You will have heard by now the horrible news that I’ve apparently written a rather good book – so good, Unbound have delayed it until 2018 to try and give it maximum coverage. I’m thinking of becoming a security guard to survive until then. But for now, here’s the latest digest of Soupy activity…
17) The Producer Said To Me…
Friday, 3 March 2017
Okay, wrong double act catchphrase, but I hope you’ll forgive me for this mini-update: it’s been a busy week of harvesting the memories and opinions of the two men who shepherded Stephen & Hugh through ABOF&L at the beginning and at the the end.
I’m indebted to Louis Barfe for putting me on to Roger Ordish, this lovely chap…
… Who has of course had to field many far less pleasant questions in recent years, and it was a pleasure to share his warm enthusiasm for Fry & Laurie’s work, and the respite they gave him from that other programme he worked on for so much of his career. Sadly, the hint I had been given that Roger had access to a tape of S1 and S2 outtakes proved to be a red herring, but besides his memories, he was generous to share with us all the special dedication Stephen made in his copy of the first ABOF&L script book… Thank you, Roger!
And secondly, having had trouble making contact via a number of routes, Stephen’s sister Jo found an email address for the comedy Zeus Jon Plowman, who you may recognise from this off-duty photo:
… He’s the one in the middle.
Jon also had no knowledge of outtake material, although there must be a fair share somewhere deep within the bowels of some BBC edifice. Just as a rough guess, given the evidence we have, between the four series of ABOF&L I would estimate there would be enough cut material – as in, studio-recorded sketches, not bloopers – to fill well over an hour of TV. That’s obviously not including the 2 or 3 hours’ worth of ‘unseen’ scripted material I have with me. Comparably, I think Monty Python have a few ripped pieces of half-sketch that would run to less than 5 minutes, because everything else has been released, facsimiled, and shoved into a book at some point.
It was a very relaxed chat with Plowman, and an honour as he’s far from retired, and is a very busy man – this was his one afternoon off from producing the next series of Inside Number 9, which cropped up a few times in our conversation. In fact, as I don’t think any of it will end up in the book, here’s just a minute or so of our chat attached as an mp3 (eyes right!), where I’m trying to wheedle out of him whether the tone of ABOF&L S4 worried him at all (It didn’t)…
It may help to show you a snapshot of my Soupy Twists interview folder below, as a visual guide to how the interviews are coming along. This doesn’t include the people who have responded via email, like Deborah Norton, nor those pledged to at some point, Sandi Toksvig and Ben Elton. The saddest thing about the project for me so far is the unlikelihood of hearing from Tony Slattery, one of my adolescent heroes, for what can only be called ‘Personal Reasons’, as they are personal. Too personal for me to really know, but I have accepted his roundabout excuse note, and only wish him the very best, as I hope we all do.
Excitingly, however, before the month of March is through I will be taking tea with… well, perhaps it would be best to have the tea before divulging. But as my narrative wends its way to the dark opening months of 1995, and the end of the Soupy Twists story, it does seem time to pump from the source at last.
Here’s to pumping from the source,
18) Soupy Red Nose Day!
Friday, 24 March 2017
As a special treat for pledgers, I’ve uploaded the two occasions on which our colleagues Stephen & Hugh manned the Gunge Tank on the first and third nights of Red Nose Day fun at TV Centre in 1989 and 1991 (Little & Large took over for 1989, which with the very best will in the world, gold-embossed and leaving all your money to amazing ponies, is no replacement).
The clips feature two victims, chosen by CBBC viewers – firstly, the much-missed ‘Smitty’, Mike Smith, and secondly, by sheer coincidence, his wife, Sarah Greene.
I did try to grill Stephen on what he recalled about these two celeb gungings, and particularly the origin of gunge tanks in Peter Cook & Dudley Moore’s ‘Not Only But Also’, in an improv section called ‘Poets Cornered’… but the total email reply was ‘Good lord, I didn’t even know NOBA had a gunge tank in fact. But I vaguely remember perhaps seeing the odd thing on TV when young, but all my knowledge of Pete and Dud came later through records.’ Not a warming series of memories, I know, but I will be having tea with the man himself next week, and promise to extract meatier anecdotes from him in person.
So neither Hugh nor Stephen may remember much/anything about their Gunge history, but you can at least enjoy them all afresh here… providing, of course, you’ve already donated something to Comic Relief, bought a nose, sat in some beans, whatever it takes to help the otherwise helpless.
Oh, and when it comes to Fry & Laurie’s other, infamous Comic Relief appearance, I actually have some very meaty memories from Richard Curtis about the day they told him what their contribution would be… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MaBQn56Ydw
Soupy Twists! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZHjl3Mk-dk
19) No Point Going At It Half-Cock…
Friday, 14 April 2017
… Whereas, going at it full-cock is for me a lifetime’s habit. Hello, a very warm Eostre to you, and welcome to what will almost certainly be the penultimate entry in our SOUPY TWISTS series of blogs, before the full draft manuscript is bicycled off to the Unbound experts in their Islington offices for editing, enjoying, and generally squeezing between chunks of paper.
Because, oh! but what a hectic time it has been since last I be-blogged you all – not least thanks to the Bath Comedy Festival and its many duties, but now I have to tell you, I am fundamentally one decent day’s work away from having a completed draft of SOUPY TWISTS, leaving just a couple of weeks’ editing and tightening and straightening and all the other things manuscripts demand, before I can hand it in and await marking.
As you can see from my current Interviews folder…
I have finally had the honour of making a supermarket dash around Stephen and Hugh’s brains. There should still be one final grey-area-removing rendezvous with both before the book is sent off to the printers, though they will be back ‘home’ in California by then. We have enjoyed the singular pleasure of having both Fry and Laurie on British soil in recent weeks, however, and first I spoke to Hugh on the phone from his new rural idyll. In fact, as we had barely scratched the surface after two hours one Friday morning, he phoned me up the next morning for an interview of even greater length, which was extraordinarily kind of him.
It was only a week or so later that I met up with Stephen in the exact same swanky locale where he had greenlit Soupy Twists 14 months earlier, for a couple of hours’ interrogation over a few drinks and oysters (I never had the latter. Bivalves escape me as a foodstuff and I had already hurled once that morning). Of course, unlike Hugh, Stephen has written three lengthy instances of memoir, so there were far fewer grey areas to cover in person.
Despite absolutely loathing autographs and selfies and such, I felt I owed it to you dear Soupy pledgers to get some proof of our meeting, and despite my number of chins, inability to locate the lens, and a definite visual suspicion that I had just eaten the late Harry Secombe whole… here you go.
But I feel you may be more interested in the linked audiofile, up there. I’ve selected 6 or so minutes from lunch with Stephen, and the same amount of chat with Hugh, and pasted them into one short eavesdropping. I think these sections are interesting, but unlikely to make it into the book, so they’re fine to share. The book, after all, is currently somewhere in the region of 22,000 words over my original contracted word limit…
And I am still adding further interviews all the time, like the fresh Robert Daws chat which occurred just this week – what a lovely fellow, not at all the asshead Tuppy Glossop always was. Obviously. Buy his books!
Until this manuscript is ready to send, then, all I can say is… Language is my mother, my father, my husband, my brother, my sister, my whore, my mistress, my check-out girl… language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette. Language is the breath of God. Language is the dew on a fresh apple, it’s the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning light as you pluck from an old bookshelf a half-forgotten book of erotic memoirs. Language is the creak on a stair, it’s a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, it’s a half-remembered childhood birthday party, it’s the warm, wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl. It’s cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.
20) All My Life It’s Been A Mystery…
Friday, 5 May 2017
YOUR FACE MY ARSE.
No, sorry, that’s no way to impart information, is it? Let’s begin again.
I’m very well aware that I promised the last update would be the penultimate before the handover of the Soupy Twists manuscript, but well, it’s a dismal Friday, given the Local Election results, and any source of levity is welcome on a day like today. Despite the mammoth challenge I face preparing this book for the publishers, of which more anon, I still had a few nagging questions for our colleagues which, Columbo, style, I could not let lie while I had access to such great stores of comedy knowledge. And anyone who’s seen the “A Bit of Fry & Laurie” pilot will not be able to forget this:
It’s a short extract from ‘Selected Video Works 1970-78’ by American Artist William Wegman, and it’s never been remotely explained, as the one SPECK of material in all of ABOF&L not created by Stephen & Hugh. Was Wegman perhaps a friend of the colleagues? Did they owe him a favour? What could have possessed them to go with this? Well this morning, an answer to this question came directly from a freshly caffeinated Stephen, in no time at all:
Q: The William Wegman deodorant clip in the ABOF&L pilot – how, why, etc? Such a strange incongruity, with hindsight, but are you happy it’s there?
A: We had thought to ask art students in the very very very nascent branch of video to contribute little clips that might be worth inserting (rather in the way Python had Gilliam) unfortunately WW’s was the only one that was submitted! So we shoved it in the pilot but lost belief in the idea once we went to series.
I hope there are many comedy geeks out there who will sleep better sleeps tonight as a result of this mystery finally being solved. I know I will. Try to.
Anyway, returning to this big woolly elephant of a challenge. I’m sorry to say my finished manuscript is around 7,000 words over, with no hope of an extension, and I have written very tightly throughout – for instance, I would have loved to lavish pages on Delve Special and David Lander, a crucial early comedy character for Stephen, with lots to write about. Fearing the editing process, I had to keep the total coverage of the whole Lander project to maybe a couple of paragraphs, less than a page. I’ve done this throughout, for fascinating topics which aren’t 100% germane to ABOF&L itself. And ever since my first book was slashed to pieces, I’ve always tried to avoid waffle. So where the 7,000 words of cuts will come from, I cannot fathom.
Admittedly, this time I do have the option of posting any cut sections on this blog, but I know there’s a lot of heartbreak ahead for me as chunks are considered for deletion. Right now I am combing through the book from start to finish one last time, tightening everywhere I can, in the hope that the cuts I make will reduce it enough for Unbound to somehow squeeze what remains in (do you pledgers really need legible typeface size? Is it really that hard for you to buy a magnifying glass if we print it in 8 point font? Come on, work with me here). But over the coming weeks/months, I can at least share with you some of the stuff which I’ve had to drop from Soupy Twists in order to get the book out for you.
Until next time, then, you will never understand how much I love you, and of course:
21) You Got It! (I don’t think I have…?)*
Friday, 19 May 2017
I bring momentous news, which is very much of the moment.
Today, Friday 19th May, the full manuscript of Soupy Twists, the official Fry & Laurie story, has been digitally posted over to the good people of Unbound for editing, fixing, and making into one of those books which I hear are very much not all the rage. What a birthday present for company co-founder John Mitchinson! And yet, the pain of the non-fiction writer, nothing ever pauses for one second – just after sending, this was announced: Cell Mates Revival – and we’ve had the sad cancellation of The Great Indoors only announced at the last minute, and Stephen’s cameo in Veep! We’re right up to the line on topicality with this one.
I would take up space here thanking everyone who has pledged, who has offered advice or even content, but all of those Acknowledgements will be in the book, so let’s not waste precious pixels, shall we? I’ll just say ta. You may recall agonies over just how much over the word limit the finished book was – a fortnight of very patient combing through and tightening up has reduced a 7k word excess to about 2.5k – it’s the editor’s job now to hopefully fit all that in. Fingers crossed, and I’ll keep you updated on the progress as Soupy Twists travels from Word document to big papery thing tied up with string (String not included).
Another fillip is that this time last week I had a very long and extremely wonderful chat with Mrs. Jo Laurie née Green, who has fiercely guarded her privacy for over 30 years since first falling in love with a big blue-eyed ex-oarsman, and although she maintains her silence officially, as I knew she would, I was afraid that writing Soupy Twists was infringing on her privacy, and she may not like it… Reader, let me assure you, Hugh’s other half is about as warm and lovely a person as I have ever happened upon in my years of writing these books. No doubt millions of women envy her, but you can certainly tell why Hugh picked her as a keeper! Now we’ve spoken, Jo will be able to help make this book as good as it deserves to be, providing some exclusive photos and such. So an extra grovelling ta to her.
I shall leave you for now with a truly extraordinary extract which had to be plucked from the manuscript to slim it down. I now only refer to it rather than quoting it, or including it in full in the archive section at the back (which will be a very small print digest, so short-sighted types, invest in a magnifying glass right now!). This sketch would have been written, ooh, any time between 1993 and 1996 (sorry to be so vague, all this material is salvaged from undated old corrupted files), but I think you’ll agree, unless you’re extremely stupid and/or argumentative, that it was gob-slappingly prescient work from Gadget Man Stephen – what will the world be like when video calls come in…? Nigel Havers, look away NOW. Everyone, make sure Nigel’s not looking. And… read.
Until next time, if you have been, we are all blessed.
*A very special Soupy Twists Chequebook & Fallacy to the first person to recognise this snatch
22) Knickers Off Ready
Tuesday, 18 July 2017
Listen to me, lovelets…
It is now far more than nigh on 8 months since my pilgrimage to Hugh Laurie’s Oxford, at which time I had no belief that I would be able to get as far out as Norwich, despite Stephen’s Norfolk background, and there was plentymuch written about the county’s metropolis in Soupy Twists.
Well, as you know, I delivered the completed ST manuscript back in the spring, but a lovely friend gave me an opportunity to head out to the far east for the first time in my life, and hoover up a little of the atmos of the young Fry’s regular haunts. In truth, as a biographer I’m not sure how much solid wordage is inspired by walking in footsteps in this way, but it does at least feel highly respectful and seems like The Done Thing for any biographer.
So now I have some idea of what Norwich is like, outside of Alpha Papa and general Norfolk jokes. The city was never Stephen’s real home, just the biggest town in the county which became his home as a small child, the county where he still maintains a home now, and clearly loves the place.
That said, it was hard to find places I could pin young Fry down – the hangout he mentions in his memoirs, ‘Just John’s Delicatique’ is unquestionably long gone since the early-to-mid-70s, with the only mentions of the intellectual salon online coming from Fry’s own books. I mean, it’s all very easy to stand in the gates of Norwich cathedral…
… See? But it’s tough to claim expenses on a Soupy Twists trip for that. (Impossible, in fact, as expenses are simply not a thing for a project like this.) Stephen was until quite recently a very proud director of the home association football sport team, the Canaries, so I asked my friend to photograph me here…
… But again, very little in the way of comedy non-fiction material was gathered here. Stephen’s crucial link to the city is that he took his A levels here. Originally he was in King’s Lynn, but that was pre-prison, and eventually he came to City College. Here I am after a lengthy yomp out of town to find the place, though it may still be the wrong bit of it:
…Just to unnecessarily prove to all Soupy onlookers that I have travelled far and wide in my loving documentation of the two erstwhile comedy colleagues’ careers. But all in all, the fact that I reached the conclusion of the Soupy Twists manuscript months ago was not hampered by my Norvician virginity hitherto.
One very lucky boon from the timing of my visit was that I could visit the BBC Comedy Photo Exhibition at Norwich Library, curated by Paul Merton and Adil Ray. But although I saw a Blackadder photo entirely new to me, and Alan Partridge was present and correct, I was naturally disappointed to find not one image of Norfolk’s favourite son Fry anywhere. It would probably be reading too much into it to wonder whether this is down to Merton and Fry’s old falling out over the HIGNFY/Deayton business (they have done Just a Minute together since then anyway), but it seemed a big omission. Glad to have visited, anyway.
Further updates to come, but for now, thank you for a lovely weekend, and the photos, ©Polly Logan-Banks…!
PS Did you know there’s no such thing as a British folktale collection? Help us put that right here, please – my fifth book: TALES OF BRITAIN. Comes with a Fry & Laurie guarantee of quite interestingness.
23) DAMN, HELL AND CUSTARD
Wednesday, 26 July 2017
Anyone seen a pithy, fascinating biography of Fry & Laurie anywhere…? Deborah Munnings…?
If you were to take a sky-diving course – and why wouldn’t you? Life is dull enough – you would obviously be very keen to get out to feel the thermal currents filling your body with endorphins. But if your sky-diving instructor took a look at your parachute, and told the pilot they’d have to land and find a safer one, would you say “Screw you, Nazi!” and leap out into the wide blue yonder? Only if you wanted to do an impersonation of mince.
And so I have no option but to relay to you the deeply disappointing news that Unbound Publications has requested more time to ready Soupy Twists – The Official Fry & Laurie Story for release. In fact, all you darling pledgers should hopefully already have received this update from the very equine mush*:
Every now and then a book is delivered that exceeds your expectations. I’m pleased to say, Soupy Twists, the official story of Fry & Laurie, is just such a book. Jem Roberts has exceeded his brief and delivered a manuscript that bursts with energy and bristles with remarkable research. It will in time, I feel confident, be considered a one of the very best comedy histories ever published.
However, to do it and its subjects justice is going to take time. It’s a big editorial job and not one we want to rush. So the end of the year deadline we’d hoped to hit has receded to early summer next year.
I know this will be a disappointment for many of you – for us too – but the final book will be more than worth it.
Expect Jem to tantalise you with extracts and updates over the coming months. And there’s now plenty of time to encourage your friends to pledge and get their names in the back of a stone cold comedy classic.
Thanks for your support and your patience,
John Mitchinson, Co-founder & Chief Publishing Officer”
As you know, I delivered the finished manuscript back in May, and we were on for a summer of sourcing images, finalising design and so on, all in time to hit the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of the A Bit Of Fry & Laurie pilot this Boxing Day. The bookish folk at Unbound told me they were all so very happy with the way in which I have told F&L’s story, they don’t want to risk the book disappearing in the pre-Xmas crush (which admittedly has happened with most of my previous releases, all that loving hard work, evaporating on release to the public – even writing Douglas Adams’ official biography failed to gain the kind of notice you’d expect), and so although I argued bitterly that all of you who have supported and pledged for the project were promised the book this year (and I hope I have still managed to get pledgers an earlier release), it now seems that 2018 will be the year of Soupy Twists, not 2017. To be fair, ABOF&L the series really began in 1988, so on the 30th anniversary front, it does still work either way.
But you must believe me, this delay is an absolute dagger in my giblets, having promised the book to you in time for Yule on more than one occasion. And if you’ll forgive my indulgence, on a personal level the delay is utterly disastrous, as the state of the magazine industry means crucial freelance income has dried up almost entirely, and I will be down to £0 before the end of the year, with no timely book release to come to my aid. Though none of my books have been written with a financial motivation, the planned timing of the Soupy Twists release was going to just about save my streaky, so this has knocked me for a lot more than six.
In fact, straits are so dire, I have done something I never thought imaginable, and started a Patreon, patreon.com/jemroberts, should anyone out there sympathise, and be lucky enough to have the breadline somewhere beneath them.
I also have more works of comedy history I’m burning to create, as well as the crucial campaign that is TALES OF BRITAIN, which is by far the most important project I have ever attempted, so all help is sincerely appreciated. In fact, if you have any desire to help support Soupy Twists, and myself, pledging for this unique story collection justhere would be perhaps the kindest thing you have ever done! Stephen is already aware of the book, and I hope we have his support as the campaign continues – maybe I’ll get the gumption to alert Hugh too, both are patriotic types, I hope. There’s literally NO single collection of UK folk and fairytales in existence, so do join the movement for a 21st century retelling.
But in the meantime, this Soupy Twists project will just take a little longer, and I will do all I can to keep you informed and entertained, with Stephen & Hugh’s help (both have reaffirmed their proud support of the book, despite the delay), until you really do hold their official story in your beautifully manicured hands. In a way, this is good for Fry & Laurie fans, as it will require me to share even more material than I ever envisaged (always with their approval), and I will not neglect updating this blog, making it a continuing celebration of everything Fry & Laurie did together. For instance, there’s this wonderful 1982 photo from the Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury I took a snap of when combing through the Footlights collection in Cambridge:
What an image. Behold Stephen’s gaze of sheer withering hatred for the beaming star of the show, see Hugh’s face of literal disgruntlement, Paul’s blank stare and Robert’s… blank stare, also. I would so love to have this cutting in the book, but I’m not sure if iPhone pics of old newsprint are considered publishable by Unbound, so this may be my only chance of sharing it with you. I just hope bits and pieces like this will be some recompense for your kind support, and above all, patience. Please remember that nobody is more crestfallen by this delay than I am, and when the book is ready early next year, it should be even better than if it had been ‘rushed through’ for a 2017 release.
I’ve enjoyed being fabulous with you, and I aim to continue to be so. In conclusion, then: VILN.
*I am not saying the Unbound CPO’s mouth bears any resemblance to a horse’s. No horse could grow a beard that impressive.
24) Hugh Laurie’s Face
Friday, 4 August 2017
Happy Soupy Twists Friday, FAL-fans!
This isn’t much of an update, but it had been bothering me for a while that this sketch wasn’t online as a standalone piece, and to my mind, this is the funniest 38 seconds of wordless comedy in the entire history of funny things. Even without the punchline.
And all down to Hugh Laurie’s face… and, admittedly a very amusing wig. In fact, I feel it deserves a GIF to go with it:
I wouldn’t hesitate to draw parellels between Hugh’s physiognomy and that of Buster Keaton – it’s a wonder they’ve never built a biopic around them. With those features, and that physicality, Laurie could have been dropped into any silent comedy studio at the start of the last century and become a legend.
I’m aware that a lot of you lovely supporters have come to this book from a love of House, and I wouldn’t hear a word against that frankly brilliant series. But it’s one of the main aims of Soupy Twists to provide a permanent record of the all-too-easily forgotten fact of Hugh’s comedic brilliance, totally separate from Stephen’s own brand of comic excellence, which has always been to the forefront, due to his sheer profligacy of talent. But as his colleague has always loudly insisted, Hugh’s talent for physical comedy has always stood alone, far beyond his own skill in that area, with words being, of course, Fry’s metier. Nowhere is Hugh’s skill more in abundance than in this balloon animal quickie, it’s a sublime sub-minute.
It’s also essential to this book that I sing Hugh’s praises as a comic songwriter, which I was glad to get to discuss with him in person – I did my best to assure him that songs like ‘Little Girl’ and ‘All We Gotta Do’ belong in the echelons of Lehrer and Wood, and that funny songs are not a cheap novelty side-genre, but about as specialised and difficult an artform as can be imagined. Anyone can twang a tune with asinine lyrics, but to write and perform a catchy song that is also packed with gags, is far beyond the skill of 99% of the world’s musicians. I’d like to think I sowed a seed which may see Hugh performing more original material with the Copper Bottom Band, live and maybe even on record. His brand of compassionate satire could do a lot of good in this naughty world. But we’ll have to see if he takes this on board.
But, as I say, it’s his personal comic voice and – obviously – face and body which I fear is in danger of being put out of mind by his international success as a straight actor, and I would take these 38 seconds above all the many hours of TV he has created in the last 20 years. You have to recognise the distinct qualifications that go into the overused term ‘genius’ in any artform, before daring to trundle the word out. And having done that, I will now employ it: Genius.