7 Questions with… Robert Lindsay: 'We tried to erect a greenhouse in lockdown – there must be a new My Family series in that'

Twenty years after it first aired, BBC One is reshowing My Family on Friday nights. BT TV caught up with Robert Lindsay to look back at the enduring appeal of the smash hit sitcom.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 23 June 2020 - 12.11pm
BBC

"Potty training! Oh god. Ha-ha. Sorry mate. That sounds like 'Welcome to Hell' to me."

Robert Lindsay and I are exchanging stories about our lockdown family woes and the current battles we’re facing within the confines of our homes.

"We’re trying to erect a greenhouse we bought online, as a family. Flatpack. The flatpack arrived two days ago in the pouring rain. So we were all out trying to erect it," laughs the actor.

“If you’d seen it, well, you could probably get a whole new series of My Family out of it. How to erect a greenhouse in lockdown. There must be a new series in there somewhere."

Lindsay has made a surprise return to BBC One with his hugely successful sitcom My Family being repeated from the beginning on Friday nights at 8pm. All 11 series, which originally aired from 2000 to 2011 are available on iPlayer.

Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker promoting My Family in 2000 BBC

The Citizen Smith actor admits it was “a bit of a shock” to see the Harper family back on screens, 20 years after it debuted, as repeats become the order of the day in lockdown

My Family had over 100 episodes, pulled in weekly ratings of over 10 million at its peak and despite frequent barbs from critics, was rated as one Britain’s greatest ever sitcoms in a public poll.

The show was often deemed too middle class and too middle-of-the-road by TV reviewers, but their sneering often overlooked an innovative US writers room format which delivered rapid-fire, gag-heavy scripts and a beautiful natural chemistry between stars Lindsay, Zoe Wannamaker and Kris Marshall.

Lindsay confesses he was amazed at the show’s overwhelming success and openly admits he seriously considered leaving the show when Kris Marshall left after series four.

But in hindsight he has no regrets about sticking by a series that was loved by audiences of all ages and which has endured far better than many critically acclaimed shows.

We caught up with Lindsay to find out about his memories of the series as it begins to entertain a whole new generation..

1. How surprised were you when the BBC brought back My Family to Friday nights for lockdown?

Robert Lindsay and the cast of My Family for series 11 BBC

It was a bit of a shock really. But I guess there’s nothing the TV companies can do with everything else shelved for the time being. I think my industry is going to be really badly affected because I can’t see theatres opening soon or cinemas opening in the near future.

It was a pleasant surprise. We did the very first episode 20 years ago which was when my son was born. It was a very extraordinary time because my mother died that Christmas. It was a very strange time to be doing a comedy series in front of an audience.

But I was amazed how popular it became. It was such a great team. A great guy, Fred Barron, devised it and brought his team over from America and employed several English writers. His dad was a dentist in Boston and that was who he based my character on. His dad used to smoke while he was treating his patients.

And we had the lovely Kris Marshall who is a dear friend and Zoe who I have known since drama school. We go way, way back. It did feel like a family when we were recording it. I have such fond memories of doing it.

2. The first episode has chemistry straight away. The line: ‘You’ve been seeing another dentist’ is gold...

Zoe Wanamaker and Robert Lindsay in a slapstick scene in My Family BBC

Ah, I know. Come on! I watched it with my two boys and my wife and we literally peed ourselves laughing. There were points after series 2 or 3 where I thought I maybe should go back to the theatre, you can’t keep doing this. But it was my dad, who said to keep doing it. He said, "It’s so lovely, it’s a real family show, everyone loves it".

It just had that effect on people. You gathered around the telly on a Friday night and watched as a family. You could recognise your own lives on the show. Fortunately for us, we never had potty training – that will have to be the prequel.

3. Kris Marshall left after four series. Did you ever seriously consider quitting?

Kris Marshall in My Familu BBC

We all did. We all decided to leave. But I was persuaded my dad. I think my dad was the reason we all carried on doing it in the end. He used to say, "You can’t leave this now, everyone loves it. I can watch it with my grandkids". I used to tell the cast that.

4. The show broke British sitcom tradition by using a US-style team of writers – what was that like?

Robert Lindsay promoting My Family BBC

When I worked in America, I worked with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Anne Brancroft and they were all part of that showrunning team that was huge in the 1960s. And it was a format I really enjoyed because I’m very fast at learning lines. When you have a showrunning team, they change the script every day.

A lot of people over here sneered at it. When I was working with the late great John Sullivan doing Citizen Smith in the 70s and 80s, John would write a pilot, get it signed off by the powers that be at the BBC and then you would have a series. It would be a fourth or fifth draft of a script before the actors got it. That was the tradition.

When Fred put My Family to the BBC, he, me and the producer went to the BBC and he just pitched the idea. They bought it and said yes, but nobody had seen the script or knew what it was going to be. The next thing we knew, we were doing that first episode.

5. I was quite surprised by the amount of smutty jokes that were sneaked in...

Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker promoting My Family BBC

That’s it. That’s exactly what my dad said. There are jokes in there for everybody. There are definitely some jokes, especially as the show goes on, which are very near the knuckle. But we were very hot on expletives. You would maybe be allowed one ‘arse’ or one ‘bloody’. I watch stuff now and I can’t believe the language that’s used. It’s incredible in primetime TV. Life is changing.

6. Did the negativity from critics ever bother you?

Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker in My Family BBC

I’m quite philosophical now about my profession. I think we’re all very lucky to be working in this very vulnerable profession. And you count your blessings. Some up, some down.

In the theatre, you do a play you’ve worked hard on for seven weeks and the audience and critics absolutely slam it. All that work you did disappears in a puff of smoke.

In fact, I went to an opening night of a play for someone who is a friend of mine. We went to the opening party after the first night, we were standing in the lobby with thousands of people and in the corner of the room the PR person came in holding a copy of the New York Times, looked at the director and did the sign of slashing his throat. The show closed that night. The critic had given it a damning review and the show closed.

Of course it’s wonderful to do something that is critically acclaimed and popular. But I don’t think the two often go together. The only thing I’ve seen like that in recent years is Game of Thrones. It’s a difficult combination, so you have to take the brickbats. The big thing was that we were all enjoying it, so it didn’t matter to us.

Fred also decided to that he would not use topical jokes. We wouldn’t have been allowed to mention Donald Trump or Boris Johnson or do any political joke of the day, because Fred always said that would age the series.

That’s the thing when he did shows in the US like Seinfeld, he always avoided the topical jokes. I think that’s also why some of the critics didn’t like it. It didn’t offer anything new. It didn’t offer anything other than a middle-class domestic comedy.

7. Are you still close to the rest of the cast?

Robert Lindsay promoting My Family BBC

We get together now and again. Zoe came to my birthday party before Christmas. And I saw Kris for dinner last year when I was in a play in Bath.

I was in a musical in the West End four years ago and Kris came to see that. I was in a restaurant afterwards and suddenly I just heard, "Daaaaaad!" The whole restaurant stopped and stared as Kris bounced over and sat on my lap in this very smart restaurant.

I actually spoke to Kris a few days ago when the series was just starting back on BBC One and he said, "I can’t believe that’s coming back". He rang me and said, "Imagine you and me doing an episode in quarantine". It would drive us both insane, me and Kris Marshall locked up in a house together. It would actually be quite a fun episode. Maybe that can be devised by someone.

Watch My Family on Friday nights at 8pm on BBC One.

Catch up on BT TV - every episode from all 11 series are available on the BBC iPlayer app.

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