Tag Archives: Britain

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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Who do we want as Queen of the UK? Elizabeth II or President William Haig?

…or we could have Tony Blair’s head

(A version of this blog was also published by the Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

I saw some Republican demonstrators interviewed on TV during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. One of their startling opening gambits to explain their position was: “The Parliament at Westminster has too much power.”

And they were arguing in favour of more politicians!

People often mis-read my political views. One example is that I am a very strong supporter of the monarchy.

Writing this blog I am on a hiding to nothing because, as long as it is, it does not give me enough space.

But, at school, I studied British Constitution for ‘A’ Level. The result is that I am a very strong supporter of the institution of a constitutional monarchy, but I have absolutely no interest at all in the soap opera of the Royal Family. I also think Tony Blair, as Prime Minister, was a neo-Fascistic prat who seriously damaged Britain’s constitutional set-up, but that is another matter.

When people say, “Oh, we should elect the Head of State,” I think, “Jesus! Are you out of your mind? Do you realise you are arguing that what we need is more scumbag politicians?”

Britain has stumbled into a State where we have a Head of State with lots of theoretical power and no practical power.

Bloody great!

The Queen does not actually make the important appointments, does not make laws, cannot in practice prevent laws from being passed by Parliament and has no actual practical constitutional power. But she is the ultimate safeguard against dictatorship and tyranny.

If a mad Prime Minister and/or a truly extremist government got into power and started passing laws which the vast majority of people then found repulsive – the example always used at school was a law that all red-headed men should be executed – what would happen? They could not be voted out by the electorate until the next General Election: perhaps four years away.

The only certain way to actually overthrow a government effectively anywhere (beyond the uncertainties of civil war) is for the government’s Army to overthrow it and you then have a situation where the Army is the government and has to appoint one of its own as Head of State.

In Britain, the Army is not the government’s Army; it is, in theory, the monarch’s Army. As is the Air Force, the Navy, the Police and the Civil Service.

The Prime Minister is not the Head of State. He/she is not even the head of the government. In theory. the Prime Minister is just that – primus inter pares – first among equals – only one of the monarch’s many ministers.

The result of this is that, if the Army overthrew an out-of-control government, it would do so in the name of the on-going monarchy and would not have to name one of its own officers as temporary Head of State. That sounds an unimportant distinction. But it would be re-asserting the monarch’s supremacy from a Prime Minister who had temporarily taken control, not overthrowing its own head. That makes it much easier to re-establish a new civilian government.

And this is not necessarily a theoretical point.

It would be interesting to have seen what would have happened if the rumoured plan for a military coup in the UK in 1975 had actually happened. But, returning to the subject…

The myth about the monarchy is that it is somehow costly.

Compared to what?

Compared to a President?

Bollocks.

The Queen receives no actual salary; the monarch’s costs are paid. Does anyone believe the same or higher expenses would be not incurred by a President? Plus some inflated annual salary and pension. All those flash state meals, all those flash ceremonials. They would still happen. Their costs would still happen. And, if there were no Diamond Jubilee, there would (quite reasonably) be some other State mega shindigs to bolster the patriotic spirit (but with less glitz and glamour because a politician in a suit would be at the centre of it).

Then there is the extended Royal Family – for which the taxpayer does not pay salaries. In effect, we get the Queen and a collection of subsidiary clones who trundle round the country as representatives. The London TV news last night carried pictures of Princess Alexandra (currently 40th in line to the throne and she’s free) at some street party.

So what’s the alternative?

Another morally-compromised politician.

By definition, anyone running to get public votes to be a temporary President will be a politician.

Un-enthusiastic voters would shamble out to decide whether they prefer to have President Tony Blair or President William Haig or President Edwina Currie for 4 years, at the end of which time some other lacklustre or tired or up-his-own-arse former, failed or self-important politician would get to extend their money-making life for a few more years.

And then you have the continuity which you do not get from an elected Head of State. The Queen has 60 years knowledge of the innermost workings of Britain. This is not insignificant.

She knows not what people think happened but what actually happened behind-the-scenes in the UK for the whole of the last 60 years – and why. She read the same red boxes her Prime Ministers did for the last 60 years. She – and, indeed, Prince Charles – know more about the inner workings of Britain than any temporary Prime Minister does. More than members of the Cabinet, more than MPs, more than current top civil servants. The top civil servants may have been civil servants for years, but they only hold the top posts – with real knowledge of what is happening – for a few years.

What you get from a continuing monarchy above and beyond the political system is continuity.

Who wants another politician in another now political role for another four years and what is he/she going to do anyway? Fight with Parliament? Counter-balance or emasculate the Prime Minister? Or do nothing and just go to meals with people wearing a suit and with a background of political back-stabbing over several years?

What improvement on the current system would an elected Head of State make?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

When the very young 18-year-old Queen Victoria ascended the throne, she was mentored by Lord Melbourne. When the 26-year-old Queen Elizabeth II unexpectedly ascended the throne on the death of her father who had, himself, unexpectedly become King, Winston Churchill mentored her with knowledge going back beyond the First World War. But those politicians soon faded away. Their knowledge, though, continued through the monarch and continued to be built-on.

At the end of the movie Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer’s character, at the point of death, says:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

The same thing happens when politicians and civil servants leave office. They leave the papers behind. But, when another similar emergency situation suddenly arises without warning, who knows where to really find out how it was handled before?

As I said, I saw some Republican demonstrators interviewed during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. One of their startling opening gambits to explain their position was: “The Parliament at Westminster has too much power.”

I am not sure I agree with that, but it is certainly no argument for replacing the monarchy.

Do we really want ANOTHER up-his-or-her-own-arse elected politician?

Do we really want President Tony Blair or President William Haig or President Simon Cowell?

No, we want a theoretical Head of State separated from the sleaze of the Westminster sewer.

We want what we have: a Head of State with no practical powers and major theoretical powers which are a safeguard against political tyranny and a family which has (whether wanker Republicans like it or not) widespread public respect and continuity of knowledge.

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Mr Methane causes a right Royal stink with his “God Save The Queen” ringtone

Mr Methane blows his own trumpet for Queen Elizabeth II

My chum Mr Methane from Macclesfield knows how to cause a stink. He is, after all, the world’s only professional performing farter.

But he is also a true patriot and says he wants to capture the British nation’s nostalgic mood in this glorious Diamond Jubilee year with his unique rendition of God Save the Queen on what he calls his bottom bugle. His press release starts:

I’ve spent most of my life looking back, so I think I know a thing or two about nostalgia. Over the last sixty years of Her Majesty’s reign, the wind of change has blown through Britain and all its pink bits on the map. My latest release celebrates this. 

When Her Majesty first sat on the throne, it coincided with Edmund Hillary conquering the heights of Mount Everest. I cannot compete with that, but I hope my Royal Fanfare will reach new heights of memorability.

It may well do. The ringtone was released yesterday morning, but he has already received 19 e-mails complaining about it. He is unrepentant.

“Perhaps it sounds like me blowing my own trumpet,” Mr Methane told me in the early hours of this morning, “but I think my long experience means I’m uniquely placed to put the ring into ringtone.”

“You are a smooth-tongued wordsmith,” I told him. “But how did you come up with the idea?”

“Well,” he told me, “Originally, I decided to release an iTunes album of various national anthems. But then I realised it’s the Big One this year for Her Majesty. I remembered the Silver Jubilee of 1977 and what fun it was. And then I saw TV news reports of Gary Barlow doing his bit fixing up a concert for this year’s Diamond Jubilee and thought, I’ll release my own very special gift to Her Majesty – a Diamond Jubilee ringtone – with the emphasis on the ring. One that’s slightly more anarchic and in the spirit of 1977 and the Sex PistolsGod Save The Queen than all this current corporate X-Factor-type, pass-me-the-sick bucket, arse-kissing stuff. 

“And yet,” he continued, “it’s actually totally harmless and all in good fun. It’s a very British thing. It’s something we all do. Even Prince Philip… though I suspect he blames it on the Corgis. My ringtone illustrates in just a few short seconds the unique relationship between the British monarch and her people – I mean, John, you really wouldn’t get away with this sort of thing in North Korea.

“I realise some folks,” Mr Methane admitted, “may just see me as one of the many children of Margaret Thatcher and her Thatcherite revolution… just using my dubious talents by jumping on every opportunity to  make a few quid. But no, no… How could anyone really think that of me, John? People are so cynical nowadays. I am a patriot.”

“Indeed,” I agreed. “Anything else coming up?”

“I have just been approached to appear on France Has Got Talent (La France a un incroyable talent) possibly because, as you know, last year I got through to the semi-finals of Germany’s Got Talent (Der Supertalent). Then, later this year, I’ll be following up the release of my God Save The Queen ringtone with a full album of various fully-farted national anthems… Australia, America, Italy, Germany, France, Sweden and others.”

“Are the British more or less appreciative of the art of flatulism than other places?” I asked.

“I think farting divides the British nation,” Mr Methane replied, “but not in the way you might think. The key to the UK is that, as a whole, we are a tolerant, polite and slightly oppressed nation with a class system that’s still intact and flatulism really takes off in that sort of an environment. The upper class gentry actually like a good fart performance more than the working classes but the middle classes, as a rule, hate it.”

“Will you be sending a complimentary copy of the ringtone to Her Majesty?” I asked.

“If she requested one, of course, I would send her the full blown-version as well as the shortened ringtone version. But, somehow, I suspect any request from the Palace is more likely to come from Prince Philip than from Her Majesty herself.”

“Why a ringtone and not a single?” I asked.

“A whim. But the downside is you have to find it yourself on iTunes. It has no direct link. I  can’t link to it from my website and you can only access it from a mobile phone, not from a computer – You just go to iTunes and search for ‘mr methane ringtone’. It’s only 99p.”

“I smell commercial success,” I told Mr Methane.

“It’s good to be British,” he said. “I look on it as a very British thing.”

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The sick state of British healthcare

Back in November, I blogged about having to get a Wellington boot cut off me with a pair of scissors in a shoe shop and, towards the end of December, I was moaning about how my foot still hurt – as did my shoulder, which was broken in an accident in 1991.

They were both still hurting quite badly a couple of weeks ago, so I went to my GP to see if I could maybe get an X-ray done at the hospital. I have no real belief in traditional Western medicine – they rely on drugs to mask the symptoms without curing the cause – but, if nothing else, I thought maybe an X-ray might help my osteopath: he could see what was inside my foot/shoulder.

But the clue to British GPs is in the name. They are General Practitioners. By-and-large, they know a little about a lot but and a lot about nothing: they are (now) highly-paid generalists not specialists; their job is to filter out all but the most serious cases.

A year or so after my 1991 accident, for maybe two-thirds of my waking hours, my shoulder was still giving me a lot of pain – it was like a knife was being shoved in my shoulder and turned. My GP said:

“That’ll last for the rest of your life. What painkillers do you want?”

Instead, I went to a high-profile Chinese doctor, knowing that Chinese medicine is not fast. It aims to cure the causes, not to mask the immediate symptoms. He gave me Die Da Wan Hua oil to rub on the shoulder. I knew, if it worked at all, it might take months or a year. Within three weeks, the pain had gone. That was twenty years ago. Until this past December, the shoulder pain recurred only mildly maybe only twice a year for a few days, usually if I put too much pressure on it; even now, it is nowhere near as bad as it was in 1991 – maybe a tenth  – and only sporadically.

Inevitably, despite telling my GP a couple of weeks ago that the pain in my foot had been going on for two months and the pain in my shoulder for a month, the guy (whom I had never met before – you get whoever is free at my GP practice) pooh-poohed and refused to get me an X-ray and gave me simple painkillers, saying the painkillers would clear up the problem in “a couple of days”.

So, two weeks later, I am thinking of going to a Chinese doctor after I try some Die Da Wan Hua oil myself.

Harold Shipman can’t be the only GP to have killed patients. His only uniqueness lay in the fact he did it intentionally.

Last week, a friend  told me a doctor she knows confided to her there is an unwritten rule-of-thumb (not mentioned to patients) that, unless something is obviously very seriously wrong, GPs only refer patients upwards to specialists if they come complaining three times about the same problem.

Yesterday, mad inventor John Ward (who designed and made the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards) told me a story of his long-ago youth when he was “in the engineering game a few years after leaving school…

“Three of us new lads,” he told me, “were asked to go and see the local doctor to have a ‘check up’ to see if we were ‘fit’ due the nature of the job we were going to do – lifting heavy metal and so on…

“When we got to the surgery, we found someone who looked like he was out of Last Of The Summer Wine – a very old, whiskered barnacle of a chap with a stethoscope dangling around his neck.

“He asked us: Do you want the ‘long drawn out’ check-up or the ‘short to-the-point’ one?

“We opted for the short one, natch.

“This consisted of him using what he called his CSF Method.

Right lads, he asked us… Can you Cough? – Can you Spit? – Can you Fart?

“In his book, if you could achieve all three of these acts unaided, you were OK to proceed with your life. We said we could do all three.

Then you can bugger off now! he told us. I have to play golf this afternoon and you’re holding me up!

“With that, he let the three of us out, lit up a fag, got in his car and went off to the golf course.”

John Ward has just been told he is “borderline diabetic” but, a week or so ago, he read in the Daily Mail (which is oddly forever printing diabetic stories) that a woman had also being told she was diabetic but plainly was not.

“Apparently it’s a common ploy,” John Ward tells me. “Starting back in the Tony Blair years, it became a scam for doctors to put folk down as diabetic because they got/still get a ‘commission’ on each one they refer. It’s not a bad little earner for them but apparently the figures suggest most people referred are not diabetic. The nurse I am seeing at the moment says that, despite my GP being ‘absolutely sure’ I am ‘borderline diabetic’, the tests say I absolutely ain’t.

“I’m now on four different pills prescribed by the doctor. I didn’t touch one type of pill prescribed for me but, interestingly, I was told that my recent blood tests confirm that these pills (the ones I am not taking) are ‘doing me good’.”

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Gerry Anderson on making movies and the state of the pre-Thatcher UK in 1979

In blogs earlier this week, I ran an intro and the first part of an interview I had with TV and film producer Gerry Anderson in 1979. The interview was published  two years after the first Star Wars movie had been released and one month before Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. This is part of the conclusion of that interview…

Your series Space:1999 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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Filed under Movies, Politics, Science fiction, Television

How Silvio Berlusconi was brought down by laughter, smiles and sniggers

I have a bit of a soft spot for lovable rogues and morally ambiguous characters. I think Malcolm Hardee, the late ‘godfather of British comedy’, might fall into that category.

If someone else had done some of the things he did, it would have been appalling. With him, people who knew him just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Oh… It’s only Malcolm being Malcolm…”

As in ‘real life’, so in politics.

I worked in Ireland fairly regularly for a few years in the 1990s and it seemed that, every time I landed in Dublin, there was some new scandal or exposé involving gun-running, womanising, hard-drinking, horse-race-fancying, dodgy-dealing former Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

You could not but laugh at some of his scams and I think Irish voters had a tendency to shrug and say, “Oh… It’s only Charlie Haughey being Charlie Haughey…”

In the same way, the diaries, comments and escapades of womanising wayward British Conservative MP Alan Clark were always a joy to read because he was so rich (he lived in a castle and had inherited his father Lord Clark of Civilisation’s millions) and had such a superiority complex and was so inwardly secure that he did not give a shit what he said about people and events – he tended to tell the normally unspeakable truth about them – except on one occasion when he admitted he had been “economical with the actualité”. All this to the detriment of his career.

Today, we have Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi.

Boris is currently Mayor of London, but you feel he may suddenly re-invent himself as a Richard Branson balloonist or an Evel Knievel daredevil costumed figure or start a travelling circus with himself as ringmaster. He is a fascinating character because the word “buffoon” has been occasionally applied to him but he used to simultaneously be an effective editor of the Spectator and a reputedly very hard-working and efficient constituency MP as well as being a regular on TV shows like Have I Got News For You. The first two alone each require a high level of efficiency – just being editor of the Spectator would be enough for most serious people. But then there are also the stories of him having “an eye for the ladies” and saying jokey things about Liverpudlians.

The common thread through all those people seems to be womanising, which brings us to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Silvio’s brightly-coloured and joyously eccentric OTT reign is coming to an end amid national financial collapse, dodgy business dealings and scandals involving sex parties. I have always had a sneaking admiration for Silvio – who won some early respect by building up a major media empire before he lost that respect by becoming a politician. Yesterday, I asked an English friend living in Italy for almost 25 years what the view of Silvio was over there now.

“He was a rogue,” she told me, “but he admitted he was and everybody knew he was. I think Berlusconi’s view on his own peccadilloes was always, Ooh! All you Italian males out there – You know you would all do what I’m doing if you could!…  and the Italian public, by and large, seemed to shake their collective head and say: Oh! The rich and powerful! Look how they live! and accept it.

“But, since the continual revelations of call girls and the sheer number of women who have come forward to say they have been paid for favours by him, the general public response seems to have changed to seeing Berlusconi as a dirty old man. Although people do still think, How on earth does he get the energy to do all that when he’s 75 and supposedly running not only the country but also the biggest commercial enterprises in it? 

“I think he has not seen this change in public opinion and does not understand it. Whereas before he could get away with saying, Look how successful and wealthy I am – That’s why I’m worthy to run the country, now he can’t get away with that because all his business associates are seen to be dodgy at best and illegal at worst.

“The last straw was the interplay of exchanged looks between Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France at the International Monetary Fund’s recent emergency meeting. They were asked if they had been given sufficient assurances from Berlusconi about austerity measures in Italy. Instead of answering (both were listening to simultaneous translations on headphones), they looked at each other and broke out in grins, then half shook their heads as if in mirth and said, unconvincingly, Yes, yes.

“It was a moment of national shame here in Italy.

“It was confirmation that Berlusconi had become a laughing stock among other international politicians. That’s definitely not macho. That’s deeply offensive to the Italians’ frail sense of worth. The footage was repeatedly screened here on TV every night for one reason or another and that’s why it has stuck in the national psyche as something to be embarrassed about… and Italians do not like being embarrassed!

“Berlusconi was the only European leader as far as I know not to condemn Gaddafi over the months of conflict in Libya. Never did he say a word against him, and why is quite obvious: he had privately-owned joint-venture companies with Gaddafi who was his trusted ‘friend’. Only last year, Gaddafi came to Italy and was treated like royalty. There were hundreds of beautiful young girls hired by Berlusconi to be present at Gaddaffi’s public appearances and about fifty of Gaddaffi’s horses were shipped over with him to parade in Rome and demonstrate the friendly relationship the two had. Berlusconi still hasn’t made a statement on the situation in Libya.

“This morning’s national newspaper the Corriere della Sera prominently displayed a zoomed-in shot of a piece of paper in front of Berlusconi on his desk during the no-confidence vote he faced in the Italian Parliament and he had written 8 TRAITORS which is how he sees the people who voted against him.

“He ‘gave’ them high positions in local and national government, but it still wasn’t enough to buy their co-operation.

“Berlusconi sees himself as an independent who doesn’t need to play by the rules because he’s above the law. He doesn’t live in Rome; he lives in Arcore (near Milan in northern Italy) and takes private helicopters back and forth. He doesn’t need to keep up appearances, he was and still is too powerful to bow to that kind of thing.

“Two weeks ago he flew to Russia to attend Vladimir Putin’s birthday bash at a dacha in remote countryside and gleefully told the Italian Parliament he would be unavailable that weekend as he was with his good friend Putin. He was particularly eager to let them know he wasn’t using state-funded transport to get there… He doesn’t need to. He is a multi-millionare.

“The saddest part about Berlusconi however is that – despite all this – there’s no-one better to take over from him. There is no viable alternative at all. Berlusconi has given Italy more stability than it had ever had since World War Two ended.

”It is just a pity he is who he is.”

Silvio Berlusconi is perhaps the perfect example of someone who has always had within him the seeds of his own destruction. And an example of how major financial, corruption and sex scandals may weaken you but being laughed at may ultimately bring you down.

Comedy can be mightier than the sword.

Though, in the case of Boris Johnson, it may actually get him re-elected.

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Filed under Comedy, Ireland, Italy, Politics, PR

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning…”

This morning, I looked at my diary for 9th November 2001 – two days before Remembrance Day.

I had noted down some Facts I Didn’t Know.

This is back in 2001…

– In the last 100 years, there has only been one year in which no British serviceman was killed on active duty

– Since 1945, there have been 70 separate conflicts involving Britain

That was way back in 2001.

Now we are another ten years on.

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