Tag Archives: BBC TV

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

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


Douglas Adams decided to turn down £50,000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no.

… CONTINUED HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRAMATIC STORYLINES

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

COMIC STORYLINES (as with dramatic storylines)

  • one peaking
  • one winding down
  • one building

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what do I know?

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The decline of British television comedy. The elitist iceberg of Brexit and Trump.

The Grouchy Club Podcast

Below is a short extract from the 100th Grouchy Club Podcast in which the (yes she certainly is) controversial comedy critic Kate Copstick and I ramble on about anything that takes our fancy, occasionally stumbling into the subject of British comedy. Occasionally, too, we stumble into cyber-trouble.

This may be one such example.


JOHN: There is a sort of bizarre snootiness in comedy where the Oxbridge elite…

COPSTICK: Oh yes…

JOHN: …who, by-and-large, don’t get (big) ratings for their shows – are very snooty about people who do get ratings. For example, Benny Hill.

COPSTICK: Yep…

JOHN: …who at the height – the height – of his fame and his ratings success and his foreign sales for Thames Television – He must have been churning money out like nobody’s business for Thames Television – was dragged into – was it Brian Tesler’s office? Someone’s office… and told they were getting rid of him because he was in bad taste.

COPSTICK: Yes, yes.

JOHN: He was staggeringly popular. I heard that when he died – I dunno if this is an urban myth – Chinese television broke into their broadcasts to announce it as a newsflash.

COPSTICK: I’m sure that’s absolutely true.

JOHN: But I mean he was staggeringly popular. They didn’t like him because they said he was sexist.

COPSTICK: But I think that… I’m going to get a bit political here, John…

JOHN: Oh God! We’re going to be in trouble!

COPSTICK: Only mildly…

JOHN: Oh dear.

COPSTICK: …and fleetingly.

JOHN: Oh dear.

COPSTICK: Just fleetingly.

JOHN: That’s never stopped her before.

COPSTICK: I think that is exactly the same thing – talking about the Oxbridge elite and all that running TV, so they say what gets dumped because they don’t like it – They are the ones whose voices are out there but Benny Hill had gazillions of viewers – I think that’s exactly the same thing we got with Brexit and the Trump vote – because the people at the top…

JOHN: This is Copstick!

COPSTICK: …the people at the top are completely unrepresentative of the mass of the voting iceberg that is underwater. And somehow, when the bottom mass of the iceberg rises up and votes for Brexit or Trump, it’s all Oh! Shock! Horror! How can this have happened? Well, it happened because it was always there. You just weren’t listening to it.

JOHN: Also, I was talking to someone the other day and said that, in my erstwhile youth, when they had sitcoms, they used to have them on at 8 o’clock or 8.30 at night or 7.30 at night. Nowadays, sitcoms are on at 10.30 or 11.00…

COPSTICK: Yes, yes.

JOHN: … because, in my youth, the sitcoms got massive ratings and now the humour, the comedy is not getting big ratings because it’s being scheduled and programmed and decided on by people who don’t like what the public like.

COPSTICK: Which is why Mrs Brown’s Boys is the highest rated…

JOHN: Yes and that’s only on at 10.30 because he keeps saying Feckin’ or something, doesn’t he?

COPSTICK: People are very snotty about it: Ooh! Mrs Brown’s Boys!

JOHN: I saw one episode and thought: Oh, that’s not really for me. But, of its type, it’s well done. I mean, Mrs Brown’s Boys and My Family must be, recently, the biggest sitcoms on…

COPSTICK: Absolutely. And surely somebody somewhere in some television company must see that.

JOHN: There is a lot of Emperor’s New Clothes going around.

COPSTICK: Ooh!

JOHN: I have to say Vic & Bob – sorry – I never ever thought they were funny. There was one pilot for, I think, Granada, which I saw and liked: it never got made into a series because no-one else liked it, but I have never ever ever thought Vic & Bob were funny. They were always in minority slots and, when the BBC I think it was tried them at peak time on a Saturday night they came a phenomenal cropper. With good reason. Because they ain’t funny… (LAUGHS) …in my populist opinion! (LAUGHS) But what do I know?

COPSTICK: I have almost stopped watching comedy on TV because there is very little that appeals to me and makes me laugh.

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Critic Kate Copstick on the Edinburgh Fosters (ex-Perrier) Comedy Awards

The Grouchy Club live in Edinburgh (Photograph by Sandra Smith0

Copstick and I hosted the live Grouchy Club in Edinburgh (Photograph by Sandra Smith)

The latest weekly Grouchy Club podcast is now online.

During the recording, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I talked about staging monthly live Grouchy Club shows/meetings in London – in the performance area behind Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity shop in Shepherd’s Bush.

Details on the Grouchy Club website.

In this very brief extract from the new podcast, she and I talk about the recent Fosters Awards (formerly Perrier Awards) run by producer and Nimax Theatres owner Nica Burns at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I run the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Fringe. Judges with me this year were Kate Copstick and fellow comedy critics Marissa Burgess, Jay Richardson and Claire Smith.


COPSTICK
There are few people I know that I admire more than Nica Burns. I think she’s an incredible woman who has done incredible things for comedy. I think she’s so genuine and she’s given so much I don’t know why she’s not a fucking Dame. There’s obviously been some kind of mistake.

JOHN
Well, if your ceiling falls on the punters, it’s not good, is it?

COPSTICK
That’s not her fault. That was nothing to do with her. Anyway, I think she’s an incredible woman, an incredible force for good in theatre and comedy and live performance.

JOHN
Yes, she is.

COPSTICK
But I do think that the Fosters are becoming more and more relevant only to the industry. That whole list – everybody on that list – it just seemed that Ooh! You can see them popping up on Radio 4 Extra or telly. They’ve all got ‘slots’ – even the clowny ones. You think: Well, they could go there; they could go here. There was no flash of genius.

JOHN
I don’t know if they still do it, but they brought in members of the public as judges.

COPSTICK
Yes, they always do.

JOHN
A terrible idea, I think – They (the public) don’t know what they want.

COPSTICK
Well, to be fair, they have to go through a much more stringent process than any of the industry judges and it’s just as possible, if not more likely, that you’re going to find some numpty who’s some kind of line producer for BBC Comedy. There are some very dull people working in professional comedy, John.

JOHN
So you’ve given up working in television again?

COPSTICK
(LAUGHS) I have indeed. But there are some very very dull people.

JOHN
Yes, but they can spot talent, whereas…

COPSTICK
What do you mean they can spot talent?

JOHN
No, I take it back. I take it back.

COPSTICK
Wash your mouth out. Have another Crunchie biscuit. (SHE STUFFS A BISCUIT IN MY MOUTH) And, while John’s munching on the Crunchie biscuit… Of course they can’t. Otherwise a completely different lot of people would be on telly and the programmes that are on telly would be much better instead of little comedy production line sausages, which is what they are. When I started working in telly, someone said to me: There is a reason why television is called a medium. I even said to… I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this; I hope she doesn’t mind… I bumped into Nica Burns and said Oh, has the panel been to see Jessie Cave? and Nica said Oh, Marmite! Which I can understand. Some people loathed her; some people loved her.

JOHN
‘Marmite’ is almost a compliment.

COPSTICK
Exactly. I said: Isn’t that great! and she said Well, you know, it divided the panel and I said Well, what are you going for? Lowest common denominator? And I suppose, because it comes to a vote at the end, that’s exactly what it is. It’s the kind of blandy people that everybody liked. It’s the Mirandas and the Jack Whitehalls… And I’m not saying… I mean, Jack Whitehall was a little superstar when he started, but he’s a very smart boy with a very smart dad and they know…

JOHN
… and a very smart mum…

COPSTICK
I haven’t met his mum. But they know where to go, how much to dumb yourself down to keep yourself in a lot of work in a lot of television programmes and it is lowest common denominator. That lowest common denominator might be different… Twenty years ago, that lowest common denominator was Les Dawson; it was Michael Barrymore….

JOHN
… who were great…

COPSTICK
… and nowadays… it’s… I don’t think an award should be looking at being given… that a panel, a judging panel should not be looking at giving an award to the lowest common denominator. There need to be people on that panel passionate enough to do the Twelve Angry Men thing – persuade the rest of the brilliance in somebody who is… I am not saying Jessie Cave should have won. She IS Marmite and I thought I would hate her and I loved her. It was an extraordinary performance…. I just really think it’s a… a worry almost everybody on that list was so forgettable.


The Grouchy Club podcasts are on Podomatic
and can also be downloaded from iTunes.

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Original version of BBC TV’s Pompidou series & a brief history of visual comedy

Matt Lucas (right) and Alex Macqueen in the BBC’s Pompidou

Matt Lucas (right) & Alex MacQueen in the BBC’s Pompidou

This Sunday teatime, Matt Lucas stars in the second episode of the ‘silent’ BBC TV series Pompidou.

The credits say it is written by Matt Lucas, Julian Dutton and Ashley Blaker.

Blaker produced Little Britain on BBC Radio, then wrote and produced Rock Profiles with Matt Lucas. They went to school together.

Multi-award-winning comedy scriptwriter/performer Julian Dutton started as an actor, then became a comedy scriptwriter for radio, but, he says, “I always made sure I performed in the things I wrote.” He appears in a later episode of Pompidou.

“I did stand-up for some years,” he told me yesterday. “I was an impressionist act on the circuit. Harry Hill encouraged me into stand-up when we were doing radio comedy. So I was doing this act, met Alistair McGowan, then Jon Culshaw and realised I was only No 15 or 20 or 25 in the country and the 25th best impressionist in the country does not get his own TV series.”

As a result, Julian turned more to writing, though usually appearing in the many shows he wrote.

Julian Dutton - Museum of Comedy

Julian Dutton – surrounded by comedy – in London this week

“So how did Pompidou come about?” I asked him.

“It originated as a character show,” he told me, “because I wanted to write a visual comedy that was very experimental and avant-garde, using some of the finest physical performers on the circuit – people like Dr Brown, The Boy With Tape on His Face, the Australian act Lano and Woodley – people like that who are under-used on British television.

“I approached everybody. I approached ITV, BBC, everybody. And then Matt’s production company took it on and it morphed into a more family-friendly, slapstick, mainstream entertainment on BBC2. It was decided that an avant-garde and experimental comedy show would be a little bit too niche.

“After that, the second incarnation of it was as a character sketch show like Little Britain, where Matt was going to play all the characters – like a visual League of Gentlemen: a day in the life of a town, but all visual.

“Then gradually, as the months went on, we pared things down and shaved bits off and ended up focusing on one character: Pompidou. It became more mainstream and family-friendly, rather than complex and avant-garde. But I’m happy with it being a family mainstream show, because I love family mainstream shows. It has become more Norman Wisdom and less Jacques Tati.

There is a trailer for Norman Wisdom’s The Bulldog Breed on YouTube.

“Was your series always called Pompidou?” I asked.

“Once it focused on Matt as a single character, yes.”

“What was the first Dr Brown type experimental version called?”

“The Dumb Show. The second title was The Shusssshhh Show.”

“And why the name Pompidou?”

“We wanted an international name and we thought, in the back of our minds, that the French still like mad clowns. Also there’s the pomp pomp-posity. From memory, I think he was originally called Mr Pamplemousse – French for grapefruit. The back-story is that he’s descended from French Huguenots.”

“It was always going to be a silent series?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Julian. “Well, non-verbal, because there is this distinction between silent and non-verbal. The reason I wanted to do a show without dialogue was basically because I grew up with loads and loads of non-dialogue shows on TV – Eric Sykes, Ronnie Barker, Marty Feldman – Every sketch show I remember when I was young had about 10 minutes of non-verbal stuff. There was a revival of it in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I first saw silent comedy when Bob Monkhouse had a TV series Mad Movies and BBC2 brought out a version of it with Michael Bentine: Golden Silents. They used to show Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd and The Keystone Kops.

“I was inspired not just by the old, silent comedians but by the new visual comedians – in particular Jacques Tati who, just after the War, re-invented visual comedy. Then there were Eric Sykes and Ronnie Barker, Marty Feldman… Dave Allen did tons of visual stuff. In every Dave Allen Show, there was about 10 minutes visual comedy – The Undertakers’ Race, tons of stuff.

The Undertakers’ Race is on YouTube.

“So that,” said Julian, “is where Pompidou came from, really. It struck me that, since Mr Bean – the last one was in 1997 – nobody had tried a visual comedy. And I had written tons and tons of children’s television.”

“You wrote for the Chuckle Brothers’ TV programme,” I nudged.

“Yes, I wrote for them for about four years,” said Julian. “The last three series. They’re a variety act family that goes way back to the 1930s (Their elder brothers are The Patton Brothers.) There were five of them. They were really the early British mainstream variety Marx Bros, though not as anarchic – I think the Crazy Gang were the equivalent of the Marx Bros over here.

“That’s how I cut my teeth on visual comedy, really. The Chuckle Brothers’ shows were deceptively difficult to write. They seem very simplistic and very very light-hearted and infantile, but their knowledge of physical routines was very impressive. When people see light entertainment on screen, they wrongly think that it’s light to create. But it’s not a light matter.”

“The Chuckle Brothers,” I suggested, “are maybe looked-down on by critics?”

“Clowning is a bit looked-down-on in Britain,” agreed Julian. “The French look on dumb-show mime as an art form. We look on it as just pratting about.”

“I suppose,” I said, “mime in Italy and France is an art form and, in this country, panto-mime is for children.”

“Exactly,” said Julian. “And that is why some of the reaction to Pompidou is… We are getting very good feedback especially from family audiences and we have had some very good reviews from people who ‘get’ it – that it’s a family, clown show. Some reviewers have criticised the show for appealing to children, as if that is a bad thing. But children make up the vast majority of the global TV audience. So why shouldn’t we be making comedy for children that stars a guy who was in an edgy sketch show (Matt Lucas in Little Britain)?”

Mr Bean was always accepted by adults, wasn’t it?” I asked.

Mr Bean was very heavily criticised when it first came out,” Julian corrected me, “because Rowan Atkinson had done Blackadder, which was very very ‘in’ with the university wits. Mr Bean was originally looked-on as a downward step for Rowan Atkinson.”

Julian Dutton - Keeping Quiet

Julian’s book on comics Keeping Quiet

“I bow to your superior knowledge of comedy history,” I said. “You’ve written a book about visual comedy – Keeping Quiet: Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound – which is coming out next month. Surely there have been lots of books before on the subject?”

“Oddly, no,” said Julian. “It struck me when I was working on Pompidou that there have been thousands of books about silent comedy, but they always stop at 1927. There has never been a book about the history of visual comedy after the advent of sound. Kevin Brownlow, Paul Merton, Walter Kerr – all the authorities – stop in 1927.

“But visual (non-verbal) comedy didn’t stop then. There have been books on the individual people, but there’s never been a comprehensive history of it as a distinct genre… And it IS a distinct genre. It’s not silent comedy. It’s visual comedy in the age of sound. None of it is silent. There’s sound effects, music gags… Laurel & Hardy introduced sound gags. Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati used sound gags: it’s a different type of comedy. People like Jerry Lewis, Norman Wisdom…”

“I used to like Jerry Lewis when I was a small kid,” I said.

“And European adults like him,” said Julian. “He’s a hero in France and Norman Wisdom is a hero in Albania.

“In the early 1960s, Norman Wisdom’s films were bigger at the box office than James Bond. I think he’s very under-rated as a subversive comic. At his height, in the 1950s, he was making very subversive comedy.”

“Which is why his films were acceptable in Albania,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Julian. “It was always at the expense of the British Establishment. It was as satirical as most of the Boulting Brothers’ films, which were seen as ‘serious’ satire. I think Norman Wisdom is exceedingly under-rated.”

“After Charlie Chaplin,” I said, “the two most successful British comedians worldwide were Benny Hill and Rowan Atkinson.”

“Absolutely,” said Julian. “Benny Hill’s early work was very very visual, very influenced by continental mime. Very under-rated. And there was a motive when we made Pompidou to make a comedy that would appeal to all nations. Visual comedy has sort-of exploded on the internet – almost all the viral YouTube posts are visual, are slapstick. But mainstream TV has not caught up with the fact we are living in a global visual age.

“Visual comedy is not just clowning. There has been some very experimental stuff. Ernie Kovacs in the 1950s was a television pioneer in the US and made silent TV sketch shows. Mainstream, primetime, early-evening NBC shows. And not just silent, but he made sketches with no human beings in them: comedy sketches with (stop-frame) household objects. This was surreal, avant-garde TV as art in the 1950s. And it was a huge, Emmy-nominated success.”

There are several Ernie Kovacs clips on YouTube.

“And now?” I asked. “After Pompidou, what for you?”

“I’m focusing on feature films now,” said Julian. “I’ve had a feature film optioned and commissioned and the scripting is underway. It’s a British-American animated comedy film. And I’m also pitching a live-action high-octane film to America.”

“American TV is very keen on British comedy at the moment,” I said.

“Funnily enough,” replied Julian, “I’m also writing a cartoon series for American TV called Little People that’s coming out at the end of the year.

There is a BBC TV trailer for Pompidou on YouTube.

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Nigel Kneale on Quatermass and BBC TV production techniques in the 1950s

Nigel Kneale, interviewed in 1990

The great Nigel Kneale, interviewed about his career in 1990

In 1979, I interviewed Nigel Kneale, creator of the iconic and highly influential Quatermass stories.

A couple of days ago, I posted my original 1979 introduction.

This is the first half of the interview.


Rudolph Cartier was your producer on all three Quatermass serials in the 1950s and on the 1954 BBC TV production of 1984. How did you meet him?

Well he moved into the BBC at the same time I did. I realised he was a man who never took No for an answer – which is a great thing. All he needed to know was that it was practically impossible and he would immediately go off and do it. There was certainly no other director-producer who would ever have got those Quatermass things on the road.

The Quatermass Experiment monster inside Westminster Cathedral (it’s a glove puppet)

The Quatermass Experiment monster in Westminster Cathedral (a glove puppet)

In those days, television was live…

Yes. You had to have film inserts, of course, if you had an exterior scene, like someone walking through a park. The studio we shot that first Quatermass (The Quatermass Experiment) in was that old one at Alexandra Palace, where the cameras were literally the oldest electronic cameras in the world. They were the ones that were put into commission in 1936.

How did Quatermass start?

It was really an accident. They had a gap in the schedule and somebody said Oh! You must write something! So I wrote it (a six-part serial) as far as I could and it was being transmitted before I’d actually written the end of it. It was not a rave success. I dug up old notices recently and they’re quite funny because they say: This dreary programme started last night – it’s scientifically incorrect… and so on. Now, of course, it’s been transmuted into having been a great success.

Outrage was expressed in the House of Commons about the BBC’s version of 1984 with Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasance

Outrage was expressed in the House of Commons about the BBC’s version of 1984 with Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasance

You did 1984 after that.

I suppose they felt that, if we’d done one, we could do another. Technically, that was a very difficult one indeed – to get it into a studio live. (The rats scene was on film.) In a two-hour show like 1984, you would pre-film perhaps a quarter of an hour and the rest would be live, which was very heavy going.

The play caused a furore (in particular because of the horrific scene with the rats). Questions in the House of Commons.

Yes! It was a question of lying low after that one. Nothing like it had ever hit television before. They tended to use three-act stage plays and you got little intervals between the acts. Very well done and beautifully acted, but a little bit sedate. What you didn’t get was a purely television-type narrative, where you intercut in the middle of scenes: the thing that you do in any film script. That was new. And, I suppose, if one started writing in those terms, immediately the thing had far more impact.

You were interested in that technique.

I suppose I’d have liked to write films but, at that time, it was all locked up firmly in a closed shop. I could no more have got a (union) card to write film scripts than to fly. So I stuck to television.

You didn’t script the feature film version of the Quatermass Experiment?

No. There was the usual hurried deal by Hammer Pictures with some American people and they insisted on having an American actor and an American adaptor. So this chap came over who worked out some nonsense which turned my poor old Quatermass into a screaming, shouting person – probably like the last film producer he had worked for. It had no control over it at all. I still see that thing turn up and I hate it.

The feature film version of Quatermass II

The cut feature film version of Quatermass II

But you did co-script the movie of Quatermass II.

Well, there were some changes to the script – cuts – so it came out like it did.

Why the cuts?

The TV version was six half-hour episodes and they all over-ran by anything up to ten minutes. There was no way the BBC could stop us – except by taking us off the air – because we were live. We knew this and took a chance.

When you tried to compress those six episodes into a 90-minute film version, a lot had to go and too much went and the substitutions were not very clever. The characters are so cardboard you literally have to strain yourself to tell one from the other. It seems to me to be a lesson in how not to do it.

A special effects man applies titanium tetrachloride to make an actor smoke in the movie of Quatermass II

Special effects man applies titanium tetrachloride to make an actor smoke in the Quatermass II film

Quatermass II was about the evils of science…

No – not science. I’m not a bit anti-science, only occasionally some scientists. After all, old Quatermass himself is one: perhaps a bit more sensitive to his responsibilities than some. In the new serial (transmitted by Thames TV in 1979 simply as Quatermass), his main ally (Dr Joseph Kapp)  is also a research scientist. Even Kapp’s wife is a qualified archaeologist. The whole of the fourth Quatermass is about a last-ditch use of logic and dwindling technological resources, pitted against suicidal mysticism.

Quatermass II was about the evil of secrecy. It was a time when mysterious establishments were popping up: great radar establishments and nuclear establishments like Harwell and Porton Down for germ warfare. All the Quatermass things have been very much tied to their time.

Quatermass and The Pit was written at a time (1958) when there was a lot of building going on. So I thought, well, you dig down to an enormous depth and find a spaceship. Immediate recognition.

Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

The BBC TV’s Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

It absolutely terrified me when I saw it as a kid on television.

Well, we always really aimed at an adult audience for these things. And we hoped that the kiddies would be in bed. It was made very clear that this was not for children. I don’t mind frightening adults. They can take it. But not small children, simply because they haven’t the resources of fact in them to sort out what’s real and what’s unreal.

If a little six-year-old is confronted with some nightmare situation, that little creature is at the mercy of all your special effects, because he hasn’t really been in the world long enough to know what is real. And if he sees some dreadful thing – an apparition appearing out of the floor – he’s not to know that it’s been made by Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie (of BBC Visual Effects). He thinks it may really happen to him and it may happen in his bedroom tonight. That’s not a thing to play with.

Do you find that Quatermass is an albatross around your neck?

Well, a little bit. It’s like an actor being in a series: you get stuck with the image. But I think the worst thing is what people expect things to be – the word ‘horror’. The Quatermasses were never meant to be ‘horror’ stories. There’s more humour than horror in them, I hope – certainly that applies to this new one.

The stars of Beasts - with a non-beast in the middle

Beasts – with (in middle) a non-beast

I liked your Beasts stories for ATV.

I liked them very much indeed.

There weren’t actually any beasts in them.

No! That was the trick! That you would never SEE a beast.

The series had very ordinary settings: a supermarket, a living room.

I always feel that the most interesting ‘strange’ thing has to have an ordinary setting. Once you have Dracula’s castle, it’s totally dead: you’ve just brought in a huge, tatty, cobweb-hung cliché. Whereas, if it just happens in somebody’s house, in a room like this, in my living room, then it can be very upsetting indeed.

The Thames TV production of the fourth Quatermass serial

Thames TV production of 1979 Quatermass serial aka The Quatermass Conclusion

There was a psychological strangeness in your play The Road.

Oh, it’s a favourite of mine. It’s only a little play, but it’s interesting. It’s set in the 18th century, but with a group of people doing what they imagine to be a scientific investigation – trying to bring rational minds to bear in The Age of Reason on what appears to be a haunting in a wood. Terrible noises are heard, which are extremely upsetting.

What they’re actually hearing is a motorway in our time on which a huge traffic jam has occurred, caused by people trying to escape from thermonuclear war. It ends with a nuclear blast which has actually blown itself back in time to the 18th century and produced a kind of back-reflection, a ripple. So these people have no conception of what they are hearing… The terrified voices on the motorway, people trying to escape… It’s all completely recognisable to us: it’s all in our terms. But they don’t know what it means.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

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