RIP

Once in every lifetime: A tribute to Rik Mayall

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Once in every lifetimeIf you didn’t like or understand The Young Ones, you were just too old. We all said it, and it rings true now. Every generation blames the one before, as we’ve been told, and while parents of kids born in the 1960s and early ’70s despaired at what now passed for comedy when four dysfunctional, vulgar, self-obsessed prats turned up on their BBC2 screen in the late autumn of 1982, the kids knew better. It was marvellous; it was something made by them for them, and their parents were squares for not understanding it.

It wasn’t even Rik Mayall’s favourite work, nor even the work that launched him initially to a television audience, and like any sitcom that represents an era, it dated before the rust enveloped the pin badges on his jacket. But it was totally definitive. His brainchild (with girlfriend Lise Mayer), his jokes, his university mate Ben Elton merely called in to “churn out the gear” and make it half-an-hour long. His career made, a cult movement veering into the mainstream. He is probably the most important individual to come from the fabled alternative comedy boom of the new wave era as a result.

Alternative comedy – loosely defined as an X-rated stand-up and character led antidote to gag-tellers whose material was offensively old hat – was a necessary phenomenon. Terry and June were worrying about the boss coming round to dinner, and Jim Davidson was inexplicably nick-nicking his way to variety show stardom. Mayall, brought up in Worcestershire, went to Manchester University as an 18 year old in 1976, but when back home during holiday time spent every evening down the pub with his friends because his parents’ telly was full of stuff made just for his mum and dad’s generation.

“I don’t half feel sorry for you, having to stay in every night,” he’d say to his folks, both actors.

“I don’t half feel sorry for you, having to go out every night,” they’d reply.

Back at university, he developed a plan to try to find a new source of entertainment for his student generation. He had theatrical ambitions but was a natural comic, something ingrained in him since a gurning session during a school nativity play in the 1960s reduced the audience of parents to hysterical jelly and got him the cane from a mortified teacher. With fellow undergraduate Adrian Edmondson, he formed a raucous comedy duo, 20th Century Coyote. The name nodded to the famous failed cartoon Acme customer, a favourite of both men, and they followed the slapstick model of cartoons but with little emphasis on self-protection, resulting in hospital treatment for each when they were genuinely set alight or knocked out cold by a flying kettle.

The Comedy Store opened in London in 1979, with Alexei Sayle and Arnold Brown performing on the opening night, and soon 20th Century Coyote were there too, eventually moving on to their self-formed Comic Strip Club nearby, evolving into The Dangerous Brothers as they did so and getting on the telly. Mayall’s reputation as a singular performer was also growing; a spotty, spoiled, political activist with appalling poetry was starting to get laughs, mainly via his scripted incompetence and petulance, while investigative reporter Kevin Turvey, Brummie and condescending, was Mayall’s solo route to recognition. Little was recalled of this character once The Young Ones hit the headlines, but nevertheless he remained a key ingredient of the growing Mayall legend, and once he became a superstar, the BBC cobbled together a disparate bunch of Turvey lectures on to video for release.

The poet, just called Rick (leading to lifelong confusion as to how the actor spelled his forename), had much more going for him as Mayall began plotting his next move. Noting the soon-to-be-launched Channel 4′s commissioning of a stack of Comic Strip films, the BBC asked him, and others, to come up with ideas to make them look like they too wanted to acknowledge the emergence of this comic boom. Mayall suggested a sitcom. Given the go-ahead, he fleshed out the characters, co-wrote the jokes, hired Elton to turn them into dialogue and liaised with assigned producer Paul Jackson (who was instantly hooked) to develop the programme’s course.

"You utter, utter, utter..."What we got was a student house full of unlikeable people, and the most generationally divisive cultural phenomenon in years. The humour was as much in the surprise element as it was in the script, though some of the jokes, verbal or physical, were instantly brilliant. Mayall portrayed his alter ego as a childish, hypocritical, self-absorbed nonentity-in-waiting, and did so spectacularly. Edmondson as the psychotic punk, fellow Comic Strip performer Nigel Planer as wimpish house-slave hippy Neil and Christopher Ryan (an unconnected actor auditioned at the last minute after Planer’s performing partner Peter Richardson fell out with Jackson and withdrew) as smooth-talking, borderline villain and house leader Mike, made for riotously brilliant television. It introduced slapstick, mindless violence, second degree swearing, masses of fake bodily fluids, surrealism, barking mad cameos, unrelated sideshows and audience participation, plus the innovative interlude featuring a live band. It was spectacularly different. And like with anything else, the people who complained tended to be the people who were not in the target audience: the mums and dads, who had to find a way of preventing their youngsters from watching this “vulgar”, “unfunny”, “bad influence” of a series without, in some cases, coming across as killjoys. Most failed.

The Radio Times and national newspapers, without exception, used one of two buzzwords in their synopses of the show when it featured in their listings. One was “anarchic”; the other “offbeat”. However, despite its narrow intentions, it became a hit beyond the target teenage crowd. The slapstick element helped, as a well-timed smack in the face with a large piece of crooked wood and a judiciously chosen sound effect will always raise a laugh, even if humans are doing it instead of a cat and mouse. And when Vyvyan was electrocuted by his own hamster, or Dawn French’s barking mad God-squadder was crushed by an enormous sandwich chucked from the skies by Keith “Pestilence” Allen, you couldn’t help but laugh. The element of surprise was key, and it was Mayall who made sure it was there.

"Lord Flashheart, Lord Flashheart, we wish he were the star..."Two series were made, along with a spin-off single by Planer, and that was deemed enough. Mayall wanted to move on. “I don’t know what it will be yet, but it will be different,” he said at the time. The Young Ones was missed, but unsurprisingly it did date, which was why it became an adored comic museum rather than an overblown parody of itself and not many people begged for more. A year later, with Elton now recruited to co-write the failing Blackadder dynasty (in which Mayall had appeared once as Mad Gerald – “close the bloody door!”), the character of Lord Flashheart was created, specifically for him. In Blackadder II’s first episode, Flashheart turns up at the eponymous peer’s wedding, attacks Percy, flirts with the Queen and Nursie, mocks Melchett, tries to castrate Edmund and then buggers off with the bride – all in one scene and all with a healthy dose of fourth-wall shoving. Mayall’s totally over-the-top portrayal of this seafaring narcissist, recreated as a squadron commander at episode length in Goes Forth four years later, was outrageous and beyond hilarious, and despite the character being somewhat irregular, contributed much to his comic armoury, while leaving his co-performers visibly aghast at his energy. It was the first time we’d seen him as the hero, the wit, the heart-throb, the attractive cad. And he was, and remained, the only man to truly equal Rowan Atkinson in a Blackadder scene.

"Yes, daughter..."Mayall loved Filthy, Rich & Catflap, the next venture after The Young Ones which Elton wrote alone. He starred as Richie Rich, a clapped out actor of negligible talent, with Planer as his alcoholic agent and Edmondson as his drifting, violent minder. It aired in early 1987, six months after The Young Ones had reunited for a day’s recording for Comic Relief alongside Cliff Richard, but, despite good reviews and strong figures, the BBC didn’t touch it again. Every time he was subsequently asked how come, Mayall would always say: “I don’t know why – that is, I genuinely don’t know why – it wasn’t seen as a success.” Certainly his character retained some of Rick’s infantile self-obsession but, befitting the self-indulgence of showbiz life Elton intended to satirise. Planer’s character of Ralph Filthy proved he was a proper actor, and often he stole the show. Yet it never floated the BBC’s boat, and it has still to be repeated terrestrially, took years to come out on video, and is only occasionally spotted on digital channels.

Although there was always little affinity with Mayall’s characters, there was something pitiable about them that made them hard to hate. His next creation, however, was quite the opposite. Having bumped into Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran at a promo event, and admired their work as writers of Shine On Harvey Moon, he asked, nay instructed, them to create a sitcom for him. The result was The New Statesman, based in the House of Commons in which Mayall’s character, Conservative MP Alan B’Stard, trod a fine line between believable malevolence and his love of the slapstick. He wanted 20 laughs per page; if he got 15, he’d create the other five himself just from a gesture, a sneer or a chuckle, all now guaranteed comic tools in Mayall’s armoury. B’Stard was appalling; the programme was ITV’s best sitcom since Rising Damp and there hasn’t been a better one on the network since. During the same period, Mayall reprised the character on the BBC for a Comic Relief skit (“Cor, bloody hell, Cecil Parkinson and a whip!”) and narrated George’s Marvellous Medicine for Jackanory, with parents missing the point completely when they complained to the BBC about it being “frightening” and “chaotic.”

"Doink! Bang! Doink! Bang!"When Mayall and Edmondson reunited for Bottom in 1992, a sitcom of squalor and physical humour that again exceeded boundaries of realism, it was like coming home. The characters – jobless ne’er do wells who share a Hammersmith flat and can live neither with nor without each other – were variations on their personas in The Young Ones but without a satirical eye. This time there was nobody in society to poke fun at; it was about the two of them, with little help from others, conceiving their own grimy little world ridden with desperation, bad puns, sexual inadequacy, outlandish violence and intentionally over-elaborate twists. Mayall was the frustrated, gloomy misanthrope who revelled in occasional victories of wit over Edmondson’s character, as useless as his counterpart but more worldly-wise, clever and with an unmatchable capacity for drink.

The show was Mayall’s finest as a post-alternative performer; the scripts didn’t always hit every height going but he exploded into the television screen with every wild scream of terror, evil guffaw or pompous bit of uninformed lecturing. This was the firebrand comic colossus he had always been, but this time he was being nothing more. The Young Ones gave him activism; Filthy, Rich & Catflap gave him satire; The New Statesman gave him a sinister side; Bottom gave him, very simply, licence to act like a child and be very, very funny with it. It is repeated more often than any of its predecessors.

There were some whiffy moments, mainly in longer productions. Drop Dead Fred, where he played the imaginary friend of an adult had concocted in childhood, was totally panned. Guest House Paradiso, a Bottom spin-off, was jokeless and directionless. The modern Comic Strip efforts, such as Four Men In A Car, were disappointing, although Mayall’s spoof adoration of Gold by Spandau Ballet after finding it on a cheap compilation CD he’d bought at a service station was enjoyably cruel. But in making some clunky choices, he wasn’t alone.

On stage, it was better – anyone who viewed a Bottom video or attended one of the many live shows will tell you that while the script was funny, the ad-libs and corpsing – Mayall was always more prone to that than Edmondson – would leave people fearing for their constitutions through laughter. Their comfort in performing together and trusting one another when stuff went awry was never more prominent, and it made them all the more loveable. And when Marks and Gran relaunched The New Statesman as a stage production, with B’Stard as a New Labour convert and fresh scripts each week to keep it topical, he was in his element – though again, the biggest laughs were reserved for his bouts of forgetfulness – brought on by the infamous quad bike crash in 1998 which left him technically dead for five days – and occasional turns to the audience to moan about the one-way system in whichever city they were in.

Edmondson’s desire to become slightly more befitting of a man in his 50s brought their partnership to an end a decade ago, and while he did BBC dramas and an ITV documentary series about Yorkshire, Mayall was forced to find his own new direction, and he too took on serious roles, while also clowning around as a narrator and on adverts, most notably sponsor bumpers on digital channels for Bombardier ale.

The death of Rik Mayall could be the first one that makes the Cream-era audience consider its own mortality. If we were old enough to remember him when he was 22 and affecting a ludicrous Birmingham accent while investigating sex (“I did find out that eating aphrodisiacs make you violently sick”), we’re now old enough to wonder when our own time will come, given that 56 is such a ludicrously young age to lose him, or anyone. For a drama student whose initial self-appointed brief was to make his own telly (“If there’s nothing on for you, you make it yourself”), he achieved so much.

The body of work he leaves behind is considerable; the adoration he attracted from pretty much everyone who watched him as a kid will remain undimmed. The influence he had on the whole shift in comic thinking, however, as comedians got cleverer, sillier and more politically aware, is probably impossible to put into words. He died once in The Young Ones (and tried to commit suicide another time) and a few times in Bottom (fell off a Ferris wheel via a ghostly hand, shot by “A-squad”, among others) but always came back for more.

That he won’t do this time isn’t just tragic, it feels very final for all of us.

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Rik Mayall (with a silent P): 1958-2014

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Rik Mayall, RIP
“Hands up who likes me.”

TV Cream’s hands are up and waving. And we’re wailing at the news the unkillable (cos he came back from the dead) Rik Mayall is no more. A seminal comedy star who, if you’re anything like us, pretty much defined the kind of things you found funny, has gone. And much too early.

Hopefully we’ll put together something a bit more fulsome soon. But until then, here’s something he said to TV Cream in 2013 about being 55.

Being in your mid-fifties is not… it doesn’t hold. When we’re in our twenties we’re thinking, “Fuck, I don’t want to be 50, I don’t want to be 60!” I’ve got good mates now who are in their sixties. I’ve always been ever so slightly younger, just two or three years younger than the guys in my gang and I didn’t have a problem with the male menopause in my forties, which a lot of guys do. They think, “I’m getting a bit of a paunch, I’m going a bit bald, I’m not as interesting as I used to be, I get a bit tired and I’ve got to give up smoking and not drink so much”. They get the blues. I didn’t get that because I was off my head – I’d had my brain smashed in [by a quad-biking accident in 1998]. I was just trying to think properly, so by the time…

No, I’m making a big deal of it. No, I was fine! I was just glad not to be dead. So I was pretty happy to be alive, no matter what. And then 50 comes along and I think, “Hey, I’m really glad I’ve grown up now. God, I’m a grown-up now! I’m a fucking grown-up!” The power! It’s like being a baaaad headmaster. “Yeaaah! Look at my knob!” or rather, “Look at me, I’m 55 and happy”.

Rik Mayall was just 56. RIP, Rik.

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David Frost RIP: scrupulous gadabout genius

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The man and his people

FEW WENT ABOUT THE BUSINESS OF BEING FAMOUS as meticulously as David Frost. Even fewer managed to make it look so effortless.

From his debut on television in 1962 to his unofficial retirement in 2005, everything seemed so maddeningly playful. A whiff of insincerity, a sense that he wasn’t merely the sum of his parts but that his parts weren’t even his own, clung to him throughout his TV career.

Yet he virtually created the modern media industry, if not purposefully then through intimation. Both on and behind camera he revolutionised what was possible – and more importantly what was thought possible.

From the start it all seemed casually calculated: an attitude that won him as many apostles as brickbats right up to his death. The job fronting That Was The Week That Was came about partly because John Bird didn’t fancy it, but mostly because of a nice lunch between Frost and the show’s creator Ned Sherrin. Frost was inserted into a format 95% fully-realised. But he contrived to make the remaining 5% the most important bit of all: himself.

Seriously, they're doing a great jobChristopher Booker said Frost’s most obvious quality was “he simply wanted to be amazingly famous for being David Frost.” Yet away from the cackle and the hair, Frost turned in some remarkable work.

For example, there remains very little on television that has ever been as incisively critical as the sketch on home secretary Henry Brooke broadcast in the very last TW3 in December 1963.

Its effrontery is staggering. Brooke is paraphrased as being “the most hated man in Britain”; he is called a liar; Frost declares: “Your word, Henry, isn’t very eloquent, is it? Perhaps that’s why you so rarely bother to keep it”; and it ends with Willie Rushton as Brooke saying direct to camera: “It just shows, if you’re home secretary, you can get away with murder.”

Frost didn’t make TW3, but it made him. In turn he made a whole host of others if not quite as influential as he, then certainly as famous.

The casts and writers of TW3, its successor Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (1964-65), and the subsequent comedy series The Frost Report (1966-67) were the yeast in British TV entertainment of the 1960s. Frostie had the wherewithal, but also the intelligence, to fuel the rise – and to ensure he rose with them. The whole industry got shaken up.

Ubiquity became the trademark. For a time he was on television every night of the week: four in America, three in the UK. If you had the means, you could arrange to be out of the country whenever he was in. If not, he was there to shoo you to bed with an increasingly cosy turn each Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Now he was playing television like a captain of trade. He owned the commanding heights and became the champagne commissar of ITV, pulling levers and spinning dials and concocting five-year plans. The industry got shaken up all over again.

And still he couldn’t really do presenting. The topical gags at the start of each edition of Frost on Sunday (1969-72) triumphed in spite of their delivery. Frost would appear, his grin and tie perfectly in place, gripping a clipboard a little too tightly, armed with zingers penned by Dick Vosburgh and Neil Shand about statutory incomes policies or the Common Market, only to plunge through proceedings with the same demeanour as a Wile E Coyote plunging down a ravine.

Selfridges presentsDid it matter? Not a jot. It never mattered. The material made the man, not the other way around. If the material ever ran out, so did he.

The best moments in Frost’s interviews came when the scripted questions led into chit-chat, combative and wispy. It was here that he let his knowledge of both medium and message inform his interrogation rather than dominate it.

The jousts with Nixon and Kissinger would not have so wrongfooted their subjects had the host not been so lightfooted in his prosecution.

The showdown with the Yippies would not have worked in any other setting than a studio, where Frost could nail so perfectly his cluster of undignified dopes by informing them: “Laughing childishly when you manage to say a four-letter word on television? Big deal.”

When he told Emil Savundra that he had “either to be stupid or dishonest – which?” it was a question Frost could only have asked on live TV with a garrulous audience egging him on and a larger one at home hanging on his every word. “Well done Frostie!” the studio cried as, shuddering with rage, he strode off set as the credits rolled, surely knowing that such a denouement would have just as much impact as the cross-examination it concluded.

The language of television that Frost helped to write was easy to mock at the time, but only in the way anything unfamiliar is lampooned in order to make it more palatable. The parodies came quickly too, with former proteges leading the charge.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus spoofed Frost with the kind of barbed wit based on first-hand experience. But listen to the hoots of laughter and applause from the audience as they realise who Eric Idle is impersonating. This is no elite in-joke. Everyone is in on the gag – and it’s only 1970, not even 10 years into the Frost supremacy.

Setting some hares running“David came over here and fooled everybody for a while,” said Johnny Carson. “They thought he was an entertainer – and then they got on to him.”

Frost’s strutting around the planet in the 70s stretched the elasticity of his act until it was nearly transparent. Those who wanted to could look right through. Others marvelled at how he kept it all together.

The scrupulous gadabout was once again shaking up the industry, this time on a global level. He funded and filmed the Nixon interviews independently, raising an imperial two fingers at the US networks. He then sold the tapes to whoever was interested, being sure to keep hold of the rights. And still the money bubbled in.

There was no science to any of this. The one time Frost tried to dabble with the elements with was when he promised “sexual chemistry” at TV-am. That particular farrago was one from which he managed to emerge with his status and bank balance reasonably intact.

But from now on a different kind of Frostie flitted through the ether. All the rough edges had been chipped off. Where once he sashayed, now he shuffled.

Come the 1980s, all most of us saw of him was an hour or so on a Sunday morning, and the occasional Guinness Book of Records special on a bank holiday. He was still only in his 40s, but like Keith Richards and the Queen he suddenly seemed to age 30 years in the space of three.

Then, as if to prove such cheap observation wrong in as public a manner possible, he had one last go at shaking things up. Except this time, he over-reached himself in spectacular fashion.

“Richard Branson and I have always cherished a desire to work together,” Frost said when trying to explain the reason for their joint attempt to win yet another slice of ITV in 1991. The bids were stuffed with ponderous quotations from ancient philosophers. Money splashed about the place, with £45m being pencilled for London, £22m for the south and £10m for East Anglia.

Yet it wasn’t the cash that scuppered the project. All three bids failed the meet the regulators’ “quality threshold”. In other words, they were rubbish. With proposals including “Sunstroke, set in a ClubMed-style resort”, an adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt and 60 minutes of local news a night, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was unusual to see Frostie fail. Twice, in fact, for the same process saw TV-am lose the breakfast franchise.

Major disasterA berth on the BBC completed his journey from industry ignition to brake.

Breakfast with Frost was where things simmered down, not kicked off. It was sofa, so good. The drowsy atmosphere sometimes lulled politicians into indiscreet outbursts. This was the exception, however. The programme was an anachronism from the start: a 1950s colonial-drinks-lounge supposedly at the spearhead of a 1990s mission-to-explain Birtist BBC.

It did change over time, but only to become more cumbersome, fussy, peculiar. After the final show in 2005, the continuity announced proclaimed it to be “the end of an era”. Whichever era it was, it was the wrong one.

For what will David Frost be most remembered? Almost certainly the shop-window stuff: the chinwags with potentates, the tete-a-tetes in presidential parlours, the way he made satire look glamorous and sexy rather than starchy and sad.

But he also deserves to be cherished for his appreciation of how television works, what makes it great, and how it can confer greatness upon others.

He created the template for the modern media mogul. He showed that you can be on TV and run TV at the same time.

Above all he understood what countless others failed and still fail to realise: that it’s not what to be on television that matters, it’s how.

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Bob Godfrey, 1921-2013

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Goodnight, Bob
It’s been a terrible week. We’ve lost Richard Briers, Derek Batey… and now, we hear, Bob Godfrey, godfather of the lovely wobbly, egalitarian animation style that made Roobarb, Noah and Nelly, Henry’s Cat et al so brilliant. And possessor of TV’s friendliest voice.

Below is a documentary from 1971, showing the great man at work…

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Richard Briers, 1934-2013

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Richard Briers, RIP

The great Richard Briers has passed away at the age of 79.

Eight years ago (give or take) we were lucky enough to chat to him about bringing back Roobarb for Channel 5′s Roobarb and Custard Too. Here’s some of the things he had to say…

ON VOICEOVER WORK: Oh yes – it pays well and it’s very quick. I love it. I’ll voice anything – I always have. Well, as long as it wasn’t something horrible. You have to be a bit careful. If your image is of somebody who’s amusing and all your shows are clean, you’ve got to be a little bit careful. I always get the scripts to look at, and if they’re tasteless or there’s bad language in it, then I can’t do it.

BEING A PART OF CHILDREN’S TV AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: I’m sort of an Uncle Mac. Uncle Dick! [Laughs] I love doing kids’ stuff, always have done. I’ve recently done Big Toe Little Toe on Radio 7. Reading kids’ stories for them. So I’m still doing all that kids’ stuff, which is nice – I’ve always liked doing it.

THINGS YOU’D REVISIT: Oh no, no, I wouldn’t revisit something like The Good Life – that’s them done and dusted.

WINDING DOWN HIS CAREER: Short jobs. This is the thing now. I’ve stopped touring and I’ve stopped West End plays so I’m not locked in. It means I can do work two days a week. Great. That keeps the business ticking over, really. Until I fall down I shall keeping doing something. And, of course, sound work is lovely, because you haven’t got the stress of not remembering your lines and things like that. They’re nice jobs to have.

HIS GIFT FOR COMEDY: It’s an instinctive thing. It’s a lovely gift, like any gift. It’s mainly… it’s a very narrow gift. I’m very, very, very good at reacting. In Ever Decreasing Circles with Peter Egan it was a good double-act. He’s good-looking and very tall, and I’m playing a ratty little man. The reactions of this very super sensitive little man against this… he sent me up rotten, and I didn’t know or understand – and that makes me laugh. I think my strength is reacting to somebody else.

WORKING ACROSS COMEDY AND DRAMA: I was always in rep, when I first started, I was always a ‘useful’ actor, playing 70-year-olds or something – and I’m now 70 – and I’d do croaky little voices and things like that. Always did the voices. So I was called a very ‘useful’ actor because I could do very different parts. And I kept that going, really. I thought, ‘Well, how far can I get?’ Not in terms of success that way, but in width. Expanding ones talents. And Ken Branagh arrived by miracle and, you know, I ended up going around the world playing King Lear for God’s sake. It nearly killed me. But, from Roobarb to Lear is a lovely range, you can’t say I’m insular. The good thing about Roobarb is I haven’t got to grow a beard for it, which is fine.

BEING STUCK IN COMEDY AFTER THE GOOD LIFE: I was stuck as a comedy man. The boys who wrote The Good Life wrote Ever Decreasing and gave me a character part, which was brilliant. Because with Tom Good I had to use my own personality for him, but Martin was a wonderful character – I never got typecast. Very lucky. Ever Decreasing Circles seems to be slightly overshadowed by The Good Life. They won’t put it on – I don’t know why they never put it on. There’s almost too many repeats of The Good Life, in a funny way. However good a show is, you can have too much of it. But they don’t seem to put Circles on. They put it out sometime in the afternoon about five or six years ago. That was all. Because it’s a very funny show. And a lovely team.

MARTIN BRYCE: He was a very irritating man. [Laughs] Maybe that’s it! Maybe that’s why they don’t put it on anymore – they can’t stand the little bastard. I find him very amusing, and of course it was nice to play somebody who wasn’t me – or parts of me. So that was good and, as I say, Penelope Wilton, Peter Egan and the neighbours. It was a very strong first 11 team that one. Well, The Good Life was a wonderful team as well. It’s all team shows, not just one person.

THEATRE: I’m not going to do anymore. Well, I might do a little tiny bit – I don’t know. I’ve been so lucky… But I’m 71, and I want to have fun. Why the hell do something which could frighten me to death, or I possibly couldn’t do? I just have a nice time.

LIVING IN CHISWICK: It’s too late to move now, really. All the children have grown-up there. You could swap a palace in Devon for a semi-detached in Chiswick, but then you’d go out of your mind, the bottles start coming out and then you’ve had it.

BEING MARRIED FOR OVER 40 YEARS: Well, you only hear about the planes that crash. A lot of people we’ve known for 40 years are still married. I think a lot of the problem is if you’re very, very good looking and you get into films and go off in a jet away from home. Then you’re with other people who are equally handsome or good-looking, and that’s the danger. Luckily I wasn’t good-looking and I never left home, so I was all right [laughs].

THE WORK HE’D LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED FOR: Well, obviously there’s The Good Life , which will be remembered. I mean, the public hardly see you on the stage, only 2,000 people might catch you in the theatre, but there was 18 million for The Good Life. One of the best performances I ever gave was Malvolio in Twelfth Night, directed by Kenneth Branagh. And that’s been my sort of favourite part in the classics.

STILL BEING ASSOCIATED WITH TOM GOOD: I don’t mind. It was such a marvellous, successful show and it made the difference for the four of us. I mean, Paul Eddington died, but it made his life. He was quite broke and had three children and if he’d been an ordinary actor, he’d have been struggling for money. And that made him. Afterwards he got Yes Minister and so on. So that sort of thing you can’t measure in gratitude in a way. And we didn’t do that many. I think if you become entrapped in something then you’re thinking, ‘Oh, drat, I should have got out of that’. But on The Good Life, the writers said, after 30 shows, ‘Look we’re really sorry, we just can’t get any more ideas’. I said, ‘Look, I don’t want you to write when you don’t want to write’. The whole point was that they loved their material and they respected their talent. And out of 29 shows, you probably got 24 really good ones. If they’d gone on, down it goes. They always do. Nowadays, they make 75 shows and you think, ‘Oh dear, it’s a bit dangerous’.

AMBITIONS?: None. I think Roobarb and Custard to King Lear is a good range. I wouldn’t give it back.

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Alasdair Milne, 1930-2013

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He's resigned, and he's off home

 

A tribute to the former BBC director-general, who has died aged 82.

When the BBC board of governors were looking for a replacement for outgoing director-general Ian Trethowan in 1981, despite Alasdair Milne (as deputy director-general and managing director of television) being the obvious successor, they still went ahead and placed advertisements in the newspapers seeking “recommendations and applications”.

Intent on highlighting the absurdity of this situation, Bill Cotton went along for an interview, not to put himself forward for the role but solely to “recommend” Milne. The bemused governors eventually gave Milne the post he’d been tipped for ever since joining the Beeb in 1954, but their deliberations uncannily portended five years of unprecedented – and wholly unforeseen – turbulence that would ruin the man’s career.

Milne had shot up the BBC ladder, working to create TONIGHT, THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS and THE GREAT WAR before serving time as controller, Scotland and director of programmes, television. Neither a visionary in the mould of Hugh Carleton Greene, or a networker like his immediate predecessor Trethowan, as DG Milne inspired only qualified loyalty from his staff: a situation that evolved out of the man’s own enigmatic personality.

He addressed other colleagues as “Boy”, preferred settling awkward personnel issues over a glass of whisky, and had a very small, tight circle of friends. Michael Grade, as controller of BBC1 and director of programmes, was only invited to his office twice in three years – and one of those was to be interviewed for Milne’s job.

But Milne adored the BBC, and managed to build one of the best management teams the organisation had ever had, with figures such as Grade, Cotton and David Hatch heading up a team who’d spent up to four decades mastering their craft and serving the Corporation.

Trouble was looming, however, in the shape of an anti-BBC lobby more spiteful and sustained in its criticism than ever before, regardless of the fact the Beeb was delivering some of its finest drama, comedy, current affairs, children’s and factual output. When the machinery of BBC governance, very carefully and smoothly oiled by former DGs Charles Curran and Ian Trethowan, became unstuck, everything reached a head and relations between the governors and the Beeb’s management fell into pieces.

A sequence of controversies, mistakes, misjudgments and bad luck pock-marked Milne’s tenure as DG. Some were revisits to old ground trod by Trethowan (how to cover Northern Ireland), Hugh Carleton Greene (standards of morality) and even Reith himself (the point of the licence fee).

But others were unavoidably contemporary. A terrible catalogue of misfortune blighted the Corporation in the mid-’80s. In short, the governors, led from 1986 by the menacing Marmaduke Hussey, saw everything as being the fault of Milne personally, and became obsessed with contriving his departure.

In one sense Milne was responsible: he was the editor-in-chief, accountable for everything broadcast, transmitted and published in the BBC’s name. But a figurehead is not the same as a scapegoat. To ascribe Milne culpability for all the Beeb’s failures was as ludicrous as giving him sole credit for all its successes. When it came to the fight, however, Milne simply didn’t have the stamina to prolong his survival. His lifelong preference for negotiation and compromise over fortitude and aggression ultimately accelerated his own fate.

In the end Hussey and his deputy Joel Barnett virtually removed Milne themselves, collaring him after a board meeting on 29 January 1987 and, presenting themselves as “men of honour”, ordered him out, agreeing to dress the entire charade up as a resignation. A flummoxed Milne made no pretence of objecting, or of wishing to consult colleagues over the legitimacy of his dismissal.

This same passivity permeates Milne’s autobiography, where not only does he leave the circumstances surrounding his sacking to the very last few pages, but chooses to sum up the pivotal, dreadful confrontation with Hussey and Barnett in just five words (“What terrible people, I thought”).

By any measure, Milne’s exit was a tragedy. His successors worked hard to hasten his total expunging from the BBC’s history – a process the man, with typical perversity, seemed happy to encourage.

Disappearing into almost total obscurity, Milne takes to his grave the details of precisely what happened that day in January 1987.

His name, and work, was all-too quickly forgotten, but not just thanks to the passing of time: those forces who had chased him out of the BBC re-focused everyone’s attention away from Milne’s demise by perpetuating, not healing, the rancour. The Corporation is still dealing with the legacy of those events today.

Fundament, Al

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Jimmy Savile, 1926-2011

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"Wow! You see? This little girl, wot I have 'ere, is just one of the millions of little bleeders who I, Mr Fix It, 'ave 'elped, you see, over my terrific career in wot is called 'the biz'."TV Cream is very sorry to learn about the passing of Jimmy ‘Sir Jim’ll’ Savile, who had been fixing things for people for years, before he sadly passed away. A true TV Cream hero, he’ll be much missed.

In 2007, we were lucky enough to chat to Jimmy, under the guise of our now-defunct sister site, Off The Telly. You can read the full thing here, but here’s a favourite bit, where Jimmy talks about the genesis of his FIX IT programme, which lay in his previous TV effort, CLUNK CLICK…

You see, if you do things on TV, and anything even remotely successful, then of course, there’s so few successful people on TV that they’ll do everybody to death. I refused two television jobs yesterday. And I refuse probably three or four a month, because I don’t work like that. So, er, initially they said to me, “Will you do something other than Top of the Pops?”. Because, some well-known faces, they’ve got three or four programmes running, you know what I mean? You lift up the toilet seat and there’s all these well-known faces saying, “Hello! How are you?” So, I was doing the “Clunk-Click” adverts and they said, “Alright, we’ll do a programme called Clunk-Click. What will it be?”. I said, “I don’t know, but we’ll do something”. And I added, “I want some of the people I know, who I bump into all over the country, to come down and I’ll talk to them on TV”.

I frightened the programe-makers to death one day. We’d have a figure who would be sitting there through the programme and talking to me – it was like a guest artiste, but it was an ordinary person. For one edition we didn’t have anyone. So, of course, I went in and said, “I can get one out of the audience”. They said, “Do me a favour, what are you talking about?”. And I swear to you, true story, I walked down into the audience, and they were going, “10, nine, eight,” and I was looking around and I saw this girl. I said, “Come here”. “Five, four,” I sat her down. “Three, two, one”. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, it’s Clunk-Click, Bob’s your uncle … Now then [to the girl], what’s your name?” This was a girl who was very attractive, and – what was she? – she was a welder working with 700 fellas! Can you believe that? And of course, everybody just went, “Hallelujah. He scared the shit out of us, we had nobody!”.

 

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“Let’s see Betty Turpin, putting on a jerkin”

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In memory of Betty Driver, 1920-2011
(courtesy of John Shuttleworth)

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“I received a letter from Joe Maplin this morning…”

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By way of a tribute to David Croft, here’s a bit of Hi-De-Hi at its best (for it was often thus), in the capable hands of the marvellous (for he was always thus) Simon Cadell:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iSvNXZfkJ8

While here’s a scene from Are You Being Served that’s as reassuring in its predictability as the latest “sales drive” was in its inevitable, forgotten-about-in-30-minutes failure. “Then I shall have to go over your head!”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXyVlSQDAIY

David Croft RIP

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John Howard Davies, RIP

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"Can I have some more... of that waspish, frumpish charm, Penny dear?"

A fond farewell to one of British television’s most dependable, dutiful producers and directors, who went from this:

"Can I have some more... reliably entertaining and reassuringly mainstream situation comedies?"

…to wit, the title role in David Lean’s 1948 film version of Oliver Twist, to helming the likes of these:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vq4DhbsyoDA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrHWoDj8FWw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRIyhT7vQXw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT7ZzYL2A2I

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Robert Robinson, RIP

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"Aye, but hush, pish..."

Ah, would that it weren’t, would that it weren’t.

“It’s always a surprise to find out it takes so much to produce so little”:

http://youtu.be/WfGGmpD12ZY

“I wish you’d said ‘mongeese’. I just wanted to live to hear someone say that”:

http://youtu.be/OuhSig9XTXg

A dazzling line up of bluffers, including Geeson, Woodward, Bakewell and – it being the late 70s – Edmonds:

http://youtu.be/HoiKoIZ7wwo

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John Sullivan: We salute you

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We salute youTV Cream again finds itself in the ghastly position of posting up another RIP for another timeless TV name who has a show returning to the schedules over the next week.

John Sullivan, former scene-shifter turned one-man TV sitcom powerhouse, passed away on April 23, 2011 at the age of 64. The creator, of course, of TVC favourites such as CITIZEN SMITH, JUST GOOD FRIENDS, DEAR JOHN and ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES, his OFAH prequel, ROCK & CHIPS airs on BBC1 on Thursday.

Thanks, John, for all the laughs, plus the gold chains, whassa-names, and at a push, some Trevor Francis tracksuits.

John Sullivan, 1946-2011, RIP

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Elisabeth Sladen: The Doctor’s best friend

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Elisabeth Sladen, 1 February 1948 – 19 April 2011

TV Cream is saddened and not a little shocked to learn of the death of Elisabeth Sladen – presenter of Stepping Stones, the best-ever Doctor Who companion and, in person, seemingly ageless. But it was not to be.

We were lucky to meet and interview Elisabeth a couple of times over the years. Here are some favourite bits from our chats…

On her brief time in Coronation Street

“I went for an interview – ‘What? Barmaid? Me? Oh no!’ I couldn’t believe I got it. Six episodes. It was at a time when the cast were treated like royalty. I mean, you could not believe the silver service. They would bring, at 3pm, afternoon tea to them on trolleys. I was actually told not to sit in Uncle Albert’s chair. Christ! I’d been working in rep. Ha ha! Oh yes. And they were all on contracts forever. Pat Phoenix was the Queen Bee and she had just married… oh God, what was his name? And she was so proprietorial, she’d swan in in her mink coat.”

On how Doctor Who affected her career

“Who knows? Who knows? I know a lot of things I got offered afterwards were very different to what I got offered before, in the way of, scripts for a little girl all the time. But having said that, I did feel I still did stuff that I thought was stretching for me. I really am honestly, genuinely so pleased to be involved with such an iconic programme. Do you know? It’s no hassle. It’s really…  I’m very pleased to be part of it. Oh, I would defend the programme to anyone.”

On the day she realised Doctor Who would never leave her

“After I’d been to America, because I wouldn’t do conventions here because someone else was playing the assistant – and I did totally walk away. But they were playing the videos in America – they had recorders before we did – so, you would be … they would show scene-by-scene and you would be quizzed. All of sudden, the videos were out here. It was around that time, and then Jon and I, at the beginning of the 1990s, did the radios together and he said, ‘You idiot Lizzy, you’ve got to get out and promote these!’. And that’s when I just started to think, ‘Well, yes. It’s not going to make any difference now I don’t think’. So that was the kind of turnaround.”

On Stepping Stones

“Oh my lord! With Keith Baron. It was great fun, I loved doing it. I went up to Yorkshire to do that. We had to wear our own clothes, they had no budget. So I got a bed jacket, a second-hand Oxfam thing, and I thought, ‘They’ll have to buy me stuff now, it looks so awful’. They made me wear it [laughs]. I had to wear it!”

On returning to Doctor Who and working with David Tennant

“Well, I spied him at the read through and he spied me. And we circled a bit, and I thought, ‘Well, how ridiculous’. So I said hello, and I got the biggest hug of my life. The first day on the set, you think, ‘God!’ We were shooting one of the crucial scenes, and we’d just done some running together and I don’t know if it’s in the programme, but it’s a long shot of David and I, and, you know, the corridors were much longer than we had [on the old show] and we just seemed to run forever. And there was a round of applause, it was almost iconic. ‘It’ll be on the previews’, and it wasn’t! It wasn’t at all! And I have a feeling they might have cut me up to my waist looking puffed, but there should be a wonderful two-shot of David and I running forever, and I hope it’s still in. And I just thought, when we came to do the scene, ‘Oh, that’s what the Doctor looks like now, he’s regenerated’. You just take that leap.”

On the essence of The Sarah Jane Adventures and Doctor Who

“I never think of this as science fiction and I never thought of Doctor Who as science fiction. It was all about relationships. How you care for someone else and if you do care that much you don’t mind how stupid it makes you look – you go for it.”

On Sarah Jane’s latter day brittleness

“Oh no, that’s lovely! I love that. Because there’s an element where she still doesn’t want to get that close, and when she does, she kind of doesn’t handle it all so well. I mean she’s just learning to loosen up, which I quite like. As you get older you learn to.”

On using Doctor Who’s past in modern stories

“If you’ve got a past life, use it! Don’t ignore it. Because everything is ammunition. I claw back! I relish that I’ve got a past. The kids [her co-stars on The Sarah Jane Adventures] will come and say, ‘What’s that line about?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, that’s when she was blah blah blah’. ‘Ah, I see!’ How fortunate are we? How many programmes can do that? It’s set in a reality. It isn’t just a moment like, ‘Oh, we’ll pluck that out of our derrière!’ Please, don’t muck about with it!

On being ‘Doctor-ed out’

“I’m a bit Doctor-ed out at the moment. I am a tad. But when I go in tomorrow to do ADR, I’ll just love it. Cos I won’t have seen the episode [of The Sarah Jane Adventures]. I don’t know which episodes I’m doing tomorrow. Oh, I might be doing the last bit, actually – nine, 10, 11 and 12. Oh, I’m dying to see… Yes! Eleven and 12, ‘Goodbye Sarah Jane’.”

Elisabeth Sladen, 1948-2011, RIP

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Nicholas Courtney: A real trooper

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Splendid chap! He's pretty sure that's Cromer And, of course, five rounds rapid...

We were very sad to hear about the death of Nicholas Courtney. Our condolences go out to his family. More details here.

TV Cream was fortunate enough to chat to the actor in 2008, when he was returning to the role of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart for The Sarah Jane Adventures. “You’re a Doctor Who fan of old?” declared the Brig. “Well, that’s alright. Good!”

Explaining the amount of time it had taken for his character to return to the DW fold, he continued: “After Sylvester’s last one, Doctor Who was off the screen for a long time. But then when they started the new series they had to wait a long time while they worked out how to reintroduce him. I’m glad they reintroduced him in Sarah Jane, because it’s a good script and I enjoyed it. It was good seeing Lis again – so I think it was quite a good idea.”

As far as Nicholas was concerned, during the interim the Brig had been in Peru “on some damn fool mission!”

“It wasn’t odd being with Lis again. Having been on camera with her before, it just came quite naturally, like the character of the Brig keeps coming back. But I’ve done a lot of audios as well, so he’s been around, but not on the screen.

“The Brig aged with me, and put on some weight too. Perhaps a bit too much! He’s not quite the lithesome Brigadier of old. When I first played him, why I had a moustache was because Douglas Camfield thought I looked too old. I started my own facial hair from The Five Doctors. Before then I didn’t think it grew military enough.”

Finally, he had some more fundamental thoughts about the character. “He was a bit nervous about women, the Brig. So that’s why he called them ‘Miss’. He was happier with a sergeant, probably. Having a pint.”

Nicholas Courtney, 1929-2011, RIP

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Bob says it’s a TV Cream Bob photo clippage special

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Prompted by Monday night’s superb BBC4 documentary, TV Cream has riffled through its own Monkhouse memorabilia for a few snaps from the great man’s Golden age.

"Love is blind. That's why you see so many spectacles in the park."

"Love is blind. That's why you see so many spectacles in the park."

"My New Year's Eve couldn't have been duller if I were Adam."

"My New Year's Eve couldn't have been duller if I were Adam."

"I went to a Gay Nineties Party. All the men were gay and all the women were ninety."

"I went to a Gay Nineties Party. All the men were gay and all the women were ninety."

"Ronnie Corbett's had his pocket picked. Now that's what I call stooping low."

"Ronnie Corbett's had his pocket picked. Now that's what I call stooping low."

"I went to my taxman and said: have a heart. He took it."

"I went to my taxman and said: have a heart. He took it."

"I find that life is like a shower. One wrong turn and you're in hot water."

"I find that life is like a shower. One wrong turn and you're in hot water."

"If it's true that history repeats itself, where are those 1950s prices?"

"If it's true that history repeats itself, where are those 1950s prices?"

"The government wants a working majority. They should do more to get a majority working."

"The government wants a working majority. They should do more to get a majority working."

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RIP 2010

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A salute to a few TV Cream heroes (and one villain) who died this year.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoCpb-tf-BQ

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Anthony Howard, RIP

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Anthony Howard RIP

One of the greatest political journalists, commentators and broadcasters of all time. A sad, sad loss.

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Ray Alan, RIP

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OK, so a few turns on Celebrity Squares and 3-2-1 would allow for the usual brilliant schtick. But Give Us A Clue? How did that work?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3Zn3M-WMzM

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Harry Carpenter, RIP

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Fittingly, there’s been rain at Wmbldn today.

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Photo clippage: Lionel Jeffries, RIP

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Our hero in 1968

A spot of divvying in 1986

Shillingbury Tales, 1981

Brigit, Lionel and Ian as Tom, Dick and Harriet

Lionel with Laurence Harvey, Eric Portman and giant bubble, 1966

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