: As it always is for the future.

SJ: Yeah, and we did think: "We can't do this for the future, it's going to be rubbish." So we went minimal, keep everyhing down to a minimum. No set. Use lighting, sound effects and all of that to create an atmosphere...

EG: And acting!

SJ: Well, yeah. But Brett Cohen, who was our lighting technician and sound tech did a great job at the Etcetera. At the Camden Fringe, you only get an hour's rehearsal time in the theatre. Just an hour. So you have to work incredibly fast - we had to just rattle through scenes while these guys tried to do some rehearsal.

EG: Brett's so on the ball though. You give him a tech script and the first run-through he's pretty much nailed it.

The play, which sees cocky entrepreneur Tyler (Cliff Chapman) stuck on a ship plunging into an asteroid belt with chirpy conman Gary (Adam Joselyn) drew great reviews, but there was one, inescapable comparison that reared its head again and again.

SJ: I really love sci-fi, I liked the idea of writing a comedy set in space with two guys trapped together because you've got so many great comedy dynamics about two characters or a group of characters trapped together, like Steptoe and Son, like Porridge. It's something I wanted to get my teeth into, so thought I would pair that with sci-fi and get writing.

VFTG: Were you ever conscious at any point that you thought you were making Red Dwarf?

SJ: Yeah, it's inescapable and I sort of have a love-hate relationship with that comparison because I'm not going to lie and say: "What's Red Dwarf?" It's probably one of my favourite sitcoms. But it was never really hugely in my mind when writing - it all stemmed from the characters. I was drawing from that Dumb and Dumber dynamic.

VFTG: And was Red Dwarf something you were conscious to avoid as performers?

AJ: I didn't really look at it from that perspective. I read Gary and saw him in my head in one way and that was basically how I went. The dynamic just came as we rehearsed.

CC: I have since thought: "What if he's just Ricky Gervais thinking he's Han Solo." I'm a big retro cult TV fan and I have had one person come up to me since seeing it saying it reminded me of Planes, Trains and Automobiles meets Blake's 7. In the first five minutes after reading the script, I wanted to do a full-on Paul Darrow as Avon. And you've never seen Blake's 7, have you?

SJ: No, I know of it...

CC: There's one episode where Avon and Vila are trapped on a spaceship and it's like: "I'm going to throw him off the ship..."

SJ: Oh, why didn't you tell me this eight months ago?

VFTG: Working with Cliff before, did you write the character with him in mind?

SJ: Yeah, I did.

EG: What we said to each other in the early phases of planning was: "What can we put Cliff in next?"

SJ: He's very much going to be come Johnny Depp to my Tim Burton.

AJ: Does that mean I get to be Helena Bonham Carter.

SJ: I'd have to marry you.

CC: Let's put a wig on you and see after five pints...

SJ: I definitely wrote with Cliff in mind. I love what he did with Peter Davidson. He had that sort of conniving authority over Matthew and saw an opportunity of continuing to do that with Tyler.

To begin with, he was a lot more like Tom Baker, a lot more likeable, an everyman, but the more I started writing him and realising where the plot trajectory was going, Tyler can't be nice. I mean, you can like him but certainly can't trust him.

I always try to avoid writing characters black and white. If they're a bastard, I want them to be a sympathetic bastard. Outwardly, Tyler is very cocky and arrogant, but in the way Cliff portrays him, you can see there's a real terror about failing and getting things wrong and he becomes exasperated with his own ineptitude.

EG: It's the classic Harry H Corbett exasperation that you can completely understand. One of my hats is script consultant and in early drafts, Gary and Tyler were more black and white, but as drafts went ahead and rehearsals came in, Steve's definitely angling it more towards the idea that when you first watch the play you like one and find the other annoying but at the end you've almost changed your minds about the pair of them. It has organically grown, which is always nice to see.

SJ: Going back to casting Adam, it was remarkable. In his audition, he did exactly what I had in mind. But we didn't cast him first.

AJ: Yeah, you didn't want me!

EG: He was cast, just not as Gary. He was cast as another character.

SJ: It was one of those age-old casting problems. What do you do if you've got two actors who are both fantastic? So it was a tough decision and we originally cast someone else who was very different. But Adam's was one who was a lot more in tune with what I thought Gary swould be. The other was a lot more in-your-face. You bring a sort of naive child-like quality to Gary.

AJ: It's natural...

SJ: No, but it's great. We originally cast Gary as a character in the little prequels we shot as Nathan, a character which ended up being played by Ellen.

AJ: When I found out I wasn't cast as Gary, I was quite upset. I really wanted to do it. As far as I knew at the time, it was just a fringe play - it could have been rubbish - but I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in. So when Steve gave me the call, I almost rearranged a holiday.

EG: We had to fly him back from France.

AJ: First class flights back from France...

VFTG: He's getting a bit precious, that one.

SJ: We'll write him out of Dead Static 2 then.

With a second run at the Hen and Chickens, the cast and crew had a chance to refine both the script and potentially their performances. For some, there were a few tweaks, for others, it was a natural regression.

Dead Static poster

SJ: In earlier drafts there were less shifts in power and hopefully it becomes more interesting - you don't know who has the upper hand. That's something we've tried to amp up for this run, actually. The script has changed, there are new lines and a new subplot which goes some way to explain why they are on that ship; we've tried to add some poetry in there.

AJ: I first went through the lines again, the first ten pages with my brother, just to see if I still knew the lines. Pretty much to a word, I still knew the lines. Which is good news for the rehearsals.

EG: We rehearse pretty intensively...

AJ: Yeah, definitely, and I think it stayed with me because I enjoyed doing it.

EG: The backstory is changing a little bit. Having consulted people we know who are professionals in the writing industry, what we came out with is let's delve deeper into the backstory and tie it in a little more.

SJ: It was mainly tying up loose ends in the plot, really. The plot has been tightened and the great thing about having that first three-night run was that I could see what worked and what didn't. There were some lines that never got a laugh and as much as I thought they were funny, there are other lines on the bench, so I'm bringing them on the field. A football analogy for you there, Adam.

AJ: Thank you very much. No matter how good a reaction it gets the first time, you always want it to be a little bit fresh. Even though it went perfectly, it's nice to have the new lines.

CC: In an ideal world, I'd like to get massively fit and be ripped so I look like a space hero and the comedy comes out there. What actually happened is that I have a steady job where I earn money so, in comparison to the last couple of years, I can actually eat lots of cakes. So I'm taking comfort in the fact that fat people are funny so and it's a comedy so that's okay.

EG: For the record, Cliff's not fat!

CC: I would like to point out that in the draft we worked with up until the Camden Fringe, the script said: "Tyler is semi-handsome".That line's gone now.

SJ: Has it really?

CC: Yes! It doesn't say anything any more.

AJ: "Tyler is a man."

EG: It implies he's utterly gorgeous, don't worry.

SJ: Yeah, let's go with that...

And the group - who seem like great friends as much as just a great company - has a natural bonhomie that lent itself to working together well.

CC: It was a really nice collaborative process. I liked chucking in ideas. When we were first doing it, we did it in Steve and Ellen's flat, and I asked if I could have the PS3 controller (as a prop to control the ship). The original plan was to build something bespoke, but then I got quite attached to it and we just thought: "Wouldn't it be funny to have the PS3 remote because people might like it." And then the button mashing gag gets in there.

AA: It is quite nice to be able to chuck in a couple of words at the end of the sentence, even if they are swear words, and not get told to stick to the script.

SJ: I told them from the beginning that rehearsals will be fun and I wanted it to be collaborative. To begin with, we used the script as a guideline and the guys brought their own little bits and pieces to the script and the characters and it was a melting pot of ideas.

EG: The great thing about Steve as a director is that he has a clear vision, but isn't afraid to bend it.

SJ: The parameters are definitely there. I have a clear idea of what good comedy is, what comedy I enjoy, and occasionally, I will say: "No, say it exactly like this" because that's what it needs. But at the same time, these guys know what the parameters are and how to be creative within them.

EG: The important thing is to have actors with a sense of humour. We didn't have that problem.

AJ: You do have to have a similar sense of humour.

As for humour, the idea of setting the play in the future also served to curb the excesses of esoteric or cult references - although ManMoth admit one or two did slip through...

SJ: In A Hero's Journey, we had references to Martin Clunes wearing gold sandals in an obscure Peter Davidson Doctor Who. And that was a gag! I mean, who's going to get that?

CC: You only put that in because I lent you the entire Davidson years on DVD...

EG: Dead Static is more universally appealing. There aren't quite so many in-jokes in there. It's not totally devoid of geek references, but it's not so dependent on people understanding them.

AJ: You got Pat Sharpe in.

SJ: Yeah, that's probably where I did take the biggest liberty, with that Pat Sharpe line.

EG: Pat Sharpe is the most hilarious person in history, you had to put him in there.

SJ: I was very conscious of keeping the pop culture references very broad so that people would get it, or not having many at all. That's another great thing about sci-fi. You can't liberally reference pop culture but you can take some liberties, like saying Pat Sharpe shot Obama.

In transferring from the Etcetera Theatre in Camden Town to the Hen and Chickens in Islington, the group are moving from a creative and vibrant festival to the daddy of all fringe comedy venues, noted for hosting such names as Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Rhona Cameron and Pappy's. But they were fairly clear of their opinions on the Camden Fringe.

SJ: Brilliant.

EG: It's very friendly and supportive. A lot of people go to see each other's plays in order to drum up more publicity and audience numbers, and they're happy to swap flyers.

SJ: I think you get tickets (for other shows) straight off, if you're involved.

EG: So you get to see other shows even if you don't have much money. It's a great way to do theatre on a shoestring without compromising on quality, I think.

VFTG: Wuld you ever consider going to Edinburgh? I mean, do you have £15,000 just to burn?

EG: That's the problem. It's something we've talked about and I have a couple of contacts who could maybe help me do it on the cheap, but no-one could take that long off work, unfortunately. That's maybe something for the future.

SJ: The great thing about the Camden Fringe is that everyone knows it's experimental or trying something new, or getting an idea in front of an audience. That was great for us initially, and it's still great. I want to keep doing the Camden Fringe. As far as Edinburgh goes, it's great if you've got the money but it's not only money, it's time - a lot of time. You can't have a job.

EG: There's so much competition too.

SJ: I'd love to do it, but certainly couldn't be the one to do it.

EG: Let's win the lottery.

VFTG: Did you see anything else during the Fringe?

CC: I did. I'm involved in Player Playwrights, which meets every Monday night at the Phoenix Club. I first heard about it when I was temping at the Music Board. The lady who ran that said 'Ooh, my husband's in this thing called Player Playwright, they're doing this thing at the camden fringe at the Tristan Bates, why don't you go down there?' You do rehearsed readings and there are brilliant writers, like Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. Great actors. I'm on the committee there for now and that all came from the Camden Fringe.

This year at Tristan Bates, they did a couple of productions - Is Anything Broken and Final Score [our reviews here and here!], which I went to see - a lot of people who I'm friends were involved. I have half an eye on being involved in whatever ManMoth do next year, but half of me really wants to direct at the Tristan Bates as well, so I'm thinking: "Can I do both?"

VFTG: Was the Hen and Chickens a concious decision because of its comedy pedigree?

SJ: It was always in our minds. I asked everyone's opinion and we drew up a list of potential theatres and that was always at the top of our list.

EG: Perfect size.

AJ: Good location.

SJ: Great reputation. And when we knew we got the slot we did, I was thrilled with it.

CC: I did Twelfth Night there during the winter that killed all of the trains, and despite that, I still love the theatre.

AJ: And we get to go to the theatre before we do the show!

EG: Yes, that's the great thing about the Hen and Chickens - they actually let you go in there.

AJ: It's nice to have this next step. And hopefully if this goes, well, it'll be a step up.

EG: Next step Hollywood!

SJ: It's kind of an experiment. The night I put the money down for six performances, I thought: "What the f*** have I done?"

EG: I came home from work finding him shaking in the corner.

SJ: But a few hours later, I thought: "This is fine, this is great." Can we build up the amount of marketing we need under such a tight budget and all these concerns, but now I can't wait for it. Whatever the turnout, I know it's a great show.

With all of the references to Doctor Who so far in this interview - as well as to Red Dwarf, Steptoe and Son and Blake's 7, it seemed cleat to Views from the Gods that they were in the company of fellow geeks. Did they identify with the tag and, more importantly, did this shape their work in any way outside of the obvious?

CC: We're trendy geeks. Geek chic.

AJ: I'm taking myself out of this. I'm a football man. I'm by no means a man's man. In some respects, I am a man. I'm very unladdish, but I do like football. And I don't know anywhere near as much as these guys about Doctor Who - but I am enjoying learning about Doctor Who.

VFTG: You have no choice but to enjoy learning about Doctor Who...

AJ: I suppose this is testament to Mr Steve Jordan that I still find the jokes funny because I know they must be a reference to Doctor Who or something in his life, therefore they must be funny.

SJ: I don't think there's a single reference to Doctor Who in the whole thing...

CC: The most meta you can get, the Caves of Androzani, possibly the best Doctor Who of all time...

VFTG: No! The Happiness Patrol!

CC: I'm very fond of The Happiness Patrol.

[Insert embarrassing and redacted discussions of VFTG Doctor Who costumes here.]

VFTG: Given it's fine now to be a geek, with Batman, the Avengers, Doctor Who, does that make it easier for you to decide to do something that is a bit geeky?

EG: I think it's always been cool to be a geek.

SJ: It certainly helps, but it was never a concern going into it. I write for me, and was always going to write a sci-fi play eventually and this is what came out. Thank God.

CC: It's political times as well, when you watch the fashion of things coming round. At the end of the '80s, early 90s, when the country started to do a bit better again, there wasn't that need for that escapism.

EG: My dad wrote a couple of episodes of Doctor Who in the 80s, just to bring nepotism into it.

VFTG: Was it Trial of a Time Lord?

EG: Warrior's Gate and Terminus.

AJ: The difference is that I never grew up in it. I have enjoyed it, but never got immersed in it. I really enjoy sci-fi stuff, but I haven't been immersed in it.

EG: These days the culture has become so much more inclusive rather than just for geeks.

CC: A friend of mine, just to name drop someone else, Pete Dillon-Trenchard is a stand-up comic in residence, he writes for Den Of Geek as well and they ran Geek Night Out, a stand-up night, and Paul Gannon presented it and right at the beginning he says: "This is for people who are geeky but that doesn't necessarily mean Ghostbusters or Doctor Who or Star Trek." Being geeky is something you're passionate about.

I was on a train the other night and for the whole 50 minute journey someone was having a very eloquent, articulate conversation about every possible opinion they could have about all the football players and managers. All the names were completely alien to me - it was like listening to another language - but at the same time, as long as you're passionate about something, you go deeper in.

EG: I'm a big Disney theme parks nerd. I own all the books on imagineering and theme park design and I can see peoples' eyes glaze over when I go off on one about it, but it's just another facet to being really passionate about something.

SJ: I guess I'm an amalgamation of the three of you then, because I know about football, I have followed football, pushed hundreds of hours into football manager.

AJ: I never knew this.

VFTG: There you go, not just an interview, but a bonding session.

CC: I used to collect football stickers and cards at school because that was the collecting thing but I didn't ever watch a match.

So with all the bases covered, the discussion turned to the future of ManMoth. With Steve having recently written a horror short story for genre magazine Kzine's fourth issue - which is available from Amazon UK - there was one obvious suggestion.

EG: I'd love to see us do something horror orientated.

CC: YES!

EG: We've been working on a lot of horror short stories recently and horror is a great genre which is neglected these days. Hammer Horror are doing a great job of bringing it back, but in terms of our writing and creative instincts, comedy and horror go hand in hand.

CC: I've done a little bit of horror recently as well. I did a short film called New Blood which is a comedy horror by Antony Keach which is being shown around various places at the moment and that was great fun, on a vampire theme. I also did horror audios last year which are waiting on release [Maud-Evelyn and Markheim] again.

EG: Dead Static is very dark. There's an argument to say Dead Static would slot in alongside the horror genre. The main theme and point of the play is quite dark, which is why it sits with comedy but takes it deeper than light-hearted sitcom. It wasn't written with tragedy in mind, it just grew out of it organically.

SJ: I love to undercut comedy with dark elements. This was always a play first and foremost about people that are going to die and obviously through the writing process there were lots of different endings. One included Gary's mum coming to pick them up at the end.

EG: That was discarded... But there is more in store for Gary and Tyler - not to give too much away.

VFTG: I was going to ask about that. I did want to see more of them and I'm glad there's something coming in some form.

EG: Well that's what our lovely actors brought to it. They fleshed it out and brought it to the point where it's emotionally moving and not just words on a page. That's how we knew we had the right actors.

AJ: No pressure for the next one...

SJ: In terms of ManMoth's future in horror, there might be a comedy horror down the line somewhere, but for me, it's all about comedy. Next year's production is going to go one of two ways. It's either going to be another co-written play with myself and Patrick or it's going to be something else from me that's probably definitely going to be Dead Static-related because I've loved working with these guys and the characters and I have ideas for them and I really want to try to push that. I'd love to do it again next year.

VFTG: How did you find writing on your own?

SJ: It was interesting. I've dabbled in writing scripts on my own before because I've done a couple of writing degrees. The only real benefit from writing degrees is a lot of practice, so I spent a lot of time writing on my own. But writing a comedy script alone was a challenge because you haven't got that person to bounce ideas off and make laugh in the moment. It's great to have Ellen as a script editor because we have a similar sense of humour anyway and she has an opinion straight away.

EG: I'm very opinionated.

SJ: Even though there were lots of quite fundamental plot changes from draft to draft, the gags largely stayed the same. I really understand the characters and I'm into their dynamic. I know how the comedy functions so it didn't feel like as much of a trial as I thought it would.

We were interested to know, if money, casting and everything else were no object, what ManMoth's dream productions would be. The first answer was unsurprising.

AJ: Dead Static - The TV series.

EG: We'd all be working on that in an ideal world.

CC: I'd like to tick off a few boxes relating to my childhood. It'd be nice to do something related to cult childhood favourites. I used to want to be the Doctor. I'd like to play the next Master. Be a villain of some description.

AJ: To be honest, I really enjoy doing sitcom type comedy. Last week, I was a bartender in a Chinese sitcom...

VFTG: Oh, there's a story there, come on!

AJ: It's a Chinese sitcom based in London. I play the British bartender in a London pub but this may become their local pub. It's commissioned for four episodes so far in China and apparently it has an estimated audience, I was told, don't quote me on this [oops!] of 151 million people. They're gonna see me play a bartender.

SJ: I hope you were good!

AJ: They were all speaking Mandarin in front of me! I didn't know when to come in with my line! But yeah, something along the lines of The Inbetweeners.

The entire discussion then descended into how pretty much all of ManMoth, bar Adam, would like to be involved in Doctor Who - or to play Elphaba in Wicked. Interestingly, both ManMoth and Adam have a history with the Inbetweeners. There's no animosity there, but they did go deeper into this odd coincidence, ending our time with ManMoth on a very interesting note.

EG: You were in the pilot for that, weren't you?

AJ: Was I? Was I?

SJ: That's a remarkable segue. Tell us about being in the Inbetweeners pilot...

AJ: I was in the pilot of The Inbetweeners.

SJ: Who did you play?

AJ: Simon.

VFTG: Really? I'll be honest, having seen Dead Static, that wouldn't have been my first guess.

AJ: Who would you have said?

VFTG: I'd have said Neil.

AJ: Okay... Well the guy who plays Jay (James Buckley) was playing Neil when I did it.

EG: And the guy who plays Neil (Blake Harrison) was originally in a ManMoth production.

SJ: Before A Hero's Journey, we worked on a production called Hollywouldn't that me and Patrick co-wrote and directed about two guys who were trying to run an indie cinema in the middle of nowhere, when a Cineworld opens over the road and they're desperate to get people in. We originally cast Blake Harrison anbd I'd never seen The Inbetweeners but Patrick had, and he was like: "He's off the telly!"And I said: "Is he?"

It was an amazing audition and we said: "You're better than anyone we've seen and we'd love to have you." We went out with them, bought the costumes, had rehearsals...

EG: Cast photos...

SJ: Cast photographs. Really tastefully done photographs. But unfortunately we were sort of shafted by the Inbetweeners film. He was waiting for the call and he was saying: "Guys, I really want to do this, but at some point they'll say we're shooting the Inbetweeners film." He was hoping it was going to be at the end of the year but couldn't be sure. So time went on and he never got an answer and it got to the point where we had to say that we couldn't do Hollywouldn't because he was busy, basically. We got to December that year, and he ended up filming it in January. But it wasn't his fault, he couldn't have predicted that.

AJ: Really, myself and ManMoth were made for each other because we got turned down by The Inbetweeners!

Dead Static ran from from 11th to 15th December 2012 at the Hen And Chickens.

Nearest tube station: Highbury and Islington (Victoria, Overground)



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