Phil Morris has a conversation with the multi-talented Llinos Mai about the new comedy programmes from BBC Radio Wales, The Harri-Parris.
The Harri-Parris’ Radio Show is the latest in a line-up of new comedy programmes from BBC Radio Wales. The multi-talented Llinos Mai first conceived The Harri-Parris as a stage show, for which she wrote both scripts and songs. As the eccentric west Walian musical farming takes to the airwaves, she talks to Phil Morris about the challenges of radio comedy, Feathering Day and watching ponies mate.
Phil Morris: So perhaps you ought to begin by telling us just who are the Harri-Parris?
Llinos Mai: Well, they’re a farming family from west Wales, based on certain members of my own family, and they live in the fictional village of Llanllai, which is very much based on the village where I was brought up. So it’s a world I know really well. In the radio show we meet five characters: the Mum, who is the boss, my character Anni, who is the daughter, Ifan her very annoying brother, her cousin Deniol, and Anni’s English vegetarian boyfriend Ben, who she’s brought home for the first time.
The Harri-Parris has been a stage show for five years, how have the characters developed over that time and for radio?
The first stage show had a slightly different line-up – there was no mother character. It just so happened that Rhian Morgan came to see the show and said, ‘I really want to be in this.’ As soon as she said that I decided to create the mother role especially for her. The second stage show was developed over two years, and at various points I brought in actors to develop the scripts. The actors did have some input into what their character might say, or what might be fun for them to do, which was brilliant for me. But at the end of the day, it was mostly me battling away as the writer.
As you say, you come from a rural community in west Wales – what do they make of Llanllai?
They recognise it, dangerously so for me sometimes. My family love coming to watch the shows and I’m sure they’ll love listening to it on radio. They do get a little bit paranoid sometimes and ask ‘Is that me?’ Or ‘Have you taken that from a story I told you?’ Sometimes I lie and say no. But also I think the show will be recognisable to anyone familiar life in a small town or village, regardless of whether they’re from West Wales, or from up in North Wales, or from across the border. It’s basically about a dysfunctional family.
That is somehow functioning despite itself?
Yes. They very much struggle to say the words ‘I love you’ to each other, so they do it through food and other bonkers means. They also struggle with change or anything new that threatens their little unit.
I think one of the strengths of the show is that it captures both the warmth of family life, but also the gossip and lack of privacy there is in rural communities.
[Growing up] I felt all of those things. I couldn’t wait to leave my home village, but as soon as I left I wanted to go back. It’s a push-pull relationship.
As it is for many Welsh people.
I think so. I’ll stand up for my village until the very end, which then allows me to criticise it in a comedic way.
So how have The Harri-Parris transitioned from stage to radio?
We did a development performance here in Chapter called The Big Day and Kerry McGeever from Radio Wales came to see it and had us in the following week asking, ‘Right, can we make this work for radio?’ And immediately I said yes, without knowing if I could. I have to admit, at that point, I hadn’t listened to much radio comedy. So I had to listen to loads of it very quickly. The biggest challenge, and opportunity, I faced as a writer, was that with a radio show I could do absolutely anything. I could go anywhere because there were no constraints from a budget point of view. So at first it was a struggle because everything was possible and that for a writer – well I found it just a bit mind-blowing to be honest. Also, within the stage show I had an hour-and-a-half to tell a story, whereas with radio I had these episodes of twenty-seven minutes. A listener had to be able to tune in for each episode and not be confused. So we had to find a narrative that ran through the series, and individual narratives for each episode. We came up with this idea that each episode would feature a separate visit from Ben, Annie’s new boyfriend, which gave us an excuse to reintroduce the family each time. In those twenty-seven minutes we also had songs to get in, which did not leave much time for a story. It was a real balancing act and I think we got it right by the end – but the learning curve was extreme.
An important aspect of the stage show was the direct involvement of audience members in the show itself – how have you done that within a scripted radio show?
Well, the Harri-Parris love having visitors round, so the studio audience is cast as locals who’ve just popped in to visit the family. And because they have visitors the family is likely to break into song at any moment. In each of the stage shows there were seven or eight songs and in the radio episodes there are three songs in each one. We did play with versions where we spoke directly to the listener at home but it never quite worked because we already had an audience present in the studio.
I think it really helps to emphasise Ben’s status as an outsider, to have the entire village turn up and say hello.
It ups the ante for him. Not that my actual family has ever done this to me, but when I’ve taken a boyfriend home I might as well have had the whole village turn up at my home, because there’s somebody new in the house and suddenly a lot more visitors come to borrow something or remember they’ve left something they need to pick up. Everyone wants to have a look at him and suss him out.
The Harri-Parris’ Radio Show is not strictly-speaking bilingual, but there is quite a bit of Welsh in it. Was it important for you to have the family speak Welsh, and to have a sense of humour about the Welsh language?
Yeah I think so, because Welsh is my first language. The big bits of Welsh language in the show come in Mammy’s phone calls. Those came about because my English-speaking boyfriend found it hilarious that whenever my mother spoke Welsh on the phone he could totally understand what she was saying. As soon as he said that I put those phone calls in the stage show.
They are my favourite parts actually.
Rhian is so good at doing them! Those are the bits that still get me every time because it’s a true representation of how families in that area speak – intermingling Welsh with English and vice-versa -and we should be able to use language as we want. I suppose interestingly the Harri-Parris would primarily speak Welsh amongst themselves. They speak in English, their second language, because they have visitors round. When I’ve taken friends or boyfriends home they often have to put up my family – when they’re not wanting that person to know what’s going on – going into Welsh. Funnily enough my friends can follow exactly what’s going on and they’ve all weirdly picked up loads of Welsh because my family will keep speaking their first language.
Why did you choose to theme your shows around the Welsh-English culture clash? Was it to give them some source of conflict, or a catalyst?
The Harri-Parris and Ben are from very different worlds and hopefully that collision provides us with humour. Also, I don’t think I realised just how unique being brought up on a farm was, or even how insular village life was until I moved to Cardiff. I remember talking to our director Owen about ‘Feathering Day’ on the farm. He was like, ‘What the heck is that?’ Well Feathering Day was when we’d kill all the geese for Christmas. I’d be kept home from school that day because it was all hands on deck. My job was to feather, and I didn’t mind it at all because I hated the geese because they were horrible things. So it would be somebody’s job to kill, somebody’s job to feather and somebody’s job to take all the giblets out. Then the geese would be tied up and sent out to whomever had bought them. Totally normal in my life, not totally normal to someone from Manchester.
And that provides your show with different layers of culture clash: England vs Wales, Anglophone vs Welsh-speaking, and urban vs rural communities.
When you pair up Feathering Day with someone who’s vegetarian you get two characters at opposite ends of a spectrum, so there’s lots of potential for misunderstanding and comedy. Annie’s brother Ifan sings ‘Lady Livestock’ to Ben for example, and that song is all about how to treat your women like you treat your cattle.
The darkness of those songs prevents the show from offering a sentimental or cozy view of the country. They’re very satirical and sharp, even more so than the dialogue I think.
Yeah, well I love writing a song. Any excuse really. Again with the songs I’m always trying to find the funniest way of presenting the material, trying to find styles that don’t necessarily go with the lyrics. So ‘Feathering Nights’ is a salsa number about how you go about killing animals. Farm life can be very harsh, it’s all about having to make tough decisions. One of my songs is called ‘Death is all Around Us’, and it really is on a farm because it’s all about raising and slaughtering animals. Similarly, farming people aren’t embarrassed about sex at all, because animals have to be bred and you’re brought up with that. I was taken to see – this is a horrific story and I don’t know if you should print it – I had this lovely Shetland pony called Dusty, a cross between a Shetland pony and a Welsh Mountain pony. My Dad took me and the pony to where she was to be mated with a stallion for the first time. So there was me – I think I was about ten at the time – and this group of farmers all stood round in a semi-circle watching it happen.
I found that aspect of the show really refreshing, because my idea of Wales is rooted in its cities, but this is another Wales.
I don’t think rural or farming life gets covered that much in theatre. Not just in Wales but generally speaking. It must be the case because our show seems to be gaining more interest.
What are some of the musical and comedic influences on your show?
I’m a massive fan of Flight of the Conchords. I think I might have whooped when I first saw that because I thought, ‘Yes that’s exactly what I want to do!’ I was brought up watching Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies and there was always a song at the end of their shows. I also love Sarah Millican because she can say terrible things but comes across so warm that she gets away with it, and because she’s a woman and a very successful comedian.
Flight of the Conchords are a great example to follow because they love and understand the music as much as the comedy.
I suppose what I loved about them is that you never questioned why they were suddenly breaking into song. Their set-up allowed them to do anything, and I loved how their songs were always sung down the lens to the audience at home.
I think your Beyonce song is a nice little homage to Flight of the Conchords.
I just desperately wanted to be Beyonce.
Don’t we all?
I also love Christopher Guest’s films. A Mighty Wind is one film I’ve watched a hundred times and thought ‘Yes I love this!’ But if we did The Harri-Parris on TV I think Flight of the Conchords would be the model to look at.
So you have ambitions to bring the show to television?
I do. I think it would work. I love doing the theatre shows but it gets harder and harder to get them off the ground. So TV could be a way of bringing audiences to our live shows, which would be great. I think the key would be finding a producer who would not want to make it as a traditional sitcom, because I’m not sure it would work in that format. The Harri-Parris need space to just be. So I think that would be our main challenge, finding the right person to allow us to do that.
So, a second series on radio and then TV, this is very much as a long term project?
I’ve already spent five years of my life on it and I think it’s got legs. There’s a potential third stage show on the way, which would be a Christmas one. And I think whilst I’ve got enough rich material for the shows then I’ll keep creating them. When I get to the point when they’ve got nothing more to say, I’ll kill then off.
Yes. But at the moment I think they have a lot more to say.
The Harri-Parris’ Radio Show is on Radio Wales Saturday August 22nd and 29th at 1:05pm. If you missed the first show you can access on BBC iPlayer via this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0662trn#play