You may not have heard of the name Neil Shand, but if you were one of the millions who have enjoyed comedy shows, on radio and television, during the last fifty years, you are almost sure to have enjoyed his work.
In a special one-off event introduced by filmmaker Dave Lee, Neil sat down with comedy buff Louis Barfe to talk about his life’s work. A remarkable career that would take him all the way from Luton – “the town that banned consonants” – to West 44th Street in Manhattan. He’d help create the Double Emmy award-winning show Frost in America, with lifelong friend and colleague David Frost. And, after landing a nutcracker gag, find himself at the cutting edge of sketch comedy writing alongside Spike Milligan.
Born of Glaswegian parents, the young Neil began his working life as a local reporter for a Bristol newspaper, later moving on to work for the Daily Sketch. “A silly tabloid,” as he describes it, “The sort of paper that gave away free houses and butlers for a year.” From there he went to work for the Daily Express and then the Mail. Aged 23 the working class lad from Luton, found himself on Fleet Street, working as a theatre correspondent, lunching at the Savoy Hotel and getting sozzled on Barley Wine.
His first break in television came when he was asked to work on a show called To Stay Alive, the premise of the show being to tell the story of ordinary folk who had something greater in their lives than just their job. Neil immediately decided that Welsh hill farmers would fit the bill, so he went off to Wales to track some down. He described how back in those days outside broadcasts were a major undertaking, needing three vans and a crew of 25 to get the picture in the can. After a week of interviewing a farmer and filming his ‘sheeps’ he tells the chap where the programme is to be broadcast. “We can’t get a picture up here,” comes the response.
Neil worked on the popular Dee Time show, writing gags for the ex-pirate radio deejay, turned TV presenter Simon Dee. Dee Time was an experimental talk show, with an eclectic guest list that could include a 17-year-old with live snakes in the studio, to interviewing the Archbishop of Canterbury. After showing a clip Louis asked what he did on the show. “Avoid car crashes like that,” Neil replied.
In 1966 Neil began writing for leading show The Frost Report, working with the heavyweight of British comedy David Frost, with whom he would go on to make 1,500 shows. Reflecting on his dear friend’s death Neil said, “It caused me a surprising amount of grief, I was upset for months.”
Neil would go on to work with David Frost on tv and radio writing for Frost on the Phonograph, Frost on Sunday and Frost in America. “David was a natural animal, he knew just how to use television.”
Neil was a man in demand, his material was contributing to record viewing figures turning the on-screen stars of the shows into household names. 1977’s London Weekend Television Mike Yarwood Show, which he also wrote for, remains one of the highest all-time viewing figures in the UK with a staggering 26.3 million tuning in.
Neil’s second love after literature was music and he occasionally wrote a record column. He recalls a “wonderful” interview with Bing Crosby at Claridges. Afterwards, knowing Bing’s love for playing golf, they set up a photo where Bing had to chip a golf ball into a Claridges’ ashtray… the story has a funny ending. Neil, a sprightly 83 year old has the audience in fits of laughter, hanging on his every word.
“They’ve offered me a programme at the BBC,” Spike told him. “Very wise of them,” Neil responded.
“I didn’t set out to be a comedy writer, it was an enormous step from being a jobbing gag writer to working with a comic genius like Spike.”
Neil retold the now famous Swedish pole vaulter joke, the audience are laughing, before he can get to the pay off. The two would go on to create the sketch show Q5 and subsequent Q shows together. “He was a one-off comedy force, a good man, a good man.”
He described how Spike would get distracted after the second or third day of filming the show, how he’d start ad libing, which would cause untold chaos on set. During a bizarre moment the subject lurches from talking about a sketch selling the Queen’s manure, to exploding custard then to amyl nitrate flooring (an inadvisable choice if ever there was one).
“Why did you get on so well with Spike?” asked Louis, who is the perfect interviewer throughout, allowing Neil all the time to talk. “Cos I was cheap,” Neil said dryly.
There’s another clip from Q shown, this time with Parky (Michael Parkinson) guesting in a sketch set inside a massage parlour with Spike playing an unlikely madam. “Q5 was ahead of Python,” says Neil. When asked about Monty Python he replies,”Python was not particularly funny… I say that with all the envy in the world.” When pushed further he says of John Cleese, “An amazing performer, look at Fawlty Towers, a comic work beyond anything else.” There follows an anecdote about a time when John Cleese was presenting an award to author Salman Rushdie, the author having recently had a fatwa put out against him, had emerged from the kitchens to collect his prize… “We didn’t know whether to cheer or get under the table,” quips Neil.
A gloriously funny night, celebrating a little known comic talent, incredibly modest about his achievements, who has been making millions of people laugh for most of his working life.
There’s not the time to tell you about the time the Frost team crash landed a helicopter in the middle of Central Park, or when Muhammad Ali asked whether Neil would like to hear one of his songs, and the champion of the world proceeding to gently serenade him, all the way from La Guardia to the Midtown Tunnel.
There are two images that stick out from the night aside from that of Neil Shand himself, I think enjoying every minute of reliving his remarkable career, seeing some of his work rescued and now being warmly appreciated by the Heads Up audience at Kardomah 94. The two images of which I speak are the highly-respected actor Frank Thornton (Are You Being Served?) with barely a stitch on. And the line that really tickled me: “Plunger Bailey… he was excused shorts.” Brilliant, just brilliant.