The programme THAT'S LIFE! was born out of a programme called BRADEN'S BEAT. As a new show, it made its debut run on BBC One circa 1973. Throughout its life, if you pardon the expression, it contained both serious and not so serious items. Its main presenter was Esther Rantzen. One of its lighter items was This Week's Talented Pet. (Remember the dog saying, "Sausages"?) They also decided to have an item for awhile called, The Great Undiscovered British Talent. There was contact between the BBC and me, concerning the latter.
As stated elsewhere, I have two webbed toes on each foot. If you study the photo of me in my pearly king suit, on this website, you may not realise this. But closer examination will show that the tops of the two toes next to the big toe, are separate. This is because of the skin which is in between them.
In my capacity as a rock 'n' roller, I had sometimes put my feet on the piano keyboard when the mood took me. However, not being satisfied, I thought that I would go a bit further and play an actual tune instead. This was achieved by standing on the piano stall with my left foot. The left hand played the vamp. The right foot (big toe actually) would commence to play the piano, while I frantically held onto the piano for dear life. Although on rare occasions I used the Long John Silver Method, by standing on one foot on the floor. The tune in most cases was IT'S A LONG WAY TO TIPPERARY.
It was therefore tempting to volunteer and make contact with the BBC, with regard to the Great Undiscovered British Talent spot on THAT'S LIFE.
To cut an intricate story short, contact was made by both the BBC and myself. In addition, I made upon their request, a recording of me playing the piano in this manner. This was subsequently played down a telephone from my workplace.
Eventually, arrangements were made to film me for the programme. They had hired out a hall in Essex. The reason being, someone had the idea of combining The Great Undiscovered British Talent segment with that of The Talented Pet. Rightly or wrongly, I had agreed to do this.
One of my cousins, who was in the know of what was happening, and lived in the region where the film was to be made, gave me a lift from the railway station. But first, he took me a long way round, to see my uncle and aunt at Harold Hill. Why he took me a long way round was because he did not want me to be seen by my other relations in the area, thus they would be surprised to see me on television. At a strategic point in time, I was whisked off to a hall/community centre at Becontree Heath. It was next to the Dagenham Swimming Pool and a pub called The Merry Fiddlers.
At length, a man entered the room where the filming was to be. He shook our hands and introduced himself as Bill. He followed his name with his short job title, Sparks. This was because he was in charge of the lighting. Other people from the film crew also arrived. This included the director, Tim Copestake. The planning and instructions of how to approach the making of the film were very efficiently made. Paul Heiney, who was one of the co- presenters of the programme at the time, quickly spoke to me, and made notes. He also spoke to a lady who was the owner of the pet dog. The dog was named Sheba, and was going to, believe it or not, sing.
Eventually, the filming commenced. The camera was a 16mm Eclair. A reel to reel tape recorder was used for the sound track. A boom microphone was held up by one of the crew. T he first part of filming consisted of me being interviewed by Paul Heiney and playing the piano in that certain way. A footnote. So far, so good.
It was then decided to interview the lady, who held Sheba, in her arms. So far, so good. Unfortunately, it was now that things commenced to go wrong. The lady was to impersonate the sound of bagpipes, whilst Sheba sang. The lady impersonated the bagpipes, but Sheba was not in good singing voice. In fact, she was unco-operative and started to cause the poor lady embarrassment. I, along the line, decided to acquire some paper from the gents toilet, and wrapped it around my comb. Having now made myself a crude instrument, I commenced playing the comb and paper, with the director's blessing, in the hope that the dog would sing. Sheba looked angrily at me and snarled/growled. I decided to pack that idea in. Efforts to make Sheba sing, still continued. But to no avail.
The progression of time,eventually brought us to dinner. It was decided to go to the pub next door. I was garbed in a blue evening shirt, a bow-tie, a white crimpoline jacket covered in a silvery herring bone pattern, which also had cuffs, collar, imitation pocket flaps, consisting of shiny red lurex combined with black pocket flaps. This material also covered the buttons. My trousers were either ordinary black or maroon velvet, my socks were florescent and my shoes were silver. Not wishing to look conspicuous, I changed some of my apparel. We all went to the pub next door. A BBC man walked into a bar. My cousin predicted that he would come out quick, and he did. Apparently, it was a topless bar. We noted that there was another pub very near, and had a snack, drink and a chat.
We resumed our filming session, in the hope that Sheba would sing. Sheba did not. The lady who owned the dog, was getting more embarrassed. There was even talk of every grunt, growl or any other sound Sheba produced, if recorded, be edited afterwards and perhaps end up all linked together, to form one sound . I knew one thing, and that was I had no intention of utilising a comb and paper again.
There were also other things to be filmed as well. They wanted more shots of me, at different angles, playing the piano. After what seemed like a hundred and fifty million takes, I started to feel my back muscles straining. I asked for a break and got it. Then again went into action.
There also had to be more shots of the morning's interviews. This time at different angles. In fact at the tail end (if you pardon the expression) of the lady's interview, Paul Heiney had to say that I could play ITS A LONG WAY TO TIPPERARY with toes on the piano, ask me if that was alright, and I would have to say that it was, or words to that effect. Then the lady would impersonate the bagpipes, the dog was supposed to sing, but did not, and I had to accompany them. At one point, I wondered if someone would ask us to smile because we were all on CANDID CAMERA. But this never happened, it was all genuine film.
With regard to the questions, there were cut away shots, close ups and even camera shots over the shoulder. The continuity girl or general assistant had copied the unscripted questions down on paper affixed to a clip board. While the camera focused upon Paul Heiney, she read out the questions, which he repeated.
The film session finished. Eventually. But Tim Copestake did ring me at work to inform me that another attempt was to be made to record Sheba singing around the the lady's house.
Regrettably, the film was not broadcast.
Some years later, the BBC sent me (in my capacity of club secretary) some literature. We could hire some films from them. We took up the option, and hired a documentary about the making of EASTENDERS. The film and presentation was given to us by Alan Sleath. He was a retired BBC producer who was responsible for the Armand and Michaela Dennis wild life programmes. So we heard a bit about them as well. I, with permission from the committee, wrote a letter of thanks to the BBC. Not only that, I incorporated reference to the singing dog film. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If the film was not broadcast and was gathering dust in their archive, and the BBC were hiring out material, it might be worth a try to see if we could hire it. They thanked me for thanking them, regarding the entertaining evening by Alan Sleath and EASTENDERS. They passed the query part over to the THAT'S LIFE programme. I got a letter from John Morrell, who stated that the film which I referred, did not exist. They could not simply hold on to films which were not broadcast.
The whole experience was interesting and bizarre. But it did combine live entertainment and film making. On the other hand, it could be intelligently argued that I had volunteered for the The Great Undiscovered British Talent segment of the programme, and furthermore fulfilled my part. It was not my fault that the dog did not sing. Why should it? Then again, I did agree to being combined with The Talented Pet segment. But I did get an interesting insight to the BBC's approach to film making.
Footnote: Useless information - I had been interviewed concerning my way of playing the piano before, in 1974. The programme was WOMAN'S HOUR on BBC Radio 4.
On the THAT'S LIFE 1981, filming session, I was intrigued by the way the same vase of flowers kept being moved and fitted in for different shots.
THAT'S LIFE featured an item at a later date, which was a spoof on EUROVISION SONG CONTEST It featured singing dogs which were brought along by their owners. This short film had voice-overs from Terry Wogan and Katy Boyle.