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Credit: HBO/BBC

Interview: HBO/BBC Family Tree’s executive producer Jim Piddock

He’s the king of ‘documentary style comedy’ (don’t call it ‘mockumentary’ – he says he’s not mocking anyone) and now Christopher Guest is back with his new TV series Family Tree starring Chris O’Dowd as Tom Chadwick, a down-and-out guy trying to find his roots through genealogy.

But Guest didn’t do it alone as British actor, producer and director Jim Piddock co-created the funnyman’s Who Do You Think You Are? as it follows the journey down historic lane for the lonely Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd). Piddock describes the lead protagonist as having ‘no girlfriend, no job, and no real close ties to his family. So, as all of us do at some point in our lives: he wants to find out who he is, what his place in the world is and where he fits in the larger picture of the chain of history.’ After making his name on the small screen in The IT Crowd and getting greater popularity from his role in HBO show Girls, Chris O’Dowd was on the team’s radar and ‘at the top of [their] list early on.’

Credit: HBO/BBC

As Piddock explains, although what Chadwick finds is often funny or unusual, it’s as much about why he’s doing it and what happens on the way rather than what he finally discovers: ‘The truth is very few of us are related to Napoleon or Cleopatra. Although, those are bad examples as I am actually descended from both of them.’

The project started two years ago when over a lunch, Guest told Piddock about his research into his own history: ‘[Guest] told me he’d been delving a bit into his own family tree, and did I think the whole genealogy arena is something that might work as a comedy? There’s no traditional three act structure – or beginning, middle and end – to a family tree. By its nature it has almost infinite different branches, or episodes, to explore in every direction.’

Fans of Best In Show, For Your Consideration and other classic Guest films will be happy to find a wealth of his regular players popping up in the series, which according to Piddock ‘was always the intention…some we had in mind for specific roles very early on, some came up as we were writing, and some fit into the puzzle once we’d finished writing.

Piddock describes Guest as being a ‘pioneer’ in the field of documentary comedy and tries to describe why the genre works well on television, with This is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman trailblazing a route for The Office, Parks & Recreation and Arrested Development: ‘I think it started to become more of a common language in television comedy. We were very much aware of that fact and actually tried to use a new documentary technique which we called the walk-and-talk interviews, in addition to the more familiar talking head ones.

The other thing that’s different from The Office, either the US or UK versions, and shows like Modern Family is that our characters never address the camera directly, or show any awareness that they’re being filmed. This creates a more fly-on-the-wall feel.’

Piddock hasn’t just co-written the eight episode series, but will also star in Family Tree, as Mr Pfister, whose South African accent was chosen after a dare from Guest: ‘When we conceived that part, early on in the writing process, Chris asked what voice or accent I was going to use and jokingly, I said South African because it was the least funny accent either I could think of…there’s the apartheid connotations, and it’s usually used by villains in action movies. I couldn’t think of a single film or TV comedy where anyone had ever used that accent. So Christopher dared me and whenever Mr. Pfister came up in the writing process I started playing as the character with a heavy South African accent and it always made him laugh.’

So what about Jim’s own family tree? The 57-year old hails from Rochester, Kent. He says that if he had more time he probably would investigate his genealogy: ‘My brother’s done quite a lot, and bizarrely, a few months ago he was left a box of old photos and memorabilia by an aunt we never knew.

Family Tree premieres on BBC 2, tonight, at 10pm.

- Hanna Flint


Luke Langlands

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