‘Baftas are essentially baubles,” says Stefan Golaszewski. “They’re very nice to have, but not central to what I do.” The multi-award-winning sitcom writer is speaking ahead of the launch of his new series, Marriage, which proved more of a challenge to write than he was prepared for. Yes, Golaszewski wrought three series of phenomenally wry television from Lesley Manville in Mum. True, he created Him & Her’s four hilariously toilet humour-packed seasons about a slacker couple, played by Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani. But as he sat down to write Marriage, he couldn’t help feeling he was getting it wrong.
“There was something about my writing I wasn’t happy about – something stopping me achieving what I wanted,” says Golaszewski. “So after Mum, I took time out to reteach myself how to write.” His realisation? There’s a fundamental lack of honesty in making people chuckle. “When you write a comedy,” he says, “the dialogue is sherbet: it fizzes in the moment and then it’s gone. The point of the words is to make people laugh. But I was interested in using dialogue to seek a deeper truth. When you write a comedy, there’s a ceiling on your ability to be truthful – and for me, being truthful is the key.”
Hence Marriage: Golaszewski’s move into hour-long drama. The four-part series is an up-close look at a 27-year-long relationship, which is packed full of impeccably observed detail about how couples behave in long-term relationships. Entire scenes consist of loading a dishwasher, or talking about their ant problem. One sequence sees Sean Bean’s Ian waiting at the foot of the stairs for his wife to return from the toilet. “How’s your tummy?” he asks. “Lot of gas?” Nicola Walker, who plays his spouse Emma, replies: “I thought I was going to take off!” They guffaw, then trot off to do some house admin.
“Fart gags are probably the bedrock of a successful relationship, because it’s an honesty,” says Golaszewski. “My wife can’t believe how soon I farted in front of her when we got together. I’m a human – we all fart!”
Writing a drama might be a stylistic departure for someone more familiar with twitching the nation’s lips with cringe-comedy, but there’s one thing that’s undeniably unchanged in Marriage – a love of relationships. Him & Her showed a fledgling twentysomething romance, Mum charted how you move past the end of a lifelong bond and into widowhood, while Golaszewski’s latest project is a paean to midlife. It could be the final part of a trilogy chronicling the lifespan of a couple.
“God, I wouldn’t be self-important enough to evoke a trilogy!” says Golaszewski. “I was just interested in the beauty of marriage, which is so often considered mundane – or depicted as less exciting than having an affair. I think there’s more hope and joy in a lot of marriages than is often seen. But I am running out of road – I need to write about something other than relationships!”
One of the most remarkable things about Marriage’s script is how little there is of it. Despite Bean having said that “there are really few words in this”, it’s still surprising quite how many scenes are dialogue-free. Sometimes we see the cosy wordlessness of sprawling on a sofa with a bag of prawn crackers. At other points we watch Walker and Bean’s characters go about their lives in almost mundane wordlessness: decluttering a bedroom or clearing up a dinner party. They stretch out until, at one point, one of them bursts into tears – followed by more silence.
The series chronicles Bean’s character’s redundancy and how the strength of his marriage helps him through it. But the episodes aren’t driven by obvious storytelling. At times, it feels more like an immersive on-screen experience than typical TV drama. Is it daunting that it’s airing on BBC One?
“Oh yeah! It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but I hope people understand all the silences as a reflection of life,” says Golaszewski. “I’ve said from the beginning that this isn’t about the plot, but I do hope it has a similar grip or compulsion to one of those very plotty shows. My shows are full of story but I deprioritise plot – in plot-driven shows, humanity, character, speech, emotion and behaviour only have value in terms of their usefulness to the plot. I want to celebrate the human experience for the messy, tricky, glorious thing it is.”
That focus on creating TV that’s as human as possible makes for thrilling performances – particularly from Bean. He’s a big, comfy jumper of a man, stretched out of shape over many years. He weeps, he’s needy, he’s desperate for a cuddle from his wife after a tough day, and uses the time she’s not there to track down “revitalising shower gel” because he “needs that little boost”. Alongside Peter Mullan – whose heart-meltingly tender performance as Michael in Mum belies his ability to play a terrifying monster in Ozark – he’s the latest actor to show a softer side in a Golaszewski-penned BBC show. Is turning hardmen into cutie pies something the writer relishes?
“You know what?” says Golaszewski. “They are actually like that. Peter is more like Michael in Mum than the guy in Ozark. He’s much more likely to make you a cup of tea than sell you heroin. Sean’s the same – he’s incredibly gentle and thoughtful. You meet him and you don’t know what he’s going to be like, because he’s Sean Bean off the telly – but there’s a real warmth and kindness to him.”
It’s not just actors’ rarely shown sides that Golaszewski is keen to put on screen but the entire class system. The worlds he writes are lower middle class, with their roots in the working class, partly because that’s his background, but also because it’s the world of the majority of the nation – which makes it the most truthful thing he can put on television, despite how rarely dramatists depict it. “It’s often hard in TV, because people are relatively posh. When I tell them how I want to build sets, they’re like: ‘Do people actually live like this?’” He laughs. “I’m like: ‘Do you want to meet my family?’”
In a way, he owes his career to his attempt to rail against the rich. As a Cambridge University student, he became president of their comedy troupe Footlights, having turned up to their auditions with the most offensive monologue he could think of to try to horrify them – only for them to burst out laughing. “I was very angry at university,” he says. “I was sort of racist about posh people.” It spawned the comedy troupe Cowards, whose members included Tim Key and Tom Basden (After Life); they went on to create two Radio Four and one BBC Four sketch series.
It also made him a contemporary of people such as Alex Horne and Mark Watson, as well as Boris Johnson cabinet members whom he’s surprisingly diplomatic about – despite not associating with them at the time. “I guess Suella Braverman’s worked hard,” he says. “I don’t know anything about her, but it can’t be easy to be a woman from an ethnic minority entering the Tory party.”
This is exactly the approach you’d expect from someone who has said in the past that his shows have “no baddies”. Even the most unlikable characters in Mum and Him & Her got a chance to show the vulnerabilities that made you sympathise with their awfulness. But in Marriage, it’s a little greyer. We see an exploitative male company owner sexually preying on a teenage female intern. The boyfriend of Bean and Walker’s on-screen daughter Jessica aggressively gaslights her. While the script does try to show the trauma beneath their abusive behaviour, it’s hard not to feel that you’re witnessing a newfound darkness to Golaszewski’s writing. Although for him, these are plotlines that deal with one thing: truth. “People do have dark lives, and terrible things happen to them. Then they have to keep on living. These are the kinds of themes a comedy can’t handle.”
As Marriage prepares to air, Golaszewski is revelling in his newfound freedom to create the most honest portrayal of real life he can. “In tiny moments,” he says, “there’s an enormity of human life. If you look for it, you see it everywhere. It’s in every tiny detail of how people stand, of how people intonate their words, in the way they speak to each other. The world is full of people trying their best, sometimes getting it wrong, sometimes right, but just generally trying their hardest.” What a lovely thought. No wonder he chose to give up comedy writing for it.
Marriage starts on Sunday 14 August at 9pm on BBC One