John Finnemore talks about Zurich, Golf Echo Romeo Tango India’s last adventure.
There is no radio comedy fan out there, or even any comedy fan, worth their salt who hasn’t loved listening to Cabin Pressure, the adventures of hapless one-plane charter airline MJN Air. Since it first aired in 2008 on BBC Radio 4, John Finnemore’s Cabin Pressure has grown a mass following, with the show breaking Radio 4 records, when over 22,000 people applied for the 200 (free) tickets to watch the recording of Zurich, MJN’s final adventure.
With the end of an alphabet of adventures of the crew of MJN Air: Arthur (John Finnemore), Carolyn (Stephanie Cole), Martin (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Douglas (Roger Allam) drawing close, writer and star of the show, John Finnemore, spoke exclusively to Young Perspective about writing the series, the end of an era in his career and what Cabin Pressure fans can look forward to after Benedict Cumberbatch reads the credits for the last time on Christmas Eve.
When any series ends there are always those who wish it could go on forever, but of course, it can’t. Finnemore, for whom Cabin Pressure has obviously been huge part of his life, told us how he felt about everything coming to an end.
“It’s an odd feeling, yes, but it was entirely our choice to end it of course, a decision I made after the Christmas special two series ago. So, I think it’s the right thing to do and the whole of the last series has been building up towards an end, but yes, it will be a strange feeling knowing there aren’t any more recordings and knowing we don’t get to do that anymore.”
While Cabin Pressure has one last hurrah for the fans in a two-part finale on 23rd and 24th December, recording was completed in February, so for the cast and crew things have been over for a while. Finnemore said, “Yes [it has felt finished for a while] and the producer, David [Tyler], and I expected it to go out much earlier than it will, we imagined it would go out around Easter maybe, but the BBC wanted to hold onto it for Christmas. So it has been an odd year of us feeling ‘So that’s that all done’ and people waiting for the episodes.”
The ultimate Cabin Pressure two-part episode, Zurich, has been subject to much speculation and excitement by fans across the world, all hoping for the best episode yet. John said, “It is so unlike any of the others that it is hard to judge. For a start it’s twice as long, because I still think of Zurich as one episode even though we’re putting it out in two parts. Not only that, but it’s also wrapping up the whole show, so it has a story of its own as well as the conclusion of the whole thing. So yes, in some ways it is my favourite, but at the same time I’m very fond of St. Petersburg, Ottery’s a good one and I’m very fond of Johannesburg, my favourites change all the time. At the moment, like I said, I’m very fond of Johannesburg.”
When it airs, Zurich is set to guest star Anthony Head again in his role as smooth-talking Herc. Herc has loose ends to tie up, as he is in an entertaining relationship with Carolyn (which featured heavily in Series 4). John Finnemore explained that Herc was introduced for the benefit of both Carolyn and equally smooth-talking First Officer, Douglas.
He said, “Herc was brought in for two purposes. Douglas was winning too easily, he needed someone to bring him down, but also by the end of Series 2 Martin and Douglas were getting on too well – as they continue to do. They still have battles, like Paris, but it’s no longer the main source of tension, as they found each other less and less annoying and started to like each other more. Of course the problem with that is you end up without a source of tension in your sitcom and it’s all very nice that they’re getting on so famously, but where do the plots come from? So Herc was sort of brought in to rile Douglas. But at the same time, I thought it was about time we had a love interest for one of the characters. I toyed with all of them actually as to who to bring in, but I was most pleased with the idea of Carolyn – perhaps because she’s not the most obvious choice. She’s the most senior member of the cast, as it were, so I liked that, the slightly unusual choice and more so because once I started to think about how she would act romantically, I immediately had the plot that became the confrontational date in Ottery-Saint Mary.
“I had two ideas [for Arthur’s love interest]. One was one of the bossy, pony club girls that Carolyn mentions he seems to have a fascination for (or rather they have a fascination for him), so I did think about bringing in an extremely bossy girlfriend for Arthur. The other idea I had was that he would meet someone called Gerti, who would remind him of Gerti and he would sort of fall in love with a personification of the aircraft, but in the end I decided that was too silly.”
Zurich will be the culmination of years of work, four series and a Christmas special for John Finnemore. He thinks that he has learnt a lot about the craft of writing a comedy, despite the fact that episodes in the very first series remain among his favourites. He said, “I think I’ve got better at writing sitcoms, and I think I know more about the whole writing process, for instance how long it takes – the first series I had never written six half hour episodes before and I had no idea how long it would take, so I made the natural mistake of spending a lot of time on the first two, less on the second two and really not enough on the final two.
“But having said that, Fitton is one of my favourite episodes overall, so you never know quite how it’s going to turn out. I think I’ve tried to do slightly more ambitious things in the last two series, but Douz and Fitton are two of my favourites and they’re both in the first. I look back at episodes like Cremona and I think that’s got way too much plot, if I was writing that now I would break that into two different episodes. So yes, in some ways I’ve learnt quite a lot.
“I am very keen on structure, I hate doing it, I find plotting very difficult, but I think it is absolutely necessary. I think it is key to plan it out as much as possible before I start writing dialogue and I think that’s one way in which I have [improved]. Maybe not necessarily improved the finished product, but certainly the road to getting there, I’ve learnt that if I’m sure of the plot, where it ends and that the end is satisfying, ideally it should be like a murder mystery and you should say ‘Of course, of course that’s how it ends – it seems natural now, but I didn’t see it coming’. Until you’ve got that, or at least until I’ve got that, I find it’s best not to start writing dialogue. I wasted a lot of time in the early days, writing long, long drafts that then got almost completely rewritten or cut because the plot wasn’t working. It’s much easier to fix plot, although it’s still not easy, before you start writing, because after you start writing you get distracted by the jokes and you bend over backwards trying to keep in a joke you particularly like, but that’s at the expense of the plot and therefore the whole episode.”
Coming full circle and returning to Zurich for the final Cabin Pressure instalment, the question of what next for John and Cabin Pressure had to be tackled before the end of the interview.
“I think that’s it [for Cabin Pressure] for now, definitely. This is what I think and hope is the right ending for it, the natural ending for it, so I think I should leave it alone there. I wouldn’t rule out something considerably in the future, some sort of reunion, but neither do I particularly have one in mind at the moment, so we will see. At the moment it is definitely over.
“Some of them [John Finnemore’s future projects] are under wraps and may never happen, but the project that has been announced is that David Tyler [producer] and I are going to do a show that will hopefully be next year, although it’s not been scheduled yet, and will consist of six half hour stand alone comedy plays. They’ll all be completely different ideas and casts, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Are you excited about Zurich? Do you think it’s the right time to end? Let us know below…
Cabin Pressure’s final episode, Zurich, will air on Radio 4 on 23rd and 24th December 2014.
Header image: Crew of MJN Air, Cabin Pressure © BBC Pictures