Grant Cathro - 24th Anniversary Interview

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To celebrate the twenty-fourth anniversary of T-Bag first being broadcast in the UK, I asked Grant Cathro some questions about the show, the Reunion DVD and the ongoing prospect of digital downloads. He has kindly replied to all these questions offering an insight into the show we all grew up with.

A big thank you to Grant for his time and thoughts on the show, his help and input is greatly appreciated.

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

About the series

Can you tell us anything more about your initial ideas for Wonders in Letterland? How ambitious were they and was there anything rejected which you think could have been brought to the screen?

Although we were still pretty new to television writing, Lee and I had both seen some Blue Screen stuff being shot – and got it into our heads that even in a tiny studio we could do almost anything. How very pleasant it is being young.

I came to the project with “In Search of the Castaways” in mind. Have you ever seen “In Search of the Castaways”? – it’s a 1962 Walt Disney film based on a fantasy-adventure story by Jules Verne – and when I saw it, aged 7, it totally blew my mind. (I found a DVD and watched it again recently. Couldn’t believe how rickety it all was. But that’s what’s great about being 7, isn’t it? – you get so caught up in the whole thing and you fall in love with it. I’m still in love with “In Search of the Castaways” today, actually, despite realising it’s largely terrible).

So in this movie you’ve got Hayley Mills & Co setting off on this epic round-the-globe quest to find her lost father, right? – and although it starts off pretty slow and realistic, within twenty minutes the action takes off into this endless sequence of lunatic adventures. Soon they’re all clinging to this ledge on top of a snowy South American mountain when an earthquake comes, then the ledge snaps off and becomes a toboggan which hurls them on this rollercoaster ride down the inside a glacier – a giant condor grabs one of the cast and carries him off – they cross a barren desert on horseback, but then there’s this sudden flash flood (quite well done, this bit) leaving them stranded up a giant Ombu tree. Maurice Chevalier steals eggs from a nest and cooks up an omelette whilst singing “Why cry about bad weather, enjoy it, you’ve got imagination, employ it...” – and then there’s this lightning storm, and the tree catches fire – oh, I forgot to mention the jaguar which hops off a floating log and pads around threateningly, fancying either Hayley Mills or the omelette for lunch. So now the tree’s exploding all around them – yikes – but no matter – along comes a handy waterspout to extinguish the flames and rip the entire tree up by the roots, turning it into a floating raft. Then they discover they’re on the wrong Continent – a mistake anyone could make. So the action moves swiftly to New Zealand, and next thing you know they’re all kidnapped by hostile Maoris and stuck in a towering hut alongside this hairy raving madman called Bill Gaye, a friend of dad’s (played rather wonderfully by Wilfred Brambell of Old Man Steptoe fame) who reveals a far-fetched escape plan involving a fifty foot rope made from the hair of his head mixed together with gunpowder. Within minutes they’re all fleeing up the side of this smoking volcano – but the Maoris are in hot pursuit – hotter still when Maurice Chevalier gets the great idea of hurling boulders down to dislodge bigger boulders, causing the volcano to erupt all over them...

Well – when I stumbled out of the Motherwell Odeon Cinema that cold and foggy November night in 1962, my eyes were the size of soup plates, weren’t they? I was in love with movies!

Cut to: 1984. Lee and I are writing the pilot episode of T. Bag and I’m banging on about “In Search of the Castaways” – suggesting set-pieces on a similar scale in honour of the movie, featuring balloon rides and under-the-sea adventures, never realising that in a room somewhere at Thames Television there’s Leon Thau, destined to read what we’ve written and have a heart attack.

It’s possible a few remnants of our opening gambit remained – but pretty little to be honest. If there had been useable material there, we’d have used it – eventually!

Having seen (or re-seen) John's Plant's design sketches (see here), what are your thoughts on the late designer and his work on T-Bag? How integral do you think the sets were to the programme?

We’ve got nothing but praise for John’s work. Those designs were absolutely integral to the atmosphere of the show, if not necessarily to the way we wrote the scripts. Mainly, they made total sense – at least in the first two series. The cardboard world of a board game and the pop-up pages of a story book demanded a look which was picturesque and imaginative but anti-realistic. The flat painted scenery John created was often very gorgeous, making you go oooh and ahhh the minute you went into the studio. That set the style for the rest of the series – and in conjunction with Ray Childe’s sumptuous costumes, it all just went sort of *click*

You attended many of the studio recordings for the series: what were your best and worst experiences of seeing the series made? Were there any productions that went disastrously wrong? You've said in the past that T-Room scenes which had been missed would have to be shot at the end of the run: how often did this happen and which series needed the most pick-ups?

Best experiences? – it often happened that during camera rehearsals the crew would suddenly burst out laughing at some of the funnier scenes. Big buzz, that – it meant T. Bag was working for a grown-up audience, too (tough audiences, camera crews!)

Worst experiences? – turning up on once in a while, during the earlier years, to discover the actors spouting lines we hadn’t written – eek! That could be humiliating and painful. We wouldn’t have minded so much (in fact we would have welcomed it) if the secret rewrites had been helpful lessons in How To Write Better Scripts – but not one of them was ever an improvement on the original. An unbiased opinion if ever there was one. But true.

T-Room pick-ups always piled up right at the end. Bit of a brain-bender for the cast, but as we know, they never failed us! – Brilliant people!

In the past, you gave us some examples of changes the original director, Leon Thau, made to your scripts in production; how different (and/or improved) do you think the series could have been had the show had a director (such as Glyn Edwards or Neville Green) who would have shot your scripts as written? Objectively speaking, what influence do you think Thau had on the finished product and the success of the series?

Like I said, we were never arrogant in resisting changes. The opposite in fact – the more changes the better, if the quality goes up. What bugged us something chronic was not being consulted about it – for whatever reason, Leon Thau seldom ran his rewrites by Lee or me. We concluded that really he wanted to write the whole thing himself – so all we could do really was mutter, go home and kick the cat.

Leon’s contribution to the format has to be acknowledged, though. In the scramble to get Series One up and running, a lot of his original ideas worked great and we were grateful for them. But almost immediately there was this disjoint regarding the tone of the comedy. Lee and I always had a taste for cranky, surreal stuff – which Leon clearly didn’t like. So he’d cut chunks out, or (as we saw it) water it down with a blander text. This situation improved later on, though – and by Series Three we felt our voice was finally coming through and a consistent tone was being achieved.

Glyn and Neville both brought enormous pizzazz to the material when they took it over. We’ve often speculated about how much more arresting T. Bag might have been in the early days if either of them had helmed from the start. We shall never know!

From experience, the two series which seem to be most well remembered are T. Bag and the Revenge of the T. Set and T. Bag and the Pearls of Wisdom. Why do you think that is? Which series do you remember the most and why?

I think Kellie Bright may have something to do with it! Also, both Revenge of the T. Set and Pearls of Wisdom really explored the show’s mad mythology which everyone seemed to delight in.

Funnily enough it’s “Turn On To T. Bag” which sticks in my mind as a turning point in the show’s development. We managed to sneak in some episode ideas which felt a lot less “kids’ tv” than before. I’m thinking of the “Bubble Boy” story, for instance – an example of the kind of “family show” we always had in mind. We loved it that kids and adults could watch T. Bag together (or apart!) and all get enjoyment out of it.

Can you tell us any of the mistakes or errors you think you made on the series? What is your least favourite series and/or episode(s)? With hindsight would you have done anything different with the series if you could?

There’s one episode in particular I think totally failed, and it was entirely our own fault for writing a dud script.

And the Golden Raspberry goes to: Episode One of the final series, “Take Off With T. Bag” – 20 horrible minutes of hooey, rescued only by Georgina’s appearance as a bearded Swiss weirdo trying to blow up Granny Bag with a bomb concealed inside a cuckoo clock.

I blush at this script because Lee and I were experienced enough writers by then to have spotted its fatal flaw – it’s all just an extended set-up for the episodes to follow. Talk about stretching things out? What we should have done, in retrospect, was get the set-up over and done with quickly in the first few minutes, then head off on adventure No 1 right away. If only Leon had been around, to point out the error of our ways! – For once his gripes would have been justified.

On the other hand, there are other episodes in this last series which I count amongst my all-time faves. It just goes to prove what a weirdly unpredictable business comedy is.

Note to self: “For sanity’s sake, give it up.”

About the Reunion DVD

How did the idea about organising a reunion of the cast and crew and filming it for a DVD release come about? What were your experiences and thoughts whilst making it? How did you feel seeing all the people involved with the show fifteen years after the last series aired?

Lee and I were invited by this bright young producer called Dexter O’Neill to do an extended interview about another show we wrote called The Tomorrow People. It proved a successful collaboration, so Dexter wanted to follow it up with something else of ours – and T. Bag was the obvious choice. So rather than the reunion acting as a trigger for its filming, the DVD release actually came about the other way around!

Both of the shooting days (two Saturdays several weeks apart) were completely unforgettable and brilliant. Everyone who was there will tell you, it was about as happy and heart warming a time as it’s possible to have. Magic!

Who would you have liked to have been part of the reunion DVD that was not involved and why?

Despite all our sideways swipes and under-the-breath growls, I do personally think it would have been fascinating if Leon had been there – if only to marvel at Liz Estensen’s hilarious impression of him swinging his golf club during her audition (which you’ll have laughed at, if you’ve seen the DVD).

We couldn’t invite everybody, unfortunately – with a cast that size, we’d have had to hire the Royal Festival Hall a.k.a. Tabatha’s toilet.

Do you think the Reunion DVD has been successful and why? Would you ever consider doing something similar again?

I’m really thrilled with it. We’ve long been baffled by the reluctance of Fremantle to release such a popular series onto DVD. Finally it looks like that’s set to change. But in the meantime, the Reunion DVD fills a gap which helps keep the memory of the show alive (as does this rocking website!!! – Bravo, Jamie!)

About the prospect of digital downloads

With the T-Bag series commercially unavailable what are your thoughts on the impending release of digital downloads?

It’s great news. We can’t wait. Except obviously we can. We’ve been waiting for 24 years. The big hope is that this will lead to a sumptuous box set containing all 94 episodes, complete with Deleted Scenes and Director’s Commentary (gulp!)

Why do you think the whole series have not been released commercially before now?

Why don’t we let Tallulah Bag answer that one? – “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? – the world’s full of idiots.”

Do you think digital downloads of T-Bag episodes/series will be successful and will you be downloading them yourself?

I think there’s a great chance they will be successful, based on the number of fans (grown up now, with kids of their own) who constantly ask me for copies “to show their children.” Yeah, right. They’re just being sneaky, of course. They just want to watch it themselves – to bask again in the joy of being 7 years old.

Looking at T. Bag after all these years, they will very likely find it a little on the rickety side (as “In Search of the Castaways” was for me). But in this far-too-smart, CGI-sodden world, I reckon there’s a lot to be said for rickety. And, yes, I will be downloading a set for myself (and nobody comes ricketier than me).

Final word goes to the Bag Sisters:

“Release those DVDs, boys! – and we don’t mean tomorrow!”

Grant Cathro