'Stick to your guns' BAFTA-winning Murder in Successville director James De Frond on making comedy
James De Frond is the director of BAFTA-winning hit comedy show Murder in Successville as well as Action Team starring Tom Davis and Tim Key. Here he tells Mandy News how he started his career in comedy, how Murder in Successville came about and what the process of shooting the show entails along with some advice to aspiring comedy writers and directors.
James, please introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved in directing for TV and film.
I probably went a more unorthodox route into television. After my A-levels, I didn’t go to university. I researched that if I did a degree in media studies or went to film school then I’d still have to start as a runner. I thought I might as well get a job as a runner and get three years active experience within the industry. I wanted to work in television, comedy specifically, so I made the decision to try and get a job as a runner.
And I did, at Talkback Productions, in 1999. It was an amazing time to be there with Alan Partridge, the beginnings of Ali G, Smack The Pony and Armando Iannucci had on office there too. It was still owned by Smith and Jones then. They sold it six months after I joined but it was such a great place. It was an opening for a runner to help move furniture and put up computers for two weeks and that was my in. I stayed at Talkback for seven years and slowly worked my way up the ranks from camera assistant to cameraman to production and researching and then my big break came with Bo’ Selecta!
I worked with Leigh Francis as a researcher on series two (they’d offered me series one but I couldn’t do it). I was just a researcher but I started to write sketches for Craig David, Michael Jackson, etc. I would then send them to the producer, Spencer Millman, and they started to use them and so I wrote more. On series three, I became more of a writer/writer of additional material as well as a researcher. From there, Leigh peeled away from Talkback and set up his own production company with his agent John Noel and took me and Ben Palmer – Bo Selecta!’s director – along with them.
We started to do all the spin-offs after Bo’ Selecta! such as the sitcom A Bear’s Tale, which was our version of ALF. I co-wrote that with Leigh as well as being the associate producer and slowly worked my way up. I produced and directed an episode of Keith Lemon’s World Tour, which was pre-Celebrity Juice. It was a bit Idiot Abroad with Keith Lemon staying in character and going abroad and doing different experiences.
My really big break came when Michael Jackson died and Channel 4 offered us to do a one-hour Bo’ Selecta! special as a spoof documentary of his life. That ended up as Cha'mone Mo Fo Selecta! which I co-wrote with Leigh and produced and directed.
I started with Leigh as a researcher and finished with Leigh as a co-writer/producer/director. That was my journey to becoming a director! Weirdly, I’ve known Tom Davis since I was 15 – he’s a childhood mate of mine and the funniest guy I knew – so I kept trying to put him in anything I was doing. When we were doing Cha'mone Mo Fo Selecta!, I told Leigh we had to get him in. He got a part as John Landis in a scene about the making of the Thriller video and he’s absolutely hilarious in it. I remember back then, Channel 4 watched it and asked who Tom was. We ended up having a meeting and pitched them The Warm-Up Guy which became the first thing Tom and I wrote together and it ended up as a Comedy Lab for Channel 4.
After that, I did The Morgana Show for Morgana Robinson and brought Tom into that as a second lead. I then went off and did Very Important People, which is an impression show with Morgana Robinson, and Tom went off to do a couple of things. Later on, about four years ago, I remember him calling me about Murder In Successville telling me he had this mad idea and he wanted me to meet the producers of it and it all went from there.
How did Murder in Successville progress from that initial meeting with Tom to the finished article?
They had been developing this idea that wasn’t a panel show or a chat show but where you could still bring in guests and the idea was to have a detective character and a murder mystery and potentially have impressionists in it. I obviously had the background in impressions with Morgana and Leigh so it was in my field. Tom described the idea to me and suggested I meet up with Andy Brereton and Avril Spary, who are the co-creators and producers and so I went to meet them.
It was the maddest idea and hard to explain what it actually was but it was at an early stage. They then offered me the job to come on and do the pilot but all they had at that stage was a 5-10 minute taster with Tom as DI Sleet and Greg James as a rookie in an office. You could see straight away from that scene that it was very funny with the improvisations, the characters and the getting-to-know-you chat. There was another scene where they were looking for murder clues in buckets of slime and it looked a little game showy and entertainment in its flavour.
I took it from there. The way to try and take it to another level is to lessen the entertainment feel and push the scripted comedy more, which is my background. I wanted to push the cop scenarios to make it feel like the celebrity is starring in their own cop movie. We did that by looking at all the most well-known cop scenarios – interrogation, drug busts and all of those greats scenes – and put them into the show, making them feel real, dark and an immersive experience with the best reactions.
We made a pilot and it was a step up from the taster and the series was a step up from the pilot. We learnt so much from the pilot – it would be good for people to see it one day as it was so different from the series. We did enough with it to show the formula worked and that it was just very, very funny. It was a long but funny process getting it right.
In the later series, when you perhaps didn’t feel the need to explain it all to the audience as they were already on the journey with you, did anything change? What were the challenges you faced?
I think we felt that, even with the second series, people might be coming to it for the first time so we would still have to make things clear as we went along. We constructed it so that each scene could move around so if a scene didn’t work, we could lose it. We always did scenes called "bumpers". You had three interrogations for three suspects and you’d have bumpers that were little chats that could go anywhere.
Series one was finding that and, once we realised that it worked as a format, we became more confident with our storytelling in series two. We pushed more story where scenes were connected and had to stay in the same place. We also pushed DI Sleet more as a character and, at the end of series two, he gets shot and we realised you could have those dramatic moments as the audience now care about Sleet.
With series three, the success of the show meant we had to up the ambition because everyone knew the show and the rookie knew what he/she was getting themselves in to. In series one, when you see Jamie Laing go through that experience and have no idea what’s going on, it’s really funny. Whereas with series three, Lorraine Kelly and Richard Osman were big fans and would ask “When do we go undercover?”, “Can I go in Sleet’s car?” and things like that. That was great but made it harder for us to get genuine, funny reactions from them as they knew what was coming. So we did a Victorian episode, a superhero one and we mixed it up so they didn’t have a clue what they were getting in to.
What is it about the show that makes it so successful in your eyes? What’s next for the show and for yourself?
I think the show is so successful because it makes you laugh in so many different ways that a normal comedy show doesn’t. You’ve got scripted lines, character performances, you’ve got ad libs and improvisations, you’ve got hidden camera style reactions, you’ve got corpsing in that blooper reel-style which is so infectious. It can genuinely give you cry-with-laughter moments and I don’t think a lot of comedy television does that anymore. There is a lot of dramedy these days which make you smile but doesn’t make you cry with laughter like Murder In Successville does.
In terms of the future, we’re in talks with the BBC at the moment about potentially moving it to BBC One or Two and going bigger with it or perhaps doing a Comic Relief special. If we end up doing that then we’ll have bigger budgets to up the ambition of the show, which we need to do. Series three showed us that to keep it going as a format you have to go bigger and better with the ideas and you need money for that. The BBC One and Two switch would make sense and it would also attract bigger named guests too.
The other thing we’re looking at is potentially doing a US version of the show. It would still be Tom as Sleet and Liam as Gordon Ramsay but having American improv stars doing the skewed impressions and having big US celebrities as the rookie with the rest the same. We might make that and sell it back into the UK as obviously that would still work here.
There are also talks of doing a movie version which we’ve always wanted to do. I believe we can take that improv comedy style to a big screen and leave all the mistakes in. There isn’t another movie like that. That’s an option but films can take a long while to get funding. We haven’t definitely chosen which one to go for yet but I think it would make sense to continue to grow it on the BBC.
In terms of other stuff, we've got so much going on I don’t know how we’re going to do it all! Tom and Andy Brereton and I are currently running a production company called Shiny Button that is doing many different things. In terms of Tom Davis-led productions, we’re doing a Western for Sky Atlantic consisting of eight one-hour episodes. We’re currently scripting that and outlining each of the episodes. We’re also developing a BBC One sitcom with Tom and an idea with Channel 4 about a bank heist set in the 1980s.
But Murder In Successville will always be a priority, out of the three options I told you, because there is an appetite for it. Once it gets greenlit we will prioritise that over the others just to keep it going. You don’t want too big a gap until you give the audience more of what they love.
With the proposed projects you mentioned, are they all comedy based or are there different genres within those projects?
They’re all out-and-out comedy but the Western will have more of an element of drama. We’ve got a couple of film ideas, too, that we’re looking into. Our dream as a production company is to do comedy films because I just don’t think we do enough of them in this country and they don’t need to cost a fortune.
I think more writers and comedians should be encouraged to give them a go but everyone is terrified and they’re hard to get going. Maybe a Murder In Successville film would be a stepping stone to open that door to do more for us and other talent in the industry. We just want to make stuff that’ll make people laugh.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get involved in writing/producing/directing in the film and TV industry?
In terms of comedy and writing comedy, you’ve got to write what you know and write something that you believe in and sometimes that won’t work. Comedy is very black and white and it’s the hardest genre to get into. You can have an OK drama and people will accept it for what it is whereas with comedy, it either makes you laugh or it doesn’t.
Just stick to your guns and write what you think is funny and hope the people tune into it, knowing that sometimes they won’t. And when they do, make sure it’s something that is different.
From a directing point of view, I always try to do something different. Put your stamp on whatever you do and be confident in doing so.
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