One of Britain’s best-loved TV actors, Ralf Little, has turned his hand to writing and created a new British sitcom, The Café, that’s set to make staying in the new going out. We chatted characters, comedy and café scenarios, plus found out about his future plans and career highlights…
The Café is a great new British sitcom set in a café in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. Where did you get the inspiration for the setting? Is there a real café?
No. Michelle Terry [co-writer of The Café] and I did a play together a couple of years ago and we decided that we wanted to write something together; we weren’t really sure what, or even what type of show, and then we hit upon the idea of a comedy show. We thought we wanted to write something gentle and more character-based, rather than gag-based, and to be honest we just thought a café was a good place to observe people’s comings and goings and general conversation.
The Weston-super-Mare thing came up because Michelle once told me a story about how she left Weston-super-Mare to go to university and then drama school, and her friends were like: “What, you want to go to university? What do you want to go and do that for? You’ve got everything you need here. Bristol’s only down the road.”
So we were laughing about that and then we hit upon the idea that what would be really fun to write about would be if a girl had branched out, despite everything, if she’d gone away and then 10 years later it hadn’t worked out for her and she had to come back with her tail between her legs.
And are any of the characters based on real life acquaintances?
They are almost all based on somebody. Some of the characters are direct parodies of people, some of the characters are an amalgamation of certain traits in different people, and I think only two were made up from scratch.
There are some great smaller characters, like Mary, how do you go about building these characters and their individual nuances?
Mary we wanted to be very warm and quite wise. There are definitely traits of Michelle’s Nan that we’ve put into Mary, some of the really warm and generous and supportive stuff. But we also liked this idea of someone slightly mischievous, who you could never quite tell whether she was completely crackers or was playing up to it. Michelle always jokes about how she can’t wait to be an old lady so that she can get away with anything and that’s sort of where we were aiming with Mary.
The main character, Sarah, is an aspiring writer. Was any of her character drawn on your and co-writer Michelle Terry’s personal experiences?
Not as an aspiring writer but it’s very difficult for parents of actors to understand what it’s like trying to be an actor - what it’s like going to auditions and hoping that this one might make it big, that there are jobs that you’re excited about but that there’s no money in. My mum’s an accountant and Michelle’s parents are teachers, and both of our mothers have tried to be very supportive but because they don’t understand the industry that we’re in they’ve tried to be supportive but ended up accidentally not being. And that was very definitely the relationship between Carol and Sarah, very much trying to be supportive but completely getting it wrong.
And you star as Richard in the show too, what’s it like playing a character that you’ve created yourself?
It was a lot of fun. It was kind of weird because when you’re writing something you’ve read every word in that script 100 times each because you read it aloud to hear what it sounds like and you play jokes for timing to see if they work - so I’ve sort of played all of the characters. But suddenly to play Richard and be on set with all these brilliant other people, you find out that they have a slightly different interpretation and bring different things to their character. So having felt very familiar with my character and a lot of the other characters, suddenly it was this lovely thing of going: “Right, well I know this character inside out.” You have to be on your toes I suppose.
There’s a very natural feel between characters in The Café – do the cast all get on very well?
Definitely. You hear it said a lot but we just did get on really well. Everyone was really kind about the script and Michelle and I were really nervous but everyone was saying they were really thrilled to be a part of it, so that filled us with confidence.
It’s similar to The Royle Family in that it finds the funny in people with very normal existences. Do you think that it’s a particularly British type of comedy?
Certainly there were several shows that we admired that employed that style, and admittedly The Royle Family was one of them but more than that it was shows like Human Remains, The Office and Gavin and Stacey, too. It was the writing, good writing. We picked a lot of shows and worked out from those shows what we think makes good writing, and that’s what we tried to emulate.
You played Antony in The Royle Family. How was it working on such a successful sitcom?
I was 17 when we did the first one and then 20 when we did the 3rd and final series, not counting the specials, so it wasn’t my first professional job but it was the job that gave me a career. In so far as to what I owe it, it’s immeasurable. I think that we felt like we were making something that was funny, because we certainly enjoyed it and we were hoping people would get it but I don’t think anybody had any clue that it would be the success that it was. Whenever I talk about The Royle Family I’m always afraid of sounding arrogant, but I talk about it like a fan who’s not connected because I didn’t write it, or produce it. I was just a 17-year-old kid who got caught up and dragged along with it really.
And can you tell us whether there will be another The Royle Family Christmas special this year?
They’re working on one but I don’t know if it’s going to be a Christmas Special. It’s very definitely their intention to make one but whether it will be at Christmas, I do not know.
What’s the best memory of your career so far?
I suppose there are two types of professional memories. Of course winning a BAFTA and being on stage with The Royle Family when I was 18 was pretty unbelievable. And I’ve been nominated for an Olivier Award. But in terms of memories of being on set it’s things like laughing so hard that you have a coughing fit and you’re having to apologise to everyone on set.
And can you tell us of anything else you’ve got in the pipeline?
Well not really because if we are going to do a second series of The Café, which we don’t know yet because it’s not out yet. But if, fingers crossed, touch wood, it goes well then we’ll probably have to start writing a second series in not that far distant future so we’ll find out soon!
The first episode of The Café airs on Sky One on Wednesday 23 November