Robin Driscoll Writes

Robin Driscoll Writes

by Lisa De Silva

Actor, scriptwriter and author, Robin Driscoll is best known for writing Mr Bean, one of the UK’s most successful TV exports. A true Renaissance man, although he’d probably prefer the term Renaissance bloke, Lisa de Silva meets him down the pub to get the lowdown on his career.

Undiagnosed dyslexia branded Robin a ‘slow learner’ at school and he left Boundstone Comprehensive in Sompting with just one CSE in English Language. With no opportunity to stay on at school, the resilient Robin jumped on a bus to Worthing Art College clutching a portfolio of his artwork. His initiative paid off with the offer of a place on an Art Foundation course.

“My dad worked as a bus fitter but he was a really good artist,’ Robin tells me. “He taught me all about perspective and the basics of how to draw and paint. He was a great cartoonist. I always remember if he managed to get a cartoon into the Daily Sketch, he’d earn a fiver.”

Robin describes his childhood growing up in Sompting and Lancing as working class and loving, but there was clearly a creative atmosphere. His mother had worked as a seamstress, sewing dresses for royalty, but with a large family (Robin has three brothers and a sister), worked as a dinner lady while bringing up the family.

At Art School, Robin found a place he could excel and after completing the foundation course signed up for a three-year art diploma. It was during this time, in the early 1970s, that he developed his love aff air with performance. “I started running a performance workshop at the college a couple of days a week and was also enthralled by a theatre company called Incubus.”

Incubus were renown for their street and festival work. Famed for smashing up the preconceptions of what theatre should be about, they developed a reputation for a new kind of exciting entertainment, often referred to as ‘rock n’roll theatre’.

Inspired by their unconventional humour and approach, Robin asked for a year’s sabbatical to work at Shoreham Community Arts Workshop. So at the age of 18, he was doing performance work with groups like Gingerbread, Downs Syndrome children and those with learning difficulties.

“It was great fun, but when I went back to the college to finish my diploma there was a new principal who’d never liked me. He told me it was no longer Worthing Art College, but was now West Sussex College of Art & Design and that there was no longer a place for me. So, I was out on my ear.”

With that door now closed, Robin returned to the workshop in Shoreham, where he continued to work until he and three colleagues, decided to branch out on their own.

“The politics were going badly and we thought, forget this, let’s form our own theatre company and that’s how Cliffhanger Theatre Company started. We did performances in rooms above local pubs, charging about three quid a show. Most of the shows were serials or soaps, so people had to keep coming back to find out what happened next,” he laughs.

This economic ingenuity was supplemented by a grant from the Arts Council. The money was used to get better sets, lighting designers, directors and to gradually become more professional. This allowed Cliff hanger to start touring community centres and small civic theatres up and down the country, each year culminating in a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

As their reputation grew during the 1980s and 90s, Cliffhanger were invited to tour in Europe, America and Australia. “We had a riot,” laughs Robin. In fact, the company became so successful they no longer needed any Arts Council funding, becoming one the Council’s success stories.

Members of the audience included many of our comedy greats, such as Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, Dave Allen, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, who were all big fans of Cliffhanger’s surreal style of humour.

“Mel and Griff actually asked us if we’d like to join the writing team for Not the Nine O’Clock News. So all four of us wrote some stuff , but we were inexperienced at writing for TV and none of it got in,’ explains Robin.

In those days Robin was living in Preston Park, Brighton, with a wife and newborn son and was desperately in need of a boost of cash. On hearing that a TV series for kids, Dramarama, was looking for stories, he made an appointment to see the producer, borrowed the train fare to Maidstone and pitched his wares.

“At the meeting, he asked me for my ideas. I said look, I don’t want to waste your time, I’ve got a list of twenty ideas in my head, why don’t you tell me what you’re looking for. So he does and I say right, you’ve just picked idea number three, which just happens to be my favourite.”

Having improvised a story he made up on the spot, Robin won over the producer, who agreed to buy it there and then. It was something of a turning point, because straight after that Mel and Griff approached Cliffhanger about writing for their new show, Alas Smith and Jones. This time their attempts met with success and not only did the team write for the show, but appeared in the sketches too. “Because we’d written the stuff , it was easier to get us into costumes to act it out,” he explains with characteristic humility.

This led to other supporting roles in some of our best loved TV comedies, including Only Fools and Horses (Robin played the Great Ramondo), Waiting for God, Dear John and the Lenny Henry Show.

Yet his most famous role is writer of Mr Bean. “I’d always loved Blackadder and when I saw the pilot for Mr Bean, I thought you clever so and so. How the hell did you go from Blackadder to that? I knew then it was a programme that without any language barriers, would sell all over the world. So when my agent rang and said they were commissioning writers for the show, I was more than up for it. Despite approaching twelve writers for material, I was the only one picked because they felt that I ‘got’ Bean.”

So the boy with just one CSE certificate, joined forces with some of the best Oxbridge comedy scribes, Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, to bring Mr Bean to life, gaining two Bafta nominations in the process. The team scripted fourteen live action specials which sold to 250 countries. Robin also co-wrote the animated series and the feature films, Bean – The Ultimate Disaster Movie and Mr Bean’s Holiday.

Despite this success, Robin’s resilience was yet again called upon when around five years ago the phone stopped ringing. “Basically, there are always newer younger writers out there with their fingers on the pulse, snapping at your heels and quite rightly so, that’s the way it should be,” he confides. “So, I thought, I can write, I’ll write books instead.”

Yet after sending his first seven chapters to a writer friend in Brighton, it became clear that raw writing talent is never enough. As his friend said, you maybe a plumber but you wouldn’t install central heating unless you knew how to do it. So, although Robin was a successful scriptwriter, it didn’t mean he could write a novel without first learning the craft. Rising to the challenge, he enrolled on a couple of courses and taught himself the craft of writing a novel.

With one novel already published, ‘Rough Music’, another written and a third on the way, Robin is certainly busy. And it is this work ethic, resilience and ability to constantly create new opportunities that characterise his career. Aspiring performers and writers would do well to emulate his style.

In spite of his screenwriting triumphs, the highlight of Robin’s career has been performing on stage with Cliffhanger. “Every single night was different. Every night you sweated and every night you’d take the audience by the nose and pull them through the performance for two hours. There’s nothing like that.”

Big on talent, heart and hard work, Robin is a great inspiration on how to develop and sustain a career in the creative arts.

Rough Music can be purchased online at www.austinmacauley.com/author/driscoll-robin and other online bookshops.