The latest venture by Welsh standup queen and smash hit podcaster Kiri Pritchard-McLean arrives via the airwaves. If Carl Marsh’s enthusiastic testimony is anything to go by, Radio Wales’ The Learners is one of the best sitcoms set in a language learning class you will ever encounter.
As BBC Radio comedies go, I knew I’d enjoy it, but I wasn’t expecting as much as I did. There are so many funny moments – my favourite being when somebody asks “what’s Kwiksave?” and the response by Cathy, “it’s a Waitrose for Labour supporters!”
Oh, well that’s nice. Yeah, I’ll take that. Thank you very much, love! What’s great is that it can be straightforward gags in the script, and because most of the people in it are standup comedians, they know how to deliver a gag in a natural way. Whereas sometimes, if you’re working with people from more of a straight acting background, they don’t always know what to do with the joke to make it sound natural. But with people like Janice [Connolly, who plays Cathy], no-one’s going to deliver that line and throw it away as brilliantly as she does. So yeah, I’m so happy that you enjoyed it.
Did you have the cast mentally in place when you were writing the scripts?
The part for Tudur Owen as Jonesy was written for him, as was Kath Hughes for Jess. So was Frank [Mick Ferry] and Cathy [Janice Connolly] – their parts were written for them. And then I had written the role of Zara because I wanted to represent, like, modern Wales, which has refugees living in it. And so we found, through auditions and things, Lisa Zahra [Yara] and Oliver Pearce [Abbas], who was so brilliant – and from Wales as well. And then… so who else is in it? Is that everyone? Oh, and then Les Dennis [laughter].
My producer Steve, after I’d written this part for Ken, was like, “you know, I think Les Dennis would be really good at this,” and I was sort of like, “yeah, well good luck with getting him!” Obviously, he’d be amazing because I’ve loved his work over the years – in Extras and all that. Les read it, and liked it, so he came and did [the pilot].
Then, when we got the series commissioned, he was in Hairspray in the West End – but he still wanted to be involved, and I still wanted him to be in it. So I wrote in this storyline about him being in an Indonesian prison, which continues throughout the series. It is quite a fun thing to write around circumstances, because you get an entertaining plotline coming out of it.
So when does Les appear? They talk about Ken’s character in the first episode quite a bit…
Oh yeah, he does appear. He very kindly sat down and spent a day in a hotel room with our producer, recording all of his lines. And what’s great is that when [his dialogue] gets dropped in, you can’t tell he wasn’t there on the day with everyone else. He’s just so brilliant. Even though he’s beloved, I don’t think people realise how good he is at his job!
Before I read the backstory about this show, which is based on your own Welsh classes, I thought you were fluent in Welsh!
One of the hardest things was balancing the two languages. It was made for an English-speaking audience – so it’s having enough Welsh in it that it feels like an authentic Welsh class, but having to make sure people who can’t speak Welsh can understand it. As a writer, that was a big challenge.
But yeah, I’m a Welsh learner, and I have a decent grasp of it, but then physically writing it down is a different thing from speaking it in the street. So I had a lot of help from Google Translate. Some of my tenses and plurals aren’t great: I use the informal ‘you’ when it should be the general ‘you’. Luckily, having Tudur on hand was like having a free fact-checker when it comes to the Welsh!
The Learners is on BBC Radio Wales on Mon 16 and Mon 23 Aug at 6.30pm, and on BBC Sounds at any time. Info: here
Kiri Pritchard-McLean also hosts the Wales/West regional heat of the BBC New Comedy Awards; it’ll be filmed in Swansea in September, broadcast on BBC Three and later repeated on BBC One. Info: here
words CARL MARSH photos KAYLA WREN
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