Last month I had the absolute delight of visiting the legendary Shepperton Studios.  I was attending an audition for a very interesting project, and shortlisted for a brilliant character part.  Anyone remotely interested in film, or indeed film comedy, must surely view Shepperton Studios as one of the must-visit locations, so I count myself very lucky indeed to have made it through those gates.  It was an exciting experience driving up to the security hut, a tingle of anticipation ran through my entire body as I gazed ahead at the complex of studios, theatres and workshops.  Yes, I’ve had auditions before, and I’ve spent many hours in front of studio microphones, but the setting for this particular audition made it an occasion that generated its very own tingle factor.  My mind was filled with happy memories of classic comedy movies like I’m Alright Jack and Two Way Stretch as I drove through the studio road system towards the car park.  As I turned my car into Peter Sellers Way this moment suddenly felt totally right.

Richard Henry (Peter) Sellers was born in Southsea in 1925 and had probably just completed filming his role as The March Hare in William Sterling’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was born in 1972, appropriately enough in March!  Sellers is one of my great heroes, the only Goon I never met.  I read most of the early biographies of this chameleon like performer and found in him a sort of kindred spirit.  I collected a large proportion of his fifty plus movies on VHS, watching his work dozens of times.  He is a fascinating actor to study, and an equally intriguing man to try and understand through the research and memories of others.  It is perhaps unwise to emulate the inimitable, but I did find myself aspiring to be a voice talent and my own original line of comedy and comedic characters soon began to veer towards the Goonish.  The more I created (in my own small way) an array of vocal guises to entertain, the more I felt I might understand Sellers – probably wishful thinking on my part.

Meantime folks, back at Shepperton… (FX – Whoosh!)  As part of the preparation for my audition I was sent a link to a YouTube video of some behind-the-scenes footage of an animated film.  It was a comfortable feeling watching great artistes at work in a setting I’m very familiar with, and it transposed well to the reality of my experience during the audition itself.  I had a ponder after the forty five minutes of vocal testing – all of which was immensely satisfying – and considered that if Peter Sellers had lived beyond his fifty four years he’d surely be doing this sort of thing right now.  He’d probably be the powerhouse behind hundreds of animated features.

I have a feeling that that Tuesday in February won’t be my only visit to Shepperton Studios, or at least I certainly hope not!  It would be an amazing achievement to one day do something – and to drive along once more – the Peter Sellers Way.

Doing Things the Peter Sellers Way by Richard A. Usher

 Doing Things the Peter Sellers Way © 2014 Richard A. Usher

IMG-20130107-00203I had to pause for a moment over the weekend and ponder why it was that my mind decided to Tom & Jerry* itself over a simple coffee.  Having spent some of my Saturday morning being very relaxed, drinking nettle tea and reading some interesting online articles on film music, I suddenly found myself with itchy feet and a desire for coffee.  My every instinct told me that a trip down the hill in search of caffeine and the company of other café frequenting souls was a completely barmy idea.  However, some aspect of my mind fought these instinctive notions and argued a very convincing case for finding a relaxing spot in my local coffee shop to people-watch and catch up on some Blogs and other reading.

My instincts were spot on of course; the traffic was a nightmare of clutch tapping proportions.  The car park entrance for the precinct already had a queue of some twenty vehicles on approach.  No, no, it will all be fine insisted the caffeine starved brain as I changed gear, indicated left and drove around the block, pulling a fast one by heading for the pay & display car park, which I assumed would be less busy owning to the cost involved.  A quick circuit of the 70 space car park, chugging along behind four estate cars, soon showed me that my instincts were right again.  “Give it up,” they suggested, “head for home and make yourself a pot of Darjeeling.”  And yet, bizarre though it was, my brain decided that the desire for relaxation should be trumped by a somewhat insane compulsion to pile on more stress.  I’d come this far, fighting my way through the traffic, so surely the just rewards of a chilled out hour with a strong Americano coffee would lie just around the corner?  Back to the precinct car park I went, with more clutch tapping and break squeezing along the way, dodging meandering shoppers who were all on auto pilot, or breaking a brain in for somebody else.  I felt a shudder of joy as I triumphantly deposited my car in the only remaining parking space – at last my caffeine Shangri-La was in sight!

Have you ever stood in a long, slow moving queue of people, sniffing the air as coffee is dispensed ahead of you?  It was clearly an act of insanity to stand there like a dipstick, clutching my loyalty card in one hand and my tablet computer in the other.  My eyes darted hither and thither around the coffee shop seeking out that elusive empty table.  My stress levels continued to increase as I did that typically British thing of assuming that everyone would obey the unwritten rule and stand in the queue patiently.  Well, of course they didn’t, and I’d be a hypocrite to say that I hadn’t done exactly what the majority of people in the queue behind me did.  Like various tribes of hunter gatherers, those soon-to-be patrons who’d arrived as a group would split up and send an advance guard out to target and obtain any free spaces they could spot.  Things were getting desperate for solo customers like me as the empty chairs started to fill up with selfish and self-satisfied groups of undeserving customers.  They hadn’t waited in the queue like me, what right did they have to steal away my rightful place?  I continued to survey the coffee shop with eagle eyes, all the while scowling at new arrivals and tapping my feet in irritation as my Americano dripped slowly into its mug.  If this had been a car park scenario, these people would have felt utterly stupid bailing out of their cars to saunter over to a parking space and stake a claim…wouldn’t they?

Well dear reader, all was not lost.  I got my coffee and I was successful in bagging myself a seat.  The coffee was delicious, and for the most part I enjoyed my reading.  However, I began to realise my fool hardiness and blatant stubbornness in making this trip to the coffee shop.  The stress of achieving my goal had left me unable to completely concentrate on my reading, and my seat being in close proximity to the incoming queue of fellow coffee consumers began to make me feel guilty for being there in the first place!  Next time I have a mental battleground to contend with I shall breathe deeply, remember to exercise Mindfulness as I brew up some Darjeeling, and choose cosmos over chaos.

*This isn’t some weird rhyming slang by the way, just my way of picturing the comical little conflict going on in my head, all mousetraps and skillets going “Boiiiiiinggggg!”

What Cost, a Coffee? by Richard A. Usher

 What Cost, a Coffee? © 2014 Richard A. Usher

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StudioTidying up creative loose ends can be quite a therapeutic exercise.  I began 2014 with a trawl through my files of unmade scripts and my archive of cassette tapes and mini discs.  I came to the conclusion that although they meant a lot to me on a purely sentimental level, they wouldn’t necessarily have value to anyone else.  I considered digitising my cassettes, the majority being ROT’s (recordings of transmission) of my old BBC Radio output, but opted instead to clip some favourite moments that brought me pleasure and box the rest up to store in the loft.  At the end of the day who is ever going to want to listen to them again?  Certainly not me!  I tried BBC Archives (every window…), but alas they didn’t respond to my generous offer of my own library.  There are some things in life, archives and such that simply anchor one to the past and prevent a move forwards.  I felt that my best move to continue forward momentum was to put away this record of past achievements and prepare for those that hopefully lie ahead.

Now, when it came to boxing up old scripts that was a different situation entirely.  During my trawl I rediscovered an envelope of beautifully bound scripts I’d sent to legendary radio producer Dirk Maggs.  It wasn’t entirely unsolicited material as I’d discussed the possibility with Mr Maggs when we met during the recording of the 50th Anniversary ‘Goon Show’ in London.  He seemed quite amenable to the notion of reading my comedy efforts, and so I eagerly sent him my work.  I was probably a little too eager.  The envelope eventually returned to me with a lovely comp slip thanking me for the submission, but the scripts clearly had not been read.  I remember the slump of disappointment quite clearly.  Well, after I’d unearthed them it seemed a shame to throw them in the recycling bin without having a quick read, so I had a swift browse through my old work.  There was some good material in those A4 volumes, much of it beyond my technical reach in 2001, lovely imaginative material though I say it myself.  These days of course I have more advanced facilities at my disposal, so just for giggles I decided to pick my favourite sketches and give them a go.  I really enjoyed the process, and it gave me that buzz I used to have creating crazy little comedy moments back in the day.  It all turned out rather well, so I placed the resulting “show” on DropBox for friends to enjoy.  I know this material will never get an airing, but that wasn’t why I made it.  What a truly marvellous and fun way to tie up loose ends eh?

By the way, if your curiosity is getting the better of you, or you fancy a chuckle, do feel free to leave me a message / email and I might be persuaded to send you the link to the audio.  Hey, wouldn’t it be strange if I heard from some chap called Maggs…?  As Jeeves might say, “Most unlikely sir…”

Creative Loose Ends by Richard A. Usher

Creative Loose Ends © 2014 Richard A. Usher

Richard Usher Guest on Paul Mansell's Musical Milestones Marlow FM 97.5

Presenter Paul Mansell (left) and Richard Usher (right) in the Marlow FM studio (Photograph courtesy of Raymondo Marcus)

A few weeks before Christmas I was cordially invited to take part in a radio show on Marlow FM.  ‘Musical Milestones’ is the brainchild of presenter Paul Mansell and offers each guest the chance to select pieces of music that marked a significant moment in their lives.  It was a real pleasure to take part in Paul’s superb programme, and a delight to be back in the world of radio – it reminded me of how radio used to be.

To me, radio used to be a medium, rather than being just another cog in the greater machinery of the media.  When I took my first tentative steps into radio broadcasting I was taught to communicate with the listener, it was my mind speaking to their mind.  Some of my presenting mentors suggested bringing a mascot with me in the early days, something you could focus on to ensure you maintained that one-on-one approach.  Even with guests and other presenters in the studio, a skilled broadcaster could ensure the mano-a-mano relationship with the listener remained intact.  Alas, over the years approaches to broadcasting changed somewhat.  For one thing the dreaded listening figures, or RAJAR, became a millstone around the neck of radio and broadcasters.  Slowly and surely the humble radio presenter had to focus less on developing and nurturing their relationship with their listener, and instead go chasing after a mass market.  In the heartland of BBC local radio the figures of “Dave & Sue” were imposed upon the psyche of the production staff.  These ageing avatars represented the pool of thousands of potential listeners, and producers were encouraged to grab and maintain their interest.

When the concept of online social media was in its infancy radio broadcasters already seemed to be using every trick in the book to attract the ears of a potential audience.  Constant programme trailing became a necessity, marketing was rampant, and the cross-pollination of TV and the internet sat alongside the already existing features and stories hacked from newspapers and web-based news wire services.  Pretty soon the likes of Twitter and Facebook also became regular fixtures within radio broadcasting.  These days radio no longer feels like the singular medium it once was.  It has evolved – for better or worse – into another tranche of the media pie, one of the myriad methods of disseminating and digesting news and information.  Now, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, life has to move forwards and things have to evolve.  However, in these days of mass media it is refreshing to find examples of good, solid, traditional broadcasting.  My recent experience of the work of the talented team at Marlow FM has served to remind me that there will always be a place for broadcasters who wish to embrace radio as a medium.  Like architecture, the old and the new styles of broadcasting may not be to everyone’s taste, but they can co-exist quite well and make up a wonderfully diverse soundscape.

Radio Milestones © Richard A. Usher 2014

Musical Milestones © Paul Mansell 2013/2014

Photography © Raymondo Marcus 2013

 

Richard Who

Getting into character as the 4th Doctor back in August

It is an exciting time to be a Whovian, of that there can be no doubt.  The long-awaited anniversary special celebrating fifty years of Doctor Who will be a very special “occasion” bit of viewing.  I will no doubt smile ear to ear and recall my fuzzy early childhood memory of seeing a silver haired hero in a velvet smoking jacket and tweed cape as he dashed about fending off Earth’s alien foes.  Yes, my first Doctor Who memory involved Jon Pertwee, and to this day I have no idea what the story was.  It’s not that important in the grand scheme of things, although there are no doubt some Whovians out there who’d be unable to rest until they’d tracked down and catalogued the random reminiscence.   I’m not sure how I will react to The Day of the Doctor to be honest; it will be uncharted territory in so many ways.  If my reaction to the recent ‘minisode’ Night of the Doctor is a measure, well the rest of the audience may delight in my jumping up and down, dancing an Irish jig and weeping and whooping in equal joyous glee.  Now, you might think that that was a slight over reaction to a mere eight minutes of video, but you had to understand the context.

When Doctor Who returned from its hiatus in 1996 with the feature length adventure starring Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann hopes for a proper regeneration were high.  Alas, it was not to be, and the good Doctor drifted off into the nether world of BBC books and smartly marketed spin-offs.  It was not until 1999 that the Time Lord was restored to the world in truly fabulous audio adventures from Big Finish Productions.  I luxuriated in hearing Messrs. McCoy, Davison and Baker  returning to their roles7th,  5th and 6th Doctors in The Sirens of Time, and tried to use my meagre salary to keep pace with their subsequent “new” adventures.  Well, if that was world shattering, it was nothing to the return of Paul McGann in a brand new series of audio adventures from Big Finish in 2001.  Those wizards of the written word and maestros of the mixing desk brought the Eighth Doctor to life, easily outdoing the combined might of the BBC, Fox and Universal who had resolutely failed to score a palpable hit.  I was pretty much roaming around on my own-some at that point, finding my feet in a new job and a new town, so I felt a strange kind of affinity with the mysterious and life-loving Eighth Doctor.  Those early “seasons” of Big Finish Doctor Who, starting with Storm Warning, were a magical experience for me, and I think the overwhelming image of Paul McGann back in the role and the rush of emotions I had felt around the time I listened to his audio incarnation just swept over me in a wholly unexpected way.

The only other occasion I can recall being so elated by something Doctor Who related was probably back in 1994 when a dear friend pointed out that my Doctor, Tom Baker, was appearing on stage at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in Arsenic and Old Lace.  I immediately booked a ticket to the show, plus a not inexpensive hotel room, and set to work on a very self-deprecating letter to my hero asking to meet him even for a mere five seconds at the stage door.  It was a well-received letter and elicited a brief reply on a business card I’d enclosed: “Stage Door, Friday night – TEN seconds.  Yours sincerely, T.B.”  I was walking on air for days after that, not a care in the world.  On the night in question I dressed in my finery, saw the fantastic stage show, and then made a dash for the stage door.  Imagine my horror upon seeing a crowd of at least two hundred Doctor Who fans waiting in a queue the length of the theatre, cameras and autograph books at the ready.  However, this was surely my moment?  I’d got the equivalent of a golden ticket in my pocket!  Taking a deep breath I pushed my way politely through the crowd of fans and knocked on the stage door.  I could hear a burble of disgruntled and puzzled fans asking “Who’s that guy?  How come he’s jumping the queue?” but I ignored the envious huddle and waited for the stage door manager to open the portal of destiny.  I handed over my card and explained about my letter, and upon reading Tom’s missive the kindly manager pointed to a sofa.  “Well, that’s pretty unorthodox isn’t it?  Take a seat; he’ll be down in a moment.” He said before returning to his desk by the door.  I sat there in a dream-like state until I heard that booming voice replying to an invitation to the pub from one of the cast, “Well, give me ten minutes to get clear and I’ll be right with you!”  As Tom descended the staircase ahead of me I strolled towards him, proffering my golden ticket.  I explained about the letter and my ten second allocation, and The Doctor stared down at me and grinned, “That was a very witty letter.”  Twenty minutes of conversation later, I left the theatre with a smile big enough to light up the whole of Sheffield.

Richard and The Doctor

Time Lord and very chuffed human at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in 1994

Happy Birthday Doctor Who, and thank you, thank you, thank you!

 

Who’s That Guy? By Richard A. Usher

Who’s That Guy? © 2013 Richard A. Usher

 

BBC ImageIn an effort to keep an eye on the news of the day I was browsing through the BBC News App when I stumbled upon a story that made my blood run cold.

Dame Tessa Jowell has suggested that it would be a marvellous idea for the BBC to become a mutual company.  I’d agree that Dame Tessa’s plan would certainly allow for a greater sense of ownership by the Licence Fee payers and staff.  There could be less likelihood of interference by the government, thus allowing independence to be maintained, and certainly the idea of ploughing back revenue into the organisation is a sound one.

The piece in the article that made me shudder was this:

Dame Tessa said,  “This arrangement would put the public ‘in the driving seat’ and allow them a greater say.”

I am probably guilty of taking things literally here, but I fear the concept of putting the great British public ‘in charge’ of the BBC would result in some truly dreadful crimes against the nation’s viewing and listening habits!  Could we potentially look forward to wall-to-wall Strictly Come Dancing clones?  I mean, what does the great British public at large know about programme making, scheduling and broadcasting?  Well, in view of the growing success of YouTube, the iPlayer and Vimeo et al, and on demand services like Netflix and Love Film one could argue they understand more than we realise.

Viewing and listening habits are changing rapidly and the pace of life has led to greater flexibility in how and when all sorts of mass media are delivered.

Director, actor, and all-round creative wizard Kevin Spacey recently gave a speech in which he urged broadcasters and programme makers to keep pace with the way in which media is enjoyed.  The Netflix remake of House of Cards in which Spacey takes the lead was his case in point, with more and more ‘viewers’ downloading entire box sets of programming to enjoy at their convenience.

I suppose the situation to be wary of here is creating a sort of mass media ‘fast food’ culture with audiences glutting themselves on whole series they love, or perhaps ‘grazing’ on clips and podcasts rather than enjoying a balanced diet provided by competent media creatives.  I recall a conversation with the immensely intelligent journalist and broadcaster Henry Kelly in which he bemoaned the loss of traditional trust in programme makers.  Henry made an extremely valid point along the lines that media practitioners, programme makers and their ilk should be trusted to make good quality series and provide impartial news coverage without interference from non-creative bureaucrats, or reliance on viewing figures, ratings, or ‘audience satisfaction’ feedback.  You wouldn’t pop into the kitchens of a successful restaurant and start suggesting changes to the ingredients and cooking methods would you?  No, you’d trust that the Head Chef and his staff would make something truly memorable, and if you didn’t enjoy it you simply wouldn’t order that meal again or you’d go somewhere else for your next gastronomic experience.

Mutual company status might engender much more of a feeling of ownership and pride in an organisation like the BBC, from both the public and the workforce, which must surely lead to an increase in quality.  Keeping pace with public taste will help the organisation to evolve, but I’d hope serious safeguards against mass interference would be put in place and that audiences would learn to trust programme makers and web wizards to fully embrace their tastes and needs and instinctively make great output for them to enjoy.

In my humble opinion there is already far too much pandering to an elusive view of ‘what the public wants’ and chasing the latest big craze in terms of genre, so it would be refreshing to see a return to old traditional values of trust in programme makers – essentially moving forwards with an eye and ear to the past.

Mutually Beneficial? By Richard A. Usher

Mutually Beneficial? © 2013 Richard A. Usher, all rights reserved

 

Eccles

The Famous Eccles, hanging around with Goon Fans!

When it comes to inspirations and hobbies I have always considered myself to be a man of diverse interests – sure those interests can be a little bit niche and geeky at times, but I thought diverse nonetheless.  However, I am discovering more and more that in terms of my hobbies these worlds often collide.  Take for example my great interest in, and passion for The Goon Show and Film Music.   There is no obvious link on the face of it; one is a genre of music, the other an iconic comedy series.  I take great inspiration and enjoyment from both these passions, and they certainly inflame the collector-mania within me.  However, focus closely and you begin to see a network of connections.

An obvious overlap involves two composers and conductors, namely Stanley Black and Angela Morley.  Both Black and Morley worked on ‘The Goon Show’ as band leaders and arrangers, and they were both film composers as well.  Stanley Black is credited with over two hundred films as score composer, while Angela Morley is best known for her score to ‘Watership Down’.  Away from the obvious overlaps you can see masses of links between some of the cast of ‘The Goon Show’ and the movies they later starred in.  Some examples include Peter Sellers in ‘The Pink Panther’ franchise composed by Henry Mancini, alongside other Sellers vehicles like ‘The Wrong Box’ (John Barry), ‘The Optimists of Nine Elms’ (George Martin).  Spike Milligan had a starring role in the gentle comedy ‘Postman’s Knock’ in 1962, featuring Ron Goodwin as composer, likewise Michael Bentine took the lead in ‘The Sandwich Man’ (1966) with music composed by Mike Vickers.

One interesting dimension I might throw into the mix stems from the incredible influence the creative minds of Milligan and Bentine had on the area of sound design and music.  Both these men were the creative powerhouse behind ‘The Goon Show’ and came up with increasingly bizarre and complex plots, sketches and storylines for the ground breaking comedy series.  Each new soundscape they dreamed up used more and more complex sound effects, be it Bentine devised plane propellers morphing into trains leaving a station, or a Milligan inspired wall driven at high speed.  As the series evolved dear old Spike was working the sound effects team harder and harder, soon involving the newly created BBC Radiophonic Workshop to work their synthesised wizardry on more radical sound designs.  The music department of ‘The Goon Show’ were not immune either with Milligan calling upon the in-house maestro Angela Morley to compose and arrange grand musical links, underscores and in one case a truly memorable national anthem for a fictional country.  The influence that one radio show must have had on the creative energies of the crew involved,  and more importantly on the minds of the audience, must surely have left an indelible stamp on the Zeitgeist? When you examine what followed, certainly in terms of the musical landscape you cannot help but acknowledge that somewhere in the evolution of electronic music and movie soundtracks, some of that Bentine and Milligan magic must have rubbed off.

In more real world terms, I found the worlds of film music and ‘Goon Show’ colliding in one day.  On the self-same Saturday (5th October no less) I found myself attending a 50th Anniversary commemoration of ‘The Telegoons’ TV series during the daytime, and a John Barry tribute concert in the evening.  How did worlds collide?  Well, for one thing during the ‘Goon Show Preservation Society’ celebration at the Strutton Arms I was introduced to one Andy Newman of Thunderclap Newman fame, the band who famously provided the song for the close of the 1969 Peter Sellers film ‘The Magic Christian’.  Better still was the guest appearance of singer Lance Ellington during the John Barry concert!  The reason?  Well, Lance Ellington is the son of the legendary singer and ‘Goon Show’ team member Ray Ellington.  How many degrees of separation is that folks?

When Goons and Composers Collide by Richard A. Usher

When Goons and Composers Collide © 2013 Richard A. Usher, all rights reserved

Eccles puppet created and owned by Ann Perrin, one of the original puppeteers on the Telegoons, photograph published with kind permission

Script blog image

When I re-discovered my scripts for ‘Bunkum!’ a comedy series I wanted to develop for radio, I was surprised by how good they were.  I began writing outlines for this comedy featuring a hero and his dim witted sidekick back in 1995, and went on to pen the pilot script, ‘A Mediaeval Murder Mystery’ in full.  At first I intended to maintain the titular hero as a detective operating in the middle ages, but soon realised it would be more fun to play with different genres and storylines.  I was heavily influenced by ‘The Goon Show’, which of course presented the same cast of characters playing characters similar in type, but with occasionally differing names, roles and plot importance.  It is certainly likely that the scripts are a little too Goonish, but I enjoy that style of humour and it was a challenge to write a series of half hour comedy shows.  So, the first script was set in the Middle Ages, the second a 1930’s ‘Dick Barton’ spoof, and the third a Dickensian pastiche with a healthy dose of Bram Stoker.  They were the only scripts I managed to complete, but had I continued there would have been a sci-fi, a western and an espionage spoof to add to the roster.

Until recently only the pilot script had been performed, and that was a reasonable success.  It was ten years before I got to dabble with the Dickensian plot in a variation I created for a BBC Radio pantomime in 2005, but alas Ebenezer Bunkum had to make way for Ebenezer Peach.  It was a lot of fun writing the script, putting together the effects, and masterminding the recording of other performers as “drop-in” dialogue.  In both cases the radio plays were performed pretty much “as live” with some judicious editing required for transmission.

So how did these first productions come about?  Well, back in 1995 I had a golden opportunity to get my pilot script performed by a full cast made up from the presenters on Kingstown Hospital Radio.  We did it the old fashioned way with around twenty scripts printed and the performers assembling in the studio ready for each scene.  The audio wizard Darren Dalby oversaw the technical production, playing in the sound effects from carts, CD’s and reel-to-reel tape “live”, not unlike the tried and tested spot effects set up used in making BBC comedy and drama.  I acted as director and guided everyone through the production.  We had an absolute ball, a lot of laughter could be heard coming from that little radio studio that day!  Post production was carried out by Darren Dalby and myself, and the whole thing was pieced together on reel-to-reel quarter inch tape, which I still have in possession, and several mini-discs.  ‘Bunkum! A Mediaeval Murder Mystery’ was broadcast to the hospital radio audience several times over Christmas 1995.

The second episode came into being a decade later with ‘A Berkshire Christmas Carol’.  Featuring cameo appearances by TV stalwarts Maggie Philbin and Henry Kelly, this pantomime for radio was performed live every day in the run up to Christmas 2005.  The daily episodes were brilliantly performed – and bravely I might add – by presenters Andrew Peach and Susanne Courtney, with sound effects, music and cameo appearances played-in live from a digital play out system (Radioman).  At the close of the run a special omnibus edition was edited together and spruced up ready for broadcast on the Boxing Day.  Once again it proved to be a lot of fun, and garnered some lovely feedback.  What nobody knows is that I didn’t leave it at that…  I re-recorded the script myself some time later – I forget when exactly – and performed most of the characters solo.  Ebenezer Bunkum once more took the lead role and shared his office with Bob Scratchit (a rechristened version of sidekick Travis from the pilot).  I pieced together the effects and music I’d created for the BBC version, and even included the cameos from Henry Kelly as the Host of Christmas Past and Maggie Philbin as the Ghost of Christmas yet to come.  I edited the whole thing together via Cool Edit and it remains in my archive, heard only by me and a few friends.

This brings us up-to-date in 2013.  While searching for some script notes in my files I came across the two unmade episodes, printed out from my Sharp FontWriter word processor back in 1997.  I hadn’t read these scripts for years, and coming to them almost fresh it seemed criminal to leave them in the archive box.  So I decided to have a crack at recording ‘Bunkum Closes the Case!’, more as an experiment to see if it was possible than anything else.  I spent an afternoon recording all the dialogue, playing one character at a time, editing each line into an individual sound file, and then I began to assemble all the sound effects I’d need.  Next day I edited the whole production together as a rough cut, gave it a test play through and then remixed it with music and more effects.  It was a complicated process, but with careful planning and production I pulled off a solo production in around two days.  The episode now resides on SoundCloud, should you wish to hear it, and I may be tempted into adding the Christmas special to the site if I get enough requests (hint, hint!).  And who knows, I might also put ‘Dick Charlington’s Dire Straits’ into production before long!

‘Recording Bunkum…Then and Now…’ © 2013 Richard A. Usher

‘Bunkum! A Mediaeval Murder Mystery’, ‘Bunkum Closes the Case!’, ‘Bunkum’s Christmas Carol’ and ‘Dick Charlington’s Dire Straits’ © 1995, 1997, 2005 & 2013 Richard A. Usher – All Rights Reserved

 

StudioI recently recorded material for a voice-over assignment using a mix of software and studio equipment.  Most of the equipment I utilised has been standard issue for many a year, the headphones for example will look very familiar to any broadcast engineer.  Traditionally I have always printed my scripts, whether they are my own creations or the work of others and set to work performing them.  However, on this occasion there were so many PDF files and screen shots to work from that I found myself running low on paper and ink.  I took a somewhat radical decision to try and export the PDF files to a tablet e-reader I managed to borrow.  It felt wrong somehow, holding aloft a thin block of plastic, metal and glass rather than the reassuring coarseness of A4 paper.  It did of course save me a vast amount of time, a number of trees, and potentially money.  I am now potentially sold on the idea of buying an e-reader…not a tablet computer you understand, and certainly not something to replace my beloved library of books.  I am going to do some research and try to discover if someone has created an e-reader suited to scripts.  In fact, there may be a gap in the market for something like that, and if I were technically minded I might be inclined to build a prototype and head for the ‘Dragon’s Den’!

As I consider my new found appreciation for the e-reader I can only marvel at the way I’ve managed to surround myself with a mix of outdated and modern technology.  Yes, I am a traditionalist, but I can also see the sense in doing things in a smarter way as the technology evolves.  In one corner of my study I have the PC with the sound editing software and access to the web and DropBox.  There’s so much sense in these time and labour saving creations.  In another corner I have a storage box brimming with cassette tapes I’m attempting to digitise, some still sporting the home-made covers I designed, photocopied and pieced together in the late eighties.  And buried somewhere in a drawer is my beloved mini-disc recorder, a short-lived casualty of the digital age.  Things have evolved incredibly over the years I’ve been dabbling in audio recording.  I began with two tape cassette recorders, one a small and squat Philips machine that used to hook up to the ZX Spectrum computer, the other a tall and majestic Toshiba portable with built in microphone.  My fellow ‘comedy’ performers and I would play sound effects and wibbly-wobbly pre-recorded voices from the Philips, and record everything ‘live’ into the Toshiba.  All the editing was done later using my parent’s tape-to-tape hi-fi.  It was all pretty low-tech, but I tell you what it still makes me laugh and I get a real kick out of listening back to those old hissy tapes.  Oh, yes, an interesting aside…I once tried to compile a “best of” CD from my old comedy tapes and managed to copy a fair amount over to mini-disc format ready to edit.  Unfortunately one of the tapes hadn’t survived too well and a crucial part of the audio was unusable.  Now, here’s the clever bit!  Despite it being a good 15 years since I recorded the original I managed to find the old Toshiba portable and a cassette and mimicked as best I could the original audio (I still had the crumpled old script!) – and it worked a treat!  You should always leave your technological options open.

Technological Musings of a Voice-Over Artist © Richard A. Usher 2013

Media Comeback for Ben Bernard!

Media Comeback for Ben Bernard!

At the beginning of August I began putting the finishing touches to a brand new series of comedy sketches featuring my alter-ego, Ben Bernard.  This deluded and egocentric character had been haunting me for a number of years, pretty much since I decided to bury his remains in a storage box marked “Ben Bernard, RIP”, but the time was right to resurrect the old blighter.

For those of you unfamiliar with the self-styled “Master of Mirth”, Ben Bernard was first created for a University project by a team including myself, fellow writer partner Paul Speed and filmmaker Ian Burnett.  It was ‘no-budget’ production (unless you count the £90 for new tyres on Mr Speed’s Ford Fiesta after we were stopped by the Police at a random check-point), and took us a day to film on location in Cleethorpes.  That short film turned out rather well and never failed to raise a smile – in extreme cases I’ve witnessed viewers falling out of their chairs, or keeling over in an edit suite the laughter was so strong!  I felt I’d found something really special in Mr Bernard and was keen to develop this wonderful character, a struggling seaside entertainer who resolutely refuses to accept that he’s one of life’s failures.  We entered the film and series outline to ‘BBC Talent’, and even received an encouraging telephone call from them – however, they simply wanted to confirm we’d sent a VHS and the scripts as they’d somehow parted company upon arrival at the BBC.  I often wonder what might have been had that VHS not gone missing…  Despite an initial rejection I started work on a sitcom, extending our short film script and developing new scripts around the series outline I’d plotted with co-creator Paul Speed for ‘Stand Up And Be Counted!’.  Writing it solo was tough, but tremendous fun, although I missed my former writing partner and the opportunity to chuck around ideas and have a good laugh at Bernard’s antics.  Buoyed by support and terrific feedback from colleagues in the media I wrote a new pilot film and teamed up once more with Ian Burnett for a second ‘no-budget’ production, again filmed on location around Cleethorpes.  Lightning struck twice and this second film had the desired outcome…a lot of laughter.  Sadly, despite great feedback and support from the likes of presenter and cartoonist Geoff Motley, broadcaster James Alexander Gordon, magician Paul Daniels and the late composer Derek Wadsworth, the BBC rejected my scripts and series outlines – not once, but three times!  Of course the last rejection was the most damning, coming as it did from a Trainee Script Commissioner – they even had someone else “PP” their signature!  Somehow it was the most fitting end to my efforts at getting Ben Bernard to the small screen.

I made a small switch to audio for my next attempt to bring the “Master of Mirth” to the attention of the media.  ‘Blog Off Ben Bernard!’ was a series of ten audio blogs, or podcasts, featuring the luckless comic regaling his listeners with bizarre tales of his everyday life.  Encouraging rumblings followed as feedback suggested I was on to a winner, and so I put together some CD’s and despatched them to broadcasters and production companies across the UK.  The silence was deafening!  And so, I took the decision to put poor old Ben Bernard to sleep, and laid the scripts, props and his wig to rest in that battered old storage box.

Ben Bernard relaxes on the Prom at Cleethorpes ahead of his comeback...

Ben Bernard relaxes on the Prom at Cleethorpes ahead of his comeback…

In the years since the cardboard funeral I have toyed with ideas to further the cause of Ben Bernard, but nothing ever quite worked.  I still believe 110% in the character and the wonderful ideas I’ve had for him – the world needs Ben Bernard.  It wasn’t until a dear friend and Bernardian became unwell that I decided to really go for it and invest more time and effort on this beautifully funny creation.  My prime motivation was to at least make my friend smile, in the spirit of laughter being the best medicine.  However, I believe the resurrection of Ben Bernard some fifteen years after his first “Ooh, ‘ello!” is well timed and worthy of as much effort as I can muster.  And so, the costume was dry cleaned, the make-up went on, and I once again teamed up with Ian Burnett to create more modern day mirth as Ben Bernard.  Low budget instead of no-budget, we filmed five new shorts in a wonderful day of location shooting in Cleethorpes.  We were joined in our efforts by another talented film maker, Craig Briggs, who also played a couple of supporting characters.  I had a ball writing and performing these little gems, and if you wish to take a look you can check them out on my YouTube and Vimeo channels (see the links on my website www.richardusher.com for more details).

 

"Ooh, ready for me close-up Mr Burnett!"

“Ooh, ready for me close-up Mr Burnett!”