Interview: Dan Patterson
Why 'Mock The Week' man is out for a Duck
Producer and writer Dan Patterson freely admits to being an addict. But while there are many in show business with substance abuse problems, Patterson's compulsion is somewhat different - he gets withdrawal symptoms if the audience is not laughing loudly enough at the material he has penned.
Fortunately for Patterson, his show The Duck House, which opened recently in the West End, has been getting plenty of laughs. The farce is based on the MPs' expenses scandal of 2009. Not that he is counting but Patterson reckons there are "50 big laughs" in the production. "You do become a laughter junkie," he reflects. "I sit there thinking 'that should be a laugh - that was a laugh last night. What can we do on that gag to make it better?' Laughter is my fix. I really do need it."
The idea for the show came to Patterson - best known for producing hit TV series like Mock The Week and Whose Line Is It Anyway? - as he watched the expenses scandal unfolding on television news. "There was a story about a woman MP who was seen moving furniture into a flat to make it look as if she was living there. I immediately thought that this was the stuff of farce - you are pretending that one thing is actually another thing." Colin Swash, who writes gags for Mock The Week and Have I Got News for You, agreed to write the play with Patterson and, after years of work, it premiered last month.
It is his first venture into theatre and he is happy to admit that he is hugely excited to see his name in lights at the Vaudeville. "I know it might seem obsessive, but I have seen the show 25 to 30 times. When I laugh, it is not at the lines I or Colin have written but at the way the actors are delivering them. Actors like Ben Miller, Nancy Carroll, Simon Shepherd and Diana Vickers make a huge difference."
He admits that the theatre is a very different discipline from the TV shows he is used to. "It's a huge learning curve. On Mock The Week you keep the cameras running for two-and-a-half hours and then you edit down to half-an-hour. In theatre, you spend an awfully long time on it but then it's the same every night. "It's the audience which makes it different.
Laughter is my fix. I really do need it
"People say I'm obsessed with audience and I am. In improv, if the audience isn't responding then it doesn't work because the performers need that trampoline to bounce off. I find it an utterly fascinating process to see how in theatre the audience reacts differently on different nights."
Having made his name in the world of TV improv and satire, his concept for the The Duck House was very different. He feels that TV commissioning editors are no longer receptive to farce or broad comedy and that its natural home is now the theatre, a notion supported by the fact that shows such as Boeing Boeing, and One Man, Two Guvnors have done so well in the West End.
"You could have done this play as satire like The Thick Of It and you could have made it into a serious drama. We were chided by one critic for not writing Pravda. But I liked the idea that this stuff was so ridiculous and comical. If someone wants to write a tragic drama about the scandal, then there's no reason why they shouldn't. But I like laugh-out-loud comedy."
He has been at the forefront of TV comedy since Whose Line Is It Anyway? opened in 1988. He says the inspiration for the show could be traced back to Habonim - an organisation which has proved almost to be a Jewish equivalent of the Cambridge Footlights in terms of the talent it has produced. Graduates, in addition to Patterson, include Arnold Wesker, David Baddiel, Sacha Baron Cohen and Mike Leigh. "There was definitely an atmosphere which was creative and spontaneous. We would spend a lot of time playing around with comic ideas. Parents should send their kids to Jewish youth groups. They are very creative places and you get to meet like-minded people. It's one of the biggest gifts I had in my life."
Whose Line is it Anyway? became a fixture on Channel 4, winning a Bafta, but it was in America where the show went really mainstream. Patterson is pretty sure it was the first to be taken overseas lock, stock and barrel by the same production company - a concept which has since been copied by shows including Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and X Factor. "In the US, we had Drew Carey as the host who was a massive sitcom star at the time and we also had the same Americans who had been in over 200 shows over here, so they were very experienced. We were on ABC and did so well that NBC put Friends against us in the same time slot. That was a kind of badge of honour."
When Patterson came back to Britain with his young family, he set about replicating its success with a concept for a topical stand-up panel show - Mock The Week. After a quiet opening on BBC2, the show gained momentum, particularly when some of Frankie Boyle's more provocative material began to register with the public. Boyle has gone but Mock The Week has maintained its popularity, to date racking up more than 120 episodes.
Patterson is married to Laura Marks, now hugely influential in UK Jewish life. "She founded Mitzvah Day, which from a standing start has become established in more than 30 countries. On the back of that, from nowhere she has become number two at the Board of Deputies. She is so efficient. People are always asking me to go on committees and I always say: 'Ask Laura. She's great at that, I'm terrible.'"
The Duck House - www.vaudeville-theatre.co.uk