Grant Cathro - 22nd Anniversary Interview

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To celebrate twenty two years since T-Bag first broadcast in the UK back in 1985, Grant has answered some very in-depth questions about T-Bag which you guys (the visitors to the website and members of The T-Bag Forum!) sent me back in January and February 2007. These are only some of the questions I recieved and I had some difficulties picking the best ones, have your questions been answered - find out now! Many thanks to everyone who sent me questions - sorry I couldn't pick all of them.

Grant has kindly replied to these questions, and a big thank you to him for his time and thoughts on the show, his help and contributions to the website is appreciated so much.

The interview is below, in his own words...

The early T-Bag episodes were often altered at the last minute by the original director without your prior knowledge. Could you give any specific examples of what changes occurred and how far do you think this affected the series itself?

Oh yes, there was a lot of that. It used to drive us bonkers. We were young and full of big ideas – not all of which would fit into Studio 3. Some of them wouldn’t have fitted into Luxembourg. But even so, we often got the feeling that not all of the changes were to do with boring practicality.

I remember once we got into this huge fight over the most ludicrous detail imaginable. In one of the “Bounces Back” episodes (the one set partly in a windmill) we’d written a simple stage-direction that Winnie de Mille (always with the subtle names!) wheeled her bicycle inside the building and parked it against the wall. For some plot reason, we needed to have the bike in the scene – was it because the bell was on it? – I think so – but we were told, growlingly, that we had written something that was totally impossible-to-film. In unison, Lee and I asked: “Why’s that then?” (we used to talk a lot in unison) – then listened in amazement as the Director maintained that there was no way IN THE WORLD that ANYONE could EVER EVER EVER wheel a bicycle into a windmill.

We couldn’t understand what he was on about. Something to do with Winnie having to lug it up a flight of steps or something. We pointed out (again, in unison) that surely all windmills were of different design? Not all of them, surely, would have steps outside. Couldn’t this particular windmill be of the non-step variety? After all, we wouldn’t actually be seeing the outside of it anyway. “Thing is, you see, we really need that bike in the scene …”

But he was adamant – fixated, even! – and sat with his arms folded, telling us that besides, having a bicycle on the set would be dangerous. Lethal, in fact. The actors might trip over it – and then what? We’d be sued. He’d be sued. The bicycle would be sued. The only person who wouldn’t be sued is Sue, who had already been Sued by her parents. Okay, I made that last bit up. The entire dialogue went on forever, eventually taking on a super-surreal quality, a lot of it zanier and more far-fetched than anything we’d put in the script. We thought the Director was going to have a heart attack when we kept on arguing the point. Finally, the Producer was forced to arbitrate. He came down on our side, wondering, like us, what on earth all the fuss was about.

A compromise was reached. OKAY!! – the bicycle COULD be brought into the windmill – YES!! – so long as it was HALF WAY IN THE DOOR and THE OTHER HALF LEFT OUTSIDE!! – alright? We both said “Alright” – except I said it 0.04 of a second before Lee did. Exhausted, it was the last time the pair of us ever spoke in unison again.

22 years later, I still do not understand this compromise – or anything to do with any of it. You would think there were bigger problems in the world.

The 1985 copyright date on early episodes of T-Bag Strikes Again suggests there was quite a gap between its being made and transmitted (August to October 1986). Was there any specific reason for this? Also, was the transmission of its sequel, T-Bag Bounces Back, only three months after it finished, a sign of the growing popularity of the show? Were both T-Bag Strikes Again and T-Bag Bounces Back written and filmed so close together?

No, it was all just scheduling. The availability of the studios, deadlines, transmission slots. The viewing figures influenced the commissioning of further series, but not, I don’t think, the manner in which it was broadcast.

Why did Debbie (Jennie Stallwood) leave after the third series, would you have liked her to reappear in a later series (as Debbie or as a different character)? Do you know what Jennie has been doing since appearing in T-Bag?

The usual thing with child actors – drat them! – they will keep growing up! I once wrote a MIKE & ANGELO episode that was built around this very fruitful theme, where a kid actor associated with a super-successful movie franchise wasn’t allowed to age naturally. He was about 17 or something, but was being forced by the Producers of the franchise to make out that he was still only 9. It was all very funny, but poignant as well. Can you imagine how bizarre it would have been if Jenny had continued through to the ninth series, still wearing that cute little dress made out of a tablecloth and a sparkly yellow hat?

Actually, now I think of it, I rather wish we’d done that …

What was producer Charles Warren like to work with? Was he as hands-on with the series as Leon Thau or did he work more in the background?

Charles was kind and benevolent, mainly. We didn’t often get into squabbles. He loved the show, and always wanted us to try harder, do better. But then, so did we.

He had this big thing about T-Bag not being “pantomimic” – which for a while we couldn’t really get our heads round. Witches, Genies, Kings, Queens? T-Bag was pure Panto, wasn’t it? And anyway, what’s wrong with Panto? It’s got a great and honourable tradition, and everybody loves it. It’s the only time every theatre in the country is full.

But finally we both came to understand what Charles really meant: “No winking at the audience! – ever!” In other words, don’t do BAD Panto. Stay inside the situation and play it totally for real. Of course, he was dead right.

Charles was very central to the casting. He knew the importance of hitting it spot on. When we were trying to imagine who might play T-Bag’s mother, for instance, one of us suggested it could be “somebody a bit like Mollie Sugden”. Charles’s face lit up: “Somebody a bit like Mollie Sugden – YES!!! – now, who could we get? How about Irene Handel, is she still alive? – how about Joan Sims?”

I said, “Well – er – how about Mollie Sugden?” Charles looked at me pityingly and without batting an eyelid said, “No – she wouldn’t be right.”

We ended up with Peggy Mount, and nobody was happier about that than me.

In children’s programmes of the time, T-Bag was rare in being granted an annual Christmas special. Do you remember the circumstances of the first, T. Bag’s Christmas Cracker, being commissioned, and how you felt about it and the three further specials that followed?

We adored the Christmas specials. Each of them gave us a great chance to write a one-off story, free from the constraints of the usual treasure hunt subplot. We enjoyed playing around with the seeming “old fashioned-ness” of it, then adding dollops of unexpected subversive comedy. I love the scene from “Christmas Cracker” where Liz Estensen is trying to coax that brattish kid off to sleep, and he just sits there staring at her. Liz cracks me up in that one.

But my personal favourite of them all is “T-Bag’s Christmas Ding-Dong” where absolutely everyone is on brilliant form – and Glyn Edwards directed it to near perfection. The snowfall at the end was the only disappointment. We wrote snowfall endings about five times in total, over the years, hoping against hope that one day it would come off, and would be funny. It never did, and it never was - not once. “Yet another duff snowfall,” I used to write in my diary (you’ll be very pleased to hear that these diaries will never be published).

Yet even with such a stellar cast, and broadcast in an amazing slot just after present-opening time on Christmas Day, ITV did next to nothing to promote the show. This was pretty typical. Lee and I never failed to marvel at how it was the audience itself who found the show and embraced it and made it popular.

How did you get into writing The Amazing Adventures of T-Bag book? Was this an idea or was this given for you to do as a merchandise project to tie in with the television series?

As I recall, we were asked to write it.

What were the main differences between writing a script for an episode and writing a story for The Amazing Adventures of T-Bag book? Which one did you enjoy the most and why? Did you want to write another T-Bag book afterwards or were you happy writing more TV episodes?

There are massive differences between writing a script (which is meant to be spoken) and writing prose (which is meant to be read). It’s all very technical and boring unless you’re a writer. Personally I always enjoy writing scripts the most – although you do have to stomach all the awful frustration of it (usually) coming out rather different to what you meant or hoped.

In the T-Bag book, nobody changed anything! – and that was very nice.

Something just occurred to me this very minute. Interestingly, when we wrote the book, we didn’t use it as an opportunity to write grandiose set-pieces of the type we were denied by the budget constraints of television. It was mostly conceived with the same kind of small-scale intimacy of the tv show – the odd mad character, a dubious quest full of frustrations and lots of domestic squabbling.

I don’t think either Lee or I were particularly desperate to write further T-Bag books. It was a sweet little one-off by-product, and that’s all. Well – apart from the fact that we took the central premise and used it as the basis for Series 9. I think we assumed that only about 4 people had bought the book, and it seemed a shame to waste a nice idea.

In which series were you allowed to use the larger studio 2 at Teddington, rather than Studio 3, for filming? Did this affect your writing of an episode in any way?

On one memorable occasion, we even made it into Studio 1 at Teddington (for the “Frankenstein” episode) and for me, personally, that was quite a WOW moment.

As a super-eager teenager, I used to make these pilgrimages to the Thames TV’s Teddington Studios, to sit in the audience and watch sitcoms and stuff being made. Quite a journey, that – I lived in Scotland. But I had my heart set on working in television, and so many of my favourite shows (like “Do Not Adjust Your Set”) had come out of the famous Studio 1 at Teddington.

Can you imagine the thrill I had that day, to walk into the reception area and see written on the board: STUDIO 1 – T-BAG.

None of this affected the writing in any way, though. We just kept on keeping it small and enjoyed watching the scenery get bigger.

Of the five girls, which one do you think worked most effectively on-screen as a nemesis for T-Bag?

Debbie, I think (Jennie Stallwood). You could really understand why T-Bag wanted to marmalise her. Sally Simpkins (Kellie Bright) undoubtedly gave the strongest acting performance of all the girls, but Debbie had about her a special kind of wonderful weirdness, which I think was never really equalled.

Episode 8 (Bin Bag) of Take off with T-Bag appears to have been shot in an already existing warehouse rather than a studio. Was this the case or is it still a studio at Teddington?

It was shot in and around the huge scenery docks at Teddington Studios, dressed up for the occasion with the use of clever lighting. The brilliant Neville Green directed this last series, and our scripts clearly sparked his imagination. Neville had this enormous flair for conjuring something out of nothing, and if you look at those ten episodes you’ll see some really startling and impressive things. He hardly ever said no to anything we suggested. It was always “Leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do” – which was music to our ears. It made us feel very frustrated that Neville couldn’t have been our Director from the word go.

Were there any ideas or whole episodes of T-Bag which didn’t work and had to be rewritten? If so, do you remember any of the details?

I think it was our first stab at series two, or it might have been three – I forget. We pitched all these wild and crazy ideas in one go to the Producers, and I think it blew their minds or something. They thought we had lost the plot completely. We got sent away to try again, and duly toned it all down. It was quite a blow at the time. But most of what we junked resurfaced later, to reappear in series further down the line.

You’re always having to rewrite and rewrite to make things work. You expect that. It’s a very complicated business. The stuff that looks the simplest is usually the hardest to come up with.

Are you aware of any out-takes existing for T-Bag? Similarly, can you remember anything which went wrong, artistically or technically, on studio days you attended?

I don’t know if any out-takes exist. Of course there were the usual fluffed lines, sound booms dropping into shot, all of these niggly little problems that meant another take. Offhand I can’t remember anything that would have qualified for a slot on “It’ll Be Alright on the Night” – but I’ll bet there were some.

Most notable were the slip-ups that actually made it into the final cut. A line we wrote for Georgina (something like: “T-Shirt, you hang around my neck like an albatross-shaped bad luck charm”) appears in the show as: “You hang around my neck like a bad-shaped albatross luck charm” – and nobody seemed to notice. Not even T-Shirt.

Once we had to point out to Bobby the Floor Manager that there was a copy of ROBOT WARS and VIZ MAGAZINE lying on the bedroom floor of a house in Victorian London.

Another time someone left a polystyrene coffee cup lying on the balcony in the Roman Emperor episode. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, two sugars and dash of milk, please (and I don’t mean tomorrow!)”

And Denise Coffey, as Queen Elizabeth, once pointed a bony finger out the castle window, turned to the camera with a look of horror on her face and shrieked “Gadzooks! – there’s a dirty great hinge in the sky!” which made everybody fall about.

Take a look at the Paris episode from “Revenge of the T-Set” and look out the window of Vincent’s attic room at the view across the city. You’ll notice (as we did on the studio day, but could do nothing about it) that you are looking DOWN at the Eiffel Tower! Exactly how many floors were there in Vincent’s apartment block??

Was there ever an actor or actress you would have liked to have been a guest star in an episode of T-Bag? If so which character would you have liked them to play?

We got our wishes several times, actually.

I was saying earlier that one of my favourite shows as a kid was “Do Not Adjust Your Set” – which was this wild and revolutionary cutting-edge thing at the time, starring half of the Monty Python team and Denise Coffey and David Jason.

Inspired by the show, I sent sketches into Thames Television when I was about 13 years old. Michael Palin and Denise Coffey both answered my enthusiastic letters and we got into this dialogue, which was incredibly exciting and stimulating for me. They were both extremely encouraging. In fact, tiny fragments of what I’d sent in actually made it somehow into the show. Dramatic headlines in The Scottish newspapers: “Schoolboy scripts to appear on TV!” etc. A friendship developed with Denise Coffey, which has lasted right to this day. Once I became a full-time professional writer I always hoped that one day I might be able to close the loop and persuade Denise to perform in something I’d written. She crops up several times in various series of T-Bag, as Granny Bag, and again as Queen Elizabeth (and later on, also in “The Tomorrow People”) so of course all of that was a real thrill for me - a childhood fantasy come true.

Some of the T-Bag cast (and crew) worked on your other children’s TV programmes (such as Spatz, Mike & Angelo and Delta Wave). Was this a decision on your part to write parts for specific cast members or was this due to the casting department and them already knowing the cast members from previous roles?

Lee and I always had our favourite actors who understood how best to play our work. People like Matt Zimmerman always hit the style perfectly. It had to be big, but subtle. As soon as we found those few performers who were able and willing to be unbuttoned and really let rip, we tried to use them over and over. A kind of Rep. Company grew up, which was lovely. How brilliant to see familiar faces turning up in different guises. You find the same thing happening in the great Laurel & Hardy films (my favourite comedies in all the world!!!) where Stan and Ollie clearly adored working with people like James Finlayson and the ever-wondrous Mae Busch.

Hey! – add that idea to my dream cast wish-list at once! A third T-Bag, performed by Mae Busch! She would be 100% top-of-the-tree perfect, apart from the minor inconvenience of her dropping dead in 1946.

p.s. any of you out there who have never seen Mae Busch in action, you are in for a cockle-warming treat. Go and find something with her in it (especially her fantastically funny work with Laurel & Hardy) and prepare to crack your ribs.

Do you think current children’s TV is lacking the magic and imagination that was in the T-Bag series? What would you like do to improve programming for the current generation of children?

Oh, I don’t know. Things change, not always for the better. Everything gets over-analysed now. Time and again nowadays you find your ideas getting beaten to a pulp by the process of trying to please too many Producers and Broadcasters. And of course you end up only half-pleasing everybody. As a result, the scripts may be smoother, with fewer hiccups and bumps (let’s face it, some bits of T-Bag do clunk a bit) but the terrible price is that the high-flying wildness of invention can all too easily disappear. There’s always some voice somewhere down the line saying “It’s over the top” or “It’s too crazy” or “Dull it down” or “I don’t get it! – and neither does my husband!”. The risk is that instead of creating scripts aimed at an audience, you find yourself forced to write stuff aimed at getting the thumbs-up from a co-production committee of 12. It was never like that when we did T-Bag. It was just us, a Producer and a Director – we made it our own, and our voice would get through.

The reunion sketch (with T-Bag and T-Shirt) was never filmed, would you still like to film this and why?

Not involved in this one, sorry.

Would you still like to revive the T-Bag format for the twenty-first century? If so would you like to revert back to the original format (girl on a quest to collect items to defeat T-Bag) or would you like to go in a different direction (like Take Off With T. Bag and the reunion sketch). Would you also like the original cast to be involved (Elizabeth Estensen, John Hasler and Jennie Stallwood) or would you rather have a completely new cast and why?

All new, probably. It’s almost always a bad idea to go back, to try and recreate something which worked well in its time.

A great format is always a great format, though. I don’t doubt for a second that we could resurrect T-Bag and give it a new lease of life. Lee and I would leap at the chance. But there’s one big issue, which has to do with viewing trends, especially amongst children. The serial element means that to get the most out of T-Bag you have to watch it in sequence. Once upon a lifetime ago, kids would race home from school, know that it was a Thursday, and think “It’s T-Bag day!” – and catch up with the latest instalment. There’s an awful lot less of that going on now. Viewing habits are all broken up.

Having said that, the changes keep on coming. Last year in the industry it was all “No serials again, ever!” and now different voices are saying “Kids can download serials easily, they love serials, let’s make serials!” – so who knows? I’ve said “watch this space” before, and I’m still saying it. It’s the first thing I say every morning when I look at myself in the bathroom mirror.

The DVD release petition has reached over 2000 signatures, are you surprised at the amount of people who still want to watch T-Bag all these years later? With many other children’s programmes from the 1980’s being released on DVD what are your thoughts on why T-Bag is still waiting to be released?

From what I’ve been told, it seems that the log-jam is due to some copyright issue concerning the music. Seems pretty odd to me, that. You’d think it could be sorted out. I get so many requests for T-Bag to appear on DVD that you’d think some enterprising outfit or other might want to lease the master tapes and do a trial launch or something. Any enterprising outfits out there reading this – think on.

To answer the first part of the question, I’m really cock a hoop that so many people still want to watch T-Bag 22 years on. It’s mind boggling actually, when you consider how bombarded everybody is with non-stop wall-to-wall entertainment. It’s got to mean the show had something about it that was special. It was always special to Lee and me – and what a treat it is to know that our enthusiasm seems to be infectious!

Happy 22nd, Your Majes-T.

Grant Cathro