Writer Laurence knows very little about the lives of his parents


COMEDY writer Laurence Marks endured a lonely childhood - he was the third of three children and a post-war child that was "an accident".

By the time he reached his teenage years, his brother and sister were both married, which left him alone in a flat with two Edwardian parents as the Swinging Sixties were kicking in.

"And that was a bad, bad brew," he recalled. "It was a young person who was suddenly liberated from the restraints of all the previous 60 years of the century living with two people who wished nothing could ever change."

Laurence - who formed a comedy writing partnership with Maurice Gran - admits to having an "edgy" relationship with his parents. He said: "I didn't really get on with my mother at all and my father and I connected only through sport.

"I was young when they both died and I can honestly say that I know very little about these two people I called mum and dad."

The 65-year-old realised at school that he "was able to make a room full of people laugh".

He recalls using laughter as a means of connecting with his mother; "the only way I could really gain her attention was to make her laugh."

On a more "serious laughter level," Laurence was 22 when he joined a drama group in central London and realised then he had the ability to make a really critical audience laugh out loud.

"I only joined the group because it was cheaper than staying at home. For five pence we got two plays, a cuppa tea and a chocolate biscuit. You see, to heat our flat cost more than five pence."

As a "kind of only child" Laurence developed a vivid imagination and was a voracious reader, visiting the library three times a week and reading "a lot of interesting literature".

At school, as a Jewish pupil, he was not allowed to do religious education which involved one period a week. During that time the Jewish and Catholic boys used to pop into the school library.

There was one inspirational teacher, Alec Mortimer, who put him in touch with some good English literature to read.

"He was a good guide and mentor and I learned a lot from him. So my choice of literature early on was really interesting. And that paved the way to an introduction to European literature.

"I had a lot of knowledge and knew what made a good sentence and what didn't and that came in handy when I went into journalism.

"When I became a dramatist, that genre offered a different skill all together."

Defining comedy comes easy to Laurence. With Maurice, who he met in the Jewish Lads Brigade, they have created some of the great British TV sitcoms of the last few decades, attracting viewing figures in their millions.

He maintains that "no good comedy is without truth. So one starts on the principle, 'is this true?' If it isn't then it just won't work.

"Are the characters real, is another element? Do they have downs as well as ups and when they're funny do they know they're being funny?

"If you create your characters right, then they will talk to you.

"For instance, you know you've got a hit show when your characters start chatting to you. I can write an episode of Birds of a Feather right away. I just say, I'm ready Dorien, Tracey and Sharon and they come to life, and I don't have to make the effort to make them say what they don't want to say."

Birds of a Feather was a huge hit for the pair on BBC1 from 1989-98, but it was revived this year for a new series on ITV.

And with millions viewing in, it has just been recommissioned for a new series.

The comedy that made Laurence and Maurice want to write was Porridge.

"If you were being analytical, you would say that Porridge's Norman Stanley Fletcher would not be able to know as much as he knows, yet you never doubt he knows it.

"But that series was written with elegance and style and you believe it because you want to believe it."

Laurence has never known anything but writing in partnership and feels that "the classic comedies of the last 60 years of which you could count on the fingers of two hands have, by and large, been written by two people.

"I suppose it's because it's the first exposure to the world of the other person. If you write a line and the other person laughs that is your '12 million gauge,' and it's easier to do it with two people."

Laurence sees their collaboration as a marriage, so one asks the question how then does this marriage work?

"Well, in a marriage you say, she cooks and I go out to work and I give her the money to buy the food we both like," he said.

"If you apply those rules to a writing partnership, then it is much the same."

In 1975, Laurence was a journalist working on The Sunday Times newsdesk when there was a tube train crash in Moorgate on Friday, February 25 at 8.46am, killing 43 people.

It wasn't until 10pm that night he realised his father was one of the victims of the crash.

Laurence was asked by his editor to move from the newsdesk to the Insight team and asked to investigate what caused the crash over 12 months.

At the end of the year, Laurence had written a 4,500 word critique on the tragedy.

The following year the article won a prestigious journalism award.

"I couldn't believe it and I thought my future was definitely to become one of the 'youngest by far' journalists to write on the Sunday Times Insight," he recalled.

In 2006, Laurence made a documentary for Channel 4 about his father and the crash.

Following a chance encounter with comedy writer Barry Took, his literary idol, Laurence and Maurice, then a civil servant, were given an opportunity to write a comedy sketch for late, great comedian Frankie Howerd.

After ditching their jobs, Laurence recalls how Maurice arrived at his house.

They had a cup of tea, spoke about the weekend's football and news, until Maurice looked at his wristwatch and said: "Come on Laurence, it's 9.30pm - let's go upstairs and make 15 million people laugh."

Laurence leans forward and lowers his voice: "Writing is easy, you know, but it's the preparation, the storyline and the construction of the piece that's hard - and that's all about argument."

The couple argue like an old married couple with Laurence, saying "I remember a day in 1985 when we didn't.

"So for 34 years we have been at each other's throats and yet, I would go so far as to say, we don't know any other marriage in our orbit that has lasted as long."

The Frankie Howerd sketch opened doors and led to the pair becoming full-time comedy writers, both in this country and in Hollywood, where, treated like superstars, they were lauded with mansions, big money, fast cars and even faster women.

Laurence recalled them having the time of their lives in Hollywood as two 'Limey' scriptwriters. It is the "stuff that dreams are made on".

Other hits Laurence and Maurice Gran have written include Shine on Harvey Moon, Roll Over Beethoven, Birds of a Feather and, more recently, the musical Dreamboats and Petticoats.

In 1999, Arsenal fan Laurence wrote the book A Fan For All Seasons, a diary of his life as a writer and an Arsenal supporter.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph