Many thanks go to Isaac from the excellent www.young-perspective.net - the online newspaper entirely written for, and run by, young people, for providing this interview with John Finnemore all about Cabin Pressure.
With the final installment of Cabin Pressure just days away, young-perspetive have kindly offered to share this interview with the Cabin Pressure fan community, so please leave thanks and thoughts in the comments and do check out other Cabin Pressure related content at www.young-perspective.net
How do you feel about Cabin Pressure coming to an end?
“It’s an odd feeling, yes, it was entirely our choice to end it of course, a decision I made after the Christmas special two series ago. So, I think it’s the right thing to do and the whole of the last series has been building up towards an end, but yes, it will be a strange feeling knowing there aren’t any more recordings and knowing we don’t get to do that anymore.”
Does it feel like it has ended already, given that you recorded in February?
“Yes and the producer, David [Tyler], and I expected it to go out much earlier than it will, we imagined it would go out around Easter maybe, but the BBC wanted to hold onto it for Christmas. So it has been an odd year of us feeling ‘So that’s that all done’ and people waiting for the episodes, rather than waiting for the final end, it doesn’t feel that way at all.”
What are you going to do the night the episodes go out? Will you sit and listen to them air?
“I will listen to them air, yes, but it’s Christmas eve, so I shall be at home doing all the usual things to get ready for Christmas, but I hope so; I’ll certainly have it on.”
Have you got better at writing Cabin Pressure as you’ve gone through the series?
“That’s a good question. I think I’ve got better at writing sitcoms, and I think I know more about the whole writing process, for instance how long it takes – the first series I had never written six half hour episodes before and I had no idea how long it would take, so I made the natural mistake of spending a lot of time on the first two, less on the second two and really not enough on the final two. But having said that, Fitton is one of my favourite episodes overall, so you never know quite how it’s going to turn out. I think I’ve tried to do slightly more ambitious things in the last two series, but Douz and Fitton are two of my favourites and they’re both in the first. I look back at episodes like Cremona and I think that’s got way too much plot, if I was writing that now I would break that into two different episodes. So yes, in some ways I’ve learnt quite a lot.”
How do you come up with the various alphabetised names, like Ottery-Saint Mary?
“I already knew about Ottery Saint Mary, but Qikqiktarjuak was not one I knew about until I Googled it and nor was Uskerty. It’s surprising how few places there are in Ireland beginning with ‘U’ – I knew that episode had to begin with ‘U’ and I knew I wanted it to be somewhere remote in Ireland, and there aren’t as many places like that as you would think. However, sometimes the title is obvious to me, like Wokingham. Wokingham was originally mentioned as Martin’s hometown in something like episode ‘E’, I think, and while I never thought I’d get there, once the fourth series came I knew I had to set one there.”
How did alphabetising the episodes come up? Was it just a natural decision?
“Well, it was almost a throwaway little joke on my part, I didn’t tell anyone about it – the producer didn’t notice until halfway through the second series. I mean obviously in the first series I wasn’t thinking ‘Ah yes, let’s do 26 episodes!’, then I would have been delighted to know we’d get to do a second series. It was just a whimsical feature which turned into a defining thing about the show.”
Is there a future for Cabin Pressure after Zurich?
“I think that’s it for now, definitely. This is what I think and hope is the right ending for it, the natural ending for it, so I think I should leave it alone there. I wouldn’t rule out something considerably in the future, some sort of reunion, but neither do I particularly have one in mind at the moment, so we will see. At the moment it is definitely over.”
Do you think the best has been saved for last? Is Zurich your favourite episode overall?
“It is so unlike any of the others that it is hard to judge. For a start it’s twice as long, because I still think of Zurich as one episode even though we’re putting it out in two parts. Not only that, but it’s also wrapping up the whole show, so it has a story of its own as well as the conclusion of the whole thing. So yes, in some ways it is my favourite, but at the same time I’m very fond of St. Petersburg, Ottery’s a good one and I’m very fond of Johannesburg, my favourites change all the time. At the moment, like I said, I’m very fond of Johannesburg.”
You’re working on a full set of Cabin Pressure CD’s with a guide as well, aren’t you?
“Yes, the complete Cabin Pressure will be released in January and there will be a booklet inside that with full listings and everything, but it will also have things like a diagram of Gerty, some pages from my notebooks that I use to write the show that I put up on my blog, so there’s a few extras there. There’s also an extra half an hour on the CD of the producer talking to me, during which we introduce the equivalent of deleted scenes on DVD – things that cut for time usually, from throughout the series. So there’s some never before heard material as well.”
Do you have a favourite gift from a fan?
“I couldn’t possibly pick out a favourite, but it has been astonishing the reaction. In the autumn I went to a Cabin Pressure convention in Milan, they flew me up, put me up in a hotel and 60 people came from around Europe – often dressed up as a character – and we had panels on ‘Cabin Pressure’ and quizzes. It was something I could absolutely never have imagined when I was starting the show. Even if I’d drawn up an absolute best case scenario, I would never have been able to think up something like that.”
Was Herc brought in to interact with Carolyn or as an antidote to Douglas?
“Herc was brought in for both purposes. Douglas was winning too easily, he needed someone to bring him down, but also by the end of series two Martin and Douglas were getting on too well – as they continue to do. They still have battles, like Paris, but it’s no longer the main source of tension, as they found each other less and less annoying and started to like each other more. Of course the problem with that is you end up without a source of tension in your sitcom and it’s all very nice that they’re getting on so famously, but where do the plots come from? So Herc was sort of brought in to ryle Douglas. But at the same time, I thought it was about time we had a love interest for one of the characters. I toyed with all of them actually as to who to bring in, but I was most pleased with the idea of Carolyn – perhaps because she’s not the most obvious choice. She’s the most senior member of the cast, as it were, so I liked that, the slightly unusual choice and more so because once I started to think about how she would act romantically, I immediately had the plot that became the confrontational date in Ottery-Saint Mary.”
What would Arthur’s love interest have looked like?
“I had two ideas. One was one of the bossy, pony club girls that Carolyn mentions he seems to have a fascination for (or rather they have a fascination for him), so I did think about bringing in an extremely bossy girlfriend for Arthur. The other idea I had was that he would meet someone called Gerty, who would remind him of Gerty and he would sort of fall in love with a personification of the aircraft, but in the end I decided that was too silly.”
What made you choose to play Arthur?
“Idiots are always fun and they always get the best lines. Also when I started the show in series 1, I thought both he and Carolyn would be much more minor character and that the focus would be on Martin and Douglas, they would be the leads and Arthur and Carolyn would make decent support parts. But very much support parts, very much like in Father Ted, I would say Ted and Dougal are the leads and Mrs Doyle and Father Jack are support parts. Also, I haven’t done that much performing and I thought my best chance of persuading a producer that I should be in it would be to write myself a smaller part. Then almost immediately, by three or four episodes in, it became more or less equal.”
How do you go about writing Cabin Pressure?
“I am very keen on structure, I hate doing it, I find plotting very difficult, but I think it is absolutely necessary. I think it is key to plan it out as much as possible before I start writing dialogue and that’s something you were asking me earlier, if I’d got better at writing, and I think that’s one way in which I have. Maybe not necessarily improved the finished product, but certainly the road to getting there, I’ve learnt that if I’m sure of the plot, where it ends and that the end is satisfying, ideally it should be like a murder mystery and you should say ‘Of course, of course that’s how it ends – it seems natural now, but I didn’t see it coming’. Until you’ve got that, or at least until I’ve got that, I find it’s best not to start writing dialogue. I wasted a lot of time in the early days, writing long, long drafts that then got almost completely rewritten or cut because the plot wasn’t working. It’s much easier to fix plot, although it’s still not easy, before you start writing, because after you start writing you get distracted by the jokes and you bend over backwards trying to keep in a joke you particularly like, but that’s at the expense of the plot and therefore the whole episode.”
Does the fact you now know the cast really well make writing easier than when you wrote the first episodes?
“Yes, I mean I wrote the first episodes before it was cast, so obviously I didn’t have the actor’s voices in my mind at all. Because of the way radio works, we didn’t all get together for a rehearsal, I didn’t meet any of them at all until the first day of recording, so I didn’t know any them before most of the first series had been written. I only knew their voices from their work, but from the second series I started to add in lines for their voices or write lines I wouldn’t have put in before because I knew how Roger, Stephanie or Ben would deliver them; then I could think ‘Oh yes, I know exactly what Roger will do with that!’ That of course helps you develop their characters more as well, so I suppose it comes full circle.”
Roger Allam has the perfect voice for Douglas, doesn’t he?
“Yes, yes he does. He is absolutely perfect for it. If you were on a plane and the captain made an announcement, his is the voice you would want to hear. I can’t think of anything more reassuring. But of course he also just has fantastic comic delivery and comic timing; he can do wonders with a line that’s marginally funny on the page, he’ll just bring the house down with it.”
Do you think that Benedict Cumberbatch will miss the small, 200-person Radio 4 audiences now that Cabin Pressure is over?
“He certainly seems to enjoy doing it and he was, as i think they all were, a little bit disappointed I decided to end it after Series 4. Of course though, the audiences have changed as you can imagine. The demographic has changed: the age went down a lot and the gender balance swapped violently. But they did [react as well as before], the interesting one was Molokai because that was the first one after Sherlock had gone out. So I arrived at the recording, to a find a queue round the block for a start (which was not something we were used to) and that they were mainly women in their teens and twenties. I made a mistake, well not a mistake, I worried the show was going to suffer because they were just going to be waiting for Ben’s [Cumberbatch] lines and not really concentrate on the show or care about the story at all. And I was absolutely wrong and completely underestimated them: they paid attention to the plot and seemed just as delighted with Stephanie Cole as with Benedict Cumberbatch.”
What’s next for you personally?
“Some of them are underwraps and may never happen, but the project that has been announced is that David Tyler [producer] and I are going to do a show that will hopefully be next year, although it’s not been scheduled yet, and will be six half hour stand alone comedy plays. They’ll all be completely different ideas and casts, so I’m looking forward to that.”
- John Finnemore was speaking exclusively to www.young-perspective.net - the online newspaper entirely written for, and run by, young people