Learning Curve
Early Years
Learning Curve
Wally Who?
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‘This was definitely our starving-in-a-garret period. Bob had wangled some paid work for us – we wrote the links for a radio show he produced about the worst singles ever released, and we had, I think, quite a decent commission for the new writers’ sketch show: about ten minutes per episode, maybe even fifteen, and there were five episodes. But, remember, at £7 per minute between two of us, that wasn’t exactly a king’s ransom, and it took us about a week to write a single sketch. The notion of writing over an hour’s worth of material seemed like the work of a lifetime to us.’

Food was a necessary evil. They had to eat, but it cost money. The subsidised BBC canteen helped them keep body and soul together. The food was awful, but they’d been raised on the worst school meals in living history, and had just spent eighteen months living off ‘criminally dreadful’ cheese and onion toasties on the mail order night shift. They were used to bad food. ‘Pretty much all our money went on beer, I’m afraid. There was a culture of lunchtime drinking at the BBC. Just about everyone was down at the club by 12.30. It seems strange, now. Almost nobody drinks in the middle of a working day. Then, it was pretty much de rigueur. And, of course, in the evening, we would wind up in the pub. When you’re close to broke, and the choice is between food and alcohol, it’s a no-brainer. The problem is, of course, alcohol makes you hungry. I don’t know why. When the choice is between beer and cigarettes, though, that’s a lot tougher.’ 

A writing partner of Mike Craig’s, Ron McDonnell, stepped in as producer to take over Bob Oliver Rogers’ projects. A gentle, laid back guy, he was reluctant to take the job. ‘He’d been freelance for years, and I think he hated the idea of having a boss. I’m sure he only planned to do it temporarily, to help out, which was typical of him, but he wound up staying for years and years.’

Ron took over the projects, but it was Mike Craig who took over the mantle of mentor for Rob and Doug. ‘He knew we needed work. He’d already offered us a small commission on one of his shows, The Grumbleweeds Radio Show, I think, though that may have been later on – it was, after all, his flagship show. In any case, he gave us whatever work he could, which had put Bob’s nose out a bit. I think he felt a bit territorial about us. We  were ambiguous about it: we wanted to be doing new, exciting and different stuff, but it was paid work, and it was with an odd combination of reluctance and gratitude we accepted the commissions. Frankly, it was one of the best decisions we ever made. We learnt an awful lot, not only from Mike, but from writing for various different performers with vastly different styles and requirements. It thoroughly beefed up our comedy arsenal. Mike taught us how to become professional writers. The best lesson he ever taught us was how to maximize a decent comedy idea. When we gave him something he liked, he’d nod, hand it back and say: “A few more pages, lads”. “A few more pages” became our mantra. It taught us how to exploit a comedy idea.’

There were three producers in the radio comedy department in Manchester, now: Mike, Ron and Jim Casey. Jim was as old school musical hall as it was possible to be. He was the son of Jimmy James, a legendary music hall comedian, and he knew just about everyone who’d ever trod the boards. On top of which, he’d co-written The Clitheroe Kid, one of the most popular radio sitcoms of all time, as well as the longest-running. It was on the air for a staggering 15 years.

‘Jim was very, very generous with his time. He’d often spend hours on end, sitting in the canteen over endless cups of awful coffee, talking about scripting sitcoms and regaling us with stories of the Crazy Gang, Sandy Powell, Robb Wilton and, of course, his father. He knew thousands of routines, and he’d act them out for us, in vivid detail, impersonating all the voices and mimicking the delivery styles. It was a unique and magnificent comedy education for us. This was material that was never preserved on film, or recordings: in his father’s day, comedians had pretty much one act that they used over and over. There was a music hall circuit, and it took so long to tour round it, you could safely perform the same act again once you got back to the start, so these routines were the comics’ livelihoods, and they didn’t want them recorded. Ever. We knew we were very privileged to hear them.’


        Jimmy James and Eli Woods

One of Bob’s projects, The American Way Of Laughs was given to a features producer in Manchester, Pete Everett. He returned from the States with hundreds of hours of taped interviews with American comedians. Much more than the program could possibly use. ‘He gave us complete access to the unedited tapes. It was a gold mine for us. He’d interviewed Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, Neil Simon: you name them, Pete had footage of them. Including some greats who wouldn’t live to give another interview, such as S. J. Perelman. And they were all talking about comedy. It was a dream come true. More than that: I doubt we could even have dreamt it.’

In the meantime, the series of Listen Carefully … which had now been renamed Comedy First, was being recorded. According to Rob: ‘It was a pretty unsatisfactory business for us. We were basically writing about half the show. We slaved over every single line of every single sketch. We’d have dozens of versions of the same sentence, really, literally dozens, with just a word changed here or there, as if altering the position of a comma might somehow turn the terminally unfunny into an hilarious comedy classic. But we cared. We cared pathologically. And the rest of the show was provided by other people, most of whom were, I felt, donkeys. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Sue me. The truth is, for the rest of them, it was a bit of fun, some pin money. For us it was life or death. Right or wrong, I felt our stuff was being dragged down by material around it that was just plain bad.’

But their contribution did get noticed, and they were given the opportunity to write a sketch series of their own. The series became Cliché. ‘We couldn’t really come up with a title, and our working title was Any Old Cliché. It was just a sort of placeholder, because most comedy series of the time featured some dreadful cliché for a title, particularly on radio. The quintessential example was My Sainted Aunt, which was about a man whose deceased great aunt haunted him in a benign kind of way. Ugh. In the end, we started calling it Cliché between ourselves, and it sort of stuck.’

In a move that was to become characteristic of their career, Rob and Doug decided to make the already daunting task of writing their first series as difficult as humanly possible. ‘We wanted it to be different, so we had rules about what we could include: no television or movie parodies, because every sketch show did those, and they did tend to date a show quite quickly; no recurring sketches or characters, because we’d been doing that a lot with Mike on The Grumbleweeds and suchlike, and we felt it was old-fashioned and lazy; no themes running through the show, because, I don’t know, that would have made it easier; and no audience, because we felt that would be classier. Like many people, we loathed the ‘canned’ laughter tracks we thought were on most comedy shows, with audiences bursting blood vessels at tedious and unfunny material. What we didn’t realise at the time, among many, many things we didn’t realise at the time, was that having an audience reaction stretched the show out, so you didn’t need quite as much material. All these rules meant was that we would write one sketch, and no matter how funny it was, we had to start the next sketch from a completely blank page. And then the next one. On and on. It was relentlessly hard.’

The show was cast with two performers from Comedy First, Carole Hayman and David Casey, who was the son of James Casey. ‘David had been the star of the new writers’ show for us. He was an actor, but he had natural comedy timing, unsurprisingly. He was a funny guy. We wound up going for actors, rather than comics, across the board, though I do remember we went down to the Comedy Store in London and saw a couple of promising acts. We offered the show to a brash young stand up called Ben Elton, but he only wanted to perform in it if he could contribute to the writing, which was exactly what we didn’t want, and another called Nigel Planer. Nigel hummed and hawed but he turned us down finally, due, I seem to recall, to other commitments. In the end, we added two other actors, Brian Southwood and Simon Molloy.’

The day before the first recording, Rob remembers they were still writing the show in their office at the BBC, when Ron McDonnell came in to tell them that David Casey had died. Both his lungs had collapsed during a particularly brutal asthma attack. He was 31.

‘We were beyond stunned. When Ron left, we tried to shrug it off and carry on writing. It took about half an hour for us to realise that there wouldn’t be a recording. The star was dead. We were just in shock, and didn’t know what else to do.’

So Cliché was put on hold. Rob and Doug were still not quite official residents at the BBC, and they often had to move offices. ‘At one time, and for quite a while, we were in sole occupation of the former File On Four office, which had been quite a large operation, and it was a huge, double office, crammed with equipment. We had an electric typewriter that actually remembered the last two lines of typing, and had an auto-erase function. Compared to what we were used to, it was like working at NASA. The keys responded to gentle pressure: you didn’t have to hit each letter like it was a fairground test-your-strength competition. We had about fifteen phones. There was even a telex machine – this was before faxes – at our disposal. But, of course, we had no one we could send a telex to. Shame.’

In spite of the steady stream of work Mike was providing, money was still very tight. ‘I did the sums once. I worked out we would have to get the equivalent of a thirty minute show on the air every single week of the year just to bring in a scrape-by wage, which was just not remotely realistic. It was too depressing to think about. But we were happy. We were doing what we loved. And if we could only manage to keep avoiding the landlord, things would be all right. The services at the flat were constantly being cut off. It wasn’t the best way of managing things: you had to fork out a small fortune to get the phone or the electricity reconnected, which was just money down the toilet, really. We weren’t tremendously practical. The thermostat on the hot water tank was broken, and if you forgot to switch it off, the water would boil over and flood the ceiling cavity, and we often came home to find it was raining inside. Brown, warm, rusty rain. It was like the Amityville Horror. We’d sit watching the TV under an umbrella on a damp sofa. Madness.’

Then the cavalry arrived. The BBC had a writers’ deal, where every year a number of writers were offered a year’s contract to work for BBC radio comedy. ‘I sort of thought they only went to Oxbridge graduates, really, so we were pleasantly astonished when we were offered the deal.’ It was decent money: a living wage, anyway. The problem was, Rob and Doug were offered only one contract to share between them. ‘I don’t know what the logic was there. The other contracts went to to Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath, so, fair enough, I suppose. It meant the money was only slightly better than the dole. But it was a guaranteed, steady income, and believe me, we didn’t consider turning it down for a nanosecond. The good news was, the money was set against any work you actually got on the airwaves, so you could earn out the contract and make more money in the end, which was definitely our plan. The bad news was that Cliché came under the terms of the agreement.’

Rob’s BBC ID card