I have to ask you about That Was The Week That Was – you were an established actor and director, and suddenly in the early 1960s you were writing for the groundbreaking satirical show that launched David Frost’s career. How on earth did that come about?
I’ve always written a bit. Through a friend of mine, Charles Lewsen, I knew Ned Sherrin, who was producing That Was The Week That Was. They were fully cast, but they wanted stuff written, and it was Ned Sherrin who suggested a ‘Which?’-style report on religion. So I thought – what a wonderful idea! I’ve always been fascinated by religion because I think it’s one of the great destructive forces in society. So I started jotting things down, and I divided it up into six religions, including communism, and I thought – what do you put into it, what do you get out of it and what does it cost? A very ‘Which?’ format, and simple. I finished it at four in the morning. I read it and thought it was good. As I’d written it, it came to about sixteen minutes. My brother’s favourite line in the Catholic section, which apparently they cut now, is ‘Virgin birth – a great labour saving device’. Whoever you might offend it’s a brilliant line! They bought it, David Frost performed it, cut down to about eight minutes thirty, and you sometimes get clips of it still. I’m told it’s possibly the most significant thing That Was The Week That Was did. I was nobody, just a jobbing actor at Ipswich Rep (which was fortnightly!) when all this was going on. Because David Frost fronted it, he never quite pretended he’d written it, but he never credited Charles or me in any conversation or interview.
What was the reaction like?
There were questions in the Houses of Parliament about its impropriety. I’ve got a clipping somewhere of a 70 year-old clergyman who said, “We should all march to the BBC TV Centre and burn it down,” as a result of it. That’s religion for you! It certainly had its effect. Gradually, people wanted to know who to write to about it. We had a trickle of royalties and it was eventually performed by the Beyond the Fringe Cambridge lot. So it was a nice income trickle because it was performed nightly for a couple of years. Ned Sherrin was very pleased, but hadn’t remembered it was his idea. I had to tell him! He was very modest and affable. I ended up writing about six more pieces. One of which was that there’s a list of things you’re not allowed to say in Parliament. For example, you can’t call anybody a ‘liar’ – you have to say ‘that is not true’. So out of this list of unparliamentary language – words and phrases – I made one sentence of them! It was a long spiel of essentially abusive language. Another was a send-up of Peterborough – quite obscure things, really. I sat in a bedsit in Ipswich scribbling all this stuff. Another one was a go at Harold Wilson, which was going to be a big one, but Hugh Gaitskell died, so they simply couldn’t go there. By that time Wilson had begun to be thought of as very slippery. He deserved to be knocked, but that was it.
That Was The Week That Was is well-remembered, but didn’t last very long, did it?
The show was unsustainable. The first year was the best I suspect. It’s almost impossible to keep up that standard. But it changed TV. It was proper satire: exaggerated but truthful.
You can see the full episode of That Was The Week That Was below. Robert’s Consumer’s Guide to Religion sketch starts at around 9:40.
As an actor, you ended up doing a mountain of television work. How did it all start?
My first television was in 1949. My agent said, ‘It’s not much but would you like to be a passenger in a tube train, strap-hanging in the Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon show?’ It was shot either at Shepherd’s Bush Empire or Lime Grove, I forget which, but that was the beginning of it.
There weren’t the same height restrictions you faced on stage?
In television, it doesn’t matter how tall you are, I ended up playing policemen because behind a desk nobody bothered. The main thing was to get the laughs, so if you got the laughs nobody minded!
Was your goal then to break into television?
It started accidentally. I put my name down at the BBC and got the strap-hanging part. BBC TV Centre was quite new. There would be lists published of directors and their departments, and for nine years after coming out of RADA I didn’t have an agent at all. I used to grit my teeth and give over a morning in the week to pick up the phone to ring the BBC, ask to be put through to a particular director’s office. Somebody would pick up the phone – occasionally the director himself. I’d ask if they were doing anything that I could come and see them for. Instead of hearing, ‘How did this call get through to me? How dare you?’ – they’d say, ‘I’ve just finished a production and I won’t be doing anything until about two and a half months’ time, so if you’d like to ring back then.’ One had to steel oneself to do it – but one didn’t get told to get lost! Or I’d occasionally be told they were in the middle of a production and they were seeing people that week, and would you be free on Thursday? I’d say, ‘I think I might be free on Thursday’! That’s how I got my first major part. From strap-hanging I went into an eight-part series – which was live children’s television which went out at six o’clock. It was a series called Jesus of Nazareth and I played the disciple Matthew. It was a wonderful woman called Joy Harington who cast me. The character would have been mid-thirties, and I was in my early twenties, but it worked. It was a wonderful role. A man called Tom Fleming, a pillar of the Scottish theatre and a commentator who sadly died recently played Jesus. It was groundbreaking because Jesus was there in person on television. There were a few filmed inserts, but almost the whole thing was live, and then repeated a day later.
Was it terrifying playing live?
No, you were used to it. We went on stage live. There was a cut key if something really went wrong, but more or less the roof would have had to fall in! You just had to get around any problems. There was another series called The Black Brigand in which I played a baddie. From that I worked a lot for Ronald Eyre, who was a celebrated director in the theatre. I was in a lot of things Ron did. Eventually we did Caucasian Chalk Circle together. There’s a nice mention for Ronald in Alan Bennett’s Habit of Art. He died stupidly early of cancer. He did a series called Escape which was a war thing and we were escaping from a German POW camp. I played a lead and Michael Caine had two lines! But he was brilliant. We were talking about him even then. I remember Ronald Eyre saying how good he was. Later on I remember being at the Arts Theatre when it was a centre for actors to go to, and seeing Caine pacing by the phone when he was waiting for some film news to come in, when he was on his way up.
You’re probably best known for comedy. Where did all that begin?
It was after a meeting with David Croft, who was producing Hugh and I, a comedy series that starred Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott. David hired me to play a Moroccan desk sergeant, so I had a French accent. That was the very first copper I played, behind a desk, in the manner to which I became accustomed. I did it later in the Likely Lads, and I kept being hired to do that particular sort of deadpan policeman role. David was a wonderful man, but he would ask me to do difficult things. I was in one Dad’s Army where they were trying to get a clip of Charles Boyer as Napoleon. MGM or whoever owned the rights to it said get lost, or pay an extortionate sum on a BBC budget, so David phoned me and asked if I could play Charles Boyer being Napoleon!
Were you happy to embrace comedy?
Eventually, that’s where it settled to, and I stopped seriously trying to get drama. You did what people wanted to hire you to do. The rewarding thing about playing sitcom is you know when it’s working. You’d do a drama, and it could be quite turgid, and people would tell you you were wonderful, but you’d never be quite sure. Sitcom, you know. The work there accumulated. You just do your best to never miss a laugh, which I had a reputation for, so I was asked back. There was a series in which I played somebody who was virtually blind with huge goggle glasses who bumped into everything, which was clowning. It was interesting to do something as physical as that. I kept being hired to be funny. I played far more different kinds of people than I ever would have played in straight drama. With my height I couldn’t fall in love, so I had to be on the edge, or a small-time crook. In sitcom I could play doctors, solicitors or vicars. It was much more interesting. They picked up on my style which tended to be downbeat and oblique, not [Robert does jazz hands] buzzy. If that fitted the text I was there.
Ultimately you starred in five series of Keep It In The Family, which Brian Cooke wrote especially for you. How did that come about?
I did a few Robin’s Nests and George & Mildreds, and that’s where Brian Cooke spotted me. He was working with Johnnie Mortimer on those shows, but he was having a go of writing a series on his own. He asked if anybody had ever thought of doing a series with me, and I said feel free! He decided I was a manic depressive, I’ve no idea why, but that’s what he based Dudley Rush on, someone who was up and down, which was interesting because I was normally very deadpan, but Dudley of course had this manic streak in him. Keep it in the Family was going very well. But Brian Cooke went travelling to America, and started enjoying his money. So he stopped writing the show and handed it on to people he approved of. Our director said, ‘I wonder what this will be like when you’re still playing this in ten years and you’re pretending to be the same age’. We had it in mind that we’d keep it going so long as it was going well. As we were coming up to the fifth series, the director was winding down and went off to do The Morecambe And Wise Show, and the director after that wasn’t the best at comedy, to put it mildly, and the writers weren’t in the same league as Brian. So it fizzled out, which was a shame.
Come back for the final part of our profile of Robert Gillespie where we bring you up to date with his work as a prolific director for the London stage. We find out about his unexpected adventure spending two years performing with the RSC, his encounter with Tennessee Williams, and what his plans are for his latest production, Making Dickie Happy.
Tickets for Robert’s latest show, Making Dickie Happy, which runs 5th to 30th March, are available from the Tristan Bates Theatre box office: http://www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/Making_Dickie_Happy.asp