Phil Bowker

When I was working at 4 Creative last year they gave me a brief to do a poster for a new show called Phone Shop.

My expectations were low, but I ended up watching the pilot three times, then went on to become a big fan of the whole series (best clip here).

Well, series two is about to start (Thurs, 10pm, E4) and by a strange coincidence my friend Stephen Gash has just signed Phil Bowker, its writer, producer, creator and director, to QI Commercials (reel here). This has given me the wonderful opportunity to ask Phil a few questions:

What research did you do to get into the high street/phone shop world?
I personally spent a lot of time just hanging around and watching the High Street and its goings on – also like most people I worked in retail when I was younger so had that insider knowledge plus our associate producer, Jon Macqueen put together an incredibly in depth dossier on the the world of mobile phone stores.
How much do the cast contribute to the scripts?
I’ve worked on many series where either the cast contribute – and don’t get recognition for it or they’re not allowed to change a single word of the text and when you’re working with such brilliant actors who know their characters inside out it seems ridiculous that a) they’re not allowed to contribute and b) that they don’t get a credit for generating material.  We’ve hit on a lovely system where we get time to workshop, so I’ll bring scripts to the table and then we’ll break them down, stand them up, act them out and improvise elements. We shoot these rough scenes (in the basement at Talkback) and then watch them back in the room, noting what we like, what works and what needs work – I guess it’s like a version of the American table writing system but with actors as opposed to writers.
Do you have a lot of rehearsal time?
Most sitcoms will have a week or two at most which precludes you from actually rehearsing everything you need to – you then find yourself in the situation where you’re having to rehearse on set before you shoot – it’s mental.  I figured that if we moved that element nearer to the front end of the process  a) we’d save money as we don’t have a crew of 20/30 people hanging around (and the attendant pressures that it puts on everyone) waiting while you figure out why your scene isn’t working versus the more attractive option of paying six actors to come in and muck around for a day – where you can iron out your problems in advance so that when you get onto set not only are you ready to go with stuff that you know works , you’re also in the lovely position of being able to add stuff on the day.
What comedy do you most admire?
Seinfeld for its plotting. 30 Rock for its density.
Do you want to do good ads or just take Cillit Bang’s cash and run?
I’ve got too much at stake to make bad ads!
Did you come up with ‘a owl’ or was it improvised?
The ‘Owl’ was based on a girl that I saw walking through Bromley. She had an Owl tattooed on her back with these big staring, accusatory eyes and I thought why the fuck would you do that?  What must be that like for her bloke? Maybe he’s getting romantic, kissing her neck and all that and then gets dead eyed by a big fuck off owl….. so, I plotted around that idea and drafted scenes.  Andy and Jav being as brilliant as they are started playing with it in the workshop and it led to A Owl? A Owl. A Owl? sequence.
Any other TV shows in the works?
Very much so. I’m hoping that we’ll hear soon about Phoneshop 3 and I really want to do a Razz Prince spin off with Kayvan Novak. – The man is a true genius and that’s a word that’s horribly overused but entirely accurate when describing him.  I’m also working on a project with David Earl called Cumbo. If you’ve got a mo – have a look at this -David has a videoblog for Cumbo, it’s hilarious….
What’s the best thing about writing and directing your own TV show?
2 Dinners.
How did you team up with Ricky Gervais?
The first telly job I did was a thing in 1997 called the jim tavare show – I knew steve merchant through having worked together on a BBC2 show, Comedy Nation and I  was looking for writers for Tavare.  i asked Steve if he wanted to come and have a chat about doing some stuff for us and he said yes, can I bring my mate, ricky? he’s never done anything before but he’s brilliant….. we’ve been mates ever since then and I asked him to cast his eye over my first script for PhoneShop as I didn’t want people to think (esp because we had an older boss) that we were trying to do an office style thing.
Finally, what are your favourite ads?
I want an ad to elicit a laugh. I want to laugh out loud when I see an ad.  A knowing smile isn’t good enough for me. When I used to write ads for radio in my early 20’s, my boss used to drum into us if  you want people to their take time and effort to listen to your message, the least you can do is to entertain them. And I still stand by that. So the ads for me that have stood out over the years have tended to be the ones that made me laugh out loud….. When I was a kid I used to love the Cinzano campaigns with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. Those and the Hamlet ads.  I loved the Boddingtons ads and the Peter Kay John Smith’s campaigns, the Barclaycard ads obviously and  more recently the Old Spice spots felt near perfect and although not strictly an ad the Kenny Powers KSwiss virals were top drawer.

Thanks Phil. And there’s a bonus point (in the weird quiz show that goes on in my head) for anyone who can tell me which star of Phone Shop has been in one of my ads.