The Cockfields: Joe Wilkinson interview

Creator and writer of The Cockfields, Joe Wilkinson makes the ordinary, extraordinary and has brought his unique brand of dour and dishevelled comedy to such shows as Taskmaster, Live at the Apollo and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. He tells us why meeting the new in-laws is such fertile ground for comedy and what his influences have been.

The Cockfields: Joe Wilkinson interview

Where did the idea for The Cockfields come from?

My writing partner, David Earl, and I always wanted to write a family sitcom because it is the most recognisable thing in the world. You have to find what your take on it is.

We had a moment a few years ago where we were talking about coming into a whole new world. You're trapped for a few days and something is going to go wrong. We looked at it from both sides. Her taking me to her family, me taking her to my family, and David taking his wife. It's a shared experience.

Everyone has done it at some point, introduced a new victim into your world for them to suffer. The truth is you have to love the other half a hell of a lot to join their gang.

Does some of it come from real life experience, then?

Yeah, you take all of those moments of your life and push them into one weekend, but everything in the show is based on truth, believe it or not. Everything has happened to one of us.

Surely not the bit with the bread knife...

Yes! It is all drawn from real life. I guess it's observational comedy. We are trying to notice what happens in that family dynamic. We've all been through this thing where you love your family to bits, but they drive you mad. You realise you're not all going to be together forever so that is where the warmth comes from and the underlying truth of it. There is no one else in your life who will be there for you like your family will. Even if they drive you up the wall, in a few months you'll go back and do it all again.

Who has it worse: the person going to meet their new in-laws, or the person introducing their new partner?

I think the person introducing their new partners. When you're the one being brought in, it's generally fine, but when it's your family you're going, "Oh God, why are they like this?"

Your partner is going, "Oh, they're sweet" and you're going, "Are they?! I've had a lifetime of this! You just haven't been ground down yet". The new person is always more understanding.

Talk us through the characters.

Well Donna and Simon are living in London so they go to the Isle of Wight for his 40th birthday where it's a bit 'fish out of water'. It's where Simon grew up but it's very different from his life now, so it's a shock to the system to go back.

Donna is a nice person and she doesn't get annoyed but she comes close to it with Sue because she is very, very fussy and they have a bit of a battle of wills over certain things. Also, she hasn't had 40 years of this. Simon, on the other hand, has.

I think he goes into the visit just waiting for it to go wrong. So he has his back up already and he's just waiting for it to burst. Everything winds him up. He reverts to being a child, and Donna gets to see a side of him that she probably hasn't before - the petulant teenager. The characters that Sarah and Nigel play - Simon's dad and his new girlfriend - are just a pair of dicks!

What does the setting add to the series?

It is a bit of a love letter to the Isle of Wight because I adore it. My wife hasn't been there in a long time and I guess wherever you grow up you sort of go, "Oh God no", but now she loves it again.

There's a beautiful tweeness to it and it's an island which makes you a bit trapped when you're there. But we love it and this was never about making fun of the Isle of Wight. It is the opposite because we love it.

Simon's brother David is obsessed with celebrities. Where did that idea come from?

My writing partner and I have both had people take photos with us and generally most people are lovely, but some people are a little forward, so it came form that kind of experience. We thought it was quite sweet that he is a lonely-ish character and that is one of his pleasures, getting photos with people like Clare Balding and Alan Titchmarsh.

Which celebrity would you most like to meet?

When I was growing up I was in love with Glen Hoddle and I think I would become a bit like David around him. I would have to get a photo.

All dignity would go out the window if I met him. My wife met him because her son was the mascot of the football game he was the manager of.

You haven't camped outside his house?

No but that's only because I don't know where he lives.

What are your influences?

Me and David started writing together for our joint love of Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne, and we chatted about The Royle Family and Early Doors which is what we love. Then we got to work with Craig and Sue!

So when we started writing this we have been influenced by their brilliance. And Mike Leigh has influenced the way we have visualised it. It will hopefully sit in that world and that tone. The fact we get to work with Sue is just amazing.

Did you write any of the parts especially for the actors?

Diane and Sue, yes. We wrote it on spec originally but once people liked it and wanted more, we started thinking about who we wanted to play these roles, and you imagine them as the characters, and that does affect your writing.

We didn't write with ourselves in the picture at first either. We just write what we want to write and if we can play a character then great but if not there are lots of brilliant people out there. Towards the end I phoned a friend of mine, Sally Lindsay, and said we have this character to play, Ray. I described him and in a second she said, 'Bobby Ball', and I went, "Flipping hell, of course!" I didn't think he would do it but he agreed.

Then we found Ben who is incredible and he just fitted that character perfectly. It scares me thinking what would have happened if he wasn't available.

Being a fan of The Royle Family, working with Sue must have been exciting?

That's a slight understatement for me. I guess it doesn't quite sink in. It sounds stupid but there is a bit of self-preservation of not letting it sink in or I will crumble.

Everyone has got on really well. It's like, 'Wait - am I friends with these people now?' I have to keep it buried that I was watching them for years and years. Ben whispered to me recently, 'Can you imagine if we'd known this 30 years ago? We were just about to do a scene with Sue and Bobby and I was like, 'Don't talk like that or I will have a break down'.

Maybe when I am in Sainsbury's after it's all done I'll suddenly go, 'Oh Jesus Christ', and I'll pass out in the frozen pea section.

Are you friends with them now?

Yeah, we get on great. Bobby beats me up quite a lot. Sue tells him not to. Diane just watches, eating cake.

What is it like on set: is there much corpsing or is everyone quite professional?

Bobby is wonderfully unprofessional. He makes us laugh all day. Sue is fun but incredibly professional. She is the most professional. The rest of them are nearly as bad as Bobby. I will say that in court if I have to. He is definitely the worst but also utterly utterly brilliant.

How long can you stay with your family before you go crazy?

I've done six minutes. Seven at a push.... no, they're are great fun and I love them to bits really.