Bob Larbey

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Interview Date(s): 
14 Apr 1990
1 Apr 1996
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Interview notes


[This first interview, transcribed from Joyce Robinson’s handwritten notes, appears to focus more on techniques and craft of writing. DS]

Bob described working with co-writer John Esmonde, how and where, on Please Sir!, Get Some In!, The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles, and Brush Strokes and why he wrote A Fine Romance alone. He talks of lengths of runs and ‘natural lifespans’ of series; a Goodlife special for the Queen and what inspires and kicks off ideas. Bob adapted William Trevor’s Mrs Silly for Maggie Smith and Granada TV. Also H.E.Bates’ Darling Buds of May. He speaks of a preference to adapting material with little dialogue, since he writes all dialogue; he discusses how they arrive at titles and character’s names, how they will avoid cardboard characters and cliché situations, and which situations are/are not funny. The importance also of research as the audience always know instinctively when facts are wrong. He describes how he and John deal with occasional ‘writers block’ and consider why rogues and weak characters succeed in comedy – ‘nice men have no appeal’. They believe successful comedies introduce some element of sadness. He says he doesn’t analyse other writer’s work – only when its patently bad.

Bob wrote Hiccups – a play – in 1980 with John Esmonde but it didn’t go to the West End – he directed his local Ockley Dramatic Society’s production of the play however. At the time he was writing another. He ends with discussion of the sound of words and their importance; avoidance of lazy writing, and examples of the success or otherwise of certain place and character names used thus far.

[Second interview appears to focus more on Bob’s life and on specific programmes]

Born 1934 in Clapham. Attended Clapham Grammar school where he met fellow future write John Esmonde. Did National Service (Royal Army Education Corps); belonged to the Army Kinematograph Society (AKS); watched many films, especially comedies. Considered Sports ? writing on demobilisation, but took job as “progress chaser” in printing block firm. Joined up with John Esmonde whilst both working to try comedy sketches: much work returned. Persevered for two years. The BBC ‘Beer and sandwiches’ policy to encourage budding writers paid off: Frank Muir and Denis Norden read their work and offered encouragement. Finally, 1963, they were commissioned to write a sketch for The Dick Emery Show – pay 10 guineas [£10-50]. Commissioned next by Ted Taylor/BBC to write a half hour radio comedy and decided and decided that they could just manage on £15 a week to give up the day job- i.e.March 1965. Offered then to write a TV version of The Dick Emery Show – four times the money of radio. Richard Waring? BBC Script Editor commissioned a sketch for Comedy Playhouse (TV): Room at the Bottom. Didn’t work or run on. 1968, Frank Muir as Head of Comedy at London Weekend Television looked them up and Please Sir! came out if it. A real success with viewers. The Fen Street Gang, a follow-up of the characters did not do so well. Sheila Lemon, long-term agent, advised against accepting a staff contract. 28 episodes of The Good Life came next culminating in a visit from HM The Queen (Her favourite programme) at the (still) live performance. Got out then while still on top. Get Some In! for Thames Television (early 1970s) followed. Feet First flopped; then Just Liz ran for six episodes and Don’t Rock the Boat (Thames) for 2 series. The Other One didn’t catch on either. Writing continued in longhand. Ever Decreasing Circles (TV) had great success, 28 episodes concluding with specially written last episode. Two stage plays about now: A Month of Sundays and Hiccups. Parted company with Esmonde, but last joint effort was Down to Earth (TV) 1995. Bob Larbey started to write alone now (many new family ties inspired effort). Thus: A Fine Romance, On the Up and My Good Friend followed quickly. James Cellan Jones [BEHP Interview No 518] Bob’s favourite all-round director. Sheila Lemon still his agent – “the best”.

[Joyces notes read] NB Following the interview Bob remembered he’d written Brush Strokes (TV) in the 1980s, two radio adaptations of William Trevor short story Mrs Silly (1986) and H.E. Bates Darling Buds of May. He wrote and directed two plays for local amateur dramatic society; As Times Goes By – as mentioned – for radio; and in 1996 My Good Friend (TV) as well as Ain’t Misbehavin’ (TV) 1997. Bob made comments on the writers’ union and his own good luck.