Tag Archives: Surprise Surprise

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

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Entertainment, improvisation

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.

8 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Television

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

Daily Mirror announces Cilla’s death

Daily Mirror announces Cilla’s death

Cilla Black died two days ago. So it goes.

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

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

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

Nigel Crowle (left) with the Amazing Mr Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Nigel with some of his children’s books

Nigel later wrote several children’s books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cilla Black became cuddly girl/auntie next door

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

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

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

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

The panto Nigel Crowle wrote for Cilla

Jack and Cilla and Beanstalk, but no giant

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

“Did you have a beanstalk?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Did they move them around?” I asked.

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

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under Celebrity, Fame, Television, UK

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Podcasts, Television

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Television

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Television

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Movies, Sex, Television