When the Goodies met Orson Welles

❉ Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor recall working with “a truly great man.”

Actor, director, writer, and with a charismatic personality as large as his appearance, Orson Welles had a huge reputation around the world. In the 1930s he scared gullible radio listeners in America with his adaptation of War of the Worlds and attacked powerful media magnates in Citizen Kane. He never made anything with that impact or notoriety again. That’s not to say he didn’t try. He began to earn a reputation for the number of abandoned projects which failed due to lack of interest, or lack of money. A lot of projects he funded himself, from his appearances in films, adverts or personal appearances. When projects stalled what had been made was relegated to his archive, perhaps revisited a few years later and added to. In some cases, there were pretty much complete films down there.

Welles never travelled around the world without taking with him a film editing table and recording equipment if he suddenly wanted to shoot something at will. This often just featured him reading from Shakespeare or Moby Dick. If all the world is a stage for Shakespeare, the world was Orson Welles’ film set. But if he could afford it, there was a script, and actors. Kenneth Williams worked with Welles in 1955 on a stage play version of Moby Dick. Williams was unimpressed with Welles’ stagecraft but one of the rehearsals was filmed at the Hackney Empire for a film project. It was never completed.

In 1969, Welles was back in London and had some ideas. He picked up the phone and got in touch with two writer and performers, who had established themselves as major television and radio comedy talents: Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor.

“Graeme Garden and I made two series of a sketch show called Broaden Your Mind in 1968 and ‘69. We were watching the first programme of the second series in Graeme’s flat. As it ended Graeme’s phone rang. He answered it, said a few words, put the phone down and said: ‘That was Orson Welles’. I remember saying ‘What a coincidence, I was expecting a call from the Pope’. It was Orson. He’d seen some of the first series and got our phone numbers. We saw him the next day and agreed to write and shoot some stuff with him.”

One of the first things on which they collaborated was Lord Plumfield versus Welles, a typical send-up of the class system in England that was still going strong. An unbearded Welles is outside a country mansion. Tim Brooke-Taylor appears as son Algernon, looking remarkably like Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, and behaves like an inbred upper-class twit, the type Monty Python Flying Circus would be sending up any day now. Graeme Garden played a feeble old butler who does chicken impressions. ‘I’d give him the sack except we need the eggs’, grumbles Plumfield.

“Orson did my make up – it was pretty heavy handed!” remembers Garden. “To grey up my hair I suggested Meltonian white tennis shoe fluid, which he used. It looked OK but flaked off over my shoulders spectacularly. He was in very jolly form. En route to the location we stopped off at the Dorchester for breakfast. Orson had steak and chips. I went to the loo when we arrived, and came back to the crowded dining room looking for our table. Orson yelled across the room ‘Graeme Garden, stop cruising!’”

When Garden wasn’t cruising, he was narrating Welles’ material including a sketch of Winston Churchill’s famous put-downs, which had been filmed in silhouette. Another sketch featured Charles Gray and another actor as a pair of sadistic tailors, measuring Welles up for a suit and mocking his size in a manner The Fast Show fans will recognise in the ‘Suits You’ sketches.

These sketches featured introductions which Welles filmed several years later, where he tries to find some form of framing device for these short scenes. In the case of Lord Plumfield, Welles now with beard, is standing behind a bush, shouting questions at himself. He was not wearing his trademark cape, cane and wide broad-rimmed hat which Michael Palin would later send up at the start of Ripping Yarns.

The most significant, and frankly baffling piece Welles and the future Goodies, is One Man Band, a title which appealed to Welles because he felt it summed him up. The introduction portrayed Welles puzzling over how he was going to investigate swinging London, a job he delegates to a bowler-hatted Brooke-Taylor, now playing a posh City-type, attempting to speak the language of the young, observed by an array of characters played by the One-Man Band himself, such as a jolly policeman, a violet seller, an old dear peering from her upstairs window. It’s almost Victorian. All are marking time to a strangely infectious tune called One Man Band, a song which had come from the third future Goody Bill Oddie, who had joined Brooke-Taylor and Garden for the second run of Broaden Your Mind.

Filming in London was done on the hoof around Carnaby Street, Soho and in the shadow of Tower Bridge. “I remember someone coming up to me when we were filming in London and asking for my autograph. I said surely you mean to ask Orson Welles for his autograph. To which she replied ‘Oh didn’t think that could really be him!” Garden plays a rude workman and a Morris dancer in what we think is the country, until a massive tower block is pointed out.

In 1995, ten years after Welles’ death, his companion and collaborator Oja Kodar, allowed access to Welles’ abandoned projects, and the result was a fascinating documentary called Orson Welles: One Man Band, but shown in Britain as The Lost Films of Orson Welles, and the sketches outlined here are shown in an edited form. You can imagine my surprise when suddenly, half way through the film, Tim Brooke-Taylor pops up, wearing a long blonde wig.

During Welles’ stay in Britain, Tim Brooke-Taylor was cast in a European film called Twelve Plus One (12 + 1), starring Sharon Tate, and would feature a number of British humourists such as William Rushton and Terry Thomas on the recommendation of one of its’ writers, Denis Norden. Producer Ed Pope wanted to cast Welles. Tim Brooke-Taylor takes up the story:

“I went to film in Cinecitta and was in the producer’s office. Ed Pope was on the phone trying to persuade Orson to do the film. He was running through a list of the cast, big names but Orson was not liking them. Eventually Mr Pope got to my name. Pope had no clue who I was and asked where I might be. I nervously put my hand up and was given the phone with the whisper ‘Get him to do it’. A limo was ordered for me to meet Orson in a café in the Via Veneto. Orson’s first words were ‘this is a load of crap’. He was partly right but I kept pointing out the good bits as I desperately wanted him to do it. We agreed to completely re-write his scenes.

“He originally was going to be a magician, but we re-wrote the scene with him as a ham actor doing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We shot most of it in a cinema in Rome and some in the Players Theatre in London. They were evening shoots in Rome. Orson would occasionally get annoyed with the director and ask me to take over. He’d usually had a drink or two and I found myself shouting ‘Get over there you big fat pouf’. He’d stop, glare and then smile and return to doing what I’d asked. He knew he and I were on the same side. It’s not a great film, but I thought he was wonderful and terrific to work with.”

“When I got back to London we still had some filming to work on his TV project. When I disagreed over something he said ‘Just because you’ve been in a B movie doesn’t mean you know everything now’. He grinned and said ‘Sorry, I meant an A movie’ remembering he was in it as well. I didn’t see him again after that. But I always had the best memories of working with a truly great man.”

 Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017.  Click here to order.

❉ Interviews with Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor courtesy of Barnaby Eaton-Jones, who is performer and adaptor of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again Again!

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  1. Welles participated in a sketch on THE MARTY FELDMAN COMEDY MACHINE about “The Vanishing Aristocrat”, which seems similar to what he filmed with Brooke-Taylor and Garden. Tim Brook-Taylor was a writer on COMEDY MACHINE.

  2. And of course, there was the “old men at the club” sketch, sadly without audio. But that looked very 1948 showy…

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