Category Archives: UK

Agent/manager Hollie Ebdon’s Strip Light, big shout-out & Comedy Project

Angelic agent/manager Hollie Ebdon

Angelic Hollie Ebdon has a Comedy Project

So, last night was the first Strip Light show at London’s Museum of Comedy.

“It’s monthly?” I asked Hollie Ebdon of Ebdon Management.

“Yes. Tamara Cowan, who runs the Musical Comedy Awards, and I decided to set up a production arm together – Strip Light Productions. And the Strip Light show is a monthly night at the Museum of Comedy every first Thursday until August, when we go up to the Edinburgh Fringe.”

“It’s a stage production company?”

“Yes. Live production company. We are interested in developing acts that could tour. We felt there was a bit of a gap in the market for acts that maybe aren’t quite so straight stand-uppy and for people who want to do more interesting concept nights and make them into something bigger.”

“And, separate from that,” I said, “you’re involved in The Comedy Project.”

“Yes. Starting on Monday and every Monday for a month there are Comedy Project shows at the Soho Theatre. It’s a separate thing. It’s not part of Strip Light or Ebdon Management. The Comedy Project has been going longer even than I have been working. It was started by actress/comedy writer Rosalind Adler in the late 1990s and has continuously pushed through loads of great new comedy writing.”

“So just the same thing year after year?” I asked.

The Comedy Project 2017

Not the same annual thing: it has evolved

“No. It’s sort of evolved. There was a time when judges came in to give feedback, but the acts were kind of uncomfortable with that.”

“It was a competition?” I asked.

“No. But I think it maybe felt a bit confrontational getting feedback in a room with an audience.”

“So you run it with Rosalind Adler?”

“The last couple of years we’ve been doing it together.”

“And the idea of the Comedy Project,” I asked, “is two new scripts – one by an experienced writer and another by a less experienced writer?”

“It doesn’t matter, really,” Hollie told me. “It’s a balancing thing. It’s the mixture of the scripts and how they sit together. We don’t want to put anything too similar on together. We want acts that will complement each other tonally. So something surreal might sit next to something that could be a big BBC1 sitcom.”

“The object,” I asked, “is to find a TV sitcom?”

“The object,” said Hollie, “is to get the scripts seen by industry people who might take an option on one of them… to present the writers to commissioners – so they can learn who they are before they are pitched to them. And for the acts to be able to hear their scripts performed. They get so much feedback and they can really see what’s working.”

“They are all your clients?” I asked.

“No. Only three are my clients. We do a big shout-out to other agents and lots of other comedy writers.”

Hollie Ebdon acts

Ready to cross-pollinate

“Why are you,” I asked, “a presumably hard-headed agent, touting the work of other agents’ clients? – You can’t make any money out of them.”

“You gotta share the love,” Hollie explained.

“But,” I said, “if Fred Bloggs, a writer or actor from another agency gets a break from this, you get nowt.”

“Yeah, but that’s life. My writers and performers will cross-pollinate with other agencies’ writers and performers. It’s a community and a great thing to be able to do. I’m always going to support new writing, whoever it is.”

“You could always nick someone else’s clients,” I suggested.

“I think my eyes are good enough to pick out the best talent without having to take it off anybody else. I have a little bit of a spine left, despite being an agent, so I try my best.”

“It takes time,” I suggested, “to make money.”

“Nobody starts as a money-maker. You do have to put the time in. Things don’t happen overnight.”

“How did you become an agent?”

“The agency has been going just over 2 years. I used to work in TV production as a runner and was going up to co-ordinator level, but then I got the hump because I wanted to be a producer and I didn’t feel I was being pushed in that direction.”

“You go for the quirky end of the market,” I suggested.

“Not on purpose. I don’t feel like that. And I don’t like the word quirky. They’re just different; more interesting; unique voices.”

Ed Aczel

Malcolm Hardee Award winning Ed Aczel – What?

“Anyone who wins the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award is quirky.” I suggested. “You have Ed Aczel.”

“But he’s so inspiring,” said Hollie. “Everybody I ever put him in front of says: I don’t know what I’m going to do with him, but I want him. He gets cast in great films, Call The Midwife, whatever.”

“Are your parents in showbiz?” I asked.

“My dad’s a plumber.”

“He has loads of money, then,” I laughed. “There’s more money in plumbing than most showbiz.”

“He only recently retrained in his 50s,” said Hollie. “Before that, he used to work in a print finishers in Hackney where, essentially, you cut up flyers. He’s happy now. Everyone needs a plumber.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Talent, UK

The President in a comedy competition

President Obonjo

Regular readers will know I am not above getting other people to write my blog for me.

Last weekend, Benjamin Bello aka President Obonjo of Lafta Republic took part in the annual Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year competition.

I asked him about it.

This is what he told me.


President Obonjo

President Obonjo onstage

Comedy competitions are a great way to showcase your talent in front of industry people and to play to audiences that have never seen your act, but there are times you wonder after you have been going for years: At what point do you stop calling yourself a New Comedian? 

It has been a great year for me, reaching the finals of seven comedy competitions and winning two of them has helped raise my profile. One was based on audience voting only and the other was a combination of audience voting and the judges voting.

Reaching the finals of seven comedy competitions in one year is no mean feat… but there are comedy competitions and there  are comedy competitions.

I recall at the beginning of my comedy career I won the Luton Comedian of the Year competition and I thought I had conquered the world. I had no idea of other comedy competitions like the BBC New Comedy Awards.

I have entered the prestigious annual Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year twice in previous years going out in the heats and then in the quarter finals the following year. I had resigned myself to not entering again and decided instead to enter the Great Yorkshire New Comedian of the Year 2016. (Benjamin lives in Luton) I was runner up and, as a result, I automatically progressed to the semi-finals of the Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year.

A few weeks before the semi-finals I knew I had to invite friends to come and vote and support me. Invitations went out on Facebook and I tweeted on Twitter and I spoke to a few people individually and they said they would come – I was elated.

I continued gigging across the country to get match fit.

I needed to prepare a polished five minute set.

As I sat in a coffee shop, I reflected on my Edinburgh Fringe show last year.

It was a one hour show. I received five stars with some degree of success.

I thought: Why am I stressing about a comedy competition with a five minute set?

The Leicester Square gig was on a Sunday. I turned down all other gigs the weekend before, just to relax and reserve my energies.

On the day of the gig, I could not relax. I was not worried about my set but more worried that no-one would show up and support me and that would hurt me more than not getting through to the finals. This competition includes audience voting and it does help if your friends are in the audience voting for you.

I arrived at the venue.

The first semi-final had been concluded that evening and I knew one of the comedians who had gone through to the final. He had come third at the Great Yorkshire New Comedian of the Year 2016.

I thought: Yes! I am going to get through to the final!

I met the comedians I was going to be competing with. Some were already in the Zone.

We walked into the venue to choose where we wanted to be in the running order.

I chose the last spot – I am the President and I should close the show.

I thought: It’s going to work! 

The venue was filling up and no-one showed up to support me.

I thought: My election strategy won’t walk tonight. I am going to be performing to an audience of friends of other comedians.

This was going to be tough no matter how funny I was. It was going to be hard to get through.

I waited in the dressing room. The MC called my name and said this was the most difficult spot. I got on stage, did my thing and I was pleased with my performance. Very pleased.

The results were announced.

I was not placed in the final.

My initial reaction was one of utter disappointment. I had wanted this so much.

As I walked out of the building, an audience member came to me and whispered: You were very funny tonight but I could not vote for you.

Another comedian said: You smashed it; you should have got through.  

As I walked home, I thought: I gave it my best shot, but who knows? I might get a wild card.

That thought – I might get a wild card – kept ringing in my ears. I got home, slept it off, checked my email.

There was a gig offer from a comedy promoter but no wild cards.

A few days later, the finalists were announced.

I smiled and wondered who was going to win.

President Obonjo: dictator to Benjamin Bello

President Obonjo: yet more places to conquer

I needed to move on but I wondered if I would ever do another comedy competition. Three more are left I think: the BBC New Comedy Awards, the Old Comedian of the Year and the Silverbird Comedy Awards for those over 55.

I still have a few more years left for that last one. LOL.

I have no regrets about taking part in comedy competitions. They have been a real opportunity to showcase my talent in front of the industry and I have had great reviews from them.

President Obonjo of Lafta Republic will be taking a show to Brighton, Glasgow and the Edinburgh Fringe next year.

It will be titled The Rise of the Comedy Dictator.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, UK

The Brexit vote to leave Europe was a lie. Percentages were more like 10/90.

The pencil is more powerful than the pen?

The pencil is more powerful than the pen or the sword?

Yesterday, I was travelling in an Overground train in London and got chatting to someone who works as a plumber. Let’s call him Peter (not his name).

Peter the Plumber is maybe in his late twenties. I could be way out. He could be in his early thirties but, if I had to guess, I would put him at maybe 29 years old.

We bonded on a lot of things, though not everything.

He thought the police were corrupt from bottom to top. He thought the court system had nothing to do with justice and was a game for lawyers and judges. He thought the drug laws were ridiculous – it is legal to willy-nilly prescribe variations of heroin and cocaine for medical purposes but not marijuana.

He said he did not vote in elections because the whole political and ruling system was corrupt. If he were to vote for anyone, he told me, he supposed it would be Jeremy Corbyn. I suggested maybe the Green Party and he was not averse to that but, as he thought the whole system was unworkable, there was no point.

I suggested, if there were a candidate or a party he thought had the correct policies and beliefs, then, by voting for them and increasing their majority even by one, he was giving them more profile and more visible backing – he should vote for them even if he believed they had no chance of winning.

“Like Jeremy Corbyn,” he suggested.

But he is not going to vote in elections because he believes the whole system is corrupt.

“Why do they give you pencils to mark the ballot paper in voting booths?” he asked me. “The people who mark you down as having voted and the people sitting outside the polling stations have pens. Why do they give you pencils to vote with? Pencils are more expensive than pens.”

I said I thought it odd that, as far as I know, when policemen write down statements, they are required to do it in pencil not pen. (I could be wrong that it is a requirement.)

brexitmapbbcHe said he did not believe the Brexit vote to leave the European Union was correct. The vote was 52% to leave. “I think the real vote,” he told me, “was more like 90% to 10%.”

“In which way?” I asked.

“To leave,” he said. “No-one I know wants to be in Europe. The Scots have it right. They want to leave the UK because they don’t want this other place making decisions for them. They want to make their own decisions.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that a high percentage of Scots voted to remain in the European Union.

Given the fact that many people who voted ‘Remain’ in the Brexit referendum find it unacceptable that there was a ‘Leave’ vote because everyone they know voted ‘Remain’… I thought it was interesting that youngish Peter The Plumber, who shows all the signs of being a true Corbynite and an anti-Establishment Left-Winger could not believe that the ‘Leave’ vote was as low as 52%.

Everyone thinks they are ‘normal’ and average and that their mostly self-chosen circle of friends and acquaintances are the norm. Everyone thinks they know what the majority of ‘normal people’ think.

Everyone is almost always wrong because they see and hear in their own bubble of ’normality’.

And, yes, I know if I write ‘everyone’ I should not write ‘they’ and ’their’ – I should write ‘he or she’.

But let’s not be pedantic. It is normal to use ‘they’ to mean ‘he or she’. Isn’t it?

Well, it seems that way to me.

3 Comments

Filed under Europe, Politics, UK

In London soon: a little-seen Saxon comedian with a chicken on his head

Martin Soan, master maker of stage genitalia

Martin Soan – long stalked a Saxon comedian

I was in bed all of yesterday, trying to throw off the remnants of a cold which had turned my voice into a rivett-rivetting impression of a frog.

The only real interruption to my sleep was a Skype video call from comic Martin Soan, who was wondering if I was going to his Pull The Other One comedy club show in Nunhead on 29th January.

Wild hoarseness would not stop me, because it is my first chance to see live The Short Man In Long Socks – I always thought he was called The Short Man With Long Socks, but I stand – or, given my cold, lie – corrected. I presume it is a variable translation from his actual German stage name: Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken.

Martin tells me it is Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken’s first live UK appearance. I think I may have seen him back in the 1980s when London Weekend Television’s Entertainment Dept had a tape with video excerpts of Vier gegen Willi a German peaktime TV show which was co-presented by a hamster. I think LWT was considering doing a British TV version but might have been put off by the fear of complaints by animal lovers. In Germany, they had to have multiple Willi doppelgängers on standby because the eponymous hamster tended to die under the hot studio lights.

There is currently a clip of Vier gegen Willi on YouTube, though the star rodent does not appear until 26 mins 16 secs into the clip.

Martin told me yesterday: “I first saw Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken 15 years ago in Leipzig, at Jim Whiting’s club Bimbo Town – the best club I’ve ever been to. It’s full of automata, installations, art, music and performance and is what us Londoners call ‘immersive’ – everything is out of this world and challenging. It’s a funfair of surreal proportions in a disused factory and it is VAST… Jim is a magnetic force and artists of all descriptions gravitate to him. Some aren’t even artists but genius just the same.

“Anyway one such act featured that night I went to Bimbo Town was Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken, I really, really was impressed, It was the most pointless and ridiculous act I have ever seen, but one of the best. There are three sections to the routine. Him getting ready to ‘go out’… Him ready to go out… And then him out. That doesn’t really explain his act, but… “

“I seem to remember,” I told Martin, “that, in Vier gegen Willi, he had a live chicken on his head.”

...a chicken...

…a chicken…

“Oh yes,” said Martin. “I forgot about that.”

“Is he possibly,” I suggested, “ever-so slightly bonkers?”

“Depends how you define it,” said Martin. “When I met him, he didn’t think any of it was mad at all. I had the feeling it was maybe a little cathartic for him.”

“Why cathartic?” I asked.

“No idea, “replied Martin. “He told me he very rarely did the act.”

“Possibly,” I suggested, “because of a lack of willing or well-balanced chickens.”

“It was just a thing he felt he had to do,” Martin explained.

“And they say,” I mused, “that Germans have no sense of humour…”

“He is fiercely not German,” Martin told me. “He is very definite that he is a Saxon not a German. Apparently he earns a very good living as an optician in Plagwitz (a suburb of Leipzig). He told me Saxons love designer glasses. He invited me around to his flat for kuchen (cake). We got on really well and he showed me his etchings. Very dark, they were – the subjects. Lots of eagles and women wearing horns. Angst is a good word isn’t it?”

“I do,” I agreed, “always enjoy hearing it said out loud.”

Too poster - Phil Kay

Kay fan: Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken

“When I was back in England,” Martin continued, “I contacted him regularly to try and entice him over. I have actually booked him three times and three times he has cancelled and I got resigned to never getting him over for the club. But he’s making it on the 29th of this month because there is some opticians’ convention in London and because Phil Kay is on the bill at Pull The Other One. He has seen Phil Kay perform abroad and he’s a big fan. So he wants to perform with him.”

“Who else is on the bill?” I asked.

“Darren Walsh and a nun.”

“I’m not going to ask,” I told Martin. “Some things are best left to the imagination.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Eccentrics, Germany, Performance, UK

Sex madam Cynthia Payne remembered

Cynthia on The Dame Edna Experience

Cynthia Payne as she appeared on The Dame Edna Experience

Cynthia Payne – ‘Madam Cyn’ – died two days ago. Obituaries were printed yesterday in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and The Times – in other words, all the UK’s quality newspapers.

In 1980, she was sentenced to 18 months in prison (reduced to 6 months on appeal) for running a brothel where “elderly men paid with Luncheon Vouchers to dress up in lingerie and be spanked by young women”.

Personal Services - billed as “from the director of Monty Python’;s Life of Brian

Personal Services – “from the director of Monty Python’s Life of Brian”

At the time, the tabloid newspapers had a field day reporting this sex case. But I reckoned only the Daily Mail captured the real flavour – that it was not about sex but about English eccentricity.

Two feature films about her were released in 1987 – Personal Services and Wish You Were Here. She stood for Parliament twice.

In the obituaries, a family friend Kevin Horkin described her as “a national treasure” and an “extremely colourful archetypal English eccentric”.

A friend of mine lived in Streatham at the same time that Cynthia Payne was ‘in business’. This is my friend’s memory of her:


I remember Cynthia well from her frequent shopping forays with her wretched wheeled shopping trolley down Streatham High Road post-prison. She was forever wandering around the High Road with her tartan shopping trolley as boring and common as ever wanting to be noticed. Everyone accompanied Cynthia on her shopping expeditions when they became entangled in that sodding shopping trolley. 

She was a boring, everyday empty vessel whose personality deficit was filled in and manipulated by the male media. ‘The tart with a heart’ has always been a lie that men delude themselves with. The truth is abused/mentally deficient women on drugs/drink. 

Streatham was hell when the story broke, with street prostitutes screeching all night outside my house near the Odeon when the pimps withheld their drugs. They were on the High Road instead of the backstreets and, even when I moved away from the High Road, there was a prostitute in the street – always high and aggressive, until one client destroyed her house after beating her up and so the landlord could finally evict her.

Cynthia was just dull, unlike the real Streatham personality Eddie Izzard, happily strolling the streets in his fringed suede jacket, always intelligent and amiable.


Cynthia Payne appeared on ITV’s The Dame Edna Experience chat show in 1987 – the other guests were actor Sir John Mills and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. There is an extract on YouTube. She is introduced 5 minutes in.

1 Comment

Filed under Sex, UK

Prime Minister enters pig and prize winning sex worker enters politics.

Yesterday's Daily Mail story online

Yesterday’s Daily Mail story online

Yesterday, the Daily Mail alleged that Prime Minister David Cameron, when at Oxford University, put his penis into a dead pig’s severed head as part of a Piers Gaveston Society initiation ceremony.

While trying to guess the source of this story, political blogger Guido Fawkes yesterday mentioned an allegation by the Cherwell student newspaper that Michael Gove (later Secretary of State for Education) participated in a “five-in-a-bed romp” while president of the Oxford Union debating society.

The connection between politicians and sex is long-established.

In June 2013, I blogged about Charlotte Rose when she had just won the Sex Worker of The Year title at the British Erotic Awards. Recently, she won another award – for Recognition to the Industry – from UKAP, the UK Adult Producers’ Network. So I Apple FaceTimed her yesterday.

“It all started last year,” Charlotte told me, “when I did the face-sitting protest. On 1st December, the government created amendments to the 2003 Communications Act so certain activities were now deemed illegal online and face-sitting was one of them. So, on 12th December, I got about 350 people outside Parliament singing Sit On My Face by Monty Python while sitting on people’s faces.”

“Fully clothed?” I asked.

“Fully clothed,” said Charlotte. “It was a cold day. And I did my William Wallace speech at the end: You can try and ban our liberties, but you can never take our sexual freedom. You can see the speeches on my YouTube channel.

We got support from lots of people. I’ve always had support from Lembit Öpik – and from Rupert Everett since I did the Channel 4 documentary Love for Sale with him.

“I did three porn protests. I did the face-sitting one in London; I did the spankathon in Manchester; and I did the whipathon in Brighton.

“I’ve got a new petition coming up which I’ve just started to allow two independent sex workers to be able to work together for safety in regards to brothel keeping. Brothel keeping is against the law. In 2010, Labour looked at allowing 3-4 sex workers to work together. 10,000 signatures would start the ball rolling. 100,000 signatures will hopefully get me a debate if I can get the right people on board with it.”

“You’ve run for Parliament in two by-elections, I said. “Did you decide to do that as a result of the face-sitting protest?”

“No. Clacton-on-Sea was in October last year. It was a great opportunity for me to really talk about sexual freedom of expression. Then, when the second by-election came up in Rochester & Strood in November, I thought Well, I may as well. I quite enjoy it. But that is when I actually realised it’s like standing on top of a mountain screaming what you know is right yet nobody is listening. Unless you’ve got a good wedge of money behind you, you’re nothing.”

Charlotte on FaeTime yesterday with her latest award

Charlotte seen via FaceTime yesterday with her latest award

“Did you meet Nigel Farage of UKIP?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s he like?”

“He’s just like a guy you’d get pissed-up with in a pub. There aren’t many people where I find there’s something I dislike, but he just has such a smarmy way about him. You don’t know if he IS coming across genuine or if he’s just a people-pleaser. I think it’s his mouth. His mouth doesn’t portray honesty. You know how some people have a wiggling corner of their mouth sometimes when they lie? It’s like horses.

“I don’t like horses because their eyes have no iris, so you can’t see where they’re looking. I’m just so wary of a horse – it’s probably one of the only animals where you would never know if it’s going to turn on you. Because it’s got no iris, you can’t read it.”

“Nigel Farage,” I said, “comes across as the man next door, but he was a commodity broker, wasn’t he?”

“Then he’d make a perfect hotelier,” said Charlotte, “because normally anyone who has stocks or assets or is an accountant goes into hotels but they lack the charisma. They probably have the same level of charisma as a caterpillar.”

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “Nigel Farage could become the new Basil Fawlty.”

“Mmmm…” said Charlotte.

“How did you do in the elections?” I asked.

Charlotte made a promotional reel for her Rochester election bid.

“At Rochester & Strood,” Charlotte told me, “Britain First got 13 votes more than me. I can understand that Britain First has got some very patriotic points of view, but the majority of it was a racist, damaging stab and I thought: People would rather vote for racism than the choice of sexual expression.

“Whereas I believe, if people were having more sex, the serotonin levels in their body would be fantastic and everybody would be happy. We wouldn’t have time to be vindictive or have hatred towards people. We would be smiling more.

“Did you read that story about judges in the court system who got sacked for watching pornography at work? I would rather have my court judge watch pornography before my court case. If he’s just had a wank, I know he’s going to be level-headed, very happy and I’m not going to have a problem. I think I would specifically ask that, if I was up in court for anything, I want my judge to go and have a wank before he listens to my case.”

“Now there’s a project for you,” I said.

Charlotte & Erotic Award as Sex Worker of the Year

Charlotte with her 2013 Sex Worker of the Year award

“I’ve got a new project,” replied Charlotte, “called The Sex Avengers. That’s up-and-coming for January. I want to build an army of support – not a hierarchy – activists, then industry, then the public. A huge directory: a one-stop shop that people can go to.”

“If you are an Avenger,” I asked, “what’s your super-power?”

“I think to deliver strength and positivity in my speech. I’ve done a lot of speeches now and I love sharing what’s happening. But, rather than being a speech that moans, I build positivity, I build energy, I build unity. I think that’s my strength: to be able to share energy and build on positivity.”

“You have moved to London recently,” I said. “Why?”

“Well, I was already involved in The Sex Workers’ Opera and the travel time from the West Country…”

“Opera?” I interrupted.

“Yes,” said Charlotte. “The Sex Workers’ Opera. It’s an award-winning show. We’ve been running it since 2013. We put it on at the Arcola in Dalston last year and won the Pioneer Award at the Sexual Freedom Awards which used to be called the Erotic Awards. We are hopefully doing a documentary for Channel 4.”

“Do you perform in it?” I asked.

“Yes. You can see a video of me performing The Dom Song on YouTube. That was in the first ever production.”

“It’s a proper classical opera?” I asked.

“No. It’s more like a hip-hopera. It’s a bit more funky. Two hours. We’ve got scenes about prohibitionists, the Soho raids, the porn laws. It’s 50% sex workers and 50% allies.”

“Sex and music?” I asked.

“I’m also going to be putting on events to promote the Sex Avengers. Ben Dover is a good friend of mine and he plays the drums for a tribute band called Guns 2 Roses. It would be absolutely fantastic if I could find people in the sex industry who play an instrument and we actually form a rock band and go round all these events promoting sexual freedom through music. That would be great.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Sex, UK

How Cilla Black re-invented herself, courtesy of Terry Wogan, in 1983

Daily Mirror announces Cilla’s death

Daily Mirror announces Cilla’s death

Cilla Black died two days ago. So it goes.

I worked as a researcher on her Surprise! Surprise! series at London Weekend Television. I cannot honestly say I was enamoured of her. I think she was the only star I have ever worked with who behaved like a star. But she was worth every penny she earned. On screen she was brilliantly the girl and later auntie next door.

In the 1960s, Cilla was a pop star, then her career faded. In the 1970s, BBC TV producer Michael Hurll re-invented her as a mainstream, peaktime entertainment presenter on BBC TV’s Cilla. Then her career faded. Then, in the 1980s, Alan Boyd of LWT re-invented her as an ITV entertainment presenter on Surprise! Surprise! and Blind Date.

In a TV tribute yesterday, comic Jimmy Tarbuck mentioned a TV interview in 1983 which revitalised her career. I asked writer and broadcaster Nigel Crowle about that interview with Terry Wogan on the TV chat show Wogan.

Nigel Crowle (left) with the Amazing Mr Smith

Nigel Crowle (left) with the Amazing Mr Smith at TVS, 1988 (Photograph by John Ward)

Nigel later wrote for People Do The Funniest Things and Beadle’s About. He wrote the lyrics for Oscar-nominated animated film Famous Fred; and Baas – an animated kids’ show about sheep for Al Jazeera TV. With David Walliams and Simon Heath, he co-devised Ant & Dec’s first show for BBC TV. In 1996, it won BAFTAs for Best Children’s Show & Best Sketch Comedy.

Over the years, he has written scripts, links and sketches for performers including Mel Brooks, Basil Brush, the Chuckle Brothers, Noel Edmonds, Lenny Henry, Jack Lemmon, Joan Rivers, Jonathan Ross, Chris Tarrant and Terry Wogan.

“In 1983,” he told me yesterday, “I was a researcher on the Wogan show. I had never done anything like that before – researching. I had suddenly gone from promotion scriptwriting to this world of celebrities where you had to go and interview people and ask them all the questions that a chat show host would.”

“Yes,” I said. “When I was working at the BBC, I once saw the research notes for some major film star who was to be interviewed on the Michael Parkinson chat show and the researcher (in the US) had basically done a full interview in advance – all the questions; all the answers.”

Nigel with some of his children’s books

Nigel later wrote several children’s books

“What happened with Cilla,” Nigel explained, “was that Marcus Plantin, my producer on Wogan, said to me: This week, you’re going to do Cilla Black. I remember saying: Really? She’s a bit yesterday’s news! I didn’t think she was any great shakes as a singer. But he said: No, no no. She’s up for revitalising her career. She had just brought out her Greatest Hits album – she was promoting it on the show.

“Marcus said to me: Go down and see Michael Hurll – he was the one who used to produce all her shows. Michael told me a few anecdotes about going and knocking on the doors – with live cameras! – they used to do a lot in the Shepherd’s Bush flats behind BBC Television Centre. It was real seat-of-your-pants stuff, going out live on television. And I asked him what she was like and he said: Well, y’know, she’s OK. She’s fine. She can be a bit of a perfectionist.

“Some people,” I said, “have used the word diva.”

On-screen, as I said, I thought she was worth every penny she was paid. Every inch a star.

There is a clip on YouTube of Cilla singing Life’s a Gas with Marc Bolan on her Michael Hurll-produced TV series.

“Anyway,” said Nigel, “come the day, I have to meet her and, obviously, Bobby (her husband/manager) was there. We went to one of the star dressing rooms on the ground floor at Telly Centre. In her day – the 1970s – she would have been there, so coming back must have felt to her a bit like Oh, I used to be big. She must have felt a bit Sunset Boulevardy, maybe.

“But we sat down, talked about her early life, how she started and she was very open. And also she was very, very, very funny. Absolutely hilarious. I was in stitches. The moment I finished doing the interview with her, I knew this was her moment – again. I went home and told my wife Mel: I was totally wrong. Cilla is SO going to storm it on Saturday.”

“You had originally thought,” I asked, “that she might not be interesting?”

Cilla Black became cuddly girl/auntie next door

“I really had thought she was past it – and this was in 1983! I thought she’d had her moment… She had had two bites of the cherry – the 1960s as a pop star and the 1970s as an engaging TV personality. Now, come 1983, she was just trying to flog her Greatest Hits album.

“Going on Wogan had maybe seemed like an act of desperation, but it wasn’t. It was a clinical assault on stardom – again – and – My God! – it absolutely worked! She made her career that night – revitalised it. She was terrific.

“She did the show (there is a clip on YouTube) and she was hilarious and the audience were absolutely loving her. She did all the stories about John Lennon and she was big mates with Ringo – I think there was a family connection. Paul McCartney wrote Step Inside Love for her. She did all the nostalgia about the 1960s and then what it was like being a Liverpudlian and that is really what engaged people. She came across as the girl next door.

“We recorded the show on the Friday and it went out on the Saturday night. As I understand it, on the Sunday morning, Alan Boyd (Head of Entertainment at LWT) phoned her up. I think Jim Moir (Head of Light Entertainment at BBC TV) was waiting until Monday morning to phone her up but, by that time, it was too late. I don’t know what happened. All I know is that, on the Monday morning, Marcus Plantin was saying: Well, the Beeb missed a trick there. And she went to LWT for Surprise! Surprise! and Blind Date.

The panto Nigel Crowle wrote for Cilla

Jack and Cilla and Beanstalk, but no giant

“By that time, I was ‘in’ with Michael Hurll and I wrote a panto for her – Jack and The Beanstalk at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Michael told me: We’ve spent most of the budget on Cilla. So much so that we have not got enough money for a giant. We’ll do it all as an off-stage voice. So we did Jack and the Beanstalk without a giant.”

“Did you have a beanstalk?” I asked.

“We had one which kind of fell on stage when the giant… We had a pair of giant boots. The character Fleshcreep was played by Gareth Hunt. She had a sword fight with him. After it ended, she went to the front of the stage with Fleshcreep lying on the floor with her sword at his throat and she asked the audience: What shall I do with him, kiddies? Each day, they would all shout: Kill him! Kill him! So then she would ask them: How shall I kill him? And, one day, a kid in the front row just yelled out: Sing to him!”

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,” I said. “When I worked at LWT, I remember someone told me you should always avoid mentioning what size car Michael Barrymore had to pick him up or share the information about the cars with anyone because, if Cilla ever found out – and vice versa. There was rumoured to be a bit of rivalry.”

LWT (now ITV) building on the River Thames in London (Photograph by John-Paul Stephenson)

LWT (now ITV) building on the River Thames in London (Photograph by John-Paul Stephenson)

“I was told,” said Nigel, “there was a little bit of jiggery-pokery about where the pictures were. When Cilla came out of the lift on the Entertainment floor at LWT, she had to see the Cilla picture on the wall there, rather than the Barrymore picture.”

“Did they move them around?” I asked.

“I think there was probably a bit of that,” said Nigel. “Certainly I heard the cars mentioned. And the worry that, if you had Barrymore and Cilla doing a show at the LWT studios on the same night, who would get the star dressing room? Because there was just one star dressing room.”

“But,” I said, “on-screen she was wonderful. Worth every penny. And she reinvented her career so successfully.”

“Yes,” said Nigel. “Well, what was incredible was not that she had these peaks and troughs in her career but that the peaks were SO high. Everyone in Britain knew who Cilla was. Everybody could do a Cilla impression. That is real fame.”

2 Comments

Filed under Celebrity, Fame, Television, UK