Spit back in anger

John Lloyd, the man behind Spitting Image and Blackadder, thinks today's TV comedy is no laughing matter.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

‘The way to make great art or great broadcasting is to do what you like to watch yourself – not to do something that you despise but you think other people will like because they’re less educated than you. That’s hopeless.’

For John Lloyd, the best TV is a product of individual and collective passion, rather than the ‘focus-group culture’ that seems to dominate TV today. He was responsible behind the scenes for some of the most successful UK comedy shows of the 1980s: the sketch-show Not the Nine O’Clock News, the historical sitcom Blackadder and the satirical puppet show Spitting Image. These very different programmes had in common an irreverent and innovative approach to comedy, capturing the spirit of a period involving the rise of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and a radical disruption of social mores and manners.

Not the Nine O’Clock News was being used to find out where the boundaries of public taste had ended up’, says Lloyd. ‘Could you say “bloody”? Could you make jokes about lesbians or Save the Whale? What was offensive and what wasn’t? There was definitely a conscious attitude at the BBC. After the very first show, we had 30 complaints, which isn’t exactly jamming the switchboards, but it’s a hell of a lot. Getting one complaint is pretty unusual for most shows. I got called in to see the head of light entertainment, and he said, “So, John, we’ve had 30 calls of complaint about the first Not the Nine O’Clock News show. It should have been 60. Get out”.’

Lloyd took the point. ‘You’re not doing your job if you’re not stirring up the wasps’ nest a bit. By episode four, all my BBC radio training of what was allowable had gone out the window, because I realised there were all sorts of things I would never have dreamt of doing, you actually could do and they were actually very entertaining.’

The BBC had never expected Not the Nine O’Clock News to be the success it was, running for a total of four series. ‘When that happens in television, you certainly get one more go’, says Lloyd. ‘People think you’ve got access to a magic button, you know some secret about how things are done.’ And after Not the Nine O’Clock News, its star Rowan Atkinson was ‘seriously hot property, a bit like Johnny Vaughan nowadays’. Atkinson wanted to model himself on John Cleese, who had left Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the late 1970s to do his own sitcom, Fawlty Towers. So he went off to France with Richard Curtis to write what was to become Blackadder.

Lloyd wasn’t immediately enthusiastic about Blackadder. The original script was actually called ‘something like “King Edmund and his Three Friends”’. But Atkinson and Curtis were keen to get Lloyd to produce the programme, and after they sent him a case of champagne and a bunch of roses from France he agreed.

The first series had an enormous studio set, so big that there was no room for an audience – which threw Atkinson’s timing, as he was used to audience responses. And this wasn’t the end of their problems. ‘We had a director who was really a production manager who’d been on a course, and this bloke also got ill in the first series with piles or some bizarre thing. He was always a bit under the weather.’

After the arduous editing process on Blackadder, Lloyd himself ‘wasn’t really in the best physical condition to turn round and start doing a blooming topical puppet show’. People often assumed that dealing with puppets must have been easier than dealing with actors. ‘You’ve got to be joking. Under each puppet are four puppeteers, who are much harder to deal with than actors because they don’t even have the exposure and acclaim an actor gets. They get very, very stroppy. “I do not do left hands! I only do rights hands or heads!”’

In any case, getting Spitting Image off the ground had been no picnic. Lloyd had tried to get the celebrated magazine illustrators Peter Fluck and Roger Law to make puppets for Not the Nine O’Clock News in 1979. ‘I had done a lot of stuff on the radio with people doing impersonations, so I knew I had all these great voices, but I couldn’t think how on Not the Nine O’Clock News to show them off. Otherwise it would just be like [famous impressionist] Mike Yarwood, the same old thing. So we wanted some sort of animatronics or cartoon or whatever. But they said they didn’t know how to make puppets, and weren’t that interested.’

After Not the Nine O’Clock News, though, Lloyd found out that Fluck and Law had got £10,000 to do a puppet show from Martin Lambie-Nairn, a hugely successful graphic designer whose credits included the original Channel 4 logo. ‘I rushed round like a bat out of hell, thinking “I’ve got to do this!”. I said to Roger and Peter, “I’m literally the only person in the world who’s got the experience to help you do this”. I had gone from the News Quiz on radio to Not the Nine O’Clock News and we had a huge stable of writers, people who would send in brilliant one-liners in the post.’

Lloyd was so keen that he agreed to work on the programme for nothing. But Fluck and Law had got involved with Tony Hendra from the National Lampoon in the USA, an expatriate Englishman and very well-known satirist, whose Not the New York Times had inspired the title of Not the Nine O’Clock News. ‘He felt he was the senior guy, who’d being doing satire when I was in nappies, and was a friend of John Cleese and all that. We were like bees around a honeypot and everybody wanted to be in charge. It was hell on wheels trying to decide something as simple as the title.’

British inventor Clive Sinclair put up another £60,000, but after considerable time and effort, the team still only had one puppet – Nancy Reagan as a parrot. On top of that, ‘the electronics were always going wrong and the eyeballs would pop out and so on’, says Lloyd. Finally, Fluck decided to go lo-tech. ‘Instead of motors and long wires and levers, he went out and got a bunch of typists collating thimbles, those little rubber things with pimples on. He stuck five of them inside the puppet’s head to operate it by hand. That was a major breakthrough.’

Eventually, Central Television in Birmingham commissioned the show, and Lloyd wrote the pilot with the help of Ben Elton – who had just finished his first series of The Young Ones and who went on to co-write Blackadder with Richard Curtis. ‘He came to the workshop and saw these puppets and just went completely doolally.’

Ben Elton’s bete noire Thatcher was a frequent target on Spitting Image and her puppet was probably the most famous. And Lloyd reveals that the show owes the Iron Lady a further debt. The first Spitting Image office was an empty space with broken windows and a concrete floor in a warehouse in Canary Wharf – one of Thatcher’s Enterprise Zones, ‘where ambitious, ruthless entrepreneurs could break all the planning laws and safety laws in privacy’. This meant the team was free to experiment with ‘horrendous toxic chemicals’ (for the puppets’ latex mixture) with impunity.

Lloyd denies that Spitting Image had a political agenda. ‘I’m a bog-standard, BBC-trained… Whatever I may think, when you go to work, you’re as objective as you can be. And at the end of the day, you’re there to entertain.’ In any case, Spitting Image had a broad spectrum of writers, from Ian Hislop (‘that kind of Private Eye, anarchist-conservative outlook’) to Paul Foot of the Socialist Workers Party (but ‘an incredibly normal, genuine and humorous person, not any sort of lunatic’).

Grant and Naylor, who went on to write Red Dwarf, ‘couldn’t have cared less about politics. They were two lads from Manchester’. The puppet-making team had a very high proportion of lapsed Catholics – make of that what you will. The one common factor was a shared determination to do things a different way and ‘not to tread out the same old rotten clichés about everything’.

Most of the Spitting Image team were new to TV and brought a fresh attitude. ‘They talked the way people talk in the pub, not the way people talk in a television bar.’ But if there was a culture clash with Central Television’s bureaucratic management staff, there was also one with the heavily unionised Brummie camera crew that was used to showing up for work at 11am, having lunch and then knocking off at 3.30pm. After their initial resentment at ‘these ludicrous, anarchist, arrogant lefties come up from London and ruining people’s lives’, however, the technical staff started to get into the spirit of Spitting Image and became passionately committed to it and fanatical about the details of sound quality, and so on.

Lloyd worries that this kind of professional passion and commitment is undermined by today’s culture of instant gratification and celebrity in broadcasting – a culture that was only just developing in the early 1980s.

While producing Not the Nine O’Clock News, Lloyd used to go to the pub at lunch with Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, but ‘by episode two of the second series I’d become completely invisible. It was, “Oh, it’s Mel and Griff” or “Griff and Mel” or “Mel and the other one”. They became famous incredibly quickly.’ The programme won an international Emmy and Smith and Jones produced a double-platinum selling album. ‘Commercials had just come in as something that it was acceptable for serious comedy actors to do without being embarrassed. Cleese was one of the few people who didn’t think there was any problem with it. Most people turned their noses up at it. But suddenly you’d got people becoming quite seriously rich and famous very, very fast.’

Things didn’t slow down. ‘It’s even more difficult now, when people get taken up straight away. One good radio series and you’re on the telly, you’ve got an agent, you have some of the production fee, you’re in it, you write it, you own it. You do a live show at Hammersmith, you pack that out for five nights, go on tour: you can make a lot of money very fast. But once you’ve got the Ferrari, what do you get out of bed for? The system rewards people much more than it did 20 years ago. A bloke like Ronnie Barker might have had a nice house in Chipping Norton or Maidenhead and a boat on the river, but not any kind of swanky lifestyle. Just a comfortable middle-class bloke.

‘Nowadays, your average comedian gets a series on telly and he’s buying a house in Notting Hill. You have this terrible thing where people aren’t incentivised in the same way. Something like The Fast Show, for example: massive hit, huge success, and they do all their live shows and a whole bunch of ads, and then they want to write serious novels about how difficult it is being a father!’

Lloyd is a father, too – and having experienced just enough of the high life to have his doubts, it is the enduring quality of his work that gives him pleasure. ‘One of my son’s friends was round recently, and he said, “Congratulations on the new series of Blackadder, John.” He thought it was just out! It stands the test of time, and that’s what really counts.’

Lloyd currently alternates between producing adverts and documentaries and writing for newspapers, but doesn’t find advertising interesting enough to do full time. ‘I’m a sort of public servant by nature. I’m not a natural anarchist really. I’m someone who wants the system as it is to work better and more fairly, but like a lot of BBC people of my generation whose fathers were vicars or naval officers, I want to contribute. I belong to the old imperial class who want to put up roads and hospitals and make life easier for people. I don’t think advertising particularly fulfills that role….’

‘When you’re an ad-man you’re in a client relationship with layers of hierarchy and you’re at the bottom of the food chain’, says Lloyd. ‘When you’re a programme maker it’s you talking to the audience. The only person you have to worry about is the bloke in the armchair in Bradford, not what people think the bloke in the armchair in Bradford might like. I find it very wearing and tearing on the soul not to have that direct contact.’

But it seems that the wearing and tearing is reaching beyond advertising. ‘There’s a focus group culture in telly and publishing today. Everybody’s trying to guess what people want rather than doing something they really believe in. And that’s the culture I was trained in in radio: “Go out and make something that you love, and we’re sure it’ll be fine.” Now it’s, “Look, we don’t care what you like, ‘cos you’re not Asian and 24. You’ve gotta find out what those guys want. They’re the people we want.”’

Lloyd continues: ‘It’s very difficult to get the kind of backing that I want because of this culture of no-delayed-gratification: “We want it right now.” In my day… the first series of Not the Nine O’Clock News was, you know, patchy. It started well, then the ratings went down for three weeks and then it went up again at the end. It was on a knife’s edge. The old BBC was patrician and grandiose and all that but they really believed in what they were doing. They believed in their judgement. They really backed people.’

Without or without backing, it is individual commitment that continues to separate the best TV from focus-group filler.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Brass Eye: the regulators’ blind spot, by Dolan Cummings

Political satire? Don’t make me laugh, by Ed Barrett

Me and my vote: Pub Landlord and Stewart Lee, by Brendan O’Neill

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