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Hanging on the telephone (1990)

1990-03-29 Stage and Television Today.jpg

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JANE GARNER pays a call to the BBC's innovative live drama set up for children

Cameras bob and weave, men are re-rigging lights, constant hammering and a hum of conversation fills Studio A. Tired but confident writer steps forward into a huddle of actors debating their next scene, watchful eyes not minutes and hours tick by.

It may sound just like any other television drama production, but this team's script was written overnight, handed over at lam and they have only until 4.15pm to be ready — for a live transmission.

All is surprisingly calm on the set of What's Your Story? at BBC in the Midlands. Pebble Mill and its workers are not inclined to be fazed by much. But live drama for children, with young viewers phoning in ideas for the next day's storyline? Well, it happened last year and they all survived, so last week they did it again.

Producer and director Richard Simkin, unruffled in the face of a lunchbreak and being kept away from another planning conference in the gallery, has ruefully admitted that in terms of television, the project is 'dangerous'.

He had a close call on Wednesday afternoon when the rehearsals-planning rush sped closer and closer to transmission time. "It was a bit of a strain ..." he said. "I finished the dress run five minutes before transmission and at two minutes to go, London had their red lights on and they were counting down to us and I walked into-the gallery with 21 seconds to spare!"

He had not stopped talking since 2.30pm and by the end of their latest episode of What's Your Story? he had no voice. But the close of children's television is only another beginning — as soon as the titles roll, hundreds of thousands of children head for the phone to tell the BBC what should happen next ... Two million rang in to What's Your Story? last year and this time round such unique involvement has proved even more. popular.

"I am very pleased. We all cope with the stresses in different ways," Richard adds, breaking off to answer a query about a toga and to promise for the third time he will be 'finished in a minute'.

Producer-director Richard Sim-kin, who worked on Blue Peter and will soon be moving on to a much bigger, but more traditional project with the BBC, praises the co-operation and team-work of all his cast and crew.

"The painters work throughout the night and I stand on their handiwork and they have to re-do it," he explained. "Live drama like this is unique to children's TV and to the BBC, but with the expertise here you know you can do the business."

While the cast — Brian Deacon, Sebastian Allen, Chas Bryer, Teresa Gallagher, Paul Medford, Cordelia Roche and Claire Toeman — rehearse, musical director Michael Omer works on his backing for the next episode, and writer Peter Corey hovers quietly. Corey, himself an actor and magician, understands the rigours of working with such a new script. Words for Monday's first episode were put together from ideas from children who responded to an appeal by narrator Sylvester McCoy on Blue Peter. But from Monday evening onward last week, the future was an open book and Peter Corey's skills were directed by a thousand-and-one young minds. Telephoned ideas were written down and Peter Corey read every one, every night.

There had been a policy decision to steer clear of grisly aliens and wanderings in space or time, despite lots of suggestions that Mr McCoy's Tardis should make an appearance. "We have been trying to have a reasonable amount of reality so that at the end it makes sense as a story, he explained.

He had only finished the script at 3am and was up again for seven o'clock to get started with the crew - and he had no intention of missing a second, even though he could have snuck off for a mid-day snooze. "We work out the storyline and who is going to play what and then I tend to relax for an hour before I get up steam and write it. Whatever time I start, I always seem to finish at 3am. The whole thing is really exciting, it gives you a real buzz."

Corey is a workaholic - writing television and film scripts, books and acting too. He is working on a pilot for Spitting Image, a film screenplay, co-writing Sky's DJ Kat Show, he's on the big screen as Friar Tuck in Fellow Traveller (soon to be seen on BBC TV) and his new book The A-Z of Absolutely Everything comes out soon, to be followed later by How To Cope With Teachers, a sequel to his popular How To Cope With Parents. With all that in the offing, it becomes obvious why he was chosen for What's Your Story.

And finally a stolen moment with Sylvester McCoy, just voted Best Dr Who in the 27 years since the first Doc set foot out of his Tardis. "Last time was exciting and I thought, 'where other actors refuse to go, I rush in ...' The first time, the great joy was when we got through the story and all the phones started ringing and everybody was thrilled, from the technicians to me," he said. Children calling in have had some weird ideas - usually involving explosions, sending the actors into outer space or decapitating them - but all are wonderful, he says. Even those who do not get through are excited when they see the story going their way.

"Even the tiniest little idea - they think it is still theirs. What haunts us all on set is that we could just dry up in front of millions of people, but there are lots of back-ups and it's not happened yet.

"Cameras have gone down and behind them there is a chap having a nervous breakdown. Yesterday my earphone went while I was on screen live - and somebody was rummaging up my back reconnecting me. I thought any moment they would pan back and the viewers would think I was a puppet ..."

This week he has had to step back into a real, more tranquil world, to record a radio play with Dinsdale Landen and to plan his trip to New York for the annual Dr Who convention. "I just chat to people - I generally star around," he laughs. But you suspect that he will still be feeling a bigger high from taking part in What's Your Story?


Caption: SYLVESTER McCOY, pictured above, with the 'phone in for What's Your Story. Pictured below are the BBC Midlands team - (back row) TERESA GALLAGHER, SEBASTIAN ALLEN, PAUL J MEDFORD, BRIAN MEDFORD. Front row - CLAIRE TOEMAN, CORDELIA ROCHE, SYLVESTER McCOY and CHAS BRYER.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: Garner, Jane (1990-03-29). Hanging on the telephone. The Stage and Television Today p. 19.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Garner, Jane. "Hanging on the telephone." The Stage and Television Today [add city] 1990-03-29, 19. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Garner, Jane. "Hanging on the telephone." The Stage and Television Today, edition, sec., 1990-03-29
  • Turabian: Garner, Jane. "Hanging on the telephone." The Stage and Television Today, 1990-03-29, section, 19 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Hanging on the telephone | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Hanging_on_the_telephone | work=The Stage and Television Today | pages=19 | date=1990-03-29 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=18 November 2018 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Hanging on the telephone | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Hanging_on_the_telephone | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=18 November 2018}}</ref>