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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Stuart Heritage

‘I was the oldest person on set’: how a doomsday comedy lured Inbetweener Simon Bird back to TV

Kate O'Flynn, Harry Connor and Simon Bird in Everyone Else Burns.
A meditation on the absolute lunacy of blind certainty … Kate O'Flynn, Harry Connor and Simon Bird in Everyone Else Burns. Photograph: James Stack/Channel 4

Dillon Mapletoft and Oliver Taylor have just endured one of the most nerve-racking experiences any writer can go through. Everyone Else Burns, their debut television programme, has been screened in public for the very first time. And now, crammed beneath a stairwell in the east London cinema where the screening took place, they are decompressing.

“I can’t get over it,” says Mapletoft, still jangling with nerves. “It wasn’t until the first laugh that I could relax.” Taylor adds: “I actually enjoyed myself!” But it turns out that their worries may be far from over.

“The TV show airing is going to be very anticlimactic,” warns the show’s star, Simon Bird – the wise old statesman of the group. “My experience is that it can take many series to get an audience. Usually you have to have faith that people will come to it, if it’s good.”

Luckily, Everyone Else Burns is good. It’s a huge, ambitious sitcom, with an incredible cast and an extremely solid joke hit-rate, that is based around a family who follow The Order of the Divine Rod – a doomsday cult preparing for the day when the moon will turn to blood and the Earth will be destroyed. It’s a meditation on the absolute lunacy of blind certainty, but it is also a surprisingly warm family comedy.

‘It wasn’t until the first laugh that I could relax’ … Dillon Mapletoft and Oliver Taylor.
‘It wasn’t until the first laugh that I could relax’ … Dillon Mapletoft and Oliver Taylor. Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Which is where Bird comes in. He plays David, the family’s obnoxious patriarch who follows the order’s scripture to a degree that even confuses its elders, and the actor is a force of nature, by turns cocky and belligerent in a way that viewers have never seen him be. All that, plus he’s playing a father of two. If you’re still caught in the timeloop of watching The Inbetweeners on repeat, it is weird to see him play somebody his own age.

“It’s weird for me, too,” says Bird, now 38. “I think it’s because I skipped the stage on TV of playing someone in their late 20s. I played a schoolchild on one show, and my character on Friday Night Dinner is essentially a teenager stuck in arrested development. But now I’ve jumped straight to a character who has his own teenagers. I suppose I do look quite old now.”

It’s a feeling that extended to the filming of Everyone Else Burns, too. “My formative experience of filming was being the youngest person on set,” he explains. “Everything I’ve ever been in, I’ve always been referred to as one of the boys. So this is very strange. There were days on this show where I was the oldest person on set. Everyone would be talking about where they went clubbing and how many drugs they took and I’d be sat there reading my Trump biography.”

Were you really reading a Trump biography? “Write that I was reading Ishiguro,” Bird winces. “Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. Anyway, I’ve always been very stressed out on set. It has always been a scary experience. Whereas with this, I think, because the scripts are so good I felt as if I could just relax. It was a really enjoyable experience for me.”

Less relaxed, at least on the basis of meeting them moments after their first screening for their first big print interview are Mapletoft and Taylor. Mapletoft sits forwards in his chair, hesitantly taking on the lion’s share of the questions, while Taylor is more comfortable lobbing in the occasional zinger from afar. Perhaps this is their default state; enquiries about their working practices are largely answered with long descriptions of fretful pacing. And then there’s the question of how they settled for such a bleak premise.

“We went away on a stereotypical writer’s retreat to a dingy B&B in Norfolk,” says Mapletoft. “It said that it was a seaside B&B, but we never saw the sea once, just a big metal fence on one side.”

“We saw a gull, but it never made a sound,” adds Taylor. “It was an eerie weekend.”

Simon Bird: ‘You have to have faith that people will come to it, if it’s good.’
Simon Bird: ‘You have to have faith that people will come to it, if it’s good.’ Photograph: James Stack/Channel 4

I ask if they have a favourite thwarted Armageddon. “There was a group called Divine Light mission,” Mapletoft says. “In the 70s they prophesied that everyone should go to the Houston Astrodrome, the big American football stadium, and the whole stadium would take off and transport them to new planets. Obviously they went and it didn’t happen.”

Although they’re highly in demand – days after meeting them it was announced that their stage show Fix My Brain would be produced by Eleven, the company behind Sex Education – Mapletoft and Taylor are still so new to the industry that they have only just given up their day jobs.

“I relinquished my medical licence about five weeks ago,” says Taylor, who was a doctor. What made him leave? “For the first three years I really enjoyed it,” he says. “When the degree was a biomedical science degree and I just wrote scientific essays. But then when patient contact rolled around, I realised that maybe this wasn’t the thing for me.”

Was it hard to leave behind? “It’s an unbelievably difficult and trying job,” he explains. “I have friends who are willing to make those sacrifices and put in those ludicrous hours, and do that incredible thing of keeping this precious and underfunded enterprise together. I could see how much it was part of their life and I sensed that wasn’t the case for me.”

Meanwhile, until recently, Mapletoft was Armando Iannucci’s assistant. “I was still working with him when we made the taster for this,” he says. But once we got the full series commission, there was no way to keep down both jobs. I had some great opportunities with him. It was great to experience what it was like, and to experience the scale of production like that, but I really wanted to just write.”

Simon Bird and Amy James-Kelly in Everyone Else Burns.
‘It’s so amazing when somebody just delivers you a script like this’ … Simon Bird and Amy James-Kelly in Everyone Else Burns. Photograph: James Stack/Channel 4

It must have been an amazing experience to have a front row seat to the whole of British comedy. “It was,” he nods, “but it was very different. The show I was working on with him [sci-fi comedy Avenue 5 with Hugh Laurie] had a writing staff with more than 20 writers, whereas this is the two of us. But certainly in terms of being comfortable on set, it definitely helped me find more confidence in my own voice and to just push myself.” Are you still in touch with him? “He checks in every few months. He was going to come today, but he had to cancel for the dentist.”

Everyone Else Burns, meanwhile, benefits from featuring Bird in actor mode, an increasingly rare occurrence. In recent years he has focused more on directing (sketch show Ellie & Natasia and 2019 film Days of the Bagnold Summer), possibly because of situations like this. “I hate doing this,” he grimaces, pointing straight at me. “I hate interviews, no offence. This is not necessarily a natural thing. There was a feeling after The Inbetweeners, definitely from my agents, that I would go and do panel shows. You become a sort of comic personality and that never sat right with me. I much prefer being behind the scenes. I love that side of it. That’s why it’s so amazing when somebody just delivers you a script like this and you’re like: ‘Oh, there’s no work to be done.’ It takes the pressure off.”

As we wrap up, Mapletoft and Taylor are still buzzing about the rapturous reception to the screening. “I’m incredibly anxious and self-critical as a writer, so to be able to come out of this and say that I’m really proud is the best thing I’ve ever been able to say about anything I’ve been involved with, including my own birth,” says Mapletoft.

Again, Bird steps in to temper expectations. “It’s very rare to get this immediate gratification,” he warns them. “I’ve made two sitcoms and, when they came out, the same broadsheet paper called them both the worst sitcom that Channel 4 has ever made.”

• Everyone Else Burns is on Channel 4 on 23 January at 10pm.

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