IT has been the surprise hit of the year, a comedy which perfectly sums up the shared experience of a nation on lockdown, with that grinding mix of boredom, anxiety, humour and the perpetual struggle with new technology.

Staged, starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen as themselves, features the cast of a play who find themselves furloughed when their upcoming West End production is suddenly brought to a halt.

Written by Oxford theatre and film producers Simon Evans – who stars as himself – and Phin Glynn, the BBC series follows the cast as they try their best to keep the rehearsals on track in lockdown.

Hilarious and relatable it is entirely shot through the all-too familiar frame of the video conferencing package Zoom – which has become a ‘virtual’ leitmotif for lockdown.

With fabulous appearances by Samual L Jackson, Dame Judie Dench, Nina Sosanya, David’s wife Georgia, Michael’s girlfriend Anna Lundberg, and Simon's sister Lucy Eaton, it sees the cast locked down at their respective homes – including Simon's family home in the Oxfordshire countryside.

So how did it come about?

“I was in the very real situation of being about to start rehearsals for a play – Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing for Chichester – and having that production paused when the theatres were shut down,” says Simon.

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“So, there was a very real feeling of ‘What do I do now?’ The Staged-Simon tried to keep rehearsals going, the real-Simon opted to put the time into Staged instead.”

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That Staged has been so rapturously received, should be no surprise given the credentials of its creators.

Phin, who was raised in Jericho and studied at Oxford's Dragon School and St Edwards, has worked on eight films over the last four years, produced Mad to be Normal with David Tennant and Elisabeth Moss and the Doorman starring Ruby Rose and Jean Reno. He lives in Kingston Bagpuize, near Abingdon.

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Simon is a theatre director whose work includes The Dazzle with Andrew Scott, Bug with James Norton, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with Lenny Henry, and Killer Joe with Orlando Bloom.

Raised in north Oxfordshire, in Ickford and in the Otmoor village of Noke – where he has spent lockdown – he was a pupil at the Dragon and Abingdon schools.

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Phin says: “After Simon and I had had the initial idea and before we’d written much more than a pitch, we took it to David who I’d worked on two films with.

“I’ve also known Georgia, one of our producers and David’s wife, for a very long time. David and Georgia’s initial reaction was ‘well we don’t hate it’. Which we managed to work into a ‘yes’ by virtue of inviting them in on the creative and really making it a collaborative endeavour.

“David then took it to Michael on our behalf and I think it was that same approach that enticed him to join us as well. In addition to the fact that David and Michael are clearly just really good friends.”

And what was the creative process like?

“Wonderful and mad and something I’ll never forget,” says Simon.

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“The time from Phin and me having the initial idea, to David and Michael saying ‘we don’t hate it, we’d like to read it’, was five days. I then had a weekend to write a pilot episode which needed to be good enough to convince them to film it. Thankfully, it was, so we were off to the races, and it didn’t really let up for the next two months.

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“It was joyful. You really couldn’t ask for a more delightful, more brilliant set of actors and creatives to work with. This was, of course, a blessed relief as the time pressures were such that any complications might have made life unbearable.

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David Tennant at Oxford Plahouse. Picture: Geraint Lewis

“Phin and I worked out a rough story for the series, and divided that between six episodes, then I set about writing. I’d do a draft of an episode and share it with Phin. Once we were happy I’d share with David and Michael. We’d jump on a call to read it through and hear what was working, what wasn’t and what needed some attention. I’d do another draft then circulate again.

“Then we’d film. In whatever windows we could. David and Michael are both fathers, and partners, so their responsibilities were wider reaching than just this. When they had time, we filmed; when they didn’t, I wrote. When we had footage I’d send it to our wonderful editor Dan Gage, who’d start assembling.

And they knew they had struck gold as soon as it went out.

Phin says: “I think we knew it had landed almost immediately, but we’re also fascinated to see how it ages. Is it something that’s only going to be watched and be popular for the ‘right now’ or will it be something that people take with them in the future? I think that’s the next big test.”

Simon – whose endearing self-deprecating portrayal of a version of himself keeps the show grounded and hilarious, admits to being more cautious.

“I don’t think I allowed myself to think that at any point,” he says.

“There was a moment during the filming of the pilot, the scene where David and Michael compare their respective drawings of a pineapple and a Port Talbot dawn, when I thought ‘we might get away with this...’ but that was as confident as I got. I was a mess of nerves on the day it aired.”

The central strength of the production – playing with social distancing via Zoom –was also one of the biggest challenges.

“The challenges were both part of the fun and of the design,” says Phin.

“One of the first feelings we had was, how do we react with creativity to a difficult situation? We looked at the parameters of what we could make and decided to turn them into our strength. So I don’t think we ever felt too limited in what we wanted to achieve.”

Simon agrees. He says: “There were obvious challenges around the mechanics of actually making it: video not recording, audio files being sent to the wrong email address, laptops dying... but those actually became part of our day-to-day.

“Setting that stuff up with David and Michael took hours, but by the time we got to our final episode and our guest star, we were talking people through it in minutes.”

He adds: “I think there was challenge tonally as we wanted it to reflect something of this strange period without being too maudlin, and that’s a difficult thing to do when we haven’t had enough distance from it to be able to reflect.

“We’re still in it, so we don’t know how to be ironic about it yet. Questions like what do we mention, what do we show, how do we allude to the struggles people are going through and keep it funny? Those were all in my mind during the writing.”

The show seems natural, but how much was scripted?

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Phin Glynn at Oxford's UPP. Picture: Jon Lewis

“I’d say it’s about 85 per cent script,” says Simon. “David and Michael have such a natural chemistry and rapport and very genuine friendship that we’d have been shooting ourselves in the foot if we didn’t let them play off each other as much as possible.

“That said, we didn’t have enough time to come up with a whole episode on the fly. I’d write a draft, then we’ll read that through and rehearse it with them before I go away and work on a second draft. So our shooting script was always influenced by the things that had cropped up during the rehearsal.

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"Then we’d film and invariably try different things. Sometimes they were cued by me, and I’d offer up and idea for them to riff off; but I also became quite good at seeing the twinkle in one pair of eyes or the other at some moment suggested they wanted to play. So, we’d do a few takes where they got to head off in wild and exciting directions to try some other ideas.

"I just felt for our editor, who had to take it all and make some sense of it!"

The beauty of teh show is that nothing really happens; little things instead taking on huge magnitude – as they did for us all during the lockdown. Personality clashes and quibbles over how gets top billing between Michael and David (or David and Michael!) are magnified and Simon steadily loses control, coming across as lovable but ineffectual as he tries to keep the ship afloat.

Is it a fair portrayal?

"Absolutely not!" laughs Simon. "In real life I’m confident, authoritative and powerful. That said, I’d challenge anyone to have Michael Sheen say 'I don’t like you!' to their face and not wilt like day old lettuce."

The characters who come off best are the stars' lockdown companions: Georgia, Anna and the warm and deeply engaging Lucy who, as everyone points out, really is 'lovely'.

"Phin and I thought it was really important to be able to see something of the off-screen life of these characters, so the idea of using everyone’s partners seemed such a simple solution," says Simon.

"It certainly helped that Georgia, Anna and Lucy are brilliant actors, and such delightful additions to the team. I remember the first time I saw the footage from David and Georgia’s iPhone footage (which makes up the spelling-words-backwards scene from Episode 1) and thinking what a great on-screen team they are (and off screen too, obviously). Anna was wonderful too, and her out-IQ-ing Michael and David at every opportunity was such fun to write."

He goes on: "I’ve been lucky enough to work with my sister Lucy loads of times.

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Simon Evans at Oxford Playhouse. Picture Geraint Lewis

"She’s an actress in her own right but also runs a theatre production company called Go People and a luxury events company called Revels in Hand that offers theatre for private hire, and I’ve directed a couple of shows for those companies over the years.

"I think she found Staged tough because she and I get on incredibly well in real life, but her character had to be fairly dismissive of me in the show. Everytime we’d call cut she’d give me a squeeze and say 'Remember, I don’t really think this!'.”

So were they surprised at its success?

"Yes," says Phin. "I knew we had something we would like. I got that feeling that would be the case when I would read the scripts. I knew it would resonate with some people as I distinctly remember being in the garden when my fiance Hannah was watching it in the office and I could hear her laughing (she had just seen Simon sing the cookie jar song). She and I have different tastes – so to see her react to it so positively, I very much got the feeling that it would appeal to people who weren’t just me."

What next? Will there be a post lockdown conventional face to face follow up?

"We’re trying to put a movie together," says Phin, "We were supposed to be doing it now. But I think we both have some ideas we’d love to develop for TV."

Little known fact: Dame Judi Dench called Michael “Martin Sheen” in one of the takes. "It nearly ground the entire production to a halt," said Simon.

*WATCH IT: Staged, written by Simon Evans and Phin Glynn is produced by Infinity Hill and GCB Films for BBC One and is available on the BBCiPlayer as a box set