A real Goodie
PUBLISHED: 12:17 14 July 2014 | UPDATED: 12:21 14 July 2014
From the original Four Yorkshiremen sketch to The Goodies and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Tim Brooke-Taylor has to be one of our most talented comic actors, and a jolly nice man to boot, as Candia McKormack discovers
I feel I’ve prepared pretty well for my interview with Tim Brooke-Taylor.
Of course there’s always more you can do, but I’ve read as much biographical information as time will allow; I’ve researched what makes him laugh; learnt about his early forays into the world of comedy while studying Law at Cambridge; (re-)listened to episodes of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue; wondered at the sheer genius of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch; and even watched his fabulously choreographed Chartered Accountant dance (several times over) from the At Last the 1948 Show. And now it’s the day I’m due to meet him backstage before his appearance at Stratford Literary Festival and I still feel like there’s more I need to do to get under the skin of TBT…
Then it comes to me. What have I carried with me, like the yardstick against which all good comedy is measured, and often found wanting? What, if I were the interviewee, would I like to be remembered best for if I were to shuffle off this mortal coil tomorrow?
Yep, with just three hours to go ’til I’m shown into the green room to meet the man himself, that’s what’s missing in my careful preparation. Possibly the greatest episode, in my opinion, of the comedy vehicle that brought Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor to our TV screens on a Tuesday night. And there have been greats: Bunfight at the OK Tea Rooms; Kung Fu Kapers, with the noble marial art of ‘Ecky Thump’; and the episode where England is overrun by millions of Rolf Harrises wreaking havoc on the population. Particularly terrifying.
I don’t believe The Goodies was ever designed to be watched alone; it was always a shared viewing experience in my house as a kid, and I reckon it would have been the same for households across the country in the 1970s. We’d all sit, or more likely sprawl, in front of the goggle box, laughing at their antics so much we’d almost choke on our Monster Munch. There was Bill Oddie as the hairy Lancashire anarchist; Graeme Garden as the ‘mad scientist’ boffin type; and Tim Brooke-Taylor as the conservative, upper-class royalist, sporting the Union Flag waistcoat… with the occasional flash of equally royalist boxer shorts.
What I didn’t realise, though, was that Tim hated his character – the right-wing politics, the vain posturing – and also that there had been as many as 70 episodes made… which, bafflingly, the BBC refuse to air. Why can this be?
“I really don’t know,” he says. “They keep coming up with reasons. One of them was appalling: ‘they left to go to ITV’, they said. Well, we only went eventually because they kept postponing our series!”
Tim’s earliest memory of Stratford-upon-Avon is as a teenager, in the mid-50s, when he came to the town for a couple of days to watch “a few plays”.
“I thought I was going to hate it, actually,” he laughs, “I was dreading it; at that point, Shakespeare was not the high point of my life.” He turned out to actually enjoy the experience and it proved rather useful to his A-Level studies.
His very good friend and fellow-Goodie Graeme Garden is a Cotswold boy. “Yes,” Tim says, “he’s living near all those rather dodgy politicians, isn’t he?”
Graeme lives in Enstone, just down the road from Chipping Norton, so it’s clear what he’s alluding to. “I’ve been out to see him there quite a lot. We used to record videos at a place in Chipping Norton, so know it well.”
More recently, though, Tim has been spending a few days with “about seven very silly friends” in Herefordshire, playing on quad bikes and generally having a riot. “Our wives send us away and say ‘just get it out of your systems and then you can come back again’. I’m absolutely exhausted, so I’m hoping I’ll get my second wind after the show.
“We do silly things like go to Disneyland Paris, and we don’t have to worry about children or anything like that, but just be silly ourselves. It’s a great escape and when we arrive home our wives are actually quite pleased to see us… and, what’s more, we’re rather pleased to see them!”
As a child growing up in Buxton, Derbyshire, he used to be dropped off in the news theatre by his mum so she could get on with other things, and he’d stay there for hours watching cartoons. “I didn’t tell her that strange men would come and put a hand on my knee and I’d have to move away, because I knew that if I told her I wouldn’t be allowed to go any more.”
Fortunately, young Tim escaped unscathed on every occasion, and it was this early exposure to the comedy greats that planted the seed that led on to his chosen career.
“There were certain comedians and silent film stars that I absolutely loved, but not all of them. For example, I thought Tom & Jerry was OK, but Bugs Bunny was so much cleverer. I was watching it with my grandchildren recently and I think that’s still the case.
“With Buster Keaton, too, there was a cleverness to him that I absolutely adored, whereas Chaplin never really appealed to me; he was always trying to inveigle himself into being loved, and I didn’t really like that. Whereas Buster… well, I thought I was Buster, and still he makes me laugh!”
There was a scene in one of The Goodies’ episodes – The Movies – where they pay homage to Buster Keaton and the movie industry in general. It includes their version of the infamous Keaton scene where the front wall of a building falls on him, with only a few inches’ clearance around the open window. “It was one of the most frightening experiences ever,” he says, clearly reliving the scene. But it’s just one instance of the genius of the writing and technical planning that went into The Goodies. Wrongly considered a children’s television programme by some, possibly due to the slapstick nature of some of the visual gags, at the heart of the shows was brilliant writing and snappy interaction between the lovable characters. “There was quite a lot of anti-establishment in it, which was there for the adults… and the kids would enjoy seeing us falling over and usually hurting ourselves, actually!”
And the camaraderie that comes across so well in the shows is a common thread that has run through Tim’s career. From his early days in the Cambridge Footlights (where he met John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie and others) to I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, At Last the 1948 Show and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, he seems to work best when surrounded by others with similarly-shaped funny bones. “I love doing comedy with people – it’s all about keeping the balls in the air, rather than beating others down. Working off each other, giving encouragement and seeing how you can push things further has always worked best for me. There’s almost too much stand-up now – it’s great, but you almost want them to be bouncing off others.
“I had an idea which I put to the BBC in the ’80s, shortly after The Young Ones came out, and it was a programme to be called The Old Ones. It was to be all the Pythons, The Goodies, Peter Cooke, Dudley Moore… they would all take part. And suddenly people like John Bird and John Fortune came through, and they realised that it was actually a good idea, but unfortunately it was too late by then; it was really annoying. I’d even asked Cliff Richard if he would sing The Old Ones!”
In the sixties, Tim shared a flat with John Cleese and Graham Chapman, of Monty Python fame. “It was quite early in our careers and we weren’t ‘names’ at the time; it was a huge amount of fun and in hindsight we were just pathetic students, really,” he jokes.
Although Tim plays down his creative talents – “I was very nearly in the Pythons, but I don’t think my writing was good enough” – he is very proud of one particularly timeless sketch. It’s one that is still re-enacted by people in pubs, clubs, factories, offices and homes the country over when taking the mickey out of people showing off their working-class credentials.
“One of the sketches that I wrote with Marty [Feldman] to start with, and then Graham [Chapman] and John [Cleese] was the Four Yorkshiremen. When it’s described as a ‘Python sketch’ it gets me so angry!” Later that evening, as Tim is interviewed by broadcast journalist Chris Serle as part of Stratford Literary Festival, a clip is shown of the grainy black-and-white footage to the great delight of the audience – and possibly surprise to many – as proof of the roots of the sketch.
One of the shows that Tim is best known for these days is, of course, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue on Radio 4 which he’s guested on from the very beginning in 1972, shortly after The Goodies started. The ‘antidote to panel games’ consists of regulars such as Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer, and the delectable scorer, the lovely, though fictional, character of Samantha. Unfortunately the original chairman, the jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, with his wildly, hilariously outrageous double entendres, is no longer with us, but comedian Jack Dee has stepped into the role and made it his own. And, importantly, has carried on the baton of naughtily provocative comedy from Humph.
“We’ve had terrible trouble with the BBC about the show. Someone complained about Samantha – that it was being rude to women – and told us we had to be careful about this and to not do that… The writer who does Jack Dee’s links said ‘Well, in that case I’m leaving’, and Jack said ‘Well, I’m leaving, too’. It’s just so pathetic, as so many things are double entendre that kids don’t realise what we’re on about.
“And, of course it’s very sad that Humph and Willie Rushton are no longer with us, and they’ll never be replaced, but it’s still going, which is good. In fact, we’re nearing the end of a tour at the moment, which has been selling out within 20 minutes in some cases. The BBC has tried to stop us doing it, but don’t get me going on the BBC…”
As my allotted 20 minutes with Tim is rushing to a close – and, boy, did it rush – I simply have to share my joy of Kitten Kong with him. I tell him that, prior to coming out to see him today, I showed that particular episode to my two children to gauge their reaction to comedy from my youth, and am delighted when they hoot with laughter almost as loud as I do.
“Good girl,” he laughs, as he leaves to take the stage… and he most definitely has his second wind.
This interview by Candia McKormack is from the July 2014 issue of Cotswold Life
For more from Candia, follow her on Twitter: @CandiaMcKormack