First posted 11 January 2005 Questions by John Freeman
After graduating from Cambridge University in 1976 with a First in English John began his working life as a runner, and later a researcher, for a small documentary company, Trans Atlantic Film. He joined Thames Television in 1978 as a trainee director. After completing his course in 1979, he stayed with the company to work on a wide variety of programmes including drama, live transmissions, comedy and documentaries.
His freelance career began in 1984 with the first three series of the Channel 4 comedy Who Dares Wins, the second series of Spitting Image for Central and four series of the award-winning adult comedy That’s Love for TVS.
He also directed Boon for Central and KYTV for the BBC; the very last episode of Minder for Euston Films; the comedy Game On for Hat Trick Productions; Harry Enfield & Chums for Tiger Aspect; and the sitcom Kiss Me Kate, shown by the BBC.
In 1996, he set up Big Bear Films with fellow producer/director Marcus Mortimer, the company responsible for five seasons (so far) of My Hero.…
downthetubes: What made you decide to become a director/producer?
John Stroud: I acted a lot at University, but was sensible enough to realise I would have been a pretty average actor out in the real world. At the same time I started directing theatre productions and really enjoyed them. Being a spoilt, tyrannical egomaniac helps as well, obviously.
downthetubes: You were a member of the Cambridge Footlights at University — do you have any memories of that you would like to share?
John: The Footlights, though often derided by right-on comics as undergraduates poncing about, is an incredibly useful training ground for two things: how to write for other people, and how to structure comedy. Two things that stand-ups are often notoriously bad at. Best memory? Playing Robinson in Robinson Crusoe, the annual panto, with Griff Rhys Jones as my mum. Still the best Dame I’ve ever seen.
downthetubes: You joined Thames Television in 1978. What was it like to work for and what programmes did you work on?
John: I did 10 months training, which mostly involved following other directors around with no idea what I was supposed to be looking for, and then we were asked which department we’d like to apply for. The Entertainment Department was pretty depressing at the time — Drama would only employ freelancers, so I opted for the Children’s department and had a ball. As the only department that did drama, comedy, documentary, live shows, outside broadcasts, location filming, it was a really wide and invaluable grounding. And I got to direct Rainbow (serious retro-cred nowadays). And I managed to sneak the UK Subs into an episode of The Sooty Show, which will be my lasting achievement…
downthetubes: Was the way shows such as the comedy Who Dares Wins (a critically-acclaimed award-winning sketch show for C4), which you first directed as a freelance in 1984, very different to the way My Hero is recorded today?
John: Technically, no. But there was a much greater sense of the possibilities of television, of taking risks and daring to try something different. When I persuaded John Lloyd to let me direct half the second series of Spitting Image (“I can do puppets! I’ve done Rainbow”), he cheerfully admitted that for most of the first series, they hadn’t had a clue what they were doing. Hard to think of TV companies sponsoring that sort of risk nowadays.
downthetubes: You’ve directed a variety of productions, including several episodes of the British action-adventure series Bugs. Do you have any memories of working on that series you can share?
John: The biggest toybox in the world. My first day on location, it took five minutes to walk past all the trucks: scaffolders, stunts, pyrotechnics, action vehicles, armorers. Every scene seemed to involve someone blowing up something or abseiling through a ceiling while programming 12 computers simultaneously. The one time I found myself with just two people sitting across a desk having a conversation, I couldn’t remember how to shoot it…
downthetubes: What kind of things do you first look for in a script of My Hero when you’re planning a recording?
John: When we have our writers’ meetings, long before the series starts, one of the things we look for is a central, strong, controlling idea. It might be jealousy (the Little Green Man episode), death (Living Dead, the one where George keeps dying), or dreams (the last episode of the new series is a cracker).
downthetubes: How closely do you work with the writers when ideas for a new season are being discussed?
John: Very closely, although once we’re into production Jamie Rix (my co-producer) does the lion’s share of co-ordinating all the writing. But going over a script with the writers is a crucial and enjoyable part of the process. We rewrite constantly — some scripts have gone to eight or nine drafts before we’re happy with them.
downthetubes: What’s the most difficult thing about recording My Hero?
John: You have a normal sitcom schedule of one show a week to rehearse and record. But most sitcoms don’t have talking babies, flying toddlers, living-rooms that burst into flames, and main characters that turn green or shrink to 30cms tall or… or… A week is fine for someone coming in saying “Hello darling, I’m home”: it’s the fact that his head is on back to front that screws things…
downthetubes: And the best thing about recording the show?
John: The bar at one minute past ten… It’s always a massive relief when the whole show is in the can. And it’s wonderful having such great audiences — those are real laughs, you know!
downthetubes: You formed Big Bear Films in 1996 with Marcus Mortimer. What were the reasons for setting up your own company rather than simply continuing as a freelance director?
John: Marcus and I met while doing Comic Relief, and quickly realised that we were both fed up with getting great scripts or ideas sent to us by writers, but having to give them away to other people to get them made. Big Bear has always been driven by nurturing writers and offscreen talent.
downthetubes: Do you think you have achieved what you set out to do with Big Bear? is there anything you’d really like to do given chance and the budget?
John: We’d love to do more drama, but drama commissioners can be quite patronising about people who work in comedy. Which is daft, really — ask any actor which is more difficult. And we’ve just done The Hairy Bikers’ Cook Book, a weird and wonderful documentary for BBC2; I’d love to do some more of those kind of shows.
downthetubes: What was the most difficult thing to shoot for this season of My Hero?
John: I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a great episode where George meets his subconscious (who looks identical). And then his subconscious’s subconscious… and so on until we had about 20 Ardals running around the room! Very complicated but (I hope!) very funny.
downthetubes: Several fans have asked how you get the babies to “talk” in the show. can you reveal the secret?
John: Chocolate and electric shocks. Actually, we shoot the mouths (and part of the nose and chin) of our two highly-talented young artistes (Finlay Stroud and Maddie Mortimer… yes, the surnames are vaguely familiar) as they perform the lines, and then our digital effects people at Framestore superimpose those onto shots of the baby and toddler playing Cassie and Ollie.
I can’t remember whose idea it was to have TWO talking infants this time round, but my ulcer says thank you…
downthetubes: My Hero has been bought to be remade in Germany, how is that project coming?
John: It’s all gone a bit quiet on that, which is a shame because I thought the pilot they did over there was really funny. I think there was another sitcom airing about a wife who’s secretly a witch, that they felt might be too similar.
downthetubes: Finally, is there any other news about My Hero you can share with its fans?
John: Contrary to some reports, this is NOT necessarily the last series. We’re actively talking to the BBC about another one, and as soon as we have any news we’ll let you know!
downthetubes: John, thanks very much for your time.
• Sadly, John died in August 2009 of a brain tumour, aged just 54. He will be much missed.
NB These web links have been selected by John Freeman and are not necessarily endorsed by John Stroud
• The Guardian: John Stroud Obituary (13th October 2009)
Official web site
An unbelievable clip from an episode of Rainbow that was actually transmitted.
The UK Subs made an appearance on the children’s TV show The Sooty and Sweep Show directed by John Stroud. One of their numbers, ‘Lady Esquire’, was apparently used in a sketch in which Sweep had loud music playing which was annoying Sooty and Sue.