SATURDAY SUPERSTORE, NO.73, PLAYAWAY, FAST FORWARD, WYSIWYG, JUSTIN’S HOUSE
It’s fair to say that Nick’s had a varied career. As well as Saturday morning outings as Mo the Crow his other work has taken in sandwich quizzes, scoops, double dares, alien TV and comedy vegetables. It’s likely you’ll have seen Nick dressed in drag on stage, naked in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen or agonising the residents of Albert Square but I had to ask the question that’s on everybody’s lips: what was it like having your hand up a crow’s backside?
Never mind that, you fail to mention that the rest of me was lying on the floor between Sarah Greene’s legs! It was great fun being the punk crow, Mo, on Superstore. I’d turn up at about 7 on the Saturday morning, if I remember rightly, and I’d get the script for the show, which would just be a list of the items and timings – I could pretty much say what I liked. I’m not sure Mike Read liked the crows butting in all the time though; I remember once he grabbed my beak to shut me up and I just said (through clenched teeth) ” I can still talk with my beak shut, you know”. Gerald Scarfe was on the show once and he was knocking off brilliant cartoons left, right and centre – he did me a wonderful one of Mo, that I’ve still got. The best thing about Superstore was the buffet lunch they used to lay on after the show in one of the hospitality rooms – I’m not sure if I was actually ever last to leave, but I came close a few times.
It all started when I was at Kent University in Canterbury studying Drama and English (1975-78), and at the end of my second year I got a message in my pigeonhole from a first year student called Jamie Rix (son of Brian, the famous farceur) who wanted to put on a revue in the first term of the next year. He had been given my name as someone who might be able to come up with some funny stuff. Anyway… We met up with a few other people and started talking through some ideas and we seemed to be on the same wavelength straight away. Well, the other people (actually there might have only been one other) dropped out one by one (or just the one) leaving Jamie and me. He and his partner, Helen, had taken over a house for the following year, so we got together through the summer and wrote the show, and I talked myself into a room in the house for my final year.
We did the show, “Turn Off (TV Revued), which was a huge success (well, we thought so anyway) and the Student Union said they’d give us some money to take it up to Edinburgh. But it was my final year and I went off to do other stuff – serious, ground-breaking work like being a Bluecoat for the summer at Blean Sands (Weston super Mare). I then somehow drifted into stage management for a year and a bit, thinking it was a good route to becoming a director, which at that time was my ambition.
It was only after a fall from a ladder when working at the Chester Gateway theatre that I moved back to London and into acting. I made my professional debut in a short tour of the Whitehall farce, Simple Spymen, directed by Brian Rix (sort of nepotism twice removed) and worked for a year with Theatre Centre, based in Islington, doing shows in schools. At the same time I also moved back in with Helen and Jamie, who now had a flat in Clapham.
The three of us, under the name Murry Rix Wilton started sending scripts in for TV. Helen was working as a secretary at the BBC and was on Not the Nine o’clock News at the time – we got two “quickies” on air. The next project was Three of a Kind, where we managed eventually to wangle a commission for 5 minutes of material a week. It was on this show that we met some other writers, Trevor McCallum, Kim Fuller and Vicki Pile; and together with them and the musician, Steve Brown (who I worked with on Newsrevue at the Gate in Notting Hill) we formed a revue group, Writers Inc, which toured round London playing pub venues and community centres. In August 1982 we took the show to Edinburgh, where we won the Perrier award.
So, Trevor McCallum, who we met on Three of a Kind, and who was part of Writers Inc, ended up being script editor on Playaway (ah, at last, a mention of some Children’s TV!), so we started writing stuff for it and I got myself 4 episodes in the last series. There was then a decision to replace Playaway with something more contemporary and Trevor came up with the idea of Fast Forward, which Jamie and I wrote for, and which I performed in for 3 series (19shows). In the meantime I had got myself onto Carrott’s Lib in October 1982 following our Perrier win in September, and at some point (although the exact chronology is slightly confused in the mists of alcohol… sorry- time, I auditioned for and landed myself the part of Tony Deal, the con man, on No.73.
It was an amazing experience. We’d meet on Tuesday and the script was just a list of scenes, with a brief description of the action and a time. We’d then spend the week writing the scenes through improvisation. Sandi Toksvig was brilliant- gag after gag after gag – you couldn’t stop her. I think we rehearsed in London then moved down to Southampton/Maidstone on Friday. We rehearsed all day Friday on set (not sure if we had cameras, but I think possibly not) and I think the call on Saturday morning was 6 or possibly even 5, when we’d run the whole show for cameras before going live at 9. Friday nights were the best of all, because they’d put us up in a hotel and very often the guests for the show would stay too. I can’t believe how late we stayed up and how much was drunk considering how early we had to get up the next morning. I’m pretty certain there was at least one occasion when I only got a couple of hours sleep. But hey! I was young.
My best memories are Dexy’s Midnight Runners performing “Celtic Soul Brothers” at the end of the programme in the cellar and playing on for about 5 minutes after we went off air – and hosting the Sandwich Quiz one week when Sandi was off (with a lot of Bruce Forsythisms). Did I mention that Kim Goody was lovely? Well, she was. I think I only did about 4-6 shows each series and there was a period when I alternated between doing Tony Deal one week and Mo the Crow on Saturday Superstore on the other side.
Martin and Hazel (Richard and Jeannie) at Number 71 were both lovely. There was something wonderfully old- fashioned about their characters. I had great fun doing one of the No. 73 films with them (written by Sandi Toksvig and Nick Symons) where I played Tony Vaselino, a rival of Martin’s for Hazel’s affections. We filmed down at the Leas Cliff Pavilion theatre in Folkestone and it was great fun. I was shown up to be a rotter and a cad in the end (which required huge acting skill on my part). I don’t know who the neighbours were on the other side. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention.
It was great fun working in children’s TV back in the 80’s at the BBC, when they had a huge wardrobe and full time Make-up departments. Doing a sketch show like Fast Forward was like playing with the biggest dressing-up box in the world. I remember we had rails and rails of costumes we could chose from, and they had books with moustaches and beards in. There were two types of studio days – audience ones, where we’d rehearse all day and then do a show in front of a live audience, playing in pre-recorded sketches, and rehearse/record days, which were my favourite, where we’d spend the whole day doing sketches in different sets and costumes. I think we’d start at 10 through till lunch at 1.00 then back at 2.00 to get into costume to start at 2.30 though till 6.00 then back 7.00 for 7.30 through till 10. It always used to get manic around 9.45 trying to get the last sketches done because we’d have to finish dead on time. They were long days but great fun.
We’d occasionally get fits of the giggles when we saw some unintended double entendre or something like that and the producers would go mad trying to get us to finish the sketch. The angrier they got the harder it would be to stop “corpsing”. My best memories of Fast Forward come from the first series working with Joanna Munro and Andy Secombe, who used to crease me up with sudden bits of extra business. I remember onetime Andy and I having a bottle of Cotes de Rhone (his favourite tipple) hidden in wardrobe on one of the evenings of rehearse/record, but perhaps I should say nothing more about that! There are some other stories I could tell but I’d better keep them to myself unless I’ve got a lawyer present!
The last children’s series I did (apart from episodes of Nuzzle & Scratch, Scoop and Justin’s House in this millennium) was Wysiwyg in 1991. The premise of the series was that terrestrial TV station, ITV, was interrupted by transmissions from IGTV (Intergalactic Television) controlled by Mer-Dokk (MD). In the first episode the supposed ITV programme is a take on “Blockbusters” called Jokebusters.
A lot of people missed it though. It was meant for older kids 9+ but they put it out when they were still at school. Also the first episode, setting up the whole premise, went out when one of those English hopefuls, Jeremy Bates, was being knocked out of the 4th round at Wimbledon in 5 sets over on BBC One. I also really messed up by having a fight over the rights, which I won, but lost in the long term because it meant they never repeated the series.
Budgets were a lot tighter and even though we were working for Yorkshire TV, we had to hire the studio from them (so we ended doing most of the show on location and only used the studio for a couple of days) and the camera crew was a separate company (even though part of the same overall company) I remember it was hard to get costumes sorted and we had problems with the camera one day and there wasn’t the technical back up that here used to be – they had a real struggle getting a replacement out to us. Having said that the team was terrific and the props man Arthur Lake, the best in the business – really funny – very dry.
As for other work I spent a couple of months shut in a cupboard “doing the bits between the programmes” for Children’s ITV, and I particularly enjoyed playing “Noddy” (on a drink-drive charge) opposite Lord Denning, for “Jim’ll Fix It”. After reading a story for “Jackanory”, I was invited back in 1991 to write and read my own story, “Fish Tale”, for their 25th birthday celebrations, “Silver Jackanory”. I also appeared in the four improvised Jackanory programmes, “Pass the Story” and I was the voice in “Going Live” where I “did” the prizes for “Double Dare”.
My recent experiences in Nuzzle & Scratch and Scoop have been good but the whole budget thing is much more obvious than it was back in the 80’s. Not surprising I suppose. And casting’s at much shorter notice (though that’s true of all tv and theatre now i think) Filming’s a lot quicker nowadays because it’s so much easier working with smaller cameras, remote monitors etc.
When I was a child Crackerjack was one of my favourite shows. Not with Eamonn Andrews but Lesley Crowther and Peter Glaze. I loved their routines when Glaze would demonstrate something to Crowther, who’d get it all wrong. Best of all was Peter Glaze’s growing frustration, always very physical, and his mastery of his own very special version of a double take, which somehow seemed to involve every muscle in his body. I do my own humble tribute to his genius most years in panto in scenes like the one in which Dame Trott tries to milk Daisy with help(or rather hinderance) from Silly Billy. Well, it makes me laugh. I also liked the bit where Mr Derek tried to tell a story in the Basil Brush show, with Basil’s constant interruptions, the seemingly effortless banter between Morecambe and Wise, Tony Hancock, the Goons and Al Read on the radio at Sunday lunch time, the cartoon inspired lunacy of The Goodies, listening to comedy records by the likes of The Smothers Brothers, Peter Sellers and Stan Freberg. Oh, and the children’s TV series “Do Not Adjust Your Set.
The highlights of my career so far are definitely the thrill of working on live shows – Carrott’s Lib, No. 73 and Saturday Superstore. My favourite of all being the three series and specials of In One Ear on BBC Radio 4, which I created with Jamie Rix. The failure of the TV version, Hello Mum, was one of my biggest disappointments – although I still maintain there was some really good stuff in there too.