“I would strongly dislike to perform without clothing”: Tom Basden discusses edgy writing, successful sitcoms, and the choice to cast Carey Mulligan.
No matter your preference in comedy, Tom Basden is a versatile performer. For those who enjoy dark and realistic cult humor, his 00s sketch show Cowards is a must-see. If profane historical farce is more your style, Basden is the mastermind behind ITV2’s popular Plebs set in ancient Rome. He also showcases his talent in heartwarming dramedies such as Ricky Gervais’s After Life. For something more unique, Basden’s quirky musical comedy earned him the title of best newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He even takes on adaptations, such as Dostoevsky’s The Crocodile for the stage. Plus, he has a hip and obscure double act with Tim Key. But don’t be fooled, Basden can also deliver unabashedly mainstream family sitcoms. His hit show Here We Go is single-handedly reviving the genre and will soon return for its second season on BBC One.
Although Basden is incredibly versatile, his latest work still stands out as a surprising accomplishment. It’s difficult to recall the last time we had a traditional, yet outstanding domestic sitcom (maybe Outnumbered, which premiered almost 17 years ago).
Even the creator had doubts about the concept at first. During a break from editing the second season, just nine days before it was set to be released on the iPlayer, Basden admitted that he initially resisted the idea of writing a family sitcom. He had originally proposed a mockumentary about a block of flats in south London, but as the development progressed, it evolved into a broad comedy about the Jessop family. The main characters include highly-strung matriarch Rachel, bumbling father Paul, their two teenage children, and Paul’s optimistic but somewhat needy mother, Sue.
Basden approached the project with a unique perspective, choosing to concentrate on “rejuvenating common sitcom cliches”. His goal was achieved: instead of following the traditional comedic ending, each episode starts with a glimpse into the humorous conclusion. The use of a mockumentary style – with younger son Sam’s phone camera capturing much of the action – allows the classic sitcom antics to appear more realistic. Basden notes that this technique has become popularized by shows such as The Office and Modern Family, making it challenging for traditional studio sitcoms, like Friends and My Family, to convince audiences of their authenticity.
However, these technical takeovers were quickly overshadowed by the lively and chaotic Jessop family, who were relatable in a vivid way. Basden used his own childhood experiences as inspiration, but seeing the script come to life also gave him a new understanding of family dynamics. He reflects, “There are things in my own family that we’ve never discussed – not serious things, it’s not like the movie Festen – but writing this show has greatly improved my understanding of relationships. I have developed a greater appreciation for my mother’s constant need to give and care for others because I can channel it through the character of Alison Steadman and think, ‘Well, this person is wonderful and any ungratefulness towards them would be misplaced and somewhat cruel.'”
Despite Basden’s extensive experience in scriptwriting, which includes credits for shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat, he still had to familiarize himself with the early time slot. In the first series, when he was less familiar with the slot, there was a storyline about Amy, the teenage daughter, discovering some marijuana in Rachel’s jacket from her school days – something that could be considered risque. He acknowledges that there may be viewers tuning into BBC One at 8 o’clock who do not want to see anything too edgy, so he had to be prepared to potentially upset someone.
The BBC is pleased with the outcome – they have ordered two more series after the first one. This is a very different experience from Basden’s initial attempt at television. In 2009, his sketch group Cowards, which he formed with his Footlights friends Key, Golaszewski, and Woolf, was given a half-series of three episodes on BBC4. It was influenced by Chris Morris’s Jam and The Office, and had a dark, deadpan, and bizarre tone – yet it was consistently hilarious, even if the BBC didn’t always appreciate it.
According to Basden, popular shows such as Little Britain were highly influential at the time. The common request they received was to have the same characters repeating their famous lines. While they did incorporate some recurring sketches, such as the group of inept judges and the uncomfortably small caravan share, they refused to simply repeat the same five words in different locations each week.
Therefore, we can reflect on Cowards as a brilliant example of unconventional sketch comedy, and a gathering of some of the most talented comedic minds. According to Basden, “Stefan was primarily drawn to material that had a very realistic feel for a sketch show – when you see [his later work], it all makes perfect sense. I, on the other hand, preferred more playful and outright comedic pieces. And Tim had his own distinct and quirky style, which was both hilarious and difficult to pinpoint.”
On Valentine’s Day in 2005, Basden and Key joined forces to create the comedic duo Freeze! In this partnership, Key portrays the aggressive and unhinged egotist, while Basden takes on the role of his downtrodden accomplice. Basden’s characters typically embody a sense of defeat, although their reactions may vary from meek acceptance to slight indignation. Their dynamic on stage was so realistically abusive that one audience member expressed genuine concern for Basden, prompting them to frame the note as a testament to their success.
In 2007, the duo released a short film named The One and Only Herb McGwyer Plays Wallis Island, which was later nominated for a Bafta award. The film follows Key as a lottery winner who invites Basden’s character, McGwyer, a successful folk-pop musician, to perform on his private island. When their work opportunities diminished during the pandemic, Basden and Key collaborated on a longer screenplay, incorporating a new storyline about McGwyer’s ex-bandmate and girlfriend, Nell. They faced challenges in securing funding and casting for the role of Nell, until Key reached out to Carey Mulligan, who had previously shown interest in their fundraiser. “We were initially skeptical,” says Basden, with a hint of sarcasm, “but it turned out to be a success.”
“She loved the script, she’d seen the short and been a fan of ours for a while, which is obviously ridiculous,” he says. ”She basically said she wanted to do it straight away. From then on, as you can imagine, the film suddenly became a real thing that people took seriously.” Shooting took place in Wales last year and Basden is hopeful the film – now titled One for the Money – will be released this summer.
Based on the original source, the movie will highlight Basden’s skill in another form of comedy: subdued, impressionistic, and minor. It is a significant contrast from the lively chaos of Here We Go and his recent adaptation of Accidental Death of an Anarchist in the West End. How does he seamlessly transition between these styles? In response, he states, “I don’t really see them as that distinct. Whether it’s writing for ITV2’s Plebs or a play for the National Theatre, I don’t categorize them differently in my mind – I believe there is no separation between high-brow and low-brow.” (He also expressed confusion when a critic from The Guardian referred to Plebs as a “guilty pleasure”.) Regardless of the platform, he refuses to create content that alienates viewers.
Can you think of anything else he wouldn’t be willing to do? “I would really dislike having to appear nude in a role,” he admits, before suddenly recalling another unfulfilled desire. “I’ve always wanted to play the tough, no-nonsense detective in a police procedural, but I never get offered those kinds of roles.” I have no doubt that he could excel at it, but considering his overwhelming success in comedy, perhaps it’s time for Basden to let someone else take on the gritty cop dramas.