Lead Balloon

Jack Dee explains how he took a vague idea for a sitocm and turned it into BBC Four’s new comedy Lead Balloon

In the summer of last year I was completing a 100-date tour of the UK, which culminated in the recording of the second series of Jack Dee at the Apollo for BBC One.

The final show of my run at the Apollo in London would mark the end of days, weeks and months wasted (as it always seems at the time) in hire cars and hotel rooms. When I look back, I realise how all this thinking time was responsible for the set of ideas that eventually evolved into Lead Balloon.

I had lost count of the number of interviews I had done with local papers and radio stations in the last few months. They all ask the same questions, the favourite of which is: “Where do you get your ideas from?” I never know how to answer that. They just come to you, don’t they? That’s why they are called ideas. As I put the phone down on yet another witless (both ways, I should stress) interview, I remember wondering idly if any of this could be turned into a TV show.

As it happens, that final show was strange anyway. It was July 7 and London had ground to a stunned halt after the bombings. The theatre management were concerned that not enough staff would be able to get to work for the show to go ahead. I was concerned that, even if the staff did make it, would the audience? The show was sold out but it was hard to imagine all 3,500 of them just arriving as if nothing was wrong.

I could have cancelled the show, but I felt that it should go ahead (in the tradition of showbiz) unless there were fewer in the audience than on stage. Being a one-man show, that would have signified a disappointing turnout, regardless of circumstances.

As it turned out, more than 250 people got to the theatre. That is about enough to fill the first three rows in that barn of a place. Apart from them, I would have been performing to a very big dark space. But it was a great atmosphere and in many ways a memorable gig for me. To keep those people laughing for the evening in a difficult situation at the end of such a horrible day gives you a sense of achievement that you take for granted on easier nights.

After the show I went for a meal with my agent Addison Cresswell and a few friends. Addison asked me if I’d read a script that I had been sent. It was for a sitcom that was to be made that autumn, and there was a lead part if I wanted it. The script was fine, but it just didn’t excite me very much so I told Addison that I was going to pass on it. I started to talk about the kind of thing I would like to be in, if only someone would write it.

I had always wished I could do a show about a comedian, his life and his work, and how the two impacted on one other. Perhaps this guy isn’t that good a comedian, so his feeling of disillusion makes it impossible for him not to lie, to try to reshape everything to fit his plans. I have always found liars really funny. At that point, I was just throwing ideas around but I was surprised that my idea had more form to it than I had first thought.

So I started to write about this character and picture his home-life, family and friends. Would this interest anyone who wasn’t a comedian? I thought it would — after all, it is only superficially about his work. The comedy is provided by his neuroses and conflict. Most of us understand a little bit about that.

I spoke to Pete Sinclair, a friend I have often written with in the past, and asked if he would be interested in co-writing a script. He was up for it so I spoke to Addison and asked him to see if BBC Four would commission a pilot. I was adamant that we start on BBC Four rather than BBC One so that the show could develop without the pressure of needing to deliver massive ratings from the beginning. This wasn’t like stand-up — I hadn’t done it before and I knew that I would be learning how to do it as I went along. We got the go-ahead from the BBC and started on the script.

Pete is systematic in his approach, whereas my instinct is to write like crazy and see if any of it works. His suggestion was that we spend time establishing just who these characters were, so for two weeks or so we met up every day and discussed each one of them. It was an invaluable exercise, which yielded not only character information and back-story, but plot lines as well.

Alex Hardcastle had produced both series of my Apollo show and I asked him if he would produce this as well. I felt I had a really good team coming together. By November we had a script and we shot it in December. A few comments came back, but generally it was well received and we got the go-ahead to begin a series in the new year.

Pete and I met up as soon as Christmas was over and began writing. This is where all that character work really comes into its own. If you know who you are talking about it is so much more natural to imagine what they get up to.

We came up with the title Lead Balloon in a discussion about the things that comedians fear. In some way it seemed to describe Rick Spleen, my character, as well. Of course, you are a hostage to fortune with a name like that but it just seemed right somehow. I like the end result and remember thinking that maybe now I have explained a little about the “ideas” process. Three days ago Addison rang me and said: “Can you do a thousand words about Lead Balloon? They want to know where you got the idea from.”


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