Benidorm: Sitcom creator Derren Litten on working hard, playing harder and bringing the show to the stage
The Solana hotel is back in business as Benidorm returns to our screens this spring. We grab a cocktail and catch up with writer Derren Litten. . .
It’s one of Britain’s favourite TV shows. Around five million people tune into Benidorm each year when the ITV sitcom returns to our screens. As we brace ourselves for the long, chilly winter nights, Benidorm brings a ray of sunshine to millions of lives.
The sun, sand and sangria is served at the Solana Hotel, where writer Derren Litten spends half of the year. He flits between the UK and Spain, dividing his time equally. And though the award-winning series is now into its 10th year, he’s no idea why it’s so popular.
“If I knew that, I’d be writing hit sitcoms for the rest of my life,” he laughs. “I can’t tell you why the public loves it so much. Sometimes I think the planets align and the time is right. I grew up watching traditional sitcoms – Are You Being Served?, Porridge, Rising Damp – and I think that was my grounding. If you are going to be an electrician, you serve an apprenticeship. For me, my apprenticeship was served between the ages of six and 18 when I just watched sitcoms and became obsessed with comedy.”
Derren’s show connects with the public because there are stories to which everyone can relate to. Pretty much everyone has been on a package holiday – or knows someone who has. And pretty much everyone identifies with the odd friendships that form, not to mention the peculiar behaviour of fellow guests at hotels.
“When we were kids, we had a Spanish holiday with my parents. And the holiday gave them stories that they told for years. Quite literally, for the next five years I heard the same stories again and again and again. When you have those sort of holidays, you’re in this weird bubble for a week or two and anything can happen. It’s like the show. We’re over there for four-and-a-half months filming.”
Derren loves making the show. He’s won two National Television Awards as well as nominations at the British Comedy Awards and the Baftas, while also working with the likes of Joan Collins, Johnny Vegas and such regular favourites as Jake Canuso (Mateo), Janine Duvitski (Jacqueline), Adam Gillen (Liam), Sherrie Hewson (Joyce Temple-Savage), Shelley Longworth (Sam) and Tony Maudsley.
The first series took just seven weeks to make – the last one took four-and-a-half months. With so much sun, the attentions of fun-seeking holiday-makers and plenty of cheap booze, things can get a little weird. To ape the words of stag and hen party-goers, Derren’s show has a single-rule code: What happens in Benidorm stays in Benidorm.
“While we are there, we call it the Benidorm Bubble. I’m not trying to be contentious about what happens, but let’s say what happens on tour stays on tour. We work really hard and the cast and the crew are on the show from 7am – 7pm. But even though we work very hard, my goodness we play a lot harder.”
Benidorm has become such a part of the public consciousness that Derren is looking to extend the brand. He’s been writing a book called The Benidorm Diaries for the past couple of years and he’s also transferring the show from the screen to the stage, with a forthcoming tour planned. Benidorm will soon bring sunshine and smiles to the UK and Ireland as the first ever stage version of the ITV comedy marks its world premiere in September. It will open at Birmingham’s New Alexandra for a fun-filled Christmas season from the December 3 to 29, 2018. The show will be produced for the stage by Michael Harrison and David Ian.
Derren has written an all new set of Alicante escapades for the much-loved cast members and can’t wait to hit the road.
“I’ve been writing it for the past few weeks. I’ve got a lot of other stuff to do but I’m writing this show every day. Before this, we did the Royal Variety Performance in November, which was like a trial. I sat there in the dressing room while it was on and there was a live feed on the TV monitor. We’d been rehearsing the sketch for a week and putting it out there for the Royal Variety was make or break. We weren’t advertised in the programme. It was a surprise. So it was a genuine test as to whether the audience enjoyed it or not. As soon as the theme tune played and the characters walked out everyone went wild. So we think it will go well, we think it’ll be pretty crazy on tour.”
Derren isn’t a man to make grandiose statements. Like all good comedy writers, he describes himself as a ‘cup half empty’ sort of man. “I’m not one to get excited, but seeing Benidorm at the Royal Variety Performance was one of the most amazing nights of my life. I’m a pretty miserable person, to be honest, but it was amazing. This live show is going to be great.”
He is following in the footsteps of one of the greatest TV comedy writers of all time, John Sullivan. His mentor wrote Only Fools and Horses, Citizen Smith, Just Good Friends and many, many more. Derren got to know him while he was cutting his teeth by working with another friend, Catherine Tate, on her successful TV show.
John became aware of the young buck and asked him to work on another show, The Green Green Grass, which was a spin-off of Only Fools and Horses. The two got along and Derren has in many ways inherited John’s comedy baton.
“I was completely in awe of John Sullivan. To mention my name in the same breath seems odd and not right. He was the guv’nor and is untouchable and always will be. If I even have a vague sense of the amount of pathos and love that he managed to put in really funny comedies – if I have one per cent – that would be an incredible honour.
“I’ll tell you a little story about John. I was once out with John Sullivan and wasn’t eating because I had terrible gall stones. He asked why I wasn’t eating and I told him. He was very sympathetic because he’d had gall stones. I wasn’t making good money at the time and I was on an NHS waiting list. John told me that he’d sort it out. He said his company would pay for it. I didn’t take him up on that, but it showed the measure of the man. He wasn’t a glory seeker. He was a very private man. If he was on a plane and somebody asked him what he did, he’d say he was a plumber and talk about s-bends and radiators.”
The joy of Benidorm – like Only Fools and Horses – is all about the characters. The public relates to the different types that parade themselves through our living rooms each spring. There’s the lothario, the gormless one, the hopeless dreamer, the saucy lover and more. It was ever thus, with classic British sitcoms. From Dad’s Army to Hi-de-Hi! the secret of great sitcoms is creating characters that the audience identifies with and likes.
“I can write jokes until the cows come home,” says Derren. “That’s the easy part. The main part is the characters. And when we take it into the theatres, it’ll be about getting the audience to engage with them. I can’t tell you what’s in the show because I haven’t written it yet. But I would love to have interaction with the audience and music will play a huge part in the show as well. That’s all I can say. I’m not being secretive, I’m still writing it.
“I’ve always found it very easy to write funny stuff. In conversation, I know I can be witty. I hope that doesn’t sound terrible. But it’s true. I find it very easy to make people laugh. I don’t have to work on the jokes. It’s more about developing the character, that’s when you start winning.”
Derren is a fascinating man. He started his working life as a professional magician before moving sideways into drama school. Ten years of acting followed, during which he featured in Perfect World, French and Saunders, Spaced, EastEnders, Green Wing and Pie in The Sky with Richard Griffiths.
He didn’t have any intention of writing but fell into it when his best drama school friend, Catherine Tate, asked for his help.
“She’d been offered her own show and she wanted me to write with her. Geoffrey Perkins, the legendary comedy writer who did Hitchhiker’s Guide, Harry Enfield, Drop The Dead Donkey, Have I Got News For You, The Fast Show and many more, agreed. I’m not Peter Ustinov, I don’t sit there reeling off anecdotes about my family. But I can write sketch shows and sitcoms. So I had a go with Catherine and things worked out pretty well.
“But it’s taken a long time to accept that this is what I do. It’s only now in the past three years I’ve admitted to being a writer.”
Derren and Catherine worked together beautifully well. They were of a similar disposition. Their glasses weren’t just half empty – they had also got the wrong drink in them.
When things went wrong, as they always do, they just shrugged off their disappointments and ploughed on. “We had a defeatist outlook. We just thought things didn’t actually matter. We didn’t think they would even show the programmes so we just wrote things because we made ourselves laugh. If you start writing to order, to what you think people want, it doesn’t work. Don’t write the next Benidorm – write the next new thing, do something completely new.”
Derren was astonished by the success of Benidorm. He was on holiday when they recommissioned the show for a second series. His reaction was simple: OMG. His greatest ambition was that they’d ask him to come back and write a third series. And, to his surprise, they did. That was seven years ago and the show is now established as a TV staple.
He deflects much of the credit to his actors – to Johnny Vegas and Tony Maudsley, John Challis and Joan Collins.
“With the actors and the writers, one hand washes the other. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a huge team, the writers, the actors and the most incredible crew. It’s a massive massive collaborative effort.
“I mean, you look at people like Joan, Johnny, Sherrie Hewson and John Challis – they’re all legends. It was Jackie Collins who got Joan on the show. She rang me up and asked me to write her sister in the show. I actually told her to p**s off. I thought it was a wind up. I couldn’t believe it when it happened.
“Johnny Vegas was hilarious. I saw him do stand-up and it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I thought he was having a nervous breakdown on stage. He’s genius. I just feel so, so lucky to work with these people.”
Life’s turned out pretty well for Derren. After leaving school with no qualifications, he’s worked hard to better himself. The only subject he had an interest in at school was drama – though that was hopeless because it was taken by his PE teacher. “I don’t have the ‘no qualifications thing’ as a badge of honour. I’m infuriated when people talk about countries and I don’t know where they are. I’d love to know more about computers and other stuff. I get so frustrated. It’s not one of those ‘ha ha I don’t need an education’ things. Getting no exams was entirely my fault, or mostly.
“But you’re right, things haven’t turned out too badly.”
- Benidorm returns to ITV this spring.