Cluedo 2: Birds of a Feather writers Marks and Gran bring murder mystery play to York Theatre Royal, Hull New Theatre and Sheffield’s Lyceum
Looking back at his career in comedy writing, it is “totally unimaginable and unbelievable,” says Laurence Marks. “I was a journalist who was carving a very good career in journalism, and that's where I thought I'd stay forever. That didn't happen and I went off on a tangent, and became incredibly successful and incredibly famous, and that wasn't what was written in the stars. So I still find it difficult to believe that the person that gave so many people so much pleasure is me.”
His professional partner of many decades, Maurice Gran, doesn’t hesistate to provide some balance here. “Let me just add: although Laurence is incredibly famous, people always misspell his first name, and they always misspell my second name. That's always very good when you think you've made it.”
Jokes aside, Marks and Gran, now in their 70s, lay claim to being among the most successful British comedy writing duos, particularly when it comes to television of the late 1980s and 1990s. The New Statesman, Birds of a Feather and Goodnight Sweetheart all won major popularity when aired and are thought of fondly to this day.
For the generation who considered them household names, the title of their latest project will also be familar.
Based on the classic board game in which participants have to guess who committed a murder, Cluedo 2 – The Next Chapter, which is coming to theatres in Yorkshire, is the latest iteration of the stage show.
Marks actually grew up as big fan of Cluedo, having “played it incessantly as a child”.
He says says their involvement was “a dream come true in many ways” because when he was first introduced to the game, aged about five or six years old, he “became obsessed, more than any other board game, with these characters, because in Monopoly you were either the boot or whatever else you could be, but in this you’re actual people. You were actually saying: ‘I think it was Colonel Mustard in the library with a spanner’. And so these characters took on real meanings. So many decades later, (I have been able) to sit down and say not only do I know these characters from hour upon hour upon hour of playing that game as a child, I can now bring them to life, I can now give them a voice, I can now hear them as well as just see them moving around as coloured characters on a board.”
The show is set in the late 60s, starting with a rock star victim, with the game’s usual characters such as Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet adapted to reflect figures of showbusiness.
It was as young men in that same decade when Marks and Gran first met, at the Finsbury Park Company of the Jewish Lads Brigade in London, in 1960.
Then in 1973, they found themselves attending the Player-Playwrights scriptwriting club, though Marks was working as a journalist while Maurice sold the odd short story to magazines.
Some years later, Marks had a chance meeting on a train with comedy legend Barry Took, who offered to read their rejected sit-com scripts and, responding positively, helped them with early opportunities such as writing a radio show for Frankie Howerd.
After their breakthrough show, Holding the Fort, in 1980, they wrote for TV steadily over the next few decades.
It wasn’t until a recommendation by a Yorkshire theatre legend that they thought seriously about working on their first stage production.
“I had been invited to a special dinner in praise of Alan Ayckbourn, and they sat me next to him,” says Marks. “And what I learned was Alan was a big fan of Goodnight Sweetheart.
“He said to me: ‘Why haven't you two guys written for the theatre?’ And I said: ‘We've always wanted to write for the theatre, but we haven't had the time because of all these television shows we’re writing’. And he said: ‘Well, if you want to write for the theatre, come and write for mine in Scarborough’. So that's what happened, so our very first stage play was under the guidance of Sir Alan at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.”
Playing God, a comedy about a dying rock star, premiered in 2005.
Gran says: “We've done TV shows which have had audiences of unimaginable sizes – both unimaginably big and unimaginably small – and when someone says that Birds of a Feather Christmas special was watched by 20 million people, it's great, but you can't see them. You can't believe that. But if you go to a theatre, and there are 1,000 real physical human beings really enjoying what you've written, that's a great buzz, that's the biggest buzz of all. So theatre is very restorative in that way.”
It’s just one of their connections to Yorkshire, which also includes the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, where their back catalogue it kept.
Gran says: “I'm glad to be able to say that one of my all time favourite shows is the one we made in Leeds, which was The New Statesman. Not least because the Leeds audiences were so receptive.”
Marks agrees. “Certainly, in terms of putting a show in front of an audience, there was nothing quite like Leeds. And because the show was so popular, I remember seeing people queuing up for returns. I mean, you know, it was a television audience - I don't know how you got tickets, I suppose you applied to Yorkshire Television - but there were people queuing up on a Friday afternoon waiting to see if there was any space in the studio to see Rik Mayall. Or Alan B'Stard as we liked to call him.”
Gran can’t help himself. “Or Boris Johnson, as we like to call him.”