Leigh Francis, the man behind Avid Merrion, spares us some time for a chat about his new DVD release, Cha’mone Mo’Fo’Selecta!
Hi Leigh, it’s great to talk to you. This interview is for Den Of Geek and I hear you’re a little bit of a geek.
I’m super geek. I collect movie memorabilia, I’ve got nine Spider-Man costumes and shelves and shelves of Spider-Man dolls. That’s geek, isn’t it? I’ve got a proton pack, a Marty McFly costume, a hoverboard… Once you’re married I think it doesn’t matter ‘cos you’ve won in the game of life. You’ve caught a lady. I don’t have to hide my pop-culture obsessions.
Do you wear the costumes at all?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, loads. Just to demonstrate to my wife how long it takes for her to get ready when we’re going out. I’ll dress as Spider-Man, take a few pictures, jump around in the kitchen and then go “that’s what I’ve been doing while you’ve been getting ready. How does it take so long just to put a pair of jeans on? We’re late again.”
Moving on to Cha’mone Mo’Fo’Selecta!, whose initial idea was it to do the show?
My agent suggested we do a sketch and put it on YouTube but I thought it was a bit soon. A few weeks went by and I put it out on Facebook “Who thinks it would be good to do a one-hour Bo Selecta! tribute to Michael Jackson?” and 214 people replied in 40 minutes and three might have said no it was too soon and the rest of them were like, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”
It’s a goodbye to the character but a salute to the actual Michael Jackson, and that’s why I took the mask off at the end. And I think we handled it as sensitively as Bo Selecta! can and I’m really happy with it.
Apparently, and I haven’t been on these sites, but the producer went on some Michael Jackson fansites and even the hardcore fans like it. A couple of them have said it’s sick making money out of dead people and stuff but these people haven’t watched the show. I’m not making money out of dead people. I’m making money out of a character I invented on a programme. Does that mean we shouldn’t say his name or talk about him? Look at This Is It. They’re making loads of money, but the good thing is we get to see Michael Jackson rehearsing.
It seemed a sincere tribute, especially with the blurb. Straight from the heart, and admiration clear.
If I could sing I’d like to be a part of any musical tribute that might happen, but I can’t sing. I’m a professional piss-abouter. It was a genuine tribute, I was really saddened when I heard the news and I honestly felt like I had to do something to get it out of my system.
Was it an odd feeling at all to bring Bo Selecta! back?
It was, but it was nice. It was like meeting old friends. It was nice putting on all the masks and doing Craig David’s voice again. I missed it and while we were doing it we said “you know what? Shall we do another one?” and then we were saying how could we do another one, it’d have to be different, people would say “it’s not the same as it used to be, it’s not as good as it used to be” and so we were still toying with the idea of doing something maybe but we’ve got other things developing, different ideas and also writing a film around the Keith Lemon character.
How might it be different?
We initially thought we can’t do any of the old characters and we should just bring in an array of new ones. There’s plenty of fodder right now: Russell Brand, Lily Allen, Lady Gaga, John and Edward, Amy Winehouse… There’s loads that could replace the old ones, but the fact is people would go “how come you haven’t done Mel B?” So, I don’t know. We’d have to put Mel B in.
Someone suggested a Mel B spinoff where she was a chat show host and I do like the idea of her taking a Mrs Merton role; I think that would work. If I got asked to do it I’d find it very hard to say no because we laugh constantly. It’s a lot of fun doing it.
The special had very much the same look and feel as the show. You got most of the original crew on board as well, didn’t you?
We tried to get everyone back. Some of the people were working on different things, which was a shame but, yeah, we wanted it to punch you in the face and go “Remember Bo Selecta!? It was funny, weren’t it?”
When we finished it and had a screening and all watched it back everyone was really happy with it. The commissioner said that he thought it was the best thing we’d done, so I was very happy. It was supposed to go onto Channel 4 after E4 and then some legal things happened but, hopefully, it’ll end up on Channel 4.
I’m glad that it’s coming out on DVD because my initial idea was just to bring it out on DVD because of all these on-demand services that channels have now. All the standup comedians bring out their tour at Christmas so let’s make a programme specifically for DVD as I don’t do standup. And then E4 funded it so, obviously, they show it and then we were really happy with it. So I don’t know if it’ll still go on Channel 4 or not but I’m not too fussed because it’s on DVD and I’ve got a copy of it.
I have to say, the costumes, the recreations of the music videos, they were all pretty spot on. Was that down to a lot of research, or did you have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of Michael Jackson already?
I have a lot of Michael Jackson memorabilia and we did look at stuff and I’ve always been keen on details. Sometimes we’ll do it rubbish on purpose, so rubbish it’s good. Like John and Edward. Sometimes you want it exactly right and the costume lady and the props people did a really good job. In fact, I made some of the props ‘cos the budget was so low. I made some of the food zombies, so for a week I was sat on the floor of my office making food zombies. It was exciting.
And there was a superb spoof scene of An American Werewolf In London. That was fantastic. It’s totally my favourite film.
We were filming that there were people getting off trains and we had to stop and wait til’ they’d gone so it looked empty. When I wear the Bo Selecta! costumes I have to wear contact lenses so I can see through the glasses to counteract the vision. So I was still dressed as the werewolf when I had to go for an eye test straight after. We should’ve filmed that and put that on as an extra.
I thought it’d be great to do a show where we just spoofed films. The whole film for half an hour. You come up with so many ideas. I’m a big film buff and I love American Werewolf In London and I’d love to do half an hour of this and others: Back To The Future, Ghostbusters.
The critical reaction was, by and large, very positive. Were you worried at all that people might think it a bit tasteless?
I just hoped they did. I’m a genuine fan and wanted that to come across and that was another reason for all the detail. I know Michael Jackson stuff and I was really happy when people liked it. I was a little bit concerned that people might think it’s wrong but I thought I’d finish it nice and sensitively at the end and we got this guy who was a Michael Jackson impersonator to dance so we had the shadow.
You mentioned This Is It earlier. Did you see Derek Acora’s spiritual show about contacting Jackson from beyond the grave?
[Laughs] Yeah, I did. I like Derek Acora and he was on Bo Selecta! and he was really good sport. We went ghostbusting where I was Craig David dressed as a Ghostbuster. One of the funniest shoots we’ve ever done. For some reason I had a lot of wind and kept on farting so I kept saying “Listen! Do you hear that?” and I’d fart. Puerile childish stuff like Bo Selecta! always is.
When I saw his thing I went “this is a bit weird, this”. It was funny that they used the same music we did at the beginning. I wonder if that music was called ‘Sad Michael Jackson Music’. I thought it was a bit daft.
But you liked This Is It?
I had to review it for The Sun as Michael Jackson – they wanted me to be dressed in character but I said no – so I just sat in and watched it and the following day I went to see it again, just enjoying it. I would’ve liked to see more of him just sitting around chatting to people and eating a Gregg’s sausage roll.
You mention in the commentary that David Gest offered you footage of Jackson.
He phoned me and said he’d read on the internet I was doing a tribute to Michael Jackson and asked “are you going to do me in a mask, you fucker?” They were his words. I said I’d prefer it if you were on it as yourself and he said well, come and see me and he showed me some footage of him interviewing Michael which was really good.
It showed him in a really good light with a sense of humour just messing around on the making of Thriller. Just sat there having a laugh. And he said Michael Jackson had a good sense of humour and would’ve probably enjoyed the show. It’s nice the idea Michael Jackson liked Bo Selecta! and that David Gest was willing to sit there and be as daft as I was.
Who are your comedy influences?
Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Vic and Bob, Tom Greene, Andy Milanakis. That’s about it.
A lot of what I do comes from drunken nights in the pub with my friends and me messing about in front of them. My wife gives me a lot of ideas. She wrote the whole Destiny’s Child’s Day Off sketch and she’s a good gauge; if she’s laughing I think I’ll go with that.
I was going through a phase watching Kes and I’d be constantly talking like Craig David in Bo does. She laughed and I thought well, that’s how I’ll make him speak then.
Does it annoy you when people miss the point and complain that your impressions are unrealistic?
I prefer that they get it, but it doesn’t get to me too much. The bigger percentage get it and enjoy it and are really, really nice to me and I love it when they send me pictures of them in fancy dress at parties.
People are really kind but Bo is definitely Marmite. I kinda know who the audience is and people who I don’t think will get into it I don’t really talk to.
There’s a new series of Celebrity Juice coming out early next year, who would you most love to have as a guest that hasn’t been on yet?
I’d like to have Cheryl Cole on, I’d like to have Katie Perry on. Anyone who’s nice looking would be good really. It’s nice working with Holly and Fearne. They’re nice looking. My friends are quite envious I work with Holly and Fearne and I didn’t work with them I’d be envious too. They’re nice girls with a good sense of humour and we have a good laugh.
As for guests, we never really know who’s on. I have to turn up as Keith Lemon and go “who’s on tonight?” They tell me and sometimes I go “who’s that?” or it’ll be someone I think won’t be very good turns out to be great.
One of my favourites was Gareth Gates. He had a drink or two and enjoyed himself. Peaches Geldof filled in for Fearne when she was climbing the mountain for Comic Relief and I didn’t think I would get on with her but I really did. She was really nice.
Is that how she got to appear in the special?
Yeah. We needed a girl to go with Bear and I said Peaches will do it and she did. She didn’t say much, though. I think it’s just really odd for people to sit there when I’m squashed into a chair being the Bear saying literally anything that I want. Without caring about it. Maybe she was just a bit freaked out.
You mentioned the Keith Lemon film earlier; can you give us a brief overview of the film?
It’s about him moving to London and becoming a success and then losing it all and then realizing he’s happier when he wasn’t a celebrity. A little moralistic story. It’s all going well, hopefully we’ll start shooting it next year.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I’ve just come back from America, developing an idea over there. I written an idea which is, basically, I suppose a sketch show and it’s all about a bunch of characters, really. Rather than celebrities, it’ll be characters where I’m wearing prosthetics. A little bit in the same vein as Michael Jackson’s doctor character.
I’ve done prosthetics before on a character called Corey Haim that was in The Bear’s Tale. We’ll probably continue with him. He’s in the script for the film as well. I did a pilot with prosthetics a while ago, before Heroes came out, called Marvellous about “What if the world really had superheroes?” We didn’t have the names but one was Spider-Man and a lot of characters that I did in that will be characters that I do in the future.
Thank you, Leigh. It’s been a pleasure!