❉ Robert Berk was Production Designer for 18 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which celebrates its half-century anniversary this year…
“It was a very nice thing to work on. I think we all felt that it was good, because sometimes we worked on stuff that was shit, you know?”
Robert Berk was Production Designer for 18 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which aired on BBC TV from 1969 to 1974. In this interview with We Are Cult’s James Gent from 2013, he shares his memories of working on the legendary series, which celebrates its half-century anniversary this year…
I went into the BBC in about 1965, I think, and I’d done all kinds of things. I started when cameras were black & white and everything was very primitive compared with now. There were certain colours that didn’t work (for the camera). The cameras couldn’t see the full range of the colour red, if you couldn’t see it, it came out black.
Briefly, my television career was, I started with the BBC in the mid-sixties on secondment, and the progression was holiday relief design assistant, and then staff design assistant, then if the board liked you, they made you up to designer, having given you a chance to play around as acting designer, as it was called.
Then when I was made up, I was given a choice. The head of design, a guy called Dick Lemming, he’d inherited a lot of what he thought was dead wood in the design department and he introduced contracts that were only renewable up to ten years, you got more money and you didn’t have to pay into the BBC pension, so I opted for that and I actually built in my leaving the BBC ten years before I did it.
Designers were expected to do almost anything – I don’t know if I’d done any big plays at that time, I had actually done a comedy thing with Michael Palin, he was in a thing called A Series of Bird’s, with John Bird, that was fairly early in my career. We were very much a sausage machine in those days – we were scheduled to do stuff and we did it. We didn’t work on other shows simultaneously; we tended to have a turnaround of about a month on each programme, things like Z Cars, Softly Softly, Play of the Months.
We had a schedule to work from, us designers, that in order to get stuff built, we were supposed to be told what was needed, have a discussion with the director, show him a rough plan and sketches of what it would look like, things like that. It was all given dates, so that people building the sets had enough time to do it.
You would have a month – you would get the information, you would have a script by a certain date, you’d talk about it with the producer and then there’d be one or two days recording. But with Ian (MacNaughton, producer/director of Monty Python’s Flying Circus), we used to have a meeting in the BBC Club one evening, go through what was wanted, and then before the kind of planning meeting with technicians, I’d go early and show Ian what I’d done, and then we’d go through it. It was the biggest shortcut you could imagine.
[Production Assistant Roger Last recalls; “the (Python) office was on the fourth floor of Television Centre, and do you know where it was? Almost opposite the BBC Club! One door removed. A lot of drinking went on. Ian would say, ‘Ooh, it’s twelve o’clock, hen, do you think we ought to pop over and..?’ so at Twelve O’Clock midday, you’d go over to the BBC Club and started drinking! It was terrible. You’d come back and you’d had all this drink and you’d have to do an afternoon’s work in the office. You had to go through all these scripts. “]
I didn’t do the first series. Once we started we would get alternate episodes, so we were doing one every fortnight, in the studio. They became very hectic in the studio, just the sheer number of sets, and you’ve only got half a studio because you’ve got an audience taking up half a studio. What we would do is set, as much as we could, one set inside of another, and then whip them out as soon as they were done. The thing is, with an audience you can’t keep them waiting long, it all had to be very slick. They were hectic, but good fun really.
The budget was adequate, we never had too much but certainly I don’t remember being desperately overspent, which happened on some things. It was interesting, as sketch shows – which it was regarded as when it started – the designers were given quite a lot of backup, like space in the car park, which you didn’t normally have, because there would be lots of last minute stuff, so we’d be tearing around like blue arsed flies.
In fact, the Pythons were very, very organised. There were very few changes, you know, last minute changes once they were written, only very minor diversions really. There was one programme they did change, the one with the Spam song in it. They actually recorded the one they binned and then re-did it. I actually get a credit on that Spam thing, I wasn’t actually there when they did it, it was recorded the following week, so it wasn’t actually, although in theory I designed the show, the other designer did that sketch. One or two other people worked on it.
It was a very nice thing to work on. I think we all felt that it was good, because sometimes we worked on stuff that was shit, you know? I don’t remember anybody really not fitting in, there may have been odd little scraps but we mostly liked each other. There have been, and were, fairly stroppy film people as opposed to studio ones, but we didn’t get any of those on Python. No bad apples. Producers stick with what they know, or who they know.
The biggest problem was fitting them (all the sets) in. There was one where they were doing The Horse of the Year show in somebody’s front room. I know that physically fitting them in the studio became very tricky, because every time you strike a set, it’s got to be dressed, you know, there’s usually stuff in it, even though it’s very simple. The Argument one where you had a corridor with rooms off it was a huge thing, but it didn’t have much dressing, so that started hung up in – the studios had hoists, they had lights on hoists, and scenery hoists, and we hoisted the whole thing up above the lights and then dropped it in when it was needed, because the walls weren’t heavy and there wasn’t much furniture needed, just desks.
(The 16 ton weight) was just polystyrene glued together, quite thick polystyrene.
A lot of it was squeezing studio sets in, every time it was, Oh God, it’ll never fit in. There were rooms at the side of the studio, storage places, that they would tend to lean studio flats, they would stack them at the back if there were heavy sets being struck during the programme. Mostly we took stuff down and moved it away, rather than re-setting. If it needed re-setting, we hung it up. They were very well-equipped studios in that respect. There were four studios roughly the same size – three, four, six and eight. I think 8 had a permanent folding audience rostrum, very sophisticated, for 6 it had to be brought in. it didn’t interfere with the studio plan. 6 was the newest or the most recently fitted, had the best electronic equipment. I can’t picture the audience rostrum when it was folded back, but it moved back into the wall.
There would have to be breaks for a re-set during the show. The whole studio day was very hectic, because they would set the studio overnight, and then I’d go in at seven o’clock in the morning, and start trying to get it to look like something in time for the rehearsal at ten o’clock.
I remember in the studio, they had this naked young woman in a supermarket trolley. Clearly, the audience weren’t supposed to see this girl until the appropriate moment, and the camera crew had, not exactly a pecking order, but it went from the senior cameraman down to the trainee new boy at the bottom and since the main cameramen were busy, this little spotty youth was round the back with this naked girl in a supermarket trolley and he was getting slightly unhelpful remarks on his headphones from the gallery.
I remember the billy goat because it was a sketch about Jean Paul and Betty Muriel Sartre and the goat was required to eat political leaflets at the back of the set, and he was only there for the recording, and that’s exactly what he did! He stood at the back munching paperwork. There are a lot of actors who are worse at taking direction than that. He was a brilliant billy goat, that one.
Of course, the BBC didn’t understand it, to start with, it was very badly scheduled, the first series was late at night and on at different times, with no publicity. It was certainly messed about, and it really irritated the boys, obviously. All of us were irritated. This still goes on at the BBC. The schedulers, programme planners, had no idea what to do with it and didn’t know what it was. They absolutely loved having a pop at them – I could have been a programme planner but I have a degree.
The head of comedy was very ‘pro’ Python, Michael Mills. He was a tough guy, Michael Mills, but I mean, he put the Pythons on with only their previous record, most of which they hadn’t been working together, and gave them a series of thirteen on the strength that he thought they were good guys. One thing about Michael was that he wasn’t the most liked person, but he was tough, and if he believed in something, he’d back it. He was definitely a good guy.
The first filming I did, we were based in Torquay. The hotel that the cast were billeted in was the one that Cleese eventually based Fawlty Towers on. It was interesting, I never stayed there, the director and I, I had a camper van and I was in the drive of a bungalow which we’d rented where the director and one or two other people rented. The thing is we were on an allowance where the less you spent on accommodation, the more you could spend on eating.
I remember Scott of the Sahara we did, it was interesting because there was a lot of demarcation in those days, the union ruled and some people would be very strict about what they did, but the sparks, the electricians we had then, were a new breed. It was Lea Brothers who set them up, and we had this crew of big, tough electricians who hadn’t been home for over a year, they’d worked on some film in Ireland, and one in South America I think, or South Africa, they didn’t mind mucking in when we were digging trenches in the sand, they were happy to do it! I think they carried a beach hut around at one stage.
I’ve just remembered one bit, actually, it was the filming on the beach at Paignton… Carol Cleveland had to be topless running down to the sea and there was almost a fight to get on the waterfront for the telescopes you could put a shilling in. Very silly! This wasn’t the crew, this was just people on the prom! The crews were pretty professional.
I think, in a way the outside filming was best, because it was a different pace, you get to know people more. The film unit we had tended to be the same people all the time, so we knew each other quite well. There were certain favoured places, but we did go all over the place. I seem to remember filming in Norfolk, we filmed on Jersey.
Ian (MacNaughton) was a lovely, lovely man. We immediately hit it off. In fact we went to stay with him and his German lady Eke in Munich, she was the production assistant on the last few episodes. She was a very extrovert lady, she was good fun. My first meeting with Eke was when we filmed in Jersey, and it’s a funny place, Jersey. I don’t know if you know it, but they have a kind of secret police, who might be gardeners but they’re actually keeping an eye on people. We didn’t like them.
I remember one thing that really convulsed the Pythons themselves. We were filming the Dennis Moore sketch, we’d got this coach that belonged to some wealthy Jersey inhabitant, and the roads were very narrow, and we had this very tough, nice, chief electrician, Dave Gorridge I think his name was, who’d been on the Royal film, he was always teased about being ‘the Royal Spark’ and he was carrying this lamp along this carriage, with this wealthy Jersey inhabitant sitting in the driving seat, and this resident had a go at Dave for frightening the horses. Dave was very down to earth and said, “I’m not frightening your horses, I’m just moving this fucking lamp!” and the silence was absolutely deafening.
The Pythons were great. They were several different characters, obviously. There was one point, on the Jersey shoot, were Graham got very enthusiastic about the Jersey water polo team, all these beautiful young men, there were a lot of water polo men around for a while, I think they went on a day trip to France.
Graham was so incredibly open. One thing I remember, we filmed in Scotland, Glencoe, there was a hotel there, there was only one hotel there and we were filming in there. David, Graham’s guy, had gone to bed and Graham walked over to these mountaineers and said, “I’m a poove” and they were absolutely fascinated by Graham, because Graham was very entertaining, you know. He was good company.
The Mary Whitehouse thing caught up with them a bit, suddenly there were rules where they had to ration swearwords. There was a lot of pressure from this Mary Whitehouse Clean Up TV thing that some people, obviously, took notice of.
Something that I think, nowadays, people aren’t aware of is just how primitive our equipment was compared to now. Studio cameras weighing two and a half hundredweight, needing half an hour of technical line-ups so that the cameras match each other during the programme, and all that stuff. Compare it to now, you can fit broadcast quality technology in your pocket. It was cumbersome, so you were limited with what you could do with it, and equipment was expensive, so you had to look after it a bit.
After that, I dropped out for a couple of years, and then I did a year at TV-am. I did the first year at TV-am, I knew Roland Rat, that was the first time I worked with puppets. That was interesting – not in a design way, but working for a company that was on its knees. I was on a daily rate for a year at TV-am, and Greg Dyke, who’d by then taken charge, said to me once, ‘Blimey, you’re earning as much as I am!’, to which I said, ‘So?’ I then had a very trivial row with him about using taxis to go to places in London, and I said, basically, if that’s what you think, I’m off, and he said, fair enough. He knew I was paid too much and there was absolutely no hard feeling, it gave him the excuse he wanted, really.
One of the first people I told at TV-am was Anne Wood, who later went on to form Ragdoll Productions. Most of the stuff I did at Tv-am was for the children’s strand anyway, the rest of it was just minding sets, so she said would I be interested, and I said, yeah, sure, it’ll be interesting work. In the meantime, I bummed about the business doing stuff here and there, did a bit in Birmingham, one-off things. Anne started feeding me work, we did a series called Pob, and then gradually she gave me more and more work until I didn’t need anything else. In fact I’m still, even though I’m retired, I do the occasional work for Ragdoll, especially if it involves boats, that’s my speciality.
The last time I saw them was a reunion for the twentieth anniversary, I’ve still got a T shirt that says see you in the next 25 years. It was just before Graham died. The actual party was postponed because Graham was ill, and then they had it a bit later.
I think most of us enjoyed it, it was one of the more fun things to work on. It was unusually good. The programme had the strongest reaction of anything I’d worked on at that point, and probably anything since, in a way, in that people either loved it or just couldn’t stand it.
❉ Editor of WE ARE CULT, James Gent wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website. He also acted as consultant for the documentaries ‘Monty Python: And Now for Something Rather Similar’ (BBC) and ‘Monty Python: The Meaning of Live’ (GOLD). James has also contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and is the co-editor of ‘Me and The Starman’, published in July 2019 by Chinbeard Books.