Steven Moffat interview: ‘Nine and a Half Months’ – Coupling’s finale at 20

Coupling, the popular BBC Two sitcom written by Steven Moffat, came to an end 20 years ago with the 28th and final episode, ‘Nine and a Half Months’ airing on 14th June 2004. The show was inspired by the real relationship between Steven and his wife, and producer, Sue Vertue. The finale saw a series of big moments for the show’s ensemble with Steve (Jack Davenport) and Susan (Sarah Alexander) in hospital awaiting the birth of their first child while Patrick (Ben Miles) and Sally (Kate Isitt) get – sort of – engaged, and Jane (Gina Bellman) and Oliver (Richard Mylan) try to consumate their relationship. Writer Steven Moffat very generously agreed to talk to us about the finale and more generally about the fourth and final series.

The final episode of Coupling first aired 20 years ago.  That means Steve and Susan’s child is all grown up. Firstly, how does that make you feel? And what do you imagine they’d be doing now?

Well Steve and Susan were always sort of me and Sue so I guess I know exactly what they’re up to, 20 years later. We had one new born baby when we did the first run: now we have two adult sons. I don’t need Coupling to make me feel old – I have two grown up children and the bathroom mirror.

That final episode features the return of Jeff in the form of Jeffina played by Samantha Spiro. When an actor decides to move on, as Richard Coyle did, is it frustrating as a writer to not have all your characters available? Especially in a sitcom where the balance is so important.

Losing Richard Coyle was tough, of course. But the really tough part was that he didn’t come back to do a goodbye episode. Somehow that made everything after that feel a little hollow, a little fake. Like it was all balanced on a lie. Being honest, I was a bit cross at the time, though only for a few days. I have seen Richard many times since: wonderful actor and a lovely man. But in all honesty, it was a terminal blow. If we’d had a proper goodbye episode, that would’ve sold it. If we’d had the chance to contrive a really moving, magnificent exit, then yeah, we’d have had a chance. But we didn’t because we couldn’t. The one part of a story you are not allowed to skip is the ending, and that’s exactly what we did with the story of Jeff.

Richard Mylan joined the cast as Oliver for series 4. While new characters can open more storytelling possibilities, it can also be tough to integrate someone into an established cast. Did you ever consider just going with the five remaining originals?

Richard Mylan was excellent, really first class. But see above. He was on a hiding to nothing. He seemed like a hastily recruited replacement, shoved in before the existing story was allowed to end. And despite him being properly great – he got some of our biggest ever studio laughs – we’d been holed below the waterline. I mean, that’s going too far. I think ‘Nightlines’ and ‘Circus Of The Epidurals’ were terrific episodes. But the spell had been broken somehow. Damn it.

Should I have continued just with the existing five? It’s not a bad idea. The balance was shifting anyway – Patrick and Sally were kind of taking over, and with Steve and Susan having a child on the way, the relevance of Jeff’s insane insights was already declining. But I think I worried, it would just look like an absence. An empty space on the sofa. To be honest, I was probably right. Mind you, thinking about it now, all gray and wise and grumpy, there might have been a better way. Start with just the five. No extra name in the title sequence. A funny background appearance from Richard Mylan – no fanfare, just a glimpse. Then a bigger glimpse next week. Then he’s a regular. That might have worked better.

But hey. It was basically a no-win situation handled clumsily. Yay. There’s a career epitaph.

Just as this episode starts with a dream, and there are a lot of dream and fantasy sequences this series like Steve’s execution (‘Nightlines’) the plane (‘Circus of the Epidurals’) and the chess game (‘Bedtime’) . Is that a stylistic choice to broaden the texture of the episodes?

I didn’t notice I’d done that till someone pointed it out. You know what? It’s not a good sign. Opening on a dream sequence or a mad flashback is quite often a sign I’m not sure of myself. The right answer is always – always, always, always – just get on with the story. If you’re trying to avoid it, there’s probably a problem. I’m so glad it took me to 62 to realise that.

More generally, Coupling often used fairly experimental formats, changing the language or doing the episode in split screen, or the first episode of this series which shifted the point of view on the same sequence. Was it challenging to keep innovating? 

Loved those episodes, LOVED them. Love a gimmick, love a quirky device. Sometime I went too far – ‘Split’ is the obvious example, maybe ‘Nine and a Half Minutes’ – but ‘The Girl With Two Breasts’, ‘The End Of The Line’, and the never-ending phone call in ‘Nightlines’ were good I think. But are any of them as simply funny as the very simple ‘The Man With Two Legs’? Oh, it doesn’t matter. Those shows gave us an identity… And trying something difficult for the sheer silly hell of it keeps you up to the mark.

There are some huge moments in the episode, including Patrick proposing to Sally. I don’t think anyone saying ‘fuck’ on screen has been as brilliant as Kate Isitt is here. Obviously, this wasn’t necessarily the final episode, but did it feel like you had to give every character a big moment?

I’ve barely talked about the actual episode I’m supposed to be talking about, ‘Nine and a Half Months’. Actually, I really like it. I think it’s a proper, honest ending (I say that without having watched it in well over a decade.) And the best bit – or the funniest it – was the Patrick and Sally scene.

And in terms of the show’s mythology, there’s also a resolution to the Steve and Jane’s relationship which feels really sincere and emotional. With the baby storyline, did it feel like the right time for every character to move on in some way?

That’s the ending. There is no show past that, I don’t know why I ever thought there was. Coupling, if it was about anything (questionable) was about that strange gap in your life between leaving one family unit and starting your own. When you’re just playing at being an adult. I think there’s a case that you don’t become an adult till you’re a parent. And if you don’t have children, and I just offended you …… oh, okay, sorry. But I kind of mean it.

Okay, so Sue and I got together in 1996 and exactly a year later moved in together (we married a few months later.) And then we had a whale of a time, playing at being adults. We had a proper house and everything. Till then we’d lived in flats, but now we had STAIRS. We honestly marched up and down those stairs, declaring ourselves to be the owners of PROPER STAIRS. Grown ups at last. Well, kind of. We ate out every night, and were always the last to leave any party. No venue could get rid of us till the vacuum cleaners were out. And the sun usually.

We pitched Coupling (the sort-of story of our lives) got it greenlit and having already done a rehearsed reading, had our amazing cast ready to go.

And then Sue got pregnant (I was involved) and reality burst into our lives and ran laughing up and down our stairs. After the events portrayed in ‘Nine and a Half Months’, when we were freshly home with baby Joshua and exhausted by the endless rounds of feeding and watering (not Joshua, all our friends coming to stare at our baby) I made arrangements for my first trip out of the house since becoming a father.

I was meeting Jack Davenport at the restaurant right in front of our house (stairs, did I mention?) to discuss storylines for the first series of Coupling. That’s what happened after the end the show – the show began. And as I sat there, wittering away about my all my ideas, it occurred to me that I was going to be writing about a life I’d only just left.

What I didn’t know then was we’d be using our real life house – the one I was still living in – for the location of Susan and Steve’s home.

Circle closed. Further episodes need not apply.

Your sitcoms have often been inspired by elements of your real life divorce (Joking Apart), teaching (Chalk) and with Coupling, a new relationship with the lead characters even taking the names of you and your partner. Are there any other aspects of your life that you would like to mine for a sitcom now?

We’ll see. Maybe. Having grown up children is a thing…

The multi-camera studio sitcom has fallen out of favour over the past two decades. Does it offer something that other formats can’t and do you think it’s still viable? I can’t imagine many of the big farcical moments in Coupling without a studio reaction, like Susan being left at the door in both flashback scenes in this episode.

Oh God! What happened to sitcom. A bunch of media snobs sneered them out of existence. But the other hundred percent of the audience still love them. BRING BACK SITCOM. And for God’s sake, ignore the media snobs.

Thank you very much Steven Moffat! For more of his thoughts, read our 2023 interview about the Press Gang finale here

All four series of Coupling are currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer.