Robert Ross

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We catch up with comedy expert Robert Ross and give him a bit of a grilling.

Robert and MelRobert Ross (pictured with his lovely fiancée Mel) has written simply loads of comedy books - a fact to which my groaning bookshelves stand testament and I haven’t even got them all yet - with another one on the subject of the Carry Ons coming out in 2005.

Incredibly huge thanks must go to Telly Nation’s Chief Schmoozer, Henry Holland, for his help with providing most of the questions for this interview. Thanks Hank!

A-M: At what age did you first become interested in film/comedy and are people ever surprised at how young you are yet have such a healthy interest in older stuff?

RR: My passion for film and television started when I was very young.  My parents were both mad about the movies and it didn’t take them long to find out that I stopped screaming for more milk when The Goodies, or The Two Ronnies or reruns of Up Pompeii were on television!  I’m 34 now so I was 25 when my first book was commissioned.  I was going to jack it all in if I hadn’t ‘made it’ by the age of 25.  Although I’m sure I would have put that limit back to 35 or 45 or 85 if I hadn’t got a publisher in 1995!  When you go along to talk on a radio or television show about films or television made before you were born often producers do question whether you are up for it.  But I always argue I wasn’t around when the Beatles split up either but it still sounds bloody good to me!

A-M: What is your favourite film?

RR: It’s not a comedy film, a fact which always surprises people.  But it is, in my opinion, the finest film ever made in this country, The Third Man.  I can watch it over and over again and never go away for more than a few days without a copy.  I had a VHS with me throughout my university days.  I’m very glad that an ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ DVD version complete with radio spin-off episodes starring Orson Welles, is now available!  Needless to say I have a copy of that!

A-M: Before you became a writer did you have any other jobs and what made you take up writing for a living?

RR: I didn’t so much take up writing as bulldozed my way through the world of publishing in order to track down someone who would take me on.  The first book took six years from writing to publication.  About 5 and a half of those years was finding a willing publisher!  Before that I had done my university stint and worked at British Rail and for the Ministry of Defence.   So that’s all very hush, hush and whoosh, whoosh!

A-M: How did The Carry On Companion come about and how did Phil Collins come to write the foreword?

RR: The main thing that really made me sit down and write the book was when Kenneth Williams died in April 1988.  I had been corresponding with him for about eighteen months and he was, contrary to a lot of people’s memories, very nice and very encouraging for a budding young writer trying to get started.  I just felt that the Carry Ons had been such a mainstay of British film culture for thirty years that they deserved a decent tribute.  That was my mission!  I immediately started researching it and wrote to people like Bernard Cribbins, Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield.  They all contributed Carry On memories and I thought publishers would be beating a path to my door.  They didn’t… so it was the struggle of six years…but that was my passport in.  I am eternally grateful to the Carry Ons and I hope I in turn, have done the old boys and girls proud.  I had met Phil Collins – that’s the ex-drummer of Genesis and not a Hampstead butcher as one of my waggish friends told all and sundry it was – at a charity do in aid of the British Heart Foundation.  It was a plaque unveiling to one of our mutual heroes, Benny Hill.  He shares a lot of my heroes – Terry-Thomas, Tony Hancock etc – and he loved the Carry Ons.  So I asked him to do the foreword and he said yes!

A-M: You have a story about meeting the late, great Bob Monkhouse and the Carry On Companion...

RR: That is a funny story.  Being a night person rather than a morning person I almost didn’t go to a screening of a Harold Lloyd movie one Saturday morning at the National Film Theatre.  I’m very glad I did drag myself out of bed because Bob Monkhouse was also in attendance.  It was at the time when the Carry On exhibition I had put together was still running at the Museum of the Moving Images, so being a mega-fan of Bob’s I went up to him and introduced myself.  Trying to be professional, I mentioned that I had written a Carry On book and, so saying; Bob reached in to his carrier bag and said, ‘It wasn’t this one was it?’  Luckily it was the one I had written!  He had just bought it from the NFT bookshop.  He then asked me to sign his book, which was bizarre.  Here was this star-studded audience in the NFT foyer watching me sign something for Bob Monkhouse!  He was a real gent.

A-M: The next book after the Carry On Companion was The Monty Python Encyclopaedia how much research went into that?

RR: The Python book was like a pregnancy!  Nine months of hard labour…and I mean nine months.  I hardly went out during that time.  Except to go in to shadowy libraries and read lots of small print.  It was an epic to be honest.  If I had known the amount of work it was going to take I may have thought twice about it.  It was everything the six Pythons did together and apart, and as you know that’s a heck of a lot of material.  But it sits on my desk now and I’m very proud of it.  Terry Jones once said, ‘I learnt more about the Pythons from this book than from being one!’ which was kind of nice!

A-M: Who did you first approach for the foreword for that book?

RR: Ex-Beatle and Rutle fan, George Harrison.  It followed the Rock motif from the Carry On Companion and I do have a passing interest in the Beatles!  Alas he didn’t do it.  But I did, eventually, get John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle to contribute foreword pieces.  I’m still waiting for Graham Chapman to FAX me back…the swine!

A-M: Through your writing you were heavily involved in What's A Carry On? which was released on DVD and broadcast on TV, and met a cinema icon during the making of it. Tell us more...

RR: That whole experience was great. It was 1998, the 40th year of Carry On, and we interviewed everybody.  Jim Dale, Barbara Windsor, Leslie Phillips, Joan Sims, people who had proved very elusive in the past.  We also found out that Oliver Reed was a big fan of the Carry Ons.  What an honour to meet him.  We filmed in a Buckinghamshire pub… surprise, surprise… and were, understandably, nervous as the time approached for Mr. Reed’s appearance.  He was a pussy cat.  A charming, likeable bloke who was great value on camera but, sadly, cut from the broadcast version of the documentary.

A-M: You have also moderated over 30 DVD commentaries, how did you get involved in this side of the business? Also I believe you have a story about Norman Wisdom on two of these commentaries, care to share?

RR: Basically, I knew that the rights to the eighteen Rank Organisation Carry On films…the latter part of the series including Camping, Up the Khyber, Matron and the like…were reverting to Carlton.  Thanks to my good pal Jaz Wiseman, then working at Carlton, I got a contact with them and got the job of moderating all the Carry On DVD commentaries with people like Jim Dale, Patrick Mower, June Whitfield, Jack Douglas and Patsy Rowlands.  It was the best ‘day’s’ work of my life… although the entire process took over eighteen months.  Carlton also owned the classic Norman Wisdom comedies and I was asked to work on those as well.  I also moderated The Girl on the Boat, which is a lovely, under-rated P. G. Wodehouse adaptation.  Richard Walker of Fabulous Films got in touch for that because I had just recorded an audio commentary for the Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan curio, The Great McGonagall with writer/director Joe McGrath.  Anyway, back to Sir Norman.  He is an absolute legend and a total pro throughout.  I shouldn’t really tell tales out of school and it’s nothing outrageous.  Suffice to say that he’s at his best before lunch and after his afternoon snooze!  Again, thanks to Jaz, I have got involved in the Australian company, Umbrella, and have moderated commentaries on Man About the House and George and Mildred with Sally Thomsett (one of my absolute fantasy girls as a kid!) and Brian Murphy.  Also, for Carlton, I’ve moderated commentaries with Hayley Mills and Leslie Phillips… who went on to play my Dr Who baddie for Big Finish, but that’s another story!

A-M: In that case can you tell us more about your Big Finish Doctor Who Audio adventure?

RR: I've been a lifelong Dr Who fan so getting the chance to write for Big Finish was a real thrill.  My producer Gary Russell asked if I had a Doctor I would like to write for and I immediately said Colin Baker.  Not only was he very hard done by by the BBC in the 1980s but he is consistently the finest actor in the part in the Big Finish my opinion.  He has a real understanding for the character and, more importantly, cares about the series.  At the recording Colin would say ‘Do you mind if I change that word in the script? My Doctor wouldn't say that.’  He was a real professional.  And we were blessed when Leslie Phillips agreed to an exhausting day of recording to play my baddie Dr Knox.  The story is set in Edinburgh in the 1880s at the time of the Burke and Hare body snatching.  Of course, being Dr Who all is not what it seems but I think it's a rollicking good yarn.  I was aiming at the Gothic Tom Baker tales I loved as a kid, where good conquers evil amongst swirling fog.  The production is outstanding, the music suitably eerie, the cover the Dr Who story Hammer should have made and the supporting cast expert.  Listen out for my Hare and Daft Jamie, a character which David Tennent transformed from a one note, jibbering idiot to a character of depth and poignancy.

A-M: You have met several comedy icons, did you ever get the chance to meet Spike Milligan? And of the icons you didn't get to meet, if you could only meet one who would it be?

RR: I met Spike Milligan once and it was an amazing experience.  My dad was a huge fan of the Goons and I told Spike this.  He gave me a message for my Dad and that chuffed him no end.  The secret to avoiding Spike’s well-known prickly side?  Calling him ‘Mr. Milligan’ and not asking for his autograph!
The one hero I would have loved to have met… bearing in mind I have met a lot of them, from the Goodies to Frankie Howerd, from half of Monty Python to Ken Dodd.  It’s Sid James, no question.  He is the main man.  If I’m ever in a blue mood, a second in the ‘company’ of Sid cheers me up.  If I come home, channel surf and find a Carry On half way through, I still have to watch it to the end despite having seen them all far too many times for my own sanity.

A-M: With titles about great comedy performers like Sid James, Frankie Howerd and Terry-Thomas, are your books a labour of love?

RR: Ahhh, yes.  See the above answer!  No, of course they are.  I love my job…long may it continue!

A-M: I believe your 30th birthday was a special event in more ways than one. Can you expand on this?

RR: The day before my 30th, May 23 2000, was the special day.  I launched my book, The Complete Goodies, at the National Film Theatre with a sell-out NFT1 interview with Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, followed by a sell-out book signing.  It was the only event in their 30th anniversary they attended together and it was a dream came true.  I introduced the evening by proclaiming ‘my career is all down hill after this!’  The actual birthday was spent in bed!

A-M: Where do you draw your inspiration from when you are writing?

RR: I always count my blessings for one.  And it’s a great honour to write about your heroes.  But, honestly, when I’m staring at a black computer screen and my brain has gone in to hibernation, I look up!  Not in a religious way!  Above my desk I have a framed photograph of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson…quite simply the finest comedy writers this country, or any other country come to that, has ever produced.  If I get writer’s block, I think of them!

A-M: Which of your books has been the biggest seller? And which is your own personal favourite?

RR: The biggest seller was the official BBC celebration of Last of the Summer Wine, which I wrote with my ‘estranged fiancé’ Morris Bright.  My own personal favourite is ‘my first born’ the Carry On Companion, although I think my best was The Complete Terry-Thomas or Steptoe and Son.  I think I’m just about getting the hang of it now!

A-M: What is your all time favourite Carry On film?

RR: Difficult!  The three I give 3 Sid heads to in the book are Cleo, Screaming! and Khyber.  I think they are the best.  But my favourite is the one I can watch and re-watch and always feel comfortable with.  My Carry On comfort blanket if you like.  It has to have Sid James in it and it’s either Carry On Cabby or Carry On Abroad.

A-M: What can we expect from you in the future?

RR: Lots more of the same I hope!  I have a commitment to over seeing a DVD release of Benny Hill in America, several more audio commentary moderating duties coming up and another Carry On book!  I did once vow never to do another one…but this is something ‘completely different’ to coin a phrase and very exciting.  Fingers crossed!

Page Last Updated Thursday, August 04, 2005 at 23:39:28