Last week, whilst fulminating on my void of a life, I mentioned the chimp that sits on my windowsill, peering down over my shoulder and stealthily insinuating itself into my unconscious thoughts; generally appraising me of the total lack of worth in anything I might manage to wrestle from the keyboard. Boo wanted to see it – so here it is. I have never managed to give it a name, so if anyone has any ideas, please let me know. If I’m honest, I don’t actually know whether it is male or female. I always think of it as male, but on close inspection, I think that may not be the case. I am no great expert in the gender specifications of brass monkeys – it may just have been very, very cold. Whatever its gender (do let me know your opinion) it is one of the things with which I need to surround myself in order to function. It looks directly at my laptop screen and I can sense its disapproval when things start to go awry. If I spin round to look at it, it pretends to stare at the skull it holds in its hands instead of catching my eye, but I know, I know…
The second request I have to respond to, is that by Inkbiotic and Calmgrove, who both wanted to know a little more about my long, long ago radio series – which I fear, I have probably mentioned far more times than modesty could possibly permit. Honestly, there isn’t much to tell, I’m afraid, but what I can remember, I will tell, simply because I think it probably sheds some light on the way that writing works for me. (I know that Chris will read this and I am sure that he will be able to fill in the gaps left by my fragile memory.)
I met Chris when I was a weekend waiter at a local hotel and he was a somnambulant breakfast chef. I cooked more breakfasts in Chris’s bed-locked absences than I have ever done since. I learned how to trim a kidney for God’s sake! We shared a sense of humour (one between two is better than none) and we became firm friends – a friendship that has endured for more than forty years. I had been ‘writing’ fairly aimlessly for years when Chris approached me with an idea for a radio show, and we began to beat our ideas into some kind of shape. Typically, we met once or twice a week. I would arrive with reams of script and Chris with a bundle of scribbled notes. Chris has ideas – bonkers ideas – and I… well, I write. Lots. It worked so well. Most of the mad ideas came from Chris, most of the words came from me, and when we got together we talked through what we had, we laughed, we inserted Chris’s bonkers ideas into my ramblings and, as we worked it through, we fell over one another, playing Top Trump with every gag we could think of. I don’t recall ever falling out over what would go into the finished script. It just fell into place.
We were very young at the time and we were having a ball. Eventually, we had produced 6 half-hour radio scripts of which we were inordinately proud, but neither of us had any idea of how to take them further. So – don’t ask me why – we sent a letter to Spike Milligan. Spike replied almost immediately (I still have the letter) saying that he would be very happy to read a script and give us his thoughts. We were on cloud nine when we posted it to him (Yep, posted, a freshly typed manuscript on actual paper!) Big Life Lesson #1 banged on the door when, some weeks later, we received the unopened script back, with another letter, also signed by Spike (I still have that too) saying that he never passed comment on other people’s work. Try the BBC. I know now that Spike suffered with depression and that he routinely signed letters prepared by his agent (Norma Farnes) during these times. I believe that the arrival of our script must have coincided with one of his ‘episodes’ and it was, subsequently, never passed on to him. We were heartbroken.
Eventually, we produced the series for the Local BBC station, but they wanted only six five minute ‘bangs’, full of gags and so with Chris not available (for reasons that totally escape me at the moment) I sat down for a forty-eight hour stint (I know that I did this – my wife remembers fuelling me up on coffee and chocolate), cramming two thirty minute scripts into six five minute bursts by popping in every gag I could distil from the original and losing much of the narrative which, since that was largely my bit, was probably not much of a loss. No computer, by the way, no word-processor; just pencil, paper, typewriter and me. Chris and I then went over and over the scripts together, crunching in so many jokes that they were breathless, working and reworking them until we were ready to record. I remember rehearsing with our two recruited actors in a huge, collapsing wooden conservatory full of plants and mould. I have no idea whose, I have no idea why. We gave them the scripts to read through one at a time and they laughed so much, we knew we had chosen wisely.
I loved the recording. We played ‘a cast of thousands’ the four of us and had a grand old time having been let loose in a professional studio. I particularly loved editing in the sound effects which were, at that time, all taken from BBC vinyl LP’s. I had to ask the producer’s permission, I remember, to play an explosion backwards, in case it damaged the record. Ultimately, the series went out with grand fanfare, even featuring in the Radio Times. We all believed (the radio station, the producer and ourselves) that we would be franchised throughout the country. We were already at work on series two when, Big Life Lesson #2, NOBODY LISTENED TO IT! It was not an ‘adult’ series, but it was definitely for adults, and the programmer put it out in the Saturday Morning slot of a show firmly aimed at kids. The decision enraged our producer and to this day, I continue to regard this as the reason for its belly flop as I cannot countenance the possibility that it – or more likely my part in it – was just not very good.
Anyway, Chris and I continued to write together for many years with the usual peaks and troughs – I have written before of our adventure with John Junkin – but Chris drifted further into performance and production (he is VERY good) whilst I drifted into blather. I have managed to sell words for most of my life, but never enough to make a living, although over the years, I have had more near misses than a myopic taxi driver.
Now, what has brought this all together at this time is another radio serial that I started, but never finished. It is a weird little thing about a local village community. Six fifteen minute episodes with just a narrator, no cast, no sound effects, just dark nonsense. I found three and a half scripts whilst tidying my office and mentioned them to Chris in a Lockdown email that I sent to him, to let him know that I had found my Best Man’s speech from his wedding. Chris, it turned out, remembered and liked the scripts (I don’t know about the speech), so – as I am a sucker for praise of any kind – I sat down to complete script four and, after an initial period of struggling to get back inside the character’s heads, I began to write in a way that left no visible seam. The chimpanzee at my shoulder approved and I have popped out the two further episodes in a sleep-deprived double-quick time. I like them and so does Chris – who, I am hoping, will agree to narrate them for a podcast (which is a little bit like radio, isn’t it?) – and, in truth, I am greatly cheered by the synchronicity of it all…
So, there you are. I promise I will never mention it again!