Cathays is not where you’d expect the creator of one of the most talked-about TV shows of the year to be days before its finale. But here is Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, stepping into the Sherman Theatre auditorium at the BBC Comedy Festival in Cardiff to a hero’s welcome.
The multi-day affair is tied to Cardiff’s City Of Comedy status in 2023, and to say it’s one of the town’s best-kept secrets isn’t hyperbole. For TV and film fans, the festival is a veritable who’s who of British comedy performers and writers: Sharon Horgan, Diane Morgan, Jaime Demetriou, Rob Brydon, Peter Baynham and more. Daytime events include talks and masterclasses aimed at industry types or those trying to crack into it; the evening schedule is more publicly accessible, with the likes of Brydon – a seasoned host – putting on more of a show than a seminar.
In a BBC Comedy Festival Q&A led by comedian, presenter and Motherland writer Holly Walsh, Jesse Armstrong is both “sad but excited” to see Succession end, admitting he’ll miss the characters despite how unlikeable they are. Is there any of his previous cult British hit, Peep Show in Succession, Walsh wonders? A classic Mark line, perhaps, that gives continued life to projects of the past. Sometimes, laughs Armstrong.
Walsh then turns the conversation to the technical aspects of making a show like Succession. On the subject of being a showrunner, or “the creative decider of anything you want”, Armstrong describes it as “weird. There’s no manual on how to be a showrunner. I was scared HBO would suddenly say ‘you didn’t fill out this one form’ or something, and it would all have to stop.”
The American TV industry, he explains, is more institutionalised and hierarchical than the British one. Writers’ rooms, “an accelerator for ideas”, are more standardised, with a group of eight or nine working on the first season of Succession for about four to five months. “The pilot sets the parameters of the show, then the first month [of being in the writers’ room], you can do whatever you want to feel the shape of the thing.”
For an ensemble show, he stresses the importance of the writers being able to write for every character. There’s no “magic number” for how many characters make up an ensemble, he adds. “It’s just instinct.” Do you polish everyone’s work? Walsh asks. The American process is ad hoc, Armstrong replies. “I watch what’s happening on set with other writers and changes are made right until shooting starts.” Though the script is king, Succession is still an “improv-friendly show” that “invites the cast into the creative process […] encouraging a higher level of engagement”.
Walsh observes that the practice of writers being on set seems relatively new, which Armstrong advises they should be “militant” about doing. Though improv is fine, the show is still mostly what’s on paper: “The script isn’t a living thing, it has integrity. It’s your work and you deserve to be at the centre.” Though being on-set is good practice, he continues, it’s actually the editing room that’s more important. When the pressure to cut things sets in, having the “economy of choice” from things that emerged on-set will help.
How much research goes into making something like Succession, which revolves around the cutthroat world of high-stakes business deals? “You should be able to enjoy a show without understanding the intricacies of what’s happening,” Armstrong says. “At the same time, the audience can tell if something’s off – so yes, do your research.” Those deals frequently take place in small, intimate and even funny spaces (karaoke bars, for example), which has become one of its hallmarks. It’s something that’s also a hallmark of Armstrong’s entire body of work, Walsh observes, from Mark and Jez’s dingy flat in Peep Show to the Fresh Meat student bedsit. “Comedy works better in small places,” he agrees. “Technically thinking, those scenes also need a point of interest. So, yes, it’s done deliberately – a business scene in a funny location is enjoyable on multiple levels, whether it’s dinner or two people flirting. It’s pathetic, really, how us humans react to such basic needs as sex and food.”
Budgets also factor in. While the final episode of Succession required the production to shut down New York’s Fifth Avenue (a real pinch-yourself moment for him), Armstrong reckons he could have shot all of Succession in a hotel room if he had to. Often, the smaller the budget, the greater the creative freedom. “And no, the BBC didn’t tell me to say that!”
It might seem out-of-place to have a drama at a comedy festival, but Succession is better known for its humour than its drama (a clip of Matthew Macfayden’s Tom Wambsgans interrogating a right-wing TV host about his Nazi leanings has the Festival auditorium howling). Armstrong is convinced that being a sitcom writer first helps with drama writing. He also points out that, much like the structure of a sitcom, Succession is written to be more episodic than most American dramas, with each episode designed to be self-contained: “It’s important to how I write.”
He then goes back to his TV origins. After getting an agent, he got his start via a BBC scheme and his first paid work in children’s TV – CBBC classics like The Queen’s Nose and Tracey Beaker and ITV’s My Parents Are Aliens, all of which get sounds of nostalgic approval from the millennials in the crowd (myself included). For its early role in his career, he’s complimentary of the BBC even though most of his work in the UK he’s best known for (Peep Show, Fresh Meat) have been Channel 4 productions.
Even then, transatlantic media was big for him. He worked on a disastrous attempt to adapt That 70s Show for British audiences, teaching him that nothing can be fixed on-set or in post if it looks bad on paper to begin with. Peep Show, meanwhile, was inspired by Beavis & Butt-head, originally intended to mimic the cartoon’s premise of two immature layabouts reacting to what they saw on TV, interspersed by a few scenes elsewhere to break it up.
Like Succession, Peep Show puts its characters through the wringer, something Armstrong calls “putting your finger in the wound”. Why is trauma funny, asks Walsh; Armstrong clarifies it’s simply what happens when the funniest thing that could happen to the character is also the worst. “I’m unflinching, but I’m not sadistic. I don’t enjoy hurting [my characters] and I don’t know why I do it. I’m sympathetic, to a degree, to the motivation they have to do bad things.”
As for anyone in the room hoping to get a legup from Armstrong after the talk, he finishes with some sage advice. “Meeting people you admire is deceptive. I can’t give you what you want, you need to go out and do it.”
In Conversation With Jesse Armstrong, BBC Comedy Festival, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Thurs 25 May.
words HANNAH COLLINS
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