Enjoy this Tripp

Before I start, let me first credit this glorious illustration, commissioned in 1979 for Look-In magazine, to Arnaldo Putzu, who sadly died in September this year but who leaves behind a treasure trove of, primarily, movie posters from Carry On to Get Carter. While searching for a still to illustrate this blog about Man About The House, I found it on a site that sells original illustrations called The Illustration Gallery, who should also be credited, although they have sold the original painting (acrylic on board, 550cm x 650cm), and I am now filled with jealousy towards whoever owns it.

Now that you know how much I love BBC4’s weekly re-runs of Top Of The Pops shows from the 70s, if I tell you that I’m also hooked on daily re-runs of Man About The House on ITV3, you’d be within your rights to shout, “If you like the mid-to-late 70s so much, why don’t you go and live there?”

Well, I do have a soft spot for the era, because it’s when I grew up, and both shows were fixtures in my house. In fact, we watched all the sitcoms of what is now considered a golden age for British comedy, from Are You Being Served and Dad’s Army to On The Buses and Love Thy Neighbour. I wasn’t really aware of it, but Man About The House was a little hipper than all of the above. It was about younger characters, who lived in trendy London (Kensington, in actual fact, which is weird now that I am a London native of almost 30 years; all I can say is that it can’t have been as chi-chi and Sloane-colonised in the 70s as it is now). Writers Brian Cooke (still with us) and Johnnie Mortimer (sadly, not) were cartoonists who’d worked together on Round The Horne, but I think Man About The House was their first big TV smash. They wrote every all six series – comprising six or seven episodes each – which ran between 1973 and 1976, two series a year, mostly.

The set-up was controversial for the time: a guy sharing a flat with two girls, neither of whom he is going out with, although not for want of trying. Richard O’Sullivan is perfect as the catering student, Robin – who went on to run his own bistro in the equally good, but at times woefully unconvincing Robin’s Nest – cheeky and likable enough to carry off what might have come off like simple lechery in the hands of a lesser actor. (Compare and contrast with the late Doug Fisher’s Larry – Robin’s slightly rougher and readier pal – whose “phwoooargh“-based attitude to women is far more bottom-pinching and bit-of-stuff in comparison.) Because Robin is matched against two women, Paula Wilcox’s self-improving Chrissy, and Sally Thompsett’s frankly ditsy – but equally Robin-resistant – Jo, he is always on the back foot, and the general air of sexism is always countered with genuflections towards feminism.

Perhaps the most interesting relationship is that of landlord and landlady George and Midred Roper, who live downstairs – and also landed their own spin-off series, George & Mildred, which, I can vouch, is just as watchable 40 years on, albeit more predicated on class than sexuality. Although Mildred falls broadly into the archetype of battleaxe, while George is the pathetic, henpecked husband, it is she who’s the sexual predator, and he who has a headache. In one episode I’ve just seen, he makes some home brew and gets all tiddly, and, for one time only, suggests the “early night”. Mildred is a new woman the next morning. This certainly turns the truism of the sex-starved male and the disinterested female on its head, and provides constant laughs.

I don’t wish to write an academic essay on the show. I like it because a) it’s still funny, if crudely staged and sometimes too broadly acted (you will be lucky to spot a supporting actor who went on to do anything of note, outside of the great Roy Kinnear, who was way too good to be playing a one-note layabout like Jerry), and b) it’s a fascinating snapshot of a changing society. Women were definitely still regarded as objects to be lusted over, and their advances in terms of career and independence were frankly regarded with suspicion. But Robin needs Chrissy and Jo more than they need him. They find him sleeping in the bath after a houseparty in the first episode and he ends up filling the rent gap left by a departed flatmate, largely because he’s a great cook. More turning of the tables. They tell the Ropers he’s gay initially, so that they won’t object to him cohabiting with two “birds”. And again.

Just as the formerly inoffensive sight of Jimmy Savile in a clip of Top of the Pops will now be viewed through a prism of suspicion and afterknowledge (if they are viewed at all), so with any comedy of the 70s, the modern viewer will continually encounter humour that has been almost entirely discredited by what I like to think of as the 1980s enlightenment. Despite the progressive use of homosexuality in the first episode, any further exploration of this area amounts to little more than the occasionally pursed lips and limp-wristed gesture from Robin or Larry. It’s not exactly gay-bashing, but it adds to the discussion not a jot. Similarly, in a recent episode, there was a rape joke, and guess what, it was Chrissy who made it, and not Robin. You are taken aback by these relics from a less informed age, but it is silly to call for retroactive censorship, just as you have to leave the name of the dog in The Dambusters. (He was called Nigger. It’s problematic to our sensitive ears but it’s a fact.)

The most important thing is that there’s a joyful simplicity about 1970s sitcoms. Unlike the intricately plotted nature of even more mainstream sitcoms today, these approximately-23-minute ITV episodes usually just end, often on a fairly weak punchline. The form was in its prime, and yet, with no sitcom filmed “single camera” in those days, no efforts were made in the direction of realism. These were like farces from the stage, with characters entering through doors and exiting through doors, and scenes beginning at the beginning and not halfway through conversations. All that said, studio sitcoms of today still use these devices. Having worked on many episodes of Not Going Out, in which – hey! – a man shares a flat with a woman he fancies but cannot have, I have been co-responsible for many gags which hinge on the fact that their front door is left open so that another character can wander in at will. (George and Mildred knock and enter, which is convenient, but so does Kramer in Seinfeld.)

“Sitcom” means many different things in 2012: Hunderby, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Twenty Twelve, Benidorm. In 1975, it meant one thing, and Man About The House is an intriguing example of that thing. O’Sullivan, as is well known, was laid low by a stroke a few years ago and lives in a retirement home for old actors. Paula Wilcox has enjoyed the sort of later-blooming renaissance she deserved, with older parts in shows like The Smoking Room, Rock & Chips and (though I hate to mention it) The Green, Green Grass. While Sally Thomsett, who I’ve just said hello to on Twitter, retired from acting after the Man About The House film (slightly saucier than the telly, but at least it featured the whole principal cast), but clearly loves having been in such a beloved show. She’s currently enjoying the re-runs being on, and so she should.

I just wished to mark my appreciation. I love modern comedies like Fresh Meat and Rev and Girls, which play with expectations of TV comedy, and pull it into new shapes, but, with this show and George & Mildred providing the templates for successful US shows, Three’s Company and The Ropers, I’m hardly going out on a limb in naming Man About The House a bedrock contribution to television.

Oh, and put “Arnaldo Putzu” into an image search and see what wondrous works he made.

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The horror

Behold, the Collins family kids, in a row, holding their favourite present on Christmas Day, 1975. From left to right: Andrew, aged 10, holding Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a large hardback book whose wraparound glossy dust jacket has long gone, but whose vivid painterly back-cover collage of images is captured in all its glory; Melissa, aged 5, wearing her nurse’s uniform; and Simon, aged 8, who seems already to have constructed an anti-tank gun from a khaki Meccano set. We didn’t want for much.

The reason I’m printing this seemingly random happy snap from the long-ago past is that I met and interviewed the extraordinary Mark Gatiss for Radio Times this week. It all happened very fast: BBC4 offered him up for interview on Monday, to promote Horror Europa, his personal, 90-minute documentary about European horror cinema – showing on the night before Halloween, and a direct follow-up to his well-received A History of Horror from 2010 – I arranged to meet him on Tuesday, over pasta during an hour’s break from “tech rehearsals” at the Hampstead Theatre for 55 Days by Howard Brenton, in which he plays Charles I to Douglas Henshall’s Oliver Cromwell (and which opened for previews on Thursday); I transcribed and wrote it up at 900 words on Wednesday; and the two-page layout was signed off yesterday.

The above still is from A History of Horror, when Mark was bearded. Although he is bearded as King Charles, it is a stick-on beard, and he was clean shaven over dinner. This was a labour of love for me – I jumped at the chance, even though I’m way too busy to write 900 words – which is apt, as these documentaries are a labour of love for him. He’s 46 – in fact, he turned 46 on Wednesday, so he was 45 when I dined with him – and we share the same boyhood obsession with horror movies, something that informed our discussion over calamari and chips (me) and salmon and spaghetti (he). In A History, he explicitly revealed how important the Gifford book was to him, and whether he likes it or not, I bonded with him forever.

I loved this book. To say it was my Bible sounds sacrilegious, but then, it was filled with evil and supernatural images. First published by Hamlyn in 1973, it was still a relatively new book when I got it for Christmas in 1975, and I’d had it in my sights for ages, thumbing through it in WHSmith’s in the Grosvenor Centre of a Saturday morning shopping trip. Its unofficial companion in my house – and, it transpires, in the Gatiss house in Country Durham – was Alan G Frank’s Horror Movies, published in hardback by Octopus in 1974 under the Movie Treasury imprint and subtitled Tales of Terror in the Cinema. (I had to wait until Christmas 1978 to own this.)

A copy, in its original dust jacket, appears on top of a prop telly in Horror Europa. Another touchstone. Of course, it would be easy to be jealous of Mark Gatiss, who gets to turn his childhood horror nerd obsession into television programmes – to exorcise it, if you like – but these programmes are so good, he fronts them with such urbane charm and enthusiasm, and he’s so true to his roots, we should all be grateful that he’s seemingly in charge of horror at the BBC.

There’s something glorious about finding common ground with people of your own age. You may remember that I was able to find an instant bond with JJ Abrams when I interviewed him about his film Super 8 last year. He, too, is 46. It’s no surprise to discover that he was a fanboy, as we weren’t called in the 1970s, but I was still over the moon to see the film’s chief protagonist Joe carefully painting an Aurora glow-in-the-dark model of the Hunchback of Notre Dame in an establishing scene (the film is set in 1979). Here’s my grab:

I was so mad about these kit models. I think I had them all, at various stages – the Hunchback, Phantom of the Opera, Godzilla, King Kong, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Salem Witch, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Dr Jekyll, the Mummy, the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Mare – as my Airfix-inclined friends and I would swap the finished items, and usually repaint them in new Humbrol colours to claim them as our own. At this age – and I got my first, the Hunchback, and my second, Dr Jekyll, for my ninth birthday in 1974 – I was utterly preoccupied with horror, especially the iconic monsters that Universal defined itself with in the 1930s, not that I really had any concept of the 1930s at that wide-eyed age.

Ironically, when The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1939 classic starring Charles Laughton, was on television in June 1974, Simon and I were too scared to watch it! When BBC2 starting running their double-bills on a Saturday night around that time, we dared each other to watch what would be ultra-tame, fag-end stuff like House of Frankenstein, and The Mummy’s Ghost on the black-and-white portable, after dark. We weren’t the first boys to find something thrilling in being scared out of our wits, and I’m glad we had no prejudice about whether a horror film was old or new, cool or uncool, black-and-white or colour.

One of the many things Mark Gatiss and I agreed upon on Tuesday was that it was the very unattainability and the mystery of the stills in our horror books that made them so alluring. What would The Student Of Prague or The Golem or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari actually be like to watch, moving about? I choose three silents because neither did we have any prejudice about silent movies at that age. How innocent and free from preconception we were!

So, this has been a hymn to childhood, or at least childhood in the pre-video age, when horror nerds had access to almost nothing but stills in books, plastic models and our imaginations to fire up our enthusiasm.

Horror Europa is on BBC4 on Tuesday 30 October at 9pm. My interview with Mark appears in next week’s Radio Times, out on Tuesday. And while we’re plugging, to go all BBC announcer for a moment, Mark Gatiss is currently appearing in 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre … (nobody has asked me to do that link, which is why I’m happy doing it)

PS: My sister didn’t become a nurse; my brother did join the Army; I took my Pictorial History of Horror book to an Italian restaurant in Swiss Cottage when I was 47 to show it to a man, who whooped, “the green one!”

Now a spectacular new film

Since posting about Ernest Borgnine and The Poseidon Adventure, I’ve managed to lay my hands on the 1974 Pan paperback edition of the Paul Gallico source novel. I’m so pleased to have it in front of me. The cover has actually come free of its moorings, but it’s in working order otherwise, and transports me back to 1975, when it became talismanic to my 10-year-old self: my only way of finding out anything further about The Poseidon Adventure. On the front, you can see the pre-disaster still of Hackman, Stevens and Borgnine, from which I was able to etch vague likenesses with my pens and pencils. (Interesting that the image of the ship being upended by a tidal wave is not a still, but a professional likeness in pen and pencil.) And whose idea was it to put “Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure“? That’s not really book grammar is it?

Anyway, the back cover is where the real meat is.

Having been spooked by the blood, sweat and tears of the survivors’ hellish journey through the bowels of the stricken vessel, it was with mixed feelings that I pored over the large still from the boiler room climax on the back cover of my book. I could identify Nonnie, Mr Martin and Mr and Mrs Rogo, and those were definitely Susan Shelby’s glistening calves and red high-heels. As an aide memoire, this atmospheric pic was gold dust; it transported me back to the film. As mentioned, the full cast list was also vital in terms of working out who played whom. Hats off to my Dad buying me the book as a present. (He’d taken my brother Simon to Birmingham for some kind of investigation into his constant nosebleeds, and he got a present for being brave; Dad was an equal-opportunities present-buyer.)

It is hard to convey to younger people how much more valuable printed material was in the 1970s. If it wasn’t printed on paper, it didn’t really exist. This book was literally all of the Poseidon Adventure ephemera I could lay my hands on. These days, a Google or YouTube search yields pretty much everything.

Because the film had such an existential impact upon me at a formative age, it remains special, and a glimpse of footage or a still retains the power to upend the hairs on the back of my neck. Long may this continue. Anyway, thanks to the alchemy of the scanner and the internet, I can now share the papery artifact with you.

Oh, and here’s a silly photo of me posing with the hallowed book, taken during the History Of Collins & Herring In 100 Objects project on Saturday mornings on 6 Music in 2010. I was surprised, and not unpleasantly, to find that all of the objects still exist in a gallery, if you’re nostalgic like that.

Ernest Borgnine Latest: I am recording an obituary for Radio 4’s Last Word programme tomorrow, and all being well, it will air on Friday at 4pm. It will be an honour.

America’s last top model

I’ve been writing this week about meeting JJ Abrams, for Radio Times. You can read the feature in next week’s issue, should you wish; it’s based on an interview I did with him in May, when very few people had seen Super 8, his new family monster movie set in 1979 and produced by Steven Spielberg, to whose 70s work it seems clearly to be a tribute. (It is. It’s an explicit tribute.) But it’s the above scene – grabbed from the film’s trailer – that intrigued me the most, as it features the Aurora glow-in-the-dark model of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I was given for my ninth birthday, in 1974. Although the company has been bought and sold a number of times since its 60s heyday, the horror icon model line, licenced through Universal, seems to have endured. I grabbed this shot of the box from the internet, where many a finished model, fully and meticulously painted, also appears.

Props to Abrams for mining his own geeky, movie-obsessed childhood for detail like the Hunchback model, seen being fastidiously painted by Super 8’s lead character Joe (Joel Courtney) in a scene that beautifully encapsulates the often solitary bedroom-bound existence of the young suburban nerd. As it happens, I painted my models out in the garage, where my vast range of Humbrol enamel paints were stored, and what hours of concentrated enjoyment I gleaned doing just that. Over the ensuing years, via birthdays, and swapsies at school, I collected pretty much the whole set of Aurora Universal monsters: Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, King Kong, Godzilla, the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man. I also had Salem Witch, which didn’t seem to be from a Universal horror film, but whose bubbling cauldron of bats and eyeballs was a fond favourite.

The Aurora horror range combined two of my early childhood loves: horror movies, and making models. I would pore for hours over the Airfix catalogue, trying to plan which model I would purchase next when pocket money or present-receiving opportunity would allow. I loved sticking them together, although the greatest thrill lay at either end of the process: handling the pieces when fresh out of the box and still affixed to the plastic frame, while absorbing the instructions, and then applying the paint at the other end. It’s funny how a tiny detail about the glow-in-the-dark model became my first point of bonding with JJ Abrams, who was born a year after me. Having seen the Hunchback in the film – and with a 35-minute slot during which to win him round and get him to say interesting things into my tape recorder – I told him how much it meant to me and we were suddenly discussing the etiquette of whether or not to paint over the fluorescent parts of the model (in the Hunchback’s case, his head and his back glowed, an aspect that actually freaked me out from my bedside).

I loved my kit models. I was a member of the Airfix Modellers’ Club. I still have the membership card somewhere. And yet, “club” was a misnomer, as modelling never won me any friends, nor led to any social interaction. It wasn’t exactly a group activity.

I never think of myself as the classic nerd. I spent a lot of time with friends, climbing trees, wading through streams, playing cricket and hide-and-seek. But I do celebrate the nerdiness gene, as it gave me time to think, whether I was sat up the dining room table meticulously creating my own comics, or out in the garage adding the decals to an Airfix model of an RAF Refuelling Set. (I did actually have that. It was brilliant.) My brother and I were obsessed with catalogues, and got as much pleasure looking through them as actually ever owning any of the stuff within.

That is all. I made the schoolboy error of looking at a thread about Collings & Herrin on the Word message boards after being alerted to its existence. As usual, a number of people who I would normally expect to ally myself with, being keen Word readers, heaped abuse upon me, and one called me a “gigantic bore” for writing about the past. He can actually fuck off. I find the past endlessly fascinating, especially the way it unites us, across continents sometimes. And anyway, the future looks pretty shit to me.

18 months in an open-necked shirt

In two Saturdays’ time, I will be reunited with Stuart Maconie on the radio (6 Music, 10am-1pm). My thoughts inevitably turn to the modest glory days of Collins & Maconie, the first double act I was part of, between 1992 and 1997, briefly reunited as two-thirds the trio Collins, Maconie & Quantick with David Quantick in 2001 and 2002, but effectively disbanded after that as Stuart and I moved in different broadcasting directions, and I allowed scriptwriting to eat up more of my time. Our 18-month foray into television, albeit late-nite television, was Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club, a charmingly fleabitten movie review show with a siege mentality that went out on ITV before it was ITV1, every week, without a break, between 1996 and 1997. A chap called William Tennant drew my attention to three clips of the show on YouTube which I didn’t know existed, and can be viewed below. (I have every one of the 18-month run on what I believe are called videocassettes, but they’re in a box, and that box was, this very week, transferred from my house to my parents’ attic for storage.)

For those too young to remember it, or perhaps had a job in 1996 and weren’t going to stay up until 1.40am to see two men in suits and open-necked shirts talking in a cinema, the Movie Club was made by Watchmaker, Clive James’ production company, and was seen as a natural, medium-hopping progression from Collins & Maconie’s Hit Parade, our then-weekly Radio 1 singles review show. (It amazes me now that we were indulged enough to have our names above the title in both shows!) The same late-note slot across the whole week was put out to tender by ITV, and we somehow snared one of them. Neither of us could quite believe our luck. Thanks for the most part to the ingenuity and drive of producer/director Andy Rowe (now ubengruppenfuhrer of Saturday night light entertainment at the BBC), but not forgetting the resourcefulness and, frankly, patience, of the compact, on-site production team – which numbered six most weeks, including Andy – we shot two in a day each fortnight in the Riverside cinema, Hammersmith, with a fake projector set up using a single light and some dry ice as it was easier, and more effective, than involving the real projectionist.

The format was achingly simple: three new releases and some videos reviewed by the pair of us – we couldn’t afford Autocue so we’d learn all our links like actors – sitting in a cinema. We added a couple of comedy items: the Hollywood Hotline, in which I would pretend I was talking to a star on a mobile phone, whom you couldn’t hear, and Stuart would react to my inappropriate handling of the call; 101 Years Of The Cinema (I think it was called), where we played cineastes in black polo-necks smoking Gauloises – and we actually smoked in the cinema! – wrongly covering the history of the cinema by theme; Crikey! Movie News, which was fake news based upon funny old black and white film stills; and another one whose title escapes me where we’d reconstruct iconic movie scenes using toys. I know what you’re thinking, and no, we didn’t copy this off The Adam & Joe Show, even though that started in 1996, and the Movie Club didn’t start until 1997. I think the four of us have agreed that it was a coincidental double-conception – there’s no way we’d have been stupid enough to lift it, so either we hadn’t seen it, or they hadn’t started the toy parodies at the time we were preparing the format. In any case, Adam and Joe did it miles better and took it so much further, while we ditched ours after about six weeks as it was too time-consuming! (When I first met Adam, circa 1998, when our show had been taken off and theirs was flying, we declared ourselves fans of each others’ work.)

That’s pretty much it. We introduced a weekly visual joke for the end of each show, and we tried to be funny in all our links, and to involve the audience, in an early example of interactivity, by getting a viewer in to guest-review one of the films. Among the stars of tomorrow we had in were Ali Caterall, now a reviewer at the Guardian and Word, and none other than Sarah Millican, who I believe was in mid-career-change at the time. (In the days before email, viewers had to, like, write to us, and send us a cassette or videocassette of them reviewing a film, and send it through the post and everything.)

It was bags of fun. They would often be shooting TFI Friday in the big studio at the same time, so we’d usually bump into a band we’d interviewed in the canteen and they’d ask us what we were doing there, as very few people seemed to actually know the programme was on. (Having said that, I once watched it in a rented house in Dublin with Billy Bragg and Wilco, which was odd, and Joe Strummer claimed he was a fan and became quite irate when I met him and informed him that ITV had taken it off the air.) Our budget was small, but it stretched to four John Rocha shirts, which we rotated under our own jackets. (They had really long arms with massive cuffs for which we had no cufflinks, so we always used to announce their arrival “on set” with the phrase, “John Rocha pour le singe.” Such in-jokes kept us going.) When it ended, after an astonishing, uninterfered-with 18-month run – during the latter part of which it also went out on Paramount Comedy – it was like an eight-piece band band splitting up. Watching the clips again, especially the willfully cheap opening credits, takes me back to a time when we felt on the cusp of professional careers in radio and TV, and although TV has only been sporadic for me in the years since (Stuart’s been on a lot more), those 18 months stood me in good stead.

Stuart and I are looking forward to shamelessly nostalging about those golden years when we reunite on 6 Music. It’s allowed, right? In the meantime, if it pleases you, here are the YouTube clips, which includes the review of the 1997, when we awarded the first and only Barn D’Or award for Film Of The Year to Shane Meadows’ debut Small Time. This is something we remain proud of, and Shane never complains if we point it out. We made him. (Oh, and during the run, we were offered Woody Harrelson as a guest, but we turned him down, as we didn’t have guests. How cool, or uncool, was that?)