The Unlikely Grads
27 Mar 2017 3 comments. tbs.pm/11222
Out of the Footlights and into the limelight
From the TVTimes for 27 February to 5 March 1971
Humphrey Barclay, executive producer with London Weekend, which spawned such shows as Doctor in the House, Hark at Barker, Six Dates With Barker, The Party’s Moving On and, on Sunday, Doctor at Large, is happily certain they might all be sane if they’d never met.
They are such chaps as John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Eric Idle, Bill Oddie, Jonathan Lynn and Pete Atkin. Up at Cambridge to get themselves good, useful degrees, they are now lost to medicine, the law, and teaching. Instead, they’re all for our delight. And just because they joined the Footlights. (An earlier generation was struck the same way: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and David Frost, who overlapped with Barclay. Then John Bird, John Fortune, and Eleanor Bron.
The Cambridge Footlights Club is 90 years old. It began with a group of students who decided to visit a local mental asylum and entertain the inmates. History does not record how the patients took it, but the undergraduates had such a ball that they went on to start a revue club and put on a yearly show. And the club brought forth Jack Hulbert and Jimmy Edwards. And Beyond the Fringe. And Cambridge Circus, in 1963 – the year of John Cleese and Bill Oddie. It was Cambridge Circus that took Humphrey Barclay away from a possible destiny at the Foreign Office to purvey laughs for television.
There was never much chance that he’d do anything else. The way he puts it is that he was head boy at Harrow, the 35th member of his family to go there; he studied Classics and got a major scholarship to Trinity, Cambridge. That, he says cheerily, is when his life fell to pieces.
No sooner had he arrived than he started acting. “It’s a good thing I was only there three years. Each year my exam results got worse. If I’d stayed on for a fourth year I probably wouldn’t have got a degree at all.”
At the end of his last year Tim Brooke-Taylor, president of the Footlights, asked young Barclay, vice-president of the Footlights, to direct the new show Cambridge Circus. Barclay said he must be out of his mind. Well, yes, said Brooke-Taylor, but there’s nobody else. “So I said I’ll have a go, which has been my motto ever since.”
Then he put the show together and had a whale of a time, and he’s gone on doing something of the kind ever since. An impresario brought the show to London, and a man from BBC radio offered Barclay a job in Light Entertainment. He took it – and six months off to take the show half round the world.
“It was all extraordinary. Bill and John and I were a wild success in New Zealand, and a critical success on Broadway: we ran for three weeks. Then we moved off-Broadway, and ran for four months. I remember thinking it was ludicrous to have opened in the West End and on Broadway when we were all about 23.”
Barclay, 29, a tall, cheerful young man with an engaging giggle, conveys a sense of deftness and imperturbability. He’d need to. He sorts out directors, decides who is going to be in shows, who writes scripts; he is his own script editor and has to say things like, “I don’t quite fall about at this one. Don’t you think it’d be better if..?” Soothing, cajoling, bossing about, patching up rows, he’s at the centre of activities. “One of my chief concerns is to make everybody happy.”
During his four years with BBC radio he started I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (now in its seventh year), largely written by Bill Oddie. Then Rediffusion Television asked him to invent a children’s comedy programme. It turned out to be the unforgettable Do Not Adjust Your Set, with Eric Idle, Mike Palin, and Terry Jones. Of Do Not Adjust, Barclay says: “We started to do as funny a show as we could, and drew the line at jokes that were too lavatorial and sexy. We were very surprised to get the Prix Jeunesse Award.”
He often seems in a state of pleasurable surprise. His is a truly untrammelled tale. “I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place where the others could work round me. I’ve never banged on any doors. It all just kept on happening.”
Peter Cook’s E. L. Wisty used to say he would have been a judge if only he’d had the Latin. It’s all turned out rather like that. Bill Oddie was going to teach English. Jonathan Lynn read law. So did John Cleese. Graham Chapman and Graeme Garden, both qualified doctors, use their hard-earned medical learning for writing Doctor in the House and Doctor at Large scripts. Eric Idle thinks he wanted to be a writer or an engine-driver.
Barclay says the great gloomy corridors of the Foreign Office put him off. His father was a barrister and Clerk of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. He has a sister on the stage, and his mother is a professional portrait painter. Julian Slade, another Trinity man, is his first cousin. Clearly it’s in the family. Barclay likes painting watercolour landscapes on holiday and drawing caricatures of his friends at home.
His background has given him the sort of elegant off-handedness that rarely allows revealed strain or admits to obvious talent. “My family gave me some artistic strength, and my training at Harrow was in elementary diplomacy.” Since 1962 and those golden Cambridge days when they came together and went mad, he and his mates have stayed mad working together.
He says they’re such lovely people, it’s one of the super things about his job.