Woodley with heart

There's a little bit of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Rowan Atkinson -but Frank Woodley says he wanted every gag in his ABC1 romantic comedy to be visual not verbal.

He was part of a comedy duo for 20 years, but 6 years ago Frank Woodley parted ways with comedian Colin Lane and had to find ways to reinvent his act.

Now his self-titled comedy creation, borne from his stand-up show Possessed, sees him play an accident-prone father to an 8 year old daughter Ollie (Alexandra Cashmere), and ex-husband to long-suffering wife Em (Justine Clarke).

In the spirit of such classics as Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Mr. Bean, Woodley combines physical humour with simple storytelling.

“My passion has been physical and visual comedy for 20 years. Although I love verbal comedy and can enjoy it as an audience, the area where I’ve always got the most laughs and felt most at home is when I’ve been physically expressive. Even when I’m doing stand-up and there’s a large verbal component to it, it’s the physical gestures that excite the audience,” he explains.

“Doing Lano and Woodley was a comedy duo genre, which I absolutely loved being part of. But when we finished I started thinking about what would be my new genre as a physical comedian and I started to immediately feel I wanted to do broad, Romantic Comedy, which not many people do.

“Romantic Comedy was done a lot early on with people like Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

“(Jacques) Tati touches on the romantic but he’s a little aloof from it. It’s almost like it’s an intellectual comedy.”

Woodley says his intent with the series was not to mock the love story but play it with integrity.

The comedy features very little dialogue, relying upon its physical humour involving props, slapstick and facial expressions.

“Verbal comedy has a single punchline that sometimes gets an explosive laugh and a few laughs you can riff on a bit. But with physical comedy the audience keeps laughing while they’re watching it. They don’t have to stop to listen to the next thing. So there’s a kind of hysteria that can be generated,” he says.

“Obviously I’m not expecting people to turn on the telly, start laughing and thirty minutes later they stop. You’ve got to have light and shade in there.”

ABC has also slated the show in an early-evening timeslot, perhaps reflecting it’s potential appeal to family audiences. Woodley says while the show is aimed at adults, he did think twice about some gags.

“I didn’t really put anything in the series specifically for children but I did withhold some things that might mean children couldn’t watch it.

“There were times I thought of a joke and thought, ‘No I won’t go there. It would be really funny but it makes it difficult for parents to feel comfortable about watching it with their kids,'” he says.

The trio of Frank Woodley, Justine Clarke and Alexandra Cashmere works a treat. Woodley admits early discussions with casting directors ensured he got his dream cast.

“I said ‘It would be great if we could get someone like Justine Clarke’ and the casting person said ‘Well we could ask Justine Clarke?’” he laughs.

“She is absolutely perfect and Tom Long comes in later in the series as the new boyfriend. Alexandra Cashmere who is the daughter, is such a find. She’s a crucial hub to the whole thing and if it hadn’t have worked we would have been in a lot of trouble.

“She understood she needs to underplay things a bit as a foil for me. She’s only 8 and she’s aware enough to understand what her function was in the greater sense. She’s a winner.”

Composer Mal Webb created a gypsy jazz / electronica hybrid while designer Jo Briscoe brings cinematic colours to the screen. Woodley explains, he wanted the look to play against the bleak trends of mockumentaries such as The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“Everything’s a bit ugly and bland which I’ve loved, don’t misunderstand me. But our idea was to go the completely opposite way and make it as romantic and enchanting within the budget we had. The designers, the director and the cinematographer went beyond what I was imagining,” he says.

With so little dialogue, the comedy could also be ripe for sales in foreign language markets. Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean became a sensation across the globe. The parallels with a comedy classic will be unavoidable, but Woodley doesn’t mind.

“Somebody said it was ‘Mr Bean with heart.’ In some ways I’m wary of comparisons but in other ways I can appreciate that is what I’ve set out to do. My rule for the whole series was that every joke had to be physical or visual. No verbal jokes at all,” he explains.

“There is dialogue but it is there to contextualise situations or normalise things so it doesn’t feel too contrived. But all of the jokes are visual and if you didn’t understand English you would have absolutely no problem following it.

“I have incredible admiration for Rowan Atkinson as a physical comedian. His precision and the craft –he’s a genius. But one of the things about Mr. Bean, and this is a strength as well as a weakness, is that he’s very aloof in terms of his relationships with people. His relationships are generally with the physical world. He has a girlfriend but you don’t really feel he has a stake in it.

“In this show what’s driving all the comedy is the character’s love for his daughter and the love for his wife, and the feeling of loss.

“So it’s probably closer to Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but lots of people haven’t watched enough of them. Chaplin is an icon but very few people have actually sat down and watched The Kid or City Lights.

“But I’m all for Mr Bean with Heart. I’m honoured to be compared to him.”

Woodley premieres 8pm Wednesday ABC1.

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