London, 5th December 2007. With coffee and cake.Richard Gibson spends many of his days as a professional writer. But it’s his acting work that continually earns him an army of fans, not least his iconic performance as Herr Flick, the Gestapo officer of ‘Allo ‘Allo. We took him out for coffee, popped our recorder on the table, and got talking…
You were born in Uganda weren’t you?Yeah. My parents were English, and my Dad was working in the Civil Service so we eventually came back to England. At that time Uganda was a protectorate of Britain, and then it got independence, so the contract ended.
And presumably, you got the acting bug reasonably eerily?
Yeah. One of things people used to do in Uganda … there was always a sort of club with the bar and sometimes a swimming pool and tennis courts. ‘Country club’ makes it sound grand, but it would have a library and it would have a dance hall. And in some of the places we went to they had a proper theatre in them.
And then we moved to Kampala, where they’d just built a very large theatre. So all the people who did any sort of acting got involved with that. And my parents had been into amateur dramatics since they arrived. One of the centres of activity was putting on plays. And a lot of people there were professionals, who had married people there, so they’d have professional designers and directors, and musicians.And was it picked up quickly that you had a knack for it?
No. Not at all. In fact, I was usually banned from things like that for being too disruptive. Even at school.
But when I was a bit older I started doing it. Only because I had blonde hair and blue eyes, so I was a pretty boy. So whenever they needed girls – I went to an all-boys school – all the pretty blonde boys would end up playing girls. So that was how I cut my teeth, in drag. Which seemed to be a bit of a pattern…The early parts of your career, for someone who has become known as a comedy actor, were quite serious weren’t they?
Yeah. ‘Allo ‘Allo was the first comedy I’d ever done. Because I have no sense of humour you see!
So comedy was never a thing you particularly looked for? Because I suppose even as Herr Flick, the trick was that you played it very straight. You weren’t going for the overt laughs?
Well, in the beginning, it was made quite clear that my character was there to provide a genuine threat. And that type of comedy worked best as the audience had to believe that the people there had a genuine struggle, that they were actually in danger. And only because they were desperately pushing against someone did it become funny. Sometimes the laughs came out of the relief of a situation…The thing about the character, particular in the early series, he really was an intimidating figure. He didn’t end up in quite so many ludicrous situations until the back few years of the show.
He was there to proved the threat that they were driving against. And in the end they couldn’t resist giving Herr Flick gags, particularly with Helga, they couldn’t resist the kinky bit and all that blowing up tyres. So they introduced the General, General Von Klinkerhoffen, so that he would provide the genuine threat, so they could muck about with Herr Flick.So that was the reason he was introduced?
Yeah. But then they couldn’t resist giving him gags after a while, so he started putting on stockings and stuff. So they had to have freelance generals!
Can I go back to how ‘Allo ‘Allo came to you in the first place? It was an unusual programme for lots of reasons. It was unusual because of the subject matter, it was unusual because of the ongoing narrative..
… it was a serial..
And that distinguished it very much from the self-contained episodic programmes of the time.
Yeah. It was a serial, as opposed to a series. A soap opera.
So how did it come to you?
I actually knew David Croft because I’d worked on a series called The Children of the New Forest, in which his daughter Becky played opposite me. So I knew the family a bit. So when they were casting it, they originally had Tom Bell – you remember him?Yes.
Tall, powerful. Very good actor. Proper actor. That was their original idea. But then I think it was Ann Croft, David’s wife, who suddenly thought one day ‘wouldn’t it be interesting for the person with the power to be the youngest and least threatening looking person’. Because they’re a shoo-in: Herr Flick was put there by his Godfather, Heinrich Himmler. And so everyone has to obey him because the system says he’s the most powerful person. With a word, he can wipe them all out.
So people you knew looked you in the eye and thought ‘there’s a Gestapo officer’?!
They might have thought ‘he looks a bit sinister’! You know Cabaret?
You know the guy who sings Tomorrow Belongs To Me? I was constantly being offered parts like that, and I used to play parts like that. And erm, that’s what they had in mind. Because they thought it’d be interesting. That scene in Cabaret, you have this sort of long haired teenager singing, and everything about it is right and rehearsed and nice, expect it’s horribly sinister. And that’s the idea of the casting.You were the youngest German officer?
Yeah. And actually their originally intention was to make me look like a member of the Hitler Youth. But I spent a lot of time playing kids and boy heroes, and I was in my 20s by this time, and thinking it was time I grew up. Which was a mistake, as it turned out.
Was that a distinct thought then? That you wanted to ‘grow up’?
Oh yeah. And to be given a character part like that I thought, ‘God knows, I’m going to go against what they were thinking, the Hitler Youth thing.’ And I’m also a character actor by nature anyway.The first three series seemed very David Croft driven? He was writing, directing, producing and presumably had a very large sway with the casting?
Yeah, yeah.So how did it come to you in the first place…
He didn’t just offer it to me, I did have to read for it. But he was very casual about it, because at that time it was just a pilot. He left a message on my answerphone saying ‘I hope you don’t mind, I tried to ring you and you weren’t in. Because I wanted to arrange to send you a script. But since I couldn’t get hold of you I’ve taken the liberty of posting it. I hope you don’t mind.’
Nobody ever says that to actors! He’s that sort of person, he’s so modest. He doesn’t assume that you’re going to say yeah, yeah, yeah. He doesn’t want to take the liberty of sending you something and put you in a position where you have to say that you don’t want to do it.
And when you did get that script, was it there on the page at the time?
No question at all.
I started to read it – the way I was trained, and I’m sure that people still are, you weren’t supposed to look at your bits first. And tempting as it is, I do try and read something from the beginning, and read it as a piece before I look at how big the part is. For the most part, you start at the beginning and read it through.
Herr Flick didn’t come in until the last two thirds, three quarters, by which time I’d forgotten what I was reading it for, I’d just got so involved in it. And suddenly I turned the page and there was this scene. And he didn’t have that much juice at that time, he was there to give them something to play off. But by God, it was such a good part. And I went along and saw David and Jeremy and they said ‘would you mind awfully reading’.
And I said course I don’t! Because I think in those days a lot of people who had done a lot of stuff refused to read. And I think it’s different now. People accept that they have to.How quickly did you nail it?
Well, apparently straight away, but I didn’t know that. Because I read it, and I had done a bit of work on it, so I did bring something to it. I had a character to present to them. But then I didn’t hear anything. And a couple of weeks went by, and I said to my agent did you ever hear anything about that pilot I went for. And she said, ‘oh you got that, did I not tell you! You start on Tuesday!’
Do you still have the same agent?
No, but not because of that!
She had to ring him, and he said ‘I thought it was understood that we wanted him, but we just had to make sure he could do a German accent’. It was done in such a low key way that what turned out to be the biggest job in my life I had in the bag and didn’t even know.There was a reasonable gap between the pilot and the first series being commissioned? About an eighteen month broadcast gap? Was it a case that you walked off and didn’t know, or was there an instinct that it would go on?
Oh without question. The pilot got massive viewing figures, it was on just after Christmas I think. So I think it was a captive slot. But the word got round.
David and Jimmy Perry were still doing Hi-De-Hi, and they were doing a series called Grace and Favour, and I wasn’t sure they weren’t doing something else. So they were quite busy, so I think they had to clear the decks a bit.So that was the reason for the delay?
Yeah, I think it was more to do with their commitments, because they had a few things to do. And they worked with the same crew, so I think that was it. They also tended to film in April, doing the outside filming in April, and then going into the studio in the summer. Or do the outside filming in the Autumn. And since the pilot went on in December, there wouldn’t have been enough time for the BBC to make a decision on it, and get the scripts written.
And they repeated the pilot, which they very rarely do, and it got extraordinary viewing figures. And I think the word had got round between the first and second showing, and they just knew it was going to go. I knew looking at the script that it was something different.
The modern day sitcom tends to be based around one name actor, or one or two characters, and there’s not the richness of characters. Whereas ‘Allo ‘Allo is an ensemble piece…
Yeah, I think that was always the idea of David Croft’s series. I don’t think that was a feature of those days, I think that was a feature of David. Don’t forget that he was involved in things like Up Pompeii too, so that ensemble thing is more about him than the times.
I think if you look back at those days, there were lots of mediocre sitcoms then as there are now. People always have this nostalgia about the golden age of sitcoms, and there were great things then, and there are great things still. I don’t go with this there’s no such thing as comedy any more, although it is more difficult to get it made.
I mean David Croft and Jimmy Perry have written another pilot and made it themselves, as I don’t think they can get the BBC to make it, and I think they’re waiting for a decision. In the old days, the BBC would have said what have you got for us this time. I think you could take risks then, and I think there was a marked difference those days between the quality of the BBC comedy series and ITV. There were a lot of potboilers on ITV.I think also programmes were given time to find their feet. Minder is the usual exampleOnly Fools and Horses took four or five series! They would start shows on BBC 2 at 10 o’clock at night on a Thursday. And they would sort of let them buckle up a bit. And the point is that they didn’t mind really about ratings. It wasn’t even that important.
The BBC actually believed in and liked Only Fools & Horses, and thought it was worth making. And actually, Sue Belbin – David Croft’s PA – actually find it and she nursed it. And when the BBC did put it in a prime time slot on BBC One it got massive ratings. But now it would have been strangled at birth. ‘Allo ‘Allo wouldn’t get made now, because it was too risky.
Even at the time, when it was first broadcast, there was discomfort in the media. And the irony is that The Beano and The Dandy during World War II, were lampooning the Nazis, but it took the best part of four decades for television to catch up. Lots of people have talked about how ‘Allo ‘Allo is a homage to the dramas that were around in the 70s and 80s, but it still must have been odd to be in the midst of this thing that was attracting such tabloid interest. Some of the accusations were quite harsh?
Yeah, but it’s all grist to the mill isn’t it? Nobody really meant it. When something’s popular, people just want to talk about it really, and that was the thing they were talking about when they weren’t talking about knickers and suspenders, which was fair enough too. And they all have their place.
But I think the controversy died down very quickly because first and foremost it was funny. I think it’s the same with Little Britain, but in the end they kind of forgive them because it’s funny. There were things in ‘Allo ‘Allo that you would never imagine people would make jokes about. You got fan mail for playing a Nazi officer! But I think it fit. You expect to be offended by it, like the Dutch, who are our biggest fans of all it seems…And you’re the eighth funniest person in Holland?
No, ninth! [this is actually true]
I just got it in my earpiece, you’ve been promoted…
Ah, excellent! [adopts Herr Flick voice] I’m gradually eliminating the competition!
I think the actual fact is because they’re taking the piss out of everybody, they’re hardly making the Nazis look glamorous, they’re making them look stupid. And there are actually Nazi admirers who don’t like it very much, because they don’t like the idea of making Nazis look ridiculous.
In prisoner of war camps, one of the best ways that the British in general but the English particularly coped… well, people like David Croft, their whole way of life was subversive, they were mocking the system. And because they had a particular kind of humour, it was utterly confusing for the enemy. The Germans couldn’t cope with the English, the British.And the Germans have bought ‘Allo ‘Allo now?
No, they watch it on satellite. They still haven’t actually bought it. Although all the stand up comedians in Germany seem to do Hitler. That’s their way of dealing with it. So I think that lampooning the Germans has been going on since the war itself.
But I’d like to say it’s lampooning Nazis, not the Germans themselves. And that’s another thing. ‘Allo ‘Allo isn’t having a go at Germans themselves, it’s having a dig at Nazis. And the Nazis represent in the series a type of person that isn’t necessarily German. In the same way that the English are portrayed as stupid, the French are randy, the Italians are lazy, the Germans are kinky. That’s how the stereotypes are made. And they are based on a perception of how people were, and the way people still behold those stereotypes.
But, if you transferred it to that situation into another setting – if it wasn’t set in the war, or it was set in a hotel or department store – you’d end up with Captain Peacock or Mr Humphries. All of their series will take an organisation or institution and they will have characters people that you see in life – in ‘Allo ‘Allo, the Germans filled that slot, and the French filled another.
So when did you begin to appreciate that it was the role of your lifetime?
I think when we were making the pilot.That early?
Yeah. The audience reaction, the fact that it was so good. And also I think the fact that it was so lavish. David Croft is a master of a film camera, and if you look at the outside filming, it really is special – if he hadn’t got into making sitcoms and made movies, he would have been David Lean. I genuinely believe that.
I don’t think he realises the extent of his talent. His shots always look three dimensional, there are always things happening in the background. He just has an eye that is very seductive, and with ‘Allo ‘Allo a lot of it took place outside. And in the pilot there were lots of scenes outside, so it looked lavish. It was sexy. Apart from that it was funny, and there was a chemistry between the people in it. All those things together.
And a very, very funny script. You think of the scene that Gruber played with Monsieur Leclerc and Rene in the pilot, where the old guy’s meant to come in bringing a radio and is meant to use a codeword. And Gruber comes up the bar and in conversation produces all the codewords. Brilliant, brilliant. And they had to cut out some of the laughter in that when they were editing. Because the actors couldn’t speak because the laughter went on too long.You playing the straight character – it must have been tricky to keep a straight face?
It was very tricky with Kim Hartman in front of me because she’s a terrible giggler, and also I find her hysterically funny. And she finds me hysterically funny. And the trouble is she’s a prankster as am I. So half the time there were pranks being played. But the actual acting wasn’t tough; in a comedy you don’t really laugh at the jokes, although sometimes you will get taken by surprise. But you don’t as an actor laugh at the jokes.It was the start of series three that the first major character moved on, Sam Kelly’s Hans Geering. Was there a point where you worried about a character such as his leaving the show: in some other series that would have killed things stone dead?
It was a great shame when he went, but there were so many other people. I don’t think anybody thought it’d fall apart, but I think it was a great shame because Sam Kelly was possibly the strongest character in it. His performance in it was so ticklish that it was a terrible loss…And he’s said that he’s regretted going so early since then?
Yes, because I think you can’t always get a perspective on things. I mean Gavin Richards [Captain Bertorelli] was funny but he was different. Sam Kelly’s uniquely funny, he’s that sort of actor. It’s surprising to me that he’s never actually carried a show himself. And back then, to be fair, we didn’t know how much longer it would go on anyway.So what happens when you get the news that all of sudden the order for episodes was going from the usual number to 26, thanks to interest from America?
Oh, well, by that stage we weren’t sure, because the BBC wanted us to commit to 54. And in those days we’d do eight episodes a year, and then we’d go off and do other things in between. It wasn’t our only job. A lot of people weren’t sure if they just wanted to do just this, and we didn’t immediately say yes to it.
There must have been a budgetary impact when the episode order went up? Because ‘Allo ‘Allo never looked as shoestring as some of the shows around at the time?
There was a permanent set though at Elstree. And they built a permanent town square, so in some ways it was cheaper for them because they didn’t have to do so much outside filming – it was there in situ. And they didn’t have to keep building the sets and knocking them down. And I think they had guaranteed money from America anyway.
Did that filter down to the show?
Yeah, I imagine so, I think it did. They had more money for costumes, and they always had a pretty good budget…
Because some of the scenarios got more and more elaborate – some of the outside capers got really ambitious.
I think because David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd always loves those kind of special effects. The BBC were always willing to lavish a bit of money. But I think they allocated the budget in such a way that there would always be money for special effects, steamrollers and planes, all those things. I think that was good management really. I think they were probably given decent budgets because they knew their shows were worth investing with.
Did the increase in the number of episodes come as a bolt out the blue?
No. At that time we’d started doing the touring stage show, so there were always people coming up with ideas to extend the life of the show. There was a film that was being mooted, and we were already doing a stage show, merchandising, board games, it was everywhere. It was like Little Britain was a year and a half ago, and now Little Britain has settled down a bit.
I can’t explain that to my kids. They’re beginning to understand it now. It was slightly off the radar and they were slightly embarrassed about: kids don’t want their parents to become actors, unless they become actors themselves.What do your kids thing of you as Herr Flick?
They’ve hardly ever watched it! If it was on and we saw it, they’d either talk all the way through it or they’d leave the room because they’d get bored. They weren’t interested!Do you still watch it?
Oh yes! And I still find it funny! And often for different reasons that I did in the beginning. I’ve been writing for it, for a partwork magazine based on ‘Allo ‘Allo, so I’ve had to watch them, and I chose all the clips for the TV ads.
To go over it again… it’s very interesting, and watching how good they all were. When I say they all were… one took it for granted they could all act. You look at what Kim Hartman was doing in it. And Vicki Michelle – what a wonderful actress! And the other thing is now I’ve seen them doing other things and I’ve realised they were top line actors.How do you feel now that careers are distilled into a Wikipedia or an IMDB page? They even list your old salary on there.
Yeah, I don’t like all of that. Bloody cheek. Telling people how much you earn! Bastards. It really is Big Brother isn’t it? That’s why I won’t join Facebook.
The whole thing about distilling stuff into an IMDB or Wikipedia page has gone like that though. In Hollywood now, before they even do a casting, they have focus groups to look at people’s auditions! To be honest with you, it washes over my head because I don’t make my living exclusively from that. Although I’m an actor first.
Is it a conscious decision to not make your full living from acting? Because you do a lot of writing too?
Partly, yes. I mean I do a lot of acting as well, but not to depend on it is a conscious decision. Because I started doing the journalism when I had kids, and at that time because ‘Allo ‘Allo was so ubiquitous, it was getting in the way of other television things because… oh, I’ve just gobbed on your glasses.
[He had as well. Gobbed on by a Gestapo officer. Richard cleans my glasses for me, and we move on]
People back then were wary of casting people who had been ‘over-exposed’.
[at this point we even touch on Richard Marner – Colonel von Strohm – appearing in the Ben Affleck movie The Sum Of All Fears].
So instead I was being offered theatre things, so when my kids were very small, if I’d gone and done a lot of those things, I wouldn’t have been home much at all when they were babies…Because you did quite a lot of theatre?
Yeah, I’ve always done a lot of theatre. So I had always been interested in writing, and I’d never written things … well, I had, I’d written radio plays, but apart from that I never sold any scripts and I’ve written lots of telly scripts that I’ve never actually either succeeded in selling or had the courage to give to people. I was constantly tinkering, because I had this feeling that I wasn’t really professional at it.
And I was writing one about a journalist, and partly because I was so involved in bringing up kids, my going off to night school and then having a beer with the other people was my night off, and then Kate would go and have another night off with something else. That was my weekly thing.
I went and did this fabulous course at Westminster College, it was journalism – the same course as the London College of Printing, but it was done at night school. I was doing it really because the script that I was writing involved journalism and I wanted to find out what it was about, and introduce a journalistic feel to it. And it kind of went from there.
They said if you really want to do this properly, you should do some work experience as a sub editor or reporter on a local paper, and I did. And I thought at that time that it might be awkward because I was quite recognisable then. But I discovered that people don’t actually give a flying fuck, because an awful lot of people in magazines and newspapers ran into people like me all the time. And the worlds are quite similar, they are similar people. The structure of the magazine isn’t much different from a film set if you think about it.Does the writing work mean you can do the acting you want to do?
It means I can be more choosy about it. I’m not saying I’m inundated with offers. But if I get offered something I really don’t want to do, then I don’t depend on it for a living.
Can we ask you: how is your back? Walking around like that can’t have done it much good?
It’s alright! Did you know that I’d had back problems after that? In the stage show I used to do this wild tango, swing the leg round and all that, and when you’re rehearsing, you think it’s such fun, and you don’t appreciate that you’ll have to do it every day, twice some days. And it didn’t help that I was in a department store and a ceiling tile fell and smashed across my head, just at the time I was about to start the stage show. It damaged my neck and I have to say they did compensate me for it! But that didn’t help, and doing the leaping round didn’t help…
And it was the stage show that really brought it on?
Gorden Kaye’s accident cast a real shadow over the show. That must have been a horrible time?
It was because we were just about to go on tour in Australia. We’d just closed at the Palladium, and we were about to go on this tour, and he didn’t come. And they thought he was going to die. He went into a coma for weeks, so they weren’t sure he’d even recover from the coma. But he did. And he was up and doing another series!
You left the show one series before it finished?
I didn’t know that the series I’d left would be the last one. I had been thinking about it – they had been going to end the show lots of times, but then they said ‘we’ll do one more series’.
By that stage David and Jeremy weren’t even writing it anymore, and it looked like it could keep going on. But it wasn’t the same show it had been in the beginning. I just felt it was time to get cracking on other things.How did you feel about being replaced?
It was fine. I felt it was a little bit unfortunate for David Janson [Gibson’s replacement in the role of Herr Flick], because he’s a good actor. But I think they didn’t quite believe that I wasn’t going to do it, so they wrote the character as Herr Flick. Had they realised I think they’d have made him another Gestapo person, and I think that’s probably what they should have done. I think it would have been fairer to him, because when people have become so familiar with one actor in a role, it’s very tough for something else to come in and convince them that they’re that person.Rock Around Ze Clock, your recent single with Kim Hartman, we managed to track down…!
Did you? I think we’re going to do some more of those.
You touched on the closeness with Kim, and the two of you clearly had a whale of a time on the record.
I originally was going to set up a fan club just for Herr Flick, but with all that going on, people seem to want both of us. And it works as a double act more than it does individually, so we now have our fan club as Flick and Helga…
Finally, can you recommend a Christmas movie for our readers?It’s A Wonderful Life is a bit of a corny cliché I suppose. My family always used to sit and watch Singing In The Rain, that was our family Christmas film.
Find the Herr Flick and Helga fan club – where you can get ringtones when you join for free! – at www.flickandhelga.com