Knowing where you want to end before you start...
YOU may not know the name, but you’ll certainly know his work. Writer of shows such as One Foot In The Grave, Jonathan Creek and The Two Ronnies, David Renwick has been a dominant force in British comedy over the past few decades. He also happens to be one of Bedfordshire’s favourite sons.
Jak Phillips caught up with the man who started his career as a trainee reporter at our sister newspaper The Luton News and ended up winning more Baftas than Victor Meldrew could shake a fist at.
AS we approached David Renwick’s sprawling country house in Stevington, I could not help but be reminded of the eeriness of Jonathan Creek. And as we were shown through to the antique living room by the charming David, 59, I began to imagine an impossibly fiendish murder taking place next to the wood-burning stove.
As we settled into the interview, my one aim over the course of the next hour was to discover this: Just how did the son of a Luton milkman make it to the very top of British comedy?
David recalled many fond memories of 1960s Luton, from his dad’s annually enforced sabbatical caused by the town’s mass exodus to sunnier climes during the Vauxhall fortnight – right through to his days at Luton Grammar School and what became, while he was there, Luton Sixth Form College.
“As the school changed and began to admit girls, the boys – who up to this point had grown up in single-sex education – could scarcely believe our eyes,” he says of the change.
It was at Luton Sixth Form that David began what would become his true passion over the next 40 years and, having cut his teeth writing for a school magazine, he got a job as a junior reporter 1970.
After six months, David managed to get his first “bits and pieces” accepted for radio and he continued to sporadically write comedy during his four years at the paper before leaving the Luton News in 1974 to give sketch-writing a go full-time.
Having contributed a number of sketches to various comedy shows, including Not the Nine O’Clock News, David’s big break came in 1980 when he earned a weekly sketch-writing spot on the iconic TV show The Two Ronnies. And it was here that he wrote arguably one of the most famous sketches of all time where one Charlie Smithers (Corbett) appears on Mastermind answering ‘the question before last’.
However the inception of this sketch wasn’t quite as prophetic as you might expect. David explained: “I was commissioned for more than four minutes per show – so each week I was struggling for sketch ideas and tearing my hair out.
“The deadline was fast approaching, so I thought about re-working a sketch I’d written for radio a couple of years previously and re-wrote it – but I was convinced it was too contrived, so I tore it up and chucked it in the bin.
“Then the next morning I was so desperate, I fished it out, taped the pieces back together and typed it up, and luckily they seemed very pleased with it.”
‘Very pleased with it’ seems somewhat of an understatement for what quickly became one of Britain’s favourite comedy sketches ever. But as David pointed out, the hit and miss nature of TV and comedy in general means you can never really predict what is going to be a hit.
From there David’s career began to flourish, and after a few minor hits with ITV he hatched the idea of a grumpy retiree at constant battle with suburban Britain.
It was to become the BAFTA-winning sitcom One Foot In The Grave, the series David thinks he will most be remembered for. Perhaps appropriately for his character, the seeds of Victor Meldrew were planted in David’s mind when his very first meeting with Richard Wilson led to the actor finding himself in a highly compromising position.
“We were making a film called Whoops Apocalypse, which Richard was starring in, and the first day of filming comprised of Richard being crucified at Queens Park Rangers’ football ground – don’t ask me why!
“Anyway, we put him up on this giant cross and because of the light it probably took about 20 takes – so obviously he wasn’t a happy man and that was where the famed frustration and anger were first etched on his face.”
As One Foot In The Grave wound down to a close work began on a crime series which bucked the trend of shows such as Cracker and Morse, by focusing the plot more on how a mystery was carried out, rather than solely on the culprit’s motives.
Jonathan Creek, groundbreaking at the time and still considered so by many today, baffled over 10 million viewers a week at its peak and made a star out of Alan Davies and his famous duffle coat.
On its famously fiendish plots, David revealed it was always a case of working backwards.
“First you come up with an illusion or an idea for how the mystery can plausibly occur and then it’s all about working backwards to build the story around this conclusion.
“Obviously it looks very clever when everything ties in perfectly at the end, but the secret is knowing where you want to end before you start.”
Despite Jonathan Creek enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years with a number of acclaimed specials (which he also directed), David gave the air of a man resigned to retirement, from TV writing at least. His recent shows (including the comedy-drama Love Soup) have met with comparatively moderate success and he cites the fast-changing world of television – particularly the increased number of advertising intervals – as slowing down his workload in recent years.
“Things change, people change and that’s always going to be the case,” he said.
“It seems to be becoming increasingly difficult to pitch a show in a workable format and the current discussions on introducing even more adverts don’t really bode well for me.”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of my meeting was his vulnerability to criticism from the public.
Despite having a number of successes he readily admits that he still takes reviews “quite badly” and finds it difficult not to read them – even when these are just customer reviews on Amazon.
Looking ahead, the future seems fittingly unclear for the enigmatic writer. He spokes semi-enthusiastically about perhaps writing a book, but there does seem to linger an ambition to have one final crack of the whip. At 59, he still has plenty of mileage in him – and several ideas as well it seems. The challenge appears to be whether he can muster enthusiasm for what appears to be a waning passion – “Writing is a long-winded, tedious process,” – and adapt these ideas to fit the ever-changing landscape of modern British television.
David says he enjoyed ending One Foot In The Grave on a somewhat cryptic note and for the moment at least, it seems the denouement of his own writing career has reached a similar juncture. Time will tell, but I wouldn’t bet against another Renwick hit popping up on our screens before the sun finally sets on what has been a glittering tenure at the top of British television.