Michael would continue working on Noel’s House Party as Executive Producer from the series commissioned to begin in October 1993. Having also worked on the Roadshow, it brought
to an end, a near six-year spell as director and producer of Noel’s Saturday evening programmes.
Letting his “baby” go wasn’t easy but as his career progressed, to become Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, it wasn’t too hard to let go.
“Whilst I was still exceedingly fond of the show, it took up all of my life. It was seven days a week. You’re working the show Monday to Friday, Saturday you’d do the show and Sunday, Noel and I would have a long phone call just discussing what had gone well, what hadn’t gone well and then I would write a running order for the next week because people needed it come Monday.
We’d done three series of the Roadshow already, which was almost as busy really, although it wasn’t live. It was still six days a week. By the end of series two, I’d done five years of it, much as I loved it and it was my baby, I needed to move on.”
The show would continue with Michael as Executive Producer until March 1998. The series continued to achieve solid ratings on BBC One however they weren’t as high as the earlier series could command. Keeping a format like House Party fresh was hard. “It eats ideas. You’ve got to keep coming up with new segments and keep your existing ones fresh. With each Gotcha, you’ve got to create a story and it’s got to be a new story.”
What about the television critics? The show wasn’t universally liked and from its launch, the television critics weren’t always on Noel’s side.
“You can’t help but take note. You do and can’t help but take note if they’re writing something nasty. The first reaction after outrage is: “Have they got a point?” If they haven’t got a point then that’s even worse. You couldn’t ignore them but read them and move on, otherwise
you’d drive yourselves potty.”
For the sixth series, in October 1996, the show made the move into TC1 at BBC Television Centre – the largest studio available to the production team. “It was purely a practical thing. It was what it was.” It did however, allow the team to welcome live music performers. “We could have done it (earlier). I certainly, when I was producing the show, wouldn’t have done it.
My view was that, put a band on, you can see that on any number of other shows on the television. For me, that’s going out to make a cup of tea time. But going back to wanting to keep the audiences attention at every point, even during the closing credits, the idea of having a band on, nah, they’re going to make a cup of tea or change channels.”
As the sixth series progressed and then ended in March 1997, the seventh series would launch in October 1997 with a brand-new set, having seen the previous one “blown up” at the end of series six. It was a seismic shift in both design and feel as the country house feel was lost for good. The ratings were starting to decline and whilst viewers weren’t just being lost on BBC One – there was a decline in ratings across the board on Saturday evenings, there was of course, concern.
“I was concerned. If I put my Head of Light Entertainment hat on, I was responsible for coming up with shows to fill those Saturday night slots and in a perfect world, we would have cancelled the House Party sooner. It’s really difficult therefore, as a creative head of the department to say we’re going to junk the House Party and put new show X in, which hopefully will do as well or better business.
Going back to the controller (of BBC One), your customer, your customer is going to be blooming nervous about that. “So you don’t want to do the House Party anymore and you want to do something unknown, and you think it’s going to do better business.” It’s a massively precarious business.”
As Head of Light Entertainment, Michael did commission and oversee a number of very successful programmes that would occupy the Saturday evening slot.
“I tried with the BBC, creating something called The Other Half with Dale Winton. One of the things I hoped might prove to be a good Saturday night show, and it was, but it was an as well as, rather than an instead of.
The thing we never did, I think “Presentation” got in the way, we always wanted to go seamlessly, the thing that ITV couldn’t do because they’d got ads. The Generation Game used to record on a Saturday even though it wasn’t live. We would get the Generation Game to go straight into the House Party – no credits, no nothing. You could do that from the recorded show, but also from a live show.
You could literally walk from one studio to the other. End of the Generation Game, no credits –
Jim Davidson just says: “Over to you Noel.” We’re off with the House Party. No time for trails.
No time for ITV, having adverts. How does that hold the audience?
But we were never allowed to do it.”
The series did however, as a live show, have some power and when it came to launching series three, they were able to trail it more – such was its popularity at the time. “It enabled you
to do things.
For the beginning of series three, a longer trail, for three weeks before the House Party,
we did these special trails which I shot with Sir Michael Hordern, and we called it
Sir Michael’s House Party. I even got the Radio Times to bill it as Sir Michael’s House Party.
Because we could.”
Michael’s other creation would go down as one of television’s most enduring characters. For seven years, you couldn’t miss him on Saturdays. He was Noel’s Gotcha disguise in series two of House Party, sidekick from series three to seven and also worked regularly on Live and Kicking and with Jim Davidson on the Generation Game.
He was the first “artiste” to go back to number one in the Christmas singles chart having already been there and had his own range of bestselling merchandise. Michael Leggo is the man responsible for creating Mr Blobby. The character that defined the 1990s.
“He’s a Marmite character. People either love him or hate him.”
Noel’s House Party was event television. It was the Monday morning water cooler chat. It was the playground discussion. Over the course of the last few years, the death of linear television has been widely discussed but it hasn’t yet come to pass. There are still formats that unite.
“We had a lot of freedom. I think, at its height, The X Factor – that was event television. It might be panto, but it’s bloody well-made panto. Look at Strictly, the amount of sheer expertise at every level, that goes into making Strictly – phenomenal.”