Interview: Marc Wootton on new Channel 4 comedy, High and Dry
Paradise turns to hell in this castaway comedy following a group of misfits as they struggle to survive on a remote desert island.
Having crash landed in a tropical paradise, narcissistic flight attendant, Brett Sullivan, puts himself in charge of the palm-fringed island, which is bad news for the castaways in High & Dry as they soon learn they are stranded with the world’s worst human being. Brett and four others – straight talking Harriet, zombie obsessed Arnab, cautious family man Douglas, and sheltered Susan – are forced to do whatever it takes to survive.
Welcome to Channel 4's lols new comedy, High and Dry.
The show's creator and star Marc Wootton tells us more...
Explain a little bit about High and Dry – what’s the show about?
Originally it was set in space, and I transposed it to plane crash survivors on an island later, but it’s about a group of very different people being stuck together. One of them is absolutely over the moon to be stuck there, and the rest just want to go home. It’s about being stuck with people you don’t like, a bit like a dysfunctional family. We’re all imprisoned in these weird little dysfunctional groups.
You play Brett. How would you describe him?
I think he’s just a man in need of love and understanding. He’s a lost soul, isn’t he? He’s broken. He needs love. Certainly, when you watch episode one you think “Who is this nasty man?” Any maybe, by episode six, you might see something else going on. He’s pretty ghastly, but hopefully there will be some understanding for him. He’s desperately lonely, he just wants a friend. The whole thing is based loosely on a trip that I took coming back from the Melbourne Comedy Festival. I was flying back to the UK, and I was sort of goofing about with a couple of my comedy mates on the plane, and an air steward came down the aisle, and I thought I was going to be escorted off the plane. We weren’t being too raucous or swearing or anything, but I was being a bit cheeky. And the steward came down and told me to follow him, and I assumed I was being thrown off the flight. Anyway, he took me right up to first class, and I’d never been in first class before. I was really bamboozled, I couldn’t believe it. They had a leather thing you put your feet up on, and little silver salt and pepper shakers and great food. I thought it was going to be amazing.
The weird Faustian pact that I’d made, which I didn’t realise until it was too late, was that by agreeing to the upgrade, I had to then endure a long haul flight, with him sitting on the little leather chair that turned into a bed, preventing me from being able to do that, and talking to me all the time about a show that I’d made for Channel 4 that he was really into. He knew all the details. So I sat there and pretended to be really engrossed in a film, and he still came over to talk. Or I’d pretend I was listening to music, or one time I pretend to be asleep, and he came along and asked me to change into pyjamas that were far too small for me. And then, at the end, he asked for my number and [whispers] I changed a digit.
Of course you did!
It was frightening! But it made me aware that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Once you’ve made that deal, you’re done for. But it got me thinking a bit, and it gave me some insight into Brett. He says in episode one that he’s been up in the air too long, and hasn’t been able to create any meaningful relationships. He lives on his own; he’s a lonely figure, who thinks he’s got a friend when he upgrades one of the passengers, Douglas. He’s mistaken, but he’s holding on to it for dear life.
Why did you make him Australian?
I suppose in part because that’s where the inspiration came from, an actual flight from Melbourne. And whenever I create a character I draw on various inspirations, there was an Australian friend of mine who was over for a spell and I heard him in my head quite a lot when I was writing this, and I heard the air steward a lot, and I probably just amalgamated the two.
Obviously you’re constrained in the number of characters and scenarios you can introduce, as you’re stuck on a desert island. Was that something you struggled with, in writing this?
No, I don’t think so. Being stuck is great for a sitcom, for all sorts of reasons. It forces you to think about conflict and situations: there will be struggles for power, friendships and betrayals, trying to understand each other, there are so many scenarios. The wall in the office where I write is full of scenarios we couldn’t fit into the series. There are so many places this can go.
Brett is something of a fantasist – did you have fun coming up with his daydream sequences?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m a big fan of the Scorsese movie King of Comedy. That has lots of fantasy sequences, and what I love about those sequences is that there’s no warning – you just drop into them, and then for a few seconds you have to work out whether or not you’re in reality anymore. I took Dave Lambert, the series director, along to King of Comedy for his birthday, and he and I talked lots about that and the technique. It was really fun playing with those fantasy sequences and dropping them in. There’s one in every episode. They’ve always got that lovely incoming moment where you aren’t quite sure, for a few seconds, what’s going on. And I think it takes the show to a different place, which I like.
People would imagine that the idea of filming a show in the Seychelles is idyllic. I imagine the truth was rather less glamorous?
Everyone goes “Ooh the Seychelles, how lovely!” But it was six day weeks, and very hard work. But the bottom line is, you’ve got turquoise water, white sand, palm trees, and you’re in paradise. It was hard work and long hours, and we spent a long time trying to find a really remote location where you couldn’t see anything man made. As a consequence, you have to start thinking about things like toilets and catering. I insisted that we shoot chronologically, for beard growth and general degradation but also I’m a real fan of it from a character point of view. And after five weeks, people were really worn down – I think you could see that on screen. People’s physical appearances changed. It was definitely hard work, but I loved it. I have a bit of an issue with technology disrupting human connection, so I loved the fact that every time ‘Cut’ was called, no-one reached for their mobile phone, because there was no reception. So people had to speak to each other, to communicate and connect, which brought everyone closer together. And being in nature is always reassuring. Seeing a little lizard or a fruit bat or a sea turtle, having something like that to remind you where you are was just phenomenal. So yeah, it was hard work, but not that bad. When I was at university I was a street cleaner for a summer. That was hard work. I packaged ice creams for Loseley in a freezer all night, that was hard work. I had to cold call people to try and get them to buy a will. Hard work. I’m not sure being on an island saying words in gaps is that hard.
Had you worked with all of the cast before?
I’d seen Asim’s work and was a huge fan, I had done some very early workshops with him, and he was just brilliant. Vicki and I did Nighty Night with Julia Davis and we also worked together on a radio show that Julia and I created, that involved a lot of improvisation, for Radio 4 last year, about couples therapy. Vicki played the therapist. I was super-impressed by her. One of the lovely things about being on that beach was just being able to watch people who I really admire. I’d worked on a show called Drunk History with Harry, and I was at the National Theatre in an Alan Ayckbourn play, Season’s Greetings many moons ago with Harry’s wife (Katherine Parkinson.) I was playing her husband. So I got to know him then, for the first time. And then I’d seen him being very funny in Star Stories and Toast of London. He’s a really fine actor. The only person I hadn’t worked with before was Grace Rex. We met quite a few Americans, and ended up with Grace, because she really got the character. I didn’t realise she’d been in stuff like Master of None and Mindhunters. She was in a film with a friend of mine, Stephanie Laing, who gave me the tip-off that she was definitely worth checking out.
Do you enjoy working on shows that you’ve created, or is it too much pressure?
No, I do love it. I sit in the edit every day and see lots of moments of corpsing, which means I must be enjoying it. There were many scenes where that cast would just have me in bits. One scene in particular with Vicki was very difficult to perform because she just makes me laugh. But also, when you have real faith in your crew, and you have a really good director, and a group of performers who are that good, there’s not a great deal to be worried about, in terms of their performance.
How do you think you would fare, marooned on a desert island?
I think I would really dislike it. I’d like the time – I think time is one thing I just don’t have enough of. And much of it would depend who you were stranded with of course. If I was stranded with the people I love, that would be the perfect scenario. You wouldn’t have modern life distracting you, you could just enjoy them.
Which of the cast would fare best?
I think Harry. He’s so chilled out as a human being, and incredibly easy-going. I think he would fare the best. He’s not an anxious performer, he’s someone who just copes, and I think he’d deal with this in a similar way.
It becomes clear on the show that the worst thing about being marooned would be if you were stuck with awful people. Who would you choose to be marooned with?
I can’t go for the cast of the Muppets, can I? That’s too many people. So if I can’t have them, I’d go for Frank Oz, but with all the puppets he performs. So he could swap out Miss Piggy for Fozzie, and then bring in Yoda as well for a bit of wisdom. And he’s an interesting guy, so he’d have loads of real life stories to tell as well. And my luxury would be Brazilian Bum Bum Cream, and lots of it. It’s a fast absorbing body cream, it helps tighten and smooth like no other!
High and Dry starts this Friday at 10.30pm on Channel 4.