Borderline – Channel 5’s ‘Retro-scripted’ Foray Into Comedy
This week sees Channel 5 stepping its toe into comedy water, with its new mockumentary, Borderline. The series follows the working lives of the border security team at the fictional Northend Airport, a small provincial airport which may be somewhat lacking in glamour, but still has to abide by the same rules as larger international airports. It is the first production from Ralf Little and Zoe Rocha’s company LittleRock Pictures. I got to sit down with the cast, writers and producers, to get a comprehensive insight into the process behind making a show like Borderline.
The first thing I realised is that there isn’t really a show like Borderline. In the UK anyway. What makes it so different is something that the average viewer probably won’t even notice: the show is retro-scripted, which is an improvisational method of working which is becoming increasingly popular in America. Here, the stories were constructed by two writers, and the actors then spent ten days workshopping the scenes and their characters to improvise dialogue. The best lines they came up with that felt most natural to each actor were written down, and became the official lines used for when the show was recorded. It sits quite nicely next to Channel 5’s award-winning returning drama Suspects, which uses fully improvised dialogue.
David Elms, who plays Clive, explained why we see much more retro-scripting in the States than in the UK: “In America they do it at school. Michael (Orton-Toliver, one of the show’s two writers) went to high school with Matt (Jones – the show’s director, known for playing Badger in Breaking Bad). It’s like a sport to them. In America, the shows have huge budgets – they all have a writer’s room with about ten writers. Also, the way they source a lot of talent in America is through improv schools like Second City and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Loads of big names like Will Ferrell come up through improv schools.”
The retro-scripting does well in making the dialogue sound natural. The cast all seemed to have high praise for this method of working, a lot of them coming from improvising backgrounds already. David explained: “We got to mold our characters into people we found natural to play, so they’re much more true to us. Even down to little things like if there was a word that felt weird in your mouth, you could swap it out for one that you would use.”
Jamie Michie (Game of Thrones), who plays Grant, was surprised at how laid back the workshopping was: “We’ve all come from slightly different schools of learning, so it’s nice because nobody’s trying to outdo each other. When you watch some improvisation, you can see that people are looking for the next joke and trying to top the last person. This was a mix of different styles – not everybody had to be the funniest every second of the day.”
Liz Kingsman, who plays Andy, gave some more background: “We do live improv every week at our writer, Michael’s, school. Lots of the guest actors who came in each week were plucked from that school. This is very different than doing it on stage though, because on stage when the audience laughs, you know that’s the direction you need to head down. People aren’t allowed to laugh when you’re filming, so you have to decide the direction yourself!”
David Avery (The Night Manager) plays Tariq, an endearing character who has dreams of becoming a DJ. David was the least experienced of the actors in terms of improvising: “They really did make me up my game. What I learned is that you shouldn’t force anything, and just go with what feels natural. If you do mess up in improv, it can still be valuable. I’d say 30% of takes ended up in us corpsing. But some of that laughter made it in because it was so sweet and natural.”
The show was executive produced by British comedy treasure Ralf Little, best known for playing Antony in The Royle Family and Jonny in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. This is the first project he has exec produced. For the first week of shooting Ralf had a last-minute offer to be in a play with Jack O’Connell and Mark Addy in Sheffield. His business partner Zoe Rocha (the show’s producer) told him to do the play, promising to hold things together.
When the shooting was moved to a disused airport in Coventry (after the cast had all already signed on thinking they were going to be in central London!) Ralf decided that each night he would come off stage, drive down to Coventry and stay overnight then he could be on set for 6am. He said to me: “Being a producer is rubbish – you have to be there so early! The only people who get there before you are the caterers. I’d be there in the day and then go back up to Sheffield for the play – it was a knackering time. Producing is hard work, but I’m lucky enough to have a business partner who shouldered so much of the responsibility and completely nailed it.”
Usually it’s hard to get improvised comedy commissioned because it is such a massive gamble for a channel, as they cannot be assured by a script. So when Ralf and Zoe approached Channel 5’s director of programmes Ben Frow, they couldn’t believe the positive response they got. Ralf said: “It’s one thing for writers and producers to be mavericks, but for the head of a channel to take such a gamble? It’s very impressive.”
Zoe recalled Ben liking 20% of the teaser they made. “He said if we could make a show like that 20%, we had a commission. Channel 5 have recently rebranded, so there’s a new vibe, and because they haven’t made comedy before, we didn’t have to completely tailor to a pre-existing audience.”
Ralf said they tried to put a variety of content in the teaser, and that Ben “loved the bits looking at real people doing real things. Early on, there were obviously no scripts, but we did say to Ben that we would send him storylines as they were developed, to keep him happy. He said ‘nah, just go and make it.’ No one makes telly like that these days. He trusted us that we knew the kind of comedy we wanted to make.”
Jackie Clune (Mamma Mia! International Tour), who plays burned-out boss Proctor, also praised the attitude of their broadcaster: “It took a channel like Channel 5 to try something new. I used to do standup years ago and I got to the point where I was pitching my ideas, and I was commissioned to write drafts of sitcoms. Anyone who has been through that process will know how torturous it is, and how often you end up with the shit that you see on TV because it’s so over-talked and goes through so many committee processes that it ends up being nothing to anybody. I think that’s where there’s a lot of failure in commissioning at the moment. What’s exciting about this is that we’ve been allowed to do something new – that’s when you break through and make something exciting.”
Liz Kingsman, who plays Andy, had another modest point to make about why the show is risky: “None of us are hugely famous!” Take Guz Khan, who plays baggage handler Mo. Just six months ago, this friendly young gent was a secondary school humanities teacher. After his YouTube comedy routines went viral, he has now become a full time actor and comedian, and is currently writing a sitcom for BBC Three. I asked him what his old students think of his new career path: “They love it. I think I drop a couple of F bombs in this, so I’m going to have to go back and rectify my wrongs in some assembly somewhere down the line! The kids seeing a normal dude, who was their teacher, traversing into this is really nice.”
I think that Borderline has come at quite a sparse time for British comedy. In my opinion, no show has had the masses buzzing for broadcast since The Inbetweeners finished in 2010. But in the middle of a year when it’s hard to consume any form of news without hearing the word ‘immigration’, Borderline has the potential to get people talking. I thought it would be interesting to hear where the team felt it sits in relation to other series:
Ralf said that one of the things they had to be wary about from the start was that there would be comparisons with The Office, due to the workplace mockumentary scenario. “As soon as you see Borderline, you realise you’re looking at a very different beast,” he said. “The Office is my favourite show of all time, so it’s tempting to go there, but you have to do your own thing. Tonally it’s very different.” David Avery (Tariq) agreed: “The Office was very awkward humour, and that was great, but this isn’t that.”
“We also knew there would be comparisons with Come Fly With Me, because of the airport setting,” Zoe said. “Tonally however, the obvious recent comparisons are things like Twenty Twelve and W1A. The closest for me though is probably the American series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It’s like our show in that you meet these really interesting and engaging characters in a security-sensitive work environment, and it does so without making a political statement about that environment.”
Ralf added: “While it does share the same DNA as things like Twenty Twelve and W1A, which are both brilliant and I’d be happy for this to be considered half as good, Borderline feels like a faster paced show. Not many jokes are lingered on.” Zoe concurred: “Those shows tend to go through the events of a day, but Borderline has full narrative arcs as the series progresses. There is a comedy audience in the UK who are really hungry for something akin to what we’re doing here, so hopefully we will cut through and find them.”
Writer Chris Gau said that the show “is a really good marriage of British and American sensibilities. Americans like good people trying their best. English people like terrible people trying their best and failing. We tread the fine line here – these are good people trying their best but failing most of the time.”
A series with such a high level of collaboration as this one must contain at least some level of truth in the events which ultimately appear on screen. Writer Chris Gau said: “The best way to write is to sit and talk about things that have happened to you as real people, and then a lot of it leaks into the show.” A case in point is the inspiration for the show itself – a terrible experience which the other writer, Michael Orton-Tolliver, had in Stansted Airport:
“My wife is English (Michael is American), which is why I live here,” he said. “I was coming in one time and I didn’t have whatever weird European residency card that I needed to have – I was living in Amsterdam then. It was late at night in Stansted, and this border patrol guy was so mean for no reason. He asked who I was here to visit, and I said my wife. He called my wife, but this was actually two months before we got married, so she said ‘I’m not his wife, I’m his fiancée.’ The guy said I was messing him about, so put me on a plane in handcuffs and kicked me back out of the country. I remembered thinking ‘this would make for a great sitcom!’”
Michael said that the one thing he wanted to change from his own experience is that he wanted to make the staff members nicer than the man he had his own altercation with. Sure enough, one of the differences I’ve noticed in relation to some of the comparative shows mentioned above, is that all of the characters seem quite likeable. I wouldn’t necessarily want to go for a drink with half of them, but they do seem like decent enough people.
Ralf discussed this with me: “Comedy characters don’t necessarily have to be likeable; just look at Partridge, Brent, Fawlty, Blackadder. You have to root for them in some way, but that’s a different thing. It just so happens that in this show, because the characters were born out of improvisation, they are all very redeemable. I hope that it’s not that they are likeable as such, but that they’re all rounded.”
An interesting way the team made sure all the characters were rounded, was in the creation of a script that was originally gender-neutral. Chris explained: “we wrote the show unisex casting, so any person could do any role. When we auditioned people, we would say ‘she/he is perfect’ and we would then tweak the role to suit the actor. We were really conscious that we just wanted funny people.” Michael said that the great example of this is Jackie Clune’s character Proctor: “All we knew was this was going to be a boss who is under the pressure of a terrible job. We had a lot of guys audition and do a great job, but then Jackie just came in and knocked it out of the park.”
Zoe said she has a real affinity with Proctor’s character: “I think she is really strong and really interesting. She’s flawed like everybody else but she’s not sat there moping; she’s got something to say, which is great. To be the female boss on the show, and to have a lead protagonist who is a female boss of this team, you can’t help but feel something. Even little things like noticing on the poster that the women haven’t been purposefully distributed in a particular order… That was a real empowering moment for me. Particularly as this is the first show we’ve done and none of this has really been a conscious decision, it’s just sort of happened.”
Ralf did say to me though that the Bechdel test, a way of measuring gender inequality by asking whether or not a work of fiction contains a scene in which two female characters talk about something other than a man, was something they kept in mind during production. I can see this is true – some of my favourite scenes are between Proctor and my personal favourite character Andy, played by Liz Kingsman. Andy is not afraid to speak up to her boss about what she considers to be morally questionable, she can have a laugh despite hating her job, and is often very much the voice of sanity in the show. I know I’m not meant to make comparisons to The Office, but Andy does well at ticking a lot of the boxes which Tim (Martin Freeman) did, back in the early 2000’s.
Borderline wrapped well before the UK’s decision on June 23rd to leave the European Union. Ralf stated that while the country’s new global shift might be a dismal note for 48% of the population, it is “a hell of an opportunity” for the show, should a second season be ordered: “If you were to try and get a comedy commissioned now which deals with the topic of immigration, most people wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. We’ve already got one!”
Be that as it may, Ralf does not see Brexit becoming the show’s focus: “I don’t think we can avoid it as an issue and an idea, but big political debates are not the point of our show. That said, it would affect these guys and their already-very-difficult jobs, so of course we’ll get to see what it means for them.”
I asked him if Borderline was ever meant to be more political than it turned out. He told me that so many things were on the table at one stage, and that finding the right focus was a case of seeing what worked: “At one stage people thought that the show was going to consist mainly of passengers doing really funny things as they came through the border. Our two writers realised very quickly that that’s a law of diminishing returns – there are already programmes where you can watch that. Plus those shows win every time, because it’s actually real. It’s probably lucky that we didn’t make any political statement, because it would almost certainly be out of date now.”
Ricky Gervais has recently voiced an opinion that if comedy is not offending someone, be it accidental, then there’s no real point to it as it’s not saying anything new. “Offence is good,” he says, “it makes people think and opens a discussion.” I thought this was an interesting topic to discuss in relation to a programme about border patrol when international relations are undeniably tense. The main thrust of the first episode involves a new directive telling staff to detain anyone who looks ‘out of the ordinary’, which becomes a point of contention for the politically aware, and one of confusion for those who may already be profiling. The producers, writers and cast were all quite split on how much they agreed with Gervais.
Zoe agreed 100%: “What’s the point in making something if you’re not going to get a strong reaction? Not everybody’s going to like everything. There are people who are going to hate this show.” David Avery agreed with her: “There’s always somebody who’s going to be offended by something. And that’s cool – you’ve got the right to. As long as it’s not malicious or hateful, then this should be an open realm. Ultimately, that means we don’t segregate people and segregate feelings – that’s what attracted me to this show. It reminded me of what the Brits do well, which is not take ourselves too seriously. We need a place to take the piss; ultimately, that heals people.”
Liz Kingsman, however, did not agree with Gervais: “I don’t think comedy has to offend. The funniest things to me are when someone’s falling over. You’re never going to beat classics like that, and it’s not offensive to anyone.” David Elms took a similar stance: “I don’t think that comedy’s job is to offend or to polarize – you can enjoy some gentle comedy. I also do standup and I spend most of the time just talking about how much I love my wife. But I do love Ricky Gervais and comedy that is making a strong point. Satire particularly should be polarizing. If it has a target, then to hit that target you have to offend some people. I don’t think that Borderline has a target other than the general climate of fear around immigration. This is a very gentle show where the characters get on. For example Jamie‘s character Grant starts off the series as the most racist, and he learns throughout the series that he’s being prejudiced.”
Guz Khan was also hesitant: “It’s a cool statement, but there are always parameters. Comedy should push the boundaries, but there are certain points which can outright offend people. That statement is fine coming from a performer who is very well established, but if you are trying to make a mark and you jump the gun too quickly, that can have massively negative repercussions. We’ve seen the effects of it recently with Dapper Laughs overstepping the line. The misogyny and the objectification of women was quite tough to see past for a lot of people.”
To writers Chris and Michael, it didn’t seem like something to worry about too much: Michael said: “I don’t think we planned to offend, but we wanted to take the topic and deal with it honestly, and if it does offend, so be it. You can’t be afraid to talk about stuff.” Chris added: “You don’t write for shock value, but you do write from a personal point of a view and that’s always going to be the opposite of some people’s opinions.”
Ralf Little discussed the possibility of people finding Borderline offensive: “Gervais is the master of going ‘are you offended by this? Why? Have a think about it and come back to me.’ Nothing that we’ve done particularly set out to do that as openly. If you’re not doing something that people are having a strong reaction to, then you’re wasting your time.”
I suggested something that struck me when watching the episode – that some viewers may mistake jokes about racist characters as cues to laugh at racism. “You can only do things from your own point of view,” Ralf said. “The character Grant is an ordinary guy doing an ordinary job, and finding it difficult to know what criteria he’s supposed to use to stop people coming through the border. To me, that’s a very authentic representation of a normal guy who’s not used to the nuance and subtleties of what he’s supposed to be doing as part of a new directive. If people do think the show is racist, I’ll kind of want to go ‘one of the creators is a Black American. One of the producers and owners of the company is Asian/Irish. We’ve got an Australian Cypriote. And a guy from Manchester!”
Ralf conceded that the final line of episode 1 will no doubt cause some offence somewhere. It’s a killer line which would probably have been even more controversial before recent political shuffling, but will still no doubt warrant at least some condemnation from the Daily Mail. It states quite clearly that Borderline is not a show which will pander to the whims of all types of viewers who might possibly flick to Channel 5 on a Tuesday night. It will do what it wants – that’s what makes it unique.
Borderline will air on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 5 for six weeks, starting 2nd August 2016.