Lee Pressman - 22nd Anniversary Interview

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To celebrate twenty two years since T-Bag first broadcast in the UK back in 1985, Lee 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.

Lee was kind enough to reply 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 very much appreciated.

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?

This tinkering with the scripts was a huge problem for us during the first five series. On Mondays Grant and I would go to the rehearsal room, meet the actors, and enjoy hearing the scripts read aloud (and come to life) for the first time. We would then come home to get on with the next episode. On Fridays we would turn up at the studio to find, in our absence, lots of stuff had been re-written without our knowledge (the endings were often hacked to pieces). One example that springs to mind concerns one of our favourite episodes – the Paris story from ‘Revenge of the T.Set’. The end of T.Bag’s terribly unlucky day was supposed to feature chaos and mayhem raining down on her - pictures falling off the wall, vases smashing, a mass of accidents in quick succession. We were horrified to discover that this had been changed to T.Shirt lamely throwing her a horseshoe, which lands on her foot! A pretty feeble conclusion to a really funny episode.

Not that I’m bitter or anything, but just to demonstrate what we were up against, here are my original notes on some of the enforced changes in ‘Revenge of the T.Set’:

Episode One – Six minutes of ‘pudding’ cut from script. Six minutes of contrived flashbacks added to make up the lost time.
Episode Three – We agreed at a meeting to rewrite last scene. At the read-through a completely new last scene was produced and used despite our protests.
Episode Four – Script hacked to pieces. Nonsensical last scene added.
Episode Seven – First scene axed. Gypsy scene rewritten with introduction of totally confusing ‘invisible scene’ (after we had been told that we were forbidden to have invisible characters in show).
Episode Eight – Paris. Last scene ruined (see above)
Episode Ten – Having set up in episodes 1 – 9 T.Shirt’s fondness for his walkman, the idea was for him to break open a cassette, unwind the tape, and use it to help himself and Sally escape from the underground caves. This vital part of the plot was totally ignored. The surprise entrance of The High T Lady was axed – the excuse given - ‘The actress cannot be expected to descend three steps’.

This is what we were up against for five years.

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?

Sorry. I have no memory of dates and times. I think we just fitted into the schedule whenever they had a vacant slot. Once the show became popular we were on a roll, and the commissions probably did come quicker.

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?

As far as I can remember the producers decided to ‘update’ the show by recasting. At this time neither Grant nor I had any say in choosing the actors. I would love to know what Jennie is doing now – her family used to live just around the corner from my parents in Chingford, but I checked recently and they seem to have moved. If anyone has any ideas where she might be…

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?

I’d first met Charles when I wrote for ‘Rainbow’. Through him I got to write on ‘Button Moon’, ‘Take A Chance’, and ‘Words Words Words’ (where I first bumped into Mr Cathro). Since The BBC didn’t exactly throw work at us, we owe Charles (and Thames Television) a huge debt for giving us our big break, leading to many subsequent years of work on ‘T.Bag’, ‘Mike & Angelo’ ‘Spatz’ and ‘B & B’.

As you suggest Charles worked more in the background, (but could be quite dynamic and forceful when the mood took him).

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?

I have no recollection of how the Christmas Specials came about. Looking back now, you’re right, it was a rare privilege to be granted such an honour. Personally I loved doing them. After a gruelling ten part series, working out all the complicated logistics of the ongoing quest, it was a treat to devise a one off story with a jolly Christmas setting. I don’t recall the term ‘special’ referring to any more money being spent on the budget (except for ‘T.Bag’s Christmas Ding Dong’ where they actually pushed the boat out in honour of our special guest star).

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?

Unlike The BBC, ITV companies weren’t quite so together at exploiting their product. During nine years of ‘T.Bag’ there was only one book and one video. After twelve years of ‘Mike & Angelo’ there was nothing. If T.Bag had been on the BBC there would have been dozens of videos, books, magazines, tee shirts, action figures, duvet covers and lunch boxes. Somebody at Thames must have put forward the idea for a book at some point, but I can’t remember who.

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?

Delving into the vast T.Bag Archives (a shoe box under the bed), I managed to find a draft of a letter in which Grant and I outlined what we wanted to achieve with the book. I quote:

‘We are proposing the book consists of ten stories focussed around the exploits of T.Bag and T.Shirt. Each story will be a self contained mini-adventure full of the usual fun and frolics that we usually associate with our madcap heroes.’

‘As a general rule each story will spring from a domestic situation in the T.Room, which then spills over into other exotic and colourful lands inhabited by a motley collection of eccentric characters. For example, one story could involve T.Bag’s birthday – T.Shirt’s search for a suitable gift takes him to Switzerland where he is soon in trouble with a mad cuckoo clock maker. In another adventure T.Bag sets off for Arabia to have her hair done by Ali Barber.’

(Other story ideas included going on holiday, being sick, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, learning an instrument, Halloween, keeping a pet, a talent contest, Granny Bag, Doggy Bag and so on.)

‘In this way we are abandoning the idea of an ongoing quest in favour of a collection of individual stories. However, one story will lead on to the next, and there will be a thread running through the chapters which resolves itself at the end.’

‘We have arrived at this decision after much hard work and torturous thought. As we discussed at the meeting it is impossible to accommodate all the various complicated strands, which make up a T.Bag television episode in book format. The rapid shift of scenes, the subplots, and the ongoing quest of the heroine become a complete jumble when transferred to prose.’

(From jotted notes it looks as if we came to this conclusion after briefly attempting – and quickly abandoning – turning ‘T.Bag Strikes Again’ into a book).

Proposed titles for the opus appear to have included ‘Tales From The T.Room’ and ‘The T.Bag Potboiler’. Further mysterious random scribbles include the words ‘Hypnotism’, ‘Grisly Thwack’, ‘Gorilla’, ‘Grow Bag’, and ‘Hoover/Ghost’!

As soon as we had taken the decision to liberate ourselves from simply transcribing a TV series into book form we were off – pretty much using the blueprint above to pen a series of stories linked by the birthday thread. And we loved it so much we later did the reverse and turned this into the basis for ‘Take Off With T.Bag’. As you’ve already guessed – we never throw away anything!

I would have been happy doing further books, but this one took so long, and the money was so poor, plus we had so many other TV projects to work on, that I’m not sure a follow up was ever considered.

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?

The first ‘big studio’ show I remember was ‘T.Bag’s Christmas Ding Dong’ – it was very liberating to be able to spread ourselves out a bit more. I don’t think it ever affected our writing by having bigger studios. But, by the time we arrived at ‘Take Off With T.Bag’, the larger space coupled with a new designer made the show look a lot classier.

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

All of the girls brought something different to the role. If you’re asking me to stick my neck out and choose one, I would probably go for Kellie Bright. Even as a kid she was a great little actor, and appeared in some classic episodes (the rock ‘n’ roll’ one, Paris, Will Waggadagger, Mutiny etc). Also she got to defeat Tallulah and Tabatha!

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?

This was an interesting one, and featured my friend, Gilly Coman (by now I was actually able to suggest actors!). Neville Green, the director, had incredible visual ideas (he used to produce beautiful hand drawn story boards). Coupled with Alex Clarke the designer they decided to film this episode both inside the studio and outside in the scenery bay, the idea being to create a sort of ‘Red Dwarf’ type cargo ship of huge proportions.

My favourite moment is T.Shirt finding the TV listings in the newspaper, which show him that series 97 (or whatever) of T.Bag was still running in the future.

This was one of the few episodes where I took along a video camera and shot some behind the scenes footage. We hope to present this on our proposed ‘Making of T.Bag Documentary’. I still have a small souvenir Nibbles staring down at me from a shelf as we speak.

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 don’t recall having to scrap any whole episodes. But there were dozens of ideas we tried out (briefly) then quickly abandoned. Once we latched onto a story with potential we made sure we made it work. We didn’t have time to ditch whole episodes.

My notes for 12th January 1986 may give some indication of how we worked. At this point we were brainstorming ideas for ‘Turn On To T.Bag’. Suggested episode ideas that day included:

Gangsters – a robbery. Something valuable hidden inside the pot of the plant.
Spies – secret plans?
Robin Hood – he steals it to give to his ladylove, Maid Marion.
North Pole – starving, no provisions, eats his shoe. When she arrives he decides to eat the plant.
Painter – wants to paint still life of plant.
Beetle Hunter – beetles attracted by plants. Fleas. Indian Rain Dance.
Space – get rid of plant on distant planet.
Jungle – David Bellamy type/Tarzan finds plant.
Foreign Legion
Ship – banana boat? Bertha Bote.

(Interesting to note how obsessed we were with the t.plant at this stage of planning).

That motley collection of ideas was our starting point for the series. And from all those we only actually used ‘Gangsters’ and ‘Bertha Bote’. However, ‘Painters’, ‘Space’, ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘The Foreign Legion’ all turned up in later series.

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 of any existing out-takes except for the home movie footage I shot whilst visiting the studios during the Bin Bag, Doctor Strangebag, and Phantom of the Opera episodes.

One memory of a classic cock up was during a Victorian Christmas episode where T.Shirt was supposed to be hidden inside a large Christmas present. Leon Thau insisted that the designer build an enormous box, (despite Grant and I pointing out that it needn’t be quite so big). When it came to shoot the scene where the box was hurled through the front door into the street, Leon decided to demonstrate to everyone how easy and simple this would be – and every time he chucked the huge parcel it hit the doorframe or the lamp and bounced back into the house. Take seventeen!

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?

Well there’s so many to choose from. After seeing Bernard Bresslaw in the show it’s intriguing to consider other members of the ‘Carry On’ cast – Charles Hawtrey, Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Bernard Cribbins. In a complete fantasy scenario I’d go for Phil Silvers, Margaret Rutherford, Will Hay, Terry Thomas – probably the whole cast of ‘It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World’.

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?

After several years, and several hit series, Grant and I were allowed to suggest actors for the shows – and ones that we liked, we kept bringing back. Kerry Shale, Matt Zimmerman, Murray Melvin, James Saxon, John Savident etc. flitted from ‘T.Bag’ to ‘Mike & Angelo’, and from ‘Spatz’ to ‘The Tomorrow People’. They were fantastic reliable actors with our sense of humour, and would always turn in a great performance. It was much more satisfying for us to be writing for people we knew and admired. In the earlier episodes of T.Bag we had no say in the matter, and our suggestions were completely overlooked – there was a pirate episode where we specified that the leading actress should be black – we arrived at the studio to discover a white blonde actress had been cast!

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?

Probably yes. In those far off days ‘magic and imagination’ were all important, and great shows like ‘Catweazle’ and the original ‘Tomorrow People’ were the result of a great writer coming up with a cracking idea, and the TV companies having the faith to back it. Today there are still great ideas around, but the process of getting them made is a nightmare – involving bizarre co-productions with foreign backers, dozens of producers all over the world, focus groups – it’s no longer spontaneous and risky. It’s big business and it can suck the life out a project.

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

It was just such a coincidence – I was doing some part time tutoring at Bournemouth University, and little did I know that in another department a student had asked Georgina Hale and John Hasler to take part in a sketch that he’d written as part of a project on cult television. I was sent a copy of the script and ended up rewriting it. Then Georgina dropped out due to ill health and the whole thing ground to a halt. It would have been fantastic if it had happened, but I think we missed the boat there.

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?

The ten-part quest with an individual story of the week was a unique concept, and I’ve not seen anything quite like it since. The show was obviously popular, so yes, it would be fabulous to do a 21st century update (they did it with Doctor Who!).

Although it would great to involve the original cast in some way, new versions of T.Bag and T.Shirt would obviously need to be found.

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?

No, I’m not really surprised that adults are still enjoying it because although it was a ‘kid’s show’ there was always plenty of humour that we hoped would appeal to a wider audience. But I am delighted and touched that its popularity is still riding high. It’s incredibly rewarding for us to read all the wonderful comments and tributes from fans all over the world.

I have been trying for many years to get the show released on DVD – the last I heard was that there was a problem with the music rights. But, armed with the petition, we shall continue to bang on to whoever is responsible and hopefully one day a 94 episode boxed set may be released just in time for Christmas.

In the meantime we are (slowly) working on our ‘Making of T.Bag’ DVD in which we intend to interview all the main cast and crew and provide backstage footage and fan input.

Lee Pressman