I was, of course, flattered to be asked to contribute to BBC2’s Richard Briers: A Tribute. Having appeared on it, and seen it, I now I wish I hadn’t.
I was sad when he died, of emphysema, aged 79, last month, and although I’ve tended away from “talking head” work these past couple of years, I was caught unawares by the request and actually decided it would be nice to be able to pay tribute to one of my favourite sitcom actors. (At least it wasn’t a list show, and it was on BBC2 on Easter Saturday.)
I grew up with The Good Life, and still consider Ever Decreasing Circles to be one of the all-time best British sitcoms, and the producers of the tribute seemed keen to prime me to talk about some of Briers’ lesser-known work, which I was distantly au fait with, such as The Other One, the barely remembered sitcom he made after The Good Life with Michael Gambon in which he played a compulsive liar, and If You See God, Tell Him from 1993, darker still. As requested, I also did my homework about his films – Hamlet, Frankenstein – and refreshed my memory about Roobarb via YouTube.
On Tuesday 19 March, I duly turned up at the Gore Hotel in Kensington at 2.30 for filming, in a good black shirt and pinstriped jacket for the occasion, and was led to the basement bar, all leather armchairs, gilt, wood panels, stained-glass and oppressive furnishings, a not uncommon type of location for such jobs. Usual drill: bag down, mobile off, exchange greetings with the cameraman and soundman, ask for coffee, sit in the designated chair arranged at an angle from the camera line opposite the chair where the producer will sit and prompt with questions. I’ve done this a million times before.
Actually, not quite a million, but enough to have become a joke. In that first flush of clips shows, I never really minded being known for my “talking head” work. (It forms a chapter in my third book, That’s Me In The Corner, which begins with an audition I once had for some presenting work where the producer said to me, “I really like your talking head work”, a compliment I struggled to take seriously.) My old partner Stuart Maconie is the one who, along with Kate Thornton, became shorthand for “talking head”. The joke was: I did way more than he did, but he rose to prominence on I Love The 70s, which really relied on its “heads”, and because he was a natural at pithy reminiscence and witty soundbites, he made the edit more often than others.
I didn’t get the chance to pithily reminisce until I Love The 80s, and then only made the first three shows, after which I was not asked back. But I had my revenge by agreeing to every other “talking head” job thrown my way. They were fun, they were easy, they paid. And that’s it, really. If you check my IMDb entry, under “Self – TV” (just scroll past the two erroneous entries for “Actor – TV”, which I’ve attempted to get removed to no avail), you’ll find 36 entries, most of which are “talking head” gigs. The first, according to the great oracle that is often wrong, was Solo Spice for C4 in 2001 – a colourful look at the Spice Girls’ solo work. I think my status as “former Q editor” qualified me. After this, and I Love The 80s, there was no stopping my head from talking.
On BBC3’s The Most Annoying TV Programmes We Love to Hate, I claimed – for the record – to have appeared on 37 such shows (IMDb is not definitive) and announced that this would be my last. Soon after, I appeared on Heroes Unmasked. It was sort of a metatextual joke.
The next few years – during which I was also an author, a 6 Music DJ, the writer of Grass and Not Going Out, and the host of Banter and The Day The Music Died on R2 and R4, all of which were way more important to me than my “talking head” work – were a blur of hotel bars and private clubs, talking at an angle to every TV producer and researcher in British television, and often meeting the same sound engineers and camera operators.
One job led to another. I turned a couple down – including one that appeared to be built around slagging off Noel Edmonds; I’ve always preferred to celebrate stuff – and there was one about the Muppets where I didn’t even make the edit once, which is an existentially challenging experience – but by and large, it was nice for my Mum and Dad to be able to see me on telly occasionally and I genuinely think it’s good to “keep your hand in”. If you talk as part of your job, it’s as well to practice.
I seem to have done around 40 list/clips/nostalgia/popular history shows over 13 years, but most of those before 2008, which seemed to act as kind of semi-retirement year. As I say, I’ve slowed down a lot. Maybe less clips shows are made. Maybe I don’t get asked. I surfed the wave for a while there. It’s fine. But the Briers show reminded me why I shouldn’t bother any more.
I sat in that armchair for the best part of an hour, talking constantly about every aspect of Richard Briers’ career. I knew the show was geared around the people who knew him and worked with him, as it bloody should do, and I guessed my job was to add a critical eye. (I never met him, or worked with him.) When we reached the end of his career, we wrapped, I got up, collected my bag, shook hands and left. The thought of playing even a peripheral part in the BBC’s official memorial to a great actor was reward enough, although I got paid as well. (This is still quite handy when you do as much work on spec, for free, as I do. I’m doing a lot of that currently.)
So, I watched the finished show over Easter weekend on BBC2 and found out precisely how peripheral I was! The programme makers had done brilliantly with their star witnesses: Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal, Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Wilton, Peter Egan, Nicholas Hytner, Sam West, Prunella Scales, Sheila Hancock … as a viewer, I was thrilled. As the token critic who’d taken part, my heart sank. About half an hour in, it was clear that my contribution was not required. To be honest, I have no idea why they even left in my sole contribution, but there it was, at 38.02.
During the section about Briers’ unexpected move into Shakespeare at a stage in his career when his national sitcom treasure status might have been a curse as much as a blessing, there I am, “writer and broadcaster”, saying the following two sentences:
Kenneth Branagh definitely changed Richard Briers’ life, by offering these, er, fantastic Shakespearean parts … It’s easy to overlook the skills of an actor in a sitcom – wrong to, but it’s easy to do it, because they make it look easy, they’re just there to be silly, and funny, a lot of the time. That takes a massive amount of acting.
At 38.28, cut to the much better placed actor Adrian Scarborough, “co-star and friend”, with a far more personal insight. I’m not saying it wasn’t worth me travelling to Kensington and walking from the Tube to the hotel and back (they offered cabs, but I nearly always refuse cabs, as I’d seriously rather use public transport and walk), I’m saying it wasn’t worth the BBC employing me to go all that way in order to say those two sentences. Hey, I know, that’s the way documentaries are made: shoot way more than you need and edit into shape. The writer Andrew Marshall was on quite a few times, and offered sound, firsthand testimony, as he’d co-written If You See God, Tell Him. But If You See God, Tell Him was never mentioned, thus muddying his authority to all but comedy students. The edit takes no prisoners!
The Briers tribute is a really nice programme, and it’s still on iPlayer. You should watch it – it’s my last “talking head” appearance*. I’m glad my shirt and jacket looked smart.
*It probably is, anyway.
It is, as you say, the way these shows are made. It would be nice, perhaps, if they weren’t all made this way because it’s a formula and it lacks the personal touch. And getting a bunch of people to tell the story you’re trying to tell by prompting them to talk around the plot points you want to hit seems, I don’t know, the wrong way around. But then I suppose you need to play it safe with a show like this. And it was a cut above the rest, which seems fitting. They clearly didn’t know how to get into and out of Roobarb though…
Am sorry this tribute to an actor you admired has left a bad taste in your mouth-I am quite convinced you took part out of genuine enthusiasm. Actually, I have no words of optimism in condolence-I think you have had a rite of passage. But please don’t give up enthusing-lots of us appreciate your contributions.
Only a bad taste because in the excitement of being asked to contribute I fooled myself into thinking my contribution would be necessary, when it never was. No bad taste towards the programme, its subject, its better contributors or its makers. I will never give up enthusing; it is my blessing and my curse!