❉ As the classic radio series returns for a stage tour, we chat to producer Barnaby Eaton-Jones.
“One of the best bits of my working life has been the cast recordings of ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’. We, the cast, had huge fun, and so did the audience. Watching Barnaby Eaton-Jones and his talented team in this revival, having just as much fun (and the audience, even more so), brought back very happy memories indeed. I am excited to be re-joining the show on tour. Definitely not to be missed!” – Tim Brooke-Taylor.
I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again was a seminal BBC Radio classic comedy, spawning The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus and, most importantly, the forerunner to I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.
It featured John Cleese, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Sir David Hatch and Jo Kendall. This show’s mix of anarchic madness, silly puns, catchphrases galore and gloriously manic characters ran from 1964 to 1973 and had a youth following that made live recordings seem more like a rock concert than a comedy show.
The show’s exclusive licence has been given to Gloucestershire-based award-winning and critically-acclaimed touring company The OFFSTAGE Theatre Group, after a successful sell-out performance last year for charity.
The returning cast are Hannah Boydell, David Clarke, Barnaby Eaton-Jones, William KV Browne and Ben Perkins, with live music from Andy Farrington & The Boys. Original stars Tim-Brooke Taylor and Jo Kendall, and celebrity fan Mitch Benn, also appear on the tour.
‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again… Again!’ has been adapted for stage by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, from scripts and songs written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie. It’s adapted, directed and produced by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, with audio legend Dirk Maggs on hand in an executive producer role.
We spoke to Barnaby Eaton-Jones, The OFFSTAGE Theatre Group’s adaptor/actor/producer.
Tell us about the history of The OFFSTAGE Theatre Group…
I’ve been running The OFFSTAGE Theatre Group for a worryingly long time now, considering I still think of myself as a teenager. Ahem. We started off just performing my original work because we couldn’t afford the licence fees to do anything else. Ha. Plus, I liked trying to write things that made people laugh. When Kim Jones came on-board in the mid ‘90s, we started to branch out into the so-called ‘classics’ (Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, etc) and then, during the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of the BBC programme ‘Doctor Who’ (which was off-air at the time), I was asked to co-write a full-length comedy play about the show. This became the evening entertainment at a Doctor Who convention and set about a manic period of writing and performing original parodies and sketches for many of these events; even reaching the famously huge USA convention ‘Gallifrey One’. I was also asked to do a similar thing for the ‘80s TV classic ‘Robin of Sherwood’ and all of these things helped dovetailed into work I began to do outside of the theatre group. So, everything I do is fed from my love of being a bit of a geek!
What was the precursor to the ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again… Again!’ tour?
We did a one-off version for charity at the start of 2016, which used a lot of different material. When we got the go-ahead from Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie to do a touring version, I spent a lot of time re-working the show (up until the opening night. Everyone involved in the production will vouch for the many, many different versions I sent out!). Now, I really do think it is the definitive Greatest Hits version, with everything blending seamlessly and – as one audience member said – what was a 30-minute show is now a two-hour one but never feels like more than 30-minutes. Now, that’s what you aim for! Comedy cannot outstay its welcome and the peaks and troughs of gags, sketches, parodies and songs, etc, have to be structured in such a way to bring the audience on a journey that doesn’t completely exhaust them and allows a breather every now and again. I’ve spent 25 years writing and performing comedy, so I sort of have learned to second guess whether something works early on in the writing process. The mere fact the cast and musicians were still falling about laughing on the last rehearsal proved to me that these scripts stood the test of time and that the moulding of them into one complete show was the right thing to do.
What initially inspired you to adapt I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again?
Back when I was in my early teens, I was a huge lover of old radio comedy and I still am. Shows like The Goons, Round The Horne and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again were informing me of how to write and perform in a way that makes an audience laugh. It’s my favourite kind of comedy, as it’s just so pure. There’s no satirical edge or ironic winks or profanity and neither is there a desire to ram home a point of an argument even though there’s topicality in there. That’s not to say I don’t love that more cynical style but the confines and censorship of those days of comedy – being constantly challenged during that cultural change in the ‘50s and ‘60s – means that you had to be clever rather than rely on easy targets or just add a swear word in place of a punchline. My head automatically has a default setting of silly and vaguely innuendo! I’d been considering the idea of adapting I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again after I heard about the revival of Round The Horne, in 2008, but I never really did anything about it until I was cast in a revival of The Goon Show for the Birmingham Comedy Festival. Sadly, I had to pull out of that, due to ill-health, and I thought I should really do something – like I normally do – on my own terms, so that my health can be managed by me being in control of the production (I have a long-term condition, not contagious!). So, I emailed the audio legend that is Dirk Maggs (Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Alien, The X-Files, Superman, etc) and asked him how I’d go about doing something like this, as I didn’t really know where to start. He instantly put me in touch with Graeme Garden, which I wasn’t expecting, and it was the quickest beginning to a production ever, I think! I went from initial query to green light within a day. Ha.
Why I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again? What was the appeal; given that the radio shows are so loved due to the original personalities?
This was one of the big stumbling blocks, as every previous revival of an old radio comedy had pretty much been a tribute show – where the performers dressed, acted, and behaved (and often looked) like the original performers. Dirk and I didn’t want to go down that route, as it just would have hampered creativity and casting. So, instead, we just assembled a cast who gave us the range of characters needed (and, even, had one less person than the original ISIRTA, in order to boost the female role up to be equal to that of the males) – it just so happened, as is sometimes the case, that the actors had a real chemistry and gelled together instantly. The same happened with the band, as live music is such an integral part of the show, and – as a whole – it does feel like we’re one big happy family. It’s rare to get a team together who create that spark, and it’s something I’ve been trying to do in one form or another over the years. I’m glad it’s finally happened!
Did you receive the support and encouragement of Tim, Graeme, etc?
Yes, indeed. Very much so. It was Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie who initially gave the okay for this to happen. They were very supportive and generous with their time, as I pinged emails at them regularly. Then, when we did the first show, which we thought would be a one-off, Tim Brooke-Taylor kindly came to watch it. Fortunately, he liked it and said so to Graeme and Bill. That meant I had the blessing to try and mount a stage tour of it, plus it also meant that I could ask the original gang for cameos. It has been a genuine joy (and I still have to pinch myself to see if I’m awake!) to be in touch with the same people I held in such high esteem when I was young and impressionable. More so because they have been so behind it. There was a lovely mini-reunion on the first night of the tour, where Graeme Garden and Jo Kendall put in cameos on stage, whilst the original producer, Humphrey Barclay, and the original production secretary (who also wrote the lyrics to the signature song – ‘The Angus Prune Tune’), Lizzie Evans, were sat in the audience watching. To see them all re-connect afterwards was just so lovely.
How did you adapt the original radio scripts? Can you tell us a little about the process?
When I started writing comedy to perform at school drama festivals, in my early teens, I’d often pilfer bits of what I loved (or the style of that sort of comedy) – having no shame in stitching together a Frankenstein’s monster of a script that used everything from half of A Bit Of Fry & Laurie sketch mashed together with a ‘Three Musketeers’ parody from Round The Horne. To do that, I wrote a lot of linking material and I eventually found I was writing more linking material than I was using other people’s work. This adaptation of scripts from I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again was like going full circle back to where I started out. The original charity production was co-adapted with Jem Roberts, who is a well-known comedy historian (he wrote the official Douglas Adams biography, the official guides to Black Adder and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, etc). He is a huge fan of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and he basically wrote a very, very long Act One that was a play in itself. I then wrote an Act Two and edited the entire thing down into a manageable run time.
When it came to the touring production, I re-listened to all nine series again, intently, and noted everything I thought would amuse an audience most. So I re-adapted the original script and made it a very different beast, especially as the touring licence I’d required meant we could only use material written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie (fortunately, they wrote the majority of material!). So, for each Act, I sort of followed the template of an original show but expanded it by an extra 20 minutes. There’s a lead-in bit of banter, a lot of sketches and Bill Oddie’s brilliantly comic and gloriously catchy songs, alongside a couple of parodies and a squashed version of one of the serials that would often run across a whole series (in this case, ‘Professor Prune and the Electric Tim Trousers’). There’s a chunk of my own material in there, to smooth over the mash-ups where I would sometimes use three ISIRTA sketches in one sketch, and that was lovely for me to be able to ape the style of the original show – as it’s the sort of silly comedy I write anyway. I hope nobody spots one of my jokes, as that’s the sort of point – to be an invisible writer and just paper over any cracks in the script to join it all together seamlessly.
You’ve been rehearsing and touring this show since March. What’s it been like?
I can genuinely say, and I know I speak for the rest of the cast too, that we have all been in helpless laughter during rehearsals and it’s a show that revels in its silliness and is the perfect tonic to take you away from the madness going on in the world around us right now. It’s really not like work to be bringing this ‘Best Of’ show to life on stage and for an audience to be introduced, or re-introduced, to such crazy creations as Lady Constance de Coverlet, Professor Prune and his Electric Time Trousers, The Tillingbourne Folk and Madrigal Society and Julie Andrews Dirty Songbook (to name but a few).
It’s such a funny and fun show, that I really just want to get it out there and reach as many people as possible. I’ve never been in the business of making money, which sounds bizarre, but my whole ethos has always been that entertainment comes first. If the audience are entertained, then I’m happy. I can worry about the money side later, as I watch the moths fly out of my wallet when I open it. (Cue sympathetic violins) By the way, do you think mentioning I’ve got two young daughters to clothe and feed will create enough emotional blackmail for at least a few more ticket sales? Ahem.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’d like to tour more with ISIRTAA. We’re only at the start of the tour but it’s such a happy show to do – with the audience acting as, essentially, an extra member of the cast (they are actively encouraged to be as vocal as possible) – that it seems a shame we can’t take it further afield than we are. The logistics of the production, and the small budget, mean we can only travel in certain distance away from our base. If we get enough people coming along to watch, then maybe we can consider some more shows further around the UK. But, aside from that, I’m currently producing a brand-new audio series of ‘Robin of Sherwood’, with Spiteful Puppet and ITV Global Entertainment. That features the original cast, with both actors who played Robin returning to their role in respective adventures. So, there’s no need to choose between Michael Praed or Jason Connery, they’ll both be available to listen to! You can pre-order the first series of that (as well as buying the feature-length ‘The Knights of the Apocalypse’ audio adventure, featuring all the original cast in an unproduced script from Richard Carpenter; the creative genius who created and wrote the majority of the television series), by following this link: https://spitefulpuppet.com/
How can our readers discover more about you and your work?
For more from me, you can head over to www.barnabyeatonjones.com or like my Facebook page ‘That Eaton-Jones Fellow’ at www.facebook.com/eatonjonesfellow. I’m on Twitter under @BarnabyEJ and the ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again… Again’ show is there under @ISIRTA_A.
❉ The next performance of ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again… Again!’ is at the Artrix in Bromsgrove, with Tim Brooke-Taylor, on 29 April. The ticket link: http://www.artrix.co.uk/whats-on/comedy/im-sorry-ill-read-that-again-again