Early Years
Early Years
Learning Curve
Wally Who?
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Rob Grant was born in Salford, which is a city in its own right, he insists, next door to Manchester in the north of England, and the birthplace of the legendary L.S. Lowry.

At the age of nine, he won a scholarship to Chethams Hospital School, opposite Manchester cathedral. On his first day there, he met Doug Naylor, and they became friends. Rob lived en route from Doug’s house, and would often get a lift in Doug’s dad’s car in the mornings, thereby saving his 3d bus fare (three old pence: just over 1p in current money) which he would spend wisely on Jammy Dodgers at break time.

Rob and Doug were both in the official school brass band. Doug theoretically played the piccolo, and Rob the theoretical trumpet. There is a picture of that band on the previous page. Rob and Doug are the ones without their instruments to their lips. Since they made up approximately 20% of the band, and neither of them could string together three consecutive correct notes, we can only imagine the torture of listening to their interpretation of Dvorak. By the time they were in the third form, the school became, officially, a music school to preserve its independent status, and with the influx of genuine musical talent, they were able to stop pretending altogether.

Rob was also a member of the Cathedral Choir, and once sang with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. The choir had to wear Tudor uniforms: long, thick woolly black tunics over long, thick woolly yellow thigh length socks. The choir sat through several very long movements before taking part in the chorale finale. Rob remembers it as the longest night of his life. It was broadcast live on BBC radio. If you listen very carefully, you can actually hear him sweating.

Not Rob, but the Tudor uniform in all its horror

He does have some good memories of the school. ‘There were two English teachers in particular who gave me great encouragement: Trevor Donald and Harry Hamilton. They were brilliant. A great teacher can change your life. They changed mine.’

After A levels, Rob went to Liverpool University to read Psychology. By a complete fluke, Doug also wound up at Liverpool University through the UCCA clearance system, on exactly the same course. Rob can’t quite remember why he chose Psychology. He’d always wanted to be a writer, once he’d abandoned his ambition to become Spider-Man, and even considered leaving school at 16 to enter journalism, but the advice he was getting at the time was that studying English was stultifying for a creative writer, and it would be better to study psychology, where he might learn something about what made people do what they do. Unfortunately, psychology turned out to be a disappointment. A large component of it was statistical analysis, which he hated. ‘It seemed to be more about cutting worms in half to see if both halves could remember their way through a maze than it did about learning how people think.’

In their second year, Doug read a newspaper article that changed their lives. A design engineer with no previous TV experience had written a sit com script and submitted it to ITV, and then ITV had made it. The sit com was lamentable, as it happens. It was Paradise Island, a shipwreck comedy starring William Franklyn, then famous for a series of Schweppes soft drink ads on TV (‘Schhhh … You Know Who’), and it ran for one sorry season of six episodes. But that wasn’t the point. It could be done, and they decided to do it.

They wrote a sit com called The Big Time which was about two inept private detectives. Rob remembers his favourite joke from the script was:

BOSS: Tie his arms up.

THICK HENCHMAN: But Boss, they’s too short.

BOSS: Use rope, you idiot.

It was that good. Neither of them could type, so they forked out good money for a professional typing service and submitted the script to the BBC. Since fame and fortune were so clearly close at hand, they weren’t too worried about their second year exams, which they failed. Badly. They were ejected from the University, with no option to re-sit, which seemed odd at the time. And then the script was rejected by the BBC.

Rob says: ‘It was heartbreaking. We must have read that rejection letter about three million times, trying to winkle out every nuance and invisible implication. Then we framed it and hung it up on the wall. Our confidence didn’t flag, though. We just thought they were all idiots. I’ve no idea where this utterly unfounded bravado came from, but it was definitely there.’

They went back home. Rob got a job, and Doug make a weak fist of continuing his education, but his heart wasn’t in it. Rob’s job was Assistant Office Manager at a wholesale catering firm. ‘It was every bit as glamorous as it sounds. The first day, I was set to work in the pricing department. We were given a sheet of the latest prices of every single item of foodstuff, and we had to manually trawl through the catalogue and alter every changed price by hand. I decided not to look at my watch until lunchtime. When I became convinced that they must have skipped lunch entirely, and probably missed knocking off time to boot, I gave it a glance. It was five past ten. I wanted to die.’

They kept on writing, though. The next attempt was about a bunch of students sharing a house, but it was never finished, because someone advised them it was much easier to get a script produced on radio than on television, so they turned their attentions in that direction.

They were kicked out of the family home by their parents.

‘Actually, I think it was Doug’s dad who issued him the ultimatum to leave, and I went along with him. I wasn’t enjoying living at home after the freedom of University anyway. It might sound like Doug’s dad was being a tad callous, but I don’t think that’s true. It was tough love, but it was what we needed: a bit of a boot up the backside. I’m eternally grateful to him for it.’

They got an apartment together, over a supermarket in Higher Blakely, Manchester. ‘It was a decent enough place to begin with, but within moments of our arrival, it became an utter pit. Nothing ever got washed. Nothing got cleared away, even. Discarded orange skins became ashtrays. I’m convinced that flat was the birthplace of the SARS virus.’ It was certainly the birthplace of Dave Lister, the biggest slob in the universe.

They both got new jobs, working in the computer department of a mail order warehouse in Ardwick, Manchester. ‘We were officially called Ancillary Computer Operators, which was a pretty fancy Dan job title in the Seventies. In actual fact, what we did was load the pre-printed, serrated delivery forms into one end of a printer, then unload them at the other end after the printer had filled in the blanks. It was soul destroying work. But it paid well.’

Unfortunately, it paid well because it was shift work, and Rob and Doug were on different shifts. This made it very difficult to find time for writing together. ‘But we had to do it. Our bridges were well and truly burned by now. It was writing or nothing.’

They bought a typewriter, an ancient Imperial sit-up-and-beg, having traded in Doug’s Bullworker isometric exercise device, and Rob learned to type from the book: Teach Yourself Typing in a week. ‘You really had to pound those keys to make them work. Touch typing was a misnomer with that machine: bash typing was closer to the reality. I really regretted not having the Bullworker to beef up my lower arm strength.’

They hammered together a radio sketch show, called Hot Potatoes, which Rob remembers as being ‘quite good, actually’. ‘We’d been learning a lot about comedy writing. I used to sit down at the video recorder and copy out Porridge scripts, just to see what a good script might look like, then we’d sit down together and try and deconstruct it. We watched all the comedy we could, and read what we could lay our hands on. There’s a lot of stuff about the craft of comedy writing around nowadays, but then there was next to nothing. The best stuff was American: Woody Allen, Neil Simon. We read all the Neil Simon plays we could find. Often.’

They submitted the script to the BBC radio comedy department in London, and waited.

And waited.

They phoned to check the script had arrived. It hadn’t.

‘It was an utter disaster. We hadn’t made a back up copy. We had to try and reconstruct the whole thing from scratch. We learned a very valuable lesson. Nowadays, I even back up my notes to the milkman.’

The reconstructed script did arrive.

Rob recalls: ‘I was the one who got the letter. Doug was at work. I called him up, which was a bit taboo. Personal calls interrupted the vital, shitty business of picking up boxes of paper and putting them down somewhere else. I opened the letter, which was from a marvellous radio producer called Ted Taylor, and read it out to Doug, so we both got the news at the same time. Mr. Taylor liked the script. He actually like it. He was worried it wouldn’t find a producer with the passion to nurture it to production, but he was prepared to launch it along that path. He was passing it on to a comedy producer in Manchester called Bob Oliver Rogers. Well, it was a pretty emotional call, I can tell you. Doug made me read the letter out several times, at different speeds, with various intonations. I really didn’t mind. I could have spent the rest of my life reading out that letter. Once again, we discussed every tiny implied nuance, trying to wrestle significant meaning out of the placement of a particular comma. It was wonderful.’

The original script did eventually turn up: months later it was returned with a small note from the radio drama department, saying they’d enjoyed it, but felt it would be more suitable for the comedy department. Why they couldn’t have walked down the one flight of stairs and handed it to them is a mystery. ‘As a side note,’ Rob adds, ‘it turned out we had remembered the script almost word perfectly. Not bad with a sketch show.’

They had their first meeting with a real live radio producer. ‘We actually wore suits and ties. Very bad suits and ties. This was the BBC, after all. We felt like utter prats when Bob turned up in jeans and a T shirt.

Right away, despite the sartorial faux pas, they hit it off with Bob. ‘He was a twenty-something, and we liked the same comedy. He asked us to write a radio sit com for him. He didn’t offer to pay us for it, but we didn’t much care. We were on our way.’

They came up with a sit com. It was called The Winners. ‘The script wasn’t half bad. It was about two blokes waiting for a couple of blind dates that never showed up. One of the blokes was a brash optimist, the other was a shy neurotic. I haven’t seen it in a while, but I reckon it was producible.’

Bob liked the script, but not quite enough. He discussed re-writes, but vaguely. He had other projects on the go, and The Winners never made it to the airwaves. One of Bob’s projects was a sketch show for new writers, and he roped in Rob and Doug to contribute. ‘Again, there was no commission. We had endless meetings with other new writers. One or two of them were good. Andy Lynch, who went on to notch up quite a few drama credits, including Brookside, was very good indeed. But there was no-one who knew very much about comedy. There were arguments about what was funny and what was really not funny at all and never would be, that got quite antagonistic. Despite our thorough lack of experience, Doug and I felt we were the comedy experts of the bunch and set about proving it. They were planning to do a regular spoof called Boots which was a parody of Roots a big show at the time, set in a Northern cobbler’s. It was a sort of committee-written thing. It was only even remotely funny up to the title. We decided to show them how to write a spoof properly, and wrote a Chandler parody called The Big Melt. It was a seven minute sketch, so it took up a good quarter of the show. In order to write it, we read every single Raymond Chandler book, including his note books and his letters. It took about two weeks just to do the background reading to write a single sketch. But it paid off. It was undoubtedly the star of the show. It was also our first experience of seeing something we’d written performed in front of an audience. Electrifying. One of my life’s greatest moments, without question. People all around you, laughing at your material. Your material. It doesn’t get much better. I spent the entire sketch mumbling the lines nervously under my breath, in case someone got something wrong, I suppose. I thought it was opening night nerves, but it turned out that’s what I did at more or less everything we ever recorded.’

The pilot was recorded. ‘On the night, because the whole thing had gone through this sort of committee discussion process, which is always, always a disaster, they still hadn’t decided on a name. So the tickets were printed out as The Show With No Name. Brilliant. The show was eventually renamed Listen Carefully, There May Be Questions. Which was almost as brilliant.’

The world had changed. Rob and Doug were now professional writers. ‘We were on the lowest rate, of course, which was, at the time £7 per minute. The sketch lasted seven minutes, so we pulled in £49. Between us. That was our entire income for our first year as writers. Still, we quit our jobs anyway. Now we were taking it very seriously indeed. There was no longer any time for something as trivial as earning money.’

They more or less moved in at BBC Manchester. ‘Bob managed to wangle us an office, on a sort of semi-official basis. We still weren’t getting paid, but we were a fixture: we were “the boys”. They even issued us with identity cards.’

There, they met Mike Craig, a long time comedy writer and producer. ‘We didn’t really take to Mike at first,’ Rob recalls, ‘foolishly, we thought of him as old school and middle of the road, and not in the same comedy camp as us. We dropped The Winners script on his desk, and he promised to look over it. We later found out he’d assumed it would be awful, like most of the scripts that crossed his desk. We left the office and went home, and he started reading. After the first few pages, he changed his mind. He leapt up and tried to catch us before we left the building, but we’d already slouched off. After that, he was our biggest champion.’

The pilot of Listen Carefully had been picked up for a series, but Bob was busy on a pet project of his called The American Way of Laughs, which was to involve hours of interviews with just about every comedy name in America. ‘Bob had a massive collection of American comedy albums, as research for the show. Doug and I used to listen to them all the time. That’s where we first heard, amongst many others, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen’s stand up routine, a promising young comic called Steve Martin, and Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 2000 Year Old Man routines. It was a superb education.’

Tragically, just before the project was about to start recording, Bob Oliver Rogers died of a heart attack at the age of 29.