Bob Spiers: Director of 'Absolutely Fabulous', 'Fawlty Towers' and 'Dad's Army'
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
For more than a quarter of a century, Bob Spiers proved a master of directing intelligently written, madcap television sitcoms that proved groundbreaking and far removed from the mainstream of television comedy.
When he was asked to take over as director for the second series of Fawlty Towers (1979), written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, who starred as the manic Torquay hotel owner Basil Fawlty and its calm, collected maid Polly, Spiers was reluctant. He was following in the footsteps of John Howard Davies, who produced the anarchic Monty Python's Flying Circus, which had included Cleese in its team. However, Spiers had no trouble in maintaining the standard of Fawlty Towers, which also featured Prunella Scales as Basil's dragon-like wife Sybil and Andrew Sachs as the Spanish waiter Manuel.
It was four years after the initial series aired and Spiers recalled that the manic atmosphere usually caused a lot of work for him as director. "There were well over 400 shots per episode," he recalled. Cleese and Booth's scripts, which each took six weeks to write, ran to almost twice the length of those for most sitcoms and included details of facial expressions and camera cuts. The result was a programme considered by many to be British television's finest sitcom.
Born in Glasgow, Bob Spiers moved to London at the age of 13 and gained a love of acting at school. On finishing his elementary education he started out as an actor with amateur companies and directed his first play, which was eventually performed at the Arts Theatre Club, in Soho. By day, he worked for an audience research company, before joining the BBC in a similar capacity in 1970.
Eighteen months later, Spiers became an assistant floor manager. He worked in that role on Dad's Army (1971), before moving up to become production manager (1973-74) on the enduringly popular sitcom written by David Croft and Jimmy Perry. After cutting his teeth as a director with outside dance routines for the entertainment show Seaside Special, Spiers directed most of the final series of the comedy (1977).
"I have nothing but fond memories of Dad's Army," he recalled. "But, by the time the last series came around, we had a few walking wounded. Arnold Ridley had his leg in plaster, so had to be shipped up to Norfolk [for location filming] in a limousine which had sufficient leg room, while John Le Mesurier wasn't well because he was recovering from an awful bout of hepatitis caught while abroad. Arthur [Lowe], due to his narcolepsy, kept dozing off – usually when David Croft was giving him notes. I remember filming a scene and David turning to me and saying, 'I've just got a feeling this is the last series!' "
Spiers also directed episodes of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum (1976) and Are You Being Served? (1977-83), written by Croft with Perry and Jeremy Lloyd respectively. The switch to a more zany screen humour came with the cult BBC series The Goodies (1977-82), which had begun seven years earlier, embraced the "stream of consciousness" humour of Monty Python's Flying Circus and starred Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie.
It was during this time that Spiers made the second series of Fawlty Towers and directed the unscreened pilot of Not the Nine O'Clock News (1979). On going freelance, he produced and directed the final series of The Goodies for ITV and it seemed a small leap to The Comic Strip Presents..., the archetypal alternative comedy series made for the newly launched Channel Four, for which he directed eight stories (1982-88), beginning on its opening night with Five Go Mad in Dorset, starring Adrian Edmondson, Peter Richardson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
Spiers switched to comedy-drama with the award-winning children's series Press Gang (1989-93) and, for the BBC, directed 15 episodes of French and Saunders (1988-93), including the sketch that inspired Absolutely Fabulous, for which he worked on more than two dozen episodes (1992-5, 2001). He also directed French's comedy-chiller series Murder Most Horrid (1991-94).
The director's other television shows included the sitcoms Joking Apart (1993, 1995) and Bottom (starring Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall, 1995), and the sketch series A Bit of Fry and Laurie with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (1995).
Spiers directed three films: the Walt Disney picture That Darn Cat starring Christina Ricci and Doug E. Doug (1997), the commercially successful but critically panned Spice World, featuring the Spice Girls (1997) and Kevin of the North, a comedy with Skeet Ulrich, Leslie Nielsen and Rik Mayall (2001). His wife, the television and film make-up designer Annie, died last year.
Bob Spiers was one of the very best comedy directors working in TV in the last 40 years, writes Jon Plowman. He had a brilliant eye for the look of a show and the construction of a comedy moment. From Dads Army and Fawlty Towers to Five Go Mad... and the Comic Strip films made for the early days at Channel 4, he was always an innovator.
I met him first when he had just finished Press Gang for ITV where he had worked with a young Stephen Moffat (now the Dr Who guru) and an even younger Julia Sawahla. He had been trained by Fawlty Towers, The Goodies and Dad's Army; what better training could there be?
We were about to make the first of the many series of French and Saunders. I seem to remember that on first meeting he seemed a bit of an irascible, curmudgeonly Scot, but once he could see that I wasn't agin him but rather for him our relationship grew and often included the imbibition of the odd libation in the BBC bar. Our first days filming I seem to remember involved Dawn and Jennifer, two motorbikes and some very large false breasts. Ah, comedy!
He was supremely confident about what he wanted the finished product to look like and how he was going to achieve it – all the brilliant film parodies came as much from Bob's understanding of what the original film-maker had done as from the girls' brilliance at nailing the parody. In that first season he did wonders with everything from The Sound of Music through The Exorcist via Les Liaisons Dangereuses in a disused mental asylum near Eastbourne.
After two or three series of French and Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous appeared out of one of the sketches we had made with Dawn and Jennifer. He was the only man for the job. He contributed his huge skill to the look and style of a show that was entirely about style and look. Overhead shots and dream sequences involving puppets and liposuction were not the everyday contents of studio sitcoms, which usually just pointed three or four cameras from a fourth wall and hoped for the best. Their challenges here were meat and drink to Bob, and the crews he worked with always knew that they would be stretched but that the work would be hugely original and funny.
The actors also knew that he was going to let them give of their best, that they would be encouraged but not restricted, even if they could hear him shouting into the floor managers' ears something less than supremely complimentary. He also contributed lines and ideas, as we all did, to an always vivid rehearsal process. Perhaps his greatest skill was in allowing the artists to give of their best and giving them the confidence that no idea was too strange and no angle too tricky.
After Ab Fab he went on to make Spice World with the Spice Girls, which must have felt like leaving the parody for the real thing. Again, he brought humour and good looks to something that might otherwise have crashed and burned. He understood that not every show ever filmed was going to be huge, but that was not going to stop him making it look more than a cut above the rest. He will be sadly missed by us all.
Bob Spiers, film and television director: born Glasgow 27 September 1945; married (two daughters); died Widecombe, Devon 8 December 2008.