Today’s post comes with the sad news that Chris Phipps has passed away. Amongst a host of credits on TV, Chris was part of the team that brought us The Tube. When I interviewed him I found him very generous with his time and encouragement ‘Yeah there is a load of stories out there, keep diggin’. (Posted Aug.12th 2019).
Last post ‘Get It On’ was an interview with former Tube presenter Gary James, Gary put me in touch with Michael Metcalf, another team member from the music programme. This is his story…..
What is your background and how did you begin working in TV? I had a rather strange journey into television. I left school at 15 with no qualifications. I had been offered a place in Catering and Hotel Management at Newcastle Polytechnic. In the meantime, my brother suggested that I work with him as an apprentice baker and confectioner. I worked with him for over a year (not taking the place at College) but decided it was not the job for me.
Lacking qualifications and opportunities, I did what many people in the North East did in the ‘70s and sat an exam to work at the ‘Ministry’ at Longbenton. I was assigned to Family Allowances long before it became Child Benefit.
After several years, I realised that I was not cut out to be a civil servant and managed to get an interview at Tyne Tees Television as a Driver/Handyman. People who know me have hysterics hearing this story, as to this day I am stuck if I have to change a plug. I was interviewed by a lady called Lydia Wilkinson and whilst we had a lovely afternoon chatting, she said that I was not the type of person they normally got for that job and felt I would be better suited to ‘Admin’. I left thinking that it was a kind way to end the interview and thought that was that.
A few weeks later, I got word they had a vacancy they thought I would be better suited for and had an interview as a ‘Schedules Officer’. I was successful, so left the Civil Service after 8 years and began life at Tyne Tees TV. God Bless Lydia Wilkinson, who was completely responsible for my career in Television.
My first week on the job I was asked if I wanted to see a programme being broadcast, so I ended up in the Control Room watching ’Northern Life’. It was the most exciting thing I had seen. The next day I bored my work colleagues, telling them that is what I wanted to do. I explained some of the jobs seemed quite technical, but there is a lady in the control room who seemed to shout and count backwards and I thought I could do that. The job was Production Assistant (PA).
I applied when a vacancy came up and became the only male PA on the ITV network (TTTV had employed another man but he had moved on to become a Floor Manager). It was the start of my life in Production. I loved being a PA and worked on lots of different programmes, including doing continuity on several drama’s. I also worked with a lot of freelance directors, one of which was Geoff Wonfor who was the husband of Andrea Wonfor the Executive Producer on the Tube.
How did you get the job with The Tube and when did you work on the programme ? As I was already working with Geoff as his PA, when the Tube began, I continued working with him and did most of the filming for the first few years. It is important to remember that at that time we were a bunch of Geordie guys who were suddenly flying off to work with some amazing people and having the time of our lives. I remember one trip to New York we hired a helicopter to fly around the Statue of Liberty.
I sat with my back to the front of the helicopter, alongside the pilot, Geoff was in the row behind with the camera assistant and the cameraman was strapped in but hanging out of the side of the helicopter, the door had been taken off.
I had the headset to communicate with the pilot, going down the Hudson, he asked if we wanted to go under or over the bridges, I asked if we could do both, which we ended up doing. It is hard to imagine getting away with that now but we had the time of our life. Eventually, I went back to working on Drama’s so it was Series 1-2 of The Tube that I worked on as PA. During the time of working on Drama, I applied for a vacancy to become a Director and got the job, so ended up going back on the Tube as the Studio Director for most of Series 4.
How did you get on and work with the rest of the team ? As I mentioned earlier, the great thing about working on the Tube was that we were a bunch of Geordie Guys, having the time of our lives. Every day the job was an adventure. The Tube welcomed new bands and one in particular had sent a VHS and we thought they were interesting so decided to go and film them. We got to the location, The State Ballroom in Liverpool which had been used as a location for a movie ‘A Letter to Brezhnev’.
We got there and began to set up, the band were there so eventually we did a run through with them, it was ok but there wasn’t the energy or excitement that we had seen on the VHS. Eventually being the PA, I organised some lunch, the lead singer asked me if I thought the band getting into their stage gear might help, which I said I am sure it would.
The band and the two girls they had with them went off together, when they returned, they were wearing leather bondage gear and the girls were wearing leather bikini’s and carrying leather whips. The band was ‘Frankie Goes To Hollywood’ and the rest they say, is history!
Was there a show you look back on and think ‘that was a nightmare’ ? When I came back on the Tube as Studio Director, it was a particular turbulent time in television and there were a number of union disputes. So working under those conditions were difficult.
I remember one occasion the only band that arrived for the show was ‘Go West’. Instead of the usual 20 minutes, they ended up preforming for the whole show, so it was effectively a concert for them, which was amazing. Working on a live show, there are always moments that are a nightmare but that is the fun of working live and getting out of any tricky situations.
And a show which went really well ? I have such great memories of all shows I worked on. Although I have a great deal of affection for the show that featured Cameo. They were a great bunch of guys and Larry Blackmon was fantastic. We had such a great time and they were buzzing after the show. It turned out they were one of the few bands who did not have to rush off, so asked me if there was a bar or club that I could suggest they go to. Knowing the guys at Walkers club and bar, I rang up and asked if I might bring the guys along, you can imagine the response. So after the show we all had an amazing night at Walkers.
Did any bands/artists/ performances stand out ? The range of artists who performed on The Tube is endless and so many of those performances stand out. Obviously Tina Turner was amazing, I was lucky enough to direct the show that INXS did (which is the first time Paula met Michael Hutchence). Divine performing on stage at The Tube, so many magical performances.
What did you do after the Tube ? After the Tube, Tyne Tees got a commission for ITV Chart Show The Roxy and I directed that for about 18 months. Eventually I decided I should move on and actually met Andrea Wonfor travelling back from London. She had left Tyne Tees by this time and had started Zenith North, so I asked if she had any jobs for me. Her response was ‘Michael, you have said that in the past but I am not sure you mean it’, I confirmed I did so she said leave it with me.
A few weeks later she contacted me and said she had a new Channel 4 series called ‘Big World Cafe’ which would be playing World Music and was going to be based in the Brixton Academy. Would I be interested ? The job was mine as Series Director. But that meant leaving Tyne Tees and moving to London.
Which is how I came to move to London, thinking that if things did not work out, I could come back to the North East after six months. That six months turned into 25 years! I did go freelance and worked for many companies, directed a lot of music shows and then found myself in breakfast television, working on the Big Breakfast and then finally GMTV.
Michaels broadcast and video credit’s included concerts by Ricky Martin, Julio Iglesias, Inspiral Carpets, Roxette, Wet Wet Wet and Bros plus loads of sport, political and current affairs programmes for Zenith, ITV and Channel 4.
What are you doing now ? In 2008, I took voluntary redundancy from GMTV. Whilst I thought I might stay in London and work freelance, I’d been at GMTV so long and had let my freelance work stop, which is difficult to revive. So in the end I returned to the North East and concentrated on charity work.
Last thoughts…..Was the Tube important in my life ? You bet your life it was. Working on such a successful programme which everyone in the industry knew of, it becomes your calling card for the future. The majority of people who worked on the production of the show went on to have very successful careers.
Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.