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Dennis Main Wilson: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1991)

Memories from his successful career producing hit television comedy shows

Main image of Dennis Main Wilson: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1991)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Dennis Main Wilson was interviewed by Alan Lawson with Norman Swallow in 1991.

1. The Rag Trade and women in comedy

In the fifties happened the Peter Sellers film I'm Alright Jack. And already the British trade union were getting very stroppy and so were management. And as usual in Britain we had a rotten bloody government. [...] And maybe harking back to my work early on in the satirical shows we did in Bush House, working with great journalists, documentary minds like Dick Crossman, Linley Fraser, Alan Bullock, Hugh Greene, we thought we'd climb on the bandwagon.

So I put up the first all girl lead comedy series, if only a bit of self- aggrandisement which for me is what it was all about I think in those days. And you know people won't laugh at women, there is this funny thing, the English do not laugh at their women. In America, great bl**dy comediennes, here no. I'm not quite sure why. It is that they are the fair weaker sex. There's a joke, that's a good joke, that is. It is that we are gentlemen. That's another joke. And in those days I just think we're chicken and we're scared to laugh at our women in case they have a go at us. Anyway it was enormous fun. It starred Sheila Hancock, Miriam Karlin, Barbara Windsor, the little diminutive Esme Canon whom I'd seen in so many films. A little tiny squidge of a lady about 4 ft 3 with the nervous fingers, and I'd seen her on stage in a review and for the first time in my life, this was some body who when she worked got a laugh on every line she did. She had some thing with an audience. She was dithering nerves everywhere. She was brilliant. Then against them I had Peter Jones, they were running obviously a rag trade, a schmutter shop, churning out of ladies' clothes and the governor was Peter Jones. And Reg Varney, long before On The Buses, Reg Varney was there because the authors were Ronnie Woolf and Ronnie Chesney, both of them ex variety writers from radio. Ronnie Chesney the international one time harmonica player would you believe. And it literally was feed line tag, feed line tag. The plots went from A, they did go through B and they did reach C. But that was about it. It was standard workers versus boss stuff. But it was 1957 for God's sake. And it was a female version of I'm Alright Jack but for laughs, and every line was written to get a laugh. We used to reckon on six laughs a page, 60 pages, that's 360 laughs in half an hour. And we are doing our duty, we're entertaining the nation and making the nation laugh.

2. Tips for directors about actors and crews

DW: This is for anybody who is directing. There is no point in giving an actor or an actress any moves until he or she is on top of the text in the first place. And not only on top of the text but on top of his or her apposition to all the other characters. Let them work and run about, for a half-hour weekly strike by day three afternoon they will begin to enjoy the arguments, the cross mental swords in an argument, and they will find things in the text which even the author doesn't know exists. So there is no point in prefixing bl**y cameras. Now round about day four, I used to like having a tec run for cameras, lights, sound, and the crew. We would be very dependent upon their reaction, which is a b**er because some camera crews, some tec crews are easy laughers, others take their job terribly seriously. And it doesn't matter whether it's Panorama or Till Death Us Do Part or the Bolshoi Ballet, they're just there for us to light superbly. We used to depend so much on the crews. I won't mention the bloke, because he's still around, miserable sod, but we got to know him, and after the show he would tell us, on the Sunday night, after the show, we did quite well. It came up to his standards. The point I'm trying to make his how delicate we all are because we're working under abstract.

3. Comedians, studios and audiences

In my last, my penultimate year at the BBC I worked for six months with John Fortune, of the John Fortune, John Bird, John Wells, Eleanor Brown, ex University stable, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Genius. But a diffident writer until he gets the action right and when he gets it right it is a superb. I worked with him on the script for about six months and it came right. We offered it to Jonathan Pryce who at that time I think was with the Royal Shakespeare Company and now of course is in the Hitler Diaries thing in 1991 [Selling Hitler]. Jonathan read it, thought it was super, would love to do it and but not with a studio audience. It's got b**er all he said to do with comedy, 300 people do not represent 10 million. Anyway you can't concentrate and he said anyway you can't light it properly. And therein lies the bugbear.

If you can imagine, draw yourself a near square, be generous, make it a rectangle, say 100 by 80. And across the right hand, narrow end, which would making it 50 by 80 is the studio audience. In front of that knock of 10 feet for the fire lanes and public exits and these dreadful men of the London fire Brigade. Then get your lighting director to show you what you want and he will go white because there is at least half of the studio's lighting that he cannot use. With a live studio audience you cannot really fine light a scene. You are shooting virtually through the fourth wall of a theatre. Now, you can stop, and in comedy it's very difficult, you can stop, push cameras up, drop in a phoney flat for a 4th wall and do some reverse shots. But the moment you do that you've lost the audience and you've got to pick them up and start an all over again. The best show you can do is a comedy show with a live audience that goes straight through, maybe a retake for a fluff, but goes straight through as good as a one act play in a West End theatre. Because you pick up the audience, you give them the rhythm of the text of the actors energy. The nearer to live you can do it the better. Now every time you stop, you lose the audience. You put in some strange person who is not in the cast necessarily who tells a couple of filthy jokes, which I won't have, won't stand for it - in the middle of a clean show there is this guy talking about tits and bums and a**holes which throws them - so there we are. We had a tremendous fight with the BBC. By what 1981-82 this was, so I'd been in comedy for 40 odd years, and no way could I persuade the powers that be at the BBC that if I decide I want to do it without an audience, they should listen to me. [...]

The film industry took probably Britain's greatest stand up entertainer, I won't just call him a comic, this is actor, comedian, clown, Sid Field, who was absolutely genius. Hancock modeled himself on Sid Field, he was Hancock's idol. British film industry did two films with him, London Town and Cardboard Cavalier [actually his first film was That's The Ticket in 1940]. Again, this is like the BBC management. The film company, the producer and the director didn't understand that Sid Field only worked with an audience. Take away his audience, you cut his legs off, he cannot rise to an emotional height, either in terms of sound, body language, or just gut feel, without an audience to will him to lift them up. And having lifted them up, they lift him up. It's a team thing, audience to performer you know.

AL: It's encouragement

DW: Yes. But also it gives him his timing. Because his script was written to be broken up with an audience in mind. They used his photographers sketch and his golfing sketch, both of which were written for an audience laughter to break it up. And did it straight with no audience.

4. Film sequences

NS: Another point really, Dennis, a lot of comedy series including Till Death Us Do Part do of course have film sequences. Now they are often without dialogue, not always but usually without dialogue and of course no audience until they're played

DW: That's a good. Norman, can I add to that, it's a very important point

NS: How do they fit in, is that a problem

DW: Because by the time you've done a few series, and we're all at it now, it's down to you and down to the actor and director to have faith in each other, you work out between you where you reckon the laughs are going to come, and you ought to have a pretty good idea. And you arrange either some body spins around to look or some body lights a cigarette, but you arrange some natural bit of body language or bit of business to bridge the laugh. There is nothing worse and it is happening all the time in 1991.

AL: Telegraphing

DW: No, not telegraphing, you can always take it out, and you shoot it so you can edit it out if need be. But the lines of dialogue that are lost in filming because the director hasn't thought

AL: That's a laugh

DW: And the other appalling thing now is, the BBC swear they don't do and they're liars, is dub laughter. This is I think appalling. Throughout Till Death, you ask Johnny, Speight, You ask Warren Mitchell, you ask any of my video editors, I have never added a laugh ever. A) partly for self defence because if an actor gets a big belly laugh, his eyes change, his body language changes and he covers to cope. In fact Dandy Nichols did the classic, and this lady is probably one of the greatest actor-actresses. I learned so much from working with her, we were talking about audience laughter and she said darling the whole aft is you make the buggers laugh when you want them to laugh but even more important is you make stop when you want them to stop, so you can carry on. This is what actors are for, they're not just there to play a script. Once they are on, they are directing themselves, and the audience.

5. Societal changes breed new comedy

DW: I think the Second World War in Britain was the equivalent of the French Revolution to France. And you know what revolutions do, look at the French, 200 years later they're still trying to sort theirs out. [...]

But what did happen during the war is within the first couple of years all the old [...] officer class, disappeared up your kilt. It had to be young men who could fight a war, who were intelligent, regardless of class. A working-class boy might have been a charge hand on a caps and [?] lathe machine shop, would automatically if he was a charge hand would have became a sergeant major in charge probably of a squadron of tanks. It broke down all divisions, because only one thing mattered, we had to win the war. Or as a nation go under. It heralded the greatest social change in a hurry that Britain has ever known [...] because up until Sunday 3rd September 1939, the BBC had not allowed any jokes or piss taking of Adolf Hitler or the Nazis at all. And in the theatre, the Lord Chamberlain banned all anti-Nazi references and jokes. And indeed in 1938, Cambridge University Footlights were censored by the Lord Chamberlain for putting in a Hitler joke into that year's Cambridge University Footlight review. And these are the wrong guys, running the country, in charge of government, establishment and the BBC. [...]

The BBC producers' green book of which I'm sure ACTT or BECTU have a copy. If not, you can photocopy mine. I've still got my copy, its number 38. You couldn't do anything, you couldn't mention public figures by name. You were banned from mentioning politicians at all, you were not allowed to make humour about religious issues or church issues, at all. And then the string of jokes, jokes about chambermaids are banned for obvious reasons. Uhh. Jokes about animals, eg rabbits, banned, and all these idiot mimsy-pimsy, Mrs Grundy attitudes, hangovers. [...]

During the war I saw the most horrendous things happen in Normandy, I can't tell you. I saw the RAF drop bombs on the wrong places, on their own troops and then to have Fighter Command denying utterly to this day, 1991, they still deny it happened. I was there for Christ's sake. I nearly got hit myself. [...] I saw incredible bravery, and if you lived in that great mish-mash of emotion and danger - incredible bravery and suffering - you're not going to be put upon by some berk up on the 6th floor of the BBC who has got no balls do something worthwhile.

So Speight and I decided to do Till Death and our intention was a wholly healthy and positive one and that was to take a working-class man, in London, docks East Ender, which is where Johnny Speight's family came from and portray them through a microscope for what he was. He was a monarchist. He would fight for King, God and country - these are all the things he says he is - he's a hard worker, he's good to his wife. He loves his baby daughter and he's got friends, whatever. He is the average British working class good-guy. We take him to bits. He is a liar, he is a cheat, he is work-shy, he's a rogue, he's a coward, he embodies every weakness that you can find in Homo Sapiens through the use of Cockney language. Imagine putting that up to commercial television today and them saying to advertisers we're going to put up the most awful man you've ever seen in your life. [...]

Our intention quite clearly was to put Alf Garnett in the public stocks, to pillory a public shame and say to the British nation this, for better, for worse, is you, there is something of this guy in all of you. And don't pretend there isn't, be you working class, be you a lord, be you an MP, be you what. Everybody is an Alf Garnett. And we proceeded to do it, as you know for seven series.

6. John Sullivan and Only Fools and Horses

I would go across to the bar, a few yards, and have my small Bells whisky and a half pint of bitter. Drink it and maybe pass the time of morning with a colleague, usually from newsroom. And back in the office by half past I2. I was in there one day and a young man came up, his name was John. Good morning Den, good morning John, have a drink. Thank you John. Cheers. And he said, I gather, he said, that you are a reasonable man. I remember this almost by heart. I say what's up? In that you will read anybody's script regardless of who they are, whether they're pro or not pro, and whether it's hand-written and not typed. I said yes, just in case. And I reminded him of Galton and Simpson, who had done it once. I said yes. He said right. Yes. He reaches inside his pocket, read that. And it was a full script. May I take it away and read it. Yeah. Give me 20 minutes. I can do justice to half hour script in 20 minutes. I was back in about 15 minutes and said I'll buy it, even though the scene had changed, and I wasn't in a position to buy officially. But under my old thing I would have been, so sod it, I'll buy it. If not I'll bloody sell it to ATV or something. And I bought it and luckily our head of comedy in those days was Jimmy Gilbert [...] and I bashed into his office and read that, and anybody who works in light entertainment and is a boss, poor devil, the number of scripts that come in, even if they're filtered by script editors. I said to Jim, read that, not at the top, not at the bottom of the thing, now. We'll be in the bar. There was something, I wasn't b**ing. Bless his heart, in the bar, we were on the air within seven weeks. So don't tell me the BBC is a stuffy organisation. What year was that?

NS: What was it?

DW: Citizen Smith, starring Robert Lindsay.

NS: And who wrote it

DW: John Sullivan, a BBC day crew scene shifter [...] But this guy had never written a script in his life before. Do you get the import of this? And the reason he clocked on as a day crew scene changer was to watch them working in the studio and pick up scripts that somebody had left around and take them home and study them. He was a cockney boy, left school at 15. When I met him he was living in a two-roomed council flat in Balham with a newbom baby, and it was a rotten council flat too. He is now a millionaire, he has bought himself the most superb property in southern Surrey. And incidentally he has never changed, we still meet. He is still John Sullivan who was a scene hand and the first thing he does when he goes into the BBC Club. The BBC Club for those who don't know it by the way is one of the longest bars in the world in that the building was built to house some 8,000 workers, actors, musicians, dancers and soloists, so it had to be a big bar. There is however a small bar off to the left. The interesting thing is all the mates drink in the big bar, props and scenery as you go in the big bar, down on the left, they've all got their own little patch, scratching area. And it is interesting in the small bar drinks BBC Newsroom, editors and journalists, and BBC Light Entertainment. The two have gravitated naturally together, because we both are for real, whereas they are for fantasy. Does that make sense? It's very interesting.

But John Sullivan comes in and goes straight down to the scene area, and buys the entire, that part of the bar a drink, every time to say, to celebrate his good luck. He is a nice guy.

We did a third series, fine, he made a bit of bread enabled him to move, buy a semidetached and things. Let's stay with John Sullivan, he then came up with a new show called Only Fools and Horses, which almost immediately became the number one show in Britain, nationwide, wiped the floor with all-comers. And the boy's had no education, no formal training, certainly no show business training. You see comedy is a gift, you can't legislate for it.

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Wilson, Dennis Main (1924-1997)