A story for the festive season.
This is from the time I worked in the BBC television studios as a lowly assistant, shepherding “the talent”—whoever would be appearing in front of camera—from dressing room to makeup, wardrobe, set, and into action. It was sometimes stressful and often boring, but overall I loved it.
There were 20 or 25 of us who worked that job. Some of us had our regular shows—one of mine was Top of the Pops, which meant I had the opportunity to shout at big recording stars of the 80’s as if I was their mother. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you! What time do you call this? Wait, are you wearing that?”
But everybody took their turn working other shows as well: the game shows, chat shows, kids’ shows: Play School, Jackanory, and the iconic Blue Peter, directed by the equally iconic (and deeply scary) Biddy Baxter.
As its name suggests, Play School was a doddle. The presenters were veterans, entirely self-minding, so once things were underway there was little for me to do but flirt with the sound guys and drink lots of coffee. The studio (and my services) would be booked for the day, but we usually wrapped early. There was, of course, the tedium factor: “Sorry, everyone, from the top again,” I would hear through my headphones, “and this time let’s try it with Humpty falling off the wall two seconds earlier.” But it was an OK assignment. So when my supervisor needed someone to work the Christmas show, which was to be filmed on Christmas Eve, I volunteered. I could use the overtime, and I reckoned I’d be free by two o’clock for some last-minute Christmas shopping.
When I pushed through the heavy double doors into the studio that morning, it was immediately obvious that this would not be a coffee/flirting day. The place was a hive of activity; something ambitious was up. Large cardboard boxes filled with balloons—the long, skinny sort people twist into shapes—were being lashed to the lighting rig overhead. The Play School set had been dressed in special wintery finery. And I had a special guest to look after.
“He’s elderly,” my Floor Manager told me. “Give him a little extra time to get everywhere.”
I don’t know why that bothered me; I’d had minor problems in the past with elderly actors and presenters—falling asleep in their dressing rooms, not hearing their calls, that sort of thing—but they were nothing like the problems created by, say, every single boy-band that appeared on Top of the Pops. Still, I mentally bade farewell to my hopes of an early getaway.
Apparently this chap had been a popular children’s entertainer years before, though I had never heard of him. It was easy to pick him out at Reception, partly because the place was virtually deserted (everyone else was obviously Christmas shopping), and partly because he looked like Central Casting’s version of a children’s entertainer. He was neat, dapper, white-haired, pink-cheeked, bright-eyed and smiley, and he walked with a spring in his step.
I can’t remember his name, but “Charlie” sounds about right. In any case, it became apparent, as I scurried to keep up with him, that Charlie was not going to need any extra time getting anywhere.
We went straight into camera rehearsal. The day’s show had been built around a single story, and Charlie was going to tell it to camera, while making a reindeer out of balloons. The story went like this:
Once upon a time there was a king.
Although his palace stood at the edge of a large forest, he had never seen any of the reindeer which were rumored to live there. How he longed to see one! So one day he called the court wizard and asked him to make a reindeer appear.
Unfortunately the wizard was completely useless and bungled the spell.
What appeared instead of a reindeer was “rain, dear!” (Ha, ha.) It poured!
Luckily, the wizard had the presence of mind to add an immediate supplementary spell. “Let us have a change of air!” he cried, and the rain turned into balloons.
This would be when, during the actual filming, the cardboard boxes above Charlie would be tipped over, and balloons would, indeed, rain down. For the rehearsal we just handed him a couple of balloons to make into a reindeer. No point emptying the boxes, only to have to fill them again. The story proceeded:
The wizard was better at balloon animals than he was at spells, and with a twist or two produced a balloon reindeer.
“If you place this in the palace window,” he told the king, “the real reindeer will be curious, and come out of the forest. That is how you will get your wish.”
I know. Not the BBC’s finest hour, plot-wise.
At this point, having fashioned his balloon reindeer, Charlie was to get up, walk over to the Play School windows, and set the reindeer there. Then he would peer out, and exclaim in delight that a real reindeer had turned up! After which, he was to walk back to the chair, while speaking the final lines:
The king was happy. His wish had come true at last.
And so…he lived happily ever after!
We rehearsed the whole thing twice without a hitch. Charlie made perfect balloon reindeer, and told the story with more skill and verve than it deserved. When we broke for lunch the mood on the studio floor was up: it would be a cute segment, everyone was rooting for the old guy, and we might get out early after all.
After lunch, we reconvened. Charlie hit wardrobe and makeup, and we were ready to go for real. The only thing we hadn’t rehearsed was the tipping of the balloons. If that went wrong, it would take a long time to reset, and the fact that the whole thing was being shot on a single camera created pressure to get it right first time.
Still, it was Christmas Eve. Things couldn’t help but turn out well. The director’s voice boomed cheerfully in everyone’s headphones, predicting that we would be wrapping up in half an hour. Thumbs up all round.
Charlie took his seat, and we got off to a brilliant start. Better yet, at the appropriate moment—“Let us have a change of air!”—the boxes overhead tipped perfectly, and balloons showered down as planned. Keeping his eye on the camera throughout, Charlie transformed a couple of them into a completely brilliant reindeer. The man was a genius.
Then he stood up, so as to walk the reindeer over to the window.
At this point, the entire population of the studio and gallery came to a sudden, shared realization: the floor between the chair and the window, the floor across which our elderly storyteller now had to walk, was covered with balloons. Covered. With balloons.
In a quiet voice, capturing the general mood, the director said: “Uh-oh.”
Charlie started walking. What made it tricky—well, trickier—was that Charlie had to do this while speaking to camera, not glancing down at his feet. He took a first step; the crew drew its collective breath. Another step; bigger breath. By the time he was halfway to the window we had all stopped breathing. Then he seemed to settle into a move that was more a shuffle than a step, pushing the balloons aside. It worked! We exhaled as quietly as possible.
He did his piece at the window, then turned, to walk back to the chair. I wanted to shout, Stay there! Save yourself! But Charlie was a pro. If the script said “walk”, he would walk. He started back. Again the studio-wide intake of breath; again the leaning in, eyes riveted on his feet.
“The king was happy. His wish had come true, at last,” said Charlie, as he shuffled the last inches. He put his hand on the chair back and twinkled at the camera.
“And so…” One last step, before he would say the final words: ‘he lived happily ever after.’
One last step, with which he trod on a balloon…
Coming when it did—just as we were about to be released from unbearable tension—the balloon pop hit us like an exploding bomb. We recoiled, in unison, and then stood, slack-jawed, silent, gaping at Charlie. I felt a stab of pity for the old guy. He had done so well! The mistake was ours! I hoped he wouldn't try to apologize.
He didn’t. He kept smiling to camera, his twinkliness undiminished. Then he finished the sentence he had begun, maintaining the same warm, cheery tone as before.
“And so…he shot himself."
This time, the explosion was laughter. We literally fell about, staggered, bent double. I had to take off my headphones before the director’s bellowing laugh actually deafened me.
Then, still giggling, we prepared for a second take, one in which Charlie would not have to run a balloon gauntlet. The mood in the studio was ebullient.
I can’t remember what time we wrapped. I don’t remember if I went shopping afterwards. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything at all from that Christmas Eve if Charlie had not stepped on that balloon. As it is, I’ll never forget the moment when an elderly children’s entertainer took a minor disaster and, keeping his eye on the camera throughout, transformed it into a completely brilliant experience for us all.
The man was a genius.