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My Comedy Taste. Part 1: Improvisation good and bad but not Michael McIntyre

The late Malcolm Hardee Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe

I started and used to run the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. They started in 2005. They were due to (and did) end in August 2017. 

To coincide with their end, I thought I might post a blog about my taste in comedy. What is the point in having a blog if you can’t be self-indulgent? 

So, in June 2017, I persuaded my chum, oft-times comedy judge and linguistic expert Louisette Stodel to ‘interview’ me in London’s Soho Theatre Bar for that planned blog. But then I never got round to transcribing the interview and actually writing it. Unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it too.

Time passed, as time does, and I was going to run the interview/blog to coincide with the start of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. But again I never got round to transcribing the interview and writing that blog. Again, unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it.

But, with performers now preparing to start to book venues and think about getting round to writing or at least pretending to start to write shows for the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, I miraculously got round to transcribing the interview at the weekend and here is Part 1 of that  June 2017 chat.


LOUISETTE: When did you first go to the Fringe?

JOHN: Well, I started going to the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid-1970s when I was reviewing movies for magazines and, around the mid-1980s, I switched to the Edinburgh Fringe, which is around the time comedy started taking over from naff university theatre groups. I was looking for acts to appear on TV shows.

LOUISETTE: How long have you been blogging about comedy?

JOHN: It has never really been a 100% comedy blog. I started it in 2010 to plug a movie I had foolishly put money into and it became daily around April 2011 to plug comedy-related stuff I was helping to stage at the Edinburgh Fringe that August and I stopped doing it daily at the end of December 2016.

But it has never really been a comedy blog. I tend not to write reviews of comedy. They tend to be previews in advance of the actual performance of a show. In a sense, I don’t care so much about what the show is like but about how it got created by this particular person. It’s about interesting people doing interesting things, usually creative and/or in some way quirky. It’s always about people, rarely about things. People, people, people. And I do like a quirky anecdote.

LOUISETTE: What is it about quirkiness you like?

JOHN: The TV programme stuff I used to do was usually related to quirkiness. I would be finding ordinary people who did bizarre things… a man rollerskating wearing a bright yellow plastic sou’wester while simultaneously playing the harmonica and spoons, with a seagull on his shoulder. Ah! Mr Wickers, a Tiswas Talented Teacher!

LOUISETTE: You like eccentricity.

Surprise! Surprise! – A show and a clue to what I really like

JOHN: Admire it, for sure. But I remember having a conversation with another researcher on Surprise! Surprise! at LWT and we both agreed, if you want to find a real eccentric, you do not go for extroverts. You do NOT want the person who makes all his mates laugh in the pub. They are just superficial.

What you want is an introvert with eccentricity within. The extrovert just likes the sound of their own voice and just wants attention. The eccentric introvert has got odd quirkiness in depth within them. 

Comedians are odd because you would think they would have to be wild extroverts, getting up on stage wanting applause, but loads are deep-down shy and terrified inside. Maybe it’s the dichotomy that makes them. I like people who think differently.

People often contact me and say: “Come and see my show for your blog.” And I may do but it’s not the show – not the end result – that attracts me. I don’t really do reviews. I am interested in interviewing the person about why or how they did the show or what they feel like when they are performing it. I’m interested in the psychology of creative people not the end result itself, as such.

In a sense, I am not bothered whether the show is good or not good provided it is interesting. I would much rather watch an interesting failure than a dull success. You can very often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what works.

LOUISETTE: So what is ‘interesting’?

JOHN: Lateral thinking is interesting. Instead of going from A-B, you go from A to T to L to B or maybe you never get to B.

LOUISETTE: So you like the unexpected.

JOHN: I think Michael McIntyre is absolutely brilliant. 120% brilliant. But I would not pay to see his one of his shows, because I know what I am going to get. I can go see him in Manchester and the next day in Swansea and the next day in Plymouth and it will be the same show. Perfect. A work of art. Superb. But the same perfect thing.

LOUISETTE: So you are talking about wanting unpredictability?

JOHN: Yes. And people flying, going off at tangents, trying things out which even they didn’t know they were going to do.

LOUISETTE: How do you know they didn’t know?

Boothby Graffoe – always the unexpected

JOHN: I think you can tell… Boothby Graffoe had a very very good 20 or 30 minute act he would do in clubs. (His 60-minute shows were good too.) Fine. It was all very good. Audiences loved it. But, in a way, he was better with a bad audience. The good audience would listen to his very well put-together material. But, if he got hecklers or distractions, he would fly off on wild flights of fantasy, even funnier than the prepared show, almost soar round the room then eventually get seamlessly back to the prepared show. Brilliant.

There was another act, now established, whom I won’t name. When he was starting off, maybe 50% of his stuff was OK, 45% was not very good and 5% was absolute genius. I would go watch him for that 5% genius. And I would still rather go see a show like that which is 5% genius than a solid mainstream show that is 100% perfect entertainment.

If someone creates something truly original in front of your eyes, it is like magic.

LOUISETTE:  Michael McIntyre get laughs from saying unexpected things.

JOHN: If I see Michael McIntyre, I do not know what is going to happen, but it is pre-ordained what is going to happen. It is slick in the best way. If people are on TV and ‘famous’, I am not that interested because they have reached a level of professional capability. I prefer to see reasonably new acts or lower middle-rung acts. And people untarnished by TV.

If you see someone who is REALLY starting off, they are crap, because they can’t adjust their act to the specific audience. When performers reach a certain level of experience, they can cope with any type of audience and that is interesting to see how they can turn an audience but, if they are TV ‘stars’ they may well automatically have easy audiences because the audience has come to see “that bloke” or “that girl off the telly” and they are expecting to have a good time.

If it’s Fred NoName, the audience have no expectations.

I prefer to see Fred NoName with a rollercoaster of an act and I am interested in seeing the structure of an act. I am interested in the mechanics of it.

LOUISETTE: And you like the element of danger? It could all go wrong, all go pear-shaped?

JOHN: Yes. On the other hand (LAUGHS) most improvisation is shit because the performers are often not very good.

LOUISETTE: Don’t you have to be very skilled to improvise?

“Most improvisation is shit: the performers are not very good.”

JOHN: In my erstwhile youth, I used to go every week to Pentameters club at The Freemasons Arms pub in Hampstead and watch the Theatre Machine improvisation show supervised by Keith Johnstone.

Very good. Very interesting.

But, for some reason, I don’t like most improvisation today.

Partly that’s because, a lot of the time, you can see it’s NOT fully improvised. You can see the…

LOUISETTE: …formats?

JOHN: Templates. Yeah. Certain routines they can just adjust. Give me the name of an animal… Give me a performance style… It sounds like they are widening possibilities, but they are narrowing them so they can be slotted into pre-existing storylines and routines they can adjust. 

Also, a lot of improvisation groups seem to comprise actors trying to be comedians… I have an allergy to actors trying to be comedians. They’re just attempting and usually failing to be comedic until a ‘real’ job comes along.

LOUISETTE: Surely an actor can be funny in character, though.

JOHN: Often I think: What I am watching here is like a showreel of their theatre school training. It’s like an audition show. They go through 20 characters just to show their breadth of ability – to impress themselves as much as the audience. But the audience has not come there to appreciate their versatility. The audience wants to be entertained not to be impressed. The audience wants to enjoy their material, not give the act marks out of ten for technique. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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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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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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What happens when TV companies get taken over? Here’s Granada TV & LWT

An on-screen ident for LWT in 1975

An LWT on-screen ident in 1975

Once upon a time in the UK, there was a network called ITV. Not a single company. A network of separate companies.

The network had been set up in 1955 so that it would provide regional and national competition to the BBC.

Under the Broadcasting Act of 1990, franchises to run the companies were now awarded to the highest bidder rather than purely on quality grounds. This meant, for example, that Central Independent Television paid only £2,000 for its unopposed franchise, but Yorkshire Television paid £37.7 million for its franchise, which was roughly the same size.

The 1990 Act also allowed ITV companies to take over other ITV companies.

In 1994, Granada TV took over London Weekend Television (LWT).

I worked freelance at LWT for two years. I worked freelance at Granada in Manchester over fifteen years.

A friend of mine worked at LWT at the time of the take-over by Granada. This is what they told me in an e-mail after they left:


“The day of the take-over, senior management – i.e. board members – no longer appeared in the building and destroyed cars, offices, equipment etc. This shook and upset me. The rest of the management turned up to find Granada cars in their spaces and Granada bodies in their offices. A few walked out and left it to their solicitors but most had to stay or risk losing their legal rights. That is what I had to do. For nearly a year, I had to turn up for work to protect my legal rights.

Billy Bunter

Billy Bunter

In fact, I had no job because the chap who took someone else’s job also took all of my role so I had to either stay or walk out and claim constructive dismissal but a little known fact is that, if you do this, any award made to you is taxable at 40% and you cannot put the award into your pension which is what I wanted to do.

So I had to fight every day to maintain my position.

I can’t remember the name of the chap who took over my role, only that he was nicknamed Billy as he resembled Billy Bunter.

My job at LWT had been to manage a department which was variously 50-100 staffers plus freelance.

After the take-over, I was excluded from all decisions and information. A few examples of how difficult this was are

  • I received no post as it was all redirected to Billy, I had no signing authority but continued to sign knowing they would be rejected.
  • I had to pay for my own flights to Manchester (Granada TV’s base) and take charge of the office there (such lovely people and well confused by all this) and also took charge of a little London Granada outpost which I closed and moved into my offices.
  • Ooh yes, they did move the woman in charge of another department into my office – a lovely lady with whom I got on well and very nicely moved her out again.

Obviously I was expected to have a nervous breakdown or walk out but was a big enough thorn in their side and knew employment law so I think that is why they gave me everything I asked for just before Christmas and just before my health did break down.

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The catastrophic TV comedy show pilot I saw recorded last night at the BBC

(This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post)

Some pilots swim... some pilots sink

Some pilots swim… some pilots sink… some pilots stink…

Last night I did something I have only very very rarely done.

I went to the recording of a TV show as a member of the audience and queued up with the audience. It was a pilot for a possible comedy panel show series and was being recorded by an experienced independent production company at a BBC studio site for (it seemed) possible transmission on a non-BBC channel.

It was very cold last night.

The tickets said Doors Open 6.00pm – Show Starts 7.00pm.

We arrived just before 6.00pm and stood in an increasingly long queue until after 6.30pm because people with ‘Priority’ tickets had to get in first and no-one knew how many of these would turn up. People with ‘Priority’ tickets were people who had failed to get into recordings of previous shows made by the company.

Having tickets to see a TV show recorded is never a guarantee you will get in, because all TV shows are overbooked on the correct assumption that many people who do have tickets may not turn up.

When this happened at old ITV station LWT, I seemed to remember there was an overflow room, where people who failed to get in could watch the recording on TV sets. In fact, I am told by a close friend who was involved in organising audiences at LWT:

“They were always overbooked but there was rarely an overflow so it would be up to staff to decide on the night.  If, for example, an organised group had been invited, travelled some distance and hired a coach then you could not leave part of the group wandering around the South Bank so it would be reasonable to try to arrange something for them – but difficult to have staff to look after them and ensure security outside of the studio area.  VIP/press guests who arrived late or found that some pathetic, untalented, hysterical, inadequate bastard of a director had given away their clearly reserved seating would have a host with them and so they would have to be taken to the Press Room or other area with monitors.”

Last night at the BBC, though, a lot of people – I would guess around 50 – were turned away after queuing up with their tickets and, as they were turned away, their e-tickets were stamped with ‘Priority’ so they would be able to get into the next show they queued for.

The man in the queue in front of us told me: “I’m going to stop coming to TV shows. I’ve been to a couple where almost no-one with ordinary tickets for the show got in because so many people with ‘Priority’ tickets turned up who hadn’t been able to get into previous shows.”

I went with three friends, two of them highly experienced comedians (one male, one female).

When we were eventually allowed through the BBC gates, we had numbered stickers put on our e-tickets. I worked out later that there were 300 people in the audience. The sticky numbers were rolled-up starting with 1 at the centre of the roll. This meant that the first number stuck on the ticket of the first person in the queue was 300. The last person allowed in was No 1.

When we were eventually seated, they called people by number. So they seated people with tickets 1-50 first… This meant that the last people in the queue were seated at the front; the first people in the queue were seated at the back. The only way to get the best seats at the front would have been to be at the back of the queue, but you could not do this without a high risk of not getting in at all.

Later, my non-comedy friend said: “The people who didn’t get in were the lucky ones.”

When we did get in, we were herded into the canteen where you could buy drinks for £1 or a palette of chips for £1.20. As a devout BBC Licence Fee payer, I am all for this. Eventually, we were taken into the studio. As we were about 30 from the front of the queue, we were taken in last and ended up in the back rows of the tiered seating.

As is often the case with TV shows, there was a well-meaning warm-up man who miscalculated.

I am perhaps spoiled because doing warm-up for TV shows is a very difficult art and most of the entertainment shows I was involved in were at LWT in its heyday where the truly great warm-up man Bill Martin plied his trade. He did the same schtick every show… but it was great schtick. He made people feel welcome, comfortable, part of a family in the studio.

Last night’s warm-up man thought he was being a loveable cheeky chappy, but he created a them-and-us atmosphere.

“Why,” my non-comedian friend whispered to me during the warm-up, “is he insulting the audience?”

And he was. His attempts at We are all chums here cheerful friendly banter fell flat and overlapped into the area of What am I doing here with the likes of you? material. He was not bonding with the audience, he was putting them down.

He also miscalculated the audience with overly frequent adjectival ‘fucking’…

“Would you fucking believe it, there was this…” etc etc he would say. Four times during the seemingly endless recording, he asked the audience: “Do you want my clean joke or my dirty joke?”

The first time, he got the fairly cheery response: “Dirty joke!”

By the fourth time, he got silence because he had miscalculated the audience.

He also committed the cardinal sin of warm-up men by saying he was going to “rehearse” their laughter. The implication when this is done is that you are there to laugh out loud whether or not you are entertained. If you have to rehearse laughter, it implies the production team believes there is nothing in the show that will make you genuinely laugh. You can tell the audience you are rehearsing clapping; you can even tell an audience to rehearse whooping and whistling (it can be said to be “for the sound man”); but, if you tell them “Laugh now,” you are dead in the water.

The job of the warm-up man is to create an atmosphere in which the audience is laughing before the show starts, not to ‘rehearse’ laughter.

“He treated the audience like fodder,” my non-comedian friend said to me afterwards.

One of my comedian friends remembered: “The old LWT shows were good as far as I remember. I went to lots of them. They certainly made the audience feel they were in for a good time. They told them what things were for, introduced the floor staff and apologised in advance for any hold ups and having to do things twice and just generally informed them about what was happening.”

That did not happen last night.

On the tickets, it said the show would finish at 9.30pm. It eventually finished at 10.30pm. And, starting at around 7.45pm, it was a long almost three hours.

The least said about the show itself, the better. It was a horrible dog’s dinner of a slight idea expanded with irrelevant side-formats into a rambling half-hearted mess. The performers were superb. There had been money spent on set design and misconceived filmed inserts, but the show itself was a mess. It looked like a half hour show but they must have recorded getting-on for 90 minutes worth of material and had outros/intros for three commercial breaks, which makes me think they may have been touting it as an hour-long show with two breaks and were going to chop out an entire section.

The audience could watch what was happening live on the set or watch the overhead monitors on which the faces were inexplicably out of lip-sync: a surreal experience.

During the slight pause for a third commercial break, rather a lot of people made a break for the exit. I reckoned around 20 people but my two comedian friends, who had to catch a train, were among them and reckoned there were about 60 people who left.

As I sat through the final section of the show, at 9.56pm, I got a text from one of these comedian friends saying:

We had an interesting time on the way out.

I texted back: Email me for my blog!

Eventually, the show ended at 10.27pm.

“That was endless,” my non-comedy friend said to me afterwards. “The set and everything else was well-produced, but there was no substance to it.”

“It was well-produced,” I agreed, “but it didn’t have a format.”

“It was boring,” my friend said, “The performers were very good and kept you entertained, but the basic idea was just boring. The show is pointless.”

When I woke this morning, an email was waiting for me. This is what happened to my two comedian friends when they left the studio recording last night:

It was Back to School with the BBC and a very self-important ‘prefect’.

We were shouted at and asked to form two orderly queues… Presumably one for abuse by prospective paedophiles and the other for those too scared to stay. 

“It’s not finished yet,” we were told. “Go back in.”

After one of the female ‘students’ said (very politely) “Please let me leave. I’ve got to catch my train connection,” one of the prefects said: “Get back in. You have no right to talk to me like that.” 

Several ‘children’ then actually got scared. “Go along with whatever they say,” I heard one say to another, “otherwise we’ll never get out.” 

Honestly, John, we were treated like escaped convicts and a couple of the female members of the ‘escapees’ got a little bit nervous about the way they were being treated. The only reason there wasn’t a little riot was that everyone wanted to get out and not spend a minute longer in that atmosphere. 

What amazed me was that, considering the concerns about the BBC at the moment and their treatment of the public, the BBC have not taken that on board at all. They really are behaving as if they are above the law. 

It would not have been tolerated in any other public service industry.They would have been inundated with complaints. It is mystifying as to how they can carry on like this… And, as you asked me… 

A lot of the people that we left with were dismayed at the material in the programme which seemed to be perpetuating the image of sleazy sex and distasteful habits. It was old-fashioned, old-hat and excruciating to watch.

I can only think that this is just an aberration . The management should really get a grip on public opinion and understand they are servants not masters!!

I enjoyed the experience but really, John, I was gobsmacked. I cannot imagine that this attitude can survive much longer. 

The two guys escorting us out really did treat us like shit and as if we were criminals for not bowing down at the altar of puerile entertainment. 

Apart from that, thanks for the chips. 

Please tell me – Is this really what it is like each time you go to watch TV?

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“I was there in the theatre that night” – The death of Tommy Cooper, live on TV

The day the magic died – live on nationwide TV

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

In my blog a couple of days ago, comedian Jeff Stevenson remembered the night of 15th April 1984 when comedian Tommy Cooper may have died on stage during the Live From Her Majesty’s TV show – which was screened live by London Weekend Television on the full ITV network.

When she read this, a friend of mine who worked for LWT at the time and whom I shall call Anne O’Nimus, told me:

“I was there in the theatre that night, standing at the back of the Circle.”

She told me: “Bearing in mind that Her Majesty’s is a small theatre, I had a good view but wasn’t close or behind the curtains. I never found Tommy Cooper amusing – I never ‘got’ his act – so I wasn’t laughing and, perhaps because of that, as soon as I saw him collapse, I thought he was ill.

Tommy Cooper at Her Majesty’s on the night of 15 April 1984

“I remember him falling back, clutching at the curtains and falling through them until I could just see his legs twitching and the audience continued to laugh not knowing that he was dying as his legs twitched through the curtain. I think he was either dragged fully back through the curtains or the curtains were arranged in front of him. I mainly remember the twitching legs and realising immediately that the man was ill whilst people around me were laughing and thinking it was part of the act.”

Someone else I know – comedy scriptwriter Nigel Crowle – tells me:

“I was working for the Presentation Department at BBC Television Centre that night, actually running transmission in Pres B, so – as you can imagine – all TV screens were tuned to either BBC 1 or BBC 2. I remember being frustrated that everybody else seemed to have been watching the show live whereas I was cueing up a trail for something like The Two Ronnies.

“In the 1990s, however, I remember talking to Alasdair Macmillan about that night – he had been directing the show. Alasdair said it was one of the worst nights of his life. He knew instantly that something was wrong because Tommy had collapsed mid-act, so they cut to the commercial break early.”

In my blog a couple of days ago, Jeff Stevenson told me:

“The curtains closed and Jimmy Tarbuck, who was the compere, had to stand on stage in front of the curtains filling-in to the audience. He told me later that, as he was talking, he could hear them hitting Tommy’s chest behind the curtain, trying to revive him – and Tommy was one of Jimmy’s heroes. Terrible, terrible.”

Nigel Crowle says: “Then – and this is where in retrospect they should never have returned to the show during live transmission – they made Les Dennis go on with Dustin Gee and do their Mavis and Vera (characters from Coronation Street) routine in front of the curtain, whilst attempts were made behind them to revive Tommy.

“Les Dennis later told me that, as Jimmy Tarbuck told Jeff, it was a harrowing experience because, as he and Dustin were trying to get laughs, (having been told to go on-stage despite knowing that Tommy was in real trouble), they could hear a groaning noise and the sound of people thumping Tommy’s chest a few feet behind them.”

My friend Anne O’Nimus thinks Tommy Cooper died on the stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre that night. She tells me:

“Afterwards, the press kept chasing the story that he died on camera and LWT stuck to their story that he died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.

“Oddly, I read notices of a book recently, purportedly from LWT crew on duty that night, who were also sticking to the company line that Tommy Cooper died later in the ambulance. I think his son stuck to that line as well, so maybe I am wrong.

“But, if so, David Bell (LWT’s Head of Entertainment at the time) and his cohorts were behaving mighty oddly. Everyone clammed-up whenever I asked about it, which was unusual enough. I never knew whether it was because they were afraid that it would put the kibosh on live productions or whether the company might be found to be negligent in some way – which was unlikely, given it was a heart attack. There was no public discussion about it in my presence, even at editorials.

“I felt that they were lying,” my friend Anne O’Nimus told me yesterday, “and I was horrified that anyone would lie about someone’s death – but, then, they said LWT’s Director of Programmes Cyril Bennett fell from that window didn’t they?”

Cyril Bennett was a hugely popular man at LWT and in the television industry. In November 1976, it was said, he was leaning out of the window of his flat in Dolphin Square to see whether his car was there and fell to his death. The verdict was accidental death.

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Why I am very confused about gay sex

So, as promised, after my blogs about drink and drugs… sex.

Gay sex

Last week, someone was telling me about a friend of theirs (whom I have never met) who thinks she is gay but is not absolutely certain.

This always comes as a mystery to me.

I don’t understand how people can be confused about their own sexuality.

If you are a man and you get a hard-on looking at some boy band perform then, I would say, you should know you are gay.

If you also get a hard-on looking at a bouncy girl band, then the odds are that you are bi-sexual.

If you only get a hard-on looking at a bouncy girl band, you are heterosexual.

It seems easy enough to me.

I have never got a hard-on looking at any other male except, of course, Basil Brush.

The red fur. The voice. The bush.

I am not gay, but I dream of the fox.

Knowing if you are gay should be, I would have thought, easy.

Apparently I am wrong.

Knowing if someone else is gay, of course, is another matter and is the reason I am writing this blog, because I was told things about two showbiz people’s sexuality last week that made my figurative jaw hit the floor.

Of which more later.

I once worked with someone at London Weekend Television who appeared to be gay. When he arrived, everyone assumed he was but not with 100% certainty. Eventually, the uncertainty became too much for one production secretary who asked him outright.

He said he was not at all gay, but he had worked with so many gay men in the theatre and in TV Entertainment that their campness had, as it were, rubbed off onto him. He was not gay but he was slightly camp.

This was all the easier to understand because, at the time, there was a legendary and wonderful associate producer at LWT called Michael Longmire (now dead) who had such a camp voice, speech pattern and general demeanour that it was almost impossible to be in the room with him for more than four minutes without lapsing into his style.

“My deeeeear!” you would find yourself saying, “How could anyone POSSibly wear those two colours together. I mean, my deeeeah, it’s imPOSSible, just imPOSSible!”

He was a joy to work with because you could not POSSibly feel anything other than – well – uplifted in his presence.

Ooh matron.

He was born to work in Entertainment.

Campness and gayness, of course, are slightly different. Michael was both. The other person at LWT was slightly camp but not at all gay.

When I was at LWT, roughly the same production teams worked on the TV series Game For a Laugh and Surprise Surprise. Both were high-rating peaktime family shows.

I remember a humorous item was filmed for Surprise Surprise which included the ever-cuddly gay co-presenter Christopher Biggins being involved in a nude male centrefold photograph. The item was never screened because, after a long discussion, it was felt that the final edited item came across as too sexual for an early-evening ITV slot. It felt slightly tacky in a sexual way, not mass-appeal downmarket in a camp way.

Discussion rambled to a similarly sexually risqué item which had been shot on Game For a Laugh with co-presenter Matthew Kelly, who was also gay (although I am not sure if he had ‘come out’ at that point). The item had been transmitted without any problem on Game For a Laugh.

The conclusion reached and the reason for not screening the Surprise Surprise item was that, in an almost indefinable way, Christopher Biggins came across on screen as gay and Matthew Kelly came across as camp.

In family peaktime TV in the mid-1980s, gay was not totally acceptable but camp was, as it has always been a strong and totally accepted element in British entertainment.

Of course, it does not matter a… toss… if you are gay or not. But it seems to me slightly strange when people do not know if they are gay.

The difference between gay and camp I can understand though, logically, their acceptability should not differ. That too is slightly strange.

But to me much stranger still, in this day and age, is if someone pretends to be straight when they are gay or – even more bizarre – vice versa.

Of course, back in the Stone Age, when male (but not female) homosexuality was illegal, gay showbiz people had to stay in the cupboard or be arrested. But why bother now?

Michael Barrymore (before the swimming pool incident) damaged his career slightly  – not by being gay but by lying and saying he was not gay. He worried that his mums & grannies fanbase would not accept it; but he was wrong.

On the other hand, I suppose if ‘the’ famous Hollywood star whom everyone knows about really is gay, it might damage the credibility of his romantic scenes with female co-stars.

But John Barrowman in Doctor Who and Torchwood is totally accepted as a dashing, rather macho action hero; he is even seen as a heart-throb in a strange hetero way.

The two things which shocked me last week were both about men who were stars in their heyday, which has now passed, but they are both still living.

One I suppose I can understand. He was a rough, tough, macho action star in a classic TV series – much in the John Barrowman mode – and apparently he was camp as a row of tents (although he married).

Perhaps he was right and the public at that time would not have accepted him; it was slightly before the Game For a Laugh/Surprise Surprise incident, but only very slightly.

The other case is more bizarre, happened in roughly the same period as the height of the action star’s fame and in the same period as the Game For a Laugh/Surprise Surprise discussion. And it does my head in trying to understand the logic.

This second guy was a fairly prominent Light Entertainment star in the mid-1980s whose entire success was built round a gay persona. My dear, everyone knew he was camp as a row of tents. His every action screamed it out. His selling point was his campness. His entire act was his campness.

Except, apparently, he wasn’t and isn’t.

Apparently he was and is 100% heterosexual. Not gay. Not bi. Totally 100% heterosexual.

I had heard this before but could scarcely believe it. But apparently it is true. Why on earth he made this bizarre career choice at a period when there was a slight residual danger in being gay I cannot get my mind round at all. I know of one very major piece of damage which was inflicted on his career because his perceived gayness.

The act was not gay. It was screamingly, traditionally camp. But camp to such an extent he was assumed to be gay at a time when gay men (unlike John Barrowman today) were not going to be considered for definitively hetero roles.

Why did he decide to adopt the persona?

I cannot begin to fathom it.

As I say, there was one spectacular own goal as a result of it, which severely damaged his career.

I would say who he is except that, if he wants to pretend he is in the cupboard when he never had the key, who am I to ‘in’ him. Or whatever the appropriate phrase is.

What is the phrase?

I am totally confused.

Generally.

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