Haldane Duncan Part 2: A life on the floor – 2 

1 February 2006 tbs.pm/2297

“The Sunday recording turned out to be the icing on the cake in the disaster department…” – Haldane continues to develop his career.

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Warren Mitchell (centre) as Alf Garnett (BBC)

Till Death Us Do Part was a big hit on television and Stanley Dorfman considered it to be quite a coup to get Warren Mitchell, as Alf Garnett, on The Dusty Springfield Show as a guest. Although Stanley was a Light Entertainment producer and was accustomed to acts simply turning up and doing their stuff, he realised that Warren was an actor and didn’t have an act. The thing to do was contact Johnny Speight, the writer of ‘Till Death’, and get him to write something for Warren as Alf.

I had worked once before with Johnny when he wrote a pilot sitcom for Jimmy Tarbuck. This was to be the vehicle that would get Jimmy back on to regular network television after his phenomenal launch on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The producer, Dennis Main Wilson, also needed a follow-up to the flagging ‘Till Death’. A partnership made in heaven, you might assume. It could have been – but all Johnny had was an idea, and all that idea consisted of was that the Devil, played by John Le Mesurier, was facing retirement and thought it was time he sent his son, played by Jimmy, down to earth to get in some practical experience in Devilment.

It was called To Lucifer a Son and was the biggest ‘no-no’ in the careers of everyone associated with it. To say the script was late is like saying a woman in the labour ward’s period is late. I think we had a complete script by the end of recording, but we certainly missed every deadline on the way. The poor designer spent her days at the end of a phone in the workshops where the set was being built waiting for news; we couldn’t cast anyone, we could only rehearse bits; everything was a shambles; and it was all down to Johnny not providing us with a decent script on time. I think the real Devil was watching and having a bit of fun and thinking, “That’ll teach ’em for trying to make fun out of my family”.

The Sunday recording turned out to be the icing on the cake in the disaster department. Most of the set was built on scaffolding but – guess what? The scaffolders didn’t turn up, so camera rehearsals that were meant to start at ten thirty didn’t get going until after three. Dress rehearsal? Forget it – the show was the dress rehearsal. We had so many stops during recording that, to this day, I still have a certain admiration for Jimmy Tarbuck. Every time there was a technical ‘cock-up’, he launched into his act, but his material soon got eaten up after an hour or so. However, the audience found those bits far more entertaining than the show and reserved all their laughter for the recording breaks. When I had to interrupt Jimmy and say, “All right, we’ve sorted ourselves out and are ready to record”, I could just feel the irritation of the audience as they had to put up with another bit of boredom before they could get back to Jimmy telling jokes. ‘Cos there sure weren’t any in the script.

I told this story to Stanley when the name was mentioned in connection with The Dusty Springfield Show, and when booking Johnny he made it very clear to him that if he couldn’t deliver a sketch within the week, not to bother taking the job. I was proved wrong: within days a script arrived, and a very funny one at that. It involved Dusty introducing her next act, a magician – played, incidentally, by a young Ken Campbell – who asks for a volunteer from the audience to help him out with his next trick. Enter Alf Garnett. The magician had to perform a few basic tricks and I was dispatched with my shopping list to the Magic Shop situated near the British Museum to get the necessary props to make the tricks work.

Thankfully, the shopkeeper had everything I needed, and as he was wrapping them up said, “That’s a strange assortment you’ve got there. I once got asked for exactly the same things by that smashing comic on television: Arthur Haynes. He was doing a sketch where he ruins a magician’s act.” And who used to write The Arthur Haynes Show? Only Johnny Speight.

* * *

The BBC sure was one for sending its staff on a course. If you weren’t being sent on a course to learn some new skill, you were sent on attachment to widen your experience. After moving, supposedly permanently, to Scotland, I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in London not actually working. I am not knocking training, but I think it’s like driving: you learn more by actually doing than by listening.

I even returned to Top of the Pops for a few weeks, but as an observer I didn’t feel at home. The stars still needed the exposure, but their management had gained access to the control room and tried to exert their influence to varying degrees. Tom Jones’s team wanted to see more of his hips. I think they actually meant the padding that had been inserted in the ‘policeman’s baton pocket’ of his trousers, but ‘hips’ is how they phrased it. The director didn’t argue with what sold, and shot everything wider.

The Musicians’ Union agreement at the time stipulated that if a band wanted to use backing tracks for television they couldn’t use the original from the record: it had to be remade especially for the telly.

Paul McCartney and Wings turned up for rehearsal with the entourage, but without the backing track. The director told them that unless they recorded the backing right away, during the limited rehearsal time available, they would have to do it live. Live was out, so they agreed to record it. Given the time they had originally taken to make the record, this was a dreadful imposition. But this was an important time for McCartney. He was no longer a Beatle, and had to be relaunched. Top of the Pops was very important in getting a hit record so, reluctantly, they duly completed the task in the short time available – but not to the musicians’ satisfaction. Specifically, the lead guitarist was tired and emotional, and had made a balls-up of his solo. The rehearsal time had been eaten up, the cameras were waiting, and other groups were by now queuing up to rehearse. McCartney’s manager jumped up and down shouting, “Don’t you realise you are dealing with a superstar?” To which the director replied, “if you want the exposure the show will give you, they’ll have to use that track. You’ve wasted enough of my time. Next!”

The tough talking worked. The band turned up later for the show with the guitarist in a more sober condition and performed the number. The guitarist was either apprehensive about the upcoming solo, or it came as a complete surprise to him, but either way he rushed to the back of the rostrum and was sick all over the ground row lights. The result may have given them the idea for steam effects used in the future.

Paul himself was a cheery soul when he came into the studio. Now I sometimes get caught out by not remembering someone I have worked with, so I can appreciate how much more difficult it must be for a man as famous as Paul McCartney. A lot of people of his standing couldn’t care a monkeys if they forget a face, but he would appear to be of a sensitive disposition, and in case he offended anyone, greeted everyone like a long-lost mate. If they had met before they were chuffed he had remembered them and if, like me, they hadn’t, they were delighted at his being so friendly.

My mother had asked me, while I was in London, to get some autographs for a little girl who she had been visiting in a children’s home in Leith. Working on Top of the Pops I was able to collect several for her and thought a quarter of the Beatles would round it off and save me the embarrassment of asking for any more. Paul was chatting away quite happily until I produced the book. He politely signed it and handed it back. But it was the end of that relationship. I had crossed the invisible barrier: I was no longer a colleague, I was a punter.

Few pop stars are at the very top for very long. Paul McCartney had been there longer than most, but now he was starting out again on his own, albeit from a high plateau. The man who was by this time number one in the pop field was David Cassidy. He was so big that it was impossible to bring him into the Top of the Pops studio. First, fans wouldn’t have allowed him to get through the gates; and second, the audience would have ambushed him. But the show was about the charts and had to feature whoever was in the charts, so it was imperative that David appear on the show.

Being a supernumerary, I was dispatched to look after the commando operation required to get our man on the show. It was hopeless trying to get him into the Television Centre because word was out that he was in town and it was obvious that he would be on the show, so crowds had started to develop in Wood Lane during the afternoon.

The answer was to wait until the Twenty-Four Hours studio in Lime Grove was vacated at seven, then quickly throw some blacks over the set, wheel him in and knock off the number. It was quite an eerie feeling as the darkened Bentley swung in from Shepherds Bush into the deserted car park, as pandemonium was let loose less than a mile up the road.

One man missing from Top of the Pops was the stills photographer, Harry Goodman. He had been with the show from the very beginning when it started in Manchester. His main job was to take shots of the stars that were used on the weekly presentation of the charts, but he had a sideline: he organised a viewing of films of football matches, which he ran in one of the larger dressing rooms during the break between the end of rehearsal and transmission. Not being much of a football follower, I preferred to go to the club for a pint and never actually saw any of them.

Obviously he couldn’t show a whole match in such a short period of time, but about half past six, the cast and crew would nip into the club for a quick one before the show, marvelling at this goal and that cross to the left wing or whatever amazing highlight had just been the subject of the viewing. I was told I didn’t know what I was missing, but week after week I declined the persistent invitations.

Sometime about 1969, I went for the Sunday papers and was confronted with a News of the World headline screaming “Top of the Porn”. On further investigation, it turned out that Harry had a vast library of pornographic movies and he enjoyed showing them every week to his colleagues. The ensuing scandal made sure that a new method of presenting the charts was devised.

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.

Next month: Haldane takes on the soaps.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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