❉ We’re asking, they’re answering: This week, Jason Hazeley, one of the minds behind ‘Screenwipe’ and ‘Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups’.
Jason Hazeley is the co-writer of The Framley Examiner and, along with Joel Morris, the best-selling Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups series and number of radio and TV comedy shows including ‘Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe’ and its spin-off ‘Cunk on…’. He divides his time between London and the pub.
The Ladybird stuff is a slice of luck we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. I fully expect to wake up in a minute and find I’m writing half-pagers for Week Ending and that it’s 1992 and I smoke and have a 42-inch waist and a beaten up Sierra with graffiti on the side and a cupboard full of dried pasta and a fridge full of fuck all.
Tell us a little about yourself; what have you written so far?
I’m 45 with untidy hair. Along with my co-writer Joel Morris, I’ve written for most of the people in the television. Some of them even remember me.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An architect, then a conductor. I didn’t have the maths for architecture, and certainly didn’t have the maths for conducting. 4/4 is a lot of numbers.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Stop trying to get off with Bridget Clothier from the school orchestra. She will never never NEVER fancy you. And burn your entire wardrobe, you ridiculous fucking cardboard shambles.
What are your best and worst qualities?
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I sold advertising space for a local newspaper. The mechanics of the paper were interesting (and came in handy later, writing The Framley Examiner) but the idea of selling someone something they didn’t need or want was repellent. And that’s the whole of advertising. It’s beyond cynical. I was shit at it, as anyone with a crumb of decency should be.
Who were your heroes growing up? Which people have inspired you over the years?
Comic inspirations: Monty Python, Fry & Laurie and Absolutely. They made me want to write sketches. (So it’s their fault.) Other inspirations along the way were Viv Stanshall, Victoria Wood, J.B. Morton, Esmonde & Larbey, Road Runner, Gary Larson, John Hughes, David Nobbs, Glen Baxter, and – something no-one should be without – The Meaning Of Liff, by John Lloyd and Douglas Adams. Easily and medically The Funniest Book Ever Written.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
Either Edge Of Darkness or The Singing Detective. Or that sausages advert where Charles McKeown goes fucking ape.
Monty Python: Is it funny?
As if you need to ask.
What was the last film that you watched?
When Harry Met Sally… for about the 30th time. It is PERFECT. Many years ago, I bought a photocopy of the screenplay at great expense to see what hit the cutting-room floor. The answer is about half a page, because that’s what a god Nora Ephron was.
What film could you watch every day?
Apart from the above, Billy Liar. I’ve no idea what drew me, a feckless cobweb of a twat from a working-class background with aspirations to move to London and become a writer, to the story of Billy Fisher, a feckless cobweb of a twat from a working-class background with aspirations to move to London and become a writer, but I’m sure I’ll work it out one day.
What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Capricorn One. It’s the absolute suds. I listen to it when I’m on deadline, because it encourages me, in William Goldman’s words, to ‘just get the fucking toys over the mountain’.
Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?
I’m increasingly interested in people who walk away from fame, so I’d like to see Gian Sammarco, Topsy Jane, Jean Shrimpton – people like that – in anything. Except they wouldn’t do it, for the very reason I’m naming them. Damn. That’s that pitch holed.
Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?
The Capricorn One soundtrack, of course. Or anything by XTC or The Raymond Scott Quintette or Ravel or Grizzly Bear. Or Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom. Or John Adams’s Harmonium. Or the entire KPM back catalogue. Or Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. (I could turn into a recommendation bore very swiftly.)
Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?
The Beatles’ White Album, if it weren’t so easy to get another copy. They’re everywhere. Rentokil will come and get rid of yours for a small fee.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
Either Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? Or Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters. Both writers have a lot in common: chiefly, a supervivid craft and a love of the music of language. And comedy is music.
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
Accidental and creeping success, I think. Though all success is accidental, isn’t it? (This feels like a question for Philomena Cunk. She’d parse accident well. ‘How far in advance should you plan an accident?’)
What are you reading at present?
I just read – literally, today – the manuscript of a novel by Jenny Morrill, a writer destined to march to the front and trouser her awards like a fucking pro. She writes the outrageously funny blog World Of Crap and if you haven’t been there, you’re in for SUCH a treat. I’m also reading a history of Butlin’s by Kathryn Ferry and The Invention Of Nature by Andrea Wulf, just to prove I’m allbrow.
How did you and your colleague Joel Morris first come to become involved with Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe?
Joel met Charlie working on the website that was the sidecar to the programme Attachments. At some point – I think, CLANG!, at the press screening of Look Around You – he asked us to come and write on Wipe. And, of course, we said yes. There’s no-one like Charlie, and writing for him is a bloody joy. We think and talk and write a lot like him anyway, so it’s not a big stretch, but the process of reducing everything down to a supercompacted script that goes past at 400mph is the gnarly bit.
You’re partly responsible for bringing Philomena Cunk to life, in collaboration with Joel Morris, Charlie Brooker and actor Diane Morgan. Can you tell us a little about the creative process behind writing ‘Cunk on Shakespeare’ and ‘Cunk on Christmas’?
Cunk On Shakespeare was very Present Tense. The producer, Sam Ward, knew we had to cover the main beats of Shakespeare’s life, and his Best Of, and knew which locations and resources we had to hand. We sat in the production office and talked with Charlie and wrote and over-wrote and over-over-wrote against a ticking clock for each of the chunks (there were 20 in the shooting script) and Lorry Powell, the director, went away and shot it. That’s the technical bit. The fun bit is that Diane is SUCH a measured and clever performer that writing stuff for this giant-seven-year-old-who’s-been-hit-over-the-head-with-a-spade is shitloads of fun.
The Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups series has become a publishing phenomenon. Ladybird books are part of our cultural heritage – what initially triggered the idea of taking these icons of the socialist idealism and modernist optimism of post-war stability, and dragging them kicking and screaming into this fucked-up millennium?
We’d seen the Ladybird reprints – two boxes: one for boys, one for girls – and realised that there was a factory somewhere that still made the books. And a publishing gig had fallen through for us, so we were spitballing What We Should Do While Everyone Was On Holiday, like we do every year. And we started joking about which publisher we’d like to have on our CV: Faber (a size-zero palimpsest of verse), ha ha ha, etc. – and arrived at Ladybird – and then realised we knew people at Penguin Random House, which owns Ladybird – and thought that the notion that Ladybird were still writing for us, their audience who were five in 1975, with no further resources than their extant archive, was quite a funny one, and decided to be cheeky and ask.
How did you go about pitching The Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups series? Did you encounter much resistance from the owners of the material or was it straightforward?
We sent an email to a friend at PRH (Penguin Random House), who took it round the corner to Ladybird, who said yes, within hours. That was it. There was no resistance at all, except that they showed us a Ladybird parody they didn’t like, which had stuff of questionable taste in it, and said ‘please don’t talk about vaginas,’ which we wouldn’t have anyway, because that unseats the Ladybird voice we wanted to pastiche, and because we don’t know what a vagina is, let alone what it eats or where it builds its nest. Ladybird gave us the keys to the archive, we mocked up a few covers – including The Hipster, The Hen Party and The Line Manager – and we were off.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
The composer Michael Finnissy once said to me, ‘Never give a shit about what anyone thinks of your work, even if they like it’. He was quite right. I give a shit what Joel thinks, obviously, and a handful of other people – but if I read a bad review (and I seldom do, because I don’t go in search of opinion) it has no effect on me. There are friends of mine who are torn in half by reviews – and it’s not good for one’s mental health. This is one of the reasons I could never be an actor: they’re judged by their very appearance. ‘Next? No, not you. Bye.’ What a thing to have to process. It’s no wonder people walk away from it.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your life?
Frankly, Joel. He’s my co-writer and best friend, and we’ve known each other since we were seventeen and were rusticated to The Computer Room (look it up, kids) to type up the school newsletter. We were given access to the means of production, which is a lethal thing to allow two comedy-nerd teenagers. Within two weeks, there was a parody school newsletter doing the rounds under desks – and we’ve been doing the same thing ever since. The Framley Examiner, Ladybird, Cunk, A Touch Of Cloth – they’re all that newsletter, on a ruinous budget. Joel has been there alongside every word I’ve written. I couldn’t have done it without him, though I suspect he could have done it without me, because I hold him in the highest esteem and think he’s a better writer than I am.
Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?
I don’t really go in for heroes. But no, this is horseshit. You should meet as many people as you can. The nearest thing to heroes I met were Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, who I interviewed for a short-lived cult TV magazine in the mid-nineties. They could not have been more generous with their time and thought. They made me wish everyone could meet them.
What would you like to be your epitaph?
‘ASK ABOUT OUR SPECIALS’.
We are at a bar, what are you drinking?
Yet another ale. Tsk.
What are your three favourite cities?
I live in, and love, London. And I occasionally work in, and love, Bristol. But, in the words of the Play School song, If I Were Not In London Now… Paris, New York or Kraków.
What do you do to chill out?
All the usual crap: read, watch, listen, travel, eat, drink. I sense you’re looking for an interesting hobby here, like miniature swimming or clay hostage negotiating or five-a-side tennis. I ain’t got none of that. Sozlcopter.
Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?
Like my National Insurance number or something? Not really. I make my own coleslaw, and it’s pretty heavy on the horseradish, but I hardly think that’s unique. I bet Chris Packham makes his own horseradish-heavy coleslaw. Let’s ask him. CHRIS!
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
There’s isn’t a single element: I love it all. (I know. That’s a glib and flabby answer, but I mean it.) I love writing, I love re-writing, I love seeing the thing in production, I love seeing the finished thing – I re-read (or re-watch or re-listen to) everything I’ve done, just to check it over again. I’m not doing so to enjoy it (though I often do), I’m doing so to make sure I’ve got a critical eye on every semiquaver.
What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?
There are three gigs Joel and I drop everything for: anything Charlie Brooker does; anything Kevin Eldon does; and the Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups. Each of them is a privilege. Charlie and Kev are towers of good. The Ladybird stuff is a slice of luck we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. We’re both fans of Ladybird, and collect the books, and own original artwork – so the chance to muck about with it is insanely handsome. I fully expect to wake up in a minute and find I’m writing half-pagers for Week Ending and that it’s 1992 and I smoke and have a 42-inch waist and a beaten up Sierra with graffiti on the side and a cupboard full of dried pasta and a fridge full of fuck all.
Do you have any upcoming projects? How can our readers discover more about you and your work?
A few TV things, two radio things, two film things, more Ladybird books. If (and I doubt anyone’s that interested) you want to hear more of my polysyllabic yawns, seek out the excellent David Quantick’s excellent book How To Be A Writer, in which he buys Joel and I lunch and lubricates us to the point of actionable verbosity. (Also, it contains words of wisdom from Caitlin Moran, whose writing leaves me breathless, and Jo Unwin, whose sagacity should be nationalised.)
Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk to us!
You’re welcome. Can you undo these cable ties now? My wrists are starting to blue.
❉ Find out all about the Ladybird Books for Grown Ups series on the Penguin website.