Last year, I spent the hottest day of the year at Twickenham Studios, on the set of new BBC Three sitcom Flat TV, and had a great chat with stars of the show, Tom Rosenthal and Naz Osmanoglu.
Flat TV began as one of BBC Three’s Comedy Feeds back in 2014 and was quickly snapped up for a four-part series.
Tom and Naz play two mismatched flatmates who imagine their lives as a series of inspired TV parodies. Tom is an emotionally arrested control freak, desperately trying to impress his new neighbour Sophie and invariably making a mess of it.
His flatmate Naz is an intrepid eccentric: in his own mind, a polymath of unparalleled genius. In reality, he’s an idiot. Together, these two manchildren present their life in the flat as a fun-packed TV schedule, with each farcical incident playing out in the form of well-known shows. Flat TV is a flat-share sitcom like you’ve never seen before.
How did you two first meet, and how did Flat TV come about?
Naz: We used to live together for three years. It was a great time and we were sitting on our balcony once, talking about how funny it would be to do our own news about our lives. I think we were a bit worse for wear at the time, and that started this idea of ‘Flat News’ where we talk about losing our remote control or Tom’s nicking my yogurt from the fridge.
So we came up with this idea, got given a short run of internet videos to try it out for BBC Comedy.
Tom: Which were as stressful as this is! But hopefully the product will be much better this time, because it was just us in our flat. There are four of them online actually, you can still watch them. We had to make one a week and in the first one we’re really happy, and by the fourth I just didn’t care. I didn’t care how I looked.
Naz: Tom edited them the night before we were supposed to deliver them to the BBC.
Tom: Yeah, there was a delivery day for YouTube! And no one cares, it would get like 2,000 views. But I guess we found that that dynamic worked.
Naz: When I watched the pilot, I was really surprised about quite how good a natural dynamic we had. When we started making this, we didn’t think about Tom and Naz as these sort of polar opposite characters. We just thought, doing news reports from the flat, that’s quite funny.
But then the more we wrote, and the more we analysed our conversations and direction we did sort of realise that we do have a classic double-act sort of structure really. Some of the things that happen in the series actually happened to us!
Is that why you’ve chosen to use your own names in the series?
Naz: Well, when we were doing ‘Flat News’ it was just us making videos and it grew from there. We did actually talk about changing our names, but it just seemed silly really.
Tom: There was always something more important to do.
Naz: The characters were exacerbations of ourselves so it just felt easier to write. You just know who you are.
Tom: It does get weird though when you’re writing and you go "I don’t think Tom would say this”.
Has much changed since the online pilot?
Tom: Yeah, we definitely hope it’s got better. I suppose it would be strange to have aimed to make something worse! (Laughs) We wanted the flat to be slightly realer, I guess. Because in the pilot we lived in this sort of hipster palace in Haggerston, which was really nice, but also felt like we were extremely wealthy and mad. When really when we go into our imagination that’s when we become mad.
It’s still a really nice flat, but it’s not quite as big or mad. Obviously we’re filming in a studio now where we filmed the pilot on location. It gives us so much more scope in the parody scenes - the fact that you can take a wall out and film ‘Flat News’ from far away will actually make it feel much more BBC News than we could ever do in an actual flat.
So we think it looks way better compared to the pilot! We’ve got Declan Lowney directing it, who directed Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, who’s brilliant and brings this level of people around him so the quality of people we’re working with just means that we’re getting some much more dynamic shots. Both in the real world and the parodies.
So if the series is worse than the pilot then it will be purely down to the writing! (Laughs)
How does the writing process work between you?
Naz: We sit together, we shout at each other, one of us walks out, cries, then comes back in, more shouting...
Tom: There’s a lot of Pret A Manger!
Naz: Yes, there’s a lot of Pret. It’s really good, we just spent a month or two just throwing around ideas at the BBC, just talking and talking, thinking about the characters and trying to figure out exactly what kind of programmes we wanted to do. But mainly what kind of stories we wanted to write.
Tom: And then a week before, we changed it all!
Naz: Yeah, we changed it all! (Laughs) We tend to write separately, then swap and then write together and nothing happens unless we’re writing together really. Everything has to kind of go through both of us.
Compared to other sitcoms, this one has quite a lot of production doesn’t it? A lot of set-ups?
Tom: Yes, that’s what everyone is telling us... that it’s the most complicated thing they’ve ever worked on! But we like to think that it gives people space to express their creativity.
I think every department sort of relishes the challenge because everyone has a really important part to play. Also everyone’s being funny - sometimes the costumes are really funny, and sometimes the sets themselves are jokes.
So I think people like it, but it’s really stressful.
Naz: It is stressful, but as Tom said, everyone is offering up stuff so it’s such a creative atmosphere to work in. The arts department are having a whale of time, because everything is always changing! They’re amazing, the things they come up with.
I loved the parodies in the pilot for Flat TV, will we be seeing any of those same shows return? Geordie Shore for example?
Naz: No, we’ve lost Geordie Shore, and Come Dine With Me, we don’t do those in the series.
Tom: We’ve branched out this series, so we don’t do any of the shows we did in the pilot. We do Big Brother, I’m A Celeb, Masterchef, Bear Grylls, Loose Women... lots of TV shows!
Naz: We also do a different take on Sherlock, where I play Sherlock, but he’s not that bright.
The whole idea of the parodies come out of us wanting to be on television, you know how people practice their acceptance speeches in the shower, or they chop up some cheese and pretend to be Jamie Oliver! So we’re trying to tap into that thing which I certainly do all the time.
You both come from stand-up backgrounds, was it quite strange to film a sitcom where there isn’t an audience, and where the crew aren’t allowed to laugh?
Tom: I found it really hard during the first series of Friday Night Dinner, I just didn’t understand what was going on. I thought we were making a really terrible programme! (Laughs). But now we’ve both filmed enough TV that we’ve realised that actually, the gaffer doesn’t give a shit! (Laughs).