Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Lunatic Fringe

Nowadays, working in children's television is a recognised career move for a young actor. Something to get one's face out there, to prepare the ground for a professionally planned assault on stardom proper. Not so long ago though, it was more something you fell into by accident, often as a result of a chaotic stint in the wayward world of fringe theatre. In many cases, this made for an altogether more interesting brand of telly nutter. Here are a few familiar faces who found themselves doing teatime duty after an agitprop apprenticeship.


Lanky Shared Experience Theatre Company alumnus Bob Goody and the eternally underrated Mel Smith were the toast of the Traverse Theatre at the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe with 'Ave You 'Eard the One About Joey Baker?, their two-man play about the life of a failing stand-up comedian. Soon they were augmented by Peter Brewis, musical pasticheur extraordinaire, for a further three productions, including the award-winning Irony in Dorking and The Gambler, a low rent musical riposte to Kenny Rogers. Smith and Brewis, of course, joined the Not the Nine O'Clock News team in 1979, but the following year they were reunited with Goody for a knockabout kids' sketch show for Thames TV, designed to promote reading among children “who do not habitually borrow, buy or have access to books”. A show aimed specifically at the young working classes, in other words (which is a whole YCDTOTA category in itself). Thus, if Flat Stanley was under review, Bob would find himself flattened by Mel and popped in the post. Regular features included Read of the Week, library-based mayhem and inept cookery duo The Two Ronalds. Nancy Banks-Smith applauded the programme, particularly its refreshing lack of patronising “don't try this at home” post-slapstick admonishment. Two series and a Christmas special, Smith and Goody on Ice, followed before the duo went their separate ways, Mel into straight acting and another partnership with that Griff chap, Goody into Patrick Barlow's National Theatre of Brent and Toyah-featuring teen sketch show Dear Heart.


As the caretaker in Take Hart, with pained saturnine grin, council tie askew and paint bucket on foot, Colin Bennett's harmlessly wacky portrayal gave no hint as to his manic former life. He trained, respectably enough, at RADA, graduating as Most Promising Actor of 1973. Various roles followed, from the usual pantomime dame postings to snazzier fare like the original British production of Chicago. On the writing side, he was behind the Mermaid Theatre's adaptation of Harry Nilsson's weird concept album fable The Point. From there, it was only a short leap to penning some of the freakier entries in the early '80s children's TV canon, like Captain Zep: Space Detective, the interstellar whodunit with the felt tip-backgrounds, and Luna, a language-mangling sci-fi comedy starring Patsy Kensit as a slime-originated teenage clone. It all makes perfect sense.


Former insurance salesman Kent Smith was dispensing tickets at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm when Ken Campbell came looking for a replacement member of his urban myth Roadshow. Renamed Sylveste McCoy (the 'r' was added later to escape a thirteen-letter-name curse) and expecting debonair actorly activities, he instead fell into a touring routine of nails hammered up the nose, ferrets plonked down the trousers and bombs exploded on his chest. Such human tortures more than prepared McCoy for the physical exertions of Tiswas, Vision On, Eureka! and more. (Campbell himself would arrive late on the kids' TV scene, playing the title role, alongside his own dog, in ITV's weird dramatised Johnny Ball-esque science show Erasmus Microman.)


The rubber-limbed silent clown of Vision On learnt his craft from maverick theatre impresario Keith Johnstone, whose rather demented actor's guide Impro was a formative influence on many off-the-cuff performers, including John Sessions. Spotted by producer Clive Doig, he fitted right into the crazy, friendly yet slightly unnerving atmos of The 'On, before going on to some solo kids' specials and a stint as a sort of freeform action acting guru at RADA, teaching among others the young Michael Sheen. Johnstone's Theatre Machine also featured performance artist Roddy Maude-Roxby, who would much later become lead presenter of the Beeb's high concept sci-fi Saturday morning flop Parallel 9.


More mime! Hedley first came to prominence with a technically perfect one-man mime extravaganza at the Roundhouse in 1977, before silently accompanying everyone from Lena Zavaroni and Paul Nicholas on Broadway (in a revue which won that coveted award, the Silver Sea-Swallow of Knokke) to pre-lager-ad alternative duo The Oblivion Boys as part of Bryan Izzard's comedy showcase Book 'em an' Risk It, demonstrating his one-man Milk Tray commercial in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. After that came a top-hatted turn in the Clive Doig-devised BBC wordplay showcase Jigsaw, and a long and venerable career in children's TV production beckoned.

As the Conservative government slashed subsidies, the fringe died slowly on its dungaree-clad arse. Alternative comedy provided a few bright lights for the children's market – Tony Robinson moved from Who Dares Wins, a Channel Four sketch show of variable quality, to Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden, a surreal alfresco Jackanory baiter with never a dull moment. This baton was picked up a few years later by Absolutely's Morwenna Banks for the similarly extemporised storytelling relay Jellyneck.

By and large, though, the main route into underage cathode ray entertainment was via the stage school which, the occasional Pauline Quirke notwithstanding, tended to knock off any actor's rough edges at an early stage. Perhaps the last gasp of the fringe-to-front-room tradition were Trev and Simon, who brought some badly-needed dementia to the Beeb's increasingly formulaic Saturday mornings. Is there substance without subsidy? Not on this evidence.

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