BSFA Interview: Charlie Robb and Douglas Tawn for SÉANCE
The British Short Film Awards 2023
Having written and performed live shows in London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, comedy duo Charlie Robb and Douglas Tawn have now cut their teeth in filmmaking. Currently working with production companies to develop their own, personal TV and Radio ideas, they have also written several feature film scripts, one of which is currently in pre-production. If their first short film, Séance, is anything to go by then ROBTAWN not only demonstrates an excellent merging of talent but also presents the true ‘spirit’ of British comedy. Charlie and Douglas took some time out to discuss whatever that is…
Loving the British séance of humour. Other than a strict sense of the mundane, what exactly is it that defines our funny bones?
Douglas Tawn: [Laughs] This is a real doozy of a question! All the great examples of British comedy do seem to exist somewhere in between the mundane and the extremely silly. There might seem to be a world of difference between The Office and Monty Python, for example, but they both draw from the same meeting point between the mundane and the ridiculous. Or rather, the realisation that the mundane is ridiculous. It’s just the execution that’s different. And that’s where we like things to sit — grounding the comedy in the everyday and finding the points where it can tip over the edge.
Charlie Robb: From a stylistic point, there’s a lot of silence between lines and a bittersweet enjoyment of awkwardness. There are British comedies that are very gag-heavy, which we love too, but we do enjoy a stony silence in the face of a bombshell moment. I also think a lot of British humour comes from a place of accepting that we’re not the best country in the world… by a long shot, and we’ve made peace with the grim reality of being a ‘bit crap’.
This seems to be part of a series. Were there bigger ideas here such as the potential for a feature/TV series, or designed specifically around individual shorts on characters and their interactions with Mystic Mike?
DT: That’s an uncannily astute observation! The short did actually come out of a web series we made last year. Each episode consisted of a séance with the same medium and a different client each time. They were more ‘silly sketches’, but the short film was adapted from one of those.
CR: We’ve also got a few ideas on how the concept could adapt into a longer-form TV series, with perhaps the medium striking up a longer-term connection with a particular client for various (and absolutely top secret) reasons. The whole world of spiritualism and séances is so rich for exploration — it’s a great meeting point between very raw, human experiences and bigger, more ‘out-there’ ideas of the supernatural.
What are your comedic influences?
DT: It’s hard to cite direct influences. Obviously, our sense of humour has been formed by all the comedy we loved growing up: Monty Python, The Naked Gun, The Simpsons, Chris Morris’s shows, Bottom, The League of Gentlemen, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, etc. You can’t pinpoint an exact ‘influence’, but more of a composite. We also both spend a lot of downtime watching classic episodes of Frasier because, deep in our hearts, I think we’d both like to live in 1990s Seattle, wear beautifully cut suits and spend every day swilling sherry and throwing disastrous dinner parties. You’ve got to have something to aspire to after all…
CR: We also love Blackadder, and we’ve been extremely lucky to work with the producer, John Lloyd, on our own horror-comedy radio show (watch this space for more on that!)
What are your film influences?
CR: We are super into horror, and we also love the classics by Kubrick and Billy Friedkin and are inspired by a lot of the contemporary horrors that are changing the way audiences engage with the genre.
DT: We rarely make it through a whole day without referencing Jaws or The Silence of the Lambs in some way. They’re not so much conscious influences as integral components of our DNA. More contemporary filmmakers we admire include Taika Waititi, Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, Charlotte Wells — basically anyone, or any film, that reflects the filmmaker doing their own thing in their own way!
How and why do you make death so funny?
DT: It’s perhaps not so much that death is funny. People are funny. Which means they often deal with death in a funny way. Dealing with death or grief creates extremes of emotion and behaviour, and that’s often where the comedy lies. As for the why — everyone does it. It’s not uncommon to hear a couple of gags during a eulogy. This might tie into the earlier question about ‘British humour’. The simple answer might be that, as a culture, we are incredibly emotionally repressed, so rather than deal with our emotions honestly, we always look for a way to make a joke out of them.
CR: Death is also something we don’t really understand, and an afterlife is something (more and more) that people struggle to accept or comprehend. One way of dealing with this is by turning it into something funny. Obviously, death happens to us all, it’s something we can all nervously relate to, so it can bizarrely bring people together. But what we find interesting is how people react to or handle this inescapable part of the human journey, and all the irony it can bring because, however you deal with it, it’s coming! Sorry, that’s quite bleak, but it is weirdly fascinating to us.
What do you want an audience to take away from Séance?
CR: It’s our first short film, so we have learned a lot for our future shorts, and a feature script we have been developing. While we have learned a lot from making Séance, we hope that audiences have learned a little about us, our style and taste for dark, morbid comedy.
DT: Also, a desire — nay, a compulsion — to give us lots of money to make our next project. Thanks, folks, try the fish!