Monday, 6 March 2017
Carry On Blogging Interview: Tessa Le Bars
Back in January I had the great pleasure of interviewing legendary theatrical agent Tessa Le Bars. Tessa has been representing some of the best and most loved comedians and writers this country has produced since the 1960s. Tessa started her working life at Associated London Scripts and she was soon mixing with the likes of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Eric Sykes, Johnny Speight and one Mr Francis Howerd. With the centenary of Frankie Howerd's birth coming up, it seemed the perfect time to have a chat with Tessa about working closely with Frankie over the years and her memories of the great man.
First of all, I'd be really interested to find out how you became an agent?
I finished Grammar School and went on to take a secretarial course without really knowing what I wanted to do next. I went for an interview at Associated London Scripts and out of the blue they offered me the chance to be a "Girl Friday". I took the job without really knowing what to expect. When I first started I had general office duties and soon I was going to Frankie Howerd's house every week to help answer his fan mail. ALS was taken over in 1968 and became The Stigwood Organisation and I went with them into the new company. I continued with similar work but then moved into Accounts. In 1976, Beryl Vertue, who had first taken me on and was agent to Frankie and Galton and Simpson, decided to move on and became a hugely successful television producer. I took over and then set up my own agency in 1983, which I've been running ever since.
Can you tell me when you first came to work with Frankie Howerd and what projects he was working on at the time?
I met Frankie soon after I started at Associated London Scripts and we got on well from the beginning. I can remember him working on a show in the theatre at around this time called "Way Out in Piccadilly" and I think Cilla Black was involved in the show too. I used to go to the dressing room to help with his mail and Cilla would often be there. They were great friends and stayed in close contact until Frank died.
How would you sum up your experience at Associated London Scripts?
I was very young and I didn't really know what to expect or what would be ahead of me, I'd just left school and really just took things as they came along. I knew of most of the people who worked in the offices there but it was quite something to find myself working with them, even as a junior. I had been aware of Frankie Howerd for some time and remember going with my local youth club to see him in the stage musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in the 1960s. To suddenly find myself working with Frank was quite something but I just got on with it really.
What was Beryl Vertue like to work with?
It was Beryl who hired me in the first place. She had known Alan Simpson since school and they ended up working together many years later once he had started writing with Ray. Beryl first got to know Frankie when he was managed by Stanley Dale, or Scruffy Dale as he was known. Eventually Frank came over to work with Beryl. Beryl knew the business inside out and eventually went on to form her own production company, Hartswood Films which is still in business today. She is one of the biggest, most successful female television producers and still working today (Vertue is the Executive Producer of Sherlock). Beryl and I are still in touch and are really close friends.
I know Eric Sykes was a major player at ALS. I loved him in Sykes with Hattie Jacques. What was he like to work with?
Eric was very friendly, just like the rest of them really. I used to see them all in the offices most days and we'd all go out to lunch and Eric would be a part of that. There were the usual office parties and get togethers but there was a falling out which led to the agency splitting in 1968 as I mentioned before. When I moved as part of the Stigwood Agency, Eric decided not to join.
We all know Frankie's comedy persona but what was he like to be with?
Frank really had the same sort of personality off as he did on. He was always a funny man and good fun to be with. Like all of us, he did have a serious side and loved getting into heated discussions with people about life and what was going on in the world. I got to know him very well over the 28 years we worked together and after a while I was invited to family parties and gatherings and would regularly visit Frank at his home in Somerset and also take holidays with him at his place in Malta. Frank had his ups and downs and worried about his career but he kept coming back and he was great to be around.
Who was Frankie closest too amongst his contemporaries?
He didn't realise socialise with fellow comedians that much, other than those he worked with through ALS and Stigwood. People like Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes and Galton and Simpson.
i run a blog about the Carry On films. How important a part do you think those films played in Frankie's career?
Beryl was his agent when he did those films but I know they had a huge impact and are still very popular today. Frank only made two I think but everyone tends to think he was in all of them! The brand is so powerful really. I know he was paid more than the regular actors to make the two films he did. The only thing I was aware of really was that he, like many other of the actors in the Carry Ons, was annoyed about the lack of residuals given how often the films were shown afterwards.
I read that Frankie was quite surprised by his popularity amongst university students in the late 1980s. Why do you think they embraced his comedy?
Frank became a sort of a cult figure among all the students. I remember us producing special Frankie t-shirts and a range of merchandise and he was really very popular. He was getting a bit older by that stage and was genuinely delighted that they found him funny and they respected what he did. There was a lot of alternative comedy around at that time but there was Frank doing just what he'd always done. I was with him when he went to play the Oxford University Student Union, which was a very prestigious place to go. I remember vividly how nervous and fraught he was before he went on and although it was a huge success, he was glad when it was over!
What do you think Frankie would make of his continued popularity today?
I think he would be delighted that he had achieved such longevity and that people still enjoyed his work. Frank worked for a long time but he always respected his fans and was very kind to them, he was adored by the public and Frank was thrilled by the reception he got.
What role do you play in preserving his legacy in 2017?
I represent his recorded work, in television and on radio. If a television company want to use one of his shows or whatever they come to me and ask for permission to use it. I'm not involved in any personal way or as a manager as all of his family are now gone.
Will there be celebrations planned to mark Frankie's centenary this year?
No is the short answer! There won't be any physical celebration as far as I'm aware as so many of the people connected to Frankie are now no longer with us. Very few people are actually asking about the centenary which is a shame. I've prompted the BBC several times about doing something to mark it but they haven't showed real interest although I'm going to have another go. I was talking to Spike's agent the other day and it's his centenary this year too, so I might use that angle.
Finally, what's your favourite of all Frankie's performances?
I like the comedy horror film he made in the 1970s, The House in Nightmare Park. I also have a great deal of affection for Up Pompeii and a lot of his stand up work still really makes me laugh.
I'd like to thank Tessa for giving up her time to chat on the phone with me. It was a fascinating conversation and it's a thrill to feature her on the blog. I hope you have enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.