❉ Saturday morning TV legends on their career, comedy influences and cult heroes. But do they do duvets?
On ‘Going Live’ and ‘Live And Kicking’, Trev & Simon dominated Saturday morning TV for a whole decade, with their characters and catchphrases embedded in the consciousness of a generation!
Trevor Neal and Simon Hickson’s latest venture, ‘Strangeness In Space’, is a cult sci-fi audio comedy with its own devoted online following of ‘Mirthlings’. The series was listed in The Guardian’s Top 50 Podcasts You Need to Hear, and has been twice nominated in the Audio Verse Awards.
What were you like at school?
Trev: I was a bit of a goodie-goodie at junior school but I still had plenty of friends. I ended up being Head Boy which I didn’t enjoy. I didn’t like the responsibility of rule enforcement and I wasn’t very good at breaking up fights, so I mostly stayed in at lunch times to avoid that, doing Art work instead, which I loved. I went to a boy’s grammar school after that which I didn’t enjoy much. It tried to be a bit too “public school” for my liking. I ended up being a bit of a rebel and a joker. Art and Drama were my favourite subjects.
Simon: I was ok. Neither happy nor unhappy. Moderately bright, pretty quiet (apart from when I was in school plays).
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Trev: I wanted to be a stuntman when I was very young and was hugely impressed by Evel Knievel. As the 1970s progressed I decided I wanted to be a “pop star” but as I got older that ambition turned more towards wanting to be an actor.
Simon: When I was very young I wanted to be the moon.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Trev: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t grow your fringe long to look like Phil Oakey from the Human League. Don’t smoke.
Simon: Have a bit more confidence.
What are your best and worst qualities?
Trev: Suggs out of Madness once told me and Simon that we “think too much”. I think he might have been a bit drunk at the time but he had a point. I definitely tend to over think things a bit, when I might be better off trusting myself more and being more spontaneous. So hesitation and worry would be the worst qualities. Not sure about best qualities. Despite being a worrier, once I’m confident about something I can be very enthusiastic and energetic at seeing it through. I’m a good listener and I can be trusted.
Simon: I don’t know. I try to be considerate… so that might come under best, if I succeed. Worst? Most probably laziness.
“Punk changed the way I thought about everything from that point forward. Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and Paul Weller became the spokespeople for my youth and Weller remained my ultimate hero for many years.” – Trev.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Trev: I once had a temp job where me and a bunch of geezers were driven in a transit van for hours across London to a warehouse, where we spent days taking faulty handles off of paint tins and replacing them with new ones.
Simon: When I was temping I once had to clean the toilets of a horrible pizza place with a toothbrush. The new boss was trying to make his mark. It was only a day or two though. Similar time length when I had to unload frozen pig carcasses from the lorry to the warehouse. I kind of liked that though, even when it was slippy.
Who were your pop culture heroes growing up?
Trev: As a young kid I loved Glam Rock – Slade, T-Rex, Sweet, Alvin Stardust and unfortunately… Gary Glitter! It’s still disturbing to know the nasty truth about a former childhood hero.
Anyway, on a happier note, my brother had lots of David Bowie LPs which I loved and then Punk happened, just as I became a teenager. Punk changed the way I thought about everything from that point forward. Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and Paul Weller became the spokespeople for my youth and Weller remained my ultimate hero for many years. The Jam and the whole Mod revival in the late 70s introduced me to other music like Northern Soul and Motown and then, with the arrival of new heroes like The Specials, I discovered original Jamaican Ska – Prince Buster, Toots & the Maytals etc. – and Reggae.
Simon: Well, they change with time, so I’ll pick five that straddle childhood to late teens… Rick Wakeman, Sparks, Siouxsie Sioux, Joy Division, Spike Milligan.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
Trev: Impossible to answer. As a young man it was seeing The Jam for the first time on ‘Top of the Pops’! But in the bigger picture, I still remember watching the Moon landing on TV in 1969 when I was 6 years old and have never forgotten that. Other huge TV moments were, seeing the Berlin Wall come down, the release of Nelson Mandela and Live Aid. The most shocking and memorable now though is watching events unfold on 9/11 and the collapse of the twin towers. As for TV drama & entertainment – greatest piece of TV? Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin as The Festrunk Brothers on ‘Saturday Night Live’ or ‘Dan Aykroyd’s Bass-O-Matic’!
Simon: What!!! Mmmmm…’I’m A Celebrity’?
Monty Python: Is it funny?
Trev: Yes. The TV series had a huge impact on my sense of humour and how I looked at life as I grew up. ‘Life of Brian’ and ‘Holy Grail’ are still hilarious… I think (haven’t watched them for a while though!)
What was the last film that you watched?
Trev: Took my 83 year old mum to see ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’. She found it all a bit confusing. So did I.
Simon: ‘High Rise’.
What film could you watch every day?
Trev: ‘The Jerk’, ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’ or Pulp Fiction’.
What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
Trev: ‘Pulp Fiction’.
Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?
Trev: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Dan Aykroyd – Vietnam Mafia Comedy.
Simon: Alec Baldwin, Stephen Baldwin, William Baldwin, and Daniel Baldwin; ‘70s conspiracy drama.
“I remember well bursting into Sophie’s flat with the new Echo and the Bunnymen LP, ‘Heaven Up Here’, desperate to play it to her.” – Simon.
Which film, book or album last disappointed you the most?
Trev: An old second-hand book called ‘Goats – How to buy, Feed, Care for, Breed and Milk’ in the ‘Pets of Today Series’. Not many pictures and not as funny as I hoped it might be when I bought it a million years ago, although the cover is mildly amusing.
Simon: ‘Cop Out’ by Kevin Smith. You can find out more here, if you fancy. https://20thcenturymummifiedfox.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/cop-out/
Which album would you recommend and lend to a friend?
Trev: ‘Jacques Dutronc’ (1966). I don’t actually own it but I like it and would lend it if I could.
Simon: ‘From the Lion’s Mouth’ by The Sound.
Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?
Trev: The gold record which Simon and I got for sales of The Singing Corner & Donovan’s 1990 version of Jennifer Juniper – oh, no, sorry – we never got a gold record because it only reached number 62 in the charts but if we had, well…
Simon: They’re all out of my sight at the moment, in storage. But, since this is a looking rather than a listening question, I’ll pick an album by its cover and go for How Dare You! by 10cc.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
Trev: ‘How to Put Out a House Fire – for Dummies 2017’.
Simon: The one I’m reading at the moment, so I can finish it. And that’s ‘Stoner’ by John Williams.
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
Trev: Not everyone likes it or even knows it but those that DO like it REALLY like it.
Simon: Something that you feel speaks directly to you before and beyond anyone else.
What are you reading at present?
Trev: I’m not really reading any book at the moment. Last books I finished were ‘Stoner’ by John Williams which I recommended to Simon (which makes a change) and Elvis Costello’s autobiography ‘Unfaithful Music’. I can go for long periods without reading a book. I play guitar instead (although that’s not so easy to do in bed).
Simon: ‘Stoner by John Williams’, ‘I’m Ok You’re Ok’ by Thomas Anthony Harris, and ‘Double or Die’ by Charlie Higson.
“Uni was a time of political & social discovery during the years of Thatcher, the Miners Strike and the rise of the National Front. We used to get the coach down to London to join protest marches and rallies.” – Trev.
You started your comedy career at Manchester Uni’s drama department, where you also got to know Sophie Aldred and Doon McKichan. Can you tell us a little about that time?
Trev: It was just great fun pretty much all the time. The Drama Department was full of big characters and loads of lovely, talented and entertaining people, many of whom became lifelong friends. We had the chance to experiment with drama and comedy and everything else in between without the worry of paying back a £60,000 student loan. There were also lots of cheap Manchester pubs, clubs and restaurants to explore and enjoy.
Rik Mayall and Ben Elton were students there just before I arrived and there was a sense of excitement about the new “alternative comedy” scene which Simon and I and other friends were really energised and excited by. We performed a live horror comedy “soap” every Monday in the drama studio to our fellow students. It was about a middle class family whose lodger was the Devil. We got all our friends in it. It was mostly improvised, very indulgent and we had a rule that every actor had to drink from a bottle of Holsten Pils throughout the performance. It was nonsense but great fun. Meera Syal played the part of God one night.
It was also a time of political & social discovery during the years of Thatcher, the Miners Strike and the rise of the National Front. We used to get the coach down to London to join protest marches and rallies. During the Miner’s Strike, Simon and I performed at a number of gigs to help raise funds for the striking miners and their families.
Simon: It was a very exciting time. To pick two moments; I remember well bursting into Sophie’s flat with the new Echo and the Bunnymen LP, ‘Heaven Up Here’, desperate to play it to her. And I remember walking around a graveyard with Doon and her saying very kind words to me when I was a little low. That freed up time for me and Trev to be daft.
With ‘Going Live’ and ‘Live And Kicking’, you were a kind of Saturday morning Vic and Bob for a whole generation of kids. How did you create your characters and catchphrases, and what was it like working in live TV?
Trev: We used to create many of our characters from films we’d seen together or old 60s and 70s TV shows we watched as kids – World of the Strange, The Looking Eye, The Eggs Files, Ninja Day Off etc… We both enjoyed sci-fi and horror films and daft comedies too, which also inspired us. We were quite influenced by early American ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketches too, starring the likes of Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Chevy Chase. Pop fashion gave us ideas too of course – Pop Idiots, The Singing Corner, MC Mick McMax & Moonmonkey – and old fashioned shops (Barbers, Dry Cleaners etc.)
Simon: Creating stuff was, and is, always a little random. Who knows where an idea comes from? Sometimes from life, sometimes from nowhere. I have heard of writers who can only write about things they have seen or experienced. I’ve never found it that difficult to think rubbish up.
Working in live TV is incredibly exciting. As you do it, I don’t think you think too much about it being live, but nevertheless, it starts and then it stops. And you’re done until the next time. And then the next time is completely different. A great and exciting adventure.
Which other comedians and performers have inspired you over the years?
Trev: I think I’ve mentioned all the American ones from ‘Saturday Night Live’ – and then double acts like Abbot and Costello, Morecambe and Wise plus loads of other stuff like ‘The Young Ones’, ‘Wayne’s World’, Monty Python, Vic and Bob, Stewart Lee…
Simon: So many. I wonder how my list will compare with Trev’s? At University The Young Ones were very inspirational, as was Rik and Ade separately, particularly in Mr Jolly Lives Next Door. The Comic Strip, French and Saunders. Then, before all that, Spike Milligan, Monty Python, The Goodies. When I was even younger Benny Hill, all the double acts – Abbott and Costello, Morecambe and Wise, Cannon and Ball. Then the Americans and Canadians, the SNL crew from a certain period; Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Eddie Murphy. I don’t get to see SNL much now apart from bits on YouTube. Kate McKinnon seems to be directly linked to those lot from the 70s. Yes, she can do great impressions, but beyond that she is just funny. The old funny bones thing. My favourite current comedian is Stewart Lee.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
Trev: When ‘Live and Kicking’ had finished and I was worried about being out of work, I bumped into Emma Freud and Richard Curtis in a park and Richard said to me – “Always keep working. Never stop working”. I’m not sure it was the best bit of advice – but I’ve never forgotten it (even though I didn’t know how to follow it)
Simon: “Keep working”, Richard Curtis. Though I think he gave it to Trev and I’ve just appropriated it! (see above! – Ed.)
Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your work/life?
Trev: A former manager, Pete Brown. We were doing well on TV but he thought we should get out on tour and perform live again. It was great advice and our live shows did really well. He sort of reintroduced us back into the comedy world, which we’d neglected a bit by being so busy doing Children’s TV. He introduced us to some great people who became friends and who kept us working, after we’d finished doing Saturday morning TV.
I think the boss of ‘Going Live’, Chris Bellinger, and Phillip Schofield were a big influence on our career too. Chris trusted us to do what we wanted (within reason) on Saturday mornings and Phillip was a huge supporter which won us a lot of fans. These days Clare Eden (who was our agent in the ‘90s) has made a big change for us too by leading us all to create ‘Strangeness in Space’.
Simon: Trev, kind of obviously. I don’t know how he’s changed my worklife because there hasn’t been a point when we haven’t worked together since meeting at University.
Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?
Trev: Not always. Meeting Paul McCartney & family on ‘Going Live’ was exciting. I’d grown up listening to the Beatles and playing his songs in a teenage band. On the other hand, I’d met Paul Weller a few times as a young fan, but when I had the chance to meet him properly, at an after show party at the BBC, I chose not to speak to him, in case either I said something embarrassing, which I’d regret (which was very likely) or he said something that spoilt everything I’d built up about him (which was also very likely). I did meet Elvis Costello though and he was lovely and nothing bad happened. We were also lucky enough to work alongside and write for Suggs on a TV show called ‘Night Fever’. He was a teenage hero of mine. He didn’t disappoint either. Top geezer… as they used to say in the last century.
Simon: No. I met Martin Fry on Saturday morning TV and he was lovely. So were Paul and Linda McCartney. I would say “never meet your villains”; the worrying thing being that they can trick you into thinking they are ok.
What would you like to be your epitaph?
Trev: That Swing Your Pants Bloke
Simon: Swing Your Pants.
What do you do to chill out?
Trev: Fun stuff with the family, watch TV, play guitar, walk on the beach.
Simon: Have a beer.
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
Trev: I really enjoy writing dialogue. Finding a line that works for the story but is funny itself and works for the character too, is very rewarding… when it works. Ultimately though, I think walking off stage and knowing you’ve done a good gig is the most satisfying feeling.
Simon: Writing it and then people laughing at it.
What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?
Trev: I think ‘Strangeness in ‘Space’ is turning out to be one of them. Seeing it grow from nothing to become a successfully crowdfunded series, with a growing family of very enthusiastic Mirthling fans is really exciting. It’s not financially rewarding yet but in all other areas it ticks many rewarding boxes!
Simon: Nothing can beat ten years of Saturday morning TV. But successfully crowdfunding six episodes of Strangeness in Space, and getting it made without any outside interference, comes close.
How did ‘Strangeness In Space’ come about?
Trev: Mostly thanks to Clare Eden who had the vision to combine the skills and talents of Sophie and Simon and I and then have the patience and knowhow to make it happen. She is still very much the glue that holds everything together, although she deserves to be described as something much better than “glue” but you get the idea.
Simon: Clare, our manager and fellow Manchester University friend, suggested we all work together when we met up at a Uni reunion. This was a great idea, so we took the best of Sophie (sci-fi) and the best of us (comedy) and decided to write a comedy set in space.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Trev: I’m currently writing more ‘Get Well Soon’ for CBeebies. It just won a kids’ BAFTA which is all very exciting. I’m hoping Simon and myself will take The Singing Corner out on the road sometime next summer. Get ready to celebrate 30 years of Swing Your Pants!
Simon: I’ve just done an audio for Big Finish. It’s a Torchwood story called ‘Before The Fall’, and it comes out in January. Readers can keep up to date with us through the Strangeness in Space website. I also have a (slightly neglected) blog called Mummified Fox.
❉ Visit www.strangenessinspace.com.