Interview with Tim Brooke-Taylor
PUBLISHED: 11:53 15 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:53 15 April 2020
Actor, writer and comedian Tim Brooke-Taylor – patriotic coward in the Goodies; regular panellist on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – has known them all: John Cleese, Peter Cook, Humphrey Lyttelton, Eric Morecambe... Sparky, the smooth-haired Border Terrier. Katie Jarvis asked her own comedy hero how it feels to be a comedy hero
Editor’s note: We were so very sorry to hear of the death of the very wonderful Tim Brooke-Taylor from Covid-19. Here is Katie Jarvis’ interview with him for our May issue conducted only a few weeks before. Rest in peace, Tim.
Yes, yes, yes. I know. I know! You were expecting me to start this Tim Brooke-Taylor interview with something about the Goodies. About how he turned up to see me on a trandem (we spoke on the phone, actually), accompanied by a 200-foot kitten. About the Union Jack waistcoat he was wearing. And how distracting it was to conduct the entire interview to a booming soundtrack of Land of Hope and Glory.
(And I will tell you about all that. Have faith!)
But, actually, I want to start with Sparky. Not because the story I’m about to tell – that Tim Brooke-Taylor told me – is particularly insightful. (Look. It was a half-hour interview. Don’t expect Daniel Kahneman.) But because I absolutely loved it.
So, here we go:
As a child, Tim Brooke-Taylor’s best friend was Sparky, a smooth-haired Border Terrier who one day – much to Tim’s distress - completely vanished. Not a sausage; not a trace.
When the local paper ran a story about this very loved (but missing) pet, all sorts of people came forward with unexpected anecdotes; things the family had never even suspected. “Like a bus conductor said Sparky used to get on the bus at Buxton, get off at Bakewell; the bus went on to Derby, came back, and he’d get on the bus again.”
Now we cut to a year later, when Tim is 12 and out with some friends at Belle Vue funfair (at the time, Manchester’s version of Disney World) (though more Manchester-y).
“And, suddenly,” Tim recalls, “running towards me was Sparky! We both knew each other instantly.” The thing was, Sparky was wearing a nametag with a name that wasn’t his, along with a strange address.
“So my mother and brother went to the next-door-neighbours [of this new address], with a photograph of Sparky, and said, ‘Have you seen this dog?’ They said, ‘Oh, yes! Our neighbours found him in Buxton last year!’ And so he came home.”
Not that that was the last of the Sparky revelations. “I went to boarding school at one stage. When I came home, I went with Sparky to the biscuit counter in Woolworth’s and they said, ‘Oh, Sparky, there you are! You’re normally here at 10.’ He’d got a little fat tummy and he’d look at people with, ‘I haven’t eaten for days!’”
(I told you you’d like this story.)
“I’ll tell you what was really annoying. When he was found, he made the front page of the local paper - and I didn’t get a mention! He was called ‘Lucky’ on his new collar.”
Which was a fair description.
“Yes. ’Very’ should have been added.”
“How does it feel,” I ask my comedy hero, in the way that you ask your comedy heroes, “to be a comedy hero?”
And (oh my goodness) he is a comedy hero.
I mean, OK. I missed the really early stuff. Like On the Braden Beat (in which Tim played a to-the-right-of Genghis Khan/Rees-Mogg (if that’s possible) city gent): “I went into a pub once and heard them saying about my character, ‘Be fair! He talks a lot of sense!’ That was so depressing.”
Or the At Last the 1948 Show (please do Google the black-and-white sketch where readers in a library crossly ‘shush’ a policeman chasing a thief round the tables).
But the Goodies! I literally still laugh remembering the punch-line to the End of the World episode (*spoiler alert; skip to ** to avoid. (Though good luck finding it, other than in a box set. The BBC – for reasons that baffle everyone – won’t repeat the Goodies)). It’s the one where Christmas Eve in the Goodies household is interrupted by a radio announcement that the world is going to end in 27-and-a-half minutes, at midnight.
Graeme pragmatically arranges to celebrate Christmas at 11.56pm (and unnecessarily reveals to Tim that the Muppets aren’t real). Bill organises a self-indulgent orgy. And Tim cries.
As they gather to watch the clock strike midnight… Nothing happens! And Graeme starts to laugh uproariously.
Cue: the other two realising, with untold relief, that he’s played a trick on them.
And Graeme has! He’s moved the clock forward half a minute.
** “Actually, it’s very interesting you’ve picked that one,” Tim says. “Because when people ask me what are my favourites, it’s the ones where we’re locked in a room. Basically, at the end of every series, we’d run out of money for filming on sets and so we had to do it in the office. That made it much more verbal and characterful.”
And, of course, there’s the incomparable I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The radio comedy that started in 72 and has been clueless ever since. (“Samantha has to nip out now as she’s got a new job working in the sound archive as the manager. It’s her first day, so apparently she’s going to give a speech in the back room and hand jobs out in the office.”)
It has even survived the sad death of the incomparable Humph.
Talking of which, how did Mrs Trellis get on with a change of presenter? Does she like Jack Dee?
“She won’t speak to him at all.”
Not a word?
“Not at all. That’s the Welsh for you… I didn’t say that; you did.”
Oh! Nearly forgot my opening question! So how does it feel? To be a comedy hero?
“I think the answer is slightly mixed. Because it’s lovely when people recognise me. But then rather elderly people say, ‘I used to be allowed to stay up to watch you’.”
It’s funny (odd, not ha-ha) how many anarchic comedians started life so very, very conventionally. You know: parents who were bankers, insurance salesmen, solicitors. Packed off to boarding school, then on to Oxbridge.
Is there something in that, I ask Tim Brooke-Taylor (son of a coroner; mother a former international lacrosse player).
“Well, that’s possibly so… if you can take it on logically rather than just being mad, if you see what I mean. I used to write for Spike Milligan and he was slightly out of control. Like the last show, he didn’t even turn up.
“But he was also brilliant.”
Tim once wrote a sketch for him about a peer of the realm living in a council house, shooting at china birds flying up the wall. “Then Spike wrote in a bit where a butler came out of a cupboard and said, ‘Time for your heart attack, sir’. I would never have written that but it was a touch of stupid genius that made me laugh.”
I say ‘conventional’; but that’s slightly unfair. Isn’t it true that Tim was expelled from primary school at the age of five-and-a-half?
“My mother said, ‘You weren’t expelled, dear. You were asked to leave.’ It was basically because I was one of only two boys there. The rest were girls – on Thursdays, we even had to go and be Brownies. But we were very naughty. One of us was usually sent out of the room each day.”
It sounds a happy childhood – one of three children – in a family of sporting prowess. His grandfather, Francis Pawson, was a footballer who played centre-forward for England in the 1880s; and Tim had his own share of success as a bowler in the school cricket team.
But that security was shattered when his dad died suddenly, aged just 59.
Mr Brooke-Taylor senior had fought and been injured in the First World War; a Colonel in the Home Guard during the Second. “Very much a leader. He died at a Sherwood Foresters’ dinner [an infantry regiment of the British Army] which he was speaking at. It was awful.
“What impressed me almost more than anything else with him was that, next door to us, there was a POW camp. I would talk to the Germans over our fence and they would make toys for me.
“[My dad] invited some of them over for Christmas lunch. Now, he had been fighting them. I thought, ‘Gosh! That’s amazing’.
“I’m just very sad that I didn’t really know him.”
As a result, Tim was sent off to boarding school, aged 13 – the exclusive Winchester, paid for by a well-meaning uncle. His mother took on a job as matron at a different boarding school, so that their holidays would coincide.
Goodness, though. Effectively losing everyone at once. That must have been terrible.
“It was ghastly. And going to a school where I didn’t know a single person… Winchester was a great school but it was quite tough on me to start with. Of course, after a shortish time, you make friends, and they become close friends. Sadly, nearly all of them have died young.”
If you want an impression of his wonderful mum, then I’ve another story for you. Cut to October 64 when Cambridge Circus (a Cambridge University Footlights revue that launched some glittering Python and Goodies careers) opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York. Tim’s excited mum flew over, along with her sister, to see him in it. On meeting the distinguished impresario Sol Hurok, who had booked them, Mrs B-T decided she should put the great man at his ease.
Patting him on the wrist, she said, “I’m sure it’ll be all right, Mr Hurok, because Tim’s quite worried, and when he’s worried he’s always done well – just the same with exams at school.”
“She had no idea who he was but it was really funny.”
He’s such a nice chap, Tim Brooke-Taylor. So easy to talk to. And he’s known them all. So many of the greats. Studied law with John Cleese at Cambridge - who generously supplied him with lecture notes (Tim was too busy being president of the Footlights to go). And whose hunch about exam questions paid dividends.
“He told me, ‘They’re bound to ask this question. And the first question in the exam was the one John was anticipating. As we weren’t sitting far apart - B for Brooke-Taylor and C for Cleese – I was able to put my thumb up and say thank you!”
“So you owe him.”
“Don’t tell him that.”
Then there was the startling-eyed genius Marty Feldman, a good friend, who got him posh tickets – sitting close to the Queen – at the 66 World Cup. “I was able to give my standing ones to John Cleese and Eric Idle.”
“Yes, but John can stand in a crowd quite easily.”
Peter Cook: one of Tim’s own great comedy heroes. “I didn’t know him very well. I did play golf with him once and he would just ad-lib when you talked with him. He would ring me up late at night sometimes, and I’d be giggling away.”
“Everything you want to believe about him was true. As a teenager, I went and danced to his band in Buxton. I’m looking up at this tall man and being so impressed because he was funny. He played the trumpet brilliantly. I thought – Gosh; it would be wonderful to meet that man. Little did I know later on I’d work him.”
And the utterly wonderful Eric Morecambe.
“In the 70s, when our sons were seven and five, we went to Portugal. Eric and his family were there, including an adopted son who was between the ages of ours, so we met up a few times. And there was a moment on the beach, when I was swimming in the sea. Up out of the water – the Goodies was being shown in Portugal at the time – came a beautiful girl. She followed me all the way up the beach to Eric. And she said, ‘You Goodies!’
“Quick as a flash, Eric said, ‘No, he’s very baddish’.
“So clever. It was as quick as that.”
What Tim will be watching during lockdown:
1 Buster Keaton films: “Enduring comedy. I wasn’t too keen on Charlie Chaplin, but Buster Keaton I could relate to. [Normally] it’s rather sad if you sit at home watching a film, so I haven’t actually watched my Buster Keaton collection properly yet.”
2 Mrs Brown’s Boys: “I’m one of the few people who think Mrs Brown’s Boys has some good stuff in it. It’s a bit repetitious now; but seeing him [Brendan O’Carroll] doing stand-up as her at a charity event was absolutely fantastic. It reminded me exactly of the dames in the pantomimes I used to love.”
3 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [Quentin Tarantino film, 2019, featuring a ‘fictionalised’ Sharon Tate. In real life, Sharon, an actress married to director Roman Polanski, was murdered by the Manson family in 1969; she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant]:
“I’ve got a DVD of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that I hardly dare watch. It’s a very sad thing, but I was in a film with Sharon a long time ago, and we got to know each other very well.
“The film we were in started as the Thirteen Chairs but, because of opposition, became 12+1. I played a camp young man – I was reminded, watching it recently, that there’s a scene where I’m leaving my boyfriend, Willie Rushton.
“The film was not great but it’s a name-dropping film; I rewrote a scene with Orson Welles who I’d worked with before and we performed it together.
“It was filmed in Italy, and my wife – who was pregnant at the time – came out. She wasn’t feeling well, but she was reassured, ‘Oh, don’t worry, because Sharon is feeling exactly the same’. I hadn’t known Sharon was pregnant.
“She was such a sweet girl; I still think about her.”
4 The Goodies box set: Katie’s suggestion (Tim’s far too modest). Why won’t the BBC give us Goodies repeats? We need to know!