Thursday, 1 October 2015

That Was the Week - Part 5

If Week Ending was the Oxbridge Review then The News Huddlines was the end of the pier show. Though poking fun at the week's news, the music hall tradition was never far away from Huddlines, Radio 2's longest-running, and sorely missed, comedy show that first aired 40 years ago today. 

In fact both Week Ending and The News Huddlines are inextricably linked. Huddlines' first producers Simon Brett and John Lloyd had both worked on Ending; Chris Emmett provided the impressions and the same scriptwriters provided sketches and quickies to the two shows.

The story goes, according to Brett, that in 1975 Radio 2 was a comedy desert, full of quiz shows, and "people kept saying 'we need a kind of red-nosed Week Ending', And Roy's was the nose". Co-producer Lloyd, remembers the problems with casting. "We had this title you see - The News Huddlines. And we had to rack our brains for somebody called Hudd who could fit the bill!"

When The News Huddlines launched its star was probably better known on the telly- if only for those Quick Brew adverts ("it's me little perforations") - rather than the radio. Roy Hudd's career had already overlapped the end of music hall and touring variety - he'd worked with his hero Max Miller - and the 60s satire boom with Not So Much a Programme More A Way of Life, so for a weekly, fast-paced "topical review" in front of an audience he was a natural.

Young Roy Hudd got the showbiz bug from his Saturday morning visits to the children's film shows at the Croydon Hippodrome and trips to the Croydon Empire with his Gran to see the her idols - Max Wall, Bud Flanagan, Sandy Powell, Jimmy James, Hettie King and Max Miller. "Even when we were hard up, we'd spend one-and-six on two hours of bloody marvellous escapism".

Called up for National Service in 1955 he got the chance to perform in a revue show titled The Rafter. "The lads liked it - especially my impression in drag, of Lita Rosa." On demob Roy and his mate Eddie Cunningham (they'd first met at a boy's club in Croydon) signed up to join Butlins as Redcoats at Clacton. They billed their double act as Hudd and Kay "as we agreed that Hudd and Cunningham sounded more like a firm of solicitors."

After leaving Butlins Hudd and Kay started touring the variety circuit and managed to get a TV appearance on ABC's talent show Bid for Fame. "Alas we were outbid".  According to Roy the best week's variety they did was at the Finsbury Park Empire in 1959. Topping the bill was Max Miller. "Very good boys", he commended them, and offered to buy them a drink in the theatre bar. Renowned for his parsimony they took him up on his offer. Miller continued to talk about their act and made suggestions on how to improve, but no drinks were forthcoming. More help and stories followed until the doors of the bar burst open at the first interlude. "The first bloke in spotted Max and said, 'Blimey" he's here" What will you have Max?' 'I'll have a large gin and tonic,' Max replied like a flash. 'And what will you have, Roy? And you Eddie?'"

Roy Hudd recalls those early days in conversation with Mike Craig in this edition of It's a Funny Business first heard on Radio 2 on 16 August 1976.   

Post-Butlins the double act split and Roy toured the country in revues and pantomime and, on 17 November 1960, made his first radio appearance on an edition of Worker's Playtime. More radio and TV work followed with further appearances on Worker's Playtime, Music-Hall and The Billy Cotton Band Show but his major break was to be asked by producer Ned Sherrin to join the cast of the TW3 follow-up Not So Much A Programme More A Way of Life(1964-65).

Working alongside David Frost, Willie Rushton, Eleanor Bron and John Bird Roy felt a little daunting. "I was petrified, and really did feel completely out of place with this collection of university-educated, ex-Footlights Revue members, who read newspapers and knew real politicians. They were certainly a clever lot of smart Alecs".  

Roy also appeared in the follow-up series BBC3 (1966), but his first star vehicle was the BBC1 situation comedy Hudd (1965), written by George Evans and Derek Collyer. Roy was an admirer of Jacque Tati and the writers told the Radio Times: "We had in mind the sort of character who could do visual jokes with a minimum of dialogue, rather than the usual verbal jokes, and Roy fitted like a glove".

The BBC were keen to do a second series of Hudd but Roy wasn't. Instead he preferred a revue-style show with sketches and so The Illustrated Weekly Hudd (1966-67) was born.  The cast included Sheila Steafel, Patrick Newell, Doug Fisher and Marcia Ashton (series 2) and contributing to the scripts were Dick Vosburgh, Eric Davison, Barry Cryer, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Dave Freeman. Even so, Roy remained unhappy with the finished product: "I wasn't ready or good enough to be able to headline a show as myself, and not clever enough to do sketches that required top-rate character work".      

Roy continued to appear in summer seasons, panto, West End plays and shows such as Danny La Rue's long run at the Palace Theatre. In 1968 he got his first starring radio series, imaginatively titled The Roy Hudd Show which also featured Sheila Bernette. Yet again Roy seems unhappy with the finished result: "Somehow it didn't quite gel".

The following year there was a 6-part series for Yorkshire TV again titled The Roy Hudd Show and again lacking something:" ...the people hated it." He was on safer ground with his 1971 and 1972 Charles Chilton produced series for Radio 4 Roy Hudd's Vintage Music Hall that built on his love of the old theatre traditions and for which he would later write about and amass a collection posters and song sheets.  

The first inkling that Roy got about the start of The News Huddlines was a call from BBC producer Simon Brett asking "Are you doing anything next Wednesday  lunchtime?" The idea was for a topical revue type show with Hudd as a kind of Kenneth Horne figure doing a monologue at the start and then introducing the sketches. Joining him were Week Ending's Chris Emmett and Janet Brown who'd been in the business since the 40s and had recently been perfecting her impressions on Radio 2's comedy panel game The Impressionists. One wonders if Brett had Roy in mind having seen him on the late-night BBC2 satire show Up Sunday.

The pilot show was recorded on 9 June 1975 and the first edition of the series was heard on Wednesday 1 October that year. The News Huddlines was a hit and proved to be a breath of fresh air amongst Radio 2's array of panel games and indifferent sitcoms. Initially the billed scriptwriters were Peter Spence and David Renwick but like Week Ending it relied on a core of commissioned writers and a whole list of people who would send in gags and sketches.

One such writer was the late Debbie Barham (she died tragically young in 2003 at the age of 26) who submitted lines to Week Ending under the name of DA Barham, as she'd heard that radio comedy was still very much a male preserve. At the age of 19 she sent in a sketch to Huddlines regarding the Holbeck hotel in Scarborough which fell into the sea. "Have you reserved a room?" the receptionist asks. "No, we just decided to slip away for the weekend", replies the guest. "Yes, unfortunately, so did our foundations".  Speaking in 1994 Debbie said "There are certain subjects that fit the formula. Pot Noodles, Jeremy Beadle, Germans and British Rail are perennials".

Reviewing the programme's success in 1994, Richard North of The Independent observed that it "sends everybody up rotten with special attention paid to their race, creed and gender, and yet remains affectionate. The Huddlines style of comedy is wholly un-PC ... the Japanese and the Germans remain fair game, deliciously perpetuating the ridiculous war-comic images a generation, now middle-aged, so enjoyed at school. All theatrical agents are Jewish ('Well Jew-ish,' as Hudd has it)."

The early shows were recorded on Tuesday lunchtimes but eventually the programme settled into a Thursday recording/broadcast pattern with a Saturday lunchtime repeat. The scripts were pulled together in the first half of the week and put in front of the cast at 10 am on the Thursday. There was one complete run through and then at 1 pm a recording in front of an audience at the Paris Theatre in Lower Regent Street. "The result is a mixture of high polish and breathless, occasionally hysterical spontaneity".   That Paris audience was generally filled with coach load of pensioners prompting producer John Lloyd to quip: "What has 64 legs and one pair of dentures? The front row of the Paris!" 

In 1994 Huddlines reached a comedy milestone as it became the BBC's longest running scripted comedy show in front of an audience, knocking The Navy Lark off the top spot.  By now Janet Brown  had long left the show, replaced along the way by a number of actresses, including  Norma Ronald and Alison Steadman and, from 1984, June Whitfield, an inspired piece of casting. "No smut could conceivably pass Whitfield's lips," wrote Richard North. "Even in real life , Roy Hudd and the team are forever scheming to sneak serious filth past her scrutiny. They often shock her with their enthusiasm for farts, curries and private parts. 'Oh, they will have their vindaloo jokes' she says".

Chris Emmett presented this history of the show titled Behind the Huddlines. It aired on Radio 2 on 24 March 1994. Taking part are Roy and June, Simon Brett, John Lloyd, Jonathan James-Moore, Mark Robson, Richard Quick, Jeremy Brown, Andy Hamilton, Nick Revell, Alan Nixon, Dirk Maggs and Paul Spencer.

There were two spin-offs series with long-form situation comedy formats. In 1986 Huddwinks from Huddlines writer Laurie Rowley featuring Roy, Chris, Denise Coffey, Fred Harris and David Gooderson. And in 1995 Crowned Hudds, six historical romps penned by Michael Dines, with Roy, Chris, June and Jeffrey Holland.

The News Huddlines clocked up 51 series between 1975 and 2001 and over 20 specials but its demise was in no way planned, or indeed ever recognised on air. By the 1990s Roy was also in demand as actor - see Lipstick On Your Collar and Common as Muck for example - and in 2002 he joined Coronation Street as undertaker Archie Shuttleworth. "The Beeb reassured us, and the listeners, that the radio show would return once I finished my stint in the Street", recalled Roy. "To this day", according to Chris Emmett, "nobody has had the guts to write to Roy and tell him that they were dropping the show". Roy himself relates that a BBC executive took him out to lunch and "told me that they wanted me to be more like Jonathan Ross".

A week after Behind the Huddlines the 36th series of The News Huddlines kicked off. All the elements are there Roy's cheeky asides to the audience and his opening  monologue "so it's snow jobs, no jobs, glow jobs and ...", June Whitfield playing Norma Major as Eth and the Queen Mum as Irene Handl, non-PC jokes about Germans and the Japanese, parody songs, Friggins  (cue whoosh sfx) and Richard Clegg's breakneck reading of the closing credits.  This edition aired on Thursday 31 March 1994 and I recorded the repeat on Saturday 2 April.

The 'replacement' for Huddlines was already on air by the time it came to a halt in 2001. For topical comedy Radio 2 had been offering Punt and Dennis in It's Been a Bad Week since 1999. More on that programme in a future post.

A Fart in a Colander by Roy Hudd (Michael O'Mara Books, 2010)
Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me: A History of Week Ending by Ian Graves and Justin Lewis (Kaleidoscope Publishing, 2008)

Roy Hudd is not just a funny face by Angela Wilkes (Sunday Times Magazine 8.8.82)
Still Hitting the Huddlines by Richard Johnson (Radio Times 26.3.94)
Heard the one about? by Jonathan Margolis (Sunday Times 27.3.94)
Have they got news for you! by Richard North (The Independent 30.3.94)

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