Tag Archives: children

Can comedian Bob Slayer – infamously Edinburgh Fringey – turn into a cuddly grey-bearded children’s entertainer?

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned that comedians often have another ‘day job’.

Around seven years ago, Bob Slayer was managing Japanese rock group Electric Eel Shock when they made a Christmas video in which he appeared as Father Christmas. It was posted on YouTube.

Now Bob has become a real Santa Claus. He started the job yesterday in a grotto under a giant Christmas tree at Whiteley’s department store in London’s Queensway and he will be donning his red-and-white robes there throughout December.

BEFORE...

BEFORE…

AFTER...

AFTER…

“You have to respond to the audience that’s in front of you,” says Bob

‘Santa’ Bob with helper elves ‘Ruthy Boothy’ Sarah (left) and ‘Wilma Words’ Christine

I talked to him last night after he finished his Ho Ho Ho duties. He told me he was going to have to think up some more Christmas stories, because some children had come back a second time on this his first day in the role.

“I’d been telling them how reindeer fly and how they have to go to Tromsø in Norway,” said Bob, “and I could see some of the parents looking at me thinking I don’t know this story; this isn’t a real Santa, so I told the children You see, mummies and daddies don’t know about reindeer.”

Happy Drunk illustration by comedian Rich Rose

One Happy Drunk illustration by Rich Rose

And that’s not all.

Tonight, at the Chortle Comedy Book Festival, Bob launches a children’s book he wrote, with illustrations by Rich Rose of comedy duo Ellis & Rose (last referred-to in this blog yesterday a propos their Jimmy Savile: The Punch & Judy Show).

“Rich is a brilliant illustrator,” said Bob.

“Remind me what the book is called?” I asked.

The Happy Drunk,” confirmed Bob.

He financed it by crowdfunding and reached 169% of his target. The title was originally Calpol Is Evil but he changed it – allegedly after he received an alleged letter from solicitors representing the manufacturers of Calpol. Never forget that Bob Slayer won a much-coveted Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award in 2011 for his ‘Cockgate’ stunt at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“What’s the premise of The Happy Drunk?” I asked.

“It’s a children’s book for adults. It’s for Big Kids.”

“Would 14-year-olds enjoy it?” I asked.

HappyDrunk

Bob’s new book is for Big Babies everywhere – but not lawyers

“I don’t know,” replied Bob. “I think they would, although whether their parents would want them to read it… I’d say it should have a PG rating.

“Actually, I should have put that on the cover!” he laughed. “I’ve only printed 50 so far – as a proof to check they’re OK – so I think I might put PG Rated on future covers.”

“Are drunks happy?” I asked.

“Drunks in comedy clubs,” explained Bob, “get a bad name due to the alcopop drunks that the Jongleurs and Highlight comedy chains get in, whereas the sort of people I like doing gigs to are genuinely happy drunks: people who know what they’re drinking.

“When I do gigs in breweries, they’re drinking nice drink. They’re lively, but they don’t get out of hand; they’re good audiences. They’re people who are in for their drink but also in for their comedy. In the comedy club chains, you get big groups of people and some of them do want to see comedy, but others had wanted to go to the cinema or go bowling; they’re not all committed to watching comedy.

“I’m going to print 1,000 copies of The Happy Drunk initially. Rich Rose is having 300, I’ll put some online and sell the rest at gigs. Writing it was a stopgap, because it’s taking me longer to write my How To Out-Drink Australia book than I thought it would. It’s taking longer to edit.”

Bob Slayer - too hot to handle in Australia

Turning a tour into a book is complicated

“You have a problem with people’s perception of you,” I said. “People think you’re always going to be the OTT Edinburgh Fringe Bob Slayer character.”

“Well,” said Bob, “you have to respond to the audience that’s in front of you. I like to think that I can mirror whatever audience is there. If you put me in a golf club, then I’m not going to end up naked – well, unless that’s what they want. There have been occasions when it’s gone out of control and perhaps I have gone the wrong way, but they’re one-off incidents like in Norway, where I got banned from that theatre.

“But, look, the fact was that they had five members of The Cumshots band there. So I’m going to perform to my mates The Cumshots, aren’t I? And they’re a band that invite you to come onstage and ‘fuck for forests’ – I HAD to come off the balcony on a rope. Though the reason I was actually banned was because I opened a bottle of Jägermeister on stage and had a drink and I was unaware how strict the licensing laws are there.”

“Ironically,” I said, “you got a Scottish licence to run your own bar at Bob’s Bookshop during the Edinburgh Fringe. Are you going to do other comedy club bars?”

Bob Slayer: no entry for the easily offended

Comedian; promoter; licensed venue manager; looney?

“Well,” explained Bob, “The reason I could be Father Christmas here was because I had a mostly-free December. And that was because I was going to do a pop-up comedy venue and bar in London – like Bob’s Bookshop in Edinburgh. I looked at a couple of places in Hackney and round East London, but I just ran out of time to get the licensing sorted. So I had kept December free and, when the pop-up club didn’t happen, I put a few club gigs into my diary then this Father Christmas offer came along.”

“So you will be doing other pop-up comedy venues and bars?” I asked.

“I’m doing one at the Leicester Comedy Festival in February,” said Bob. “The programme’s out tomorrow and I’m doing three long weekends, putting on about 30 shows – people like Tom Binns, Devvo, Brian Gittins, Stuart Goldsmith, Phil Kay, Adam Larter, Doug Segal, Ben Target. We’ve got an old chapel in Leicester – Hansom Hall, named after the guy who invented the hansom cab. He designed the building.

“I’m working with a new brewery – BrewDog who are Aberdeen-based. They’re the fastest-growing food and drink company in the UK in the last three years. A really interesting independent brewer. They’re funding themselves by crowdfunding: you can invest in BrewDog. The moment they heard about Cockgate at the Edinburgh Fringe, they said We want to work with you.”

“And then?” I asked.

“I’m trying to be quiet in January to finish writing my Australian book. I’ve got to get the book done for the next Edinburgh Fringe.”

What???

Bob Slayer “trying to be quiet”?

This does not compute.

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Filed under Books, Children, Christmas, Comedy, Drink

Sick British comedy critic Kate Copstick living in Kenya with a tiny black pussy

(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick

La Copstick squatting in Kenya

British comedy critic Kate Copstick set up the Mama Biashara charity in Kenya to fund health care projects and help poor people (especially women) set up their own small businesses. What is perhaps not generally known is that Copstick suffers from lupus, a disease in which the immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissues.

Copstick is currently in Kenya. These are extracts from her diary over the last week. She lives in the slums of Nairobi with a small kitten.

TUESDAY 16th APRIL

To be honest, I am not feeling that well. NO, this is not a hangover. Just lupusy crap.

I stay in bed all morning, asleep. I am not missing much as the torrential rain that generally falls through the night is falling through the day now. The whole place is a mudbath. This is monster rain and it precludes movement in slum areas as roads become impassable and impossible. People are patching up their homes, rescuing animals and children from the flood and generally wondering where a friendly neighbourhood Noah is when you need one.

I awake at around 3pm to the sound of lashing rain and a phone that says 22 missed calls. I agree to meet up with Doris (a) to prove I really am still alive and (b) to buy a dongle for the Mama Biashara notepad and a dedicated Mama Biashara telephone line. Doris has a penchant for second-hand smartphones and they are a disaster. There are species of mayfly with a longer life expectancy than the battery on a second-hand Samsung smartphone. We will be buying the BASIC Nokia (like wot I have… well the current version. Mine is seven years old and still going strong).

We also need to send the boys from the workshop (the ones who want to sell duck meat) their start-up money. And meet and talk to the firewood group who need a chainsaw. And I have to send some money to Sammi Njoroge, a great guy who is looking after four orphans (with Mama Biashara’s help).

WEDNESDAY 17th APRIL

Some of the Kenyan children helped by Mama Biashara

Some of the local Kenyan children helped by Mama Biashara

I have agreed to meet Felista to discuss DECIP (the Dagoreti Early Child Intervention Program, an AIDs NGO), why it looked like such a disaster area and why it is unlikely that she could make a go of working with Childfund. Also to talk about why it is now ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for her to find other people to help fund DECIP.

The talk is pointed. Not to the point of heated. Warm maybe. Simmering.

I ask why DECIP looked like such a disaster area. It turns out that the work demanded by the City Council (and funded by Mama Biashara) was only half done. Everything was stopped because of the rain. The two flooded classrooms were being prepared for new flooring when the flooding came and now they have to wait for the flooding to abate before going ahead with the work.

At the end of that, DECIP should be back on track. On track to what, I am never sure, but on track.

We put together a budget to help with funding the school (100 destitute, orphan pupils, no visible means of support). The money being used to pay the teachers a 50% salary each month has been diverted from buying food and food is being bought by the money from CWAC (the Children With AIDs Charity) and collected in donations from visitors.

The rain is, once more, torrential.

THURSDAY APRIL 18th

I am awoken by the kitten licking my eyelids. As its tiny tongue makes its way across my temples to my ears, the sensation is worryingly sensual. I pick the tiny black pussy off my face and get up. Good grief ! Is this how the slide into utter depravity begins? Alone in a shipping container, with no form of entertainment other than picking one’s scabs and scratching one’s lumps, and a small black furry thing presents itself…

What would Mother Theresa do? I ask myself.

Undoubtedly beat the kitten until it converted to Catholicism.

Undoubtedly… So THAT is no help…

Luckily I have loads to do.

My prototype raincatcher in the Rift Valley outside Maai Mahiu is a huge success. On the first night (Monday), although there was only a light rain, it filled the 250 litre drum. On the Tuesday, with heavier rain, people were lining up with their tanks and getting them filled by Mama Biashara’s Raincatcher. And so we are on to roll the model out as far as we can on this trip.

It is pouring down again.

FRIDAY 19th APRIL

Group of former prostitutes who now make shag pile carpets

Group of former prostitutes who now make shag pile carpets

Mama Biashara is really operating at a different level now, largely thanks to Doris and her endless, wonderful work in the furthest reaches of Nairobi’s slums (and beyond). Her ability is to mentor and support and suggest and get big groups of people to band together with a truly viable business, showing not just proper product knowledge but research and a swathe of orders set up in advance. These businesses have a serious success rate. The members keep each other on their toes. It really is a huge step in the right direction. And this is a woman struggling to survive herself – a single mum with 3-year-old triplets. She is a glorious human being.

Some time ago, we did a workshop for a community of first and second generation Zimbabwean refugees. We did a business workshop but also gave cod liver oil, multi-vitamins, ibugel etc.

Now some of the women have come to Doris with a problem. Their children are being beaten at school because their homework is not being done properly. This is because the mothers cannot help their children with homework (as they are meant to do) because the mothers themselves are wholly illiterate and innumerate – because educating women is against the culture of the community which has settled here.

In a massive breakthrough, Doris has persuaded the Elders to allow some university students to come and help the kids with homework.

But the women want to learn. They feel really bad that their kids are being beaten.

But the Elders are dead against the women learning.

So we plan Mama Biashara’s Secret School. I know there are issues about interfering with other people’s cultures, but this has been driven by the women and we are hardly going to be teaching them the Complete Works of Andrea Dworkin – just ABC and 123 and how to write their names.

We (I say we, I mean Doris) are going to make a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Elders to allow the school. Fingers crossed.

SATURDAY 20th APRIL

It has to be admitted that I awoke feeling less than chipper. Plan A had been to get up early and get to the bank before it closes at 12 noon. This doesn’t happen. I hit the ATM for some of the necessary readies I need to collect stuff at the market. Lucia’s bags are getting more beautiful every time I see her. I get armloads of stuff and get on the bus back to Corner. We have an irritating onboard preacher who shouts a lot about covering us all in the Blood of Christ and insists we all pray.

Now it is pouring rain. I cannot sell rain-soaked raffia bags and so I negotiate a decent cab fare and get a ride home.

I am feeling dodgier by the minute and now appear to be pissing out individual drops of sulphuric acid. This has happened before in Kenya and I go to the lovely ladies at the (fairly) nearby chemist and get a pack of a combination of antibiotic, anti-everything bombs that should nuke whatever it is and, if it is more kidney grit, make sure there is no following infection. I drink mugs of Bicarbonate of Soda solution which helps a bit. I don’t sleep well.

SUNDAY 21st APRIL

I spend twenty minutes in the loo in quite some pain. I come out and almost immediately go back in again. I get a taxi home. It is not a good day.

I appear to be weeing tiny blood clots. And now have hilariously explosive (and LOUD) diarrhoea. Even the cats go outside.

I take another dose of the combination bombs and drink loads of water.

MONDAY 22nd APRIL

I am much better than expected. I feel a little like I have been through the boil wash and the spin dry but much better. And this is a Big Day !!!

The Mama Biashara Patent Raincatcher Water Harvesting Project is being rolled out across a (very small) part of the Great Rift Valley. The tanks are there, the taps are fitted into the tanks. It is all going so well. Until we discover that the hardware shop owner who had agreed to take the tanks out to the Maasai meeting place in his big lorry for just the cost of the fuel, has buggered off to Limuru with said big lorry. I get a bit stompy and moody when his wife (an irritating woman in a bad wig) just shrugs and sniggers when I ask what we should do.

TUESDAY 23rd APRIL

Kate Copstick cares in Kenya

Kate Copstick pictured up against the wall, Kenya

We hear that the Zimbabwean Elders have said that Mama Biashara CAN run a school for members of the community, but only for the men.

Meanwhile Doris has a handful of university students on break teaching the kids and helping them with their homework in the hope that they won’t get beaten senseless at school for doing it badly.

The Elders are allowing the children to learn at school and with the students (a BIG leap of faith for them) but they won’t allow the women to learn even ABC and 123 so that they can help their own children.

Doris thinks that The Elders believe we are going to teach the women about contraception, independence and other Western Ways. They have also heard that I don’t believe in God and so this makes me The Tool Of The Devil. Such Tool, of course, is not to be allowed near their women.

We head off to do a medical workshop.

Unfortunately, by the time we get there, I have come over a bit funny (it’s the way I tell them) and am sweaty and sleeping on the back seat. It seems the nasties are back – even after being zapped with a double dose of what is basically Agent Orange for the human insides.

Doris insists I go home to bed. I am a bit, to be frank, worried myself. We stop by the chemist.

I ask for industrial-strength antibiotics. The lovely girl there, usually so helpful, offers me many things, most of them with names starting with ‘Gyno-‘.

“No no no,” I say.

Finally, she offers me clotrimazole.

“I do not have thrush!” I say very loudly and much to the amusement of the two gentlemen in the queue behind me. They smirk knowingly. I can see they think this obviously slutty mzungu is in denial.

“Ciprofloxacin?” I beg.

“Ah !” she disappears and comes back with a box. “I feared to offer you antibiotics,” she says. “I know you hate antibiotics.”

Ah… Hoist by my own tirades against the universal prescription of Amoxil and Piriton for everything short of sudden death.

I swallow two antibiotic bombs and take the rest of the course with me.

“It is a good medicine,” says an old bloke appearing from upstairs. “Generic. From India. Never use the Kenyan medicines. They are useless.” And he is a doctor, it transpires.

At £1.50 for a course, I am willing to let India do what it can for me.

And it does well. By the time the little kitten who stays with me wakes up, has what is undoubtedly a feline epileptic fit, pukes into my open hand and shits all over the floor, I am feeling quite well enough to clean everything up. My temperature is normal (I forgot what a difference that makes). The pains are going … All good.

** Mama Biashara is financed solely by donations; Kate Copstick receives no salary and takes no money to cover any of her personal expenses nor her travel costs

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The last day of Tiswas, the custard-pie-filled anarchic UK children’s TV series

This Is Saturday - Watch And Smile

T-I-S-W-A-S – This Is Saturday Watch And Smile 1974-1982

Today was the day – in 1982 – that ITV transmitted the last edition of Tiswas, the anarchic Saturday morning children’s TV show.

I worked as a researcher on the last series of the show. It is a series that people tend to have forgotten, because it was not presented by Chris Tarrant.

He was preparing and producing his late-night ‘adult’ version of TiswasOTT, now mainly remembered for the Greatest Show On Legs’ naked balloon dance.

Central Television, being slightly incompetent, had failed to arrange a production office for Tarrant and his team so, for the first few weeks of pre-production on his show, they squatted in our office (which we were happy with), refusing to leave in a successful effort to force the Central bureaucracy into giving him an office.

The script for the last edition of Tiswas

The script for the last edition of Tiswas

In the middle of our series of Tiswas, the ITV franchise-holder who produced the series changed from ATV to Central Television. In fact, this was a cosmetic change.

It was the same company – same building, same people, same executives and mostly the same programmes – but theoretically it was a different company.

Tiswas started each show with clips from the previous week’s show. On the Saturday after the change-over, the accountants at ATV told the show’s producer, Glyn Edwards, that he would have to pay hundreds of pounds to buy the rights to screen clips from his own previous week’s ATV show at the start of this week’s Central show.

I do not know exactly what happened, but I think he told them to fuck off and, if they didn’t like it, to sue themselves.

Tiswas was an interesting introduction to TV research for me. The show was live and the series lasted 39 weeks. It varied in length but, from memory, it was often up to three hours long comprising (as it was for kids with short attention spans) items that sometimes only lasted 20 seconds.

It was somewhat hectic during the live transmissions, the only respite coming during 7-minute cartoons or 3-minute rock band performances.

After this, my Saturday mornings never smelled the same.

On a Saturday morning, the Tiswas studio smelled sweet: a combination of the shaving foam used in the ‘custard’ pies and the talcum-powder-like smell of the little ‘explosions’ that were set off.

After all the colour and the sound. I used to come home, dead tired on the mid-afternoon train from Birmingham to London and just plonk myself down on my sofa and mindlessly watch Game For a Laugh on ITV. I later worked on that show, too. The production of Game For a Laugh was surprisingly more hectic and pressurised than Tiswas because Tiswas had been running for about seven years and was a very smooth operation.

A studio floor pass for the show

A floor pass for children and adults taking part in the show

The trick was, in the week leading up to transmission, to have two large production meetings which the lighting, sound supervisors, floor managers etc attended.

The producer ran through what was intended and any obvious major problems were ironed-out or allowed-for with contingency plans. Because everyone knew what might go wrong, it seldom did… to such an extent that the producer Glyn Edwards once discussed how to add more chaos into the show because almost nothing went wrong.

This, he felt, was not in the spirit of Tiswas.

It was a big lesson I learnt: to stage anarchy effectively, you have to be very organised in your preparations.

Of course, things did go wrong.

I remember a child writing in saying he wanted to sit between the two humps of a camel. I phoned up a circus owner, explained this and booked a camel. When the beast arrived, about half an hour before the show started, it only had one hump.

“I paid for two humps,” I told the circus owner.

“It’s got two humps,” said the circus owner.

“It clearly has one hump,” I said. “I can see it only has one hump.”

He then tried to argue that the dromedary was, in fact, a Bactrian and that sometimes a camel’s two humps looked as if they were one hump. I think the phrase “think of saggy tits” came into his argument at one point.

We never booked an animal from his circus again. But the child was happy just to sit on a camel and may have had mathematical problems.

I think I must have encountered the comedian Charlie Chuck in a previous incarnation on Tiswas.

Director Bob Cousins (left) and producer Glyn Edwards

Director Bob Cousins (left) with producer Glyn Edwards

The producer, Glyn Edwards, wanted a German ‘oompah band’.

I found The Amazing Bavarian Stompers for him and booked them but, while they were performing in the studio, I was off somewhere setting-up the next item on the show. In the canteen afterwards, I remember hearing people talk about the ‘mad drummer’ leaping over his drum kit and being generally anarchic – a good thing on Tiswas.

Charlie Chuck, at that time, was drummer for The Amazing Bavarian Stompers and, when I became chummy with him a decade or so later, he mentioned having been on Tiswas. So we probably met in passing. One of the strangenesses of TV.

I also distantly remember some Tiswas party in a Birmingham restaurant.

It had been difficult to book the party, because Birmingham restaurants were wary of Tiswas parties. On a previous occasion, a fire extinguisher had been let off during a Chris Tarrant celebration and word had got round the restaurant trade.

On this occasion, everyone was well-behaved… though, halfway through, I looked up from my meal and presenter Den Hegarty decided, at that moment, to start eating the flowers decorating the middle of the table.

It did not seem odd at the time.

On Tiswas, few things did.

YouTube has a clip of the last two minutes of the final Tiswas show.

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Filed under Children, Television

“What are we laughing at?”

I got an e-mail from a friend who has a four-year-old son. It reads:

LettuceLeaf

“What are we laughing at?” he asked.

Yesterday afternoon he was naughty and I sat him down to have a serious tête-à-tête, speaking to him very sombrely about how important it is to be nice to mummies etc and how big boys don’t shout and scream etc.

At the end of this long monologue he’d sat through straight-faced, I asked him: “What have you got to say to me?”

He reached across and picked a small piece of lettuce leaf off my cheek that had apparently got stuck there and replied : “Mummy’s got a lettuce leaf on her face”.

Oh, great. So all he heard was blah-blah-blah for half an hour and all he saw was lettuce.

This struck me as so funny I literally fell off my chair (further ruining my serious talk) in a fit of giggles that he joined me in, only to ask five minutes in: “What are we laughing at?”

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The forgotten, fallen TV presenter of BBC TV children’s series “Blue Peter”

Christopher Trace at his peak

Christopher Trace at his peak

Howard Posner, the man who expanded on this blog’s true tale of a sheep drinking in a Norwich pub (the Ironmongers Arms) now also mentions to me a disgraced TV presenter.

“As a consequence of the welcome the pub gave to the sheep,” Howard says, “it became a regular haunt – one of the few non real ale pubs in the city we went in – and that was where I met the former Blue Peter presenter Chris Trace, whose love of alcohol was often greater than his funds.”

You have to be of an extraordinarily advanced age like me to remember the fall from grace of Christopher Trace which preceded even the mostly-forgotten Simon Dee’s sudden disappearance into obscurity.

I asked a friend from the TV industry about Christopher Trace, whom I had grown up watching on children’s series Blue Peter.

“All I remember,” she told me, “is the drinking and, because of it, he screwed up financially, the marriage, professionally etc. and ended up in Norwich.”

Which is a fair placing of Norwich in the media hierarchy.

My friend, like me, worked in Norwich for a period and continued: “I remember him being strong on screen on BBC East. He was only there as his wife had kicked him out, he’d lost all his money and was drinking and eventually he went off to run a pub in Norwich.”

Christopher Trace presented Blue Peter for nine years. He was said to have been Charlton Heston’s body double in Ben-Hur and then got his job as the TV show’s first presenter because he bonded with the programme’s originator and first producer John Hunter Blair over their shared love of model railways. According to the show’s later editor Biddy Baxter: “Trace had spent his entire audition playing with the ’00’-gauge layout in Hunter Blair’s office. After that, there was no hope for any of the other candidates.”

Biddy Baxter recalled Christopher Trace’s skill as a live presenter: “On one occasion, when the promised, playful, small lion cub turned out to be almost full-grown and ferocious, Trace carried on his interview, ignoring the snarls and the blood streaming down the arm of the cub’s owner whilst the others, save the camera crew who were quaking behind their cameras, fled.”

She also recalled that: “After a season of bi-weekly programmes, Trace pointed out in his usual forceful way that he was ‘bloody knackered’ and that if we didn’t get a third presenter to share the load he would leave. John Noakes became the third member of the team in 1966.” Some people say Christopher Trace actually suggested John Noakes for the role.

According to the BBC, Noakes “soon took over the action man role, a relief to Trace as he suffered from vertigo”. Biddy Baxter says: “Trace suffered from vertigo and climbing anything higher than a stepladder was a nightmare.”

This was the beginning of the end, but Trace’s downfall had actually started in 1965 when, aged 32, he had an affair with a 19-year-old hotel receptionist during a Blue Peter ‘culture-embracing’ summer filming assignment to Norway. When this came out, his wife divorced him in 1967 and the BBC “accepted his resignation” because, by then, co-presenter John Noakes had established a viewer fan-base. It was said he had also become difficult to deal with. Biddy Baxter says: “After his marriage broke down, Trace never appeared to have quite the same driving force.”

The BBC did not sack him. He resigned. He had had what seemed at the time to be “the chance of a lifetime”. He was asked to join Spectator, a feature film company, as writer and production manager. But the company failed after two years and Trace lost his life savings. He was made bankrupt in 1973, then returned to the BBC in Norwich on the local TV news show Look East and their daily morning radio show Roundabout East Anglia; he also occasionally reported for the networked Nationwide show.

I encountered him once at a Norwich meeting of the National Union of Journalists. He sat in a corner, was fairly quiet, was engrossed in his own thoughts, looked sad and drank a lot. Howard Posner recalls that, when he encountered him, “he had been sacked from the BBC and was working in a factory during the day and behind the bar in a pub near the Catholic Cathedral at night. He never spoke about his TV days, but I do recall he never had any money and said he had big bills to pay. He used to get upset when students told him John Noakes was their favourite.”

Christopher Trace lost two toes in an accident at the factory.

“He stopped coming in after the accident,” Howard Posner remembers. “I was much younger than him so, apart from drink, we didn’t have much in common.”

In the 1980s, he worked in the press office of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. In the 1990s, he briefly returned to the BBC as a regular guest on Radio 2 nostalgia series Are You Sitting Comfortably?

He died in 1992 from cancer of the oesophagus while living in Walthamstow.

So it goes.

According to Wikipedia – always to be trusted on such things – “During his time on Blue Peter, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography credits him with coining two quotations now prominent in British popular culture: the line “And now for something completely different” – later taken up by, and usually attributed to, Monty Python – was used as a segue to different parts of the programme; and “Here’s one I made earlier” was used during the construction of models on the show, and has since been adopted by nearly all subsequent presenters on Blue Peter.”

Sic transit Ozymandias.

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

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They weren’t successful. They were terrible failures.

How did they get financial backing?

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

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

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

How was it promoted?

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

So why did they make Thunderbird 6?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

UFO almost went into a second series, I believe.

Well, the second series was really Space: 1999.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

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

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

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

You have directed, though.

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

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The indiscreet charm of a slobbering, innocent singer at the Edinburgh Fringe

The wonderful world of sexist, slobbering Wilfredo

Wilfredo has been described as a “grotesque caricature of Falstaffian appearance: trousers pulled up to the top of a corpulent stomach, a tight flamenco shirt, a wild black mop wig and a set of prominent prosthetic teeth. Typically, the character will always hold a pint of beer on stage, even whilst dancing and singing. He smokes his way throughout songs, salivating over the audience and musicians while berating them with rich expletives.”

The character of Wilfredo was created by comedian and actor Matt Roper, whose father George Roper was on TV in my erstwhile youth with Bernard Manning et al in the ITV series The Comedians. When I went to see Wilfredo’s Edinburgh Fringe show The Wonderful World of Wilfredo this week, I was fascinated by the number of women in the audience. Wilfredo is a sort of sleazy, greasy singer who slobbers saliva as he talks, yet he has built up a female fan base.

“I don’t understand why women like the character,” I said to Matt Roper. “They certainly wouldn’t be attracted to him in reality.”

“And they certainly aren’t at point blank range,” admitted Matt. “Sometimes I flyer in the streets as the character and, when he’s presented out of context, they certainly don’t want him coming up to them.”

“So maybe,” I suggested, “they like the on-stage character because there’s a willing suspension of disbelief because they know it’s satirical. He’s sexist but they know it’s a joke.”

“I think there’s an outlandish quality to him,” said Matt, “which they find attractive. When I did a preview down in Devon which is kinda my adopted home town area – Totnes – a friend’s mother came backstage afterwards and said The thing I love about Wilfredo is that nobody seems to have taught him the rules.

“If it’s a character you can get away with being ironic. And all the peacenik stuff Wilfredo spouts is very positive; it’s so important. He says Come on you cunts, but I think Wilfredo’s positive innocence – I’m the greatest singer in the world – he believes it’s true… That’s Wilfredo for me.

“There’s a strange innocence about the character which maybe makes him acceptable. He’s slobbering and he’s grabbing his penis and he’s calling the audience cunts but it’s all undercut by a form of charm, really. The charm is the licence. If Bernard Manning were not a real person and was a character, would…”

“Bernard wasn’t charming, though,” I interrupted.

Matt knew that generation of ‘old school’ comics through his father.

“You must have mixed with alternative comedians of your generation,” I said, “who were slagging off your father’s generation of comedians.”

“Yes,” said Matt. “I think Liza Tarbuck used to have that a lot. She’d be at a bar watching comics and people would turn their back on her. The first thing I did was News Revue at the Canal Cafe in the late 1990s and, yes, when Bernard Manning is considered the apotheosis of the Northern comic… that’s pretty hard. ”

“There are a few children of famous comedians up in Edinburgh this year,” I said.

“Yes,” said Matt. “Milo McCabe is here doing a show with his father Mike McCabe who, like my dad, was an old school comic; he’s actually got his dad performing in his show with him. Phil Walker’s here: Roy Walker’s son. And Katie Mulgrew, Jimmy Cricket’s daughter. We don’t know each other but, when we do meet each other, it’s acknowledged that our parents knew each other.”

Matt’s dad George Roper, one of “The Comedians” on ITV

“Your dad was never really tarred by the ‘old school’ criticism, wasn’t he?” I said. “He never had any of the bad image that Bernard Manning had. People never criticised him for his material.”

“When I watch old footage of him performing,” said Matt, “it’s very much his own laid-back manner. He was a storyteller.”

“Did you always want to be a performer because of your dad?” I asked.

“Well, I was exposed to the business because of him,” Matt replied. “I was always doing impressions and getting in trouble at school for clowning around.”

“All comedians, to an extent, hide behind a character,” I said.

“Well, we’re all hiding behind an alter ego, definitely – even the old school, my father’s lot.”

“Have you ever done straight stand-up?”

“When I was a lot younger,” said Matt. “I stopped when I was around 24 because I had nothing to say. I started when I was about 17 or 18. What does an 18 year old have to say? I might go back to it and I have got things to say, but it’s fun to inhabit somebody else, though I think maybe it’s less ballsy to hide… I think Jo Brand was talking about this re female comics. There tends to be a high ratio of female character comics and she was saying that’s because it’s easier to stand back from it if it doesn’t work if you’re hiding behind a character.”

Matt has been playing the character of Wilfredo for the last five years. It evolved from a a character he played at festivals, singing twisted versions of songs by John Lennon, the Rolling Stones and Amy Whitehouse.

“Are you coming back to the Fringe next year as Wilfredo?” I asked.

“Maybe as Wilfredo. Maybe in some multi-character show. I know you’d like to see that.”

“I just think it would show you have more breadth,” I said. “You do have other characters.”

“Yes,” said Matt, “there’s a performance poet character, but I don’t think the other characters I have would fit in with a Wilfredo audience.”

“How do you sell him when you flyer?” I asked.

“If I am out-of-character, as myself, I stop people by saying Entertainment for the discerning!… If I’m in character, I say: Hey! Hey! Come here! The character is a complete licence to take it as far as I want.”

“He is perversely attractive,” I said.

Matt replied: “Someone Tweeted yesterday: Recommend seeing Wilfredo at The Tron – Funny and disturbingly moving.

“I still don’t really understand why the character has such a female following though” I said.

The real Matt Roper at the Edinburgh Fringe this week

“It seems to be,” said Matt, “that there’s a high proportion of women who find funny men attractive and, as far the reverse is concerned, men are threatened by funny women.”

“That’s a whole different blog,” I said. “A whole different can of comedy worms to open.”

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