The Den of Geek interview: Colin Bostock-Smith
Colin Bostock-Smith has penned umpteen television and radio comedies throughout his distinguished career. Here, he joins Den Of Geek for a talk about his work.
Colin Bostock-Smith is one of Britain’s most prolific comedy writers. From Not The Nine O’Clock News and Smith & Jones, through to Clive James, Metal Mickey and Terry & June, he’s worked on a vast range of sitcoms and sketch shows. He spared some time with us to talk though his career.
How did you get involved with writing for TV in the first place. Your background before that was in journalism and magazines?
Yeah, I wasted many years of my life! Until about the age of 30 I was a journalist, but I always had this feeling that I would like to write comedy. I came into it through Week Ending on Radio 4. A lot of us started there. At the time I was there, there was Alistair Beaton, David Renwick, Andy Hamilton, all those people.
I started writing bits and pieces for them. You get the odd line on, and then a little bit more on. Eventually I got fired from my proper job and it coincided with the producer Simon Brett offering me a much bigger commission on the show. Segued into it rather neatly, I think.
That show gave a break to the likes of David Renwick and Andy Hamilton, and these are people who you’d be associated with through the 80s as well?
Yes. That’s right. John Lloyd was the producer there at the time.
I understand you did lots of writing for lots of people before you got to Not The Nine O’Clock News?
Yes. Well, I sometimes get muddled on the what came first and what came next. I did write for Basil Brush, his last two series. He was the old Basil, when he was funny. I wrote for various radio shows, I had a radio series called My Sainted Aunt on Radio 2. I worked on Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night, which was a huge, disastrous Bruce Forsyth show. And I wrote a thing called Metal Mickey.
And that was Mickey Dolenz’s show wasn’t it?
Yeah, he was the director/producer. We did 41 of them and I wrote the lot.
Metal Mickey was a hugely ambitious show for what you were trying to do?
The robot could do 21 different things. I’ve known a lot of actors who can’t do 21 different things. He was pretty good. And we had a very good cast, including Irene Handl. So we had a lot of fun with it. When we got into the second or third series you got the feeling that you could really handle this, so we did all sorts of things. It was quite popular.
Is it true the story about the floor manager, and about how Metal Mickey had to be directly spoken to as a character if you wanted to give him directions?
Absolutely true. I kid you not. The floor manager had to be moved, he would not talk to the robot. He insisted on talking to John Edwards, who was the man who controlled the robot, who was in a black box at the front of the seats. John wouldn’t answer.
Who was your sympathy with there?
I don’t think I gave a … I just laughed, it was very funny. I suppose it was a bit unprofessional on both their parts. People who operate robots and puppets, and I’ve worked with a lot of them, they’re usually lovely people. Basil Brush’s was a lovely person, a terrific character. I worked for Roland Rat, and there was David Claridge. These people are all slightly off-beat you know, because they’re living their lives through other characters! [laughs]
There was Michael Dolenz, one of the four most famous people in the world at one time, he was terrific to work with. Very, very clever man. He produced some of The Monkees shows, he wasn’t just an actor or singer. He was very adroit. I do remember one series that we were doing where he suddenly said there was going to be a gap in the production. One week we weren’t working because Michael couldn’t be there. So when he came back I said where have you been? And he said he’d been in Japan, don’t tell anyone, but they pay me thousands of dollars to go to Japan, to go on television by myself and mime to the Monkees songs!
You’ve written for a lot of shows. How involved was the writer allowed to get then with the production of their work?
With a sitcom with Metal Mickey, and I went on to do lots of different sitcoms, you really have to be there a lot of the time. Otherwise the concentration isn’t on how the actual plot or thing is working. The writer is the one who is responsible for that, so you are there and you are part of the team. But with other shows it’s surprising how distant you can be. I never went to a recording of Not The Nine O’Clock News.
Did you not?
Never went. I once went to rehearsals, and I went to a couple of meetings. Basically I sat at home, churned it out and sent it in.
What’s your preference? Do you like to go on set, or do you prefer keeping your distance?
Certainly the way things have gone in the modern world, they want writers there all the time. You’re expected to be there at 9 o’clock or earlier, and don’t get away until late at night. There’s tremendous desire for the writers to be there. In our time, we used to roll in about eleven, have a chat, perhaps have a beer at the bar at lunchtime and go home. Much more civilised! That’s they because they’re all on much tighter margins now, so they work everyone they’ve got much harder.
Sometimes you’re closely involved, otherwise not. Sketch shows you see, when I was working for Mel and Griff and people like that, you just sent it in. I wrote several sketches for The Two Ronnies, but never went to one of their recordings.
Is that a regret?
I don’t want to sound blasé about it, but recording studios can be tedious places. And also there’s not much you can do about it if it is going wrong. I was often quite glad I didn’t have to be there. Also, of course, when I was working for a lot of shows, I was spending all my time sitting at home trying to write.
So things like Not The Nine O’Clock News and Smith & Jones were remote assignments?
Does that take the pressure off? For something, for instance, on The Two Ronnies…
There was a pressure. The pressure was really self-induced. When I was doing the political cut-out stuff on the radio, I used to look at shows like the big sketch shows and thought I wish I could do that. After a time, that develops into I must try and do it. It takes a long time. It took me a long time to get up to a standard that was acceptable, but eventually you know, you sort of cotton on. You drive yourself forward. Then of course there’s the financial aspect: you need the work.
Contrasting something like Metal Mickey where you wrote every single episode, how was that different to coming onto something like Terry & June or Shelley where a lot of the setup has been established? Is it easier or harder?
Shelley was a delight. Tony Parker was the director, marvellous man, made you feel very welcome. As a result, it was easy to fit in and do a show. Terry & June was a nightmare.
Why was that?
I’m not going to go into that.
Just not an experience you enjoyed?
No. It was enough to put you off for life. Let’s just say that one of the stars was not a very amenable chap.
I read somewhere that you did plots for Disney stories in the 1980s?
Yes I did. That was a very strange, strange business. It consisted of two Danish guys who came to London. There was a couple of us doing this. We would come up with ideas for Disney comics, the stories for them. We’d talk about them, basically say it’ll be much better if we do it like this, like this, like this, like this, and then you went away to do it again. In the meantime, they stood us a very good lunch. They spent a week every month in London, on expenses!
And was this for comics or books?
Comics. A Disney comic. I’m not sure that we ever really had it here. But it was huge in Europe.
It was very much a sideline, something you knocked off in an afternoon.
You also adapted a couple of shows and films into novels. You turned Shelley into a book, and novelised the Graham Chapman film The Odd Job.
That’s right. They gave me the script of the The Odd Job and I wrote the book, so I shared credit for the book.
Is that a fairly straightforward process?
It was. I got the job when the BBC was on strike. There was no work around, but I got that job at the time. It took me about a month and a half to do, writing a chapter in the morning and then rewriting it in the evening. It tided me over very well. I’m still actually rather proud of The Odd Job, I think it’s a rather good book. I still see it around, I saw it in a second hand bookshop the other day. And the Metal Mickey books…!
Did you write those too?
I wrote a thing called The Metal Mickey Boogie Book. Just a little paperback. Then there was a Metal Mickey annual, which I didn’t write but someone got for me the other day as a birthday present.
The sheer variation of some of the stuff you were doing in the 80s was amazing. I’ve got that you were writing for Crackerjack as well?
Ah yes, yes! With The Krankies! I wrote a lot for The Krankies. They were lovely, marvellous people. I met them the other day. I occasionally do speeches on cruises. I met them on a cruise the other day. They were fun.
The big thing I did in the 80s, towards the end of the 80s, was Me & My Girl. When I look back, that and Not The Nine O’Clock News were the two main things I did.
Are they the two things you’re proudest of?
Yeah, they were the two most successful things that I’m most proud of, yeah. Me & My Girl was extremely successful. Greg Dyke, in his book, he talks about the time when he was made head of programmes at LWT. And he said that when they came there, there was a sitcom running called Me & My Girl. He said it was very successful, but didn’t like it. So he cancelled it, I remember the day. But he said that he had to admit that for the rest of the time he was there, he never found anything that was like that kind of success.
I thought of writing him a letter saying thanks Greg, it’s only my career!
That must have been quite a blow at the time.
It was bloody annoying, I’ll tell you that. The people were terrific people, it was a joy to write. It swung along splendidly, but there you are.
And can I ask you about Roland Rat? I read that Richard Curtis was in there at the start as well…
Yeah! Every time someone sneers at me for writing Roland Rat, I say to them do you know who wrote it first? It was Richard Curtis. Richard really made it I think. He invented the sort of ghastly, strutting character who believed he was so bloody wonderful. I had a lot of fun with it, I enjoyed it very much and I got paid well.
From reading interviews you’ve given in the past, you seem to get quite a kick out of the trio of Metal Mickey, Roland Rat and Basil Brush?
The thing about it is, there’s a reason I enjoyed doing them. Puppets can say things that a person can’t. We were able to be wonderfully rude with Basil Brush to guest. Upset Frankie Vaughan terribly, by referring to his one hit. And then getting it wrong!
The puppets and the robots were all aimed at kids’ audiences, but they were often saying more outlandish things than you’d see at primetime?
Yes, I never wrote any of those shows anyway, including Metal Mickey, for children. I always wrote them for myself. Within obvious guidelines, you know, but basically I wrote them to make the whole family laugh. And that’s the way to go about it.
In the 90s, there was As Time Goes By.
I’ve never written a word of it.
But you’re extensively credited for it?
I didn’t even write the title. It was my idea, you see.
Did you ever get a chance to write it?
I wrote an original episode, which sold it. It was called Winter With Flowers, which is an old German proverb that says love in old age is like winter with flowers. Which I thought was lovely. So it started off as winter with flowers, then they got someone in to do it, and she said she wanted Bob Larbey, who had written A Fine Romance for her. She wanted him, they said to me we’ll pay you so much an episode anyway, but Bob’s going to write it if I agree to it. And I did. It was thought, and I had a very nice contract that increased every series, that it would do two, maybe three series, but it’s done about twelve.
I grow tired of telling people it was just my idea. That’s what it says on the credits: From An Idea By.
Do you have any regret about that, or are you happy with the way it worked out?
You can’t regret these things. I’d have loved to have written it of course, but there you are. I went to America the other day to see a friend, and I had to go and talk to a group of elderly ladies who were convinced I’d written it. It’s huge in America. I was quite the celebrity. I didn’t go into the whole business that I hadn’t written it, I just said thank you very much!
Do you prefer writing sketch or sitcom? You had a lot of successful sketch shows: Naked Video, Who Dares Wins, the work with Russ Abbot, obviously Not The Nine O’Clock News…
Yeah, Russ Abbot was, I didn’t really write any sketches for him, but I wrote a lot of the songs. Songs were a huge success. We did an album of them. I had eight songs on the album.
Was Atmosphere one of yours?!
No, no, no, no. We did the satire songs! We did send ups. It was done by Ronco Records, who used to advertise them on television. The album got in the charts, did very well, then the week before they were due to pay us the royalties they went bust. Didn’t get a penny for it!
Is the sketch stuff easier to right, more liberating?
You do start from nothing most of the time, which is always very challenging. I spent an awful lot of time walking around wondering would this be funny. But when it does work, it’s lovely. I was watching The Two Ronnies Sketchbook the other day, when they did a sketch of mine called The Squash Sketch.
It was a sketch about the two of them having a game of squash. They were so nice about it. So I was bit flattered by that. There was a great sense of satisfaction. It still is funny. Very pleasing.
How does the mechanic differ when you have to extend the idea to a 30 minute episode in a sitcom?
Well with an episode you’re dealing in something that’s ongoing, usually. I suppose some sitcoms are a series of sketches joined up. Men Behaving Badly was frequently like that. So I was more interested in the character, the comedy of character, with Me & My Girl and other shows like that. To me it was the interplay of the characters that gave you what you wanted. A sketch is often just the exploring of a silly idea.
And do you find your ideas by just walking around?
Yeah, it’s like a lot of things. You work all day and get nothing, and on the train going home you suddenly think of a brilliant idea. That sort of things happens. I do a lot of wandering about the house, walking by the sea. I do make notes and sometimes things do come together.
How do you think, looking at television now, that the sensitivities of comedy programmes have had to adapt? On one hand we see old episodes of Only Fools & Horses that are being censored, and on the other there’s the new shows that come through with their explicit wish to shock?
It’s remarkable how they show some of the old shows on television today. I was watching something the other day, and I couldn’t believe they were taking out the words, I don’t know what they were taking out. You think that was done 20 years ago, for prime time television!
What is certainly true is that comedy has toughened up over the years. It was a factor with me. I really found that I wasn’t up to, I was getting too old. And you do get too old for things. I found it pretty difficult. And I appreciate that some of the stuff they do these days is absolutely fantastic. I love American comedies too. I like anything that makes me laugh, and most things do!
Do you think now that comedy writer gets the respect they deserve? More comedy writers seem to have a profile today.
Yeah, well of course you get a lot of writer/performers these days. I didn’t start appearing in public until I started doing the cruise ships. I never really got the opportunity anyway. I envy them in some ways.
The same time of course, there are so many people in comedy now. Comedy is such a vast thing. All sorts, so many good, I go to my local comedy club in Hastings, and I see sheer genius every time. I’m thinking why aren’t some of these people television stars? And actually some of them are, but on shows you never watch. It is very impressive I think.
One of the most recent things I saw that you’d done was the Anne Robinson programme…
Yeah! That was the last TV show that I’ve done actually.
Afterwards it came out that there was all sorts of tension, I believe, between Anne Robinson and Marcus Bristocke. Where did you fit into the show?
I wrote stuff for Annie. My son works a lot for her. He does her outtake show, and he does Weakest Link. We both know her very well. I really admire her, she’s terrific. There was and there wasn’t about the tension between the two. You need a bit of tension to make things work well I think. I thought that show was better, that it was going to be a better show than it turned out in a sense. But there you are.
Then there’s Clive James…
I did twelve years with him!
Was it twelve? I got that you’d done stuff early in the 80s.
Yeah, I was writing for The Clive James Show, Friday Night Clive, Saturday Night Clive, all those things. And of course the end of the year things. We had a lot of fun with them. We got a BAFTA with one. The weekly shows too were a great challenge, great fun. Working with Clive was like you were working with the real crème de la crème. This giant intellect, very funny. We literally sat in a small room together and made each other laugh, for all those years! I’m very grateful. I had lunch with him and he’s still in good form.
He probably should be back doing some more, but he has other plans.
And what are your plans at this stage? What are you looking to do now?
Well, the only thing I write regularly for now is the website The First Post. I write a couple of cartoons for them every day. The editor said he wanted stuff from Zambia, and because in the early years of this century, I went to live there for three years…
… when you wrote the material for The Spectator?
Yes I did, I’m very proud of some of those. Some of them are very serious stuff. I made 13 television comedies there, using local people and local gear. And we got them on Zambia television.
Very, very proud of it.
The one other thing I dug out about you, and I presume there aren’t too many Colin Bostock Smith’s around, so I’m guessing this is you. But on December 2nd in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph…
… that was me!
Yeah, it was.
This is where you wrote of The Beatles. “Not nearly as bad as they might have been” – do you stand by your comment?
Yeah, I think so! They were bottom of the bill. The Peterborough website dug that up and put it on, and I only knew about it by finding it on the web. I was absolutely delighted, because they didn’t feel the need to explain who I was! They just put it up!
It has been an interesting life, and I’ll tell you what caps it. I’m now very old and have to arrange my old age pension. And I have to ring up the pension people. I was talking to them, giving them details and they have to ask you all sorts of questions. Half way through, this Scottish man said do you mind if I ask you something? And I thought you’re going to ask me my mother’s maiden name or something. And he said are you the Colin Bostock-Smith? And I said on the day on my pension, I thought that’ll do! A nice little capper!