Interview with Dennis Main Wilson Part 1
The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Dennis Main Wilson was interviewed by Alan Lawson with Norman Swallow in 1991.
1. Perfectionism at the Palladium
And then I met a gentleman called Sammy Davis Junior. 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. 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 it 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, same company pretty well. So they built a fabulous spangled set for him. They didn't even bother to discuss with him what they were going to do. When he walked in, the producer said, what do you think of that Sam? He stood back, I think it must have been the Palladium stage, and he looked up and said, when you've lost it give me a ring, I'll be in the hotel. 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're going 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 rises lit up and said Sammy Davis Junior, Sammy Davis Junior. It cost a fortune to build. 60 bl**dy treads. And no way would the man have it. So lesson one, with some body who is 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, never mind 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 them say no. Be enthusiastic. Do your homework as best you can. Don't b**it. Sammy Davis, if he'd sensed once that we were b**ing him him, either he would have kicked us out of his dressing room, or no way the show.
2. The idea for the TV show
So now how do you present this all-singing, all-dancing, all wise-cracking, enormous diminutive personality? [...]
So I had an idea and luckily I had a great set designer [...]. I knew what I wanted to do. I'd been watching Billy Cotton's variety department for years, The Billy Cotton Band Show and the Tom Jones shows and whatever. I hate seeing a close up of a great performer with out of focus trombones f**sing 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 performer, one of the greatest in the world, what the public want to see, him. [...]
So I decide right, that's it - which is the next 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. What can scenery say? B**hit. We just had one opening caption which was about 30 ft high which they panned on 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, it's a quarter to three and there is no one in the place, and not a single light anywhere else except that.
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) 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 one 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 were 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 1, 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 pier, 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. He changes the entire thing, just like that. He also, second house, knew we were in. We had a meeting with him 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.
3. Persuading Sammy Davis Junior
So we go backstage and there's this enormous guy, George Rhodes, a great gentle giant negro boy, who's Sam's musical director and, he is expecting you. Oh by the way I've forgotten in our 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 Ch**t sake talk to me. And I got a cable back saying, to Dame Mae Witty. So till this day I'm Dame in that set-up. Dame, he's expecting you, there's a giggle, and there is this thing curled up like this, like a coil on a bloody spring. Hi, hi.
Now in those days I drank. The excuse was I used to burn it off, I needed it for the energy, I think, otherwise I'd fall asleep. And my standard drink was a pint of bitter and a large Bells whisky. Now only people who work with me know that, I've never met the guy. I'm sat down in an armchair beside which is a side table with a pint of bitter and a large whisky. The s*d. He's researched me as well. Opening question, what kind of the show are we doing? So I edge a bit and say, congratulations on the show, first house, second house we saw it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, what kind of show are we doing? I say we've got a meeting at II 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 45 minutes, on your own, in the BBC television theatre, the orchestra's behind cameras, I don't want any 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 and you're a dedicated pro, noises to this effect but I will get an 99 and a half percent out of you. Do it live, I'll get a hundred and ten, I bet you. And he said, you'll never keep up with me. I said something like up your a**e. That's ridiculous. [...]
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.
4. Production expenses
He then comes down to London to play the Palladium for five weeks. And 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, 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 would cost the BBC was his straight fee, no overheads at all. Cheap! Great! But we're going to ad lib it and the guy changes, he literally changes it. I went every night to the Palladium, I stood at the back of the stalls every night with a light pen taking notes, and you can't ad lib forever, you know, there has got to be a repeat pattern so I can nail him. He's there one night and obviously he 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 was holiday camps. Big laugh, pick up, change the number. Wild
I'd formed a sort of pattern what I thought he was going to do, within the ad-libs, see if does that, he's gonna do that, if doesn't and so on. 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 it seems to me to be wrong somehow. I love you dearly but it just isn't, afterwards yes, mates, but let's keep it.
He said you come on the Saturday, which is his last night. Syd 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, these were the full tchu tchu [imitates gunshots] 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 are balanced and you can do what you like with them. And he did a display loaded with blanks of cowboy gunfire. Do you like to that? Yes. Right it's in tomorrow.
The following week there was a letter to the BBC from Bernard Delfont complaining about BBC producers using the Palladium as a rehearsal room 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. Have a go.
1. The Rag Trade and women in comedy
In the fifties happened the Peter Sellers film I'm Alright Jack. And already the British trade union were getting very stroppy and so were management. And as usual in Britain we had a rotten bloody government. [...] 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 Greene, we thought we'd climb on the bandwagon.
So I put up the first all girl lead comedy series, 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 bl**dy 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. 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 some body who when she worked got a laugh on every line she did. She had some thing 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 of ladies' clothes and the governor was Peter Jones. And Reg Varney, long before On The Buses, Reg Varney was there because the authors were Ronnie Woolf and Ronnie Chesney, both of them ex variety writers from radio. Ronnie Chesney the international one time harmonica player would you believe. And it literally was 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. And we are doing our duty, we're entertaining the nation and making the nation laugh.
2. Tips for directors about actors and crews
DW: This is for anybody who is directing. There is no point in giving an actor or an 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 by 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 bl**y cameras. Now round about day four, I used to like having a tec run for cameras, lights, sound, and the crew. We would be very dependent upon their reaction, which is a b**er because some camera crews, some tec 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. 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.
3. Comedians, studios and audiences
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, Eleanor Brown, ex University stable, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Genius. But a diffident writer until he gets the action right and when he gets it right it is a superb. I worked with him on the script for about six months and it came right. We offered it to Jonathan Pryce who at that time I think was with the Royal Shakespeare Company and now of course is in the Hitler Diaries thing in 1991 [Selling Hitler]. Jonathan read it, thought it was super, would love to do it and but not with a studio audience. It's got b**er 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 therein lies the bugbear.
If you can imagine, draw yourself a near square, be generous, make it a rectangle, say 100 by 80. And across the right hand, narrow end, which would making it 50 by 80 is the studio audience. In front of that knock of 10 feet for the fire lanes and public exits and these dreadful men of the London fire Brigade. Then get your lighting director to show you what you want and he will go white because there is at least half of the studio's lighting that 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 it's very difficult, you can stop, push cameras up, 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 is not in the cast necessarily who tells a couple of filthy jokes, which I won't have, won't stand for it - in the middle of a clean show there is this guy talking about tits and bums and a**holes which throws them - so there we are. We had a tremendous fight with the BBC. By what 1981-82 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. [...]
The film industry took probably Britain's greatest stand up entertainer, I won't just call him a comic, this is actor, comedian, clown, Sid Field, who was absolutely genius. Hancock modeled himself on Sid Field, he was Hancock's idol. British film industry did two films with him, London Townand Cardboard Cavalier [actually his first film was That's The Ticket in 1940]. 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. 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. It's a team thing, audience to performer you know.
AL: It's encouragement
DW: 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.
4. Film sequences
NS: Another point really, Dennis, a lot of comedy series including Till Death Us Do Part do of course have film sequences. Now they are often without dialogue, not always but usually without dialogue and of course no audience until they're played
DW: 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
DW: 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 some body spins around to look or some body 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.
DW: 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
DW: And the other appalling thing now is, the BBC swear 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 actor-actresses. I learned so much from working with her, we were talking about audience laughter and she said darling the whole aft is you make the buggers laugh when you want them to laugh but even more important is you make 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.
5. Societal changes breed new comedy
DW: 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. [...]
But what did happen during the war is within the first couple of years all the old [...] 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 caps and [?] lathe machine shop, would automatically if he was a charge hand would have became a sergeant major in charge probably of a squadron of tanks. It broke down all divisions, because only one thing mattered, we had to win the war. Or as a nation go under. It heralded the greatest social change in a hurry that Britain has ever known [...] 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. [...]
The BBC producers' green book of which I'm sure ACTT or BECTU have a copy. If not, you can photocopy mine. I've 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. Uhh. Jokes about animals, eg rabbits, banned, and all these idiot mimsy-pimsy, Mrs Grundy attitudes, hangovers. [...]
During the war I saw the most horrendous things happen in Normandy, I can't tell you. I saw the RAF drop bombs on the wrong places, on their 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. [...] I saw incredible bravery, and if 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 portray them 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 is work-shy, he's a rogue, he's a coward, he embodies every weakness that you can find in Homo Sapiens through the use of Cockney language. Imagine putting that 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. [...]
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, be you a lord, be you an MP, be you what. Everybody is an Alf Garnett. And we proceeded to do it, as you know for seven series.
6. John Sullivan and Only Fools and Horses
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 newsroom. And back in the office by half past I2. I was in there one day and a young man came up, his name was John. Good morning Den, good morning John, have a drink. Thank you John. Cheers. And he said, I gather, he said, that you are a reasonable man. I remember this almost by heart. I say what's up? In that you will read anybody's script regardless of who they are, whether they're pro or not pro, and whether it's hand-written and not typed. I said yes, just in case. And I reminded him of Galton and Simpson, who had done it once. 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. I was back in about 15 minutes and said I'll buy it, even though the scene had changed, and I wasn't in a position to buy 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 [...] 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 be in the bar. There was something, I wasn't b**ing. 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?
DW: Citizen Smith, starring Robert Lindsay.
NS: And who wrote it
DW: John Sullivan, a BBC day crew scene shifter [...] 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 somebody 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 newbom 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. 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, so it had to be a big bar. There is however a small bar off to the left. The interesting thing is all the mates drink in the big bar, props and scenery as you 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.
We did a third series, fine, he made a bit of bread enabled him to move, buy a semidetached 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's had no education, no formal training, certainly no show business training. You see comedy is a gift, you can't legislate for it.
1. The Mitchell Glee Club
I arrived on the Tuesday, I know because the Monday was Whit Monday, I have never forgotten that. I went straight to Ronnie's office, he had been my umbrella man producer in radio. So we knew each other well. He said how would you like to jump in the deep end and learn to swim quickly. So I said sounds all right, 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 weeks time. Can you do it? So I said you know me, have a go.
Went back to the office. I had never handled a TV show in my life. To talk about I 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, 1 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. 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. 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 and 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 forces show, somebody heard it and booked him into their show, somebody heard that and he ends up doing 6 or 7 shows a week. Hadley's Curbside Choristers in ITMA, Standeasy was another. It was doing good quality stuff, corny but quality. And George and I were very good friends, and thinking in terms of the great big American chorus, 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 series with The Mitchell Glee Club. We played the Branwyn 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.
2. The Black and White Minstrel Show
AL: Where are we in time?
DMW: This is 1948, we've come forward now and this is 1956. Television
NS: You had a fortnight to get off the ground is that right?
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, not much, and he knew a few dances. Studio, Television Centre was still being built, Riverside One, big -studio, was in full use, drama, whatever, Ambrose had 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 breathtaking. I'd never done a TV show in my life. I knew b****r all how to do it. My TMs one and two guided me through that, my designer guiding me through that, wardrobe and props makeup all guided me through. Fabulous. I had Malcolm Clare as choreography who had done a wee bit of television. I'd mugged up a bit 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 nigger minstrel. 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. 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, [singing] '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 specification, how's that for rich.
3. Pop music series 6.5 Special
DMW: 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 anybody 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
DW: Yes, 1956, 57, which I hated, and Ronnie knew that I hated it. Because I am a comedy and big band, I'm Basie, Ellington, 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. 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 and the whole from the Two Eyes Coffee Bar, Lonnie Donnegan, Tommy, upwards and downwards. That was quite fun. Pushing in a Vinton camera to 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 spinning 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 Abertie [?] a maker of satirical programmes and whiz kid, an absolutely wild character, he came in as director and we did it from the Caveau de la Richette [?] in the Rue de la Legere [?] 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. That was enormous fun.
4. Improving 6.5 Special
I was talking about my first attempt at filming and doing really 6.5 Specialwhich 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 sh**y from every point of view. I tried, maybe it's cocky of me but I tried to bring a bit of quality into 6.5 Special. 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 [?] quartet. I let them hear some decent modem jazz which is exciting and a bloody site more exciting, and Ch*t Johnny's wife, Cleo Laine. Let's see somebody who can actually sing rather than just bite the end off a mike with no bloody voice. 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'll ad lib off the top of my head on five cameras.
1. Genesis and locations
DMW: In 1965 Johnny Speight and 1, Johnny Speight the author, well established, he had been writing a very successful series for commercial television, called the Arthur Haynes show, one of Britain's leading old-fashioned stand-up variety comedians, which had been a huge success. It ran for 10 years, there were over 150 shows and they are all still exist in the ITC library. We felt, this is jumping back knowing that already I'd started to The Goon Show, I'd done Hancock's Half Hour, I'd done the first all girls show, The Rag Trade which was about trade unions. I'd done some wild shows, all experimental so far and this is going to be the big one. And we'd decided a) 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 sapiens was a liar, a cheat, a bigot, a liar, a materialistic greedy bastard and really wasn't worth two penneth of cold water, especially if you're British, and especially if you're Cockney. So we invented Alf Garnett.
We did a flight over Wapping in a chopper. To save money we hopped aboard some body 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 which would encompass all the location sequences, the area as we were going to describe. And it had to have a bit of a playing field, a pub round the comer, a church not too far away. It had got to be near the docks, got to be near the river. It had to be in Wapping High Street if possible. So we did that. And we then persuaded them to let us go back to opposite Big Ben, 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 dog leg 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 chime 11, and that was the opening titles if you remember. That was that.
So we'd 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 ft square front room with a scullery out the back, with an earthenware sink, a bath in the scullery with a lid on where you keep all the crockery, a copper where you heat up all the hot water to hand bale the water into the bath and run the cold tap, and a bog out the back, and a tiny garden, and a front door that opened 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 two-seater settee, two armchairs, a piano, a dining table, four chairs and a sideboard, in a 12 ft square room. Which as you know, that became our trademark, that was it. That in fact was the exact floor plan and the furniture arrangement of my mum and dad's house, and they never have spotted it. And they thought the Garnett family lived in the most dreadful circumstances.
NS: I hope they liked the series
DMW: They loved this he series, except my mother didn't like the language.
2. Shooting dialogue
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. 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 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 3 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 f**ing shout at somebody, upstage with them in foreground, and you've got him jeer 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.
3. The pilot
Our mistake was and I'm not quite sure, 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 Leo McKern with whom I'd done a couple of wild shows with Eric Sykes. And this man, part of a great actor, he knows more about comedy than most people I know 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. 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. We eventually hit, our peak figure I think 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 St that night, all our friends had seen it and hooray, champagne. And in the Elephant you get next morning's paper round about half past 11in the evening. 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 another thing Big Ben is slow by his watch. And that Harold Wilson, last time I wrote he never even answered my letter and I put a stamp on it, mate and all. But it was wild. It was a breath of total fresh air. It had never been done before and it was flat out. [...] And audience didn't know what had hit them. So we are back, it's 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. Johnny Speight who had this stutter, bless him, it's not so bad these days but when he was younger and excited, a-a-a-a-a, and he went up to Tom and he said a-a-a-a what about that for a bloody series mate, eh? Tom froze and actually said over our corporate dead body do we make series out of subversive murk like that. And my heart sank. The man was a Scottish Presbyterian, I think his father had been a lay minister in a kirk up there or something. [...] 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 Iike 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.
4. Annoying a BBC executive
Round about the third series of Till Death, Johnny wrote for me one of the funniest scenes ever. We open up and Garnett is already in mid-flight, he's fortissimo to start with, and he's going to go higher. Somewhere he's got the idea that the son-in-law, Tony Booth, had had it off with it his virgin, beautiful little rose of a daughter before they married, because if you did I'm going to bloody kill you, I'll.... And they chase him round, he's going to break his neck. We didn't, we didn't we didn't
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, it's him getting old, you know and there is a lovely pencil sketch of him and Dandy Nichols when they were young. Of course when your mum and I were courting, I never. You wouldn't dare, she said, I'd have hit you. So all accurate stuff. And they clear up the tea things, tea for two, sorry tea for four. Four cups four saucers, four spoons. And they put them on a tray and they take them out into the scullery out back, leaving the kids on the sofa who collapse in giggles and Una says, God if only they knew, hoots. We couldn't get much of a laugh, because it's so normal. I don't know about you two, but certainly my wife and I had sex before marriage. Anyway we'd go into the scullery, and this is comedy, and this is relationship, actor, writer and director, and Dandy and I had worked at it and out. She said we can't miss can we, and I said no. Because they know you are going to have the final tag, they'll 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, it's confidence in, well it's innate
NW: And timing of course
DW: Can I tell you, the next morning, I was on Tom Sloan's carpet, you two-faced bastard, you've let me down. I said what was that? You promised me you'd never get up mixed up in sex and rude scurrilous stuff. I said we didn't. 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.