Setting a sitcom in the heart of London made for a great backdrop - and free extras.
BBC docu-soap Paddington Green is an unlikely source of inspiration for a sitcom but it prompted comedian/writer Sharon Horgan to start penning a mock documentary back in 2003.
While the BBC series followed the lives of people living around London’s Paddington Green, Horgan wanted her spoof docu-soap to revolve around fictional characters working in the capital’s Trafalgar Square. From her base at Ealing Studios’ now defunct TV arm, Horgan began creating a line-up of police officers, cafe owners and street performers to populate the show.
“I was working at Ealing Studios and I’d just done The Pilot Show for E4,” says Horgan, who is best known for her BBC3 comedy series Pulling. “C4 had given me some development money and there were lots of good character comedians appearing at the weekly stand-up nights held at Ealing Studios. I decided I wanted to use as many of these people as possible in a show.”
After roping in Ealing Studios colleague and Pilot Show producer Damon Beesley, Horgan approached her favourite performers from the comedy night. “I asked them if they were interested,” says Horgan, of her conversations with actors such as Simon Farnaby (Spoons, Jam and Jerusalem), Miranda Hart (Hyperdrive) and Paul Garner (Strutter, The 11 O’Clock Show). “I gave them simple scripts, set up a camera and talked to them in character.”
With the actors’ help, Horgan fleshed out the roles of Karen, a WPC desperate for a baby; her ineffectual police officer husband, Dave; greasy spoon owner Angelo and his daughter, an aspiring X Factor contestant called Maria; and Shelley, a minicab driver looking for love. “We’d workshop characters for lines and turns of phrases,” says Beesley. “We took notes and some elements of improvisation made it into the script.”
Beesley and Horgan then made a 15-minute pilot called Trafalgar Square for Ealing Studios, which promptly closed its TV operations. Undeterred, Beesley carried on with the project under the auspices of Bwark Productions, the indie he set up with former C4 comedy commissioning editor Iain Morris, and began pitching the show to broadcasters. It caught the attention of Five’s controller of comedy, Graham Smith, a regular at Ealing’s comedy nights. “I loved it but I didn’t want to make a mock documentary,” says Smith. “After The Office it was difficult territory to work in because that was so good. I suggested they make the cafe the focal point. It’s the place where all the leading characters congregate.”
Although pleased by Smith’s interest, Horgan was concerned about changing the show from a spoof docu-soap called Trafalgar Square to a sitcom titled Angelo’s. “I was initially worried it would be a bit like Desmond’s,” says Horgan, referring to the 1980s series set in a London barber’s. Once the nerves subsided, Horgan set about changing the scripts. “Sharon workshopped with the actors and then she went away and wrote the script,” says Smith. “Last year I gave them a bit more money to shoot some scenes to translate what they’d shot in the original mini pilot into Angelo’s and that’s what I showed to Dan Chambers.”
Once Chambers (then Five’s director of programmes) gave Angelo’s the go-ahead, Smith commissioned two scripts, before greenlighting a six-part series last year. Horgan then took eight months to complete the scripts, working herself in along the way. “I knew that I was too old to play Maria but I usually give myself a big old part,” she says. “I wanted to play the police officer, Karen, because I knew her well, in terms of knowing people whose body clocks are ticking. And I really wanted to wear a uniform.”
After two weeks of rehearsals in February this year, production finally got underway in March. Despite shooting in hectic Trafalgar Square, the four-week shoot was straightforward if fast-paced. “It was intricately financed and that somehow focused the mind,” says Beesley, who had just become a parent when the shoot began. “We thought it would be incredibly difficult to film there but it went surprisingly well. You don’t get many chances at it. The outdoor shoot was fast and loose, using a handheld camera to inject visual pace because for the rest of the shoot we were in the cafe quite a lot and people sat at tables.”
Overall, the Trafalgar Square location proved to be a blessing. “Angelo’s is set in the heart of London so you have a fantastic backdrop,” says Beesley. “And you don’t need extras.” The team did, however, push its luck on more than one occasion. “We did guerrilla filming in and around the West End,” says Horgan. “We’d shoot in a doorway and get moved on. With so little money we had to be inventive.”
For Horgan, the editing at London facility Suite TV proved to be more complicated than the filming. With a second series of Pulling to write, she had to -juggle her days between the two projects. “I’d go in for an hour to edit, I’d write Pulling and then they’d bike me over a tape from the edit at the end of the day,” she says. “I would do my notes that evening and they’d get them the next morning.”
Now the series has been delivered, Horgan is plagued by moments of doubt. “When it’s your own piece, one minute you think it’s exactly what you wanted and the next you think, oh no, it could be better,” she says. “But Angelo’s is a bit different: not many sitcoms have that soapy element and a range of ages in them.”
Smith, however, is resolutely positive. “It’s turned out exactly as I hoped it would,” he says. “This is a beautifully observed modern comedy. It’s painful, funny and poignant. It has a lot of heart.”
Producer: Bwark Productions
Start: 16 November, 11pm
Length: 6 x 30 minutes
Commissioner: Graham Smith
Director: Chloe Thomas
Producer: Damon Beesley
Executive producer: Iain Morris
Writer: Sharon Horgan
Key cast: Horgan, Paul Garner, Steve Brody, Shelley Longworth, Simon Farnaby