❉ Andy Murray chats with Tom Burgess, the man behind the marvellous Into the Archives with Peter Fleming podcast.
Connoisseurs of BBC children’s TV shows of yore: remember Inside the Orange? Professor Zany’s Mad Laboratory? The Solar-Powered Boy? Floating Mr McAllister? Well, you really shouldn’t, because they’re the output of entirely fictional programme-maker Peter Fleming. Endearingly good-natured, albeit mildly psychotic, Fleming was highly prolific in his day but now spends his dotage reminiscing about the halcyon days of his career, trying to flog dubious tie-in merchandising and, most pressingly, searching for film copies of his deeply curious work, all of which now seem to have been lost, accidentally-on-purpose, by the Corporation.
Fleming is the creation of Manchester-based comedian Tom Burgess, whose day job, brilliantly, involves working on BBC children’s shows. Initially conceived for live stand-up performances, the character has really bloomed during lockdown in the form of a podcast, the second series of which was recently released. Littered with references and jokes that will tickle fans of cult / archive television (and even complete with perfectly pitched faux-Radiophonic Workshop ‘special sounds’), or indeed anyone who admires sharply-observed, well-constructed comedy, it’s a warmly recommended delight.
Here We Are Cult talks to Tom Burgess about the possibilities of podcasts, tragedy in comedy and the genesis of Fleming…
It’s evident that you’re a big cult/archive TV fan, but how did you come to create a comedy character out of that?
It all happened kind of by accident. The fandom started, as it did for I’m sure loads of people, with Doctor Who, which I discovered in about 1998. I have distant memories of seeing the Paul McGann film go out. I think I would have been four. Eric Roberts saying ‘I always dress for the occasion’ might be my earliest memory. Russell T Davies has the first regeneration, I have Eric Roberts.
Once you’ve got into it, it doesn’t take you long to find out some of Doctor Who is missing and after a while you start to find out loads of other TV has gone as well, so I think it was being aware of that through childhood. I think it’s also informed by being a fan of something like Doctor Who when it’s off the air and no-one actually cares about it again – yet. If I’d grown up when Doctor Who was back on the air and it was the biggest thing on TV with Christopher Eccleston action figures everywhere, maybe the character wouldn’t have been informed in the same way. It’s really important with Peter Fleming that no-one really remembers any of his shows. He embodies that slightly outsider-ish fan thing, when something you really love is seen as a fringe interest thing that is kind of a joke to most people.
In terms of comedy, that came about from doing lots of sketches with a sketch group that existed at the time [Staple/face] which were informed by some of those kind of old TV aesthetics. We’d often use things like Radiophonic Workshop music as the soundtrack. Some of those evolved into Peter Fleming shows. I wrote a version of Professor Zany then as well, but the other two in the sketch group went ‘yeah, I don’t really get this – there’s no context for it, it doesn’t really make sense just in a sketch show’. I realised ‘oh yeah – this needs a character’. It kind of grew out of that.
When did Peter Fleming become a stand-up comedy character in his own right?
I started out in about 2015, so I’ve been doing it for about five years. It had been really fun getting into the character, but there were certain crutches that I was putting in to help me through, to meet the audience halfway, because it is quite a weird thing to see at a stand-up club. Quite often the compère will get a bigger laugh than me by coming back on and saying ‘well, he was fucking weird, wasn’t he?’. Whereas doing the podcast, you kind of take for granted that if people don’t like it, they’ll just stop listening. You don’t have to worry that they might not be laughing because you can’t hear anyone when you’re recording it anyway. You suddenly feel a lot able to just do it on your own terms.
I think most people will disagree with this, but I’m unconvinced Peter Fleming is actually that niche! It’s an odd view to take, probably. Obviously you can’t expect people to get every reference, but I don’t think they actually bar people from enjoying the character. You’re still enjoying this loner, this outsider, this loser. Most people have a vague idea of these kinds of old shows, they’ll have seen them on The 50 Best Kids TV Shows on Channel Four or whatever. You don’t need to know how Abominable Snowmen 2 came back or anything to get it.
For many fans the fact that so much archive TV is missing is a bit of a tragedy, so it’s interesting that you’ve managed to mine it for comedy.
A lot of the comedy I love is quite tragic. I think there’s a real sadness to a lot of Peter Cook’s characters. Even though he’s hilarious, he’s quite a distant figure. He feels like quite a loner, quite warped. You’ve got Basil Fawlty, you’ve got Mainwaring’s heartbreak in the Carmen Silvera episode of Dad’s Army – those are the ones that often speak to me.
I think there’s this trend that’s happening at the moment where missing episodes are actually inspiring creativity, which is really lovely. You’ve got reconstructions, you’ve got the animations, you’ve got the actual process of digging around looking for them in the first place. That’s a kind of creativity for some people, searching through a paper trail to eventually find The Web of Fear in Jos or something.
Was the podcast always part of your plan for Peter, or was it a lockdown project?
It was something that I wanted to do, but which I might never have got around to had lockdown not struck and got me that extra time at home. The idea of doing it on audio instead was actually really exciting, once I finally got around to doing it. It’s been loads of fun to make. It’s got a bigger audience than I’d managed to get in about five years of actually gigging on the comedy circuit
I think it’s been really helpful for finding my feet with the character again, just regrounding it and rediscovering what was appealing about the character in the first place. If the only way you’re inhabiting the character is on stage, trying to meet people in the middle who just want to get pissed on a Friday night in Knaresborough, well, it’s too easy to get stuck in a rut with it, I think. You just keep doing the same material. So the podcast has been good for generating new material for him as well.
The character seems to work particularly well in that podcast format.
Yeah, I think he suits it a lot more. I mean obviously when it’s live, it’s hard to look past the fact that it’s a guy in his 20s with some talc in his hair. That’s part of the fun, but doing it on audio, it really helps with the clips as well, degrading the footage. On stage, I’d be doing it as a live reconstruction where I would be rapidly changing between different characters and voices at once. That’s entertaining in a different way, but it doesn’t feel as as true to what I’m actually pastiching.
There are some wonderful, quiet moments in the podcast when Peter senses for a moment just how terrible a broadcaster he really was.
Yeah, that comes up quite often. I think a lot of it is the voice. He has to sound like an old BBC type who we will look up to an an authority figure, that kind of avuncular, well-spoken old man in a suit. But yeah, I love the brief moments of clarity he has where he goes ‘oh, maybe I didn’t do such a good job on that one…’
What are your future plans for Peter? Will he be back appearing live again, or are you planning more podcasts? The second series has ended on something of a cliffhanger….
I think, just out of my personal anxieties, I’m probably going to take a little while before I start gigging again, apart from maybe one or two. But yeah, I’m definitely going to do more with the podcast. The main thing is just to think about how exactly to structure it. I have some ideas for what to do for a possible third six-part series, but I’m also wondering if I might do a ‘David Tennant’s last year of Doctor Who’ and make special episodes instead to see the year out. I’m just weighing up what feels the most sensible thing to do. But the idea is that next, Peter’s going to find himself at TV Centre…
❉ Listen to episodes and learn more about Into the Archives with Peter Fleming here: https://shows.acast.com/into-the-archives-with-peter-fleming
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.