TALK SHOW – in conversation with former TV director Michael Metcalf

Michael talked earlier on this blog about his career in TV, but knowing he had a few more stories we met up in Newcastle again…I remember working on North East music show TX45 when we filmed AC/DC singer Brian Johnson in a working men’s club near the river Tyne. We had a great afternoon with him because what ya’ see is what yer get. He asked me if I do this all the time but I told him I work on drama as well and one of them was called ‘The World Cup – A Captains Tale’. We filmed it all over the North East and in Turin where the final was played. Tim Healey was in it, Nigel Hawthorne, Richard Griffiths, and the captain was played by Dennis Waterman.

Brian said I know that drama and yer not gonna believe this but we’ve got A Captains Tale on video and we always play it on the AC/DC tour bus. Now we’ve seen it so many times we put it on without the sound and we all take the parts. The thought of AC/DC playing these Geordie characters is amazing.

Another time we heard about a heavy rock band that were getting popular so Jeff Brown (producer) and I went to see them, not my type of music but thought they would be great for the show. We met them after the gig and one of them asked ‘How much will it cost to be on’? We answered ‘It doesn’t work like that. We pay you. We pay you the Musicians Union rate’. They couldn’t believe they were going to be on telly and getting paid for it (laughs). The name of the band escapes me, hey it was over 30 years ago but I remember on the day of recording they brought us a crate of Newcastle Brown Ale.

TX45 was broadcast from Studio 5 on Tyne Tees and hosted by Chris Cowey who features on this blog.  I was in the audience for one of the shows in 1985 that featured Newcastle glam punks Sweet Trash, at the end of the show the singer dived off the stage into the audience….Yes I directed that one. We were working on it all day, setting the stages and lighting. After the show we had to edit the program ready for broadcast. The show was like a baby Tube and all the bands and audience were excited to be there in this inner sanctum of the same studio where The Tube was recorded.

We also had some comedy on. Bobby Thompson was the man in the North East for that but he had stopped working by then. Jeff Brown tracked him down and we went along to his home and had a chat, we didn’t film it. We felt so privileged to be with this icon of Northern Comedy. Bobby had some well documented problems with alcohol so he wasn’t drinking but his housekeeper brought us a bottle of whisky to drink. We sat for hours talking, laughing and of course Bobby was a great storyteller. Tyne Tees had recorded a whole show of his from Percy Main Club so I think we used a bit of that in the feature.

But a Northern comedian that we did get on was Roy Chubby Brown. I think it was his first TV appearance. Off camera a completely different person but as soon as he is on stage and performing – I don’t know who was shocked the most. We were saying in the control room that a lot of editing was needed for this show !

Michael also directed editions of live music programme The Tube and I asked him what was the impact of that show… It got all around the world. I once went for an interview to do some work for New Zealand TV and they looked on my cv and said ‘Oh you’ve worked on The Tube’. When you have worked on something so iconic it becomes your calling card.

We went to Belfast at the height of the troubles in Ireland. It was a surreal experience filming bands over there when all that was going on. We stayed in the Europa which was known as the most bombed hotel in Europe. Housekeeping kept the curtains closed all night so snipers couldn’t see in. There was dimmed lighting in the corridors. We were terrified but had a fantastic time. Every day we filmed a different band and afterwards they’d invite us back to their homes for a sing song and a few drinks.

When we got back to London the team went out and got drunk because we were so relieved to get back because the stress of actually having to be frisked before you went into places, standing with your arms up and seeing armed soldiers everywhere.

The opportunities to travel to places was fantastic, we went to Berlin before the wall came down. As we flew in the pilot said we know when we have hit west Berlin because we see lights, the East will be in darkness. We went on a recce through Checkpoint Charlie to see some bands. We ended up being told to film in a sports centre in East Berlin. A young band were playing with not much equipment. When we got back to the West we met Christiane F. in a club. It was great getting those opportunities, looking back, just incredible.

(Christiane F. was the focus of a cult bio film made in 1981 capturing the drug scene in West Berlin. The film starred David Bowie who also recorded the soundtrack).

What other music shows did you direct ? The Roxy Chart show. CBS were ready to drop the boy band Bros, things weren’t working for them. But I thought they looked gorgeous and would be great for the show so we booked them. When they played the audience went wild. Sometimes something a bit special happens and it did on that night. The senior cameraman said to me ‘I’ve never seen a reaction like that since the likes of The Beatles’.

But we had a policy like Top of the Pops, if a song went down in the charts we didn’t transmit it. We got in touch with their management and asked them to release another single. They did but again we couldn’t transmit it because Tyne Tees went on strike. We eventually got them on a third time with ‘When Will I Be Famous’ and as they say the rest is history.

We had a wide range of artists coming on and one of them was Shakin’ Stevens another CBS act. He had a manager called Freya who had a reputation as being very tough. You didn’t cross her. In rehearsals we were in the studio and as usual I was on the studio floor watching his performance and working out how to film it. He also had four dancers on stage with him. Freya appeared next to me and said ‘What you gonna do here then’? I said ‘I haven’t got a clue’.

Eventually I worked out a routine and plan for the cameras to do multiple passes. Which are recording the same song from different angles. After the performance the CBS plugger Robbie McIntosh came up to me and said you are coming to dinner with us. ‘Freya was so impressed with your work, and you are the first director to tell her that you didn’t have a clue what you were going to do! She loved my honesty and we became great mates over the years.

Were there any awkward performers on the show ? There was an Italian singer called Spagna who had one hit ‘Call Me’. She wanted to call the shots. Her idea was for a white out on the stage, white backdrop and white sides, like being in a white cube. She also had spikey blonde hair so it would all look burnt out. We were reluctant to do this because we thought it would take ages to do. But she insisted on doing it, the toys were out of the pram you know, it wasn’t as if she was a well-known singer with a rack of hit singles. But we did do it in the end and it looked good (laughs).

I directed Big World Café from Brixton Academy for Channel 4, we had Mariella Fostrup and Eagle Eye Cherry presenting. It was a pretty eclectic music show and the line up on one of them was Soul to Soul, New Order, Diamanda Galas and a young indie guitar band who I can’t remember the name of. We were in rehearsal and the indie band would turn their backs on the camera whenever I was getting a shot and the red light was on them. So I came out of the outside broadcast truck and told the floor manager I’m coming onto the studio floor. Which to the crew means I’m not happy. The band said that turning their backs was just their style. I told them that their style ‘Was better suited to radio and stop fucking about or you’re off the show’.

When you have an artist performing and getting the best out of the time they have on screen it’s magical, they’ve really got to work it even if they are miming. In rehearsal I give them a few simple tips that if they want to play to the camera I will stick with the shot. If they take the mic off the stand they are to take the mic stand away from the front of the stage because an empty mic stand looks awkward for the camera.

I also directed for Hits Studio International for Fujisankei Television all done live in a studio in London. It was the first time the studio was used and the program was going out to 28 countries linking up with a studio in America and Japan. We got the countdown to start and just as we were going live the cameras went off one by one. Now you’d think it would be pandemonium in the control room but as a director of live TV you’ve got to be so calm. The cameras were fixed but for 40 seconds I only had two working cameras.

Why did the North East have a reputation for producing quality music TV ? Tyne Tees had a reputation for showcasing Northern talent and having passionate production team members to achieve that. Part of their regional brief was to support and document local talent, and up here there is such a wealth of talent going back to Eric Burdon and The Animals who played at the Club a Go-Go in Newcastle. The murals on the walls were designed by Bryan Ferry who of course was singer with Roxy Music, but everybody who said they saw Jimi Hendrix play at the Club a Go-Go, well the club would be the size of St James’ Park (laughs).

Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2019.