Tag Archives: budget

How budgets and technology have affected the type of TV comedy we see

I was at the London School of Economics last night for an event called Comedy As Commentary, in which a panel of writers and producers discussed the way in which “much comedy writing can be read as a kind of commentary on social life.”

But economics came into it too.

One of the panelists was Joanna Scanlan, actress and co-writer (with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine) of the highly realistic sitcom Getting On, set in the geriatric ward on an NHS hospital.

All of the panel seemed to be big fans of the sitcom Father Ted.

“But,” Joanna pointed out, “the budgets that were available to make television at the point that Father Ted was commissioned by Channel 4 are very different from the budgets that are available to make television comedy now.

“What has happened is that the realism mode, to-camera shoot and the limited locations are partly financially driven. If you turn up in a commissioner’s office and say we have to build these props and it’ll take a six-day shoot… The Thick Of It was initially shot in two-and-a-half days per episode and Getting On was done two-and-a-half days per episode.

“They both started on BBC4, where there were very low budgets and very low expectations for audience: they were going to build it.

The Thick Of It has ended up being a huge phenomenon, but it has never had the budgets that really go with that.

“People talk about Getting On as if we really intended it to be like that, but we didn’t. It had to be like that. It couldn’t be different (because of the budget).

“The other thing is that technology has changed; cameras have changed. You can walk around a room without a cable behind the camera so therefore you can shoot in rooms without cables becoming visible on the shot.

Peter Capaldi, who directed the first two series of Getting On, said at the very beginning Why are we making television in the way that we’re making it? The technology has utterly changed. All the conventions within the production methods you can throw away.

“So I think it’s partly about letting your imagination run wild but (with lower budgets) it’s very difficult in a world where no commissioner is going to… Well, Sky is the exception. When they started commissioning comedy, Lucy Lumsden, the commissioning editor, said she wanted touchy-feely stuff, she wanted warm stuff – which is partly about their subscribers, but it’s also that she had some more money. You could make a world. You could have more than one location.

“It obviously does affect the creative vision.

“There was a BBC do a while ago where one of the heads of Comedy was saying Ooh, it’d be nice if… and showed a clip of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em – one of the most famous episodes where Frank Spencer gets hoisted up onto the steeple of the church… We can’t laugh at that sort of thing any more, because we really couldn’t afford to do that. It’s out of the question, but it would be good if we could.”

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Diana Rigg was NOT cast to star in “The Avengers” – and why the series stopped

Prolific TV & film writer Brian Clemens

In three recent blogs, I have published parts of a chat I had with writer-producer Brian Clemens in 1979. It was published in issues 29 and 30 of Starburst magazine.

In Part One, he talked about his background and the early Avengers TV  series. In Part Two, he talked about the style of The Avengers. In Part Three, he talked about directing and about vampire films. This is the final part of that interview – on the trials and tribulations of producing. Remember it all took place in 1979 …

***

Today, Clemens is an executive as well as a creator; a producer as well as a writer. So does it cause problems being a producer and a writer and a sometime director?

“Well, it’s not as difficult for me as for some,” he says. “I’ve always been a co-producer, so Albert (Fennell, his business partner) is my conscience. He’s very good at editing and I think I am too, but it’s silly when you get too omnipotent. I think that’s destroyed a lot of good people; it destroys stars. How many people have said I’m going to produce my own film and it sits on the shelf? I think you need objectivity. I think that’s very, very important.”

Diana Rigg was not cast in The Avengers

It is a lesson he probably learnt from bitter experience on The Avengers. A lot of TV and film production decisions are a matter of internal politics and personal whim. For instance, Diana Rigs was not the original choice to play Emma Peel in The Avengers. The original actress cast for the role was Elizabeth Shepherd who, most unusually, was not screen-tested.

“That wasn’t my decision,” says Clemens. “That was Julian Winkle’s choice because he was executive producer. Liz Shepherd had done something on television and she was undeniably very beautiful and it wasn’t until we did one and a half episodes… She’s not a bad actress, but she just doesn’t have a sense of humour at all and it was essential in The Avengers. So we scrapped what we’d shot and got rid of her and then tested – which is what we should have done in the first place – and out of the tests came Diana Rigg. We tested a lot of people, like Moira Redmond and that sort of person and one or two unknowns like Sarah Brackett – whatever happened to her? – and Diana Rigg was head and shoulders above everybody else.”

Clemens worked for a total of six years on various Avengers series and then, when Diana Rigg left the show, he was suddenly thrown out.

Linda Thorson was cast – but with no sense of humour?

“I was sacked at the beginning of the Linda Thorson ones,” he says. “It was internal politics. The Avengers was owned by ABC Television and there was a great deal of back-biting because they’d brought in outside boys to make probably their greatest hit ever. Still is. If you go to America with Patrick Macnee, you can’t walk down the street even now – I promise you. In New York and California, you really cannot move if you’re with him and they’re all saying Hello Steed! His impact, internationally, is enormous.

ABC resented outside boys and thought it was easy. So they got rid of us and brought in some of their own boys and, within one and a half episodes, they asked us to come back because it really was going to fail. Unfortunately (the producer) had brought in his girlfriend, Linda Thorson, whom I would never have cast. And so we were stuck with her. Which is why I brought in the character of Mother – because she (Thorson) had no sense of humour either. I brought in Mother so Patrick Macnee could at least have jokes with somebody.”

Even so, the series proved unsalvageable and ended in 1968. Almost a decade later, Clemens, Albert Fennell and composer Laurie Johnson formed The Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd. British financiers were not interested, so The New Avengers was produced with £3-4 million in French and later Canadian money.

This time, there was no chance taken with the female lead. Before Joanna Lumley was cast as Purdey, Clemens says he seriously considered 700 girls, interviewed 200, read scripts with 40 and screen tested 15.

The New Avengers – not just a ‘sleeper’ hit – a mega hit

“Most Avengers fans,” he admits, “don’t like The New Avengers as much as the old ones, but it did actually get a bigger audience.”

Although costing £125,000 per episode to produce, it was also financially successful. The irony was that, although Clemens could sell the finished product with ease, he was unable to get the initial finance in Britain. When I talked to him last year, he had been trying to finance another series of The New Avengers. He told me:

“London Weekend Television will put up half the money and CBS in America want to pay us $140,000 an episode and we’re short $50,000 an episode and we can’t get it anywhere – otherwise we’d make more Avengers – and The Avengers is really like printing money, because it just goes on forever and it’s got assured syndication – They’ve already got 87 of the first one.”

So far, new financing for The New Avengers has not materialised.

“I don’t know why it is,” Clemens tells me. “I mean, why didn’t Britain put up the money for Star Wars and Superman? They were made here but the money wasn’t put up here. Most of our film industry’s run by people who just don’t care much. At least Sam Goldwyn cared and Lew Grade (of ATV/ITC) cares. At least he’s making movies. You may not like them – some I don’t like – but he’s making them.”

The Professionals were hit men in more senses than one

The Professionals TV series started out costing £115,000 per episode but is now costing £150,000. It was sold to Canada, although its scripts make no concessions to foreign audiences. The first offer of US syndication was turned down because it was too low – $50,000 per show (about $25,000 at that time). Recently, a million dollar deal was negotiated by Clemens’ Mark One Productions and London Weekend Television (who co-finance the series) for the showing of 39 episodes on US cable TV. The deal also includes “substantial” American money for the production of future episodes and Clemens is also “hopeful” that a Professionals feature film will be made, probably with American financial backing.

It is astonishing that Clemens, with his extraordinarily successful track record, has had so much trouble raising finance in Britain. He is an international success. His original episodes of The Avengers are still showing in America and were networked again recently by CBS. The New Avengers series has been networked twice across America. And he is still trying to keep one step ahead of the trends.

“All drama goes in cycles,” he says. “If it’s been kitchen sink for four years, don’t think kitchen sink. I wanted to do The Magnificent Seven story as knights in armour – indeed, I was commissioned by EMI and then it all fell through – and now I see Ridley Scott’s project Knight (now to be directed by Walter Hill and re-titled The Sword). That could well open up that area and it would then be too late for me to follow because, by the time I get in, there’ll be lots of them – Return of The Knight and so on. The same with science fiction – it must come down again. If you can be the innovator or number two, you’re alright.”

So what sort of projects has he in mind? Well, there’s Bamboo Martini, which Rank planned to shoot before they collapsed. And there was a Vincent Price comedy-thriller which has also had problems.

“What’s it about? “ I asked.

“Well,” replied Brian Clemens, “it’s about transporting a dead body from one bed to another across the whole of America. If you can imagine that President Jimmy Carter is having an affair in Boston and is supposed to be in Washington and has a heart attack and his mistress then comes to Vincent Price and says: He’s got to be found in his own bed on Monday morning… Well that’s it.”

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British Airways PR… BA = Bloody Awful

BA spells bad service

I had forgotten how awful British Airways are.

I remember flying with them to Dublin when they were trying to take-on the budget airlines. Their answer was to fly old aircraft and chop one third off the width of some of the seats. You could see where they’d done it. You had to be a contortionist or a famine victim to travel comfortably.

When I flew out to China three weeks ago, British Airways had (no surprise here) managed to over-book the flight, so they downgraded me a class. As a Scot brought up among Jews, I did not particularly mind, as they gave me £75 compensation and said the difference in price on the tickets would be refunded.

The difference in the ticket price, of course, has not yet been refunded, but what is more interesting is the way they gave me the £75, which was to hand me a British Airways Visa card with £75 on it. They told me I could withdraw the money through any ATM and, although I would normally have to pay for ATM withdrawals, the first withdrawal would be free in this case.

It was not until I got back home to the UK that I realised ATMs dispense money in £10 or £20 notes, not £5 notes. So I can withdraw £70 but not £75. I emailed British Airways over a week ago asking how to get round this problem. I imagine I could somehow pay an extra £5 into the account (though I am not sure how, as the card is not linked to any known bank or bank account) but then, if I withdraw £80, that might count as a second piece of dealing with the card so I might be charged for withdrawing the money?

Who knows?

With BA, anything is possible.

They are trying to foist their Visa cards on people who have not asked for them and presumably intentionally make if difficult to cash any compensation money they allegedly give you.

As I say, I contacted BA more than a week ago by e-mail – because contacting anyone who will admit to responsibility by phone is apparently impossible. No reply. So their attempt to cultivate good PR has resulted in me thinking they are incompetent and/or possibly devious wankers.

This image of BA was not helped by talking to my friend Lynn, who used to work in PR for several TV companies and who travels Business Class. She tells me that, having paid an extortionate amount of money for a Business Class seat, you may find yourself sitting staring at some random BA staff member on flights. It has happened to her. BA’s response? Tough shit. I paraphrase their response but do not misrepresent it.

“In World Traveller Class and in Business Class,” she told me this week, “the crew fold-down seats, which the crew use during take-off and landing, can be given to any BA staff who want to travel on the flight. So you can literally find yourself staring someone in the face in a very unrelaxed way for the whole of the journey. You can’t easily settle down when you’re eyeballing someone else and you can’t stretch your legs out.

“They’re allowing BA staff to use them for the whole of the flight if there are no spare seats. Which, for one thing, doesn’t seem very safe and, for another, means you’re not getting the leg room you’ve paid through the nose for.”

This reinforces my image of BA.

BA = Bloody Awful…

Frankly, I’d rather fly in a North Korean Air Koryo Tupolev smelling of petrol fumes; at least they try their best.

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The conspiracy movie financed by drug money and destroyed by its distributors

There can’t be many 1970s movies which had Elizabeth Taylor in the cast yet which did not bill her in the credits. But, then, Winter Kills has a production history so quirky and so labyrinthine that it is worthy of a movie about its own production.

I saw it once about 25 years ago and – believe me – see it once and you don’t forget it.

I saw it again last night at the National Film Theatre in London.

Winter Kills is a baroque fictionalised fantasy about the conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. It is so quirky that it can be described (although this is slightly misleading) as a black comedy.

It is based on a book by Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate – a book also about a political assassination but published before Kennedy’s death.

With an iconic cast and crew to die for, Winter Kills was produced by two wealthy drug dealers – Robert Sterling and Leonard Goldberg – who had made their names and a lot of money by releasing the Emmanuelle soft core porn movies in the US.

But they did not actually have the $6.5 million budget needed to make Winter Kills themselves.

Leonard Goldberg believed that, if you borrowed a large enough amount of money, the debtors would have to let you finish the movie to ensure getting their money back. The problem was that the film went at least $4 million over budget and, at one point, the production manager had a sawn-off shotgun shoved under his chin until he paid for a generator.

Eventually, in mid-production, Goldberg was murdered by the Mafia – his brains shot out, handcuffed to his bed – for failing to pay his debts – and, later, Robert Sterling was sentenced to 40 years in prison for marijuana smuggling. The production went so far over budget that it was shut down three times – twice by the unions – and it declared bankruptcy.

First-time director William Richert and several of the cast and crew eventually went to Germany and filmed a comedy called The American Success CompanyThey sold distribution rights on that movie, which made them enough money to finish shooting Winter Kills after a two-year hiatus.

Although “quirky and idiosyncratic” is an understatement for the Byzantine plot, the movie got good – occasionally rave – reviews when it was released.

The New York Times called it “a funny, paranoid fable… furiously funny”.

Rolling Stone labelled it “Boisterous Burlesque”.

Newsweek’s rave review said it was: “flamoyantly absurd, extravagantly confusing, grandiosely paranoid and more than a little fun”.

The New Yorker critic was so bemused that be went to see the movie a second time and then said – admiringly – that it  “was like listening to some marvelous, entertaining drunken storyteller”.

But it made little money because it was pulled quickly from cinemas after distributors Avco Embassy Pictures told director William Richert: “It’s not really in the best interests of Americans to watch a picture like this.”

Richard Condon, author of the original bestselling book, wrote an article in Harper’s magazine titled Who Killed Winter Kills? in which he pointed out that the Avco Embassy conglomerate had major defence contracts in which the Kennedy family were involved and that assassinated President John Kennedy’s brother Edward was thought likely to run for President in the near future.

Avco Embassy certainly chopped some scenes out (including Elizabeth Taylor’s two scenes) which William Richert re-inserted when he eventually bought his film back and re-released it on DVD.

Winter Kills is a bizarrely-plotted semi-fantasy film with strangely-scripted lines perfectly delivered by A-list actors.

Anthony Perkins has some of the most interesting, including:

“People tend to accept the plausible if it is wondrously documented… We pioneered these methods in modern society until, today, as we see, our politicians and political structure could not survive without them. Life and truths have been turned into diverting, gripping, convincing scenarios.”

Winter Kills is a maze of fanciful plots and bizarre scenes. As Anthony Perkins’ character says: “the techniques of fiction playing like searchlights upon a fancied facade of truth.”

It gives some of Michael Powell’s weirder films a run for their money.

You can see a trailer here and a 37-minute feature on the making of Winter Kills here.

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The downside of being a dead celebrity: Liz Taylor, Charlie Drake, Rod Hull, Bob Hope & the Queen Mum

The Queen Mother was 101 years old when she died and she had cost the BBC a fortune by not dying earlier. Her death – codenamed ‘Blackbird’ at ITV where the Transmission Controllers had envelopes containing details of what to do when she did eventually die – was clearly going to be a big news story and her funeral a complicatedly large state event so, to my knowledge, the BBC ran a full rehearsal of her death and coverage of her funeral three times. It cost a fortune.

She must have been well-pissed off when Princess Diana died because everyone was unprepared. There were certainly no plans for Diana to have a big funeral because, at that point, she was not a member of the Royal Family and had no constitutional position. So, when the Royal Family were, in effect, forced by the press and – to my mind – surreal public opinion to give Diana a big fuck-me funeral, they used the plans for the Queen Mother’s funeral.

As a result, the Queen Mother’s funeral itself was a less big-scale anti-climax.

Dying can be difficult at the best of times, but pity the poor celebrity.

Elizabeth Taylor sadly mis-timed her death on Wednesday. On a normal slow news days, she could have expected to be the lead item on TV News bulletins. But it was Budget Day in the UK – economic pundits and bullshitting politicians stretched as far as the eye could see and there were expensive Outside Broadcast and studio links nationwide – plus there was lots of news coming in from Libya and still news report aftershocks from the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear story in Japan, where TV companies had, by now, flown expensive reporters into place and were paying for on-the-spot film crews.

So poor Elizabeth Taylor’s death did not quite get the level of coverage she could have otherwise expected.

This morning, TV scriptwriter Nigel Crowle pointed out to me two slightly bizarre angles to her death.

One was that one of her rivals for the key role in 1944 movie National Velvet – which made her a star – was future Baroness Shirley Williams.

Shirley was pipped at the post by Elizabeth and went on to found the Social Democrat Party while Liz went on to marry Richard Burton twice.

It’s unlikely that, if Shirley had got the role, she would have gone on to marry Richard Burton and Elizabeth would have founded the SDP, but stranger things have happened.

The other odd fact Nigel mentioned is that Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary in the New York Times was written by Mel Gussow who died six years ago.

This is no great surprise – Associated Press wrote the template for Britney Spears’ obituary in 2008.

What does surprise me is that British newspapers seem to have discovered a tone of reverence for Elizabeth Taylor which they never quite gave her in life. Something of a reverse on the situation for dead UK comedian Charlie Drake, who was much cherished during his life.

After his death, veteran TV producer Michael Hurll let rip about Charlie in an interview on the Chortle comedy industry website

Hurll worked with Charlie when he was a holiday camp redcoat: “He was a nasty man then,” Hurll said, “and he stayed a nasty man – a horrible, horrible man”.

Hurll, old enough not to care, went on to call Jerry Lewis (still alive) “a nasty piece of work” and Bob Hope (dead) “the nastiest man I’ve ever worked with”. As for Rod Hull: “He was the most miserable, nastiest man you ever met… Just a horrible, horrible man.”

Dying can be difficult at the best of times, but pity the poor celebrity facing the uncertainties of posthumous reviews.

I still retain memories of reading an Andy Warhol obituary (I can’t remember where) which ended with the climactic words: “He was a short man who wore a wig”.

Ex-gangster ’Mad’ Frank Fraser – not a man to meddle with in life – once told me over a cup of tea that he wasn’t “really frightened of anything but I’m a bit worried what they’ll say about me after I die.”

He seems a very nice chap. He offered me free dental work.

Just don’t ask me about Cilla Black…

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My inability to read books, the dyslexic ex-gangster and the recent arrest of one of the Cheeky Girls

Since the morning of 9th March 1991, I have not been able to read a book.

I have written books since then, but I am physically unable to read them.

Last night, at Elstree Studios, I had a chat with author and would-be film producer Jason Cook, a very interesting man who has written three novels despite being severely dyslexic.

I am not dyslexic.

Jason Cook is an ex-criminal… some might say he’s an ex-gangster, but defining the word ‘gangster’ is a matter of semantics. By anyone’s definition, though, he is a very amiable, charismatic, creative dynamo of a man.

He was smoking and selling hash from his bedroom at the age of 12. By the time he was 16, he had moved on to ecstasy and had become involved with – by any definition – local gangsters. He took steroids, worked out at the local gym to build himself up and also had a tendency to carry knives AND guns; he was always thorough. By the time he was 17, he was helping the same local gangsters collect drug-related debts.

He was also addicted to cocaine.

Eventually, he was arrested and given a seven and a half year prison sentence, though he only served two years and nine months of it. While he was inside, he joined the education programme, volunteered for the drug-free wing (interesting that the prison authorities only labelled one wing as being drug-free) and was given support to kick his drug habit.

As part of this rehabilitation programme, he was encouraged to start writing about his experiences. The result is three novels – There’s No Room for Jugglers in My Circus, The Gangster’s Runner and the soon-to-be published A Nice Little Earner. This, remember, is from a man who is severely dyslexic.

All three novels have now been scripted as movies and ballpark budgeted. A few months ago, I advised Jason against joining the glut of cheap Brit movies and go for the big-time, big-screen legit movie area. Now he has offices at Elstree Studios. And now, I suspect, the fun and painful games will really start…

Well, in a sense the fun has already started.

At the beginning of last month, shortly after meeting Jason to discuss a role in the first of his planned trilogy of films, ‘Cheeky Girl’ Gabriela Irimia was arrested by police in Wilmslow, Cheshire, for shoplifting £40 worth of groceries from a local Sainsbury store. Her formidable mother Margareta told the Daily Mail that Gabriela “was getting into character” for her forthcoming role in the film version of Jason’s first book.

The Cheeky Girls are still in line to appear on-screen.

Jason is still trying to get full finance for his three movies and he is so energetic anything is possible.

As for my inability to read any book since the morning of 9th March 1991, more about that tomorrow…

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