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Dennis Main Wilson: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1991)

The making of a Sammy Davis Junior special for the BBC

Main image of Dennis Main Wilson: BECTU Interview Part 1 (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. Perfectionism at the Palladium

And then I met a gentleman called Sammy Davis Junior. I was given three months' notice that Sam was coming over to this country. He had never worked for the BBC, hitherto he had only worked for ATV commercial. He was very difficult to work with because he was a perfectionist. He could get very uptight and walk out, kid gloves, and would I like to do it? Yes please. So I see every film that Sammy Davis was ever in, I listen to every disc he'd ever cut, I rang all around London, the people, he'd ever worked with - oh he's bastard to work with, you won't like him, ur, ur, ur. I even rang an old mate in Australia because I'd heard that in Australia he had hit the director and walked out, is it true? Yes.

There is a British show, the producer of it is still alive, I think it was ATV the year before, and when Sam flew in to do a five or six week season at the Palladium, they got him, same company pretty well. So they built a fabulous spangled set for him. They didn't even bother to discuss with him what they were going to do. When he walked in, the producer said, what do you think of that Sam? He stood back, I think it must have been the Palladium stage, and he looked up and said, when you've lost it give me a ring, I'll be in the hotel. They'd built up a multi spiral staircase, idiots. Even I knew, I was in love with a dancing lady for many years. In dancing if you're going to come down more than eight treads, plus two for the bop bop, boom, all the other treads you are egg on face. This was a 60-tread staircase and the rises lit up and said Sammy Davis Junior, Sammy Davis Junior. It cost a fortune to build. 60 bl**dy treads. And no way would the man have it. So lesson one, with some body who is that good, you don't become a world star unless you know exactly what you're at. You wouldn't even get on the first run of the ladder, never mind the top of the staircase. All great star performers are all nervous. Can they keep it up? Will they be as good as they were last time? Hopefully will they be better. Come up with ideas. Let them say no. Be enthusiastic. Do your homework as best you can. Don't b**it. Sammy Davis, if he'd sensed once that we were b**ing him him, either he would have kicked us out of his dressing room, or no way the show.

2. The idea for the TV show

So now how do you present this all-singing, all-dancing, all wise-cracking, enormous diminutive personality? [...]

So I had an idea and luckily I had a great set designer [...]. I knew what I wanted to do. I'd been watching Billy Cotton's variety department for years, The Billy Cotton Band Show and the Tom Jones shows and whatever. I hate seeing a close up of a great performer with out of focus trombones f**sing about while they are not playing, out-of-focus, it's distracting. WC Fields, nobody moves on the set when I'm working. Check? You don't distract for Christ's sake, so 1) the orchestra a big one, is behind the cameras, out of vision, and stay there. B) I'd got a world-class performer, one of the greatest in the world, what the public want to see, him. [...]

So I decide right, that's it - which is the next decision, he is alone on stage in television theatre, Shepherd's Bush, on his tod for 45 minutes, it's a 45 minute show, a). b) No scenery. What can scenery say? B**hit. We just had one opening caption which was about 30 ft high which they panned on for the opening titles but that was out of vision left of frame all the time. We lit for a downstage working area, about 8 ft circle. Upstage of that and to camera left, 8 feet, no 10 feet, was an overhead spot. Obviously with fillers, which is either a lamp-post or he had one stool only, it's the only prop he had. It's a stool and it's a bar, it's a quarter to three and there is no one in the place, and not a single light anywhere else except that.

So what I'm going to sell him is a) orchestra not in shot, b) he's on his tod for the whole run, c) there's a no scenery, he works in a 90 ft cyc and that's it. And cross fingers, it could be he won't like it. That was problem two. Problem one is how do you say to one of the BBC's greatest set designers I don't want a set. And this is a month or more and we were going up to Liverpool to see Sammy do a break-in week in Liverpool before he opened at the Palladium. Stanley Dorfman, the designer Stan Dorfman. Yes, great, and a great producer-director too. Anyway Stan and 1, we both had been known to drink a bit, we met in the BBC club bar and like a couple of idiots, it's like High Noon, we're both standing there and unbeknown to either of us, neither of us wanted to build him a set. He didn't want to build a set either. This is again, luck. We both came to the same conclusion. Problem, persuade Sammy Davis.

So we got to Liverpool on the Thursday, early. We take in the afternoon matinee which is full of housewives, and this is in the pier, up there. And it's a different audience from the audience in the evening. It's a very macho city, Liverpool, I love it. He doesn't do apart from one number in the opening and one number in the closing, he didn't to the same thing in the second house that he did it in the first house. He changes the entire thing, just like that. He also, second house, knew we were in. We had a meeting with him the following morning in the Adelphi Hotel, but there's a couple of anti-BBC gags in as well, so shit, he knows we're in. So we've got to go back. And I've got a speech prepared very carefully for the next morning.

3. Persuading Sammy Davis Junior

So we go backstage and there's this enormous guy, George Rhodes, a great gentle giant negro boy, who's Sam's musical director and, he is expecting you. Oh by the way I've forgotten in our cables between us, I kept cabling him saying I have the good fortune to be producing your show, BBC, whatever. Please give me a ring. No answer. He was playing Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. Until the end I said for Ch**t sake talk to me. And I got a cable back saying, to Dame Mae Witty. So till this day I'm Dame in that set-up. Dame, he's expecting you, there's a giggle, and there is this thing curled up like this, like a coil on a bloody spring. Hi, hi.

Now in those days I drank. The excuse was I used to burn it off, I needed it for the energy, I think, otherwise I'd fall asleep. And my standard drink was a pint of bitter and a large Bells whisky. Now only people who work with me know that, I've never met the guy. I'm sat down in an armchair beside which is a side table with a pint of bitter and a large whisky. The s*d. He's researched me as well. Opening question, what kind of the show are we doing? So I edge a bit and say, congratulations on the show, first house, second house we saw it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, what kind of show are we doing? I say we've got a meeting at II O'clock at the hotel. What kind of show are we doing? There's no messing. So I said I've researched you, I know how you work, you don't know us very well, but I believe in being direct. You're doing 45 minutes, on your own, in the BBC television theatre, the orchestra's behind cameras, I don't want any unfocused trombones coming out of your earhole. You have a 90 ft cyc on your tod for 45 minutes. Because if people want to see Sammy Davis, let them see Sammy Davis. Who wants to see musicians, they don't entertain. Live. He says I buy all that but not live, we pre-record. I said no, we do it live. If we pre record you're a great performer and you're a dedicated pro, noises to this effect but I will get an 99 and a half percent out of you. Do it live, I'll get a hundred and ten, I bet you. And he said, you'll never keep up with me. I said something like up your a**e. That's ridiculous. [...]

Then he said anyway British musicians can't play jazz to which I said rubbish, because American session bands are not as good as our session bands, to this day they're not, I promise you. So he said to my surprise, yes. I could have kissed him.

4. Production expenses

He then comes down to London to play the Palladium for five weeks. And this is why the BBC licence-fee is still so low. We saved them a fortune. Lew and Leslie Grade or Bernard Delfont or whoever brought him over to play the Palladium, paid all his airfares, his suites, numerous suites at I think it was the Mayfair Hotel for five weeks, and his fare back the Sunday after we'd finished. All it would cost the BBC was his straight fee, no overheads at all. Cheap! Great! But we're going to ad lib it and the guy changes, he literally changes it. I went every night to the Palladium, I stood at the back of the stalls every night with a light pen taking notes, and you can't ad lib forever, you know, there has got to be a repeat pattern so I can nail him. He's there one night and obviously he lost the audience, you could sense him feeling the audience, and he cuts, in the middle of the number, sat on the floor and said I was never a Nazi, I thought those camps was holiday camps. Big laugh, pick up, change the number. Wild

I'd formed a sort of pattern what I thought he was going to do, within the ad-libs, see if does that, he's gonna do that, if doesn't and so on. And I went, he rang me and said, you never come backstage. And I said well a) the dressing-room is full of well-wishers, but also it seems to me to be wrong somehow. I love you dearly but it just isn't, afterwards yes, mates, but let's keep it.

He said you come on the Saturday, which is his last night. Syd and I went to the second house and he is in the middle of the act. He does normally 58 minutes, but if he's going well the second house he will do up to an hour and three-quarters because he's enjoying himself, and so is the audience. And halfway through the show he suddenly stopped between numbers and said, are you there Dame?. So I said yeah, have you seen me do the guns? No. Right, Dame hasn't seen the guns, get the guns. Have you seen him do this? Colt the weapon manufacturers made him a pair of Colt 45s, silver-plated colts which weigh half a ton each, these were the full tchu tchu [imitates gunshots] bit. And he's a) so proud, because he's only a kid at heart, a) they're in a presentation case, he's proud of these things, they are balanced and you can do what you like with them. And he did a display loaded with blanks of cowboy gunfire. Do you like to that? Yes. Right it's in tomorrow.

The following week there was a letter to the BBC from Bernard Delfont complaining about BBC producers using the Palladium as a rehearsal room for a BBC production. But what I'm trying to say, it is relevant, it is what creating an atmosphere in which a director, producer-director and artist can work together. We're both probably round the twist. We're both probably a little bit potty otherwise we wouldn't be in the business. But you build a love and a trust and you don't give a fuck for anybody. And if you get in the way, hard luck, management or not. Does that make sense? Again, for young people, if you believe in it, stick your neck out. Have a go.

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Wilson, Dennis Main (1924-1997)