Tag Archives: David Walliams

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.”

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Richard Herring on buying back his own TV series from the BBC, not being more famous and regaining happiness

The creation of the universe, the paranormal. Whatever next?

Richard Herring’s new self-financed 6-part online TV series

In two of my blogs earlier this week, comedian Richard Herring talked to me first about creating free content like his podcasts to entice people into his live shows and then about his self-financed online TV series Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life – he is recording the second episode at the Leicester Square Theatre this Sunday.

Richard first rose to fame as a double act with Stewart Lee on BBC radio and TV in the 1990s.

“I remember when we were doing TV pilots,” Richard told me, “you’d be thinking This is great, but what are the people upstairs at the BBC going to think about it and will we have to change it for them? To not have that pressure is amazingly freeing now. Part of the reason I went into podcasting in 2008 was because of the Sachsgate thing. Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross had done all this bad stuff on the radio and then the BBC clammed up. You couldn’t do anything.

“People were saying You mustn’t even swear in the warm-up to the show in case there’s a journalist in the audience. It was just insane and I thought, Well, if I do it on my own, I can say whatever I want.

“You did have the advantage of being established,” I said.

“I had a little leg up,” admitted Richard, “in terms of enough people knowing who I was from having done that stuff with Stewart in the 1990s – it had a very dedicated following really of 14-year-olds who then grew up and did stay quite loyal to us. But it wasn’t a massive cult thing. It wasn’t like I started podcasts and a million people listened. And, if anything, most people would now know me from the internet stuff I’ve done. I think most of them are surprised when they find out either that I worked with Stewart or that all this old stuff exists.

“We are bringing out all that old stuff ourselves. The BBC wouldn’t bring out Fist of Fun as a DVD or repeat it, so we bought it from the BBC and we’re hopefully buying This Morning With Richard Not Judy from them too. But it’s more expensive to buy and I think DVD is falling off the radar a bit.

“Fist Of Fun” - now out as a DVD with BBC logo

The Fist Of Fun DVD out now with BBC logo

“We paid around £50,000 to buy two series of Fist of Fun. We’ve got the rights to sell it for around five years and we sell them at £25 a series. So you only need 2,000 people to buy them and you get your money back, though there’s other expenses on top of that.”

“What about Equity and the Musicians’ Union?” I asked.

“The BBC do all the clearances,” explained Richard. “About £10,000 of that £50,000 is for the clearances. The BBC still own it ultimately. We’re just leasing it and after a certain amount – when we’ve made our money back – they get 25% of the money we make.”

“Why didn’t they want to do a DVD themselves?” I asked.

“Because they didn’t… they never liked… It was amazing we got four series. We did two series of Fist of Fun. The second series had better material, but the first series was a really beautiful kind of… It had its own feeling. We were learning on the job, but Fist Of Fun was overflowing with ideas. There are jokes flashing up which you have to freeze-frame to get. It was a young person’s programme. The BBC got worried it would scare off their viewers, so they made us go into a studio for the second series and slightly spoiled it. Then we got kicked off. Then we came back and did two years of This Morning With Richard Not Judy.

This Morning With Richard Not Judy

Lee (right) & Herring This Morning With Richard Not Judy

“But, again, they didn’t know what to do with it. They kept cancelling the repeat and moving it around and there were weeks off for sport. By the second series, the newspapers had just started writing about it and we felt, if we did another series, it could just get over that hump. But then Jane Root came in, didn’t like it and she was at BBC2 for five years (1999-2004). So that was the end of it.

“Stewart and I had met at Oxford University, but we weren’t a very archetypal Oxbridge type of act, so we didn’t really get any of the benefits of Oh, come on in… We just confused everyone.

“I went to Oxford because of the comedy. I studied History but I went because I wanted to get into the Oxford Revue. I was a massive fan of Monty Python and I just dreamt of getting into the Oxford Revue. I wanted to be a comedian.”

“So you dreamt of being the person you now are,” I said.

“But more successful,” laughed Richard. “I probably wanted, then, to be the most famous and successful comedian EVER – which I don’t now. I just want to keep working until I drop. As long as I’m still creating interesting stuff and keep trying to push back boundaries and to slightly fail.

“To fail at what I wanted to do has been good for me. With Lee & Herring, if things had twisted a different way, I think maybe we could have been like Little Britain and I think that would have destroyed us both in different ways. I think I would have gone off my head with the excitement of being that famous and Stewart would probably have killed himself if he’d got that famous.

Richard Herring’s show Hitler Moustache

Richard Herring’s Hitler Moustache show

“Now I think I’m in almost the perfect position for a comedian.

“Being too famous can distract you and restrict you. If I were David Walliams and I had said Oh, I’m going to have a Hitler moustache for a year I think my management would have gone No, I think you’d better not do that, because you won’t get this or that contract. The fact I have the autonomy to make insane decisions creates some interesting experiences.”

“But then there’s the money,” I said.

“We didn’t really earn any money from Lee & Herring. After ten years of working together, we’d had five years of not being paid and five years of being paid a bit, split between the two of us. By the end of it, I’d put the deposit down on a flat. That’s all I’d managed to do.

“But when I wrote 37 episodes of Time Gentlemen, Please! (2000-2002) – not entirely but mainly on my own – I was paid very, very well per episode so then, for the first time in my life, I had money and I sort-of took two years off. I was still doing bits and pieces. I wasn’t not working. I was doing a lot of writing – or trying. I was still doing some work. I did Talking Cock, which did pretty well and, for the first time in my life, I got repeat fees – from Time Gentlemen, Please!

Talking Cock was revived as The Second Coming

Talking Cock – later revived, with The Second Coming added

“I’d bought quite a big house and had a big mortgage and every time I thought I was in trouble a cheque would drop into my lap that was enough to keep me going. I was sitting in this big house which I’d been going to move into with my girlfriend who had a child by someone else. We were going to have a family. I had this house. But then we broke up and so I was sitting in the attic trying to write about cocks and slowly going a bit crazy. I had lost my way a little bit.

“Writing the blog helped but coming back to stand-up was massively helpful. It meant I got out and performed and I realised – although I’m happy writing and I like writing – I need to perform a little bit.

“When I came back to stand-up, I did a gig in Hammersmith in a little room to ten people and Jimmy Carr was 100 yards away at the Hammersmith Apollo playing to 3,000 people. But I was thinking: I’m really happy.

“My problem was I had been sitting back waiting for people to come to me which, in the old days, you had to. In the 1990s, you had to get commissioned by a broadcast company to make a radio show or a TV show. But now you can do it yourself. I can make Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life without a broadcast company as a six-part online TV series.

A ‘selfie’ taken by Richard Herring last week

A ‘selfie’ taken by Richard Herring last week

“A lot of comics make excuses about why things don’t happen for them – and there ARE good excuses; there’s a lot of luck in this business – but you’ve got to work hard and, increasingly, there’s so much competition, so many good comedians. But you can now make your own break – though, even then, there’s luck involved.

“It’s much more important to be doing something you’re happy with and be happy in your life. I think for a long time I wasn’t. Certainly 10 or 15 years ago I was quite unhappy, but I turned it round.”

“So where are you off to now?” I asked.

“I’m going home to my wife. She’s making me some tuna.”

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