Live and Kicking’s Trevor and Simon: “Looking back, we’re a little bit surprised at some of the things we got away with”
Live and Kicking’s Trevor and Simon: “Looking back, we’re a little bit surprised at some of the things we got away with”
TV Heroes: They didn't do duvets, but pant-swinging was virtually a legal requirement. The Saturday morning comedy legends talk inventing TV's original Don Draper, overstepping the mark and their new collaboration with a Doctor Who star...
“We were on the front of Radio Times once,” says Simon Hickson, as Trevor Neal, his comedy partner of some 30 years, rummages around in a cupboard for evidence. Eventually, Neal emerges with a framed cover of an April 1994 issue of RT featuring… Leslie Nielson and a giant chicken. But look closer and there, above the masthead, are Trev and Simon, dressed as gnomes and squeezed into a promotional bumper for kids’ days out and free burgers.
“We were told we’d be on the cover, and they took these pictures of us in character, but it turned out to be the Easter issue, and they’d managed to do a photoshoot with Leslie Nielson, so suddenly he became the cover and we became a little banner on the top,” explains Hickson. “And they did it with a promotion for burgers, which was a bit tricky for us, as we were both vegetarians at the time. It kind of narked us a bit, but there you go.”
Oops. Sorry about that, fellas. But it was Leslie Nielson. Nevertheless, 21 years on, it’s a slight we’re only too happy to correct by making Trev and Simon this week’s RadioTimes.com TV Heroes. And we promise there won’t be a burger in sight.
Hard though it may be for today’s kids to believe, there was a time when Saturday morning telly strived to offer something more nourishing than James Martin whipping up a chicken and truffle tortellini: for three decades – from Noel Edmonds’ “Multi-Coloured” Swap Shop and the slapstick harum-scarum of Tiswas all the way through to Ant and Dec’s SMTV – Saturdays were when the nation’s children, teenagers, students and a sizeable number of adults putting off household chores assembled in front of the box in their pyjamas for a packed morning of cartoons, comedy, puppets, pop stars, competitions and celebrity phone-ins. From Posh Paws to Wonky Donkey, Cheggers to Cat Deeley, they were lively, chaotic three-hour marathons of the sort of inclusive, communal television we can barely conceive of in the iPlayer age.
Trev and Simon contributed their brand of delirious madcap mayhem to this TV party for the best part of a decade, starting on Going Live! with Phillip Schofield and Sarah Greene and moving on to its successor, Live & Kicking, first with Andi Peters and Emma Forbes and then Zoe Ball and Jamie Theakston. Their repertoire of regular characters included saccharine children’s folk duo The Singing Corner, insanitary barbers Ken and Eddie Kennedy, dodgy market traders The Sister Brothers, pretentious art critics Dominic Bel Geddes and Daniel Cakebread and hostile dry cleaners The Draper Brothers who, lest we forget, didn’t do duvets. (Top trivia: Hickson’s character was TV’s original Don Draper, a full 15 years before Jon Hamm’s frankly poor relation arrived on the scene. “I love that fact, because I love Mad Men,” he grins). Performed live and in-studio, it was the sort of comedy that made the presenters and crew laugh as much as the kids, and quickly established a cult following among students and other people who probably ought to have got themselves a Saturday job by now.
The pair met as drama students at Manchester University when they were cast in a pantomime together. “I played a butcher who sold meat and potato pies and Vimto, while Trev played a squirrel on a skateboard,” recalls Hickson, now 53. They collaborated on further student productions, including a version of Chekhov’s A Tragic Role, directed by Neal, into which they introduced numerous comedy props and daft gags in an effort to “turn it into The Young Ones. Then we did Joe Orton’s Funeral Games in the same style,” adds Hickson, “and got accused of not taking drama very seriously.”
After uni, they followed in the footsteps of recent Manchester graduates Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Ben Elton (who had briefly taught Hickson Greek tragedy) by gigging together on the alternative comedy circuit as The DevilfishhornClub, with a guarantee of “non-sexist, non-racist material”. “We had an A4 sheet we sent out to all the venues,” says Neal, 52. “It had our technical requirements – which was two microphones, basically – and a paragraph explaining about our non-sexist, non-racist material. It didn’t make it sound that funny, to be honest.”
They played a lot of council arts venues and left-wing benefit gigs across the North West, including an NUM fundraiser called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Jim Davidson was not invited. In 1984, they took the act to the Edinburgh Fringe, where John Hegley advised them to try their luck in London. Hickson took a little persuading to leave his beloved Manchester but they were soon regulars on the capital’s comedy club circuit, while also holding down day jobs: Hickson worked as an office clerk and Neal was a builder’s mate who – perhaps disproving the famous adage about piscean transport requirements – cycled to gigs with a giant plastic fish stuffed in his pannier.
Then, one night, TV came calling. “A producer for what was then Saturday Superstore came to see us and said they were looking for a double act to represent the new style of comedy, but for children,” explains Neal. “I remember cycling over to Shepherd’s Bush with a video of our act. I showed it to Chris Bellinger, the programme’s editor, who looked at it and said, ‘well there’s probably one joke in that half hour that’s suitable for our audience’, because I suppose we were a bit sweary and a bit political.
“The joke he liked was one where we said we were going to have an egg and spoon race. We had an egg and a spoon, we’d put them on the ground and we’d both go ‘Come on!’. And I sort of persuaded him we could take that sense of humour and make it work. The fact that joke was about 10 seconds long and they needed to fill 20 minutes a week was something we had to deal with later.”
Launching in September 1987, Going Live! was an instant hit, with Trev and Simon’s endearingly daft sketches proving one of the show’s most popular elements. What was their formula?
“You always had to remember the target audience, but the important thing with comedy is not to try to predict what that audience would like,” says Hickson. “Instead, we made sure we did what we liked – what we found funny and what was true to us – and then opened that out to the audience. Technically it was a children’s audience, but obviously because it’s Saturday morning you have the whole family watching, so there was a bit of leeway.”
It became obvious fairly quickly that the duo’s skits were gaining traction – as no-one called it back then – with an older audience. “And the bosses quite liked that,” says Hickson. “Also,” adds Neal, “there were those people who would start tuning in towards the end of the show waiting for Grandstand to start, so we started doing more general, alternative-type comedy in that slot. But we only really became fully aware of it when we went out on tour and we were amazed at the range of ages there – the fact there were adults without kids.”
“When I look back, I’m a little bit surprised at some of the things we got away with,” admits Hickson. “I think now I’m in my 50s, I’d censor myself. When you’re in your 20s, you probably think you’re very clever for getting some cheap innuendo on TV.” “It was a bit of a challenge,” agrees Neal. “The more we became aware there was an adult audience, it was hard to know quite how to pitch the material. We did try to get things in just to see if we could. Now I’ve had four children, I’m slightly embarrassed about that. But we only did it occasionally. That’s not really our legacy.”
One time they overstepped the mark was during a piece they did to support a Blue Peter hospital incubator appeal. “Trev went off script, looked down the camera and said ‘Shouldn’t the government be doing all of this?’” says Hickson. “And Chris Bellinger said to us, ‘if you ever pull a stunt like that again, you’re going to pre-record all your stuff”.’
A big perk of the job was being handed some of the biggest stars of the day to be the luckless victims of their clowning. They teased Kylie Minogue about her name, attacked Lisa Stansfield with a rubber snake, made Cher talk like a pirate, kissed Catherine-Zeta Jones, got Robbie Williams to water a sunflower with a picture of The Proclaimers on it and told Sting – or Stink, as they insisted on calling him – he was “like Jimmy Nail with A-levels”.
Most were happy to join in (Paul McCartney even asked for an autograph for Stella), but it didn’t always go to plan: Bros refused to play ball, while Sam Brown did a runner mid-sketch. “She was a lovely person, but quite shy,” Neal recalls. “She was persuaded to do a Singing Corner with us. Basically, you had to come on, sing a song with us and be humiliated – and half way through she just lost it and ran off. She left us standing there, having to fill the time. So that was a bit of a nightmare.”
Of all Trev and Simon’s characters, The Singing Corner – whose ‘swing your pants’ catchphrase rivalled Harry Enfield’s ‘loadsamoney’ for late 80s playground ubiquity – are probably the best remembered. It even led to a novelty single in which the duo were joined by 60s folkster Donovan for a comedy take on his psychedelic classic Jennifer Juniper. (It reached the dizzy heights of number 68 – though they did make the cover of the NME, without taking second billing to an oversized chicken.) Presumably people in the street still exhort them to swing their pants on a regular basis?
“It depends on their age,” says Hickson. “They either shout ‘swing your pants’ or if they’re a bit younger they shout ‘we don’t do duvets’. And if they’re even younger, they shout ‘who?’”
After leaving Live and Kicking in 1997, the pair found making the transition to adult TV comedy a frustrating process. “You do get defined a bit by what you do, but there’s not much you can do about that,” shrugs Hickson. “I think you reach a point where you realise it’s tricky to jump from one world to another.”
“There were also a lot of new comedy acts on TV in the 90s,” adds Neal, alluding to the likes of Reeves and Mortimer, Lee and Herring, Skinner and Baddiel, Steve Coogan and The Fast Show, “so by the time we’d done our 10 years on Saturday morning TV, the alternative comedy scene was pretty busy. We were looking to move into adult telly, but it was difficult, because all the spaces were kind of filled, really.”
Instead, they concentrated on writing, particularly for children’s TV, scripting episodes of shows such as My Parents Are Aliens and Dani’s House, while regularly cropping up on the likes of Pointless, Big Brother’s Bit on the Side and Celebrity Juice, not to mention stealing the show from under everyone’s noses on a BBC celebration of Saturday morning telly.
So they’ve managed to go all these years without ever having to resort to getting a real job? “Yes, just,” says Hickson. “But you’ll certainly never get rich from doing live children’s TV, because children’s telly doesn’t pay very well, and live TV means you never get any repeat fees. Plus, if you write together, you have to split the money.”
Hickson married his wife Zoe three years ago. When not writing and performing, he can sometimes be found making lattes in her café, The Archie Parker (named after their dog) in Forest Hill. The Singing Corner even did a reunion gig there for Comic Relief recently. Neal met his wife Cath, a French teacher, when they were both students at Manchester, but they didn’t marry until 13 years later. Now based in Broadstairs, they have twin girls – who have just left to do Theatre Studies and Musical Theatre at uni (“despite me trying to talk them out of it and do a proper course”) – and two boys, aged 14 and 12. Last year, one of the twins, Carys, nearly died after falling from the harbour wall in Margate and hitting her head on a boat; she was in an induced coma for two weeks, but has since made a full recovery.
Recently, the duo have been pouring their energies into Strangeness in Space, an audio sci-fi comedy co-starring their old uni mate Sophie Aldred – the voice of everyone from Dennis the Menace to Tree Fu Tom, but best known as Ace, the explosive, tomboy sidekick to Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor Who. Trev and Simon play the members of a synthpop duo called Pink Custard who are lost in space aboard a damaged spacecraft, accompanied by Aldred’s NASA gift shop manager and a stressy robot called LEMON. Full of their trademark fizzy nonsense, it’s been entirely crowdfunded, with the first two episodes available free to download now, and further fundraising ongoing for future episodes, and hopefully a Christmas single.
“The idea came about because we thought, we’re comedians and Sophie’s sci-fi, so let’s bring all that together,” explains Hickson. “Oddly, doing a crowdfunding campaign is not that different to when we funded ourselves to go to Edinburgh all those years ago. There are no commissioning editors – you can just do your own thing, and it stands or falls on whether people will pay for it.”
So far, the response to the show, which also features Doon MacKichan and Rufus Hound, has been heartening. “It’s been really good, and we’re writing more episodes now. But to maintain it, we obviously need to make sure the funding grows.”
“It’s been really good fun for us,” adds Neal. “I suppose we’re still known for writing short sketches, but in the time we’ve been off the telly we’ve written a lot more extended comedy and drama. We’ve always wanted to write a sitcom, for want of a better word, so it’s been fun having the opportunity to do this. And also to include daft songs, which is the other thing we really like doing.”
Aside from that, they have “a wardrobe full of ideas” for future projects, including a film about the 1968 Mexico Olympics, set in Manchester. (Well obviously.) Neal also retains a boyish dream of touring the world with his band, Charlie Don’t Surf, but is resigned to the fact this is unlikely to happen.
Nearly 30 years on from their Going Live! debut, both men sense a great deal of residual affection from those viewers – of all ages – who were entertained in their jim-jams over a decade of Saturday mornings. A recent article about them on The Guardian’s website even proved more popular than the latest updates from the Bake Off tent.
“The thing I’m a bit obsessed and fascinated by online is not so much the articles as the comments,” says Hickson. “Comments in general are so up the creek, you don’t know what’s going on. And all I can say is, it’s a bit of an anomaly, but most of the comments about us are really sweet.
“Although,” he adds, “one comment just said, without any context whatsoever, ‘You b*****ds!’.”
“I think that was probably Phillip Schofield,” says Neal.
We all laugh. It’s Trev and Simon: how could you not?