❉ The BAFTA award-winning writer chats about the much-loved sitcom and stage show, and tells us about his latest projects.
Writer, actor and comedian Phil Mealey is the co-creator/co-writer (with Craig Cash) and associate producer of the BBC sitcom Early Doors, currently being repeated on BBC FOUR as one of the Corporation’s “greatest hits” for its centenary celebration. First screened in 2003 this modern classic boasted a brilliant cast and sharp writing, and was revived as a live stage show a few years ago. The recent repeats have also been rapturously received on social media and saw The Guardian declare, “Welcome back Early Doors!” Phil, who appeared in the series as Duffy, also co-wrote episodes of The Royle Family, including the BAFTA winning Queen of Sheba.
I watched Early Doors originally, loved it and regularly rewatch it on DVD. It’s now being repeated on BBC 4 and it’s getting a lot of love. How’s the petition about a third series going Phil? Any response from the Beeb?
It’s gone ballistic really. The fans of the show are really loyal. I think there’s over 6000 names on it now (increasing daily as you read this). I’ve done a few interviews last week. There was a piece in the Guardian (see above – Ed) and a piece in the Manchester Evening News and they tried to get in touch with the BBC for comment and we can’t get anything out of them. They’re almost indifferent towards it which is bizarre seeing as there’s so many people who absolutely love it out there.
Hopefully you’ll get some response from the BBC. Obviously the 2018 stage show went well?
Oh, the stage show was fantastic. We started the stage show at the Lowry. It was hard to gauge what the popularity of it was going to be, really, with it not being on telly for so long. We knew that people liked it, but we weren’t sure, so we started it at the 500-seater in the Lowry thinking, “Well let’s see if people turn up”. By the end of it, we were playing to 8,000 people at the Manchester Arena. It just went crazy.
With the live show we just thought it was going to be a Northern thing, but the producer said as tickets are just flying out we might as well put a tour together. We played the Hammersmith Odeon! It sold out! I was thinking we may need subtitles for this (laughs), but they loved it, so it was great.
You’ve always been into music haven’t you?
Yeah. I read your interview with Will Sergeant by the way. I was a massive Bunnymen fan and have seen the Bunnymen loads of times and went to the Crystal Days thing they did in ‘84 and recently saw them perform Ocean Rain at the Echo Arena. I started going to gigs when I was about 14. I used to go to the Electric Circus in Collyhurst in Manchester. That was sort of the big punk era ‘76/’77. I was only 14 or 15 at the time but my mate had an older brother who drove us to gigs.
Who did you see at the Electric Circus?
Oh man… the first gig I saw was the Clash. The Slits supported them. I saw the Ramones supported by Talking Heads. The Stranglers… Steel Pulse. There was quite a reggae crossover. Buzzcocks. Loads and loads of bands.
You were in bands yourself, weren’t you?
Yeah, I was in a band. The band I was in was called Absent Friends because we had no mates come to see us (laughs). We played the Hacienda. We used to play the International in Manchester. Yeah, we did alright really. We had a single out and all that kind of stuff. I loved that. I’ve actually written a musical so I’m still really into the music stuff.
Would that be the Making A Murderer musical? I read about that and that seemed interesting. Is it going to be touring?
Well, I’m just talking to producers at the moment. It’s a bit of a weird concept to be honest but it works, and it worked in Edinburgh when we took it to the Fringe. It’s based on the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. It’s almost like a Shakespeare story really. If anyone wrote that, no one would commission it – they’d say “This is completely unreal and it would never happen in real life!” But it has. And the guy is still in prison. Completely innocent. But the characters in the documentary were sort of larger than life as well.
Anyway, we did a month in Edinburgh and towards the end of this month we found three producers are interested in developing it into a two-hour thing. In Edinburgh all the slots are one hour. I’ve got a two-hour script ready to go. I’ve got the idea of developing it with them and then developing it in the regions. Going on tour with it and hopefully getting it on in the West End. That’s the big plan.
So, with Early Doors. Say the BBC or whoever got back and said “Do you and Craig have an idea of the script and what you want to write?”, have you got an idea?
Well, when we wrote the stage show a few years ago me and Craig sort of chatted about it. We were getting no response from the BBC, but we’d always planned to do a live show. We wrote it secretly just between ourselves. We didn’t tell anybody because there’s such a love for the show, we’d sort of created a standard for ourselves really that we didn’t want to drop. The last thing we would have wanted was for people to come to the show and think “…Ah it’s not as good as the series” or “it’s crap” so we wanted to make sure that it was good. I think we succeeded really because there were amazing comments about it. We were dead chuffed with it. If the BBC came back and said you’ve got a series, we’d definitely be able to write it.
Personally, even if they didn’t want a series, I’d love to do a Christmas special. I’ve always planned to do a Christmas special of Early Doors anyway because there’s something magic about that time. Going in the pub on Christmas day. From being a teenager, we always used to go in the pub whilst mum was cooking Christmas dinner. I still do that. There’s something magic about it.
Could you use the same cast?
Yeah, unfortunately Rodney (Lichfield), who played Tommy in the original cast, passed away two or three years ago now. The rest of us are still around and they’d all love to do it.
It was a different couple to Eddie and Joan on the tour, wasn’t it?
Yes, as far as we were concerned the original actors Mark (Benton) and Lorraine (Cheshire) were doing it and then we got to about two or three months before we were due to start, and Mark was doing this thing called Shakespeare and Hathaway which was on BBC 1. The date clashed with Early Doors, and we were saying “we can’t move it now unfortunately”. The producers of that show couldn’t move their dates either. We’d written it already so when we did the stage show we had to change to characters who were more or less the same. We did have a scene about the birthday cake blowing up, saying “You’ll never get two like that again!”
So, we had Freddie and June who were more or less the same, but because we’d already written it, it was like a way of getting a couple of different characters in who were more or less the same as them two.
Some of the original cast are big stars now aren’t they? James McAvoy, Maxine Peake, etc.
Yeah, I haven’t seen James for a while, but I remember him saying “When are we doing another series of Early Doors?” I’ve heard him say a few times in interviews that Early Doors was his favourite TV job.
Was it fun to work on because the cast were great and you seemed to have a laugh with it?
It was great. Everyone got on. I think you can tell that on screen. In between takes everybody would just stay on set and have sing songs and all that. Just great.
And the bloopers are great.
Yeah, for the “day out” episode we were just eating bacon and eggs all day for about two days! Haha!
How did you originally start writing, Phil. Did you start on radio?
Well, I always wrote. I was always good at English at school, but I never went to university or anything like that. I was an engineer really. Back in them days there was a thing called the YOPS (Youth Opportunity Programme Scheme), so I ended up falling into one of those at an engineering company in Stockport. So, I went down that route really, but I always used to write. I used to work away quite a lot so I would always write sketches and things and just send them in to various people. Me and Craig were mates since we were teenagers and had worked at Tesco part time together.
So, I sort of carried on doing the engineering. Then me and Craig wrote a thing for Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley called Dick And Ken The Snooker Men which we did on their Radio One show and I think it’s on YouTube somewhere.
We always used to write stuff when we were younger just for a laugh really. So, when Craig was writing with Caroline (Aherne) I was around at the same time, but I had a kid on the way and I’d just got a new job. I thought I’d have to follow that route really. I worked on The Mrs Merton Show though and was in the Mrs Merton house band.
Me and Craig really liked Cheers, the American sit com. Somewhere we had this idea “Wouldn’t it be great to do a sort of working-class thing set in a pub about the people that we know” and that’s how it came about really. We also thought maybe it would be nice to write about a chippy as well. A pub, a chippy and maybe a corner shop. We were also going to make it about an old woman and her carer. We always came back to writing about the pub and to writing about this woman and her carer. We then decided to combine the two together. It became about the old woman with the cleaner coming in and that made it a self-contained thing and we could have it all going on in the pub.
Was it easy to get Early Doors commissioned at the time?
Oh God no. Caroline had just gone off to Australia. Craig had co-written The Royle Family and that was massive. Anyway BBC 2 turned Early Doors down! BBC 1 turned it down! ITV turned it down! Channel 4 turned it down! We just carried on writing anyway. So… Eighteen months after it started and after I’d given up the job, I was fifty grand in debt – really! I still had a mortgage and a family to support. And then this guy that worked at Sky got a job at the BBC, a guy called Mark Freeland. He said “Keep coming back to this script, this is yours”, you know. And thankfully we managed to find some money for it and that was it. We were away then.
Was it quite easy getting the cast together?
Yeah, Craig had worked with John Henshaw on The Royle Family so he was always going to be the landlord but everybody else we just cast. We just threw the net out. We knew who we wanted and the characters we wanted. Yeah, we just saw people. Maxine Peake, James McAvoy and Mark Benton etc., they were just good actors. Obviously, James McAvoy has had this incredible career, but we just saw him. He just came for an audition, and he was great.
Was Shameless going on at the same time?
Yeah, well that was the reason Maxine and James were only in Series One. They had already commissioned two series of Shameless and they’d kind of signed them both up. The BBC waited to see what Early Doors did before they created a second series so they were both honestly gutted that they couldn’t do series two. We got a new character played by Lee Ingleby to do series two. Lee has been in loads of stuff since as well.
You and Craig were still writing episodes and Christmas specials for the Royle Family including the BAFTA-winning Queen of Sheba episode?
Yeah, Caroline came back from Australia, and she’d been poorly. She’d had a lot of problems, it’s well documented. She was struggling a bit. We really needed to do something to keep her mind occupied and stuff. I think her Nana had died the year before and I think we just got to talking about it and wrote The Queen Of Sheba. Liz Smith was great in that. Then we kept writing the Christmas specials until sadly Caroline passed away. But they were great to work on and she was great. I’d known Caroline for a long time. I knew her when she worked on the radio on KFM which was signal radio in Stockport.
She really was a one-off, wasn’t she?
Oh, Caroline was fantastic. Really, really funny. She didn’t handle fame very well. She didn’t like that side of it. She kept herself very much to herself. With Early Doors when we started writing it, she had come back from Australia so we sent her the script and said “Have a read of this.” She actually really loved it.
I saw her at an alternative comedy night quite early in her career, when she used to do the nun character. Sister Mary Immaculate. I think she was supporting John Hegley.
Yes, and she used to do the Country & Western character Mitzi Goldberg. When you think of The Mrs Merton Show she carried the show really. A lot of pressure, that. Interviewing people and interacting with the audience…
She was supposed to be genius level hyper-intelligent as well, wasn’t she?
Yes, she was very clever, but lovely and really down to earth. There were no airs and graces with Caroline.
So, what projects have you got coming up Phil? It sounds like you’re busy. Obviously, you’ve got the musical and hopefully something will happen with Early Doors – anything else?
Yeah, I’m hoping to get the musical cracking. Also, me and Craig have written a play called Can’t Do Right For Doing Wrong. We wrote it in lockdown. We always used to write in the same room but by nature of the fact that we were in lockdown we had to write it via Zoom. We’ve written that.
It’s set in a guest house in Blackpool. There’s only, like, four characters in it but we just wanted to write something, and I think it was because we were in lockdown that we just thought “Forget about the pathos and all that. We’ll just write something that is really funny.” So, touch wood, it’ll probably happen at the end of this year. We plan on putting it on in Blackpool and then touring it. We’re in talks really at the moment. If you’re like 40 and above, it’s kind of difficult to find any comedy that caters for that audience. Especially on TV. Which is I guess why I think the Early Doors live show did so well.
There’s a bit of nostalgia going on. Pubs like the Grapes in Early Doors still exist but less of them exist. The pub I go into is a bit like that. When I was a kid, we always went to Blackpool or Rhyl or Southport and stayed at dodgy guesthouses. No matter what part of the country you’re from – if you were from London for example and went to Great Yarmouth or Bournemouth or whatever there’s still that kind of feeling of …like Morrisey said… “the seaside town, that they forgot to close down” about those places. I mean those sort of places are still around. People should identify with it. I think Early Doors fans will really like it. Obviously, we write in a certain style of humour and that humour is in it.
I do presentations for schools as well which I really love doing. I was in Salford this week at a college just trying to give inspiration really. I come from a pretty working-class family, so I just sort of say to them “I know it sounds like I’m showing off when I’m talking about winning a Bafta and this that and the other. What I’m trying to do is explain how I got from where you are to this. It’s achievable.” I give tips on narrative and character. I love it because they’re really receptive and you find a lot of them are really interested in the process of writing and character building and all that kind of stuff.
I can imagine it’s inspirational when someone like you goes into schools?
Well, it is. They can see he’s done it and “He’s kind of been there” and there’s no bullshit. This is a tangible thing. Loads of times I do a PowerPoint thing… There’s a slide of me and Craig when we won the BAFTA and I just sort of say you know – “I hope it speaks to you and gives you inspiration to carry on what you’ve been doing, and I hope you’ll be pictured with a Bafta in the future yourselves.” Last week I took the BAFTA with me and said “you know what I said about having a picture with a BAFTA? How about let’s do it today?” and they’re all “Fuckin hell!” and they’re all queuing up to have a picture with it! It’s great. I’ve got a website and there’s loads of pictures on there. I really love it ‘cos it’s nice to just speak to younger writers and see the appetite they’ve got as well.
Going back to Early Doors you’d think commissioners would be looking for something different wouldn’t you because there’s no comedy like that really?
Well, when we first submitted Early Doors one of the comments was “Why don’t these people like each other. They’re always having a go at each other.” We were like “What do you mean? They love each other.”
The thing is about it is there’s a warmth to it. If we did a comedy about a Northern scally who is on drugs ripping off his mates, you’d probably get it commissioned. You know that happens. For the majority of people though there’s a lot of warmth and affection for each other. Maybe that doesn’t fit into the narrative of the working class. Shameless and things like that did really well but they are a bit stereotyped. Ours are just normal working class. The coppers are a bit dodgy but….(laughs)
❉ Follow Phil Mealey on Twitter: @PhilMealey
❉ Watch ‘Early Doors on’ BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001gzqs
❉ Details of Phil’s upcoming and current projects can be found at Phil Mealey – The Official Website for Phil Mealey
❉ The commission to get Early Doors a new series is here: Petition · Commission a new series of Early Doors · Change.org
❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre. His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1
Images: All rights reserved, subject to copyright.