NHP30 Meets Richard Latto (Part 1)

Released exactly 30 years on from the launch of Noel’s House Party, the archive documentary “A Decade of Crinkley Bottom” included highlights of the programme’s 169 episodes but also related clips from other programmes airing concurrently and most fascinating of all, “off air” footage from the studio before and after the show aired. 

It prompted a wave of nostalgia and affection on the occasion of the anniversary.  Its Producer Richard Latto – a producer/presenter for BBC South but credited also as “Noel’s House Party super fan” – spoke to NHP at 30 about how the compilation came about, how he put it together and how his childhood watching the programme provided the inspiration not only for the programme but also his career.

“I can remember watching it when growing up.   I can remember the Saturday Roadshow…particularly the one with Phillip Schofield.  I can remember it very clearly when he got his own back on Noel.  I can remember the set changing every week and thinking “that looks quite lavish and quite expensive and exciting”…you may not think that now if you look back!  I thought Saturday nights on BBC1 were just completely sewn up.  I remember Tony Robinson’s cartoon series Stay Tooned which was just fantastic, the Dad’s Army repeats and of course Roadshow and House Party but also Big Break.  It felt like it was proper event television and there was a sense of jeopardy, even with Roadshow which at the time being only 7 or 8 years old
I presumed was live.”

“When House Party started it really felt like there was something exciting there, and it was something that inspired me to get into the industry because it was different and exciting.  It was that whole thing about having a blank canvas and making it sing and come to life with whatever elements you can throw at it.  There was a format to it but there was so much that was so different and exciting and having that element to it was what attracted me as a child, but it was one of those programmes you watched with your family and things like Doctor Who weren’t really on then! 
I always looked forward to the Friday repeats of Doctor Who and The Man From UNCLE, and obviously Saturday nights.  I don’t think we ever missed it.  I would occasionally go to friend’s houses for sleepovers and they’d have Blind Date on and I’d think “what is this….programme!”.”

The young Richard’s favourite part of the programme won’t come as a surprise.  “Definitely the gunge tank, because you’d recognise the celebrities, there was that sense of jeopardy, and it was a very clever mechanic.  It’s something we do in radio programmes – you set something out at the beginning and refer back to it, whether it’s a competition or a guest or whatever.  Some of the Gotchas were really good, the celebrity guests…all of it! 

The whole NTV thing you just think “wow”…the risk of doing that and the sense of jeopardy.  Mark Lawson said in one of the clips I used that it was Orwellian, or Big Brother.  Because it was done on Noel’s House Party people underestimate how powerful that idea is, because if it was done on a more serious programme it could be quite dark!  But it still doesn’t take away the fact that it was really ambitious.  Those are the bits that I liked.”

“Things like the end of the series where they’d play jokes on Noel, or he lost control of the programme, they did things where he wasn’t aware.”  In only the third show, the previous week’s NTV victim Les Brown suddenly appears in vision outside the OB van and to Noel’s surprise, plays the same prank on him as Noel did the previous week: squeezing a pressure pad so a hidden water gun soaks him in the Great House, to the surprise and delight of the studio audience.  It’s a moment when you see the real potential of the programme and its willingness to rip up the rule book, and the clip was included in Latto’s compilation.  “That’s a really really good example, it’s a lovely clip.  Absolutely spot on. People feel “in it”.  God was that only show 3? Doesn’t that show how confident they were? 

Latto believes that the show’s appeal lay in communicating directly to the viewer at home, something he has experience of in his role presenting for BBC Radio Solent:  “It’s a bit like in radio where you make that bond with someone and you think “they’re talking to me and I’m in this club and there’s not many people who get these jokes”.  It becomes incredibly personal and you get to know these people.  But as with radio you have to be careful it doesn’t sound like a party the audience isn’t invited to, and that’s the danger.  The moment you start playing those tricks and stunts it’s like you’re wanting to get one up on the audience.  That’s I think when you lose people’s loyalty maybe.” 

When Richard joined the BBC, he found a way of re-living the show he enjoyed so much.  “One of the great things when you get into the BBC is you get to look through the archive.  I can remember finding any excuse with previous radio programmes saying “I’ll find a clip of that!” and using that as an excuse to ring up London ask for what was then VHS tapes to be sent out.  And they’d send out an incredibly battered VHS tape of Noel’s House Party, or the complete Punt and Dennis, and Fist of Fun…and I thought great, I can watch this again!  Things that were never commercially released at the time.  Then they digitised everything and it became a bit of a thing, and I was showing colleagues the behind the scenes stuff.  Graham Cole came in and I pulled out stuff he did with Kenny Everett, Doctor Who and obviously the Noel’s House Party stuff.”

As well as the nostalgic angle, Latto found watching the programme many years on now took on a wider significance.  “It was interesting from the perspective of someone in the industry to see how the programme changed and evolved, but also how it reflected how the culture, attitudes and climate of Britain had changed. Someone asked me what would you put in a time capsule to encapsulate what Britain was like, and Noel’s House Party was a really good example – not through all the wackiness and the skits and things, but it was one of the programmes that put real people on screen, and having them on the phone joining in.”

After a number of other archive projects including notable contributions to Doctor Who: The Collection on Blu-Ray, Richard decided he would attempt to do justice to the House Party’s legacy.  “I just kept thinking “when is the anniversary, well the 30th is coming up in a couple of years, I’m gonna start sifting through everything because there’s a hell of a lot of stuff there, and making a note of what’s interesting” and that then formulates into a very long list.  I then had discussions with various places, and it became apparent as it often does that it’s better to do things by yourself!  I spoke to a few friends about ideas to include, reached out to Michael Leggo, sent messages to Noel.  Noel I had met as he came into Radio Devon and did some programmes when I was at BBC Plymouth.  He was made aware of it.”

“It quickly became apparent that doing something for the History of the BBC guys was probably the best way to do what I thought was a really good celebration.  The pandemic was a bit of a blessing because it gave me the time to watch loads and loads of episodes, and my poor family had to watch a lot of them with me!  But my children really enjoyed them.  It was so nice to get into them again.  There were so many moments I couldn’t get into that celebration, such as the Indiana Jones spoof.  I was going through some rushes and I put up a still on Twitter of me watching an episode of Noel’s House Party on my TV in the front room and said “first Saturday off in a long time.  Catching up on some shows I’ve missed!”

“I then basically laid everything out in a timeline, chatted to my good friend Stuart [Manning] to talk about graphics and how to give it a stylised look.  I spoke to Ernie Dunstall who did the original theme, and also the Generation Game.  The theme at the end of my celebration is one that came from Ernie, and some people asked if it was a different version with more brass in it, and listening to it it probably is.” 

One of the most notable aspects of the documentary is the footage from other programmes covering the show’s success and downfall, including Points of View, Good Morning with Anne and Nick, The Late Show and Did You See. 

The latter was accompanied by an interview with Edmonds and Michael Leggo on an incomplete set about the importance of the live audience to the show, which at the time of transmission in January 1992 was still only a few weeks old.  “You can tell, can’t you, that they’re on a cloud there.  I think Michael said that as soon as the ratings came in, it was “wow!”.  It was clearly a good team – you can tell from the behind the scenes footage that everyone mucked in and everyone was incredibly proud. 

You can imagine what it must have been like to be at TV Centre those Saturdays – buzzing!” The footage from before this episode is more extensive than others, showing the audience arriving and not only Felix Bowness’s warm up but Production Manager Guy Freeman’s initial welcome to the audience. “That one probably has the most extensive behind the scenes footage for the lot, as I think they were trying to get into the show. That’s why Noel comes out and does that speech, which he does a few times, but it’s really finessed and well-articulated there. And that was all kept, which was great.”

Part 2