“When the moment comes, pop up from under the table and whatever you do, do not smile,” was the direction. Within minutes of meeting the legendary comic actor Peter Jones, I was scrabbling about around his ankles and hoping not to f**k things up. How on Earth did I get there?
I was just nineteen in June 1980. My work at the little animation company Pearce Studios had of late returned to less exciting jobs, rather more in keeping with the sort of thing I’d originally been hired to do seven months earlier. I can’t remember exactly what, but it might have been title boards for boring, yet (I was reminded) lucrative regular contracts, like those for an international newsreel organisation, Visnews. The odd bit of diagram work might present me with a challenge, but nothing as exciting as drawing the Vogon Constructor Fleet, or Dingo’s Kidneys, or even Babel Fish guts! The pilot TV episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was all but finished, barring a final sound mix. Our animated segments, directed by my genius boss, Rod Lord, were a significant contribution to the piece. But the BBC bosses were unsure about the show. The episode had gone way over budget. A commission for the full series hung precariously in the balance…
“Come into work on Sunday, get on with designing that invitation and wait for a call,” I was told on that Friday. Overtime; lovely! My journey from North London took a bus ride, then 24 stations along the Piccadilly line, plus a stiff walk at the other end. I was young and fit in those days. Years of competitive swimming for the Haringey Borough club meant I could do that mile from Boston Manor station to Cambridge Road, Hanwell, with no trouble at all, five days a week. I had been trusted with the keys to the building, Athos House, probably for the very first time. I sat alone at my desk and began laying out images for an invitation flyer to a preview screening at the National Film Theatre of that very first episode. I waited for the phone to ring.
When the call to arms came, producer Alan J.W. Bell explained what he wanted. “Make up these captions then grab a taxi over to TV Centre and ask for me in ‘Pres B’,” he ordered. He rattled off the list of captions. I banged them out quickly on matte black cards in white dry transfer ‘Letraset’. Ahh, old-school graphics, kids; no computers in those days! Roughing out the letters first onto tracing paper, then folding it in half to find the centre. Drawing a base line on the card in soft pencil. Rubbing down the letters carefully, aligning the bases, watching the kerning, adjusting all the time, then burnishing gently with the back of a teaspoon to make sure the letters didn’t flake or tear. The cards complete, I popped them in a folder and phoned for a cab on account.
I was no stranger to my destination, having first visited BBC TV Centre in the hot summer of 1976, with my classmate and best chum, Dave Beasley. Our interest in how television was made, largely through a devotion to Doctor Who, was well-known at the school. We’d built a Dalek and filmed it with the school’s primitive video equipment, and it had featured in the school play. Our Art teacher Mrs Davies (no relation) had arranged for a friend of hers in the BBC Design Department, Mike Hagen, to show us around the ‘Magic Donut’. Passing Bill Oddie at the front doors, then queuing up at TV Centre reception behind the jovial Ronnie Barker, we were slightly star struck and in total awe of the place. We saw Ronnie Corbett across a crowded studio, dressed as Queen Victoria, only realising months later it was a scene from the legendary Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, written for The Two Ronnies by Spike Milligan. Dave took a real boffin’s interest in all the techy aspects and I fell in love with a room in the scenery block, where giant backdrops were painted on hoists, sliding down through the edge of the floor. After that day I’d inveigled my way back into TVC whenever possible. I blarneyed my way into recordings of Doctor Who, by blagging my way past the lax security and by ingratiating myself with Visual Effects staff and producers. So, by the time my taxi arrived on Sunday 29th June 1980, I was very familiar with the place indeed, yet it always seemed to exude an air of electricity and excitement.
The mysterious ‘Pres B’ on the fourth floor, turned out to be the Weather studio, with huge maps of Great Britain and the coast of Europe decorated with magnetic isobars and arrows. This was where Late Night Line-Up kept the nation entertained into the wee hours; where Old Grey Whistles had been tested, where viewers had aired their Points of View, and (“why not?”) where Barry Norman had presented his Film 70-somethings.
Alan granted me a brief introduction to Peter Jones, the actual voice of The Hitchhiker’s Guide! I was a little shy, but Peter was terribly polite and informal. Alan brought out some large idiot boards with the script written up in blue marker pen. I gathered this session was organised all very last minute, an impromptu arrangement between producer and star, a promise of 50 quid and a drink afterwards in the BBC Club. This was to be a short video to introduce the pilot episode at a screening the following weekend.
For the rehearsal and recording, I was stationed at an upright caption stand, in front of a big TV camera on a pedestal. My cards were placed one after the other and I had to flip them down and away, on a cue from Alan, sitting behind glass in the production gallery. A joke was being made about the primitive technology at the venue of the screening. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but all would be explained a week later. Once the captions had been flipped – including a single letter deliberately dropping off on cue, to illustrate the naff, cheapo nature of this video – I had to quietly crawl under the presenter’s table and wait.
Peter was above me, amiably chatting away to camera, amusingly making no bones about the fact he was reading Alan’s script. He was explaining for the benefit of the audience, about the marvellous new TV adaptation of Hitchhiker they were about to see, presented in a startling new breakthrough in sound technology – “Mono Headphone!” This, in an age when cinema-goers were just getting used to the idea of Dolby Stereo.
“Is it now?” asked the bemused Peter, and I popped up from under the table, straight-faced, as instructed. He placed a set of headphones on me and held them in position, as I adjusted them deliberately off one ear. This was how Peter was asking the audience to wear their headsets for the duration of the show. Demonstration finished, he thanked me and I sidled off, awkwardly. I didn’t have to pretend too hard. I did feel bloody awkward, and was certain the camera must have picked up my flushed cheeks and glowing ears.
“The sets cost a fortune, it says,” Peter continued, peering through his glasses as if squinting at the script, which of course, he was. The prop phone on the desk rang on cue and he picked it up. “No, this is not the saloon bar of The One Tun,” he said disdainfully. Alan knew that the audience the following week would consist largely of sci-fi fans who regularly met at that pub in the City, and they’d probably love the in-joke. Peter’s voice softened at some supposed kindly remark from the imagined caller. He preened at being recognised just by his voice. “Yes I do get recognised occasionally – how kind,” he smiled. A pause. Then he fumed, “No, I did not get the part because I’m Simon Jones‘ father!”
The recording over, we repaired to the bar. The BBC Club was a legendary place where programme ideas were born and careers could be made or broken. Alan signed us in at the desk – you could only get in with a member – and we spent an hour or so listening to stories from Peter Jones. How I wish I’d known then, what I learned in later years about Peter’s fabulous career. The things I could have asked him; about his improvs with Peter Ustinov, on working on The Rag Trade and Beggar My Neighbour and doing sketches with Spike Milligan, and… oh, so much more.
Peter Jones in “Mild and Bitter” © BBC 1966
Later that week, Alan Bell and his actress wife Constance Carling (who’d once played an Auton secretary in a Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story!) came to meet me at The One Tun pub on Saffron Hill, near Farringdon. This was the first Thursday of the month, the regular pub gathering for London-based Sci-Fi fans. This organised geeky meeting had a long history, going back to the days of The White Hart, when a young Arthur C. Clarke and his chums had attended. In more recent times, Douglas Adams had been known to prop up the bar at The One Tun. Alan had brought 100 yellow paper copies of the flyer, inviting fans to the free screening at the NFT that Saturday. There were plenty of eager takers, all curious to see how such an imaginative radio series would translate to the screen.
In a bewildering coincidence, someone else was also circulating around the pub that night, also handing out flyers to do with Hitchhiker! His were glossy with colourful, airbrushed art, announcing a spectacular new stage production of Hitchhiker, which nobody there had yet heard about. The show was due to open in a fortnight at the Rainbow Theatre, the famous 70s rock venue and former cinema, in Finsbury Park. The man dishing out these flyers was actor John Joyce, doing it as a favour for his pal, the show’s maverick director, Ken Campbell. John had played the verger in another Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story, The Daemons, but we didn’t know this at the time. Honestly, The One Tun was full of avid Doctor Who fans, but nobody recognised him! Much more interesting to us, this chap was looking for anyone who could make masks, to come and work on the new stage show. Myself and couple of friends volunteered, but that’s another story…
Saturday 5th July came and the National Film Theatre, Screen Two on The South Bank of the Thames, was filled with eager Sci-Fi fans waiting to see the BBC’s new Hitchhiker’s Guide TV show. I’m not certain when I first found out the purpose of this screening, but whenever it was, it seemed kind of crazy. Like the radio series producers before him, Alan Bell had hit a familiar brick wall with his BBC superiors, who apparently weren’t at all sure whether the programme was actually funny or not. They wanted a laughter track recorded before they would commit to a series. Nobody on the production team was happy about this, least of all Douglas Adams, who came to the NFT and sat at the back with Simon Jones.
Alan Bell had cleverly struck a deal at short notice with the NFT to use their Screen 2, because it had the facility of a set of headphones between the seats for every audience member. Normally, they would play alternative foreign soundtracks at certain screenings. For Alan, it meant his sound supervisor Mike McCarthy could arrange microphones to record the audience laughter in isolation, free from the actual programme sound as it played on the multiple TV monitors lining the auditorium. However, Alan felt that audience laughter is a communal thing. People laugh together as a crowd, setting each other off, the laughter rippling through the seats in waves. If the punters have their hearing restricted to just the programme sound in their headphones, their own expressions of mirth could not be sparked by hearing others laughing. The last thing Alan needed was for any reactions to be subdued!
So, the Peter Jones video acted as a 9-minute warm-up act, but was mainly there to explain how to set your headphones slightly off one ear. That done, the rest of the screening was a huge success. The fans loved it. Alan got what he wanted – a fulsome, hearty reaction from an adoring crowd. Strictly speaking, the laughter track betrays the fact that it is indeed a rather knowing audience, because when Zaphod Beeblebrox, who isn’t actually in the first episode, appears as a graphic, the crowd inexplicably cheers.
The day was rounded off with the Pearce Studios annual summer party at a house in Slough, where the company used to be based. My boss Rod had attended the screening earlier and agreed it had been terrific. But the best part of the day as far as I was concerned, had been seeing Alan Bell sidling up to a long-legged, long-haired, slinky fan in false eyelashes, kinky boots and sci-fi bondage leathers.
“That’s a nice outfit,” purred Alan, “Where did you get it?”
“I made it myself,” replied the deep voice of the fan, also called Alan.