Endings are hard. Today I had a couple of interesting storylines but they didn’t want to have anything to do with each other, and if an ending is going to work, all the disparate elements ultimately need to get together and start knocking boots. So, like Marty McFly, you go back to the start and begin the hard business of manipulating events so that (stay with me), Marty’s dad kisses his mom in the car park after the prom.
As in Back to the Future, such a development can seem impossible. Marty’s dad is a stuttering nerd (played, I’m sure you remember, by the oddest man alive, Crispin Glover) and his “mom” (an American word meaning “mum”) doesn’t seem to know he’s alive.
But then, a miracle, as they’re brought together by one of the things that should keep them apart. One of the greatest bullies in screen history, Biff, with a look in his eyes that suggests he’s seconds away from a restraining order if not actual jail time, puts his big, dirty mitts on Marty’s mom. Marty’s dad finds something within himself, raises to his full height and pops Biff just south of his crew cut.
So I’m looking for a Biff.
My six-year-old son has been working on a ... I hesitate to call it a routine but, it’s a routine. He pretends to be an old man. That’s it. That’s the routine. Now, I realise it would be impossible for me to give a completely impartial review here, but I feel it may be one of the greatest comic achievements in human history.
As I say, I’m probably not entirely impartial. But wait, wait, it’s not just any old man. It’s a grizzled, old-timey prospector. And my son has decided that a thing that grizzled old-timey prospectors are wont to repeatedly say is, “Get out of my ’partment.”
Why is an old-timey prospector living in a modern-day, New York apartment? I don’t know. I don’t question it. I don’t want to mess with it. That’s my kind of comedy, you see. Not satire, not parody . . . just something so out of left field that there’s not even a word for it.
So I’m not saying anything. I want to see how this turns out.
Like everyone else who watches TV, I suspect I would have been a brilliant police detective if I decided to suddenly switch careers for no reason.
Here’s a case I caught tonight. On the London to Norwich train, back from seeing the unbelievably dirty Sarah Millican at the Hammersmith Apollo, a huge drunk man gets on and asks another man (even drunker, but not as huge) “Is this the train to Norwich?”
The smaller man barely looks up from his burger and chips cardboard empire and says: “WHAT ARE YOU ASKING ME FOR?”
(Just like to point out that this sentence actually took more time than it would have to say “Yes”.)
So the big guy is momentarily stunned. We quickly say, “Yes, yes it is!” nodding and smiling like idiots in an attempt to stop the situation escalating, and the big guy contents himself with cursing the burger-eater all the way down the carriage.
As we get off the train in Norwich (and here’s where my police instincts kick in) I note that the big guy is using the payphone in the station concourse. He’s not talking, just leaning against it, crooking the phone under his neck, and keeping an eye on people getting off the train.
Huh, I think. Who uses payphones these days?
In the split second we pass, I think, I wonder if he’s waiting for the burger guy, to beat him up?
As we walk home, I mention all this to my wife. She agrees, in a slightly robotic voice that she sometimes has, that I would, indeed, have made a great detective.
What happened back at the station? I dunno. Who cares?
Sarah Millican has always been fascinating to me. About 10 years ago I watched her perform at a charity event with my parents sitting beside me and her act comprised about 15 minutes of cheerful filth. Anal sex, masturbation – it was like being on the internet.
And yet, neither my parents nor I once looked at our shoes, or coughed lightly to make it clear we weren’t laughing at this joke about the things that go through your head when your husband is going down on you. We just *howled*, and afterwards, my mum was desperate to meet her.
How does she do it? Her skill as a comic, obviously, her accent . . . but I think there’s also a key technique she has in taking something taboo and finding what’s, well, sweet about it. I hope she won’t see this reading as reductive. But it’s something I’ve long believed. If you’ve got something dark, find what’s light about it. If you’ve got something light, show how it’s dark.
“Come on, now, go to bed.”
My son screws up his face, bends his body into a question mark and then the grizzled prospector starts to shuffle across the upstairs landing towards his bedroom.
Thirty seconds later, he’s halfway across the three-metre walk. He says in his old man voice “This is taking a long time.”
Finally, he enters his small bedroom and goes out of sight.
After another 30 or 40 seconds, we hear, “Nearly there!”
I think a lot about Back to the Future. The film bears out the rule that a story is its ending. If you don’t get that right, you undo all the work that’s gone before.
Back to the Future has a perfect ending. Not only does Marty successfully reunite his parents, but his presence at the beginning of their relationship has changed everything. His dad is now a successful science fiction author, his mother no longer a bitter alcoholic. Like Pinocchio, he’s gone down into the belly of the beast and rescued, not just his father this time, but his whole family. Man . . . how satisfying is that?
But you need to clear it out of your mind. You’ll never do anything if you compare the perfect ending to one of the best family films of all time to this half-formed thing struggling for life in front of you.
No sign of my Biff yet.
Biff turned up!
I was working with some people on a separate project and someone said something about wizards. In my mind, tumblers clicked (do tumblers click?) and then, *boom* (do tumblers make things explode?), my story was complete. I walked home whistling like an idiot. The story was playing out in my head like a film that I’d already seen and loved. All I had to do now was go home and get it down on paper.
What was it? I can’t really tell you. Disappointing, I know. But endings are hard.
Graham Linehan’s new sitcom ‘The Walshes’ starts on BBC4 on Thursday Mar 13 at 10pm