David Reed has been a member of the award winning and critically acclaimed British sketch group The Penny Dreadfuls since their inception, and has written their fantastic plays at first for the stage and latterly for Radio 4, whilst he’s also acted in Endeavour, Father Brown and Damned. Their next production is their take on Don Quixote, which airs on Saturday 25th of August at 2.30pm on Radio 4, and will be available on BBC iplayer shortly afterwards. Here he discusses The Penny Dreadfuls and how the plays are created, working with Sylvester McCoy, what it was like to be on Endeavour, and much more besides.
Comedy To Watch: What can you tell us about your next Radio 4 play, Don Quixote?
David Reed: It’s Cervantes’ whole 900 page masterwork condensed into about 50 mins, with added jokes. And a couple of extra bits added to the end by me to retrofit it into making some sort of coherent sense. I’m sure Cervantes would’ve hated it.
CTW: How did you get Sylvester McCoy on board? And what was it like working with him?
David: We basically just asked him to do it and he foolishly said ‘yes’. He was who I imagined when I was writing the character, so I was thrilled he agreed to join the cast. He’s my Doctor Who you see, as people seem to enjoy saying these days. When we met, at about 2:00 on the afternoon of the record at the BBC Radio Theatre, one of the first things he said to me was “Ian McKellen would be very good in this.” I had to agree, but assured him that he would be too. And he was! He was a delight to spend the day with and has such a puckish charm on stage, the audience loved him. Plus getting to chat in the dressing room about his old friends Ken Campbell and David Rappaport was a joyful added bonus.
CTW: If you could cast anyone in a future production, who would it be?
David: Many of my heroes are on the Not-Yet-Dead List, but I’d have to say Michael Palin ranks pretty high amongst them. I worked with him and Terry Gilliam quite by accident once and he’s as naturally funny as you’d have hoped. Other legends I’d eat my own foot off to have in a Penny Dreadfuls show include Alexei Sayle, David Warner, Hugh Laurie, Jennifer Saunders, Steve Guttenberg & Nicolas Cage. And for Thom and Humphrey’s benefit I should probably also add Russ Abbott and Kenny Dalglish.
CTW: Going back to the beginning, how did The Penny Dreadfuls get together in the first place?
David: We were all invited to join the Edinburgh University Theatre Society’s improv show The Improverts and met in rehearsals, pratting around, trying to make each other laugh. Humphrey and Thom immediately stood out for me as one was impossibly tall and the other seemed obsessed with the word ‘felch’. After four years of shows together, we simply weren’t prepared to give it all up and had developed next to no transferable skills for the open job market. So we started The Penny Dreadfuls.
CTW: How do you decide the topic of each play, and which themes and ideas you want to include in each production?
David: Simply put, I have a quick scan of what historical figures have had Lady Bird Books written about them. Pick one. Throw together a flimsy yet confident sounding paragraph about what a great idea that would be for a comedy. Pitch that to the BBC. And when they inevitably say ‘yes’, panic about how on earth I’m going to pull this off. Humphrey and Thom are generally brought in at the ‘are you available to record this?’ stage.
CTW: What’s your favourite work that you’ve created so far? And why?
David: My favourite’s probably the second series of The Brothers Faversham. We’d just hit our stride and found what we wanted the show to be. It was the culmination of all of our pratting around, both on stage and off, in our own Victorian world and I think the results speak for themselves. We had such a great supporting cast with Miles Jupp and Ingrid Oliver too.
CTW: Have you ever considered bringing them back?
David: I would love to. Miles Jupp and Ingrid Oliver’s powers have only grown since we did those shows and it would be a joy to revisit that world again. Radio 4 may not be keen, but… Netflix?
CTW: What’s the process of creating a play? Do you all sit in a room and write together, or separately at first before coming together? And how long does it take?
David: No. I write them on my own. Humphrey and Thom co-wrote the first two, but it’s been just me ever since. It traditionally takes exactly as long as I allow myself to write it.
CTW: Of late you’ve been performing your plays for Radio 4, would you consider performing them on the live comedy circuit again?
David: Sadly this is almost impossible. Humphrey now lives in California, so it’s expensive enough to have him shipped over for our radio recordings in a special box, let alone to perform some under-rehearsed sketch comedy at a mixed-bill night in Camden. If we had to include rehearsal time, prop construction, plus our extravagant wig and costume budget, the cost of putting on such a show would be astronomical. Never say never, but it does look like we’d need a mysterious millionaire benefactor to pull it off. Sketch comedy really only works whilst the performers value their time at £0. As soon as they develop self-worth, the live performing stops.
CTW: Outside of The Penny Dreadfuls, what’s your favourite project that you’ve worked on? And why was this?
David: It was probably playing TV presenter Julian Calendar on Endeavour, the young Inspector Morse show. I’ve always loved the dressing up of doing period pieces, so having your own 1960s television studio, complete with old-timey cameras, 60s audience and a band was pretty special. Plus I got to come back last series commentating on a race between men in giant costumes. What’s not to like?
CTW: This site is all about celebrating the best comedy around – So which other comedians would you recommend?
David: I saw Will Andrew’s show Willy up at the Fringe recently, which was sensational. He’s one of those performers whose material verges on poetry whilst being hysterically funny and utterly his own. Go find him!
CTW: And what radio, tv or film comedy are you passionate about?
David: That’s on now? Loads of stuff. Pass.
CTW: If money were no object, what would you like to create?
David: An epic sci-fi franchise not owned by Disney, right guys? Does that sound like I’m one of those “Remake The Last Jedi” people? I’m not. It was fine. Actually, without sounding too “living inside my own bottom”, I’d like to create affordable housing for Fringe performers in August. See how many more risks get taken when people aren’t haemorrhaging cash into a big Scottish mouth.
CTW: If you could interview yourself, what question would you most like to ask? And what would the answer be?
David: Where do you get your ideas? Asterix books.
CTW: And finally, can you tell us what your plans are for the future?
David: Yes! I’ve just had my own dystopian sci-fi sitcom pilot commissioned by the BBC. It’s called Napoleon Moon. It’s the first thing I’ve done for them outside of the The Penny Dreadfuls, so that’s very exciting. Hands off Disney!