❉ Gary James, Wavis O’Shave and Gary Nattrass share their memories of working on the legendary music show fronted by Jools Holland and Paula Yates.
“It truly broke the mould of music TV and the stiflingly formal BBC type approach which only really had any previous challenge from the Pirate radio stations and maverick TV shows like Ready Steady Go in the 1960s. There had been nothing radical for years. The Tube shook it all up and gave pop music and culture back to the kids – I know that sounds corny but it paved the way for much more edgy and radical TV like Club X and The Word“. – Gary James
Looking back over the history of British Rock and Pop on U.K. Television, only the foolish would deny the influence of the cultural colossus that was Top of the Pops. From 1964 to 2006, and still re-appearing for the occasional special today, TOTP brought the most popular music acts of the day into the nation’s living rooms every Thursday evening. From the monochrome rivalry of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to Glam Rock’s parent-baiting, gender-bending with artists like David Bowie and Marc Bolan, through the shockwaves of Punk, the New Romantic dandies, Britpop and various dance music crazes, the show featured them all.
Not everyone was a fan. Despite the programme’s massive influence on the record buying public, many artists berated its ‘fake’ atmosphere and resented miming to a bunch of disinterested kids. Its presentation style was often criticised too. Many music fans complained of the presenters consisting of ageing, ‘wacky’, Radio One disc jockeys.
In 1982, a brand-new music TV show offered an alternative. It was exciting, spontaneous and risqué. It was sometimes slightly shambolic, but that’s what made it so much fun. That programme was The Tube.
Made for Tyne-Tees Television for Channel 4, The Tube ran for five seasons until 1987. The show was fronted by the iconic duo of Jools Holland and Paula Yates who were also joined by presenters such as Gary James, Lesley Ash, Nick Laird-Clowes and Muriel Gray. It was directed by the legendary music TV director, Gavin Taylor.
As well as featuring most of the iconic music artists of the ‘80s from The Smiths to Duran Duran, from Grandmaster Flash to Madonna, The Tube was undeniably a great showcase for alternative comedy. It had its own regular contributors, including poet Mark Miwurdz and the great Foffo Spearjig a.k.a Wavis O’ Shave whose groundbreaking, surreal comedy predated Vic & Bob by a good eight years. The programme was also a platform for early appearances by Harry Enfield, members of The Comic Strip and provided the afore-mentioned Vic Reeves with his TV debut.
I adored The Tube. In fact, one of my abiding memories of secondary school was running home from detention on a Friday afternoon, so I wouldn’t miss any of it. Fuelled by a recent re-watch of some of the shows and the knowledge of its forthcoming 40th anniversary, I decided to track down some of its main players for a chat…
I asked presenter Gary James how he got involved in the show:
Gary James: “In the early summer of 1982 I’d been scrabbling around looking for work after having failed in my attempt to become one half of the year’s Eurovision Song Contest duo Bardo. I’d been mugged in a street attack shortly before the auditions and was the visual equivalent of a Francis Bacon painting and clearly was in no condition to warble anything for the nation. Around that time I answered an advert in one of the music papers which said ‘Are You The Face for the Space?’. Despite having had mine rearranged in the street attack I decided that I bloody well did – and applied, not knowing what it was for. I received a letter shortly after from Tyne Tees TV in Newcastle inviting me to an audition in London on 15th July 1982 where I would have to ‘sell myself’ to them in person. It was in that letter that they revealed the programme was to be called The Tube and that it was to be ‘a hundred and five minutes of the hottest names on the music scene’. I got invited back for a second call, then a third in Newcastle and finally came home to the shitty flat I lived in NW London to find a telegram asking me to call them immediately. I did so and was astonished to be offered the job – along with four other unknown presenters to work with Jools and Paula. The rest as they say . . .”
Comedian Wavis O’Shave, who made regular appearances on the show under the name Foffo Spearjig (aka the character The Hard), recalls how his involvement with The Tube began:
Wavis O’Shave: “I’d already established myself as a surreal musician with the admiration of both the top two rock mags in the UK when Tyne Tees wanted me on one of their magazine shows. Obviously they wanted me performing one of my songs, either Don’t Crush Bees To Death With The End Of Your Walking Stick or You Think You’re A Woman Cos You Don’t Eat Fishcakes, but I said doing music was too obvious, couldn’t I do a sketch instead? So, my first local TV appearance was as the spoof leader of the Nebbist cult Hootsi Tabernacle. By this time I was knocking out umpteen free 45 minute surreal comedy movies on VHS video (The Hard was one of them) , and all the lads in the town were copying them and passing them on. The Producers at Tyne Tees demanded their copies and when The Tube was commissioned they begged me would I re-shoot The Hard for them. Later I also shot Mr Starey-Oot and Mr Ordinary Powder for the show too”.
Gary Nattrass worked in the sound department on The Tube, including some of the legendary The Tube specials, Queen – Live At Wembley (or, to give it the original Channel 4 broadcast name, Queen – Real Magic) and The Tube Presents U2 at Red Rocks…
Gary Nattrass: “I joined the Tyne Tees sound department as a trainee in 1980 and one of my first shows was Alright Now a music show that was the forerunner of The Tube. Squeeze were also on it so it was also the first time Jools Holland had been at Tyne Tees”.
Given the sheer quantity of acts that appeared on The Tube over the years, spanning the various sub-genres of Rock & Pop music, I wanted to know which artists proved to be the most memorable for those who actually worked on the programme.”
Gary James: “There are so many I remember with affection. Paul Young’s warm up session for his first appearance was astonishing. The whole crew watched as the rehearsed Love of the Common People and Sex with awe. Paul, his entire band (but particularly the amazing bass of Pino Paladino) and The Fabulous Wealthy Tarts were just astonishing. Frankie Goes to Hollywood were similarly superb live. The Tubes were jaw dropping and I just loved hearing Alison Moyet sing. I think the greatest performance I ever saw was Holly Johnson with Frankie on the second 5 Hour Midsummer Night’s Tube on 29th June 1984. They were at the peak of their success then and had the entire audience in the palms of their leather gloved hands. The performance overran the end of the show and the cameras kept on recording for posterity. We even had Eartha Kitt and Divine on backing vocals, despite the fact that Holly had said he didn’t want them when the producers suggested it. In the end they did regardless and it worked to spectacular effect. Wonderful stuff”.
Wavis O’Shave: “Although I had access to The Tube at any time I wanted, I still remained elusive only ever turning up to do my bit then vanish, so in all the series’ the only show I went to was to watch Iggy Pop whom I’d already met a few times. It was unthinkable that he wouldn’t give a good edgy set. To add to it I told the researchers that I was going to throw a knife at him – it was only a realistic rubber one. They were so worried they had me followed about. In the end I just shouted ‘Get your willy out, Jimmy!’”
Gary Nattrass: “I worked on the location film crew for six months of the year and then spent the other six months doing the studio show so worked with many artists! The first L.A. film shoot featured The Bangs who then became The Bangles and we had a lovely party with them and other artists in the producers bungalow! We also used to take band members down to Julies night club on the Quayside. Another good memory was the second LA shoot in 1986 where the Geordie crew consisted of us along with David Coverdale from Whitesnake, Dave Stewart and Bryan Ferry! Lots of other numerous fun times with new bands such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Red Hot Chili Peppers!
“Go West was a good night as was the Euro Tube. The audience were drunk and were a lot more active! I spent a lot of time with Dire Straits in Israel and Dave Gilmour once came up to me and asked me to get some Tube shirts for his kids! I now sail past his studio boat Astoria a lot but haven’t seem him down on the Thames yet!”
Being a live, tea-time, Rock n’ Roll show, The Tube was not without its risqué moments. At the height of the Miners’ Strike, The Redskins were joined by a striking Durham miner, Norman Strike, who delivered an impromptu speech. Viewers at home could not hear him, prompting accusations of censorship. Jools Holland claims in his book (Barefaced Lies and Boogie-Woogie Boasts) that they would have been thrilled to listen to him speak, but they did not know about his appearance beforehand.
Other memorable moments included Rik Mayall exiting the pub next door and ‘vomiting’ on camera. Also, there was the time that the camera cut to Paula Yates too early, catching her proclaim “It’s fucking freezing in here!”.
The most infamous incident, of course, occurred during a live promo spot at 5.15pm, on Friday 16th January 1987, when Jools told the television audience, “be there or be ungroovy fuckers!”. Most of us who saw it at the time can remember the outrage. The show was taken off the air for three weeks as a result.
It must have been nerve wracking to work on such a show?
Gary James: “Personally I found every episode nerve wracking. I didn’t enjoy working without a script as I came from an acting background. The timing of it all had to be precise as the show was live and networked to all the C4 regional opt outs for advert breaks. Whilst the show may have looked like a chaotic mess at times I assure you it wasn’t. Links and items were timed to the second. This meant floor managers counting us out once we’d ditched using talkback (which none of us liked as it was off putting having the gallery in your earholes while you were trying to manage interviews with diva pop stars). Quite often you’d be coming to the end of a perfectly worded and timed link when the floor manager would suddenly wave their arms and give you another 10 second to talk. This was terrifying as 10 seconds might just as well have been an hour when you’d come to the end of your planned words and thought processes. It takes a very experienced presenter to manage that successfully. Jools was terrific at it; I was useless, as was Paul, Lesley Ash (bless her) and most of the other presenters. We’d get regularly caught out by this and I hated it as it made us look like idiots. My nadir was the live OB Paula and I did from Steve Strange’s club The Camden Palace in London. That was a nightmare where the crowd in the club surrounded me as I was delivering a really boring ‘What’s On’ list I’d been given to read. A very drunken crowd made wanker gestures in front of my face as the camera zoomed in to try and get them out of the picture. I was up on a balcony with no floor manager or other assistance and at the mercy of the mob. How I resisted turning round and telling them to ‘fuck off!’ I will never know. If I had then the show would have ended there and then in 1983! Hmmmm…”
Gary James: “Probably the worst pop star strop I ever saw was Marc Almond, who flounced off stage when his microphone kept cutting out, leaving Dave Ball on stage alone during an epic performance by Soft Cell. The sound technician was standing next to me at the time and was cursing Marc for continually using the mic’ cord as a sort of whip. It was rock and roll S&M alright, but ended up with Marc sounding like comedian Norman Collier’s famous clipped speech act”.
Gary Nattrass: “Soft Cell lost their main mic so that was a panic but mistakes were very scarce as we all pulled together as a crew and it all just happened very smoothly!”
It wasn’t just the rock stars pulling in the viewers though. The U.K. Comedy scene was also experiencing its very own ‘punk’. At a time when Terry & June, The Little and Large Show and Fresh Fields were all still hugely popular, The Tube was pioneering in giving a spotlight to the emerging alternative comedy scene.
Wavis O’ Shave: “The team at The Tube were willing to try something new right from the start and consequently gave any new starter a chance to highlight themselves to the nation – the public would decide if they were any good or not. Would they have got this exposure elsewhere? Hmmm. The Tube may well have given birth to the alternative comedy scene”.
If you mention Wavis O’ Shave’s alter ego, The Hard, to people who grew up watching The Tube, they will often smile before repeating his catchphrase, “FELT NOWT!”. I asked Wavis how it feels to be so fondly remembered?
Wavis O’ Shave: “It makes me hide a smile. If nothing else, I’m a good memory test for folk, but I’m constantly being told that The Hard is still a legend up Newcastle way. Award winning magazine Peep featured me and I also did a Zoom interview for them as recent as 2020 and the Comedy organization FELT NOWT (yep, I gave them permission to use his catchphrase) have just highlighted me in a podcast titled ‘Comedy heroes of the North East’ commissioned in conjunction with Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, for posterity. People ALWAYS mention The Hard. A few years back my boy was in a taxi coming to my home here in Lincoln in the early hours of the morning. The driver was a Geordie and our boy asked if remembered The Tube. He was straight in with The Hard to which he was told as he arrived at my gates, ‘He lives here..’”.
Of course, Jools Holland and Paula Yates became one of the most iconic television presenting duos of all time. In many ways, they were chalk and cheese but seemed to have such a great onscreen chemistry. I wondered what it was like to work alongside them…
Gary James: “They were both lovely at the start. I was very close to Paula and often shared a taxi with her from Heathrow to Westerham in Kent where she lived with Bob (Geldof) at the time. Jools was a straight talking kinda bloke and whilst we sometimes talked music together, eventually they both went their way as I went mine. I had no time for airs and graces and Paula could be difficult sometimes, one minute your bestie and next blanking you completely. We did have some hilarious times together though. I preferred working with Lesley Ash in Series 2 though. She came from an acting background like me and I adored her. People often forget she was a presenter with Jools whilst Paula was off having babies”.
Gary Nattrass: “Paula and Jools were lovely and became friends of all the crew once they realised that we had no agenda and just wanted to have a good time and help them with their roles! I was lucky to be the same age as them so they became good mates and would share a lot of their time with us! I took lots of photos of Paula’s kids and gave her them as well as lots of private pictures of her working alongside Jools!”.
In the year 2000, the BFI produced a list of the Top 100 of the best British TV programmes of all time, as chosen by industry professionals. The Tube came in at #86. As we approach the show’s 40th anniversary, I wondered, what is the legacy of The Tube?
Gary James: “It truly broke the mould of music TV and the stiflingly formal BBC type approach which only really had any previous challenge from the Pirate radio stations and maverick TV shows like Ready Steady Go in the 1960s. There had been nothing radical for years. The Tube shook it all up and gave pop music and culture back to the kids – I know that sounds corny but it paved the way for much more edgy and radical TV like Club X and The Word“.
Gary Nattrass: “The legacy is what music TV is now and Jools still does his similar show on the BBC. Nothing has quite captured the same vibe though, as too many modern productions try too hard with graphics and multiple cameras that make it all less spontaneous. Rehearsal on the show was minimal but everyone pulled out all the stops to make it the best they could.”
So much has changed since The Tube last aired. Today we consume music and entertainment in such different ways. Back in 1982, the U.K. only had four TV channels. Today, music is discovered and devoured through YouTube, Tik Tok, Spotify and much less so through traditional, linear TV channels. People still adore music, pop culture and comedy though, so I wondered… should The Tube ever be brought back?
Gary James: “The Tube was seminal – and I don’t think it could be recreated in any way now. The internet and blogging/vlogging and self-made broadcasting has changed everything. I hate to sound negative, but it really has all been done before. The only way I could ever see something working would be for it to literally continue from where it left off and with the original crew and presenters as they are now. It would give an interesting juxtaposition to yoof of today. People seem to forget that the original Tube audience are still there. Yet there’s not much on TV for them now other than searching out the original shows on You Tube or old VHS recordings. I think it would be fun to do that again for its original audience, but there’s no way it could ever work with new young people and the music of now; it would just be a weird throwback and end up being the incongruous disaster that TOTP was when they tried it there. Now means now – and that needs the creativity of now – not the vibe of the early 80s. Short of a TARDIS to take us all back I think we just have to enjoy what it meant to us at the time and be happy with that”.
Wavis O’Shave: “The Tube had its own time and place reserved in time and space. Like Dr Who (and I am the REAL one btw) it came and went and returns in both memory and folklore. It was the first of its kind. Now, 40 years on, we live in an age of newer technology and countless Tv channels and there are shows aplenty that can cater for music, comedy and live entertainment. In its original format it would now look plain and dated now and in that respect it couldn’t and shouldn’t really ever come back. It is to remain legendary. Me too, so it seems although I’m still about, 40 years harder as and when I decide to pop out of my hard tardis – The HARDIS”.
Gary Nattrass: “I have had a Tube type show in mind as it comes up to the 40th anniversary but I doubt the same vibe could be created in a TV studio so think a similar show could be dome in a pub or club but as most of the modern new media people tend to want style over substance it just may not work?”.
The fact that we are still talking about The Tube forty years on, speaks volumes. It represents a time when anything seemed possible. When music was less formulaic and safe. In my opinion, there have been few shows as brave or creative. For those of us who were loyal viewers but too young to attend gigs at the time, it was an essential introduction to the world of live rock music.
I am forever grateful to all that worked on the programme for the excellent footage, the memories and superb performances that we can cherish for the rest of our days. Groovy fuckers, one and all.
Huge, sincere thanks to Gary James, Wavis O’ Shave and Gary Natrass for their time.
❉ Produced by Tyne Tees Television and broadcast on Channel 4, ‘The Tube’ ran for five series, live on Fridays from 5 November 1982 to 24 April 1987. To celebrate the show’s twnetieth anniversary, in 2002 Universal Music Group released the 2CD compilation ‘The Very Best of the Tube’. Network Distributing released ‘The Tube Anthology – The Best Of Series 1’ on DVD in August 2006.
❉ David Geldard is a regular contributor to We Are Cult and co-editor (with Jay Gent) of In the Lap of the Gods: Queen & Freddie Mercury: Music and Memories, due to be published by Cult Ink later this year with all profits to be donated to The Mercury Phoenix Trust. David hosts the Classic Rock Hub on http://fabradiointernational.com and tweets as @DaveOfAndrozani
Thanks for this splendid Blog – a heartfelt FELT NOWT!!