Tag Archives: ATV

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.

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How I helped create the character of the fake American comedian Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer (left) and Erich McElroy

A very young Brian Simpson (left) in Edinburgh with genuine American comedian Erich McElroy

Brownhills Town Entrance feature sculpture by John McKenna (Photo by Jpb1301 of Wikipedia)

Brownhills Town Entrance feature sculpture by John McKenna (Photo by Jpb1301 of Wikipedia)

Brian Simpson, the English character comedian who performs as American comic Lewis Schaffer, was a massive fan of Tiswas, the slapstick children’s TV show I used to work on. He was born and bred in Brownhills.

Tiswas was broadcast live from the ATV Studios in the centre of Birmingham every Saturday. Brownhills is in the north of Birmingham and Brian, then a novice  comedian, knew one of the regular cameramen on the show.

Brian would stand in the crowded studio and try not to be noticed but he had this wild laugh and people did tend to notice him. Most people assumed he was one of the crew.

A studio floor pass for the show

Brian got onto the ATV studio floor courtesy of a friend

After one particular Tiswas Christmas show in 1981, his friend the ATV cameraman told me Brian wanted to meet me. I was only a researcher on the show, but Brian told me it was a thrill to meet me. He said he loved the bizarre ‘real people’ acts I found for the show, including a ‘Talented Teacher’ segment I sorted out.

He said he was struggling to get noticed on the comedy circuit and he thought this was largely because he was based in Birmingham. He was thinking of moving to London, especially as he was having trouble at home. He was in a relationship with a young Jewish American girl at the time (she was around 19) and they were having problems. This was before he discovered he was gay.

He was disillusioned and was thinking of quitting comedy.

After our first chat, he would talk to me almost every Saturday after the show and ask me what eccentric ‘real people’ items I was working on. He was trying to develop his own eccentric stage character. He was also getting advice from his American girlfriend. He told me he was trying to develop a character act in which he would pretend to be a no-hoper Jewish American comedian from New York who had performed at Caroline’s and at the Cellar, then married a Scottish girl, moved to England and was trying to establish himself over here.

I thought this sounded a little unbelievable, but his girlfriend helped him ‘translate’ his jokes into American English and give it a Jewish slant.

Now firmly established as Lewis Schaffer (Photo by Garry Platt)

Brian today – now firmly established as ‘Lewis Schaffer’ (Photograph by Garry Platt)

I thought and still think he could have been a brilliant British comic as himself but he didn’t think he was funny at all.

And, slowly, he built that self-doubt into the Lewis Schaffer character he created.

After about five years of advice from me (it continued after I left Tiswas), he told me that he thought he was going to make it in the UK and that he didn’t need to speak to me as often – that there were other ‘artists’ who needed my help.

Now we see each other less often.

On YouTube, there is a rare brief glimpse of Brian as himself in the background of the crowd on the studio floor of the last ever Tiswas, broadcast on 3rd April 1982.

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Last night I remember I dreamt of several dead British television stations

A photo of me in the ATV promo office in the 1980s.

A photo of me in the ATV promo office in the 1980s.

Last night, I went to bed early, but kept waking up with an erratic cough, so I am just as tired as I was when I went to bed.

One benefit of constantly waking up, though, was that I remembered a dream. Regular readers of this blog will know I am semi-obsessed with NOT remembering my dreams.

Once upon a time, there was no single ITV in Britain. It was a network of 15 independent companies with geographically separated franchised contracts.

For around 20 years, I worked in TV promotions – writing and producing programme trailers – for Anglia, ATV, Central, Granada, HTV, LWT, Southern, Thames, TVS, Yorkshire and for a centralised ITV unit. I also worked on programmes – for example, the ITV Saturday morning children’s show Tiswas, produced by ATV in Birmingham.

Over those 20 years in Promotion Depts, I worked on very short-term contracts – perhaps a week, perhaps two, very rarely more than three weeks, although I did once work at Granada TV in Manchester for around six months solid on a series of rolling contracts none of which (from memory) was more than three weeks long.

Last night, I dreamt I arrived in the ATV/Central ITV building in Birmingham at the start of a new contract (I had been there before lots of times) and went to the open plan Promotions Dept office at Granada TV in Manchester.

The Promotions boss from Anglia TV in Norwich was there. He was distracted and asked me to record some programme. “Look it up on the list,” he told me.

But I had not been there for a while and did not know which list nor where they kept it.

All the Promotion Depts at the fifteen ITV companies were organised slightly differently and even one department in one company might have changed its system between my visits.

A couple of people I knew from HTV got chatting to me and, when I looked at myself in a mirror, there was a small black plastic comb stuck in the left side of my long, thick, black hair. I have never had black hair though I did once have hair. It was never thick. I think, in my dream, I may have stolen the hair from Dave Davies of The Kinks, as I saw the Kinks’ tribute musical Sunny Afternoon a couple of weeks ago in London.

How did that comb get there? I thought. It must have been there since London and now I am here in Cardiff. There was dust on the front of my black pullover where I had cleaned the lenses of my spectacles.

Then the fastening of my gold-coloured (but actually brass) watch strap was not working.

“Where’s the nearest place I can get a new watch strap?” I asked the couple from HTV in Cardiff.

We were in Birmingham.

And then I woke up in my bed in Borehamwood.

The entrance to the ATV/Central studios in Birmingham

The ‘new’ entrance to the ATV/Central studios in Birmingham

What must have triggered my dream was that, yesterday, I was sent photos of the demolition of the ‘new’ ATV/Central ITV building in which I made promotions and in which I worked on Tiswas and The (originally Big Daddy’s) Saturday Show. It was a new and fairly modern-looking building when I worked there. Now it is being demolished.  At one point, I had worked there in Birmingham on The Saturday Show programme while simultaneously producing Children’s ITV continuity links in London.

There has been a lot of overlapping in my life, a bit like a dream.

Below are the photographs I saw yesterday, as posted by Tiswas fan Mark Neun:

ATVstudiosDemolition_byLeeBannister

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Lew Grade, Patrick McGoohan and bizarre cult TV series “The Prisoner”

Rupert Booth’s book about Patrick McGoohan

Booth tried to unmask McGoohan

In this blog recently, I have been slagging-off ITV’s misbegotten attempted revival of Sunday Night at The London Palladium. I have a feeling it was made by people attempting to create a populist show based on some highly-researched viewer ‘demographic’ and that the producers are making a programme which they would not themselves watch – a virtual definition of dumbing down shows and looking down on audiences.

The original Sunday Night at The London Palladium was made by ATV under its mega showman boss Lew Grade. Lew was seen as Mr Downmarket Populist Entertainment Showbiz but, in fact, opera and ballet and all sorts of odd stuff would crop up amid the jugglers and dancing showgirls on Sunday Night at The London Palladium.

This came to mind because, last night, the admirably quirky Sohemian Society had a meeting about Patrick McGoohan and his cult series The Prisoner.

The speaker was Rupert Booth, who was plugging his 2011 book Not a Number: Patrick McGoohan, a Life but who, in an admirable demonstration of individuality, did not bring any copies to sell.

Lew Grade commissioned The Prisoner for ATV/ITV through his ITC Films company.

LewGrade_FozzyBear

Lew Grade with Fozzy from his ATV series The Muppet Show

“I think it’s a misconception that Lew Grade was simply Mr Entertainment,” said Rupert Booth last night. “He made his money out of shows like Sunday Night at The London Palladium, but he would put an awful lot of money into pet projects, plays, operas – I think ATV broadcast the first colour live opera in Britain. He made Jesus of Nazareth. He always said: I should do something about the Bible; I’m Jewish!

“When The Prisoner was first pitched to him, with McGoohan waving his arms about and showing pictures of Portmeirion, Lew Grade ended up saying: I have no idea what you’re talking about, but here’s the money. Go away and make it. That may seem incredibly brave but, in a way, it wasn’t: McGoohan was a very bankable star. He had been Danger Man (another ITC/ATV series) and was, I think, at that point the highest-paid actor on British television. I don’t think Lew Grade saw Fall Out (The Prisoners’ final controversial episode) coming. But I don’t think Patrick McGoohan saw Fall Out coming.”

The way McGoohan remembered getting the OK from Lew Grade for The Prisoner was: “He got up, puffed on his cigar, marched around a little bit, then turned and said: Pat, you know, it’s so crazy it might work.

There is a YouTube clip in which McGoohan talks about Grade.

In the audience at the Sohemian Society last night was someone who had worked at ATV at that time (but not on The Prisoner).

“You could argue,” he said, “that there can sometimes be too much creative freedom. I was told The Prisoner was a chaotic programme to work on, particularly towards the end. The people who worked on the last episode said they didn’t know what was happening from one day to the next. There was no schedule, there were no scripts, no lines, it was chaos. It’s a very interesting way to make a television programme, but it’s probably not the best way.”

“Well,” said Rupert Booth, “to my mind, The Prisoner was the absolute finishing of him as McGoohan: The TV Star. It was a bit self-destructive. This is when he’s getting through about two bottles of whiskey and day and he’s been through, I think, his third nervous breakdown. He was taking so much of it on his own shoulders and taking it so seriously and would not compromise ever.”

According to Lew Grade, at the time The Prisoner was in production, the President of CBS asked him: “Do you have problems with Patrick McGoohan?” Lew told him: “I never have any problem at all with Patrick McGoohan. He’s wonderful”… “Well how do you do it?” asked the CBS President. Lew replied: “I always give in to what he wants.”

Part of the title sequence from The Prisoner

Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner‘s opening title sequence

“There were stories,” Rupert Booth said last night, “that McGoohan would not even have the word ‘television’ said on set. the word ‘film’ had to be used, because he thought people working on a television programme would potentially compromise their standards. It’s indicative, I think, of how much he was putting into it. Most of the stories about the filming of Fall Out are that it was either terrible chaos or glorious chaos, depending on what your role in it was. If you were an actor and were able to fall over chairs and dance around and sing Dry Bones: magnificent! If had to try to light and follow that with a camera: slightly more irritating. So, out of the chaos…”

After The Prisoner ended, McGoohan went to Lew Grade with other ideas.

“There’s one story which may be apocryphal,” said Rupert Booth, “that McGoohan took some ideas all nicely typed-up into Lew Grade and Lew basically said: No. Sorry. You’ve lost it. You’re too much of a risk and McGoohan absolutely spat the dummy out, stood on the table, kicked all the stuff off and stormed out and effectively destroyed his TV career in this country. Which (if true) was stupid and ungrateful, because Lew Grade had been tremendous to him. He had given him an awful lot of money. He had entrusted him. I think McGoohan was very unfair to Lew Grade in that way. It does seem from reports of that era that McGoohan was pissed off his face and spitting his dummy out and throwing all the toys out of his pram if he didn’t get his own way.”

According to Patrick McGoohan, talking about Lew Grade years later: “from the very moment he said Go (on production of The Prisoner) and shook my hand – we never had a contract – he never interfered in anything that I did. Never bothered me. It was marvellous. I can’t conceive of anybody else in the world, then or now, giving me that amount of freedom with a subject which, in many respects, I suppose you might say was outrageous. He has an instinct.”

Perhaps ITV could do with that now. People who take decisions – and responsibility – on instinct not on research figures from uncreative people. I oft quote the William Goldman sentence from his book Adventures in The Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.”

It means that creating TV programmes (and films) is an art involving gut instinct, not a science where you create ‘sure-fire winners’ from research intended to cover your ass if the show or the film fails.

There are some clips from Fall Out, the final episode of The Prisoner, on YouTube.

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Malcolm Hardee + the start of British Alternative Comedy and Stomp music

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

Comedy icon Malcolm Hardee, 1950-2005 (Artwork by Brian Damage from an original photograph by David Tuck; additional visual messing around by Vincent Lewis)

Generations come and go.

Tommy Ramone, drummer with American punk band The Ramones, died of cancer yesterday, aged 65. So it goes.

I think I met Malcolm Hardee – the ‘father of Alternative Comedy’ around 1985 or 1986. He died in 2005; so it goes.

My eternally un-named friend met Malcolm a few years before me.

But Steve Byrne, artistic director of the Interplay theatre company in Leeds. first saw Malcolm perform in 1976.

“The first time I saw Malcolm,” he told me this week, “was in a production of Alice in Wonderland. He was the caterpillar on a toadstool that wobbled.”

“Was he a hookah-smoking caterpillar?” I asked.

“Yes. He would just stop in the middle of his lines and talk to the audience and say: I was having a wash and… and you’re not supposed to do that in theatre. You’re supposed to say the lines that have been written down by the great and good. But not Malcolm.

“It was one of those shows that – when you are young Second Year drama students who take themselves a bit too seriously – you look and you say: Oh, but they’re playing to the crowd now! They’re laughing with the audience! they’ve broken it all down! Oh the fourth wall’s gone – All that sort of shit.

Steve with my eternally-un-named and mostly unseen friend

Steve with my eternally-un-named, usually unseen friend

“I was a student at Goldsmiths College and this girl who was a couple of years older than me, in her last year, directed this version of Alice in Wonderland and she’d got Malcolm Hardee and Martin Soan in the same show and I went along on that Sunday afternoon and I thought: Oh, they’ll never do anything!

“I remember looking back at it years later and laughing with Malcolm about it, telling him:

“I thought you were a tosser, a fucking no-hoper. I thought you had no skill, no talent… And I got it totally wrong.

“It was a funny time before Alternative Comedy came round, when nobody really knew which way the land was going to go. I remember people at Goldsmiths saying: We should do more of a cabaret style show. Will that work? Do people want to relax? Less of an audience that’s sitting there reverentially watching something?

“And then suddenly, almost overnight, you’ve got the Comedy Store in Soho in 1982. And there were people like Pookie Snackenburger.”

“They were music weren’t they?” I asked.

“They were music, yes,” said Steve. “but they did strange little things.”

There is a video on YouTube of them performing Just One Cornetto.

Steve Byrne told me: “The guy who ran Pookie Snackenburger was called Steve McNicholas, who I went to college with, and he went on to do Stomp.”

“And comedy manager Addison Cresswell’s brother was also involved in that,” I said.

“Yes. Luke Cresswell. Luke and Steve McNicholas came together after I left college. We’d all bashed a load of bins around and some advertising executive went by and said I want to make an advert of that.”

“An ad?” I asked.

“A Midland Bank advert.”

“And that was the beginning of the Stomp stage show years later?” I asked.

“Yes. But it was all bubbling around. All these people trying to look for different ways of doing things. It was a funny time. Musically, it defined itself very quickly after 1976 because you suddenly had punk. I remember being at Crossfields Festival at Deptford in 1976 and I was wide-eyed with all this music. There was Squeeze playing downstairs on the grass and there was ATV – a bank clerk called Mark Perry started a band called ATV and invented the first punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue. It was a funny time and I was sometimes in those things and I was sometimes just observing it and Malcolm was around too.”

There is a YouTube video of Pookie Snackenburger’s pre-Stomp dustbin dance and YouTube also has a video of ATV’s song How Much Longer?

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards are given annually at the Edinburgh Fringe.

 

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Why Chris Tarrant’s TV show OTT was taken off air – a naked Malcolm Hardee

Partial Tiswas reunion in Birmingham yesterday

Partial Tiswas singing reunion in Birmingham yesterday

I went to a Tiswas reunion in Birmingham yesterday, organised by the Tiswas Online website (who are currently offline, in a suitably anarchic way)

I was told four completely unpublishable TV sex stories (none involving Tiswas but three involving BBC Television Centre).

Buy me a tea and a muffin and I’ll tell you.

The most interesting anecdote, though, was told to me by one of the Tiswas Online stalwarts, Peter Thomas.

He told me why Chris Tarrant’s attempt at a late-night ‘adult’ version of TiswasOTT – was taken off-air.

Tiswas was originally produced by ATV but then ATV lost its broadcast franchise partially because it was seen as a London-based TV company not a Midlands company (it had the ITV Midland franchise) but also largely, it was said, because the regulatory body was embarrassed by the low standard of its Crossroads soap opera, which had become the butt of comedians’ jokes.

The company which took over – Central Independent Television – was, in effect, the same as ATV – it had much the same staff, premises and programmes (even Crossroads). But it had new shareholders.

One of these was Boots, the chemist company.

Peter Thomas told me: “The wife of a director at Boots was appalled when she saw The Greatest Show of Legs perform the naked balloon dance at the end of the first OTT show.”

The Greatest Show on Legs, at that time, were Martin Soan, Malcolm Hardee and ‘Sir Ralph’.

“She found the whole thing to be immoral and perverse,” Peter told me. “So pressure was put on the Central board to tone down the show.”

The writing was on the wall, despite the fact the Greatest Show on Legs were invited back again.

“Chris Tarrant & co had expected a second series,” said Peter, “but Central would not let them do it live – It would all have to be pre-recorded so Central could vet everything… and Central would not give them a studio. So OTT became Saturday Stayback, an alternative comedy sketch show filmed in a pub.”

This terrible dog’s dinner of an idea, of course, did not succeed.

Peter tells me this story of the decease of OTT was recounted by Wendy Nelson, former newsreader for ATV Today and Central News in the documentary ATVLand In Colour, in which he and other Tiswas Online people were involved.

The Greatest Show on Legs’ OTT appearance is on YouTube:

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Late producer Gerry Anderson on his TV success, movie catastrophes and the state of pre-Thatcher Britain

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Yesterday, British TV and film producer Gerry Anderson died, aged 83.

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed him. This was just  two years after Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. Earlier this year, I posted the interview in three of my daily blogs.

Below, those three blogs are combined, in their original, unchanged 1979 form.

* * *

Producer Gerry Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds and Space 1999, but his career dates back 23 years; it includes thirteen TV series and three feature films. For sixteen of those years, he worked for the expansive (Lord) Lew Grade, boss of ATV and its subsidiary ITC. The ending of that long working relationship seems to have left at least a trace of bitterness.

Anderson is a Londoner. He was born on 14th April 1929 in West Hampstead and educated in Kilburn, then Neasden – “I lived in Neasden,” he says. “What can I say? I can’t deny it.” His father supplied cigarette machines which ordinary people kept in their living rooms. The business was literally run from a cupboard under the stairs. Anderson Sr acquired customers by knocking on doors and asking: “Would you like this French-polished cigarette machine in your house?”

One of young Gerry’s first ambitions was to be an architect. In fact, he says, he would still like to design his own house but, whenever he’s had the money, he’s had no time… and whenever he’s had time he’s had no money. In his early days, he went to Building School and studied plastering. However, after an accident, he discovered he was allergic to plaster. So he went to work in a photographer’s studio in Regent Street and became interested in the visual medium.

He soon moved on to the post-war Colonial Film Unit at the Ministry of Information. He says that was “when we still had a British Empire – Before Lew Grade bought it all”. After that, Anderson moved to Gainsborough Pictures (at what is now BBC Lime Grove Studios). He worked in the cutting rooms on The Wicked Lady, So Long at The Fair, Jancy, Caravan and various other movies.

At this point, he was called up for National Service with the RAF and (he claims) his IQ was so low he “was offered the choice of the cookhouse or the military police”. In fact, he became a radio telephone operator, guiding aeroplanes in to land – this started his interest in flying.

After military service, he returned to the film industry and worked as a sound editor at Pinewood Studios, where director Lewis Milestone gave him the advice: “It’s impossible to please everybody, so please yourself”.

Anderson says: “I’ve tried to follow that advice without any success at all.”

Spreading his wings, he went to a small company, Polytechnic Films of Maidenhead. He worked for them on a series of documentaries about unusual people – a man in Austria who lived for a year in a bottle… a woman who could type in ten languages simultaneously… a man who hypnotised crocodiles. The series was called You’ve Never Seen This. No-one did; the company went bankrupt.

He stayed in Maidenhead to form AP Films with Arthur Provis in 1955. Their premises were a disused ballroom at Islet Park and, eventually, they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for the newly-created ITV. It was only after they agreed to the project that Anderson and Provis discovered it was to be a puppet series: The Adventures of Twizzle. This led to Torchy The Battery Boy, then Four Feather Falls for Granada TV (with Nicholas Parsons as the voice of Tex Tucker).

These series proved a success, so the Anderson company moved to a factory on the Slough Industrial Trading Estate. There they made Supercar for Lew Grade’s ATV. That was followed by Fireball XL-5, the only Anderson series to be networked in the US. Following that success, Lew Grade told Anderson: “I am going to buy your company”.

First series after the take-over was Stingray, which was also the first British TV film series made in colour. Then there was the world-wide success of Thunderbirds. Followed by what Anderson calls the “tragic error” of Captain Scarlet. – The heads and bodies were made in realistic proportion to each other, so the puppets stopped being caricatures and this, he thinks, was unacceptable to the viewers. Anderson’s last two Supermarionation series were Joe 90 and The Secret Service. He then went into live-action with UFOThe Protectors and Space 1999.

But, for all this success, Gerry Anderson is not a totally happy man. He’s had great success and everyone can understand success. But he’s also had sudden commercial failures which, to this day, he cannot explain. Also, three years ago, his marriage to Sylvia Anderson broke up. It happened between the two series of Space 1999 – a show which itself must have been tiring because of the much-publicised production and front-office problems.

Since then, in his own words, he has been “marking time”. His company Gerry Anderson Marketing currently has the lucrative European merchandising rights to pop group Abba. Last year, he also made a Supermarionation TV ad Alien Attack for Jif Dessert Topping – the only ad he has done apart from three award-winning ones for Blue Cars (a travel agent) in the late 1950s.

I interviewed Gerry Anderson in his office at Pinewood, the studios where he worked after National Service and where Space 1999 was shot. He is a surprisingly quiet man who is very polite and whose apparent policy in interviews is to be as helpful, honest and open as possible. He talks quietly and reasonably slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. Presumably, he is a man made wary by a great deal of contact with media corporations. He worked with Lew Grade and ATV/ITC for sixteen years and, as he says, “sometimes it’s better to be a big cog in a small machine, rather than a small cog in a big machine.”

* * *

At last year’s Fantasy Film Convention, you said Thunderbirds was the highlight of your career to date.

Well, I think I would probably stand by that statement. When I was making Thunderbirds, it was not the highlight of my career. It was a terrible chore with horrible little puppets whose strings kept on breaking and whose eyes went cross-eyed and it constantly shortened my life. We got very little footage in the bag every day. It was a long, laborious, painful process. There were many films that didn’t work and were weeks in the cutting rooms being repaired and new shots being made.

So, at the time, I think my attitude was that puppets were a pain and the quicker I get out of this the better. But, looking back, people would say: “Gerry Anderson – Thunderbirds,” and there would immediately be a crowd wanting autographs. That series brought me real fame. I think it did more for me than anything before or since.

Lew Grade of ATV, who commissioned it, changed his mind about the format, didn’t he?

I think really what happened is that he ordered a half-hour show and, when we delivered the pilot, it was such a fast-moving, unusual and action-packed show that he obviously screened it to a few people and somebody must have said, “What a shame it isn’t an hour!” So he called me up and said: “Can you turn it into an hour?” And I said: “Look! We’ve completed the first one. We’ve got eight more shot. We’ve got about six more scripted! My God!” But he has a marvellous way with him inasmuch as he puts his arm round you and says: “Y’know, Gerry, I have such faith in you! I know that if I told you it meant a lot to me, you somehow or other would do it.” How can you resist that? So we did it.

And the three US Networks bid for it, but didn’t screen it.

I was not present at the meetings. I have never been involved in the sale of the programmes and therefore I don’t know the whole story. But certainly Lew went to America and came back with two of the three Networks having made an offer for it. When he got back to London Airport, he was tannoyed and when he went to the telephone it was the other Network saying they wanted to bid for it as well. I don’t know what happened, but the deal fell through.

Since this is going into print, I can only speculate. Whether he asked too much money or whether they had second thoughts or whether there are some politics I’m simply not aware of… I don’t know the reason, but I know that one Network dropped out and then, of course, panic set in – “I wonder why they’ve dropped out!” – and the next one went and then BANG all three went. And that was tragic. I say tragic for me – I mean, it must have been tragic for Lew. Let’s face it, he must have been bitterly upset about it.

You made two Thunderbirds feature films which seemed to be quite successful.

They weren’t successful. They were terrible failures.

How did they get financial backing?

Lew had made Thunderbirds Are Go on spec. United Artists saw it and picked it up immediately. They were so impressed with the picture. David Picker who, at the time, was with United Artists, when the lights went up turned to me and said, “Whatever subject you want to make, Mr Anderson, it’s yours.”

When it went out for its premiere, Piccadilly was blocked. It caused more of a stir in Piccadilly than the Abba premiere. It was a wonderful premiere and it was absolutely packed. Everybody cheered and I remember leaving the cinema and the manager said, “You get a picture like this and they start queuing up at four o’clock in the morning”. We went back to the Hilton, where they’d made all the vehicles in ice – a fabulous party. The head of UA at the time said to me, “I don’t know whether it’s going to make more money than Bond or not. I can’t decide.” I was sitting there (thinking I was) already a millionaire. I mean, all these experienced people: how could they all be wrong?

The next day, the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road (a large London cinema) had about ten people in it.

How was it promoted?

Well, I made a film called Doppelganger with Universal which had lousy promotion. But, I’ve got to be fair about this, Thunderbirds Are Go! was superbly promoted. The Dominion had all the vehicles made in fluorescent lights – a fantastic display. It was well-advertised. It went out over Christmas. But it failed. And I went to my local cinema and there were like five people in the back row and three down the front and that was it.

So why did they make Thunderbird 6?

I think the reason they made the second film was that nobody could believe that this thing had failed. They didn’t know what the mistake was but somewhere there was a mistake. Perhaps it was the wrong story. Perhaps it was released at the wrong time of year. Perhaps they built it up too much in the minds of the potential audience. I don’t know. Anyway, they had to try again. They tried again and the same thing happened!

Why did your film Doppelganger have its title changed for the American market?

Well, you know, I’m not too anxious to knock the Americans on this one. I thought Doppelganger was a fabulous title. A friend of mine thought of it and I thought it was a very, very good show, but I’m not exactly sure the Americans aren’t right inasmuch as they try very hard to get an immediacy into their titles, which gives you an idea of what it is you’re going to see. And, rightly or wrongly, they felt that the average person would not understand the title Doppelganger. So they changed it to Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.

The interesting thing about the whole exercise is that I insisted that it should be called Doppelganger over here because I thought it was an interesting word and, if people didn’t understand what it meant, they would find out. It made the film sound rather unusual. But it failed in Britain and America. Which goes to prove something or other. I’m not sure what it proves, but it certainly proves something.

Doppelganger got nasty reviews. ‘Puppets without strings’ reviews.

Well, generally speaking, I think critics (pause) like to write clever lines. And some subjects make it all too easy. What a great line – “The actors are wooden… Gerry was pulling the strings” and so on. (Pause) I don’t think that their criticism was unfounded. I just think it was wildly out of proportion.

Doppelganger was live-action. You were trying the same thing on TV with UFO.

Yes.

Was that because you had saturated the market for TV puppet series? You were competing with re-runs of your own series?

Well, I think we had saturated the market and I think Lew knew that I wanted to do live-action. I think people were beginning to say, “Lew, you can do this with puppets… If you can do it with live-action… you can clean up!” And so we did UFO and, like a lot of things, it was ahead of its time. I think if it was in production today, with all these UFO sightings going on, it would be marvellous.

We had a bit of bad luck on UFO because there were a lot of sightings at the time but, when the programme was halfway through being shot, the US Army Air Force issued the findings of an inquiry they’d been conducting for about two years. And they said categorically, “There are no UFOs”. It did tend to kill interest in the subject for quite a long time.

UFO almost went into a second series, I believe.

Well, the second series was really Space: 1999.

The Space:1999 series was refused by all three US Networks despite its very high production values. Why?

I think the reason is all too clear now. (Pause) It was ‘serious’ science fiction. On the other hand, so was Star Trek. But, you know, Star Trek got away with it because of (studio) politics. A studio (Desilu) was sold to a Network (NBC) and part of the condition was that they bought Star Trek with it. Then they took it off the air and 12,000 fans – who were probably the only people who watched it in the States – went to NBC and demanded its return. And then it became a cult show. But, I mean, it never had high ratings ever. It’s a show all on its own. I think Space: 1999 suffered from being British.

It didn’t get networked in Britain either. Why do you think that was?

I don’t know the answer to that. I wish you could tell me.

Well, at the time, programme planners for regional ITV companies were very jealously guarding their control over films and film series. There was a lot of resistance over networking film series.

I really don’t know. When I see some of the rubbish that is networked…

It was shoved away into Saturday morning slots on some ITV stations.

Well, I think we were killed before we even started. If you don’t get simultaneous networking, then the newspapers aren’t interested in commenting; if they don’t comment, people don’t watch; it’s like the hoola hoola bird going in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own channel.

I heard somewhere that the original stars of Space: 1999 were to have been Katharine Ross and Robert Culp.

Not Katharine Ross. Robert Culp was interviewed. We met in Beverly Hills. I’m a great fan of his because he’s a very, very competent actor and has a very great charisma. He arrived and I said, “Right, I’ll tell you what the series is about…” And he said, “Look, before you tell me what the series is about, may I say a couple of things?” So I said, “Certainly.” He said, “First of all, I am a superb actor.” And I said, “Yes. That’s why we’ve invited you here.” He said, “Fine. But what is not generally known is that I am also an outstanding writer.” So I said, “Well that, I must confess, I didn’t know.” And he said, “Finally, I am an even better director.” Now all of those statements may well be true. But, knowing what television production means, where you’ve got one picture a fortnight going through – one hour every ten days – in my view the lead artist hasn’t got the time or the physical strength to cope with leading the series and be involved with the writing and also criticise the direction.

I felt that this would be a great danger and so, very politely, I said, “Thank you very much and goodbye.” And, equally politely, he said, “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” We didn’t have any kind of argument. I respected his point of view. Whether he respected me, I don’t know. But the interview terminated there.

That poster on your wall is for the new Space: 1999 film , isn’t it?

Yes. I think Destination – Moonbase Alpha, is going to be damn good entertainment, particularly for people who like science fiction. What I think is a great shame is that here we have Superman on screen with its $50 million or whatever budget. Close Encounters with its $20 million budget. We’ve got some mighty expensive pictures on the screen at the moment. Even Star Wars was almost $10 million when it was made and probably now the same picture would be $25 million. With Destination – Moonbase Alpha we have two television episodes (Bringers of Wonder, Parts 1 & 2) strung together and the title reads: Sir Lew Grade Presents a Gerry Anderson Production and it doesn’t say it’s two television episodes strung together. The damage it does is that people who’ve seen all these (other) fabulous pictures now go and see that and say, “I would’ve expected something a bit better than that from Gerry Anderson.”

I’ve heard you say you’d like to move more into theatrical presentations.

Well, hopefully I’ll never see television again. That means if I were offered a good television series this afternoon I would crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate and do it and love every minute of it. But it is such a terrible strain, producing one hour a week, that I would much prefer to do theatrical – that is cinema – pictures. At the time of this interview, I’m at the point of a very, very big breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about or who’s involved because it would spoil the chances of the picture going.

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

It is a major subject with a major studio, a major director and a major star. And a fantasy subject. We’re right on the knife-edge at the moment.

If it works out, you’ll be producing again. Why do you produce rather than direct?

I always wanted to direct and I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I start my own film company and I’m making my own pictures, when it comes to the director, I will be able to direct. That’s how I hoped to become a director. Instead of which, you find you are so busy organising production that, when it comes to the crunch, you have to take somebody else on because you can’t handle it yourself.

You have directed, though.

When we first started, I directed 26 Twizzles, 26 Torchys, 52 Four Feather Falls, the pilot of UFO – I’ve directed an awful lot of our stuff.

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

No, certainly not. Because most of the films I’ve directed have been puppet films and bankable directors are directors who have directed theatrical (cinema) pictures that have made millions of dollars. I haven’t directed any theatricals, so I can’t be bankable.

You were saying there are a lot of big-budget films around at the moment. There’s a danger in big budgets, isn’t there? With a big budget you do what’s easiest whereas, with a small budget, you have to be more creative.

Well, this is Gerry Anderson feeling sorry for himself. I think, in an ideal world, people who have for years worked on a small budget and therefore got the very best out of each pound or dollar… when science fiction took off, those were the people who should have been given the chance to take the big budgets and produce something really sensational. But business doesn’t work that way. Americans are so much more adventurous than British people at the moment. They get the money and they arrive at London Airport with their sack containing $20 million and they’re certainly not going to come into a British studio and say, “Can you recommend a British producer to whom I can give this $20 million so that he can make himself a fortune?”

That is not going to happen so, consequently, people like myself have not benefitted from this tremendous book in science fiction. It is, in the main, American money. The profits, as in the case of Star Wars, which was shot in Britain, will go back to America to encourage further investment for new American producers. British technicians have gained, but that’s short-sighted. The profits are going back to America. They are not remaining here and they will not fund future British productions.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get backing in Britain?

Why do I think that is? Why, as we sit here, are we likely to have a State of Emergency in the next 48 hours? Because, sadly, this lovely country of hours which, at one time, had so many wonderful qualities, is falling apart. People don’t think any more; people are lazy here; people don’t want to work; people don’t want to take chances; people are out of touch with new ideas. It’s a national disease.

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