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Fun in the Unattended Studio

Sowerby and Luff write: Georgina and I were once invited to talk about comedy in a live interview for a drivetime show on local radio. The BBC doesn’t expect anyone from London to actually travel to any of its more far-flung outposts of broadcasting, so we were instructed to go to Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush, where our programme contribution was to be linked down the line to a local radio studio.

When we arrived at Television Centre, the receptionist at the Stage Door took us to what looked like a cupboard in the basement. She punched a 4 digit code into a security lock, opened the door, pushed us inside, and scurried away like a sewer rat. We were greeted by a darkened, empty room with a microphone in the middle. On the wall was a sign. “Welcome to the BBC’s Unattended Studio,” it said. “Please follow these simple instructions.”

No studio engineer. No production assistant. No runner to bring us a nice cup of tea. Just a piece of faded A4 paper, gaffer-taped to the wall.

“First, switch on the power at the big switch next to the door,” it advised. Georgina hunted around, found the switch and activated it. A faint fluorescent light flickered on. “Switch on the microphone using the big red button in the middle of the desk.” I located the button. It had a Post-It note stuck on it which read, “Yes, this one.”

“Now, call the studio at the other end, and announce your presence.” Georgina picked up the phone. No dialing tone. She looked at her mobile, and I looked at mine. No signal on either handset. We were in the basement after all.  Like Batman and Robin on a case, we dashed up to the first floor, and called the local radio studio on Georgina’s mobile. “Are you there already?” said the programme assistant. “The interview’s not for another 2 minutes!” God help us, we’ve always been over-eager.
“Just go back to the studio and wait,” she said. We legged it downstairs, but when we got back to the unattended studio we couldn’t remember the entry code to the door.

“Can you let us into the Unattended Studio in the basement?”, I asked the receptionist. She looked up from searching for jobs on Google. “Didn’t I just let you in?” she sighed. We explained.
“A minute later, we were back in the Unattended Studio, headphones on, waiting to go on the air, but we hadn’t had a second to go over what we were going to talk about, being too busy doing the jobs of a couple BBC studio engineers.

Georgina said she needed a glass of water. We looked around the room for something to drink. All we could find was a ten week old cup of coffee with something sinister and smelly incubating inside. G dashed upstairs to the coffee bar, but there was a long queue. She looked at her watch. We were on the air in thirty seconds. No time for liquid refreshment. She dashed back downstairs, and threw her headphones back on. Only the right channel was working. She gave the headphones a thump, and the left channel went off as well. I couldn’t hear a bloody thing either. I fiddled with the phono socket, on which was another Post-It note which read “Do not touch.”

Suddenly, the headphones spurted into life, at three times the original volume, taking out my right eardrum, and we heard the booming voice of a local radio presenter welcoming us to his show.

There was one final item on the checklist of stuff to do on the wall. It said “Make your programme contribution into the microphone”. So we did. Fifteen minutes later we were walking towards White City tube, wondering if we’d managed to say anything mildly intelligent on the radio, and understanding completely why it used to be such a good idea to have BBC staff working in BBC studios.

The Beeb are constantly in the process of laying off staff in order to make the corporation a more lean machine. Judging by this experience, we’d say they’re pretty damned lean already.

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Being Bob Holness

I once showed the late quiz show host Bob Holness how to be Bob Holness. Let me explain.

I was working for a gameshow channel who were showing very old repeats of Bob’s popular series Blockbusters and I was asked to direct some promos for the show. I managed to track Bob down, and he came into Maidstone Studios to shoot some material.

After getting him to plough his way through a bunch of promotional scripts on autocue, I asked him if he would do what he used to do every week at the end of Blockbusters – a kind of friendly, saluting gesture directly into the camera lens.

“What do you mean?” he said. It had been ten years since Bob had presented the show, and I’d just been sitting in a darkened room for a week watching old episodes, so it’s hardly surprising that I knew exactly what I meant, but he didn’t.

“You know,” I said, “It was a sort of… static flat-palmed wave?”
“A static flat-palmed wave?”
“Yes.”
“I have absolutely no idea what you mean,” smiled Bob.

So I had to demonstrate to Bob Holness how to do his own signature gesture. He watched me carefully, and like the trained actor that he was, he copied it precisely.

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Snow White and the Seven Pairs of Ugg Boots

Georgina writes…

A friend of mine took her two young children to a pantomime this year. She remembered the shouting, songs and jokey atmosphere with great fondness and thought to pass on the joy to the next generation. From a plethora of prices and locations she chose ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, a professional production in a local theatre. I think her first mistake was booking the day after Christmas. I don’t know about you, but my first instinct on Boxing Day is to stay firmly in bed, and that, it would appear, was what most of the cast would have preferred to do. She said, and I quote, ‘There was an all-pervading atmosphere of lethargy and the most definite whiff of booze coming from the stage’.

Luckily she was some distance away in the theatre’s balcony, (she was worried the dwarves may scare the children. Really). When it turned out the dwarves were being played by children it sent a warning tingle down her spine. When they started gesticulating to the piped-in voices of adults saying the lines, her heart froze. Children, it would appear though, accept all theatrical exposure to immediate suspension of disbelief. Her youngest daughter simply added, ‘The dwarves are all wearing Ugg boots, that’s cool’. It was then she knew she could just relax and let the nightmare wash over her soul.

The Dame, obviously hung over or still reeling with lunchtime drinking, mumbled and fell around the stage to the embarrassment of the other actors. He didn’t so much ‘phone the performance in’ as relate the lines as best he could under the circumstances. They ticked all the pantomime boxes. Singing, throwing sweets into the audience, dancing and slapsticking each other to the point of no return. When it came to the end of the 2 hours and 48 minute performance there was an audible sigh of relief from the few adults brave enough to stay awake. I will leave the final comment to the little girl, who, when I asked what it was like, replied, ‘The funniest bit was that Buttons kept telling the Dame, ‘Why don’t you just try doing it like we rehearsed?” Drink anyone ?

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Edinburgh 2009: A Fringe Too Far

In 2009 Georgina and I were back in Edinburgh with another showcase gig called “Sowerby & Luff’s All Stars”. The plan was that we would compere the first week of the show then come back to London leaving the gig to be hosted by a variety of guest hosts. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but turned out to be fairly disasterous. For a variety of reasons the producer Richard Cray fell out with the venue and with the guy who runs the Free Fringe – an old mate of mine called Peter Buckley Hill. It all ended in tears when Richard closed the show down with just two nights to go.

As well as specific security issues with the venue, Richard’s complaint was that the Free Fringe was chaotic and badly run. I suppose I have to partly agree with him. It’s not always the slickest operation on the planet. But then, that’s half the charm of it.

But two days later Peter Buckley Hill was presented with the prestigious Edinburgh Spirit of the Fringe Award. So he must have been doing something right. Richard Cray and I have not worked together since. Which is a pity.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2008

In August 2008 Georgina and I decided to do a show on the Edinburgh Fringe. Called “Sex Tips for Pandas” the idea was that we would perform the book on stage, while at the same time hosting a showcase of up and coming comedians. We also planned to record every show and release a new podcast every single day of the 25 night Edinburgh run. Which was ambitious to say the least.

We booked ourselves into a Free Fringe venue called The Dragonfly and started to do warm up gigs on the London circuit. Our old friend Richard Cray acted as our producer and began to book acts for the show. Then, about two months before we were due to leave for Edinburgh, Georgina’s dad died. We stayed in North Yorkshire for several weeks, and did our best to support Georgina’s mum. It was a difficult and harrowing time for everyone. All thoughts of Edinburgh were forgotten.

About a week before the festival began, Georgina suddenly announced that we should go ahead and do the Edinburgh show. Since her dad had been a keen writer and actor himself, she was sure that he would have wanted us to go ahead and do it. I asked Georgina if she was absolutely sure, and she said yes.

The first couple of gigs in Edinburgh went really well. Then Georgina collapsed. Despite her determination to do the festival it was all too much and too soon. She really hadn’t yet recovered enough, either physically or mentally.

Georgina crawled into bed in our Edinburgh flat, and looked like she wouldn’t be getting up for a very long time.

Richard had booked about 30 acts for the Edinburgh run, so we simply couldn’t pull the plug on the show. We’d have been letting too many people down. I hosted the next three gigs on my own, and Richard intrepidly manned the sound desk and continued to edit the daily podcasts.

Despite the way she was feeling, Georgina incredibly only missed five shows during that 25 night run. She slowly got back on top of performing again, and I think eventually it became good therapy for her, and helped her to cope with one of the most difficult and challenging times of her life.