They say write what you know. In the case of Witless, BBC Three’s sitcom about two flatmates who have to go into Witness Protection after seeing a gangland shooting, you’d be concerned for whoever’s doing the writing. But creators Lloyd Woolf and Joe Tucker have never been witnessed gangland shootings (that we know of), and the show works precisely because they dare to write in directions and situations they don’t know.
Today sees the third and final season of the show drop, with Kerry Howard (Him And Her, Young Hyacinth) and Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey, Frontier) reprising their roles as the crazy Leanne and the uptight Rhona for the last time. Did Lloyd and Joe always have a plan for how the series would map out over the three runs?
“We really didn’t, we should admit,” confesses Joe, speaking at the premiere of the new season. “I think we sort of knew that it wasn’t a thing that could run and run and run, we knew we are going to do an ending at some point, we just hadn’t thought of it at the start!”
“You couldn’t do it indefinitely,” says Lloyd.
“I’d love to say we planned it all at the start,” agrees Joe. “But we didn’t.”
For the cast, too, what was in store was a complete surprise.
“I didn’t have any idea,” says Kerry, also at the premiere. “When certain people got killed, it was shocking, but brilliant!”
The season went darker than expected, says Zoe.
“I was impressed by how gruesome the humour went. It’s gross and you’re laughing, but in an uncomfortable sort of way!”
After two seasons of that carefully balanced mix of gore and twisted silliness, that’s saying something. But Witless has managed to maintain that tone right from its first episode.
“That was a thing we spoke about at the start, that kind of tone, where there’s danger and violence but you’re laughing at it,” explains Lloyd. “But I think it got to be a stonger feeling as we went along and the story got momentum.”
Indeed, the sitcom’s real success lies in not being a sitcom at all, as the stakes escalate to crime thriller levels of peril.
“When we first did the series, we thought some weeks it’ll feel like a sitcom and some weeks it’ll feel more like Fargo,” observes Lloyd. “But what we realised is if you really want to do that story, that compels you to watch next week, you’ve got to commit to it. You don’t really have room to deal with getting to understand the electric bill or something!”
That principle of not thinking through a set formula makes for a breakneck, enjoyably unpredictable ride – and it’s one that Lloyd and Joe went on with each episode.
“We wanted to do whatever the coolest thing was to happen next, without worrying about whether it was a scene out of a sitcom or anything,” enthuses Lloyd. “We let ourselves follow it and go where it needed to, if that makes sense. Does that make sense?”
“Believe it or not, the first influence was [Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn film] Housesitter!” laughs Joe. “That’s how it came about. Kerry said I’d really like to play a liar, like Housesitter!”
“Zoe is Steve Martin,” jokes Lloyd.
“Oh my God, you are!” cries Kerry.
The group talk over each other like old friends, with the kind of chemistry that makes Rhona and Leanne such a convincing partnership, even though we never really see them before the craziness erupts.
“It’s the classic odd couple, isn’t it? You know, I’m a bit zany and she’s straight-laced – although, a bit of a killer,” says Kerry.
“Murderous, yeah,” adds Zoe. “It’s funny because in the odd couple situation I always identified with the Rhona-like character.”
“You want to kill people?” retorts Kerry.
“Yeah! But I think in that odd couple pairing, you can identify with either one or a bit of both, and I think that’s why it works so well, because you relate to either one.”
After hearing them off-screen, you get the sense that the show really was written just for these performers.
“They gave me the gift of playing and embodying lots of other characters,” adds Kerry, whose Leanne is a dramatics enthusiast and never misses the chance to go (dreadfully) undercover. “It started as a sketch show, so they let me do sketch characters, in a way, so I got to play a lot, which is a lot of fun.”
“DCI Slater…” she recalls, with a chuckle.
One of the best characters, though, is John Inverdale playing himself in a WitPro explanation video, which makes a cheeky return this season for one final time. Was he the first choice for that role?
“Yes,” says Lloyd. “The thinking man’s Madeley!”
“I think when we did write it, we first thought of Madeley. But Madeley’s kind of already mocked himself,” adds Joe.
“He’s too obvious, really,” agrees Lloyd.
“When John first did it, he said to us ‘What is this? Comedy?'” remembers Joe. “We sent him the script, but I think what he wanted to know is we weren’t playing a trick on him! We said just treat it like yuo’re doing a corporate video. And he just did it like that.”
The result is an ensemble that cracks wise without missing beats, able to entertain while sitting in a flat or while running down the street with a gun. Will the cast miss the show now it’s over?
“We were in denial,” says Kerry, of the last day of shooting.
“It’s always a little anticlimactic,” comments Zoe. “So I was almost trying to squeeze out a tear, but by the wrap party, we were in bits.”
“When I was doing a bit of ADR, I was in tears,” adds Kerry.
Joe, on the other hand, is just glad that they’ve been able to tell a story with a beginning, middle and ending, without getting cancelled midway through.
“It’s a privilege to be able to choose the manner of your own passing, and finish it on purpose,” he concludes.
Did they have any plans for the final run that they couldn’t do?
“This season, we knew the basic shape,” says Lloyd.
“Yeah, we knew what we were doing!” jokes Joe.
“It was really tempting to try and get more characters into this series,” adds Lloyd. “We thought at one stage we’d visit so much more of the characters at the end, touch in and see what they’re at…”
“Like The Wire!” laughs Joe. “But we were swiftly told we can’t afford any of those!”
The rest unfolded as they wanted – or, more accurately, as they didn’t really know how they wanted it to. That basic motto even extends to the show’s core strength: the way it follows two rounded, convincing young women, despite not being written by a woman.
“One of things I like most about the show is that it feels like a female-driven show, but we’re not female,” says Lloyd.
“And that’s such a positive thing to do,” affirms Zoe. “And it’s a good lesson for other writers out there that it doesn’t matter what your gender is, it doesn’t mean you only have to write about your gender. It’s brilliant.
“That’s what I like about Witless. It’s a show about two people in witness protection, but they just happen to be women. And I think there could be more shows like that where gender isn’t the issue of the day. If we’re to advance, the stories need to be about the stories, not about the gender.”
“The jokes aren’t about the fact that they’re women,” concludes Kerry. “It’s about the situation, which is really forward-thinking guys! Well done!”
Witless Season 3 is available on BBC iPlayer now.