Authors: Robert Llewellyn
Tags: #Biography, #Memoir
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Dan, Justin and John
When I first published this book back in 1994, I felt a little anxious that was just jumping on the
bandwagon. I mentioned this fear to Craig Charles, whose response was, 'You're so middle-class, Bobby, always feeling guilty about something' which didn't really help.
Danny John-Jules, however, had a slightly different take: 'You've been helpin' push the bandwagon uphill, covered in rubber, for the last twenty-three years, guy, you may as well jump on.'
ROBERT LLEWELLYN, 2012
Robert Llewellyn is an actor, novelist, screenwriter, comedian and TV presenter. As well as starring in
he has presented
How Do They Do It?
and his own online show
. He is the author of five novels including
News from Gardenia
. He writes under a rack of solar panels in Gloucestershire.
In the giant control room in the sky, there are banks and banks of lights on a huge, smooth black control board, each one connected to an emotion, or a significant experience of a human being on earth. If only we were aware of them, our lives would be transformed. If only I'd known that my irony warning light had been burning so regularly over the last five years that the bulb needed constant replacing.
The irony light was full on when I was carrying the last bag of props down seven flights of stone steps in an Edinburgh apartment building. It was on because I thought carrying seven bags of props was hard work. I thought life was tough and the rest of the world was sitting around chatting and having tea, having sex or sleeping off the copious poisons of a night's debauchery. How come, I thought, I was heaving great big boxes of heavy stuff about so early on a Sunday morning?
It was the beginning of September in 1988, the end of the Edinburgh International Festival of theatre, music, dance, poetry, opera, jazz, film, television and shagging. I always had the feeling that there was a lot of the latter going on in Edinburgh, in between all the former.
This was the time of year when Edinburgh turns into a âthespian village'. This was a concept that came from some old luvvie who made an opening speech at the festival club along the lines of, âOnce a year the City of Edinburgh is turned into a giant thespian village.' To which one embittered and no doubt hung-over member of the audience mumbled âwanker' under his breath.
Apart from shagging and thespians, there was an astonishing amount of drinking taking place, astonishing for me because I don't drink very much. Half a pint of watered-down lager and I'm performing a sad, comedy stripagram on a bar-room table before you can say âkeep your dignity'. If I drink a double whisky I'm transformed into a smiling human vomit cannon in about thirty seconds, so I stick to orange juice and very expensive mineral water.
However, unlike most non-drinkers, I quite enjoy the company of drunk people.
There are two bars during the Edinburgh Festival where people I know lean against the wall and talk a lot. The Assembly Rooms and the Gilded Balloon. In the Assembly Rooms, we all stand around under huge, posh chandeliers, shouting and laughing in a loud show-off sort of way. All the time we are talking to someone, we are looking around the room hoping to meet someone really famous. It's a complaint called Edinburgh neck, an involuntary spinal twitch that ruins any conversation and reduces all communication to gag try-out and witty put-down. The room is packed full of insecure, loud-mouthed performers, agents and TV executives. I love it.
The Gilded Balloon bar is slightly different. It is where the exact same crowd go when they are pretending they hate the Assembly Rooms bar. I love doing that. I love going to the Gilded Balloon after I have been in the Assembly Rooms, twitching my head like a demented automaton, and then slagging everyone off for being so posey.
âI can't stand the Assembly Rooms. It's just utterly full of people looking around to see who's in. I mean, Lenny
walked in, and everyone looked at them. It's pathetic.'
I said this to Arthur Smith, the man who played the Barman in
and he said to me, âI met Lenny Henry once. Well, I didn't actually meet him, I saw him at a party.'
The Gilded Balloon bar isn't quite as glamorous as the Assembly Rooms. It is in fact a narrow corridor leading to the toilet, but it will accommodate up to one hundred and seventy very drunk comedians. Drunk comedians stand very close to you when they are in full flow. They tell you what you should do with your show, your life and your lover. By three in the morning, it can begin to look rather sad, and if you are not âdeeply relaxed' after seven pints of designer lager (total cost Â£304.76p) then the best bet is to head for home.
The final bag was stuffed into my small, rusty hatchback car and we set off. I breathed in the crisp Scottish air and brewery fumes for the last time, little knowing that by the time I got twelve miles down the road, one of the new, super-cheap remould tyres I had bought to get the car through its MOT would tear apart like a wet paper bag in a wind tunnel.
My two companions, Martin Pople (who could have gone out with Greta Scacchi, but didn't) and Deborah John Wilson (whose brother is Yaphet Kotto, the black guy in the original
movie), sat on the side of the road laughing as I struggled to get the spare wheel out from under the monstrous amount of stuff we were carrying.
By some fluke the spare wheel was pumped up, I found a jack and a spanner, so after a few more comedy wheel-changing moments we were on our way.
The reason I had super-cheap, fell-off-the-back-of-a-lorry, good-as-new tyres on the car was because I was skint. This was my normal state of affairs: nothing to worry about, I got by, somehow. It was only odd because I had just completed a sell-out run of a play I had written called (and you should read this bit as if you were announcing an upcoming science fiction movie, the classic deep American rumble voice)
Mammon, Robot Born of Woman
It had been nominated for the Perrier Award.
Plays don't normally get nominated, stand-up comics normally get nominated, so that meant it must have been good, even though it didn't actually win. Not that I cared of course, I'm not competitive, I'm a thespian, I didn't care when Simon Fanshawe
gave me a big hug in the bar of the Assembly Rooms and told me with barely concealed delight that I hadn't won.
âRobbie, darling!' he shouted. âYou haven't won, isn't it absolutely dreadful!'
Okay, if I'm really, really honest it would have been quite nice to win, but as soon as the play was nominated it was packed to the roof. Even the bloke who runs the Assembly Rooms, Bill Coutts, couldn't get in. He had to bring his own chair and sit behind the stage to watch.
The play was about a robot, as you can probably tell from the title; not at all like Kryten. Mammon was supposed to be a robot who resembled a human to such a degree that no one other than his maker could tell. It was sort of the Frankenstein story, mixed with a bit of Robocop, a bit of Terminator and a few silly walks. The twist was that instead of the maker being a mad male scientist, she was a mad female scientist. Dawn Raid (played by Deborah John Wilson) was a black woman who had made âthe perfect white man' in order to enter âthe market place' or the Stock Exchange and start making money. Remember, this was 1988, before Black Wednesday, Black Friday and that rather dull grey Tuesday morning in early April. At this time there were still wide boys in the City of London pulling down 800k a year gross and thinking they were terribly clever. I was brought up to believe it was very bad manners to laugh at other people's misfortune, but the day after Black Wednesday I cycled through the City of London laughing my head off and pointing at sad dejected-looking businessmen in their crumpled pinstripes. It was an amazing sight to see so many deeply unhappy seriously rich people.
In the story Mammon made money on the stock market very successfully, but as he progressed, Dawn noticed he started to develop certain human characteristics. He was designed to blend in with his environment, which is what he did. He started to become like the men he worked with. Dawn, being a slightly mad scientist, takes the next step: she introduces âLust mode 691, the ultimate in sexuality software' into Mammon's computer brain. At this point Mammon copulated with everything on the stage, including some members of the audience unlucky enough to be seated in the front row. It was a disgusting spectacle and should have been banned.
I remember thinking, during those rare moments of speculative thought actors have during performing, that it was an odd thing for a grown man to be doing. Pretend to copulate with a desk in front of two hundred people in a small room in Edinburgh. Little did I know the irony warning light was flicking on the big control panel in the sky. I had seen nothing yet.
With a new super-cheap remould tyre fitted to the super-cheap car, we continued our journey south. I dropped Deborah off in Manchester, where she was staying with some friends for a while to recover from the Edinburgh trauma. Next stop, Leicester, where I dropped off Martin (the man who directed
) at his parents'. We had a cup of tea and I asked him if the playwright Joe Orton,
who came from Leicester, used to live near them. He didn't.
I drove the last leg of the journey alone, arriving in London in the early hours of the morning, dumped all the props and bags in the hall, listened to the three messages on my answer machine from my mum and collapsed into bed.
One of the first things I did the following day was go through the press list to see who had come to see the play. During the hectic schedule of doing the show every day, and getting in and out of the theatre in such a short time, meant that I only took the barest note of what people said to me. All sorts of heavyweight (as in influential, not overweight as in tubby) media people came to see the show, and as I scanned the list I saw a name that I knew. Paul Jackson, I knew he did
The Young Ones
, and loads of other things â he was one of those people who did a lot of stuff on telly. Other than that I thought nothing of his attendance, the play had been commissioned as a six-part sitcom by Channel 4,
was going to be on the small screen, that's what was really exciting.
I had discovered this over lunch one day in Edinburgh, Seamus Cassidy, the head honcho for mirth makers at Channel 4 had seen the show and liked it. I'd worked with Seamus on a not-so-glowingly-successful sitcom I co-wrote for Channel 4 in 1986 called
. This particular sitcom was made up of a great deal of sit, and not very much com. Ah well, we all have to fail, sometime, but why so publicly? If an accountant fails, only he and one or two other people know about it. If an actor fails, everyone you know will have seen what you do.
They will smile and say, âYou know your sitcom,
, it was on the telly last night Bob.' And I nod proudly, waiting for the praise.
âYou failed Bob,' they say sadly, âyou really, really failed.' Therefore
's success was of great importance to me.
I don't want to go too far back, but when my mum used to change my nappyâ¦ No, no, that's too far, just a couple of years back. Before, before all this I was in a four-man comedy, satire, slapstick and music group called The Joeys. I did that from 1980 until 1985, it was very successful, especially considering we hardly appeared on telly. Anyway, that's another story, all I'm saying is that between 1985 and 1988, I'd been busy, but busy in a sort of cold miserable failure type of way rather than a warm glowing success type of way.
Seamus Cassidy had commissioned me to convert
into a six-episode situation comedy. It was great; I worked day and night on the scripts and storylines, developing the characters, introducing new ones, throwing the whole thing away and staring again. It was two years later that I discovered Channel 4 couldn't afford to make the series, but by then everything had changed anyway.
never made it to the screen, not in the original way I had intended anyway, but on 10 July, about nine months later (the gestation period for babies and weird events) I locked my push-bike to a lamp post on the Charing Cross Road. I was going to have a meeting with Paul Jackson, and some other blokes, about some sort of part in some sort of sitcom. That's all I knew. I entered the little door at the old Noel Gay office and was met by Paul Jackson's braces and tie. As the glowing sensation settled in my eyeballs, I shook hands with the figure behind. Paul immediately showed me downstairs; I entered a basement office to see three men sat around a table. A tall gangly skinny one called Ed, and two slightly shorter stockier ones called Rob and Doug. As soon as I was told their names I forgot because, as Rob, Doug and Ed would no doubt confirm, I have a memory like a sieve.
We talked about robots and funny walks and accents and trying to avoid all the old comedy robots like R2D2 and Marvin the Paranoid Android. Looking back, it was the first time I experienced the Grant Naylor gaze. There has sometimes been confusion about this name, I've met people who thought
was written by one man called Grant, second name Naylor. We always knew them as Rob and Doug, but their combined surnames make the name of the production company Grant Naylor Productions. However, if you made a particularly unsuitable âcomedy' suggestion, you would often be the recipient of the Grant Naylor gaze: four often very tired eyes staring at you blankly. It wasn't a pleasant experience and we avoided it at all costs.
After this meeting I realised what they were talking about. I had seen about three episodes of the first two series of
, but as I worked at night as a stand-up comic and actor I missed a lot of telly. I knew Norman Lovett from the comedy circuit. We had worked together on various things over the years, in fact my first ever experience of working in television was with Norman. It was on a Channel 4 show called, wait for it, this
what it was called, I promise you,
Book 'em and Risk it!
It had the exclamation mark at the end of it like that.
Book 'em and Risk it!
Brilliant. This programme presented the talents of people like Steve Frost and Mark Arden (I bet he drinks Carling Black Label), Ben Elton (yes indeed ladies and gentlemen) and The Joeys (oh wow, mime!).