Tag Archives: Cilla Black

Why I am named in the Daily Star today

Flyerer Blanche Cameron behind the fame of Lewis Schaffer

Blanche Cameron chooses to hide her light under a Lewis-Schaffer-flyer-shaped bushel

Fame is strange and not necessarily welcome.

I was working at Granada TV in Manchester when the station decided to move its announcers from voice-over to on-screen. One day, I was wandering along the street with an announcer who was unenthusiastic about the upcoming change.

“I don’t want people to recognise me when I buy my underpants in Marks & Spencer,” he told me.

I am quite happy living in a Facebook world. In this blog yesterday I mentioned a Facebook Friend of mine who met me and, quite reasonably, did not recognise me because we had never met.

That’s fine with me. I think it is good no-one I don’t know recognises me except occasionally when, by a process of elimination – There’s an abnormally old man in the room – they may twig I’m that blogger bloke with whom they are Facebook Friends.

Yesterday, before Mel Moon’s Sick Girl show started, I was chatting to a stranger in the audience and someone in the row behind us asked if I was that bloke who did the Grouchy Club Podcasts with Kate Copstick – he had recognised my voice.

I found this simultaneously surprising and unnerving.

Which gets us to the newspapers today.

Edinburgh Fringe stunt When does an Fringe stunt overstep the mark?

When does a Fringe stunt overstep the mark?

In this blog three days ago, I mentioned a stunt in the Cowgate in which two people dangled on a trapeze under George IV Bridge, high above the Cowgate, as pedestrians and cars passed underneath. They did it – risking their own lives and possibly the lives of those underneath – to publicise a show. To create fame.

According to the Edinburgh Evening News today, they “could now face a police investigation over their ‘excessively dangerous’ performance amid claims that their actions crossed a line and ‘could have been lethal’.”

In 2006, the Evening News reports, “student Kate Flannery was left temporarily paralysed and suffered a fractured skull” after she was hit by a traffic cone thrown from George IV Bridge 60 feet down onto the Cowgate.

Two human bodies falling 60 feet onto other people or onto the windscreen of a passing vehicle would obviously have an even more dramatic impact.

Daily Star - Cilla & Barrymore

Today’s Daily Star – a result of my blog

Also in the papers today, I am quoted in the Daily Star in a brief piece about alleged rivalry between Cilla Black and Michael Barrymore at London Weekend Television. This piece came about because the reporter had read my blog of exactly a week ago.

I suspect any rivalry they had was as nothing compared to some acts at the Edinburgh Fringe, where yesterday one comic told me about their posters mysteriously being taken down. A rival comic is suspected.

Ah, Infamy! Infamy!… etc etc

Fame is transient and often localised.

Yesterday, waiting to go into Louise Reay’s show It’s Only Words, I bumped into Sara Mason, who is sharing a flat with Louise. Sara’s own jaw-dropping show is titled (entirely truthfully) Burt Lancaster Pierced My Hymen (When I Was 11).

Sara Mason - Burt Lancaster poster

That is Burt NOT Tinky Winky on the right

It is directed by Dave Thompson, who played Tinky Winky in the children’s TV series Teletubbies. This is mentioned on the posters and flyers.

Sara told me: “More people know Tinky Winky now than know Burt Lancaster. More than one person has seen the picture of Burt Lancaster on my flyer and asked: Ooh! Did he play Tinky Winky? They don’t even recognise Burt Lancaster’s face.”

I was scheduled to see seven shows yesterday. These are five of them.

Mel Moon: Sick Girl
Faultless, perfect Fringe story. Warmth, laughter and potential death (potentially even during the actual performance) from a horrendous disease which continues to afflict Mel.

Louise Reay: It’s Only Words
So good I’ve now seen it twice. More than a stand-up show – performed totally in Chinese – an experiment in how visual perception overwhelms verbal communication. Very very funny. Especially for lovers of EastEnders. A triumph of charisma and eye movements.

Christian Talbot: Cheaper Than Therapy
Basically, a load of comics sitting upstairs in Bob Slayer’s BlundaBus venue talking in fascinating detail about the reality of being comedians. Last night’s subject was ‘nerves’. Sadly, tonight’s show is the last one.

Gary Meikle: Dysfunctionally In Order
Highly efficient Scottish stand-up. Anyone whose flyer has a recommendation from Janey Godley is always worth seeing. I have a feeling there is a humdinger of a confessional show lurking in there somewhere which was only glimpsed last night. He is clearly a very good club comic. I suspect he could also be an exceptional weaver of 60-minute Fringe shows.

Madame Señorita; ¿Eres Tú?

Madame Señorita; ¿Eres Tú?

Madame Señorita: ¿Eres Tú?
I saw this show. I cannot tell you what it was about. Showman Adam Taffler persuaded me to see it on the basis he knew “a fucking crazy Spanish lady” – Paula Valluerca – Madame Señorita.

Mad, surreal and OTT does not even begin to describe the show. And possibly her.

She won Best Female Act at the London Solo Festival in 2013 and Best Theatre Play at the 2015 Carabanchel en Escena Festival in Madrid.

Do not say I didn’t warn you.

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Filed under Celebrity, Comedy, Fame

How Cilla Black re-invented herself, courtesy of Terry Wogan, in 1983

Daily Mirror announces Cilla’s death

Daily Mirror announces Cilla’s death

Cilla Black died two days ago. So it goes.

I worked as a researcher on her Surprise! Surprise! series at London Weekend Television. I cannot honestly say I was enamoured of her. I think she was the only star I have ever worked with who behaved like a star. But she was worth every penny she earned. On screen she was brilliantly the girl and later auntie next door.

In the 1960s, Cilla was a pop star, then her career faded. In the 1970s, BBC TV producer Michael Hurll re-invented her as a mainstream, peaktime entertainment presenter on BBC TV’s Cilla. Then her career faded. Then, in the 1980s, Alan Boyd of LWT re-invented her as an ITV entertainment presenter on Surprise! Surprise! and Blind Date.

In a TV tribute yesterday, comic Jimmy Tarbuck mentioned a TV interview in 1983 which revitalised her career. I asked writer and broadcaster Nigel Crowle about that interview with Terry Wogan on the TV chat show Wogan.

Nigel Crowle (left) with the Amazing Mr Smith

Nigel Crowle (left) with the Amazing Mr Smith at TVS, 1988 (Photograph by John Ward)

Nigel later wrote for People Do The Funniest Things and Beadle’s About. He wrote the lyrics for Oscar-nominated animated film Famous Fred; and Baas – an animated kids’ show about sheep for Al Jazeera TV. With David Walliams and Simon Heath, he co-devised Ant & Dec’s first show for BBC TV. In 1996, it won BAFTAs for Best Children’s Show & Best Sketch Comedy.

Over the years, he has written scripts, links and sketches for performers including Mel Brooks, Basil Brush, the Chuckle Brothers, Noel Edmonds, Lenny Henry, Jack Lemmon, Joan Rivers, Jonathan Ross, Chris Tarrant and Terry Wogan.

“In 1983,” he told me yesterday, “I was a researcher on the Wogan show. I had never done anything like that before – researching. I had suddenly gone from promotion scriptwriting to this world of celebrities where you had to go and interview people and ask them all the questions that a chat show host would.”

“Yes,” I said. “When I was working at the BBC, I once saw the research notes for some major film star who was to be interviewed on the Michael Parkinson chat show and the researcher (in the US) had basically done a full interview in advance – all the questions; all the answers.”

Nigel with some of his children’s books

Nigel later wrote several children’s books

“What happened with Cilla,” Nigel explained, “was that Marcus Plantin, my producer on Wogan, said to me: This week, you’re going to do Cilla Black. I remember saying: Really? She’s a bit yesterday’s news! I didn’t think she was any great shakes as a singer. But he said: No, no no. She’s up for revitalising her career. She had just brought out her Greatest Hits album – she was promoting it on the show.

“Marcus said to me: Go down and see Michael Hurll – he was the one who used to produce all her shows. Michael told me a few anecdotes about going and knocking on the doors – with live cameras! – they used to do a lot in the Shepherd’s Bush flats behind BBC Television Centre. It was real seat-of-your-pants stuff, going out live on television. And I asked him what she was like and he said: Well, y’know, she’s OK. She’s fine. She can be a bit of a perfectionist.

“Some people,” I said, “have used the word diva.”

On-screen, as I said, I thought she was worth every penny she was paid. Every inch a star.

There is a clip on YouTube of Cilla singing Life’s a Gas with Marc Bolan on her Michael Hurll-produced TV series.

“Anyway,” said Nigel, “come the day, I have to meet her and, obviously, Bobby (her husband/manager) was there. We went to one of the star dressing rooms on the ground floor at Telly Centre. In her day – the 1970s – she would have been there, so coming back must have felt to her a bit like Oh, I used to be big. She must have felt a bit Sunset Boulevardy, maybe.

“But we sat down, talked about her early life, how she started and she was very open. And also she was very, very, very funny. Absolutely hilarious. I was in stitches. The moment I finished doing the interview with her, I knew this was her moment – again. I went home and told my wife Mel: I was totally wrong. Cilla is SO going to storm it on Saturday.”

“You had originally thought,” I asked, “that she might not be interesting?”

Cilla Black became cuddly girl/auntie next door

“I really had thought she was past it – and this was in 1983! I thought she’d had her moment… She had had two bites of the cherry – the 1960s as a pop star and the 1970s as an engaging TV personality. Now, come 1983, she was just trying to flog her Greatest Hits album.

“Going on Wogan had maybe seemed like an act of desperation, but it wasn’t. It was a clinical assault on stardom – again – and – My God! – it absolutely worked! She made her career that night – revitalised it. She was terrific.

“She did the show (there is a clip on YouTube) and she was hilarious and the audience were absolutely loving her. She did all the stories about John Lennon and she was big mates with Ringo – I think there was a family connection. Paul McCartney wrote Step Inside Love for her. She did all the nostalgia about the 1960s and then what it was like being a Liverpudlian and that is really what engaged people. She came across as the girl next door.

“We recorded the show on the Friday and it went out on the Saturday night. As I understand it, on the Sunday morning, Alan Boyd (Head of Entertainment at LWT) phoned her up. I think Jim Moir (Head of Light Entertainment at BBC TV) was waiting until Monday morning to phone her up but, by that time, it was too late. I don’t know what happened. All I know is that, on the Monday morning, Marcus Plantin was saying: Well, the Beeb missed a trick there. And she went to LWT for Surprise! Surprise! and Blind Date.

The panto Nigel Crowle wrote for Cilla

Jack and Cilla and Beanstalk, but no giant

“By that time, I was ‘in’ with Michael Hurll and I wrote a panto for her – Jack and The Beanstalk at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Michael told me: We’ve spent most of the budget on Cilla. So much so that we have not got enough money for a giant. We’ll do it all as an off-stage voice. So we did Jack and the Beanstalk without a giant.”

“Did you have a beanstalk?” I asked.

“We had one which kind of fell on stage when the giant… We had a pair of giant boots. The character Fleshcreep was played by Gareth Hunt. She had a sword fight with him. After it ended, she went to the front of the stage with Fleshcreep lying on the floor with her sword at his throat and she asked the audience: What shall I do with him, kiddies? Each day, they would all shout: Kill him! Kill him! So then she would ask them: How shall I kill him? And, one day, a kid in the front row just yelled out: Sing to him!”

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,” I said. “When I worked at LWT, I remember someone told me you should always avoid mentioning what size car Michael Barrymore had to pick him up or share the information about the cars with anyone because, if Cilla ever found out – and vice versa. There was rumoured to be a bit of rivalry.”

LWT (now ITV) building on the River Thames in London (Photograph by John-Paul Stephenson)

LWT (now ITV) building on the River Thames in London (Photograph by John-Paul Stephenson)

“I was told,” said Nigel, “there was a little bit of jiggery-pokery about where the pictures were. When Cilla came out of the lift on the Entertainment floor at LWT, she had to see the Cilla picture on the wall there, rather than the Barrymore picture.”

“Did they move them around?” I asked.

“I think there was probably a bit of that,” said Nigel. “Certainly I heard the cars mentioned. And the worry that, if you had Barrymore and Cilla doing a show at the LWT studios on the same night, who would get the star dressing room? Because there was just one star dressing room.”

“But,” I said, “on-screen she was wonderful. Worth every penny. And she reinvented her career so successfully.”

“Yes,” said Nigel. “Well, what was incredible was not that she had these peaks and troughs in her career but that the peaks were SO high. Everyone in Britain knew who Cilla was. Everybody could do a Cilla impression. That is real fame.”


Filed under Celebrity, Fame, Television, UK

Why sex got me on a bus in Edinburgh and what links Cilla Black to my cough

Three facts. They are not necessarily un-connected.

The title sequence from the original Surprise! Surprise!

The title sequence from the original Surprise! Surprise! show

– I have always had an irritating cough. Occasionally, I have been nicknamed John ‘Irritating Cough’ Fleming.

– I just arrived in Edinburgh for the annual Fringe Festival. I came up overnight by coach from London, arriving at 7.00am.

Cilla Black died yesterday.

So it goes.

The last and possibly (I have a legendarily bad memory) only other time I have travelled on an overnight coach was because of sex. Well, a sex channel.

I was up at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago and I got a phone call from London in I think the early evening (I may not have mentioned that have a legendarily bad memory). It was a TV producer saying he could not supervise a voice-over recording session at 9,30am in Soho and asking if I could do it. I suspect he must have offered me a lot of money.

The only way to get there (I could not catch the last train to London) was to get an overnight coach leaving at around 11.00pm, getting into London at around 07.30am and then I could get to Soho for the recording at 9.30am and, about three hours later, go back to Edinburgh.

The voice-over was sexual.

Overnight coach journeys can be an eye-opener

Overnight  journeys can be a real eye-opener

If you watch the satellite sex channels (which I had not) then, between the programmes, there are 10 or 12 minute mini-programmes promoting the ‘real’ programmes. They are ‘voiced’ by sexy-sounding sirens aiming to titillate the tit-fanciers into watching more.

My producer chum had a contract to make these mini-epics and he had edited the pictures for this week’s and written the scripts but, at the last moment, he could not direct the voice-overs this particular week.

So I came down and, with the editor, I directed and he recorded the words spoken in husky, intimate tones by two professional female voice-over artists, one of whom had never done this sort of thing before. Well, I hadn’t either.

She arrived looking wary of both me and the editor, not sure of what her agent had got her into, but we soon settled down into recording and discussions of the surreality of it all. I think her last voice-over assignment had been aimed at encouraging housewives to buy vegetables in a particular supermarket.

This all happened in a basement in Soho with a robust ventilation system and the four of us having (I seem to remember) bacon sandwiches and tea for breakfast.

Anyway, the overnight coach trip down from Edinburgh was fairly civilised, which is one reason why I tried it in reverse this year. The other reason was that it cost £30.60p return and was worth it for the dry-humoured National Express coachman whose patter went way over the heads of the large group of Spanish students last night.

At Victoria Coach Station in London, I got chatting to a girl who was also waiting for a coach. She is studying stage lighting and sound in Lewes on the South Coast of England and she was NOT going up to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Victoria Coach Station in London last night

Victoria Coach Station in London last night

She was actually waiting for a bus to Aberdeen and was getting off at Hamilton on the way up because she was going to meet her father for the first time since she was born. She is 18 years old.

Cilla Black had died earlier that day and I simply thought: What a pity I didn’t meet you when I was researching stories for Cilla’s Surprise! Surprise! TV show.

The 18-year-old girl had a very bad cough.

“Scottish weather won’t help that,” I said.

“No,” she said. “It’s not that. It’s because I had measles when I was a kid and this was the end result. I’ve had it all my life.”

I have had my own irritating cough all my life and I had measles when I was a babe-in-arms. Well, my parents told me I had measles and very scary fits as a baby. I do not remember which came first. I had not yet developed my bad memory. I was a baby. I have that excuse.

So there you have it.

It may not be much.

But that is today’s blog – about how everything intermingles.

It does not get round the fact I am five daily blogs behind. But the joy of the internet is that I can fill in the gap retrospectively, remove this reference and, in the future, no-one will know.

Edinburgh: Arthur’s Seat in the background + some occasional rubbish in the foreground

Edinburgh: Arthur’s Seat in the background + some occasional rubbish in the foreground

It is a bit like performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

What actually happens during shows – you get audiences of two people in a tiny toilet-like venue which seats ten – does not matter.

What matters is what people THINK happened.

FRINGE SELL-OUT SHOW! the publicity will blare-out next year and, in two year’s time, no-one will remember what a disaster it was.

They will be aware of what a success it was.

It is all about perception.


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Filed under Coincidence, Sex, Television

Homosexuality and how Cilla Black almost did not present “Blind Date”

this week’s increasingly prestigious podcast

This week’s increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club Podcast…

This week’s Grouchy Club Podcast mainly involves some recommendations of shows to see at next month’s Edinburgh Fringe. But it also includes Kate Copstick talking about Irish entertainer Patrick Kielty, why Copstick – the doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers – does not like preview shows… and this little exchange:

Can you imagine what it would be like to be married to Lewis Schaffer?


I don’t know why you keep bringing up Lewis Schaffer in these podcasts.


For those who are listening, my jaw has just hit my knees – because I’m very flat-chested and there was nothing to stop it on the way down.

Hey. Hey.

Right. So.

Why has your jaw hit your knees?

You’re the one who’s obsessed with a comedian who will now be nameless.

Who’s that?

A comedian who will now be nameless. You’ll have to re-wind this podcast and find out.

That would be the man with no voice, surely, who would be nameless. Or is that tasteless?

I didn’t know Lost Voice Guy… He…

… is worth seeing.

…It was a birth thing, wasn’t it.

Yup. Yeah.

He says he keeps getting asked. Well, he doesn’t say – he communicates – He keeps getting asked if he can actually speak.

John (laughing)
What? They think it’s a…  a… That would be a somewhat bizarre angle…

I know! It’s slightly… If you’re going to go for the sympathy vote, that would be quite an odd one to go for… Very few people know that Tanyalee Davis is actually 6ft 1in. She just squashes herself into a corset and flat shoes for every show.

It’s all done with mirrors, is it?


I was shocked when… If lawyers are listening, I don’t want anything to do with this, but I was very shocked when I was told Duncan Norvelle was heterosexual – Ooh! Chase me! Chase me! – That’s a very strange… Well, he lost Blind Date because of that, if it is an act. I think he did two pilots for Blind Date and the IBA decided they didn’t want a gay guy presenting a dating show.

What the fuck?

I have no explanation for this. Apparently that’s the case. And therefore they had good old Auntie Cilla (Black) do it instead. But he was the first choice before Cilla.

Oh my God!

I would have thought a gay guy was ideal for a heterosexual dating show.


Because he’s totally safe.

Oh absolutely.

That’s the truth as I know it.

The full 39-minute Grouchy Club Podcast can be listened-to at Podomatic and downloaded from iTunes.

The Grouchy Club with Kate Copstick and John Fleming will be live daily at the Edinburgh Fringe 14th-29th August.

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Filed under Comedy, Television

“No, I was not bounced on Bernard Manning’s knee,” says UK performer

Matt Roper with his dad George Roper

Matt Roper (left) with his dad George Roper

You have no idea how I and other people suffer for this blog.

At the moment, I have comedy performer Matt Roper staying in my spare bedroom for the next four weeks. Well, he may emerge occasionally. Matt performs as comedy singing character Wilfredo. His father was stand-up comedian George Roper, who rose to fame on Granada TV’s stand-up series The Comedians in the 1960s, along with Bernard Manning, Frank Carson and others.

“I don’t have a blog today,” I told Matt this afternoon. “You’ll have to give me one. I always tell people that, as a boy, you were bounced on Bernard Manning’s knee and you say you weren’t. There must be a blog in that.”

“I was bounced on Cilla Black’s knee,” said Matt.

“In blog terms,” I said, “Cilla Black is not as sexy as Bernard Manning.”

“We are not talking about Bernard Manning,” said Matt.

“Why,” I asked, “don’t you want to be associated with Manning?”

“It’s just that I didn’t know him that well. I might as well be associated with Hermann Goering.”

“Well, you are,” I said.

Matt introduced me to Hermann Goering’s great-niece for a blog last year.

Les Dawson: not to be confused with Bernard Manning

Les Dawson shared knee-bouncing with Cilla Black?

“Bernard Manning,” I persisted, “kept coming round for Sunday lunch, didn’t he?”

“No,” said Matt. “Les Dawson used to come round for Sunday lunch sometimes.”

“Did he bounce you on his knee?” I asked hopefully.

Matt did not answer.

“There’s a picture of me sitting on Cilla’s knee,” said Matt, “but she might not like me letting you put it online. She’s in a swimming costume. This is not interesting, John.”

“It is,” I insisted. “I WAS NOT BOUNCED ON BERNARD MANNING’S KNEE is the headline, then we talk about something completely different.”

“OK,” said Matt. “But I think Louis Armstrong kissing Molly Parkin is far more interesting.”

“Where did he kiss her?” I asked.

“Do you mean…” Matt started to ask.

“I mean whatever you think I mean,” I said.

“You’ve always got Johnnie Hamp as a blog,” suggested Matt about the legendary Granada TV producer.

“He’s very interesting,” I said, “but he’s up in Cheshire.”

TV producer Johnnie Hamp with The Beatles at their height

TV producer Johnnie Hamp with The Beatles at their height

“Next year,” persisted Matt, “it’s the 50th anniversary of a TV show he produced called The Music of Lennon & McCartney. Brian Epstein (The Beatles’ manager) was very loyal. Not the best businessman, but a very loyal man to people who had given him a helping hand.

“By 1965, The Beatles didn’t really need to do a Granada TV show but Johnnie had been one of the first people to put The Beatles on TV in a regional Granada show Scene at 6.30. It’s on YouTube.

“In 1965, Johnnie had this idea The Music of Lennon & McCartney and there was this huge spectacular in Studio One at Granada TV and he flew people in – Henry Mancini played If I Fell on the piano; Ella Fitzgerald;  Cilla was on it; Peter Sellers reciting A Hard Day’s Night as Richard III. That’s on YouTube.”

“What were Cilla’s knees like?” I asked.

Matt ignored me.

“Johnnie Hamp,” he continued, “brought Woody Allen over to do a TV special – it’s the 50th anniversary of that next year, too. It’s the only television special Woody Allen ever did. Just for Johnnie Hamp at Granada. There’s a clip on YouTube.

“Johnnie told me recently: Back in those days, we didn’t care about ratings; creativity was more important. I mean, The Comedians was interesting because, today, no-one would take a chance on giving twelve unknown comics a primetime TV series.”

“That,” I said, “was why Sidney Bernstein (who owned Granada) was a great man.”

“Was it him or his brother who had a wooden leg?” asked Matt.

“That was Denis Forman,” I said. “It might have been metal.”

“I’ve got a Beatles-related story you could end your blog with,” said Matt.

“Just tell me what Cilla Black’s knees were like,” I told him.

“My dad,” said Matt, ignoring me, “told a story of when all the Beatles’ brothers and uncles in Liverpool – all the men of the family – heard that The Beatles were smoking drugs. What’s all this? they went. They took the train down from Lime Street to Euston to sort the fookin’ whatever’s going on owt. We’ll sort this fookin’ droogs thing owt.

“And the story goes that, three days later, they all got off the train back in Liverpool Lime Street saying: Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it… Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

“I’d better take a photo of you,” I said, “for the blog.”

“Not if you’re going to go on and on about Bernard Manning,” said Matt.

Matt Roper refused to be photographed for this piece

Matt Roper refused to be photographed for this piece



Filed under 1960s, Comedy, Humor, Humour, Music

The Secrets of ITV’s “Surprise Surprise” and the “F*** Me! It’s Beadle!” moment

The title sequence from the original LWT Surprise! Surprise!

ITV1 is transmitting a new series of Surprise! Surprise! from tomorrow night, after a break of more than ten years.

I was a researcher on the second series in 1984.

Most of the London Weekend Television production team had worked on the hidden camera series Game For a Laugh and came straight off that on to Surprise! Surprise!

The immensely talented Alan Boyd, LWT’s Controller of Entertainment, had had the bright idea that some of the ‘surprising’ items on Game For a Laugh – people doing bizarre things or behaving oddly – could be farmed off into a new format – Surprise! Surprise!

This did not really work until the final item on the final show of the first series, which involved a reunion. The result was emotional, tearful and compulsive television and Boyd realised that, instead of having ‘surprising’ items, every item on the show had to have at least one actual ‘surprise’ built into it. That was, after all, what had made Game For a Laugh so successful that it often out-rated Coronation Street.

Both Surprise! Surprise! (after the first series) and Game For a Laugh were built round a similar objective. Each item on every show had to build up to one single shot which HAD to be captured on camera by the director.

On Game For a Laugh, this was called by the production team the Fuck me! – It’s Beadle! moment.

It was the point at which the punter realised that he had been set up for an elaborate practical joke. When co-presenter Jeremy Beadle pulled the stunts himself, this was the moment of revelation when he walked into view or removed his disguise and the camera saw the look of shock, realisation and sometimes relief on the punter’s face. You could almost see the person saying to themselves: “Fuck me! – It’s Beadle!” That same clear shot of the person’s face was a necessity on all items, no matter who presented them.

“Ever-loveable” Cilla in a cuddly publicity shot

With Surprise! Surprise! presented by the ever-loveable Cilla Black (perhaps I am being sarcastic?), there was a similar vital moment – the facial expression at the exact point at which the surprise was revealed to the unsuspecting punter. On some items it was, in effect, a Fuck me! – It’s Cilla! moment. In others – especially the final item on each show, which tended to be the big reunion item –  it was the moment the long lost brother/sister/parent/son/daughter was revealed to the punter.

This was called by the team the Sick and Tears moment.

The ‘quality newspapers’ tended to sneer at Surprise! Surprise!

This was partly because of its massive ratings – anything liked by mass audiences tends to be sneered-at by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington. But it was also because the show was said to exploit its participants for the cheap voyeuristic thrill of seeing people break down emotionally.

The show was certainly not literally cheap – in 1984, a run of eight episodes plus a Christmas special cost £1.5 million.

But I never had any qualms about the morality of the series. The reason the punters broke into tears on the final reunion item was because it was life-changing for them.

Often, a loss had eaten-away at them day-after-day for twenty or more years of their lives. In one sudden instant – the Fuck me! – It’s Beadle! moment of sick and tears, they were reunited with their lost person or persons. The shock was immense… What you saw were tears of happiness. They would remember that instant on their death beds and the release of tension from all those years of genuine anguish was genuinely immense. I never heard and I cannot imagine any punter complain about intrusion into their private moments. They were overwhelmed by happiness. They never thought they would meet that person/those people again… but Surprise! Surprise! found them.

Though, really, the research trick with Surprise! Surprise! was to choose people with not much ‘finding’ involved.

On one occasion, a woman had already found her long-lost friend in (I think it was) New Zealand and had even talked to her once on the phone. But there was no chance they would ever meet, because both were very poor and neither would ever be able to afford the cost of the flight. So we simply flew the friend from New Zealand to London, without telling the British punter and, with careful wording of the script, it was presented in such a way that we never said we had actually ‘found’ the long-lost friend in NZ but the unwary viewer would think we had.

Another person wrote in to say he wanted to be reunited with the Best Man at his wedding over 30 years before. They had lost touch (I never did find out why). The Best Man, said the punter, had worked at the Gas Board.

So all I did was phone up the Pensions section of British Gas, tell them the guy’s name and where he had lived/worked around rough dates and, almost immediately, they gave me his telephone number and address. Our punter had been searching for this guy for years. I found him within ten minutes with two phone calls.

Most items on the show, of course, took far more work and one thing we always did was check if anyone involved had any medical problems: we did not want people having heart attacks in front of the camera, whatever the Guardian might think.

The doctor who had a lifelong ambition to swim with dolphins

On one particular show, I had arranged for a doctor who had always wanted to swim with dolphins to do so at Windsor Safari Park. He was in the studio during the recording of the show which included this film. Another (very efficient) researcher working on another item had flown over some long-lost relative from New Zealand for a big reunion with someone at the end of the show. She had checked if this aged guy from New Zealand had any medical problems. No, none, she had been told.

In fact, he had angina – a serious heart condition.

The guy was reunited with his long lost friend/relative (I can’t remember which) and immediately collapsed on the set. The legendary appeal went up:

“Is there a doctor in the house?”

Fortunately, my dolphin doctor man was sitting there in the audience and may well have saved the guy’s life.

On another occasion there was another more bizarre problem.

Reading through viewers’ letters, I spotted (because it was an unusual address) that a man had written to us wanting to spring a surprise on his girlfriend AND his girlfriend had separately written in wanting to spring a surprise on the boyfriend. They lived together but, reading between the lines, I guessed neither knew the other had written in to Surprise! Surprise!

And this was indeed the case.

So we were able to spring a double surprise within one item.

We sprang the first surprise on the girl with the boyfriend’s knowledge… and then we sprang the second surprise on the boyfriend. They both loved it…

…until a front page tabloid story appeared a couple of days after the show was transmitted.

Watching the show on that Sunday night had been the man’s wife, who had wondered where he had been for the past few years after he walked out on her and their two small kids.

To this day, I cannot begin to imagine how he thought he could appear in peaktime on network television in the country’s most successful entertainment show without being recognised and without any repercussions.

People’s levels of fantasy seemed to be fuelled by the show.

On one occasion, I set up an item featuring a man from Croxteth – a part of Liverpool not widely known for its law-abiding inhabitants. When I arrived at the man’s house to chat to him as part of the pre-production research, he asked me (genuinely shocked):

“Jesus! You haven’t parked your car round here, have you?”

He appeared on the show and, from what I remember, he was a very nice man indeed. The item went well and that was that…

Until, a couple of months later, the producer got a phone call from the police in Liverpool.

The man had been arrested for some crime and his alibi to the police was that, at the time of the crime (a couple of months after the show was transmitted), he had been filming in London with Cilla Black.

What on earth he thought was going to happen – that Cilla was perhaps going to perjure herself on his behalf or whatever – I cannot imagine.

A level of fantasy had been unleashed.

Associate Producer Danny Greenstone amazed

On another occasion, someone wanted to propose marriage on the show to his girlfriend. The (very efficient) researcher (not me) checked with the girls’ parents and friends. Everyone said she would say Yes like a shot.

On the show, she turned him down. Not once but (if memory serves me) three times. He was down on his knees; Cilla tried her best. But No. No. No.

When the couple came off set, the researcher apologised and explained we had arranged a slap-up meal for them both at an expensive restaurant after the show to celebrate their engagement. Obviously they would not now want to have the meal.

“Oh that’s fine,” said the no-longer-to-be-bride. “I will marry him, but I just didn’t want to say Yes to him yet.”

And off they both happily went to the restaurant.

People were never altogether averse to taking advantage.

One distraught father wrote in to Surprise! Surprise! trying to make contact with his long-lost daughter. We found her in Australia (we did quite a lot of Antipodean reunions because it sounded impressive and was expensive). We flew her in from Australia to be reunited with her long-lost father (who did not know she was there) in front of the studio audience and cameras. Backstage, before the reunion, she seemed a little nervous. This was not uncommon, but the researcher asked her if she was OK.

“Last time I saw him all those years ago,” the daughter explained, “he was standing in our kitchen threatening to kill my mother with a carving knife.”

On screen, the reunion went well. The man burst into tears and hugged the daughter but, when you knew the back story, you could see the daughter flinch as he embraced her. Our best bet was that she had figured out she did not want to meet him again, but that she would get a free flight to the UK and free hotel accommodation in London for a few days.

Surprise! Surprise! was well-named.

It sometimes surprised us as much as audiences and punters.


Filed under Television

Revealed – gay sex scandals of the rich and famous – and the Royal Family?

Someone invited me to have tea with him the other week because he wanted to ask my advice. Yes, I am anybody’s for a cup of tea and some beans on toast.

What he wanted to ask me was: “How do I start a rumour?”

My answer was, “Obviously via the internet, but it is more difficult than it sounds because the internet is full of rumours so it is difficult to be noticed in the tsunami of twittering. Wikipedia probably says that Guy Fawkes was an actor in the Star Wars trilogy, but no-one will necessarily believe that.”

On the other hand, large numbers of people can apparently be convinced by the conspiracy theory that the Americans never landed on the Moon…. Despite the fact that, if so, the Soviets would have immediately revealed the flight and the landing as fake.

Many people believe that, despite the fact al-Queda did admittedly have people flying planes into the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center was actually also rigged with unimaginably large numbers of explosives to blow up when the planes full of fuel flew into them so the US government could blame the Islamic terrorists who were already doing what they were going to be blamed for doing.

Which brings me to sex and Hollywood stars.

A new book Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars is about to be published in which 88-year-old former US Marine and former gas station attendant Scotty Bowers claims that Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn were both gay and their famed ‘secret’ romance was just smoke and mirrors to hide their gayness.

According to Bowers, Hepburn first approached him at a Hollywood party and said:

“I know your reputation, Scotty. When you get a chance, do you think you can find a nice, young dark-haired girl for me? Someone that’s not too heavily made-up.”

Over the next 50 years, he claims he fixed her up with more than 150 women.

One day he got a phone call:

“This is Errol Flynn. That gas station of yours has gained quite a reputation.”

Flynn wanted to be fixed up with women “who both behaved and looked as if they were underage”, but Bowers claims that Flynn would get so drunk that, after saying, “I’m going to make love to you like nothing you’ve ever experienced,” he would pass out and Bowers would have to “oblige the lady myself”.

Why Bowers would have been present at the time is not clear.

I can believe he “arranged voyeurism sessions for Somerset Maugham, found a string of young men for Noel Coward and had sex with Tennessee Williams”.

But I find it very difficult to believe that both the would-be Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson were actually gay and “the whole myth of the great royal romance was a fabrication, a giant cover-up”.

If they were both gay, why would Edward have abdicated over a perceived heterosexual love? He could have publicly dumped her, stayed platonic friends and retained the throne. The reason for pretending to be in love with her might have been to hide gayness… but not at the cost of losing the throne.

Spencer Tracey as bi-sexual and Katharine Hepburn gay, yes, that I can believe.

And Cary Grant, of whom it has often been said.

According to Hollywood Babylon, Cary Grant shacked-up with Randolph Scott for a time. I found that duo a bit difficult to believe but the Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger knew where the scandals were – and he was able to believably explain what the name “Rosebud” means in Citizen Kane – it was allegedly William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for his mistress Marion Davies’ clitoris, so the fact Kane dies with it on his lips has some meaning and would explain why Hearst tried to destroy director Orson Welles’ career.

But I find it difficult to believe the former Marine and gas station attendant turned sex fixer for Hollywood’s story about Edward and Mrs Simpson.

Gore Vidal says: “Scotty doesn’t lie – the stars sometimes do – and he knows everybody.”

But do I rate Gore Vidal’s opinion?

I have never really believed the story which suddenly appeared after J.Edgar Hoover’s death that he dressed up as a woman and attended gay parties. “J.Edgar Hoover in drag” sounded too much like something people who hated him thought-up to destroy his image.

It is a bit like spreading a rumour that Cilla Black is a man.

That was not just a nose job she had early in her career.

Very entertaining, but not necessarily true.

They’ll be saying Tom Cruise, George Clooney and SpongeBob SquarePants are gay next.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just don’t ask me about Cilla Black…


Filed under Comedy, History, Movies, Newspapers, Politics, PR, Television

Painting a New York fart, Tony Blair and Jo Brand

Yesterday, in response to my blog mentioning farteur Mr Methane, Jackie Hunter, former features editor of The Scotsman newspaper, reminded me that early 20th-century artist Maxfield Parrish painted a fart into a mural that now adorns the famous King Cole Bar in New York’s St Regis hotel. I have to agree with her that painting a fart is quite an achievement.

Yesterday was a funny old mixture of a day because British comedians are now planning for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Going to the Fringe, like having a baby, is a nine-month project involving a lot of nausea, pain and uncertain results.

Charlie Chuck phoned me about his planned return to Edinburgh which sounds suitably unusual and the extraordinarily multi-talented Janey Godley, not planning to play the Edinburgh Fringe this year but just about to go to the Adelaide Fringe, told me about two possibilities she has been unexpectedly offered in two totally different media. From Janey, the unexpected comes as no surprise.

In the afternoon, I had to take a friend to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich which, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, is surrounded by a high Grade A security fence which makes it look more like a Stalag Luft Queen Elizabeth II escape-proof prison camp in World War II or a Ministry of Defence site in the Cold War.

In the evening, I went to Vivienne & Martin Soan’s monthly Pull The Other One comedy club at the beleaguered and now closed Ivy House pub in Nunhead. The venue was re-opened specially for the night to stage Pull The Other One with this month’s headliner Jo Brand.

Vivienne & Martin now have their next six shows arranged but with no definite venue and are looking round, although they would prefer to stay at the warmly ornate and atmospheric mirrored ‘golden room’ behind the Ivy House bar. One local alternative might be The Old Waiting Room at Peckham Rye Station.

Comedian and novelist Dominic Holland, making his second appearance at Pull The Other One called it “the weirdest gig that exists,” which it surely is. The format is about two hours of variety acts and two stand-up comics. Unusually, nowadays, the bizarre variety acts – far be it from me to name-drop Bob Slayer and Holly Burn – are as important to the feel of the shows as the stand-ups.

Afterwards, Dominic told me that his 14-year-old son Tom Holland, recently on stage as Billy Elliot in the West End, is currently in Thailand filming a lead role in major Hollywood blockbuster The Impossible. I thought Dominic was probably ‘talking up’ this film out of fatherly pride until I looked it up on IMDB Pro and found it is a big-budget tsunami disaster movie “starring Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland” and is one of the “most anticipated films of 2011”.

Other shocks of the evening were that the much talked-about cult comedian Dr Brown has got an entirely new character act in which he actually moves and talks semi-coherently. And I heard that legendary ‘open spot’ act Jimbo – he seems to have been doing open spots as long as Cilla Black has been acting-out the role of ordinary woman next door – is now getting paid gigs, has allegedly changed into a (different) character act and is perhaps going to the Edinburgh Fringe. If he won an award as Best Newcomer at the Fringe it would be very funny and would be a triumph for Brian Damage of Pear Shaped, who has long championed Jimbo and other – even by my standards – very, very bizarre acts.

A very funny night at Pull The Other One ended very entertainingly but totally unsurprisingly with nudity. There were even some calls for The Naked Balloon Dance of fond memory.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, Tunisia continued to stumble around like a blinded meerkat towards potential anarchic chaos and tanks were rolling around Cairo to prevent what threatened to be a popular uprising.

Is it my imagination or have things deteriorated badly in that area since the United Nations, evidently an organisation with no sense of irony, appointed Tony Blair as Middle East Peace Envoy and why is it I never actually see any pictures of him in the Middle East?

Could it be he’s just too busy talking to God and this week, according to The Times, signing a six-figure deal to make four speeches for a hedge fund which made around £100 million by betting on the collapse of the Northern Rock bank in the UK?

This was shortly after the Daily Mail reported that he got £300,000 for making one speech for banking giant Goldman Sachs, while he had a £2.5 million deal as “advisor”  to JP Morgan, who, according to London’s Evening Standard, won a contract to set up an Iraqi bank in the wake of the US-led invasion.

Which gets us back to the subject of Mr Methane and farting around the world and brings up the possibly pertinent question:

What is the difference between being a comedian and taking the piss?

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