Derren Litten was at the TV Choice awards the night before we’re due to talk about Benidorm Live, the writer’s new musical stage adaptation of his hit package-tour-set sit-com, Benidorm. Litten’s show, which has run over ten series’ over the last decade to ever-expanding audiences, was named as best comedy. Given that the producers at ITV who made the show had not long cancelled Benidorm, there was no little irony in it scooping such a popular accolade. This was something Litten made reference to in his acceptance speech.
“I said something about how any channel that can cancel a show that’s still getting five and a half million viewers and which can still win an award has bigger balls than I’ll ever have,” Litten says the morning after. “It was a bit awkward at first, sitting at this glitzy do next to the people from ITV who’ve just cancelled my show, but for a night out, it’s one of the better awards ceremonies. Because it’s not televised, it gets quite raucous, and when we won, it was nice to go out on a high.”
The award may have marked the end of Benidorm as a TV programme, but the eight-month tour of Benidorm Live that has just opened in Newcastle prior to arriving in Edinburgh next week should ensure that Litten’s creation lives on a while yet. Featuring six original members of a fourteen-strong ensemble that filtered through the programme at various points over the last decade, Benidorm Live has been a long time coming.
“I think it was during series four or five that I had an idea of doing it onstage,” says Litten. “There’s a long tradition of putting sit-coms onstage. Hi-De-Hi!, Are You Being Served? and ‘Allo ‘Allo! have all done it, so it seemed like the obvious thing to do, but it took so long for us to do anything. Then when we went from half-hour to hour-long episodes, that meant it took about nine months to do a series, so there wasn’t any time.
“Then we ended up doing a Benidorm sketch at the Royal Variety Performance in 2017. It was just a small thing between acts on a bare stage with no scenery or anything, but as soon as they played the theme music the audience responded, and it went really well. That was probably when we realised that we could put the TV show onstage in some way, although at the time I didn’t have a clue what way to go with, and when ITV were dragging their heels over what was going to happen next with Benidorm that’s when we started thinking about it seriously.”
Producers had long been hovering over a potential stage version of Benidorm once they got wind of Litten’s idea. The current show is a long way from some other suggestions that were bandied about.
“Some producers wanted to do it in arenas,” says Litten, “but I didn’t want to do that. It would have been easy to do that, but the atmosphere of places that big aren’t conducive to something off the telly. People have been watching Benidorm on telly for ten years, but what’s the point of doing it in an aircraft hangar and watching it on a screen again because you’re so far back?”
The result so far for Benidorm Live has seen much of the programme’s audience base lap up a story that picks up where the end of the final series of Benidorm left off. This sees a new company taking over the Solana all-inclusive hotel, where the show is set, closing it down for re-development and leaving staff and guests out on their ear.
“What’s been nice,” says Litten, “is that there’s been appreciation of all the actors in the show, and there’s been as much love for the new characters who people don’t know as there is for the ones people already know from the telly. There are a lot of characters in sit-coms you don’t see, but who you’re familiar with, like Captain Mainwaring’s wife in Dad’s Army or Arthur Daly’s wife in Minder, so we’ve played with that.
“An old mate said something interesting. He said, don’t take any offence, but I think it works better onstage than it does on telly, and I kind of know what he means. It’s a big, broad thing, and kind of lends itself to the stage.”
Litten’s career began as an actor, and he has made several cameos in Benidorm. He started writing by accident when his friend Catherine Tate, with whom he was at drama school, asked him to write for her eponymous sketch show. From this, legendary comedy producer Geoffrey Perkins asked him to write his own show.
“I wrote a sketch about a couple of middle-aged swingers,” he says of characters eventually played by Janine Duvitski, who appears in Benidorm Live, and the late Scottish actor and director Kenny Ireland. “I initially set it in a suburban house, but thought that was a bit dull, so set it around a hotel pool, and gradually felt my way with different characters. Hopefully after ten years I know what I’m doing now.”
The appeal of Benidorm clearly stems from Litten’s love of old-school sit-coms that seemed to have been all but killed off.
“When I was growing up,” he says, “there were things like Rising Damp and stuff like that which were about normal working class people but I remember at the time I was writing Benidorm, there were sit-coms like My Family and 2 Point 4 children, which were all terribly middle class, and which I couldn’t relate to. I’m from a working class background in Hull, and the one thing I could relate to was The Royle Family. Obviously Benidorm turned out completely different. It sounds quite patronising talking about the working class, but we all go on holiday, and we become different people for a week and I think that’s where the comedy stems from.”
With Benidorm a possible victim of Brexit and the fall of the pound in terms of production costs, Litten is staying closer to home with a new series, set to begin shooting next year.
“It’s called Scarborough,’ he says, “and is obviously set there, but is nothing like Benidorm.”
Might Benidorm Live herald a U-turn by TV executives that might see Litten’s show return to the small screen, and if so would he be interested?
“I would say no,” Litten ruminates. “It seems these days that people leave shows, there’s a big fuss about it, and then they go back, but I think it’s better to look forward than look back. There’s a new box set of DVDs coming out packaged in a box the shape of a suitcase, and for me that’s ten years’ work, time to let it go.”
Benidorm Live, The Playhouse, Edinburgh, September 17-22; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, February 4-9 2019; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, March 4-9 2019.
The Herald, September 13th 2018