Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Archive for February, 2011

Suburban Star Wars… Volume 2

Luke: ‘What a piece of junk!’

Han: ‘She may not look much kid, but she’s got it where it counts. On top of Bob Fischer’s sideboard’

Luke: ‘It was the sideboard I was talking about…’

A Little Chat With… Fred Aylward

Another little nugget transcribed from my radio archives, this time from March 2007. I was thrilled to interview Fred Aylward, who spent almost ten years as Les, the bald-headed, lab-coated henchman to Vic Reeves. Les worked his way from pub backroom appearances to TV stardom with Vic Reeves Big Night Out and ultimately Les Lives, his own series on BBC2. He loved the spirit level, but had a strange and inordinate fear of chives. Fred hung up the lab coat in 1996 and now lives in South London.

Am I right in thinking you’re working as an artist these days, Fred?

Yeah, art and design is my background, really. I went to Goldsmith’s College and all that.

So what are you working on at the moment?

At the moment it’s a set of celebrity dinner plates with the likes of Fanny Craddock on there. Do you remember Fanny?

Oh yes…

(Laughs) Well, she’s on there. I suppose there’s a comedy that runs through all my artwork, it’s all little cartoony things.

Presumably you exhibit as well, then?

Yes, I’m working towards a show later this year, in South-East London.

So how did you first get involved with Vic and Bob if you came from an arty background? Did you go to see their live show and get roped in?

No, I was there before Bob. Me and Vic – let’s call him Vic, otherwise it gets confusing, he’s known as Jim and all sorts of other things…

And Rod as well…?

Rod too, and in fact when I met him he was called ‘Chin’ but that’s another story! Anyway Vic and I shared the same day job, doing art and drama workshops with kids and old people. So that’s how we met, and then he started doing Vic Reeves as a twenty minute stand-up in some local cabaret venues. That was when he was possibly going to be called Craig Wildfowl, but he went with Vic Reeves in the end. This was in 1986, about a year before he met Bob.

So were you doing bits onstage with him at that point?

Yes, but not as Les. I was onstage as Pam Ayres, with a sort of cut-out mask. I was a Dalek at one point, and I was also a quick change mime artist – that’s what Vic billed me as. I changed from being a hippy into a skinhead under strobe lighting.

So had you ever performed onstage before all of this came about?

Before I met him I got up at a place called the Africa Centre with a megaphone, and read four really earnest poems about the starving in Africa. That was my stage debut, standing on a chair with a loudhailer.

I take this wasn’t part of a comedy night?

Oh no, we were raising money for charity! This was pre-Live Aid actually, about 1984.

So where did the character of Les come from?

We were doing stuff at Winston’s in Deptford, which is a tiny wine bar, then it moved to the Goldsmith’s Tavern, and I found myself clearing up – putting wigs in boxes and generally helping out backstage. So by the time it got to the Albany Empire, which was a proper theatre as opposed to just a pub backroom, he said ‘Look, we’re going to need a stage manager, do you want to do it as a character?’ And he said bring your white coat along… because I was an art technician at a school.

Right, so the lab coat was actually yours?

Yeah, but I said ‘I don’t wear a lab coat, I wear a navy blue apron’. And he said ‘Just get a white coat from the lab department, and you’ll be called Les’. So there I was… it was just a case of having a character come on and clear up. 

And there must have been a time during that when you couldn’t walk down the street without being recognised?

Well I was working in a school, can you imagine?! For the first TV series for Channel 4 I took every Friday off to do the filming, but I didn’t tell anyone. We just didn’t know whether it would be a success or not. Fortunately the series went out during the summer holidays so I didn’t have to confront the kids, but when I went back in September, I was going around nodding saying ‘Yes, it’s me…’

Did they bring spirit levels and chives in to taunt you?

Well I’d actually resigned by that point so I only had three weeks to work! And then we went on our first tour, around the North-East and so on – the college tour. It was all really fast, one minute Bob was a solicitor and I was working in a school, the next we were off on tour…

I did see you on that first tour, and you played at the old Newcastle Polytechnic Student Union. And I swear it’s one of the most tense things I’ve ever seen onstage… you came on as Les, and you cleared up between two sketches, and while you were there the phone rang on Vic’s desk…

Oh, yeah! (Laughs)

…and it just rang and rang, and this went on for about five minutes! And people were shouting ‘Answer it Les!’ and it just never seemed to end. And then it just stopped… I swear I almost fainted with the tension. It was sensational… it must have been like being with a rock band on tour?

It was just all so fast. Can you imagine, one minute you’ve got a full-time job and you’re just doing it as a laugh, and then you’re suddenly hurtled into the limelight. It was just like a car accelerating really fast. And then it crashed!

How did it come to an end? Vic and Bob moved to the BBC didn’t they, and you didn’t go with them…

I got a phone call from The Sun actually, asking how I felt about them going to the BBC. And that was the first I’d heard of it, so I wished them luck and then I got offered ‘Les Lives’ about the same time. We’d tried to get it on Channel 4, but they weren’t really interested once Vic and Bob had fled. So we did it on BBC2 in the end, as part of DEF II. And my career doing Les by myself began then, in 1992. We did the Riverside in Newcastle as part of their birthday celebration, myself and a guy called Peter Brook. We just did this half hour act between us, which was Les outside the Big Night Out.

So when was the last Les gig?

Glastonbury in 1995 was one of the last. I had a show called ‘Les Live’ by that point, which was an hour long…

Which isn’t bad going for a character that doesn’t speak!

(Laughs) Yeah, although it had other characters from Les Lives in it as well, including Peter playing the ukulele. It was a fairly musical comedy act – I suppose it had to be with no dialogue! And just before Glastonbury I did a day’s shooting at Pinewood Studio for the Today newspaper, and that was the highlight of everything for me – being driven to Pinewood for a day’s filming! The paper’s folded now –  nothing to do with me, I hope – but, you know… Pinewood was the home of the Carry On films and all that. It was fantastic.

The Big Night Out DVD came out in 2006, and you did a revival of the show for one night only to launch it…

Yeah, we did it in the old Raymond Revue Bar in Soho. I wasn’t going to do it because I was down in Cornwall, but Vic’s wife Nancy nagged me into it, so I came back and did a guest appearance as Les. It was a thirty-minute Big Night Out I suppose.

And I imagine the cream of British comedy were there to watch…?

They were, yes! Lapping at our feet! (laughs).

Do you miss it? Or are you happy working on your artwork these days?

I get sort of… (pauses) when we did that one-off, I thought maybe there might be some interest in doing more live stuff, but I’ve not heard anything. I don’t know if Bob and Vic are up for it, they might just want to move on. But I never say never. The white coat is here on a coat hanger, I’m actually looking at it as we speak!

You’ve still got it, brilliant!

There are about half a dozen, actually, we went through them so quickly. Can you imagine how dirty they get when you’re rolling around on the floor every night?

Has it still got the biros in the top pocket?

Yeah, and the spirit level… I’ve got all of it!

So what form does most of your artwork take? Are we talking painting, sculptures or something else?

I do ceramics. I had an exhibition called Sex Pots, which was sort of rude teapots and things… that was good. And I do portraits now in watercolour, cartoony things. People like Madonna with a Viking helmet on. And the Queen meeting Marilyn Manson, and they’re both wearing matching corgi print coats.

You need to set up a website so we can see all of this…

I do… and to get some of these bits of film on there, there’s a nice Glastonbury film somewhere.

What? Is this a great lost Les film?

Yes… and there’s actually a lost Big Night Out which I’m trying to track down. It was made by two film-maker friends of ours, and I think Vic and Bob have probably forgotten about it. This was in about 1987, at a place called The Venue in New Cross, and we played upstairs in a little bar. That would be a great long-lost treasure, I think.

It’ll be in a dusty box in someone’s attic somewhere…

Yes, probably mine!

Here Comes Wilf Lunn…

…and I say, it’s alright. For anyone who grew up in front of the TV in the 1970s and 80s (hands up everyone… one, two, three, four… Simon, is your hand up or not? Oh, I see. No you can’t, you’ll have to wait. You should have gone before the start of assembly) will remember Wilf. Yes, the genial Yorkshire inventor with the extraodinary ginger moustache who graced the likes of Vision On, Jigsaw and Eureka with an array of bizarre and frequently dangerous-looking contraptions. After all, how is it possible not to love the creator of the ‘Apocalypse Cow’ which, as Wilf himself says, ‘replaced the earlier, less effective, Cow Clap Frisbees’?

About a year ago, my friend Wez (star of Chapters 2, 5 and 10 of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’) took, for reasons that have long since been wiped from my brain, a train journey from Huddersfield to Bradford and idled away the journey reading a discarded copy of the Huddersfield Examiner. He was so enamoured with Wilf Lunn’s colum in said periodical that he brought it back home for me to read. This is it, here…


Inspired, I decided – uncharacteristically – to spend the rest of the afternoon in the spare room office, slumped in front of the computer spending money I didn’t have. I know! Who’d have thought it? I immediately ordered a copy of Wilf’s childhood memoir ‘My Best Cellar’ from his website, and then set about finding that adaptation of the old Abbott and Costello sketch mentioned in the Huddersfield Examiner. And sure enough, it’s here…

(I assume this is from Jigsaw, as that’s certainly Adrian Hedley under one of the surgeons’ masks. At least while he was messing about with Abbot and Costello he wasn’t sending the nation’s children into paroxyms of fear from beneath his… brrr… Noseybonk head)

A few days later, Wilf’s book arrived in the post, and I found myself lost in this splendidly surreal evocation of a bygone age, couched throughout in Wilf’s extraordinary gift for language  and an eye for the gruesomely odd that all-but-confirmed my longstanding suspicions that he and Vivan Stanshall were created together in some classified War Office genetic experiment deep beneath the Houses of Parliament before being forcibly exiled to opposite ends of the country, never to meet again. Except they did, but that’s a story for another blog entry… 

Anyway, as I read on, my thoughts began to coalesce into a dark and fevered plan. What we needed, obviously, was a night with Wilf Lunn in a small room on Teesside, so that Wez and I (and anyone else prepared to cough up a few quid) could have the pleasure of his company for a couple of hours. Luckily, I have the ear of a local arts promoter. Yes, I keep it in a jam-jar at the side of the bed. Ho ho! Knackers, and – indeed – arse. No, Luke Harding, proprieter of the splendid Waiting Room vegetarian restaurant and bohemian hangout, was utterly taken with the idea… and, predictably enough, left me to organise all the fiddly bits.

And so it came to pass that, on Sunday 30th January 2011, Wilf Lunn came to The Waiting Room and made a little bit of our collective childhoods bubble to the surface on a chilly Teesside evening. I was so excited I gave a rare outing to the stripy mod blazer I’d bought on Carnaby Street with the final instalment of my ‘Wiffle Lever’ advance in October 2008. And felt surprisingly honoured when Wilf chose to shower it in shaving foam as the climax to his Apocalypse Cow demonstration. Amazingly, I managed to capture some sensational action footage of this, but you’ll have to be quick on the draw…

Wilf was superb company, and a fascinating speaker, and I’ll treasure his recollections of  Rolf Harris’ trouser destruction,  James Mason’s bell collection (pingers or dingers, though? Ah, you had to be there) and the long-term career benefits of putting bicycles into bottles. And we rounded off with a small explosion… the least we’d expect from a man who once burnt off the hair (and moustache) on one side of his head minutes before a live TV appearance, and was hurriedly patched up with spare bits of barnet  from round the back, frantically glued into place by a cussing producer.

This – brace yourself – is the Hen Grenade…

Thanks to Wilf for coming up, and to everyone who popped along on the night! And that foam-covered stripy blazer in full…