Haldane Duncan Part 1: A life on the floor – 1
1 Jan 2006 0 comments. tbs.pm/2296
The start of a distinguished television career
Some years ago BBC2 had the enterprising idea of devoting an entire evening to a treasure trove of old programmes, aptly entitled TV Heaven. I enjoyed the evening: the entertainment was excellent, and as, sadly, it came to an end, presenter Frank Muir wound up by saying that he would close with a clip from a 1967 Top of the Pops, where, as the titles rolled, we could watch the predecessors of Pan’s People: “The Gojos”.
Now, I had worked as an Assistant Floor Manager on TOTP at that time but strangely had no recollection of “The Gojos”. However, as the clip appeared, I immediately recognised the familiar Leo Austin set – the set where we had let Sandie Shaw rehearse shortly after varnishing the floor. (I admit it was malicious, but she would insist on working barefoot.) As I watched the screen, I began to recognise a couple of the dancers and there was a tiny stirring in memory bank when – wham! The camera had pulled out from the girls to reveal the audience – and there, in full close up, in the foreground, leading the rest of the crowd in what passed for dancing, was a very familiar face. Familiar to me and my shaving mirror, that is. Yes – it was me, looking like a proper wally.
The shot brought it all back – that first move to London and the ‘big time’. I had been so sick of my job at the Close Theatre in Glasgow that I would have worked anywhere to get out. The BBC had a holiday relief vacancy for an Assistant Floor Manager and I jumped at the chance. My first job was on Crackerjack, where one of my duties was to order the prizes, including the cabbages, for ‘Double or Drop’.
I was next assigned to work with a producer/director who influenced most of my TV work since, and that was Stanley Dorfman. Top of the Pops was a very exciting live show to be involved with, but comparatively easy work. Apart from the office duties and marking out the floor at rehearsal, all I had to do on the live transmission was to help restrain the over-enthusiastic crowd from getting in front of the cameras and obscuring the view. Once the ‘live’ acts had done their bit, the play-out to the show consisted of the audience dancing to a record. Abandoning my camera guarding duties, I normally tried to arrange to get myself into shot, so that my mother back in Scotland knew that I was alive and well. And why not?
When I was young and had been sent to France on a school trip, I remember wondering why the family I was staying with made so many trips to church. Only when relating this on my return was I reminded that it was the Easter holiday I had been on. Similarly, here I was, in the middle of what was later to be described as ‘Swinging London’, and not fully appreciating the significance of the times I was living through. Working in the closed world of the theatre had kept me out of touch with mainstream popular entertainment for three years, and I had never heard of The Who, Jimi Hendrix or Cream but here I was working with them – I think I must have been the inspiration for Forrest Gump.
The received image of the sixties is of Flower Power, the Beatles and Afghan coats, but apart from the Beatles the so-called decade only lasted a few years – the swinging didn’t really start until the latter half of the decade. I know we were a bit out of touch in Scotland, but I never set eyes on anyone wearing a mini skirt until I went to London at the end of 1966. John Lennon didn’t paint his Rolls Royce psychedelic colours until then and Sergeant Pepper was only released in the summer of ’67. But when I say they were ‘swinging’ times, I’m only reporting what I have read. Stuck in a bed-sit in White City, with next to no money and a defunct telly, certainly puts a different perspective on life.
Work was good fun though. Stanley had only been looking after Top of the Pops for a few months while Johnny Stewart was on sabbatical leave, and when he moved on, asked me to assist him on his next project, The Dusty Springfield Show. For me, this was your actual ‘big time': guests included José Feliciano, Tom Jones, and my all-time favourite apart from Frank Sinatra: Mel Tormé.
What a disappointment Mr. Tormé turned out to be. You often hear that the bigger the star, the nicer they are, and that may have been the root of his problem. Nobody could take away from his musicianship and talent, and he could fill concert halls wherever he appeared, but he wasn’t what he craved most in the world: he wasn’t a film star. He was actually a very good actor. He had appeared with Frank Sinatra in Higher and Higher and was particularly good with Mickey Rooney in a TV film, The Comedian – but he wasn’t a superstar. His talent was arguably greater but in the star stakes he wasn’t up there with Crosby and Sinatra.
Stanley had booked him for The Dusty Springfield Show because he was in London for a season playing The Talk of the Town and his management had done a deal with the BBC for a Mel Tormé special in colour for BBC2. Part of the deal was that he would guest on a show for the more popular channel. We happened to be the BBC1 show that was being made during his short stay, so we were the lucky ones.
The anticipation of working with him had me in cloud cuckoo land and couldn’t wait to get to the band call. Although he wouldn’t sing the material Stanley and I had assiduously chosen, he brought along an excellent arrangement of What’s New Pussycat for his duet with Dusty and chose Autumn in New York for his own spot. During a break I brought him a coffee and in my most unctuous Uriah Heep way enquired how his opening at The Talk of the Town had gone the previous night and he told me, “Not good.”
I asked, “What was wrong, were the band not up to standard?” “No, the boys were great,” he replied: “I’ve no problems with English musicians.” He paused and looked at the floor. “It was the audience.” “Well, I’m sure they’ll pick up tonight, when people realise you are in town,” I tried to reassure him. His head whipped up and he looked at me as if I had lost my marbles. “It was standing room only. It’s been sold out for weeks.” Realising my goof, I tried to rectify matters but put my foot in it even further as I stammered, “British audiences aren’t as effusive as those in America – doesn’t mean to say they didn’t like you.”
Now he knew he was dealing with a jabbering idiot and had to explain the problem in simple words. “I get a standing ovation wherever I play,” he said. “There’s never a problem with audience appreciation.” With a hurt expression, he had to say the unutterable words: “No movie stars came!” I’ve seen Tormé on stage many times in this country and he’s right: a more appreciative audience you couldn’t find even if a hired claque had filled the balcony. But shame of shame, did no one know that Hollywood had arrived in their hick town? Not one movie star could be bothered to get off their butt and pay him the homage he felt he so richly deserved!
We recorded the show at the Television Theatre in Shepherds Bush on the last Friday in June, and having spent the day rehearsing, everything was going according to plan; even Dusty’s worry about forgetting the words to unfamiliar songs had been resolved. Firstly on the duet with Mel accompanying them both on the Steinway, the words of What’s New Pussy Cat were laid where she could easily see them – on top of the strings. One of her solo numbers was a folk song from her Springfields days and involved having to recall a lot of colours in a particular order. However her myopic vision made normal ‘idiot cards’ redundant so we had to resort to painting the cards in the appropriate colours. Then the responsibility for the correct order was shoved in my direction.
By late afternoon the dress rehearsal was winding down to its end: Dusty was giving it the big finish and I waited to cue the end roller which would be superimposed on the screen giving the credits. Mel had been watching from the stalls with his then-wife Janette Scott. Dusty was still singing the last note when Mel rushed to my side. “Get the producer down here. Now!” I crossed to an open boom mic and said in my most diplomatic tone, “Stanley, I wonder if you could pop down to the floor for a moment?” “I’m going for something to eat, what is it?” “Mel wants a word.” I was a good ten inches taller than Mel but he seemed to be towering over me. Before he could interrupt, I continued, “It’s important!”
As Stanley approached, Mel started. “I’ve been watching the ‘crawl’ go through,” he said, giving the roller what we assumed to be its American name. “It says ‘The Dusty Springfield Show starring Dusty Springfield and featuring Mel Tormé’. Mr Dorfman, do I really have to remind you that I am a star? I am not an ‘and featuring’.” Stanley, cognizant of the fact that it would be easier to change Dusty’s make up than to change a roller at five o’clock on a Friday, improvised like fury. “You misunderstand, Mel. Featuring is bigger than starring over here.” Not sure if he was getting through or not he continued, “You know how, on a movie bill, the main picture is called the ‘feature film’?” Mel, responding to the word ‘movie”, slowly nodded. “Well, it’s the same when we bill someone who is a bigger name than the nominal star of the show”, he lied.
Still not completely won over, he turned to his wife and inquired, “Honey, is featuring bigger than starring over here?” If it had been her mother, Thora Hird, she might have replied, “Don’t be daft, and anyway what does it matter?” but it wasn’t – the new Mrs Tormé was wanting something to eat as well, and for the sake of peace and a quiet life, was happy to back Stanley. Mel turned back to us, and began trying it out for size, “Featuring… Featuring Mel Tormé”. A satisfied smile spread over his face as he left for his dressing room, mouthing his new-found title.
Tormé was one of the very few proper pains in the arse I have ever had to deal with. Dusty, by contrast, was great fun, except for the few hours between the end of dress rehearsal and the actual start of recording. This was the time when she ‘became’ Dusty Springfield. She was actually very shy, often hiding behind her real name, Mary O’Brian, but before a live performance she had to go into a quiet space with her make-up artist, create the image of Dusty Springfield and prepare for her audience.
I’m sure it’s the same for any number of performers. Stanley Baxter couldn’t do a warm up for his television audience as Stanley Baxter: he had to create a character that he could play. The character was based on him, but was pure make believe. It was conceived as a result of his fantastic success on Radio Scotland. He was thrown into the deep end of commercial theatre starring in the famous Five Past Eight shows from the Glasgow Alhambra. Apart from appearing in sketches, he had to do what today is called stand-up comedy. He was an actor who simply didn’t think that his own personality was at all interesting, and had to invent someone who could do the job.
Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage never drops the character. As he starts to prepare for a performance there comes a moment when the man is left behind and the outrageous Dame Edna appears. That moment happens once the lipstick is applied. He looks in the mirror, twists his mouth into that familiar look and the character appears before him and he is locked into it until the performance is over. Then he returns to the privacy of his dressing room, slams the door and in one aggressive gesture, rips the wig from his head to exorcise her ladyship.
To be concluded
Television drama director Haldane Duncan has worked extensively for both the BBC and ITV companies, but is perhaps best known as a director of Emmerdale, of which he has directed over 200 episodes. He has also directed several other soaps and drama including Eastenders, Coronation Street, Brookside, Hollyoaks and The Bill. In his native Scotland, he directed seven seasons of Taggart, plus The Steamie, Strathblair, The Game and early editions of Take the High Road.