Books, broadcasting and Broadway

An interview with the man behind the lines; comedy writer and Exeter alumnus John O'Farrell

The last time the University of Exeter caught up with alumnus, author and scriptwriter John O’Farrell (English and Drama, 1983), he was preparing for preview shows of his latest Broadway production - Mrs Doubtfire.

This was February 2020, during what turned out to be the last weeks of ‘normality’ before the world was gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Broadway run has obviously been paused for now along with so much else, but in true showbiz style, the show will still go on (just at a much later date).

“It was actually quite a shock, it just came and took over everything so quickly.” says John. “At the very beginning of rehearsals in February 2020 we all had to go around the room and say one thing about ourselves and the last person, in this room of about 60 people, said ‘my name’s Jiang and I’ve just flown in from Wuhan’ and there was a huge laugh. You know, ‘as if that’s going to affect us!’

“Then it was just a few weeks later in March, when we were three shows into the previews, that we were stopped. ‘Broadway is closing for 30 days’ we were told. We all thought it would be more than 30 days, but now it could be 18 months, two years even possibly.

“It’s a blow because we were just getting going; we were all excited, all champing at the bit to get going, full of ideas of how to improve things from the previews and suddenly the rug was pulled from under us.

“We will be back of course. The Sondheim Theatre is still waiting for us, it’s just a question of when it’s safe and when audiences are confident enough to return. I don’t think it’s going to be this spring or anything like that unfortunately, autumn at the earliest."

“It makes me feel very lucky to be a writer not a performer, because I can carry on doing what I do every day in lockdown but these

guys who work in the theatres, whose passion is to be on the stage or working behind the scenes on sets and lighting and everything... they’ve had that taken away from them. It is a very tough time for a lot of people.”

As well as having Mrs Doubtfire launch in New York, John’s first Broadway show Something Rotten, a comedy musical story about theatrical competitors to Shakespeare in the 16th century, was due to come to the UK in 2020. That also had to be postponed due to the pandemic but is currently scheduled for a 2022 run in Birmingham.

John says: “2020 was shaping up to be a great year – my second show on Broadway, my first coming to the UK for the first time. It was all very exciting and the virus put a halt to it all. However you have to remember there are far worse things in life and I am very lucky compared to many people.”

Promotional posters from John's Broadway musicals, Something Rotten and Mrs Doubtfire.

Launched in Jan 2020, We Are History sees John and comedian Angela Barnes take a look quirky events from the past.

One thing that definitely wasn’t postponed in 2020 though, is John’s new podcast with comedian Angela Barnes - We are History. Launched in January, each weekly episode takes a light-hearted look at a chapter from history as the two discuss a myriad of topics from Spy Pigeons to the Miner’s Strike, Eurovision to the Battle of Hastings.

John says: “I didn’t know Angela before, but I’d seen her Edinburgh show and thought it was really good. I had written a couple of history books and out of the blue she got in touch and said ‘fancy doing a history podcast?’ I thought it sounded like great fun – basically read a couple of books and then talk about them.

“We spent a good chunk of 2019 recording episodes once every three or four weeks and then taking too long to launch it. First of all we were going to do it autumn and then it was too near Christmas so we ended up launching January 2020, but by then we had a great backlog, which was great. Although early on we did an episode on the Black Death and there we are chatting away about it saying ‘there’s nothing comparable to this is there, there’s not really been anything like this since…’ so we had to put a little disclaimer on that one!

“Some of the subjects are suggestions, for example someone suggested the Easter Rising to us and we thought it would make a good episode. Plus I’m very interested in Irish history being half Irish.

"The History of Beer came out of one of the other episodes on the Norman Conquest of 1066. I’ve got this bugbear that when you go to a posh party they say ‘red or white’ and I’m a beer drinker. So in this episode I’m going on about how it’s all the Normans’ fault - making us think we have to be snobby and drink wine! And Angela goes ‘I’m with you!’ and we have a good old rant about it for a while – our main takeaway from 1066 really! So then we thought we should do a whole thing on the subject.”

Scrolling through the episodes there are a number of events that people would know little, if anything, about. Did you know the British invaded Iceland in 1940 for example?

“That’s a particular favourite of mine.” says John. “I kept trying to start a novel about this and I still haven’t managed. I just think it’s so interesting. Imagine being a 17 year old lad in 1940 and the world is falling apart, Hitler is marching into France, and you are stationed in the Arctic Circle at a place with the midnight sun and the northern lights, surrounded by glaciers and volcanos. It feels like a great setting for a novel or film – one day I will try and make it happen!

“The thing I loved about it is it’s got to be the politest invasion in history – the British army turned up going ‘I’m so embarrassed about this, I do hope we don’t damage anything…’ it’s very funny and very British. That was a event I spotted when I was writing my first history book and I thought well there’s a story that people don’t know enough about.”

Prior to musicals and podcasts, John built a successful career as a writer. First as a comedy scriptwriter and later as an author of fiction and non-fiction books. He started out on BBC Radio 4’s Week Ending where he met writing partner Mark Burton. Together they wrote a number of radio comedies before being picked up by producers for Spitting Image where they stayed for 10 series satirising the worlds of sport, politics and entertainment. It is down to John, that John Major’s puppet became permanently grey.

John says: “I was always drawn to comedy and did a bit of stand up when I was at Exeter which went quite well but it wasn’t an immediate leap into the industry for me. It took me four years from graduation to start being part as a comedy writer on a regular basis so in that gap I worked on building sites, took driving jobs, did all sorts of different roles. I didn’t have any real idea of how to break into the industry and so I spent a few years in London working away before I finally found a way in to what I wanted to do, which was writing for comedy sketch shows.

Spitting Image was a huge show at the time. It went out on a Sunday night and everyone watched it, about 10 million people each week. So at that point I was about 26, 27 and writing for one of the top comedy shows in the country and thought I’d really fulfilled my ambitions. It was such immense fun and at the time I couldn’t imagine myself ever doing anything else except writing comedy for TV.

“From there I went on to do other things like co-write some of the head to heads for Smith and Jones, for Clive Anderson, a Murder Most Horrid with Dawn French, and ultimately Have I Got News For You – one of two people writing the scripts for Angus Deayton. That was great fun because it was a hot show, there were always interesting guests and you’d go along to the recording and watch from behind the scenes. And then when I started writing books they invited me back as a guest so that was like being a ball boy who got play centre court. That was a big step up for me, to be on telly and quite a surprise to me really.”

"More peas Norma?" - John spent 10 series as one of the main writers on ITV's Spitting Image satirising politicians including Conservative Prime Minister John Major, who appeared permanently and completely grey.

Image (C) ITV Image Archive

John's 'breakout book'.

The book that kick-started those invites was John’s best-selling political memoir Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter released in 1998. He has since followed it up with five novels, two history books and several collections of his columns. Plus in 2017 he published a sequel to the first book – Things Can Only Get Worse.

Things Can Only Get Better was my breakout book really. I joined the Labour Party while at university and there are a few chapters set down in Exeter during the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike and the early years of Thatcher. It’s a political rights of passage story I suppose, it’s me going from an angry young man to a moderate, middle class, middle aged parent.

“I thought that book would sit at the back of the politics section of the bookshop and be read by anoraks like me, but it seemed to catch a mood and was number one for weeks and opened so many doors for me. That’s why I was on Question Time and Newsnight, Grumpy Old Men and HIGNFY and everything. Suddenly I was flavour of the month and thinking ‘I wonder how long this lasts?!’”

The book also opened up a different door for John – that of prospective MP. He stood for Labour first in 2001 in Maidenhead and then in Eastleigh in 2013.

The first attempt, in a Conservative stronghold, was more for the humour and formed the basis of a BBC documentary Losing My Maidenhead while the second was rather more serious.

John says: “In 2001 Labour were going to win by a landslide again, there was no jeopardy. I thought, did I want to deliver leaflets again, around an area we were already going to win or did I want to do something different, off the back of this book? So I decided I’d go back to my home town, where my mum and dad still were, and stand against this new Tory MP that no one’s heard of called Theresa May. It was all good fun.

“The second time it was a by-election and Ed Miliband’s office rang up and asked me to be their candidate. It was a three week campaign and they needed someone immediately so I said ‘alright I’ll do it!’ And blimey that was a whirlwind! All the things I’d written in the first book were brought up and used against me, and David Cameron was reading out scandalous extracts in the House of Commons. I’d written an honest book but of course everything gets taken out of context by the media.

“So now I’ve stood for election three times; once for the council and then as a MP twice and I’ve come second and then third and then fourth so there’s a sort of pattern emerging there…”

We obviously couldn’t end the interview without asking about what must surely be a career highlight – captaining Exeter’s University Challenge alumni team.

In December 2012 John braved the questions along with Guardian feature writer John Crace (Politics, 1979), Dr Martin Crewe, Director of Barnardo’s Scotland (Geology, 1981 & PhD Geology, 1986) and Professor Christine Allison from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

“I thought we’d be pretty good.” John says. “We all went for lunch together and we had this big book of University Challenge questions, and as we’re going through it all of us knew the answer to one of them so I was feeling pretty confident.

"Then within the first five minutes of the show I buzzed prematurely on a question and got it wrong – I was right about my bit of the answer but it was part of a wider question and I was just too excited and enthusiastic! So we’re suddenly minus five points, because of me - the captain!

“And then for a while we could not get a word in edgeways, one of the guys in the Glasgow team was so good, so quick, that we sat there on minus five points for about 20 minutes and I thought ‘Oh god I’m actually disgracing my old university!’ Finally we turned it around and we all got some answers and it wasn’t quite the humiliation it had threatened to be.

University Challenge is very strict, I’ve been on Pointless and some other quiz programmes since and they’re much more relaxed. When a question was a bit tough I joked to Jeremy Paxman if I may phone a friend and that didn’t go down very well. ‘No you may not!’ came the stern reply!”