|Paul Mendelson Interview|
|May To December|
1, 2, 3, 4
Ryan: What was your first series and how did it come about?
Paul: As I've said, my first series to be produced was May To December. I was working full-time so I had to write about something that required very little research. I had worked in a small legal practice, so I knew about divorce. My wife was a teacher, so I knew about schools. The female lead was named after my eldest daughter, so that didn't take much imagination. And the series was even set in my home town of Pinner! (A pretty Tudor commuter-village to the north-west of London).
But there is another aspect to this. I love writing about relationships, and the special problems facing a couple of differing generations and values seemed ripe with possibilities. Coincidentally, our lead actor is himself married to an actress some twenty-five years his junior. A case of art imitating life.
To digress for a second. In 1992 ABC Productions in Los Angeles bought the rights to the series, with a view to making an American version. In a transatlantic telephone conversation with the then head of the company, I was asked where I lived. I replied that I lived round the corner from where the series was filmed. A stunned silence, then "you live on location!?" I think this confirmed that we really were a quaint cottage industry. (Please believe me, it is pretty unusual, even in Britain.). The series sadly never happened, but I did make a very important and valued friendship with the legendary American writer Stan Daniels (Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Roc) and I am still working with him on a project today.
Ryan: When you first conceived May To December (about a middle-aged solicitor (Anton Rodgers) who falls in love with a twentysomething gym teacher) did you have a master plan how it would unfold: they date, get engaged, married, finally have a baby? Or did the BBC just keep asking for more episodes and you wrote the logical continuation of their relationship?
Paul: I would love your readers to believe I'm the Stalin of sit-com, with my magnificent five-year plans - but truth is I was so thrilled to get my first series on BBC, I never even thought beyond it. When they asked for a second, all I could think was ohmygod, what do this couple do now?! Eventually, of course, as the BBC kept asking for more, it became the natural progression of a relationship. I actually wanted to finish the series after four seasons, but - happily - I was persuaded to continue - hence baby Fleur etc.
Ryan: I get asked this all the time, why did Eve Matheson leave after the second series (to be replaced by Lesley Dunlop)?
Paul: Nothing sinister. Eve is a wonderful stage actress and she was offered a world tour with the National Theatre. Working with Ian McKellen in Richard III and playing Cordelia in King Lear is pretty hard to turn down. She is still a good mate, so there was no animosity. And Lesley did us proud.
In fact a couple of years ago, we did a radio version of the first series for the BBC, so Lesley actually got to play ZoŽ's first encounters with Alec.
Ryan: Did you feel the dynamics of the series changed at all at that point?
Paul: I'm probably too close to it to tell. Naturally we didn't try to explain it - no suggesting that ZoŽ had undergone state-of-the-art plastic surgery. We just carried on as if nothing had happened - and gradually the audience became endeared to Lesley as they had to Eve. If anything the new ZoŽ was a bit earthier, a more obvious daughter to her cockney mum, so possibly I wrote to those strengths. But I doubt the storylines or relationships would have differed much, because they were still the same characters in my head.
Ryan: You named the Jewish ghost in So Haunt Me after your mother. Is there anything else autobiographical in that series?
Paul: I'll say. Pete was an advertising copywriter who had lost his job. I had been there. He was totally useless about the house and happily left anything practical to his wife. Ask my wife if that rings any bells. And he had a stroppy teenage daughter, who carried on like her parents were beneath contempt. No comment.
On a more tonal level, I think So Haunt Me afforded me the opportunity to use the Jewish humour that is so much a part of my own life in a culture where it is far from the dominant mode. By putting a white Anglo-Saxon family in collision with an old and very dead Jewish lady, I was able to blend two very different styles. Happily even if every Jew in Britain had watched it (and my mother probably told most of them that they'd better), the figures suggest that at least thirteen million viewers of other persuasions joined them.