Monday, 2 February 2015

A Career of Happy Accidents

Ned Sherrin’s life and career is recalled on BBC Radio 4 Extra this Saturday in Side by Side By Sherrin, a career he described as one of “happy accidents”.

Sherrin’s abiding passion was for the theatre: later he would write for it, write about it, interview many actors and revel in theatrical gossip. Initially he trained in law, not for the theatricality of the court room but to placate his father. It was, however, a chance meeting in the street in 1955 with an old friend, which swayed him away from life as a barrister at Grays Inn to the glamour of show business as a producer and director for the fledgling ATV, in Birmingham.
An early ITV credit from the TV Times
4 September 1956 
It was another chance acquaintance between his friend and long-time writing collaborator Caryl Brahms (they’d met in 1954) and Cecil McGivern, Director of Programmes for BBC television, that led Ned Sherrin back to London two years later with a job working for the BBC. Initially it was as a Light Entertainment producer on such shows as Ask Me Another, a TV version of radio’s What Do You Know, the forerunner to Brain of Britain, a programme showcasing zither-playing Shirley Abicair and the panel game Laugh Line.

Soon Sherrin was working for the formidable Grace Wyndham Goldie – at the time Assistant Head of Talks but soon to head up the Talks and Current Affairs division – where he joined the influential daily show Tonight as a studio director.
By a stroke of good luck Tonight drew together a team whose reputations would be far-reaching: Alasdair Milne, Donald Baverstock, Alan Whicker, Cliff Michelmore, Julian Pettifer, Fyfe Robinson, Antony Jay, Kenneth Allsop, Magnus Magnusson, Jack Gold etc.

In Deirdre MacDonald’s history of the programme she observes that Sherrin was “a brilliant studio director … who added a visual sparkle to every interview with his eye for detail and speed of observation. When Dame Edith Sitwell was interviewed by Cliff Michelmore, Sherrin kept the camera on her beringed fingers for the closing moments of the item. When one actress was sounding pompous and boring to Sherrin, he focused on the sleeping dachshund she had insisted on bringing with her.”  
One of Ned Sherrin’s major contributions was also in bringing new talent to the screen. MacDonald goes on to say: “He was an avid searcher, a conscientious theatre-goer – from the West End to the end of the pier in seaside towns. When he was studio directing Tonight, he was frequently an immaculate figure in a dinner-jacket: by the time Tonight came off the air as 7.30 the curtain would have gone up and the first act of plays and shows that Sherrin was attending would have got underway. ‘Grace Wyndham Goldie once met me in the corridor and asked whether I always directed Tonight in a dinner-jacket.”Yes, Grace”, I replied. “It’s an old BBC tradition.” I’m afraid she swallowed it hook line and sinker. “very nice sense of tradition Ned has”, she used to tell people. “Likes to direct in a dinner jacket.”’

By the summer of 1962 the Tonight team were working on a new programme called That Was The Week That Was. The first pilot was fronted by Manchester Guardian columnist Brian Redhead and David Frost, whom Sherrin had spotted at the Blue Angel nightclub in Mayfair (although at the time Frost was contracted to Associated-Rediffusion).

It was again pure chance that production of TW3 was handed to Sherrin. Roger Wilmut writes that it was Director-General Hugh Carelton-Greene’s decision to take the programme away from Light Entertainment “when a programme featuring the American satirist Mort Sahl was mounted by Light Entertainment, in which introductory remarks were made along the lines of ‘Fancy Auntie BBC putting this on’. This so annoyed Greene that he gave the new idea to Current Affairs to mount; Light Entertainment Department never forgave him.”  

That Was the Week That Was didn’t get an immediate go-ahead and the circumstances surrounding this sound a little bizarre. Wilmut recalls this in From Fringe to Flying Circus:
One of the highlights of the recording came in a debate between drama critic and political columnist Bernard Levin and a group of Conservative ladies. According to Sherrin, writing in the Sunday Mirror in 1966, the debate took on almost surreal proportions, with one of the ladies reiterating, ‘Mr MacMillan has always satisfied me’ and asking: ’Mr Levin, how would you like it if your daughter was out in a dark lane at night and nothing done about it?’

The recording was played back to a group of television executives, who felt that it was hardly suitable material for broadcasting. However, Sherrin says that the programme was saved, strangely enough by the Conservative ladies; they protested to the Conservative Central Office, who complained to the BBC, as a result of which Kenneth Adam, the Director of Television, had to see the recording. He saw the potential in it, and the programme went ahead.   

TW3 was, of course, a huge success not only for its satirical humour and for launching of many careers too long to list here, but for the way Sherrin’s direction changed the grammar of television production: no attempt was made to hide the paraphernalia of the studio. 

Sherrin went on to make Not So Much a Programme, More A Way of Life with David Frost and then BBC3 with Robert Robinson as the front man, before being lured to Columbia Pictures UK operation as a film producer. Those films were, shall we say, of varying quality; from The Virgin Soldiers to Up the Chastity Belt and Rentadick.
Other TV shows of note are the adaptations of Feydeau farces in Ooh Laa Laa, the translations and adaptations by Sherrin and Caryl Brahms. Two long lost shows produced by Sherrin in 1969 were Eleanor Bron and John Fortune in Where Was Spring? and a parody of current affairs shows such as Panorama and World in Action from the pen of N.F. Simpson titled World in Ferment 

Illustration for the second series of Medium Dry Sherrin
(Radio Times 1980) 
Ned Sherrin didn’t entirely move away from topical comedy and he presented what was perhaps a forerunner to The News Quiz and Have I Got News for You in the late 60s Quiz of the Week on BBC1. There was also Terra Firma on BBC2 (1976) with his old TW3 colleague Donald Baverstock as editor, We Interrupt This Week for PBS in the States (1978) and Friday Night…Saturday Morning on BBC2 (1979/80).
Whilst all this was going on Sherrin was also writing plays and musicals for the theatre and in 1976 was asked to produce and narrate the phenomenally successful Side by Side by Sondheim, bringing along former Tonight and TW3 singer Millicent Martin. 

Meanwhile on the radio we had yet to hear much of Ned Sherrin the broadcaster. He was making only occasional appearances in the 1960s and early 1970s on programmes such as Any Questions? and the odd panel game such as the World Service literary quiz Chapter and Verse and the movie quiz Ask a Cine Question for Radio 2.
Regular radio work didn’t come along until 1976 when Nigel Rees was looking for panellists on his brand-new show Quote…Unquote. Sherrin was in an inveterate collector of the quotes, particularly from the world of theatre and would edit several volumes of them, so he seemed a natural for the panel. When producer John Lloyd phoned him to invite him to take part Ned roared with laughter for no apparent reason. It later transpired that Ned had some time before already recorded a pilot for a TV quotations quiz, Who Said That? – indeed a six-part series was broadcast on BBC2 that summer.

Billing for the first Medium Dry Sherrin
Radio 2 5th September 1979
Ned’s first star vehicle for radio was the late-night Medium Dry Sherrin, the start of a run of pun-laden titles. Essentially this was an excuse for Ned to chat with actors and entertainers, and not from the comfort of the studios, but from Quaglino’s Restaurant in Mayfair. Running for two series on Radio 2 in 1979 and 1980 the guests included Diana Rigg, Joan Collins, Reginald Bosenquet, Bernard Levin, Gerard Kenny, Dennis Waterman and Andrew Sachs.
Working with producer Ian Gardhouse there were a number of programmes on Radio 4: several weeks on Midweek, which acquired the subtitle Sherrin After Breakfast, another late-night cocktail of music and conversation in And So to Ned – I warned you!- in 1982 and Extra Dry Sherrin in 1983.  

January 1986 saw the launch of Loose Ends, a Saturday morning talk show to fill the gap when Pick of the Week got moved to a Sunday. Planned for a 13-week run it’s still going some 30 years later. It had its genesis in an earlier show, also co-produced by Ian Gardhouse, The Colour Supplement, a Sunday lunchtime magazine show hosted by Margo MacDonald.

Ned chaired the proceedings on Loose Ends surrounded by, according to Paul Donovan, “a group of laughing acolytes.” The list of regulars included Emma Freud, Craig Charles, Carol Thatcher, Robert Elms, Richard Jobson, John Walters, Victor Lewis-Smith, Stephen Fry, Victoria Mather, Jonathan Ross, John Sessions and Arthur Smith.

Author Sue Limb described the programme as “a bit like Plato’s Symposium: a forum where bright young things are encouraged to show off by a disreputable old philosopher with a penchant for saucy questions.”
Here’s another chance to hear how it all started with a recording of most of the first edition from 4 January 1986. You’ll hear contributions from Angela Gordon of The Times, Robert Elms of The Face, writer Antony Jay, who’d worked with Ned on TW3, author Martin Barker plus writer and comic book aficionado Denis Gifford. In the early shows there were pre-recorded features which here are John Walters on the satellite TV choice, Nigel Farrell (who’d also been a regular on The Colour Supplement) talking a bus trip in Farrell’s Travels and Mat Coward taking a course in self-improvement. Credited with providing ‘additional material’ was Alistair Beaton, essentially he was providing the script to the opening monologue always delivered at breakneck speed by Sherrin.  

This is another early edition of Loose Ends from 4 July 1987, the date when the show also got a late-night repeat at 11 pm, billed as Even Looser Ends. In this truncated recording you’ll also hear Carol Thatcher, Emma Freud, Craig Charles and Robert Elms. There’s also one of those breathless freewheeling comic monologues from Victor Lewis-Smith, proving you can always get a laugh from Thora Hird, a busload of Germans and the mention of Money Box presenter Louise Botting.   

At the start of the 1988 series Loose Ends received the ultimate accolade, a Radio Times cover and an article, St Ned’s School Report, written by Alistair Beaton.  

In the summer of 1986 Sherrin started an association with another long-running Radio 4 show, Counterpoint. This is a music quiz that covers all musical tastes, but with more of a leaning to the classical, devised by Edward Cole who was well-known to listeners as a continuity announcer.
This is the final of the 19th series of Counterpoint from 1 August 2005.

Ned had to give up broadcasting in 2006 when throat cancer took hold. He died on 1 October 2007. The following day Alistair Beaton delivered a personal tribute in a special programme broadcast at 6.30 pm.  

Ned Sherrin 1931-2007

Additional Tonight and TW3 information and quotes from:
Tonight: A Short History by Deirdre Macdonald (BFI Dossier 15 1982)
From Fringe to Flying Circus by Roger Wilmut (Eyre Methuen 1980)

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