Tim: Me and Neil had just set up the Media Merchants and we’d just won the first BAFTA, and suddenly work stuck to us. One of these which stuck to us was Meridian Broadcasting coming to us saying ‘We’d like you to see if you could make a magazine show for the deaf’. We went “Whoa! That’s a interesting proposal!”.
Ben: (Laughs) Yes I imagine!
Tim continues: We went away and did a bunch of research and what we quickly realised was there were two types of deaf: there’s the Deaf with a capital D and these are people who live inside a deaf community and who speak British Sign Language, and there’s deaf with a small d who are people that accept that it’s a hearing world and do everything they can to fit into the hearing world. So they live their day-to-day trying to fit in, so they’re not living in a separate world. And what we realised was you can’t make a show for one without alienating the other. And it was really clear that this proposal to make a magazine show for the deaf was not possible, and so Neil and I went away and thought about it, and thought ‘Well, what happens if you use no language? What happens if you use no language at all? What if you create a totally visual show?’ And that’s where Zzzap! started from. And when we started thinking about how you could make a totally visual show, then the world of comics came into our minds.
Tim explains: Neil and I are a certain sort of age, we grew up with the Beano and the Dandy and all of those, and we realised actually if you could bring a comic to life, you could make a totally visual show. We went down to the… I can’t remember the name of the school, it was the prominent deaf school in Margate [The Royal School for Deaf Children?] and went down with a bunch of research and kids down there, and we tried to find out what their favourite TV shows were. And it’s no big surprise now having found out their favourite TV shows at the time were Mr Bean, Art Attack and Game for a Laugh.
Ben responds: Oh yes! Game for a Laugh! That was brilliant!
Tim comments: So we suddenly realised that if you could distil the essence of Mr Bean and you had a stupid character who got into a lot of trouble, you suddenly find yourself with Cuthbert Lilly.
Ben asks: Is that where the idea of Cuthbert Lilly came from? Was it really Mr Bean for children?
Tim replies: No, we imagined this character who was inept, well-meaning but incompetent. We imagined him on the front page of a comic, ‘What would he be like?’ And that’s where Cuthbert, with every best intention, would pretty much always get things wrong, didn’t mean to but that’s how they turned out.
Ben asks: Was Richard Waites always in mind because I know you worked with him on No 73 and Motormouth?
Tim explains: I was producing No 73 and it was decided to stretch the cast. We were making more shows, we needed more people, and I held open auditions and in walked this open audition quite simply the funniest actor I’ve ever worked with who was Richard Waites. He played a character in No 73 called Hamilton Dent who lived next door, he was the neighbour – He was called Hamilton Dent and he was a driving instructor!
Tim resumes: And Richard was just fantastic, and such a lovely actor to work with. When we came round to Zzzap!, when it came round to time to think ‘Who could play this well-meaning but incompetent person?’, Richard was the obvious choice. And you know, 131 episodes later he was still the right choice.
Ben responds: Yes definitely. Cuthbert was the main character and kind of carried the show through as did the others: Smart Arty, The Handymen and Tricky Dicky. And of course, Tricky Dicky was played by Richard Waites. I would like to ask you, what exactly was the reasoning behind Tricky Dicky being replaced by Daisy Dare?
Tim replies: It was felt that the character of Tricky Dicky, you couldn’t see his face, was a bit too ominous for the lower age of the viewing figures. The viewing figures showed that Zzzap! really worked from about age 4 or 5 upwards to about 13 and it was felt that Tricky Dicky was a little bit too scary, ‘this man could cause you nightmares’.
So we just said ‘Okay that’s fine, the essence of what we’re doing with Tricky Dicky is little challenges with kids to pop balloons or pour gunge or whatever it may be, let’s do that in a different way’ and so we went back to the world of comics and said ’Look actually this is Minnie the Minx. That’s basically what this is! So we went looking for a Minnie the Minx, and we auditioned actresses and in burst Deborah McCallum who gave herself pigtails and at the audition she poured a tin of baked beans over her own head!
Ben comments: *laughs* That’s brilliant!
Tim remarks: And that stuck with us, we loved working with her, she had tremendous energy.
Ben observes: You can tell on screen! I was watching some of the early Series 2 episodes and you can tell just the enthusiasm that she had for the role.
Tim continues: So she became a resident character, Smart Arty turned… the first series Neil and I, we were probably slightly lazy to be honest, but we reverted back to. We took what had been so successful for us within Art Attack of the ‘Big Pictures’ and we said ‘Look, there’s a lot of ideas that we’ve chucked out from Art Attack because they’re not big enough big pictures. They’re small big pictures’ and we knew that the concept of big pictures was successful and so we used a big bunch of those small big picture ideas in the first series.
And then at the end of the first series we realised there was so much more, that this was slightly a dead end street and actually it drew too many comparisons to Art Attack. So we said ‘Well what else can a artist in a comic do?’. And actually what we realised was the artist inside the comic could do whatever he wants. If he drew something, he could pick it up, he can use it. That’s what he would do in a comic. And so we just had to find a way of doing that in telly, so all of that Smart Arty stuff from second series onwards was done all inside, something that became a trademark for Neil and I which was a peak white studio.
Tim explains: It was a studio where the floor, the ceiling, everything is a extreme version of white. What that then means is you can lose the edges of things, you can burn things out, so that Neil as Smart Arty could draw a bow and arrow, apparently in thin air and then we could substitute the drawing for a real-life black bow and arrow and he could then pick it up and use it and fire a arrow.
Ben remarks: Wow that’s incredible really. Of course watching it, you assume it’s a sort of magic background – especially as a kid. It’s magic!
Tim replies: It’s the world of comics. You can do anything in a comic and actually when I was looking at the stuff this morning and thinking about it, what’s the magic here? Which of these characters worked particularly… And actually it’s the concept of a comic that comes to life, a comic that has frames and speech bubbles, a comic that adheres to all the rules of the Beano and the Dandy but it comes to life.
Ben reflects: It’s a fantastic concept. I first started watching Zzzap! in 1996 and then watched the Series 1 repeats too, where the boy was buying the Zzzap comic. And I was always convinced there was a Zzzap comic! It got me hooked onto the Beano and Dandy and Buster because of Zzzap, and I learned more about that world about Zzzap. I started reading comics because of Zzzap!
Tim answers: You would know we were very influenced by the world of comics, and that was part of the pure DNA of Zzzap! and so any time we hit a problem in terms of logic or production or whatever we would say ‘Well, how would the Beano do this? How would the Dandy do this? How would the comic do this?’ and that always threw up the answer.
Ben responds: Would you refer back to the actual comics and go through them?
Tim explains: No because me and Neil both knew them, Neil is more of a comic freak than I am but we both knew them so well that it was always the point of reference.
Ben asks: Talking about Series 1, it’s a lot more mysterious and darker than Series 2. It was a lot more silent as well so it kind of echoed Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Why did the show change so dramatically in Series 2?
Tim replies: Series 1 there was no pilot so Meridian just said ‘Okay go and make us 10 of these programmes’ and nobody had done anything like this before. Neil and I were trusting our gut instincts for almost every decision on Series 1. Most of them we got right, some of them we got wrong. When you came to the second series, which is the critical series of any programme, ‘Have you learnt from Series 1? Are you able to correct that which was wrong?’. So any change between Series 1 and 2 was to correct the innocent incorrect decisions we made in Series 1.
Ben remarks: I like both Series 1 and 2, there’s no preference for me. As you say Series 1 was initially testing the water and seeing what ideas worked and didn’t. And especially I was looking at some of the Tricky Dicky sketches and I noticed they were filmed in public. I imagine that must have been quite chaotic?
Tim responds: I don’t know if it appears, but Zzzap! was made on a shoestring. A absolutely shoestring budget, so if we were out shooting Tricky Dicky in public, it’s simply how it was.
Tim continues: The confidence in the production team and Richard Waites meant you kind of got through it, but really it was a incredibly cheap show and it’s kind of hard to believe that it’s 25 years old, because of all the assorted edit programmes for things we have on our computers and on our iPads and on our phones but it was a incredibly hard show to put together, to make it look like it was a comic that came to life.
Tim explains: So 25 years ago, the computer technology was composite to say the least so I worked with the editor Simon Cruise, a wonderful man for 2 or 3 months before we shot the first frames to figure out how on earth these transitions would work. So at the end of a scene, the last frame of Cuthbert a frame would then need to drop onto that, that would all need to swipe out right and a incoming frame with the next live action picture with Cuthbert would need to come in with a word in the top left corner that said ‘Later’ or ‘Because’ or whatever it was, and that was a unbelievably difficult transition to do 25 years ago.
Ben says: Was it really?
Tim acknowledges: It really was. *chuckles* It really was! And it took Simon Cruse about a month to figure out exactly how you were going to do that with the technology that was there at TVS. Well… Meridian.
Ben responds: But Meridian wasn’t the broadcaster in the South when Series 1 was in production.
Tim answers: We were using what would become Meridian machinery but at that point was owned by TVS, and so we had to negotiate with TVS to use their edit suites. And so principally Simon and I worked on it for I think probably 2 months, just trying to go from… the purity of how you could make it appear that you could bring a comic to life in that way.
Tim explains: Because you know how you read a comic you look at that frame, your eyes scans onto the next frame, it takes in the word that says ‘Ten minutes later’ and then you’re back into the story, and we had to replicate that in some way in video form.
Ben comments: It must have made it easier when Alan Scragg came on board designing the text. Correct me if I’m wrong but did Neil do all the sound effects and all that stuff for Series 1?
Tim replies: We built the show mute, so it had no sound on it. We then created the whole sound layer and sound effects. In fact what happened, certainly after the first season, I guess it was at season 2, Neil would then go into a sound booth with his best assortment of voices and noises and guttural mutterings, he’d do passes and passes of Cuthbert Lilly going (similar noises to Neil!). You then add the sound effects and music and mix the whole thing. It was built mute.
Ben observes: It’s funny because there’s some footage online of the Making of Zzzap!, so it’s from Series 1 and it’s a Tricky Dicky sketch filmed at Buckhurst Farm…
Ben continues: … And it’s got you in it believe it or not, talking to the kids who were taking part in the challenge. For some reason there’s a boom mic on set which is odd because it’s a mute show!
Tim explains: We might have used it for guidance I imagine. If it was Series 1, we wouldn’t have yet realised that there was no value to anything that we recorded on site because we were going to replace it all.
Tim continues: Let me tell you about the Handymen. ‘How did they come about?’ The Handymen came about because… you know a show called How?
Ben replies: Yes you produced How.
Tim resumes: I produced How when it came back and one of the things that was always so popular with the audience were just these neat little tricks, the neat little things that you could do at table top. And we thought ‘Well that would be great if we could get some kind of element of that in, so there’s a real takeaway for the kid at the end of an episode of Zzzap! so that they could try and do that thing that the Handymen had done.’
Tim remarks: The Handymen is very interesting. When we first started the research into the deaf world, we realised that we were going to need some help steering our way through it. And I came across this fabulous lady, Sarah Pickthall who at the time I think the Information Officer for the National Deaf Children’s Society, so I went to see Sarah and told her about this whole concept of this comic that came to life and how we were not going to try and do something for one side of the deaf community or other, we were going to try and make a completely visual show, and she got it. She absolutely got it.
So when I then started to talk to her about wanting to do these neat little tricks, I said ‘Look they’re just tabletop tricks and I’m not quite sure what the best way of going about this would be’ and we talked and talked, and we said ‘Why don’t we do just a pair of hands?’. Then I thought the smart thing to do was to give the hands some real status, to have their own theatre, to have their own audience, to have their own world. That’s really how the Handymen came about and Sarah did all the episodes with the Handymen, every single one of them. But she also acted as her deaf advisor throughout.
Ben responds: Did she really…?
Tim continues: So if we were going to do something that we hadn’t thought about or was dumb in terms of the deaf world, Sarah would help us, Sarah would alert us with that. She was one of the unsung heroes of the whole of Zzzap! because she steered us round the whole conflicts inside the deaf world.
Ben asks: So what particular things did Sarah help you with? Was it particular sketches or…?
Tim answers: To be honest without referring back to my diaries of those years, I don’t know if I have particular instances to hand. But when there was a question mark over a script, when there was a question mark over a scene that Cuthbert would do, if there was any grey area I would simply call Sarah and we’d talk it through.
Ben comments: That’s fantastic. I didn’t realise, because of course the Handymen were like music-hall stars really. They had their own theatre and Victorian style music. I know that Sarah’s gone onto do stuff for deaf children, she’s done her own projects in Kent, around the world and in the UK. But I didn’t realise how much she had to do with Zzzap!
Tim observes: She was a tremendous ally. We were stumbling around in a world we didn’t know fully, and so we could have made some horrendous mistakes but because of Sarah she was a safety net of catching those for us.
Ben remarks: I imagine it was good to have that kind of reassurance as well.
Tim agrees: Yeah and she was not bossy about it, she was not judgemental about it. She was sweet.
Ben asks: I understand you directed every single Smart Arty sketch. Were they normally done in one block or done separately when other sketches were in production?
Tim responds: Let’s forget about the first series. The first series was filmed in a completely different way, it was shot like small Art Attack big pictures. When we got into Smart Arty and his peak white world, we tried to do one sketch all the way through but the demands in terms of the design department were absolutely huge.
Tim continues: So if we were doing a big set piece where Smart Arty drew a circle on the ground and coloured it in and it then become a hole he fell through, then that was quite a big design set up because you’d have to have a second set where he dropped through the hole. So there were times when the demands of the design department were such that they affected our ability to shoot the sketch from beginning through to end.
All that Smart Arty stuff, 10 episodes worth of Smart Arty in the peak white world, would have happened I seem to remember it was 3 days, it might have been 2 but it was quick. But the push for the design department was immense at that time.
And you can imagine any time you’re going out and doing things and trying to make it look like a comic, the demands on the design department were very heavy anyway.
Ben comments: didn’t realise there was another set or another dimension. I seem to recall one episode where Smart Arty goes into another dimension and goes into a mouse hole…
Tim interjects: … And meets a giant sized mouse.
Ben remarks: …You remember it! *laughs* Very good!
Tim explains: It was a phenomenally creative show. We shot it for nothing and the reason it worked because it was bursting with ideas. That’s what made it so special. Infrequently I don’t know if you noticed it that much, we liked playing with frames. You know like the frames of a comic? So most of the time they’d be electronic or we’d drop them on in the edit, but sometimes we used live frames – so we might be out with Cuthbert Lilly and you might see a frame and Cuthbert walks towards you and then he’d trip over the frame!
Ben comments: Yep the old gag. And believe it or not you were the first to do that gag!
Tim remarks: We liked playing around with frames. We thought frames were good fun. To anybody who’s watching actively, they would suddenly shock them because just when you think every frame is electronic suddenly Cuthbert would trip over one. That’s good use of the comic medium!
Ben notes: And it plays around with the concept!
Tim responds: Another thing we did infrequently, we did it occasionally but particularly we did it with the specials was that we had characters turning up in other people’s comic strips. Most of the time, Cuthbert would be up against the rest of the world or up against his dog or against a ladder or whatever it was, but very occasionally we’d bring Smart Arty into Cuthbert’s world or Daisy Dare to Cuthbert’s world, and those were pretty magical to see the two characters together.
In the Beano and the Dandy, it happened very very infrequently but when it did, you the reader just thought it was so magical. So we tried to replicate that whenever we could. I mean budget didn’t really allow us to do it so often, but when it worked it worked really well.
Ben says: I still remember watching the Summer Specials and they were magic. Like you said, it was nice to see the different dynamics between characters. Whether that was all the gang on the beach or camping or in the jungle or going boating. And the weird thing is they were never shown again, they were only one-offs! It’s the same with ‘Cuthbert’s Diary’. How did that come about?
Tim explains: Zzzap! was being very successful in its’ own sweet little way and the commissioner for ITV just was saying to us ‘Look please can we have some more Zzzaps? Can you do something else with it?’ and so we just came up with relatively quick and inexpensive ways of furthering the Zzzap! idea but not making them full episodes of Zzzap! So that’s where Cuthbert’s Diary and the specials came in, and one of the funniest places to be was in make-up.
Tim answers: These characters had seen each other on screen but never really met each other. Suddenly, you’d have Cuthbert meeting Daisy Dare in make-up. It was very funny!
Ben asks: Did you or Neil have any input in Minnie the Mini Magician at all?
Tim replies: Yes we did, we got to a point with Smart Arty where I think we as a company just got too busy and we couldn’t really carve out that amount of time for Neil to go and do Smart Arty, so we thought ‘Well can you do the same kind of thing? Can you create the same kind of magic in a big white world in a different way?’ And we went ‘Yes of course you can’, and that’s where Minnie the Magician came about. We’d worked with Sophie Aldred on a rather ill-fated Saturday morning show [WOW!], and we liked Sophie a great deal and we thought she was a very fine actress and a good person to have around productions, always positive, very professional and what we did was we morphed Smart Arty into Minnie the Magician. We basically the same thing.
Ben responds: *Talking about Minnie having orange backdrop and later own adventures*. This would have been Driana [Jones] wouldn’t it?
Tim says: Yes it was probably was. But it all would been consistent to the comic. Every decision you go back to ‘What would the comic do?’ so Driana was absolutely faithful to the original concept of the comic. And you know, she was somebody we trained how to make telly, she’d came into work with us on Art Attack and stayed. She was one of the absolute and utter stalwarts of the Media Merchants’ operation.
Ben remarks: Fantastic. Like you, you directed, produced, wrote, devised, acted (in the shows), you created ideas with Neil before and in Southern and TVS. I’ve got them all here: The Saturday Banana, Runaround, On Safari, No 73 – of course which is still very popular, Get Fresh, Motormouth, Animal Crazy, Terror Towers, Quids In… I mean the Media Merchants were a powerhouse of children’s telly.
Tim reflects: It was a rollercoaster ride, very very very busy but it was a nice company, it was a creative company. It brought in young people with the right attitude and it taught them how to make telly properly. There are a lot of people knocking around in the television world now, the Executive Producer of The X Factor Olly Nash – I don’t know what’s he up to these days, Driana, Paul Spriggs, all these people we gave their first telly job to and how to make it properly, and that’s the sort of company it was.
Ben replies: A lot of people who worked on Media Merchants productions have gone onto successful careers themselves, they’ve gone onto to like Mister Maker… Have you seen Disney’s Art Attack by any chance? I know Nic Ayling was part of that.
Tim answers: *chuckles* Nic was probably slightly a reluctant involvement. Disney have wanted Art Attack for years, Disney tried to buy Art Attack from Neil and I ages and ages and ages ago, we said ‘We’re not selling it’, they were desperate to have it and in the end they said ‘Look if you’re not going to sell it to us, can you find a way of making it for us in all these other languages? We want episodes in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian, Japanese blah blah blah, but we want a native host. We want a host from that country and do you think you could do this?’ And we went ‘Well, we’ll have a think about it’. And we went away and thought about it, and we came up with a method of doing it that was unbelievably successful for Disney! Disney still wanted it for themselves and so then eventually after the sale of a couple of companies Disney get hold of it.
Tim continues: Disney then say ‘Right we’re gonna make it, we’re gonna make Art Attack and though they copied some parts of Art Attack, they never understood it. They never understood the DNA of Art Attack. They never worked out that actually this in sense was a conversation you were having with the viewer. You needed to stimulate the viewer and you then needed to empower the viewer, but Disney never really understood that. Sure I’ve seen the Disney Art Attack but the latter ones, certainly the ones that were made after Nic’s influence had disappeared, they’re a version of Art Attack but are they the same programme that really hit children’s imaginations in Britain in the 1990s? No they’re not at all.’
Ben comments: As you probably know, they’re filmed in Argentina and of course it was Neil doing all the pictures for the original whereas the new one, I watched it when it came back and went ‘Oh wow! Art Attack’s coming back!’ but it wasn’t with the Media Merchants. They have the presenter and then they cut away to some random person in Argentina making the pieces, and I don’t think it’s the same. That might be nostalgia talking…
Tim responds: No it’s not the same. You, the viewer, you don’t have any relationship with the guy making the big pictures at all to when you’d sit at home and you’d watch Art Attack and then Neil is making the big pictures, you have a relationship with him. You care about him.
Ben observes: That was all through your programmes, you always maintained that relationship with the viewer. You welcomed them to your world, whether that was through It’s a Mystery or Wow! or even Zzzap!
Tim replies: That probably typified the programmes the Media Merchants made, in that we understood that this was a two-way conversation with the viewer. When you’re talking about It’s a Mystery, one of the things we built into It’s a Mystery really early on was to present the facts and then you’d say to the viewer ‘What do you think? Do you think this could have happened?’. You’re having conversation with say a 10-year old child sat on the sofa 12 feet away, you’re not broadcasting on public terms, you’re having a direct conversation with one viewer sat 12 feet away.
Ben says: I loved It’s a Mystery. It’s a brilliant show and I always remember one where it was about the Southern news broadcast about the alien. And that’s still never been solved has it?
Tim notes: … Er not to my knowledge.
Ben suggests: It’s still a Mystery! *laughs*
Tim asks: Are you in contact with Nic Ayling?
Ben replies: Yes I am, because as I mentioned I’ve got my archive of Zzzap material which I’m using for my website and my own personal archive, so basically for the past 10 – 15 years I’ve been tracking down episodes of Zzzap. I’ve nearly got them all from Series 1 to 10.
Tim answers: Wow! That’s a achievement!
Ben responds: Yeah it’s taken a long long time, especially Series 1. Unfortunately that went missing from the ITV archives, so Nic contacted me and said ‘I’ve got episodes nine and ten if you’d like them’ and I went ‘Yes please!’
Tim remarks: Nic is one of life’s good guys, absolutely one of the good guys. So Nic, I was working on No 73 and I came across something Nic had sent in which was some imaginative set of pictures of what he imagined the rest of the street was in No 73 and I thought the work he’d done, his imagination was extraordinary so I went to see him, this 13-year old boy, and he knocked me out so I got him onto No 73 and I think that changed Nic’s life. There was a period where he was undoubtedly a protégé of me, I had a immense amount of time for Nic and we’re now dear friends. We happen to have the same birthday which is uncanny!
Ben asks: So did you have like joint birthday celebrations?
Tim answers: No but we send each other appropriate cards every birthday as it should be, and it’s lovely to see that he and Driana have gone onto such great things and they have a company together [Terrific TV] and that’s lovely, because it feels like the baton from the Media Merchants days has been carried forwards by Nic and Driana.
Ben responds: Definitely! You can definitely see it when you watch their programmes like Mister Maker and Finger Tips, it’s still that creativity and it’s still that interaction with the audience, it’s still magical for children growing up.
Ben asks: Do you have anything visual material from your time working on the show?
Tim answers: I was thinking about that, I’ve got boxes of stuff in my garage that I haven’t looked at in 20 years, I’ve got no idea what’s in there. I suspect I haven’t got anything, the only thing I have is up on the wall in my study which is a photograph of Neil and I in front of the 18-foot comic the day it went into the Chequers Centre.
Tim continues: [About Zzzap! filming] Most of that stuff, certainly the early stuff, was all shot round where I lived. And I lived in a fantastic little village called Frittenden so Buckhurst Farm is owned by my best friends in the world and who were very tolerant to let me go and film there whenever I wanted to. The first ever episode of Zzzap!, the first Cuthbert adventure, was involving Cuthbert taking his dog for a walk at the end of a lead – one of those extending leads, that was all shot in Frittenden. In fact some of it was shot in my garden! And it was my dog! So it was very very Kent based, we didn’t have the money to pay for the crew to travel a hour somewhere to get to a location. It was all done very very locally on a shoestring, but for all that shoestring it was amazingly rich in ideas.
Ben reflects: I remember there was an episode where Cuthbert goes on a Ghost Train and that was…
Tim answers: Margate.
Ben: Yes! I think so!
Tim explains: That would have been a big expense for us!
Ben: *laughs* Yes I imagine!
Tim comments: I seem to remember I played the owner of the Ghost Train.
Ben remarks: Yes that’s it!
Tim answers: There was usually a need for someone to be a bastard, that would invariably be me!
Ben observes: Even in Art Attack before the Big Art Attacks, it always tended to be you who played the authority figure or the person who told Neil off for breaking the rules.
Tim simply replies: Money saving that’s all it was.
Ben says: But I think it works!
Tim claims: No ego involved I can assure you!
Ben responds: *Huge laugh* I should hope not! I’m joking! So skipping ahead a few years, what was your reaction to Zzzap! changing to CGI?
Tim acknowledges: (Rather long pause) I guess it happens to every series, you get to a point where you think ‘We’ve really got to freshen this up. We’ve got to bring it up to date’ and there will have been pressure for us to do that. What did I think about it? I kind of liked it being low-tech, I liked it being cardboard boxes and string rather than CGI. But hey, things change.
Ben explains: I know Art Attack changed as well. Especially in the late ‘90s when CITV changed. There was a lot of changes with Central, it went from being out-of-vision to in-vision…
Tim replies: Ben, these things happen. It’s unbelievably rare to get, you know, Zzzap! ran for 10 seasons, Art Attack ran for 17 years. These are unprecedented fields! And of course pressure does come on from the industry, from the commissioners to ‘Let’s just refresh this, let’s brighten it up’. Sometimes those decisions are right, frequently they’re not. Frequently what works is what works is what works. Art Attack works because it’s that, leave it alone. Just leave it alone.
Tim continues: But that’s not the way that telly is and that’s not the way that telly was at that time. But we were unbelievably lucky as a company to have 10 years of constant work because of Zzzap! and because of Art Attack, and then for it to be supplemented by It’s a Mystery or Animal Crazy or whatever, it was heady times. Busy but heady times.
Ben remarks: And the work definitely paid off.
Tim answers: It paid off if one child picked up one pencil and did something that they’d seen on Art Attack. That’s when it really worked. We didn’t give out our address or anything because we simply didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it, but still these letters would pour in with drawings and things kids had done that they so wanted Neil to see.
They were so proud of what they done, they were so happy that Neil had given them a sort of present, a skill, they’d done it, they were so thrilled with it that they forced their parents to find a envelope, force their parents to find a stamp, force their parents to somehow find our address and send it to us.
If you do that just with one kid, it’s all worthwhile. Then you measure up what Art Attack was doing and you realise what Zzzap! was doing, in that on a Friday afternoon when people got back from school, they had a appointment with Zzzap! and Zzzap! made them laugh for 15 minutes.
Ben mentions: And I always made sure the video recorder was recording for Zzzap! Fridays, 3:55, CITV.
Ben asks: I don’t know if you were so much involved with Zzzap towards the end, because unfortunately when Series 10 went out instead of it going weekly, it went every day. So, it ended in 2 weeks!
Tim answers: Let me tell you about that. What happened was there was a new commissioner for Children’s ITV who had come from Nickelodeon [Janie Grace] and Nickelodeon had been doing this thing stripping, an American thing where you have 65 episodes of something and you’d strip them. You’d play them every day for 13 weeks then you’d start again, so you had one series and you’d know it was on every single day at a certain time. Now that’s fine if you’ve got 130 episodes of something, but if you’ve got 10 episodes of something it’s frankly a act of lunancy to strip those and try and change.
Tim resumes: You know, there is a young Ben who has a appointment at 3:55 on Fridays with Zzzap!, you’re on school on Thursday and think ‘Oh great! Tomorrow’s Friday and I’ll get back home and it’s Zzzap!’. That’s part of your pattern and to wantonly disrupt that and say: ‘I’m going to teach you a new way of watching Zzzap!, you’re going to watch every day at 3:55’. It isn’t what you want. It was crazy.
Ben replies: It was crazy, and it was a bit overload to be honest.
Tim agrees: Yeah! Then it’s no longer special!
Ben responds: Exactly, it was a special moment sitting down on Fridays to watch Zzzap. I think the same happened with Art Attack as well – and of course then there were big cuts to CITV’s budget. Some of the shows like Central’s Bernard’s Watch and Zzzap! went and they unfortunately never came back.
Tim remarks: Over the period of time when we were very busy, I was knocking around some good shows, I dealt with 5 or 6 commissioners. There was one really good one, one who was… okay, and the rest were dimwits. There were people who didn’t understand the relationship that you have, a programme has with a viewer. What they’re looking at is overall CITV figures, overall CITV budget, they’re playing a different game and it was one of those people that enforced the stripping schedule onto CITV and it proved to be a terrible mistake.
Ben comments: Yes it did and the consequences of it were felt for a little while. I’m going off record here, but CITV suffered as a result of those cuts. Of course there weren’t as many kids shows as there were in the ’90s. Zzzap! was hardly repeated at all, even repeats would have been nice, and Central from a viewer’s point of view had a tendency to repeat whenever they felt like it which didn’t really help. But you always knew when a new series was happening because it was always advertised, especially when Minnie joined the show. There was so much coverage for that! I was looking back at the promotion of Series 1 as well, that was everywhere! On What’s Up Doc, RadioTimes, I’ve still got all the press cuttings…
Tim responds: Well at that point, children’s television had a profile and what happened within 10 years was children’s television had no profile because the money had been pulled out of it. Because the television executives realised that kids don’t buy the things that are advertised, they became the poor customers. But you know Ben, I feel looking back now with a great distance, I joined telly in ’78 and really I worked through what I think was a very golden age of children’s television, because there was money to support a good idea. There was the right to fail, the right to experiment and it was a time that encouraged original thinking and creative television for children. And that seems like a privilege to work through that period of time.
Ben compliments: I think you should give yourself a pat on the back because you created so much creative stuff, and you inspired so many people. People who have now become artists, writers or illustrators such as myself. As a result of Zzzap! and Art Attack, I actually used my writing skills… It’s funny Zzzap! actually developed my communication skills because I was a late talker.
Audible surprise from Tim!
Ben explains: So to begin with, I would do these voices because I heard them on Zzzap!, because I could read before I could talk.
Tim: Oh wow!!
Ben: Zzzap! taught me how to read!
Tim reflects: One of the other factors that was really interesting about Zzzap! was we said ‘Well look let’s make a show without language’ so it’s not for the Deaf with a capital D, it’s not for the deaf with a small d, it’s not for the white English speaking, it’s not for whom English is a second language, it’s for everybody. By making it absolutely visual, we made it as inclusive as we possibly could. That was such a powerful thing.
Ben: Like Art Attack and Zzzap!, whole families would watch it.
Tim responds: And the great thing we’d know when you sat down with your mum or your granny and granddad or whatever, that they approved of Art Attack. They approved of it. They thought it was a bit mischievous in places. But it was doing the right thing. The level of approval amongst parents and grandparents was quite staggering.
Ben remarks: It’s funny, even now people still say like.. ‘Cuthbert Lilly He’s Dead Silly’ and I’m like ‘How do you remember that?’ and they say ‘Oh I used to watch it’. It comes up again and again! Just talking to random people: ‘Oh wow you remember that too?’. The memories stick with people, you know.
Ben asks: Recently there’s been a very huge following of Zzzap, a big nostalgia blast due to social media and the likes of social media. Are you aware of the fanbase?
Tim answers: I wasn’t really until I started thinking about having this conversation with you and thinking ‘Well I better find out if this is just one person’, but the level of affection for Zzzap! is just extraordinary!
Ben answers: It is! There was a lady who went to a London convention. You know they have these Sci-fi conventions? One lady dressed up as Daisy Dare!
Tim reacts: Fantastic. She should have poured a can of beans over her head then she’d have been really authentic!
Ben comments: Yes, she did a few dares! So people are like ‘Oh I want to dress up as Smart Arty and Cuthbert Lilly!’
Tim remarks: Stuff that was just hashed out of mine and Neil’s heads 25, 26 years ago, that’s extraordinary.
Ben explains: It is incredible. It’s touched so many people and it’s such a inspiration. The craziness and madness of it struck a chord, not just with me, but many people and every episode is brilliant to watch over and over again. It’s timeless.
Tim answers: It’s the comic that comes to life.
Ben asks: Do you think Zzzap! should be released on DVD?
Tim replies: Erm… Yeah, if there’s a big enough demand for it then sure. Quite who owns the rights I’ve got no idea, Nic will probably know about it than who owns the rights.
Top secret embargoed information!! To be announced properly one sunny day!
Tim says: My wife and I sat down and watched an episode this morning, and she said ‘You know what? This would still work now!’. There are some episodes you wince a bit at, but the concept which nobody else had done of a comic that comes to life with characters that would appear every week, that would work.
Tim explains: Nice bit of trivia for you [you probably know this already], certainly by the second series we were shooting the introductions to each character on the big comic in the studio, and so the camera would move in and go across the boxes and you’d see which character it was going to be. Now all of that was shot backwards. The Media Merchants, we often shot Zzzap! in peculiar ways just so they worked. So that would start with, the camera would be right on Cuthbert Lilly and then the camera would move back and smoke out and then we’d reverse it.
Tim continues: And when you watch carefully, you’ll see that there was a lot of smoke coming out so that it would appear like the camera was moving into the comic which was smoking and belching and flashing, and we’d end up with Cuthbert Lilly. When you now look at that and you realise it was shot backwards, what you see is all the smoke was going backwards. Have a look at one of those and watch the smoke, and you’ll realise actually the smoke’s all going the wrong way.
Ben reacts: laugh I never realised that! Wow! I think I knew about Cuthbert, because he bursts out of the comic frame he’s in and then it’d go to his sketch, but I didn’t realise all of it was filmed backwards.
Tim resumes: And the reason for shooting it backwards was this: if you shot it forwards, the camera was on the end of a very long crane arm and to have got that precision of movement, to get the move into the comic, to have the camera wandering over the frame and then to end up absolutely sharp in exactly the right place on Cuthbert Lilly, it would have taken forever to do! And with very very little chance of success. Whereas if you shoot it the other way round so you’ve got Cuthbert absolutely crisp and sharp and in his frame and exactly the right place, then move the camera the other way, providing everybody is acting… backwards.
Tim responds: Even though everyone was acting backwards, you stand a much better chance of getting all that right. So have a look at one of those openings and realise that everyone is acting backwards and the smoke is going the wrong way!
Ben asks: That’s great! I understand that the original name of Zzzap! was Buzz?
Tim answers: Tim hesitates. It was never called Buzz as far as Neil and I were concerned…
Ben mentions: I saw a Meridian Broadcasting pamphlet saying about shows for the [1991 ITV franchise] bid.
Tim responds: In order to get status, they needed to say ‘Oh er we’re going to create a show for the deaf. For children. What is it going to be called? It’s going to be err erm erm Buzz’
Ben answers: Ah got you. So they assumed.
Tim replies: Neil and I were never interested in a comic called Buzz, we were interested in a comic that had its’ own life, its’ own image, had its’ own impact and we know that was not going to be called ‘Zap’ with one Z; it was going to be called Zzzap with three Zs.
Ben reflects: It’s the emphasis on the ‘Z’, and that’s what made it intriguing. I’ve got a book with me and it’s called the RadioTimes Guide to Comedy and it emphasises the ‘Zs’ so it’s ZZZAP! which is eye-grabbing. A eye grabbing title.
Ben asks: Talking about ideas before, were there any characters that didn’t make the final cut? Any you thought ‘That’s not so good, let’s scrap that idea’?
Tim answers: …To be honest, we go back to that conversation we had at the Deaf School in Margate where we said ‘What are your favourite shows?’ Game for a Laugh, Mr Bean, Art Attack. And that sort of threw up three very obvious characters [Cuthbert Lilly from Mr Bean, Smart Arty from Art Attack and Tricky Dicky from Game for a Laugh] and then the whole Deaf connection through the Handymen, and they worked. So we didn’t have a list of 15 characters and we started off with what we knew would hopefully work. And that’s what we stuck with. I mean, if I raided through all my old notebooks other thoughts of other characters but my memories is this is from 25 years ago or more, my memory is that’s what we did. We stuck to what we discovered from the deaf kids and we stuck to what we knew about comics.
Ben observes: That’s good you stuck with your gut instinct, because as you probably know like Monty Python for example they went through many changes before they actually decided on what they wanted. ‘Do we have this? We’re not too sure!’
Tim explains: Because [The Media Merchants] was mine and Neil’s company and we’re the creative drivers, and the success we had and the money that we made sitting in the building [TVS Maidstone, later The Maidstone Studios] and in my barn we would sit down, no interruptions, looking at each other, staring out the window and going ‘What if…? What if we’re playing with ideas?’ and our confidence in each other and our confidence in our collective skills was when we thought ‘You know what? That’s a great idea!’ we stuck with it. We trusted our guts, we stuck with it. There were ideas that weren’t so great but we had a pretty high strike rate most of the time. Everything that the Media Merchants did, it came from Neil and I.
Thank you so much Tim for being such a fantastic interviewee and sharing your wonderful memories! 🙂