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Mark Robinson (Shiver) – I Was There – The Secrets of Celebrating Archive


Maurizio Borghi (CIPPM, Bournemouth University)

Maurizio Borghi (Chair): Hello everybody, welcome back. My name is Maurizio Borghi. My role here is to chair the panel on creative reuse. I teach copyright at Bournemouth University. I was expecting to come here just to sit down and relax at these beautiful presentations, but actually Ronan Deazley unfortunately could not make it today so I am replacing him in this chairing role.

So without further ado, let me introduce the first speaker, Mark Robinson, Shiver, but before Mark Robinson presents his presentation, we’ll look at the clip, ‘David Jason’.

Mark Robinson: Hello there. I’m glad you enjoyed that, that’s good, that’s a good start. So my name’s Mark Robinson, and I’m Creative Director of Shiver which is the former documentary department of LWT, just a hundred yards down the road from here, Yorkshire Television and Granada TV all under one name, and so we have a lot of archive to celebrate, even within Shiver, there’s probably a hundred and fifty years combined if you put those three libraries together which is an amazing start for programme makers like me.

Mark Robinson (Shiver)

That clip was from a three part series that Shiver made this year. It was called David Jason: My Life on Screen, and it took us seven years to persuade David to do it. It was his story from Do Not Adjust Your Set, which you saw there, to Inspector Frost, Only Fools and Horses to Still Open All Hours.

And when I met him for lunch around this time last year, I worked out why he was so reluctant. He said I really don’t like talking heads shows. Can you find a way of doing it without having any talking heads at all? If so, you can have me for as long as you like. Which was great, and that was like music to our ears really, necessity being the mother invention and all that.

So together with David, and he gave us twenty-one days of his time filming which was fantastic, we came up with a format which mixed travelogue with personal history. He’s probably the most popular TV star over the last thirty years in Britain, and we had him journeying around the country, reuniting him with the people and the places who’d had such a major part to play in his career.

And we sat down with David and we talked through all the turning points in that career, from his first appearances in the sixties, to being a sidekick with Ronnie Barker, to being a leading comedy man.

And we came up with many different ways of reuniting David with the archive, whether it was an old TV set like you saw there at Fountain Studios, or a big screen projection which we did for one sequence. He’d made his television debut in a pantomime in the sixties which had been shown on BBC I think it was, and we hired the theatre and we put a big screen on the stage, and it just made it feel so much bigger than just showing it to him on a laptop or whatever.

Now, twenty years ago when I first started making shows that celebrated pop culture history, we probably would have done a show like that as a talking head format, talking head meaning clip and interviewee, okay, there’s a person, cut to a clip, cut back to a different person, there’s a clip, and so on and so forth. But to paraphrase the author L.P. Hartley, ‘celebrating TV past was a different country back then, and we did things differently there and we try to do things differently now’.

In the late nineties as the millennium drew near, it was the first time that then fresh-faced TV producers like me were being asked to celebrate the pop culture history of the time.

The BBC had started their hugely popular theme nights on everything from ABBA to Evil Knievel, and they were about to kick off the I Love The 70s.

The top ten format was running on Channel 4, and over at Yorkshire Tyne Tees Television where I was working at the time, we were filling entire evenings for Channel 4 with a format called The 100 Greatest which was a countdown show of a hundred things from TV moments, to TV ads, to film stars, to sporting moments, everything. It felt like the first time that we were really looking back on forty years of television history. It hadn’t been done before.

And that first list in The 100 Greatest TV Moments featured the famous sequence of Del Boy played by David Jason falling through the bar at Only Fools and Horses.

David granted us a short interview back then in 1999 explaining for the first time on camera how he did it. I hope we didn’t do something to upset him. But he must’ve been approached dozens of times over the years again to explain it all over.

In fact I was watching This Morning yesterday with Holly and Phil and they were doing exactly the same thing. They had David in promoting his book and Phil wanted David to explain to him, to show him actually how to fall through the bar. So twenty years on, David Jason’s still talking about how he fell through the bar.

It was clear as we approached the new century that as programme makers who loved the archive that we needed to do something different. Celebrating popular culture was becoming a TV genre in its own right, just like soap opera or entertainment shows, and we needed to keep moving it on.

From The 100 Greatest we came up with a format called After They Were Famous, where we moved away from talking heads and mixed archive with reunion, so genre mashing is what we call it, when we put two things together, we had archive and we had reunion.

So the one that people tend to remember is The Sound of Music kids where we took all the kids who played The Sound of Music children in the film, and we took them to Austria where they filmed The Sound of Music, and we intercut the archive with them in exactly the same locations, and it was nominated for a BAFTA so we were really proud of that, and it shows that back then in around the year 2000 that was a new way of using classic archive.

But soon there were many TV companies out there celebrating pop culture, not just TV shows but ads, films, pop songs, you name it we were celebrating it. And we were plundering not only our own archives at ITV Studios but everything from everywhere we could, from Fremantle to the BBC, Universal to private collections.

But inevitably budgets started to decrease and the schedules got tighter, and the same classic clips started to pop up time and time again in celebrations of the past and with an increasingly less impressive list of people talking about them, because I think the original stars just got bored of talking about the things that they’d talked about for the last few years now. It felt like TV was already starting to eat itself, gorging on nostalgia, and we were all tarred with the same brush.

So TV critics called it lazy television. Viewers were saying why do we need to sit through the interviews at all, why can’t you just show us the clips, to which I thought well you could go on YouTube and watch the clips, you know, or just watch the whole show on DVD or whatever, but for us we had a different purpose when we were celebrating the archive.

We had two main aims when celebrating pop culture archive which we still do, because we consider ourselves pop culture historians. Number one, find people who could say I was there, not just generic talking heads spouting platitudes, and number two, let the people who were there give us insight into how the moment was created, tell us something we don’t know is what I always tell my producers, tell me something I don’t know so I feel differently when I hear that song again when I’m driving in the car, or I see that show again.

The shows that we do should make you appreciate pop culture even more because you’re finding out something new, like you’re finding out something about a friend who you thought you already knew.

Now by 2007, TV producers like me had spent a decade celebrating the archive of the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, and a bit of the nineties although it felt a little bit too close still.

We needed to dig deeper into the archives to find something surprising out there for the millions of viewers that were watching on ITV, BBC, Channel 4. So from going from the seen, the clips that you’ve seen and really, really enjoyed, we started to look for the unseen, and asked a number of household names which moments they’d like to see again that TV producers like me hadn’t already shown them.

Now we worked with the BFI and we worked with Kaleidoscope on a campaign called Missing Believed Wiped, because over the decades not all TV archive has been kept, there was not much space on the shelves, and so lots of things were chucked out. Some of those things that were chucked out were kept by people going into the car park and saving them and then putting them in the car and taking them home because they didn’t want them chucked out.

So we looked for TV moments which had been lost, and we had some success, and found a fair bit of stuff that had been thrown out and that had been lost, and the stars were happy. But there was one problem, when we showed the stars their lost TV moments they couldn’t remember anything about them, it was just another showbiz day at the office in the 1960s. So it was a worthwhile sort of thing to do, to try and find that TV archive that had been gone, that had been lost, but it didn’t make the best TV programme.

Despite that slight setback, over the last ten years we’ve kept on striving to try and find new and different ways of using pop culture archive, often combining celebrations of classic clips with previously unseen footage and it’s amazing how much is still out there, amazing.

In 2015 we started a brand for ITV3 called…Forever, each show telling the story behind a classic comedy brand, whether it was the Carry On films, or Les Dawson, or Rising Damp, or Morecambe and Wise, but rather than it just being talking heads, and most talking heads when you see them are either done in a studio against green screen so they put the background on after, or they’re done in a hotel suite usually with a plant pot next to them, and we wanted to get away from that.

So with the Forevers we took the story out on the road. Our one‑line sell to the commissioning editors was simple. We wanted to go back to where the comedy magic happened, whether it was where the film or the TV series was filmed, where a star was literally born, or where they were born on stage if you like. Again, a bit like that David Jason thing, pop culture history met travelogue as we worked out how these comedy classics came about, a little bit like Who Do You Think You Are, but for comedy.

Each programme, this was our rule, would only hear from the people who could say I was there, whether it was the actors, the writers, the producers, and sometimes the fans, but each programme should also contain unseen material so even the biggest fans couldn’t claim they’d seen it all before. We wanted to bring something fresh to even the most hardened fan of Tommy Cooper or Morecambe and Wise or Les Dawson, there had to be something new.

So I’ve got a clip from Tommy Cooper Forever which goes out next Thursday and Friday on ITV3. This section is about his appearances eventually at the famous Lakeside Club in Surrey.

What I like about that clip is that there’s not really any archive, there’s hardly any archive in it for an archive show. There’s a lot of sound, but not a lot of visual archive in it, but I think it still gives you the picture of what Tommy Cooper was like.

What amazes me after all these years is that there’s still an enormous appetite for celebrating the greats in our pop culture history, you know, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Morecambe and Wise. There’s a documentary every couple of years, sometimes every year, and often we’re making them, and we need to find new ways of doing it because people do watch them and while people watch them we will still make them, and we have a duty I think to let new generations of people know how brilliant these stars were in the past so they’re not forgotten.

A few years ago there was a trend of looking into the dark side of this, the dark side of that. It wasn’t something that I personally felt comfortable with, because blimey nobody’s perfect, and why do you need to tell the world all about it, and as the comedy writer Barry Cryer said when asked on camera by a TV producer if there was a secret side to his good friend Les Dawson, ‘well if there was I never saw it’, and that sort of sums it up really.

I wasn’t massively happy with the dark side, and I think that the attempt to find the dark side was just an attempt to do something new, but I don’t think the viewers really bought into it because they like to celebrate their stars, not look at all their flaws, but as programme makers undoubtedly we have to keep looking for a new angle, a new story, bring something new to the table, to use the archive, maybe your archive in a fresh way.

Now I hope we’ve achieved that in a new ITV series we’re currently making called Last Laugh in Vegas.

So this autumn we took eight showbiz acts from the sixties, seventies and eighties, like Cannon and Ball, and Anita Harris, and Bernie Clifton and his ostrich, to Las Vegas to perform for the first time, and they’re all in their seventies and eighties.

And we’d interviewed many of them before in documentaries that we’d made, but in programmes like that it was always about their careers past, looking back at their golden days when they were top of the tree, and we thought well what if their golden days weren’t over, despite their age some of their golden days were still ahead, they were still to do things that they hadn’t done before, what if the twilight of their careers led to a new limelight, and that’s what we’ve done.

We took them over to Las Vegas and we booked a fantastic hotel and an auditorium with a thousand people in it, most of whom were ex-pat Brits who had grown up watching them and now live in Vegas, and we were with them for two weeks as they live in Vegas, and it all leads to this fantastic climax where they go on stage and they perform in front of a thousand people, it’s very, very emotional.

And there’s a section in it where before they go on stage we give them the chance to sit together and look at each other’s archive and celebrate each other’s past. It’s very emotional and for me that’s a slightly different way of celebrating archive as well. It’s tear-jerking but the main thing is that the archive here is really just a supporting act in this series, and not the main thrust of the show.

But the use of archive’s come a long way since the late nineties when I started. It’s a world where everything is instant and so is TV past. It’s not just about celebrating yesteryear anymore, it’s about celebrating yesterday too.

So if you think of programmes like Gogglebox and Harry Hill’s TV Burp, they’re just archive shows, it’s just TV history, but the TV history is being created all the time. And what they’ve done is also move the format on, bringing genre mashing again, bringing two genres, archive and reality like Googlebox, archive and comedy in the case of Harry Hill, and when you genre mash that’s when you get really, really exciting things.

The makers of those shows have got one thing to their advantage, they’ve got in there so quickly on Gogglebox and Harry Hill that nobody’s celebrated it before.

But twenty years on from those first forays of celebration, what do you do when you think it’s all been done before? There’s still an enormous appetite for shows which do feature the time-honoured traditions of talking heads and clips.

In recent years we’ve worked closely with the likes of Peter Kay on his retrospective 20 Years of Funny for BBC1, and just recently with Elton John on The Nation’s Favourite Song. Both were ratings hits and both were really clips and talking heads, but the key there was access, we had great access. We had Peter Kay, we had Elton John, we had their closest friends like J.K. Rowling and Rod Stewart, and that was able to give us real insight into their careers.

These shows can take up to a year to bring to the screen, and getting access, just like David Jason, it can take several years, but if you get it you’ve got that ultimate I was there, and not just I was there but I did it and you can’t beat that.

So, are you tired of seeing Del Boy falling through the bar yet again, and have some comedian who wasn’t there tell you how great it was? While people still watch, commissioning editors will still commission those shows, but I think we’ve got a duty as programme makers to try and do something new with this enormous gift that we’ve been left by comedians and pop stars and filmmakers over the years, the archive.

This Christmas there’s going to be yet another show going out about Morecambe and Wise on BBC2, and I know because we made it. Through working closely with their estates we found out that Eric and Ernie had shot hours and hours of home movie footage in the fifties and sixties when they were young men in their twenties and thirties.

We knew that little bits of it had been seen before in previous documentaries, but there’d never been a celebration built around Eric and Ernie’s home movies, and over a period of months their families searched their shelves and cupboards for us until they came up with dozens and dozens of film reels which we had reunited, and we then started tracking down the people who were in the clips.

At Shiver we believe the secret to any archive based show is involving the people who can bring insight into that moment in time, nobody wants second-hand news.

I’m really pleased that in this final clip that we’re going to show you from Eric and Ernie’s home movies, in this whole programme that’s an hour long I think there’s only about thirty seconds of classic Eric and Ernie, the rest of it is all home movie, and that feels like a step forward for me.

Here’s a clip from the end of the film featuring Eric’s wife Joan, his children Gary and Gail, biographer William Cook, comedian Stan Stennett’s son Ceri, and Roy Castle’s widow Fiona. Thank you very much.