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BILL ODDIE – THIS IS YOUR LIFE
(by Alison Bean, with interference from Mike Scott)
(from C&G #72 December 2001)
This Is Your Life is always a disappointment for the viewer: a cobbled together, inaccurately researched, insensitively edited shambles of a programme, guaranteed to gloss over the interesting little details and summarize to the extreme the life of a famous person. Acceptable if it’s about ‘that girl off Brookside’ but a definite waste of time if it’s someone of interest. No wonder Bill Oddie wasn’t keen.
Host Michael Aspel, himself a survivor of two episodes of The Goodies (Kitten Kong and Chubbie Chumps), sidled up to Bill Oddie at the Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust on or about the 5th of December and proclaimed, ‘Bill Oddie…This Is Your Life!’ Bill, who’d just had a rather good take for the next series of Bill Oddie Goes Wild ruined by a bland presenter carrying a red plastic book, wasn’t pleased: ‘I’ve always said I’ll never do it and I won’t.’ The Aspel brow started to furrow with ‘is he joking or not?’ worry-lines. He decided to play the emotion card. ‘Bill, we’ve got your friends and family waiting for you in the bushes’, but Bill’s ruffled feathers could not be smoothed: ‘I’m sorry’ he said.
Cut to BBC Television Centre some hours later. The audience gasp at the footage (which allegedly stopped before Bill had really told Aspel and the film crew that he didn’t want to do it). What would happen next? The fact that we had just seen Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden mucking about in the foyer seemed to indicate that Bill had given in. Aspel pathetically prolonged the dramatic tension a bit longer, but ultimately he fooled no one. Having been convinced by his family to play ball, Bill emerged from behind the garish set. He seemed not entirely thrilled by the prospect; the audience cheered and he started to seem a little less reluctant.
But his on-screen excuse for initially saying no was desperately lame. ‘Tim, Graeme and I swore many years ago that we wouldn’t do this programme,’ he explained. ‘And if they’re here, I’m going to be equally upset and embarrassed by their lack of resolve.’ This was all very well but it made no sense, as Tim had lost his resolve way back in 1981 when the red book had been thrust in front of him by Eammon Andrews. Bill seemed to acknowledge this by adding ‘you haven’t had Graeme yet, you’d better get him quick, he’s not well’, before claiming that the whole thing was Aspel’s revenge for what he’d been made to do all those years ago in The Goodies.
All of this frantic excuse-making seemed to betray a great deal of fear and anxiety. Perhaps Bill felt he didn’t deserve this sort of flattery or recognition, or maybe he would just rather have been left alone to film his wildlife programme. After a difficult year in which Bill had suffered greatly with depression, this is perfectly understandable, but can the prospect of seeing all your friends and family really be that painful? Particularly when the person who knows you best has had a chance to approve the guest list. It is good that he was able to put aside whatever fear or anxiety made him initially turn it down and just do the programme, despite the rubbishness of this sort of tabloid television. And probably, after all was said and done, he was glad he’d done it too.
The guest list for the programme was impressive and covered Bill’s long and varied career as a writer, comedian, actor, composer and birder. But first out were his family, one of his less well known successes, including his wife, writer and broadcaster Laura Beaumont, their daughter Rosie and Bill’s other daughters, actress Kate Hardie and dancer, choreographer and mother-to-be Bonnie. ‘What a way to find out your daughter’s pregnant!’ exclaimed Bill.
Aspel turned to Laura, who was asked to recall the rainy Papua New Guinean honeymoon, which had occurred during the filming of the documentary Oddie In Paradise. ‘…We were on the edge of this slippery mountain, on a tiny piece of plastic, with about 25 other people and lots of very huge creepy crawlies so big you would think they were your pillow…’ she said, as Bill nodded in a ‘we laugh about it now’ manner.
Next up was the ubiquitous clip parade, displaying (yet again) some of Bill’s most producer-friendly moments from The Goodies, cut together with scant regard for context. Unsurprisingly no one laughed at these non-sequiturs, except those who had them on video anyway. This was followed by the introduction of his co-stars Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden. ‘Are they still alive?’ twinkled Oddie.
They certainly were and they were on good form. Graeme even looked pleased to be there and was quite chatty. He didn’t seem too embarrassed about wearing an Ecky Thump hat either! Tim had a surplus hat for Bill, which he placed on his head as an award for being a ‘gutless creep’. ‘It’s a joy to be here to help betray Bill’s principles.’ said Graeme shrewdly, adding ‘He’s a man of enormous energy, he always makes me laugh.’
Graeme went on to sum up their working relationship by likening it to the episode ‘Frankenfido’ in which Bill had played their mischievous little puppy, revealing that very little acting had been required from either party. ‘And when he laughs,’ Tim added, ‘he screws up his eyes and really laughs. And, like a mischievous little puppy, he lets out a little sound…and it’s not out of his mouth!’
They praised Bill’s music - and claimed their singing had spoilt it. But best of all, said Tim, they were all still friends. ‘That’s ’cos we never see each other!’ argued Bill, providing scholars with a textbook example of where ‘Goodies’-style dialogue came from, as well as ruining the moment.
Aspel then recalled one of Bill’s earliest comedy opportunities, That Was The Week That Was (TW3). A recorded message from the show’s star, Sir David Frost, was to have been played but had not been assembled so the audience was asked to enthusiastically applaud the far-preferable sound of silence. This prompted Bill to flip into rant-mode: ‘I never liked him you know that? He just nicked all our bloody material and never paid us for it, isn’t that right?’ he said, turning to Tim and Graeme who nodded gravely in agreement, while the audience howled with laughter. Aspel’s brow began to furrow once again; these comedians with their bathos were stretching his blandness to the limit.
Putting that aside, Aspel felt able to take us even further back, to Bill’s birthplace - Sparthbottoms Road, Rochdale, Lancashire (Bill: ‘That’s funny, you should relish that - Sparthbottoms Road…they don’t name streets like they used to’) and gave a quick summary of his early days. Bill grew up in the outskirts of Birmingham with his accountant father and his ‘harridan’ of a grandmother who, Bill claimed, looked like one of Pan’s Grannies. He was a ‘bright lad’ who was educated at King Edward’s School, played cricket and rugby, wrote comic songs for the school revue, and went birding on weekends with his friend Andy Low.
From there Bill went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read English, kept up with the rugby, and got involved with the comedy scene. Eric Idle, pleased to be asked to embarrass Bill, contributed a surprisingly non-awful video piece, filmed at Pembroke College and blaming Bill for his post-Cambridge success. “Now I have to live in Hollywood, convincing 12 year old film-studio executives that I can still write fart jokes when I could be a retired bank-manager in Redditch. And it’s all your fault, because you set me on the path to dressing up in women’s clothing and writing rude songs for the paying public.” he gushed in that transatlantic drawl of his.
One friend of Bill’s from this era, who had managed to make it over from Hollywood, was Jonathan Lynn. Lynn, who is most famous for co-writing Yes Minister, started his showbiz career as the drummer in the enormously successful university revue A Clump of Plinths. After a name change to Cambridge Circus, the show had played in the West End, New Zealand and on Broadway. It also starred Tim Brooke-Taylor and John Cleese. Lynn recalled how Bill had given him his start in showbiz by encouraging him to audition for the Footlights and ultimately to write for television. ‘If it wasn’t for Bill I would never have started writing.’ he said. ‘And the rest is history…’ noted Aspel from his autocue. ‘Yeah, if you want to put it that way’ replied Lynn, unenthusiastically. ‘I’ve always thought, I didn’t want to do this show because it’s like attending your own bloody funeral’ joked Bill. ‘Well it will be if you don’t leave off’ retorted Aspel.
Next the still hugely popular radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (which ran for eight years and whose cast included all three Goodies and John Cleese) was skipped over in favour of a clip from the obscure TW3 spin-off, BBC-3. The clip showed Bill miming to a music hall style song about the various types of transport he used. ‘My main achievement since then has been to synchronize my voice and my lips,’ Bill joked.
Twice a Fortnight, another 60s programme which starred Bill (along with Graeme Garden, Michael Palin and Terry Jones), was briefly mentioned. Michael Palin sent a video message, but sadly seemed to have forgotten the programme completely and so resorted to feeble innuendoes about Bill’s birding on Hampstead Heath. Had he not been Michael Palin, his piece certainly wouldn’t have been included.
George Layton was another writer who got his first chance thanks to Bill. He and Jonathan Lynn, both actors in Doctor In The House, had written an episode of the show. Bill liked it so much, that he alerted producer Humphrey Barclay to it. ‘These guys are great!’ Bill had said to Barclay, ‘you should give them more work’. Barclay agreed and Layton and Lynn went on to become mainstream writers for the show. They were also called back, along with Bill, for the early 90s revival Doctor At The Top. ‘We depressed the whole nation with that.’ mused Layton. Bill added that ‘Doctor Down The Drain’ would have been a more accurate title.
After Doctor In The House came The Goodies. According to Aspel’s cue cards, Bill had once described the slapstick elements of the show as ‘Buster Keaton meets Tom and Jerry’ (‘Did I?’ he inquired. ‘What a good description!’). Like Keaton, the Goodies rarely used stuntmen for these sequences and of the three, it was only Graeme who was the most concerned about safety, which earnt him the nickname ‘Mr Wise’. ‘Tim and I preferred to hurt ourselves’ laughed Bill.
But even Graeme’s precautions could not save him from injury during the shooting of his famous fall in Bunfight At The OK Tearooms. Bill recalled ‘Graeme worked out that he would land on his back, so he put on all this padding that jockey’s wear’. But when the shot was done, Graeme had unexpectedly turned over in the air and landed on his un-padded front. ‘He had to be carried off, with blood and teeth all over the place’ said Bill. ‘That’s the sort of thing that made us laugh!’
Three more Goodies survivors Frank Thornton (Farm Fresh Food, Punky Business), Henry McGee (The Music Master, For Those In Peril On The Sea) and Tony Blackburn (Scatty Safari) were wheeled out next to tell their tales of woe. ‘Which is which?’ whispered Bill. ‘I don’t know, I’ll just say the name and see who answers’ replied Aspel.
Frank Thornton recalled how he’d been initially quite pleased to be asked to play the Toastmaster in Punky Business. He imagined it to be quite a refined role; then he found out he was to be a punk toastmaster. He described his safety-pin encrusted costume with distaste before remarking ‘That’s what you get with this man and those two over there.’
Henry McGee had enjoyed his role as the most evil man in the world rather better: ‘All actors would rather play villains than heroes…the problem is every straight part I’ve played since has been somewhat of a disappointment.’ Thornton added, ‘The ultimate insult for Henry was when someone saw him come over the hill with his organ gun [in The Music Master] and said, “Wasn’t Frank Thornton good in that?”’
Tony Blackburn had mixed reactions about his Goodies role. He had played himself and had been the star attraction at The Goodies Star Safari Park: ‘This was some years ago’, he noted, before describing how he had been kept in a stable by the Goodies, then released and finally, shot. ‘I still survived it…I had a great time.’
Clips from three of the Goodies’ top 20 hits - Funky Gibbon, The Inbetweenies and Black Pudding Bertha were shown next. For those members of the audience who hadn’t seen the footage for a while it was quite a shock – it was even a shock for Bill’s family. ‘You have traumatised my children!’ Bill declared, pointing at to Aspel accusingly. ‘And my grandchild to be, hasn’t he Bonnie? He was leaping around in there screaming “I don’t want to come out if that’s Grandad!”’
Bill’s more serious musical achievements were then mentioned. He had appeared with The Who and David Essex in the musical Tommy and also on Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record. Wakeman sent a video message, remembering the recording session.
Wakeman had heard the Goodies song Sick Man Blues on the radio and wanted Bill to do something similar at the end of a track called The Breathalizer. The recording took place at Wakeman’s house in Switzerland and after it had been completed Bill stayed the night. Wakeman found him a slightly bizarre houseguest: ‘I woke up at three o’clock in the morning and there you were dressed in the most ridiculous garb: funny shorts and a big hat in the middle of winter. You had binoculars and cameras and God knows what and you were off to see the only, whatever it was, lesser-spotted, dingle, dangle, dangley-legged bird. Off you went for three hours and you saw it, you were ever so happy and I thought you were mad, which is just as well because that’s why we all love you.’
In 1983 Bill and Laura married at Camden Registry Office. They had both been married before, so second time around they had a rather eccentric wedding list which consisted entirely of garden gnomes. Best Man, David Stafford, recalled: ‘The wedding turned into a cross between a wedding reception and a Big Ears convention - very enjoyable, but very slightly scary at the same time. The strange thing is that while their love has lasted, still those gnomes live in their garden…’ A photo of the gnomes was shown – ‘The Ideal Gnome Exhibition’ as Aspel put it, to much I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again style groaning from the audience.
In 1985 the Bill Oddie story almost came to a dramatic end. Bill and Laura were on Bird Island in the Seychelles when Bill got caught in a current between two reefs whilst swimming. With them on the trip were Freddy Marks and Jane Tucker from children’s singing combo Rod, Jane and Freddy and fortunately for Bill, Freddy had once been a lifesaver. Freddy: ‘I swam out to him and just as I reached him I said “For God’s sake don’t grab me” and of course when I got in range he grabbed me by the throat and pulled me under. We were drowning at that point…’ Somehow they’d managed to get back to shore but the experience put Bill off swimming, virtually. ‘Not that I could ever swim to start with or I would have swam back!’ he said.
After that scary experience Bill and Laura had gone on to create the children’s TV shows From The Top and The Bubblegum Brigade. Mickey Dolanz from The Monkees, who directed From The Top, sent a video message from ‘on the lot’, in Burbank, California. He recalled the joys of working with all those ‘great little kids’ but claimed that his toughest role as director was to stop Bill from looking at the camera. ‘You were such a ham!’ he said. ‘Never!’ laughed the Goodies fans in the audience.
As an antidote to his busy work schedule, Bill has always been a keen birder as well as a tireless campaigner for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). In 1976 he saw the first Pallas’ Reed Bunting ever recorded in Britain. Bill found it rather unimpressive: ‘It’s a little brown bird’ was all it could say in it’s favour, before yelling to his birding friends ‘Let’s hear it for the Pallas’ Reed Bunting…RUBBISH!’
Luckily the Pallas’ Reed Bunting isn’t the only bird in the sky and Bill has been inspired to write three best-selling books on ornithology and to present hours of television programmes on the subject. A clip from Birding With Bill Oddie was shown. Standing in a pub carpark in Cornwall with a pasty in one hand, a pint of bitter in the other and a pair of binoculars around his neck, Bill looked rather content. His birding has spilled over into his acting work and he played a birder in an episode of The Detectives and in another programme, which was sadly not name-checked by Aspel.
Chris Packham from animal-based children’s favourite The Really Wild Show was asked to describe Bill’s birding prowess. ‘If he latches on to a bird and it flies away it doesn’t matter, Bill will pursue it through bushes and briers and mud, often at the expense of other wildlife. We were out in a swampy part of East London and I saw he’d completely trampled on a whole patch of caterpillars – birds are very much first in Bill’s life.’
Another birder, Tony Marr, was also asked to describe what it is like to go birding with Bill Oddie. He had travelled to India with Bill in 1979 and had observed first-hand Bill, at the height of his fame. First Bill had been besieged with autograph hunters at Heathrow Airport. Then a man on the plane had filmed him as he slept. In India it became more peaceful, until they went to the Taj Mahal. An Indian man came up to Bill and said ‘You’re Bill Oddie from The Goodies’. ‘Am I really on Indian television now?’ asked Bill in reply. ‘No.’ said the man. ‘I’m on holiday from Bradford’.
Another of Bill’s biggest fans is Professor David Bellamy, who first became aware of the work of Bill Oddie when The Goodies took off the Bellamy family in the episode Animals. He’d forgiven them though and had been very proud to work with Bill on films, for the Wildlife Trust and various conservation projects. ‘Sitting inside a bird-hide with a real twitcher who really knew what the birds were thinking was absolutely fantastic. Congratulations on all your films and all the work you do for conservation all around the world’ he said. Bill wasn’t too impressed with the tribute though, remarking on Bellamy’s famous muffled lisp. ‘He hasn’t quite got the voice right - Graeme does it much better!’
The final guest on the programme was Magnus Magnusson, the former host of the TV quiz show Mastermind and a survivor of the Goodies episode Frankenfido. Magnusson also shares Bill’s interest in wildlife and is a former president of the RSPB. He had this to say of Bill: ‘We all know of Bill’s brilliant reputation as a star of comedy, but in the bird world his reputation is perhaps even more brilliant. If there’s a patch of mud anywhere, Bill’s in it up to his oxters. So on behalf of everyone who loves nature and wildlife, I’d like to thank Bill for the boundless enthusiasm and the infectious verve with which you put the message across by the sheer joy, pleasure and satisfaction of bird-watching. It’s certainly helped the RSPB to put the protection of birds right at the top of the conservation agenda. I congratulate you Bill not only on being a lovely, funny little man…’
‘He’s spoilt the whole bloody thing’ interjected Bill. ‘It was nice up till then, then he goes all sizeist. I don’t like your tie either, mate…carry on.’ ‘Thank you’ replied Magnus, before continuing. ‘But also I think that you are much the finest recruiting sergeant the RSPB could ever have and I must say that for my money you are the bird world’s greatest living ambassador.’ ‘Thank you very much’ replied Bill as Aspel butted in to say the immortal words, ‘Bill Oddie, this is your life’.
The applause went on for several minutes after that, as Bill’s friends and family crowded around him. When a re-take of this moment was called for, the studio audience again applauded with genuine enthusiasm and warmth. ‘Good on you, Bill!’ shouted a man from the audience; Bill thanked the man and went back to looking at his feet in embarrassment, as he had throughout most of the programme.
All the other re-takes were fairly boring, except for one, where Aspel was asked to record the end of a link, which he had accidentally skipped in the recording proper. ‘Meanwhile you keep busy as a writer and performer, you help create Broaden Your Mind, a spoof encyclopaedia of the air’ he recited. ‘Wrong!’ interjected Bill. ‘Tim and Graeme created Broaden Your Mind.’ ‘Well, it doesn’t matter’ said Aspel, shocked at the notion that a biography programme should be accurate. ‘It was crap’ moaned Bill, probably unaware that some of it stands up quite well.
Whether the footage shot on the evening of 5th December will stand up is another matter. Plagued by far too many lovely moments to sit comfortably in a half-hour and its many the re-takes, the broadcast edit will probably be a terrible mish mash. But how can you reduce the varied and fascinating career of Bill Oddie to 29 minutes without making sacrifices? Then again, why does this programme always favour boring anecdotes and messages from big stars rather than more interesting and amusing ones from others? And why is the programme in a half-hour timeslot when it could easily last longer? These questions will never be answered by the people who make This Is Your Life, which is a shame as it would be nice if they realised that the storyteller is just as important as the story itself.
And speaking of potentially missed-opportunities, Tim and Graeme were spotted with the real, actual Goodies trandem before the recording. A camera crew was filming them with it, but the footage didn’t turn up in the recording. Perhaps, like Sir David Frost’s message, it will be there in the edit for all to see? We’ll be watching with interest to find out.
NOTE: The subject of ‘This Is Your Life’ is famously kept secret until the last moment but we believe the Bill Oddie episode will go to air on 28th December on BBC-1. If not, however, it’ll probably be the episode after that.