"We've always said that there should be heart at the centre of what we make. Because without that, you don't believe in the characters."
Lee and Dean started out as a YouTube taster in 2015, before Channel 4 committed to a five-part series in 2017 which aired in 2018 and now it's back for a six-part second run continuing to centre around the lives of Stevenage builders and childhood friends Lee and Dean.
Miles Chapman who plays Lee, produced series one and writes Lee and Dean together with Mark O'Sullivan who plays Dean and also directs whilst Sam Underwood completes the writing trio and plays Little Dean.
Following the rather explosive stag and hen weekends at the end of series one, the second series follows the boys, their friends and exes, as they try to re-build their lives.
Over a beer in Soho one evening, I caught up with the brains behind and faces of Lee and Dean, Mark O'Sullivan and Miles Chapman to find out more about the hit Channel 4 comedy.
How did you two first meet?
Miles: My wife and Mark's wife were best friends at school. I subsequently met my wife and then Jenny, Mark's now wife, met Mark in around 2004 and said "You must meet my friends Miles and Jill" so that's how we met.
We immediately realised that we had a very similar sense of humour. I've got quite a dark humour and so does Mark and we suddenly discovered that we're like peas in a pod really.
Mark: We were doing totally different things. I was a secondary school teacher...
Miles: ...and I worked in insurance for years and then latterly worked at Which? magazine. The pair of us then took the plunge and started writing together.
They say it's better to write with someone else...
Miles: It's interesting. Some people do write alone and there's a sense of less interference but the good thing about writing together is that we tell each other whether something's funny or not. We're each other's litmus.
And we've got a third writer, Sam Underwood who writes Lee and Dean as well and Sam is our ultimate litmus really. He's got a cracking sense of humour and he's a great writer. If he laughs, it stays in. If he just sits there with a blank face, it's gone!
Why choose to focus on two builders for your first sitcom?
Miles: Mark and I always muck about with characters and create them together, so Lee and Dean actually started as Namibian canoe instructors called Deeta and Patch. So there's quite a
seismic leap between that and who Lee and Dean became.
The genesis was two blokey blokes who get very drunk, fight each other every night and then end up in an embrace - pushing away their sexuality. We thought canoe instructors was quite niche, so then they became these two geezers that worked in a factory and then we suddenly thought "Perhaps they're just builders?"
And then the names Lee and Dean seemed to come quite naturally to us. It just went from there. I had some building work done at my house and the stuff these builders came out with was just so brilliant that I thought - we'll use that as the top layer and actually what we want to do is subvert it.
There's so much more to everyone isn't there? So we thought we'd subvert what people's expectations are of builders. Like the bark rubbing and the fact that Dean is in love with Lee.
When did Channel 4 get on board?
Mark: Channel 4 got on board with it right from the get go. We started by making our own little films and putting them on YouTube and the first one we made, Flavours, got picked up by Channel 4 really quickly and we ended up developing that.
But when that came to an end and they didn't want to take that any further, they asked us "What else have you got?" and we'd just made this little taster for Lee and Dean for about £100 so we showed them that and Channel 4 said "Why don't you set up your own production company and we'll commission you directly? We really like it when you make your own stuff." which was amazing and that's when we set up Bingo.
They've definitely helped to shape the series but they've mostly left us to it.
Miles: And Channel 4 were on board with the fact that builders are quite a universal thing. No matter what class you're from, you've probably encountered what builders are like. It's a world that people maybe think they know. So that was a nice starting point.
How different was that taster to the series?
Mark: The YouTube taster was very very different. Lee and Dean, especially Dean, are quite different characters. When we made the pilot for Channel 4, we knew that we wanted to throw a cat amongst the pigeons and that would be a girlfriend for Lee. A sudden threat to the status quo.
Then when we added in Mrs Bryce-D'Souza, Anna Morris' character, that was another cat amongst the pigeons and added in the class element which we love exploring.
One thing that's stayed the same is that the builders aren't actors, but your real-life mates...
Miles: That's right, they are! That was necessity because when we made the taster and subsequently the pilot, we didn't have a huge amount of money so we thought we'd just get our mates in to play the parts. And actually, Mark and I naturally surround ourselves with people who make us laugh.
Mark: And Anna Morris.
Miles: (Laughs) Yeah, and Anna Morris. It's been hard... (Both laugh) I don't think we expected that to be an ongoing thing. Mark Sharp who plays Shitty Mick is my oldest friend. I've known him since 1986. Sean Miller who plays Sheets works in our office and Eoin McSorley who plays Nightmare is a friend you (Mark) met at birthing classes.
All we say to these people is "Just be as you are" - Nightmare is not really a million miles away from Eoin is he?
Mark: We have a little rule on set, because I direct it as well, "If you feel yourself acting. Just bring it back a bit" that's really important for the show.
What I loved about the first series is that it's a largely unknown cast. Were you or Channel 4 ever tempted to have a big name guest star or series regular?
Mark: To begin with, Channel 4 were saying "What about getting this person or that person?" and we resisted it as much as we could.
Miles: Well if you look at The Office, I remember reading somewhere that Ricky Gervais did audition known actors who could have been great for the parts. But he said that his issue was, that they were making a mock documentary so people would just go "Why is so and so working in an office? I mean, I hate the phrase mockumentary...
Mark: That's one of our regrets actually. That we ever let the word mockumentary leak into how Lee and Dean was described. I'm not for a moment comparing our show to the incredible Modern Family, but Modern Family has talking heads but you don't call it a mockumentary and you don't question what the situation is. I'd hope that we're in that sort of place.
Were you surprised by the positive reactions to series one?
Miles: I didn't go into this thinking people are going to hate this. I hoped people wouldn't dislike it. The feedback that really got us, was people understanding the amount of work and the amount of nuances to the story, rather than taking it at surface value. People understood the points we tried to get across.
Mark: I love it when people say "This is hilarious" and "that joke was amazing" but when people go "Oh my God, I was in tears." or "I was shouting at the TV." that's reaction I really love.
When it comes to comedy, audiences are allowed to not laugh all the time aren't there?
Miles: Absolutely. It's a long time ago now, but you look at The Office and one of my favourite scenes is when David Brent pleads for his job back. It's beautiful. Siloed off that is a really gorgeous and emotional scene.
That's so important to Mark and I. We've always said that there should be heart at the centre of what we make. Because without that, you don't believe in the characters. If you like the characters more and understand them more, they can get away with more.
Did you write the final episode of series one with series two in mind?
Mark: We always wanted a second series and leaving on a bit of a cliffhanger is not the worst idea! (Laughs)
Miles: We did actually have an alternative - director's cut - version where all the ends were tied. Then we suddenly thought that felt a bit too neat.
Mark: I was never certain about it and when we got into the edit, we knew we had to end on a "What now?" moment. I still feel really sad watching the end of episode five, series one. I feel really sad for Dean and I feel desperately sad for Mrs Bryce-D'Souza and Nikki as well actually. Because over series one, they create such a bond and find in each other something they've never had from anyone before.
Someone from a totally different world, but a friend and a connection. So for that to be destroyed at the end, I think is heartbreaking.
Miles: Writing this series, it did feel a bit odd that they were so estranged because they were so close until the end of series one.
Mark: But we did have fun writing the moments where they're in the same place at the same time.
Would you say you found writing series two easier?
Miles: It's different. I think it's easier in the way that you know the characters they are, although having said that, we've tried to reverse their situations. So Lee's a bit more on the back foot and Dean's perhaps a bit more on the front foot during this series.
The characters are similar but the stories are so different that we draw different things out of the characters.
Why did you decide that Lee and Dean should be largely improvised?
Mark: It means you don't have to learn lines! (Laughs)
Miles: When Mark and I first started performing together, it was always improvised. We'd write a script that would never have any dialogue. When we first wrote series two of Lee and Dean, it was almost written like a drama so we knew that the story definitely worked. Ultimately, other than people laughing, that's what keeps people coming back time and time again - the story.
Mark is so clever in the way he directs because it's harder to edit because you have so much more footage to go through. The first thing we made, Flavours, had such a natural rawness about it and energy that we thought - that's the way we've got to do stuff.
Thank God that Channel 4 agreed and told us not to break the process that we do.
Mark: It's a bit white knuckle sometimes, especially in the edit. For series one we had something like 120 hours of footage to get down to about two-and-a-half hours. It's ridiculous. We do shoot it and cut it more like a documentary. We shoot a lot! I think we got better in series two of just getting to the marrow of a scene much quicker.
What was the biggest thing you learnt from doing series one?
Miles: If you have the money, employ more people to do more things. I don't think people who watch TV realise how complicated it is putting a show together. The more cogs you have in the machine, the easier it ultimately makes it.
We had fewer cogs in series one and for series two we have more people helping us which made the whole process a lot easier and it flowed better I think.
You've also got Cariad Lloyd and Colin Hoult joining this series. Who do they play?
Mark: I don't want to say too much about Cariad's character, except that she plays Dani who is unlike anyone else our main characters have ever met and unlike anyone else in the show. She has a very very distinct personality and is a very strong character.
Miles: She makes a bit of a splash doesn't she?
Mark: She makes a real splash and comes in in a bit of a whirlwind and mixes a lot of things up. I think this is OK to say, Cariad was cast really close to the shoot. We saw lots of people who were almost all brilliant but because it's not a script you're working from - it's a personality, a dynamic and a feeling - and there was just something about what Cariad did that made us all go "Well that's it isn't it. That's absolutely right."
And I hope she doesn't mind me saying this, but Cariad wasn't probably who were thinking when we were writing the part.
Miles: No she wasn't and that's happened a few times where you write a character thinking of so and so and then someone comes in and plays it better than you imagined. Actually, the original Nikki isn't what we had in mind but as soon as we met Camille - "That's it!" I can't imagine it being anyone else. She's absolutely on the money.
Mark: Cariad is such a good improviser and such a good sport. I think she's brought so much to this show. I think you're going to - love is probably the wrong word - I think you're going to enjoy her character.
Colin Hoult is only in one episode but my God he makes it. He's so unpleasant.
Miles: He's so good! He plays a real 'orrible 'orrible bloke and he's absolutely on the button with it. We had a lot of fun working with him. He's got a really sizeable scene that really does make a mark in the series. We'd love to have had him in more, but it's the way the story played out.
Mark: And we've also got Pippa Duffy who plays Cassandra in Only Fools and Horses Musical and again, it's only a little cameo appearance but bloody hell it's good.
Miles: Again, she makes a splash and really helps send the story off in a slightly different way.
Last series you went to Great Yarmouth, this series you get to go to Spain don't you?
Mark: Yes, we went there to revisit some of our past and we had a lot of fun out in Torremolinos. I say we had a lot of fun out there, I had food poisoning from dodgy chicken on the second day of filming.
So whilst everyone else in the cast and crew was having what I can only describe as a last days of Rome holiday, I was mostly shitting myself in my hotel room. Literally.
Do you have any favourite scenes?
Miles: I think my scene with Colin was lovely. It was lovely to film and it's ended up looking glorious. It's a really really good scene. But there are loads!
Mark: There's a scene in episode three in a hotel room which I remember being really excited about when we were writing it and even though it was hard work to film, I'm really pleased with how that's ended up.
Miles: There's a scene with me and Anna Morris which I'm really happy with but I can't really say more than that. That's a really good scene.
Mark: There's a scene where Lee describes a tattoo he might have done and honestly, I'd have fought a room full of bears to keep that in the show. I think it's your (Miles) most genius moment ever.
Miles: Oh bless you for that.
The series will air weekly on Channel 4, but after the first episode has aired all episodes will be available on All 4. Do you like that approach?
Mark: I think so, because Lee and Dean is a story rather than stop and reset each week. It's funny how many people I know refuse to watch the boxset because they like watching it week by week. I couldn't do that.
Miles: We weren't sure how we felt about it because we were sort of the trailblazers of it for Channel 4 comedy, but actually it's been great. You'd be surprised actually how in the social media arena like Twitter and Facebook, people don't like leaking spoilers. People would much rather just say "Watch it, it's great."
It's great to see people who have watched the whole thing in one sitting and have really enjoyed it. So people can ration it and watch it every week or binge it all in one go. It's up to them.
When it comes to comedy, what are your influences?
Miles: This is going to sound odd... but Mike Lee. It's not billed as comedy but I think it's utterly beautiful. Historically, there are some really early episodes of Only Fools & Horses that I think are masterclasses in comedy and I genuinely believe that. I think they're gorgeous.
Human Remains is still up there for me and myself and Mark bond over that.
Mark: It is beautiful. But honestly, anything with Julia Davis.
What comedy do you enjoy watching on television?
Miles: Well at the moment, I'm really enjoying Derry Girls. Home I'm loving. It's fantastic!
Mark: The thing I love about Home is that it's tackling a very very timely issue but it does it in actually quite an old-fashioned way which I really like. There's a gentleness to its approach. Rufus Jones is brilliant as is Lisa McGee who writes Derry Girls, we've met the cast a few times and they're so lovely.
Miles: Fleabag is just... the way she delivers that fourth wall stuff is so neat and so clever and so slight. It's really good. I think it's brilliant.
Mark: This Time with Alan Partridge... although I struggled with the first couple of episodes. I wasn't sure if I believed it as much. It took me until episode four to really enjoy it. I'm a huge huge huge huge Alan Partridge fan. I know most people are, but I've watched, listened and read everything countless times.
On long car journeys we play the audiobooks of Nomad and I, Partridge on a loop and my kids love it! I probably shouldn't be playing it to them...
Do you have ambitions for a third series?
Miles: We'd love to do a third series if we had the chance. In our heads we've already got ideas of where we can take the story.
Mark: I'm not lying when I say that we know how the story ends. We've always known that. We'd be devastated not to go again, but we have no control over that so we'll see what happens.
Miles: We've worked out how tie any loose ends off.
Mark: Lee dies and Dean lives with his corpse in a bungalow for eight months and is untouched by the outside world. (Laughs)
What's next for you?
Mark: Anna and I are working on two projects, one's for Channel 4. Myself and Miles are writing another thing for Channel 4 at the moment which is quite exciting.
Miles: That's us personally, but we've got our own production company and we've got quite a bit on our slate at the moment. Not just comedy, but also some drama and fact ent.
Mark: We've just bought the rights to a novel for a film adaptation and we've also optioned a US sitcom for a potential UK remake so lots happening!
Lee and Dean returns Thursday 11th April at 10pm on Channel 4. The whole series will be available as a boxset on All 4 and Series 1 is available to watch now.