Interview No 204 Dennis Main Wilson.
This transcript version was created using Otter software for the first three sides of the interview, which were edited and combined with a converted and edited PDF file of the remaining four sides. Consequently, the time codes are more infrequent on sides four to seven. DS.
Please Note: Dennis Main Wilson’s interview is not strictly chronological and contains strong views on politics, World War Two and – of course – comedy and light entertainment.
Dennis Main Wilson Side 1
Alan Lawson 0:00
The copyright of this recording is vested in the ACTT history project. Dennis Main Wilson, television producer, interviewer Norman Swallow, recorded on the Fourth of July 1991. Side one we're running.
Norman Swallow: [NS:] 0:32
We're on the air. We're on… first of, first of all, where …
were you born?
Dennis Main Wilson [DMW] 0:38
I was born in East Dulwich on the first of May 1924.
NS: And what about education?
DMW: Luckily, it was before the war and not now. In the late 20s, early 30s. We were working class family. Dad was an engineer. And one went to primary school, run by the local council. Standards were very high, discipline was very strict. But then the discipline at home was strict. You know, apart from the silly thing of little children should be seen and not heard. That didn't apply, my old man. I talk like a lord knows what you know. But we were very fortunate in that, it’s a nice story: There were five of us who ended up in a school called Deansfield Road which is on the Rochester Way which is the A 2 Dover to London [road]. Our house was right on the bloody thing. And when they opened it up we didn’t get any sleep from about 1935 onwards. But further up the road was this nice Deansfield Road school. I remember well, the Headmaster's name was Dixon. I remember him because his birthday was the same day as mine and we used to celebrate together. very kind to a little boy of 9 he was. But the standard of teaching in those days compared with what I see today, because I've been on parent/ teachers’ committees with my kids, was comparatively brilliant. This is up to 11 years old. There were really four of us. One cheated, his father was in the army. Of the four of us, my dad was an engineer. Very working class. Bill Robertson's dad was a railway goods yard coupler and uncoupler of shunting waggons. Ronald Blythe's dad was our local copper and David Armstrong's dad was our local United Dairies milkman. We all, thanks to this council school, got scholarships to a local Grammar School. Now that is what down our street – I mean Christ they couldn't even speak literate English let alone anything else. And erm-
NS: Which Grammar School?
This was Colfe’s Grammar School in Lewisham, which was a much more salubrious area than it is now.
[Side 1, 3:19]
DMW: We've had odd riots and things there that you know that there was a certain dignity about a school, but to get to our grammar school, “cor, ‘ere George Wilson’s boy Den, he’s got himself a scholarship, Christ.” So you go there in your best suit. The master was a chap called Maurice M.A (Oxon) and he spoke rather well, whereas we was talking more [faux cockney] “a bit like that darlin’ you know”. And I went there at 11 and in four years, no, in six years, they hammered a) good manners and [b] knowledge into us. The standard of teaching was superb. The sports record of the school was superb. I got the odd medal for athletics and I've done rugby and cricket for the school and we were healthy. We had to work like mad. Remember before the war, everybody did a five-and-a-half-day week. The father's work the five-and-a-half-day week. And school you did a five-and-a-half-day week. Luckily we had a brilliant form master when I first joined; it was a bit overwhelming. One of my classmates his father was master of Dulwich college. He spoke rather well and was extremely well brought up and well dressed. But out of this it appeared that I had a talent for languages and took French and German and then lastly Spanish which has stood me in good stead because I ended up when I left school in the European service of the BBC for a year and a half before I was called up at 18 and a half. When the war finished, I was seconded by my regiment to become the Unterhaltungschef of Nordwest Deutsche Rundfunk in Hamburg when we de-Nazified the German radio system. So that was extremely fortunate.
We were then evacuated in the week before the war as an entire school from Lewisham to Tunbridge Wells in Kent.
NS: You would then be, sorry, 15?
DMW: 15 years old, no tears that I remember, no drama, we were looking forward to it, it was a bloody great adventure. A lot of today's - in the 80s and 90s - documentaries on the evacuation. tearful children. hysterical mothers, I'm sorry, I think it's crap. My mum and dad weren’t tearful we couldn't wait to get away.
NS: It's not only - it's not only today's television, is it? I mean, it’s the films of the time, Alan will remember this, they we're also a bit tearful. And they were shown during the war.
DMW: Yes, but today’s documentary makers only look up the dramatic bits. The happy bits are singularly undramatic: happiness does not make good news, tragedy and drama sell.
NS: Only bad news is good news as they say still.
Alan Lawson [AL]: You know what I think a lot of kids were bemused, no question.
DMW: Oh yes. This was a funny one. As soon as we got off the train, with our labels you know the labels in our lapels?
NS: [Interrupting]; Where was it – where did you go to?
DMW: Tunbridge Wells, in Kent.
NS: Tunbridge Wells, sorry yes.
DMW: We were shepherded in a long crocodile I mean, the 800 boys around from 11 to 18 you know, a hairy bloody lot to cope with. But we were ushered into the local big hall and a woman went through our hair looking for nits [background laughter] and I wrote home to my mother is a you know to say arrived safe etc. but nits and she wrote a stinker to the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells “how dare they…” but it was fortunate in a way in that we were billeted with a Tunbridge Wells grammar school, Skinner’s school, again with a very high standard. these what do you say?
AL: Grant aided.
DMW: The grammar schools that are supported by the grant aided part government, but also the City liveried companies. My grammar school Colfe’s Grammar School, which was founded in the 17th century, by Abraham Colfe a sort of local vicar, from the word go was supported by the Worshipful Company of Leather Sellers and still is to this day in 1991. So there's a great tradition, tradition seems to be outmoded at present. If traditional means discipline, there's nothing wrong with that, for Christ's sake. Anyway, that was that and then, war on, and in 1940 there’s this dreadful disaster. The Dutch, Belgians and French officers more or less laid down their arms, stories of Belgian officers had their private cars parked just behind the front lines so they could nip home quickly. So did the French and they dropped us in the cart. I mean, Dunkirk was a total European disgrace: so much for the Common Market. And it meant that Britain virtually had only a tiny standing army left, Churchill was made Prime Minister and in the House of Commons told a tale of woe, he checked on what weapons we had left because it was all lost. Most of it lost at Dunkirk. He had 70 tanks only, a lot of them sort of just post World War One that were hopelessly out of date, and about 170 pieces of field artillery, some of it dating back to the Boer War. We were totally unprepared and had it not been for the Air Force and the Battle of Britain, I think Britain would have gone under.
NS: And what happened to you?
DMW: It’s a long way to go round [the] story but up until Dunkirk, had you been accepted for entrance to a university, you were allowed to go to university and see out a three-year degree course. After Dunkirk, that was stopped, unless you were reading science, medicine, or something of direct help to the war effort. So one knew that one was going to be called up reading foreign languages at eighteen and a half, so at seventeen my old father met a bloke in a pub, whose auntie and uncle who knew a chap down in Plymouth, who happened to be a BBC transmitter engineer who said, “What [inaudible] wants his boy to do is to ring the BBC, or apply to them because they're looking for young men with foreign languages. Bingo! So at 17 I went up to Broadcasting House. And I think I had three interviews altogether and was made a Recorded Programmes Assistant. Vital.
[Side 1, 11:05]
NS: That's a technical job is it?
DMW: No. Thank you for the question.
NS: Please explain, yes.
DMW: This is the elitist snobbery thing about the British. The establishment. Had I been to the wrong interviewer, I would have become a Junior Programme Engineer doing the same job. But because apparently by now I spoke quite quite well in the approved BBC manner and had a good record at the grammar school, I was sent to a programme interview board. So I became a recorded programmes assistant, which is in the programme division and not the engineering division. And thanks to that, this is my career. I had five weeks training. Remember, tape recording had not been invented. There been-
NS: [interrupts] A disc?
DMW: [continues] - a rough attempt to build a thing called a Blattnerphone with steel tape that was run at about 2000 miles an hour, broke and cut peoples’ arms and legs off, which was a disaster. But it was soft 78 [rpm] discs. And if you wanted to edit you - in this modern day and age of the hi fi and DAT now: incredible. To edit a 78 you used to have to put the chinagraph mark on the out and the chinagraph mark on the in groove and do a jump cut from groove to groove [and] to hide the cut you ran a blank disc so you wouldn't notice the loss of surface noise. You added interference in other words.
NS: What's this training at Broadcasting House or-
Training was a broadcast yes. The fun came was when you were playing in music on a 78 and something quite complex with a lot of movement. And you had to do an overlap changeover. And if you didn't get in sync is people that swear to this day. Hands on telephones waiting for something “You missed one crochet on the Saint-Saens or whatever.” So one learned very quickly and with accuracy and the general excitement of playing with the greatest toys out in the world, really.
NS: How much did they pay you?
DMW: I was on a pound - I think I was on a pound a week in training. And then I was interviewed at Bush House for languages and after five weeks I went to Bush when I became a general, departmental odd-bod, just playing in discs into news talks recording people in peluche [?] Yugoslavian- Yugoslavia is rather topical at present, not just Yugoslavia, in Slovene including Serbs occasionally separating the warring factions from the three divisions of the country. I used to look after Madame Le Grande Duchesse de Luxembourg, who'd escaped from the Nazis and broadcast to her country every Sunday morning. And then play in talks in the afternoon. She even took me to lunch one day, for a boy of 17 to be taking the lunch with the Grande Duchesse, she was very charming. And Leo Clausens [?] was her finance minister. He was over here as well. And they took me to the Rose D’Or I think or Giraldo or something in Mayfair. For a bunch of – you know, beyond the Ritz - I've never seen anything like it, right. So the eyes are being opened up: broadcasting; meeting every European nationality some of them couldn't speak English. Putting out news talks in Czecho-Slovak, in Polish, German, French no problem. Spanish. We weren’t doing, we weren’t speaking to Franco. In Italian, so one’s brains became quite, quite flexible in the handling of things and emergencies because we used to work 72 hours on and 72 hours off. And in 1940-41, the news, well 1941-42, the news was moving very quickly. So you snatched a couple of hours kip in the office and then a few days off.
AL: Did you do continuity?
DMW: No still playing in disks.
NS: Nobody heard your voice. right?
[Side 1, 16:01]
DMW: Occasionally did the odd broadcast: “Here is a young English student.” And I'd read something in in French or German. Just a spare voice.
NS: Did you did you write any scripts for example, of any kind?
DMW: No I was nowhere near. The beauty of the whole thing was the men under whom I worked were in their mid-20s to early 30s. They were Hugh Carleton Greene. Professor Lindley Fraser; Dick Crossman, MP to be; Alan Bullock, now Lord Bullock has just published in 1991 his Hitler versus Stalin book. [Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. DS] And these guys are writing the copy and broadcasting and I'm servicing them and this is better than going to any university and to work with brains like that, absolutely incredible. And then I was given as a sort of a PA full production assistant to Marius Goring. Great actor, great writer, great broadcaster, who had recently as the war broke out, written and starred in this Under the Shadow of the Swastika, series, which was warning about Hitler. And we then embarked on a whole series of quite advanced documentaries. Using an American documentary writer, Norman Corwin, would you know him?
NS: Yes, very famous.
DMW: -Who wrote the most superb documentary. So we're now into full blown radio documentaries, and I don't think I'm yet 18 years old.
NS: Or features as we call it.
DMW: Features. Yeah. So the experience I mean, this is years of experience in months, where there was tremendous pressure to get up and go and when you're young, you can learn anything anyway. So that was that. And then this was the Hugh Greene, Lindley Fraser. Allen Bullock, probably [Winston] Churchill I should think. They decided- and this is beginning of my real career, to use humour against the Germans. So there's all this talent and why is journalism great broadcasting sense? The Germans didn't have a chance. So I worked on lots of weekly programmes. One, for example, was called Kurt und Willi , and they're set in a sort of Southern German town.
[Side 1, 18:48]
NS: So this is in which language or many languages?
DMW: In German.
NS: Yeah, just one language.
This is in German, and indeed, not only in German, in the Bavarian: Bavarian to High German – Hochdeutsch- is Cornish to King's English. Kurt und Willi: Kurt, was in the little town, the local Gestapo boss. Gauleiter, whatever. And Willi was his mate the little village/ town school teacher. And they used to meet for a beer in the bar every night, and a typical example would be now “Heil Hitler, Kurt. Heil Hitler Willi.” Then “Did you hear the Fuhrer’s speech last night?” Pause. “Yes. What did you think of that?” “We sank the entire British merchant fleet in the Atlantic last month.” “Yeah, but I thought we did that the month before.”
NS: [chuckles] Yes.
DMW: [That] Sort of thing. There was a half an hour. And never stopped. it was a sort of Beyond the Fringe but with a reason.
NS: Did you then, sorry to interrupt, did you then know or later get to know the kind of feedback as it were from the Germans?
Oh yes, I worked in Hamburg for a year and a half.
NS: So you knew,
DMW: After the war, when I was seconded by my regiment.
NS: And they listened to it?
DMW: Yes, indeed. In Berlin - the Berlin dialect is hilarious it- it's funnier than cockney, all the hard consonants go soft like I went to the cinema “Ich bin ins kino gegangen” in Deutsch in Berlin even it's … “Is bin in kino yeyanyen” and it's all very soft. We had this old cow, Frau Wernika “rabbit rabbit rabbit rabbit rabbit rabbit rabbit” complaining about rationing, about lies on the radio but never-ending non-stop “rabbit rabbit”, every time you got one, every home’s got one. This had great effect.
That was that and I joined at 17, at 18 and a half you were called up whether you are willing not. I would have loved to have gone into aircrew because my dad had been in the Royal Flying Corps in the first war and I've been brought up on aeroplanes as a kid. But my eyesight is very bad. So that was that. You know, if you break your glasses, you'll crash. Clever, so they put me on the Royal Armoured Corps where you're standing in a bloody tank turret, you’ve far more chances of-
NS: 21:45 - breaking your glasses.
And again, this is when - I believe in luck.
This is a separate paragraph. I believe in luck. It is inevitable that some people are born lucky, I’m absolutely sure of it. Touch wood and I've been fortunate – fortunate with the grammar school, fortunate with my parents, fortunate to find the BBC even find the right department of the BBC. Fortunate to meet up with Hugh Carleton Greene and all those superb intellectuals the capacities of everybody there and to indeed to have joined the BBC.
So, called up, you go for six-week primary training, which is you know, thumping up and down barrack squares and things. Except we'd already done that at school with an officer training corps. I was a sergeant in the local school training corps. And before that may say in Tunbridge Wells, the local defence volunteers.
NS: The LDVs.
DMW: Yeah, if you were over 16 you were allowed to have a loaded weapon and join the LDV and mount guard and indeed it was September the 16th, wasn't it, 1940 when the church bells rang at Hastings, there was a an emerging scare; we were on duty guarding an old Brigadier in his country house just outside Tunbridge Wells a First World War Colonel Blimp, lovely man, oh my dear and we're on duty two at a time on two hour shifts and I swear I could hear bloody church bells ringing in the distance, which was the invasion warning you know. So we went up in the garden and my chum [said] “I can ‘ear ‘em too perhaps we’d better wake the old man up.” So we went up to his bedroom and shook him “Sir, sir up, up, up, … the church bells are ringing, and he threw [?] panic. And we all stood too. Indeed, the church bells did ring down on the south coast. And to this day, I've never had the true story. But apparently some empty barges were washed up on the coast.
NS: Anyway, so you're now in the army. I can square-bash with you.
And strangely, as my son said the other day when he went into a general hospital, waiting room. I didn't realise what a sheltered life I'd led. I was brought up on an old Co-Op housing estate. Everybody down our street was either a working man or unemployed. Nobody owned a car. Nobody had a telephone Christ. When there was no money, no poverty. Everybody neat and tidy. And compared with what I met in my first week in the army, it was paradise. These kids came from lord knows where, all over southern England. They were dirty, filthy, unwashed. Lice-ridden some of them, illiterate innumerate bless their hearts, an absolute, bloody, shambles. So I had obviously in our little working class enclave been very lucky. Well you can imagine, you're interviewed by the major of your company because I got rid of the [faux cockney]‘bleedin’ accent, I spoke ‘Proper’ [inaudible: German?]. And it said BBC on my papers. “BBC chap?” “Yes, sir.” “Sergeant, give him the stripe,” [inaudible] the third year? The language - you wake up in the morning. “’ere.” “Wot?” “Who’s pinched my farcking boots?” “I ain’t pinched the fuckers.” “Well some fucker ‘as. Where the fuckin’ ‘ell are they?” and …you know, you think “What’s happened to language?” Er, that was disgraceful. How dare a nation let it's young people be in that state? Or How dare the parents? Because before we went to school at five years, we started at five. We could all read and write because my mum and dad taught us. And we were clean, because that's the way our mums and dads lived. So, Lord knows.
Anyway, long story short. By the end of six weeks, I survived the lance corporal’s stripe and I’m posted to a tank training regiment where again, “ Oh, BBC!” “Yes Sir.” “Keep an eye on him.” So, you do three months there and you learn the ins and outs. It was the Comet tank , the Crusader and the Comet tank was about 26 tonnes of tank powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin aeroplane engine, which powered the Spitfire and the Hurricane, except in the planes they were supercharged in the tanks they weren't. So you had seven hundred horses [horsepower. DS] as opposed to 1000 horses. And I learned driving and maintenance, gunnery, wireless transmission on the old 19 sets the A and B sets: that was it. Apparently I came out of that, I was doing fairly well so they sent me to a War Office selection board which is four days of unmitigated hell: it's a commando battle course built around somebody's stately home where all the offices and instructors and psychiatrists live in absolute luxury whilst they tried to break you and you sit around at breakfast and there are psychiatrists listening to you or engaging you in talk; there are hard military men teasing you or teasing somebody; start with PT two instructors bom bom bom at one particular exercise [and] when you're nearly passing out with fatigue because the instructor is doing it with you. When he's passing out, he moves on and his fresh mate takes over but you carry on. And they tried for four days to break you physically. There was one battle course where you would have already done about two hours PE then you've had a light lunch and then the afternoon you go out and using all the things you know, crossing rivers on the rope ‘piece of cake’, having fun. The Broken bridges where you jump a six-foot gap which if you've got dodgy eyesight isn't very pleasant. The tunnels with a maze built up underground to sort out claustrophobics and things and the other was sheer- [he breaks off]
Oh and you break up into teams, you know, the leader swaps around to see what would you do and things like that. And then the final one really is just to break you. And they got us on the third day to more or less breaking point. And the final one was to scale a huge old tree I think must be an old oak with about a five-foot girth. Get up it except there are no branches lower than about nine feet, up to the top grab a rope swing, land on a pad and you've done it except there was a huge muddy pool at the bottom of the tree. You're covered from head to foot in shit and muck anyway, from what you've been through already. Your hands are wet, your body is wet. Your plimsolls gym shoes] are just caked in mud. Everything is slippery and there's no bark on the first seven feet of the tree. You couldn’t make it. I tried for half an hour and then then I collapsed. But I didn't stop trying. Nobody made it in point of fact. And I came out with B plus. which apparently was good. So they sent me Sandhurst. This is luck. Cockney boy from a working-class Co-Op housing estate, to Sandhurst via the BBC. If that isn't luck. You know? Can I pause there for a moment?
NS: Ah, hah.
DMW: Because I like to talk about my family background from that. Because it has a bearing on what happens. In fact I'll start with what happened.
In 1965. Johnny Speight and I – Johnny Speight the author, well established had been writing a very successful series for commercial television, called the Arthur Haynes Show, [Haynes was] one of Britain's leading old-fashioned stand-up variety comedians, which have been a huge success. It ran for 10 years. There were over 150 shows and they all still exist in the ITC library, I don’t know if the ACTT know that, but they all exist. And if you ever want to use them, you ring me or Johnny Speight. Johnny has given me access to all of them and I can do what I want with them.
We felt - this is jumping back knowing that already started doing The Goon Show. I've done Hancock's Half Hour, I’ve done the first all girl’s show The Rag Trade, which is about trade unioNS:. I’ve done some wild shows. All experimental so far. This is going to be the big one. And we decided that homo sapieNS: is a load of lazy rubbish. Give God full marks for trying, but he won't be promoted next week. In that, it appeared to us that homo sapiaNS: was a liar, a cheat a bigot, a coward. A materialistic greedy bastard and really wasn't worth two penn’orth of coldwater especially if you're British and especially if you're a cockney.
DMW: So, we invented Alf Garnett. We did a flight over Wapping in a chopper [a helicopter]; to save money we hopped aboard somebody else's: Shell UK paid for it, not us.
NS: This is you and Johnny Speight?
DMW: This is me and Johnny looking for an area that will encompass all the location sequences and the area as we were going to describe it. It had to have a bit of a playing field, a pub around the corner immediately. Church not too far away, got to be near the docks got to be near the river. It had to be Wapping High Street if possible. So we did that. We then persuade him Let us go back to opposite big done. And I said to the pilot “When I say go, split us from opposite Big Ben to the end of Wapping High Street where it becomes a dogleg and becomes Garnett Street, where the cement silo is.” He got that and we did it in one minute, 23 seconds. Which is brilliant because it's one minute 43 for Big Ben to strike the hour and join 11.
And that was, made my, titles. If you remember. That was that. So we’ve established the area and then I called in my set designer to discuss what kind of house they lived in. And it was to be a 12-foot square front room with a scullery out the back with an earthenware sink, bath in the scullery, with a lid on where you keep all the crockery a copper [old fashioned water-heater] where you’d heat up the hot water and baled hot water into the bathroom and the cold tap and a bog [toilet] out the back and the tiny garden. And the front door that opens up into a hall and the stairs go straight up and you turn left into the front room. In the front room, there's got to be a three- [no] a two-seat, two-seater settee, two armchairs, a piano, a dining table, four chairs, and a sideboard in a 12-foot square room. Which as you know, that became our trademark. That was it. That, in fact was the exact floorplan and furniture arrangement of my mum and dad's house. And they never spotted it. And they thought that the Garnett family lived in the most dreadful squalor!
NS: I hope they liked the series.
DMW: Oh they loved the series, except my mother didn't like the language. Anyway.
So, so, we paused for breath there. And we want to go back to the army.
Alan Lawson 35:27
…In the army. Yeah.
DMW: You want …military service then?
[They all talk over each other]
Yeah. And then….radio Hamburg at the end of that.
What did you say, you're running?
NS: Yes, we are running.
DMW: Now, Sandhurst was marvellous, in that it had become the Royal Military Academy that stand out, for purposes of war, had become the Royal Armoured Corps Officers Training Unit. And I think effectively, we did the three-year Sandhurst training course in six months. They were desperately short of young leaders and young officers, you know. And there were two wings, there was tanks, and there what they called HAC Squadron, which is the Honourable Artillery Company, which was cavalry, Blues, Royals, whatever, Dragoons no doubt. And I was having a beer in Camberly, of which Sandhurst is a part. My parents had come down for a weekend we met an old Army Sergeant. Probably at [Teddington?] “Is that your boy over there?” So we are introduced. So, we said what are you doing? And they have to call you “Sir” because you have the white thing on your shoulder. And you could say “you are a lazy bastard, sir.” which is fair. He said, “Well, I tell you what: don't you let your boy go in them tanks.” he said “In the first place they're slow. In the second place, they're full of bloody petrol. If you get hit, up they go. He said “in the third place” He said “the officer in charge is only a few yards behind you” and his colonel is a mile or two behind him.” He said “the interference is something shocking.” This boy had been a sergeant with the 17th/21st Lancer cavalry. He said “you get into an HAC Squadron.” He said “You have to be good, we only take the best. Come in the cavalry.” He had just come back from the desert. He said people were swanning around a hundred miles away. But the desert warfare on the cars [?]was brilliant, you know.
So for the first two months, again, they're trying to break you we had a Regimental Sergeant Major. He’s about six foot six tall by about six foot three wide and about 18 feet round the chest great big pigeon [?] Enormous! Great man ‘Shagger’ Brand, ‘Shagger’ Brand Grenadier Guards, who was brilliant, evil and I mean the standards of discipline there will be 110%. You went on parade every morning to rehearse the Royal parade, which you have to do in six-month’s time to pass out, you could you could shave in the crease in your trousers. You know, you could shave looking at your boots that are polished. I should think the barrels of the rifles and revolvers had gone millimetres too wide through constant cleaning. We were immaculate, and they still nailed you when you're on punishment parade on the Saturdays. You know, one finger under one ear. “Shirley Temple, get your hair cut, sir”. And: dreadful thing. You’re ramrod rigid. They used to walk down behind you with his pace-stick, the yardstick and it would stop anything: “shit, here it comes. The dreaded words. You've lost it, sir!” Your name in the book, “What for?” He’d find something so you burnish the front of your buttons. They’d lift the button and look underneath the blooming things and halfpennies in the magazines of the rifle so that they walloped when you hit them. We were shit hot, really was. And then on the passing out parade. Sandhurst, has an enormous perimeter road facing the old building called the Kings Walk. There were 1200 officer cadets in training. I shudder to think how many are left alive.
[Side 1, 40:00]
NS: What year is this, where are we now?
This would be 1943. I was going to put in ’43. The band would strike up and the Adjutant on his white horse in the middle of the square which was exactly 440 yards - quarter of a mile across ,a quarter mile deep- is a quarter mile away he would drill you there until you'd start and come around the perimeter of walk going towards the building and then I think we were about 24 abreast I think as a sharp left turn and you're in ranks – I’m sure it was 24 of us - and you would form a square and God help you if you were a couple of inches out when you stop; that was all done to music. Once the big royal parade started and Lillibolero [played] - hence I love BBC World Service [it was used as the signature tune DS] - had a coda cut off. Thank God I knew music, which brings you to a halt. Very impressive deeply moving. So we do that, go through that, we do a month’s gunnery training, a month’s wireless training, a month driving and maintenance as near as dammit you can take a tank apart and put it back again or you know enough about it so that if your tank is somehow knocked out of action, you call for a REME crew [Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers. DS] who are the experts to come in, but you can tell the guys what to do when you couldn't do it yourself. But you know what to look for and what to expect. So three months hard and then we did the final month of tactical training and then passing out parade and that's wild. Oh, the funny thing was it when I got there, I had a servant! But my mum had been a downstairs maid when she was a teenager. You know I love to talk with servants, but not ‘to’ servants. It was a bit embarrassing but they were used to it [inaudible]. And they assumed that you would - did I cover psychology? - that you would work hard and be passed out as a suitable officer. Because you bought your uniform. Your dress uniform. And your Sam Browne [belt]: measured for it and your servant polished the Sam Browne every day. For six months. I've still got mine upstairs and in my regiment we didn't wear army grey coats the officers wore white British warms it was pure Snow White. It set my dad back about four month’s salary. [Laughter]
Can we move on? I don't know?
NS: We seem to have forgotten broadcasting a bit.
I'm sorry, can do. But you can erase some of that. It's absorbed me taking a long time to get there. Pass off. Bad day [for] filming. There was a fog. My mother and father came down and they drilled 1200 officer cadets who couldn't see; The officer couldn't see and we couldn't see him and we did it more or less blind…Commissioned. Big excitement. What, 19 and a half? [Pause] On a train, posted to Newcastle. Inns of Court Regiment which comes under the HAC, Honourable Artillery Company with the Rifle Brigade and all that kind of thing, picked out by the Regimental Sergeant Major Mr. Whitehead. There are two of us both working class boys, both grammar school boys. He looked at us as though we shit butter for breakfast. And that was it. And for the first six months, we are on Regimental Sergeant Major’s young officers’ drill parade which is nothing, and a small group of young officers drill in front of the entire regiment. And if you cock it up, the boys jeer and eventually you're going to lead them into battle. So you got to make a good, very good psychology. Had a great Squadron Leader, George Strakosch [?] who was related to the Debeers diamond family. I think his uncle had been Governor of the Bank of England or something and I, in my squadron, was the only working-class officer, the first working class officer to be allowed into the squadron.
End of Side 1
Dennis Main Wilson Side 2
Alan Lawson: 00:00 Dennis Main Wilson, side two
Having cut the end of side one I hope. [Laughter] Trim the army bit. Very briefly great experience. We are told as a squadron we’ve got a special job to do on D-Day, which is another year, which is [as] a mobile dirty tricks unit. So went on special training courses, commando courses, how to kill swiftly, silently, in plimsolls, how to blow-up bridges, how to subvert behind lines etc. which I've never had chance to use yet. I'll use it one day. That was that. Our regiment was about to move south to Southampton ready for the invasion. I was seconded to the General Staff. More luck of General Sir John Crocker, who was to command the British Army landing on D-Day. I became his liaison officer bodyguard. Again, more luck: had I landed with my squadron on D-Day, I wouldn't be here today. They were more or less wiped out in the first few days. Luck again you see. I served with Sir John all through Normandy, the crossing of the Seine the capitulation of Le Havre, the split [inaudible] to the Dutch frontier. Into Holland where, having worked with the BBC, we were welcomed with open arms because I kept checking “hier is der…” which is the opening of their topical news talk thing and then trying to get across the Maas which is as the end of the Rhine. Eventually the Remagen bridgehead and the bridges at Remagen, or Katya and eventually ended up in Germany, when a military police jeep pulled up immaculate, with a military police sergeant. I was fully attentive by then. “Mr. Wilson?” “Yes.” “You’re wanted at Army Headquarters, Sir.” And we are somewhere near the Danish border and Army HQ is in Brussels. But no through trains anywhere yet, most bridges over most rivers are down. It took us three days to get back to Brussels, and I still don't know what I’ve done. Think about leave in Brussels, you know, might have been a bit pissed. And I was taken into a chateau, with a gentleman called Hugh Carleton Greene! Luck!
NS: With whom you’d worked before of course.
DMW: With whom I'd worked in Bush House. Long story short, I was given a mass of classified documents to read, which was a breakdown of the staff of the NWDR, Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk. Erich Bach,[?] who ran it was a leading Nazi. He was to be arrested and put in the nick. And then a breakdown on every single member of the staff. We must have had the most fantastic intelligence service working in Germany. Anyway, because I was, I’d never been to university. I was therefore not classified as an intellectual. Because the aim was really to bring psychologically, philosophically bring the German nation back in to the realm of world nations as a civilised country and rehabilitate them by the use of freedom in broadcasting, in books, in cinema, in theatre, all of which have been rigidly controlled by Goebbels. So because I’m not an intellectual, they made me Head of Light Entertainment. And I started with nothing except an orchestra and some singers. Absolutely, I went around pw [prison] camps, trying to find young writers, young performers. I even went into Buchenwald.
[Side 2, 04:47]
DMW: Pity it's not television. I've got some pictures that would blow your mind. On another job, I met an old - Oh pile of bones. Walking around and I said, "How are you? Wie gehts?” “Gut danke.” What is your name?” “Ich heise Kurt Fuchs [?]” “What did you do before all this horrible thing?” “Ich was ein alte komiker - I was an old comedian.” And I said, “Ah!” put him in a Jeep, we took him back to Hamburg put him into hospital, and slowly sort of tried to feed him up a bit, and I put him on the air telling jokes, pre-war jokes. …He died soon after, but that was good. But I’d got some old ITMA [It’s That Man Again, wartime British radio comedy show. DS] scripts out and I tried to encourage my German staff to write comedy. Laugh for God's sake, you make fun of it, “What's funny we’ve no food” “Well we had no food in England but we had ITMA. Well, you know food was rationed and we were bombed as you were bombed, with nothing like that: make fun of the British occupying authority if you like, laugh!” “No to make fun of the British authorities is verboten.” God knows I tried. The Germans to this day- my daughter is married to a German boy living in Munich - don't have humour as we know it. They are unable to laugh at themselves. And therefore at their establishment.
NS: There is a German version of Till Death of course.
DMW: It only lasted I think two or three episodes. With Till Death us Do Part, the Germans used to come over: phone call “Dennis, what you doing?” “I'm doing a new show.” “What’s it called? Till Death us Do Part. “Is it good?” “Yes.” “We come.” And they'd sit up in the gallery behind you.
DMW: And with Till Death… and the mind is boggled, and things like- because it used to go like the clappers- “How many days did you have in the studio?” “One. Today.” “Oh. How many weeks rehearsal?” “Five days. We did one a week ago, today.” “Unmöglich.” Impossible. We tried to help them, it used to take them three weeks to rehearse a comedy. And three days in the studio, which I found surprising knowing how organised they are as a nation, but I think this is organised mechanically and logical thinking. Comedy is an abstract: if you try to regiment and mechanise comedy, you get [spoken very quickly] “Who's that lady I saw you with last night? That’s no lady, that’s my wife.” You get sort of inorganic comedy as it were, you know. Anyway, I did a year and a half there And we ended up with a full schedule, 70 shows a week.
NS: How long were you there?
DMW: A year and a half. ..Unfortunately, with NAAFI [Navy, Army and Airforce Institutes. Provided food and other goods to the armed forces DS] prices and the strain, because I worked seven days a week and I had got blown about a bit in Normandy. I think a combination of overwork, Bells whisky I should think about 10 Bob[Ten shillings = 50 pence] a bottle, 60 cigarettes a day
[Side 2, 08:41]
DMW: and general fatigue, I mean to get this bloody thing on the air - I had a nervous breakdown, came back hoping to be demobbed and they wouldn't have it [so] had to do six months so I was made second in command of a squadron in the tank training regiment
up on Wakeworth Moor [?] on the Yorkshire Moors we had that winter 1946/47 we were cut off. Well anyway as they say in The Goon Show this is where the story really starts. I’m demobbed. At a resettlement interview with General Sir Guy Mannering, I think, who was the BBC’s Resettlement Officer, who’d known my old Colonel which was useful and suggested I went back into the European service and to which I said “Thank you no, I'm light entertainment now I want to go into a variety department and they're a bit cross you know, I turned down a quite, quite, a good offer to go to European Services. But no. So … to teach me a lesson, I was sent it to BBC Radio Variety Department where I was made a supernumerary because there was no post for me, in charge of auditioning returning ex-servicemen.
[Pause] Now this was wild. Already at the Windmill [Theatre] had been Harry Secombe whom I saw at the Windmill and Michael Bentine, whom I’d seen at the Windmill and Jimmy Edwards, whom I’d seen at the Windmill
The Windmill was the proving ground for returning talent. Six shows a day with statuesque nudes who weren't allowed to wobble even a nipple without breaking the Lord Chamberlain's law. And they used to put young comics in between the tableaux literally, and if you got a laugh you were bloody lucky because it's full of dirty old men in raincoats. And you know, show number three ended that afternoon and there's 15 minutes while the audience go out and the show number four come in. All the old men would climb over to get front row to ogle the girls: bit revolting, but by golly, to make them laugh, you had to be good. Bentine, I remember, brilliant. Just came on with the broken back of a chair. which had happened in his home actually, he broken it. So there's the upright arm of the chair and the flat thing across and he came out doing a wild declination where he does a flag and they're gonna fight to the death, whip it under his arm and it was a machine gun. It became a plough. Marvellous, totally original stuff. Harry Secombe did a thing he'd been doing in Italy.
During the war, when the war was over. you couldn't Demob all the servicemen: 2 million men under arms and bring them all home at once: you'd never feed them, house them, transport them, whatever. So they brought them in dribs and drabs, according to when they were called up. So overseas, local commanders were encouraged to get the boy to entertain themselves and Harry Secombe was in an army concert party with Spike Milligan and all that kind of thing. Peter Sellers, God, Peter Sellers, Benny Hill, Graham Stark, all that crowd were going around the world entertaining in RAF camps. They were in RAF Gang Shows. So there was the Windmill because they all came out determined to get in the business. Harry Secombe had been a tea boy in a South Wales steel factory. Bentine was at Eton. That was that. Had there been no war I'd have ended up somewhere. My father goes “Get in the Post Office you get a good pension in the Post Office Den.” Terrible lack of adventure. We're all nothings until the war happened.
There was a marvellous place in the West End it had been Gatti’s old restaurant, just off The Strand or between The Strand and St Martin’s Lane which have been endowed by Lord Nuffield to be the Nuffield Forces Centre, and it was run by a fabulous woman called Mary Cook, who loves her boys. And any serviceman can go in there any time of day for a very cheap wad [sandwich] and a coffee and the odd can of beer, whatever. And on Tuesdays and Fridays in the evenings, anybody wanting to do a turn could you stand up and do a turn. That's where I first saw Tony Hancock work before he went to The Windmill. Like many comedians, most I think, he started as an impressionist, Harry Secombe started as an impressionist, doing a nervous man shaving with a cut throat [razor] for the first time. Another a surgeon performing his first heart operation. Hancock did the whole of an end of the pier concert party. He played the comedian, the tenor, the soubrette. All these things, not bad stuff. Certainly original and good, and very funny. I then saw Tony at The Windmill. And in the meantime, there was a club around the back of The Windmill where all the boys and the girls used to drink called Ellen's Club and it's where virtually everybody, demobbed, in the business went; so I met Hancock, his writer Larry Stephens, ex-commando Major, Harry Secombe obviously, Mike Bentine, Bill Kerr a rather languid Australian, who used to come on doing a marvellous act saying, “I'm only here for four minutes. I wouldn't stay if I was you. Look around if this place ever caught fire you'd never get out. There's only one door. It's pissing with rain outside.” Hilarious.
[Side 2 15:35]
DMW: So I met Bill. Add it turns out that Harry Secombe had an agent, he really was organised, called Jimmy Grafton. It also turned out that Jimmy Grafton owned a pub in Westminster called the Grafton Arms, which had been his family for over 100 years. So quite naturally, when all our curtains came down or whatever, we started gravitating to the Grafton Arms where, after closing time we’d go upstairs into Jimmy’s lounge and chat, adlib gags, ideas, whatever. And literally, that's where The Goon Show started. But literally. The opportunism – in fact, the BBC I thought handled it very well. They allowed me to cover anything where there was young talent. I was given Film House in Wardour Street for six months in the downstairs studio there and I auditioned from 10 in the morning until 10 o'clock at night for six months changing shifts of audition panel every two and a half hours because you will go potty after a while. And we did just over 6000 auditions: didn't find very much. Except the big one was Bob Monkhouse Leading Aircraftman Monkhouse. He’d sent me a letter signed by his Wing Commander saying you know you've got to get this chap. He's definitely brilliant. And if you don't, it’ll give me a nervous breakdown, and we can’t have this. There we are but what I didn't know was at the time, and not until I went on This is your Life: Bob Monkhouse did the truth come out. He was pulling a bird who was secretary to the Wing Commander. He'd had her type it and fiddled his signature on it without knowing what he was signing. And that was it. He was brilliant. He did 10 minutes straight. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, off the cuff gag, gag, gag, absolute breath-taking. Hundred per cent marks, all of us. Years later I discovered it was all lifted Jack Benny, Bob Hope material. And I found that out because I did a series with Bob Hope to the BBC Radio. And Bob cabled me from Hollywood to say could I get Bob Monkhouse to write the English side of his material. Why him? Because he knows my material, my style very well.
NS: [chuckles] Point taken.
DMW: So on we go. So, this is where the battle with the BBC begins. And the reason we did all this army bit, and luck. I’d come out of the army very fit as you can get when you go through what we went through, you know I was solid muscle, very fit. I was used to commanding men. I was used to commanding very senior people in a foreign language. We had won the war, don't forget, I'd served with a very fine regiment, I'd been through Sandhurst, Hugh Greene had given me enormous, confidence. And I wasn't going to be pushed around by any bureaucratic bastard in the BBC. I didn't go in thinking that. But when it happened, that was my reaction.
NS: It was instinctive.
DMW: Instinctive, of course. There were a lot of very old-fashioned pre-war thinkers there. Except for one man, thank God, who was the Head of Variety, Michael Standing, who was a brilliant broadcaster, a good old-fashioned gentlemen. And his opening line to me once was “I know nothing about light entertainment, young man, but I know a lot about broadcasting.” And that is that. The other thing in those days unlike today, I think, when you applied for a job as a producer, in those days in the job description “must be able to devise and produce and innovate own programmes.” And this is [Lord] Reith, attributed to John Reith and somewhere along the line he said I choose to think that I delegate my total responsibility from this office down to all of my- to every one of my producers, in every one of my studios. Delegation of authority, yeah, tempered by a great system, tempered by referral upwards. If you think you're wrong or it could lead the corporation into problems, it's there. It’s a marvellous way to work and the way I've worked all my life but what I will not have is dominance downwards from people who don't know as much about comedy as I do.
[Side 2, 20:50]
NS: You know in my experience the reference upward system has always been there and I agree with you, it's splendid. Is it there now?
DMW: One of the reasons I left a year early, I discovered that when, out of good manners you send the script to your departmental heads I'm gonna do this [inaudible] it then had to be sent to the Network Controller and if needs be to the Managing Director BBC Television. Now I love Bill Cotton, he’s a great mate of mine but he knows fuck all about highly intelligent comedy - he's brilliant, you know at game shows he's brilliant at variety comedy, the [Mike] Yarwoods and the Morecambe and Wises. But when it comes to written construction, comedy, it's not his scene. He knows what he likes when he sees it and he hears it
but I'll fight my own ground on this. Anyway, so go back to the front. We had an idea built from Harry Secombe appearing on - sorry pause for breath, martial thoughts, for a sec. It’s your fault - the BBC also, to encourage servicemen returning - this is in the forties 45,46, 47, 48, 50 … had a massive live Sunday show called Variety Bandbox, one hour, produced by a great woman, Joy Russell Smith, who gave every young aspiring comedian, an audition after the show every Sunday night. And if you're any good, bingo, you're in next week. Or maybe as soon as the Radio Times could go to press. She gave everybody a break who was anybody: Secombe had been on two or three times. Sellers got on very early. Sellers is interesting. I was the first person I think - I know - to see Peter Sellers work at The Windmill. Except for a young agent called Dennis Salinger who is probably the most senior agent in Britain today. He's got Michael Caine, [inaudible] I went backstage afterwards. What Peter did, he did about four and a half minutes of drums, [imitates sound of drums] sticks down, down to the floats, close the tabs behind him. He then went into about three minutes of impressions, which were breath-taking, breath-taking. So, went backstage, grabbed him. I said, “Brilliant. Gotta work for the BBC: friend of mine is casting a show, Roy Speer, casting a new comedy series. Give him a ring in the morning.” He rang Roy Speer the next morning and said “This is Harry Secombe talking, or Kenneth Horne talking, this is Dickie Murdoch talking, sent him up rotten, Roy called him and he was booked that day. You know that this is sort of the spirit of adventure there was around in those days.
So somebody, must have been Harry, I think, dropped the word ‘goon’. around during a Variety Bandbox. And two years before The Goons actually got on the air. You hear adjectival goonery, adverbial, adjectival, goonery. Harry Secombe, that goonish chap whatever, whatever. So, the word existed it was getting established. We kept suggesting ideas for The Goons. There was a senior producer great, great producer, Pat Dixon, Patrick McNeil Dixon, who didn't give a toss for the BBC either. He had his own office with his own furniture up there, his own library. He could put the fear of God into junior planners and he kept putting up ideas. Peter Eton, who eventually took over The Goons from me put up ideas. No, not very good. I've got some of them here. But then we put up The Goon Show proper. Two and a half years. Before it got on.
NS: When was the first transmission date?
DMW: It was May 1951. Exactly 40 years ago. Straight 40 years ago, The Goon Show started, this year. And 50 years ago this year, I joined the Beeb. There’s rumours, the story up in some great big executive meeting, programme meeting in Broadcasting House, somebody said, “Well what's all this about this ‘go on’ show. Anyway, we got on. It was wild. And very important. We were only in our early-mid 20s. Except for Spike who I think was 30. Now if you co-relate that to this year, 1991, that
DMW: is the equivalent of coming down from this year's Cambridge University Footlights. And starting from scratch. Not being worldly wise, though. We had the advantage in that we've been away for four or five years, in a war.
[Side 2, 26:51]
Some of us had a quite hairy time. And we’d bashed around the world. And for 23-,24-, 25- year-olds who were pretty bloody mature.
That's the difference. But when we started The Goon Show, we were younger I think then when Ben Elton was when he started, but about the same age as Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson when they started because it was I who brought Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma down from Cambridge for their first ever BBC show.
And what happened today people look back on The Goon Show, as if we were the same age that Spike is now, criticising that point of view: we were kids, just as they were. Anyway, very quick: two series of The Goon Show. It was a documentary format, because Michael Bentine was in it and from my documentary work in German region. I was documentary-literal minded. Spike on the other hand, who was articulately illiterate, I think is the best way to describe him. Well, he's Irish, if you read his poetry, you know ‘there's a hole in the sky where the rain comes in. That is why rain is thin.’ and was going into total surrealism. He's also some kind of very interesting psychotic nut; either that or he’s the biggest con-man ever. Haven’t decided yet…
NS: Or both.
DMW: Or both. Yeah.
NS: Your precise role was, Dennis?
NS: You were credited.
DMW: I was, I was the producer, who was trying to bash the BBC to let us do it.
NS: Was it - was it a live show?
DMW: Yes. Had to be, had to be. So-
NS: Sorry, it's an obvious question, but an important for posterity.
[Side 2, 28:55]
DMW: No, I couldn't get it on. So ‘The Goons’ appealed to Pat Dixon who was very senior. And he persuaded them to do it. And somewhere in my archive, after the pilot, I have a note copied to me from Pat Dixon to the Head of Department saying ‘having done it I've no wish to do the series, Wilson should do it, there’s no point in two of us doing it and I'm too old’ something like that. So, it came back to me for all the work. I did two series. It was awful. It was exciting. In that Bentine was co-writing as well and to compare Bentine from Eton, with Spike brought up son of an Indian Army NCO, one a wild woolly thinker, the other one almost a scientific thinker. But at least we got on.
NS: [interrupts] The human chemistry, the human chemistry. [They talk over each other]
DMW: Would you like to stop for a second? [Tape stops and resumes] Yeah, I think that the first series of The Goon Show, among our own age group it worked, but didn't create any great panjandrum [?] in the nation. So some of the boys had wanted to do a television series. Already. This is 1952! And I was furious. I couldn't even get bloody scripts for the radio series, which was contracted and you started any minute now. So, I wrote complaining bitterly. This is my memo dated eighth January 1952. “With regard to this proposed Goons television show, I've elicited the basic idea hailed from Michael Bentine, when he was offered his own single TV show. With regard to the three other goons, Spike Milligan tells me was talked into it by Bentine but if I can get him out of it, he'd be grateful. He's of the opinion that would be impossible to do a television show and write the radio show at the same time. He's also basically against doing what could only be a Goon television show, without having the fourth member, Harry Secombe available, because he's on stage. Peter Sellers thinks what anybody else is thinking at any given moment. That, that's the sort of-
NS: [interrupts] Who the, who did you address that to?
DMW: Michael Standing, Head of whatever.
I've got lots of notes here saying there must be more planning of the complete show some weeks before settling down to work them out in full. In other words, let's meet before rather than during the writing, especially in the studio on the day of the show. It was – which Spike to this day still does. Now, Spike’s difficulty is, it's an insecurity in what he's written, so like his Q series you know, you've done a camera run through, yeah, he still wants to, he pulls out another… idea, he wants to rewrite it on the spot, which is different props, different scenery, different costumes. Oh, yeah, and then he gets upset because everybody goes wild, and says, “The BBC don't like me.” Rubbish!
Anyway, it all boiled up in the end, in the meantime, anyway I’d already met Hancock. And I knew what I wanted to do. Bentine left, it was all fairly amicable, and I left. I was also I think the wrong guy to produce a Goon Show, because I was a wild and hairy youngster. And whilst nobody else knew about it, it needed an older, steadier, experienced hand to run this motley lot. And Peter Eton was an old established BBC drama producer who'd been invalided out during the war who treated them like rookies but with the greatest [respect]. He and Spike got on very well indeed. So that’s that.
Anyway, I'd also met up with these two 19-year-olds, Galton and Simpson. Again, luck, you see. I’d met Hancock and dearly wanted to work with him. And this is in 19, I think October ’51, the year we started The Goon Show. A programme called Happy-Go-Lucky was a big one-hour spectacular on Sunday nights starring Derek Roy. It was falling to bits at the seams, the cast hated each other. They hated the writers and writers hated them, and bless him, the producer had a nervous breakdown. So, there were three more shows to go, “Would I take it on, it can't get any worse, was the feeling. Do what you think with it.”
Well, in it, there was a resident sketch [about] four sea scouts and the Scoutmaster was one Tony Hancock. And a young man called Benny Hill and a young man called Dick Emery. [The resident sketch was The Eager Beavers, which included Bill Kerr, Peter Butterworth and Graham Stark. DS] It's all it’s 1951 so I arrived took one look at the script, fired all the writers and I fired a lot of the cast. And brought in new - we'd only had about a few days’ notice, so we scrabbled together and did the first show ourselves. Which I gather was an improvement. And I grabbed a light entertainment script editor a brilliant man called Gale Pedrick to say “two more shows to go, can’t do any harm, got any youngsters who need experience because we need some. He said “Yes, I've got these two young chaps who wrote to me they're only 19 and the other one’s 20, I think.” And this is where I met Alan Simpson and Ray Galton. They came in to write the last two sketches which included Hancock. And we never looked back.
Because, apparently, I'd done quite well on these spectaculars, I then got launched on a series of one-hour live spectaculars and the various kinds of all-star bill titles: Forces All Star Bill, All Star Bill etc. And it literally was used to take the cream of the talent in the West End at Sunday night. So whenever there was American musical, haul in the stars, if there was a big film, with a big American star in, grab him, the boys would write a sketch for him and Hancock, and then whatever. One lovely scene with Hancock and Maurice Chevalier, was beautiful. But there became a big fight, because we were the new generation, we weren’t senior, to get a decent studio. We …do it on Sunday, Sunday nights, because the boys were in theatre [the other nights?] And of course, the BBC’s star studio is the Paris Cinema for radio and Take It From Here had that Jimmy Edwards, Joy Nichols, and they were the seniors, very good top show. So, I was talking to Peter Sellers in Jimmy Grafton’s. And I said “Where can we get, can’t get a theatre round here?” “Talk to Uncle Bertie.” Uncle Bertie is Peter’s uncle Bertie Ray. His mum was Peggy Ray. And Uncle Bertie is manager of the Garrick Theatre in Charing Cross Road for Jack Buchanan, who is in Hollywood making [The] Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and has been for at least a year. So, we troop round to see uncle Bertie, “can we have his theatre on a Sunday night?” “Yeah. I’ll ring Jack.” There we are. So for nearly two years, I have the Garrick theatre every Sunday night.
They used to have to strike [the set] whenever a play was on. Reset for a 48-piece orchestra. Those days, the MU [Musicians Union] ruined, I think, the superb genius in British musicians, they were three quid [£3] a session. Plus, overtime. And the MU study bumped up the rates. I used to work with a 48-piece bloody orchestra. The amount of work I gave to musicians was fabulous, you know, these days it's a keyboard, drums and a couple of guitars. And in proportion, it still costs more than a 48-piece orchestra, comparatively speaking, in real terms. Silly union, silly men. But I'd Stanley Black and The Dance Orchestra was my MD [Musical Director] for 10 years; I used to augment all the brass with the Ted Heath Band and the noise we made was out of this bloody world. So we did that. And then we started, we put Tony in residence, against guest stars. “Jimmy Robertson Justice is in the new film, so bring in Jimmy Robertson Justice”, things like that. “Margaret Lockwood’s made a film: do a love scene, Hancock and Maggie Lockwood.” Marvellous experience. Don't forget I’m not yet 30.
AL: What, this is 1953?
NS: And these sequences were written by a Galton & Simpson?
DMW: All totally by Galton & Simpson, every one.
Now the humour wasn't that brilliant. I mean, we did one, was it with Maurice Chevalier and we were working in French and a line like,
[Side 2, 38:46]
DMW: to Hancock: “Vous callez votre self un legionnaire?” “Oui, mon colonel”, “well get your legionnaire cut.” You know it wasn't all that brilliant, but for the 1950s it was better than most that was on the air. So that was that and then, if I can find it [searching]… a pause for a sec, pause, pause, pause, pause, pause while I try and find-
it [whistles] there we are. And then in May 1953, first of May 1953, I know because it's my birthday, which probably explains this memorandum. Probably one or two jars [drinks] Galton and Simpson and Hancock and I were in the office and we wrote a sort of ‘Gettysburg Address’ to BBC executive programme management. saying “we, Tony Hancock, Galton and Simpson and I are of the opinion that it is possible to please most of the people most of the time without in any way dropping our standards of humour and quality of broadcasting, blah, blah, blah.” Dennis Main Wilson. Nothing for a long time. And then the trickle started: we did a couple of really super All Star Bills, in which one we were rehearsing in the Garrick on a Sunday and the commissionaire came up from the stage. Door, and he said, “I don't want to worry you Den, there’s a funny man wandering around the back of the theatre with a funny hat on, better come down.” So, I go down, and it’s Jack Buchanon you know, always wore the Fedora. “Hello! Hello. [inaudible] jolly good thing about your show.” And he said “Welcome to the theatre, everything all right?” “Yes” “So, just to remind you it is my theatre. And I do do walk-ons.” And I thought “Bully for you.” He said, “One suggestion, I'd like you to come up to the flat, and have a drink afterwards.” And he had a penthouse suite on top of the Garrick theatre, as indeed he had had on top of the old Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square. He had a super palatial luxury penthouse overlooking Leicester Square. Before it became the Odeon Leicester Square. That was the old Alhambra. So that was that. And he watched the show, from the back of the stalls, took us up for drinks and made noises to the effect that the standard he thought was superbly high, quality was good musically, script everything. He said “Make you a proposition. You write me a Review for this theatre as we used to do in the good old days with Tom Walls, Ralph Lynn, Winifred Shotter” he said “and you’ve got a job for life.” So, we went boggled: none of us knew the slightest thing about the theatre, about stagecraft, and any way we're on the wireless so that's that. God, I wish we’d taken it up.
However, early the next year, in February 1954 - I have a memo here which I wrote, saying this is to confirm that Tony Hancock had received his contract for the new series starting next October. We’ve discussed this half-hour series at great length both with Tony Hancock and Galton and Simpson have decided that, with your approval to base it on the same lines as our programme suggestion for Hancock dated 1 May 1953. So, we’d won.
And bingo we get Hancock’s Half Hour. So in the space of a few years, by the age of 30, I got The Goon Show under my belt, Hancock’s Half Hour under my belt and dozens of other kinds of one offs. I'm very lucky. I did the first four series of Hancock’s Half Hour. It's old history now.
We did the first series and we were rebooked immediately to start again 10 weeks later which meant writing flat out. And I took the first script of down to the Adelphi Theatre where Tony was resident with the Jimmy Edwards on the Friday night, he didn't like to see scripts too far in advance because they go flat on him. And Hancock’s true métier, I think to this date was the theatre, he hated it, he was terrified. Again, he never learned stage-craft but to get the full value of him, I have often described it, you could stand at the back of the stalls of the Adelphi, which was a long narrow auditorium with solid ranks of heads and shoulders going down to the apron of the stage, and the cliché the theatre rocked with laughter, you could see the whole theatre heaving.
[End of Side 2]
SIDE 3, TAPE 2
o:spt="75" o:preferrelative="t" path="m@4@5l@4@11@9@11@9@5xe" filled="f"
DMW: Talking about Tony Hancock and the theatre, it’s very strange, he had a natural intuitive gift which wasn't to help him later in life actually. He would be on stage doing his act and imagine a woman in row H, half way across tittered in the wrong place, he would stop immediately and nail her with a glare, and Hancock glare, I call it the fog face, and the audience would just fall out of their bloody seats. ...And he was super sensitive to an audience. He would alter his phrasing and mould it, and without knowing he was doing it I’m sure, to pick up from the laugh and weave it into to what happened next. His act was awful, he always used it, until he died, he was still doing the same bloody act of, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, “I’m so ugly”, and things like this. And oh impressions, a bad impressionist, [faux American] “and as the sun sinks slowly over the jagged rock from the beach we hear a voice of a native mother calling to her young, you’ve come here to enjoy yourself and enjoy yourself you bloody well will, come here!” This sort of thing. [There is some disruption whilst the microphone is re-attached]
[Side 3, 2 mins]
And he always ended up with a speech by the front side of the arch, the pros [proscenium] arch, “I would like to thank you [DMW’s microphone has to be adjusted], ladies and gentlemen in the audience for your kind attendance, this is just to say that next week we shall be appearing at the corner of the High Street and Market Road, featuring Harry Trubshaw on the steam roller.” And then he would do the Gaumont British News thing, da, da, da, diddly doo, trying to do a physical impression of all the people in all the quadrants of the old picture, you know.
We then started adding stuff to his repertoire, but the great fun was when he did the two- handed sketches with Jimmy Edwards. In the West End a show runs for the first six weeks and the connoisseurs of the theatre all come and they’re a welcome audience to play to, because they're with it with it and they’re willing you to be good. Thereafter, as Jimmy Edwards used to say, the farmers come in, the coach parties who aren't quite so intelligent, whatever. And Jimmy used to get bored, twice nightly, six nights a week, and he used to start to ad lib topicals out of the evening paper, whatever, he even used to ask old mates in to chi-ike [shout out] at him from the audience so he could have a go back, but off the top of his head to ad-lib, a very funny man. Very aggressive. But super, super guy. So it was they did a lighthouse sketch where Tony had to keep looking out of the window to see what the weather was doing, and every time he looked out a wave came through the and the waves got bigger and bigger until a bloody big whale comes through.
Jim would ad lib after a few weeks or a couple of months. It ran a year and a half anyway. Hancock couldn't ad lib. No way could he make up an instantaneous line. So when Jimmy ad-libbed, Tony shut up. Hancock shutting up is the funniest thing you've ever seen in your life, this frog face again. So Jimmy would ad lib, get a laugh from the ad-lib. Tony would shut up and get a laugh from the shut up, which spurred Jimmy on to ad-lib to top him, and [there was] this enormous explosion of laughter. Indeed it was very exciting, and Tony never really knew how he did it nor why. Psychologically fascinating, especially in view of what happened to the poor old love later.
[Side 3, 5mins]
I used to go down two or three times a week and we’d go and have a beer in the Peacock pub round the corner and when he went on to do his bit, he would always turn the tannoy off in his dressing room, because he didn’t like anybody, any of the mates around when he was working, you weren’t allowed in the wings when he was on. And you weren’t really allowed in the audience because it filled him with the sort of horror. So he would go on, turn off the tannoy, idiot, I’d turn it straight back on again and listen, you know.
And often I would say when he came back in, “What did you do on the so and so line?” “ Why what’s the matter?” “Well, you stopped the show with it.” “Did I, oh. “What did you do?” “I don't know.” It's an incredible gift. But [highly] strung, he used to go through agonies to the extent we did it for the first series, and the first time I said it, we were re-booked to start within 10 weeks: wrong. We were re-booked to restart within eight per weeks. And eight weeks to write a series, phew, that's hairy. Thank God there's no location filming, bully for Radio in those days.
And on the Friday night and before we were due to start episode one of the second series, I went down with the script to Tony to the Adelphi Theatre. In the stage door, I think his name was Tom, stage door keeper, you know one white tooth and a snooker set for the rest. “Evening sir”, “Evening Tom.” “If you're looking for the Boy sir he's gone.” “Pardon, he can't, he hasn't done the finale to the first house yet, it's not eight o’clock.” No got halfway through his act and said he couldn't take it no more, we got Dicky Henderson junior coming in for the second house.” So I thought “shit.” Went down to Jimmy Edward’s dressing room and said “What happened?” And Jim said “I don't know, he just stormed off.”
Went upstairs to Vera Lynn's dressing room and Vera said “He’s been very strung lately but he just went.” We went round to the Peacock pub and he wasn't in there. Went over the road to Rules beautiful old restaurant and he wasn't in there. And rang Cicily his wife at home, she hadn't seen him. Rang his agent Jack Adam, at home, he had no idea. Jimmy Edwards and I did every pub and nightclub, in the West End that night, that was in the days when we had night clubs, the Pigalle and places like this. Great fun. Couldn't find him. And I got home, must have been about two, three in the morning, this is now the Saturday morning, the show was the following day, Hancock's Half Hour and no Hancock, and the phone rang.
[Side 3, 8 minutes]
“Dennis.” “Yes.” “It’s Ginger.” Ginger was Ginger Rhodes, ex Special Branch, who had recently returned from Kenya having been coping with the Mau Mau and Kikuyu tribe of. A big, senior, tough, very charming copper. And I’d met him in town a week or so before with his wife and said, “I’ve got a new series starting, do you want some tickets?” “Oh great.” He had two tickets. He said, “What is the bloke we were supposed to see doing, catching the last plane to Rome tonight or last night? Do you want him followed?”
So that’s partly solved it, we’re not going to get him for Sunday. I said “No, leave it. I'll talk to his family in the morning.” Then four o’clock in the morning, start on the phone, back to The Goon Show, ring Jimmy Grafton, get him out of bed in the pub, what's Harry Secombe doing? “Well he's got nothing on. Why?” Explained. And Jimmy very quickly, because he's an agent, don’t forget, very good agent, very shrewd agent, Jimmy said “We won't do it for the BBC but we'll do it for Tony.” Does that make sense. So, the following day, we record for transmission and it goes: “This is the BBC Light Programme, [music], we present Hancock's Half Hour, starring Harry Secombe. For three weeks.
And the first week, Harry this bubbly effervescent super giggler, can’t keep a straight face, it was a story line Goon show in a way, no raspberries but that’s about all. Second show, he was getting the hang of it and was playing it for real. Third show, he was absolutely brilliant, not a foot wrong. And I tried to persuade Jimmy Grafton to think in terms of Galton and Simpson writing his own comedy series. But they wouldn’t have it. Anyway, the third show Tony wandered into the back of the stalls. Can’t remember him saying thank you to Harry, strangely I think he was very shy about it. But obviously very, very up tight which is a shame because my memories of Tony are nothing but good. But I didn’t do the TV show because I was still doing the radio series when Duncan Wood was doing the television series which he did extremely well.
NS: Did Tony Hancock then return to the radio show?
DMW: Yes, we did the whole series, we did 12 shows in that series, having done 16 in the first series. Before we started the series, another thing happened. Again, I like to start things, I’m not very good at keeping them going, I like to begin something. I forget who said it but the great thing in life is to begin.
NS: Probably you said it.
DMW: I’ve only ever stayed a long time with one series and that’s Till Death; but that’s because Johnny Speight needed some very hairy looking after.
[Side 3, 12 mins]
But when we cast of the original Hancock’s half-hour series, obviously we got Tony, Galton and Simpson who were film buffs said, you’ve got to book this bloke who always turns up in films, he’s either a crook or a taxi driver, he’s got a lovely gravelly voice, except you can never think of his name: Sid James. So, bingo. Sld, he says “I’ve never done radio.” I said “Don’t worry, well see you through.” And Bill Kerr, the layabout Ozzie mucker.
NS: The Australian friend.
DMW: Yes, who was good.
We always had trouble with women. I find with English comedy writers, they don’t normally write well for women, unless they are women writers. Johnny Speight is never really comfortable writing for women unless they are in character like Dandy Nichols, he wrote for her superbly.
[Side 3, 13 mins.]
But for straight women, no way. Gosh. We went through Moira Lister, Geraldine McEwan, Andre Melly. And not until the third or was it the fourth series, we twigged this and I brought in a character lady, Hattie, Hattie Jacques, who was phenomenal, this lady’s timing is out of this world.
Anyway before we started and the first series I had room, having got Sid James, Bill Kerr, Tony, and I think in those days it's Moira Lister, I think, I had room for an odd job, odd voice man, “hello, hello, what's going on here then,” odd bureaucrats and things. So, I rang all the good agents I knew in London and said we’re starting a big series, it looks very good, do you have any youngsters you want me to try out.
[Side 3, 14 mins]
I didn't hear from one single bloody agent. How’s that?
They don’t deserve their 10%, except one, Peter Ede, the late Peter Ede, bless him, he’s dead now, who rang me and said “He’s not one of my artists but I went to the Arts Theatre last night to see Siobhan McKenna who is one of my artists in Shaw’s Saint Joan and there is a young man there playing the Dauphin and if he hasn’t got comedy coming out of his ears I will eat my hat, you ought to go and see him. “So that night I went to the Arts Theatre. How you tell in Saint Joan that the Dauphin has got a sense of humour but this instinct he had, especially in the last scene where the Dauphin ages, grew up, that to me reeked of slightly malicious satire on a personality.
[Side 3. 15 mins, 5 secs]
Very impressive, obviously a bloody good actor too, and young, great voice. So I go back stage, take him round the corner to the Chandos Bar for a beer and he said, “So what is all this about, then?” I said “I’m doing this new series starring Tony Hancock who is going to be a big, big star I think and Bill Kerr of course who is jolly good. And we’ve got this film chap. And I started selling him the idea. I’m trying to persuade the guy that this is a show he has actually got to be in. and he kept me on a hook for about two more rounds of bloody drinks. And in the end collapsed, wet his knickers, giggled and said “I don’t care, I'll do it for nothing.” Kenneth Williams. Yeah. I talk far too much anyway.
[Side 3, 16 mins]
NS: Hancock’s Half Hour is still on, what next?
DMW: I did the same thing to Warren Mitchell.
I did the fourth series, having in the meantime married my secretary in whose house you're sitting at the present. It’s our 36th wedding anniversary this year.
Only because it's not for broadcasting I will tell you odd things that happened.
Hancock can't ad-lib. Also, he's not a stand-up, laugh a line comic. It is an innate thing. And the question of the warm-up for Hancock’s Half Hour raised a problem. So I said let's be old-fashioned and do a string of crossovers. I say, I say, I say. So we did cross overs. Laugh a line, gag, gag. And Tony always was, he was on the receiving end, Alan Simpson used to write.
The old joke from the gag book is “I bought 14 pounds of meat for a penny.” “Was it mutton?” “No rotten.” And Alan always fed him the tag rather than the feed. So the cross over, “I say, I say, I say, I bought 14 pounds of meat for a penny.” “Was it rotten? “ no mutton.” And I tell you, Tony never really twigged it. But this was when the BBC had the Playhouse Theatre down on the Embankment which was a pig of a theatre to work in. It had an a very peculiar auditorium and very, very high fly area, and there is something about the physical shape of the building, all the audience reaction goes straight up into the Dome of the auditorium and standing on stage you can't hear it. And you think you're dying a death. And it's quite frightening. The kids … we got out of there quite quickly.
[Side 3, 18 mins]
Some body said Bill Kerr got into a panic on one occasion, the sound cubicle was on the apron off the stage so it's easy on and off. And Bill is boasting about his educational prowess and Tony didn't believe him and the line is “I went to you Oxford, Eton, all them places.” “Get off!” “Many’s the time I went punting up the Cam with a bird.” And that night Bill went “cunting up the Pam”.
NS: Live was this?
DMW: No, thank God, thank bloody God. There was this stunned silence in the audience. Hancock, there was a heartbeat and he exploded. And he had a very soft belly, his tummy muscles weren’t very strong. Tony laughed out loud, a very generous laugher, he had to sit on the floor holding his tummy, “hoo, hoo.” And he managed to get out, “William, I think you better say that again.” By which time the audience had collapsed as well. So it took about five minutes to restore quiet, and cool, and blow me down he did it all over again. But that was the memory of Hancock, a kind generous man and up to the end of the fourth radio series not in any way a boozer. Indeed, the other way round, he was a mean drinker, in that he’d come over and have a beer at lunch time, the flat, he lived at Kensington. So, you’d go to the flat, go round to his local pub for a beer, and he went Dutch, you buy your own mate.
[ Side 3 ,20 mins]
His agent Jack Adams used to allow him twenty pounds a week out of his earnings from the Adelphi and the BBC. But no way and no sign of being a boozer. And it is then when he got to television that the lack of stagecraft I think began to show. He had never had to submit his brain to the discipline of line learning, a new script every week. Had he had the good fortune to have worked in weekly rep where you're doing play A on stage tonight, you're rehearsing play B during the day and you're reading play C ahead. And you can discipline the computer in the lobes of the brain to accept it as a natural thing to do. And this worried him sick, they tried, Duncan Wood was so patient with him, as the producer, they even made tapes up for him, the cast doing all their feed lines for him. They'd record the whole show leaving his lines out and let him play it at home or even play it while he was asleep. He had cribs pinned up everywhere. But, of course, being live on television in those days, there were no tape recorders-
NS: So … presumably, when he went to television he left you and radio. Did they overlap, I think not?
DMW: Oh yes. Both. Just to finish off the Hancock bit before I go to television. I had some two years before that read on the staff notice board a note from the new Head of Television Variety Department, Ronnie Waldman, that he wanted young producers to join him in television and would we all apply.
[Side 3 22 mins]
I applied and so did Peter Eton my buddy, the producer who had taken over The Goons from me, and didn't hear anything. So, I thought ‘sod it’. And then about 6-7 months later, same notice appeared again, so we applied again. And again heard nothing.
NS: Heard nothing?
NS: No reply.
DMW: Now Duncan Wood was already at television in that he'd arrived from BBC West Region, and come in through the regional set up.
NS: He was radio?
DMW: Yes. So, when this happened once again some months later, having been passed through your departmental head for onward-transmission to Ronnie Waldman, Peter Eton and I bearded our then head of our department who was a guy called Pat Hilliard who had previously been head of light entertainment television, had been relieved of the post and made Head of Light Entertainment Radio. And in the meantime, Ronnie Waldman had been sent from radio to replace him in television, so perhaps there was a certain antagonism. But we bearded him because one day in Barclays bank opposite Broadcasting House I bumped into Ronnie Waldman who was furious, “What is wrong with you two, don’t you like the idea of television?” “Don’t we, like it, you don’t bloody like us. Haven’t heard a word from you.” “I have never heard from you, you’ve never written to me.” Peter met him, Waldman, at a cocktail party and the same conversation ensued. So, we now beard Pat Hilliard in his office to say “Come on, what’s going on?” He burst into tears and admitted he’d torn up our applications because he didn’t want his best producers going to television. That set me back two years.
DMW: Naughty Ii n one way.
DMW: Except by the time I’d got to television, already Duncan Wood had been knocking some of the spots off, because they were not sophisticated, Hancock was really the first attempt at a sophisticated production live. So within a matter of weeks, I was in television to be sent around on a 6 months familiarisation course, work with producers, get the hang of it, do a training course on cameras, etc, etc.
NS: The training course was Light Entertainment only?
[Side 3, 25 mins]
DMW: Well, your brother producers would teach you but then there would be technical training for everybody. David Attenborough and I were on some of the courses together. I arrived on the Tuesday, I remember because the Monday was Whit Monday, I haven’t forgotten that. I went straight to Ronnie’s office, he had been my umbrella man producer in radio so we knew each other well. And he said “How would you like to jump in the deep end and learn to swim quickly?” So I said “Sounds all right,” I said “What?” He said “We’ve got a show fallen out, artists ill or whatever, I’ve got seven half hour blanks. Radio Times goes to press in two week’s time, can you do it?” So I said “You know me, have a go.”
[Side 3, 26 mins]
Went back to the office, I had never handled a TV show in my life. To talk about 1-inch and 2-inch lenses and even props versus wardrobe versus whatever. The usual thing, you’ve got to make it visual which is not necessarily so. I went back and luckily what I’d done in 1948, I think, in radio, I’m mad about choirs and big band music and I used the George Mitchell Singers in one of my shows, only as guests, and there were 16 of them, 8 boys and 8 girls. And they were the civilian end of what had been the Swing Choir of the Sergeants Mess of the 33rd Battalion of the Royal Army Pay Corps. This is literal. And George Mitchell peacetime was an accountant in Surbiton Town Council but an opera buff and a reasonable pianist. He started a quartet which became a septet which became an octet and then the ATS girls came in in the sergeants’ mess. So he had a 16 piece choir. And George who was a perfectionist, and a superb choral scorer, appeared on a force’s show, somebody heard it and booked him into their show, somebody heard that..., and he ends up doing 6 or 7 shows a week. Handley’s Curbside Choristers in ITMA, Standeasy was another. And doing damn good quality stuff, corny but quality. And George and I were very good friends, and thinking in terms of the great big American choirs, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, which were all the rage in those days. This is 40 years ago. And he said “Great.” because we've had so many sergeants through the mess in the outfit over the years, re-assemble a glee club of 40, from all over Britain, as they dispersed for demob. Andy our lead tenor, a Welsh tenor, was a barber in Swansea. He came up.
NS: And you did this obviously very quickly.
DMW: Very quickly. Now hold on, this is ‘48 and George Mitchell is still working as an accountant and he hasn't decided yet to take the plunge, to turn pro, nor to ask his 16 kids, now that they're demobbed. Some of them didn't have jobs. Risky. So this decided it and he went pro. I did a 16-week OB [Outside Broadcast] series with The Mitchell Glee Club. We played the Brangwyn Hall Swansea, the Corn Exchange, Ipswich, would you believe. We played town halls and things all over Britain, always using a local choir. We were put opposite I think 20 Questions on the other channel and we knocked them out of the ratings and Kenneth Adam was furious. I remember that. But there it is, the all singing Mitchells, superb quality, very popular.
AL: Where are we in time?
DMW: This is 1948, we come forward now and this is 1956. Television.
NS: You had a fortnight in which to get off the ground, is that right?
[Side 3, 30 mins]
DMW: Rang George, hurried meeting. He in the meantime had graduated to doing summer shows, seaside concert shows for about 2 or 3 years, had got into a bit of the old, [ a gesture?] not much, and he knew a few dancers. Studio. Television Centre was still being built, Riverside One, big studio, was in full use, drama, whatever, Ambrose had [studio] Two. The only studio we had was Studio G at Lime Grove which if you remember is a long thin corridor with a knob on the end. Can you imagine, we put in 24 singers, 8 dancers and an orchestra and moved them, in studio G in Lime Grove. This is where to me BBC television is breath-taking. I'd never done a TV show in my life. I knew from bugger all how to do it. My TMs one and two guided me through that, my designer guided me through that, wardrobe and props makeup, all guided me through. Fabulous. I had Malcolm Clare as choreographer who had done a wee bit of television. I'd mugged up a big on lenses. I still think in terms of degrees and not inches but I’ve even got the hang of that. Thank God it wasn't dialogue. It was non-stop. And blow me down we did it.
The upshot was we come to show seven and there is one whole bit in George's repertoire that we used to do with great success in radio which no way could we do, this is live, live television, is a change, all of us from white to n***er minstrel.
[Side 3, 32 mins]
And a couple of weeks before we were sitting in the bar after the show at Lime Grove and the makeup girl came up and said I've just had a bloody good idea, how's this. And the TM's with us as well.
She said “If I put on a very light green makeup for everybody, with slightish white lips and slightly whitish, but to keep the contrast ratio between the light green and the white, minimal. And Dennis sticks a red filter on a camera, what happens?” Non -stop. I ended up on a close up on Dai Francis white, cut to a long shot Dai Francis surrounded by the others with a red filter on, black, [half-sings] “mammy, mammy.” And so began probably the most successful musical show the BBC has ever done. Black and White Minstrel Show which ran for years all over the world. Won for the BBC the first ever Golden Rose of Montreux, made George Mitchell a multimillionaire and fully deserved incidentally. Rich to the extent he could order his own Rolls Royce convertibles, built to his own specifications, how’s that for rich? They were a car family, his father was on the board of directors of Morgan Cars and George was a great car buff.
NS: And obviously you left studio G pretty quickly?
DMW: Oh. Yes. We were living and working then in caravans in the Design car park, whilst the Centre went up. Anyway, I was blooded so I didn't get attached to anyone else. I was then sent for by Ronnie again. “Got a job for you.” “What's that?” Join Jack Good, 6.5 Special.
NS: Same year, yes?
DMW: Yes, 1956, 57, which I hated, and Ronnie knew that I hated it, because I am a comedy and big band, I'm Baisie, Ellington and Woody Herman, Boyd Rayburn. But he said “It is not the reason you think it is I want you on, you're live and you're slinging cameras with no rehearsal for 55 minutes solid.
[Side 3, 35 mins]
And you do a year on 6 5 Special and if you can't handle anything that can possibly happen in a television studio, I'll eat my hat.” And of course he was absolutely right. You know we had lovely Freddie Mills, Jo Douglas, Pete Murray. Oh, Bernie Winters and his brother [Mike] and the whole from the Two I’s Coffee Bar, Lonnie Donegan, Tommy, upwards and downwards. In fact that was quite fun. Pushing in a Vinson camera through a studio floor crowded with kids and you’ve warned them “Watch the cameras because when come through they're going to come, they won’t get out of your way” On the narrow lens, big lens hood we had, and you'd see a turret spin in vision because it had hit somebody’s head. Whee. But that was very, very good experience, I think.
And then I started getting my first film experience. We took 6.5 Special to Paris. Where I met another Dennis Main Wilson, an idiot, fabulous wild, wild character called Jean-Christophe Averty, a maker of satirical programmes and whiz kid, an absolutely wild character, he came in as director and we did it from the Cabot [inaudible] the Rue de la ? on the left bank, opposite Notre Dame and I’d never handled film before. That was an enjoyment. To be able to set it up and actually wait until the sun had got into the right position in the sky to beam off the spire of Notre Dame and still put a bit of back light through the trees, luxury after… That was enormous fun.
[Side 3, 37 mins]
Can I suggest we pause there?
Well, thank you for the lunch, Alan, that was nice.
I was talking about my first attempt at filming and doing really 6.5 Special which was the first ever pop show for the kids. My only I think addition to the quality of that, there wasn’t much, it was a dreadful time, skiffle was in, kids playing guitars were in, they used to go into music shops and a guy would sell you a guitar shall we say for 20 quid and then charge you 5 quid to tune it for you, it really was that bad. And I have a horror of ever playing down to a public in order to make money out of it, I think it’s bad manners, it is bad for the nation and it is shitty from every point of view and I tried, maybe it’s cocky of me but I tried to bring a bit of quality into 6.5 Special. And all the kids were watching it because whatever was in the hit parade, we did that Saturday. And slowly I introduced the kids to Johnny Dankworth and the core quartet. And I let them hear some decent modern jazz which is exciting and a bloody sight more intelligent, and of course Christ Johnny’s wife, Cleo, Cleo Laine, “Let’s see somebody who can actually sing rather than just bite the end off a mic with no bloody voice.”
[Side 3, 39 mins]
And I brought in something which I regarded from my own selfish point of view as professional as opposed to amateur kids being taken advantage of by music shops and record companies. Anyway it was a great experience in that, I go into a studio now and if the entire gallery breaks down I’II ad -lib off the top of my head on five cameras, which incidentally in this year 1991 I had to do three months ago to help a young independent production company who had organised a huge one-hour audience-led
documentary, except that the producer/director was a one camera film man who had never handled a five camera studio in his life. I haven’t handled a five-camera studio either in the gallery for about 20 years, one uses directors.
Oh, there’s a thought, I’ll tell you, in the old days, because in radio the producer was the producer was the producer and didn’t have to worry about makeup, wardrobe, film location, brrr, whatever, the producer was also the director. And so, in early television the producer was also the director.
[Side 3, 40mins 10 secs]
And in comedy which is such a personal gut feeling, I think I became quite unpopular among my younger assistants, whom I love and all of them came to my bloody wedding, can you delete that, they couldn’t come to my wedding because we’ve been married for years, so can you delete that, they know my family and the kids and we’re all mates. But I wouldn’t let go directing, I will let go camera directing because to me that is secondary to the humour. And what nails me, and this is an interruption, this is going years ahead, but I loathe a director who arrives on his first day’s rehearsal of a show, he meets the full cast in working order for the first time and he’s done his homework and after the read through and a few notes from the author or the producer, whatever, the director says “Right let us all stand up now, there is the set marked out on the floor. Now on page one, ducky, darling, you stand over there by the upstage — right-hand end of the fireplace there, John will you stand over by the standard lamp there. And Mary, I want you down foreground by the tea table” A good actor on day one will immediately say “Why?” That is a load of crap, it is a man who is utterly insensitive to actors and actresses and how their minds work and how the development of showbusiness works in interpreting an author’s text.
[Side 3, 42 mins]
You arrive with a rough idea, you know the set, you know immediately where you would the cameras to be-ish there, you also know the script well enough that on page 16 there is a fabulous cuckoo shot you can pull off over there, and then there is a tracking shot that will do this that and the other. But not on day bloody one, ridiculous.
Till Death Us Do Part was a weekly turnaround and a Johnny Speight script is written in a convoluted pre-war, old-fashioned Cockney and it’s a pig to learn. Brilliant. And we did one a week, Warren Mitchell by the end of the series was exhausted, you know, and I always worked, obviously we did a lot of the series, but early on, you know the set is only 12 ft square for Christ’s sake, which makes it even more difficult actually. Imagine a set that is only 12 ft wide and you’ve got five cameras, 3 dollies, you’ve taken up your 12 ft. So your middle cameras can come out or they can go wide which immediately makes a 12 ft set look 18 ft which is exactly what you don’t want. So, we ended up with 5 studio dollies, like knitting with the tripods interlocked, but I don’t think we ever once made the set look any bigger.
Because Johnny Speight never did dialogue A to B, it was A to B, two shot, D would interfere, back to A and then there was 3-shot with B and C because it was an argument or you stay out long and you’d shoot it like a film but in so doing you would have slowed down the aggression, the claustrophobia, in that room. It had to be aggressive in order to make the show work. That was enormous fun, but we never told anybody to stand there or sit there, but about day three, afternoon, when the cast had felt their way around the words and the rhythms, you move on that word on Monday, round about Tuesday hold on, you've gone round the settee because there's an easier flow of rhythm whatever, or a cadence goes up in tone, you want to fucking shout at somebody, upstage with them in foreground, and you’ve got him jar in foreground, and they’re are cringing without him seeing it. Or even, one thing which Warren Mitchell said to me once “You can’t do that.”, I had him downstage where on the 4th wall, where the fireplace would be, knocking his pipe out below the camera, into camera, mantlepiece, and does about four minutes straight into camera with his back to the kids and their reactions, turned and did two more minutes with his back to the camera.
[End of Side 3]
SIDE 4, TAPE 2
DMW: I hope it’s not getting boring. Just to break up the chronological thing, this is for anyone who is directing, for Christ’s sake, there is no point in giving an actor or actress any moves until he or she is on top of the text in the first place. And not only on top of the text but on top of his or her apposition to all the other characters.
Let them work and run about, for a half-hour weekly strike about day three afternoon they will begin to enjoy the arguments, the cross mental swords in an argument, and they will find things in the text which even the author doesn't know exists. So there is no point in prefixing bloody cameras.
Now round about day four, I used to like having a tech run for cameras, lights, sound, and the crew. And we would be very dependent upon their reaction, which is a bugger because some camera crews, some tech crews are easy laughers, others take their job terribly seriously. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Panorama or Till Death Us Do Part or the Bolshoi Ballet, they’re just there for us to light superbly.
We used to depend so much on the crews. And I won't mention the bloke, because he's still around, miserable sod, but we got to know him, and after the show he would tell us, on the Sunday night, after the show, “We did quite well.” It came up to his standards. The point I'm trying to make his how delicate we all are because we’re working under abstract.
[Si de 4, 2 m I n s]
And you really go ing, we think we have a marvelous bloody script and we’re on top of the script and get a knockout performance and we have a good studio audience and you come out on the night up to the BBC Club, and wow, what about that, ya, ya, ya. Two weeks later you read the [viewing] figures. Zilch, it didn't work. By the same token, you can come out of the studio saying oh shit that died a death. Read the figures, read the crits in the press, brilliant. What am I saying, you can get too close.
AL: Again on this studio audience, what is your feeling about studio audiences?
DMW: There are some people, do you mind a lecture on what’s wrong with the British film industry?
NS: Well, what about the studio audience?
DMW: The British film industry didn’t have studio audiences which is why they’ve screwed so many great comedians in the past. The British film industry by and large knows fuck all about comedy. We do the typically British middle- class humour which is pre-war BBC.
AL: French Without Tears.
DMW: French Without Tears. Genevieve, I’m still a fan of, ….Sally Ann Howes, Lionel Jeffries, the car, the fantasy,
[they try to suggest which film Dennis means] Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that was wild, and it was pretty early Quantel, whatever else you feel about it, but the masking and the tricks worked. It was a sort of gentle British middle-class humour of yesteryear as if all the red bits on the map were still ours which are, obviously, they no longer are.
NS: What about the studio audience for example in Till Death?
DMW: If I can leap ahead, the last new show I did, as I said I like starting things, especially arguments with management. In my last, my penultimate year at the BBC I worked for six months with John Fortune, of the John Fortune, John Bird, John Wells and Eleanor Bron, ex University stable, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Genius. But a diffident writer until he gets it actually right and when he gets it right it is superb. And I worked with him on the script for about six months and it came right. And we offered it to Jonathan Pryce who at that time I think was with the Royal Shakespeare Company and now is in the Hitler Diaries thing in 1991. Jonathan read it, thought it was super, would love to do it and but not with a studio audience. “It’s got bugger all” he said “to do with comedy, 300 people do not represent 10 million. Anyway, you can’t concentrate.” and he said “anyway you can’t light it properly.” And there-in lies the bugbear.
If you can imagine, draw yourself a near square, be generous and let’s make it a rectangle, say 100 by 80. And across the right h, narrow end, which would making it 50 by 80 is the studio audience.
[Side 4, 6 mins]
In front of that knock of 10 feet for the fire lanes and public exits and these dreadful men in the London Fire Brigade. Then get your lighting director to show you what you want and he will go white because there is about half the studios lighting he cannot use, with a live studio audience you cannot really fine light a scene.
You are shooting virtually through the fourth wall of a theatre. Now you can stop and in comedy that’s very difficult, you can stop, push cameras up and drop in a phoney flat for a 4th wall and do some reverse shots. But the moment you do that you've lost the audience and you've got to pick them up, and start an all over again. The best show you can do is a comedy show with a live audience that goes straight through, maybe a retake for a fluff, but goes straight through as good as a one act play in a West End theatre. Because you pick-up the audience, you give them the rhythm of the text of the actors’ energy. The nearer to live you can do it the better. Now every time you stop, you lose the audience. You put in some strange person who's not in the cast necessarily who tells a couple of filthy jokes, which I won’t have, won't stand for it. So, in the middle of a clean show is that this guy talking about tits and bums and arseholes which throws them. So there we are.
We had a tremendous fight with the BBC. About 1981, 1982 this was, so I'd been in comedy for 40 odd years, and no way could I persuade the powers that be at the BBC that if I decide I want to do it without an audience, they should listen to me.
And gone by the Eighties is the status of a producer.
[Side 4, 8 mins]
A producer in the BBC, in the light entertainment department ranks equally with a computer operator, he’s a member of staff. Whereas Ken Russell can go out and spend 5 million quid with one camera, fart-arse about and self-indulge himself and get 8 million audience. Yes. We get nothing and pull in, with Till Death Do Us Part we were pulling up to 24 million, mate. And we’re treated like shit. And it shows and serve the BBC right and serve the JTV right, until, if whoever is listening to this will have the patience to wait until the end of the tape, I’m going to do my thoughts about MBAs [Master degrees in Business Administration] versus inspiration, that you can't regiment what is instinctive, abstract talent.
NS: Didn’t Till Death Do Us Part have a studio audience?
DMW: Yes, a studio audience. The film industry took probably Britain’s greatest stand up entertainer, I won’t just call him a comic, this is an actor, comedian, clown, Sid Field, who was actually a genius. Hancock modeled himself on Sid Field, he was Hancock’s idol. The British film industry did two films with him, one London Town and one Cardboard Cavalier. Again, this is like the BBC management. The film company, the producer and the director didn’t understand that Sid Field only worked with an audience. And take away his audience, you cut his legs off, he cannot rise to an emotional height, either in terms of sound, body language, or just gut feel, without an audience to will him to lift them up. And having lifted them up, they lift him up. lt is a team thing, audiences do to a performer.
AL: It’s encouragement.
DMW: Yes. But also it gives him his timing. Because his script was written to be broken up with an audience in mind. They used his photographers sketch and his golfing sketch, both of which were written for an audience, laughter to break it up. And did it straight with no audience. So now, my son, who is in his early thirties, I ran him both, and he doesn’t think Sid Field’s is funny. And he’s not. Why did some idiot in the British film industry not realise this in the first place. By the same token, have you seen British television, BBC, ITV, attempt to do comedy plays with drama or directors. Do you remember Blot On The Landscape? Was that funny?
[Side 4, 11 mins]
AL: Again it's not everybody's cup of tea as a book even really.
DMW: But it was academically-
NS: That's true.
DMW: And it was miscast. An actor shouldn’t have to act comedy. The moment you're acting comedy it's phoney. You are comedy or you are not. And it is interesting to compare Gielgud with Richardson. Sir John had to have his bits and his pieces, his little props and his mannerisms and his cadences and his rhythms with which he, superbly I hasten to add to create comedy. Richardson, once he'd arrived on his bloody motorbike at the age of what 70-odd, was a wild bloody cookie, he didn’t need to work, it was there. And I would say of all the actors available in and around London now, of which there must be about 10,000, there are about 60, 70, 80,
AL: Who can do comedy.
DMW: Yes, it is very difficult casting, and if you get it wrong, it shows.
NS: True. Where are we now?
DMW: I’m sorry whoever's listening, that's a long way from Paris. We’ve done that so.
I then did virtually nothing for two years, in that I set out to learn about television, about make-up, wardrobe, history of costume, body-language hadn’t come into it yet. I read up a lot on cameras.
[Side 4, 13 mins]
I went to a lot of studios and did occasional one-offs, brilliant things like New Faces, whatever. But slowly because I was very confident in my comedy work and attitudes but how to translate it. In point of fact I have come to the conclusion, if you look at most of television comedy, it’s radio with pictures, until this 1991 day [pause] sadly [pause] because if the student listening to this would like to grab a video of What’s up Doc? and look at the car chase. What’s Up Doc? was an American film made by all the young gang in Hollywood to honour the old black and white days.
AL: Keystone Cops.
DMW: Keystone Cops, [Harry] Langdon and whoever, and they took a lot of the best gags that they could and put them into a modem thing with [Barbra] Streisand. There is one sequence there which every student of comedy should look at and this is the rule of three, and no one knows why it works, but if you examine “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” is one. “I don't know, who was that lady I saw you with a last night?” is two. And “That was no lady, that was my wife”, is three. If you take out two, it falls flat on its face for some reason, I don't know why. And there has been this mystique for years about the rule of three. Well, there is a 40 -odd years to enlarge on this. It isn't rule of three in fact, it is the rule of odd numbers. Because you can do rule of five and it still works.
But for some reason if you hit a comedy climax on an even beat, it lacks impact. Don't ask me why, but it doesn't. And in What's Up Doc?, in the car chase, which apart from being brilliantly shot and brilliantly directed, the editing is out of this world. It is within a micro-second of timing, it will blow your mind. Do watch it. Now that’s American. Now. America at present is eight per cent, I gather, Anglo-Saxon. Blue-eyed, white. The rest is either brown eyed, Hispanic, of the Americas, or brown eyed Mediterranean, of Italy, Spain, Greece, whatever. An enormous Jewish population whence most of the Western world's talent comes from anyway, says he as a Scottish Presbyterian, so here we go.
But they've got an enormous mix, and because they’re a young nation they have high energy, they leave us bloody standing. You watch the best British dance chorus sequence in a West End musical with a British choreographer and then watch a similar sequence in America with not such a senior choreographer and not such a senior chorus- line, they leave our kids standing. They've got this inner young drive, I don't know what it is.
[Side 4, 17 mins]
The British somehow, I think we’re tired, we’ve been the greatest nation the greatest nation for 400 bloody years, maybe we’re tired. But we lack get-up, go, aggression, balls, whatever the word this, especially in top management. But in comedy you’ve got to get up, and you’ve got to go, you've got to stick your neck out. And if you stick your neck out, you can get some mates in in your local pub and try out of this rule of three. And make the bloody public listen.
Without dialogue, because What’s Up Doc? that whole sequence has no dialogue at all, except the odd scream and voiceover. Now the Americans know this instinctively, they sense it, this is part I think, Romance language, Italian, Spanish, Hispanic, a lot Jewish which is deeply emotional as well, and they sense it in their balls. Here we don’t. And I get very cross with our guys in the British film industry dealing with comedy, I still do, in fact I’m getting cross with our guys in this country dealing with the comedy on television at present.
NS: Another point really, Dennis, a lot of comedy series including Till Death Us Do Part do have film sequences. Now they are often without dialogue, not always but usually without dialogue and of course no audience until they’re played-
DMW: Ah, that's a good. Norman, can I add to that, it’s a very important point.
NS: How do they fit in, is that a problem?
DMW: Because by the time you’ve done a few series, and we're all at it now, it's down to you and down to the actor and director to have faith in each other, you work out between you where you reckon the laughs are going to come, and you ought to have a pretty good idea. And you arrange either somebody spins around to look or somebody lights a cigarette, but you arrange some natural bit of body language or bit of business to bridge the laugh. There is nothing worse and it is happening all the time in 1991.
DMW: No, not telegraphing, you can always take it out, and you shoot it so you can edit it out if need be. But the lines of dialogue that are lost in filming because the director hasn’t thought…
AL: …That's a laugh
DMW: And the other appalling thing now is, the BBC swears they don’t do and they’re liars, is dub laughter. This is I think appalling. Throughout Till Death, you ask Johnny Speight, you ask Warren Mitchell, you ask any of my video editors, I have never added a laugh ever. A) partly for self-defence because if an actor gets a big belly laugh, his eyes change, his body language changes and he covers to cope, in fact Dandy Nichols did the classic, and this lady is probably one of the greatest actors/actresses. I learned so much from working with her, we were talking about audience laughter and she said “Darling the whole art is you make the buggers laugh when you want them to laugh but even more important is you make ‘em stop when you want them to stop, so you can carry on.” This is what actors are for, they’re not just there to play a script. Once they are on, they are directing themselves, and the audience.
DMW: Sorry can you pause for a sec., I got lost.
Sorry to go around on that, go back to where I said I like to innovate, to start things: in the Fifties had happened the Peter Sellers film I'm Alright Jack, And already the British trade- unions were getting very stroppy and so were management. And as usual in Britain we had a rotten bloody government, I mean this is now 1991. We've had a post-war government since 1945 and we haven't had a decent one yet of any party. I mean they’ve really screwed this country to the ground. That's as of 10 past three on June the 4th, 1991.
They’re pretty useless. And maybe harking back to my work early on in the satirical shows we did in Bush House, working with great journalists, documentary minds like Dick Crossman, Linley Fraser, Alan Bullock, Hugh Wheldon
NS: Hugh Greene.
DMW: We thought we’d climb on the bandwagon. So, I put up the first all-girl lead comedy series, [The Rag Trade. DS] if only a bit of self-aggrandisement which for me is what it was all about, I think in those days. And you know people won't laugh at women, there is this funny thing, the English do not laugh at their women. In America, great bloody comediennes, here no. I'm not quite sure why. It is that they are the fair weaker sex, there's a joke. that's a good joke, that is.
[Side 4, 23 mins]
It is that we are gentlemen, that’s another joke. And in those days, I just think we’re chicken and we’re scared to laugh at our women in case they have a go at us. Anyway, it was enormous fun. It starred Sheila Hancock, Miriam Karlin, Barbara Windsor, the little diminutive Esme Canon whom I’d seen in so many films. A little tiny squidge of a lady about 4 ft 3 with the nervous fingers, and I'd seen her on stage in a review and for the first time in my life, this was somebody whom when she worked got a laugh on every line she did. She had something with an audience. She was dithering, nerves everywhere. She was brilliant. Then against them I had Peter Jones, they were running obviously a rag trade, a schmutter shop, churning out ladies' clothes and the governor was Peter Jones. And Reg Varney, long before On the Buses, Reg Varney was there because the authors, Ronnie Woolf and Ronnie Chesney, both of them ex-variety writers in radio, Ronnie Chesney the international one-time harmonica player would you believe? And it was literally feed line tag, feed line tag. The plots went from A, they did go through B and they did reach C. But that was about it. It was standard workers versus boss stuff. But it was 1957 for God’s sake. And it was a female version of I'm Alright Jack but for laughs, and every line was written to get a laugh. We used to reckon on six laughs a page, 60 pages, that’s 360 laughs in half an hour.
[Side 4, 25 mins]
And we are doing our duty, we're entertaining the nation and making the nation laugh because life -
NS: Why not?
DMW: Why not? But we did three series. Which wasn't bad. Sheila Hancock has gone on now as you know. Barbara Windsor has been on everybody's interview bosom since. There we are. For that we didn't do any filming for it, it was all word based because they were ex radio writers.
And we then moved on, a show had fallen out, would I take on immediately three one-hour super production spectaculars, budget unspecified. I think they thought they'd bought Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and either one or both weren't available. But it was in the schedules and we had three weeks again to set it up. And this was fun because it was summertime. This comes [from] ‘must be able to devise and produce own programmes’, from the old days. So my boss is entitled to call me and say “we’re in schtuck, can you do a show tomorrow?” And he's not out of order.
So I go back to the office, I’ll take them on anyway. Do them myself. And ring around, and I want writers immediately. And the cream of the cake in those days for what I want to do which is vaguely a sixty-minute comedy James Bond, one a week at 60 minutes each, and for this I want Marty Feldman and Barry Took, who were mates. Marty had written for me the odd single one-off before, which were super.
[Side 4, 27 mins]
So I ring their agents, they are both on holiday in the south of France, so’s the agent. So I get a hotel, I get through to Marty’s Hotel, he’s in his hotel room. Marty has just come out of the swimming pool and he's there, just as his agent walks in his hotel room door. And Barry Took is in a hotel a few minutes away, and they’re both on the night plane back. I don't think they went to bed for three days and three nights. And they cooked up one of the greatest wild scripts I'd ever seen in my life. It's a month’s filming. On a massive budget except that we’re in a studio in about two weeks’ time and they wrote it for Kenneth Williams. Great thinking. Kenneth Williams the hero, zoot, bang, through skylights, pow, zowie, and naked birds all over his body which I thought he'd hoot at. I got it wrong, Kenneth, who had left the Hancock’s set-up by then was embarked on a different career. He didn't like the script. We thought “shit, we’d bust a gut to get it.”
So we go back, Tom Sloan was the departmental boss then and he said “Someone's got to do it, hold on, who can we blackmail, hold on Terry Scott wants a series. I'll tell him if he doesn't do it, he won't get a series.” So Terry Scott was launched into this thing! And he was superb. But brilliant.
NS: That was lucky.
DMW: We did three of them, we did Scott on Birds, Scott on Money, and Scott on something else. [Scott on Food. DS]
[Side 4, 29 mins]
Scott on Birds we shot as a location on the roof in Lime Grove [studios]. At night. Now I'd never done a night shoot. I don't know about lighting. I do know about camera temperatures… and now I'm getting a wee bit with, you know don't lumber people. And I thank Stan Speel [?] was my lighting cameraman do you remember Stan?
DMW: Central European, good cameraman. No humour, whatsoever but fabulous pictures and we literally shot a James Bond sixty minuter I think in about three days on and nights. And we’re in the studios the following week.
[Side 4, 30 mins]
That made a star out of Terry Scott, who then went on to do the Terry Scott series with June Whitfield for what 10, 15 years?
NS: At least 10. Yes.
DMW: But that was exciting because I discovered how easy it is, you can imagine me, I get over-excited and too ambitious, you have to be very careful when writing a shooting script
AL: Where are we now?
DMW: We’ve come to the end of 1957. And then I met a gentleman called Sammy Davis Junior. That was fun.
It hasn’t anything to do with film but it has to do for directors with bottle. I was given three months' notice that Sam was coming over to this country. He had never worked for the BBC, hitherto he had only worked for ATV commercial. He was very difficult to work with because he was a perfectionist, he could get very uptight and walk out, kid gloves, and “Would I like to do it?” “Yes please.” So I see every film that Sammy Davis was ever in, I listen to every disc he’d ever cut, I rang all around London, the people, he’d ever worked with, “Oh he‘s bastard to work with, you won’t like him, ur, ur, ur.” And I even rang an old mate in Australia because I’d heard that in Australia he had hit the director and walked out, “Is it true?” “Yes.”
There is a British show, the producer of which is still alive. I think it was ATV the year before, and when Sam flew in to do a five- or six-week season at the Palladium, they got him, [it was the] same company, pretty well. So they built a fabulous spiral set for him, they hadn’t even bothered to discuss what they were going to do. When he walked in, the producer said, “What do you think of that Sam?” And he stood back, I think it must have been the Palladium stage, and he looked at it and said, “When you've lost it give me a ring, I’ll be in the hotel.” And they'd built up a multi spiral-staircase, idiots, even I knew. I was in love with a dancing lady for many years, in dancing if you've got to come down more than eight treads, plus two for the bop, bop, boom, all the other treads you are egg on face. This was a 60-tread staircase and the risers lit up and said Sammy Davis Junior, Sammy Davis Junior. It cost a fortune to build. 60 bloody treads! And in no way would the man have it, you know.
[Side 4, 33 mins]
So, lesson one, with someone that good, you don't become a world star unless you know exactly what you're at. You wouldn't even get on the first run of the ladder, let alone the top of the staircase.
All great star performers are all nervous. Can they keep it up? Will they be as good as they were last time? Hopefully will they be better? Come up with ideas. Let ‘em say no. Be enthusiastic. Do your homework as best you can. Don’t bullshit. Sammy Davis, if he sensed for one second you were bullshitting him, either he would have kicked us out of his dressing room, or no way the show. And I’ve got a big thing about people, big names, who are labelled among staff and management as being difficult to work with.
Ted Ray, big radio comedy star, huge radio comedy star, post-war, was difficult to work with. No way. And he knew as much about producing and directing and writing radio comedy as you the producer did. And you had to be at least as good as he was, preferably better. And if you were better than him, he would listen very gratefully. If you weren't, he'd nail you, and you were in trouble. Dandy Nichols, again I keep going back, I learned so much from this lovely old bird. She came up to me one day and said “You are very naughty.” So I said “What’s that? She said “You tell us when we are wrong, you never tell us when we are good.” And I must have said something like “Yes. But you must know when you're good, you sense it.” And she said “No. We're like children, tell us. And it makes us feel better, and we perform even better.”
[Side 4, 35 mins]
So keep a constant togetherness between you, don't stand back because the guy’s a star, get up and say “Sir John, that was fucking awful.”
NS: Rapport is it?
DMW: Or: “that was brilliant except that last little bit where you tittered.” “I know, I’m awfully sorry.” And you get some great performer and you say “It’s Take thirty-two.” Lie, it’s Take seven. “That's the one. print it.” And a good actor will say, “Excuse me, I can do better than that. May we do one more please?” “Yes.” And usually often around the sound department because they’re listening unsullied, the assistant recordist will say “He's right.” And then the star looks at the assistant recordist and says “Thank you,” and bingo you’re mates. And immediately there is a team spirit. You know what I’m trying for.
DMW: Of course you do, of course you've been here for donkey's years, as long as I have. The number of times you've come out on a location with me. Yes.
The way we’d handled Sammy, I’d heard everything and you build the picture up, that here is a guy, right he thumped a guy in Sydney and apparently he was an absolutely raving burke who had no idea and Sammy walked out, that was it, the man – “fucking n***e*s, fucking Negroes, out.” In London generally he will come in, recording an LP or something, he listens to the playback and he says that he will record it. The MD will talk about the orchestra but he’s usually first take. So how do you present this all-singing, all-dancing all wise cracking, enormous diminutive personality.
DMW: Never stops. So, I had an idea and luckily I had a great set designer. Shit it’ll come in a moment, it's gone, who is now producer of jazz programmes in his own right in America, a South African boy. genius, anyway it will come. I knew what I wanted to do. I had been watching Billy Cotton's variety department tor years, the Billy Cotton Band Show and the Tom Jones Shows and whatever. And I hate seeing a close-up of a great performer with out of focus trombones fart-arsing about while they are not playing, out-of-focus, it's distracting. WC Fields: ‘nobody moves on the set when I’m working.’ Check. You don’t distract for Christ's sake, so 1) the orchestra a big one, is behind the cameras, out of vision, and stay there. B) I'd got a world-class performed, one of the greatest in the world, what the public want to see, him.
lf they go to the Palladium they pay a fortune for front row stalls, yes. What do they see, a guy on his tod on the stage with the orchestra down in the pit, and the quartet, with George Rhodes as MD, that‘s about it. And the man does a straight 58 minutes, give or take one or two seconds, on the nose. This guy’s so organised, it's ridiculous. So I decide right, that’s it which is the decision: he is alone on stage in television theatre, Shepherd's Bush, on his tod for 45 minutes, it's a 45 minute show, a). b) No scenery. And what can scenery say? Bullshit.
We just have one opening caption which was about 30 ft high which panned down for the opening titles but that was out of vision left of frame all the time. We lit for a downstage working area, about 8 ft circle; upstage of that and to camera left, 8 feet, no 10 feet, was an overhead spot. Obviously with fillers, which is either a lamp-post or he had one stool only, it's the only prop he had, it’s a stool and it's a bar, and [half sings]“it's a quarter to three and there is no one in the place”, and not a single light anywhere else except for that.
[Side 4, 40 mins]
And so what I’m going to sell him is a) orchestra not in shot, b) he’s on his tod for the whole run, c) and there’s a no scenery, he works in a 90 ft cyc [?] and that's it. And cross fingers, it could be he won’t like it. That was problem two. Problem ono is how do you say to one of the BBC's greatest set designers “I don’t want a set.”
And this is a month or more and we going up to Liverpool to see Sammy do a break-in week in Liverpool before he opened at the Palladium. Stanley Dorfman, the designer Stan Dorfman. Yes, great, and a great producer- director too. Anyway, Stan and I, we both had been known to drink a bit, we met in the BBC club bar and like a couple of idiots, it’s like High Noon, we're both standing there and unbeknown to either of us, neither of us wanted to build him a set. He didn’t want to build a set either. This is again, luck. We both came to the same conclusion. Problem, persuade Sammy Davis.
So we got to Liverpool on the Thursday, early. We take in the afternoon matinee which is full of housewives, and this is in the pew, [gestures] up there. And it’s a different audience from the audience in the evening. It's a very macho city, Liverpool, I love it. He doesn't do apart from one number in the opening and one number in the closing, he didn't to the same thing in the second house that he did it in the first house. Changed the entire thing, just like that. He also, second house, knew we were in. We had a meeting with him for the following morning in the Adelphi Hotel, but there’s a couple of anti-BBC gags in as well, so shit, he knows we're in. So we've got to go back. And I've got a speech prepared very carefully for the next morning.
So we go backstage and there's this enormous guy, George Rhodes, a great gentle giant negro boy, whose Sam's musical director and “He is expecting you.” 0h by the way I've forgotten to mention, in now cables between us, I kept cabling him saying I have the good fortune to be producing your show, BBC, whatever. Please give me a ring. No answer. He was playing Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. Until the end I said for Christ’s sake talk to me. And I had a cable back saying, ‘to Dame May Whitty.’ So to this day I’m Dame in that set-up. “Dame, he's expecting you”, and a giggle, and there is this thing curled up like this, like a coil oil a bloody spring. “Hi.” “Hi.”
[Side 4, 43 mins]
Now in those days I drank, the excuse I used to burn it off, I needed it for the energy, I think, otherwise I’d fall asleep. And my standard drink and it was a pint of bitter and a large Bell’s whisky and only people who work with me know that, I’ve never met the guy it's. I’m sat down in a armchair and decide which is an armchair with a pint of bitter and a large whisky! The sod, he’s researched me as well. Pleasantries over. Opening question, “What kind of the show are we doing?” So I hedge a bit and say, “Congratulations on the show, first house, second house,” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, what kind of show are we doing?” I say “We've got a meeting at 11 o’clock at the hotel,” “What kind of show are we doing?” There’s no messing. So I said “I've researched you, I know how you work, you don't know us very well. But I believe in being direct. You're doing the 45 minutes, on your own, in the BBC television theatre, the orchestra is behind my cameras, I don't want unfocused trombones coming out of your earhole. You have a 90 ft cyc [?] on your tod for 45 minutes. Because if people want to see Sammy Davis, let them see Sammy Davis. Who wants to see musicians, they don't entertain. Live.” He says “I buy all that but not live, we pre-record.” I said no, we do it live. If we pre-record you're a great performer”, words to this effect “But I will get an 99 ½ percent out of you. Do it live and I’ll get a hundred and ten, I bet you. And he said, “You will never keep up with me.” I said something like “Up your arse. That's ridiculous.” Anyway, he said “British musicians can't play jazz.”
[End of Side 4]
[Brief exchange to the effect that Alan Lawson and listeners may have fallen asleep]
DMW: Just backtrack, he didn’t fancy doing it live because he said I would never keep up with him. To which I made, going back to my old street Cockney thing, “Up your kilt!” or “Up your arse!” or something, which got a smile. Then he said “Anyway, British musicians can’t play jazz.” to which I said “Rubbish!” because American session bands are not as good as our session bands, to this day they’re not, I promise you. So, he said to my surprise, “Yes.” I could have kissed him, hooray. So that's it.
He then comes down to London to play the Palladium for five weeks. And this pleases me, this is why the BBC licence fee is still so low, we saved them a fortune. Lew and Leslie Grade or Bernard Delfont or whoever brought him over to play the Palladium, paid all his airfares, his suites, his numerous suites at I think it was the Mayfair Hotel for five weeks, and his fare back the Sunday after we’d finished. All it cost the BBC was his straight fee, no overheads at all. Cheap, great. But we are gonna ad lib it and the guy changed, he literally changed, I went every night to the Palladium, I stood at the back of the stalls every night with a light pen taking notes, ‘cos you can’t ad lib forever, you know, there has to be a repeat pattern so I can nail him. He’s there one night and obviously lost the audience, you could sense him feeling the audience, and he cuts, in the middle of the number, sat on the floor and said “I was never a Nazi, I thought those camps of were holiday camps.”
[Side 5, 2mins 6 secs]
Big laugh, pick up, change the number. Wild.
And I formed a sort of pattern of what I thought he was going to do, within the ad-libs, see if does that, if he doesn’t, he's going to do that, if he doesn’t...And I went - he rang me and said, “you never come backstage.” And I said “Well, a) the dressing-room is full of well- wishers, but also [b] it seems to me to be wrong somehow. I love you dearly but it just isn’t [right], afterwards yes, mates, but let’s keep it.
He said “You come on the Saturday”, which is his last night. Cyril [?] and I went to the second house and he is in the middle of the act. He does normally 58 minutes, but if he's going well the second house he will do up to an hour and three-quarters because he’s enjoying himself, and so is the audience. And halfway through the show he suddenly stopped between numbers and said, “Are you there, Dame?” So I said “Yeah.” “Have you seen me do the guns?” “No.” “Right, Dame hasn't seen the guns, get the guns!” Have you seen him do this? Colt the weapon manufacturers made him a pair of Colt 45s. Silver-plated colts which weigh half a ton each, [imitates shooting] these were the full tum, tum bit. And he's a) so proud, because he’s only a kid at heart, a) they’re in a presentation case, he's proud of these things, they're balanced and you can do what you like with them. And he did a display loaded with blanks of cowboy gunfire. “Do you like that?” “Yes.” “Right it‘s in tomorrow.”
The following week there was a letter to the BBC from Bernard Delfont complaining that a BBC producer is using the Palladium as a rehearsal for a BBC production. But what I’m trying to say - it is relevant - it is what creating an atmosphere in which a director, producer-director and artist can work together. We’re both probably round the twist. We’re both probably a little bit potty otherwise we wouldn't be in the business. But you build a love and a trust and you don't give a fuck for anybody. And if you get in the way, hard luck, management or not. Does that make sense? Again, for young people, if you believe in it, stick your neck out.
NS: It makes sense to me. So, where are we now? 19…
DMW: We’re coming up to Till Death Do Us Part
NS: In the Sixties, any minute now. So, on you go, Dennis.
[Side 5, 5 mins]
DMW: In terms of British history and sociology, which if we’ve time I’ll come to at the very end, I think the Second World War in Britain was the equivalent of the French Revolution to France. And you know what revolutions do, look at the French, 200 years later they're still trying to sort theirs out. Look at the Russians. they haven't even started sorting it out yet. The reason the British have never had a decent revolution yet is probably that as a nation we’re too bone-idle or complacent or whatever. But came the war emergency, when indeed in 1940 it looked as if Britain was in a gnat’s whisker of being invaded. If Hitler had pulled the plug and come over, I don’t think we could have stopped him. So it was the skin of our teeth. And up to then Britain had been run by the old fuddy-duddy establishment in the Ministry of Defence, or the army and navy, thank God not the air force. But the army was so badly equipped. All through the war I was in the Royal Army Corps, we didn't have a single battle tank until the war was over. And even that was not very good. But what did happen during the war, within the first couple of years, all the old, almost the last couple of series of ‘Blackadder, officer class’, disappeared up your kilt. It had to be young men who could fight a war, who were intelligent, regardless of class. A working-class boy might have been a charge hand on a capstan lathe machine shop, would automatically if he was a charge hand have become a sergeant major in charge probably of a squadron of tanks.
And it broke down all divisions, because only one thing mattered, we had to win the war. Or as a nation go under.
And it heralded the greatest social change in a hurry that Britain had ever known, aided, with latter-day hindsight by Marshall McLuhan ‘medium is the message’, because up until Sunday 3rd September 1939, the BBC had not allowed any jokes or piss -taking of Adolf Hitler or the Nazis at all. And in the theatre, the Lord Chamberlain banned all anti-Nazi references and jokes. And indeed in 1938, Cambridge University Footlights were censored by the Lord Chamberlain for putting in a Hitler joke into that year’s Cambridge University Footlight review. And these are the wrong guys. running the country, in charge of government establishment and the BBC.
[Side 5, 8 mins]
God knows who is our he, she or it that is the establishment? It is not the government of the day, it is not the royal family of the day, it is these hidden pseudo academics, pseudo sophisters who crawl up people's arses and get themselves put in power. It afflicts the nation today, it is even worse today, be it in the Conservative Party, and/or the Labour Party and/or the Liberal Party. Britain has not had a decent government certainly since 1945 of any shade of politics. Which in point of fact going back to The Goon Show, just added weight to Spike Milligan, who know that anybody who is in charge of anybody else is a twit. Which is why, and I come to my next thing which we did which is Till Death Us Do Part.
What can you do about it? The BBC producers Green Book of which I’m sure ACTT or BECTU have a copy. If not, you can photocopy mine. I still got my copy, its number 38. You couldn’t do anything. You couldn't mention public figures by name. You were banned from mentioning politicians at all, you were not allowed to make humour about religious issues or church issues, at all. And then the string of jokes, jokes about chambermaids are banned for obvious reasons. Uh. Jokes about animals, eg rabbits, banned, and all these idiot mimsy-pimsy, Mrs Grundy attitudes, hangovers.
When you look at today’s output in 1991, which I think has gone way over the top. I don’t fancy gags either about ladies' menstruation or gags about shit or piss, which seemed to be common currency at the moment. What is funny about ladies menstruating? Or even contrived a humorous scene in which a lady’s menstruation kicks off either the plot or the tag. Drama, yes, tragedy possibly, deep emotion yes, but humour?
Anyway, me being anti-establishment, I think, during the war, I saw the most horrendous things happened in Normandy. I can't tell you. I saw the RAF drop bombs on the wrong places, on our own troops and then to have Fighter Command denying utterly to this day, 1991, they still deny it happened. I was there for Christ's sake! I nearly got hit myself. Oh, I won’t bore you, I saw incredible bravery, and you lived in that great mish-mash of emotion and danger, incredible bravery and suffering, you’re not going to be put upon by some berk up on the 6th floor of the BBC who has got no balls do something worthwhile.
So Speight and I decided to do Till Death and our intention was a wholly healthy and positive one and that was to take a working-class man, in London, docks East-Ender, which is where Johnny Speight’s family came from and portrayed him through a microscope for what he was. He was a monarchist. He would fight for King, God and country. These are all the things he says he is, he's a hard worker, he's good to his wife. He loves his baby daughter and he's got friends, whatever. He is the average British working class good-guy. We take him to bits. He is a liar, he is a cheat, he’s work-shy, he's a rogue, he is a coward, he embodies every weakness that you can find in homo sapiens through the use of Cockney language. Imagine putting it up to commercial television today and them saying to advertisers “We’re going to put up the most awful man you’ve ever seen in your life, whatever.” This is what happened in America when they tried to sell it because they saw it as negative.
[Side 5, 13 mins]
NS: It ran for while didn't it? It ran for a year or two?
DMW: I'll come to America in a minute.
NS: Okay, sorry.
DMW: But in Britain I got it on. Partly because of Speight's record with the Arthur Haynes series and my record so far as a producer and they thought if, it’s my prerogative as a producer I’m supposed to win the debate.
NS: Sorry, how did Johnny Speight come in, because we've mentioned Spike Milligan so far?
DMW: Oh, I met Johnny in many bars. We all turn up at each other’s shows. Johnny Speight turned up, I think I first met him, I think he came to Hancock’s Half Hour on the radio. We’re a clan of like-minded idiots-
NS: [interrupts] Not really.
DMW: Friends. Our intention quite clearly was to put Alf Garnett in the public stocks, to pillory a public shame and say to the British nation this, for better, for worse, is you, there is something of this guy in all of you. And don't pretend there isn’t, be you working class or be you a lord or be you an MP, be you what. Everybody is an Alf Garnett. And we proceeded to do it, as you know. For seven series.
Our mistake was and I’m not quite sure, well, I know where it went wrong, I cast it too well.
My original casting was Peter Sellers to play Alf except Peter was in a down period, this is when he disappeared and lived in Ireland with his lady. And my second choice was Leo McKern with whom I'd done a couple of wild shows with Eric Sykes. And this man, apart from [being] a great actor, knows more about comedy than most people I know.
[Side 5, 15 mins]
And great to work with. Leo had just come back from Hollywood and made a fortune and bought himself a triple screw luxury diesel yacht. And was cruising up-and-down the Channel trying it out. And we tried “Come in number 19” but it wouldn't work. And my third choice was Warren, Warren Mitchell, who had done a myriad of small parts in radio and television but never any big one. But good and of course the man is world class, little was Warren to know how good. And rather than the nation taking it seriously and laughing at Alf Garnett, they took him to their hearts, sort of they identified with him, and laughed with him, so we became an enormous success but for the wrong reason.
[Side 5, 16 mins]
And we eventually hit our peak figure was just under 24 and-a-half million. And thereby hangs a story, because when we made the pilot which we knew was good, we had great confidence, Johnny and I went drinking in the White Elephant in Curzon Street that night, all our friends had seen it and hooray, champagne. And in the Elephant you get next morning's papers round about half past eleven in the evening. So the crits were super, so we decided not to leave the Elephant, and we stayed there and drank champagne all night and then had breakfast. Turned up at the BBC Club bar at lunchtime still on champagne, and all our friends came up and said “wow, follow that.” It was aggressive, within the first three pages we’d destroyed Harold Wilson, we'd destroyed Ted Heath, anybody in charge in Britain, wild, wild. And apparently Big Ben is slow by his watch, that is.
“Harold Wilson, last time I wrote he never even answered my letter and I put a stamp on it, mate.” But it was wild, it was a breath of total fresh-air. It had never been done before, it was flat out. Jesus, it went. And the audience didn’t know what had hit them. So we’re back, it is now lunchtime- ish, in the BBC Club bar, on a Wednesday.
And Wednesday as you know is Programme Board meeting, to review last week's output by all the bosses of BBC Television. And our mates were buying us drinks, and in came Tom Sloan who was the head of my department, entertainment, and Johnny Speight who had this stutter, bless him, it's not so bad these days he was younger and excited, “ah, ah, ah what about that for a bloody series mate, eh?” And Tom froze and actually said “Over our corporate dead body do we make a series out of subversive muck like that.” And my heart sank. The man was a Scottish Presbyterian, I think, and his father had been a lay minister in a kirk [church] or something.
Also he was not Cavalry like I was, he was Royal Artillery which was much more dull but typical, British timorous middle-class, with a set of rules to follow which belong somewhere round about Enid Blyton 1924. And you can’t run business like that. Over his corporate dead body do we make subversive muck like that! Luckily down from the same board meeting came the Controller of programmes BBC 1, Michael Peacock and the Controller of BBC2 David Attenborough. And David giggled and nudged Peacock and said “If you don’t want it on 1, I’ll have it on BBC2.” Which sorted that out. That may sound as if I’m being disloyal to Tom Sloan, he was head of the department, he is the boss, he has his own personal, private thoughts and views, philosophic on life. But that does not necessarily allow him to interfere with that the output of a brilliant, creative author. You leave your personal thoughts at home. As you will see again in a moment. May I tell you, as a good BBC man, and Sloan was a superb BBC man, do you remember a series, Talkback, when viewers could ring in or write and you had to defend that show or whatever? Tom Sloan went on the air often on Talkback to defend Till Death Do Us Part, because the BBC were broadcasting it, it was therefore his duty to defend the BBC. And this is difficult, where you have to decide I am a good employee or am I a good producer-director. And for me, my programmes come first, because if my programmes are fabulous, it makes the BBC fabulous. The BBC can be as fabulous as it likes, it doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of my productions. It can technically, and support, but not in creativity. So get off my back man.
NS: Sorry to interrupt … but this was the day after-
DMW: The pilot
NS: Oh, a pilot. The pilot had been transmitted.
DMW: The pilot had been transmitted this was the following day.
NS. Oh, it was not a series, it was only a one-off.
[Side 5, 21 mins]
DMW: Yes, this is why Tom Sloan said over a corporate dead body do we make subversive muck like this.
NS: It was a pilot.
DMW: There is a follow up to this which is a for instance, which makes managing anything like this very difficult. Whether you’re Huw Wheldon or now John Birt or Michael Checkland or whatever. What do you do?
Round about the third series of Till Death, Johnny wrote for me one of the funniest scenes ever. And we open up and Garnett is already in mid-flight, he's fortissimo to start with, arid he's going to go higher. And somewhere he's got the idea that the son-in-law. Tony Booth, had had it off with his virgin, beautiful little rose of a daughter before they married, because “If you did I'm going to bloody kill you.” And they chase him round, he’sgoing to break his neck. And Tony would say [imitates someone protesting fearfully]. And Una Stubbs is nearly in tears, all calm down, all calm down, but an enormous argument, dreadful, smash faces and things. It all calms down and Garnett apologises unusually for him.
This is Speight, good writer, hit big, and then leave it, and great comedy construction. Let it lay flat. And the longer your nerve holds out, you can keep it flat when you come to the tag, yes the longer the pause the bigger the laugh, does that make sense? He apologises, he’s getting old, and there is a lovely pencil sketch of him and Dandy Nichols when they were young. Anh or course when your mum and I were courting, I never.
[Side 5, 23 mins]
“You wouldn’t dare!” She said “I’d have hit ya.” So, all accurate stuff. And they clear up the tea things, tea for two, sorry tea for four. Four cup’s four saucers, four spoons. And they put them on a tray and take them out into the scullery out the back, leaving the kids on the sofa who collapse in giggles and Una says, “God if they only knew.” Hoots. We couldn’t get much of a laugh, because it so normal. I don't know about you two, but certainly my wife and I had sex before marriage. We'd go to the scullery, and this is comedy, and this is relationship, actor, writer and director, and Dandy and I had worked it out. She said “We can't miss can we?” and I said “No. Because they know you’re going to have the final tag, they sense it.” She washed four cups in total silence, quite slowly and four saucers in total silence, with Garnett drying them on a tea towel, and three spoons in total silence. And on the last spoon she said, “You did you know.” And the audience fell out of their seats. Now it’s not clever comedy, but its confidence in what you are doing.
NS: And timing of course.
DMW: Can I tell you. the next morning, I was on Tom Sloan's carpet, “You two-faced bastard, you let me down.” I said “What was that?” “You promised me you would never get up mixed up in sex and rude scurrilous stuff.” I said “We didn't.”
[Side 5, 25mins]
“I mean, the Dandy thing last night?” “No, where the daughter laughs and says if only they knew, how dare you let me down. I’ve a damn good mind to take you off the show.” Now this is, apart from interfering with a producer director’s natural rights, for Christ’s sake, this has now got personal. I discover that more or less whilst we were being transmitted that night, his daughter, aged 21, is saying “It’s my body and I can do whatever I like with it.” So, lesson for management, keep your bloody family life at home. I'm sorry, Tom is now dead, bless him, he had been supportive as you know worldwide, at Montreux or he was a tower at Montreux. He was a great guy but Till Death Us Do Part offended his very Scottish upbringing. But you mustn't confuse management with personal feelings, no really, sorry to go on about that.
NS: So, the series went on and on and on.
DMW: Well, there's another one, shit, it does go on, because we kept getting into trouble. ‘This foul-mouthed swearing show.’ The only word I would allow him was bloody, he never used another word, at least for seven series, whilst I was doing it. Since I left it and it's now In Sickness And In Health all kinds of I think unnecessary, swearing for the sake of, as opposed to swearing because it is logical, but that I think is Warren Mitchell whose taste I think is suspect.
[pause] There was another one. Can we pause? [pause]
If you look back on the press cuttings especially in the sensational tabloids, ‘this foul mouth, this evil’, all I ever allowed was the word bloody. Mary Whitehouse used to go on about fuck and all we ever used was bloody. So I did some research on ‘bloody’. Some people, the sensitive ones, the Catholics especially, swear that it’s a diminutive of by the blood of Christ. which it is not. I have found the original. It derives from the German blutig, it came over with the German court when we suddenly had a Hanoverian King, surrounded by his personal soldiers and courtiers. And if you were a lazy, dozy, idle, soldier or a boring courtier you were a blutiger kerl, a boring bloody fellow. That’s all it means. And it came in there.
[Side 5, 28 mins]
And I shall do a whole thing on this one day, when a Cockney uses the word bloody, it usually means that a noun is about to arrive any moment now when he can think of it. It is lack of-
DMW: Yes, vocabulary, lack of being articulate. ‘I tell you bloody, I’ve done the bloody thing.’ You can then play with it, because rhythmically it's beautiful. All to- bloody -gether. It's a beautiful word to play with, to two syllables, marvellous. But that's as far as we ever went. But the pastings we got, the deadlines, lurid about [being] foul-mouthed.
I only ever used the word bloody. The word cow came in once which I elbowed and it went to moo for next week. I would not, cow is too strong, a man would not say that to his wife unless he really was a barbaric person. But the press pick it up and it sells newspapers, which is a great shame. Forget that. We're are going to carry on mucking about.
Marty Feldman, that’s a joke, now we really had fun. And Mr Sloan and I again at cross purposes. Oh dear. Do you remember the long distance golfer [sketch]. It went on and on and on, there is no sign where the ball landed after he teed off. And we end up, the South African lighting cameraman, Stewart Parnell, we end up literally with an oil lamp over the 18th hole, and Marty is still putting. Genius.
We have a series to do. And my scriptwriters are Marty Feldman and Barry Took, John Cleese and Graham Chapman. Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden. Mike Palin and Terry Jones, all kids. How is that for talent? And the material we had I cannot tell you. There had never ever been a show like it and I’m going to do a film shoot, location shoot, for all six programmes in the series. Now I've done some filming but I'm not all that skilled in estimating, and it depends on the weather. And for a BBC comedy series we always film in the winter when there is no sun and no light. All I can say is, oh I costed it, I think it worked out, the filming for the entire series worked out at about £65,000, which is cheap. And it is stunt filming, which takes time and care and trouble. And this includes props, make-up and for the whole budget, 65k for 90 minutes filming. Even in those days that was cheap. Tom Sloan said That’s over the top, 15k.” And I said “Well we don’t do the series then, there's no point, we can’t do it on that. Do you maybe one-and-a-half shows.” “Oh, that's it, you’re going to do it. Go away and do it.” I said “It‘s going to cost 65k” and I put it in writing. Went and did it. I overspent 50,000 according to Tom Sloan and it's in the books, Dennis Main Wilson overspent.
AL: You brought to it in at 65.
DMW: I brought it in at 65, like I said. Just under.
AL: What was the series?
DMW: Marty. That’s what we won the award for at Montreux.
NS: Quite right too.
DMW: We won the Silver Rose at Montreux.
NS: And Tom Sloan was happy for once.
DMW: Yes, oh Christ. I'm not anti-Sloan.
NS: I understand.
DMW: I’m anti-what happened once management began to take over.
[Side 5, 32 mins]
…I didn’t tell you, in 1948 I produced the original version of Opportunity Knocks with Hughie Green, which is still around somewhere in today’s television. There is a lack of imagination in this modem day and age, even then they started doing work study, in 1948. And I think and by the third series of Till Death and the first or second series of Marty, management were really taking control of output. Now, I’m sorry, we make the programmes, you -management - set up the buildings and the studios and the infrastructure which enables us to do them and you set up the Broadcasting system so that it transmits. You are not qualified, it is not part of your skills, nor part of your job description to interfere with productions.
We produce, you manage. And they fancied themselves as latter-days George and Alfred Blacks or whatever and you feel it going down. And by now the ‘bumph’ starts escalating. Now interesting, if you look at the credit and of Till Death Do Us Part or the credits on a Marty, you will see that I worked with a five-handed production crew, of which I was one. And so it was me, and a four handed crew. That’s the total office, everybody. You look at the credits now on a comedy half-hour on the BBC, there is about 23, 24, 25. And in those days, in vain - your secretary probably hadn't been to bed before midnight for three or four weeks -you ask for an assistant typist to take some of the work of a load off her, “Oh it’s only a comedy show, no.” Yet we're pulling in the figures, we're making the BBC internationally famous. Whereas Ken Russell goes out and does what Elgar, spent three months' spending how many, I forget his budget.
NS: Elgar was fairly cheap.
AL: Elgar is a cheap one, it’s the later ones. [Song of Summer] Delius; Elgar was cheap
DMW: But Elgar exists, Delius exists. He’s not working with an abstract, he’s working with a concrete thing that exists and all he does is fuck about with it and have fun. When you’re in comedy, you start with a blank page one, nothing exists. And surely in comedy our work is that much harder. Except because, I don’t know, it’s not class distinction, this is almost a freemasonry, to keep control in our hands, ducky. Except you put your fingers on who actually is calling you ducky and it isn't where you think it is.
The power resides elsewhere. If I were younger and fitter, I’d better find [?] But it is, frustrating and holding it this nation back by the boot straps. You talk to anybody at the CBI or at the Institute of Directors, and always somewhere there is a management or Civil Service Department or government department which cannot see a beyond tomorrow afternoon. The Channel tunnel rail link, the French have finished theirs. The M25, orbital road around London, everybody, the AA, RAC, the transport haulage companies, all said it's got to be a minimum of three lanes, preferably four, what do they do. They build two, what are they doing now, holding up all the traffic to build four. And it's the idiots, who arse crawl their way into some kind of power. It takes a Churchillian towering personality, or even [Margaret] Thatcher, to get anywhere near cutting out the dross. But then even Thatcher created dross. If I were at younger, and if I had earned a commercial salary rather than a BBC salary, I would probably be living in Thailand or somewhere like that. At least they are pleasant there. And at least they acknowledge corruption whereas we've got it but we don't acknowledge it.
[Side 5, 37 mins]
NS: On we go.
DMW: So, Till Death I got the award for both Till Death Us Do Part and for Marty on the one night, which was very sad, because it was the night that Kenneth Horne dropped dead on the awards platform if you remember, which was very sad.
I then met up with a young Australian called Barry Humphries. You see I like starting things and we did Barry Humphries’ Scandals, And all I can say is I think Barry is a genius, I think I know Barry is a genius, he is a writer, he is a painter, he is an expert on 18th and 19 century English and continental watercolours. And he paints quite well himself. He is a brilliant all-round character actor, but genius, thoroughly professional and knows both ends of a camera from either, really knows filming at all together, except this was his early days. I'll give you a very quick, no two. He wrote a six-minute musical every week, or he and his partner Eric Davidson did. we did a full scale, flat out, six-and-a-half-minute musical, story musical, every week, of which one example would be the life-story of Oscar Wilde, in six and a half minutes as a musical, with him playing a Wilde, Willie Rushton playing the warder in Reading Gaol and Diana Dors playing Mrs Oscar Wilde.
And that's just the thinking, and it’s funny before you start. But when Di Dors says “It's no comfort being Mrs Oscar Wilde,” and his exit from Reading Gaol, Willie Rushton came up and said, “Do you mind if I add a little extra bit to your exit” and Barry said “Help yourself.” And on the exit from Reading Gaol to go to Paris, Willie added “Goodbye sir, you sexual old deviant you, the graffiti on the walls will never be the same.” He gave me one “how do you shoot this?” and to this day I still, maybe with Quantel and Arri and Paintbox you could do it, but in those days we didn’t have any of that.
NS: And this is studio, is it?
DMW: No, this is film. You come up on a Turner landscape, with some Delius summer music. And you pan slowly off it and it is the painting to see the landscape. And the painter is painting and you make a two shot, landscape, painting three- shot, back of painter. brush. And there is a noise off which says, “Oi”, our painter looks to his left. There is a gentleman standing there with a tall, black and white striped thing.
[Side 5, 39 mins 55 secs]
“What?” And it’s over to camera right and there is a gentleman there with a measuring device but then there is a rumble and a rather large vehicle with wheels about 10 ft high painted yellow comes rumbling across the landscape taking a large strip of the landscape with him, and slowly they build a city in this landscape. This is a two-and-a-half minute sketch and we are going to rip the landscape to bits and build a city. How the hell do you do that? He never stops painting, anything happens he paints it in. And in the very last sequence, he is in the foyer of the town hall of the city, they’ve built all round him and they plonk some flowers there, and he is painting the flowers in front of him. And there is a ding, ding, ding, and it’s half past five, and the workers are going home. And the commissionaire comes up and takes the flowers away. That is too much. They’ve changed his landscape, they’ve put away the flowers. That’s it. So he puts his fist straight through the canvas. Cut long, and the entire city falls to bits. In two and a half minutes on a BBC, BBC2 budget.
NS: Sorry, which programme is this?
DMW : This is Barry Humphries’ Scandals, we called the series.
NS: This isn’t Oscar Wilde which you were just talking about.
DMW: No, no, no. Sixteen, no eighteen we did. But this is Barry Humphries mind. It’s genius. I did it as best I could.
AL: Where are we in time, now?
DMW: We’re now in 1970. Right, then a whole series of experiments, a thing called Mind Your Own Business which was an experimental comedy pilot written by Tony Bilbow, absolutely brilliant script, where, this is 1970,
[Side 5, 42 mins]
There are two brothers, one white, one black, because when dad was serving overseas during the war, mum met this American sergeant. How topical today. It was turned down. “We've got all the working class shows we want.” It's one of the best scripts I've ever handled in my life.
NS: They’d do it next week.
DMW: I can’t find Tony Bilbow, I’d do it like a shot. We also, and this is Lime Grove, did Up the Poles [DS1] which was a suggestion of mine. All comedy, comic shows are banned for three-weeks before an election. Check.
NS: Yes, well not all…
DMW: Anything that could persuade the voters.
NS: That relate to politics.
DMW: Well Johnny Speight and me, it can only relate to politics.
DMW: We had an idea, Johnny and I, over a jar.
[Side 5, 43 mins]
The moment the election booths close at 10 o’clock on voting day, they can’t stop us. So I put up the idea to Paul Fox who then I think was Controller 1, wasn’t he?
DMW: So that's it, we had studio E, I'd think, in Lime Grove, built a pub. I d a minimal budget, but people came in because they were mates and I think I paid them free beer and 25 guineas [£26.05p] or something. But everybody in show business poured in. Eric Sykes had helped Johnny write a script, not knowing the result of the election for hours yet, but we’re on the air for half an hour while this boring guess game went on which really is a load of old boring shit. But I wanted to do it live. Paul Fox insisted we did it with a twenty-minute delay. And unfortunately, I forget what happened but we had a video breakdown, a machine went down and we’ve got to do an edit. So we are editing on machine two whilst we’re on the air on machine one. And we only just made it. Now I hadn't stopped, I don't think since I started Till Death in about…
NS: 1964, wasn’t it, Till Death?
DMW: I hadn't stopped since about 1966. I did two series of Birds, with all the Johns. I did the Martys, I was doing I don’t know how many Sykes with Hattie and Derek Guyler, the Barry Humphries series, and I wasn’t very well. I didn't know it at the time but apparently I had a near heart attack in the cutting room, because Paul Fox. you know he screams, was going bananas, and it was Eddie Stewart, my p.a., do you know Eddie Stewart?
DMW: Who got us on the air, and then got me a taxi home. I then did a pilot again experimental, Don‘t Ring Us, We’ll Ring You, which was a North of England comedy show set in a Lancashire Working Men’s [club]. I went up there for a fortnight as a guest of the BBC. Manchester and Leeds. Oh.
Recap? Manchester and Leeds, I went up there and I did five working men's clubs a night for a fortnight, thank God I learned to drink when young. That‘s heavy going. Of which the climax was I was the guest of the Grimethorpe Working Men’s, because we turned up on a practice night, and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band had to be one of the greatest in Britain. And loved it. The stories. I cannot tell you. they’ve still got to be told.
[End of Side 5]
[SIDE 6, TAPE 3]
DMW: I just said I went to five working men’s clubs in Midlands and North, every night for a fortnight, thank goodness I’d learned to drink when young. Not so good now when old, but there we are, including as I said the Grimethorpe Colliery where the band was in rehearsal and we were treated to a concert. That was a great honour, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, the best in Britain. But there is a whole life up there which as a South Easterner in England I didn't know existed.
Would you believe the Kettlethorpe East Shaft Working Men’s, we went there on Wednesday afternoon and we met concert secretary and social secretary in their I suppose a late Forties, Fifties, men of the world, no messing, you know. And I said “So what, you were coal miners but you've jacked that in and now you run the club?” “No. we changed from night-shift to day shift.” I said “What, you’re still working?” “Of course, we do.” So I said, “What’s your turnover then?” “Oh we do about a quarter of a million a year, I’m a hard man, that bloody Val Parnell doesn’t hold a candle to me. Does he?” And there is this whole pecking order of concert secretaries, social secretaries, behaviour in the club. Ah, and a good civilisation, I must say I liked it very much. So I had an idea from some Mancunian writers
[Side 6, 2 mins]
to do it and I booked, goodness who was it, Sandy Powell, the old “Can you hear me mother?” [Powell’s catchphrase] still working the music halls, or the clubs
NS: What, in the 1970s?
DMW: Yes, Sandy Powell starred for me as the concert secretary. Norman Rossington as the social secretary and John Junkin as a hard-bitten yuckie Cockney agent from down south and they ran rings round him. It really was, it did a bomb [went well] in terms of viewership in the Midlands and North, but died a death down here.
AL: What was it called again?
DMW: Don’t Ring Us, We’ll Ring You.
NS Who were the authors, Dennis?
DMW: Oh, one of them is now a BBC producer in Manchester, it will come.
[Mike Craig and Lawrie Kinsley. DS]
Then I came back, because I had enormous regard for Eric Sykes as a writer. He, had he been in the right hands would have been Britain's equivalent to Jacques Tati, but he would have left Jacques Tati standing, because Tati got too lost in the French or Parisian school of mime which slowed everything down for him. But Eric as a writer so often had seen his scripts ruined by bad performers on television, or destroyed by bad directors. He decided that he would perform himself and get mixed up with production and direction. All three of which were all three different gifts and you shouldn’t do that.
[Side 6, 4 mins]
But as a writer the man is to this day - he’s older than me - brilliant and he does this superb comedy in depth, do a long visual comedy scene, you don’t need dialogue on film, and the whole thing falls to bits. And the tag isn’t there, it’s over there with somebody else whom it’s effective at about third hand if you think about it, very intelligent writing in great depth and texture. So I persuaded Tom Sloan to give me six half hours of my own to give Eric his head and write six totally disconnected surreal fantasies.
One of them, which I think is one of the best things he ever did, was to sail a U-boat in wartime up the English Channel, turn left up the Thames, turn left at the Embankment into the underground system, which was fabulous. Very quickly, the story was it is 1939, the war, it is Friday night and obviously the war is going to break out and Fraulein Marlene von Jacques is due to open at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, in the West End of London music hall. And because of this war thing, it looks like she ain’t going to get there. And the Fuhrer is very cross, because [German accent] “Ve Germans always honour ze contract, she must get to the Shepherd's Bush Empire to open first house on the Monday!” So there is a German U-boat lying in a French Channel port, unbeknown to the French.
[Side 6, 6 mins]
And she is smuggled aboard with her accompanist and his 6 ft 2 grand piano aboard this bloody submarine. Slight problems of getting a grand piano down into the control tower of a submarine underneath the periscope. And we are going to sail up the Thames and deposit her in Shepherd's Bush. I cannot tell you, a) how do you get a U-boat on a BBC budget, and [b] even on a big budget do you get a U-boat? So because, thank God for, again luck, Sandhurst training, one is used to coping with officer level and General, and Admiral level. I sent a signal to the Ministry of Defence, saying ‘senior BBC producer, furious, urgently requires submarine, discovers navy, Royal Navy has monopoly on submarines. Stop. This contravenes the monopoly act, propose to sue.’ Within minutes there is a signal back, saying ‘come for lunch.’ Oh, this was great. The first thing is “What was your staff number, army number?”, and because I was ex-classified because of Sir John, I’m on the X-list, of which you would be surprised, as you’ll hear in a moment. They thought I was a hoot, and anyway the track record helps, name-dropping always helps a bit. They thought the script was super, they read the script and they laughed.
“Ok, we’ll get Randy to come back to you.” Randy Roxborough, Vice-Admiral commanding submarines HMS Dolphin, Gosport. Randy Roxborough. That’s it.
I get back to the office, and this is half past four, very good lunch,
[Side 6, 8 mins]
and within minutes the phone rings. “Mr. Main Wilson?” “Yes.” “Chief Petty Officer Smile here sir, Dolphin, Gosport. We gavver – g-a-double v-e-r we gavver you require a submarine.” I could have kissed him. So I said “Yes.” “We’ve spoken to Randy sir, can you can down tomorrow for 6 o’clock, 18:00 pm. Oh, and bring a tooth brush.
So that’s it. So we go down, go to the Dolphin wardroom, a very nice CPO steward at the bar and you know what I drink which is whisky. And the steward says “I gather you're after a submarine.” So I said “Yes.” “What’s that for?” I told him. He thought it was funny. He says “If you get past the old man, I think you'll do it,” he said “Thank God you drink whisky.” Why is that?” “Well the old man does, if you’re still standing at 2 o'clock you’ll get your Submarine; if you’re don’t, you probably won't.” The old man was asleep by 2 o'clock..
NS: [chuckling] And you got the submarine.
DMW: I got it, and I was stoned out of my mind. They fixed me a cabin at the Dolphin and it was [?] minutes, I was woken up, he’d scrambled the submarine, NATO exercise, two Norwegian frigates going down the North Sea, us going out to wherever, and I was on board [the] submarine for a week. Which I loved. I’m an admirer of the Navy for its discipline and efficiency and its shear bloody guts.
NS: That’s free was it, the BBC paid. the Ministry of Defence?
DMW: No, this is MoD. No money was talked about. The reason this happened was that if they were going to lend me a submarine they wanted to find out what kind of guy I am, and Hugh Michael [?] was the commander of the submarine who became a friend eventually. I am under observation for seven days and seven nights and it is down to the commander of the submarine to decide whether I'm worthy of the risk. That’s good thinking I thought. I was so impressed that when I came back, my son was at Dulwich by then, I said to Andy, what do you think about joining the Navy, I think they’re fabulous. Anyway, I got the submarine. A long story.
Anyway, on the screen we sailed this U-boat up the English Channel, we turned left “Just past Auntie Maude’s place, she lives at Southend”, up the Thames estuary to the Embankment, where we turned left into the tube system, the underground system. And the next thing you know its in Trafalgar Square there is a periscope coming up through a manhole cover, they're trying to find out. And trying to get a bloody camera on the floor low enough to get Nelson [column] into frame and a periscope, that was fun. We did it again, Barons Court, Derek Guyler did it for me very kindly playing, - Barons Court is underground going overground, - rushing up, you know, “There is a submarine parked on platform two.” And German soldiers rush around with bayonets fixed looking for the Empire Shepherd‘s Bush.
[Side 6, 11 mins 30 secs]
And the scene in the studio eventually, they built a submarine control room for me in the studio, with a 6 ft 2 grand, which I knew about. And in the end, because her singing is appalling, and the pianist is a bloody awful pianist, the crew mutiny. So they are banished on to the foredeck casing of the submarine, whilst they're rehearsing, and I‘ve got a shot of this submarine, U-boat, going along with a 6 ft 2 grand and Hattie Jacques on the foredeck casing. And then we cheated and we cut from the bow with Hattie and the piano foreground, to - I had no idea how big submarines were, but by God they’re big, they’re thin but they are high up — so Hauptmann Eric von Sykes appears and says “Fraulein!”, “Ja”, when you hear the klaxon you must come down immediately.” “Klaxon, what is klaxon.” Klaxon is [imitates]. Straight down.
And there is a marvellous boson on the submarine, arid he said, “I've been talking to the boys, sir”, he said “No way are you going to harm Miss Hattie Jacques. The boys won't have it.” Again, this is the warmth thing. So that went well.
NS: A big success, was it?
DMW: Yes, except after [episode] three they gave me a director, whose name I shall not mention because he’s still around, and Derek said “Either he goes or I go.” So, the director went, but it had put Eric off by then, he got pissed off.
And then I did a series of six again trying with Irish humour, everybody should have a go at Irish humour. And I had the good fortune to talk Cyril Cusack into working a Johnny Speight script for two tramps. And I got James Booth, not Tony Booth, James Booth, to play his mate. [This was called Them. DS] And for the first time I used graphics for titles by Stanley Franklin, who in those days was the cartoonist on the [Daily] Mirror, now on the Sun and we tried to animate them. But on a BBC budget and with the then BBC talent no way.
Then in 1971, bingo, it is the 10th anniversary of Private Eye, [satirical magazine. DS] “ Let’s do a documentary to celebrate it.” Christ! I’ve got a copy here: using the humour of. And the one thing we did there, I need to put this into 2- and 3-D, because I could run it now and show you in comedy terms that you can get laughs off captions, you don’t need a human face to make laughter. We ran just a series of cuts on a rostrum camera, a 3-box cartoon, yes, box one, box two, box three, rhythm decided by voiceover, Willie Rushton, Spike Milligan, or whoever it was.
[Side 6, 15 mins]
Wallop. Just as good, if it’s good comedy it gets laughter, it’s as simple as that. But that was the first time I’ve ever tried that and I’m going to try it again one day.
Then we did another try out, again the writer, some people only have one script in them. a thing called No Peace on The Western Front which starred Warren Mitchell and Ronnie Fraser, Warren Mitchell as a German Grenadier, it is Ypres or the Somme in the First World War and Ronnie Fraser, as a hairy arsed [?] Division Seaforth Highlander and they're both forward observation posts, observing the effect of each other’s artillery. But they're well dug in except the wall collapses and there's the two of them and they want to stay there for the rest of the war. And it is a political dialogue between soldiers in which Warren Mitchell and Ronnie Fraser, brilliant. And they’ve wiped the bloody tape. Speight script, brilliant writing, not a Speight script. no, a journalist, Dennis Pitts who used to be the editor of the Girly magazine – what was it called? Lilliput.
NS: Was he? Was he the Dennis Pitts that worked for Granada?
NS: I knew him.
DMW: Then it all starts to go wrong: Oh, we did The Royal Command Variety Show, that was fun -then Till Death Do Us Part. The BBC tried to block it, they didn’t think it was suitable, but the request apparently came from the Palace, they told us, so we went to work, Johnny Speight and I thought about it, marvellous,
[Side 6, 17 mins]
[Alf] Garnett is so pro the Queen Mum and wrote a great idea, cameras in the auditorium, so we’re talking cameras left and right, looking at the stage. Centre is a television set back to camera. And there is sadly a larger version, the original Till Death Us Do Part set would have been too tiny on the Palladium Stage, so immediately it lost the claustrophobia. Anyway, they’re sitting there waiting to watch the Queen Mum arrive at the Royal Command Performance, while the Queen Mum is already upstairs, they’re half way through the show by now.
Great arguments about Max Bygraves is older than the Queen Mum, how do you know this. “How do you know this?” “Well he’s done more Command Performances than the Queen Mum.” And Dandy says, “I hope they give us some nice chocolates to eat.” Well I hope she doesn’t make so much bleeding noise unwrapping them like you do.” “There she is, oh don’t she look nice, who is that hovering behind her, looking as though he wants something out of her?” “Oh, that is Sir Delfont, he’s not been knighted yet, and he’s hanging on hoping to be.” Tom Sloan said “Take that out! That’s libellous. So I went to Bernie Delfont and said “Do you want that out?” And he said “No, Christ I want it, it stays in. Can I ask just one favour, no jokes about Lew and Leslie [Grade], I don’t like ‘em.” So that was it. I gather that Queen Mum very much enjoyed it, but the Royal Order of Water Rats which is Delfont, the Grades and that freemasonry hated it. However.
AL: What year is this one?
[Side 6, 19 mins]
I was getting a bit tired by then I think, oh no, we brought Till Death Us Do Part back after a break of, 1968 to 1972, four years, we’d come off the air. We thought the show was written out, don’t want to reiterate the same old bloody things, until Dandy Nichols rang me at home one night and said, “You’re mad, you’re sitting on this great property, you’re not using it. Anyway, I need the money,” she said “Let's come back.” And the first three series were in black and white. So, the fourth series is now in colour which I think softened it and made it vaguely yet another sitcom, it all got a bit cosy. And it lost it’s edge a bit because the cast were now famous as opposed to anonymous characters. So 1972 was Till Death… fourth series, 1973, 1974 fifth series.
Marty Feldman, Johnny Speight and I had a mad thing, an attempt at advanced thinking man’s comedy. Marty’s idea, saying “I’ll write the visuals, Johnny write the dialogue, we can’t miss.” We missed. It was very political, very contentious. [Title: Marty Back Together Again. DS] I don’t think it was but for the tender souls in management, for example there was a beauty, long shot, vast church, possibly cathedral, a non-existent organ playing a Voluntary. Enter obviously a junior priest, Marty, who fiddles round with flowers, a bit long, on one side of the aisle, this is below the high altar, fiddles around the other side, and then does a few quick shufties around and disappears into the equivalent of a vestry, where he opens up the communion door, and goes ‘glug’ with the communion wine bottle, and downs it in one and feels better from last night. Grabs a bottle and fills it up again, and can slow down now, he’s safe and takes a big sip. puts it down, and the glass fills up again all by itself and from now on they’ve got him, and as fast as he drinks it fills up again, even holding it up in his hands, both hands up here, it is filling quicker than he can bloody drink it, it dribbles down his body, it fills the vestry, it seeps under the door, and we did it on stage B, at Ealing. In the end we have the entire naive, 30-40 ft deep in red wine, and he is swimming for his life, hanging on to his chandelier, which swings him, and the communion table floats past him, and he misses it. And he floats up to the conventional statue of Christ up on the high altar, and he says, “Forgive me Lord, I didn’t really mean it. I’m sorry.” He nearly drowns because he has to let go of the chandelier while he is doing it. And the figure of Christ, beautifully made, and the make-up is incredible, Jimmy Villiers, James Villiers, just opened one eye and said “Are you truly really sorry?” “Yes, Lord.”
[Side 6, 23 mins]
“You will never ever, ever do that again?” “No.” Back to repose and, ssss and out. Tom Sloan deed that sacrilegious. To me that’s a fable, thou shalt not steal, among other things thou shalt not do. It was censored and never broadcast. I forget our editor, I shot it on 35, because I refused to shoot with your rotten lighting set up at Ealing on 16mm, in those days the stock wasn’t that brilliant, still isn’t that brilliant, unless they’ve improved the lighting at Ealing. I always shoot on 35.
AL: It was nothing to do with the lighting.
DMW: There wasn’t enough colour temperature, this is on l6mm, the old l6mm stock
AL: I beg your pardon.
DMW: There nothing to give you ‘binge’ [?] to give you even acceptable
pictures, as far as I’m concerned.
Some weird stuff we might just get away with now.
NS: "This is BBC2?
DMW: BBC2, yes. And most of the film that was censored was destroyed, [I’m] furious because there was some great stuff. 1973-73, Till Death Do Us Part fifth series.
And then I became honorary godfather to Cambridge Footlights that year, which was a pleasant jump from Alf Garnett to slightly more pleasant company, this was 1974. And I think it was called Chocs, and it starred Griff Rhys Jones, Clive Anderson and young Tony Slattery.
[Side 6, 25 mins]
And I worked on the script with them. They always overrun, it was usually about two and a half hours, and from whatever years of experience I’d had in editing other scripts, I helped them with the script. And then, through some other friends, I got them a month at the Comedy Theatre, in the West End on a peppercorn rent, because the lady who owns the theatre is a great philanthropist of the arts. And they had a month there on a peppercorn rent, from which I then did an OB [Outside Broadcast] of the show for BBC2. This is 1974, I’m 50, yes, so I’m quite senior, I can pull a little weight. These people don’t mind me as much as they used to.
NS: Scared to death of you.
DMW: I don’t know, I was drinking like a fish. Jesus Christ I was drinking. 1974-75, sixth series of Till Death Us Do Part, which I felt was getting a bit tired. So, we moved in a new family next door which happened to be Patricia Hayes and Alfie Bass. Better than which they don’t come. Some of Speight’s greatest writing, the examination for Alfie Bass, as Speight wrote him, two men both of them terrified of sex, because it was rude.
I was brought up this way, when I was a child, I don’t know until maybe dad died, my mum always went upstairs to bed first, undressed, got into bed and turned the light off and then dad, she would knock on the door and dad would come upstairs and undress in the dark and get into bed. Otherwise, it was rude. So, the sexual hang-ups, and Alfie Bass - Johhny Speight wrote him - the reason Pat Hayes was a virago, talk about the taming of the shrew, hated him because he’d never had her once in all the years of married life! But he loved his food, so she kept feeding him in the hope that he might. And in the pub over a pint, the two of them, they’re talking about a subject about which a) they knew nothing, and b) they were terrified. It was a bit strong for a family comedy show but whey! We then did a seventh series of Till Death and then it had to come off. That was it. Then 1976 I started a new comedy series starring Peter Jones and Prunella Scales, because I’d worked with Peter in Rag Trade, obviously and Prue Scales I admired very much. And this had Peter Jones as a would be big time crook, a mastermind. [Mr. Big. DS] And it came out of the thing that started in radio with, if you remember me talking earlier on about getting The Goon Show on, this great old senior producer Pat Dixon, had picked up the young Peter Ustinov and the young Peter Jones, this is 1947-48, and invented a series called All DirectIons. Now if the fringe in Edinburgh, or around the towns here, think that improvisation is a new alternative comedy thing, balls. 1947-48, all that happened was that Ustinov wrote a lead line in text, just ideas, and Peter chipped in the odd adjective, start the recording, on disc in those days, and ad lib from there, go.
[Side 6, 29 mins 10 secs]
“Is that your car?”, “Yes, so what?” “Move it”, and you’re off, ad lib for half an hour on nuisances and things. They did three series on that, most of which exist in BBC sound archives. They’re worth listening to. Armed with that Peter Jones, who has this banal voice, he speaks rather nicely actually when you meet him. He played a slightly Cockney, East End boy a lot in this, so I said if you can get a character between them, he’s not Jewish but he’s mixed with them down the market, and he’s sharp, but not as clever as they are sort of thing. And these great plans, I can’t tell you, rob major banks and things, Prue Scales as his right-hand woman, his moll. Quite fun. Ian Lavender. the idiot nephew in Dad’s Army, Carol Hawkins, that was comedy purely for the sake of comedy, making no comment at all. It was purely to entertain but hopefully on a well written basis and it wasn’t domestic sitcom. It was getting out, doing things, a bit of fun. Not as good as some big American productions.
It works very well and we do a second series in early 1977. And then one day, it is known by then, if I can go back, there is a story, I can’t remember if it’s true, but if it was I was drunk at the time, but the architect in charge of the building of Television Centre, whilst it was going up in its final stages, is supposed to have asked me “Den, where do you want the bar? And I’m supposed to have said “Opposite my office.”, And that indeed from 1970, or 1960-somewhere is a) where my office was and b) the bar was, opposite.
I take comedy seriously, a lot of people doing it today, some of the comedy is dire. It is thin, it is superficial, there is no closures to any characters, there is no examination of character, there is no development. And this is lazy. What happens, 10 o’clock block it, rehearse it, break for lunch. 2 o’clock into the pub and that’s the day’s work. I used to start at 10.30 and you finish at half past five, or when I finish. And you bloody well work at it and you discover things and textures in the script.
[Side 6, 32 mins]
So, I drank, as I think, if you want to talk to somebody, you talk to Pat Hayes about my drinking. I was perfectly alright until about half past one when I declared it was lunch break when I declared I was going to get some lunch in the pub.
NS: Across the corridor?
DMW: Always up until then according to Pat Hayes I’m a genius producer, genius director. After lunch, impossible, pain in the arse. So that’s it. Anyway. I’m just trying to say that I did drink in those days, always whisky. And as I got older, I started to have directors which was great fun if they were directors of my own choice. Usually, Pas [Production Assistants] who knew how dreadful I was to work with, or whichever. But in the case when one was given directors, one knew instinctively that they had no more idea of comedy than fly in the bloody air. Pretty pictures yes, but that's got nothing to do with comedy necessarily. So, I used to leave my director to work and on the nose at 12 o'clock, I’m now getting old. I would go across to the bar, a few yards, and have my small Bells whisky and a half pint of bitter.
Drink it and maybe pass the time of morning with a colleague, usually from the newsroom. And then back in the office by half past 12. But only the one, one whisky and one half bitter. Otherwise I would be there all day, which I wouldn’t have minded doing but it's bad manners. I was in there one day and a young man came up, I knew him as John, “Good morning Den”, “Good morning John”, “Have a drink?” “Thank you John,” “Den can have a large Bells and a pint of Bass,” or whatever. So to sum things up. It is tradition I only drink a half pint at lunch time and a small Bells. So, what is he up to? “Cheers.” “Cheers.” “Cheers.” And he said, “I gather that you are a reasonable man.” I remember this almost by heart. I say “What’s that for?” “In that you will read anybody’s script regardless of who they are, whether they’re pro or not pro, and what it’s written on, and whether it’s hand-written and not typed.” I said “Yes, just in case.” And I reminded him of Galton and Simpson, who fell through the gap originally. I said “Yes.” He said “Right. Yes.” He reaches inside his pocket, “Read that.” And it was a full script. “May I take it away and read it?” “Yeah.” “Give me 20 minutes.” I can do justice to half hour script in 20 minutes. Skim read.
[Side 6, 35 mins 5 secs]
I was back in about 15 minutes and said “I’ll buy it”, even though the scene has s changed, so I wasn’t in a position officially. But under my old thing I would have been, so sod it, I’ll buy it. If not I’ll bloody sell it to ATV or something. And I bought it and luckily our head of comedy in those days was Jimmy Gilbert who moved to Thames, and became head of entertainment there eventually. Jimmy was head of comedy and I bashed into his office and read that, and anybody who works in light entertainment and is a boss, poor devil, the number of scripts that come in, even if they’re filtered by script editors. I said to Jim, “Read that, not at the top, not at the bottom of the thing, now! We’ll he in the bar.” There was something, I wasn’t bullshitting. Bless his heart, in the bar, we were on the air within seven weeks. So don’t tell me the BBC is a stuffy organisation. What year was that?
NS: What was it?
DMW: Citizen Smith. Starring Robert Lindsay.
NS: And who wrote it?
DMW: John Sullivan a BBC day crew scene shifter. And this is where I will back the BBC to my dying breath. Whether one could achieve that today I don’t know, But I suspect possibly yes.
NS: I hope you’re right.
DMW: If I’m wrong, then the BBC is doomed.
AL: That would be about 1978, would it?
NS: And then?
DMW: 1978, second series. But this guy had never written a script in his life before. Do you get the import of this. And the reason he clocked on as a day crew scene changer was to watch them working in the studio and pick up scripts that someone had left around and take them home and study them. He was a Cockney boy, left school at 15. When I met him, he was living in a two-roomed council flat in Balham with a newborn baby, and it was a rotten council flat too. He is now a millionaire, he has bought himself the most superb property in Southern Surrey. And incidentally he has never changed, we still meet. He is still John Sullivan who was a scene hand and the first thing he does when he goes into the BBC Club.
[Side 6, 38 mins]
-the BBC Club for those who don’t know it by the way is one of the longest bars in the world in that the building was built to house some 8,000 workers, actors, musicians, dancers and soloists. It has to be a big bar. There is however a small bar off to the left.
NS: There is, on the left, I know it.
DMW: The interesting thing all the mates drink in the big bar, props and scenery go in the big bar, down on the left, they’ve all got their own little patch, scratching area. And it is interesting in the small bar, drinks BBC Newsroom, editors and journalists, and BBC Light Entertainment. The two have gravitated naturally together, because we both are for real, whereas they are for fantasy. Does that make sense? It’s very interesting.
But John Sullivan comes in and goes straight down to the scene area, and buys the entire that part of the bar a drink, every time to say, to celebrate his good luck. He is a nice guy.
Well let’s stay there for a moment: what happened, we did a third series, fine, he made a bit of bread, enabled him to move, buy a semi-detached and things. Let's stay with John Sullivan, he then came up with a new show called Only Fools and Horses, which almost immediately became the number one show in Britain, nationwide, wiped the floor with all-comers. And the boy has had no education, no formal training, certainly no show -business training. You see comedy is a gift, you can’t legislate for it. He then also wrote a series called Dear John, which in Britain, because Only Fools and Horses had been such as enormous success, Dear John didn’t quite make the impact. The Americans bought Dear John where it is now in the top 10 in America. America is now screaming for John Sullivan to come out and either go to Hollywood and write films; well that ain’t bad in what twelve years or so.
Oh, little giggle, after the second series of Citizen Smith, Johnny Speight and I tried a new idea, we got so brassed off with all governments in this country, they really, they’ve screwed this nation since we were demobbed, they really have, so we did a thing called Tea Ladies, which was a pilot set in the House of Commons, with the tea ladies who run the tea bar there, except, great cast, Irene Handl, Patricia Hayes and Dandy Nichols. Without a script it works, and with a Speight script. Irene Handl taken ill, elbowed, that’s it.
Third series 1979 of Citizen Smith, and the first demonstration of Quantel.
DMW: Yeah, and producers invited up to the gallery for a demonstration, Syd Lotterby and I went up. One of us said to this white coated, surgical looking gentleman, “What can it do?” And he said, “What do you want it to do, anything.” And at the time we didn’t latch on.
[Side 6, 42 mins]
I’m still catching up with storage of data. I’ve got a word processor but the mind boggles now. I bought the latest in forward thinking, hi-tech video recording, that is hi-band SVHS Nicam stereo sound and its picture in picture and you can fiddle about and you can do titling [?], and already it’s out of date. And I only bought it six months ago.
Did a series called Time of My Life. I keep doing new series, I won’t bore you with all of them because they never lasted but at least we’re giving writers a chance, Time of My Life by a writer called Jim Eldridge, a school teacher, Jim Eldridge, didn’t make it in television. We starred Mark Kingston in it, remember Mark in in Educating Rita in the West End, a good actor. We didn’t drop a goolie, but didn't get the massive ratings that one had grown used to expecting, but it was good. But it gave Jim, it was his first series, he is now the most established writer I think in comedy radio. He writes King Street Junior which has been running for Lord knows how many years.
NS: A long time.
DMW: Then – can I stop and go for a pee –
There was Jim Eldridge, in 1981, John F-, oh I missed out a whole series of things we did earlier on. I had a great togetherness with John Bird, John Wells, and John Fortune over the years because of my association with Cambridge Footlights. And John Bird, wild, military historian among other things, except it takes him a year to write a thirty-minute script. And he’d sell the BBC the idea of doing a series which we did, we did a series of Birds, [That is Bird on…] we did two series, breathtaking. But through this I became very friendly with John Fortune, a good actor, good writer, but again needs time and what has happened is that we’ve moved from our old working-class area, music hall, variety, whatever, and we’re now meeting up with the output of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. And this I find interesting I was going to do it towards the end.
AL: We’re going to turn over, I’m going to stop you now.
[End of Side 6]
[SIDE 7, TAPE 4]
DMW: Just saying because I’d worked so much with John Fortune, John Bird and John Wells, it was almost a cross-over from my original working -class background and that of Johnny Speight, who left school at 14, and the Goons, apart from Bentine who had been to Eton, we were coming in terms of pre-war class consciousness from working class to academe, or the upper class, as my mother would say, “He must be clever, he’s got letters after his name.” That’s a big mistake, still. And I got mixed up with the three Johns because of my work with the Cambridge Footlights, and John Fortune had an idea for a script which, he is a very gentle man, it was a very gentle script, about the break-up of a marriage, not what should we do with the children, it’s not important, but the shear torture, she was a highly literate, intelligent bitch. And he was a highly intelligent, literate soft lover of the artistic scene and gentle life, with a mistress. We spent six months working on the script, polishing It to our success and we offered it to Jonathan Pryce who I think was then starring either for the National or Royal Shakespeare and Jonathan read it and liked it very much and to my delight said “Is there an audience.” And I said “I don’t want an audience.” And he said “If there is an audience, I won’t do it.”
[Side 7, 2 mins]
I’d been trying for years to persuade the BBC to let me try non-audience comedy, saying that when we run a Hollywood comedy movie, you know, somebody hanging over the edge of a cliff, there is no studio audience in the Rockies, laughing while they’re knocking off whatever it is, and it works.
But it just means that comedy has got to be better, better performed, better directed, and differently timed and different depths of project. Now I’m very confident that I know what I’m talking about, so is Jonathan, and so is John Fortune. Months I cannot tell you, and I’ve got all the scripts there, I know it’s beautiful, it’s not going to get a 24 million audience, but on BBC2 it’s going to get 8, 9, 10 [million]. This is good. I should know by then. So comes crunch day and there is a meeting, Programme Board again, Wednesday, and I spring some money from the budget, I’ve got a working programme budget, sod it, I’ll pay it myself.
I rang Jonathan Pryce and said “You choose the restaurant and we’ll just sit it out until we hear what goes on.” And he chose a restaurant in St John’s Wood, I can’t tell you, I’ve never eaten food like it, a French restaurant. Madly expensive, but expensive, what the hell. So we all went Dutch in the end. And my secretary, you remember Liz Cranson, I inherited her from Duncan Wood when Duncan went to Yorkshire [TV], Liz is there waiting and the moment we know yeah or neah, she rings the restaurant.
[Side 7, 4 mins]
2 o’clock, half past two, we’ve had a very good lunch, no answer. Sod it, more coffee, and probably me I said “Oh sod it, I’ll pay, can we see the wine list?” And they had a bottle of champagne, it was £37.50, I remember. I don’t care. Pleasant company. I’ve never drunk a Moet de Chandon, or whatever, I’m used to Spanish sparkling and Deutsche Sekt, I’m used to. But this I cannot tell you can you imagine a champagne that is stronger than cognac or whisky. Jesus. Anyway, it was about a quarter to four when the phone rang and we got our way. So, another bottle of champagne and we get back to the office stoned. But it goes back to, hopefully I haven’t been boring in saying, if you believe in something, stick your bloody neck out.
DMW go for it and don’t be put down by somebody who, fine has a management point of view, when it comes to managing, and above and below the line costing and use of resources fine. When it comes to philosophical discussions, management out. Producers produce, management manage. And there should be no problem in making a clear distinction.
NS: There you are, you're in business again.
DMW: We do the series and it is beautiful. Jonathan Pryce who is, this guy is a perfectionist, from every sense he is a delight to work with. But if you watched his work on that Hitler thing every finger, every inch of him does that. We all wanted a second series. They hummed and haad but we didn't get a second series, it was a pity that.
AL: What was the series called again?
[Side 7, 6 mins]
DMW: Roger Doesn't Live Here Anymore. And Jonathan who got the Emmy for Miss Saigon on Broadway recently didn't he, and he'd never sung before in his life! Would you like me to play you from 1981, Jonathan Pryce singing his own opening and closing titles, yes.
In 1982, we’re coming near to when I left the Beeb now, again another Footlights. There had been nothing between the original and this lot, and this time it starred Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson. And this was something very special. Stephen Fry especially. And Emma was promising but she has gone the way of all airy fairy, pseudo artistic flesh, I don't know where she's disappeared to now. And I helped them with their script. I stayed up there for a while. I went with them on tour for a few days, polishing, knowing I'd got myself 45 minutes on BBC2 already, having recommended it. Then I went with them to Hampstead where they did a week. And we polished both it, down from about two and a quarter hours, down to just about under two, at the same time rehearsing a 55 minute version for BBC2. So I had extra rehearsal for not very experienced performers. And I had a young director of my own choice which was good, so I could concentrate on content and rather than practicalities and you know that show worked. And there was one thing in it which I have borrowed as my by-line,
[Side 7, 8 mins]
it is one line from Stephen Fry in which he is describing a third person and he says “The man was either mad or both.” [Normann chuckles] And the first time I heard it up in Cambridge I thought shit, it got a roar. It’s the first time I've ever heard a gag which has neither feed line nor development line nor tag, it is a straight statement, so why is it funny. It shouldn't work on paper.
NS: But it did.
DMW: Yes, so much so, that when they did the Queen Mum's birthday thing at the Palladium some while back, I’m told she asked for that sketch to be in.
Anyway, Stephen Fry now gives me permission when I write my book I may use it as a subtitle, whatever. I then had the good fortune to find another first-time writer, called Dudley Long, who was a bit part extra I’d met on location who had said to me, “I gather you read scripts?” So I said yes, chuck it over.” “I shall send you one.”, he said. He is about 6 ft 8 tall, lanky, not a bit of flesh on his body, very, very, like this, very straightforward, to the point.
About six months later he sent me a script, he sent me a packet of everything he had ever written. There was no shape, it was just typing on any subject you can think of, all the way through. Sketches, thoughts. ideas, more sketches. There were one or two things were very good, so I got him to develop one of them. And it took a long time but in 1982
he came up with it. And whatever it was, a series, a pilot had gone down the drain - you see there is such a shortage of comedy shows, grabbed immediately, can you start in six weeks. “I’m sorry star actors, and there aren’t that many star comedy actors in the country, let alone available, they done hang around waiting for the BBC to ring.” And, unfortunately, everybody I wanted was working or out of the country. And no insult to him but Brian Murphy was available, George and Mildred, except that Brian is a reactor to somebody else’s attack.
[Side 7, 11 mins]
In this, he is the attacker, so it is miscasting. But we must have a name so get him. And we put poor Brian into it, and bless his heart it didn’t work. But the scripts were fabulous.
AL: What was the series?
DMW: L For Lester. L-e-s-t-e-r, Lester was his name. And he was a driving instructor. And again, some of the filming was worthy of Hollywood, … there was one, where we had Hilda Braid getting panicky, she went round a bend in Shropshire in the hills and what do we do when we go round a bend and discover there is a red level- crossing sign in front of us, no we don't put our foot on the accelerator. She approaches it, the lights flash, and the bell starts to go, ding, ding, ding, she panics. And there is a little side slip road before, turn left he says, turn left, her brain is slow, she turns left onto the railway line. And this is BBC special effects, we built a carriage to go underneath a mini. Did you not see it?
NS: No I never saw it.
AL: I heard about it.
DMW: You never saw the wheels. I created mayhem, I demanded to know, why can’t it be done was my thing, do it. And the special effect boys were marvellous but in fact I had a director who was terrified, was convinced it wouldn't work. How can you work with a director who is convinced it isn't going to work, it's an impossible situation anyway. You can imagine on a little station, with the commuters waiting to go to work, a country station, and the voice, [imitates platform announcements] “The train arriving, please stand back. the Express is coming through”, instead of which a mini comes belting through. The first big laugh, followed by the express, comes belting through. We cut ahead on a railway bridge and looking down the two lines converge and we timed it so the Mini gets there first, then there’s this bloody great big diesel express train going right up his arse. And then there is a bridge over a very wide part of the River Severn, an iron girder bridge which is beautiful just to look at as a straight painting and we had a long shot there, two cameras, one distant and one close, and we had a long shot of these little titchy mini crossing this beautiful spider web bridge being chased by this enormous train, you cut inside for dialogue. Now for comedy, you can’t miss, it doesn’t matter what they say, it’s a funny. Can I tell you, they wiped all the tapes and the writer was so disgusted at being miscast he gave up. And he's now teaching drama.
[Side 7, 14 mins]
At the end and of 1982, Dandy Nichols asked my wife and I if we would go up for a chat to her flat. She wasn’t very well. And in fact, I swear that she knew that she was dying.
And we had always had in reserve from Till Death Do Us Part, In Sickness and In Health for Warren’s and Dandy’s pension fund, later in their lives. And Dandy said “Let's do it, but I’ll have to be in a wheel chair.” Now I swear she knew she was in trouble because I had resigned before they made the show. I got paid for devising it, but that was it. And we went to the first night, and she had come down from a very healthy I should think 12 stone down to about eight. And we had a staff nurse with her all the time in the studio and she never left the studio, and she lay of a bed and behind screens on studio day.
She just about made it, we just finished the series, [by] a few days and she had a fall in her flat and we all jumped to attention and they rushed her I think initially to the London clinic and then from there to a Neurology department in the London hospital in the Mile End Road, Commercial Road, something like that. And she was in coma. Yes, she was in the London Clinic to start with on BUPA [health insurance] or whatever she had. But eventually her insurance ran out, but she was in coma then and never came out. And they were worried there we all said we'd all chip in, well it's complex, so they put her out to the London hospital, which maybe in the depth of Cockney ‘slumdom’ but it’s one of the finest hospitals in the country. And she stayed in coma I think for two months.
And she had a bodyguard every day, all day, of either me, my wife, Una Stubbs, her father, Johnny Speight or Connie Speight or Warren. But one of us was always there. And [said with affection] the old bitch would never come out of it and I swear she heard every word we said. We went in there one Sunday, Sylvia and I, one morning, and there on the chest of drawers was the biggest bouquet of carnations you’ve ever seen in your life, enormous, and the scent was fabulous. Card, love from John G. Sir John Gielgud with whom she’d played in London and on Broadway with Richardson in Home, the play. “See that Dandy? Can you smell them Dandy? I swear the eyelids twitched and she wouldn't bloody open her eyes. And we tried everything. We held her hand, but in the end she went. But I swear that she put up the idea of doing In Sickness and In Health, because she knew she was going.
I think by now it should come off because with great respect to Warren, Warren has been touring the Alf Garnett one-man show all round the world. Australia Canada, Britain, and he has now become an enormous personality, enormous personality. He does 2 hours as Alf Garnett. And the idea was they would do it in New York as a one-man show. And a hairsbreadth before Garnett came on, they played the full version of God Save The Queen and he goes straight on stage with his Union Jack and his West Ham scarf on and he says “Why aren’t you standing up, it’s the royal bloody anthem, oi you, up. Bloody colonials ain’t they, you've got to learn better manners mate!” and rip them for a good ten minutes before going into the scene. But what has happened, is that it's become now ‘Big Project’ one-man show theatric, and he's lost when he played his vulnerability, for me it maybe that I’m too close to it, but you can sense he's playing vulnerable, whereas originally he was.
NS: You couldn’t before.
DMW: He was, and I think this is the only thing in point of fact that in the early days made Till Death Do Us Part acceptable. In that here was this loudmouth twit, idiot, who was as vulnerable as any of us.
[Side 7, 19 mins]
Now he is a big powering personality. I think it should come off. It’s coming back again.
NS: I was going to say, there’s another series.
DMW: Yes, Johnny is writing another series. And it shows the lack of, Jesus. Turn around.
Anyway, I resigned from the BBC after 40 years to the day. I was pissed off with them and they were thoroughly pissed off with me, which is fair. But about a week later the Head of Comedy got the boot and was given 24 hours to get out, that was John Howard Davies and he was in tears. No niceness. When I went, I think we had a party every night for a month and we had the VIP suite and everybody in black-tie and all the gear and bouquets for my wife.
Next thing, BBC straight back, I’ve got a job, go to Edinburgh and cover the fringe. And I saw 93 shows in three weeks and I’d wished I’d looked it out, I'd love to read it to you.
Because this is 1983 and I said there was one man you must pick up immediately. He's green but Jesus give him his own series, and his name was John Sessions. He didn’t get any work for years, except on Spitting Image and I saw 93 shows and recommended about 30. And sent this massive Encyclopaedia of notes back to the BBC, and they didn't move on any of them I don’t think. So.
Then Johnny Speight said would I do the second instalment of Lady Is a Tramp for Channel 4 with Patricia Hayes and Pat Coombs. And it was fun. By Channel 4 standards, it got very high ratings, it was 1983, and I think we hit 3.8 million, which for Channel 4 is not that bad, is it, even to this day. The previous series had been directed by somebody else and it wasn't very good. To this day, I don't understand Channel 4.
NS: Sorry to interrupt, you made that for an independent company obviously.
DMW: Yes, William G Stewart, Regional Productions. He’s going to go a long way this boy, he's good, he has a great integrity. I first met Bill when he was a call boy on one of my shows, or a floor assistant, so we’ve been friends for years.
[Side 7, 22 mins]
Then he was FM for me.
I still don't understand this thing about commissioning editors. After that people were still sending me scripts and I found a couple of really good ones. And I rang and asked to speak to the Commissioning Editor of Comedy and I got some strange Irish guy. I said “Who are you?” and he said “I’m Commissioning Editor, Entertainment.”
I said “What have you done in entertainment?” He said “I’ve just come down from Belfast, I was a newsroom reporter there, or editor.” He knew bugger all about comedy. There is nobody in Channel 4 apart from Michael Grade who knows anything about comedy. So, I’m sorry I have not bothered it ever since.
I then stated to write the book and got bored and suddenly the BBC World Service rang me to commission a 13-part history of British comedy. Radio comedy. [Pause]
On and off I spent six months down at the BBC Written Archives at Caversham which are rich and somebody one day, if they could afford to spend the time down there, and months in BBC Sound Archives, it’s only radio comedy, don’t forget; that was wild. Again, it’s a pity we can’t dub things in here, because I've got all the tapes.
AL: Is this about 1984?
DMW: Later, about 1985 by the time we got on the air. It was a bit frustrating in that I was warned to keep it simple because the listeners are students of English in Patagonia and China, so don't be too clever. And when you start talking about 1935 comedy, about which I know nothing, I was 11 years old then, it doesn't mean a thing unless you know what was going on in 1935. So, it was a part English history lesson in order to get the thing, which is going to pay dividends when we come to do the full history of British comedy, which I shall give a plug to in a minute. Radio 4 picked it up and was able to fill in the simplistic bits with Russell Davies.
Since then, I have been researching to make, I don't know, an Encyclopaedia, what’s the word, a Domesday Book of the history of British humour. Let me just read you, I am going to make, whether I have to pay for it myself, a written history of the British sense of humour, among
Britain’s greatest assets. Apart from our climate, and our rotten governments, are Rolls Royce, maybe the Spitfire, Hovercraft, our sense of innovation which we've always had, which is why our armies, navies and air forces always win, because you've got to play it off the cuff, at this we're extremely good at. And the British sense of humour is probably our greatest Worldwide known logo, as it were, if I it may just read something:
[Side 7, 26 mins]
Of all the riches in Britain’s Heritage the gift of our humour and the freedom in which to express it, is unique in the world, and the freedom to express it is very important, because in America there is no way you could have done Till Death Us Do Part as written, nor on television Beyond the Fringe because the various interested lobbies would have lobbed it [out].
NS: Probably no other country either.
DMW: No, in the world.
DMW: In this century it's seen this nation through two world wars. a world slump and depression, the blitzes on our cities, decades of well- meaning but disastrous governments, and still the British come up smiling. The ability of the British to laugh at themselves and the things they fear or hold dear is reflected in their comedy. In the post war years, ration book Britain we produced the golden age of radio comedy. In the ensuing years of disillusionment, Britain has produced some of the greatest comedy, satire, burlesque, call it what you will in the world. “God is British!” claimed the television Cockney comedian, “He don’t even look Jewish.” We can even mock our own bigotry. We dip into the archives of all the media, the music hall, the theatre, the radio, the cinema, and print to whet the appetite for the wealth of humour that exists and should be recorded for all time. In America, as I was saying to you, in the Library of Congress in Washington they’ve got all the old Jack Benny scripts. In UCal, the University of California, San Diego they’ve got all the Bob Hope scripts, in UCal, Los Angeles I think they’ve got all the WC Fields scripts, radio and film scripts.
[Side 7, 28mins]
For some reason the University of Wisconsin have I think the Fred Allen scripts, and they honour their entertainers.
Here, well you know, “they’re not quite us Darling, are they, really. Nice people, but hardly.” So, Christ, Noel Coward should be forgiven for living. And they misunderstood him. … Up to four or five years ago, if you were to go into Cambridge University, or any of the colleges or Oxford or wherever, and you’re reading English, for an arts degree in English and it you wanted to read comedy, you would read Congreve, Shelley perhaps, Woodhouse is a bit modern, you know, Swift, well nobody had read Swift in depth I don’t think in any university you can speak of. A breakthrough is coming. Hancock’s Half Hour, Galton and Simpson scripts have been accepted as an A level study. That is the first breakthrough.
Now I want on every university arts library shelf The History of British Humour. You see that. For the listeners, ladies and gentlemen, the entire piano keyboard is covered in books and they are Hogarth, this is 18th century, Hogarth, Gillray, eighteenth-century, Cruikshank, Rowlandson, these great artists, yeah?
May I read you a piece written by, … this is a monograph entitled Caricature printed in 1940 by E.H. Gombrich and E. Kris.
[Side 7, 30 mins]
That’s some years ago. E.H. Gombrich is now Lord Ernst Gombrich. And this is about comedy against pseudo academe, pseudo intellectuality.
‘Comic art’, he writes ‘is and always has been ranked inferior, why, but the reasons for this low valuation are varied. Sometimes it is reproached for lack of content, sometimes it was considered incompatible with "the grand manner" proper to the dignity of an artist. Today it is reproached for having any content at all, because a picture which tells a story is thought to be inferior to one which embodies the true artists " pure vision".’ What pseudo intellectual bullshit! ‘But comic art can always console itself’, here we go, ‘for its position as Cinderella with the knowledge that disregarded by the dogmatic and loved by the public, it enjoys a freedom which is denied to "great-art".’ You like?
In the 1930s Britain had a great actress, Marie Tempest, one of our greatest actresses this century. She ended up a Dame, in fact Dame Marie Tempest. This lady could play deep, deep tragedy, high comedy, high tragedy, low tragedy, you name it this lady had the lot. And she wrote a foreword to a history of the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket in the early 1930s of which I happen to have a copy, lucky man.
Sorry, lighting my cigarette, ‘scuse.
And she says, and this having played almost every character and style a woman can play on stage, she writes, ‘at its gloomy best tragedy distorts life and robs it of its laughter. The tragedienne thrives on excess but comedy is truth. It holds the inevitable mirror up to nature. On the stage as in life, truth is a difficult business and I firmly believe that the art of the comedienne is as subtle and delicate as compared with the business of tragedienne as the song of a violin compared with a brass band. Comedy is nearer to life than tragedy and people go to the theatre to make the comedies part of their life. They leave the tears of tragedy in the theatre but they take the laughter of comedy home with them. The acting of comedy too calls for higher intelligence. The written tragedy already has action, emotion, and situations to hold the audience. A bad actress can’t completely destroy the tragedy, but she can disintegrate a perfect comedy and leave it dead upon the stage. A faintly stupid woman can win in a tragedy for a judicious exhibition of her feelings can carry the story through to the end. But in comedy, every moment is fraught with risks, every word has its duty. This is speaking highly of comedy in, it is well too. The young of today think they can walk upon the stage and make their beauty do for them what laziness and stupidity most certainly undo. The great learn humility on the comedy stage. Tragedy may be the father of the theatre but comedy is the immaculate conception.’
[Side 7, 34mins, 10 secs]
Now if you get her writing style, this is an intelligent bird.
NS: Good luck with the book.
DMW: You wait boy, we haven’t started yet. [Laughter]
Let me just see, [consults notes, slight pause]
What is wrong with today’s comedy. Glenda Jackson on a Terry Wogan, three or four years ago, doing the usual Terry Wogan guest slot and the
Usual, they do a clip from the Morecambe and Wise Show, in which this great straight actress dances with Morecambe and Wise, being a great performer, she is a good actress, if she is going to dance, she’ll dance and do it bloody well and she did, and we're all surprised.
[Side 7, 35 mins]
So they show that and then Terry Wogan said “You were great in that sketch as well, great comedy. Why don’t you do more comedy, wouldn’t you like to?” And this lady who was very left wing politically as you know, said “We are not living in a comedic age.” I’m right wing and she ain’t wrong.
She is not at all wrong if I can, can you just stop it for a tick? [Pause] To do comedy today with the multimedia, we have got four terrestrial channels, we have got cable, we have got satellite, which isn’t making much impact yet. God alone knows how many radio stations, I can get about ten radio stations here, local ones just whizzing around the dial. So you hear the news on the hour every hour repeated in headlines on the half hour every half hour, it’s then on BBC 2 or 1 or ITV every second hour, here, here, here and then they will discuss the impact, import of the news late at night and then they will have a discussion to discuss the import of the discussion which happened last night. So in the end I have come to the conclusion, if I can find It, I hate whales, I love whales but I’m pissed off with saving whales, I hate feminists, AIDS is boring, the Tories are boring, Socialism is boring, London Zoo is boring, all game shows are boring, inner city problems are boring, rain forests are boring, Michael Palin is boring, capitalist greed is boring, Marxist poverty is boring, Muriel Gray is boring, Sue Lawley is boring.
There’s over supply of everything so by the time you come to take the piss out of it, you're so brassed off with the subject anyway, you're going to fall flat on your face. So the only way out would be, I think, to, one would be a completely surreal Goon Show, the story of secret senna pod drinkers or the disappearing NAAFI, or, which I would sooner do except I don’t think the Houses of Parliament would allow it any more, because they’ve grabbed British broadcasting, our freedom, by the balls and they’ve stopped it, and this is both sides of the house, Politicians in Britain, be they Labour, Liberal or Conservative, have grabbed British broadcasting by the balls and throttled it and I don’t care what they say.
[Side 7, 38 mins, 10 secs]
And as a 67-year-old Briton who’s served the BBC and the nation and the army well, and like many working guys, have worked like a bastard all my life, I resent that, that's wrong. So there is one way, there should be if one could find the talent, and the aggressive writers to write it, who aren’t just loud-mouthed tub-thumpers, but intelligent thinkers, a satire show, half an hour, latish peak time every night, reviewing the news and putting it into perspective.
AL: Like That Was the Week That Was
DMW: That was a bit clever dick self-indulgent, it was a bit upper crust, social class, look I know Princess Margaret, great she is a very nice lady, but it's got to keep its feet on the ground and be hard hitting.
NS: Half an hour
DMW: Yes, it wouldn't stand any more. But I doubt very much if the Houses of Parliament, I don't mean the government, the House would allow it now, and that frightens me, because my dad brought me up to think that we are the greatest free nation in the world.
NS: They might allow it, it's worth trying.
DMW: I doubt if we would get away with it. And I don't want to subvert, I want to stop idiot inefficient politicians, civil servants, businessmen, greed in the city, crooked trade unions, crooked town councils, from all walks of life, from subverting the nation, we aren’t the subverters, we are the ones who put subversion into some kind of, I don’t know.
[Side 7, 40 mins]
I’ll give you one thought on comedy and let me quote you Marty Feldman, the late Marty Feldman, bless him, a gifted boy, and we were talking one night over dinner and he said “Christ isn’t it difficult,” so I said “What?” And he said “For a producer in comedy.” “From what point of view?” He said “We haven’t got any writers. Den, I can count the number of people who can write comedy in this country on the fingers of one hand and still have two fingers left over to show what I think of the rest.”
[Laughter from NS and AL]
Give you one more: the late Hugh Carlton Greene. on Till Death Us Do Part, when a vicar wrote in and when vicars write in to the BBC Correspondence Department they all panic, I don’t know why, because they shouldn’t be any more important than anybody else in life, but there you are, and this guy had actually written in saying he understood the intent of the programme, so he said, but surely it should have been broadcast when ordinary uncomplicated people are fast asleep in bed. How is that for arrogance? This is the Church of England which for some reason thinks it’s above everybody. And Hugh Carlton Greene god bless his soul, sent me a copy of the reply, ‘we are sorry the programme appears to have offended you but then it is designed to offend only those whom one would wish to offend anyway.’
NS: Very clever.
AL: Bless you, Thank you Dennis.
[END OF INTERVIEW]