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Authors: J. F. Roberts

Tags: #Humor, #General

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Lloyd was still performing at this time, but despite many offers to be on the microphone (or indeed in front of the camera, if he’d taken the job of being one of Esther Rantzen’s smug boys on
That’s Life
), he soon found that producing was not just his niche, but a passion. He did once admit: ‘I became a producer because Douglas was my best friend, he was obviously a better writer than me, and Griff was the comedy
star, obviously forty times as good an actor, so I got the sort of comedy cleaning-lady job, the sort of job that nobody else particularly wanted, but which had to be done.’ But on reflection, musing on the chance given to him by the late David Hatch, Lloyd adds, ‘He was such a supportive, energetic guy, he gave me my life’s motivation in a way, because he showed that it
was
a great thing to be the person behind the scenes. That it wasn’t a lesser thing to be the producer, but it was a noble and brave and difficult job, and that somebody has to do it, and you may as well do it well. And that’s sort of gone, really, to a large extent. Unless you’re a celeb, you don’t count these days – they don’t give a shit who the producer is.’

Given this chance, the now ex-comedy performer went at it with far more than aplomb. ‘I was only twenty-two, so I had lots of energy and got a lot of work done. By the mid-seventies I’d done
Just a Minute
and
Week Ending
and started
Quote Unquote
and
The News Huddlines
and
The News Quiz
. Around that time Douglas was offered a job, and suddenly everyone at the BBC was young! When I first went there everybody was wearing tweed suits and seemed to be about eighty, very sort of serious and lined.’ John had already made a name for himself head and shoulders above all the new interns, especially for his innovative eye for editing. ‘One thing that annoyed some of the producers in the department,’ he remembers, ‘I was the third of the producers of
Just a Minute
, and because David was always in a hurry, he used to give the show to an editor called Butcher Bert. Bert Fisher was known as the fastest editor in the BBC, famous for getting so annoyed with one young producer that he literally tied the quarter-inch tape together like a bootlace and put it through, and it was a perfect edit! When David edited he would just take out a round or something like that, so he could process more shows. And I thought I could do it another way, because I’m far more pedantic, and I used to edit it very tightly, take out coughs and “um”s and “er”s, and it used to drive this bloke Bert absolutely nuts. But it made the programme extremely tight. That’s a lesson I learned very young and I’ve always done it since.’
‘I got a review in
The Times
, I think, which began: “John Lloyd’s
Just a Minute
goes from strength to strength!” Giving a radio producer who would have been twenty-three, twenty-four, the credit in a national newspaper? Everyone was saying, “What the fuck’s he done to get all this credit? That doesn’t seem on.” But I ratcheted it up, and it started to get noticed a bit more.’

Besides the trailblazing production work, John continued to write like a machine, working with his struggling flatmate and others.
Week Ending
had amassed an army of writers who would go on to script some of the best comedy of the next few decades, from Cambridge graduates like Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin to grammar-school jokesmiths David Renwick and Andrew Marshall – creators, alongside John Mason, of cult radio sketch show
The Burkiss Way
, which was produced for one series by ‘John Lloyd of Europe’. Marshall and Renwick had first come across Lloyd and Adams when they were in the audience for the Adams–Smith–Adams undergraduate revue
The Patter of Tiny Minds
, which had briefly played in London, with Lloyd and his girlfriend, Mary Allen, fleshing out the cast.

Of all these early connections, John’s close and complicated comradeship with Douglas has been the most widely examined and discussed over the years. Adams entered a postgraduation malaise in the late seventies, which was barely helped by his ambitious fraternising with the
Python
team, stepping in to be one of Chapman’s collaborators after Cleese left the TV show, co-creating the aborted Chapman sketch show
Out of the Trees
and an unmade TV special for a real Beatle,
The Ringo Starr Show
. But these exciting inroads to showbiz all seemed to lead to a dead end.

During this early stage of their careers John and Douglas shared a flat owned by another of Chapman’s script facilitators, Bernard McKenna, and a hard day’s slog at BBC Radio’s Light Entertainment HQ at Aeolian House for John would often culminate with attempts to gee up his morose giant of a friend, working together on pitches for
TV shows such as
Sno 7 and the White Dwarfs
. This sci-fi sitcom pilot concerned a couple of astrophysicists in an observatory on the top of Mount Everest who discover that an intergalactic advertising agency aim to write a slogan across the galaxy in supernovae – ‘Things Go Better With Bulp!’ – with Earth selected as the full stop. The space slogan was an idea which would eventually be used by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor in their
Red Dwarf
novels, but back in the late seventies the BBC considered science fiction to be ‘too fifties’, and the idea was canned. As Lloyd told Neil Gaiman in 2002, ‘The idea was minimum casting, minimum number of sets, and we’d just try to sell the series on cheapness. That failed to come to anything.’ The same fate awaited a movie treatment the duo wrote for Robert Stigwood, in which a hostile alien race challenges our planet in a series of feats taken from
The Guinness Book of Records
– but at least they got a holiday in Corfu out of sketching that one out (which was only slightly marred by the dashing Lloyd ending up with his friend’s hoped-for love interest).

You couldn’t blame Lloyd for needing a holiday – even a working one. Few people in BBC history had established themselves quite so rapidly and impressively – and it all came down to his ferocious work ethic at this time. Perhaps the most telling capsule of this stage of Lloyd’s career was mockingly quoted in Nick Webb’s official Adams biography,
Wish You Were Here
– while his contemporaries blundered into post-grad life, Lloyd’s usual patter was along the lines of ‘I’m so, so jealous that you have time to offer me a beer. If only I could. Such an enviable quality of life – a moment to oneself to think. Oh God. I have at least a hundred programmes to produce, and three attractive women to juggle.’

Yet despite having graduated from campus to corporation, this comedic whirling dervish still set aside time to be up in Edinburgh every August. Lloyd’s name was usually somewhere in smallish print on Footlights Fringe shows for a good while after he’d graduated, including being director of 1975’s
Paradise Mislaid
(starring Rhys Jones of course,
whose sister was now Lloyd’s girlfriend). In the following year he and Adams formed a team with the creators of
The Burkiss Way
, to put on a show called
The Unpleasantness at Brodie’s Close
. Crammed into a tiny room in a Masonic hall, the team (minus Marshall, who was teaching) fitted a bizarre array of sketches around the framework of a
Brief Encounter
-esque meeting in a train station between two lovers who keep getting interrupted. The cast were responsible for everything, even making the props, and had a reasonable smash with it, packing audiences in beyond fire safety regulations. They even left Edinburgh with £10 profit each.

However, the following year, while at the Fringe as part of his duties producing Radio 2 arts programme
Late Night Extra
, John was witness to the red-hot response given to a show put on by a small team from Oxford just round the corner from Brodie’s Close, and had to concede that there were performers out there who came from a completely different universe. Having exhausted himself laughing at this student revue, he was determined to meet its star, convinced he could well have found the equal of Chaplin.

RICHARD WHALLEY ANTHONY CURTIS
B
ORN
: 8 November 1956, Wellington, New Zealand
Richard Curtis’s father was a self-made man, an Italian resident in Czechoslovakia who anglicised his name from ‘Anton Cecutte’ to the respectable-sounding ‘Tony Curtis’ – a year or so before the Hollywood star became a household name. As an executive at Unilever, Tony and his wife Glyness travelled the world, and Richard, the first of two sons, happened to be born during a sojourn in New Zealand.
The Curtis family’s next home was Manila, where young
Richard developed an American accent, and first became aware that his relatively cosseted existence was not shared by everyone. ‘Every day as my driver took me back to my house with a swimming pool I could see huge slums with people living under corrugated-iron roofs.’ More importantly, he was shown how to try and do something about such inequality. ‘My mum cancelled Christmas in 1968. No presents. No special food. We gave all the money to the Biafra appeal. I was thrilled because it meant I could watch
Top of the Pops
, which was normally spoiled by Christmas lunch lasting forever.’
After Manila came Stockholm, and then only at the age of eleven did Curtis permanently take up residence in the UK, moving with the family to Folkestone, then Warrington, before being sent to Papplewick School in Ascot. Shortly after, he won a scholarship to the exalted establishment of Harrow, where the bright pupil was made head boy: ‘I think I was put there as a sort of antidote to every other head of school, because I was known to be very left wing, if there is such a thing at Harrow.’ Certainly, during Curtis’s tenure the ancient practice of fagging was finally abolished – and swiftly reinstated after he left for Oxford.
Although theatre became his passion, young Richard’s main preoccupation during his schooldays was, he admits, a desire to be a Beatle. ‘From the age of about six, music was my life… In about 1963, bad babysitters started bringing pop records into the house – the Supremes, the Beatles and, since we were living in Sweden, the Hepstars and, my particular favourite, Ola & the Janglers – and my life changed forever.’ When his own rock group, Versus, flunked the only gig they ever had by chickening out of introducing rock to the staid Harrow Concert, Curtis decided his future pointed towards the stage. He was only half right …

P
UCK
W
ILL
M
AKE
A
MENDS

In the autumn of 1975 Richard Curtis, a softly-spoken bespectacled English scholar with a riot of fair curly hair like two rhododendron bushes very close together, arrived in Oxford, burning to act. ‘I started off working hard in the first term,’ he says, ‘but then realised that didn’t seem to be strictly necessary. I had a very good time, just enjoying myself with friends. I made most of my best friends for life.’

His experiences onstage at Harrow may not have been the most convincing presages of thespian greatness, but he did have the balls to go beyond the traditional school Shakespeare production (in which he tended to play women, in badly fitting wigs) to stage
The Erpingham Camp
– surely the first time that any Joe Orton play was performed at Harrow, let alone the playwright’s most pointed work, attacking organised religion and authority in general. When he enrolled to study English at Christ Church college, Curtis was convinced that the extracurricular theatrical opportunities offered by the celebrated Oxford University Dramatic Society would finally allow him to make his mark. ‘All the greats lay before me,’ he recalled. ‘I was ready for Pinter, I was ready for Beckett, my Macbeth was bursting to come out in all its bloody horror …’

His first experience with OUDS was not encouraging – while the actor Hugh Quarshie earned plaudits playing the title role in
Othello
, Curtis was initially cast as ‘Clown’. A stroke of luck came when that part was cut and he was given a few lines as ‘Third Gentleman’ in the storm scene, but sadly the storm was so loud it drowned out all the dialogue. ‘The director said our inaudibility was a brilliant metaphor for something,’ Curtis said. ‘I have forgotten what.’ Undeterred, the young thesp spent his first few terms diligently turning up to every audition he saw advertised. ‘In
Twelfth Night
, I was cast as Fabian, a character who makes Clown look important. I got a good part in
French Without Tears
but the production was cancelled. Everything else, I came away empty-handed, while handsome boys with chiselled jaws and hints of dark sexuality got every part.’

BOOK: The True History of the Blackadder
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