The Making of The Early Show

It was nice to have the comment passed onto me from a parent in which their son has said that the on-line assemblies were good, but the ‘live versions are better’. I don’t know about that. Although we started out with a premise of ‘replicating what we do in assemblies’ I like to think The Early Show became something different and in some ways, better.

The Making of The Early Show

The first major difference was of course no live audience as with that loss we lose the immediacy of a live performance. I’d been watching the American chat shows from New York and due to lockdown they had all resorted to filming from their homes. Some worked well as they changed their format, some felt empty and hollow. I decided to go in the exact opposite direction: I wanted to make a show that looked more ‘live’ than ever before. I’ve done a lot of standup comedy (maybe you can’t tell that by looking at me, but I have) and I’ve faced some pretty tough audiences. There’s no tougher audience than a barn full of teenagers, in uniform, at 8:30 on a Monday morning I can tell you. So many jokes just don’t land when the audience is half asleep or wondering if it’s appropriate to laugh at their physics teacher making a fool of himself on stage. 

So in writing the scripts for The Early Show I was so conscious of where the laughs were supposed to come, it made sense to put in a laugher track and applause in at the right moments. This was what was missing from the US chat show comedians broadcasting from their lounges. It worked.

Maybe you didn’t realise it was all scripted? Every word. Filming is not something you can ad lib. You’ll probably miss the message for one thing, ramble on or miss the links to the next sections. So I had to write the script, then learn it, then film it and that took ages

I started filming the show with a Canon HG10 before switching to my Canon DSLR 7D with two fixed Quartz 2000W lights on a green screen, all set up in the barn. It was edited in Logic Pro X on Mac. The theme music was provide by Purple Planet as was some of the incidental music, some of it was my own tracks. I started my career in television and film editing at Quantel, creating training materials for the video editing and graphics systems before later working as designer and then creative director in multimedia agencies. So I was able to edit it quite fast, but it still took around a day, especially with the multiple layers of live footage of the view outside, the fake room and window frame over the green screen and colour corrected footage. 

I decided to follow the US chat show magazine format although it morphed into a surreal variety show quite quickly. So we start with the ‘monologue’, the host talking to camera. In the US shows they talk about current affairs, politics, celebrity gossip and so on. All of these are hard enough to get right live on a Monday morning, much harder to get right pre-recorded where every word can be analysed in perpetuity. I had a few safe jokes about lockdown, but how topical could I get? Is it appropriate to criticise the governments response or make jokes while people are in intensive care and dying? Probably not. I’d seen endless US unfunny jokes about lockdown wearing very thin. So the route had to be more creative and lighthearted. I can make it slightly topical, but not political. I can try to reflect the mood of the times in a light way, but not in a depressing way. Some viewers out there may well be suffering and I wouldn’t want to hint that I’m mocking that. I’m not qualified to give advice either aside from the generic ‘stay safe’. 

I needed a foil, someone to talk to, to have banter with. But since I was the only one available: as the sole writer, performer, cameraman and editor the only one around to step up was Terry Dactyl, the puppet my wife Rachel had made for our family movie a few years earlier. Rachel made the T Rex costume too (Terry’s Jurassic teacher from 65 million BC).

Now I had to learn both my lines and Terry’s lines and perform Terry’s lines as if I was hearing them for the first time. I think you can see my novice acting skills getting better as we go along. I then overdubbed Terry’s voice in post production, trying my best to match his mouth movements. It did take ages, under hot studio lights, wearing a velvet jacket, on the hottest days of the year so far, with my arm up a puppets backside. 

It wasn’t just a case of operating a puppet – he had to have a character and I had to have a relationship with that character. I came up with the idea of him loving musical theatre and always wanting to sing (he later becomes an aficionado of pop music too). I looked at all the puppets and their operators from the past to get a handle on it. You may have noticed some clues as I developed the character:

Sooty is clever (but doesn’t speak) while Matthew (or Harry if you’re older, or Simon if you’re younger) is usually incompetent.

Emu is very naughty (and doesn’t speak) as Rod Hull apologises for him.

Orville the Duck is shy and self depreciating while Keith tries to make him feel better. (Keith’s other puppet Cuddles the Monkey was his favourite with his catchphrase ‘I hate that duck’ which was really Keith’s opinion of his own successful creation.)

Basil Brush (a fox version of Terry Thomas) was outrageous and quick witted while Mr Rodney, Mr Derek, Mr Roy or Mr Billy looked like idiots. 

Then there’s arrogant Hartley Hare (from Pipkins), Zippy and George (from Rainbow), Roland Rat, Gordon the Gopher (CBBC), Spit the Dog (Tiswas), Zig and Zag (The Big Breakfast) and of course the Muppets (although not strictly puppets). It does seem like puppets, once the mainstay of children’s television from the 1960s to 80s seem not to have many contemporary counterparts.

There’s a running thread throughout the story of Terry if you watch closely: he starts off innocent and full of enthusiasm, becomes riddled with self-doubt, he get’s bullied, but he works hard, he gains confidence, then he wins and gains respect. It’s a journey so many of us go on, but not all make it to the other side.

If you’re eagle-eyed for more cultural references, you may have spotted appropriation from Stuart Lee, Vic Reeves, Bob Monkhouse, Stephen Colbert, Morecambe and Wise, the IT Crowd, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Count Arthur Strong, Take Hart, Screentest, Cheggars Plays Pop, The Grumbleweeds, Record Breakers, quotes from every Beatles movie (plus I quote almost the entire sleevenotes from the Beatles 1964 LP Beatles for Sale, yes, really) and finally Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The interviews generally took an entire morning or an evening to plan and record. My guests were carefully chosen and we spent a lot of time planning each interview to mould it into the theme for the episode as well as designing a task or discussion for the tutor groups to carry out after watching. 

The Early Show is of course not a virtual assembly – it’s a personal development variety show. After 12 episodes, that’s over 6 hours of material, it’s likely to be a mainstay of our enrichment programme in some form, as a valuable addition rather than a replacement for, whatever we can do next. It’s always been a problem getting visiting speakers to come all the way to see us for just a short session both with their time, fees, costs as well as disrupting lessons to make the enrichment time a worthwhile length. It took a global pandemic for us to realise that there was another way of doing things! 

I currently have eight speakers lined up for September. The word is getting out there. If you know of anyone who can be interviewed for ten minutes on a topic of personal, educational or professional development with tips, a personal story or an insight into their life and work, we’d love to hear from you. Since the programme will likely be shown mi- morning or after lunch there’s be a subtle name change too…

If you missed an episode, here’s a full episode guide:

Ayd Instone, Head of Enrichment and Extra-Curricular