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.

WORD UP with Michael Metcalf, director on music TV’s Top Dog’s THE TUBE

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).

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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.

The Tube Crew

Colin Rowell, Chris Phipps and Michael Metcalf.

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.

Tube Shot Lesley Ash _ Paul McCartney

The Tube team with Lesley Ash (presenter) and Paul McCartney.

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.