Interview: Dan Tetsell
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN IN NOVEMBER 2011 FOR THE VELVET ONION MONGRELS TAKEOVER.
Hi Dan, welcome to TVO. It’s time for Series Two of Mongrels! What’s in store for fans?
Laughs, a goldfish, a chimp, some proper acting from Nelson and Destiny, a very long joke about a living history museum, songs – including a Marion rap, violence and lots and lots of Vince saying ****. The usual.
What aspects of the first series were you most proud of, and how does the new run up the ante?
When I told people I was working on a puppet show for BBC3 a got mix of reactions. Some winces, some rolled eyes, some outright expressions of pity. I hope we’ve proved most of those people wrong. I think Mongrels is on BBC3 because it’s a show that tries something different and not because it’s demographic obsessed lower common denominator stuff. I hope that alongside all the stupid offensive stuff we also did some clever offensive stuff.
Do you have lots of chances to develop and hone the script?
I actually started on the show as a writer. I came in at the read-through stage to help punch up the scripts and as they hadn’t cast Marion yet, or even really decided what he should sound like, I read in. Through the biggest and most wonderful fluke ever that ended up with me being offered the part. It means I’m lucky enough to be around for the storylining and writing process and then get to say some of the stupid stuff we’ve made up. I’ve co-written a whole episode this series, so I hope that one isn’t the Doctor Who “Space Pirates” of Mongrels.
Rufus told us visits to the set were limited and most of your work is done by the time filming commences. Would you like to be more hands on?
‘Hands up’, surely? As I’ve said, I’m the one member of the cast with the most insight into the whole process. I see rough edits of the show as they progress as well, so I’m pretty happy with the arrangement. Adam Miller, the director, and the Talk To The Hand puppet team are the best of the best so why keep a dog and bark yourself?
That’s actually one of the reasons our producer, Stephen McCrum is so good at his job – he hires people who know what they’re doing and then lets them get on with it. That’s actually quite rare in television. Actually, when I’m acting on screen the thing I’m most worried about is what my face is up to – this way I have the excellent Warrick Brownlow-Pike dealing with the difficult stuff.
Some of the humour in the show is quite close to the bone. Has there ever been a point where you’ve felt a joke has crossed the line?
Not from something that’s reached the screen, I think. There was a Harold Shipman joke that was probably the closest we came to being offensive for no good reason. There’s a joke I thought was much less offensive, about Marion losing one of his nine lives while being dressed as a Brazilian on the tube, which we were made to take out. That surprised me. It’s on the DVD if you want to run it past your inner censor.
In series 2, one of the references we were asked to change was to Amanda Knox. Now she’s been found innocent, perhaps it’ll be back in. There’s a reference to Black History Month that someone on high wanted taken out but I think that’s because they thought we’d made it up. Also a bit of an argument occurred over a joke referencing a convicted paedophile. It was eventually changed so it referenced someone who, though at one time linked to paedophilia charges, was never brought to trial or convicted. Offense is a moveable feast.
Have we crossed the line in the writers room? Yes. All the time. That’s what you do. Things said in writers rooms make Tramadol Nights look like a teenager shouting ‘bum’ at a lollipop lady. Though that doesn’t take much.
Marion’s voice has to be one of the best comic voices in recent years. Is it hard to keep it going at the same zany pace?
Luckily my delivery is so all over the place that the editor can just cut-and-shunt the stupidest, least consistent takes together. I do curse myself when Marion sometimes has to do a massively complicated, sub-clause-packed never-ending sentence. I do occasionally try to act in the recordings but Adam just asks me to do another take but with all the funny bits in.
Marion was drastically different in the pilot. Did you have a hand in creating the new character to match the new puppet in the series proper?
When I came onto the show the scripts hadn’t really pinned down who Marion was. There was some talk about casting Omid Djalili, so that’s how the voice started – with me doing a rough Omid impersonation and trying to yoke together all the different tonal shifts into a cogent character. The cogency never really arrived but the tonal shifts and silly voice seemed to work so we stuck with that.
Away from Mongrels, much of your work is on radio. Do you prefer the medium to television or is it more a case that there are more opportunities there?
Like a lot of people, I got some of my first breaks in radio but it’s far more than a training slope for TV. It’s a medium that’s unlike any other. The chances to do something experimental, or defiantly untrendy for that matter, are unrivalled by TV. You also know that you are working for an audience who know and care about their comedy – and it’s an audience used to being treated as intelligent.
You’ve also developed a strong portfolio of writing credits. Do you have any shows of your own in the pipeline?
Yes, but I’ve a horrible feeling mentioning them here will just be a massive jinx. It’s happened before. There’s nothing worse than running into someone a few months down the line and them asking about that thing you were banging on about last time which has since blown away on the breeze.
Away from the whims of commissioners, I do want to try more podcasting. Working with Richard Herring on AIOTM, appearing on Do The Right Thing and my doing own Halloween online experiment Live Ghost Hunt has really shown me how varied your options are. If I was a comedian / comedy writer starting out now, the first thing I’d do would be learn how to use Garageband.
Is there anyone in particular you have been especially proud to work with?
Along with Danny Robins and Simon Blackwell, I wrote the script for a mocumentary about Porridge’s Fletcher before and after the HMP. Slade years. It turned out… well, it turned out and let’s leave it at that but the one true highlight was getting Ronnie Barker in to do a scene at the end as Fletcher. We’re all in the scene as extras, looking awkward and grinning like idiots.
What about your Mongrels co stars? Were you a fan of any of them before the show?
No. Next question.
OK, serious answer. I knew Lucy Montgomery quite well; she’d been in three series of The Museum of Everything on radio (available on CD, kids). Rufus Jones, Katy Brand and Ruth Bratt I knew through Edinburgh and the sketch circuit so the only person I didn’t know was Paul Kaye. Obviously I knew who he was – and I was a little terrified of him. Turns out that even though most of his fictional alter egos are scary nutjobs, Paul is actually a very lovely man. And thus I win the prize for Most Tedious Showbiz Story Ever. They’re a great cast, I couldn’t ask for better – either as a writer or a fellow cast-member.
What else is coming up for you soon?
Jobbing comedy writing work mainly (see jinx superstition above) and a bit of acting, if I’m lucky. I mainly want to act more so I have a better excuse for telling my agent I can’t make advert castings. I feel that two days as a policeman on Skins lets me off three crappy mobile phone castings. That’s fair, right?
I’m also trying to do more live stuff and so I’ve booked myself a slot at the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society night in December. Haven’t written it yet, mind. Looking back over this interview I may also be practising my interesting, entertaining answers.
Will you return for more Mongrels if given the chance?
Like a shot.
Finally, a suggestion – given the show’s popularity, do you think a live tour could work? It’d be a work-out for all involved, we imagine, but we’re putting it out there!
Well, if Basil Brush can do two or three pantos at the same time, I don’t see why Mongrels can’t.
Dan Tetsell: thank you.