Saturday, 4 April 2015

That Was the Week – Part 2

The comedy factory that was Week Ending proved to be one of the most enduring programmes in Radio 4’s history and helped launch the careers of hundreds of comedy writers. It first aired forty-five years ago today.    

The roll-call of scriptwriters who ventured into the famous writers’ room is formidable and includes Pete Spence, Guy Jenkin, Andy Hamilton, Colin Bostock-Smith, Ian Brown, Richard Quick, Alistair Beaton, John Langdon, James Hendrie, Barry Pilton, Simon Bullivant, David Renwick, Steve Punt, Ian Pattinson, John O’ Farrell, Simon Brett, Rob Newman, David Baddiel, Richard Herring and Stewart Lee to name but twenty!
But how did it all start? BBC television had ridden the wave of topical satirical comedy in the early 60s but by the end of the decade had gone cold on the idea. BBC radio’s Listen to this Space had enjoyed a successful four series run but its star Nicholas Parsons was now controlling proceedings on Just a Minute.

Meanwhile Radio 4 controller Tony Whitby was having to reshape his schedules to accommodate the re-alignment of the station’s output in accordance with the Broadcasting in the Seventies policy and he let it be known that he wanted a ‘light’ Saturday night show. Comedy producer David Hatch came up with the proposal for a review of the previous seven days “featuring comic sketches performed by a band of actors, punctuated with quick-fire gags and devoid of a studio audience”. The programme’s title was What You Missed.
Hatch, working alongside co-producer Simon Brett, pulled together a show that featured members of the BBC’s Drama Rep (1) and a young comedy writer called Peter Spence who’d previously written for Les Dawson, Crackerjack and the Quiz of the Week. Tony Whitby was also drafting in some TV names to front some of his new shows – Richard Baker on Start the Week and Robert Robinson on Stop the Week – so Nationwide’s Michael Barrett was picked to host What You Missed.

By the time the pilot was recorded on 23 January 1970 the programme had been re-titled Week Ending. (2) From the start some of Week Ending’s now familiar elements were in place: the short news gags that would later develop into the pithy ‘newslines’ and the look at next week’s news. (3)

The pilot was a success and the series got the full go-ahead, kicking off at 23.05 on Saturday 4 April 1970. That first show, of which no recordings exist (4), also introduced another element to the format, the Week Ending theme tune known as Smokey Joe, a piece of library music that would bookend the show for the next twelve years.

Although Tony Whitby had foist Michael Barrett onto the producers he wasn’t that happy with his performance, but then neither was Barrett who felt out of place: “I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to do it deadpan and straight or whether I was supposed to turn myself into a comic.”  As it happened the production team got the opportunity for a re-think when a General Election was called in May and the programme pulled from the schedules – a fate it would endure until 1987 when it did continue throughout the election campaign.  
Week Ending returned to the airwaves in June 1970 initially with Graeme Garden acting as host. But by 1971 the programme was now talking on its familiar sound and feel with less reliance on the Drama Rep and with David Jason, Bill Wallis and later that year Nigel Rees taking on the multitude of gags, sketches and impersonations. The reliance on actors was very much Week Ending’s modus operandi, in contrast to today’s topical comedy shows.

David Jason has found fame in the 1960s on ITV’s Do Not Adjust You Set but his radio work, mainly in the 1970s, is overlooked. He was a superb mimic and as well as his Week Ending work – he stayed with the show until 1983 – he was a regular on TheImpressionists and starred in four series of The Jason Explanation alongside Sheila Steafel and Jon Glover.
Bill Wallis had come up through the Footlights route – together with Robin Ray and Joe Melia he’d been in the substitute cast of Beyond the Fringe when the original cast toured the States – and had appeared in several TV productions in the 1960s. (5) Bill would be the longest-serving of the Week Ending cast, appearing until 1992, though by then he was doing fewer and fewer shows. “I did become very grumpy” he admitted. He was known for railing against some of the more outré sketch ideas. In October 1990 the programme supposedly took the form of a magazine and a Peter Baynham-penned script called for Wallis to play the staples in the centrefold. “I don’t do staples, I do Gorbachev!” he bellowed off-mic.

Nigel Rees’s appointment was a little more unusual. At the time he was more familiar to radio listeners as a reporter on Today, The World at One and Movie-Go-Round and he’d previously worked at Granada and ITN. But from his days at Oxford, and more particularly, performing in various Oxford revues he’d met Simon Brett and it was he who invited Nigel to join Week Ending, where he remained until 1976 – just in time for The Burkiss Way and devise Quote … Unquote.
For most of the 1970s and 1980s Week Ending retained a core cast of four. Joining in 1976 was David Tate, another stalwart he remained with the show until 1993. A year later saw the recruitment of the first regular female member, Sheila Steafel, who stayed until 1982. This meant, at the very least, that Nigel Rees or David Tate no longer had to ‘do’ the Queen or Margaret Thatcher.  When Sheila left she was replaced by Tracey Ullman. (6) But in 1983 Sally Grace joined the programme, intitally for just two weeks whilst Ullman was in America, but she remained a fixture until the final edition some fifteen years later.

From that period here’s the tenth anniversary show from 4 April 1980. The cast are David Jason, Bill Wallis, David Tate and Sheila Steafel. It starts off with a rather different version of the sig tune.

From a couple of years later this edition aired on 30 April 1982 just a few weeks into the Falklands War. Performing on this occasion are David Tate, Chris Emmett, Sheila Steafel and Jon Glover. My recording comes from the Saturday repeat as, for some reason, two sketches were cut from the original transmission. 

There was considerable cross-over with Radio 2’s topical comedy show The News Huddlines (more of which in a future post) amongst the writers but the man providing the impressions on Huddlines, Chris Emmett, also had a 20-year association with Week Ending.  There was also some cross-over with ITV’s Spitting Image. Chris worked on some episodes as did other Week Ending voices Jon Glover (1980-98) and Alistair McGowan (1989-93).  By the 1990s there were usually three regulars plus one ‘other’, too numerous to list here. The ‘regulars’ though included Toby Longworth (1993-96), Jeffrey Holland (1993-96), Dave Lamb (1994-98) and Sarah Parkinson (1997-98).
With a voracious appetite for topical sketches and one-liners Week Ending employed an open door policy for writers, the first programme to do so. By 1977 there was a Writers’ Room at 16 Langham Street where every Wednesday budding comedy writers could pitch their ideas alongside the small number of commissioned writers. Added to this absolutely anyone could send in their newslines and experience the thrill of hearing their joke make it to air and their name added to the ever lengthening end credits.  

As well as providing a training ground for comedy writers Week Ending also saw its fair share of producers, 49 in all during its full run. Many went on to become recognised names in radio and TV comedy: Paul Mayhew-Archer, Paul Spence, Griff Rhys-Jones, Geoffrey Perkins, Jimmy Mulville, John Lloyd, Bill Dare, Jan Ravens, Harry Thompson, David Tyler, Sarah Smith, Armando Iannucci and so on.

In later years there was something a revolving door policy on producers, much to the ire of the regular performers. Whilst in part this was radio policy to let producers learn the ropes it also reflected the need for the show to remain fresh and also to encourage the use of new talent on air too. Sally Grace recalled that “there was one week when I had three people with L-plates on. They were friends of the producer, who fancied having a go. One was a dentist. Another actually said, ‘Do I speak when the green light some on?’” (7)

To celebrate the programme’s twentieth anniversary producer Jon Magnusson and scriptwriter Bill Matthews compiled the two-part documentary for Radio 4 titled Two Decades of Weekending (sic). Providing the links was Sir David Steel, who had himself been the butt of several jokes on the series, especially during the SDP-Liberal alliance period with David Owen. Part one was first heard on 31 August 1990.   

For such a long-running show Week Ending rarely courted controversy but it hit the headlines in 1980 when it lampooned the tabloid newspaper editor Derek Jameson in a Man of the Week skit written by John Langdon. Describing him as “the archetypal East End by made bad”, “a nitty-gritty titivation tout” and a man “who is to journalism what lockjaw is to conversation and who still believes that erudite is a glue.” Jameson sued the BBC for libel. When it came to court four years later the jury found the sketch innocent fun and fair comment and so he lost the case and ended up paying £75,000 in legal costs.  Jameson never got over that “character assassination” as he recalls in the second part of Two Decades of Weekending first broadcast on 7 September 1990.  (8)

Over the years Week Ending itself was subject to parody, some good humoured mickey-taking and some with a bit more edge. Here are four examples. The first from a 1980 episode of The Burkiss Way has fun with Week Ending’s by now familiar recital of writers in the end credits. Both Andrew Marshall and David Renwick wrote for Week Ending and, of course, Chris Emmett who reads out the names (most of which are genuine) worked on both. Plus there’s Jo Kendall apologising for the “somewhat unwarranted outburst. In future, the closing credits on Week Ending will be kept considerably shorter … by reading out the names of the people who listen to it”.  
The second clip is also from a 1980, an episode of Injury Time, one of the programmes that occupied Week Ending’s time slot whilst it took a summer break. You’ll detect that the writer, probably Rory McGrath, may not have been entirely happy with his Week Ending experience. As well as another go at the end credits there are digs at the programme’s well established sketch formula: the Father and Son routine in which the offspring ask increasingly precocious and complicated questions on a news story and the A&B where the listener eavesdrops on two men in a pub (originally Jason and Wallis) picking apart a story and usually ending with the catchphrase “Well, this is it”. Appearing here with McGrath are Jimmy Mulville, Martin Bergman and Robert Bathurst. (9)

The third clip is from a more affectionate look at the programme, and indeed the whole of the network, A Day in the Life of Radio 4. The cast were all Week Ending alumni: Russell Davies (who provided this script), Chris Emmett, Sally Grace and Sheila Steafel. It was broadcast on 3 September 1983, though my recording was made of the 29 December repeat.
And finally Chris Morris couldn’t resist having a pop at the programme in a 1991 episode of On the Hour. In practice the Thank God It’s Satire Day sketch was more than likely written by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, again former Week Ending contributors. The nonsensical closing credits are written and performed by Morris. 

Regular listeners to Week Ending will remember the theme tunes, Smokey Joe and that classic piece of 80s pop Party Fears Two, both of which feature in the recordings I’ve posted. But there were, in fact, four themes during the programme’s run.
Smokey Joe played by Small-Group Jazz used between April 1970 and April 1982
Party Fears Two by the Associates used between May 1982 and July 1993 
Week Ending Signature Tune specially composed by Richard Attree with a newsy feel to it. Used from September 1993 to July 1997
Week Ending Signature Tune composed by Richie Webb and Matt Katz with a more funky news style used from October 1997 to April 1998

Sunday Times 24 September 1989
Somewhat unusually Week Ending also made brief appearances over on Radio 2, popping up on some celebratory comedy/light entertainment shows. Here are a couple of examples. First David Jason, David Tate, Sheila Steafel and Bill Wallis join Roy Hudd on The Light Entertainment Show from October 1982. The second clip comes from a live programme hosted by David Frost in September 1988 to mark 21 years of Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, The Radio Show, Radio Show. Appearing here are Sally Grace, David Tate and Jon Glover.

By the early 1990s the series was beginning to struggle and there were threats that the plug would be pulled. The high turnover of producers didn’t help and cast veterans Bill Wallis and David Tate had moved on. In 1993 Gareth Edwards was brought in as Executive Producer and the show got something of a re-launch. Edwards tackled the issue of a vast number of writers on small commissions that had led to a lack of commitment and direction in the Writers’ Room. The regular cast members were now Sally Grace, the recognised star of the show, with Jeffrey Holland (Hi-de-Hi’s Spike Dixon) and Toby Longworth.

New network controllers inevitably mean schedule changes and the incoming James Boyle (arriving in late 1996) would cut a swathe through Radio 4’s programmes. By July 1997 Week Ending was already earmarked as being for the chop and the obituaries were written before the last series started in the October. A number of established programmes were dropped and others re-timed. The supposed replacement for Week Ending was the Sunday night show The Beaton Generation in which “Alistair Beaton hosts a satirical comedy discussion programme”. It ran for 12 weeks. (10)
The final edition, Week Ending Ending, aired on 3 April 1998 with the Saturday repeat going out exactly 28 years after the first broadcast.  Here’s that final show complete with a re-appearance of David Hatch and a production credit for Jonathan James-Moore, by then Head of Radio Light Entertainment.

And that is the end of next week’s news. In the next post in this series I recall The News Huddlines.

Week Ending
1132 episodes broadcast over 83 series between 4 April 1970 and 3 April 1998.
Plus 147 specials such as Year Ending and compilation shows for the BBC World Service broadcast either annually or monthly under the Two Cheers for … banner.

Additional reading:
Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me-A History of Week Ending by Ian Graves & Justin Lewis (Kaleidoscope Publishing 2008)

With thanks to Charles Rooke.
1:  Sean Arnold, Geoffrey Collins, Garard Green and Frederick Treves all featured in the pilot episode.
2: The World at One presenter William Hardcastle also appeared in the first episode.
3: This feature, always prefaced “And Now Here is Next’s Week’s News” was eventually dropped in 1991.
4: For the first ten years only 25 complete episodes exist in the BBC Sound Archives.
5: Spot him in a couple of episodes of The Avengers.
6: Alison Steadman also appeared during 1983, yet another News Huddlines crossover.
7: I’ve not been able to establish who Sally is referring to here.
8: The BBC made it up to Derek Jameson by employing him on Radio 2’s Breakfast Show a couple of years after the court case.
9: Injury Time also featured Emma Thompson in the cast though she’s not heard in this clip.
10: Radio 4 listeners didn’t have to wait too long for a topical comedy show as The Now Show launched in October 1998.


Andrew said...

Andy, do you happen to know which library Smokey Joe is on, please?

Andy Walmsley said...

I have a copy of Smokey Joe on the Cd 'Lost in Transmission' from Winchester Hospital Radio. Sleeve suggests JW Media own the rights.

Andrew said...

Thanks Andy. I've got most of Steven's CDs - but not that one. :-(

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