Toby Jones, Bognor Regis and the coach class comedy prodding British tensions

It’s hard to tell a story about people smuggling through the lens of humour, but if anyone can do it, it’s Toby Jones and his writing sidekick Tim Crouch

“First of all, we have to say that this was commissioned by the comedy department. It is a comedy.”

Toby Jones is very keen to make this clear. Very keen. During our interview, the star of Detectorists, Marvellous and The Girl (as Alfred Hitchcock, opposite Sienna Miller’s Tippi Hedren) will repeat the phrase “it is a comedy” seven times. 

It’s not because the series he has co-written with radical theatre-maker Tim Crouch isn’t funny. Don’t Forget The Driver is set in Bognor Regis – the West Sussex seaside town that itself became a well-used punchline during the 1970s – and shares its warm comedic tone with Detectorists.

Any show shot now that is specific to any place in the UK will reveal tensions. This doesn’t feel like a state-of-the-nation show. It feels like a State-of-Bognor show,

And Jones plays Peter, another long-suffering everyman. We see him caring for the teenage daughter he struggles to understand, his ageing mother who has dementia and the coachloads of locals he drives to places of interest – from Dunkirk to Babbacombe Model Village in Torquay. There is plenty of scope for sensitively played laughs in the situation the duo have concocted.

But Jones finds himself reasserting that the show’s intentions are strictly comedic because the catalyst for the story is the arrival in the UK, stowed away in the cargo hold of Peter’s coach, of a young Eritrean woman called Rita.

And with the show kicking off just days after the UK was supposed to leave the EU, it is difficult not to view it through a Brexit lens – what does it say about modern England and its response to ‘outsiders’? What does Bognor Regis, a small seaside town and therefore a border, represent in the comedy? What’s the message, what’s the meaning, what’s the verdict on Brexit Britain?

“I am not trying to wriggle free of it, but any show shot now that is specific to any place in the UK will reveal tensions,” says Jones.

“Ours is a show about how life is bigger than those tensions. We were really careful, which is why you might feel I’m being defensive, because we didn’t want it to be mistaken for a polemical show. This doesn’t feel like a state-of-the-nation show. It feels like a State-of-Bognor show.”

Crouch, who grew up in Bognor, joins in: “We always knew that this was not a series about Rita, really. We have researched Rita rigorously, we found an extraordinary actor, Luwam [Teklizgi], but she is the catalyst who
passes through.

“We throw this difference into this slightly homogenised English pool and are interested in how the ripples alter it. But remember: it is a comedy! Our priority was to see this man – who doesn’t quite know what is going on, doesn’t have an opinion, can’t articulate his opinion but does have a heart – bewildered, blundering around in his life and his work.”

The thing I love most about Detectorists is that it wasn’t demanding that you laughed.

Rita’s arrival forces Peter to act. As someone eager for a quiet life, he is forced to confront a reality to which he was previously happy to turn a blind eye.

“I think he goes, ‘I’ve never had that happen on my coach before, I have only read about it. It is real’,” says Jones. “That is what I was trying to act, ‘Oh my God, this situation is actually real. And it is happening to me right now.’

“Peter’s reaction is like, ‘Oh no, I didn’t want to get to know you. Now I have really got to care about you too’. ‘Oh no, my daughter is getting to like you’. ‘Oh no, you are becoming a human being for me’. That is fundamental to the comedy. He doesn’t want her to become a human being because then he will have to engage with her.”

They make for quite a double act. Their friendship goes back 20 years, to when the pair met at the National Theatre.

“Tim has been writing his own stuff for the theatre, and I have had a life as a jobbing actor. We have supported each other with no plans to work together,” says Jones.

But when Crouch was asked to come up with an idea for television, he brought his pal, by now one of the best actors in the business, on board for the writing process.

“I’m the typist, he is the pacer,” says Crouch.

“Pacer, mimer, occasional actor,” retorts Jones. “Tim is the proper writer, he spends all his life writing. Any writing I do tends to come out of improvising scenes. That is how we worked.”

Copyright Sister Pictures
Toby Jones and Tim Crouch on location in Bognor

Comparisons with Detectorists are inevitable. And Jones is happy to entertain them. “The thing I love most about Detectorists is that it wasn’t demanding that you laughed. It wasn’t demanding you to love it,” he says.

“You have to sit with it for a while, get into it. And that felt like it would be fun to act. Our show shares a range of comic registers with Detectorists.”

Both writers cite photographer Martin Parr and his intimate, playful, vivid chronicles of British life as a key influence on them.

“The way he frames ironies and contradictions,” says Jones, who got to know Bognor during the writing process. “How one’s attitude to the photo reveals something about the viewer as much as it does about the viewed – I felt that when we were looking at Bognor.”

A coach trip to a donkey sanctuary highlights the ironies at play. The daytrippers, full of care and empathy for donkeys that have been abused before being offered sanctuary, yet not necessarily offering similar protection or love to humans in their town – arriving after a journey fraught with dangers or even washing up on their beloved beach.

“Well done: You have been watching the show properly. That is good,” says Jones.

“It is really weird, because I can’t help saying all the time that we were commissioned to write a comedy. It feels like we have to keep saying it. But it is really interesting that we can talk in this way about it.”

Don’t Forget The Driver airs on BBC Two on Tuesdays at 10pm and the full series is available on iPlayer 

Images: Sister Pictures