Tag Archives: Tales of the Unexpected

English Elf Lyons on her duck flu, Barbarella and a dog in a gimp suit

Elf Lyons at Soho Theatre in London

Elf Lyons ordered pizza this week at Soho Theatre in London

In yesterday’s blog,  I mentioned in passing that I met comedian and writer Elf Lyons at Soho Theatre in London. She ate pizza.

“I came up with this world…” she told me. “This sitcom idea. I got really excited, then realised all the tangents and all the character layers couldn’t really exist in a one hour play, so I’ve written lots of different episodes. And I’m doing the first 45-minute pilot, as it were, next Thursday for three nights at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden.

“It’s based around me and my sister – two siblings stuck in a country farm. There’s this flu – Duck Flu – which turns people into ducks, but human-sized ducks. The only way you can tell if you have not got it is to drink tea. If your body can cope with tea, then you clearly have not got it. If you don’t want tea, then you have got the infection and you are going to have to be killed.”

“Can’t you,” I suggested, “just look in a mirror to see if you are a duck?”

“No,” said Elf, “because it starts with a sneeze, then a cough, then a quack…”

“Not a waddle or a quack, but a glide and a whistle and a snowy white back?” I suggested.

Duck Flu - Elf Lyons

Duck Flu – a simple tale of humanoid ducks

“Basically,” said Elf, “the two sisters are together and they’re slightly psychopathic. They are going to kill their mum. They have killed their dad – not because they had to, but because they needed to, because they would turn into ducks.”

“So it’s written as social realism,” I suggested.

“Yes,” said Elf, “Me and my family have this conversation all the time about what we would do in an apocalypse if someone died. On my computer, I have saved everyone’s funeral songs and what readings we would want. I want to make sure, if anything did happen, I would have it already organised. That may be a bit perverse, but in a nice way.”

“Where do you come from?” I asked.

“Crookham Hill in Kent. We have lots of horses and sheep and we were thinking: Oh no! If there were an apocalypse, who would look after the horses? And the sheep? And we’ve got dogs. Where would we move everybody? And what weapons would you use? Duck Flu spawned from that. And there are also some evil vegans in it.”

“Why evil vegans?” I asked.

“I don’t trust vegans,” explained Elf. “I remember when I joined my Vegan Society at Bristol University they were lovely but I sort-of expected the Tales of The Unexpected music to play any second.”

Tales of The Unexpected is before your time,” I said.

“My mum,” explained Elf, “when she was little, used to watch Tales of The Unexpected on TV and you know the woman who dances in the titles? My Granddad Squeak, who’s my mum’s dad, told my mum that it was her mum dancing – that it was Nanny Squeak.”

“You have a granddad called Squeak?” I asked.

“Yes. Because they had a cat called Squeak and my Nanny and Granddad Station – my dad’s mum and dad, they…”

“Station?” I asked.

“Yes. They always came down to visit us by train.”

“So we have a family here,” I said, “who have a daughter called Elf, and grandparents called Squeak and Station. What does your dad do?”

“He’s an economist – He’s the Economic Advisor to Boris Johnson.”

“But he’s not attached to Boris as such?” I asked. “He’s attached to whoever the Mayor of London happens to be?”

“Yes. He’s politically neutral.”

“But mildly eccentric?” I asked.

Afternoon tea with Elf includes interesting conversation

Afternoon tea with English Elf from a ‘quite’ eccentric family

“My family are quite eccentric,” said Elf. “Well, they ARE eccentric.”

“Siblings?” I asked.

“I have a little sister called Lulu. Her real name is Marie-Louise Kezia, but everyone calls her Lulu. She used to be a horse rider.”

“Professionally?”

“Yes. She was always away horse-riding but she had an epiphany after she had an accident and realised she wanted to help people. So now she is 21 and at university doing bio-medicine. My brother Gerard is 17 and at school doing his A-levels. He looks like a young George Michael from Wham.”

“Gerard seems to be a very normal name for your family,” I said.

“Well, he likes to be nick-named Chat.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s so witty.”

“Interesting family,” I said. “You were called Elf as a child?”

“No. I was just Emily-Anne but, when I went to university – when I first went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, when I was 18 – I was volunteering at the Forest Fringe as an usher and loads of the guys who would come and buy tickets would say: Oh, you’re very elf-like.”

“Loads of them?” I asked.

“Loads,” replied Elf. “Because I had very short hair and I was sitting down. People always assume I’m going to be really short when they meet me.

“The Fringe was mind-blowing and I was staying on my own. I remember sitting in the Underbelly garden and then going up to somebody and saying: I’m really sorry, but do you want to be my friend? I don’t know anyone and I don’t know where to start.

“Then I met this really lovely Australian comic called Daniel Walmsley who was working on Mark Watson’s 24-Hour Show, so I got to sneak in and watch that and I met all these people and you know all those films where the kid gets the job at the Amusement Park and he meets all these kookie characters?”

“Your hair is slightly red,” I observed.

“I’m naturally a brighter ginger, because my dad is Irish. But I like dying my hair every now-and-again just to… to do something exciting.”

“And you have another show you are preparing…?” I said.

Being Barbarella. My new solo show.”

“But you are going to need a blonde wig for that?” I suggested.

“Yeah, you know the opening of the film? She takes off all her clothes. She takes off her spacesuit and her helmet and her hair just flows everywhere and I’m going to re-create that. I will take off my spacesuit quite slowly.”

Being Barbarella -  Elf Lyons

Being Barbarella – Elf Lyons, possibly in a wig

“Still my beating heart,” I said.

“The whole show,” explained Elf, “is about me trying to be sexy, but getting it wrong. And I talk a lot about sharks.”

“Why?”

“Because I love sharks. The first book I ever read was about sharks. I think they’re amazing.”

“But you wouldn’t want one for a pet,” I suggested.

“My family adopted a bluetip reef shark for me for Christmas.”

“Where does it live?” I asked.

“In the sea.”

“Which sea?”

“I don’t know. I have a certificate on my wall. I need to re-adopt it. I have got a pen pal and we have been swapping advice and she has told me I should adopt a donkey and I told her to adopt a shark.”

“Do you like donkeys?” I asked.

“I think you can’t be too judgmental,” said Elf.

“So…” I said, “Being Barbarella…”

“It’s basically about me trying to be my own idol and trying to be a sexy comedian.”

“Was Barbarella your main teenage fantasy?” I asked.

“No. My fantasy was Jane Eyre. Nanny Squeak took me to see a 4-hour production of Jane Eyre: The Musical – at the Bob Hope Theatre in Eltham. Mr Rochester’s dog was a man dressed as a gimp. In a gimp suit. It had nothing to do with the show. I’m pretty sure it was Jane Eyre: The Musical. It might have been a really weird pantomime. Do you want a bit of pizza?”

Elf Lyons - pizza

Elf Lyons before realising her pizza mistake

“You don’t like the crusts?” I asked.

“They’re not fun. If they gave me butter I would eat them, but it’s too late now.”

“You met up with Joz Norris the other day,” I said.

“We went back to my flat and just sat in my room and we ate Magnum ice creams and drank non-alcoholic beer and talked about Socrates. I’ve been reading about Socrates in The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. It’s really good.”

“You should do a show with Joz,” I suggested.

“I like Joz’s comedy,” said Elf, “because he allows himself to be vulnerable. There is that thin layer that’s so fragile between… You know when people talk about something that’s slightly dark? If you put too much pressure on it, it turns away from being funny to putting the audience in a difficult position.

“We were talking about the difference between comics who write specifically to get a laugh and those whose by-product of what they are talking about is the laugh. Because, when I write, my objective isn’t always that there is the laugh at the end, but the laugh will come because the things I’m interested in talking about are funny in themselves.”

I will be going to see Elf’s shows.

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Old-fashioned British TV, with in-vision announcers & the un-named Mike Hunt

Reginald Bosanquet, alleged drinker and serial libel accuser

I’ve been to a couple of TV events at the National Film Theatre in London over the last couple of days.

At the first one, Spitting Image/Not The Nine O’Clock News and QI producer John Lloyd opined that he had been quite lucky in that he had never been sued – except by legendary newsreader Reginald Bosanquet who, it turned out, made quite a good living from suing people for not-too-high sums if they said he drank too much.

Like John Lloyd, people tended to settle out of court rather than risk the vast costs of any court case (even if Reginald Bosanquet was an epic drinker) so Reggie made a lot of money out of a large number of small settlements.

Yesterday, the NFT event was about TV promotions and presentation (the trailers, the announcers, the branding) – an area I worked in for over 20 years.

Anglia’s much-admired weatherman

I started at Anglia TV in Norwich. It appeared to be a very genteel station. Their weather man Michael Hunt, an amiable moustachioed man, was never introduced – perhaps for an obvious audio reason – as Mike Hunt. But I suspect the obvious reason was never thought-of at Anglia.

From Norwich: Nicholas Parsons with the Quiz of the Weak?

It had a reputation for pulling above its weight. Although a small regional station, Anglia produced major network shows like Tales of the Unexpected (a drama series with big-name stars), Survival (nature films shot worldwide to rival David Attenborough’s on the BBC) and quiz show Sale of the Century hosted by the eternally gentlemanly Nicholas Parsons.

The reality of Anglia was that Tales of the Unexpected was produced in London with non-Anglia crews by Anglia board member Sir John Woolf. His cinema movies included Oliver!, Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File.

The award-winning Survival films were made by a unit in London separate from Anglia TV.

Sale of the Century and other game shows were, indeed, made by Anglia in Norwich with Anglia crews, but the prestige drama and natural history programmes were made well away from the Norwich studio complex where most staff seemed to live for their evening and weekend lives in comfortable rural villages while the Anglia bosses seemed to live a slightly old-fashioned life of country house shenanigans and grouse-shooting.

Anglia Television’s quickly old-fashioned knight to remember

The originally classy but quickly rather old-fashioned looking Anglia knight logo eventually had to be updated to a more modern look well after it should have been retired.

I remember the presentation to staff by image/style consultant company Lambie-Nairn in which a believable young man explained how they had come up with a new brand image for the company.

The altered logo – a complex heraldic tradition or a triangle?

They had replaced the old-fashioned knight figure with what was, in effect, a crisp, brightly-coloured triangle like the letter A in Anglia. This had cost (I think) millions and was a good-enough logo but – Ye Gods! – the pseudo-intellectualising spiel that went into explaining how they had come up with this simple triangular design was a master of the marketeers’ art. A heraldic continuation of the Anglia knight’s up-market image seemed to play a large part.

Jesus! I thought. It’s a triangle like the A in Anglia with some other triangles in it – the first thing anyone would come up with!

The highly talented and highly amiable Martin Lambie-Nairn himself – a man I much admire – was on stage at the NFT last night and gave some other background to that re-branding:

“Anglia Television,” he said, “was a very interesting company, a very nice company and we were there getting rid of the knight. We spent a lot of time presenting ideas to the board and there was a kind of detachment in the sort of people we were presenting to on the executive board and the non-executive board. We were presenting to these people and Lord Townshend was Chairman of the Board. We started our presentation and Lord Townshend said: One moment. Where’s John? Someone turned to Lord Townshend and said John Woolf was shooting at Elstree m’Lord….. Oh? Oh! said Lord Townshend. Who owns the shoot at Elstree?”

Martin Lambie-Nairn says he was partly responsible for ending what was eventually seen as the old-fashioned idea of having on-screen announcers on British television – by getting rid of them at the BBC and at ITV stations including Anglia.

When I started as a Continuity Scriptwriter at Anglia – writing scripts for the on-screen announcers – the only facilities were the announcer sitting in his/her booth with no autocue (he/she had to memorise any script you wrote), a slide machine and (if it was not being used for transmission or by a programme) a videotape and telecine machine. Edited trailers were rare. Feature film trailers tended to be single sections chosen from the film and were run unedited off a telecine machine.

Because ITV was a network of independent companies transmitting local programmes, networked programmes, part-networked programmes and local ads (which were sold and might be cancelled up to around 5.00pm every day) the presentation and promotion ‘bits between’ had to fit to the half-second. If you over-ran by one second, you would be cut off; if you under-ran by two seconds, there would be an unsettling gap. Equally, if a live programme over-ran or under-ran there were ‘gap’ problems.

Famous announcer/host David Hamilton: Diddy? Yes he did

Iconic announcer/presenter ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton was at the NFT last night. He was the continuity announcer one evening when, on the live Sunday Night at the London Palladium show, Shirley Bassey decided not to sing a song and the programme under-ran by five minutes, leaving a sudden gap which he had to fill with no warning, no autocue on a locked-off camera with no tape, slide or film back-up and only a copy of the TV Times listings magazine to ad-lib round. Presumably every announcer at every ITV station around the country had the same problem.

David was a promotion scriptwriter at ATV in 1960. He remembered:

“We had a boss who said to me one day: Think about how much people pay for a 30 second ad. You have got 30 seconds to sell our programmes. This is very very important and very valuable time and you must make those scripts pay.

Later in his career, he said, he remembered “one night introducing Crossroads, the long-running soap in which the sets moved more than the actors…”

Crossroads, like all good soap operas, had a central location which allowed new characters and storylines to naturally appear and disappear. In Coronation Street and EastEnders, the pub is central. Crossroads was set in a motel, which allowed new characters to appear and leave naturally.

“That evening,” said David Hamilton, “I read what the continuity writer had scripted for me: Tonight an actor arrives at the Crossroads Motel and I saw I had a second or so left on the clock and I added: Not before time.

“Two minutes later, the phone rang and it was Noele Gordon (star of Crossroads) who said: David, I didn’t like what you said about my programme. I was working for Thames and Crossroads was an ATV programme so I didn’t get too much of a bollocking.

“We weren’t really announcers,” he remembered. “More of an evening host. You became a friend in the home.”

He once got a letter from a woman living alone who explained he was the only person who talked to her during the day.

“People felt there was someone there watching the programmes with them,” he explained. And, because they were in people’s living rooms, they were famous faces.

McDonald Hobley was happier than Larry

McDonald Hobley was one of the early BBC TV announcers and had a very small part in the movie version of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, which was being filmed on the seafront at Blackpool with Laurence Olivier.

“During a break in filming,” David Hamilton remembered, “the two of them were walking along the Golden Mile and a couple of ladies came walking towards them. One of them said: Ey up! Are you McDonald Hobley? He straightened his tie and said I am, indeed. And she looked at Laurence Olivier and asked MacDonald Hobley: Who’s yer friend? Is he anybody?”

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