Young writers Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm were commissioned in 2009 to write two pantomimes for the Lyric Hammersmith. With last year’s Jack And The Beanstalk collaboration with Richard Bean and Ché Walker under their belt – or perhaps tucked into their boot would be more festive – this year the duo went it alone and Dick Whittington And His Cat opened earlier this month. With another panto already being discussed for next year, the pair tell Charlotte Marshall how to go about writing a family festive treat, why you can’t take things too personally when dealing with comedy and how they are attempting to heal the scars of being dragged to bad pantos in their youth.
Firstly, tell me about Dick Whittington And His Cat.
Morgan: It’s about a guy who wants to seek his fame and fortune, meets a cat on his way, falls in love and obviously gets scuppered by a king rat and they all end up on an island…it’s quite a random story to be honest! It all comes good in the end and Dick is the saviour of the day and ends up as Mayor as his reward.
Joel: It was really interesting studying the real life of Dick Whittington when we were doing it because he was quite an amazing bloke. There was a girl in my primary school who was apparently a ridiculously distant relation of his so we always talked about him in school, so it was quite weird to then do a panto about him! He was amazing; he was made Lord Mayor of London and the first thing he did was bring in London’s right to vote for a Mayor, took himself out of office and was obviously voted back in.
MLM: We start out with him looking for fame and fortune but then in the end, when he’s Mayor, we do point out that rather than all about wanting to be famous – which is a lot of the focus of today – he did actually achieve quite a lot in his lifetime so we do make sure people know that.
When did you first start working together?
JH: When I wanted to be famous I think [laughs]! I met Mog [Morgan] when she used to perform as one of a comedy duo called Trippplicate. It was brilliant. I saw Mog do that and at the same time I had my first play on [Mikey The Pikey], we made friends through that. We worked together on Suddenlossofdignity.com at the Bush – that was the first time we worked properly together – and then we did last year’s panto with two other writers Ché Walker and Richard Bean.
How did creating the Lyric Hammersmith’s pantomimes come about?
MLM: They approached us. I think at the time they wanted to bring together some established writers with some slightly more up-and-coming writers to bring a real mix of voices together and it was lovely to be asked.
JH: I think they wanted to put together a group of people that were going to want to make the best panto possible last year. I think they thought “Right, Richard Bean, he knows stand-up comedy”, obviously having been a stand-up comic, and they probably thought me and Mog knew something about stupid comedy and Ché was a little bit street [laughs].
After last year’s experience, were you looking forward to doing it again?
JH: Definitely. I think that everyone last year learnt a lot about what it is to write a panto and what it is to write a panto for the Lyric Hammersmith, so it was a really valuable experience. To be asked back is brilliant because I feel like last year was great but we didn’t quite crack it and then this year feels really good.
MLM: We definitely learnt a lot. None of us had written a panto before and I do think there’s a definite art to it. You have to strike quite a big balance between adult gags and kid gags, all the interaction and making sure you keep all of the traditions that everyone’s expecting but it’s also a Lyric panto so we’ve got our own ways of doing things.
Why did you want to write a pantomime?
MLM: I’ve been writing comedy for quite a few years now and I like all sorts of comedy and it was, for me, attractive because I’ve never done it before and I thought it would be a challenge, which is was, but a lovely challenge because when you end up with the final product and – particularly with school groups – you just see them going absolutely mental and having a brilliant time. Coming from doing gigs in comedy clubs and on the Edinburgh fringe, when I’m mostly performing to an adult audience because of the content, it’s so nice to do something where an entire family can go there and sit and watch it.
As young writers, do you think you are you attracting a new audience to the genre?
MLM: I hope so; I think there’s a bit of snobbery towards panto. I used to be a bit snobby about panto because my experience of panto was obviously fun, but at the same time I remember thinking “God, it’s always really long and it’s always full of really dreadful jokes and its always full of screaming children” and it was the last thing I wanted to do, particularly when I hit teenage years. But I’m hoping that the kind of pantos we write are the ones which actually are interesting, fun, silly and exciting to go and watch for people that are our age as well as kids and will hopefully change the perception of it. I’ve been persuading a few friends to come along who say “We never want to go to panto, we hate panto” and when they did come along they actually had a really great time so hopefully we are attracting a new audience to it – people who’ve been a bit scarred by their experiences of it!
How do you go about writing a family production which everyone will find funny?
MLM: We always try and aim for the kind of show that is pitched for both audiences; we don’t want to go to over the head of kids but at the same time we want to give stuff that adults will secretly enjoy while their kids are wondering what’s going on, but it is quite hard, we’re still working on that.
JH: I think our touchstones would be The Muppets and Shrek and stuff like that rather than the slightly smutty history of panto. We’ve tried to carve out a panto that is very traditional but very family, so it’s a tough tone to strike but I think we’re much better this year than we were last year because we’ve got more experience.
Unlike writing a straight play where the art is the key or the journey of the crucial character, we’re really trying to make a fun Christmas show, so in terms of writing it it’s actually quite easy because you can’t have any ego about it, it’s either funny or it’s not and it’s got to go if it’s not good!
How do you write collaboratively?
JH: Steve [Marmion, the show’s director] is one of the writers on it too really. He’s done a lot of panto before so he knows the shape of what it should be, so he colours it in I guess. There’s so much more that individuals bring to it as well. If we find out someone can tap dance then we’re going to chuck that in and if we find someone has an endless supply of puns then we’ll give them five minutes to get them out of their system! It’s a massive collaboration in the end.
MLM: Steve’s obviously our panto guru because he knows so much about it. In terms of us writing it, we had this grid of all the scenes that needed writing and we would take it in turns to write these scenes and then rewrite each other’s scenes. Once we had an act we would take it in turns to rewrite the act and in those bits things disappear, things get cut and sometimes we sneak them back in if we particularly like them. But like Joel said, it’s down to the end product so there’s no point being precious. Luckily because we all know each other quite well, we don’t take things personally.
Did you have any disagreements over the script?
JH: I don’t think we have that many and they all get sorted out as soon as you get an audience in and they don’t laugh at something that you were sure was funny.
MLM: Steve is very good with that because he lets things play their course and try things out. That happens in the rehearsal rooms as well. We actually wrote a script that we knew had a bunch of gags in there that probably wouldn’t last beyond the first rehearsal but we had to try them just to make sure and I think that’s quite true with comedy anyway – you might as well try them out until people are looking at you in a blank manner. Then you know it’s not going to work [laughs].
JH: It would be great if we had a story of throwing pints across the room!
MLM: Maybe next year?
Would you ever write a serious play together?
MLM: I think that in terms of drama, drama is about life but you can’t have life without comedy in it. It’s absolutely impossible to have life without comedy because most of the time our default reaction to horrible things is comedy; you’ve got to have the light and the dark with everything. Maybe we’ll write something that’s horribly tragic but at the same time absolutely hilarious.
JH: I’m a big believer in that. Maybe we should do King Rat – A Five Act Tragedy?
MLM: We do keep talking about doing a summer panto because we have too much fun and it’s only once a year.
Morgan, you perform on stage as well as writing. Do you prefer being on stage or behind the scenes?
MLM: Behind! I absolutely loved performing with my double act partner, we had an absolute hoot, but I think performing is wonderful fun if you’ve got the confidence, but I found myself getting terribly nervous and no longer enjoying it so I do prefer being a writer.
Any performing plans for you Joel?
JH: I am waiting to be offered something in a panto one day! No, I definitely don’t want to do any performing [laughs].
Would you like to work together again?
MLM: Well we have next year’s panto; we’ll have to start that quite soon actually.
JH: I absolutely love working with Mog on things like this. The main thing I enjoy is that we’ve just got to know each other so well over the last couple of years, we’ve started to work out each other’s humour and I think this year we started to work out what we bring individually to the panto collective, which is just a load of suggestions that might be funny and then we work it out in the room.
MLM: We trust each other as well.
JH: I think that’s a major thing. What’s tough about working on straight plays in collaboration with other people – which I’ve done a couple of times – I just find it very hard to trust other writers in terms of their tastes, whereas with comedy it’s much clearer and it is so much safer to say “actually that isn’t funny” than “actually that isn’t tragic”.
When does the process of starting on the next panto start?
JH: It’s kind of now because we’re watching this panto and thinking “that’s great”, “this is good”!
MLM: I’m already sending ideas around and the designer is as well.
JH: I’m going to go and see a panto as research called Les Mouserables, which I can’t wait for! That will be interesting.
What’s your favourite memory so far of working on the Lyric Hammersmith pantomimes?
JH: We had an early draft of Dick Whittington and my favourite bit of that was when we tried to do a read through with a group of actors but we spent so long talking about it that the actors had to leave halfway through and then Steve performed every single role [Morgan collapses into laughter]. He just wouldn’t stop!
MLM: He did actually share all the roles out to everybody but once we started he wouldn’t actually let anybody speak!
JH: We just basically sat there for another 45 minutes watching him do the panto on his own. That was brilliant.
MLM: To add to that question, as soon as you get into the rehearsal room with the actors on the first day and see them start doing it and realising how perfect they are for the roles, and just having everyone giggling about it, you just go “okay, this is going to be fine”. Even when things get stressful about a week and a half in when everyone is getting a bit tired of the jokes, you just know from that first day that things are going to work.
Dick Whittington And His Cat runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 8 January.