On Netflix’s seemingly never-ending homepage, under one or more of the quirky category titles, you might stumble across a show called “Pompidou.” Nestled within “Kids” or “British TV” or even “New Releases,” there sits the story of an aristocrat gone broke who lives in a trailer in front of his old estate with his butler and his dog. You’d be able to deduce all this only from the provided description, however, because “Pompidou” isn’t told in any language familiar to mankind.
Created by Matt Lucas — of “Little Britain,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Bridesmaids” fame — the Netflix and BBC One co-production of “Pompidou” sets out in the spirit of silent comedy classics. While not sonically absent, the dialogue featured in the six-episode first season is a mess of gobbledy-gook with only a random English word or two thrown in at inexplicable instants. It’s Lucas’ attempt to honor Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Mr. Bean in a new age of television.
Speaking to a gaggle of reporters at a Netflix press junket in April, Lucas discussed how he came up with the unique concept, the critics who claim the series is “the definition of what they don’t want to watch on TV” and why he wanted to make a show for the whole family after years of “filthy” stand-up performances.
So what do your scripts actually look like?
I feel like I should publish the scripts because a lot of people ask what the scripts look like. They’re 20 pages of dense prose, actually. I think the show is like a live action cartoon, so I think the scripts probably resemble that. The only words are just a very occasional “naughty, naughty” and “no, no,” but they’re prose scripts, really.
Why those words, out of all the choices that you had?
I don’t know! I wanted this to be a family show. I’ve done a lot of television that was quite adult. I felt that this is a show even a two-year-old should be able to enjoy like a cartoon, and I felt those were words — even if you didn’t speak English — they wouldn’t be a barrier.
Have you ever watched the show and turned on subtitles, just to see?
No, I haven’t, but I heard that some people have and it’s been a strange experience. I mean, the show shouldn’t really need subtitles, hopefully. I did a show, “Little Britain” with David Walliams — I think it’s on in a few hundred countries — but it’s dubbed or subtitled. I wanted to do something that had as little of that as possible this time around.
How did this come about between Netflix and BBC?
I think co-productions have been more and more common recently, and it just obviously minimizes the risk for any one particular broadcaster. I think Netflix shows a lot of stuff I’ve done in the past, and I guess has enough viewers to rouse Netflix’s own interest in doing something original. We might well have gone straight to Netflix, but we already were in conversations with the BBC anyway. But it’s actually quite an expensive show to make in terms of a British comedy, so there’s no way the BBC would’ve been able to afford it to make it on its own. We definitely needed an international partner, but because the show is in gibberish and is designed for a global audience anyway, it was great that Netflix took it. It meant that we then didn’t have to go to every different country to find which network in that country and coordinate it.
Give us a little bit of a creative background as to how this started out idea-wise, and how you molded it into what it is.
I used to do standup comedy when I was 18, for four or five years, primarily in London. There was another guy that was on the comedy circuit, and he was quite notable — a guy called Julian Dutton. He was one of the few people that got laughs without being rude, and my act was filthy. Julian came to me and Ashley Blaker […] and said that he wanted to develop a silent sketch show, and I was immediately interested by that. Not just because of the kind of international possibilities, but because Julian’s stuff was not rude. […] I thought about silent cinema, and I thought, “Well, silent cinema existed because the technology for sound didn’t exist yet. That’s why there were silent movies. It wasn’t necessarily what they would’ve been if there was the option of having sound at the time.” It went from being like a silent thing to more of like a live-action cartoon where there’s a lot of sound in it.
Pompidou was one of the many characters we were developing, but he was just always the most fun to write. He had the most to say, and he had the richest life. The show kind of morphed effectively into a sitcom about that character. I actually haven’t seen “Downton Abbey,” but when you watch it and you watch other sort of things about the royals, you see about the aristocracy and how wealthy they are. But actually, there’s a lot of people who have inherited these mansions, these stately homes, who were born into it from generations and generations, and it’s not socially acceptable to sell these homes. All the homes are in trust, so it’s not their right to sell the homes. There’s no actual way of maintaining them because there’s now such a thing as a middle class.
Years ago, when there was just the upper classes and the lower classes, you’d just have a lot of cheap labor. You’d have hundreds of staff at your house, and you’d be able to live in this big house. Now, it’s not possible. There are a lot of people in Britain who have these incredible properties and they live in one freezing corner of the property. They look grand on the outside but inside they’re crumbling because they’ve got hundreds of acres of land. We thought it was an interesting starting point to look at those people because not much has been done about them.
And the idea of the fall — Pompidou once living in that mansion that looks beautiful and during the credits you see it crumbling. Now he’s living in this trailer, which is a composite of two or three different trailers stuck together. We thought, wow, things are very humble for him now. It just felt fun. And then they haven’t got a pot to piss in, to use a British phrase. […] The themes of this show are hunger one episode, another episode is looking for love, another episode it’s freezing cold and trying to keep warm. These are very basic human problems and challenges, really. It’s been an interesting experience. I think the audience in Britain expected something very different, so it polarized. For some people, it is the definition of what they don’t want to watch on TV.
Is that right?
Yeah. And other people, it absolutely spoke to them because it occupies a space that no other show seems to occupy. They can watch it with their kids or it appeals to the child in them. Other students are smoking pot and watching it. Everybody’s got their way of watching the show. I think what was interesting when it was shown on the BBC was that the kids who really responded to it were confused that they couldn’t immediately watch the next episode. I thought it was interesting because I’m thinking, “Okay, so those are kids who are already just watching Netflix and stuff On Demand, yet here’s a show they’re actually willing to sit down for each Sunday.” I would get all these photographs and videos sent to me of kids sat in front of their TVs in their pajamas waiting for “Pompidou.” I thought it was just delightful. It was just delightful. There’s no cynicism in the show. It’s just a warmhearted, silly show. If you’re silly you’ll like it, and if you’re not silly then you’re silly because you don’t like it.
Do you find sometimes that characters choose themselves? That, in a way, if you’re developing 10 characters that one suddenly is the one that finds a voice? And are you often surprised by which one it is?
I think certainly with catchphrases. Catchphrases are organic. A character says something once and then suddenly you realize that catchphrase has encapsulated the beliefs and individuality of that character in that moment, so you return to it. So actually one of the few bits of English language spoken in the show is Pompidou often says, “Good afternoon” to people, which is a kind of English formality. But if you look, it’s never the afternoon when he says it. People are constantly checking their watches confused and nobody can really understand why he’s doing it, but it’s like it’s something he’s learned. A bit like “Little Britain” with, “I want that one” or “I don’t like it.” They were phrases that were in everyone’s vernacular anyway rather than, “I’m the only gay in the village,” which is a little bit more created. You never know what’s going to catch on. You never know if anything’s going to catch on at all.
The one thing that did happen was that we did this show that became really big called “Little Britain,” and we didn’t expect it to become big. You could go one of two ways. You can say, “Okay, I’m now big, so the things I do have to be big. I’m going to be a big shot. How could I be bigger? How could I do more?” And that’s what a lot of people do, and I respect that, but that’s just not me. I just do what I want to do. I live a bit more frugally as a consequence, but I’m very happy to do that. “Pompidou” is really the show that I always wanted to make, and I’m pleased with how it came out. I look at it and I go, “Okay, I would’ve done that differently.” Hopefully I will get the chance to do some more or the character will live on in some form. I think it is different from the other stuff I’ve done. It isn’t just a repeat. Hopefully, people will like it.
Did you look back to other comedians? You said you were a standup to begin with, so were you always a visual comedian, too?
Yeah, a funny face. I lost my hair when I was six years old. Very quickly, there’s a thing of wanting to harness the attention you get and get something good to come out of that. So, I started performing. Even though in some ways I’m quite reserved away from the camera. I mean, I just tried on four occasions to introduce myself to Laverne from “Orange is the New Black,” who I have met before. Each time, I obviously wasn’t loud enough because she went past. I’m as much as a nebbish as anyone else is, but the presence of the camera or the presence of an audience legitimizes more outgoing behavior or more outrageous behavior. “Pompidou” is certainly outrageous. I’ve always been drawn to those characters that were unapologetically different.
In terms of influences for “Pompidou,” there was some influences in like Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Rowan Atkinson, obviously, who’s the king of that kind of comedy. Also “Pingu,” which is this animated show which is possibly on Netflix, as well. [Editor’s note: It’s not.] It’s my favorite TV show. They speak in gibberish in that, and I’ve always said this was a live action “Pingu,” basically. “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, the way the adults speak in “Peanuts,” that kind of weird muffled voice. Intonation is everything. I’ve watched “Little Britain” translated into other countries, Japanese and German, and understood enough. Also, I think “Pompidou” is like when you go and watch Shakespeare. You don’t know what they’re saying but you get the sense of it, don’t you? Maybe I’m speaking for myself. Maybe you’re all scholars.
Is it harder to go clean with comedy?
It’s not hard to go clean, but it is hard to do something different. People were angry when this show came out, being like, “Why aren’t you doing what we know that you do?” People have a real sense of ownership, which I don’t think I’d anticipated at all. That was quite startling, but it’s not hard to go clean, no. Not for me. I think as you get older you get less sociopathic and you get more empathy hopefully. You just become a bit warmer. Maybe you take yourself less seriously, maybe you have less anger. I felt like that’s what happened to me. There was a spikiness in some of the stuff that we used to do that I think, yeah, we were in our mid-20s. That’s how we were and that’s how we were writing. As you get older, that becomes someone else’s job. I’m not in touch with pop culture in the way that I was, but I also don’t care to be. So, it’s not my job anymore. That’s for the next generation of comedians. It’s about aging a bit more gracefully as well and kind of going, “Well yeah, I’m 41 now.” When I was 22, the kind of stuff I was writing had the c-word and stuff in it. It was aggressive and we were quite politicized and all that. I just think that’s someone else’s mantle to take now.
What do you expect from British humor? […] Everything is sharp and I would’t say dirty so much, but—
Spiky. I think that goes back to like Shakespeare. You look at the clowns in Shakespeare, or you look at Dickens. There’s a kind of dirt. It’s always been bawdy and dirty, British humor. If you look back at postcards published 150 years ago or satire in Punch Magazine, there was always that aggression and that offense. To be honest, that’s a big part of British culture. Sometimes I read interviews with people over here, and I watched an interview with somebody talking about what characterizes who I am now and coming to LA for finding tranquility and all this stuff. If you go to Britain and talk like that, people would just tell you to shut up, you know? We’re a cynical nation. We’re a cynical continent, I think. We’re not very new age, and we’re not very hippie. We’re cold. It’s cold and we’re cold and it’s wet. We don’t romanticize stuff like that. We’re not spiritual. We’re not a spiritual continent. I think that’s reflected in our art, which is potent and aggressive and visceral, really.
When did you come up with the theme song for “Pompidou”?
Quite late in the day, that one. I wrote all the music, and I had another piece of music in mind. It’s only three chords, but it’s quite catchy. […] I like the idea that even people who hate the show can’t get that bloody piece of music out of their heads. It’s the ultimate revenge. I hope it haunts them.
Can I ask very quickly about the name “Pompidou”?
Yeah, I was dating a French boy at the time and we realized in talking that we both loved the sound of the word “pompidou.” It’s just a nice word to say. It has nothing to do with George Pompidou, I’m afraid. I like the way the word sounds. Pompidou. It’s just silly.