Tag Archives: Thatcher

Political comedy, racism and Jew jokes

Liam Lonergan. Is all racism a black and white issue?

A Liam Lonergan photo. Not everything is so black and white.

Yesterday’s blog was a continuation of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Earlier in our chat, we talked partly about my idea that British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time have often been set in tragic not comic situations.

Here is another extract:

__________

Liam: It’s sort of a rubbish question and I hate asking it but Is comedy actually important?

John: I guess it must be important because if there’s a totalitarian regime they don’t allow it. I somehow suspect there were not many Nazi comedy clubs – or, if there were, the jokes were all about Jews. So maybe they had some great Jewish jokes. Swings and roundabouts.

But totalitarian regimes are frightened of comedy and frightened of humour. If you made a joke about General Franco in Spain in the 1950s you would got arrested. Because I think you can change people’s opinions – slowly – with comedy. The trouble with a lot of political comedy, of course, is that comics are preaching to the converted. The left wing comedians who seem terribly popular are popular with left wing audiences. So they’re not actually doing anything at all.

Liam: Politics has merged into one now…

John: In the 1980s alternative comedy started because it was Mrs Thatcher. It took off because she was perceived as a right-wing, fairly authoritarian prime minister and the left-wingers had a field day. With the Conservatives (effectively) back in power, I don’t quite understand why that left-wing political comedy thing hasn’t come back again.

Liam: I think it’s easy to chuck something at something that’s made of lead – like Thatcher – but something that’s made of marshmallow, like Cameron… there’s no point chucking anything at it. It just moulds itself to accommodate the object that’s being flung at it.

Ben Elton used to be a political comic

Ben Elton – he used to be a political comic back in the 1980s

John: Maybe it was all done before in the 1980s and you can’t repeat… you can’t swim the same river twice or something. I dunno… Errr.. I have no idea where I’m going with this. Have you found out what your actual thesis is yet?

Liam: Well, I think you opened it up for me when you talked earlier about this comedy/tragedy thing. That’s something I’ve been really interested in for ages. So I think I might lean it towards that.

John: Well, American TV sitcoms like Cheers and all those shows, they’re written by committees and it’s gag, gag, gag, gag, gag and not really primarily personality based. David Croft’s BBC ensemble sitcoms, which are almost in a class of their own, were by-and-large written by two people: David Croft and someone else. They are by-and-large personality based. They’re not primarily gag based. Dad’s Army does have lots of gags in it but it’s actually personality based.

Most other British sitcoms that have lasted are personality-based in a tragic situation… Terry and June has not lasted; One Foot In The Grave has.

Liam: Do you think there’s any American comedy that has that vein – that sort of dark thread running through it – that you like?

John: I did like Maude. Have you ever seen Maude?

Liam: No.

John: It was with Bea Arthur. She went on to be in The Golden Girls as well. But Maude was sometimes wonderfully dark and she was an arguably sometimes unsympathetic central character. In Britain, it was transmitted as a half hour with one commercial break in the middle.

Bea Arthur as Maude with Bill Macy as husband Walter

Bea Arthur as Maude; Bill Macy as husband Walter

She’s a married late middle-aged woman and, in this one particular episode I remember, her husband’s long-lost chum who had been with him during the War was gonna turn up. He turns up at the end of Part One and he’s excited to meet his long-lost comrade and goes “Urghh!!” and falls on the floor behind the settee. Cut to commercial break. When you come back… he’s dead! So for the whole of the second half of the episode, the husband’s going: “Oh my god. I killed him! If I hadn’t arranged this today!… Oh my god, he had a heart attack…I killed my best friend!”

Bloody hell! This is an American sitcom! And Maude was sort of dark and had… It was more sort of vaguely Jewish humour.

Liam: With the American Office you’ve got to separate it from the British version. It’s a completely different sort of beast. The main character played by Steve Carrell is, in a more subtle way… he’s a dark character. The fact that he’s absolutely full of desperation and is in love with this idea of love but it’s never fulfilled.

John: Another British comedy set in an unfunny situation (that was funny) is Till Death Us Do Part. I saw a few episodes of the American version – All In The Family –  and it wasn’t as dark. He was not as dislikeable a character.

Also ‘dislikable’ is in the eye of the beholder.

Till Death Us Do Part was interesting because it was written by Johnny Speight and supposedly Alf Garnett was a character to be despised and frowned upon. But I always had a feeling that it reinforced people’s prejudices. People who were already bigoted wouldn’t be turned by the way his character was written. We’re talking about trying to change people’s attitudes. The whole point of that was to turn people’s attitudes so they realised what a bigot he was and I’m sure…

Liam: …it reinforced it.

John: Yes, absolutely reinforced the bigotry. I’m sure if you were that sort of person you would sit there and think: “Yeah, Alf’s quite right. That Liverpool yobbo son-in-law IS a wanker and Alf is the voice of reason.”

Liam: I think Jimmy Carr has used quotes… holding a mirror up to racism and laughing at racism rather than race. He’s laughing at the racism rather than race.

Love Thy Neighbour - top-rating comedy show

Love Thy Neighbour – a top-rating comedy show of the 1970s

John: I always thought Love Thy Neighbour – which has not lasted, because it wasn’t tragedy – was always very dodgy. I saw it when it first went out and I always thought: “I’m not sure I like this very much”. And Mind Your Language, which was set in a language school, was just full of stereotypes and I thought it…  was just about OK but it wasn’t really… It was just… There’s a difference between…

Liam: Like, cartoon racism?

John: There’s a difference between making fun of stereotypes and being too close to being racist. I think you can say (I’m Scottish myself) all Scots are drunks as a joke. And that’s fine. That’s actual comic social observation, taken to an extreme. There is a drinking problem in Scotland. So Scots are drunk and dour. The Irish are drunk and sing Tiddle-ee-aye music. The Welsh sing a lot in choirs. The English are either toffee-nosed or football hooligans.

Liam: Or sexually repressed.

John: Or sexually repressed. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a difference between taking a slight tendency to an extreme simply to deliver a punchline and laugh about it… and saying people are to be despised or reviled because of something. That’s arguably the difference between Jewish jokes and jokes about Jews. It’s attitude.

If you’re abroad, the English are seen as two simultaneous stereotypes which are mutually exclusive but which run together. The English are either very snooty, upmarket public school people who look down on you and have a superiority complex – or they’re the dregs-of-society football hooligans. Both views have some basis in reality. And you can make jokes about both. But the first tends towards humour, which is acceptable, and the second tends towards xenophobia, which is not. It’s a fine line and it moves.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

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Filed under Comedy, Politics, Racism

Heroin wholesaling in Scotland & why comedian Del Strain was shot in the leg

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Del Strain in Trafalgar Square yesterday

Del Strain shares bis thoughts in Trafalgar Square yesterday

“I’ve never really understand why anyone wants to perform comedy,” I said to Scots comedian Del Strain yesterday.

“Because when I’m on stage,” he told me, “for them twenty or thirty minutes – when you’ve got the audience, for that piece of time, my legs ain’t sore, no matter what’s going on in the world, no matter what your financial state, no matter if someone’s died in your family that day… there’s nothing else there. It’s just like being a surfer riding a wave.”

“And why are your legs sore?” I asked.

“Cos of the gunshot wound,” replied Del. “Getting knee-capped. When I’m on stage, nothing else matters. It’s a better buzz than any Class ‘A’ drug I’ve ever took. I’m buzzing on adrenaline all the way home. That’s why I do it… It don’t feed you, it don’t put shit in your fridge, but it feeds you in the soul.”

“Why a gunshot wound?” I asked.

“Cos I got shot by accident,” replied Del, after a pause. “The gun went off by accident and I got shot.”

“Who accidentally shot y…” I started to say.

“My brother,” said Del immediately.

“How come?” I asked.

“Because, basically, I was winding him up,” said Del, “and he picked up the gun and he didn’t realise that there was still one in the chamber and it went off. He didn’t mean it to go off, he didn’t mean to shoot me, my parents were very, very…”

“How old were you?” I asked.

“About 17. But my parents were… Let’s say they didn’t have the best morals around, but they did teach us how to shoot. If it had been intentional, it would have been in the head.”

“It may seem a bit dull,” I told Del, “but, when I grew up, we didn’t have guns in our house.”

“We did,” said Del. “We had quite a few guns in the house.”

“Because?” I asked.

“Everyone I knew had a gun,” Del replied.

“This is in Kilmarnock, Scotland, in the 1980s?” I checked.

“Yeah,” said Del. “Late 1970s, early 1980s. We grew up with pump-actions and .22s. People did use guns up there for legitimate reasons, I suppose. Like shooting vermin on their estates.”

“Depends on your definition of words,” I said. “What did your parents do?”

“They were heroin wholesalers,” Del told me. “Well, my dad… The first 20 years of his life, he was heavily involved in drugs. But my dad’s been ‘clean’ 27 years and actually started working in a rehab. So he spent the first half of his life putting people on the gear; and the second half of his life getting them off it.”

“He’s had a full life,” I said.

Del in St Martin in the Fields crypt yesterday

Del in St Martin in the Fields’ crypt yesterday

“My birth mother actually died a year ago yesterday,” said Del. “Cancer. It was horrible. Fair warning: anyone who’s had an alcohol or a drug problem in their life and who has anything like that on their medical record… When you come to the end of your life, the NHS will treat you like a piece of shit. They will Hum and Hah about benzos and morphine and they won’t even give you the duty of care – because you’ve got that on your record.

“Even though you’ve got like a week to live, they think you’re trying to blag them to get some extra morphine. It wasn’t until the third day that the Macmillan nurses came in and done great work… She came in and she trebled the morphine and my mother had two peaceful days, God bless her, and she slept and went. That was a bit of a shock to me when I saw it with my own eyes.

“My dad’s been clean 27 years. He had a liver biopsy and he went to the hospital and asked What about pain relief? He’d never took no pain relief, cos that’s the way he rolls. But the doctor’s still looking at him after 27 years like my dad’s trying to do him out of 4 or 5 codeine a day. Like 10 pence worth of codeine. Which I take as an insult but also find pretty funny.

“It’s people’s psyche. They don’t change their opinion about you, no matter how much you turn your life around. Every day of my life, I try to do two mitzvahs – two acts of random kindness. I’m a big believer in What goes round comes round and I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I’ve had Bad back for those mistakes, but the way I’ve tried to live my life for the last seven or eight years is just trying to be a better person, trying to be creative and trying to make the world a better place.”

“When we talked about this a few years ago,” I said, “you told me your son had turned your life round.”

“That was it,” said Del. “I went to jail and I had never been away from my son for a day of his life – he was about 5 – and that was a shock to my system. What I was doing at that time – selling pot – gave me what middle class people would call flexi-time. So I did very little work. I would go out for three hours on a Sunday and make £1,000. I could live on that and spend lots of time with my son. Going to jail was a shock to my system. I wanted positive affirmation for my son. My son is now in all the top classes at school, never been in trouble at school. He is all the things I wasn’t at 15.”

“And how old is he now?”

“15.”

“Even if I stop doing stand-up tomorrow,” Del told me, “in the last eight, nine, ten years, it was never about fame or fortune. It was about me actually putting some good into the world. It was about bringing my son up with positive affirmation, because I don’t want him to be a scally like I was. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. Tomorrow, I could go back to doing what I done ten or twenty years  ago. Who knows?”

“You sold pot,” I said, “and…?”

“Only pot,” said Del. “I’ve never sold any Class ‘A’. After everything I saw with my parents, I never ever wanted to sell Class ‘A” – I don’t believe you get any luck with the money.”

“And your father…” I prompted.

“They were the main dealers,” explained Del, “for the whole West Coast of Scotland for about eight years.”

“And he was using it as well?”

“Yes. He was using it from the 1970s. But people don’t understand that there were no illegal drugs in this country back then. There was a small select group where he came from of about eight people. And that’s all there was for many years. They got their drugs by breaking into pharmacies and chemists and, in chemists at that time, you had 98.7% pure heroin and cocaine.

“In 1979, my dad was one of the first five registered addicts in the whole of Scotland and he was on a scrip (a prescription) from Edinburgh… But the first thing Margaret Thatcher did when she got in as Prime Minister was take away the junkies’ scrips and that’s when the illegal drugs market started. It was an accumulation of the (Soviet Union’s) war in Afghanistan and the Shah getting thrown out of Iran. The 1980s were just flooded with heroin for a catalogue of reasons but, if Thatcher hadn’t done that then, we probably wouldn’t have had the numbers on heroin that we ended up with.”

“I’ve never understood why we stopped supplying heroin to addicts,” I said. “We seemed to have a system that worked at that time.”

“There was 300 addicts in London in 1973,” said Del. “The whole of London. Think about that. While my dad was on that scrip, he had a job, an apprenticeship. He was actually working, going to his work every day, living a normal life.”

“And, getting back to your gunshot wound…?” I said.

“I still get horrific pain,” replied Del.

“And there’s nothing they can do about it?” I asked.

“No. It’s fucked,” said Del. “It makes my leg swell up and the blood don’t pump properly. Veins and nerve damage. All smashed-up. They wanted to cut my leg off and I wouldn’t let them.

“I went home and, after about four years, when I came to London, I was doing Class ‘A’ and my leg swelled up and Guy’s Hospital threw me out with some morphine and told me if I started urinating blood to come back. I sat in a room for fifteen months and my leg wouldn’t straighten – bright red, like a boxing glove – nearly lost my leg – and it took me fifteen months to learn how to walk again, to straighten my leg. I was shot in my left leg and now, when I walk, I walk on three toes on my left foot and the heel on my right foot.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. That’s just how I’ve adapted to walk. The blood clot caused nerve damage in my ankle so, when I pull my sock on… you know when you hit a nerve in your tooth and you go Agghhhh!? My ankle’s like that. But it’s been like that since I was 23. I take prescribed drugs now to block the spasms: you know the drugs they take to stop seizures? It’s them things. It stops the nerves from jigging.”

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Filed under Comedy, Crime, Drugs, Politics, Scotland

Late producer Gerry Anderson on his TV success, movie catastrophes and the state of pre-Thatcher Britain

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Yesterday, British TV and film producer Gerry Anderson died, aged 83.

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed him. This was just  two years after Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. Earlier this year, I posted the interview in three of my daily blogs.

Below, those three blogs are combined, in their original, unchanged 1979 form.

* * *

Producer Gerry Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds and Space 1999, but his career dates back 23 years; it includes thirteen TV series and three feature films. For sixteen of those years, he worked for the expansive (Lord) Lew Grade, boss of ATV and its subsidiary ITC. The ending of that long working relationship seems to have left at least a trace of bitterness.

Anderson is a Londoner. He was born on 14th April 1929 in West Hampstead and educated in Kilburn, then Neasden – “I lived in Neasden,” he says. “What can I say? I can’t deny it.” His father supplied cigarette machines which ordinary people kept in their living rooms. The business was literally run from a cupboard under the stairs. Anderson Sr acquired customers by knocking on doors and asking: “Would you like this French-polished cigarette machine in your house?”

One of young Gerry’s first ambitions was to be an architect. In fact, he says, he would still like to design his own house but, whenever he’s had the money, he’s had no time… and whenever he’s had time he’s had no money. In his early days, he went to Building School and studied plastering. However, after an accident, he discovered he was allergic to plaster. So he went to work in a photographer’s studio in Regent Street and became interested in the visual medium.

He soon moved on to the post-war Colonial Film Unit at the Ministry of Information. He says that was “when we still had a British Empire – Before Lew Grade bought it all”. After that, Anderson moved to Gainsborough Pictures (at what is now BBC Lime Grove Studios). He worked in the cutting rooms on The Wicked Lady, So Long at The Fair, Jancy, Caravan and various other movies.

At this point, he was called up for National Service with the RAF and (he claims) his IQ was so low he “was offered the choice of the cookhouse or the military police”. In fact, he became a radio telephone operator, guiding aeroplanes in to land – this started his interest in flying.

After military service, he returned to the film industry and worked as a sound editor at Pinewood Studios, where director Lewis Milestone gave him the advice: “It’s impossible to please everybody, so please yourself”.

Anderson says: “I’ve tried to follow that advice without any success at all.”

Spreading his wings, he went to a small company, Polytechnic Films of Maidenhead. He worked for them on a series of documentaries about unusual people – a man in Austria who lived for a year in a bottle… a woman who could type in ten languages simultaneously… a man who hypnotised crocodiles. The series was called You’ve Never Seen This. No-one did; the company went bankrupt.

He stayed in Maidenhead to form AP Films with Arthur Provis in 1955. Their premises were a disused ballroom at Islet Park and, eventually, they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for the newly-created ITV. It was only after they agreed to the project that Anderson and Provis discovered it was to be a puppet series: The Adventures of Twizzle. This led to Torchy The Battery Boy, then Four Feather Falls for Granada TV (with Nicholas Parsons as the voice of Tex Tucker).

These series proved a success, so the Anderson company moved to a factory on the Slough Industrial Trading Estate. There they made Supercar for Lew Grade’s ATV. That was followed by Fireball XL-5, the only Anderson series to be networked in the US. Following that success, Lew Grade told Anderson: “I am going to buy your company”.

First series after the take-over was Stingray, which was also the first British TV film series made in colour. Then there was the world-wide success of Thunderbirds. Followed by what Anderson calls the “tragic error” of Captain Scarlet. – The heads and bodies were made in realistic proportion to each other, so the puppets stopped being caricatures and this, he thinks, was unacceptable to the viewers. Anderson’s last two Supermarionation series were Joe 90 and The Secret Service. He then went into live-action with UFOThe Protectors and Space 1999.

But, for all this success, Gerry Anderson is not a totally happy man. He’s had great success and everyone can understand success. But he’s also had sudden commercial failures which, to this day, he cannot explain. Also, three years ago, his marriage to Sylvia Anderson broke up. It happened between the two series of Space 1999 – a show which itself must have been tiring because of the much-publicised production and front-office problems.

Since then, in his own words, he has been “marking time”. His company Gerry Anderson Marketing currently has the lucrative European merchandising rights to pop group Abba. Last year, he also made a Supermarionation TV ad Alien Attack for Jif Dessert Topping – the only ad he has done apart from three award-winning ones for Blue Cars (a travel agent) in the late 1950s.

I interviewed Gerry Anderson in his office at Pinewood, the studios where he worked after National Service and where Space 1999 was shot. He is a surprisingly quiet man who is very polite and whose apparent policy in interviews is to be as helpful, honest and open as possible. He talks quietly and reasonably slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. Presumably, he is a man made wary by a great deal of contact with media corporations. He worked with Lew Grade and ATV/ITC for sixteen years and, as he says, “sometimes it’s better to be a big cog in a small machine, rather than a small cog in a big machine.”

* * *

At last year’s Fantasy Film Convention, you said Thunderbirds was the highlight of your career to date.

Well, I think I would probably stand by that statement. When I was making Thunderbirds, it was not the highlight of my career. It was a terrible chore with horrible little puppets whose strings kept on breaking and whose eyes went cross-eyed and it constantly shortened my life. We got very little footage in the bag every day. It was a long, laborious, painful process. There were many films that didn’t work and were weeks in the cutting rooms being repaired and new shots being made.

So, at the time, I think my attitude was that puppets were a pain and the quicker I get out of this the better. But, looking back, people would say: “Gerry Anderson – Thunderbirds,” and there would immediately be a crowd wanting autographs. That series brought me real fame. I think it did more for me than anything before or since.

Lew Grade of ATV, who commissioned it, changed his mind about the format, didn’t he?

I think really what happened is that he ordered a half-hour show and, when we delivered the pilot, it was such a fast-moving, unusual and action-packed show that he obviously screened it to a few people and somebody must have said, “What a shame it isn’t an hour!” So he called me up and said: “Can you turn it into an hour?” And I said: “Look! We’ve completed the first one. We’ve got eight more shot. We’ve got about six more scripted! My God!” But he has a marvellous way with him inasmuch as he puts his arm round you and says: “Y’know, Gerry, I have such faith in you! I know that if I told you it meant a lot to me, you somehow or other would do it.” How can you resist that? So we did it.

And the three US Networks bid for it, but didn’t screen it.

I was not present at the meetings. I have never been involved in the sale of the programmes and therefore I don’t know the whole story. But certainly Lew went to America and came back with two of the three Networks having made an offer for it. When he got back to London Airport, he was tannoyed and when he went to the telephone it was the other Network saying they wanted to bid for it as well. I don’t know what happened, but the deal fell through.

Since this is going into print, I can only speculate. Whether he asked too much money or whether they had second thoughts or whether there are some politics I’m simply not aware of… I don’t know the reason, but I know that one Network dropped out and then, of course, panic set in – “I wonder why they’ve dropped out!” – and the next one went and then BANG all three went. And that was tragic. I say tragic for me – I mean, it must have been tragic for Lew. Let’s face it, he must have been bitterly upset about it.

You made two Thunderbirds feature films which seemed to be quite successful.

They weren’t successful. They were terrible failures.

How did they get financial backing?

Lew had made Thunderbirds Are Go on spec. United Artists saw it and picked it up immediately. They were so impressed with the picture. David Picker who, at the time, was with United Artists, when the lights went up turned to me and said, “Whatever subject you want to make, Mr Anderson, it’s yours.”

When it went out for its premiere, Piccadilly was blocked. It caused more of a stir in Piccadilly than the Abba premiere. It was a wonderful premiere and it was absolutely packed. Everybody cheered and I remember leaving the cinema and the manager said, “You get a picture like this and they start queuing up at four o’clock in the morning”. We went back to the Hilton, where they’d made all the vehicles in ice – a fabulous party. The head of UA at the time said to me, “I don’t know whether it’s going to make more money than Bond or not. I can’t decide.” I was sitting there (thinking I was) already a millionaire. I mean, all these experienced people: how could they all be wrong?

The next day, the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road (a large London cinema) had about ten people in it.

How was it promoted?

Well, I made a film called Doppelganger with Universal which had lousy promotion. But, I’ve got to be fair about this, Thunderbirds Are Go! was superbly promoted. The Dominion had all the vehicles made in fluorescent lights – a fantastic display. It was well-advertised. It went out over Christmas. But it failed. And I went to my local cinema and there were like five people in the back row and three down the front and that was it.

So why did they make Thunderbird 6?

I think the reason they made the second film was that nobody could believe that this thing had failed. They didn’t know what the mistake was but somewhere there was a mistake. Perhaps it was the wrong story. Perhaps it was released at the wrong time of year. Perhaps they built it up too much in the minds of the potential audience. I don’t know. Anyway, they had to try again. They tried again and the same thing happened!

Why did your film Doppelganger have its title changed for the American market?

Well, you know, I’m not too anxious to knock the Americans on this one. I thought Doppelganger was a fabulous title. A friend of mine thought of it and I thought it was a very, very good show, but I’m not exactly sure the Americans aren’t right inasmuch as they try very hard to get an immediacy into their titles, which gives you an idea of what it is you’re going to see. And, rightly or wrongly, they felt that the average person would not understand the title Doppelganger. So they changed it to Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.

The interesting thing about the whole exercise is that I insisted that it should be called Doppelganger over here because I thought it was an interesting word and, if people didn’t understand what it meant, they would find out. It made the film sound rather unusual. But it failed in Britain and America. Which goes to prove something or other. I’m not sure what it proves, but it certainly proves something.

Doppelganger got nasty reviews. ‘Puppets without strings’ reviews.

Well, generally speaking, I think critics (pause) like to write clever lines. And some subjects make it all too easy. What a great line – “The actors are wooden… Gerry was pulling the strings” and so on. (Pause) I don’t think that their criticism was unfounded. I just think it was wildly out of proportion.

Doppelganger was live-action. You were trying the same thing on TV with UFO.

Yes.

Was that because you had saturated the market for TV puppet series? You were competing with re-runs of your own series?

Well, I think we had saturated the market and I think Lew knew that I wanted to do live-action. I think people were beginning to say, “Lew, you can do this with puppets… If you can do it with live-action… you can clean up!” And so we did UFO and, like a lot of things, it was ahead of its time. I think if it was in production today, with all these UFO sightings going on, it would be marvellous.

We had a bit of bad luck on UFO because there were a lot of sightings at the time but, when the programme was halfway through being shot, the US Army Air Force issued the findings of an inquiry they’d been conducting for about two years. And they said categorically, “There are no UFOs”. It did tend to kill interest in the subject for quite a long time.

UFO almost went into a second series, I believe.

Well, the second series was really Space: 1999.

The Space:1999 series was refused by all three US Networks despite its very high production values. Why?

I think the reason is all too clear now. (Pause) It was ‘serious’ science fiction. On the other hand, so was Star Trek. But, you know, Star Trek got away with it because of (studio) politics. A studio (Desilu) was sold to a Network (NBC) and part of the condition was that they bought Star Trek with it. Then they took it off the air and 12,000 fans – who were probably the only people who watched it in the States – went to NBC and demanded its return. And then it became a cult show. But, I mean, it never had high ratings ever. It’s a show all on its own. I think Space: 1999 suffered from being British.

It didn’t get networked in Britain either. Why do you think that was?

I don’t know the answer to that. I wish you could tell me.

Well, at the time, programme planners for regional ITV companies were very jealously guarding their control over films and film series. There was a lot of resistance over networking film series.

I really don’t know. When I see some of the rubbish that is networked…

It was shoved away into Saturday morning slots on some ITV stations.

Well, I think we were killed before we even started. If you don’t get simultaneous networking, then the newspapers aren’t interested in commenting; if they don’t comment, people don’t watch; it’s like the hoola hoola bird going in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own channel.

I heard somewhere that the original stars of Space: 1999 were to have been Katharine Ross and Robert Culp.

Not Katharine Ross. Robert Culp was interviewed. We met in Beverly Hills. I’m a great fan of his because he’s a very, very competent actor and has a very great charisma. He arrived and I said, “Right, I’ll tell you what the series is about…” And he said, “Look, before you tell me what the series is about, may I say a couple of things?” So I said, “Certainly.” He said, “First of all, I am a superb actor.” And I said, “Yes. That’s why we’ve invited you here.” He said, “Fine. But what is not generally known is that I am also an outstanding writer.” So I said, “Well that, I must confess, I didn’t know.” And he said, “Finally, I am an even better director.” Now all of those statements may well be true. But, knowing what television production means, where you’ve got one picture a fortnight going through – one hour every ten days – in my view the lead artist hasn’t got the time or the physical strength to cope with leading the series and be involved with the writing and also criticise the direction.

I felt that this would be a great danger and so, very politely, I said, “Thank you very much and goodbye.” And, equally politely, he said, “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” We didn’t have any kind of argument. I respected his point of view. Whether he respected me, I don’t know. But the interview terminated there.

That poster on your wall is for the new Space: 1999 film , isn’t it?

Yes. I think Destination – Moonbase Alpha, is going to be damn good entertainment, particularly for people who like science fiction. What I think is a great shame is that here we have Superman on screen with its $50 million or whatever budget. Close Encounters with its $20 million budget. We’ve got some mighty expensive pictures on the screen at the moment. Even Star Wars was almost $10 million when it was made and probably now the same picture would be $25 million. With Destination – Moonbase Alpha we have two television episodes (Bringers of Wonder, Parts 1 & 2) strung together and the title reads: Sir Lew Grade Presents a Gerry Anderson Production and it doesn’t say it’s two television episodes strung together. The damage it does is that people who’ve seen all these (other) fabulous pictures now go and see that and say, “I would’ve expected something a bit better than that from Gerry Anderson.”

I’ve heard you say you’d like to move more into theatrical presentations.

Well, hopefully I’ll never see television again. That means if I were offered a good television series this afternoon I would crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate and do it and love every minute of it. But it is such a terrible strain, producing one hour a week, that I would much prefer to do theatrical – that is cinema – pictures. At the time of this interview, I’m at the point of a very, very big breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about or who’s involved because it would spoil the chances of the picture going.

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

It is a major subject with a major studio, a major director and a major star. And a fantasy subject. We’re right on the knife-edge at the moment.

If it works out, you’ll be producing again. Why do you produce rather than direct?

I always wanted to direct and I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I start my own film company and I’m making my own pictures, when it comes to the director, I will be able to direct. That’s how I hoped to become a director. Instead of which, you find you are so busy organising production that, when it comes to the crunch, you have to take somebody else on because you can’t handle it yourself.

You have directed, though.

When we first started, I directed 26 Twizzles, 26 Torchys, 52 Four Feather Falls, the pilot of UFO – I’ve directed an awful lot of our stuff.

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

No, certainly not. Because most of the films I’ve directed have been puppet films and bankable directors are directors who have directed theatrical (cinema) pictures that have made millions of dollars. I haven’t directed any theatricals, so I can’t be bankable.

You were saying there are a lot of big-budget films around at the moment. There’s a danger in big budgets, isn’t there? With a big budget you do what’s easiest whereas, with a small budget, you have to be more creative.

Well, this is Gerry Anderson feeling sorry for himself. I think, in an ideal world, people who have for years worked on a small budget and therefore got the very best out of each pound or dollar… when science fiction took off, those were the people who should have been given the chance to take the big budgets and produce something really sensational. But business doesn’t work that way. Americans are so much more adventurous than British people at the moment. They get the money and they arrive at London Airport with their sack containing $20 million and they’re certainly not going to come into a British studio and say, “Can you recommend a British producer to whom I can give this $20 million so that he can make himself a fortune?”

That is not going to happen so, consequently, people like myself have not benefitted from this tremendous book in science fiction. It is, in the main, American money. The profits, as in the case of Star Wars, which was shot in Britain, will go back to America to encourage further investment for new American producers. British technicians have gained, but that’s short-sighted. The profits are going back to America. They are not remaining here and they will not fund future British productions.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get backing in Britain?

Why do I think that is? Why, as we sit here, are we likely to have a State of Emergency in the next 48 hours? Because, sadly, this lovely country of hours which, at one time, had so many wonderful qualities, is falling apart. People don’t think any more; people are lazy here; people don’t want to work; people don’t want to take chances; people are out of touch with new ideas. It’s a national disease.

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Gerry Anderson on making movies and the state of the pre-Thatcher UK in 1979

In blogs earlier this week, I ran an intro and the first part of an interview I had with TV and film producer Gerry Anderson in 1979. The interview was published  two years after the first Star Wars movie had been released and one month before Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. This is part of the conclusion of that interview…

Your series Space:1999 was refused by all three US Networks despite its very high production values. Why?

I think the reason is all too clear now. (Pause) It was ‘serious’ science fiction. On the other hand, so was Star Trek. But, you know, Star Trek got away with it because of (studio) politics. A studio (Desilu) was sold to a Network (NBC) and part of the condition was that they bought Star Trek with it. Then they took it off the air and 12,000 fans – who were probably the only people who watched it in the States – went to NBC and demanded its return. And then it became a cult show. But, I mean, it never had high ratings ever. It’s a show all on its own. I think Space: 1999 suffered from being British.

It didn’t get networked in Britain either. Why do you think that was?

I don’t know the answer to that. I wish you could tell me.

Well, at the time, programme planners for regional ITV companies were very jealously guarding their control over films and film series. There was a lot of resistance over networking film series.

I really don’t know. When I see some of the rubbish that is networked…

It was shoved away into Saturday morning slots on some ITV stations.

Well, I think we were killed before we even started. If you don’t get simultaneous networking, then the newspapers aren’t interested in commenting; if they don’t comment, people don’t watch; it’s like the hoola hoola bird going in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own channel.

I heard somewhere that the original stars of Space: 1999 were to have been Katharine Ross and Robert Culp.

Not Katharine Ross. Robert Culp was interviewed. We met in Beverly Hills. I’m a great fan of his because he’s a very, very competent actor and has a very great charisma. He arrived and I said, “Right, I’ll tell you what the series is about…” And he said, “Look, before you tell me what the series is about, may I say a couple of things?” So I said, “Certainly.” He said, “First of all, I am a superb actor.” And I said, “Yes. That’s why we’ve invited you here.” He said, “Fine. But what is not generally known is that I am also an outstanding writer.” So I said, “Well that, I must confess, I didn’t know.” And he said, “Finally, I am an even better director.” Now all of those statements may well be true. But, knowing what television production means, where you’ve got one picture a fortnight going through – one hour every ten days – in my view the lead artist hasn’t got the time or the physical strength to cope with leading the series and be involved with the writing and also criticise the direction.

I felt that this would be a great danger and so, very politely, I said, “Thank you very much and goodbye.” And, equally politely, he said, “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” We didn’t have any kind of argument. I respected his point of view. Whether he respected me, I don’t know. But the interview terminated there.

That poster on your wall is for the new Space: 1999 film , isn’t it?

Yes. I think Destination – Moonbase Alpha, is going to be damn good entertainment, particularly for people who like science fiction. What I think is a great shame is that here we have Superman on screen with its $50 million or whatever budget. Close Encounters with its $20 million budget. We’ve got some mighty expensive pictures on the screen at the moment. Even Star Wars was almost $10 million when it was made and probably now the same picture would be $25 million. With Destination – Moonbase Alpha we have two television episodes (Bringers of Wonder, Parts 1 & 2) strung together and the title reads: Sir Lew Grade Presents a Gerry Anderson Production and it doesn’t say it’s two television episodes strung together. The damage it does is that people who’ve seen all these (other) fabulous pictures now go and see that and say, “I would’ve expected something a bit better than that from Gerry Anderson.”

I’ve heard you say you’d like to move more into theatrical presentations.

Well, hopefully I’ll never see television again. That means if I were offered a good television series this afternoon I would crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate and do it and love every minute of it. But it is such a terrible strain, producing one hour a week, that I would much prefer to do theatrical – that is cinema – pictures. At the time of this interview, I’m at the point of a very, very big breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about or who’s involved because it would spoil the chances of the picture going.

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

It is a major subject with a major studio, a major director and a major star. And a fantasy subject. We’re right on the knife-edge at the moment.

If it works out, you’ll be producing again. Why do you produce rather than direct?

I always wanted to direct and I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I start my own film company and I’m making my own pictures, when it comes to the director, I will be able to direct. That’s how I hoped to become a director. Instead of which, you find you are so busy organising production that, when it comes to the crunch, you have to take somebody else on because you can’t handle it yourself.

You have directed, though.

When we first started, I directed 26 Twizzles, 26 Torchys, 52 Four Feather Falls, the pilot of UFO – I’ve directed an awful lot of our stuff.

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

No, certainly not. Because most of the films I’ve directed have been puppet films and bankable directors are directors who have directed theatrical (cinema) pictures that have made millions of dollars. I haven’t directed any theatricals, so I can’t be bankable.

You were saying there are a lot of big-budget films around at the moment. There’s a danger in big budgets, isn’t there? With a big budget you do what’s easiest whereas, with a small budget, you have to be more creative.

Well, this is Gerry Anderson feeling sorry for himself. I think, in an ideal world, people who have for years worked on a small budget and therefore got the very best out of each pound or dollar… when science fiction took off, those were the people who should have been given the chance to take the big budgets and produce something really sensational. But business doesn’t work that way. Americans are so much more adventurous than British people at the moment. They get the money and they arrive at London Airport with their sack containing $20 million and they’re certainly not going to come into a British studio and say, “Can you recommend a British producer to whom I can give this $20 million so that he can make himself a fortune?”

That is not going to happen so, consequently, people like myself have not benefitted from this tremendous book in science fiction. It is, in the main, American money. The profits, as in the case of Star Wars, which was shot in Britain, will go back to America to encourage further investment for new American producers. British technicians have gained, but that’s short-sighted. The profits are going back to America. They are not remaining here and they will not fund future British productions.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get backing in Britain?

Why do I think that is? Why, as we sit here, are we likely to have a State of Emergency in the next 48 hours? Because, sadly, this lovely country of hours which, at one time, had so many wonderful qualities, is falling apart. People don’t think any more; people are lazy here; people don’t want to work; people don’t want to take chances; people are out of touch with new ideas. It’s a national disease.

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Filed under Movies, Politics, Science fiction, Television