Grant Cathro - 25th Anniversary Interview

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To celebrate the silver anniversary of T-Bag, I've asked Grant Cathro some intriguing questions about the show. These questions have been submitted by members of the Forum and visitors to the website and you've come up with some brilliant questions. Thanks for letting me have your questions, I've picked some of the best questions and hope you enjoy the interview.

Grant kindly replied to the questions, his replies bring an indepth insight into the programme we all loved as a child (and still love). Many thanks to Grant for his interview and his continued support and input into the website. Grant's help and assistance with the website over these past few years has been appreciated so much and I just want to thank him for his ongoing support and kind words of encouragement.

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

Subsequent series of T-Bag are more sophisticated and detailed in comparison to the first series. In retrospect if you could change one thing of Wonders in Letterland, what would it be and why?

Altogether now, “The Directoooooorrrrrrrrr!!!!”

Unkind, I admit. You mean script-wise? Actually, I’d change it all – does that count as one thing? Lee will tell you, I always want to change everything all the time. I’m a very restless writer, always fidgeting. It’s just the way I work – in fact it’s one of the biggest differences between us. Lee prefers to chew things over thoughtfully in his mind, gradually arrive at a decision, then write down the results. After that, he doesn’t much like it to be altered, which you can well understand. Me, I’m the exact opposite. I don’t spend any time thinking, I just like to throw down the first thing that leaps into my brain, after which I sit staring at it for about fifty seconds before realising I hate about 97% of it. A voice that isn’t mine then trips out of my mouth, grumbling, “What talent-free blob wrote this?” and then the self-disgust kicks in. The forefinger homes in on the delete button like a dross-seeking missile. I might end up saving the 3% that I do like, after which I rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite until my eyeballs morph painfully into sultanas. By these very different routes, we both end up arriving at pretty much the same place – except I’m usually the one who’s never wholly happy with anything, even then. Right now, I’m thinking of setting fire to this entire response and sticking with, “The Directoooooorrrrrrrrr!!!”

During the earlier series, T-Bag often referred to herself as ‘The High-T’. At what stage was it decided that the T. Set was a force for good – was this at the start of writing Revenge of The T. Set or had this been planned during the earlier series?

You’re right, it was at the start of Series Five. There’s no way we could have planned ahead earlier on, since we never knew from one series to the next when the plug might be pulled. (On the one occasion we did think further ahead, at the end of Series Nine, the plug did get pulled! Great Woody Allen joke: How do you make God laugh? – tell Him your plans for the future.) By the time we got to writing Revenge of the T.Set, the story sort of forced us to create a whole new layer of mythology so we sank ourselves in and made up this whole lunatic back-story which then was like an Aladdin’s Cave of material we could delve into from that point onwards. This process is known as either a) Reverse Engineering – a phrase I really like ‘cuz it makes it sound like you know what you’re on about – or b) Busking It.

Turn on to T-Bag features alterations to the formula of the previous series (new treasure hunting girl, T-Shirt's story rather than the girl's, small changes to the treasure hunt with T. Bag getting her own plot, more spoof); were these deliberate changes and were you happy with them?

This was partly the result of a “change of emphasis” note from our new Executive Producer, Alan Horrox – who we all must thank for re-commissioning the show once Marjorie Sigley moved on from Thames TV at the end of T.Bag Bounces Back. One day, Alan summoned Lee and me into his office, sat us down and said, “This show of yours is great. Just look at these ratings. And all for the price of a hamburger. Let’s give it another ten episodes... on one condition...” We shuffled in our seats, wondering what the condition might be – that it was written by somebody else, perhaps? Then came the “change of emphasis” note, which seemed to us beyond surreal – could we please, please, PLEASE, “Get rid of T.Shirt’s cap?” Lee and I emerged from Alan’s office and looked at each other with narrowed eyes, mumbling, “Did he say get rid of T.Shirt’s... cap?” – surely that’s a costume note for Ray Childe? Well – it was and it wasn’t. What lay behind his enigmatic request was Alan’s desire to make the show a tad more edgy. Super-cutesy skip caps worn at rakish angles, curly-haired poppets in party frocks, all of this was for the chop. It was actually manna from heaven in a way, because this was exactly the direction we were trying so hard to go in anyway. Our earlier ambitions to make the show weirder and madder had been thwarted time and again at a succession of usually gruesome production meetings characterised by an overuse of the phrase, “You’ve gone right over the top again, boys.” Lee and I were always committed going over the top for the simple reason that, by some mysterious force, television always diminishes everything. Only by aiming high do you have the slightest chance of something decent hitting the screen. Better to go over the top than under the bottom, that’s my motto (it isn’t really, I just said it now). But finally, what bliss, we had approval from a man called Horrox to take the show exactly where we wanted to take it! – and our pleasure was doubled when we discovered that, as a result, the enraged director had taken to biting big lunks out of the set with his teeth.

At one point you were writing for T-Bag, Spatz and Mike & Angelo during the early 90’s, was there ever a time when this was just too confusing?

Confusing, no, knackering, no, extremely knackering, yes.... and in the midst of it all, Lee was also writing his solo kids’ books, and I was working as an actor doing Shakespeare in the theatre and Love Hurts and Taggart on the telly... then there was all that astronaut training Tuesday and Thursday nights, and the dolphin rescue thing, and working at weekends as a Laughing Policeman Technician, which in truth was a full-time job in itself. Sometimes I wonder, did it all really happen...??

Many of the episodes had coming up and next week teasers with a voice-over, were these written by you or the scenes selected by you, if not who selected and put these together? Before John Hasler started the voice-over on these (from Rings of Olympus onwards) who did the voice-overs?

It’s kind of fuzzy in the memory, but I do seem to recall the Producer Charles Warren ringing us up to say, “We need a few teasers, lads... no doubt you’re very busy writing scripts, or whatever it is you do... shall we leave it up to Leon?” and we’d turn ashen white and yelp, “No, we’ll do it, we’ve got loads of time, it’s going wonderfully!” (even if it wasn’t). After all, it was our names scrolling up at end as Ye Olde Script Writers, and we were already mighty irked about all those changes we hated being imposed on our work, so the less that was left up to Leon the better – that was our view. It only partly worked. We couldn’t believe our ears when the shows aired and we were treated to Leon The Actor performing the voice-overs in the manner of an uptight School Headmaster: “You boy, at the back... stop talking, and listen!... in next’s week’s show...!” It was totally the wrong tone. Incidentally, it’s the same Mister Grumpy voice that links the various episodes in the “Pearls of Wisdom” video release: “Now pay attention, class, it appears that T.Bag has found three of the mystical pearly what-d’you-call-thems, and...alright, who’s that smoking behind their desk!?” Once Leon’s reign was over, someone had the much brighter idea of getting John Hasler to do the voice-overs, and that worked out fine. But as a pleasing antidote to this too-sour critique, I am happy to reveal that Leon The Actor also did the recurring voice-overs playing the part of Grizzly Thwack (in those episodes where T.Shirt was seen glued to his radio, hooked on The Gory Story Hour) to absolute and sublime perfection. Who knew that?

Out of the nine anchor characters (The Gardener, Hickory-Dickory Dock, Major Happy, Professor Sparkes, The High-T Lady, Captain Cockle, Athena, Diggory and Granny Bag) which one was you favourite at the time and has this changed now. Which out of these were you most surprised at them being cast?

What amazing actors we had in these parts! They were all so great in their own very different ways that it’s hard to choose a favourite. But I’ve got a real soft spot for The High-T Lady (Jan Holden) because hers may be the campest performance I have ever seen on television! – I still laugh out loud when I watch those episodes. Jim Norton was outstanding in all those multiple roles, bringing a bit of my all-time hero Stan Laurel to The Gardener – so that was quite a personal treat. Roy Barraclough did us proud with a wonderfully droll H.-D.Dock, and I was majorly happy when Tony Haygarth brought all kinds of shades and depths to the character, most of which were merely hinted at in our script. Ivan Beavis also caught the tone just right, perhaps taking his cue from Georgina’s withering line, “Well, if it isn’t the Crashing Old Bore of the Century!” – and I must finally pay a special tribute to my ancient chum, Denise Coffey, who brought Granny Bag to life for us with warmth and sincerity; more delight than surprise, really, when she agreed to do it.

The T-Bag series has some subtle in-jokes and references to previous episodes, was this intentional from the beginning as an attempt to widen the viewing to adults as well as children?

I’ve said this before somewhere, but I don’t think Lee or I ever once (then or now) thought, “Oh, we’re writing for children” – that’s got to be the kiss of death. We just tried to make ourselves, or each other, laugh. So it all just stemmed from that, really. Nothing can be too subtle or too outlandish as I see it – just so long as it’s funny. The minute I hear a producer utter the words, “The kids won’t get it” I feel like bursting into tears (after I’ve killed them, I mean... I’m not inhuman). With the rise of all these super-intelligent Pixar movies, you hear this sort of idiot remark a lot less now, thank goodness. It wasn’t always that way, believe me.

In the later series (namely Sunstones of Montezuma and Take off with T. Bag) the scripts often referred to places in the ‘real world’ (Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Sunderland etc), was this an in-joke to see how many places could be mentioned or an attempt to take the story into the real world and away from the curiosity shop?

No, it just made us laugh referring to a place like Sunderland whilst wandering around a place like Shangri-La. If it made us laugh, it went in the script.

Terry Trower wrote much of the music and songs for the show, which of his songs is your personal favourite? Can you tell us about the circumstances that led to Tim Whitnall write the ‘Marshmellow Monday’ song from Sunstones of Montezuma?

Quite a zany bunch of talents collaborated on T.Bag – and few were as pleasantly off the wall as Terry. You never had the slightest clue what to expect when you handed him your lyrics then waited for his music to appear. Sometimes Terry would phone out of the blue and say something inscrutable like, “I’d like to put a comma in the middle of this word,” or “Do you mind if raspberry is pronounced raawsperreeeee?” But mostly he’d just fall completely silent for a good long while, then, when no-one was looking, creep at dead of night into a recording studio at Thames TV with an unlikely assortment of session musicians, along with the actors, to emerge at dawn with the deed duly done. So you’d turn up on filming days to hear your wistfully comic Elizabethan madrigal transmogrified into some insane jangle accompanied on an amplified hurdy-gurdy, or listen to your character going head to head in a song against an excitable tuba player in duet with a three-armed glockenspiel virtuoso. It was always cranky and original. My personal favourite’s got to be the sequence of music that drives along “T. Bag’s Christmas Ding-Dong” – not just the mini-opera the three of us wrote for the finale, but the other stuff too. Surely it was a highlight of Glenda Jackson’s glittering career to be seen on stage singing “I’m a sucker for a blow,” accompanied by a man in a periwig playing a trombone on a tripod.

Raymond Childe created the costumes for the first eight series, why was he not involved in the last series, Take off with T-Bag? What did you think of the costumes designed for the last series by Jo Allman.

Best ask Ray, I’m not 100% sure. I thought Jo’s work was totally in keeping with the style that Ray created, opulent and theatrical as ever. I always wanted to steal them and take them home. Be great making breakfast dressed as Olwyn de Bag.

After T-Bag you wrote for the revival of The Tomorrow People, did you notice the similarities with T-Bag at the time (being able to disappear and reappear, children protagonists and several of the T-Bag cast reappearing in Tomorrow People episode)? How do you think writing T-Bag helped (or hindered) writing for The Tomorrow People?

I’m not sure we did notice those similarities! It would have been naughty but nice if we’d had those serious-minded Tomorrow People folks appearing and disappearing with a jolly “ping” or farty “plop” like Bag & Co did. They were such radically different projects that I’m not even sure they shared the same brain space, if you see what I mean – just as it’s unlikely you’d confuse a game of cricket with making pancakes and start tossing bats or bowling eggs. Ex-T.Bag actors turned up all the time in our other shows because by then we had a big say in all the major casting decisions, since we weren’t only Ye Olde Script Writers but Associate Producers too (Look, mum, I’m an Ass. Prod.)

Fremantle have been planning digital download for a while now, what do you think has caused such a long delay and when do you think that a release will be forthcoming?

When someone at Fremantle said “sometime soon” we didn’t realise that person was once a Geologist – like, sometime soon after the Paleocene Epoch came the Cretaceous Period. What has caused this abysmal delay? The passage of time is partly to blame – as is a seeming lack of endeavour behind tightly closed doors. On behalf of us both, Lee has manfully done his best to badger and cajole these bods to get the proverbial wiggle on, but so far the only thing we hear is, “Not long now!” And as we all know, not long after the Mesozoic Era came the Paleozoic...

What do you think the future holds for T-Bag?

Breaking news! – T.Bag will once return again to our screens with an all-new cast and a monster special effects budget. When? – not long now, a.k.a. sometime soon. Actually, there’s some talk of a book coming out, containing a selection of the best scripts and other ephemera, so that sounds like a jolly project. Keep an eye on the website for further announcements (not, sadly, from good old Grizzly Thwack).

T-Bag celebrates its 25th anniversary since its initial broadcast, how would you sum up the whole experience in just one word?


What current projects/scripts/programmes are you working on?

Lee and I just collaborated once again on a 100-minute movie screenplay, commissioned as a spin-off to the Nickelodeon sitcom we were both involved in called “Genie in the House”. It’s a lot of fun – quite T.Baggy actually. Here’s hoping they can scrape together the $200,000,000 budget required to do it justice. I’m also writing episodes of a new Walt Disney show called “Groove High” which is all set in a Performing Arts School. And again with Lee, we’ve co-created and are busy developing a new fantasy musical series with producers Steven Bawol and Phil Ox. The Laughing Policeman Technician job continues on Saturdays only.

Grant Cathro