Tag Archives: Alan Boyd

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.”

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Last night I saw The Wurzels sing and heard of a man chasing whales’ breath

The Wurzels – men out standing in their own field last night

Is there something wrong with me?

I saw The Wurzels perform at a pub in Worcestershire last night.

Yes. The I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester band, still playing around.

I expected maybe a rather half-hearted, past-it band performing in the back room of a pub. Instead, they were playing off the side of a vast pantechnicon lorry in a gigantic field behind the pub and they were slick in the best possible way. The gig had sold out well in advance; the field was full.

It was like watching a perfectly engineered gleaming machine – no mention of combine harvesters – working with razor-sharp precision and playing to a way-over-the-top, party-type audience who, certainly near the front, were raucously singing along and dancing like someone had crossed The Wicker Man with a 1970s nightclub scene from Stringfellow’s without the glam clothes. The audience LOVED the Wurzels and there was not any micro-second when they were not delivering top-notch professional entertainment.

But I would have preferred a rather less professional outfit playing in the back room of a pub.

That’s my problem.

It’s rather like my taste in comedy.

I saw one act at the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of months ago which was like The Wurzels. Very experienced. Totally professional. Honed to absolute second-to-second perfection. Brilliant. The audience loved every second. And the comedian could – and probably did – repeat that act just as brilliantly every time he performed.

But I would have preferred something rougher, less professional, more likely to soar in parts but go off the rails in others.

As I say, that’s my problem.

You can’t beat stripping off and mooning at the audience…

I have seen The Wurzels. They are brilliant. I would happily sit or stand through their show again. But I would not seek them out. I know what I am going to get. A word-perfect, note-perfect, beautifully-structured show guaranteed to entertain without fail and without flagging at any point. There was even the sight of one of the Worzels mooning – judging the audience perfectly.

The show was a gleaming Rolls Royce of professionalism.

The Wicker Man met 1970s Stringfellow’s nightclub last night

But I think maybe I would prefer a circus clown’s car, a bit ramshackle, with the engine blowing up and the doors falling off.

Is there something wrong with me? There must be.

The Wurzels are a perfect TV band, You know exactly what you are getting. Brilliant populist entertainment which can be repeated exactly in rehearsal, dress rehearsal and on the recording or live show.

Why they do not appear more on TV, I don’t know. They are peaktime entertainers who appeal to all ages.

Well, maybe I do know.

Presumably it is a sign of the lack of genuine personal taste in a lot of TV shows, made by Oxbridge producers who coldly and impersonally create programmes for what they see as down-market audiences in defined demographics with whom they have nothing in common.

Yesterday I blogged about the TV series Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise! They were created by producers (and, in particular the brilliant executive producer Alan Boyd) who made programmes they themselves wanted to watch. I have a feeling some producers now are making ITV programmes for highly researched ‘target audiences’ but would never dream of watching the type of programme they themselves are making – they maybe watch BBC2 and BBC4 at home. The result? Tacky, lowest-common-denominator trash which gets ‘acceptable’ ratings – unlike The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent which are clearly controlled by people who like their own shows, who understand populist audiences and who therefore get massive mega-ratings.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that both The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent can be traced back to Pop Idol, which was originally backed by Alan Boyd.

Still, seeing The Wurzels last night was well worth the experience. They really were a band out standing in their own field.

Not in the audience at the Wurzels gig: a humpback whale

And I got chatting to someone who has a relation working at Davis University in California who is researching breath as a way of predicting cancer risks. He has researched humans’ and apes’ and other animals’ breath and has been trying to get samples of whales’ breath.

It is not easy.

I kid you not.

It made my evening.

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Has British comedy stagnated since Monty Python, Hardee and Tiswas?

Beware. This is my blog. These are my very highly personal opinions. You can object. Please do.

People have said Alternative Comedy is not dead, it has just ceased to be Alternative. It has become the Mainstream. But they seldom talk about the next new wave of British comedians who will replace the now mainstream Alternative Comedians.

I desperately want to spot any new wave for the annual Malcolm Hardee Awards, which I organise. Our avowed intent is to try to find “comic originality”.

We do find admirably quirky individuals to award the main annual Comic Originality prize to – last year, the one-off Robert White; this year, the one-off Johnny Sorrow.

And their one-offness is as it should be. You cannot have comic originality if 37 other people are doing something similar.

But where are the new style comedians performing a recognisable new type of comedy genre? There has not been anything overwhelmingly new since so-called Alternative Comedy arrived in the mid-1980s – over 25 years ago.

As far as I can see, there have been four very rough waves of post-War British comedy, most of them comprising overlapping double strands.

The first double wave of ‘new’ comics in the 1950s were reacting partly to stuffy mainstream 1930s Reithian radio comedy, partly to the necessary order of the 1940s wartime years and partly they were rebelling against the dying music hall circuit epitomised by John Osborne‘s fictional but iconic Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957).

The Goon Show (1951-1960) on BBC Radio, at the height of its popularity in the mid 1950s, was the antithesis of the ‘old school’ of pre-War comedy. The Goons were a surreal comic equivalent to John Osborne’s own rebellious Look Back in Anger (1956) and the kitchen sink realism which surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Osborne was ultra-realistic; The Goons were ultra-surreal.

But Osborne’s plays and The Goons‘ radio comedy were both reactions to the rigidly ordered society in pre-War, wartime and immediately post-War Britain and The Goons‘ new anarchic style of comedy (although it owes some debt to the pre-War Crazy Gang and although the Wartime radio series ITMA was slightly surreal) really was like the new rock ‘n’ roll (which was not coincidentally happening simultaneously). It was startlingly new. They were consciously rebelling and revolting against a clear status quo which they saw as stuffy and restrictive.

Hot on the heels of The Goons came a different form of rebellion – the satirists of the 1960s – with Beyond the Fringe (1960) on stage and That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963) on TV. These two slightly overlapping Second Waves of new post-War British comedy were again reacting to a stuffy status quo.

The First Wave, the surrealist Goons wave, then reasserted that it was still rolling on when a Third Wave of influence – Monty Python’s Flying Circus – appeared on BBC TV 1969-1974 and – as satire declined in the 1970s – it was Monty Python‘s (and, ultimately, The Goons‘) comedic gene pool that held sway for a while – also epitomised, oddly, by the children’s TV show – Tiswas (1974-1982).

The Goons, Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was had been rebelling against something; Monty Python was surreal and Tiswas was anarchic just for the sheer sake of it. Monty Python and Tiswas were one-offs, but they have pale imitations trundling on even to today.

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, a Fourth Wave of new comics arose in the early and mid-1980s – a generation influenced by the satire gene not by the Goons/Python gene. These mostly-university-educated young left wing things rebelled against Thatcherism with their often political-based humour which became known as Alternative Comedy.

But again, just as there had been a second overlapping wave of comedy in the previous generation, this mostly ‘serious’ comedy was paralleled by a different wave possibly more low-key but epitomised by the decidedly fringe appeal of the hugely influential Malcolm Hardee, whose release from prison and subsequent comedy career coincided with the start of and overlapped with the future stars of Alternative Comedy.

Malcolm’s strand of mostly non-political comedy was spread by the clubs he ran and the acts he managed, agented, booked and/or nurtured: acts including the young Paul Merton (performing as Paul Martin when Malcolm first managed him), Jenny Eclair and later Keith Allen, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavaré and Johnny Vegas.

While London’s Comedy Store nurtured future mainstream acts (some progressing there from Malcolm’s clubs), the more bizarre and original new acts continued to flock to Malcolm’s gigs and clubs including his near-legendary Sunday Night at the Tunnel Palladium gigs and later his lower-key but just as influential Up The Creek club.

These two strands of 1980s comedy – the alternative political and the Hardee-esque – successfully came together in a Channel 4 programme – not, as is often cited, Saturday Live (1985-1987), a mostly failed hotch-potch with different presenters every week, but its long-remembered successor, Geoff Posner‘s Friday Night Live (1988) which supposedly firebrand political polemic comic Ben Elton presented every week in what was supposed to be an ironic sparkly showbiz jacket.

Political alternative stand-ups mixed with strange variety and character acts, oddball comics and cross-over acts like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield and many others nurtured by Malcolm Hardee.

This was both the highpoint and the start of the decline of Alternative Comedy because serious money was spent on the relatively low-rating Saturday Live and Friday Night Live on Channel 4, both ultimately shepherded by Alan Boyd’s resolutely mainstream but highly influential Entertainment Department at LWT.

Since then, where has the next giant New Wave of British comedy been? There are random outbreaks of originality, but mostly there has been a barren mediocrity of pale imitations of previous waves – and the desolate, mostly laugh-free zone that is BBC3.

At this point, allow me an even more personal view.

I thought I spotted a change in Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows around 2003 when Janey Godley was barred from consideration for the Perrier Award (despite a very lively verbal fight among the judging the panel) because it was decided that her seminal show Caught in the Act of Being Myself did not fall within the remit of the Awards because it was not a single ‘show’ repeated every night: she was basically ad-libbing a different hour of comedy every performance for 28 consecutive nights.

That same year, Mike Gunn performed his confessional heroin-addict show Mike Gunn: Uncut at the Fringe although, unlike Janey, he lightened and held back some of the more serious details of his life story.

It seemed to me that, certainly after 2004, when Janey performed her confessional show Good Godley!,  Fringe shows started an increasing tendency towards often confessional autobiographical storytelling. Good Godley! was one of the first hour-long comedy shows at the Fringe (though not the only one) to use material that was not in any way funny – in that case, child abuse, rape, murder and extreme emotional damage. Janey did not tell funny stories; she told stories funny. Viewed objectively, almost nothing she actually talked about was funny but audiences fell about laughing because it truly was “the way she told ’em”.

Since then, too, there seems to have been a tendency towards improvisation, probably spurred by the financial success of Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard. The traditional 1980s Alternative Comics still mostly stay to a script. The 21st Century comics influenced by Janey Godley, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble often do not (to varying degrees).

So it could be argued there has been a tendency in this decade away from gag-telling (apart from the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine) towards storytelling… and a tendency towards improvisational gigs (bastardised by the almost entirely scripted and prepared ad-libs on TV panel shows).

But long-form storytelling does not fit comfortably into TV formats which tend to require short-form, gag-based, almost sound-bite material – you cannot tell long involved stories on panel shows and on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow type programmes. So a tendency in live gigs and certainly at the Edinburgh Fringe – a tendency away from gag-based comedy to storytelling comedy – has been unable to transfer to television and has therefore not fully developed.

Occasionally, a Fifth Wave of British comedy is sighted on the horizon but, so far, all sightings have turned out to be tantalising mirages.

One possibility are the Kent Comics who all studied Stand Up Comedy as an academic subject in the University of Kent at Canterbury. They include Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club, Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, Laura Lexx and The Noise Next Door. But they share an origin, not a style.

Whither British comedy?

Who knows?

Not me.

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