Category Archives: Television

Britain’s Got Talent did not tell you this about harpist Ursula Burns last night

Britain’s Got Talent has to appeal to a mainstream audience, but that doesn’t explain why they had to blandify ‘Dangerous Harpist’ Ursula Burns in the live Semi-Final last night. Most of her YouTube videos are currently blocked lest BGT viewers see them.

Ursula Burns on a fluffy cloud in mid-air on BGT last night

Alright, lyrics with four-letter words – well, seven – “I’m your fucking harpist” – might be out and Dry Your Eyes, Jesus might be a bit too controversial, but that is no reason not to allow her to simultaneously play a harp and a grand piano (except that someone sang a comic song with a piano the previous night).

When she was younger, she ran away to join the circus and can play a harp while walking on stilts! Instead, we got some horrendously manufactured twee story about her loving her harp so much she wanted to marry it.

And let’s not even mention minimising her harp-playing and minimising her ability with a song she didn’t write.

These type of TV programmes used to be called ‘real people shows’. Now they are over-produced with as many unreal people in them as a manufactured boy band.

As for Ursula Burns, this extract from a blog of mine written at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2013 – the year she was nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality – may be of interest.


Born in the Falls Road: Ursula’s Dangerous Harpist album

She was born in the Falls Road, Belfast, in 1970 – not a good time or place to be born.

“Bombs, shooting, war. Miracle that I actually survived,” she tells her audience (several of whom have never heard of the Falls Road).

“Total and utter war zone,” she tells them in her Ulster accent. Then she switches to a Spanish accent to say: “Now I will sing my song for you: Being Born.”

Her aunts play the piano and sing; her grandfather was a fiddle player from Donegal; her dad “sings funny songs in bars”; and her mum plays the harp – which is why Ursula never wanted to play the harp while she was a child.
She sings comic songs while playing a very glamorous Paraguayan harp. Her songs include I’m Your Fucking Harpist and Get Divorced and Join The Circus.

When she was 14, she actually did run away from home to join the circus – “They were dark, dark times,” she told me – and, when the Fringe ends, she is going to France with the Irish Tumble Circus.

Ursula, circus-trained, plays her harp on stilts in Belfast

Ursula, on stilts, plays her harp while walking through Belfast

She cannot read music but she can stilt-walk and taught herself to play the harp only when she was an adult. She accidentally won an Irish music comedy award.

During her show, she says:

“People think, because I play the harp, that I’m actually cultured. They think I care about the history of the harp and how many strings it has. They think, because I play the Paraguayan harp, that I know stuff and I’m cultured. But, actually, I just do it for the money.”

Her show is called Ursula Burns: I Do It For the Money, which is true – because she has to support her 9-year-old son who is, she says, very successfully flyering for her in Edinburgh “because he is cute and everyone likes him on sight”.

After the show – in Fingers Piano Bar at 3.10pm daily (except Mondays) until 24th August – she told me:

“I had always written funny songs and I’ve always composed music, but I never associated what I was doing with ‘Comedy’. Then I accidentally won the Irish Music Comedy Awards last year.”

“Accidentally?” I asked.

Ursula accidentally wins an award (Photo by thecomedyscoop.com)

“I uploaded a couple of videos to YouTube,” Ursula explained. “The Hospital Song  and It Does Not Rock (aka I’m Your Fucking Harpist)

“People shared them round and a comedian in Belfast – Stephen Mullan – used it in his comedy night and he said You should forward your video to the IMCA Awards, which I’d never heard of.

“I tried, but the deadline was the next day – in March last year – and I couldn’t do it. But another guy had forwarded my details and just got in before the deadline.

“The IMCA people got in touch with me and asked me to come down to Dublin and play in the finals… and I won. I only had two funny songs at that point but, in the next month, I wrote the hour-long show.

“I had accidentally got on the comedy circuit and I found that really difficult because I was getting up there with a harp, sandwiched on the bill between two stand-up comics. I found the comedy world quite rough; I didn’t understand it; I was a fish out of water. They were all men and I’d turn up in a ball gown with a harp. I’d won this award and people were looking at me: Go on! Prove yourself! I need good sound and some of these gigs wouldn’t even have proper sound set-ups.

“The comedy scene doesn’t pay very well. I live off gigs; I live from gig to gig. There’s months where there’s nothing coming in and my life is expensive – I have a 9 year-old son. That’s why I wrote the song I Do It For The Money. I’ve been performing all my life. I’ve paid my dues. Everyone who was on the scene when I was learning my craft has either got famous or given up, but I’ve hung in there.

Ursula packs her gear into her van after the Piano Bar gig

Ursula and her portable accommodation in Edinburgh, 2013

“People said You’d go down well at the Edinburgh Fringe but, at a basic, bottom reality, I couldn’t afford to come here. So I applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for a grant and I only found out I was getting it at the very end of June (too late to be in the Fringe Programme) and I only got the money the week before I arrived. I couldn’t have come here without their help. Sustaining yourself as an artist with a child is hard and ends do not always meet.

“When I first started,” said Ursula, “I would write really violent lyrics and put them with beautiful melodies and I would be travelling round with bands in vans. I’ve played everywhere from the Albert Hall to tube stations.

“The thing for me about the harp is breaking down the boundaries and comedy is just another aspect where I can do that. I don’t imagine that I will stay in comedy. I need to explore all things in all directions.”

She is a stilt-walking harpist who won an Irish comedy award by accident…

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Music, Television

Ricky Gervais – “I haven’t really watched comedy for two years”

“Live long enough to punish the world…”

A couple of nights ago, I went to a preview of the first two episodes of After Life, Ricky Gervais’ new series for Netflix – available from next Friday (March 8th). He created, wrote, directed, executive produced and stars in it,

I have never really followed his career with that much interest – mea culpa – so I was taken aback by just how a good a writer – and director – he is.

The screenings were at BAFTA and there were loud, genuine laughs aplenty: sometimes because of tiny little subtleties in the scripts. A terrifically well-made six-part series. The premise is:

“Tony (Ricky Gervais) had a perfect life. But after his wife Lisa dies, Tony changes. After contemplating taking his own life, he decides instead to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on. He thinks it’s like a Super Power — not caring about himself or anyone else — but it turns out to be tricky when everyone is trying to save the nice guy they used to know.”

The ending of Episode 2 was very very dark indeed and I can’t see a terrestrial broadcaster having the confidence – well, the bollocks – to commission it. Whether it is better described as a dark sitcom or a drama with comic elements is a matter of opinion. The cast is full of comedians and comedy actors – Kerry Godliman, Penelope Wilton, Roisin Conaty, Paul Kaye, Joe Wilkinson etc etc and a dog

In a Q&A after the screening, Ricky Gervais talked about the series, including why he chose that cast:


“It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny”

It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny. If you’ve got people who haven’t got a funny bone and you are trying to make them funny, forget it.

But, if you’ve got a comedians and you tell them, “Just do that,” they get it.

It’s not really just a sitcom; it’s a drama. 

I haven’t really watched comedy for two years. I’ve watched ‘Scandi Noir’ – The Bridge, The Killing, Before We Die, Black Lake, Greyzone. They’re amazing. The pacing’s different. Uncompromised. It’s for grown-ups.

That’s where HBO made their mark. When HBO came out, people said: “Why would I pay for stuff?” – “Well, because you can’t get The Sopranos.” on ABC. You won’t get The Wire anywhere.

Now Netflix have done that even better. They drop it all at once.

Everyone who’s interviewed me, I say they have to watch all six episodes. It’s better to watch them all at once or two or three a night. It does matter. (Each episode) does start where it left off. There is a story. It’s like a novelisation: one long story. If you don’t watch one, you’ll be a bit confused. You can’t watch them out-of-order or miss one, because everything comes back. So it’s perfect for binge watching and Netflix are the perfect broadcaster. They tick every box slightly better than anyone else.

To get final edit (in the past), I’ve had to compromise a bit. So it was BBC2 instead of BBC1 or Channel 4 instead of ITV or HBO instead of NBC.

Then Netflix come along and there are no restrictions – less than anyone – the sky’s the limit – 140 million subscribers – and they’re very generous. They even have the ‘C word’ in the trailer. That’s never been done.

I think when you get older, you just want to be more honest.

It’s about someone struggling. He doesn’t want to feel anything. He’s trying to make himself a psychopath so it doesn’t feel so terrible every day. He used to be a nice guy. He had the perfect life and that was taken from him.

Imagine if a man lost everything and he had nothing left to lose. Ooh! That’s interesting! He can do anything he wants. We are constrained, restrained every day about consequences. But, if there wasn’t any… or you didn’t care that the worst consequence was being dead… you’ve got nothing to fear. 

So that’s the journey for him though, obviously, it’s not going to be as simple as that.

The worst thing is your partner dying. He had a perfect life, didn’t care about anything else. That goes and you’ve got nothing… in his mind.

That’s why he’s saying awful things. In the split second where you think: Shall I say something? – Oh, I’d better not… He doesn’t have the ‘better not’ now. He thinks: Why the fuck not?

He’s experimenting. You know how a toddler pushes the boundaries? He’s a bit spoiled. And he’s not well. He’s in the second phase of grief. He’s depressed and he’s angry and he’s just trying to lash out to make himself feel better for a split second. He’s an owl in a trap.

The overall message is Life is amazing and you are definitely going to die so things have got to be really bad for you to blow that little gift. Is it worth living another ten years? It just might be. And I think that. That is me. I’m an atheist. We didn’t exist for 13½ billion years; then we get 80 or 90 years, if we’re lucky, of this amazing experience. And we’ll never exist again. So you don’t want to go too early but, when the really bad days outweigh the good, then I’m all for it – let’s knock it on the head.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Drama, Movies, Television

“The Secret Service” – Gerry Anderson’s weirdest puppet/live action TV series

The ‘real’ Stanley Unwin starred in The Secret Service

Yesterday’s blog was a profile of eccentric British performer Stanley Unwinstar of Gerry Anderson’s very bizarre and mostly forgotten 1969 part-puppet/part-live-action series The Secret Service.

Here is the first half of a 1980 interview-based article about it which I wrote for Marvel Comics’ science fantasy magazine Starburst.


The real and the puppet Stanley Unwin drove a Model T Ford

The Secret Service is the story of an ordinary English country priest, Father Unwin, and his slow-thinking yokel gardener Matthew Harding. At least, to the casual observer, that’s what they appear to be. In reality, they are Secret Service agents working under orders from BISHOP (British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest). The BISHOP personnel communicate with their operatives via Father Unwin’s hearing aid.

On special missions. Father Unwin and Matthew use a remarkable electronic device hidden in a book left in Unwin’s care by a late parishioner. The device can miniaturise a person or object to one-third life size – thus enabling super-agent Matthew to carry out daredevil missions which would be otherwise impossible.

Problematic miniaturised Matthew and his travel case

When Matthew has been miniaturised, Father Unwin carries him about in a specially-converted suitcase. The case has a chair and periscope so that Matthew can sit and watch the world go by. He can talk to Father Unwin through the hearing aid and has his own hearing aid for communication during missions.

This may seem a little strange.

The series becomes even more outlandish when you realise that it starred both the real ‘live’ Stanley Unwin and a Stanley Unwin puppet (made by Terry Curtis).

Although live-action hands had been used for close-ups in previous Gerry Anderson series, this was the first time that the team had used full live-action mixed with puppets. It was even more complicated because miniaturisation was an integral part of the plot.

Art director Keith Wilson explained to me: “The whole series had special problems because, when he (Matthew) was small, you had to have large sets. When he was large, you had to have small sets. When he was small, he was a puppet and everything else was real. But, when he wasn’t small, he was still a puppet and everything else was puppet sized.”

This was further complicated by the fact that, on location long-shots, the real Stanley Unwin was seen driving a real Model-T Ford. In close-ups, a puppet Unwin was seen driving a radio-controlled miniature model-T.

The miniature Model T Ford on a real road…

Gerry Anderson explains: “For example, we had sequences where the Model-T would drive – for real – into London Airport with Stanley Unwin driving. He would stop, get out and walk into this enormous (real) departure lounge and walk up to the desk. As he walked up to the desk, we would go bang into a close-up of the puppet and they were so cleverly matched, you couldn’t tell the difference.”

Keith Wilson agrees: “It did work. It was impossible to tell the difference.”

“We were able,” says Gerry Anderson, “to do all sorts of things that we weren’t previously able to do. Again, it was an endeavour to make the puppets appear to  be walking properly.”

Executive producer Reg Hill expanded on this to me: “All that happened was that, for certain areas you’d find difficult to do with puppets, we used live-action. It wasn’t a question of a live-action film with puppets or puppets with live-action. It was a question of using whichever was more advantageous at the time. In other words, they were complementary. For ages before, we had been using live hands for inserts, for the simple reason that you can’t get puppets to move their hands, to twiddle knobs or poke buttons. So we had been half the way there previously.”

ITC produced glossy promotions but the bizarre series failed to get a full ITV network screening in UK

Keith Wilson told me he thought the basic idea was “rather good” and Gerry Anderson used exactly the same words: “It was a rather good idea”.

When I talked to the show’s producer, David Lane, he agreed: “I thought it was ingenious,” he told me. “But it was a nightmare – an absolute nightmare – because of the different scales we were using. You can imagine the problems. You’re shrinking a puppet to puppet size on a puppet set and then you’re having to build it live-action size for the puppet because he’s supposed to be a small man in a full-sized environment. And then you’re using the ‘shrunken’ puppet in a normal set. I mean, it was a very, very complicated series. We had to work it out at script stage. It wasn’t always the director who worked it out – we had to work it out at script stage.”

ITC/ATV publicity stills for the “difficult” Secret Service

And, of course, puppets are often more difficult to work with than live actors, as David Lane explains: “Everything is pre-planned in puppets. It’s no good going on (stage for shooting) and saying We’ll change that line of dialogue and we’ll do it this way because you haven’t got anyone there to change the line of dialogue. You’re stuck with what you’ve pre-recorded.”

The one thing the series did arguably have, though, was charm.

Gerry Anderson told me, “I thought it was one of the most charming series I’ve made, but then I was in love with it. It was a beautiful country church and a vicar and young Matthew who used to help out in the garden and they had their regular Sunday services. (The title The Secret Service is a pun.) 

ITC’s Production Notes for The Secret Service

Because it was so strongly connected with The Church, of course, we made sure that the missions were always Good against Evil.”

The production notes for the series say: “Father Unwin is as conscious of his  spiritual responsibilities as any other priest. If his experiences can provide him with any material for his sermons, he conveys it to his congregation in symbolic and well-disguised terms.”

He is described in the production notes as “the sort of man who normally prefers to wear a cassock and is old-fashioned enough to go to bed in a night-shirt and night-cap.”

With such an out-of-the-ordinary series, it was felt that the music, too, should be something special…

… CONTINUED HERE

This is the first episode of The Secret Service…

and the crime-fighting possibilities of miniaturisation and a mix of puppets and live action were further developed in Gerry Anderson’s later, unscreened pilot The Investigator. There are clips from The Investigator at the beginning of this online video.

Leave a comment

Filed under Puppets, Television

Who was Stanley Unwin in the forgotten and weird Gerry Anderson puppet series

Stanley Unwin – The Secret Service puppet

In 1980, I wrote an article, based on interviews, for Marvel Comics’ Starburst magazine about the little-remembered 1969 Gerry Anderson series The Secret Service.

The lead role was played both by the ‘real’ live version and by a puppet version of eccentric performer and ‘professor’ of gobbledegook Stanley Unwin.

The series only lasted for 13 episodes. ATV/ITC boss Lew Grade apparently thought the Americans would have trouble understanding ‘Unwinese’.

In the next two days, I will be posting my 1980 article on The Secret Service as a two-parter.

But here, first, is a reminder of who Stanley Unwin was.


When The Secret Service was produced (it was shot in 1968), Stanley Unwin was nationally famous in the UK as the inventor and chief exponent of ‘Unwinese’ gobbledegook, an intelligible nonsense language. As the star of The Secret Service he enhanced the general air of weirdness that surrounded the ITV series.

At the time, he was 57 years old. He was born in South Africa in 1911 of English parents but, following his father’s death in 1914, his mother took him back to the UK, could not cope and, by 1919, he was living in the National Children’s Home at Congleton in Cheshire.

Unwin said he thought he had read his first science fiction story under his desk at school in Cheshire. The school master caught him and he “lost an enchanting story forever”. But he maintained his interest in science fiction and became a Ray Bradbury enthusiast after reading part of The Martian Chronicles.

He studied radio, television and languages at the Regent Street Polytechnic which, coincidentally, was where I studied a (totally different) course in radio, TV, journalism and advertising half a century later.

For ten years, he ran his own business as a wireless engineer then, in 1940, he joined the BBC as a sound engineer and part-time war correspondent in the BBC’s War Reporting Unit.

He joined the BBC as a sound engineer and war correspondent

In 1947, he was the BBC technical expert chosen to go on a Royal Tour of South Africa and it was around this time that he discovered his talents for “double talk”. The story goes that he made his first, accidental, transmission, when based back at BBC Birmingham.

While testing equipment, he handed the microphone to broadcaster F.R. ‘Buck’ Buckley, who ad-libbed a spoof commentary about an imaginary sport called Fasche. Buckley then got Unwin to join in and introduced him as ‘Codlington Corthusite’. Unwin started speaking in Unwinese.

The recording was played back to two BBC producers, who added sound effects and it was eventually broadcast on the Mirror of the Month programme in 1948. This was well-received and culminated in another sketch in which Unwin, playing a man from Atlantis, was interviewed about life in the sunken city. The broadcast produced Unwin’s first fan mail, from comic performer Joyce Grenfell and this whetted his taste for showbiz.

He claimed he had developed his talent for Unwinese by telling bedtime fairy stories to his two daughters.

“I found they enjoyed the stories even more when I used double talk,” he explained. ” I was also interested in speaking like this because I had always been intrigued by the lack of communication between people when talking to each other and I realised that they listened far more attentively if you said something strangely.

“As I first used my treatment of language to amuse children to relieve the boredom of fairy stories often repeated, there was a good connection with Gerry Anderson’s puppet films”.

No nonsense: “I prefer to think of it as garbled sense.”

He claimed the reason he could talk ‘nonsense’ whose meaning could be immediately understood was because: “I prefer to think of it as garbled sense… The degree of perception depends on the listener. I believe it works partly because the sounds, inflections and rhythm seem to express ideas to the listener. There are visual components too, like facial expression and occasional hand and head movements. All these are used to communicate as in normal speech. I think a lot of it is partly heredity.”

His mother once told him that, on the way home, she had “falolloped over” and “grazed her kneeclabbers”.

Stanley, though, said: “I prefer not to get too analytical because that detracts from the imaginative side of it.”

Whatever the explanation of Unwinese, his initial broadcast for the BBC in 1948 was such a success that it led on to regular radio and TV appearances in such programmes as Beyond Our Ken and Does the Team Think?

BBC producer Roy Speer also introduced him to the comedian Ted Ray, who said simply: “I want him in my series” – The Spice of Life, co-starring June Whitfield and Kenneth Connor.

In 1956, he ventured into the film industry in the Cardew Robinson film Fun at St Fanny’s.

He became so popular that, in 1960, he resigned his job as a BBC Senior Recording Engineer and, aged 49, began a full-time showbiz career. He appeared in hundreds of TV shows, in commercials, pantomimes, the Carry On films – Carry On Regardless – and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In 1968, the year The Secret Service was shot, he was also invited to narrate Happiness Stan, a six song fairy tale which took up the whole of Side 2 of the Small Faces’ No 1 album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake.

When he was approached to star in The Secret Service, he saw it as a challenge to do something new: “Gerry Anderson has a wonderful imagination and I found that he and his team were in tune, so to speak, with my vehicle. This was something new. Why shouldn’t it work? It was an attempt to add a new dimension to the puppet field and the ‘all-consuming’ medium of films and TV surely needs encouragement in new ideas. It was a bit bizarre, but then aren’t many new ideas a little odd at first?”

Unwin did have some doubts about how the series would fare in the US.

“Gerry Anderson,” he said in 1980, “is a better judge of the American comprehension of Unwinese than I am, but I certainly had misgivings because of the preponderance in their population of people of non-Anglo-Saxon origins. If we assume one-third of the American population came from the British Isles, I believe that those in cosmopolitan America would largely understand.

“But it would be difficult to assess idiomatic appreciation across the States as a whole. The Secret Service never succeeded commercially. But there are some minority aspects of humour which are so strong that, in spite of their non-commerciality, they can be worthwhile. I received letters of appreciation from places like Australia, Canada and the Far East right up to last year — ten years after the series was made”.

Stanley Unwin died in 2002, much mourned, aged 90. At the church service after his death, the valediction began: “Goodly Byelode loyal peeploders! Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee – Oh Yes!”

He is buried with his wife Frances, who died before him. Their joint gravestone has the inscription: “Reunitey in the heavenly-bode – Deep Joy!”

… CONTINUED HERE

1 Comment

Filed under Children, Comedy, Puppets, Television

Douglas Adams talks. Part 3: Why he rejected Monty Python’s Terry Jones

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this 1980 interview, Douglas Adams told me about how the radio, stage and book versions of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came into being. In Part 3 (of 4), he talks about how the TV and movie versions did and did not happen.


Douglas Adams decided to turn down £50,000

JOHN: There was talk of a  Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice and each time I’ve backed out. I knew we were going to be doing it for BBC TV anyway and I knew we could do it all on telly. In the first film deal that was being set up, the American guy who was going to be directing it… I began to feel we were talking about different things and he wanted to make Star Wars with jokes. We seemed to be talking about different things and one thing after another seemed not quite right and I suddenly realised that the only reason I was going ahead with it was the money. And that, as the sole reason, was not a good enough reason. Although I have to get rather drunk in order to believe that. (LAUGHS)

It had got to the stage where I just had to sign a piece of paper and would instantly have £50,000 up-front, so I was quite pleased with myself for not doing that. I thought: There’s no point in doing a film at the moment. Then the whole thing re-opened when Terry Jones of Monty Python, who’s a great friend of mine, said he’d like to think about making a film of Hitch-Hiker. So I thought That sounds like a nice idea but the original idea was to do something based fairly solidly round that first radio series and I just didn’t want to do that again. I’d done it on radio, on stage, on record, in a book and was now doing it on television. It just seemed a pointless waste of time to do the same story again on film.

So we then thought it would be much more worthwhile to do a new story. But then we had the problem of having to do a story which was, on the one hand, totally consistent with what had gone before for those who knew what had happened and, on the other hand, totally self-contained for the sake of those who didn’t. And that began to be a terrible conundrum and I just couldn’t solve it. So, in the end, Terry and I just said: “It’d be nice to do a film together, but let’s just start from scratch again and not make a Hitch-Hiker.”

(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – no hyphen – movie was eventually released in 2005, four years after Douglas Adams’ death)

JOHN: I was surprised when I first heard about the TV series and the film because I  thought the radio series was un-visualisable.

DOUGLAS: Well, obviously, there are things you lose when you move onto television in that what you actually see restricts what you imagine whereas, on radio, what you hear provokes what you imagine. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things I think are worthwhile. One of the great strengths of the television series is those wonderful animated graphics. If you’d been sitting down to do something like Hitch-Hiker for television to begin with, there are all sorts of things it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do. Like having a narrator who talks all the time: you just don’t normally have that on television.

But we were committed to that because of its success on radio. Having to translate something from one medium to another, you have to find solutions to problems which normally wouldn’t have posed themselves. Finding those solutions is interesting and that’s how we got those graphics. If you were doing a BBC television programme normally, you would just not gratuitously attempt to have one character with two heads. It just poses far too many problems. But, being committed to that, we had to do it.

BBC TV Special Effects designer Jim Francis tests his radio controlled head for Zaphod.Beeblebrox. (Photograph by John Fleming)

So they built this head which is a quite remarkable construction. It’s moulded from Mark Wing-Davey’s own head and the neck movement side-to-side and up-and-down, the eye and the mouth and the eyebrow and the cheek are all radio-controlled. It’s an extraordinary feat. Something you would not have got except in the process of translating one medium to another. You’re committed to things you otherwise wouldn’t have tackled.

JOHN: Like those wonderful computer read-outs for the book.

DOUGLAS: The computer read-outs are all animated. I’d assumed one would do it as computer graphics and actually use a real computer to do it, but apparently that is incredibly expensive. So it was done by animation, which is more effective.

JOHN: I saw the completed version of the first episode at the Edinburgh Television Festival way back in August. Why was it finished so early? Because it was a pilot?

Concept sketch of Marvin  by Jim Francis for the TV series.

DOUGLAS: Well, a sort of pilot. ‘Pilot’ can mean several things. In some cases, a pilot episode is made and broadcast to see how the audience reacts to it. This was a different sort of pilot. The BBC had said: We’re committed to doing the series. But we want to do the first one separately so we can see we’re doing it right. And then we have the opportunity of changing things. In fact, that isn’t quite how it worked out. When the bills came in for the first programme, there was a certain amount of stunned shock and back-peddling on whether or not they were going to do the rest of the series. Then they said: Yes, we will go ahead, but try to be a little more careful. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: One of the most popular characters is Marvin the Paranoid Android. I believe he came from a specific…

DOUGLAS: Yes, Andrew Marshall. He’s one of the writers of The Burkiss Way and End of Part One. He co-wrote the radio series Hordes of the Things with John Lloyd, which was a sort of parody of Lord of the Rings. Very silly.

JOHN: You’re really part of a third generation of Cambridge comedy writers. There was the Beyond The Fringe and TW3 lot. Then the I’m Sorry I’ll Read That AgainThe Goodies and Monty Python lot. And now there’s The Burkiss Way, End of Part One, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Hitch-Hiker and so on lot. The generation after Monty Python.

DOUGLAS: I suppose so. But in that previous generation one major programme sat on the top of the pile, which was Python. I think all my way through Cambridge I desperately wanted that to happen all over again. I wanted to function as part of a group of writer-performers. But, you see, a radical change had come over the way things were organised.

The Cambridge Footlights’ ADC Theatre in 2005 (Photograph by Andrew Dunn)

In those days – the time that produced Python – the writer-performer was the kingpin. That was true in the Cambridge Footlights and in the shows that those guys then went on to do. So it was the guys themselves who were doing it and they came together and a producer was given to them just to get it onto the screen and make it work. By my day. The Footlights had become a producer’s show. So a producer is there to say what the show is going to be – a student producer or, more likely, someone who was at Cambridge two years previously who’s come back to do it. He says I want so-and-so in it and I want so-and-so to write it and they’re appointed and the producer calls the tune. I think that’s wrong.

That’s what’s true in Not The Nine O’Clock News. I’ll get into trouble for saying this but I think that’s wrong: it just makes it slightly too artificial. My year in the Cambridge Footlights was full of immensely talented people who never actually got the chance to really work together properly, because they were all working for somebody else rather than getting together. So it was very fragmented and you get on the one hand Hitch-Hiker, which is written by one person with actors employed to do it, and on the other hand Not The Nine O’Clock News, which is a producer’s show being sort of driven from the back seat. And there’s nothing central that has come out of my Cambridge generation.

JOHN: How many years of your life have you spent on Hitch-Hiker now?

DOUGLAS: Four. The first time it actually crept into my life was the end of 1976.

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no.

… CONTINUED HERE

‘Dish of the Day’ concept sketch by Jim Francis for BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Science fiction, Television

BBC re-writes TV history in its favour by faking the Morecambe and Wise story

I just sat through the BBC TV drama Eric, Ernie & Me which re-wrote showbiz history by pretending the BBC made Morecambe & Wise famous on TV and writing-out their giant success on ITV before they joined the BBC.

Or, rather, re-joined the BBC…

The BBC had completely buggered Morecambe & Wise’s potential TV career with their first disastrous TV show Running Wild in 1954. One famous newspaper review read: “Definition of the week: TV set—the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise.”

That quote was used in Eric, Ernie & Me as if it immediately preceded their 1968 TV series with the BBC – rather than being from 14 years before and a review of another BBC show.

ATV/ITV made them mega TV successes and household names with Two of a Kind (1961-1968, written by Sid Green & Dick Hills) and that TV success was ‘bought’ by the BBC who offered them much more money and then made their shows 1968-1977 (written by Eddie Braben). The BBC bought them because they were already ratings successes and they built on that.

Personally, I always thought M&W were funnier when written for by Sid & Dick at ATV/ITV.

Pretending the BBC started their TV success from ground zero is disgraceful bullshit bollocks.

Here they are in Sid & Dick’s classic Boom-Oo-Yata-Ta-Ta sketch on ATV/ITV in 1962, six years before they moved to the BBC.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Television

How to write, structure and maintain a TV soap opera like Coronation Street

Many moons ago, I used to work a lot for Granada TV in Manchester, home of Coronation Street which, since its birth in 1960, has been the UK’s regular ratings-topper.

I never worked in the Drama Department at Granada – mostly I was in Promotions with slight forays into Children’s/Light Entertainment.

But I remember having conversations with two Coronation Street producers at different times about the structure of the soap and they both, pretty much, ran it along similar lines.

The first, crucial pillar to build a soap on is a central location.

In Coronation Street, the BBC’s EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale this is a pub – the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic and The Woolpack.

River City in Scotland and Fair City in the Republic of Ireland have also taken the pub to their soapy hearts.

The pub allows you to have a central core cast – a small staff and ‘regulars’ who live locally – and a logical reason why new characters bringing new plots will enter and leave the ongoing storyline.

ATV’s ancient soap Crossroads used a variation of this by having the central setting as a motel.

In the case of Coronation Street, there was (certainly when I worked at Granada) a formula which went roughly like this…

DRAMATIC STORYLINES

  • one main storyline peaking
  • one main storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next main storyline
  • one subsidiary storyline peaking
  • one subsidiary storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next subsidiary storyline

COMIC STORYLINES (as with dramatic storylines)

  • one peaking
  • one winding down
  • one building

I have always thought that EastEnders fails in ignoring or vastly underplaying the possibility of comic storylines. When Coronation Street is on a roll, it can be one of the funniest shows on TV.

I confess shamefacedly that I have not actually watched Coronation Street lately (well, it HAS been going since 1960, now five times a week, and even I have a partial life).

But another interesting insight from one of the producers at Granada TV was that Coronation Street (certainly in its perceived golden era) was also slightly out-dated. It appeared to be a fairly socially-realistic tableau of life in a Northern English town, slightly dramatised. But it was always 10-20 years out-of-date. It showed what people (even people in the North) THOUGHT life was currently like, but it had an element of nostalgia.

This was in-built from the start. The initial ‘three old ladies in the snug’ of the 1960s – Era Sharples and her two cronies) is what people thought Northern life was like but, in fact, that was a vision from the early 1950s or 1940s or even 1930s. So modern storylines were being imposed on a slightly nostalgised (not quite romanticised!) vision of the North.

In other countries where pubs are not a tradition, of course, you have to find another central location.

But, in my opinion, if you lessen the humour and harden the gritty realism, you may maintain ratings figures in the short or medium term, but you are gambling. And if your spoken lines sound like written lines (as they often do in EastEnders) then you are a titanic success sailing close to an iceberg.

But what do I know?

1 Comment

Filed under Television, Writing