Friday, 28 November 2008

Coming to You Live

About 50 years ago, William 'Ted' Kotcheff, one of the Canadians who shook up UK TV was directing a TV drama. He was one of quite a few Canadian TV guys who came to the UK in the 1950s to teach us how to make exciting telly with adverts in. Because none of us had seen Canadian telly at the time, this was pre-videotape (invented by Ampex in 1957 and coming to the UK in 1959), a fair few of them were able to come over and do this, convincing our industry bigwigs that Canadian telly must be a good model for our ITV, if only because it was in English, it wasn't American and you had to imagine the rest.

On November 30th 1958 (not the 28th as many sources have it) Ted Kotcheff was directing a live Armchair Theatre for ABC from an old cinema in Didsbury in Manchester which they'd turned into a studio. It was a play called Underground about World War III breaking out- Nuclear attack on London, survivors down in the Underground tunnels, all that, and because it was live, the actors would be nipping off behind the scenery whenever they went off to cover themselves in masonry dust and so on.
The now notable actors Peter Bowles, and Warren Mitchell were both in the play, along with a guy called Gareth Jones, a young plump Welsh actor. Gareth explains he's feeling a bit dicky as he's applying the powder between sequences, and then, in front of everyone, as he returns to the action Gareth collapses and dies mid-performance.

Luckily there's an ad break coming up, the remaining scene is muddled through (thankfully it appears it's one low on lines from Gareth) and during the commercials Kotcheff and his assistants, Verity Lambert and James Gatward gather the actors 'round. They tell them Gareth has just fainted and break up his character's plot functions between the rest of the cast. They ask them to busk it and tell the camera men to shoot the play like a football match- just follow the action. The rest of the play is staggered through as a semi-improvised piece, at the end of which Kotcheff announces Jones' death to the cast.

Now in the theatre an actor dies, and generally they take it as a sign you can end the show,
So why did Kotcheff carry on? Some reckon he did it just to show he could, in a piece of adrenaline aided bravado. Some have whimsically suggested he found himself possessed by a desire to take poor Gareth Jones' disappearing life as he slumped to the ground and pickle it in radio waves, beam an impression of his essence out through the Winter Hill transmitter across the stars, and into eternity, though primarily to homes in the North Wales, Greater Manchester and Merseyside area, and somehow keep him alive.

It was this kind of woolly techno-spiritualist thinking about electronically recording a dying man that partially informed my poor joke radio show the other day. The other part of it was inspired by a story told by someone from the British Sound Archive a few years back. They're 'phoned up at work by someone asking if they have any recordings of death rattles. They go to the database and say 'Yes, we've two, one 2 minutes 12 seconds and another 3 minutes and 8.' 'I've got those already,' says the caller in disgust. I've been wondering about what kind of guy a death rattle collector might be ever since.

I have a suspicion, looking at related TV disasters of the time, that Kotcheff actually kept going for rather more prosaic economic and practical reasons. He was told to. Armchair Theatre was a big audience puller and there was a lot of revenue to be gained in its ad breaks, if you stop a show like that halfway through, that audience goes and you lose the money.

I suspect there was nothing in the can on hand to fill the play's remaining time that wouldn't have disgruntled viewers more than a rather improvised finale to the drama they were already watching so that's what they got. This was ITV four years in and they needed the money badly, much like now.

There's a great example around the same period which I've alluded to here before where ITV finishes its presentation of Hamlet before the play ends. They need to get in the commercials before the end of the hour to make them peak time ads and get the top rate for them, so they fade to black in the middle of a speech and pop on a Kia-ora advert. This is Peter Brook's famous production with Paul Scofield, prestigious stuff, ruined, half the required corpses still standing. Legend is Lew Grade the ATV mogul is watching at home and he's furious. He phones up presentation and demands “What the hell happened? What happened?” and the guy on duty replies “Oh, they all died in the end, sir.”

Ted Kotcheff now produces the TV series Law and Order in the US, his most famous credits are probably First Blood the initial Rambo film and Weekend at Bernie's a film in which people try to pass a dead man off as still alive which you can't help imagining might have been informed by that night 50 years ago when Kotcheff did it for real.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

“I'm writing to complain about both this blasphemous programme and the ghastly provincial voiced clown it foist upon us...”

For 4 weeks in March and April 1973 what appears to have been a quite astonishing radio comedy was aired (on Radio 3 of all places) which I've only recently learned about (initially from a letter of complaint in The Listener).

The series- 'Topping Wheeze' seems to have been based around a remarkably dark concept. As far as I can glean, it deals with a murderous comedian Maxwell Armley (played by Jake Thackray!) who having once accidentally laughed a man to death and being touched by the beatific sight of the corpse's smile, for some reason embarks on a killing spree determined to capture the sound of people's souls being released in their dying last gasps on tape. Don't ask me why, it seems to be a sort of macabre audio play on Powell's 'Peeping Tom'.

The accessible documentation surviving in the BBC Written Archive at Caversham (it looks possible there's more that's as yet deemed unreleasable) suggests that he eventually plans and stages a live wireless sketch show full of tightly timed catchphrases and reincorporated gags building in crescendo to a finale with an unbearable(!) 8 jokes a minute which causes mass asphyxiation amongst its studio audience, and presumably listeners at home (it's unclear). However angry listener correspondence in the same programme folder claiming the show defames Tommy Handley and offensively parodies Roman Catholic doctrine suggests the series may have strayed somewhat from this initial outline.
Unsurprisingly, no tapes survive, unless you know better...

Anyhow from contemporary listings we can also glean this-
The show aired at around 9.15pm (though Radio 3 timings are notoriously prone to slippage) on the 24th March to 14 April 1973 also featured Ron Pember and Margaret Westbury and was written by Bob and Barbara Boulton and produced by Paul Bradley (not the one who later went on to play Nigel in EastEnders).

The Radio Times plot precises also give us the following tiny hints.
Part 1- Corpsing. Maxwell Armley is an unhappy comedian, weary of life until he accidentally hits on the perfect joke.
Part 2- Die Laughing. Max hits trouble in a northern Working Man's Club when the rattle-gag fails.
Part 3- Killing Joke. The great broadcast begins to take shape, but Maxwell faces danger in the shape of a investigating policeman with no apparent sense of humour.
Part 4- Reincorporation.
A last gasp return for the departed leaves Maxwell questioning his calling. Is surviving on tape the key?

Anyone remember this one at all? I think there might be an interesting article for comedy archivists in it. I reckon if we manage to piece enough facts and obscure details together this previously unheard of piece might well be reappraised as a lost classic.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Breaking Radio Silence

It's been a tricky couple of weeks in Lake Wobegon.

I did my Ken thing, which went okay, I wasn't script solid enough to fly solo, so the book floated around in my hand, leading to both a couple of fluffed bits and a couple of nice bits that surprised me. People were nice, appreciative, kind and asked interesting questions but almost as soon as it was over I began to feel rather snotted up, and, after a horrible delayed journey back from Liverpool Lime Street getting home in the early hours, the next couple of days were devoted to achey, man-fluey, feeling out of it introspection.
Since then, with my mind already on the fragility of existence, there seems to have been quite a run of people at death's door, suffering grim degenerative conditions and dying unexpectedly all around us. The end of last week was particularly bad for this.

In cheerier news, my book is definitely out and as I write is topping the TV History and Criticism section- though given the volatility of that sales chart I suspect you only need to sell about two copies a week to do that. By now I imagine an out of print Most Haunted tie-in book WHICH SHOULD NOT BE IN THAT CATEGORY will have pipped it again by virtue of someone getting a second hand copy for a Derek Acorah signing session somewhere.

Actually a book about Telly Cars is beating it now. It'll be Jordan's third volume of autobiography next.

In not very exciting to anyone much but I know my readership news BBC Radio 7 (as it now is) is playing Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange's Dreams and Peter Howell's Inferno Revisited as part of a Radiophonic Workshop tribute on December the 20th. This should excite half of you because they're interesting pieces of radio work, half of you because Howell first uses that running music from The Five Doctors in his piece (and I think recycles a couple of Meglos stings) and a third of you for both reasons*.

There's lots of sound and fury and a brilliant bit of silence in Howell's play.

*I assume a readership of 6 obviously.

A better post will follow next week.