Sunday, 10 September 2017
Behind the Bike Sheds
School days, are they really the best days of our lives? All I seem to recall is endless mornings and afternoons spent staring out the window of either freezing cold or swelteringly hot portacabins at nothing in particular.
Okay, I could have paid a bit more attention and actually done some of that there learning, but education can be such a frightful affair at the best of times, particularly when it’s being enforced by a man for whom body odour and dental hygiene are foreign concepts. However, it would probably have taken more than a swift shower and glug of mouthwash to liven things up and get me fully on board. What I wanted was a little bit more entertainment and, if I had known at the time, it could probably have been found Behind the Bike Sheds.
Please note that I’m not suggesting I could have found any French mischief behind the bike sheds. And certainly not with Mr B.O. Halitosis. It was just a little play on a schoolboy smut, anyway, back to Behind the Bike Sheds.
Channel: ITV (Yorkshire)
Transmission: 1983 - 85
Series one of Behind the Bike Sheds finds the pupils of Fulley Comprehensive under the rule of headteacher Mr Braithwaite (Cal McCrystal) who bends his cane and swishes his black gown with all the dictatorial menace of Adolf Hitler – also the inspiration for Braithwaite’s toothpaste moustache. Perhaps the closest thing that Braithwaite has to an ally – and only because he’s an adult – is Poskitt, the school caretaker. Poskitt may be a man of sartorial inelegance and lacking in IQ, but he’s a friendly chap and rather nifty when it comes to tinkling the ivories and breaking into song.
Against this backdrop of adults, of course, there are the pupils in their delightfully pink uniforms, so let’s take a look at them.
Adam (Adam Sunderland) is a plucky, fresh faced youngster whose main role is to open each episode with a narration on the current events at Fulley Comprehensive; he also acts as a springboard for updating and driving the plot throughout the episodes. Joining Adam is his headphone wearing friend Paul (Paul Charles), a talented individual who can shift his feet like a young Michael Jackson, but also has aspirations of becoming a broadcast journalist as evidenced by his ‘Jim Raving’s Newsround’ sections in series two.
Jenny (Jenny Jay), meanwhile, is a fifth-former blessed with a precocious savvy and a determination to highlight her singing skills which is matched only by her swooning passion for boys, particularly older ones. Completing the pupils (well, as you’ll discover in the following paragraphs, kind of) is Marion (Marion Conroy), a young punk bristling with attitude and a mocking wit which is curiously juxtaposed by her beautiful singing voice and twisting dance moves.
Whilst these pupils and adults all dwell above ground, there’s one pupil (well, a puppet) who lurks eccentrically in the school boiler room and deserves a paragraph all of his own. Injured and scarred by a radioactive school dinner in the Great School Canteen Disaster some years earlier, Fanshawe is a Phantom of the Opera type character who has failed to age since being struck by the offending school dinner. As a result, he keeps the Sacred School Dinner on the wall and worships it.
Going back above ground, the pupils of Fulley Comprehensive find themselves careering through songs and sketches on sucking up to parents and the horror of school uniforms. There’s also time to squeeze in interviews with pop stars such as David Grant, Clare Grogan and The Thompson Twins. Series 2 – with its change in writers – saw a change not only in cast, but also format. The pink uniforms were replaced by plainer uniforms, the pop star interviews shelved and the series became more of a musical sitcom with Braithwaite, Poskitt, Fanshawe and Marion all departing.
Replacing Braithwaite as headmaster is Miss Megan Bigge (Val McClane) aka Mega Pig, a clear parody of Margaret Thatcher and just as dominating. Despite claiming that she’s a reasonable, loveable person who likes sweet children, she’s actually a cruel, overbearing monster. Keen to draw a line under Braithwaite’s reign, Mega Pig claims to have the heads of Braithwaite, Poskitt, Fanshawe and the school cat Bonzo mounted on her office wall. The pupils are horrified by this disturbing sight, but Mega Pig discloses (to the viewers) that they’re just papier-mache heads.
Mega Pig needs someone to help hammer home her brand of sadistic authority and she hopes that the new deputy head Whistle Willie Jones (Ken Jones) is just the psychopath. Sadly, for Mega Pig, Whistle Willie is a wet blanket and is soon sacked, but he remains determined to prove himself. More confident is Joe Winter (Tony Slattery) who arrives on a tidal wave of charisma, impressing staff and pupils alike. What Joe hasn’t prepared himself for, though, is the level of anarchy awaiting him at Fulley Comprehensive which will force him through several personality changes.
And with the new gaggle of pupils joining Adam, Paul and Jenny, it’s no surprise that Joe’s mental resilience is on the ropes as he develops into a child hating maniac with fascist overtones (well, a Hitler moustache).
First up, and most in your face, is GBH (Linus Staples), a thuggish, Mohican sporting punk with a penchant for cockney rhyming slang, and munching on PA systems. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Gertrude (Martha Parsey), a neatly dressed, polite goody two shoes. And, yep, you guessed it, GBH and Gertrude soon fall in love.
Chas (Lee Sparke) and AWOL (Andrew Jones) are a couple of likely lads who run many a dodgy scam and racket from the school boiler room. Chas is your typical cockney wide boy, all slick and confident whilst AWOL is a scruffy, slightly dirty lad from Yorkshire with a penchant for groan inducing gags. With Marion gone, Jenny needs a new associate and in Skids (Julie MaCauley) she’s got a new bestie. Skids has a natural talent when it comes to the old song and dance routines, but she’s also a real sweetheart and even has a baseball cap with a toucan attached to it.
Skirting around the fringes of the schoolyard, the final character is Trolley Molly (Sara Mair-Thomas), a dinnerlady who carts her culinary wares around in a trolley. Although she has the look of a new romantic, her romantic visions are clearly aimed at Joe Winter, even selling ‘jonuts’ in his honour.
Preparing the Curriculum
17 episodes of Behind the Bike Sheds were produced by Yorkshire TV over two series between 1983 – 85 for ITV. The first series was written by Rick Vanes and John Yeoman, but the second series was written by Jan Needle with additional material from a young Tony Slattery. A number of pupils featured in the series were restricted mainly to dancing (notwithstanding that some do get the occasional line) and these cast members grooved their way onto the set courtesy of The Harehills Dance Group.
Episodes aired during the 4.20pm slot with the first series airing on Wednesdays and the second series going out on Tuesdays. The series, as a whole, was never repeated, but the start of 1986 saw the transmission of five episodes entitled The Best of Behind the Bike Sheds. Going back to the start of the series, Rick Vanes recalls that the original idea for Behind the Bike Sheds was inspired by his work on two previous shows:
“It evolved out of Ad-Lib and Sunny Side Up, on which I was script associate/writer. Both programmes featured groups of talented young people presenting items and performing sketches, and there was to have been a third series of Sunny Side Up. Tragically, the director - David St David Smith - was killed in a helicopter crash while filming for a different programme, so Alister Hallum was brought in as producer/director. He wanted to take the programme in a different direction, which I totally agreed with, and so we jointly devised the format that became Behind the Bike Sheds”
Due to the varied format of the series, writing Behind the Bike Sheds was not as straightforward as a standard narrative, but, as he explains, Vanes was lucky to be paired with an exciting writer overflowing with enthusiasm:
“John Yeoman was a talented writer who was relatively new to television, and the exec producer Joy Whitby wanted him to contribute to the series. He was London-based and I was in Leeds, so the process worked like this: Alister and I (plus Joy Whitby) decided on a theme for each episode - Parents, Fashion, Sport - and John and I, working separately, set about writing sketches and song lyrics based on the themes. I then stitched these together with linking sketches to create a vague flow to each episode. Although the lyric writing was shared, John wrote the majority of them. They were then set to music by Richie Close”
Vanes and Yeoman were also fortunate to be blessed with an excellent set of young performers to bring the scripts to life, something that Vanes was able to see up close:
“I was in the studio control room throughout the recordings in Leeds, in case last-minute tweaks were needed, but much more important was my attendance at the rehearsals in London. At the rehearsals I was able to pick up on some of the things that the cast were doing, and tweak, expand and cut things as the rehearsals progressed. The atmosphere was wonderful - probably the best I have experienced in any series. The cast and crew were like one big enthusiastic family, and everybody seemed to be having a ball”
Vanes and Yeoman’s initial concept for Behind the Bike Sheds was markedly different come the time of the second series, but, as Vanes reveals, this is not a surprise due to the change in personnel involved:
“Joy Whitby, Head of Children's Programmes at YTV, and therefore exec producer on Bike Sheds, was hugely talented. But one skill she didn't have was the ability to trust in the ability of her producers and directors and leave them to get on with what they were good at. She would constantly interfere and over-rule (sometimes with good suggestions, but sometimes not), and this led to a lot of friction between her and Alister Hallum - and when series two was being planned, she fired him from the show. I had huge sympathy for Alister and declined to work on series two because I felt he had been shabbily treated”
Back to School
Despite the boredom of school, it’s a period of life which is so stuffed with formative moments that, even as we get older, ensures it remains a fascinating setting for a TV show. And, when I first heard of Behind the Bike Sheds, it was clear that here was a show for me to investigate.
However, after reading a little further, I was horrified to discover that it had strong musical elements. Immediately, I was confronted by troubling visions of dazzling smiles, tap dancing feet and all the other horrors associated with stage school pupils just itching to belt out Gee Officer Krupke!
Thankfully, the performers have the necessary skills to sidestep the pitfalls of stage school clichés and, instead, produce performances packed with youthful exuberance; it’s a vibrancy which encapsulates that wisecracking, rough and tumble persona of British schoolchildren. The pupils themselves are neatly divided into two subsections to help engage the viewers on different levels. Adam, Jenny and Paul provide a dose of child on the street reality to help narrate proceedings, whereas the comic flourishes of GBH, Chas and AWOL provide the schoolyard action.
Moving up the age groups, the adults attempting to instil calm and order at Fulley Comprehensive are equally as polished and well formed.
Braithwaite could easily fail as a caricature of disciplinarians, but little touches such as his meddling mother bringing him into school ensure he’s fully three dimensional. Poskitt, too, transcends his berkish foundation thanks to his ability to hold a tune coupled to his misplaced confidence and pride. Mega Pig receives the baton of crushing discipline from Braithwaite and is played with real relish by Val McLane. A remarkable parody of Margaret Thatcher, it’s a move which simply wouldn’t happen on modern children’s TV, hinting at how much the world has lost touch with politics in recent years.
A warmer take on adult authority is the eloquent Whistle Willie, but the main reason for his popularity with the students is down to him being a pushover. Ken Jones, of course, is a fine performer with great comic timing, so benefits from the extreme lengths Willie is pushed to.
The absolute star of the show is Tony Slattery. Bursting with comic smarts and all the confidence of an actor on the way up, Slattery takes on the challenging multi-personalities of Joe Winter and manages to nail each one effortlessly.
The narrative awaiting each character differs wildly depending on the series that they appear in. The first series’ reliance on its sketch format and pop star appearances give it more of a variety feel, but the second series foregoes this and feels more like a sitcom, albeit a musical one. They’re not exactly different shows, but they feel diverse enough that it’s impossible to declare one better. Whilst the first series has Fanshawe and contemporary pop stars popping up, it doesn’t have Tony Slattery or a superb parody of Margaret Thatcher lighting up the screen. And vice-versa.
What both series have, in absolute spades, is a scintillatingly anarchic sense of comedy and an incredible set of songs.
Sure, some of the gags are groan worthy, but there’s a joy in their cheeky delivery, most notably from Chas and AWOL. We also get Paul performing his irreverent take on Newsround, an excuse for plenty of quick paced gags and, just to confirm its comic backbone, a custard pie splatting. Fanshawe, of course, remains disturbing whenever he appears on screen, but his dedication and subservience to the sacred school dinner is a stroke of surreal genius. And then there’s the one man rampage of GBH and his delightfully blunt epitaph of “Here lies Fred Sprout, over and out”.
It’s not just the children capable of creating laughs, the adults manage to conjure up more than a few as well.
Joe Winter, of course, is a comedy masterclass from Tony Slattery, all intelligent, confident and supremely silly at the same time. It’s a difficult combination to pull off, but whether he’s suffering mental anguish in Mega Pig’s office or preaching love and peace, Slattery achieves it like a pro. Mega Pig and Braithwaite’s contempt for their pupils may feel Dickensian at times, but it’s shot through with such a measure of cartoony malice that it’s difficult not to revel in their glorious nastiness.
The songs, meanwhile, are swarming with magnificent lyrics about anarchistic ankles, sucking up to parents and the culinary delights of Trolley Molly. Perfectly burrowing into the subversive mindset of schoolchildren, there’s little more you can ask for in terms of theme. What’s really special about the songs is that they’re packed with a uniquely British flavour, one that feels a world away from the polished seriousness of Fame. After all, how often did Fame perform songs about the love between a Margaret Thatcher facsimilie and her pet python?
End of Term Report
It’s very easy to be wary about musical comedy due to the intricate skill required to fuse the two genres together successfully, but Behind the Bike Sheds makes a strong case for not hunting this genre to extinction.
Not only is the comedy and music of a level capable of tickling your funny bone and pricking up your ears, but there’s much more going on in this entertaining melee. From the gothic horror of Fanshawe through to the biting parody of Mega Pig, it’s quite unlike anything else.
Ultimately, Behind the Bike Sheds was miles more entertaining than anything I saw unfolding outside the window of my French lessons. Sure, it wasn’t a realistic representation of school life, but that, after all, is the escapist genius of TV.