Alison Steadman and John Cleese discuss their new BBC One sitcom Hold the Sunset which arrives on screen soon.
Steadman plays Edith, a widow for some years now for who life is pretty good. Her children live locally and drop by regularly, and she enjoys daily visits from Phil (Cleese), an old boyfriend who now lives across the road.
Phil dreams of marrying Edith, and the pair of them upping sticks and moving abroad to the sunshine. But after months of turning him down, on the happy day Edith finally says “yes”, there’s a knock on the door – and there on the step, with a large suitcase, is her 50 year old son Roger (Jason Watkins).
Alison, What drew you to Hold the Sunset?
I love doing shows like this about the quirky aspects of family life. When I heard that John was doing it, I thought, “That will be great fun!” And I haven’t been disappointed. You couldn’t get a better cast: Jason, Anne, Rosie and Joanna are all brilliant.
I also love Charles’s writing. I acted opposite him in the film, the Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which he also co-wrote. It’s been great to see him again. He’s such a lovely guy. He’s quiet, modest and gentle, but also very talented.
What are your memories of your first collaboration with John on the movie Clockwise?
That film was 32 years ago now, but we haven’t changed at all! In that movie, I spent a lot of time driving three elderly ladies around in a car. I’m now probably the same age as they were then!
How does it feel to be back working with John?
It’s been lovely. Working with an old friend is great because it gives you such freedom. It helps that we were able to leap straight into it because we had played a married couple before. John is really good fun and off the wall.
You need to be disciplined on set. John is disciplined, but he’s not afraid to take it one step further if it helps the comedy. I hope people will enjoy the chemistry between John and me. We have a very easy relationship. Also, John fits the part very well; he told me that the more he plays Phil, the more he thinks it’s him!
Could you please outline your character?
Edith is a bright woman. She is a typical middle-class mother. She is very concerned and very giving towards her children – much more than I would ever be! She really does forgive them. Like all mothers, when other people criticise her children, she is always ready to leap their defence and say: “That’s not their fault. That’s because of this or that.”
How would you characterise Edith’s relationship with her children?
She has a highflying businesswoman daughter called Sandra who is too busy for a man. She also has Roger, a son who is completely off the wall. He has arrested development. He’s the kind of guy who is very hard to tolerate, but she always does. Roger and his wife Wendy are very well matched. They’re both off the wall! Much as you love your kids, you don’t want them coming back home as adults, reverting to childhood and playing with toy crocodiles!
Edith puts up with a heck of a lot. She wants to build a life with Phil, but Roger keeps getting in the way. If she could just sort out Roger, it would all be fine. But it’s never that simple, and in a sitcom, it would be boring if it were! Roger is constantly thwarting her and he’s getting worse all the time. He irritates the hell out of Phil. Sandra is always saying to Edith: “He’s getting you to do his washing now? For God’s sake, tell him where to go!” But that’s just what we do as mums!
Would you like to make another series of Hold the Sunset?
Absolutely. Nothing is resolved in this family by the end of the first series. Roger and Sandra are still being a pain in the neck. So this one could run and run!
John, What drew you to make your first BBC sitcom since Fawlty Towers 44 years ago?
The producer Humphrey Barclay is an old friend of mine. We’ve known each other since 1961 when we were both in the Cambridge Footlights. He came to me and said he had found this great new script called Hold the Sunset by Charles McKeown and asked if I would be interested in doing it. I read it and loved it. It was the best script I’d read in a hundred years! So of course, I said yes immediately.
You have known Charles for a long time, too, haven’t you?
Yes. I have worked with him many times. He played Mr Ingrams in Fawlty Towers. And in The Life of Brian, he played the blind man who throws away a stick and says, “I was blind, but now I see,” and then promptly falls into a pit. He gets the biggest laugh in the movie!
How would you describe your character in Hold the Sunset?
I’ve only just realised that Phil is almost exactly like me! When you stop reading it and start playing it, you can immediately see that. Phil sits around making sarcastic remarks – that’s exactly how I am in real life! I keep thinking: “I know how to say that line because that’s exactly how I’d say it in real life.” It’s been an absolute pleasure to play him.
Are there other sides to Phil?
Yes. He’s also capable of great tenderness. He’s really in love with his old flame and current neighbour, Edith. She is this lovely woman. But when her son Roger returns home having left his wife, Phil starts to get very worried indeed. The sudden possibility pops up that his relationship with Edith might not work – and that scares the heck out of Phil.
You first worked with Alison Steadman, who plays Edith in Hold the Sunset, more than 30 years ago, when you portrayed a husband and wife in the movie Clockwise. How have you found it being reunited now?
It’s been complete heaven. It’s nice to play affectionate scenes every now and again, and I don’t have to act affection with Alison. She is absolutely lovely and highly entertaining.
Do you feel any pressure on Hold the Sunset to live up to the phenomenal success of Fawlty Towers?
No, because I’m not writing this. I come to Hold the Sunset just as an actor. It hasn’t been my creation. Instead of looking at me and three others on Fawlty Towers, the audience have five or six other key players to watch in Hold the Sunset.
Is it similar to any of your other work?
I see a parallel with A Fish Called Wanda because in that film, Jamie Lee Curtis and I were the emotional centre.
In the same way, Alison and I provide emotional the heart of Hold the Sunset, and the other three – Jason, Joanna and Rosie – are funnier than we are. I’ve never minded that. If you have a scene that everyone laughs at, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the laughs.
How would you sum up your experience on Hold the Sunset?
It’s been absolutely wonderful. I’ve never seen so much laughing on set. In fact, there has been more laughing here than on any other set I have been on, even Monty Python.
Anne Reid, for instance, has the wickedest sense of humour! Whenever I make awful comments about work, she is so funny. There is a great warmth amongst the cast and crew here. It’s been a very, very happy experience.