Tag Archives: television

How to write, structure and maintain a TV soap opera like Coronation Street

Many moons ago, I used to work a lot for Granada TV in Manchester, home of Coronation Street which, since its birth in 1960, has been the UK’s regular ratings-topper.

I never worked in the Drama Department at Granada – mostly I was in Promotions with slight forays into Children’s/Light Entertainment.

But I remember having conversations with two Coronation Street producers at different times about the structure of the soap and they both, pretty much, ran it along similar lines.

The first, crucial pillar to build a soap on is a central location.

In Coronation Street, the BBC’s EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale this is a pub – the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic and The Woolpack.

River City in Scotland and Fair City in the Republic of Ireland have also taken the pub to their soapy hearts.

The pub allows you to have a central core cast – a small staff and ‘regulars’ who live locally – and a logical reason why new characters bringing new plots will enter and leave the ongoing storyline.

ATV’s ancient soap Crossroads used a variation of this by having the central setting as a motel.

In the case of Coronation Street, there was (certainly when I worked at Granada) a formula which went roughly like this…

DRAMATIC STORYLINES

  • one main storyline peaking
  • one main storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next main storyline
  • one subsidiary storyline peaking
  • one subsidiary storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next subsidiary storyline

COMIC STORYLINES (as with dramatic storylines)

  • one peaking
  • one winding down
  • one building

I have always thought that EastEnders fails in ignoring or vastly underplaying the possibility of comic storylines. When Coronation Street is on a roll, it can be one of the funniest shows on TV.

I confess shamefacedly that I have not actually watched Coronation Street lately (well, it HAS been going since 1960, now five times a week, and even I have a partial life).

But another interesting insight from one of the producers at Granada TV was that Coronation Street (certainly in its perceived golden era) was also slightly out-dated. It appeared to be a fairly socially-realistic tableau of life in a Northern English town, slightly dramatised. But it was always 10-20 years out-of-date. It showed what people (even people in the North) THOUGHT life was currently like, but it had an element of nostalgia.

This was in-built from the start. The initial ‘three old ladies in the snug’ of the 1960s – Era Sharples and her two cronies) is what people thought Northern life was like but, in fact, that was a vision from the early 1950s or 1940s or even 1930s. So modern storylines were being imposed on a slightly nostalgised (not quite romanticised!) vision of the North.

In other countries where pubs are not a tradition, of course, you have to find another central location.

But, in my opinion, if you lessen the humour and harden the gritty realism, you may maintain ratings figures in the short or medium term, but you are gambling. And if your spoken lines sound like written lines (as they often do in EastEnders) then you are a titanic success sailing close to an iceberg.

But what do I know?

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Jody Kamali on what happened at the “Britain’s Got Talent” audition

Jody Kamali

Jody Kamali – a performer with bags of talent, taken aback

Yesterday, comic Jody Kamali was auditioned for TV series Britain’s Got Talent. Here is his description of what happened:


It was an experience I’ll never forget, but hope to forget.

It has never been my life’s ambition to audition for Britain’s Got Talent. I have always groaned at the format, the treatment of acts and choice of acts they put through.

So why did I do it? I really don’t know. And I still don’t. Occasionally I get these Fuck it! moments in life and, when the producer of BGT asked if I would do it, after a lot of persuading, I squirmed and said: “Er… OK then”.

My plastic bag act has always been a winner. It impresses quickly and can really win over an audience. Even Steve Bennett liked it in his 2-star scathing review on Chortle back in 2014. Harry Hill saw me do the act and, as a result, cast me in his TV pilot. The only time it flopped was in front of an audience of pensioners aged 65+ in Bristol, who stared at me blankly while I whizzed around the small stage joyously flinging plastic bags in the air.

“You do get the act, right?” I said to the producer. “Even though I am flinging those bags in the air as serious as I am… it’s supposed to be daft and silly, right? I don’t want you making me out to be a weirdo and edited to make out that I really believe I think my bag act is genuinely amazing… Please put across the irony?”

“Yes, yes, Jody. We totally get it. We love that act and think you’ll do great.”

Of course, I didn’t believe him.

I had my doubts.

I saw on Facebook that many comedians had been contacted but refused in fear they would be mocked on stage. It seems the producers were targeting the alternative acts. Really? So they can champion alternative comedian acts? Or to mock them for entertainment purposes? But maybe they really did want to find new talent other than the usual dog, dance, old folks rapping and 5-year-olds doing stand up.

Maybe – just maybe – the cards have turned.

“Do it, do it,” said blogger John Fleming. “It’s exposure. You never know who might see it.”

So I officially committed.

I arrived at the Dominion Theatre at 3:30pm, an hour late as I forgotten my passport.

I immediately got into costume and began tons of tons of non-stop interviews for BGT and BGT Extra – two different shows. There were your usual BGT wannabes there. The dance troupe featuring at least one guy with a huge Afro and also a young boy. A choir. An old couple in their 80s who do rap. A man in a lederhosen who plays an electronic accordion to rock music. An operatic transgender Filipino. And ME. Amongst others. What a bunch of oddballs we all were.

There were cameras everywhere. Hundreds of crew. I felt like I was in The Truman Show or something.

“Let’s film your entrance and exits,” said the production assistant. “Let’s have you walk in the theatre and you fall onto the BGT sign and it falls over… cos you do comedy.”

“Ah, yes. That’s comedy, of course, yes,” I said.

“Actually, let’s first film you walking up to the BGT sign there and wave ecstatically,” she said.

“Erm… That’s not really me. Can I do my own thing?”

So I settle for the ‘comedy fall’ on to the sign.

“Let’s not make it look set up,” I said. “You know, it will look cheesy otherwise?”

“Oh, we love set ups on BGT,” said the young Scottish camera girl.

So I enter the theatre, walk up the stairs and turn back and fall on the BGT sign. I actually lost control and crashed onto the sign and tumbled down the stairs, ripping my trousers, right in my crotch.

“Ahhhhh!” screamed a bunch of elderly ladies. “Help him! Help him!”

A paramedic runs over, who happens to be in the foyer.

I’m fine, I’m fine… but I need a new pair of trousers ASAP,” I groaned, covering the hole in my crotch, while the elderly ladies stood over me, concerned.

After finishing off my ‘set up’ entrances and exits, I’m whizzed up several flights of stairs to do an interview with Stephen Mulhern for BGT Extra for ITV2.

BGT Extra is fun; we can have a laugh,” said a production assistant.

After a slightly awkward interview with Mulhern, messing about with my bags, I head to do my ‘pre-interview’.

“Is this the biggest gig of your life?” asked the presenter.

“No, it’s not. When you spend thousands of pounds and work year round on a solo show, then present it at the Edinburgh Fringe in front of critics, producers etc… That is the biggest gig,” I said.

“Oh no no, like um, the biggest crowd,” she replied.

“Well, yeah,” I said.

“Well say that you do small gigs to a tiny crowd and then here you are… the biggest gig of your life,” said the girl, goading me into saying what she wanted.

It was a long interview and strange in the way that they kinda manipulate your words into creating a story that they want. I didn’t bring any family or friends with me or give them a sob story which, as we all know, they love so much.

“Don’t say you’re a comedian; say your are going to do something amazing,” said the interviewer. “We don’t want to give it away.”

I got so bored of the interview and felt the girl wasn’t even listening as her gaze drifted to the left every time I spoke. I could have literally said I suck cows’ udders for a living and she would’ve nodded with her fixed grin. I started to entertain myself by being extremely confident – “I’m definitely going to win BGT”… “I’m going to get a golden buzzer”… “The judges will be blown away”… “It’s THE most original act ever seen.”

After the interview, I started to have cold feet. I had this intense feeling come over me – like a warning sign or something. They are going to make a mockery of me, I know they are. They are not going to get it. I considered just walking out. I rang my wife, concerned, and she recommended I call my best buddy who is ‘in the business’.

After a pep talk from Andy and the fact that his friend ‘Keith Teeth’ auditioned once and didn’t get shown, I got my confidence back, knowing full well this could go either way. FUCK IT. I am going to do it. And do it with full confidence! 

Down I went to the backstage area for… yes… more interviews.

They filmed me ‘warming up’ – I was playing up to it but warming up like I meant business, doing cheesy poses, dancing, boxing – like I was about to have a bout with Tyson. I had my final interview with Ant and Dec who were lovely. And off I went….

The stage was huge – 3,000 people in the audience. A family audience. Like an audience you might see at a panto.

“Hello!” I yelled.

“Hello,” says Amanda Holden.

“What’s your name?” says Cowell.

“Jody”

“What’s your day job? Says Amanda.

“I work part time at the Royal Academy of Art.”

“Whoooooooooooo!” whooped the audience, assuming I was some hot shot impressionist or the next Damien Hirst.

“No, no I’m not an artist… I just charm affluent people into signing up to their membership scheme, where they get to see unlimited exhibitions,” I said in a cheesy ‘salesman’ voice. The audience laughed. The judges didn’t.

“What are ya gonna do?” asked Aysha Dixon.

“Something amazing and unique,” I said.

I said this because the producers told me to beforehand.

“Don’t say you’re a comedian, otherwise it will give it away,” said a producer, moments before I went on.

Alarm bells rang but I trusted them. Ah, I thought, the judges will get the irony and stupidity of the act and will get that I’m obviously taking the piss.

The music kicks in.

I run to the left and right waving my arms to get the audience to cheer. They did. 3,000. The sound was electric. Cowell looked at Amanda with a Look at this prick! expression.

I pulled out a bag.

I threw it in the air.

I could see Cowell in the corner of my eye looking at the judges unimpressed.

BUZZ.

Cowell had buzzed. No surprise there.

5 seconds later

BUZZ.

1 second later

BUZZ.

5 seconds later

BUZZ.

I lasted 25 secs, if that! I was shocked. I couldn’t believe they didn’t let me at least do one minute! I walked off stage thinking that’s what I had to do. Ant and Dec were waving at me saying “No, no” and pointing. I thought that they meant I should exit stage right, not stage left… So I did. I walked over to stage right, straight into cables and a tight corner.

“Fuck!” I muttered.

“Not that way” barked the sound guy.

I walked out from stage right and went upper stage right to another exit.

“No, no, no!” cried a production assistant. “Go back to the centre on the cross. The judges want to talk to you!”

“Ohhh… OK. Shit.”

The audience started to boo me a little bit but stopped.

Cowell was shaking his head with a Who is this idiot? expression. Even David Walliams looked unimpressed. I was surprised as I actually thought David would like my act.

“Jody, are you serious?” said Cowell.

“Nooooo!” I cried. “It’s meant to be daft. It’s meant to be so serious, it’s funny!”

All the judges faces had dropped. They ACTUALLY believed I genuinely thought that my act WAS amazing with NO irony.

“But I fought ya went to Academy Royal.. Art or summink,” said Alesha Dixon.

“That’s just a job. I’m a comedian. I’ve performed many times at the Edinburgh Fringe.”

David Walliams shuffled.

“It’s not good, Jody,” barked Cowell in way that reminded me of doing a clown workshop where the teacher would say you are awful.

“How can you not like it? Floating bags are amazing,”  I said sarcastically. “Look…”

I floated a bag. The audience cheered. I pulled another bag out of my pocket. The audience roared. I pulled another out. They roared loudly. And another. And Another. The audience were going nuts, cheering me. The judges looked stony faced.

“You see,” I said, “the audience like it!”

“Well I don’t,” said Cowell. “It’s a No.”

The rest followed suit. Four Nos. I left the stage to big applause.

I was gutted. I wasn’t given the chance to do the full act but was pissed off that I was told not to say I was a comedian. I felt set up. I believe the producers knew the judges would smash me down. If I had said I was a comedian, it might have been different.

I was rushed up stairs for more interviews. I sat down in a bit of a daze.

“What’s your name?” said the presenter.

I had repeatedly said my name and occupation, where I lived so many times… I’d had enough.

“Sorry, but I have had enough now. I’m leaving. I am fed up. I’m so tired. I’m done.”

I packed up and left, being chased by the crew, trying to persuade me to have my ‘final say’ so that I could say: “The judges were wrong.”

“No no no…” I said in a huff, “cos it will only mean I would criticise the producers for building me for up for the judges to bash me down… and you’ll edit it the way you want.”

And off I went… crew still trying everything they could to get my ‘final reaction’.

I was so happy to leave.

It was a bizarre experience.

It wasn’t me at all.

I did chuckle to myself on the way home though.

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Critic Kate Copstick on the Edinburgh Fosters (ex-Perrier) Comedy Awards

The Grouchy Club live in Edinburgh (Photograph by Sandra Smith0

Copstick and I hosted the live Grouchy Club in Edinburgh (Photograph by Sandra Smith)

The latest weekly Grouchy Club podcast is now online.

During the recording, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I talked about staging monthly live Grouchy Club shows/meetings in London – in the performance area behind Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity shop in Shepherd’s Bush.

Details on the Grouchy Club website.

In this very brief extract from the new podcast, she and I talk about the recent Fosters Awards (formerly Perrier Awards) run by producer and Nimax Theatres owner Nica Burns at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I run the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Fringe. Judges with me this year were Kate Copstick and fellow comedy critics Marissa Burgess, Jay Richardson and Claire Smith.


COPSTICK
There are few people I know that I admire more than Nica Burns. I think she’s an incredible woman who has done incredible things for comedy. I think she’s so genuine and she’s given so much I don’t know why she’s not a fucking Dame. There’s obviously been some kind of mistake.

JOHN
Well, if your ceiling falls on the punters, it’s not good, is it?

COPSTICK
That’s not her fault. That was nothing to do with her. Anyway, I think she’s an incredible woman, an incredible force for good in theatre and comedy and live performance.

JOHN
Yes, she is.

COPSTICK
But I do think that the Fosters are becoming more and more relevant only to the industry. That whole list – everybody on that list – it just seemed that Ooh! You can see them popping up on Radio 4 Extra or telly. They’ve all got ‘slots’ – even the clowny ones. You think: Well, they could go there; they could go here. There was no flash of genius.

JOHN
I don’t know if they still do it, but they brought in members of the public as judges.

COPSTICK
Yes, they always do.

JOHN
A terrible idea, I think – They (the public) don’t know what they want.

COPSTICK
Well, to be fair, they have to go through a much more stringent process than any of the industry judges and it’s just as possible, if not more likely, that you’re going to find some numpty who’s some kind of line producer for BBC Comedy. There are some very dull people working in professional comedy, John.

JOHN
So you’ve given up working in television again?

COPSTICK
(LAUGHS) I have indeed. But there are some very very dull people.

JOHN
Yes, but they can spot talent, whereas…

COPSTICK
What do you mean they can spot talent?

JOHN
No, I take it back. I take it back.

COPSTICK
Wash your mouth out. Have another Crunchie biscuit. (SHE STUFFS A BISCUIT IN MY MOUTH) And, while John’s munching on the Crunchie biscuit… Of course they can’t. Otherwise a completely different lot of people would be on telly and the programmes that are on telly would be much better instead of little comedy production line sausages, which is what they are. When I started working in telly, someone said to me: There is a reason why television is called a medium. I even said to… I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this; I hope she doesn’t mind… I bumped into Nica Burns and said Oh, has the panel been to see Jessie Cave? and Nica said Oh, Marmite! Which I can understand. Some people loathed her; some people loved her.

JOHN
‘Marmite’ is almost a compliment.

COPSTICK
Exactly. I said: Isn’t that great! and she said Well, you know, it divided the panel and I said Well, what are you going for? Lowest common denominator? And I suppose, because it comes to a vote at the end, that’s exactly what it is. It’s the kind of blandy people that everybody liked. It’s the Mirandas and the Jack Whitehalls… And I’m not saying… I mean, Jack Whitehall was a little superstar when he started, but he’s a very smart boy with a very smart dad and they know…

JOHN
… and a very smart mum…

COPSTICK
I haven’t met his mum. But they know where to go, how much to dumb yourself down to keep yourself in a lot of work in a lot of television programmes and it is lowest common denominator. That lowest common denominator might be different… Twenty years ago, that lowest common denominator was Les Dawson; it was Michael Barrymore….

JOHN
… who were great…

COPSTICK
… and nowadays… it’s… I don’t think an award should be looking at being given… that a panel, a judging panel should not be looking at giving an award to the lowest common denominator. There need to be people on that panel passionate enough to do the Twelve Angry Men thing – persuade the rest of the brilliance in somebody who is… I am not saying Jessie Cave should have won. She IS Marmite and I thought I would hate her and I loved her. It was an extraordinary performance…. I just really think it’s a… a worry almost everybody on that list was so forgettable.


The Grouchy Club podcasts are on Podomatic
and can also be downloaded from iTunes.

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Comic Philip Simon notices a Jewish change in the UK and fears for his knees

David Mitchell - not Philip Simon

David Mitchell, 2009 – not Philip Simon, 2015

A few weeks ago, I was a judge on the Last Minute Comedy Comedian of the Year awards.

The winner was Philip Simon.

“You mentioned in your act at the Awards,” I told him in Borehamwood this week, “that you look a bit like David Mitchell.”

“I don’t get mistaken for him in the street but, when I say it in gigs, there’s enough people who go: Ah! That’s what it is!

Not Philip Simon eating bacon sandwich

Not Philip Simon eating bacon sandwich

“The day after the General Election a few weeks ago, I did an Ed Miliband lookalike job where I had to eat a bacon sandwich. I was brought in late to replace a previous lookalike because they had decided the previous guy looked too Asian to be Ed Miliband.”

“You ate a bacon sandwich?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re Jewish?”

“Yes. I don’t consider myself a ‘Jewish’ comic, but I like that there is that niche I can fit into”

“And you were telling me,” I said, “that there’s been some anti-Semitism creeping into UK audiences.”

“I’m not saying it’s anti-Semitism,” Philip corrected me. “But it used to be I might mention in my set that I am Jewish and, depending where I was in the country, most people would probably think: Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t know much about Jews. Tell me more.

“Now there’s a real sense of – intake of breath – What’s he gonna say? As if, by mentioning you’re Jewish, it means it has to be political. There is now a noticeable atmosphere that is created in rooms round the country that I don’t think was there a year ago.

“I have personal beliefs about the situation – I’ve got family in Israel; we’ve gone to Israel for holidays most of our lives; I believe in a self-governing two-state solution – but I don’t write jokes about it. I don’t want to talk about it on stage because there’s no comedy in it for me.

“Another Jewish comedian I know says he has also noticed a decline in the acceptance of Jewish comedians. And he’s not particularly in-yer-face Jewish or political. I don’t think it has stopped me getting any bookings, but it’s certainly an interesting new dynamic.”

“Well,” I said. “Now you’re an award-winning comedian…”

“Apparently so.”

“So offers have been flooding in?”

“E-mails have been filtering in. Someone did try and introduce me the other night as lastminute.com’s comedian of the year instead of Last Minute Comedy’s.”

“You’re doing your own show at the Edinburgh Fringe but not until next year?”

Philip Simon in Borehamwood

The real Philip Simon in Borehamwood has dating show plans

“Yes. It’s in its very early stages. It will be a show about Jewish dating and Jewish parenthood.”

“Is Jewish dating different from any other dating?”

“Oh yes. Laced with guilt. The premise I have is that we all know each other, so it becomes very complicated. You could never have a dark side to your life, because everyone knows everyone.”

“Surely,” I asked, “South London and North London must be separate?”

“Not now,” said Philip. “With Facebook, mutual friends pop up all over the place. If you go on a blind date and want to find out about the person, you just go onto Facebook and find three or four mutual friends – which could end up good or bad.

“The premise of my show is…Young Jewish boy, out on the dating world, meets someone, they get pregnant … All anecdotal…”

“And autobiographical?” I asked.

“Yeah. We have a baby. But things are going very very well. I mean, it’s not an EastEnders/Jeremy Kyle situation.”

“Is she a full-time mum?”

“She’s a clinical psychologist.”

“And you’re a comedian.”

“Yes. She is actually really good to take to a comedy gig, because she won’t necessarily watch me. She will watch the audience and can tell me at what point they stopped laughing or laughed more and she can read an audience far better than I can.”

“You used to be an actor,” I said, “but now – apart from occasional Ed Milibands – you’re mostly a comic.”

“Yes. I used to do a few TV bits, a couple of bits in sitcoms. I had three lines in My Family.”

“Not a series much admired by comedians,” I said.

“Well,” said Philip, “it was an American writer who came over here and said: This is the format they do in America, so let’s do our show like that.

“What would happen would be they would have a really good original script. Then everyone got their little paws on it – I want that joke – Let’s change that joke – and, by the time, it goes to air, it’s been edited to a different thing. When we did the read-through round the table, it was hilarious. Really strong comedy. But, by the time it was whittled down to the half hour that went out…”

“A bit bland?” I suggested.

“Yeah. But it was a good fun job to do.”

And you were in Peppa Pig on stage,” I prompted.

Not Peppa Pig but Philip Simon again

Not Peppa Pig’s daddy but Philip Simon in Borehamwood

“Yes, that was an amazing job – a year and a half of touring the UK, doing the West End. It was like Avenue Q where the actors were on stage holding the puppets and you could see both. We were onstage talking, singing, acting, dancing with the puppets. I was Daddy Pig, which was the biggest and I’m not officially allowed to say it destroyed my back, but it destroyed my back. I was attached to him with a kind of harness. It was just such a ridiculously heavy puppet. But there was an article in the Jewish Chronicle saying: Philip Simon Brings Home The Bacon.”

“And it may or may not have buggered your back.”

“I now do puppet workshops,” said Philip. “Teaching teachers how to take puppets into the classroom to work with the kids.”

“So what’s next for you?” I asked.

“I’ve signed up to do a stupid bike ride this weekend – London to Amsterdam via Harwich. We finish at Anne Frank’s house and get a tour of the house. We are cycling nearly 150 miles.”

For charity?”

“Yes. The Anne Frank Trust. It should be fun, but I’m a bit worried my knees are going to give way.”

“Have you cycled 150 miles before?”

“No. I’ve done London to Brighton for charity a couple of times in the past and that’s 60 miles. On this Amsterdam ride, the first day we do 80 miles and that will probably destroy my knees. The organisers are calling the route ‘undulating’. On Saturday, I will either be in Amsterdam or in Casualty at some hospital.”

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Mr Nasty: BBC comedy series Hi-de-Hi and 1980s hardline Left Wing comedy

Mark Kelly in Soho this week

Mark Kelly – former Mr Nasty & extra – in Soho this week

In this blog a couple of days ago, Ricky Gervais’ TV series Extras was mentioned. I had not realised that comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly – an occasional popper-upper in this blog – had, at one time, been a real TV extra.

He also used to perform stand-up under the name Mr Nasty.

“In the 1980s,” he told me this week, “on the alternative cabaret circuit, I did this song with a chorus of Hi-de-Hi! and people never realised it was written from bitter personal experience.

“I was living near Colchester, playing in a band and quite happy doing that and weird theatre and signing on (for Unemployment Benefit).

“I had an Equity card, because I had been with a fringe theatre group years earlier when Granada TV made a documentary about the group.

“In those days, Equity was a closed shop and you had to sweat blood to get an Equity card. It was very difficult to get, but I got one with no effort at all.

“I was with this group called RAT Theatre who were based in Stoke-on-Trent and Granada TV were making this documentary on them. It wasn’t an Equity theatre group, but it was just assumed I had an Equity card and, when Granada realised I didn’t, one of the production team just came up to me, gave me a form and said: Sign this; we’ll send it off. I didn’t even fill it in; I just signed the form and, by return post, got an Equity card.”

“If it was a documentary,” I asked, “why did you need an Equity card?”

“Because it included performance. Anyway, I had an Equity card and the consequence was I ended up appearing in Hi-de-Hi!

“At the time, there was a shortage of extras – who had to be Equity members – in East Anglia. So all of us who had Equity cards and were signing-on got forced to go along.

Hi-de-Hi was filmed at Warners Holiday Camp in Dovercourt near Harwich. They filmed two series a year out-of-season, so it was usually pretty cold and you’d dread the swimming pool scenes. The main cast would have people standing by with warm dressing gowns and towels; we would have nothing.

“The way (producer) David Croft cast his series was quite interesting. For the pilot of the first series, they would quite often have characters who would then be written out. They would throw in more people than they needed to see what worked. They would try characters out and, if they didn’t work or were too close to another character in comedy terms, they would get rid of someone.

The cast of Hi-de-Hi

The large cast of Hi-de-Hi who put the camp in holiday camp

“They also had quite big casts. One of the consequences of this was, because they had quite a large recognisable main cast and then a slightly recognisable lower-level cast, it meant there was very little money left for anyone else. So they would go to what felt like somewhat absurd lengths to make sure you didn’t speak – because, if you spoke, they had to pay you a lot more.

“I was cast as a walk-on which meant I got no lines but I did get ‘directed movements’, which meant I got repeat fees. Until a few years ago, when Equity did a dreadful ‘buy-out’ deal, I still got repeat fees which, once or twice, actually came in really handy and bailed me out.

“I came with the opposite attitude to most of the extras. Most of the extras wanted to be in showbusiness and wanted to be seen on camera. I didn’t particularly want to be seen on camera. What I wanted to do was sit in the canteen and read. I became very adept very quickly at knowing how they set up scenes and all the reverse angles they were likely to do and positioning myself so I would not be needed for other shots.

“The irony of this – which I had not actually thought through – is that what they do NOT want from extras and walk-ons is for them to become recognisable visible characters. So, by hardly ever being in shot, I actually prolonged my shelf life and I was in six – possibly seven – series of Hi-de-Hi. So, although I am present in every episode, apart from on two or three occasions, you would need a freeze-frame and zoom-in to see me.

“There was one series where I was a teddy boy, which I quite liked, and there was one costume I actually tried to buy off them. Jeffrey Holland plays the character Spike and one of the running gags in the series is that, in most episodes, he will appear usually looking harassed in some stupid costume that he has been forced to wear.

“In this particular episode, it was a liquorice allsorts costume, including a head, all completely made of liquorice allsorts. It wasn’t that heavy, you could move in it OK and it wasn’t too hot to wear and he was approximately the same size as me. But the BBC would not sell it to me.

“In those days, I was doing a very ‘hard’ Communist politics set. Had I got hold of this costume, I would – doing alternative cabaret as Mr Nasty in London – have gone on stage wearing this liquorice allsorts costume. To me, that’s what I am about. I love the idea of saying what I actually believe but deliberately undercutting it and making it seem absurd at the same time. I think that is the essence of comedy.

Bertie Bassett

Could Lenny Bruce have become Bertie Bassett?

“Maybe I should still do something like that. I have always thought that Lenny Bruce would have been enormously improved if he had gone on stage as Bertie Bassett. I seriously do because, otherwise, it’s comodificaion. People like certain things to go together. So, if you are going to be Lenny Bruce, even if you’ve got money, they like you to look as if you haven’t got money.

“If you are going to do hard, Leftist politics, why not just go on and be completely absurd? What’s wrong with that? If you are actually saying – which I do believe, like Tony Benn – that it’s about the issues not the personality, then let’s test this theory. Listen to what I am saying while I am looking ridiculous. If what I am saying has any value, then the fact I am looking ridiculous should not matter.”

“I would have paid more attention to Tony Benn,” I told Mark, “if he had come on as a pack of Polo Mints.”

There is a clip from Hi-de-Hi on YouTube.

Hi-de-Hi frame

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

Kate Copstick with her mother at the podcast

Kate Copstick with her mother at the podcast

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

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


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

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

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

COPSTICK
Lucky you.

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

COPSTICK
They’re difficult to find in television.

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

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

JOHN
Well, I’m very sorry for you.

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

JOHN
It’s awful. It was awful.

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

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

COPSTICK
Whoa!

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

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

Things like that: finding bizarre acts.

COPSTICK
Do you know my friend Matthew Kelly?

JOHN
I did the series after he left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JOHN
Yup. Much like my career.

COPSTICK
Only since you met me, John

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

COPSTICK
Mmm hmmm?

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

COPSTICK
Yes! I remember that.

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


This week’s Grouchy Club Podcast lasts 31 minutes.

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Last night I remember I dreamt of several dead British television stations

A photo of me in the ATV promo office in the 1980s.

A photo of me in the ATV promo office in the 1980s.

Last night, I went to bed early, but kept waking up with an erratic cough, so I am just as tired as I was when I went to bed.

One benefit of constantly waking up, though, was that I remembered a dream. Regular readers of this blog will know I am semi-obsessed with NOT remembering my dreams.

Once upon a time, there was no single ITV in Britain. It was a network of 15 independent companies with geographically separated franchised contracts.

For around 20 years, I worked in TV promotions – writing and producing programme trailers – for Anglia, ATV, Central, Granada, HTV, LWT, Southern, Thames, TVS, Yorkshire and for a centralised ITV unit. I also worked on programmes – for example, the ITV Saturday morning children’s show Tiswas, produced by ATV in Birmingham.

Over those 20 years in Promotion Depts, I worked on very short-term contracts – perhaps a week, perhaps two, very rarely more than three weeks, although I did once work at Granada TV in Manchester for around six months solid on a series of rolling contracts none of which (from memory) was more than three weeks long.

Last night, I dreamt I arrived in the ATV/Central ITV building in Birmingham at the start of a new contract (I had been there before lots of times) and went to the open plan Promotions Dept office at Granada TV in Manchester.

The Promotions boss from Anglia TV in Norwich was there. He was distracted and asked me to record some programme. “Look it up on the list,” he told me.

But I had not been there for a while and did not know which list nor where they kept it.

All the Promotion Depts at the fifteen ITV companies were organised slightly differently and even one department in one company might have changed its system between my visits.

A couple of people I knew from HTV got chatting to me and, when I looked at myself in a mirror, there was a small black plastic comb stuck in the left side of my long, thick, black hair. I have never had black hair though I did once have hair. It was never thick. I think, in my dream, I may have stolen the hair from Dave Davies of The Kinks, as I saw the Kinks’ tribute musical Sunny Afternoon a couple of weeks ago in London.

How did that comb get there? I thought. It must have been there since London and now I am here in Cardiff. There was dust on the front of my black pullover where I had cleaned the lenses of my spectacles.

Then the fastening of my gold-coloured (but actually brass) watch strap was not working.

“Where’s the nearest place I can get a new watch strap?” I asked the couple from HTV in Cardiff.

We were in Birmingham.

And then I woke up in my bed in Borehamwood.

The entrance to the ATV/Central studios in Birmingham

The ‘new’ entrance to the ATV/Central studios in Birmingham

What must have triggered my dream was that, yesterday, I was sent photos of the demolition of the ‘new’ ATV/Central ITV building in which I made promotions and in which I worked on Tiswas and The (originally Big Daddy’s) Saturday Show. It was a new and fairly modern-looking building when I worked there. Now it is being demolished.  At one point, I had worked there in Birmingham on The Saturday Show programme while simultaneously producing Children’s ITV continuity links in London.

There has been a lot of overlapping in my life, a bit like a dream.

Below are the photographs I saw yesterday, as posted by Tiswas fan Mark Neun:

ATVstudiosDemolition_byLeeBannister

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