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12:37 Saturday 25
February 2017

Q&A with T-Bag Writers Lee Pressman & Grant Cathro

We spoke to Lee Pressman and Grant Cathro, who kindly shared their memories and experiences from their time working as the writers on T-Bag.
 
Are you happy about the release of the first series of T-Bag on DVD? After twenty-five years, did you ever think you would see the day?
Lee: Overjoyed. It's been a long hard slog (I've been campaigning for eight years!) but thanks to all the ongoing interest and loyal support I felt that one day it would happen.
Grant: Totally delighted, of course - and yes, I was beginning to wonder if the show was doomed to be forgotten, along with Nutty The Gnome and The Amazin' Raisin Bar.
 
Are you aware of the huge T-Bag fan base out there?
Lee: Thanks to the two fabulous websites - 'The T-Room' and 'The High T' - we've been privileged to read flattering comments from fans all around the world, which of course is very rewarding.
Grant: Absolutely, it's been quite a mind boggling phenomenon, one of the most incredible things ever to have happened in my life.  I bump into people all the time who swoon if I mention in passing that I was one of the T-Bag writers. They tell you it was such a big part of their childhood, and their enthusiasm is so real it's overpowering.  That's when they pause, do a sum in their head, and figure out that I must be about 107 years old. That's not such a great moment.
 
How did you get into writing for television? Was it always something you wanted to do?
Lee: I started off thinking I'd be writing books, but TV kind of took over when I sent some stuff to a BBC kids' show called 'Play Away' and they paid me £4 for a joke I'd written.
Grant: I got bitten by the showbiz bug very young.  My mum's cousin was a famous Scottish singer called Robert Wilson, and when I was about six or seven, she took me backstage to watch one of his shows unfold from the wings at the Alhambra Theatre in Glasgow. The experience blew my mind.  The wow sound of a live orchestra, the pizzazz of the dancing girls, the magical hushed atmosphere behind the tabs before curtain-up, and the applause of the audience (at whom I waved naughtily through a gap in the scenery) - it all impacted on me big time. 
 
Back home in Motherwell, it wasn't long before I'd turned my parents' unused garage into a theatre of my own.  Plenty of kids put on shows and plays in their back garden, but I was a bit more entrepreneurial than some and charged admission.  No Arts Council funding here - the only Grant was me. 
 
And so I started scribbling scripts - and when my mum saw all this enthusiasm pouring out she presented me with a fabulously impressive typewriter, an Imperial 66 - the Apple Mac of its day - and I've not stopped clacking at keyboards since.  Writing for television seemed a ridiculously impossible goal at that time, a bit like wanting to be an astronaut, but then in 1967 I got obsessed by a Rediffusion/Thames TV comedy show called Do Not Adjust Your Set and decided, yes, that's what I'll do, I'll be Michael Palin.
 
So I wrote to the great man seeking advice (Michael tells me I was his very first fan) and being the nicest human being on Earth he wrote back regularly, encouraging me no end and taking time to critique my efforts - I have so much to thank him for.  I also loved Denise Coffey's work in the show, wrote to her too, and soon we became pen pals, and then friends. Denise introduced me to the show's director, Daphne Shadwell, and so by this route I was sort of "in" at Thames TV.
 
Was it a conscious decision to write for children? Do you write any material for adults?
Lee: Yes I did want to write for children and that's pretty much what I've done for the last thirty years (with a few detours into adult soaps and radio dramas).
Grant: I couldn't abide most kids' TV when I was a kid - and I've hung onto that memory. I much preferred those American shows like Bewitched, I Dream Of Jeannie, The Munsters and The Lucille Ball Show - more like "kid-friendly comedies" they seemed so much more grown up and sophisticated, featuring adults acting like kids rather than kids acting like planks.
 
Actually the first script I ever sold professionally, aged 22, was a one-hour comedy for BBC Radio 4 called "Moonlight & Aspirins" starring Miriam Margolyes and David Hayman. It was all about a marriage gone wrong, so there was nothing kiddy about it at all.  I might have continued along that road as a solo writer, had I not encountered the corrupting influence of Lee Pressman. Cue up the next question.
 
How did you two meet?
Lee: Before we met we'd both been working separately on the same kids' shows at Thames Television such as Take A Chance and Words Words Words. When I was asked to create T. Bag I asked Grant to join me.
Grant: Lee was busy writing episodes of a Thames TV kids' sitcom called "Take A Chance" and half way through there was this sudden regime change.  Daphne Shadwell took over, but she had no scripts, so she rang me up and asked if I'd like to write the rest of the series. Lee and I never met on this occasion, but soon afterwards we were both invited by Producer Charles Warren to submit material for a new sketch show, "Words, Words, Words" - to be directed by someone called Leon Thau.
 
On Thursday May 10th 1984 Lee and I met for the first time at an early rehearsal and discovered our tastes in comedy were remarkably similar. We liked each other's company, admired each other's contributions, and agreed it might be nice to work together on something one of these days.
 
What was the inspiration behind T-Bag? Were you set a brief?
Lee: The series was originally supposed to be educational. The only brief was to make it about the letters of the alphabet. But we started to have so much fun with the stories and characters that the educational element was rapidly phased out in favour of pure unadulterated silliness.
Grant: The Executive Producer of "Words, Words, Words" Marjorie Sigley had this interesting ambition to disguise kids' learning shows as pure entertainment, and she was on the lookout for ideas which would achieve that, so if there was a brief, that was it.
 
In response, Lee came up with the idea of setting a drama on a board game which was all about the letters of the alphabet - a very clever concept which Marjorie jumped at immediately, commissioning 10 episodes on the spot. Lee saw this as the perfect opportunity for him and me to collaborate, so that was how T-Bag kicked off - with an insane deadline stamped across our foreheads in ink.
 
T-Bag went on for nine series! Did you have any idea that it would be as popular as it was?
Lee: Nobody knew how popular it would be. We just kept on trying to make every series better than the last one.
Grant: No, because the show got off to a very troubled start.  We had liked working with Leon Thau on "Words, Words, Words," and we both thought he was great - after all, he'd worked with one of our heroes, Spike Milligan - but on this new show we were creating the relationship soured.  Admittedly our opening gambit was wildly over-ambitious. Our imaginations ran away with themselves, and Leon kind of freaked out because we'd presented him with material he felt he couldn't deliver on screen. But instead of allowing us another go at it, Leon set about writing his own version instead, inviting Lee and me to sit down and take notes.
 
We were still very new to TV writing, and while we liked and appreciated some of Leon's ideas, there was quite a surprising mismatch in terms of taste. Lee and I both wanted the whole thing to feel less like a kids' show - more like those kid-friendly comedies I mentioned earlier - and that became the battle ground between Leon and us for the next fifty episodes!
 
It took time and perseverance for our voice to filter through - and of course we were still learning as we went - but there were enough bright little comedy sparks flying about in Series One to encourage Marjorie Sigley to commission another 10 episodes - and soon it was obvious to everyone that we had "a show with legs" on our hands, if that's not a horrible mess of images. I don't think anyone could have predicted it would gallop away for the best part of a decade, though.
 
Who decided enough was enough?
Lee: Margaret Thatcher! When she had the ridiculous idea of auctioning off the TV franchises, Thames Television was outbid by Carlton and promptly lost its franchise and subsequently all its shows - including T. Bag. Without Mrs T's intervention T. Bag might still be running.
Grant: It wasn't us. We'd have kept it going for another decade, given the chance. I think it might have been Michael Forte at Carlton TV who after the demise of Thames TV was keen to feature one of our shows in the new station's output but (to our dismay, rather) he chose Mike & Angelo in favour of T-Bag.  Mike & Angelo went on to clock up a brain mashing 123 episodes and (get this) zero fan sites.  If it had been me sitting in that Executive Office, I'd have gone with the Bag.
 
How did you go about writing together? Did you get together to write? Did you take an episode each or both contribute to all episodes?
Lee: For many years we sat at a desk, side by side, and wrote every word together. During the later series we started to write odd episodes on our own. By the end, to save time, we were writing maybe four each alone and just a couple together.
Grant: Well, for about the first sixty-odd episodes Lee and I wrote every single dot and comma of each and every script together in the same room. That's a lot of time spent staring at a bald man. Later on, for sanity's sake, we varied this and went our separate ways to write some of the scripts - but we always did the "heavy lifting" bit together - that's to say, Lee and I both worked out the intricate storylines as usual, then retired into our own dark corners to add the dialogue.  By that time, very few people could tell which was a Lee script and which was a Grant script (although we always could) because our individual writing styles had sort of met in the middle. 
 
Is it difficult to write with another person? Did you ever disagree on storylines or character ideas?
Lee: Most of the time we got along just fine. And we had a lot of laughs along the way. We may have disagreed about little story points or lines of dialogue, but I don't recall any rows or bad feeling. Mostly it was fun.
Grant: Actually, the disagreements are what make it work. That's why there are so many comedy-writing partnerships - you've got an audience right there in the room with you, reacting to your every inspired or lousy idea.  The upside is that you feel a lot more confident about what you've finally agreed on.  It also means you're less likely to get bogged down and depressed - if one of you is having a rubbish day, the other usually isn't.  And then there's the sheer pleasure of simply "playing tennis" - throwing one idea out and getting back something totally unexpected.  It does mean that you've got to enter into this weird creative space where you're only one half of something and neither of you ever quite owns any of it.  Then again, if a scene goes "phut" later on at a read-through you can always think, "Ah well, it wasn't all my fault."
 
Did you have any say in the casting of the series? Did the characters turn out as you first expected?
Lee: We had no say at all in the casting. But luckily we ended up with Elizabeth, John, Jennie and Jim so it actually couldn't have turned out any better.
Grant: We became a lot more bullish about casting in some of our later shows.  But only sporadically on T-Bag would the Producers listen to our ideas.  Lee would suggest someone he thought would be ideal, or else I would, and occasionally it came to be.  It was sweetness personified in the later series when Denise Coffey came in to play Granny Bag, returning to the same Thames TV Studios at Teddington where she'd starred in Do Not Adjust Your Set all these long years ago. But this kind of thing was the exception.
 
Having said that, T-Bag is justly famous for the wealth of acting talent on display - for every dodgy turn there are two or three wonderful ones.  You've got to be happy with that.
 
Why was Wonders in Letterland renamed?
Lee: There were (and still are) a series of children's books featuring a place called Letterland. We were told by the Head of Children's Programmes that our show was to be called 'Wonders in Letterland', which we hated. The publishers of the Letterland books promptly took out an injunction to stop their name being used.
Grant: This was Marjorie Sigley's fault, I'm afraid.  While writing Series One, Lee and I made up this long list of possible titles for the show, but then Marjorie rather floored us one day by announcing "It's going to be called Wonders In Letterland, darlings."  (The darlings part was the only bit we liked.)  We thought it was too twee, too kids' TV-ish, just the wrong tone entirely - but she was adamant, and that was that.
 
Next thing we heard was that Thames TV was about to be sued by some publisher person, who had actually been in to see Marjorie at an earlier date about a book of theirs entitled what-else-but Wonders In Well, You Know The Rest. 
 
So for all future transmissions and overseas sales, Series One was hastily retagged "Troubles With T-Bag".  I think it was Charles Warren who came up with that one, or it might have been Leon.  It wasn't us. We were too busy busting a gut thinking up "T-Bag Strikes Again".
 
Was it frustrating having such a small budget for the early series?
Lee: It would have been lovely to have huge studios and vast sets, but in a way the limitations made us all very ingenious at making a little go a long way. And what's wrong with wobbly hardboard sets?
Grant: Only in the sense that Leon kept using it as an excuse to beat us down with "I can't afford to do it your way, that's why I'm doing it my way."
 
Are there any lines from T-Bag that have stuck with you that you were particularly proud of?
Lee: I'm terrible at remembering lines (or anything), but in a later series, in the Mutiny episode, it always cracked me up when James Saxon claims he only joined the navy 'to be near fish'. I also loved Murray Melvin as Ug the caveman seeing T.Shirt in his boxing gear and muttering 'Nice shorts'.
Grant: It's the interplay between T-Bag and T-Shirt that I always enjoyed the most, it just seemed to keep pulling all this funny dialogue out of us.  Most of all I'm proud of the way it was delivered by the cast.  They could make the weakest of our lines seem great - a writer's dream come true!
 
Did you keep any props from the show as mementos?
Lee: Absolutely - I love collecting! I have one of the leaves from the actual T. Plant, a piece of Flugelfurt Opera House sheet music (signed by Glenda Jackson, who played Vanity Bag in T.Bag's Christmas Ding Dong) and a little furry model of 'Nibbles' the space creature from Take Off With T. Bag.
Grant: I have a copy of the "Exit With A Puff" screenplay written by Ernie Pressburger and J.G.Cathrovich if anyone wants it.  Also in 1987 I got to wear one of T-Bag's dresses in a theatre play I wrote and acted in, photographs of which are being suppressed even as I type.
 
Were you down on set every day whilst they were filming or did you keep away and leave it up to the director?
Lee: We were at the studio during every single day of filming - writers don't get out much and take every opportunity to escape from their desks.
Grant: Yes, we came to almost every filming day.  It helped us to see what worked and didn't work in the studio, kind of like an apprenticeship really.  Also you got to hang around with cowboys and pirates and Frankenstein's monsters, and I'll always take time out for a bit of that.
 
Each episode contains a song. Whose idea was it to include music? Did you have any input with the lyrics?
Lee: I guess the producers asked for one song per show. Actually Grant and I wrote all the lyrics ourselves and Terry Trower put them to music.
Grant: We wrote all the lyrics ourselves. Long before we met, Lee and I wrote songs, so including the odd witty ditty in T-Bag seemed a natural thing to do.  Composer Terry Trower would disappear into the night and wrap this lunatic music around our words, then go and record it with the actors, so it was always a neat surprise to hear the finished result played back in the studio.
 
You also worked on cult children's sci-fi show, The Tomorrow People, another title which Revelation Films has proudly brought to DVD. What other projects would we know you for? Which shows are you most proud of?
Lee: Grant and I wrote the long running comedy 'Mike & Angelo', and the teenage sitcom 'Spatz' (which is one of our favourites). Before T.Bag I used to write 'Rainbow'. Recently I've been doing a lot of animation including 'The Secret Show', 'Frankenstein's Cat', and 'Shaun the Sheep'.
Grant: I think Lee and I did our strongest work together on a show called Spatz, which ran to three series in the early 1990s.  We were given quite a free reign on a lot of those episodes.  It was one of the few times when I felt we'd achieved that kid-friendly comedy thing, and as a result it had a very broad appeal, peaking at a 74% share of the audience - a record breaker for ITV. In Canada it played as a mainstream family show.  Our other record was the longevity of Mike & Angelo, on screen for 12 years, ITV's longest running sitcom.  As well as the two sci-fi series (The Tomorrow People and Delta Wave) we wrote a sitcom series called Cone Zone and a TV movie, B&B.  Hundreds of episodes, all in all - I don't know how we did it. 
 
How do you think children's television today compares to that of the 80s? Is it very different to write for?
Lee: Very different. In those far off days writers were left to get on with the writing without too much interference. Nowadays getting a show up and running involves a whole team of producers, co-producers, directors, script editors, focus groups, accountants, and tea ladies telling you what to write.
Grant: Yes, very different.  That's mainly because a lot of kids' shows have been booted off mainstream television and tucked away on the dedicated channels like CITV.  As a result, most of the new shows are targeted heavily at the lower age groups, so it's bye-bye to broad appeal.  T-Bag used to get around 5 million viewers, outperforming even the greatest American imports like Cheers - that's absolutely unthinkable now, sad to say. 
 
Are you currently working on any new projects?
Lee: I've just finished working on a fabulous new animation series for the BBC called 'Rastamouse'.
Grant: Lee and I spent around three years working on a 78-episode fantasy sitcom for Nickelodeon called Genie In The House, and we're now writing a feature film spin-off that's due to start shooting next summer.  We're also developing several brand new pilot shows with the same Producers. Also both Lee and I have an assortment of solo projects bubbling away in the background - so it's business as usual really, staring at a bald man and trying to remember who Nutty the Gnome was. I may have dreamed that.
 
Would you ever consider writing a 'T-Bag 25 Years On' series, perhaps with the children of the original characters?
Lee: You think T. Bag would have children?!!
Grant: Good luck pitching something that doesn't have the words "High School" or "Musical" somewhere in the title!  Theoretically it would be fab, though - I'd be up for it.  Find us a laughter-loving Producer and a Commissioning Editor who refuses to play it safe and we're on.
 
Click here for more information on T-Bag Series One