NHP30.com Meets Michael Leggo!

They say you should never meet your heroes. The chance to meet those you admire
often turns out to be a huge disappointment. Wrong place. Wrong time. You get
tongue tied. You forget what to say.

Not at NHP30.com. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to two people who have
influenced my life and career to a significant degree. One of them, the host of one of
the most influential light entertainment shows of all time, the other created it.
Together, they formed a partnership that would last for more than a decade. One on
screen, one in the gallery. Their creative minds took on the might of ITV in the
Saturday night ratings battle and won – convincingly too.

If you know even the smallest amount about Noel’s House Party, you’ll know the
name of the man who masterminded the format and also, created one of television’s
most iconic characters – Mr Blobby no less.

It’s fitting that as NHP30.com celebrates one year online, our discussion with the
man who essentially, created the programme goes live. Much like the show itself.
Michael Leggo first spoke to me in 2005 however, when the curators of NHP30.com
were considering how to commemorate their first year online, it was suggested that
we reach out to the man who was essentially, the brains behind the format –
along with the man whose name is synonymous with Saturday night television.

Noel Edmonds.

Michael and Noel first worked together on an early series of the Late Late Breakfast
Show before Michael moved on to other programmes, however, it was a meeting at
a party in the autumn of 1987 that would bring them together as a long-term
producer and presenter duo.

The BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment at the time Jim Moir, told Michael that he’d
be working with Noel on 16 shows in the autumn of 1988.
The simple premise – find Noel a format.

They actually created two however, the latter of these would go on to become
iconic and after a repeat on BBC Four in August 2022, the appetite to enjoy
and remember Noel’s House Party has never been greater.

To celebrate one year of NHP30.com, we spoke to the man behind it all. Director.
Producer. Executive Producer. Creator of Mr Blobby. Michael Leggo.
Michael learnt a great deal from his father who was a film cameraman. “My father
worked at the BBC and then went freelance.

Funnily enough, at the BBC, people picked up on my surname however, my father
had nothing to do with me getting into the BBC, he left many years before I arrived
but they would sort of bow down.

He was an extremely talented cameraman. From the age of around 13 or 14, I thought I
wanted to be a cameraman and then, I suddenly worked out that actually, directors
had more fun and more power – how stupid was I?!”

When he was seven or eight, Michael went out on location, watching his father
working. “There were people like Dick Emery, Michael Bentine – those were comedy
stars. I remember when I was very small, my father taking me on location, filming for
the Michael Bentine Show “It’s A Square World”, and it was just fantastic. Those
were the earliest influences. The obvious ones too, as one grew up, Morecambe and
Wise, The Two Ronnies – those sorts of things”.

In 1988 however, a very fruitful creative partnership would begin. Michael and Noel
met again at a party and discussed what they would like to do in the future. Michael
was himself, tasked with finding a format for the autumn that Noel would present by
his boss at the time, the Head of Light Entertainment Jim Moir.

The show that followed was The Noel Edmonds Saturday Roadshow – launching on
3rd September 1988. It saw Noel return to Saturday evenings.
The Saturday Roadshow would end in December 1990 after three successful series.
“Primarily, it was because Jonathan Powell, who was controller of BBC One said to
Jim Moir: “I want a people show from you”.

He had seen what Blind Date was doing on the other side, or Jeremy Beadle –
they’re getting huge figures, whereas the Roadshow was just doing medium to good
figures and Jim Moir said: “I think we’ve got a people show already, in the
Noel Saturday show, it just needs re-versioning.”

Jim then tasked me to re-invent it. Noel and I went down to his place in Devon and
drank a lot of wine, and it came to the Sunday afternoon, we sat down to talk about
what we were going to do. The decision to move it to one permanent location was

The new format, Noel’s House Party, would go live for the very first time on Saturday
23rd November 1991 at 6:15pm.

“You weren’t tied by having to establish a comic plot, do something with it and
resolve it at the end. It was more, Noel is talking to camera, about this fantastic
Gotcha he’s got and then the bloody doorbell goes and there’s Bo Derek! All this
other stuff, world famous celebrities appearing at the door, as a blooming nuisance.”

“Noel understood something that a lot of performers wouldn’t.
What would happen in that three-minute door sketch, was basically,
we had someone phenomenally famous and it was three minutes of insulting Noel.

The celebrity is almost always getting the funny lines and Noel’s got the feeds.
The thing that Noel understood, which as I say, many performers wouldn’t, is that if
people come on and are funny on your show, you look good.
He had many other places in the show, in which to shine.”

The format was condensed onto a sheet of A4, in order for Michael and Noel to meet
with Jim Moir to essentially, discuss the idea for the new show – crucially on this
occasion, it would be live. “There’s always stage fright. If you don’t have those
nerves, then you’re probably in the wrong business. At the risk of sounding arrogant,

I don’t think we were worried that he was worried. We thought we had a good idea
and we’d spent long enough with each other creatively to recognise each other’s
good ideas and bad ideas. We didn’t take it any more seriously than we already did,
we knew it would be a disaster to muck it up.”

“When it started and it was a huge success immediately, that took us totally by
surprise. When we sat down, years before, to create what became the Saturday
Roadshow, live was the first thing I wrote on my pad and live was the first thing I
crossed off. Unless you’ve got a reason to be live, why do it live? It always looks
better for an edit.
You can always make something tighter, sharper, stronger, shorter.

You can enhance the whole thing in an edit. You’ve got to have good reason
to go live. Having decided on this revamp from Roadshow to House Party, our
instinct was to go live but I wasn’t there yet. We had two elements that needed to be
live. Like the gunge vote and also Grab A Grand. They weren’t enough on their own.
I needed one more good idea. If I had three reasons to be live, I’d feel comfortable.
When eventually, NTV surfaced, that was the “Right okay, we’re going live then.””

The show would enter the Saturday night ratings battle as a complex live production.
Michael would act as producer and director. There was of course, the small matter of
the ratings battle with ITV who had a number of successful formats at the time.
There was a pressure to deliver.

“Ultimately, the controller of BBC One is your customer. If the customer is saying I
want something else, then you have got to deliver, otherwise they’ll say the
Roadshow has been nice but it’s not big enough and we’ll do something else. That’s
where the awareness comes from. You’ve got to deliver. It was a fair point. We had
plateaued with the Roadshow really.”

“The House Party was like a train – out of control, running towards the buffers and
would it run out of track before it hit the buffers – would it or would it not? To the
extent that, with sheer bravado, we’d do a short sketch at the end of each show with
Frank Thornton as the irate neighbour coming to complain yet again about
something Noel’s doing. I thought, closing credits are boring – let’s entertain them all
the way through the closing credits.

You had to backtime, you know that Frank’s sketch lasted say fifty-five seconds,
so you had to be starting Frank fifty-five seconds before the end of the show,
whatever had been happening in the show or whether you were overrunning or whatever.
Don’t give them reasons to tune away.”

The show was an immediate hit. It was however, by common consensus, launched
with very little fanfare. “What was trailed was decided by a department at the BBC
called “Presentation”. What I did do, was what I called, internal ads, which were little
trailers, for things coming up in the show. This was quite new at the time. People
weren’t doing it, but people do it all the time now, on almost any show.

They weren’t really around, I just got the production manager who was doing
that part of the edit, just give me something really slick about NTV, he and the editor
would put together thirty seconds about NTV, the Gotcha or whatever it was.

The House Party is playing to such a homogeneous audience, we always operated
on the idea that if you don’t like this item, there’s another one coming along
in a minute and just look at this thing we’ve got in ten minutes time.
If you look at the breakdown of any household, at that time, 6:00pm on a Saturday night,
roughly, a high proportion of the population is in.

They might have just got in, been out shopping or been to a football match or
whatever, they might be preparing to go out, they might be having their evening
meal, they might even be having their meal on their laps in front of the telly. The vast
proportion at that time are in. You’ve got to appeal to as broad a cross-section of the
audience as you can.”

When the series returned in the autumn of 1994, it moved to a later timeslot –
starting as late at 7:10pm for a few episodes, before moving to 7:00pm. A timeslot it
would occupy until it ended in 1999 – aside of the 6:55pm start time for the sixth
series. “I didn’t like it being moved around. I always thought that our best slot was
6:15pm and I made a plea that could we please keep 6:15pm whenever possible so
you know where to find it. Those are the sorts of battles; some you win
and some you lose.”

The earlier series occupied a timeslot at least on average an hour earlier and whilst
the series was launched with limited fanfare, the success of the show surprised
everyone with the first series ending with eighteen episodes and not the originally
commissioned sixteen. “I remember myself, and Noel tells this quite frequently,
because I used to produce and direct it, the first series of the House Party, and at the
end (of the very first edition), I ran down the gallery stairs and joined him on the set
and gave him a big hug and I said: “Well, I think we got away with that one.”

It was amazing and sort of, it’s a double-edged sword, because it means you can do
anything you like virtually, but it’s a voracious animal – you’re going for that multi-
segmented show. With the House Party, part of its appeal was we’re always going to
surprise you. Keep pulling rabbits out of the hat, the hat can get a bit worn. That was
a pressure.

We could be anything we wanted. I had a freedom as a producer/director, on a Saturday night,
there was nobody from the channel behind me, I didn’t have Jim Moir sitting behind me or compliance, or anybody else, commissioning editors – none of that.
By comparison, now, you’d have a raft of people sitting behind you in the gallery.

I had such freedom. I probably didn’t realise quite how much freedom I had at the time. We just did stuff that made us laugh.”

“Here we are, some thirty years on, funnily enough, the depth of affection has been
born out. The other thing you notice, going into the studio, given it is a live show, the
studio operation itself is blooming slick. You’ve got this giant techno-crane which
takes about five people to drive it. That came from the early days. I come from the
school of television that says if something feels the right length, chop it in half.

When I was wearing both producer and director hat, if I am sitting there in the director’s
seat and we’re live, I can think it faster that I can say it – so by the time I’ve said it,
it’s already late.”

Michael was the director and producer of the Noel Edmonds Saturday Roadshow
and also took on both of these roles for the first two series that Noel’s House Party
was on air. When you’re so closely allied to a show and have two areas of
considerable responsibility, particularly when you consider that the latter was live for
an average of twenty weeks a year, is must have been hard to enjoy it –
or so you’d think.

“Once we’d done the NTV reveal. That was the most nerve-wracking point.
What is this person like? The NTV producer or a researcher would have met them
surreptitiously and would have reported back, and obviously you’d have the
testimony from whoever had nominated them, but until you got that reveal out of the
way, until it happened, I couldn’t fully enjoy the show, even though ninety-nine times
out of one hundred it was fine. A good reaction. I could enjoy it then. Then we were
flying, once that was done and dusted.”

The new series needed something big, innovative and new. Michael realised that to
go live, there needed to be a third live element and he was keen to establish what
the third item was. The answer was the ground-breaking NTV.

“It was NTV, along with the Gotchas. On the Roadshow, we didn’t do a Gotcha every
week because they were blooming difficult to do. In a rather grandiose gesture, I said
we’re having a Gotcha every week which was almost a bigger mountain to climb
than NTV. Those two, NTV and a Gotcha every week, those were the
two big drivers.”

“Noel Television” along with the Gotchas. The two big drivers that turned the show
into a phenomenon. “The definitive answer – Noel Television. (NTV).
You heard it here first.” says Michael.

“There are so few performers who could do what Noel does. That ability to think on
their feet. Engage the viewer in a personal way. Terry Wogan is the only other
person I can think of, off the top of my head with that same rapport with the
television audience.”

Having decided on a format, having made the decision to go live, having come up
with a title, the next element to get right was what kind of home would Mr Edmonds
live in? Michael had his own vision and thankfully so did the set designer Robert
Steer who would work on seven of the eight series.

Michael explains: “I loved it. The big country house which was what we’d envisaged.
It had solidity to it and funnily enough, many years after we’d finished, a chap who
started at the BBC with me but then went on to form his own company doing scenic
construction, he wanted to meet me about something else and he said: “By the way,
I’ve brought you a present because we’re breaking up the old House Party set.”

If you remember, on the camera right, if you’re in the studio audience, looking at the
right-hand side of the set, the back wall of that looked like old bookcases, full of
leather bound books, and he brought me a framed section of a dozen or so book
spines and they’ve actually got, written on them, punning names of books, like
instead of Goldfinger, it was Blobfinger, all things with Blobby. Martin Blobblewit and
so on – something that no one would have seen, but I have still got it in my study.”

The show’s popularity grew and by the second series, it was taking on and beating
all before it to the extent that a live House Party was broadcast on Boxing Day 1992
to just under sixteen million viewers – the highest figure that the show would ever
reach. Broadcasting live to the country on such a special day didn’t go un-noticed.
“It was a pinch yourself moment. We all knew, the ratings bit was really important.
I suppose, naturally competitive. Brilliant.”

Part 2