Grant Cathro - 20th Anniversary Interview

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Are you more proud of T-Bag than any other television programme you have written for and why?

I’ve a massive amount of affection for T-Bag! Twenty years ago Lee and I were both still cutting our teeth as writers, doing bits of this and bobs of that. Then one day out of the blue, the thrill of having our very own TV series! – incredible! And it became a huge hit! All very lovely and fuzzy memories.

Lee and I are still very proud of what we managed to achieve with those 94 episodes of T-Bag. Maybe some of our later shows like SPATZ were tighter, sharper, a little edgier, but there’s an amazing warmth to the T-Bag series which (trust me!) is really hard to pull off. A lot of talented people contributed to that, not least the actors. The shows also lack embarrassment, and I’m definitely chuffed about that. We always tried to write stuff that was big and broad but also subtle. Not everybody got that – although fans of the show did.

One day we went into the BBC and the Head of Children’s Programmes looked at us as if we were made of dog poo, sneering: “I hate that T-Bag thing”. Then the ratings came in and we’d knocked almost all of her shows clean off the airwaves. Fantastic! And this happened for nine years. Who wouldn’t be dead pleased about that?

How did the writing of T-Bag go? How long did it take to come up with ideas for episodes? How long did it take to write an episode? Were there many drafts before the final version before being edited again to fit the time slot?

We wrote very fast so it was often pretty intense. At lunchtime we’d both go out to the nearby caff and still be discussing storylines and characters as we ordered our liver and chips. Generally, it would take about a week to write an episode – but at the height of the frenzy we’d often be turning out two episodes a week. Thinking back, I don’t know how we did that. Each series teemed with new locations, new characters and madly tangled situations. It’s a marvel that we didn’t suffer total mental breakdowns – or at the very least fall out (we always managed to resolve differences of opinion pretty smartish). Usually there were two drafts, then some further tweaks for reasons of timing on the readthrough day – but it varied. Some episodes flew out more or less complete, others totally melted our heads.

What was the most enjoyable part of the T-Bag experience… the studio days, seeing the episode, writing, coming up with new ideas?

Studio days were always a blast. You’d drive into the Thames Television Teddington Studios and there’d be all these Roman Emperors and cowboys and Frankenstein monsters mincing around. And all these fantastic sets (lovingly done, but on a budget!) Everyone, from the actors to the designers and costume people, seemed to be having a really great time and always gave their best work, which boosted the quality of the show. There was this feeling that we were all making something different and special; some days it really was like a party.

I also adored the readthrough days – although they always had the potential to be nerve wracking. Will they hate this week’s episode or what? In a draughty rented church hall somewhere in Putney or Camden, a dozen or so people sat round a long table, including us, the director, and the cast – but there were all these hardened Lighting, Sound and Camera guys present too. They’d seen it all, heard it all a hundred times, worked on all the top shows. To catch a glimpse of their faces occasionally cracking open into great big grins, or hear them laughing out loud, that was a tremendous buzz. You knew then that you’d done good work.

And of course, the actual writing of it, with Lee; the unbelievable pleasure to be had in cracking a story problem together under the terrible pressure of time.

What do you think made T-Bag so popular and entertaining to watch?

I’m convinced it’s because we never, ever “wrote for kids”. When I was ten years old I loathed most British children’s programmes and instead watched those groovy American imports like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Lee and I wanted our shows to feel funky and grown-up in the same way as those USA fantasy comedies did to us. That’s why most of the characters in T-Bag are adults; adults behaving like idiots – but expertly! I’ve always loved that. With just two kid characters, Debbie (or Holly or Sally) and the wondrous T-Shirt (how lucky were we to find John Hasler??) it meant there was plenty for everybody watching to enjoy. Parents could watch along with their kids and not be bored. Apparently the show had a huge gay following too, so that was great. I think the “treasure hunt” device was a really good hook; one of those terrific ideas that don’t come along nearly often enough!

After T-Bag became an established character (after the series progressed) did you start to write for Elizabeth Estensen’s portrayal of T-Bag? Was it easier then to imagine the scene with Elizabeth in the role? Did Georgina Hale in the role change the way you wrote T-Bag’s dialogue and scenes?

Certainly did. But this is quite a common thing. When you’re scribbling series one you have to try and imagine the performances; when series two comes along, you know who’s playing what role, and this informs your thinking in quite a big and positive way. It’s why a lot of series ones start off a bit tentative then after that they really settle in.

For the Elizabeth Estensen T-Bag we deliberately wrote in all these quicksilver changes of thought because we’d seen Liz have enormous fun doing stuff like this. Nothing was more delightful than to watch her eyes dart from idea to idea, her brain working overtime and her frustrations mounting as her power mad plans went awry. Liz was the “human” T-Bag.

When we saw that Georgina’s great comedic gift was to out-weird everybody all around her, we dwelt on that instead: wrote all these surreal lines for her and put her as often as possible into bizarre character guises. It was a very different way to go, but every bit as enjoyable – and by series six, a refreshment too. You might say Georgina was the “alien” T-Bag.

What experiences did writing T-Bag have over any of the other shows you wrote (e.g. Spatz and Mike & Angelo)?

Just the sheer variation of it. Within the bounds of one series we were able to write in every imaginable genre, which was an absolute treat. Fancy a western? Biblical epic? Hollywood backstage story? Sci-fi comedy detective horror musical? T-Bag has them all. One newspaper review called it “a cross between Doctor Who and Blackadder” – a perceptive viewpoint.

What were your feelings about T-Bag being finished? It had taken up several years of your life, were you disappointed you couldn’t continue writing T-Bag or did you see it as a chance to write something else?

We’d have loved it to go on. But at the same time, we’d given almost ten years of our lives over to T-Bag, and it’s true we wanted to reach out and do other things. Luckily there was a lot of other work around at the time, so we weren’t despondent or anything. All the same, for quite a long time after it felt odd not having T-Bag and T-Shirt bouncing around inside the brain! – I missed them! In a funny way I still do.

In hindsight what (if anything) would you have liked to have changed in T-Bag?

Not the basic premise, that’s for sure. But of course as a writer you’re never happy, are you? Quite a grumpy lot – especially those of us who specialise in comedy. There are hundreds of scenes I’d love to have rewritten to make them tighter and funnier. Sometimes, because of technical difficulties or whatever, a whole new ending got added at the very last minute (not always by us, which was annoying). I hate some of those clunky additions and wish it had been possible for us to have been at rehearsals all the time, to keep a close eye on how the shows were shaping up – but with our hectic writing schedule that was just impossible. They say that in television if 60% of your original ideas actually make it onto the screen you’re doing well. Maybe we did a little better than that. But it’s the nature of things. It’s a very collaborative business. You’ve just got to accept it.

Tell me more about the tenth series of T-Bag you had ideas for…

As John Hasler was well into his teens by the time of the proposed 10th series we felt it was time to reflect that in the show. We envisaged having a huge load of fun with T-Shirt as a stroppy but aspirational teen who’s now running a little business venture of his own: a teashop called TOMMY’s. We also pondered the possibility of bringing Liz Estensen’s Tallulah Bag back to accompany him as TOMMY’S literally takes off and swooshes across time and space in the time and space honoured tradition. It all sounded pretty tantalising to us. But Thames Television had just lost its ITV franchise and the new company, Carlton, decided to pick up MIKE & ANGELO instead – so sadly it all came to nothing.

Incidentally, MIKE & ANGELO was the only show we’ve written which outlasted T-Bag; it ran for twelve series of 123 episodes. We were thrilled when Liz Estensen agreed to Guest Star a few times as MIKE’s stuck-up next door neighbour DAPHNE FAWKES-BENTLEY, and several other parts were gleefully given out to various members of the “T-Bag Rep” who were always such fun to have around.

Would you like to write another T-Bag series/special if you were given the opportunity to?


Would you like T-Bag to be updated for the 21st Century for today’s children like so many other 80’s and 90’s childrens shows (e.g. He-Man)?

This is the Doctor Who question, isn’t it? A big part of T-Bag’s (and Doctor Who’s) charm included the wobbly sets and primitive special effects. Who can see the painted-out coffee table which is holding up the spaceship in the “Bin Bag” episode from Series 9? We’re all soon to see what a 2005 makeover of the Time Lord and his Tardis will look and feel like, so until then I reserve judgement. I wonder if, post-Gladiator, we could really enthuse a modern child audience with an Ancient Rome that’s populated by two people. Be great to think that we could.

What are you currently doing and what are your plans for the future?

I’ve a feature film script that’s been optioned all over the place for the last three years, but it’s one of those madly expensive $100,000,000 special effects jobs. You never know, it could yet happen – a lot of it is just luck and timing.

In 2003 I co-wrote and starred in a late night BBC Radio 4 comedy called SOMETHING OR OTHER, which ran for six episodes, and I’m busy now trying to develop it for television. Back in fantasy comedy land, there’s a 26-part genie sitcom on the go which is due out next year, and another mainstream sitcom (pilot) for Channel 5 about a sister band.

Nowadays I divide my time between my home in Central London (where I write, go to meetings, rewrite, then go to more meetings) and my house in Mallorca, where I gaze out at the mountains, the eagles, and the sea, and hope with all my heart that the phone lines will have failed again so that I can be left in peace for maybe fifteen minutes.

Lee and I meet up occasionally, in the caff near Waterloo, for old times sake and just to keep in touch. Neither of us has yet suggested to the other the idea of us trying to revive T-Bag. These things so seldom seem to work. But it’s a weird world, and stuff happens, so who knows? I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. I’ll leave that task to the Head of Children’s Programmes at the BBC.

Grant Cathro