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Simon Farnaby on laughter in the time of Covid

Writing and starring in the Paddington films has taught Simon Farnaby how to find the lighter side of this horrible point in history

“A very wise person once said, tragedy plus time equals comedy. If you’re in a tragedy, it’s very hard to laugh about it,” Simon Farnaby tells The Big Issue over Zoom. “This situation’s hard because you can’t go: ‘Let’s wait three years until we start laughing again.’ You’re in it every day. Humour is part of life. It’s quite hard to keep it at bay.

“Humour is such a great refuge. It’s a tough time and people have lost loved ones. But even then, you can’t keep humour at bay. I’ve had more laughs at funerals than you can imagine. Someone will always crack a joke. And you can’t help but laugh because there’s nothing else to do sometimes.”

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After a year of not much to laugh about in the real world, film and TV has provided much-needed laughs and escapism. Pandemic has proved to be the perfect time for family comedy.

Like many of us, Farnaby and his daughter have swapped cinema trips with streaming bingeing. “We’ve gone through all the films she can possibly watch as a seven-year-old,” he says. “We just did The Sound of Music. She loved that: ‘Who were the Nazis?’”

Farnaby describes Toy Story as the holy grail of family comedy, but he’s already struck gold himself.

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Every time Paddington is repeated on ITV2 (marvellously regularly) it starts trending as people recharge their souls with the most inspirational of bears. Farnaby pops up as the lustful security guard in both films and was one of the main writers on the sequel, which cast Hugh Grant against type as a roguish fop. In fact maybe that’s not against type, but he was the villain rather than romantic hero.

“Everyone was looking for family entertainment in lockdown. Films you can watch with kids, adults and grandparents. Old people love Paddington. I remember going to a screening and there was a sea of white hair. And I think when cinemas do reopen those family films are going to be pretty popular again.”

Don’t do anything that will fly above kids’ heads. Don’t do too much innuendo, don’t swear. It makes you a better writer

Farnaby finessed a brand of comedy that appealed to all ages thanks to his experiences on probably the best British sketch show of the century, Horrible Histories.

“Don’t do anything that will fly above kids’ heads,” he says. “Kids are really bright. Just don’t do too much innuendo, don’t swear. It actually makes you a better writer. If a kid won’t understand a joke, just don’t use it.

“It was really important to us that adults liked Horrible Histories as well. And in Paddington, we had to ask, can we maintain our sensibility of humour but appeal to kids as well?”

The lessons were also applied to Ghosts, which Farnaby again co-stars in and co-writes. The first series aired on the BBC in 2019 and became the most watched comedy that year. Set in a haunted house, the property’s new custodians have to deal with centuries worth of spirited spirits, including Farnaby’s character Julian, a disgraced politician.

Ghosts is for a slightly older audience but we still get eight-year-olds who love it,” Farnaby explains. “I mean, I do have no trousers on because my character died in a sex game, which I suppose you could argue is pushing the boundaries a bit. I have to apologise to a few parents when their kids have asked about why I’ve got no trousers on.

“We just finished filming Ghosts series three, which should be out in the autumn. And there’s a Christmas special as well.”

Farnaby also stars in the first episode of the new series of the slightly more adult This Time with Alan Partridge, reprising his role as smug – through still less smug than Alan – rival Sam Chatwin.

He is increasingly staying behind the camera though. Editing is under way on The Fantastic Flitcrofts, starring Mark Rylance as the world’s worst golfer, which, fingers crossed, will be in cinemas before Christmas.

“That’s based on a book I wrote called The Phantom of the Open about a train driver from Barrow who entered the British Open and shot the worst round ever recorded in the history of major championships. It’s a story about following your dreams.”

He has also found the time to write his first children’s book. The Wizard in my Shed sees Merdyn the Wild banished from the dark ages. He finds himself in what he assumes is some kind of hellish purgatory. In fact, that’s just how our modern world seems to him.

“What would it seem like if you had never seen an electric lightbulb, a TV, everyone’s dressed strangely and they all smell weird?” Farnaby asks. “Then he realises he’s not in hell. He’s in the same place he left, just 1500 years in the future.”

Merdyn meets up with a girl called Rose, and among other things, moves into her shed. The book presents our world from a fresh perspective, and introduces some brilliant words from ancient times that we should definitely bring back into use.

“I did quite a lot of research,” Farnaby explains. “Well, when someone says research these days it’s just googling.

“There’s one I love: fopdoodle. A fopdoodle is a lazy person. I think fop comes from flop and doodle is like a mess, like you doodle on a piece of paper. I love the etymology of that. And apparently over the years fopdoodle morphed into dude, the Americanism.

“Another one I like is a rakefire. I don’t know how many parties you’ve been to in your life, but a rakefire is someone you can’t get rid of.

“If someone comes to your house for dinner then you sit by the fire and have your after-dinner drinks, someone will keep stoking up the fire so you have to stay up longer.

“I love that one. I’ve known a few rakefires in my time who you can’t get out of the house. And actually, maybe we’ll welcome them now.”

The Wizard in my Shed by Simon Farnaby, illustrated by Claire Powell, is out now (Hachette, £6.99), and is suitable for kids – and adults

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