The following morning John Ward, esteemed eccentric inventor and designer of the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards including the Cunning Stunt Award, was out shopping when his mobile phone rang from a withheld number.
“Warily,” John told me, “I answered it.”
It was the BBC.
John writes a weekly newspaper column for the Spalding Guardian.
Occasionally, he has been known to add in these columns, in the past, an unlikely throwaway line about how he gave up performing a Tina Turner tribute act some time ago with people citing such minor problems as his colour, height and girth – “She is taller and slimmer than me” – and the fact that wearing the high heels gave his feet a hammering.
John is is in demand as an after-dinner speaker and local personality. At some functions/events which he attended, people would occasionally ask him if he might consider “going back to doing the Tina Turner act”.
John says: “I do detect that some of them have been quite serious… They actually thought I had done a Tina Turner tribute act. In one case, a lady at one charity bash said she would have ‘dearly loved’ to have seen me performing as Tina. She was not alone. I would have dearly loved to see it too…”
Anyway he got a phone call from BBC Radio the morning after Tina Turner’s death was announced.
John tells me:
“The young BBC lady wondered if I had a moment or two as they would like to get a quote from me regarding the passing of Tina Turner as we had a ‘connection’ due to my tribute act…
“I asked how she had got my number but it was from somebody at BBC Radio Lincolnshire – so they, or somebody there, had read my stuff!
“I said Tina was a great performer and will be sadly missed by many around the world but, while we had never met personally, I felt sure Gyles Brandreth must have met her.
“Next thing was: Would I mind giving an interview over the phone, there and then, to discuss my tribute act and what inspired me to do it which might/might not be broadcast either on steam radio or online or both.”
The questions and answers went like this:
BBC: What inspired you to do it?
JOHN: I really wanted to do a George Formby tribute act but found I could not master the ukulele. So I did Tina Turner instead.
BBC: Was the Tina act easy to do?
ME: The biggest hurdle was to overcome my initial colour but, while this took some time, I like to think I nailed it.
BBC: Did you consider your singing voice on a par with Tina?
ME: She was an octave or two higher than me as many who had seen her perform in concert told me, but I was more of a visual act.
BBC: Will you be attending the funeral?
ME: The funeral arrangements have not been published yet, as far as I know, so I prefer not to comment.
“The BBC lady seemed to accept all this, thanked me for my time and said she would let me know if and when my segment would be broadcast.”
“Have you heard back?” I asked John.
“No. But later, in the afternoon, around four o’clock, someone from Central TV News rang up to find out why they had never covered the story. I asked him where he heard about my Tina Turner tribute act.
“I was told by a friend at BBC Radio Lincolnshire…” he said. “So it seems the news is spreading.”
(L-R) Graeme Garden, Willie Rushton, Barry Cryer, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tim Brooke-Taylor
I had always assumed the fake BBC Radio game Mornington Crescent was called that more-or-less at random. After all, there is no logic to any of it, so why not just choose a random tube station?
Wikipedia currently explains:
The objective of Mornington Crescent is to give the appearance of a game of skill and strategy, with complex and long-winded rules and strategies, to parody games in which similarly circuitous systems have evolved. The rules are fictional and its appeal to audiences lies in the ability of players to create an entertaining illusion of competitive gameplay.
The person who first names Mornington Crescent as being on a supposed London Underground route wins.
Our starting point… Finchley Central station
I knew Mornington Crescent was a version of a game previously called Finchley Central which dates back to at least 1969 when Anatole Beck and David Fowler mentioned it in the Spring 1969 issue of the mathematical magazine Manifold, in which they discussed A Pandora’s Box of Non-games.
They describe the rules of Finchley Central as:
Two players alternate naming the stations of the London Underground. The first to say “Finchley Central” wins. It is clear that the ‘best’ time to say “Finchley Central” is exactly before your opponent does. Failing that, it is good that he should be considering it. You could, of course, say “Finchley Central” on your second turn. In that case, your opponent puffs on his cigarette and says, “Well,… Shame on you!”
On BBC Radio, Mornington Crescent first appeared in the opening episode of the sixth series of comedy panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, broadcast on 22 August 1978 – nine years after the Manifold mention of Finchley Central.
As I said, I assumed Mornington Crescent was chosen at random as the station at the centre of the new spoof game.
But, this morning, former TV & radio announcer/presenter and so much more Keith Martin told me this was not the case.
“The show used to be recorded at what was then the BBC’s Camden Palace Theatre,” he told me, “which, as you know, was directly opposite Mornington Crescent tube station. I used to go and watch it being recorded there. So it was the station everyone coming to the show arrived at.”
BBC Camden Palace Theatre could fit an entire orchestra into the studio
The Camden Palace had a life almost as varied as Keith Martin’s.
It opened as a music hall on Boxing Day 1900, became the Camden Hippodrome variety theatre in 1909, the Camden Hippodrome Picture Theatre in 1913, a Gaumont cinema in 1928, closed in 1940 and was then a key studio for the BBC Light Programme, becoming BBC Radio’s ” home of light music and comedy” between 1945 and 1972. (The BBC Light Programme was re-named BBC Radio 2 in 1967). The studios closed in 1972, but the building re-opened as a live music venue – The Music Machine – in 1977. It was re-named the Camden Palace (again) in 1982, closed in 2004 and re-opened as music venue KOKO.
“I used to watch The Goons there,” Keith told me, wistfully.
Dapper designer John Ward, earlier this week, wearing one of his many professional hats…
A couple of days ago, I posted a blog about this year’s Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt at the Edinburgh Fringe. The trophy itself – as with all Malcolm Hardee Awards – was designed and made by mad inventor John Ward.
Dr David Weeks’ academic analysis…
Among John Ward’s many other accomplishments are writing a weekly column – Ward’s World – for the Spalding Guardian newspaper and ‘starring’ in psychiatrist Dr David Weeks’ 1995 academic book Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness.
Yesterday, I got an email from John Ward:
“A BBC Three Counties Radio bod rung me up just now – asked me about the Malcolm Hardee Award and asked was I willing to do an over-the-phone interview later today.
“Then he asked me if I had any connections with Edinburgh other than the Awards side.
“I said: My psychiatrist lives there (as in David Weeks) and then things seemed to get sort of quiet and he said he would ‘get back to me later’.
“I have heard no more.”
Obviously the BBC has to ‘up’ its reporters’ inquisitiveness.
They should have been even more interested by the mention of a psychiatrist and should also have asked the obvious question: “If you live in the middle of England, why do you have a psychiatrist in Scotland?”
John Ward is also featured (among many other appearances) in the 2015 documentary film A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics by Academy Award winning director, John Zaritsky.
DOUGLAS: Yes. John Lloyd and I had known each other for years and, at one stage, actually shared a flat together and kept on half-producing ideas which never really came to fruition… Actually, there was one thing! About two or three years ago, he and I wrote a couple of cartoons for a Dutch television company. They were making a series called Doctor Snuggles. (LAUGHS) It was being made internationally, so the scripts were being written by British writers and it was being performed in English with Peter Ustinov doing the voices. I gather one of the episodes we wrote actually won an award last year. I think it is eventually coming to British television and it’ll be rather curious to see it.
JOHN: What was it about?
DOUGLAS: Well, if you can imagine a cross between Professor Branestawmand Doctor Dolittle… It was quite fun working on that, actually. The writers’ fees were rip-off time. But it was immense fun – there were all sorts of things we could do in animation.
JOHN: It sounds a busy time.
DOUGLAS: The way things went, yes. I was writing Hitch-Hiker (the first radio series) for a lot of 1977 and we were making it at the end of 1977/beginning of 1978 and it went out starting in March 1978. During that time, I was living at home with my parents and the fee for writing the first radio series was miserable – something like £1,000 for the six episodes – which is not a lot for something over six months’ work. So I was thinking I’m such a slow writer and it looked as though Hitch-Hiker might do OK; but there was no precedent for a radio series meaning very much in the long run.
So I was then offered a job as a BBC Radio producer and I thought I ought to do it for the money. During the six months, Hitch-Hiker began to be a success and I was producing Week Ending, which was quite fun. In fact, the first job I was given was compiling a programme about practical jokes. I had to go out and interview Max Bygraves and Des O’Connor. I thought: What am I doing here? But I knew people had put themselves out to help me get this job and it was a staff job, not a contract job, so to leave after six months would be ridiculous.
JOHN: Then you were offered the job as script editor on Doctor Who.
DOUGLAS: Yes, which caused an immense rumpus. And I did Doctor Who for fifteen months and it was a terrible, terrible time. It was great to begin with, while I felt I was actually managing to juggle all the balls at the same time. Because, at the end of 1978, I was writing the first Hitch-Hiker book, trying to get down to writing the second radio series, which kept getting put off and put off, and I was script editing Doctor Who and having to produce lots and lots of storylines for writers.
And I was also doing one fairly major last job as a radio producer — a pantomime show for Christmas called Black Cinderella Two Goes East. Everyone involved in it – the writers and all the cast – were ex-Cambridge Footlights. So we had Rob Buckman playing Prince Charming and Peter Cook was his brother Prince Disgusting and John Cleese played the fairy godperson. John Pardoe MP played the Fairytale Liberal Prime Minister – on the grounds that you only get Liberal Prime Ministers in fairy tales. The Goodies played the Ugly Sisters, Jo Kendall played the wicked stepmother and Richard Murdoch was in it too. It was terrific, but the BBC gave it no publicity whatsoever.
Years later, a BBC publicity shot for Black Cinderella Two Goes East with John Cleese and Peter Cook
JOHN: And after that you were able to devote more time to script editing. What exactly does a script editor on Doctor Who do?
DOUGLAS: Everything. Oh god! I was very naive when I wrote Pirate Planet because I’d always assumed that, basically, writing the script is the writer’s job and coming up with all the ideas is the writer’s job. So I worked very, very hard on The Pirate Planet scripts. Then, when I came to be script editor, I discovered other writers assumed that getting the storyline together was the script editor’s job. So, all that year, I was continually working out storylines with another writer, helping yet another writer with scripts, doing substantial re-writes on other scripts and putting yet other scripts into production – all simultaneously.
When you’re doing 26 half-hours in a year, that’s a helluva lot. And, at the same time, writing the first Hitch-Hiker book. And also trying to do the second radio series. It was an absolute nightmare year. For four months when I was actually in control it was terrific – when you feel you’re actually in control of all that and actually getting it done. Having all these different storylines in your mind simultaneously. A writer suddenly phones you up at midnight and you’ve got to know exactly what he’s talking about and exactly what his problems are and sort them all out. You actually get very high on that, as long as you cope. But, as soon as you stop actually coping (LAUGHS), it becomes a nightmare.
JOHN: You finished working on Doctor Who in January 1980 and by then Hitch-Hiker had really taken off on radio and become a cult. It had even been on stage.
DOUGLAS: Well, it’s been on stage three times and the one which got all the notice was the one that didn’t work. Ken Campbell did two. His first one at the I.C.A. (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London) went very, very well. The audience was put on a hovercraft and the action all took place round the edge of the theatre. I didn’t believe it till it actually happened. We were turning away 1,500 people a night from that show, but only getting 80 people in, because that was all you could fit on the hovercraft.
Then Theatr Clwyd did Hitch-Hiker with a touring company in Wales. They would sometimes do two episodes in an evening and, at other times, the whole lot – which was a long evening. That went very well. I didn’t know anything about Theatr Clwyd: I just thought it was going to be a load of Welshmen going round saying Hello, boyoh! But it wasn’t at all; it was a very good production. So they were then offered The Old Vic but, by then. I’d already offered the stage rights to Ken Campbell, who wanted to do another production.
He decided to go for broke and put it on at The Rainbow (in Finsbury Park, London). I should have known better, but I had so many problems to contend with at that time I wasn’t really thinking awfully clearly. The thing at The Rainbow was a fiasco.
DOUGLAS: The first two productions had worked well largely because they’d been performed to relatively intimate audiences. The I.C.A. was only 80 and I suppose the largest Theatr Clwyd audience was about 400. But you put it in something the size of The Rainbow – a 3,000-seater theatre – and, because Hitch-Hiker tends to be rather slow-moving and what is important is all the detail along the way… You put it in something that size and the first thing that goes straight out the window is all the detail.
So you then fill it up with earthquake effects and lasers and things. That further swamps the detail and so everything was constantly being pushed in exactly the wrong direction and all the poor actors were stuck on the stage desperately trying to get noticed by the audience across this vast distance. If you’d put the numbers we were getting at The Rainbow into a West End theatre, they would have been terrific audiences – 700 a night or whatever. But, in a 3,000-seat theatre, 700 is not a lot. particularly when you (the producers) are paying for 3,000 seats. So the whole thing was a total financial disaster.
In 1980, I interviewed writer Douglas Adams for Marvel Comics. The result was published as a two-part piece in the March and April 1981 issues of their Starburst magazine. I am republishing the interview in four parts in this blog. Here is Part One…
Douglas Adams at home in 1980. Later, he claimed: “You actually managed to make me sound fairly intelligent, which I think is a remarkable achievement on your part.” (Photograph: John Fleming)
Douglas Adams has made it big. He is 6’5″ tall.
He was born in Cambridge in 1952. When he was born his father, a postgraduate theology student, was training for Holy Orders but friends persuaded him this was a bad idea and he gave it up. He wanted to do it again recently but was again dissuaded.
This philosophical bent seems to have been passed on to young Douglas because, at school, he says, “They could never work out whether I was terribly clever or terribly stupid. I always had to understand everything fully before I was prepared to say I knew anything.”
It was while still at school that he decided to become a comedy writer-performer after seeing John Cleese on BBC TV’s The Frost Report.
“I can do that!” he suddenly thought. “I’m as tall as he is!”
He appeared regularly in school plays and sometimes was asked to write. “I felt I ought to,” he says. “I used to sit and worry and tear up pieces of paper and never actually write anything. It was awful. I’ve always found writing very difficult; I don’t know why I’ve wanted to do it. Sheer perversity. I really wanted to be a performer and I’d still like to perform. I was a slightly strange actor. There tended to be things I could do well and other things I couldn’t begin to do. I couldn’t do dwarfs; I had a lot of trouble with dwarf parts.”
He went to Cambridge University largely so he could join the Footlights, the student group which had spawned many of the people he most admired — the writer-performers of Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, Monty Python’s Flying Circus etc.
During university vacations, he built barns and cleaned chicken sheds to make money and, for the first time, started to write seriously (if that’s the word). He was involved in the creation of two Cambridge revues — Several Poor Players Strutting and Fretting and The Patter of Tiny Minds.
The original idea for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had come to him before he went to university, when he was drunk at a camp-site near Innsbruck, while travelling round with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Europe in his rucksack. But it was years before the idea came to fruition.
JOHN: After you left Cambridge, one of the things you did was collaborate with Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
DOUGLAS: That’s right. I wrote with him for about eighteen months on a lot of projects that mostly didn’t see the light of day. And those which did actually didn’t work awfully well.
JOHN: Which ones did see the light of day?
DOUGLAS: Well, we wrote and made the pilot for a television comedy series. The series itself never got made because Graham got more involved back in Monty Python again. This was really during the Python lull and nobody was quite sure what the future of Python was going to be.
So we wrote this sketch show called Out of the Trees which actually had some very good material in it, but just didn’t hang together properly. Graham was the sort of lead and there was also Simon Jones (who played Arthur Dent in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker) and Mark Wing-Davey (who played Zaphod Beeblebrox). It was shown once on BBC2, late on Saturday night, against Match of the Day. I don’t think it even got reviewed, it was that insignificant. There were some very nice things in it; it just didn’t stand up. The structure for it hadn’t really been found.
JOHN: What else did you do with Graham Chapman?
DOUGLAS: Curiously enough, the thing we virtually came to blows about was his autobiography. He wanted to co-write it. He actually went through about five co-authors, of which I was the first, and really I didn’t think it was getting anywhere because I didn’t think it was the sort of thing you could do as a pair. It came out recently (A Liar’s Autobiography) and it’s good. I think there’s one very bad section which was the bit he and I co-wrote.
JOHN: It must have seemed a great opportunity. Writing with one of the Monty Python stars.
DOUGLAS: Yes, the promise of that period. I thought: This is terrific! This is my great break! And, at the end, there was nothing to show for it except a large overdraft and not much achieved. And I suddenly went through a total crisis of confidence and couldn’t write because I was so panicked and didn’t have any money and had a huge overdraft paying the £17-a-week rent. So I answered an advertisement in the Evening Standard and got a job as a bodyguard to an Arab oil family.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Simon Brett, the producer of The Burkiss Way, asked me if I’d like to write some bits for it and, at that stage, I just felt I’m washed up. I can’t write. I may as well accept this fact now. But he insisted, so I sat down and wrote a sketch which, I thought, would prove to everybody once-and-for-all that I could no longer write sketches. And everybody seemed to like it rather a lot. (LAUGHS) The one thing I’d spent all the summers since Cambridge trying to interest people in was the idea of doing science-fiction comedy; I couldn’t get anybody interested at all.
Simon was the only person I hadn’t gone to with the idea. And, after I’d done these bits for Burkiss, he said to me, quite out-of-the-blue: I think it would be nice to do a science fiction comedy series. It was extraordinary. And so it carried on from there.
JOHN: It was around this same time you got involved with Doctor Who.
DOUGLAS: Well, after we’d done the pilot of Hitch-Hiker, it took a long, long time before BBC Radio decided to go ahead and I was desperate for money. So I sent the first copy of that Hitch-Hiker script to Bob Holmes, who was then script editor of Doctor Who and he said: Oh yes, we like this. Come in and see us. So I talked to them for a long time.
JOHN: You sent it in as a Doctor Who idea, or . . .
DOUGLAS: No, just to sort of say: Here l am – This is what I do. And I ended up getting a commission to write four episodes of Doctor Who (The Pirate Planet)…
…but it didn’t really work out as something which was going to fill in that gap, because that took a long time to come through too. I eventually ended up getting the commission to write the rest of Hitch-Hiker and the Doctor Who episodes simultaneously in the same week. So that became a serious problem. (LAUGHS) And I got through the first four episodes of Hitch-Hiker and then I had to break off to get the Doctor Who episodes done – so I did those at a real gallop. And, at the end of that, I was totally zonked. I knew a lot of what was going to happen in the last two episodes of Hitch-Hiker but I just couldn’t sort of get myself to a typewriter and just needed help and a sounding-board just to get it done.
JOHN: So John Lloyd (now producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News) helped you write parts of episodes 5 and 6…
Mark Boosey, esteemed and eternally mysterious British Comedy Guide boss, brought up the 2008 ‘Sachsgate Affair’ in which vast offence was reported after a BBC Radio 2 edition of The Russell Brand Show.
On the show, Russell and guest co-presenter Jonathan Ross had phoned up actor Andrew Sachs (Manuel in Fawlty Towers) to invite him on as a guest. When he did not answer the phone, four messages were left mentioning that Russell had had sex with Sachs’ granddaughter, who was one of the performers in a ‘baroque dance group’ called Satanic Sluts.
Some extracts from the messages are below:
Jonathan Ross: ”He fucked your granddaughter… “
Russell Brand: “I wore a condom.”
Jonathan Ross: “She was bent over the couch…”
This caused a furore. And Ofcom fined the BBC £150,000.
However, yesterday, Mark Boosey gave the timeline for the public’s outrage:
SATURDAY 18th OCTOBER 2008
The pre-recorded show was transmitted.
SUNDAY 19th OCTOBER
The BBC noted two complaints in its log of listeners’ views. One referred directly to the Andrew Sachs section.
The Mail on Sunday’s trigger for Sachsgate
SUNDAY 26th OCTOBER
Eight days after the broadcast, the Mail On Sunday ran a main story on the Andrew Sachs answerphone messages.
MONDAY 27th OCTOBER
The BBC received 1,585 complaints.
TUESDAY 28th OCTOBER
The total number of complaints rose to 4,772.
WEDNESDAY 29th OCTOBER
By 10.00am, the number of complaints had reached 18,000 and, at 11.30am, the BBC suspended Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. At 5.45pm, Russell Brand quit his show.
THURSDAY 30th OCTOBER
By 11.30am, the number of complaints had reached 30,500. At 5.50pm, BBC Controller of Radio 2 Lesley Barber resigned. At 6.21pm, with complaints now at 37,500, the BBC announced Jonathan Ross was being suspended without pay for 12 weeks.
FRIDAY 7th NOVEMBER
Radio 2’s Head of Compliance, David Barber, resigned.
Mark Boosey yesterday pointed out that only two people who heard the broadcast on transmission had been offended (perhaps only one) and it had taken eight days for 1,583 other people to have been offended second-hand.
What it all proves I do not know, but it must prove something. I personally thought what was broadcast (which I have listened to) was way-way-over-the-line into unacceptable offensiveness.
Yet, on 9th November 2008, Russell Brand told the Observer that what had been broadcast had been “toned down”: that “the worst bits” were cut out before the broadcast – presumably they believed the new version was not offensive.
I guess it also shows that, in a world of instant TV, radio and internet, newspapers still have a big effect. And it had a lasting effect even after it ‘ended’.
On Friday 21st November 2008, after publishing a report on the incident, the BBC Trust said that a list of “high-risk radio programmes” should be put together to prevent a repeat of what happened.
That is simultaneously sensible and unsettling and the BBC have, arguably, been running scared ever since.