That was the Fifties, that was

The time: 15 September 1955; The place: The Strand, London; The man: Ned Sherrin, writer and director
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
My father was a farmer, and when I went to Oxford he just didn't qualify for the means test, he wasn't going to get the money and he thought this was a very bad thing. I was going to study English and history but he thought the only thing I could do with that was become a schoolmaster, and all farmers have a profound contempt for all schoolmasters. He didn't think that was a very good idea if he was going to have to pay for it. Then I remembered that my grandfather, his father-in-law, was a solicitor, and my father was faintly afraid, or in awe, of his father-in-law, so I said oh well, I'll read law. And he thought that was terribly practical and a good idea.

I did the three years at Oxford, and then I started eating the dinners because I thought it would give me another six months before I had to make up my mind what I did when I came down. I took my bar exams. And that was the only reason I was doing law - I had no intention of practising.

I thought I would probably dwindle into advertising. I did go to various agencies and was rejected by all of them. I had begun writing and directing at school, silly things, and then at Oxford. I was rejected for Twelfth Night, so I started doing revues because it seemed easier to get on in the experimental theatre club than on the legit side.

Then, walking down the Strand the day after I'd been called to the Bar, I bumped into a man who had been the BBC floor manager for a revue I did at Oxford, with Maggie Smith, which the BBC televised. And he said, what are you doing? And I said, I'm a barrister. And he said, oh, well we're starting commercial television next week, would you like to come and join us?

So we had lunch, and I went to see his boss, at ATV headquarters in the Aldwych. And he said, I'm afraid we can only offer you pounds 900 a year. I knew everybody coming down from Oxford was getting pounds 450, and even I could work out that 900 was twice 450. So I said that would be OK, and I joined them on the Monday, and we started transmission on the Thursday.

I began as a floor manager. We started the first breakfast television, which used to come from a small studio and was set up for half an hour or 45 minutes at eight o'clock on a Saturday morning. It was presented by two actors called Daphne Anderson and David Stoll, and there was a celebrity interview. We didn't pay the celebrities, we used to give them gifts. We were told that Gracie Fields, who was doing the Palladium show, would like a Parker pen, so I went out and bought one. As it was presented to her, her awful Italian husband, Boris, said "We have one already." Sir Donald Wolfit wanted a Teasmaid, and Dorothy Tutin wanted a lambswool rug for her barge. There was a plug for the Palladium show on a Sunday night, and a sketch rather like The Gambols, a sort of suburban couple. I would run around and say "talk" or "stop" and shuffle them into the right place - a glorified call-boy.

It ran for about 12 weeks and nobody watched it. So it was taken off, and breakfast television didn't start again in Britain until quite recently. ATV only had the weekend franchise, and in the afternoon I was doing the same thing for a children's show, with an entertainer called Fred Henry. They invented an invisible character, which squeaked, called Charlie, who had to move things around. I would do that, and unfortunately on one occasion my large hand was captured doing the moving, so the mystique of this invisible character was blown and he had to be excised from the programme.

I went to Birmingham in the spring of 1956 to open the station there. I was floor manager on the opening night, for a variety show, which was directed by Bill Ward, who was famous for being tyrannical with his floor managers.

It was compered by Bob Monkhouse and starred Tyrone Power. And all day Bill Ward kept yelling "Segue!" and I didn't know what a segue was. I've learnt since that it means going from one piece of music to another, but I looked all over the place for a segue and didn't like to ask what it looked like.

Bob Monkhouse went to meet Tyrone Power in his hotel to go over the script for one of those traditional comedy interviews. Binkie Beaumont had taken him in to see Tyrone Power, who was in his bath. And Bob Monkhouse began talking to Tyrone Power, who promptly got out of the bath and said "What are you going to do about this, young man?" with a huge hard-on. So Bob Monkhouse had to make his excuses and leave - should have sent me round. They were all quite amicable on the show - obviously no hard feelings. That's probably the wrong phrase.

I used to go to Stratford for first nights, and that was my first job performing. I would report back - "Hamlet opened at the Stratford Memorial Theatre last night. It ended unhappily." And that was about all the time one had.

But I must have been seen by somebody, because I remember going to the cinema and there was one seat in the middle and I had to climb over the legs of two teddy boys. As I was going past, one of them said, "That's Ned Sherrin." And the other one said, "Who's he?" And the first one said, "He's famous. He's on television, like Lassie."

It did feel like being in on an awfully big adventure, making things up as we went along.

I stayed there for 18 months till I decided I wanted to come back to London. I had an introduction to the BBC - the start of 1957 it must have been, because on 18 February we are coming up to the 40th anniversary of the Cliff Michelmore Tonight programme, and that was the one I went to direct. Then commercial television decided to end the "toddler's truce" - the television would go off between 6pm and 7pm while you put your children to bed. Commercial television decided that was a bad idea, because 6pm to 7pm was a perfect time to advertise things that were going to ruin children's teeth and all that sort of thing, so we had to put Tonight in to fill that gap at the BBC.

And the BBC was looking for another unexploited time-frame and decided nothing much was going on on Saturday nights. So I was trying to plan the start of That Was The Week That Was - the only programme I've done that changed television.

I do television whenever asked now. I'm very proud of being on a very odd programme called All Over the Shop the other day, and having to guess the relative quality and price of three different sorts of gin, and getting all three absolutely spot-on. Basically I'm a vodka drinker, but this is probably my big television feat for 1997, getting three brands of gin right

Ned Sherrin introduces `It Must Be Love', an evening of comedy, music and readings in aid of The Terrence Higgins Trust at the Hackney Empire on 5 February. Tickets are pounds 10 from the box office, 0171-254 0944. Ned Sherrin will also host a fund-raising dinner for the trust at Villa, The Restaurant, London, on 16 March. Tickets at pounds 95 a head are available from the trust on 0171-831 0330.

Comments