Monday 9 August 2021

Pie in the Sky

There’s something ridiculously satisfying about a pie. Crisp, flaky pastry giving way to thick gravy which envelops the senses alongside juicy morsels of meat is unbeatable. Vegetarian pies are just as appetising, there’s no diet prejudice here. Whatever your tastes, the end result is the same: a fuzzy feeling of warmth and security. It’s an experience which isn’t a million miles away from the nostalgic rush of watching decades old children’s television. But what happens if you combine the two? Extreme satisfaction to the power of two? Well, thanks to the passing of time, it’s more than possible with a slice of Pie in the Sky.

Universal Pies is a pie shop – housed within a giant pie dish building – which is proudly run by Pie Man (David Hargreaves) and Pie Wife (Chloe Ashcroft). Renowned for their world-beating pies, Pie Man and Pie Wife accompany their baking with an endless stream of songs. And the sounds of these songs, along with the smells of the pies, have made it all the way into outer space. Here they have been received by the planet Pie, a world where there are no songs for the Pie children. And this is why the Pie Pilot (Ben Thomas) has been sent down to Earth.

Hovering above the Earth in his pie ship, the Pie Pilot communicates with Universal Pies through a curious ‘rolling-pin video receiver’ he has gifted to Pie Man. It’s via this device that the Pie Pilot requests a song-filled pie. The song in question is inspired by whichever song Pie Man and Pie Wife are singing that day e.g. The Grand Old Duke of York or Old Mother Hubbard. Before any baking can commence, though, they need a special pie dish. So, hopping on his bike, Pie Man cycles over to a nearby hill where the Pie Pilot beams down a pie dish to fill.

Once Pie Man has returned to Universal Pies it’s time to start making the pie with Pie Wife. And they waste little time in heading straight to the pastry cutter box to start. So, for example, if they need to fill a pie with Hickory Dickory Dock, they dig out a ‘mouse’ and ‘clock’ cutter. With the pastry shapes cut, it’s time for a quick performance of that episode’s song. These performances range from shadow puppet displays through to glove puppets and even ballroom dancing mice. Once the song is completed it is fed into a pie, through a pie funnel, and deemed ready for delivery to the Pie Pilot.

Whilst Pie Man jumps back on his bike and heads out it’s time for Pie Wife to admire the pies in the shop window. “If my pies could move, if my pies could speak, which of my pies would be pie of the week?” she wonders before a particular pie is treated to a short performance piece e.g. a star gazing dandy admiring the stars in honour of stargazy pie. Then, as the episode draws to a close, Pie Man returns from delivering the pie to the Pie Pilot. But he doesn’t return empty handed. The Pie Pilot is so grateful for his pies that he always sends back a present such as a bath hat or an elephant’s trunk.

The first episode of Pie in the Sky aired on the 15th September 1986 at 3.55pm as part of the Children's BBC schedule. In total, 13 episodes were produced with the initial idea being devised by Chloe Ashcroft and Peter Gosling. As with many BBC children's productions of the era, Michael Cole was in place as the series producer, but Sharon Miller was also on hand to act as producer. Following the series' initial run in 1986, Pie in the Sku moved to the lunchtime SeeSaw slot on BBC1 where it was repeated until the summer of 1991.

Curious to find out a little bit more about the production, I got in touch with the Pie Pilot himself, Ben Thomas. And he was only too happy to share these memories:

"Pie in the Sky was an absolute joy to work on, and at the time a complete contrast to other ‘bad-boy’ roles I had on TV. My experience of presenting Playschool as well as many other children’s programmes for the Beeb, gave me license to just go with the flow and enjoy the Pie-ride. Most of the team were in place before my invitation to join. Michael Cole and Sharon Miller were already in pre-production mode with Chloe Ashcroft, David Hargreaves and Peter Gosling when they offered me Pie Pilot - along with a crazy collection of other cameo roles yet to be confirmed!

I’d previously worked with each of them individually at the Beeb, so instinctively knew that Pie in the Sky was different to the regular children’s format. Not only were the scripts anarchically inventive, hosting crowds of outlandish characters coming and going, but also employed some of the most up-to-date video graphics on children’s TV at the time. Having Micheal Cole at the helm provided a solid credibility and integrity to the project. His vast experience and success in children’s television gave us room to stretch the boundaries without totally losing the plot. The creative freedom and diversity of expression brought to the series was due to his encouraging influence and confidence in the production.

The whole series was recorded at the BBC studios in Bristol, support by their brilliant in-house set and costume departments, who week after week had to visually recreate the chaotic capers described in the scripts. Looking back after thirty plus years the production values were pretty impressive for the time and the series is still remembered by some of those lucky few who caught it"

Peter Gosling, meanwhile, was there from the very earliest stages of baking Pie in the Sky and was able to fill me in on this and his involvement:

"I'd previously worked with Chloe Ashcroft and we both shared a similar humour along with a love of singalongs and folk songs. Pie in the Sky first started because I'd recorded an album of nursery rhymes which I planned to release. This then led to the possibility of a TV show based on nursery rhymes. Chloe and I soon realised the potential of a TV series featuring the songs 'Baked in a Pie' and for all to enjoy. We then had meetings with the BBC commissioning editors who gave us the go ahead to bring it all to life.

My imagination could run riot and I wanted to give all the traditional nursery rhymes a modern twist that young children could enjoy and singalong with. I wrote all the songs at home and I recorded them at Herne Place Studios, Sunningdale. I used a guitarist and drummer and I played the rest of the instruments. Chloe, David Hargreaves, Ben Thomas and myself put the down the vocals once the tracks were done and it took about two weeks. Once we had got the show commissioned, we had to re-record everything at Lime Grove Studios for copyright purposes.

I managed to get down to all the recording and filming sessions, the series was made at BBC Bristol. Chloe, David, Ben and I made up the team and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves making the episodes. We all enjoyed playing our different parts, dressing up and being silly. My only other memory of the series is of my trousers falling down whilst playing the fiddle and dancing to Old King Cole. I still can't stop myself from eating pies"

Like most children’s programmes aimed at the lower end of the age spectrum, Pie in the Sky is two things: simple and exceptionally fun. It’s a winning formula that scientists have attempted to create in laboratories for years, but has only even been achieved in television studio conditions. Strengthening the core of Pie in the Sky is its capacity to couple a straightforward setup with an offbeat theme. The episodes contain your standard recipe of light japes, songs and performance, but it’s a gloriously surreal programme which marries all this to a universe where a Pie Pilot needs pies for pie children.

Central to this universe, along with the Pie Pilot, are Pie Man and Pie Wife. Given that David Hargreaves and Chloe Ashcroft were, in real life, married means that chemistry is a given. Comprising genuine warmth and muttered asides there’s a natural domesticity at play which is one of Pie in the Sky’s strengths. It generates a familial atmosphere and is guaranteed to be approved of by small children. The Pie Pilot brings his own brand of appeal thanks to, firstly, the fact that he comes from beyond the stars and, secondly, because Ben Thomas projects him as a riotously zany creation with a thirst for curiosity.

All three performers were born to perform and Pie in the Sky provides them with the perfect platform to demonstrate this. The song sections, in particular, are where it all comes together. And thanks to Peter Gosling’s remarkable compositions these are very special sections indeed. Few musical genres are left unexplored and The Skye Boat Song performance is genuinely beautiful in its execution. And, finally, the ‘pie of the week’ segment is a brief blast of charming silliness. After all, who wouldn’t be delighted to watch Ben Thomas personify a cream horn by blowing cream out of a French horn?

It’s rare that you will find a TV show which combines a musical mouse medley alongside intergalactic pastry-based curiosity. And it’s shows such as Pie in the Sky that should be treasured for such a commitment towards their idiosyncrasies. Children need to escape into a world of wonder to help their creativity thrive and Pie in the Sky provides a direct shortcut to this. As satisfying anything to be found in a baker’s oven, Pie in the Sky is a tasty treat that will linger long in the memory.

In a coup for Curious British Telly, Ben Thomas was kind enough to send over a number of behind the scenes photos from the recording sessions for Pie in the Sky. So, feast your eyes on these:

Many thanks to Ben Thomas for these invaluable photos!

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