A trip to Chessington World of Adventure became a near-religious experience for visitors after they spotted a family of five working their way around the theme park rides and sea life centre.
Usually weekday mornings are quiet, but as a termtime treat, several schools had taken pupils. The icing on their cake was the realisation that the tall, skinny father figure treating his “children” to ice-cream was former Doctor Who, David Tennant.
“He spent all day posing for photos and signed autographs, and was very patient about it,” recalls Andy Hamilton, who directs the film with Guy Jenkin. “He still managed to have a family day out, but for the rest of them it was like walking around with Jesus.”
Tennant, his “wife” and former Bond girl Rosamund Pike, and three child actors had been sent to Chessington to prepare for their family life in the film, What We Did On Our Holiday. “It was also quite a useful a photo-opportunity,” admits Jenkin. “All the photos you see in the family home were taken in Chessington.”
What We Did On Our Holiday is the latest project from one of Britain’s most successful and enduring comedy writing partnerships, whose work peppers sketch shows from Scotch & Wry to Not the Nine O’clock News and The Two Ronnies, as well as fully-fledged milestones including Drop The Dead Donkey and Outnumbered.
Hamilton is short, dark and bearded, Jenkin is clean-shaven, and as lanky as a long-distance runner, making them look like an odd couple comedy double act – yet their thinking is so synchronised that they finish each other’s sentences.
What We Did On Our Holidays is partly a spin-off from the spirit, although not the characters, of Outnumbered. Both centre on families with young children, and both offer counterblasts to notions of idealised parenting. In these Hamilton and Jenkin comedies, harassed parents try to manage astute children, but are frequently outmanoeuvred. But while Outnumbered dealt with hamster homicide, sibling rivalry and school productions of Spartacus, What We Did On Our Holiday moves to edgier territory when warring parents take their children on a road trip to Scotland to celebrate the 75th birthday of their grandfather.
“We couldn’t deal with divorce with Outnumbered, because that family is a secure unit, and at the end of a half-hour sitcom, you’re expected to return all the furniture back to the way it was,” says Hamilton, who has three grown-up children with his wife Libby.
Jenkin, who also has children, now in their late teens, clarifies that. “Neither of us have been involved in divorce; but we did notice that small children have a fear of parents separating. We wanted to give a voice to children who are stuck in the middle of a break-up, where the parents aren’t handling it well.”
The other certainty from early on was that Billy Connolly should play the children’s grandfather. “We heard his voice quite early in the writing stage, and that’s usually a good sign. The character was a mixture of the funny and slightly lyrical, and that’s Billy onstage,” says Jenkin. “Fortunately, he was quite keen to do it.”
Connolly joined the set for three weeks, most of it outdoors on a beach with his screen grandchildren.
“The kids treated it like a real holiday, and Billy was very good with them, even when we buried him in sand for two days, which obviously isn’t ideal for a man with a prostate problem.”
Hamilton and Jenkins say they were unaware of Connolly’s health issues until he e-mailed them a few weeks after the film had wrapped, to let them known he’d undergone successful surgery for prostate cancer. A month later, Connolly publicly announced that he had Parkinson’s disease.
“We’re not doctors, we had no idea” says Hamilton. “All we noticed was that he was a bit tired some days, but he’d flown from New Zealand to New York, where he lives, and then on to us, so that was understandable.”
Some speculate that if Connolly’s conditions had been known before filming, he might not have been able to take part. Insurance premiums can be punitive for actors over a certain age, especially with known health issues such as cancer.
“Well, we stray into a dodgy area there,” says Hamilton, cautiously. “I’ve no idea whether Billy put it on the insurance form; I have no idea if Billy was honest with them or not.”
After Connolly was cast, filming in Scotland became fundamental to What We Did On Our Holidays, according to Hamilton. “There was never a question of anywhere but Scotland – although we did get people saying, “oh you can get a bit of money if you shoot in Ireland or the Isle of Man”.
“And there was a day when we were asked, “could you use Yorkshire instead? It’s hilly too,” snorts his partner.
Hamilton and Jenkin stuck to their guns, and went on a winter recce around Scotland that included “standing on an Edinburgh beach in February, with a wind blowing ice into our eyes”. Eventually they settled for locations around Glasgow and Loch Lomond, with Drymen substituting for the family’s London suburb, while the sands of Red Point, overlooking Skye, provided the grandfather’s idyllic beach.
They were blessed with good weather most of the time, but midges exacted a terrible price on some outdoor scenes. “At one point Ben Miller asked if the midges could be seen on screen, and we couldn’t tell because of the midge clouds in front of our monitors,” recalls Jenkin.
“It did help in the ceilidh scene, where everyone is supposed to be upset anyway,” says Hamilton. “Any time Ben or David are looking especially distressed, that’s them being eaten alive.”
Creative Scotland put £250,000 into the BBC Film’s final £3m budget, but funds were still tight, forcing imaginative approaches to expensive sequences such as an establishing tracking shot.
“Our director of photography went to Asda,” chirps Jenkin.
“It does set a dangerous precedent for other films though,” says Hamilton. “In future, production companies may go, ‘I know you want a tracking shot, but are you aware you can buy a trolley from Asda for £3.99 and put a cameraman on it?”
Both men are familiar with Scotland, having worked for Scottish comedy shows such as A Kick Up the Eighties and Scotch & Wry. And Hamilton’s wife Libby is Scottish, with family in Nairn.
“Last time I was up there, I got to talking about Rikki Fulton with a guy at a party,” says Hamilton. “He started quoting a sketch, the one about a Rangers manager accidentally signing up a Catholic footballer. I said, ‘Oh I wrote that’. And he refused to believe me, because I was English.”
Hamilton is perhaps the more restlessly prolific of the two men, often appearing in front of the camera for panel shows such as Have I Got News For You, or as Satan in his long-running radio comedy Old Harry’s Game, but when the two men get together, they write with one voice.
“On Drop the Dead Donkey, people would try to spot who wrote what,” notes Jenkin wearily. “And they almost always got it wrong,” adds Hamilton.
What We Did On Our Holiday was written between other projects, over several years, and went through several drafts. During writing sessions, instead of taking turns behind a laptop, they wrote pages in longhand, and pencil.
“We always do, because it’s quicker to rub it out,” says Hamilton. “We tried ink, but that meant handing in scripts with a fantastic amount of crossing out in them.”
“To be honest, it’s also a career thing. When the next solar storm hits us, we’re going to clean up. It’s us planning ahead. After the apocalypse, when everyone else has their first draft stuck inside a cooked computer, me and Guy will still have boxes of our scripts to sell to people.”
• What We Did On Our Holiday is in cinemas from Friday.