The 'Still Up' Producers On Romcoms & the Value of a Good Slow Burn

Craig Roberts as Danny talking to Antonia Thomas as Lisa on video chat in 'Still Up'

Craig Roberts as Danny and Antonia Thomas as Lisa in 'Still Up'

Apple TV+

The first season of Still Up – a London-set romantic comedy with an unexpected, ultra-contemporary twist – completed its eight-episode run on AppleTV+ at the end of October 2023. The friends-to-lovers slow burn about insomniac besties Lisa (Antonia Thomas) and Danny (Craig Roberts) pulls off a remarkable trick, putting at its center two protagonists with chemistry to burn but who spend so much time video chatting through FaceTime™ that they don’t even appear in the same physical space until the season finale. Many complications lie between the central couple and their eventual realization that they should be a couple, including living at opposite ends of a megacity, significant others of varying degrees of significance, Danny’s agoraphobia, and Lisa’s near-wilful ignorance of her own feelings for Danny. 

Comedy veterans Steve Burge (writer for Seekers) and Natalie Walter (co-star of series as varied as I May Destroy You, The Thin Blue Line, and Horrible Histories) drew on their own experiences as insomniacs for the series premise. I spoke with Executive Producers Paul Schlesinger (Twenty Twelve, The Windsors, Funny Woman), Phil Clarke (Peep Show, Toast of London, I May Destroy You), and Producer Arabella McGuigan (Hounslow Diaries, Twisted Tales) about how they found their way from working on edgier comedies to embracing Still Up’s unabashedly sweet, emotionally messy heart.

Antonia Thomas in "Still Up"

Antonia Thomas in "Still Up"

(Photo: Apple TV+)

Telly Visions: Let's start at the beginning. How involved were the three of you, and each of you, in the genesis of Still Up? Like what led to this being a love story about insomniacs? Where did you come in? In that whole process?

Phil Clarke: I think the story begins with Paul. So I'll let him start it off.

Paul Schlesinger: This came from Natalie Walter and Steve Burge; they had worked together on a radio series, with Natalie as a performer and Steve as a writer. They discovered this mutual experience of being insomniacs, and I guess from that, they started these late-night conversations remotely. The friendship that came out of that wasn't a romantic friendship, but it was a strong friendship. And I think a lot of that infuses the flavor of the free-flow conversations in the show. So it started out from a very small idea, essentially a series of conversations that then developed into something a bit more structured, with an arc and so on. The three of us took it through a couple of drafts, and then I sent it to Phil because I thought it would be his cup of tea. Luckily, it was, and Phil helped sell the show and got Arabella to come on.

Craig Roberts in "Still Up"

Craig Roberts in "Still Up"

(Photo: Apple TV+)

TV: Paul, thank you for teeing up my next question so cleanly, which is specific to Phil. I was looking at your credits, and a lot of them are shows I have watched and enjoyed and admired, but as much as I loved I May Destroy You and Toast of London, none of your earlier work is what I would describe as sweet. In Still Up, Lisa and Danny are complicated, messy people; they have real problems. But no one says an unkind word at all across the entire season. So I would love to hear from you about what appealed to you about this show, after having such a successful career making excellent comedies, mostly about mean people?

Clarke: (laughing) I think that's absolutely spot on. This is the sweetest, gentlest, most charming show. All the shows I've always made through my entire career have been prickly and have sharp elbows; shows with characters who are really good to watch, but not necessarily people you'd want to be stuck on a desert island with. First, I thought it was actually a really original idea, a really good spin on the traditional rom-com. I hadn't come across an idea where it's about two insomniacs that seemed really unusual. Also, it turns on the fact that they don't get to spend time together physically. So I thought, this is really good because it's setting quite a few barriers to its own ending, you know –  how are we going to make this work? So that felt really original. The first script that Paul sent me, I did like the dialogue, and I thought that there was something quirky and original about the way these characters spoke to each other. 

And finally, to spare him his blushes, I've always been keen to work with Paul, and we've known each other for years. We worked in radio in the 1990s and have had parallel careers. So it was also a really nice opportunity to do what we’ve always said, that it'd be great if we could work on something together. 

So the combination of those things on the editorial and personal level all really spoke to me. But yeah, this is the sweetest show I've ever made. So I'm completely at sea – I think I got to the end of it and had a lump in my throat! And I thought, “Oh, this is unusual.”

TV: How nice to have a totally new experience this far into an already-excellent career. Arabella, can you talk a little bit about your involvement in the show? What drew you to it initially? 

Arabella McGuigan: I've also known Paul and Phil for a long time and was very excited and flattered to be called about being involved in the pilot. The thing that is immediately arresting and engaging about it as a project was the strength of the script. There was a big way to go between the pilot and the series, but there's an innate quality to it, which is those two writers’ ability: it's really economically written to write some absolutely cracking jokes whilst retaining so much heart that is unspoken in it. That's really difficult to achieve. But it's very charming to read and really engaging to watch that sort of writing. 

And it's a relationship comedy that's trying really hard not to be romantic. Most of the time, we’re resisting romantic engagement. Comically and storywise, that makes for a really interesting sort of pull between what you think might happen and what actually happens. Both of those sorts of qualities were really evident in it from the moment we first read it. And then, when we started to put it all together with the cast and John Addis, the director, the whole package came to life.

Craig Roberts as Danny and Antonia Thomas as Lisa finally meet in the finale of in 'Still Up'

Craig Roberts as Danny and Antonia Thomas as Lisa in 'Still Up'

 Apple TV+

TV: So speaking of that whole package, particularly with the cast – Antonia and Craig aren’t actually on screen together until the very end of the final episode, right? And yet, their chemistry is so fizzy and crackling and delightful. How did they accomplish that? Did they shoot with both actors in the room together but with one of them off-camera? 

McGuigan: Antonia and Craig had not worked together before, but they knew each other a little and said they'd really been looking for a project to do together. So there was a great synchronicity there even before we started. And they're both extremely dedicated and very giving performers to each other. Straight away, their instincts were that even when the camera was only pointing at one of them, the other one still had to be there in the room. Effectively they're performing together, even though the other actor is supposed to be in an entirely different space. 

Through some wonderful technology from our sound department, one of them was always in an impromptu sound booth nearby – sometimes a car, sometimes a corner of the studio – where the sound of their voice was coming into a tiny, tiny earpiece in the ear of the actor on camera. 

And as a result of that, after week after week after week of filming, because it meant that each of them had to be there, even when they're not scheduled to be on camera, they just lived in those characters, and the generosity of kind of performance spirit towards each other. 

TV: So I just want to make sure I understand you correctly, both Craig and Antonia had to be on set to get those performances, but they were only hearing each other, not actually seeing one another?

McGuigan: Sometimes, by the wonders of technology, they could see each other because we had a video feed to wherever they were. The actor who wasn’t on camera had to be sealed off for sound, but there was a mic going straight into the other performer’s ear.

Antonia Thomas as Lisa on the phone in the middle of the night in 'Still Up'

Antonia Thomas as Lisa in 'Still Up'

Apple TV+.

TV: That's such a creative way to problem-solve, and the proof is in the pudding: it looks and sounds like they have chemistry because they do! I would love for you to situate this series within the broader genre of romantic comedy – where does Still Up fit in that lineage?

Clarke: That’s a really good question. We rely on Antonia and Craig a lot, particularly on their chemistry. We had a debate amongst ourselves at the time about how fast the story should go. And we elected for it to be a slow burn and really spent a bit of time just establishing the characters more than perhaps you would normally. So this was a conscious decision to really take our time and get to learn about the characters at a leisurely pace before the story kicks in. That was a bit of a gamble on our part because, nowadays, everyone demands a quick fix. And this is quite old-fashioned in that sense. 

The second thing is, it does have a lot of the classic tropes of a romantic comedy – Danny running across London to confess his feelings to Lisa, you know, going back to When Harry Met Sally and The Graduate – but it's a very modern, contemporary tale at the same time. You couldn't make this comedy even 10 years ago because the technology didn't exist for people to be able to behave like this. It points to something that's very modern, that we're more connected, and yet we're more lonely than we've ever been. So it’s almost an old-fashioned way of telling a very modern tale, and mixing those qualities together is what we think is unusual about it.

Schlesinger: Just picking up storytelling, just saying about slow burn, in a way, in a way, it's as much about friendship as romance. These guys are helping each other out of their respective difficulties. There's a duality in the relationship. And it's as much about what's not said between them as what is said. It makes it quite a distinctive show, quite a British kind of show. I think people recognize the idea that what's left unsaid is as powerful as what is said.

All episodes of Still Up are streaming on Apple TV+.

Sophie's Selfie

Sophie has been happily steeping in the potent brew of British TV since her parents let her stay up late on a Thursday watching the Jeremy Brett adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. She loves mysteries, espionage thrillers, documentaries, and costume dramas, and if you're not careful, she might talk your ear off about the Plantagenets. Sorry about that in advance! 

You can find Sophie on all the platforms as @sophiebiblio and keep an eye on her bylines from all over the internet via her handy portfolio.

More to Love from Telly Visions