Neil Shand worked with everyone from David Frost to Spike Milligan. Now in his 80s, Sarah Freeman meets one of the last of British comedy’s old guard.
Neil Shand has been working on an opening line. In a couple of weeks he is going to be talking about his life as a comedy writer and he wants to get the audience laughing right from the start. The gag he’s settled on involves the age of some of his jokes. I won’t spoil the punchline, but when he delivers it you can almost hear the ‘badum tish’ in the background.
“Good isn’t he,” he says with a glint in his eyes, undimmed by his 83 years. These days he lives a relatively quiet life just a few miles from the Humber Bridge, but he still loves the mechanics of a good gag and in preparation for his event as part of Hull’s Heads Up festival he’s been reflecting on how a working class lad from Luton ended up working with a who’s who of comedy greats.
“My dad worked for Vauxhall, my mum was a dressmaker and I was an 11 plus boy. We had no money. We lived in a two up two down, but grammar school gave me ambition and opportunity. My parents wanted me to learn a trade, but I had different ideas and after I left school I got a job on the local newspaper.”
It wasn’t long before he was working for the Luton Gazette by day and catching an early evening train to London to do graveyard shifts for the nationals. Travelling back on the milk train, for three months he didn’t get much sleep, but he knew that if he could stick it out long enough a break would come. And it did.
“I was doing some work for the Daily Sketch. One night the editor turned to me and said, ‘Here you go Shand, this is your make or break assignment’.”
A couple of hours later he found himself outside the Savoy Hotel where the son of the Aga Khan was having his 21st birthday party.
“I’d been told to get full details of the party, but I quickly realised there was no way I was going to get anywhere near the actual event. Instead I went round to a different entrance. Before I knew it, I was in one of the admin offices and right there on the table was the running order for the evening, including the seating plan and the menu. I slipped it into my pocket and that report got me a staff job.”
At that time Fleet Street was an intoxicating place to be, but for Shand, it was also an environment where it was easy to self-destruct.
“I got fired from the Mail for being drunk one too many times,” he says, sipping a lime and soda – he hasn’t touched alcohol for 36 years. “They used to say that you could walk out of one newspaper and straight into a job on another. It was true and I may well have ended up on another paper, but I bumped into the documentary-maker Michael Ingrams who asked me whether I had ever thought of working in television.”
Before he knew it, Shand’s daily commute ended not in Fleet Street, but at the BBC. While he wasn’t a natural fit in the factual department – a film about a Welsh sheep farmer almost had to be scrapped when it turned out no one could understand his accent – he was then introduced to the presenter/satirist Bernard Braden.
“He had the office next door and one day I thought, ‘I make people laugh in the pub, maybe I can write jokes’. I sold Bernard my first ever joke for £3 and that was it. I had found what I was really good at.”
He went on to enjoy a long collaboration with David Frost, who was the Beeb’s major star.
“What was my impression of him? That reminds me of the time when we were out in Australia together. During one radio interview, he was asked, ‘So Mr Frost what’s your impression of our country’. He didn’t say anything for about eight seconds and then broke the silence by saying, ‘That’s my impression of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I can do the Opera House next’.”
There’s that ‘badum tish’ sound again.
“David was very shrewd in that he always made sure that his name was up there in the title so it was very clear whose show it was, but he was also incredibly generous with people. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.”
Having earned his stripes with Frost, Shand was increasingly in demand, but there was one offer of work he was never going to turn down.
“I got a phone call. It was Spike Milligan. He said, ‘The BBC have asked me to create a new series and I was wondering if you would like to write it with me?’ Back then artists were given so much more freedom than they are now. If you had an idea for a show you were told to just go off and do it.
“A few years before I started working with Spike, he had been in a sitcom written by Johnny Speight called Curry and Chips. The premise was the same as Til Death Do Us Part, to satirise bigotry, but when it was aired it didn’t go down well. Spike wanted to have another go and together we wrote The Melting Pot. That never got past the pilot episode. The BBC had already had its fingers burnt and they were worried about the backlash.
“While the show was a disaster, I loved being with Spike. When his manic depression was at its peak of mania he was impossible to work with and when he was in the bottom of a depression you couldn’t talk to him, but at all other times he was incredible. He was the master of brilliant nonsense.”
Shand went onto work with the likes of Kenny Everett, Marti Caine, Larry Grayson and the impressionist Mike Yarwood.
“He was a bit of a tricky character off camera, but he was absolutely brilliant at what he did. I’ve always thought that while Rory Bremner is technically brilliant, he’s not actually that funny. Mike could do the accents perfectly, but he also knew how to deliver a gag. I was lucky, I got to work with all the comedians I admired, well, all but one. I would have loved to have done something with Eric Sykes. When I was working with Spike, he had the office across the corridor. He was simply the best, but sadly our paths never crossed professionally.”
Every so often Shand admits that he did think about stepping out from behind the desk, but it didn’t quite work out.
“I was good at putting a joke together, but there were other people who were better at the delivery. I will never forget writing a gag for Ned Sherrin. It was about Status Quo. He rang me up, confessed he’d never heard of them and wanted to know whether I really thought it would work. I reassured him, he delivered it like the complete pro he was and the laughs came. Not everyone would have gone with a joke they didn’t understand, but Ned had huge trust in his writers.”
While he has no particular connection to the North, he says he always knew he would end up here when he retired and he moved out of London 14 years ago. He still has fond memories of his time there and the event next month will be a chance to reflect on an age of British comedy now long gone.
“You know, Jim Davidson was probably the most naturally-talented comedian I have ever worked with. He was technically brilliant and the funniest man alive. The problem was he didn’t want to work for the laugh, he always went for the cheap, dirty joke.”
And if there is one thing that Shand knows is that good comedy is seriously hard work.
An Evening With Neil Shand, Kardomah94, Hull, March 12. Tickets cost £8 and are available from http://headsup.e52.co.uk/headsup/