While The Office and The Royle Family were mostly credited for updating TV comedy at the turn of the millennium, there was a generation of quieter, melancholic, almost dour shows that also brought the great British sitcom into the 21st century. Standing above many of them – literally, with its South London tower block setting – was Sean Lock’s 15 Storeys High. Broadcast on the BBC between 2002 and 2004, it was disappointingly dropped too soon – too glum, eccentric, and out-of-the-box to be fully appreciated in its time, perhaps.
“Sean had a real vision of how he wanted to do it,” says Martin Trenaman, series co-writer and longtime friend to Sean Lock, who passed away this week aged 58. “He wanted it shot like a Swedish art film. At the time I thought it was a brilliant idea. But people at meetings were going, ‘Really…? What, a sitcom on the BBC shot like that?!’ It was really Sean’s vision.”
The show began life on Radio 4 in December 1998 – originally a five-part pilot called Sean Lock’s 15 Minutes of Misery. Actually, it was jollier (as is the TV version) than the title suggested. “You know when you get high on life? Well, yesterday I got pissed on life,” says Lock in the first episode.
Built around his sharp, well-seasoned gags (“I asked my girlfriend what she wanted for her birthday. She said, ‘Surprise me’, so I called her from Morocco”), Lock’s character would listen in on the residents in neighbouring flats – Hot Bob, Honest Alf, and Nazi Cyril – with a secret spying contraption called the “Bugger King”.
In 1999, Radio 4 launched it properly as 15 Storeys High, now co-written by Lock and Trenaman (best known from PhoneShop and as Simon’s likeable-but-embarrassingly-randy dad from The Inbetweeners). With an expanded supporting cast, the tower block’s residents included Peter Serafinowicz, Alex Lowe, Felix Dexter and Tracy-Ann Oberman.
Following many radio-to-TV comedies, 15 Storeys High first aired on BBC Choice in November 2002 and ran for two series, which were co-written by Lock, Trenaman, and Mark Lamarr. At its most basic, bare-comedy-bones level, it’s about an odd couple stuck in a flat together: downbeat, cynical oddball Vince (Lock) – who amuses himself by shouting from the balcony at rollerbladers to put them off – and his daft, childlike flatmate, Errol (Benedict Wong, more recently seen fighting alongside Marvel’s Avengers).
Vince teaches Errol the ways of the world – or what he perceives the world to be from his increasingly detached vantage point – in between ordering Errol down to the shops and calling him an idiot. “The idiot who knows everything and the idiot who knows nothing,” said Mark Lamarr about the duo.
The series begins with a sublime running gag: that Vince repeats other people’s stories back to them, like they happened to him. (A highlight is his explanation for a chronic phobia of physical contact, apparently caused by a traumatic experience with the Wombles while on the set of Jim’ll Fix It – a scenario even more terrifying 20 years on.)
By the end of the series, Vince is put in the stocks – an old timey punishment for him (allegedly) killing a swan. “My mum always used to say the amount of stuff that gets thrown at you is a good way of telling how popular you are,” says Errol – cue the entire estate lining up to pelt Vince with fruit.
Speaking on a behind the scenes feature, Lock explained the concept of the Vince character: “A lot of people in London kind of get washed up in a place, and they don’t really necessarily take part in normal life. They don’t have families, they don’t interact socially, they lose touch with their friends, people move on in life… they kind of get left somewhere on a shelf. That’s what Vince was like. He continually was finding new ways to isolate himself – protect himself from actually recognising what his life was like.”
Curiously upbeat at times, Vince is not quite a misanthrope – more anti-social. Which is just as well because his people skills are atrocious. “You should learn,” Vince tells Errol about dealing with other people. “The only time you say ‘yes’ is at the airport when they say, ‘Did you pack these bags yourself?’ The rest of time it’s, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.’” Even Errol’s presence is a burden. When he sits down to watch TV, Vince’s immediate reaction is, “How long do you reckon you’ll be sitting there?” Vince is a man, after all, with a fish tank but no fish. The fish are too much trouble.
Martin Trenaman has two prominent memories about writing the series, which was done at the top of a garret in central London. “One memory is laughing a lot in that office – I mean really rip-roaring laughs,” he says. “The other memory I have is both of us staring at the wall in silence for hours and going, ‘I can’t think of anything.’”
Unlike other comedy writing, there was no mapping out or structuring their stories beforehand. “He’d come in and go, ‘I want to do something about an airport, something about travelling…’ We’d just set off. There was no plan of action.”
“The hardest thing to write is a sitcom,” said Lock in a 2008 interview. “15 Storeys High is the hardest thing I’ve worked on. Twelve hours a day, 7 days a week. To do a decent sitcom. To do a s––– sitcom, you can do that without much effort, and there are plenty of those around. I’m sure they dash those out without any bother whatsoever. A decent one is very hard, and that’s why there aren’t many of them around.”
Lock was also ruthless. “I worked with him for 23 years,” says Trenaman. “If it wasn’t right, it wasn’t going out. That was the bottom line. I remember we’d work on something for five or six days, and I’d come in at 10 in the morning and Sean has deleted the lot. I’d say, ‘Sean there was some good stuff in it!’ He’d say, ‘No, it doesn’t work.’ We’d be right back to the beginning again.”
Even now, 15 Storeys High is unconventional – and far shrewder than its odd couple set-up. Part sitcom, part sketch show, it flits from Vince’s lowkey misadventures to surrealist scenes in the other flats: an argumentative husband who refuses to stop sucking helium balloons; a deeply, deeply depressing wife swap; table tennis-obsessed brothers; a man doing push-ups with two rabbits and a tortoise on his back; and a Rasta-cise reggae workout. All largely without punchlines. Like Lock’s stand-up style and his ever-popular 8 Out of 10 Cats outbursts, it's unpredictable and non-threateningly confrontational: from Vince grumping around his flat to him suddenly tending to a moonboot-wearing pony, or a sudden flash of full-frontal male nudity.
“That was Sean’s humour,” says Trenaman, who also wrote with Lock for 8 Out of 10 Cats. “He didn’t want to do normal stuff. When I first met him, he was doing stuff as a stand-up that no one else was doing. Harry Hill nailed it [writing in The Guardian, where he described Lock as the “comedian’s comedian”]. Sean was the comic that everyone would come out of the green room to have a look at. Because you couldn’t anticipate what he was going to do. You didn’t know where the punchline was going. That was the same with his writing wherever he was.”
Trenaman played some of 15 Storeys High's supporting oddities himself, including a mickey-taking fishmonger and irritating, ham-munching caretaker. For one scene he had to quickly reel off the names of real-life astronauts. “For some reason – an actor’s brain block – I couldn’t remember the sequence or names of the astronauts,” he says. “I cocked it up probably four or five times. Sean said, in front of the whole crew, ‘Stop! Martin, these brave, brave men have been to the moon and back. The least you can do is remember their f–––––– names.’”
Directed by Mark Nunneley, the series was shot unlike anything else at the time. Forget the mockumentary, 15 Storeys High was innovating within and way beyond the confines of its gloomy, going nowhere setting (“We used to joke on set, ‘Can we not afford any lights? Mark, are there any lights in the budget?!’” laughs Trenaman). Nunneley was nominated by Bafta for a Best New Director.
The setting – in real life, an estate in Kennington – is gloomy, perhaps, but full of character. “I spent a large part of my 20s and 30s living in different places, including tower blocks,” said Lock in 2011. “People make so many assumptions about people living there, and I got obsessed with all the different types. This was during the Britpop era when London was depicted as being really cool, and I wanted to show that the majority of London wasn't a cool place, unless you're in Ladbroke Grove. It's like the 1960s, the idea remains that it was this wild, experimental time, but my father wasn't driving up Carnaby St in a Paisley jacket. I liked the fact that 15 Storeys High captured a slice of modern life – going home and having shepherds' pie."
Vince is quietly innovative, too. Unlike other British sitcom losers, he doesn’t aspire beyond his status – at least, not beyond topping up his Tesco Clubcard or getting his bathroom done in the same colour as the background of his favourite porn centrefold. He’s so painfully dull that he pretends to only have one testicle, just to add some semblance of intrigue while trying to bag a date with the female colleague.
The real genius of the character is that he does talk sense. It’s hard to disagree with much of what he says. On modern TV fads: “I’m not watching vet programmes while I’m eating. Since when are dog operations entertaining?” When making a conscientious call to the council: “Do you have a nutty neighbour department?” On having children: “Nobody wants children. You just get on with it. Like if you fall over, you get a bruise on your arse – that’s life.”
Best of all is when Vince arrives at the airport for his holidays, has to perform an emergency tracheotomy in the lobby, and promptly gets told his flight has been oversold. Struggling to compose himself, the check-in desk people tell him there’s no need to swear. “There is a need to swear, oh very much so,” he replies. “It’s situations like this that swearing was f–––––– invented for.”
The series was, in Lock’s own words, “not recommissioned” – as opposed to cancelled – for a third series. (“‘Not recommissioned’ sounds better,” he told Time Out. “‘Cancelled’ sounds like they chopped it up with some scissors!”).
Trenaman recalls he once stayed up to watch an episode of the second series and realised it might not be the Beeb’s top priority – the show was delayed for a Bill Oddie badger watch.
“It was something like 10 O’clock on a Sunday night,” he says. “Then it was 11, then half 11. It was delayed by about an hour and a half. Bill Oddie said – on air – something like, ‘There are some sitcom fans who are going to be disappointed… but we’re going to see some badgers in a minute!’ When it ended, the continuity announcer actually said, ‘If you’ve been waiting up for 15 Storeys High, well done… here it is.’”
Lock later described how the experience of being “not recommissioned” put him off pursuing another sitcom. “The way it was tossed away by the BBC,” he said in 2008. “I just thought you put in all that work and you’re at the mercy and whim of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
Trenaman wonders if not having to write a third series might have been a release. It was, he says, an intense experience. “Sean worked so hard on it,” recalls Trenaman. “It became an obsession. It took six or seven months to write each series, and he was absolutely engrossed with it.”
The series did pick up a cult following on DVD. Within hours of Lock's death, fans were campaigning for the BBC to repeat it. “That would be brilliant, but I don’t know whether that’s ever going to happen,” says Trenaman.
Lock himself commented on it not being repeated. “They never repeat it, which I just find staggering,” he said. “I hate moaning comics, but I do find it very frustrating when I switch on BBC Four or BBC Two to find they’re repeating some piece of crap sitcom. I think, ‘Why don’t they show mine?’ Not because I’d make any money, it would just be nice for it to be shown. I think I must have spilt a drink somewhere once at a BBC party. Or called someone a c–––. That’s more likely. I was drunk and called someone a c–––.’”