Meet the Jersey author described by Harry Enfield as 'the coolest guy in the world (if uncool is cool)'
NOT to be confused with his equally talented Hollywood namesake, Will Smith has carved out one of the most successful writing careers in modern comedy.
Described by Harry Enfield as 'the coolest guy in the world (if uncool is cool)', former Victoria College student Will's rise from budding stand-up to co-writer of some of the most critically acclaimed TV comedies of the past decade has been nothing short of meteoric.
Among the award-winning comedy shows to be found on Will's CV are The Thick Of It, HBO's VEEP and the little-seen but very funny Time Trumpet. 'We only got to do one series of Time Trumpet,' says Will, 'but I'm still very fond of it.'
Versatile Will is also an actor, and The Thick Of It fans will know him as the Lord of the Rings-obsessed political advisor Phil Smith – and a columnist for Intelligent Life magazine. 'Every issue, I try to learn a new skill,' says Will (which so far have included ice-sculpting, playing the banjo and making a soufflé).
As if all that weren't enough, Will is also a published author and has just released his latest book, Mainlander. The book, Will's first novel, is set in Jersey and is every bit as enthralling, inventive and side-splittingly funny as his previous output.
'Jersey is such a unique and idiosyncratic place, with its own strange laws. I'm assuming the housing laws are still in place?' he says. 'But it is also full of beautiful scenery and locations and is a really handy place to set a story, as everything is on such a small scale.
'It'll be a new kind of setting for readers, but hopefully it will all be relatable.'
As an 'outsider' myself, I tell Will how strongly I identified with Colin, the Mainlander of the title and the book's central character. 'I like to think it comes across that I love Jersey, but at the same time the book isn't overly sentimental about the Island,' he says. 'I just wrote from what I remembered, but it's not warts and all.'
Mainlander is set almost entirely in the Island ('I insisted on having a recognisable Jersey location on the cover') and tells the story of the aforementioned Colin, a secondary school teacher who has moved to Jersey after marrying a local girl, Emma. Alas, the marriage is going through a bad patch and Colin soon finds himself drawn to Debbie, a formerly frumpy work colleague experiencing a late-life blossoming.
The book is filled with laugh-out-loud lines and is meticulous in its attention to detail. Will cites Bergerac as a key influence in the latter.
'An important lesson I learned from Bergerac was to ensure that the book was accurate geographically,' says Will. 'I remember people complaining about Bergerac when I was younger, about how he'd drive through the Tunnel and then emerge on the other side of the Island or something. I didn't want to make the same mistakes.'
After writing the first draft of the novel, Will returned to Jersey to double-check that he had all the details correct.
'And of course I hadn't,' he laughs. 'I was at St Ouen with a friend and I found myself asking, "Er, has that mound of earth always been there?" I also realised I'd got some of the German bunkers in the wrong place, and they were a lot more overgrown and enclosed than I'd written.'
Despite what Wikipedia may claim, Will wasn't born in Jersey. 'My parents moved to the Island for work purposes when I was seven,' he says. 'I was raised here, but I don't have Jersey heritage.'
He was taught at Victoria College and it was there that he first met Roger Drew, his long-time writing partner. 'We used to put on sketch shows with our friends. After leaving Vic, I moved to university and was keen to find people with similar interests, but I couldn't really find anyone who was into the same sort of thing, so I decided to give stand-up a try.'
Working part-time in a record shop to help pay the bills, he proved a natural on the stage and before long was performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with acclaimed solo shows such as Ten Arguments I Should Have Won and Misplaced Childhood (inspired by Will's love of 1980s rock band Marillion).
1997: The 11 O'Clock Show
2000: Time Gentlemen Please
2004: A Wife For William
2005: The Comic Side of 7 Days
2005: Back in the Day
2006: The Charlotte Church Show
2006: Never Mind the Buzzcocks
2006–2012: The Thick of It (Phil Smith)
2007: The C Word
2007: The Late Edition
2008: For One Night Only
2011: Comedy Lab (Tony in season 12, episode 5)
2012: Have I Got News For You
2012: Dead Boss
Soon, Roger moved to the UK to join Will and they began writing together and submitting scripts to radio.
'We wrote a sitcom set in an Arctic research station which got the attention of Phil Clarke, who was then a radio producer. He loved it, and although we never got the chance to make it, Phil started to get us writing work for sketch shows.'
It was the quality of the duo's sketches that first caught the eye of Armando Iannucci, who by that time was a highly successful writer and comedian with comedy classics such as Alan Partridge and The Day Today under his belt. Soon, Will and Roger were writing for Iannucci's 2005 radio show Charm Offensive, and Will has been a close friend and frequent collaborator of Iannucci's ever since. Phil Clarke, meanwhile, is now head of comedy at Channel 4.
'Funnily enough, Phil's wife was the very first person to read Mainlander,' says Will. 'She was very enthusiastic about it.'
Indeed, Will says everyone who has read the book has been impressed. 'A lot of my friends have read it and been very supportive, and they're the sort who wouldn't lie. They'd tell me if they didn't like it. Everyone at the agency who has read it says that they raced through it. Hopefully, it's going to find an audience.'
Before the conversation ends, I return to the subject of Bergerac. Readers who have followed Will's career will be familiar with his 2007 radio show The Tao of Bergerac, in which Will demonstrated his unique ability to find a connection to any given film – no matter how old or obscure – to an episode of Bergerac.
'Weekend at Bernie's,' I say, fairly confident that Will be unfamiliar enough with such a low-quality 1980s 'comedy'. However, after a brief moment's rumination, he's off …
'Andrew McCarthy was in Weekend at Bernie's and he was also in Pretty in Pink with Molly Ringwald, who was in the Breakfast Club, as was Paul Gleason, who was in Trading Places with Denholm Elliott, and Denholm Elliott was in Defence of the Realm with Greta Scacchi, who was in series one, episode ten of Bergerac.'
And you thought the awards, the TV and writing career and the published novels were impressive!
Mainlander, published by Fourth Estate, is out now.
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