Ahead of the Christmas Day return of Gavin & Stacey, I spoke with its director Christine Gernon who has directed all of the episodes of the original run and is back for the special. We chatted about the logistics of filming Christmas in the Summer and her time working in America and what it’s like working on their TV model. We also spoke about her start in television as a runner and eventual director on the BBC’s beloved sitcom One Foot in the Grave.
When did you first hear that the show was coming back?
James called me in February and told me that they’d written it and he asked me if I’d be up for it!
Were you nervous about returning to the show?
I was living in America at the time, but I said I was absolutely in to do it. There’s always that slight nervousness because it ended so well and it was so well thought of and you worry about going back in case it messes it up. Part of me knew that Ruth and James have such a high-quality control and if they had written it and were happy with it then it was going to be good. I knew they wouldn’t have done it if they weren’t happy with the script.
Was it a genuine surprise or did you always think you’d all come back together at some point?
It was a complete and utter surprise. It had never occurred to me that we would do any more. I was living in America at the time, Ruth had been over in LA writing with James and we had lunch and she told me she was on holiday! They didn’t want anybody to know because they didn’t want any pressure. If they’d tried it and they weren’t happy with it nobody would be any the wiser. Luckily it did work and we got to make it.
Did you revisit the show to remind yourself of its style?
Yes. I went back and watched all three series. I hadn’t seen it for a long time and you forget that that was the day that we run out of time, or I wish I’d done that. I was able just to sit back and watch it as a viewer and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some of it was edgier and ruder than I’d remembered but we didn’t want to make a show that was anodyne and family-friendly show but we wanted to make a show about people who loved each other and I think we achieved that.
One of the words you often hear when people describe the show is ‘warm’. A lot of its warmth comes from the performances and the writing but how do you shape the way the show feels to an audience?
My big thing is making it believable and making it feel rooted in a place. When I read the script all those years ago I thought that it had a great sense of place. Barry is its home and I want to build a world that you want to spend time in.
How much time did you have with the cast prior to shooting?
I’m a big believer in rehearsals and we’d had three days of ironing everything out and making sure we knew what we were doing.
Was any the part of shooting that felt quite surreal?
It felt like we’d just picked up after shooting series three. That in itself was weird. We all just picked up where we left off and got on with it. I hadn’t seen some of the actors since we finished but everybody was wonderful and it was the most joyful reunion. I got quite a few of the original crew members back. We had a great time shooting it. It went as smoothly as possible. At the table read everyone was pretty nervous but those rehearsals gave everyone a chance to get back into it without a camera pointing that them.
You were inundated with eager fans in Barry who wanted to watch the filming. Did that throw up any challenges for you?
The audience, if we can call them that, were brilliant. They were incredibly respectful. All they want is the cast to wave and the cast were very good at going and taking photos with people and as a mass they were amazing. The third series had got a little bit crazy so we kind of knew what to expect but it was nothing like this. It’s not always ideal but the actors are so brilliant and we just smashed through it really.
How do you approach making the show feel Christmassy?
We go full-on Christmas cliche! Whenever we were working on the soundtrack for the show we always tended to go indie. I started listening to lots of indie versions of Christmas songs and they didn’t feel very Christmassy. When I watched the last Christmas special we did I realised we’d just plastered it with Christmas music. In terms of music we’ve got all the hits you’d expect it’s pretty much ‘Now That What I Call a Gavin & Stacey Christmas’ but I tried to avoid anything we’d already used. The biggest challenge this time was the weather. We shot in July and it was incredibly hot. You have to keep reminding the cast it’s supposed to be cold and they are all wrapped up in winter clothes. We’d often have to shoot scenes at night and make them look like day because during the day there were so many people about. We can’t have people in the background in shorts and TShirts if it’s supposed to be Christmas so that was interesting.
It’s not a spoiler to say it starts with the opening bars of Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin’ Stevens.
Absolutely and I never thought I’d be working on something and need a Shakin’ Stevens song!
He’s Welsh as well so he’ll be chuffed
Do Ruth and James collaborate with you or do they leave you to do what you do?
Part of my philosophy for taking jobs is that when you meet writers and you talk about the project. You all have to be on the same page and making the same show. It’s such a collaboration. We had the luxury of time to try things on this special because it was a nice schedule.
Once you finished, the shoot what happens then?
We go into the edit. Liana Del Giudice is the best editor in the world and she’ll go through everything. Ruth came in for a few days, James was part of it on Facetime. The struggle with editing Gavin & Stacey is that we have a lot of people in each scene all of whom are giving you fantastic performances and you have to think which is the best out of half a dozen brilliant reactions.
|The cast of ABC’s Speechless.|
You came back from America to shoot the special. Having worked on shows like The Goldbergs, Superstore and executive producing ABC’s comedy Speechless. The way their TV model works is so vastly different to ours, did you like working over there?
It’s very different because you’re making so many episodes. When I went out initially I was just directing individual episodes of different shows. You arrive on a Tuesday and you prep that week, shoot the following week and then you leave and go on to another show. You have way less control. Way less artistic licence. You can bring elements of yourself to it, but if the show’s been going for years there’s already a map of how the show should look and feel and you have to follow that. The first two shows I did were in their first season but in my second year there I did some episodes of New Girl which was in season four so you can tweak tiny bits but by that point, they completely know what they’re doing.
It must feel like being the new kid at school when you walk into an established show as a director.
Absolutely yes. The worst thing about being an episodic director is that you’re allowed two days in the edit and then you hand it over to someone else who can change as much or as little as you want. You don’t have any control really. With something like Gavin & Stacey, I’m here from beginning to end.
You were the director and executive producer on ABC’s Speechless, was that a different experience?
That was much more like what I’d been used to in the UK. I had a lot more say, I was there was for the pilot and I became the person who went in and changed everybody’s else’s work. I became the person I’d moaned about! A lot of the time a lot of the people sat in the edit suite are writers and sometimes they can be more focused on whether a line works so they’re more likely to be OK with what I would call a ‘dodgy edit’. Speechless very much felt like my show. I’d directed the pilot which means I could set up the style going forward. I directed six or seven episodes each season and oversaw the other directors and the edit and that felt similar to the way I work here except you’re 23 episodes rather than the six or seven we’d make a year. In three years I think we made 67 episodes of Speechless and I haven’t made anything like that in the UK in the last ten years!
In your early years as a director, you worked on BBC One’s comedy One Foot in the Grave. I loved that show so much. What was like to work on because that’s a different style of show as you filmed in front of a live studio audience.
That is a very special show for me. It was the first show that I worked on when I went into television. Initially, I was the runner on the very first series and the producer and director of the show Susan Belbin was a mentor to me. I did the BBC directors course and I ended up directing the last Christmas special and then the last series. Having a live audience there is a completely different way of working. On a single-camera show, you’d shoot an episode in a week on location and in a sitcom, you rehearse for four or five days and then you’d shoot on the fifth or sixth day. In a multi-camera sitcom, you have your classic three jokes a page. It’s more about being funny. There’s nothing worse than shooting with a live audience where nobody is laughing.
Is it closer to a stage performance?
Yes. It’s a very curious thing because although the actors are performing for the audience they’ve got a camera right in their face. It’s a difficult balance and you have to make sure the performances aren’t too big. I think those type of comedies are the hardest thing to do and the ones that do it brilliantly I take my hat off to them.
Do you have a theory as to why we’re seeing fewer shows like Only Fools and Horses or One Foot in the Grave filmed in front of a live audience?
I don’t think writers want to write them because they are incredibly hard to get right. When you shoot something on single-camera like Gavin & Stacey you can go off to your location and if something doesn’t work you can work around it or shoot something else. In a multi-cam, there’s nowhere to hide. They have to be funny to the audience that are there. It’s a really difficult thing to do. They were all like that because that was you made comedy but now that you’ve got the option I think they’d write a single-camera piece. Nothing about writing comedy is easy but in a single-camera show, you have more options. Having said that, when you’re filming a sitcom, there’s nothing better than hearing an audience enjoy it.
Is there such a thing as ‘canned laughter’?
No. I did One Foot in the Grave and Absolutely Fabulous and we had to take laughs off! Jennifer Saunders would come on and people would be killing themselves laughing before she’d even said anything! It’s slightly unfair because nobody slates the American ones it’s always the British ones that people tend to pick on.
I’ve been in studio audiences and I know that audience really do laugh when the material is funny.
Absolutely. The only thing you might do is take the laugh that take 1 got if you’re using take three for the show. To me that is the seems fine because that’s the laugh the joke got.
Yes, it’s just they’ve seen it three times now so the energy isn’t quite as high.
Yes. With the best will in the world, they’re not going to laugh as loud on take three or four as they would when they first hear the joke on take one. That doesn’t seem like a cheat to me.
Going back to Gavin & Stacey. What are your fondest memories of the show as a whole?
We were shooting a scene for series one where Smithy hosted a pub quiz. I think it was the first time Julia (Davies) and Ade (Adrian Scarborough) were on set and I remember being behind the monitor thinking, I’d love to be in this pub with these people taking part in this quiz. When you start thinking like that you realise there’s a chance it’s going to work. I remember being freezing cold when we filmed at the driving range in series 2 and sticking plasters on James’ nipples because it was so cold. We were shooting a scene at a service station for the other Christmas Special and a Gavin & Stacey themed hen party turned up. I don’t think they could quite believe it. I have so many happy memories and it’s a show that I’ve always loved doing and doing this one felt like going back and seeing a lot of people you loved that you hadn’t seen for a while and it was so easy.
Gavin & Stacey returns Christmas Day at 8.30pm on BBC ONE