Interview: Tea for Three – A New Sheffield-Based Comedy

Words: Cal Reid

The north of England has been the new centre of growth for independent film and television. I recently sat down with friend Ross Marshall, the co-writer and actor of Sheffield-based comedy-pilot Tea for Three.

Obvious place to start, where did the inspiration for Tea for Three come from?
The idea came from when my cousin Bjarne Tungland and I used to visit my Gran once a week for tea and he suggested that we turn It into a script so we set about writing it. He’s a doctor now, he lives in Norway. He’s worked for the BBC as a set designer and he’s always had an interest in writing, we’ve actually written another script together before. So we used to go around to my grandma’s and visit her for tea, hence the title Tea for Three. My grandma is now 95, she’s very special to us. Nan is a bit of a character; very old fashioned, and comes out with some very wise stuff as well as some nonsense, often at the same time. We’ve exaggerated the good and bad traits of ourselves of course. It looks at family and the madness of the conversations that happen. In short – two cousins visit their elderly gran for dinner, debate and bewilderment.

Writing each episode, many writers meticulously plan their dialogue and plots. Is that the same for you, or do you let the story lead itself so to speak?
I don’t let the story lead me. What happens is we have a vision for where we want the characters to go. We have an overall vision of where we want to go with the series. We have an episode outline as well for each of them. That begins really with the first episode, which I think is often the hardest to write because you have to introduce everyone and really set the scene. Once you’ve got that out of the way I find the episodes tend to write themselves to an extent.

Do you feel you have greater control over the content as an actor, not just for your own character but provoking a response from your co-stars?
No, not really. Whether I’m an actor in it or not I wouldn’t go about it any differently really. I just want to write the best possible show that I can, so I’d always put the fact that I’m an actor to one side and just focus on writing. The rest would really take care of itself then.

Everything that we write, all three of us, as Rita writes with us as well, is very characte- driven so we understand in our heads what the characters would be thinking and how they would respond.

Having known you for some time, you’ve always been drawn to comedy writing, were there any shows or individuals that influenced your work?
Well yes, but I like to keep it original. As a writer I want to be unique, so I get my ideas from everyday life. I think it’s important when you are starting out to write about what you know. That’s how I would choose to write.

In terms of who I would be inspired by. The three Johns really: John Cleese, who wrote my favourite comedy of all time Fawlty Towers, which he also starred in, which I hope to do in my career.

John Sullivan who wrote Only Fools and Horses, which you can return to time and time again. It’s got great longevity. I think subconsciously that’s where the inspiration has also come from. With all the different plots, the family aspects, the idea of the persistent underdog.

John Lennon who is one of my heroes in life. People forget he was a writer at the start of his career; he wrote 2 books – In His Own Write and a Spaniard in the Works. Very unique, strange-genius-like writing that he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for. He also acted too, he was in a film called How I Won the War, the Beatles movies and he did some sketches. In his early days I think he was hilariously funny.

At what stage did Sheffield native Rita May become involved in the production?
I’d heard of her prior to filming, and bizarrely a month or so before I went about contacting her, a friend of mine met her at party and told me how lovely she was and that I should send my script to her. I contacted her on Facebook, because my cousin and I agreed that she was absolutely perfect for the grandma character. I never knew how great she was as a writer too, having written for TV and theatre. For example the first scene wasn’t quite working when we first filmed it. That was until Rita made her own suggestion, and we both agreed that it was what was desperately needed. Because she had a good grasp of the character, in the end what Rita added only improved the content hence why she is credited as writer with my cousin and I.

The three of us are all local. My cousin and I are from Chesterfield and grew up in and around Sheffield, obviously Rita is from Sheffield too and apart from Bjarne all the crew are based in the city. All the other actors are Sheffield based, they were all fantastic. Greg Ibbotson whom you know. Michaela Short too was fantastic, and the production company is a local Sheffield based one, run by Hugh Mann Adamson and Gabriel Fernandez-Gil. I met Hugh whilst I was networking at the Showroom. I told him about my idea and he asked me to send him the script. Well, he really liked it and that led to his company LTBL Productions producing it, and he directed and he’s just excellent, fabulous in fact!

It’s a very Sheffield based production: the writers, production company, the actors, all Sheffield.

Tea for Three is now available on YouTube. Ross and LTBL Productions decided that in the wake of COVID-19, it was an ideal opportunity to promote the pilot and it has so far received a great deal of well-deserved praise from viewers.

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