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Dennis Main Wilson: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1991)

Early career in Light Entertainment and music programmes

Main image of Dennis Main Wilson: BECTU Interview Part 3 (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 Mitchell Glee Club

I arrived on the Tuesday, I know because the Monday was Whit Monday, I have never forgotten that. I went straight to Ronnie's office, he had been my umbrella man producer in radio. So we knew each other well. He said how would you like to jump in the deep end and learn to swim quickly. So I said sounds all right, what? He said we've got a show fallen out, artists ill or whatever, I've got seven half hour blanks. Radio Times goes to press in two weeks time. Can you do it? So I said you know me, have a go.

Went back to the office. I had never handled a TV show in my life. To talk about I inch and 2 inch lenses and even props versus wardrobe versus whatever. The usual thing, you've got to make it visual which is not necessarily so. I went back and luckily what I'd done in 1948, 1 think, in radio - I'm mad about choirs and big band music - and I used the George Mitchell Singers in one of my shows, only as guests, and there were 16 of them, 8 boys and 8 girls. They were the civilian end of what had been the Swing Choir of the Sergeants' Mess of the 33rd Battalion of the Royal Army Pay Corps. This is literal. George Mitchell peacetime was an accountant in Surbiton Town Council but an opera buff and a reasonable pianist. He started a quartet which became a septet which became and octet and then the ATS girls came in in the sergeants' mess. So he had a 16 piece choir. And George who was a perfectionist and a superb choral scorer, appeared on a forces show, somebody heard it and booked him into their show, somebody heard that and he ends up doing 6 or 7 shows a week. Hadley's Curbside Choristers in ITMA, Standeasy was another. It was doing good quality stuff, corny but quality. And George and I were very good friends, and thinking in terms of the great big American chorus, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, which were all the rage in those days. This is 40 years ago. And he said great because we've had so many sergeants through the mess in the outfit over the years, re-assemble a glee club of 40, from all over Britain, as they dispersed for demob. Andy our lead tenor, a Welsh tenor, was a barber in Swansea. He came up

NS: And you did this obviously very quickly

DMW: Very quickly. Now hold on, this is 48 and George Mitchell is still working as an accountant and he hasn't decided yet to take the plunge, to turn pro, nor to ask his 16 kids, now that they're demobbed. Some of them didn't have jobs. Risky. So this decided it and he went pro. I did a 16 week OB series with The Mitchell Glee Club. We played the Branwyn Hall Swansea, the Corn Exchange, Ipswich, would you believe. We played town halls and things all over Britain, always using a local choir. We were put opposite I think 20 Questions on the other channel and we knocked them out of the ratings and Kenneth Adam was furious. I remember that. But there it is, the all singing Mitchells, superb quality, very popular.

2. The Black and White Minstrel Show

AL: Where are we in time?

DMW: This is 1948, we've come forward now and this is 1956. Television

NS: You had a fortnight to get off the ground is that right?

DMW: Rang George, hurried meeting. He in the meantime had graduated to doing summer shows, seaside concert shows for about 2 or 3 years, had got into a bit of the old, not much, and he knew a few dances. Studio, Television Centre was still being built, Riverside One, big -studio, was in full use, drama, whatever, Ambrose had two. The only studio we had was Studio G at Lime Grove which if you remember is a long thin corridor with a knob on the end. Can you imagine, we put in 24 singers, 8 dancers and an orchestra and moved them, in studio G in Lime Grove. This is where to me BBC television is breathtaking. I'd never done a TV show in my life. I knew b****r all how to do it. My TMs one and two guided me through that, my designer guiding me through that, wardrobe and props makeup all guided me through. Fabulous. I had Malcolm Clare as choreography who had done a wee bit of television. I'd mugged up a bit on lenses. I still think in terms of degrees and not inches but I've even got the hang of that. Thank god it wasn't dialogue. It was non-stop. And blow me down we did it.

The upshot was we come to show seven and there is one whole bit in George's repertoire that we used to do with great success in radio which no way could we do, this is live, live television, is a change, all of us from white to nigger minstrel. A couple of weeks before we were sitting in the bar after the show at Lime Grove and the makeup girl came up and said I've just had a bloody good idea, how's this. The TM's with us as well. She said if I put on a very light green makeup for everybody, with slightish white lips and slightly whitish, but to keep the contrast ratio between the light green and the white, minimal. And Dennis sticks a red filter on a camera, what happens? Non stop, I ended up on a close up on Dai Francis white, cut to a long shot Dai Francis surrounded by the others with a red filter on, black, [singing] 'mammy, mammy'. And so began probably the most successful musical show the BBC has ever done. Black and White Minstrel Show which ran for years all over the world. Won for the BBC the first ever Golden Rose of Montreux, made George Mitchell a multimillionaire and fully deserved incidentally. Rich to the extent he could order his own Rolls Royce convertibles, built to his own specification, how's that for rich.

3. Pop music series 6.5 Special

DMW: We were living and working then in caravans in the design car park, whilst the Centre went up. Anyway I was blooded so I didn't get attached to anybody else. I was then sent for by Ronnie again. Got a job for you. What's that? Join Jack Good, 6.5 Special .

NS: Same Year

DW: Yes, 1956, 57, which I hated, and Ronnie knew that I hated it. Because I am a comedy and big band, I'm Basie, Ellington, Woody Herman, Boyd Rayburn. But he said it is not the reason you think it is I want you on, you're live and you're slinging cameras with no rehearsal for 55 minutes solid. You do a year on 6.5 Special and if you can't handle anything that can possibly happen in a television studio, I'll eat my hat. And of course he was absolutely right. You know we had lovely Freddie Mills, Jo Douglas, Pete Murray. Oh Bernie Winters and his brother and the whole from the Two Eyes Coffee Bar, Lonnie Donnegan, Tommy, upwards and downwards. That was quite fun. Pushing in a Vinton camera to a studio floor crowded with kids and you've warned them watch the cameras because when come through they're going to come, they won't get out of your way. On the narrow lens, big lens hood we had, and you'd see a turret spinning vision because it had hit somebody's head. Whee! But that was very, very good experience, I think.

And then I started getting my first film experience. We took 6.5 Special to Paris. Where I met another Dennis Main Wilson. An idiot, fabulous wild, wild character called Jean Christophe Abertie [?] a maker of satirical programmes and whiz kid, an absolutely wild character, he came in as director and we did it from the Caveau de la Richette [?] in the Rue de la Legere [?] on the Left Bank, opposite Notre Dame and I'd never handled film before. That was an enjoyment. To be able to set it up and actually wait until the sun had got into the right position in the sky to beam off the spire of Notre Dame and still put a bit of back light -through the trees, luxury. That was enormous fun.

4. Improving 6.5 Special

I was talking about my first attempt at filming and doing really 6.5 Special which was the first ever pop show for the kids. My only I think addition to the quality of that - there wasn't much, it was a dreadful time, skiffle was in, kids playing guitars were in, they used to go into music shops and a guy would sell you a guitar shall we say for 20 quid and then charge you 5 quid to tune it for you, it really was that bad. And I have a horror of ever playing down to a public in order to make money out of it, I think it's bad manners, it is bad for the nation and it is sh**y from every point of view. I tried, maybe it's cocky of me but I tried to bring a bit of quality into 6.5 Special. All the kids were watching it because whatever was in the hit parade we did that Saturday and slowly I introduced the kids to Johnny Dankworth and the [?] quartet. I let them hear some decent modem jazz which is exciting and a bloody site more exciting, and Ch*t Johnny's wife, Cleo Laine. Let's see somebody who can actually sing rather than just bite the end off a mike with no bloody voice. And I brought in something which I regarded from my own selfish point of view as professional as opposed to amateur kids being taken advantage of by music shops and record companies. Anyway it was a great experience in that, I go into a studio now and if the entire gallery breaks down I'll ad lib off the top of my head on five cameras.

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Wilson, Dennis Main (1924-1997)