Tag Archives: children

“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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“Thunderbirds” producer Gerry Anderson wanted to be an architect

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed TV and film producer Gerry Anderson. This was my introduction to the interview:

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 UFO, The 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.”

(My interview with Gerry Anderson appears in two parts HERE and HERE)

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The “Tiswas” recipe for attacking Rupert Murdoch and others with pies

Yesterday, a friend of mine was having an operation, so I was at Blackheath Hospital.

This meant I was hanging around in a room waiting for most of the day and saw most of the live coverage from the House of Commons where the Culture, Media and Sport Committee were questioning Rupert and James Murdoch.

But, inevitably – Sod’s Law – because my friend came out of the operating theatre at the same time, I missed Jonnie Marbles aka Jonathan May-Bowles trying to ‘flan’ Rupert with a shaving foam pie.

I saw it later.

My friend is fine.

I am not so sure about Jonnie Marbles.

This piece of desperate self-publicity would normally make him worthy of being nominated for – and possibly winning – the annual Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award but, alas, young Jonnie appears to have fallen at the first hurdle in the process. He does not seem have a show at the Edinburgh Fringe and, if he does, he failed to plug it.

Yesterday, the Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe suddenly had two cancellations, so my advice to him is Forget that free phone call to the lawyer. Get on the blower to the Free Festival, get a show booked at the Edinburgh Fringe sharpish and pray for a Cunning Stunt Award nomination/win.

Being imprisoned and unable to perform in Edinburgh might interfere with the show but might actually boost his chances of getting a Cunning Stunt Award.

Our House of Commons pie-flinger whom the Chortle comedy website calls “an occasional comic” seems to be a serial stunt-publicist and I can only presume he was jointly influenced by two things.

The first influence would obviously be self-proclaimed ‘comedy terrorist’ Aaron Barschak who gate-crashed Prince William’s 21st birthday party at Windsor Castle in 2003 dressed as Osama bin Laden in a pink dress. His subsequent Edinburgh Fringe show failed to live up to this pre-publicity boost and the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award had not yet started, so Aaron tragically failed to build his career on the stunt.

Jonnie’s second influence might well have been the cultural effect of large numbers of a previous generation of Brits watching the cult children’s TV show Tiswas, on which I worked as a researcher.

It was known for its slapstick outbreaks of gunge and custard pies.

In a selfless spirit of public service, I print below the ‘official’ recipe for a Tiswas custard pie, copied from an alleged official recipe sheet which I half-inched when the show ended. Tiswas ‘custard pies’ were made not of custard but of whipped shaving foam.

Custard would have slid down the target’s clothes, could have stained them and might have involved the programme in laundry costs and complaints. Shaving foam stuck where it hit and wiped off with no significant after-effects.

The main custard pie flinger on Tiswas was a Ninja-like character called The Phantom Flan Flinger.

Far be it from me to try and get blatant publicity out of the wanton, appalling and unprovoked attack on defenceless media tycoon Rupert Murdoch by saying that the Tiswas tradition continues this year at the Edinburgh Fringe with the first Malcolm Hardee Spaghetti-Juggling Contest.

But can I point out that the Tiswas tradition continues this year at the Edinburgh Fringe with the first Malcolm Hardee Spaghetti-Juggling Contest?

This is the somewhat vague Tiswas recipe:

________________________________________________________________________________

TISWAS CUSTARD PIE RECIPE

INGREDIENTS

– Economy Size Gillette Shaving Foam **

– Vegetable dye. The Phantom Flan Flinger suggests green or blue dye but advises against red dye as this tends to cause irritation and blotches.

– Paper plate(s)

– Palette knife. – Mixing bowl or large bowl/bucket (depending on the amount needed)

********

Spray shaving foam into mixing bowl remembering to keep enough spare for decoration.

Add vegetable dye and mix together.

Smooth over paper plate(s) with palette knife.

Finally decorate around the edges with white shaving foam.

Before use, this should be left for a few hours to eliminate the sting that the shaving foam has.

Then proceed with flanning!

Old T-shirts and such like to be worn during flan matches in case of stains. Clothes washed afterwards to be soaked in cold water first.

HAPPY CUSTARD PIES!

** Alternative: Crazy Foam from local joke shop. Or Instant Whip available from most supermarkets.

________________________________________________________________________________

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Is there life after stand-up comedy? There is huge potential, it seems.

Next Monday, the movie Huge premieres in London, with a general release on 8th July. It is directed by comedy actor Ben Miller and co-scripted by Simon Godley.

Simon Godley is interesting because he used to play the stand-up comedy circuit but is now a dentist to many top British comedians. Well, he was always a dentist when he himself was a comedian, but now he has a trendy Notting Hill surgery, also runs an art gallery at the same address and acts occasionally.

Huge first premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. It is about a struggling comedy double act and their ambitions to be the new Morecambe and Wise. Written (in alphabetical order) by Jez Butterworth, Simon Godley and Ben Miller, it was originally a stage play at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1993 and seen as an in-joke about the Fringe but it has also been called “a more universal meditation on the dark heart of comedy”,

The stage play was set in a squat and had only two characters, played by Ben Miller and Simon Godley.

“The most appealing thing about it first of all,” says Ben Miller, “was that it had two characters and one setting. It seemed a cheap film to make. But, of course, by the time we started filming it had fifty actors and umpteen locations and wasn’t cheap at all.”

In the movie, the roles that Ben Miller and Simon Godley played on stage are now taken by Johnny Harris and Noel Clarke.

Simon Godley suggested that every other comic in the film should be played by a real one.  So, for one scene set at a comedy awards (surprisingly not the Malcolm Hardee Awards), Jo Brand, Alan Davies, Harry Hill, Eddie Izzard and Frank Skinner play themselves.

“If your dentist asked a favour, would you dare turn him down?” Ben Miller says.

And then there’s also Stephen K Amos, Ronni Ancona, David Baddiel, Ninia Benjamin, Kevin Bishop, Jack Dee, Hattie Hayridge, Mark Lamarr, Rory McGrath, Sean Mayo, Alistair McGowan, Sally Phillips and Nick Revell all playing themselves plus Simon Day playing a character strangely called Noel Faulkner.

Simon Godley’s celebrity dentist status brought to my mind what happened to Jonathan Meres after he left stand-up comedy.

He used to play the comedy circuit under the name Johnny Immaterial. His opening line was:

“Hello. The name’s immaterial,.. Johnny Immaterial.”

He used to make me laugh mightily though, it has to be said, often more from his charisma and delivery than from the material. It was an act without its own catchphrase but, when Johnny Immaterial intoned “Ooooh, nooo, matron!” in Kenneth Williams‘ unmistakable nasal twang, you could forgive him anything.

He disappeared from the circuit, as I heard it at the time, when he found a good woman in Edinburgh. Anything is possible in Edinburgh.

He was Perrier Award-nominated in 1993 for a show called My Booze Hell By Little Johnny Cartilage, the same year Simon Godley and Ben Miller performed Huge at the Edinburgh Fringe but he played his last stand-up gig in 1994 after, as I understand it, he became disenchanted with the business.

Johnny Immaterial reverted to being Jonathan Meres and became a very highly successful children’s author, publishing his first book in 1998; he has also written extensively for children’s television and, like Simon Godley, kept his performing skills up-to-scratch with various acting roles.

So, yes, there is life after stand-up comedy – it generally pays better and it may lead on to even better things.

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How Bernard Manning was almost cast in a classic British children’s story…

Comedian and actor Matt Roper is going to the Edinburgh Fringe in August and should have a baptism of fire, as he is performing in two separate productions – as his comedy character Wlfredo in Wilfredo – Erecto! at the Underbelly and as a Satanic and sometimes singing spin doctor in the satire Lucifer: My Part in the New Labour Project (And How I Invented Coalition Government)at The Phoenix.

Matt is the son of George Roper, one of The Comedians in what was at the time the startlingly original and cutting-edge 1970s ITV series which introduced the British Isles to the ‘old school’ likes of Bernard Manning, Frank Carson, Stan Boardman and Jim Bowen.

I went with Matt to Soho last night to see London-based New York comic Lewis Schaffer‘s extraordinary on-going thrice-a-week Free Until Famous show. It was Matt’s third visit. I go to see the show maybe once every month – as Lewis Schaffer says, it is “never the same show twice”.

Matt, though every inch a ‘new-school’ comedian, grew up hanging round the old school comics as a kid.

Granada TV producer Johnnie Hamp was a seminal figure in British comedy of the time – he is also credited with putting The Beatles on TV for the first time. But I did not know until Matt told me last night that Johnnie had also put a young Woody Allen on British TV screens for the first time.

The most surprising story Matt had, though, was that his dad George Roper and Bernard Manning were originally considered for the parts of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in the mega-all-star 1972 movie version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

At the time of the casting read-through in London, George Roper was starring nightly on stage at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. On the day of the read-through, train hold-ups in the North West of England delayed him to such an extent that getting down to London and back up again in time for his appearance on stage in Manchester was going to prove impossible, so he had to cancel his trip.

The ever-exuberant and straight-talking Bernard Manning did make it down to the session, though, striding brashly into the room where Dame Flora Robson, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Robert Helpmann, Dennis Price, Peter Bull and other creme de la creme of up-market British theatrical nobility was holding court.

With an outspoken fucking this and a What the fucking hell is that? and a right old fucking load of old fucking bollocks, Bernard soon made his presence felt and…

as a result, neither Bernard Manning nor George Roper were cast in the film.

The parts of Tweedledum and Tweedledee went to the Cox Twins

I can’t help feeling that Bernard Manning and George Roper would have been a casting made in  movie comedy heaven.

_____

More Matt stories Here.

_____

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The Sex Life of a Comedian is to be revealed by Lulu in print-on-demand

A week ago, I wrote a blog blatantly plugging the fact that Sit-Down Comedy, the 2003 anthology written by 19 comedians which I edited with the late Malcolm Hardee, is now available as an iBook from iTunes and in a Kindle edition.

I said two of the Sit-Down Comedy contributors were considering publishing print-on-demand books. Now a third tells me he, too, is doing the same thing. He is currently checking the proofs.

Dave Thompson co-wrote a very quirky short story for Sit-Down Comedy with Jim Tavare and tells me:  “I am about to publish my novel The Sex Life of a Comedian via Lulu.com after having fallen out with a ‘proper’ publisher.”

Dave explains: “It was what I witnessed at the London book launch of another comedian’s book that made me realise what a shambles I’d got involved with. And then I bought a copy of a book by another comedian I knew and it was bursting with errors. There were so many mistakes, it looked like it hadn’t been proof read…

“From what I hear from other people who get involved in publishing books, publishers rival comedy promoters for incompetence and greed.”

Dave is highly-original. He has written for Ben Elton (they have been friends since schooldays); ITV’s BAFTA Award winning series The Sketch Show with Jim Tavare; Harry Hill’s TV Burp; and, uncredited, for many other Big Name comics. He has even amazingly written for the newly-enobled (as-of today) Sir Bruce ForsythTime Out called Dave “one of the finest joke writers in the country”. But, to the public, he is mostly known for the Tinky Winky incident in 1997.

He played Tinky Winky (the purple one) in the world-famous children’s television show Teletubbies but was equally famously fired after American fundamentalist tele-evangelist Jerry Falwell warned parents that handbag-carrying Tinky Winky could be a hidden homosexual symbol, because “he is purple, the gay pride colour, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle: the gay pride symbol”. Ragdoll, the show’s British production company, decided that Dave’s “interpretation of the role was inappropriate” and sacked him.

In Kazakhstan, the Teletubbies are still banned by order of the president who considers Tinky Winky to be a pervert.

The Sex Life of a Comedian is about a stand-up comedian on the UK circuit who gets a job wearing a blue furry costume in a world-famous television show but then gets fired. The story involves drug-fuelled celebrity sex romps, the Mafia and wild parties aboard luxury yachts.

Well, at least no-one in the television or comedy worlds has to worry about it being autobiographical, then.

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The sweet smell of “Tiswas” – custard pies and anarchy…

I was re-watching the first episode of The Story of Variety with Michael Grade on BBC2 last night and, in it, comedian Ken Dodd says that his memory of the old variety theatres is “the smell of oranges and cigar smoke”.

I worked on the ITV series Tiswas – allegedly for children, but watched widely by students and the more anarchic of adults – and my memory of being in the live studio on Saturday mornings is of sweet-smelling toiletries.

The ‘custard pies’ used throughout the show were actually made from highly-whipped shaving foam because the mess would stick to clothing and faces but would easily and cleanly wipe off afterwards.

There were also often multiple mini-explosions in the studio. I don’t know what they comprised, but the air afterwards always smelled a bit of talcum powder.

Sweet-smelling. That was Tiswas.

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