13th April 2019
The Saturday Interview: 'Wooden Overcoats' podcast with David K. Barnes
NOTE: There's also a Podcast Recommendation for Wooden Overcoats on the blog here.
For anyone like me who’s exceptionally late in experiencing the brilliance of Wooden Overcoats, would you mind introducing yourself and the podcast?
Hello! I’m David K. Barnes, the head writer of Wooden Overcoats, a sitcom about rival funeral directors on a small island in the English Channel.
Rudyard Funn and his anxious twin sister Antigone run Funn Funerals. Their service is terrible and the results even worse, but the residents of Piffling Vale continue to use them because they’re the only funeral home on the island… until the impossibly perfect Eric Chapman appears on the scene and sets up his own funeral business opposite theirs!
Now that Eric is everybody’s favourite undertaker, the Funns are taking drastic steps to stay in business - aided by their sarcastic assistant Georgie, and a mouse called Madeleine…
What was the original inspiration behind Wooden Overcoats?
We started working on Wooden Overcoats in late 2014. I’d been wanting to write something about jealousy and envy for quite a while, hoping to exorcise a few demons!
Felix Trench and Tom Crowley (Rudyard & Eric) had meanwhile toyed with the idea of making a short film comedy about rival undertakers. Knowing I was looking for a new project, they then asked if I’d be interested in developing the idea as an audio series. We discussed what the show might be like over a few dinners and it was clear we all really wanted to do it, so I wrote the pilot script at the very beginning of 2015.
Once the situation was in my head, it only took four days to get that first draft written. I was able to project so many of my own anxieties onto those characters! At some point we’ve all felt resentful towards another person’s success, and wallowed in that bitterness without doing anything to improve our own circumstances. Applying that to the world of undertakers finally gave me a lens to examine jealousy in a quirky, amusing way.
Do many of the Wooden Overcoats team have relationships that predate the podcast? Did this help the group to gel?
None of us knew everybody, but we all had some prior experience of others in the group. I’d just recorded a different audio comedy series that Felix, Tom and Beth Eyre had been in, and so already knew them as performers. In fact, Felix and I had both been active members of the same theatre company at university, and were subsequently living together when Wooden Overcoats began. We both knew Liz Campbell the same way (fellow student, then flatmate), and she joined the team in Season Two. Our producers Andy and John had recently studied together, and knew some of the others before they met me. I certainly think it helped in those early days of the show that we could all vouch for each other’s abilities.
Thinking through your earlier comments, are any of the characters in Piffling Vale caricatures of people you’ve met?
Oh, they most certainly are, but I couldn’t possibly tell you who!
Wooden Overcoats was frequently performed live at the Horse & Stables pub in London. Do you feel that influenced the writing or recorded performances at all?
Not as such, as the show was written to be produced in studio, but they’ve always been events we’ve looked forward to so we can experience the listeners’ reactions first hand. It’s so satisfying to hear the audience gasp at dramatic plot twists or character moments, especially when we’re performing an episode that hasn’t been released yet.
I adapt the studio scripts to make them suit a live performance, and the actors tend to play to the audience a little, introducing visual jokes and ad-libs.
We’ve since begun performing our live shows at Kings Place, the home of the London Podcast Festival, and the buzz in the room is incredible.
How do you adapt the studio scripts for a live audience?
Live comedy requires a quicker consistency of jokes than studio, and those jokes need to be structured in a more performative way than would be suitable for studio record. This video clip is a good example, with Felix and Paul Putner doing a scene from The Trial of Rudyard. If you compare it to the corresponding scene in the recorded podcast (approx 14.38), you’ll find that the live show version has a few more lines of dialogue, to tee up some extra laughs, and that the actors pitch their performances differently. I try to take account of that when adapting the scripts and insert moments for the actors to make that connection with the audience.
One of the great things about Wooden Overcoats is the consistently high quality of the writing from all of everyone involved (I think I counted nine writers including yourself in total) and the consistency of tone and through-jokes (for example, the way that Rudyard constantly attracts poor weather). As head writer, how did you achieve this?
The writers bring their own unique skill sets to the show. Some are playwrights, some are sketch writers, others write animated children’s shows for television, and so on.
Whilst I’ll have a vague idea for the direction of each season, I like to encourage the writers to pursue the ideas that excite or entertain them the most, rather than imposing stories upon them. I’ll work closely with each writer to develop the plot of their particular episode, while keeping the shape of the season in my head.
For instance, in our second season, Cordelia Lynn wanted to write an episode about Rudyard making a friend and how it goes disastrously wrong. It was a wonderful idea and I realised it had the potential to raise the dramatic stakes of the entire season, working as a terrific lead-in to the finale. Tom Crowley and I wrote the episode that dealt directly with the fallout of Cordelia’s episode, whilst posing a big question for me to answer in the episode after that.
I aim to curate the scripts very carefully, and carry out all final rewrites myself to ensure the consistency of tone, character and humour, using my episodes as a baseline. The producers provide their own notes too, and then there’s another round of feedback from the cast when we read the scripts a few weeks before recording.
It’s that series of checks and balances that maintains the quality. I take script editing the series very seriously, and everybody involved is able to feed their own notes into the mix.
One of the many things that staggered me about Wooden Overcoats was the size and complexity of the team involved in its creation. As Head Writer, what was your own time commitment for each episode?
Oh, blimey. I usually set aside 6 months for each season, during which Wooden Overcoats will be my primary creative project. However, I’ll also be working another job at the same time to make my income! I was a perfume salesman during the first season, and worked for a TV company during the second. By the third season, I was making my full income from writing, and wrote scripts for other podcasts and my first Doctor Who for Big Finish whilst I was working on Wooden Overcoats.
It's difficult to say how long each episode takes to write, and it can range from anywhere to a few days to several months. I tend to write season finales pretty quickly, despite their length, purely as I've invariably left things a bit late and the recording dates are looming! A deadline will always speed things up... But then, some scripts are more difficult than others. I wrote the second half of Season Two's 'The Sweet, Sweet Taste of Death' about two months after the first half, as it took me a while to work out where the story ought to go. And Season Three's 'Antigone in the Spotlight' took about seven attempts before I got into it, and even then I restructured it when adapting it for the live shows.
How does writing comedy compare in difficulty to other genres you’ve written in?
When planning each episode of Overcoats, I try to begin with a dramatic hook, or a relationship that needs to be examined. I tell the other writers to do the same thing: we can be funny later. But we need to begin with a situation or development that could easily be written as a drama, and then we’ll find the humour in it.
But I think generally that writing comedy is more difficult than anything else. It's not just about finding the best jokes, though it never hurts to have them. Often comedy is about rhythm, about using just the right language to make someone laugh. It can even often down to the number of syllables in a line. And sometimes you'll spend ages crafting a line you think is the best in the show, and nobody else will find it funny. You can go mad trying to please everyone, but if you don't please anyone then you've definitely failed!
That’s not to say drama isn’t bloody hard to write either. Mind you, most of the best dramas also happen to be incredibly funny. It’s all a question of priorities and emphasis. For myself, I’ve found that being freed of the need to “make this funny” on a project will make it less stressful for me, though I shy away from doing too many like that because I’m too scared of forgetting how to write comedy! And no matter what I write, I like to approach it with a lightness of touch.
Were the finished podcasts close to your original vision for Wooden Overcoats or did the constraints of recording and production - or even ad-libbing from the cast - alter it at all?
I can never turn off my inner critic. I’ll always think “oh, I could have written another joke there” or “that scene should have had fewer lines, and it’s a bit flabby.” There are some episodes I’d love another go at. I think The Trial of Rudyard, for instance, loses focus in the second half and includes far too much exposition.
But I’m talking there about the scripts themselves. Typically, the performances and production standards have always exceeded my expectations. I can write “they enter to find a ringmistress sat on top of a pyramid of sobbing acrobats and circus animals” and know that it won’t be a problem. I feel tremendous creative freedom.
I remember vividly listening to the clifftop argument between Rudyard and Antigone being recorded from Season One’s Georgina and the Waves. For me, it was the thematic centrepiece of the whole season and I was anxious to get it right. The emotional intensity that Felix and Beth reached on the final take was breathtaking. It was exactly what I’d hoped for and I just remember being so happy to be making this show.
With a sibling of my own, I find their bickering sounds uncomfortably close to reality! Has there ever been a time when you’ve asked for an audio effect that the production team has been unable to fulfil?
Never. And if we couldn’t source an exact match, Andy & John make their own. A fun fact: there’s an angry cat in Season One’s The Cliffhanger which is actually Beth Eyre doing an impression of an angry cat. These days, I’ll deliberately write complex sequences into the scripts, knowing that Andy & John will rise to the challenge.
There’s also the music by James Whittle which goes so far to embodying the tone of the show. We’ve had chase music, spooky music, spy music, French New Wave cinema music, and all sorts. In the last episode of Season Three, I wanted something beautiful for the ending and he more than delivered. He’s somebody to whom you can just say “I’d like this very difficult thing, please” and he’ll compose something brilliant.
I think we’ve always strived to push ourselves on Wooden Overcoats across the board, in every aspect of production. It’s mad that it has the sprawling cast that it has, but we made that decision very early on. We ask a lot of each other on the show, which is why it’s so satisfying when things come together, and we can listen back to the episodes and be proud of them.
(And we hope the audience likes them too!)
Will there be a fourth series? As someone who’s only just discovered the podcast, this is a question causing me some anxiety.
I keep a booklet where I jot down ideas for future episodes and character arcs. I think we can explore Eric a little more. Rudyard and Antigone have grown more confident throughout Season Three, so that'd bring a new dynamic to a fourth season, and Georgie's now dating Jennifer... I think after a season that embraced the wider cast of Piffling Vale, I'd want to flip that and focus on smaller, more intimate stories.
We're certainly interested in making a fourth season and it's currently a case of exploring options. We haven't any news to offer at the moment, but if we do it’ll be the top story on our social media. We can, however, be caught live at the Underbelly on London's Southbank on 9th June 2019!
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And for all things Wooden Overcoats, you can follow the show at @overcoatswooden and see what we’ve got at www.woodenovercoats.com - and of course, you can subscribe to the podcast via your prefered provider!