‘He’s Dead Funny Sometimes’ 

30 June 2022 tbs.pm/75939

 

And Cliff Michelmore never loses that “ambling, cheerful composure” reports MARY BENEDETTA

TV Mirror cover

From the TV Mirror for 12 April 1958

IN most peoples’ lives there is a zero hour between the time they come home from work and the evening meal. They are tired. Metabolism is low. Spirits are drooping. And all the frustrations of the day still have a horrible clarity.

That is when millions switch on BBC TV’s popular programme Tonight, and bask in the genial influence of Cliff Michelmore. His disarming naturalness and leisurely wit, as he presents his mixed bag of topical surprise items, do a lot for morale in those forty minutes. He has a curious power of making people relax and decide that the world is not a bad place to live in after all. Because of it he has become one of the best-loved personalities on TV.

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It was interesting to spend a few hours with him before Tonight went on the air, and find he never lost that ambling, cheerful composure. Even though one could only catch occasional glimpses of him because he had so much to do.

The morning started in his large airy office at the BBC’s Television Centre. Cliff sat at his desk in the window, reading his daily fan-mail of sixty to seventy letters. Many viewers wrote to tell him how much they enjoyed the programme. Some told him their life story. Others sent suggestions for Tonight or pages of calypso rhymes. There were parcels of presents too. Flowers, chocolates, ornaments, things his fans had knitted for him, and — as always — golf balls.

I saw him again later when he wandered into the offices where some of the Tonight team were lining up the items for the evening transmission. Tony Essex, in charge of all the film material, was looking through a box of newspaper clippings. “We’ve lost ten minutes,” he said calmly. “There’s a hold-up on the undergraduates, and we’re waiting for it to be cleared.”

 

Cliff on set

Cliff keeps an eye on the monitor during a “Tonight” transmission

 

“Well, we aren’t rehearsing till four,” Cliff said, “so let’s go and have tea.”

Sitting at Cliff’s table in the canteen were Ned Sherrin, who would be taking the rehearsal, dark, blue-eyed Diane Todd, who does the song numbers, and Noel Harrison, bronzed from a tour of playing his guitar and singing in Italian nightclubs. This was his first day of taking over the calypsos from Cy Grant, who was away for some weeks.

“Nervous?” asked Cliff sympathetically.

“Not yet. But I probably shall be,” Noel replied.

Then Cliff delved in his pocket and pulled out the first verse of the day’s topical calypso, and handed it across the table. “How will this do for an opening? They’re still writing the rest.”

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“Are you doing anything on A. E. Matthews and his lamp-post?” asked Diane. “No, it’s been covered too much already,” said Ned Sherrin. But it reminded Cliff of his own encounters with the unpredictable Matty.

“I’ve interviewed him twice,” he said. “The first time he caught me by surprise. Before I got a chance to start he threw me completely by saying, ‘I’ve got to talk to my dogs. I haven’t been home for three weeks, and they’ll be sitting in front of the television set.’ Whereupon he proceeded to make a long speech to his dogs, and then turned to me and said, ‘I’ve finished now. You can go ahead.’

“The next time, I knew him, so I went over the whole thing very carefully with him first, and he agreed to it. But directly we were on, and I asked him the first question, he said, ‘I don’t think much of that question. You’d better ask me another one.’ So I went on to the next question, and he said, ‘That’s no better than the first one…'”

By then it was four o’clock and we went into the studio for the camera rehearsal. Ned Sherrin darted up the iron staircase into the control room. A secretary brought in the script of the completed calypso, and the first run-through began.

 

 

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Although it was a serious technical rehearsal, it had a rather crazy Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere, carried along by Cliff’s usual mood of ebullient good humour. The cameramen craned their necks to catch his remarks, and obviously enjoyed every minute of it. “He’s dead funny sometimes,” said one technician, as he pushed a microphone boom into position.

As yet, the programme was only roughly put together, and at that stage Cliff could only ad lib his link-up speeches. The serious part for him came later, when the film subjects had been dubbed with commentary and all the other items finalised.

In fact, the most exacting hour of his day is from six to seven when he prepares his own part in Tonight, after discussing it with producer Donald Baverstock. For those diverting and seemingly spontaneous introductions, that give such enjoyable continuity to the programme, are the result of meticulous timing and planning.

Even when the programme is over and he drives home to Reigate, Cliff Michelmore cannot entirely dismiss it from his mind. For as he says, when he signs off four of the five nights a week, “The next Tonight is tomorrow night.”

 

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