Here on OLDTIMETV's 20th anniversary we have an interview with the talented and acclaimed Historian and UK Celebrity biographer and author of 18 books on celebrities Graham McCann.
Q. Hi Graham. As a former Lecturer of social and political theory at Cambridge University which do you find easiest, teaching or writing celebrity biographies?
A. Teaching. That’s mainly because it’s my default position. My degrees are in political theory, I’ve always lectured on political theory, and I still do. So that’s my subject. When I’m not researching or writing something very specific on entertainment, I’m back keeping up to date on my academic subject. The other thing about teaching is it’s immediately and enduringly rewarding: you can see its impact very quickly and it also evolves over time. Maybe if I wasn’t allergic to social media it would be different, but when I write something it feels as though it disappears into a black hole – aside from the odd letter or email from a reader (which are always nice to receive) I often have next to no idea if anyone read it let alone liked it!
Q. Which of all the biographies you’ve written was the easiest and hardest to write?
A. To be honest, they all feel hard to write at the time, but, in retrospect, the Morecambe & Wise book was probably the easiest, in the sense that so many people were only too happy to talk to me about it, and back then I was too naïve to be intimidated by how ambitious, in my approach, I was actually being. There weren’t ‘serious’ books about TV entertainment shows when I started, so I was basically inventing a new genre as I went, but it’s nice to see it’s inspired quite a few others in the years that followed. The hardest to write (aside from Only Fools and Horses, which came in for some sabotage) was probably the Fawlty Towers book, for several reasons: first, publishers always think that the most entertaining books will be the ones on the shows that were most successful, but the reality is often the opposite, because usually the most successful shows were the most professional, disciplined and boringly business-like, which leaves you with hardly any behind-the-scenes crises or conflicts to cover – so you really have to work hard to find enough stories and insights to make an 80,000-word book engaging for the reader; second, there were only twelve episodes to discuss; third, thanks to nostalgia channels, box sets and streaming, those episodes are chronically fresh in some people’s minds, while other potential readers won’t have revisited them at all, so you’re damned if you dwell on them and you’re damned if you don’t. The easiest thing in the world is to go full-metal-nerd and write for the hardcore fans, but to write for a far broader and diverse audience, and still write well, is much, much harder than it might seem.
Q. Although you’ve written about many classic comedians and actors who are no longer with us, you’ve also written biographies on stars who are still going today. The likes of David Jason, John Cleese, did you ever get to meet them or any of the co stars while writing Fawlty Towers, Only Fools & Horses and Still Open All Hours?
A. Yes, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to meet and talk at length with many of them. Very rarely you’ll get the odd slightly awkward one – knighthoods don’t seem to do some people much good! – but generally they’re very generous with their time and are really helpful and supportive. Many actors, outside of scripts, have the memory of a gnat, and the sincerity of a politician, so one should never delude oneself that, because one got on well with one of them for a few meetings, one is now a ‘great, great, mate’ – they’ve probably forgotten who you are a couple of days later! But a few do keep in touch and share some fascinating stories, quite a few of them unprintable. Diana Rigg, Richard Briers, Eric Sykes, some very nice people. Jonathan Cecil often used to phone me up during the hour before he had his dinner, sip a glass of wine and tell wonderfully entertaining and indiscreet anecdotes, and Jimmy Perry, late in life, was another one – he’d say, ‘You can quote me, Graham, honestly. I’m NINETY, I just don’t care!’ I never will, though - he made some outrageous remarks! Eddie Braben and Barry Cryer used to call and tell the latest jokes they’d thought up, which was wonderful. It probably helps that, coming from an academic background, I’m really not driven by any desire to ingratiate myself with a celebrity crowd – I just do the job and move on. I also have a strict rule that any interviewee gets to see how I’ve quoted them before publication, to ensure they are happy with the accuracy and the context. I think that helps them to trust you.
Q. Who is your favourite Movie Star, Movie comedian, favourite UK TV Star and favourite American TV star ?
A. Favourite movie star: Cary Grant. As close to perfect as you can get in everything from sophisticated thrillers to physical comedies.Favourite movie comedian: probably Stan Laurel (it’s odd to think of him as under-rated, but he arguably still is – he was a genius), closely followed by Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Jacques Tati and the Bob Hope of the 1930s and 40s. Favourite UK TV star: it would have to be Eric Morecambe, but these days Alison Steadman. Favourite American TV star: Phil Silvers in the distant past, and these days Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Larry David.
Q. If you could choose one person from the 20th Century you’d like to write abiography about who would it be, even if it’s already been done and why?
A. As absurd as it sounds, I still think, and will always think, that I was born to write a great book on The Beatles, and/or John Lennon, but these days I doubt the world needs any more books on either! If we’re keeping to the sphere of entertainment, I guess my choice would be Ken Dodd - because he was always, sort of, part of my life (my grandmother worked for his parents in Knotty Ash) and I thought he was a magnificent comedian, and, quite frankly, I think I could do him justice; or Quentin Crisp, because I knew him, he was incredibly encouraging when I started writing on entertainment, I thought he was a really interesting writer on movies, and I’d like to capture the full complexity of his life, character and career; and I’d love to write the biography of Beryl Vertue, who in my view was one of the great British women of the century and a bona fide legend of broadcasting.
Q. What is your favourite TV show from the 50’s, 60’s 70’s and 80’s?
A. From the 50s: Bilko. From the 60s: it would have to be a tie between Steptoe and Son and Not Only…But Also. From the 70s: another tie between The Morecambe & Wise Show and Dad’s Army. From the 80s: Ever Decreasing Circles and Yes Minister.
Q. Tell us a bit about your website Comedy Chronicles?
A. It’s actually a fortnightly essay that the very nice people at the British Comedy Guide host, featuring stories about British comic history that are maybe not so well-known but are, I hope, quite interesting and entertaining (ranging from the time that Charlie Drake shut himself in a cupboard to why so many people wanted to punch Rex Harrison in the face). It was a bit of an accident, originally. Once I’d come to the reluctant conclusion that mainstream British publishers had lost interest in books on this kind of subject, I reflected on a few stories that I’d been told but had never found a place for in the books I’d already written, so, rather than keep them to myself, I thought I’d get them ‘out there,’ so to speak, in a blog. I estimated I’d probably do ten and then shut the blog down. That was the plan. After the first one, however, the owners of the British Comedy Guide got in touch and asked to take it over. Which was a nice surprise. I still genuinely doubted I’d have anything left to write about once I reached double figures, but it started in 2019 and, three years later, it’s still going, and I’ve got quite a few more pieces already written. There are enough articles by now to fill a couple of books – if only the history of comedy was still deemed sufficiently ‘commercial’!
Q. If you were to ask oldtimetv to find an old US TV Show and an old UK TV show which you think is lost which shows would it be?
A. US TV show: Peter Stone’s 1967 pilot called Ghostbreakers, just because I like Peter Stone – he wrote Charade and also an overlooked gem called One of My Wives Is Missing – and I’ve always been curious to see this other effort that came and went and quickly disappeared. UK TV show: maybe the 1963 Hattie Jacques comic detective series Miss Adventure – I’ve seen parts of one episode but it would be fascinating to see the whole thing – or Terry-Thomas’s early TV shows, or (I don’t think it’s ‘lost’ so much as just lodged in the BBC’s archive) the full edition of the 1966 Late Night Line-Up that featured some tired and emotional comedians arguing in a very ‘luvvie’ way about their craft.
Q. Of all the celebrity biographies you’ve written, if you could meet just one of the actors you’ve written about dead or alive who would it be and why?
A. Probably Frankie Howerd, because he was such a fascinating character – very brave and yet full of fears, extremely intelligent but plagued by self-doubts, and of course exceptionally thoughtful about the art of comedy. I so wanted to get his biography just right that I scrapped the first draft after 60,000 words and started all over again – an absolutely shattering thing to do, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but I think the end result justified it. I’d started by writing against the clichéd view of him (a camp comic spouting catchphrases and saying ‘Ooooh’ a lot), which I gradually realised gave it too aggressive a tone. I re-started it by writing for my own view, which created a much more engaging feel. I just wish it hadn’t taken me 60,000 words to finally come to terms with it. Actually, now that I think about it, it was quite a ‘Frankie Howerd’ thing to do. I don’t know whether he would have approved, but I’m sure he would have sympathised!
Q. You’re on a desert island with a DVD player, TV and electricity you can choose one movie to take with you which movie do you take?
A. I’d need cheering up in that situation, so Bergman’s out. I think I’d go for Bringing Up Baby – I have a particular passion for American screwball comedies, and this one, in my humble opinion, is the best of them all.
I'd just like to thank Graham for taking the time to do this interview. I've read all but two of Graham's books and I can recommend each and every one, particularly Frankie Howerd and the Dads Army biographies, couldn't put those down.Thanks again.
If you want to check out any of Graham's books you can find them here on his Amazon page, and Comedy Chronicles page just click below on the names below.
GRAHAM MCCANN'S COMEDY CHRONICLES