OVER TO BILL

Over to Bill – Doug Naylor’s new sitcom on the way.
If you heard that a beloved comedy institution was making its way back to the BBC, and that Doug Naylor was involved, you could be forgiven for thinking we were talking about Red Dwarf, and getting quite excited. Well, such a thing is indeed happening – but it’s not Red Dwarf. However, you should still get quite excited.

Over to Bill has this week been announced as one of three pilots that are launching on BBC1 in the coming months, as part of a revival of their Comedy Playhouse strand. An anthology series that ran from 1961 to 1975, Playhouse was the starting point for such classic series as Steptoe and Son, Are You Being Served?, Last of the Summer Wine and Till Death Do Us Part, among many others. Over to Bill is one of three pilots that will make up the new series, and stars Outnumbered’s Hugh Dennis as recently-fired TV weatherman Bill Onion, alongside Neil Morrissey (Men Behaving Badly), Helen George (Call the Midwife) and Tracy-Ann Oberman (Eastenders).

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And if you recognise the title, it’s because it’s a project of Doug’s that has been kicking around since 2010. Baby Cow Productions CEO and executive producer Henry Normal, known predominantly for his work with Steve Coogan and on The Fast Show and The Royle Family, had originally invited Doug to help out with writing an in-development sci-fi project – and while this ultimately didn’t happen, it did lead to Normal suggesting instead that Doug try writing another sitcom, with a view to pitching it to the BBC.

Having written the pilot of Over to Bill, Doug decided to try shooting “a scene or two” from it – but with a fresh-out-of-film-school Richard Naylor producing, the project quickly snowballed into a full-blown, independently-produced pilot. The show was taken around various broadcasters – attracting some interest from the BBC – but didn’t result in a commission (Doug famously telling the Dimension Jump convention audience in 2011 that one rejection had come with the note “It’s got men in it, and we’ve already got things with men in”).

With Red Dwarf X on the horizon in 2011, Over to Bill went onto the back burner – but it was that man Henry Normal again who more recently put it back on Doug’s mind. “Henry suggested I submit it again when we met at the BBC Showcase event in Liverpool. I wasn’t sure initially, in case anything interfered with getting the next series of Red Dwarf made,” Doug explains. “But then Henry phoned me and told me he’d done it anyway!”

The show quickly found its way to a fresh commission, as a co-production between Normal’s company Baby Cow, and Doug and Richard’s newly-founded Three Feet Productions. The BBC insisted that the pilot have “an all-star cast… we were specifically told we needed ‘BBC1 names'”, says Doug. The casting of Dennis, then, was something of a coup, as Richard admits: “Most BBC1 comedy is something people either love or hate. But Hugh’s someone who seems to be universally liked – everyone just thinks he’s really funny, and a lovely guy. Which he is!”

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The pilot episode was shot in a frantic six-day period earlier this month, cramming 22 different locations into a 32-page script. The original pilot’s cast have all wished the production well – original co-star Dave Florez actually has a guest role in the new version, while Director of Photography Ed Moore – more recently of Red Dwarf X – also returns. At the time of writing, Richard and Doug are around halfway through the offline edit, and are scheduled to deliver the completed pilot by the end of March. Tentative reports elsewhere suggest that the pilot will then air some time in April.

Although Doug is keen to set the record straight on some of the plot and character elements reported elsewhere (“Bill’s not hapless, or accident prone. And it’s not meant to be a self-referential satire about the BBC! He is a weatherman, though.”), both he and Richard are pleased with how the show has come out. “There was an instant chemistry between the cast, and we all had a lot of fun making it,” says Doug. “If everything goes well, then hopefully it’ll go to a series!”

Expect to hear more about Over to Bill – and further productions from the Three Feet partnership – in the not-too-distant future. And of course, we all hope it’s not the only sitcom we’ll see announced by them this year…

Over to Bill will be shown on BBC1 later in the Spring.

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