Tag Archives: Game For a Laugh

Dave Brooks, RIP – astonishing original

Dave Brooks with his sons and daughter (Charlie on right)

I was asleep today – about 11 in the morning-  when Martin Soan phoned to tell me Dave ‘Bagpipes’ Brooks – an early member of The Greatest Show on Legs – had died, aged 72. Dave’s son Charlie Brooks had announced on Facebook that his father died at the end of last week.

Charlie wrote: “He passed away end of last week. They broke the mould when they made him. Here’s to all of you who played music with him, loved him, got exasperated with him(!) and had fun with him over the years. With the coronavirus situation, we don’t know what will happen with the funeral at the moment.” 

(Charlie lives in Oregon; Dave lived in the UK.)

“At some point, there will be a moment to remember Dave and it will involve music and a few drinks.

Dave playing at Charlie’s wedding (bride & groom on left)

“Charismatic and occasionally cantankerous, but always quick with a joke and someone who definitely lived by his own rules, for better or worse. He was also a brilliant musician, starting as a jazz sax player in the 1960s, then becoming a piper.

“Going to miss you, Dave… everyone is unique, but they truly broke the mould when they made you. They say you can’t choose your family, but if I could, I’d choose you again. So sad I didn’t get to say goodbye. Love you.”

Martin Soan remembers: “Dave joined The Greatest Show on Legs very early on…

“I don’t know what year or indeed how we came to meet him in the first place, but he was a valued member and was a very funny man indeed.

“Going on tour with ‘The Legs’ wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea: it was a hand-to-mouth existence and a lot of anarchy to put up with, but he fitted in without any trouble and sometimes led the way in outrageousness. 

(L-R) Malcolm Hardee, Martin Soan, Jools Holland, ‘Digger Dave’, Dave Brooks (Photograph supplied by Martin Soan)

“I performed with him a few times in later years and we both slotted in where we left off. It was simply natural to perform and hang out with him.

“His temperament was sunny and always even but also he was very educational (important when spending long hours in a van), He introduced Malcolm Hardee and me to garlic, which Malcolm hated… He knew what was happening politically and, of course, musically expanded our minds… Above all, I will always remember his wicked sense of humour and infectious laugh.

“He excelled on stage and personally made sketches of ours complete and perfect and, after he went his own way, we had to drop the routines he had made his own. The Human Scottish Sword Dance and Dirty Ol Men were his sketches .”

In 1981, Dave performed The Human Scottish Sword Dance with The Legs on ITV’s ratings-topper Game For a Laugh

I myself met him, I think, only twice, maybe three times: clearly my loss. As well as having an original sense of humour, he had wide talents. 

He was wonderful on the Highland bagpipes (and saxophone) playing Irish Traditional and Scottish Traditional music and jazz with many other artists including Joan Armatrading, Graham Bond, Elkie Brooks, Phil Collins, George Harrison, Dick Hecksall-Smith, Manfred Mann, Count Dracula and The Barber of Seville. Probably also Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

He played weddings with Sikh dhal drummers

He had an 18-month run in London’s West End as a piper in the stage production of Brigadoon (where he had his bagpipes sent to sleep for 100 years) as well as appearing in the BBC TV production of People Like Us and in the movie Loch Ness.

He also performed and played bagpipes on the alternative comedy scene with Arnold Brown, The Greatest Show on Legs, John Hegley, Marcel Steiner (Smallest Theatre in the World) as well as Keith Allen (whose record company, Dave said, still owed him £60!).

In the US, he was a founder member of infamous band The Don Wannabes.

Back in the UK, he played various Scots and Irish piping at weddings, funerals and divorces and had his own Irish ceilidh band Sham-Rock, sometimes appearing playing the bagpipes with them as the Green Man, dressed in a suit of leaves. He claimed he was thinking of branching out. He is on whistle in this video…

For Asian weddings, he appeared playing bagpipes with Drummers Delight – two Sikh dhal drummers.

On 29th July 1996, the Corporation of London prosecuted him at Hampstead Magistrates’ Court under an 1890 by-law for “playing a musical instrument (his bagpipes) on Hampstead Heath on three separate counts. This was despite the fact that Dave had been playing his pipes on the Heath for an hour every morning for 15 years without any complaint from anyone.

As part of Dave’s defence, solicitor George Fairburn cited the legal precedent of Jimmy Reid, Highland Bagpiper, who, on October 2nd, 1746 – after the Battle of Culloden – was charged with playing an instrument of war and insurrection. Jimmy stated that his Highland pipes were a musical instrument not an instrument of war (which sounds reasonable). But the Lord Chief Justice of England overruled the original jury’s not-guilty verdict and dismissed their later plea for mercy by declaring that the bagpipes were indeed an instrument of insurrection. On the strength of this, Jimmy Reid was hanged, drawn and quartered.

After the Battle of Culloden, they were “an instrument of war””

Dave Brooks said that if his Highland bagpipes were an instrument of war – as stated by the court in 1746 – then now, in 1996, his Highland bagpipes remained an instrument of war and insurrection and could not possibly be a musical instrument as charged. 

The 1996 judge – Stipendiary Magistrate Michael Johnstone – said that the case of James Reid and his Highland bagpipes was a gross miscarriage of justice – a point not picked up by the press at the time – and then bizarrely threatened to have Dave Brooks and his Highland Bagpipes charged with bearing arms on Hampstead Heath. He said that, if this interpretation was accurate, Mr Brooks could be charged with carrying a dangerous weapon on the Heath and the penalty could be a prison sentence rather than a fine. He asked the bailiff of the court if he was ready to take Mr Brooks, Highland bagpiper, to the cells below the court never more for his bagpipes to be heard,.

Dave was found guilty on three counts of playing a musical instrument and fined £15 on each count plus £50 costs. 

In his summing-up, the magistrate said: “In time of war the bagpipes are an instrument of war and in peace they are a musical instrument”. He dismissed a petition of 2,500 signatures collected around Hampstead by people who liked the Highland pipes. 

Dave with his Scottish military weapon

The Corporation of London as a token gesture gave consent for Mr Brooks to play his bagpipes for one hour, three mornings a week on the bandstand at Parliament Hill Fields. He was also given permission by the management of Alexandra Palace to play his bagpipes in Alexandra Park anytime, which he then did regularly in return for playing his bagpipes at various charity functions for them.

Stipendiary Magistrate Michael Johnstone, in delivering his judgment, conceded that many might not consider the bagpipes to be a musical instrument, although he said he was not saying it was one.

When Dave’s case first came to prominence and he became a cause célèbre in piping circles, the College of Piping in Glasgow offered some words of comfort: “Well, if they hing you, dinnae you worry. We’ll compose a fine lament to your memory!’’

Tracks on subsequent albums released by Dave included the evocative Birds Eat Turds, a flute and pipe combination of Irish and Mauritanian songs like A Chailleach do mharrias me/Arts Plume and the classic Did They Come From Outer Space? No. They Came From Hendon Central.

RIP an original.


Here is Dave Bagpipes Brooks playing Auld Lang Syne…

…and playing solo bagpipes with an Indian theme…

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Death of producer Danny Greenstone

Danny Greenstone

Danny Greenstone – So it goes

I had got as far as Newcastle when I read the email.

For most of today (Sunday) I was on the long coach trail down from Edinburgh to London. It took most of the day.

The National Express coach station in Newcastle had a weak telephone signal and no WiFi (neither did their coach) and my iPhone was already running low on battery.

The email was from writer Ian Hawkins.

It said:


I expect you’ve heard by now the dreadful news that Danny Greenstone died suddenly yesterday morning. 


I had not.

Danny and I were going to meet on Wednesday this week to have a chat for my blog, but we had not arranged a place. I was going to email him tomorrow to arrange the details.

The chat was going to be about The Phantom Raspberry Blower Of Old London (which I mentioned in this blog three weeks ago) – the unproduced Goon Show which he was due to direct on stage in London’s West End this October.

LWT Head of Entertainment Alan Boyd with Danny Greenstone

LWT Head of Entertainment Alan Boyd (left) with Danny

I first met Danny in either 1984 or 1985 when we worked together on either Game For a Laugh or Cilla Black’s Surprise! Surprise! The same basic production team worked on both, so it is difficult to remember, especially with my notoriously shit memory.

I remember it was his first job in television and he was suggested and highly recommended by Jeremy Beadle, whose BBC radio show Jeremy Beadle’s Nightcap he had produced.

Danny produces BBC World Service show Old Took’s Almanac, while by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (right) watches

Danny produces BBC World Service show Old Took’s Almanac, watched by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Danny had joined BBC Radio in 1969, as a filing clerk in News Information but, by 1973 he was a producer in Light Entertainment. In 1977, with producer John Lloyd, he invented The News Quiz and, he said, the only argument they ever had was about the title. Danny wanted to call the series Keep Taking The Tabloids.

I asked Ian Hawkins to send me a piece about Danny which I would get when I eventually reached home. This is what he wrote:


He felt unwell on Friday night and his partner Liz called an ambulance in the early hours of Saturday morning when he started having trouble breathing. They said he was having a heart attack. Danny thought they were being melodramatic. Whilst he was being X-rayed, he lost consciousness and couldn’t be revived. All this entirely out of the blue; he was apparently his usual self through Friday. 

I last saw Danny a couple of weeks back – just after Cilla Black’s death – as he was regaling me with stories about being able to get her to do things no other producer could. He was looking a bit thinner, which I put down to the healthy eating regime he was on. We also talked about his job directing The Phantom Raspberry Blower Of Old London. “I’m a West End director,” he told me, “entirely by accident.” And then he was off to do another series of Soccer Prince in the Middle East. 

We shared a love of old jokes and I was showing off my copy of The Joey Adams Book of Ethnic Humour (pub 1972, and understandably never reprinted). Danny also had a copy. Likewise Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, in which every definition is illustrated with a joke. 

I had found an old business card of my great grandfather whose shop sold china in North London. Danny’s dad was a greengrocer. I emailed it to him, speculating that it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that one of the Greenstone’s bananas had ended up in one of my ancestor’s bowls. 

I completely adored him. When BBC Three Counties Radio gave him his own show nearly ten years ago, he brought me on to do a newspaper review. Many’s the time he would look at me across the desk while I went off on a tangent somewhere, knowing that he was manning the safety net for when I over-reached myself. Occasionally I actually flew. Plenty of people will tell you a similar story – he had a knack for spotting talent and giving people faith in themselves. He made everyone around him feel they were an essential part of a team.

We met through JLAwhere I was an agent, though not a particularly outstanding one. He did the occasional job for them as a speaker and, rather more often, as a coach for other speakers, including (blind UK politician) David Blunkett. His best advice was ‘always tell the audience something they don’t know about someone or something they do know.’ Less successful was advising David Blunkett to make eye contact with the audience. 

I left JLA to focus on writing, coaching and stand-up and helped him move between homes. I guess the real talent he spotted in me was being able to drive a transit van through London and up to Bedfordshire. Not the greatest of talents but Danny still made me feel like a hero for doing it. 

Though I would’ve crawled over hot coals for him if he’d asked. 

Small mercies: I told him I loved him. He was the sort of man you could say that to. 

Danny was always full of ideas and jokes and puns of varying quality. About three times today I’ve seen something and thought ‘Danny would find that hilarious.’ But then Danny laughed at everything, which is why we were friends. 

Sorry this is a gush, I’m heartbroken. Truly. 


Danny Greenstone in 1988

Danny Greenstone in 1988

Danny used to say he had been involved in the entertainment industry since 1958 when he took the lead role in St.Mary’s Parochial School’s production of Old King Cole.

But, more seriously, in over twenty years, he produced and directed for radio, television and live events. He co-created, wrote and produced BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz and, for television worked on Game For A Laugh, Surprise, Surprise, You Bet, Child’s Play, The Main Event, Going For Gold, Small Talk, Celebrity Squares and many more. His programmes appeared on every terrestrial network in the UK.

He was part of the team that brought the UK’s first series of Pop Idol to the screen and was also instrumental in the creation of Ant & Dec ‘s PokerFace.

Later, in 2008/2009, he was the Director of Culture & Entertainment for Global Village, a theme park in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which, over 102-days, attracted three million visitors.

The post on Facebook

The post on Facebook

In a post on Facebook, his daughter Katy wrote:


Yesterday I lost the most wonderful man I’ve ever known, my dad. 

He has left us far too soon, but his influence has brought happiness, laughter and love to an enormous number of people all over he world – and I am so proud to be his daughter.


Danny Greenstone died Saturday 29th August 2015.

So it goes.

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I got it wrong in the Grouchy Club podcast + Noel Edmonds killed a man

Kate Copstick with her mother at the podcast

Kate Copstick with her mother at the podcast

Yesterday, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I recorded our weekly Grouchy Club podcast in her London flat because she was ill.

It was possibly a mistake on her part to ask me about my background – or possibly a clever ploy so she needed to talk less. This is an extract about me working on TV shows last century:


JOHN
The first show I ever did (as a researcher) was Tiswas and that was 39 episodes in a row and I think they were a minimum of three hours long – I think they changed the duration. Basically, 39 weeks of 3-hour shows – live shows – tends to settle you in a bit

COPSTICK
Bloody hell. And was the finding of weird acts how you got to meet Malcolm Hardee?

JOHN
Yes. I did children’s shows – Tiswas and a few others less well known. I never really dealt with stars. I was never that interested.

COPSTICK
Lucky you.

JOHN
Indeed. What I tended to deal with was ‘real people’.

COPSTICK
They’re difficult to find in television.

JOHN
But real people who want to be on television shows tend to live in appalling places, so I never got to go anywhere glamorous… Never ever ever go to Barrow-in-Furness. It’s a nightmare. Don’t go. Three hours to travel one inch.

COPSTICK
Oh my God! The man who was the love of my life – at the time and for some time after – is a doctor in Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
Well, I’m very sorry for you.

COPSTICK
Isn’t it lovely? It’s Lake District.

JOHN
It’s awful. It was awful.

COPSTICK
I’d like to apologise to anyone listening who is on or around Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
I went to Barrow-in-Furness because a blind man wanted to parachute jump.

COPSTICK
Whoa!

JOHN
This was for Game For a Laugh because, after the children’s shows, I did ‘real people’ shows. So I did Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise!

(AND THIS IS WHERE I MADE THE FIRST OF TWO FACTUAL MISTAKES IN THE PODCAST – I HAVE A NOTORIOUSLY BAD MEMORY – IN FACT, I WENT TO SEE THE BLIND WOULD-BE PARACHUTIST FOR CILLA BLACK’S SURPRISE! SURPRISE! NOT FOR GAME FOR A LAUGH. SO…)

Things like that: finding bizarre acts.

COPSTICK
Do you know my friend Matthew Kelly?

JOHN
I did the series after he left.

COPSTICK
Lovely, lovely, lovely Matthew Kelly. He’s a wonderful man.

JOHN
I did work with Matthew Kelly once, I did Children’s ITV. In my Promotion hat, I produced Children’s ITV because the BBC was destroying ITV’s ratings in children’s hour, so they thought up the idea of having a block of Children’s ITV presented by a famous person doing the links. So I recorded a month’s worth of links in an afternoon, I think.

(IN FACT, AGAIN, MY MEMORY LET ME DOWN. I RECORDED A MONTH OF LINKS IN TWO AFTERNOONS, A FORTNIGHT APART)

And one of the people who did it was Matthew Kelly. Terribly nice man, yes.

COPSTICK
Gorgeous man. Anyway, sorry I interrupted. You were talking about finding a blind man who wanted to parachute out of Barrow-in-Furness.

JOHN
And we would have done this, because it’s quite easy. You just attach the person to another person who really can parachute jump, throw them out of a plane and…

COPSTICK
Presumably it’s not like going along a road. Once you’ve jumped out of a plane, being sighted or non-sighted, there only is one route and that’s straight down.

JOHN
Yup. Much like my career.

COPSTICK
Only since you met me, John

JOHN
Again, as with most of my stories, there is a coda; there is a But…

COPSTICK
Mmm hmmm?

JOHN
We didn’t actually do this, because Noel Edmonds managed to kill someone on his show. (BBC TV’s The Late, Late Breakfast Show.)

COPSTICK
Yes! I remember that.

JOHN
There was a man suspended in a box and, for some extraordinary reason, you could open the box from the inside. He was suspended about 40ft up in the air and, for an unknown reason, he opened the box. He fell out – 40ft down or whatever – died. This happened (on BBC TV) and LWT, who were producing Game For a Laugh (ACTUALLY I MEANT SURPRISE! SURPRISE!) thought: Oooooooohhhhh. It’s very dodgy. We would never have let it happen (what happened on BBC TV) because we would have had 18 safety features.


This week’s Grouchy Club Podcast lasts 31 minutes.

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Nudity on ITV, balloons & how Malcolm Hardee fell out with OTT Chris Tarrant

Malcolm Hardee with Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm Hardee in Alternative Comedy’s early days with his protégée comedian Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)

As I have very little time to write a blog today and as yesterday’s blog was about the ‘old’ ITV, here is an extract from comedy icon Malcolm Hardee’s increasingly prestigious autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. It is about his participation in Martin Soan’s comedy group The Greatest Show On Legs and refers to OTT, the adult TV series produced by Chris Tarrant after his success with children’s series Tiswas.

At this time, I was working on the continuing Tiswas series.

Because ATV/Central messed-up and did not at first give the OTT team their own office, Tarrant squatted in our Tiswas office for around (if memory serves me) a month. I later worked on the LWT series Game For a Laugh, but not at this point.

This is Malcolm Hardee’s story…


The Greatest Show on Legs in the Fringe Programme

The Greatest Show on Legs perform the Balloon Dance (from left) Malcolm Hardee, Martin Clarke, Martin Soan

The Greatest Show on Legs’ breakthrough was doing The Balloon Dance on ITV.

Dave ‘Bagpipes’ Brooks was supposed to be with The Greatest Show on Legs on the OTT pilot, but he’d buggered off to Cornwall. He’d had enough.

This was right in the middle of The Mad Show.

So, at about 6.30am one morning, I knocked-up Martin Potter who used to operate our tapes and he came out with us and did  the pilot for OTT and the audition for Game For a Laugh.

We needed someone permanent and Martin Potter wasn’t interested, so we recruited Martin Clarke from Brighton, who’d been in a theatre group called Cliffhanger. He had quite a posh voice and looked a bit like Tony Blackburn, so we called him ‘Sir Ralph’.

We were invited to do The Balloon Dance first on Game For a Laugh but, when we got to the LWT studios, the producer wouldn’t let us do it naked. He said the show was for family viewing.

“But that’s how we do it,” I said. “That’s the whole humour of it.”

He sent researchers out to get smaller and smaller items of underwear – even going into sex shops to get us jockstraps. But we held out and said:

“We’re not doing it with our pants on”.

We partly held out because we knew that OTT also wanted us on ITV in a month’s time and they would let us do it naked. In the end, we did the Scottish sword dance on Game For a Laugh. We used the show’s co-presenter Matthew Kelly as the crossed swords. He had a broken leg at the time. So we kept our clothes on but terrorised Matthew Kelly in exchange.

A month later, we finally got naked on TV when we performed The Balloon Dance on OTT. (The video is on YouTube) That was in January 1981. It was one of the first programmes made by Central, who had taken over from ATV as the Birmingham ITV station.

OTT was meant to be the all new, very daring adult version of Chris Tarrant’s anarchic children’s show Tiswas. Alexei Sayle performed on it every week and still no-one understood his humour. Lenny Henry, Bob Carolgees and Helen Atkinson-Wood were the other OTT regulars.

On the first night we were there, the studio audience didn’t react very well to the over-all show but, when we came on, we set the place alight – figuratively speaking – and afterwards there was a furore in the press, which we wanted. Mary Whitehouse complained about it, which is always a good thing.

We got on very well with Chris Tarrant but, two or three years later, we did the Balloon Dance on another late-night TV show created by him (Saturday Stayback – there is a video not including Malcolm on YouTube). It was shot in a pub and he was desperate for ratings, because they hadn’t been very good. So he got us in to do the last show in the series.

Afterwards, there was a big end-of-series party for everyone and we weren’t invited to it. So our roadie saw a massive bottle of champagne – a Jeroboam – and nicked it. We were giving Helen Atkinson-Wood a lift because she also had to miss the party to get back to London. We all got in our Luton Transit and suddenly Chris Tarrant came running out, mad, shouting:

“You’ve had my champagne!”

“No we haven’t!” I lied.

“You have!” he yelled. “You’ll never work on TV again!”

At this, Helen Atkinson-Wood jumped out of the van because she didn’t want to be associated with us and the roadie drove us off back to London.

I have heard since that Chris Tarrant says this incident involved the pub having some silvery cutlery nicked which had sentimental value to the landlord. If anything else was nicked, it wasn’t us; we just nicked one bottle of champagne.

Anyway it all ended in tears. But our first appearance on OTT was our big breakthrough and afterwards it was all congratulations.

As a result of our TV success, we ended up with an agent, Louis Parker, who treated us like The Chippendales.

We went mainstream. We were doing hen nights and End of The Pier variety shows for two or three years – not the University shows that we had done before. Literally end-of-the-pier. Colwyn Bay and Blackpool we did. We were a novelty act doing a 15-20 minute show for what was then an enormous amount of money: about £500-£600 a show. But there were three of us to pay, plus a roadie.

The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson

The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson, who clashed with the show’s BBC producer

While we were doing that, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson went on to TV success in The Young Ones.

Pete Richardson (who went on to direct The Comic Strip) was meant to have been in that: he was meant to have been the one that no-one knows. They wanted a macho-man figure as a counter-balance to the others and Pete was replaced by someone they recruited out of a casting agency.

The Young Ones garnered all the credit for being clever comedians, while we were literally performing a dumb show. Our success was short-term, lowbrow and mainstream.

Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon

Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs doing the Balloon Dance in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon

We even performed at a TUC Conference in Blackpool where Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dogs got booed off for being sexist: he was singing a song about a woman with tits and they didn’t like him. But they liked The Greatest Show on Legs naked with balloons. Except that we didn’t use balloons: we used photos of Mrs Thatcher to cover our genitalia and, after we turned round, our penises were sticking out of her mouth.

They loved it.

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Magician Paul Daniels on a naked man, Margaret Thatcher and self-confidence

Paul Daniels in his Thames-side village this week.

Paul Daniels talked  to me in his Thames-side village.

In yesterday’s blog, magician Paul Daniels remembered appearing on the BBC TV programme Have I Got News For You.

I was once interviewed for a researcher job on Have I Got News For You. I had been hit by a truck a short time before the interview. I was still concussed. During the interview, I accidentally hit the back of my head on the wall as I sat down. The interview did not go well. I think I may have talked gibberish. I did not get the job. I was, however, a researcher on ITV show Game For a Laugh.

“I worked with your son Martin P.Daniels when he was presenting Game For a Laugh,” I told Paul Daniels this week.

There is a YouTube clip of Martin appearing on Paul’s iconic BBC TV magic show.

“He had to be Martin P.Daniels,” Paul told me, “because there was a very old gay actor who hadn’t worked forever but he still paid his Equity subscription and, as a performer, you weren’t allowed to have the same name as someone else.”

“I notice Martin is now billed as Martin Daniels without the P,” I said. “I presume the old guy died?”

Honest James Callaghan in 1979

Honest Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1979

“No,” said Paul. “Equity died. They made some major mistakes. I can remember an actress suing a production company because she had got a job as one of the vestal virgins and, when she turned up to do the play, she was eight months pregnant. The director said I can’t use you and Equity went to court on her behalf. That is when I stopped paying my Equity subs. I thought: You’re just getting union silly now. I remember I once did a show for (the then Prime Minister Jim) Callaghan…”

“For why?” I asked.

“For money,” said Paul. “Why does anybody work in this business? We were in an ante-room and he asked me How’s it going? and I said Well, it’s going better for me than it is for you – It was his ‘Winter of Discontent’ – and he said Well, that’s because my government has given in to every union demand.”

“That was very honest of him,” I said, surprised.

An inspiration: Margaret Thatcher

Great orator: Margaret Thatcher

“Very honest,” agreed Paul. “But why didn’t he tell the nation? He told me: We’ve priced ourselves out of the world market. When Maggie Thatcher came along and famously stood up to the miners and unions in general, it was really easy. I admired her at the time. She was a great orator and a great controller of the crowd. She was as good as you get in showbusiness. But I was well aware that she wasn’t being The Iron Lady. We had no money, so you could demand all you liked, but nobody could give you any money because we didn’t have it. That was what broke the unions. The unions broke themselves. It happened in showbusiness with the Musicians Union. They priced themselves out of the market with silly rules. It was insanity.”

“Magic is strange…” I started to say.

“It’s supposed to be,” said Paul.

“But the strange thing,” I said, “is deciding you want to be a magician… because that means deciding you want to con people as a profession. You want to have power over people by having them misunderstand reality.”

“No, no. You don’t,” said Paul. “Magic in its proper sense is the defiance of all natural laws. What we do is not magic; it’s conjuring. We are actors playing the part of fabulous magicians: creatures of fable.”

“What is conjuring, then?” I asked. “Just fake magic?”

Paul Daniels, magician, aged 14

Paul Daniels, aged 14, three years into his magic stage career

“Yeah. Yeah. It’s magic for muggles. Why did I want to do it? Because… Well, first of all I was eleven years old when I started and I was very shy. I was VERY shy until I was 32. I was performing but, offstage I was… What is it?… It’s an awareness that you hold secrets, data that they don’t have and that you can, for moments, take them into a wonderful world where anything is possible.”

“But,” I said, “if you are a very shy 15 or 25 year old, is it also a way of being in control of a world that would otherwise control you?”

“You can do magic on yourself,” said Paul. “Of course you can. But the best fun of magic is when you’re doing it to/for/with someone else. it’s the look on their faces. Magicians’ applause is the moment of silence when the trick’s finished and the audience thinks: Wha-a-a-a-t-t?”

“So comedians,” I said, “get a kick out of audience laughter and magicians get a kick out of silence and astonished faces?”

“Yeah,” said Paul. “It’s a weird thing now. At the Balham Comedy Festival next Tuesday, I’m doing stuff with which I’m not too familiar. Some of it is new; some of it I haven’t done for a very long time and…”

“Before I started recording this chat,” I said, “you said your act in Balham involves sitting on a toilet in some way.”

“There’s an element of that involved,” said Paul.

“You said you were shy until 32?” I asked. “That is a very specific age. What happened?”

Paul’s publicity for the Balham Comedy Festival

Paul & Debbie’s publicity for the Balham Comedy Festival

“I did a hen party in Essex. A man walked on dressed as a Viking and, after about ten minutes, all he had on were his furry boots and horns on his head and he’s waving his willy around and, like some people become Born Again Christians, I became a Born Again Extrovert. At that moment, I realised no matter how tall, short, fat, thin, bald or whatever I became, I could never look as bloody stupid as he did. And that was it for me. No point in being shy.”

“So you gained your self-confidence overnight?” I asked.

“Yes. I was already good at my job. But that released me. I just went for it after that.”

“Are horns and a willy-warmer going to be part of your act in Balham?” I asked.

“I can do that,” said Paul. “A friend, in fact, gave me a willy-warmer reputedly knitted by his Auntie Maureen and it had no end on it because she couldn’t quite remember how long it was supposed to be.”

“You’ve won many awards,” I said, “including Golden Rose of Montreux and Cock of the North.”

“Cock of the North,” explained Paul, “was my first real award and I think that says it all,”

“What’s the greatest magic trick?” I asked.

“Well,” said Paul, “if I’m in the audience, I like to watch levitation, because it’s artistic, it’s beautiful and we’ve all dreamt about flying. But I don’t think there is one greatest of anything. Magic is like singing. It’s down to the singer. It’s down to the presenting every time. I can give you a violin and say There’s the stick and you pull it across the strings and that’s how it works. But that’s not music. I can show you how a magic trick works, but that’s not magic.”

On YouTube, there is a clip of Paul Daniels taking a leaf out of Edgar Allan Poe’s book and cutting his wife, the lovely Debbie McGee, in half with a pendulum.

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The death of Tony Gray of The Alberts, who linked BBC2’s awful opening to The Goons, the Bonzo Dogs & Monty Python

Tony Gray

Tony Gray was billed for the opening of BBC2

Fifty years ago this Sunday – 20th April 1964 – the BBC2 television channel was due to start with a special programme The Albert’s Channel Too by anarchic comedy duo The Alberts.

It was billed as coming “direct from the Alberts’ Television Centre” featuring (according to Radio Times) Ivor Cutler, David Jacobs, Adolf Hitler and Birma the elephant.

Instead, a fire broke out at Battersea Power Station and, separately, there was a fault in a 60,000 volt cable at Iver in Buckinghamshire which cut power in West London, including BBC Television Centre.

The opening of BBC2 was a shambles.

The Alberts performed the following night, so BBC2 had two consecutive opening nights, both utterly anarchic.

Last Saturday, I sent a message to Albion Gray, the son of Tony Gray, one of The Alberts:

Tony Gray (left), Douglas Gray (right) and Bruce Lacey (top)

The Alberts – Tony Gray (left) and Douglas Gray (right) – with Bruce Lacey (top) and dog (bottom)

I trekked out to Norfolk to chat to them in the 1980s when I was a researcher on, I guess, Game For a Laugh

Possibly Malcolm Hardee mentioned them to me. They were wonderful people. I don’t suppose they’d be up for a blog chat would they?

He replied:

My dad Tony is a bit too frail to be interviewed but Douglas is in better shape. Let me find out and get back to you.

Yesterday, I got another message from Albion. It started:

Unfortunately my father passed away yesterday, at the grand old age of 86. 

By last night, there was an obituary on the Daily Telegraph website headlined

Tony Gray was a co-founder of a musical comedy act whose brand of anarchic slapstick inspired Monty Python

The Alberts were brothers Tony and Douglas Gray. The Daily Telegraph obituary is rather low-key in saying “their specialities included bubble-blowing automata and exploding camels”.

A Show Called Fred (from left). Top row: Graham Stark, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers. Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi

A Show Called Fred (from left)… Top row: Graham Stark, unknown dummy, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers… Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi

In 1956, in an attempt to transfer the radio success of The Goon Show to TV, Associated-Rediffusion made the series A Show Called Fred in which The Alberts featured. It was broadcast only in the London region, was written by Spike Milligan, starred Peter Sellers and was produced & directed by Dick Lester (who went on to direct cult short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film with Peter Sellers and Bruce Lacey in 1960 and later The Beatles’ feature films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

There is an entire 25-minute episode of A Show Called Fred on YouTube. The Alberts first appear 40 seconds into the pre-credit sequence carrying musical instruments. Douglas enters first.

If you want to know what The Alberts were like – both on AND off stage and screen, think The Goons on the way to Monty Python with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band stirred in.

Satirist John Wells famously described one of The Alberts’ 1960s performances thus:

“Moth-eaten men in beards and baggy Edwardian clothes strode on and off the stage; there were a great many random bangs and explosions, trumpets were blown, jokes were muttered and shouted, usually into the wings; the stuffed camel had its tail turned like a starting handle to the accompaniment of further bangs and more dirty men in ancient military uniforms strode on and off shouting at each other; someone appeared dressed as a bee; a mechanical dummy was wheeled on to deliver a monosyllabic political speech; a musician in grubby white tie and tails attempted to play the cello, and subversive figures winking at the audience and slyly tapping their noses were seen to lay a charge of dynamite under his chair, reel out the cable to a plunger and finally blow themselves up with another thunderous bang.”

There is a 4-minute video on YouTube of The Flying Alberts – Tony & Douglas with Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce in the 1960s.

In 1962, Peter Cook booked The Alberts for a residency at his seminal London comedy club The Establishment. They performed a Dada-inspired quiz show in which Bruce Lacey asked the questions. A description of one show said Lacey asked a question, the competitor got a bucket of whitewash poured over his head and then said: “Could you repeat the question, please?”

American comic Lenny Bruce saw The Alberts perform at The Establishment and booked them for an American tour. They crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary liner, reportedly either entertaining or annoying other passengers by riding penny-farthing bicycles around the decks. By the time they arrived in New York, Lenny Bruce had been arrested on charges of obscenity but The Alberts’ show was a success in New York. Somewhat oddly, it reportedly bombed in San Francisco which, you would think, would have been more open to their eccentricities.

The Alberts - purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty

The Alberts – purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty

Back in London, their West End show An Evening of British Rubbish ran for almost a year in 1963 (Princess Margaret went to see it twice) and they later toured the show in Belgium and France, under the title Crazy Show de British Rubbish.

An Evening of British Rubbish was released as an LP in 1963, produced by George Martin whose work with The Alberts was rather overshadowed that year by his work with The Beatles. George Martin also produced a single for The Alberts (with Bruce Lacey) featuring The Morse Code Melody on one side and Sleepy Valley on the other.

The Alberts – always very musical – are often cited as a big influence on The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Vivian Stanshall of The Bonzos said: “If there was any influence at all, it would be The Alberts or the Commedia dell’arte.”

According to their oft-times collaborator Bruce Lacey, The Temperance Seven band was originally formed by the Alberts but they were later ejected for ‘musical incompatibility’. I know no more.

The fake accounts and AGM of Albert, Lacey & Albert 1960-1961

The fake accounts and AGM of entertainment experts Albert, Lacey & Albert Ltd, 1960-1961

Around 1971, EMI issued a musical compilation album simply titled: The Alberts/The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band/The Temperance Seven and there was a later 1999 album called By Jingo, It’s British Rubbish with tracks by The Alberts, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Temperance Seven, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers

It was almost 30 years ago – in the mid 1980s – when I went up to meet Tony and Douglas Gray at home in Norfolk. I can remember very little except that it was an ex-vicarage and I liked both of the brothers immediately and immensely. I do remember Douglas played bagpipes indoors (a commendably eccentric thing to do, though never a good idea to experience) and Tony was dressed in full cricketing outfit… Neither did either of these things for any discernible reason.

Producer Danny Greenstone, who was with me on the visit, told me this morning: “I remember the bagpipe playing, but it didn’t stop at bagpipes. We were also treated to the tuba, a ukulele and other bizarre instruments. We wanted them for Game For a Laugh (of course) but I can’t remember what it was we wanted them to do. It MUST have been some kind of musical act and I think we DID get them to do it, but the details have faded. I also remember that you got a flat tyre on the way back.”

Memories fade. I only remember the bagpipes, Tony’s clothes and their personalities. I think there is a slight possibility that Douglas wore a kilt and a sporran. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.

At the time Danny and I met them, they were both working for the Sunday Telegraph and, I think other Fleet Street newspapers by driving delivery vans. This was before Rupert Murdoch fully broke the power of the newspaper unions and I have some vague memory of them telling me that they performed part of their journalistic duties by signing in (or having other people sign in for them) as M.Mouse in London while staying in Norfolk and not actually doing anything. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.

Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young

Brothers Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young

The Alberts had a varied and influential career which deserves to be remembered. They appeared in several Ken Russell films and in the 1965 Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium and, in 1966, they appeared in their own show The Three Musketeers Ride Again both at the Arts Theatre and the Royal Court theatre in London.

On YouTube, there is a song – sung by Tony Gray this century – which was written for The Alberts’ 1966 production of The Three Musketeers Ride Again. It is called When I Was Seventeen.

RIP Tony Gray 1927-2014

So it goes.

… THE DEATH OF DOUGLAS IN 2020 REPORTED HERE

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The birth of new comedy talent and the death of an amazing British eccentric

Zuma Puma hosted last night’s Lost Cabaret show

Zuma Puma hosted last night’s Lost Cabaret

I went to see Zuma Puma’s weekly Lost Cabaret show last night, definitely one of the most consistently weird shows in London.

One member of the audience – Jeff – let out that he had been off work for seven weeks due to stress. He was rather withdrawn and shy. He ended up – of his own accord – stripping his shirt off and dancing on the stage.

Weird is the word. And Lost Cabaret manages to be consistently weird every week I have seen it, thanks to MC Zuma Puma aka Nelly Scott. Last night her mum was there from Canada. I can see where she gets her charisma from.

Jeff, Jody Kamali & Zuma Puma’s mum last night

Jeff, Jody Kamali and Zuma Puma’s mum shook it last night

Lost Cabaret is the sort of show people (including, sometimes, moi) forget when they say comedy acts are not as bizarre and eccentric as they used to be.

Sadly, yesterday was also when I found out via a report in Chortle that The Amazing Mr Smith had died last Sunday.

His body was found at the bottom of a 100ft cliff at West Bay in Dorset.

There is a showreel of his eccentric acts on YouTube.

He was never widely known but, as Chortle reported, he toured America five times, as well as appearing in shows in Holland, Germany, Norway and Jordan.

Mr Smith’s audition  in 1987

Mr Smith’s 1987 audition for Jonathan Ross

I first saw him when I auditioned him for The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross in 1987. He would have been 39 then; he was 65 when he died last weekend. So it goes.

His birthday was on April 1st and, in the mid-1990s when I was working in Prague, I sent him an unsigned birthday card on the basis he did not know I was in Prague and he would wonder who had sent it. We talked and met after that, but there was never any mention of the birthday card. Why would there be? For some reason I now wish I had told him I sent it.

Derek Smith was a quiet man – a research scientist when I first met him. But he would get up on stage and play The Blue Danube on 32 condoms or have the entire audience sing along to the theme tune of The Dam Busters while someone spun a propeller attached to his nose or perform Also Sprach Zarathustra – the theme from 2001 – by stamping his feet on the floor.

Scots performer Alex Frackleton, now living in the Czech Republic, told me yesterday:

A rather shy, gentle man with propeller on his nose

The rather shy, gentle man who gave sound advice

“He was a lovely man. Unique. I met him at a folk festival.

“I was performing my Ballad of Michael Malloy poem – it is 36 verses long and it takes about 5 minutes to perform. Afterwards, he came up and introduced himself as Mr Smith. I thought that was a bit eccentric at the time but I’m a kinda live & let live kinda guy, so what the hell?

“He told me I should do the sounds of the environment around the poem. So the screech of the brakes of the taxi, the nee-naw sound of the ambulance, the hissing sound of the gas when they put Michael Malloy’s head in the oven – all these sounds should be conveyed as part of the poem, part of the canvas I was painting on stage (his words).

“I told him I wasn’t musical, couldn’t sing nor play a musical instrument to save myself and he told me that it didn’t matter because I had vocal cords and no-one said I had to sing or blow a trumpet! I am very sad to hear about his death.”

Writer and film producer David McGillivray told me:

Mr Smith in the recent Vimeo mini-documentary

The Amazing Mr Smith at home in a recent Vimeo mini-doc

“I saw him in Crouch End. He was completely different from all the other acts on the bill. I said to my partner, Let’s book him and he agreed. We ran Stew’s Cabaret in Hackney in the 1980s. He was a delightful eccentric.”

TV producer Danny Greenstone said: “Ah, a shame indeed. What a lovely fella he was… And how brave, too, to have graced Game For A Laugh more than once…”

Club-runner Steven Taylor told me: “He did a gig for me and was very funny and a thoroughly good chap. A gent.”

And Derek was a gentle man. Immensely likeable.

There is a 6’30” mini-documentary film about him on Vimeo by his friend Alan Deakins, although Derek mostly stays in character as Mr Smith.

In the mini-documentary, he says:

“Stand-up comedians these days at these alternative comedy clubs: they’re really worried that other people are going to steal their material. I don’t have that worry. Anybody could do this. Anybody could do my own act, but they don’t, do they?.. It’s nice to be able to make people laugh, isn’t it, really? You stand there and you’ve got a hundred people or so in front of you, all laughing, and that’s quite a nice feeling.”

R.I.P. Derek Smith – The Amazing Mr Smith.

So it goes.

The 7 minute audition tape (with very bad sound) shot when I first saw him perform is on YouTube

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I may well have talked trite gibberish in an Irish comedy podcast. Who knows?

Gibberish rampant, perhaps

I am not one of Life’s natural interviewees

I am not one of Life’s better interviewees.

Today, the Irish website Seven 2 Ten has released as a podcast a one-hour interview with me which comedian Christian Talbot recorded in London three weeks ago.

Considering my inclination to ramble and talk gibberish, I think it is fairly interesting. Here are two linked extracts from the podcast. The link between the two is jigsaws.

When you directly transcribe what anyone says exactly, it can tend towards gibberish. In this case, of course, that might be because it is. When I transcribe interviews with people I talk to, I normally tidy up little bits of grammar etc; in this case I have not. This is what I said, referring to my two erstwhile  TV careers – as a trailermaker and as a researcher on shows including Tiswas, Game For a Laugh and The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross:

____________________________________________________________

I‘ve never had any interest in becoming a comedian, but I think I’m quite good editorially. When I was doing television stuff, it was mostly to do with editing, so I’d see the two-and-a-half hour film and decide how to edit it down to 20 seconds or 30 seconds for a trailer and what music to put on and what voices to put on and what words to put in. And so, in the same way as I’ve always edited those sorts of visual things… I’m not a writer, in fact… I’m not a writer, I’m a re-writer.

I’ve interviewed people like Brian Clemens who did The Avengers and Nigel Kneale who did Quatermass and they’re utterly brilliant, in my opinion, because you talked to them and they were spewing out plotlines – original plotlines – like ten-to-the-minute. Extraordinary, amazing, fertile imaginations. I don’t have that. I can’t think of plotlines but, given material, I can do it as a jigsaw and make it interesting.

When I was a child, what really fascinated me was jigsaws. I loved jigsaws. You can only put a 1,000 piece jigsaw together in one way. But, if you’re editing a film or editing TV, then you’ve got 10 million pieces, 10 million elements and you can put them together in all sorts of different ways to create a variety of different good effects. There is no right or wrong way. There’s just a variety of possible ways through which you can get to a good result. And the same thing with performing, possibly.

It’s not a science; it’s an art. You can’t say, “The way to be a comedian is to do X, Y and Z” and “Structure a joke with these words X, Y and Z,” because it may not work. There is that X factor.

I was watching a programme on Tommy Cooper last night and Tommy Cooper was basically telling rather bad jokes or rather silly, childish jokes. But he was absolutely brilliant. And Barry Cryer was saying on this programme that no-one could explain why Tommy Cooper was funny. You knew he was funny. With just a blink of the eye or a look at the camera or an intonation he was funny. But you couldn’t really explain why. Comedy is an art not a science.

I can perhaps be objective with comedians and say to them, “This isn’t quite working,” and almost academically explain to them why I think it’s not working, but I couldn’t do it myself.

____________________________________________________________

I had a reputation for finding bizarre acts, which wasn’t altogether justified. Anyone can find bizarre acts. You just take out an ad in The Stage for three weeks in a row and they come out of the woodwork. The thing is to know how to use them.

A producer on Game For a Laugh decided he was going to go with me to see various acts and we saw a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant slackwire act – absolutely, utterly brilliant… Slackwire instead of a tightrope… So, instead of a tightrope or a tight wire, this was a slackwire which sags in the middle and he swings all over the place. Utterly brilliant. And I said to the producer: “It won’t work on television,” and he said, “Yes it will,” and he had him on the show.

I said, “It won’t work on television because we’re watching it live in a 3D environment and it feels dangerous – you can see what’s going on, you can FEEL what’s going on and how dangerous it is. But, if you put it on television, it’s a two-dimensional image and it will just look like a man walking along a line.”

And it didn’t work and the producer admitted it didn’t work.

What I was good at wasn’t finding bizarre acts – because anyone can find bizarre acts – it was actually manipulating bizarre acts. So I could see someone perform something that wasn’t very good live, but I could see that it would work on television if you made a few changes. Or I could see that someone was utterly brilliant live, but the act wouldn’t work on television. I could manipulate the component parts of a performance in that way – I think – I think – and therefore, with comedians, I can say to them without being too offensive why I think that bit works or that other bit doesn’t work. Or that bit, if you tweaked it, might work. In that sense, I can sort of direct or produce comedians, but I’m not myself a comedian at all. I’m not funny at all.

____________________________________________________________

YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE PODCAST BY CLICKING HERE.

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Last night I saw The Wurzels sing and heard of a man chasing whales’ breath

The Wurzels – men out standing in their own field last night

Is there something wrong with me?

I saw The Wurzels perform at a pub in Worcestershire last night.

Yes. The I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester band, still playing around.

I expected maybe a rather half-hearted, past-it band performing in the back room of a pub. Instead, they were playing off the side of a vast pantechnicon lorry in a gigantic field behind the pub and they were slick in the best possible way. The gig had sold out well in advance; the field was full.

It was like watching a perfectly engineered gleaming machine – no mention of combine harvesters – working with razor-sharp precision and playing to a way-over-the-top, party-type audience who, certainly near the front, were raucously singing along and dancing like someone had crossed The Wicker Man with a 1970s nightclub scene from Stringfellow’s without the glam clothes. The audience LOVED the Wurzels and there was not any micro-second when they were not delivering top-notch professional entertainment.

But I would have preferred a rather less professional outfit playing in the back room of a pub.

That’s my problem.

It’s rather like my taste in comedy.

I saw one act at the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of months ago which was like The Wurzels. Very experienced. Totally professional. Honed to absolute second-to-second perfection. Brilliant. The audience loved every second. And the comedian could – and probably did – repeat that act just as brilliantly every time he performed.

But I would have preferred something rougher, less professional, more likely to soar in parts but go off the rails in others.

As I say, that’s my problem.

You can’t beat stripping off and mooning at the audience…

I have seen The Wurzels. They are brilliant. I would happily sit or stand through their show again. But I would not seek them out. I know what I am going to get. A word-perfect, note-perfect, beautifully-structured show guaranteed to entertain without fail and without flagging at any point. There was even the sight of one of the Worzels mooning – judging the audience perfectly.

The show was a gleaming Rolls Royce of professionalism.

The Wicker Man met 1970s Stringfellow’s nightclub last night

But I think maybe I would prefer a circus clown’s car, a bit ramshackle, with the engine blowing up and the doors falling off.

Is there something wrong with me? There must be.

The Wurzels are a perfect TV band, You know exactly what you are getting. Brilliant populist entertainment which can be repeated exactly in rehearsal, dress rehearsal and on the recording or live show.

Why they do not appear more on TV, I don’t know. They are peaktime entertainers who appeal to all ages.

Well, maybe I do know.

Presumably it is a sign of the lack of genuine personal taste in a lot of TV shows, made by Oxbridge producers who coldly and impersonally create programmes for what they see as down-market audiences in defined demographics with whom they have nothing in common.

Yesterday I blogged about the TV series Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise! They were created by producers (and, in particular the brilliant executive producer Alan Boyd) who made programmes they themselves wanted to watch. I have a feeling some producers now are making ITV programmes for highly researched ‘target audiences’ but would never dream of watching the type of programme they themselves are making – they maybe watch BBC2 and BBC4 at home. The result? Tacky, lowest-common-denominator trash which gets ‘acceptable’ ratings – unlike The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent which are clearly controlled by people who like their own shows, who understand populist audiences and who therefore get massive mega-ratings.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that both The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent can be traced back to Pop Idol, which was originally backed by Alan Boyd.

Still, seeing The Wurzels last night was well worth the experience. They really were a band out standing in their own field.

Not in the audience at the Wurzels gig: a humpback whale

And I got chatting to someone who has a relation working at Davis University in California who is researching breath as a way of predicting cancer risks. He has researched humans’ and apes’ and other animals’ breath and has been trying to get samples of whales’ breath.

It is not easy.

I kid you not.

It made my evening.

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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.

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