Shiny Shelf

INTERVIEW: Robert Popper

By Eddie Robson on 05 October 2003

It was on at an odd time (9:50pm) and each episode was only ten minutes long, so you might not have seen BBC2’s spoof schools programme ‘Look Around You’, created by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz, when it aired last year. Alas! Little did you know that you were missing a hugely inventive and surreally witty comedy. But now, hurrah! You have a chance to rectify this by purchasing the full series on DVD. And if you did see it first time around, the disc includes a plethora of appealing bonus materials – including the never-before-released short film which gave rise to the series.

Shiny Shelf recently spoke to Robert Popper about ‘Look Around You’ – beginning, quite sensibly we thought, with the genesis of the show.

‘Peter and I had worked on something I co-wrote for Channel 4 in 1998 – called “You Are Here”,’ says Popper. ‘We became great pals and realised we had a similar sense of humour and take on things. We met up a lot and decided we wanted to write something. We didn’t really know what but we talked about a lot of stuff we were into and gradually realised we had this shared experience of being forced to watch horrific schools science modules at school. We realised it was basically a pretty untapped area. We decided we should write something based on those old shows.

‘We were aware that people had done sketches of Open University stuff with guys with big hair and flares etc, but we wanted to avoid all clich?s so we settled on writing about something no one had written about before – Calcium. As soon as we started writing it, we decided we should just go out and make it as a short film. We hooked up with Peter’s mate Tim Kirkby, a great director, and within five weeks of starting the project we had shot it all on film. Everyone worked on it for free so it took about six more months to do all the editing and post production, as we had to jump into editing suites at hours when no one was working.’

From there a buzz grew around ‘Look Around You’ and this sent it on its way to TV. ‘We showed “Calcium” at the Metro Cinema in Soho and 400 people turned up. We had to have two screenings. It was a fab night actually. Because it was clearly a particular sense of humour we weren’t sure if people would like it. Luckily they really really did so word spread. A few production companies approached us and we went with Talkback (“The Day Today”, “Brass Eye”, “I’m Alan Partridge” etc) in the end. We approached the BBC, and after about 8 months, we got a series.’ It proved an ideal way to fill those pesky gaps the BBC often finds itself with at the end of its fifty-minute programmes: ‘”Calcium” was 20 minutes, but they said they’d like it as ten.’

How did they go about working in the jokes without disturbing the illusion of ‘Look Around You’ being a genuine schools programme? ‘That was always the difficult thing. “Calcium” is much slower and the joke is that basically there’s no jokes – if you get my drift – and that it is bloody slow and actually pretty dull. When we were commissioned to do the series, we had to rethink the whole idea. Rather than being an underground short, we were making a television comedy. We were determined not to ruin the spirit of “Look Around You” by making it more “commercial”, but we realised that we had to up the pace slightly and that we had to put some more “jokes” in it.

‘By jokes, though, I don’t mean conventional jokes with punchlines, but we looked at different ways to get humour across without it feeling crowbarred. So much work went into visual jokes for example. Regarding the authenticity, we tried not to be too anal about everything – obviously we weren’t going to have the internet popping up in the series – but we wanted it to be much more than a clever pastiche of those shows. Once you bought into the whole thing, we wanted the viewer to drift into the “Look Around You” world, without worrying if one of the pencils used was actually made in 1980 or 1981.’

In order to avoid pure pastiche, Popper and Serafinowicz initially avoided returning to the original programmes that inspired ‘Look Around You’. ‘We started writing on memory really – we wanted to produce something impressionistic and evocative. Something that hit you in the heart. Once we started writing we then watched lots of stuff – shows like “Experiment”, “Physics In Action”, generally the work of writer/director Jack Smith who made all those educational shows.’ It was at this point that the title suggested itself: ‘We watched a lot of old stuff and kind of ended up talking in the narrator’s voice and one day “Look Around You” came out. When repeated it’s kind of bullying. We liked that.’

The duo also referred to material from other media: ‘Photography books – people like Luc Delahaye. Short-wave radio – I used to listen to a lot as a kid, so did Pete. We loved the vaguely dictatorial tone of stations like Radio Moscow, and all the music used. All very heraldic and bombastic. That influenced us when we did the music certainly, and we listened to lots of Boards of Canada, Benge and Warp artists. Stuff like that.’ The strikingly authentic music is credited to Gelg: in fact the group comprises Popper and Serafinowicz again, who wrote and played everything you hear.

The authenticity of ‘Look Around You’ is more than just retro tomfoolery – it gives the series the authority of a schools programme, which is undercut by a combination of surreal humour and outright lies. Getting the correct look was therefore important. ‘We shot it on Super 16 stock which is great for graininess. Then we added film dirt and graded it to saturate the colours. We wanted everything to look 1980 really, so we spent time making the logo look right as well.’

The series’ single narrating voice, kindly yet imposing, was provided by Nigel Lambert. ‘Nigel loved it. He is one of the nicest, silliest men in the world. When we wrote Calcium, Peter and I were thinking about who could narrate it. One day he called me up and said, “I’ve found our narrator”. He played some of Nigel’s voice over tape down the phone to me. We knew he was the man. We sent him the script to Calcium and when he turned up at the studio to record his voice, he asked if the script was genuinely based on science. He kept laughing the whole time. He is absolutely brilliant.’

Some archive footage was used but a great deal was simply shot in order to look like archive. Even so, the series cost very little to make. ‘The budget was very cheap. What was brilliant was everyone who worked on “Calcium” went on to work on the series. They are all brilliantly passionate people and very very talented. Everyone mucked in and we all had a fantastic time.’ Which episodes are they most pleased with? ‘We like “Water” and “The Brain” the best really. Although “Ghosts” is up there.’

The DVD includes all eight episodes of ‘Look Around You’ plus the ‘Calcium’ short, as well as some new material: there’s a pop video called ‘Little Mouse’, fake Ceefax pages containing background to the series, interactive quizzes, commentaries, lots of new music from Gelg, ‘And making their first appearance… The Hexagons… you’ll have to buy it to find out. The whole DVD is pretty fun to navigate as all the menus are designed as if this was made in 1980.’

And finally, the inevitable question: what are they going to do next? ‘The BBC aren’t commissioning second series of ten-minuters, so we won’t be doing a second series of ten-minute “Look Around You”, but we are planning on perhaps a 30-minute series. Peter and I are working on stuff all the time. We want to do a new short about the adventures of a piece of Carbon, a piece of Litmus and a pile of Iron Filings. It’s called “The Three Friends”. We’ve written it and plan to film it. Also, a new thing about a man and a wasp which we’re writing.’ Proof that comic material is everywhere – just Look Around You.

Buy the ‘Look Around You’ DVD from Blackstar.

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By Eddie Robson

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