|Paul Mendelson Interview|
|Introduction To Paul|
Paul Mendelson is a TV writer working in Britain. He is best known for the comedies May To December and My Hero, which is currently running on the BBC. In this exclusive interview, he discusses his writing career.
Ryan: First of all, what's your background?
Paul: I'm Scottish by upbringing and a lawyer by training. So you can already see how autobiographical my work is. (May To December). I graduated from Cambridge in 1972 and then ran a family law department in a small legal practice. Actually, I was the family law department.
Because of one particularly traumatic case - which is now, almost thirty years on, the basis of a film I am writing - I left law and went into advertising. For eighteen years I wrote TV commercials, first for Ogilvy & Mather and then for other major agencies. I ended up - after the obligatory redundancy - (So Haunt Me), as the creative director of a medium size agency. But as I was approaching forty and everyone else was twelve, I thought it might be time to move on.
Having written the first two series of May To December at nights, on the tube and in the agency loo (my incontinence was legendary), I became a full-time writer in 1990.
To complete the autobiography, I am married with two grown-up children. I am also Jewish, which seems to be almost compulsory for American comedy writers, but is still a novelty here.
But here is where the life/work connection ends. I am not, sadly, endowed with super powers - (My Hero), as my family would willingly substantiate.
Ryan: How did you break into television writing?
Paul: Massive good fortune. I wrote a series of commercials for Heinz Spaghetti (about a little girl who has an imaginary friend called Eric, who will only 'appear' if the spaghetti is Heinz). The director was Nic Roeg, whose credits extend a tad beyond Heinz Spaghetti - Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Witches, etc. He's a delightful man, so I plucked up courage and showed him a short, unpublished novel I had written, concerning a WASP family who move into a house haunted by a Jewish mother. He passed it on to the producer Verity Lambert (Doctor Who, The Naked Civil Servant, Cry In The Dark) who asked me to turn it into a pilot episode.
Now here's living proof that the essence of comedy is timing. We sent the script to the BBC Head of Comedy, who rejected it outright. "Paul" he said, "you've done everything wrong. Children, dogs, ethnic humour, special effects, suspension of disbelief. Go away and try again." Which I did, and he bought the ethnically sound, non-spectral May To December straight off. We didn't even do a pilot. So after two series, and great ratings, I went back to the same man with the same impossible Jewish ghost script. He commissioned six episodes immediately! It was as if he had never seen the thing before. Ethnic humour? Dogs?? Timing. (So comedy writers reading this - never throw anything away. My Hero was rejected by at least three comedy supremos.)