Lee Pressman - 24th Anniversary Interview

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To celebrate the twenty-fourth anniversary of T-Bag first being broadcast in the UK, I asked Lee Pressman 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 Lee 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?

The task was to come up with a series about letters of the alphabet. But to make it magical and exciting I was thinking along the lines of Alice through the Looking Glass with a bit of Wizard of Oz thrown in for good measure. Instead of a journey across a chessboard, the Alice/Dorothy character (Debbie) would travel across a board game where every square represented a different letter – thus fulfilling the ‘educational’ brief. The original pitch contained mad one line episode titles such as ‘Return of the Killer Bs’ and ‘Under the C’, which were just puns, and I don’t think we really had a clue how we would be able to bring these to the screen. Although I guess we did manage an ‘undersea’ episode quite early on with Seraphina the sea sprite.

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?

John’s sketches were very beautiful and extremely detailed. The lack of budget naturally limited what he could do to bring his visions to life. But funnily enough the flat hardboard sets were rather apt for the early series – especially the board game and storybook settings. John’s designs were an important part of the magic along with Ray’s wonderful costumes and Terry’s lovely music.

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?

Grant and I attended virtually every single recording, and suffered a whole range of emotions from utter horror to huge satisfaction. I think I’ve banged on long enough about all the horrendous changes to the first five series. To dwell for a change on the triumphs – well T.Bag’s Christmas Ding Dong has to be an all time high. What a cast – not only Glenda Jackson, but James Saxon and Peter Woodthorpe, who were both fabulous. And to get the chance to write our own little opera – it was the nearest thing to doing The Morecombe & Wise Show! Who will ever forget double Oscar winner Glenda Jackson singing ‘I’m a sucker for a blow on the old trombone’? Bliss on a stick.

As to the missed T. Room scenes – well that happened regularly. By the end of the series they would be piling up. But, with the limitations on time, and knowing that the weekly sets would be scrapped at the end of each recording day, it was a little safety net that allowed us to get through the frantic schedule by the skin of our teeth. And all credit to Leon for devising that little scheme.

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?

The joke is that Leon did make many useful contributions to the show. Years before we’d actually worked with him Grant and I really admired his talent as a comedy actor. The trouble was, as a director, he wasn’t a team player. There was no way anybody else could have a say in the production. Neville and Glyn were more relaxed and open to suggestions. As writers we suddenly felt valued for the first time.

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 guess we’d hit our stride after the first two or three series. I have favourite episodes dotted about all over the place – ‘Bubble Boy’, ‘African Queen’ and ‘Doc Leaf’ from Turn on to T. Bag, ‘Rockstar’ and ‘Will Wagadagger’ from Revenge, and one of my all time favourites – ‘Mutiny’ from Pearls. I also have a soft spot for ‘Yukon’, and let’s not forget the immortal ‘Exit With A Puff’. And Murray Melvin as Ig the caveman! To be honest I get completely mixed up which episodes were in which series – I had to check the listings on the website to get these right!

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?

I’m sure your nitpicker’s guide has identified most of them. I think they mainly concerned losing track of how many crystals, pearls, spoons or whatnots had been collected. Writing it at the speed of light I reckon we did pretty well!

There were more than a few naff episodes along the way. I seem to recall one set in space with a robot called Mr McCanickle that I haven’t seen the need to watch since it was first broadcast. But even some of the worst shows had funny scenes in them.

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?

Grant and I were being interviewed by Dexter O’Neill about The Tomorrow People. I said to him that if he really wanted to make a documentary about a cult show with a huge following he should consider T. Bag. Dexter was interested so I started to track down the cast and crew. It was great fun making contact with everyone after so long, and there wasn’t a single person I asked who didn’t want to take part. Organising it around Liz’s Emmerdale duties and Georgina’s charity work in Egypt proved tricky, and in the end it was decided that since so many people wanted to attend we would record it over two weekends, filming all the interviews at my house and making it into a huge tea party along the way. It turned out to be an extremely emotional experience and I was so glad that we managed to pull it off.

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

There were so many wonderful actors to choose from and we just didn’t have the time (or the space) to invite everyone. John Bluthal would have been great. Denise Coffey of course. John Savident. And a couple of dear departed regulars – James Saxon and Peter Woodthorpe. I was disappointed not to be able to track down Evelyn Sweeney, Diana Barrand and Natalie Wood – I did try, but just couldn’t locate them.

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

Absolutely. I genuinely had a fabulous time phoning people up and sending out invitations. It was like organising a great big party. I hope it’s been successful – we didn’t do it to make money. It was more a labour of love and something for all the fans who have been so loyal to the show over the years.

For our 25th Anniversary Project we are thinking about publishing a book full of scripts, photos, press cuttings, manuscripts and memorabilia. This was Dexter’s idea and would be another Fantom Films Production.

About the prospect of digital downloads

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

I just hope I’ll be alive to see it happen!

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

Impossible to say. Despite its popularity T. Bag somehow slipped through the net and has always been ignored by TV historians, pundits, and Top Hundred Kids Shows listings. Everybody knows the series, but its public profile is almost non-existent. It’s always puzzled us why T. Bag was so shunned while so many lesser shows spawned books, videos and endless repeat showings.

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

I hope so. I would love to be able to watch nice clean copies instead of the knackered old videos I have at present. And if they ever come out on DVD I’ll be in TV heaven.

Lee Pressman