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Colin's Sandwich: Adam Tandy Speaks

A while ago for a comedy website I used to run, I interviewed Adam Tandy, who worked on the second series of Colin's Sandwich, and who has in recent times worked as producer of a lot of Armando Iannucci projects, including the fabulous The Thick Of It and In The Loop. As you can see below, Adam was very helpful, and a pleasure to correspond with. It's amazing to think how close the second series came to not being finished, especially as it was made with such care. The swear word in the funeral scene is very well over-dubbed also...

How did you come to work on Colin's Sandwich?
In 1987 I'd worked on the pilot of John and Jamie's live topical sketch show called Hello Mum! as Floor Assistant, but I'd left the BBC soon afterwards. I returned in 1988 as an Assistant Floor Manager on short-term contract, and had done a series of Last of the Summer Wine, followed by other bits and pieces. Colin's Sandwich was my next major assignment. So I suppose it was a case of being allocated to the programme. That was how it worked at the BBC back then - you might get requested to work on a programme, but ultimately it was down to your manager to decide to which programme you were going. Kerry Waddell, who had done the first series, was unavailable so I got the job on the second series.

What were your most enjoyable experiences during the production?
Most of the good experiences were to do with the excellent spirit and teamwork of the cast and crew. Everyone from the film crew to the studio crew to the production office and the cast pulled together to make the show work. If there was a downside it was the state of industrial relations between the Unions and the BBC (see below).

I thought the scripts were very fresh and modern. Very BBC 2 and not very sitcom. These days, Colin's Sandwich would perhaps be made as a comedy drama. It wasn't too far from the style of A Very Peculiar Practice which was being made at the time. But Colin's Sandwich had an audience reaction (laugh) track. A BBC Comedy without laughter was anathema to the channel controllers at the time. Of course, we ended up making the second series without a laugh track, and then recording a live audience after the programme was finished.

What problems did you face?
Well, our main studio recordings (with an audience) were scheduled for Fridays, and the unions had decided that Fridays were the best day to hold a series of one-day lightning strikes, in order to cause the most disruption to BBC activities (Friday was the busiest day in the studios, and also for OBs setting up for Saturday sport, etc.). We had already been hit by lightning-strikes while we were out filming, and it was a funny kind of experience. Most of the crew were union members, so everyone was going to down tools at the specified time. Yet knowing that, the team would all work at double quick time all day to try and get as much of the schedule shot before the strike started. And before the strike started the production team had to reorganise the production schedules, and everyone was very co-operative about taking all the changes on board at the last moment. On the one hand it was like hard-line shop-steward militancy and on the other it was like the spirit of the Blitz. So once rehearsals started we would spend the whole week getting ready to record the programme in front of an audience, then put up the sets, move into the studio and start camera rehearsals on Friday morning. Around 1200 the word would come from the union strike committee that they would start striking at tea-time. So the BBC managers would send the audience home when they turned up, the sets stayed in the dark studio and for the first two weeks we would reconvene on the Saturday with the same crew and cast (all on overtime or recontracted at some expense) to record the programme without an audience. But it was slow going.

At the same time the BBC had been conducting a huge refurbishment of the studios at Television Centre, but kept finding bits of asbestos insulation all over the place, necessitating hugely costly closures for encapsulation and removal. But everyone was very sensitive about any exposed mineral material or mysterious dust, and I think it was the middle of week 3 or 4 when suspected asbestos was found in the set and prop storage area. Instantly the area was sealed off, and it became impossible to get either the set or the props out of storage and into the studio until they were all checked over and cleaned by a specialist firm. Another studio bit the dust. There was another strike the following week, followed by a strike on the day after (which meant we had to vacate the studio for another show).

By this time we hadn't completed a single show, and huge costs were mounting. It became apparent that Colin's Sandwich and another programme (I forget which, possibly Grandstand) had become a target for the unions. Finally, on the fifth Friday (I think) there was another strike. We started to make preparations to come in on the following day, when suddenly the word came down from the MD: cancellation. They knew the unions weren't going to give up until they'd caused real pain to the BBC. There was idle talk of BBC bosses offering up Colin's Sandwich as a kind of sacrificial lamb. The following day the unions settled their differences with the BBC but we discovered that all the servicing departments had been instructed by senior management to send our sets off for destruction and return all our props. There was no way we could get everything re-made and re-hired for a remount, even if we had been allowed - cancellation meant cancellation, and the team disbanded. I went off to work on a new series called One Foot In The Grave.

Some months later, the comedy department allowed John and Jamie to rehire everything for a remount in November and I left OFitG early to help out. Two more days of rehearse/record to finish the series. Probably the most expensive comedy series made that year, it took us 14 studio days to record 6 half-hours. And still it wasn't finished, as we had none of that important audience laughter on the edited programmes. So we went back into the studio (this time at the Greenwood Theatre near London Bridge) and played the shows to an audience of foreigners and students and I floor-managed. They laughed. A bit.

Did you learn any important lessons for the future?
Well, I learnt a few things about industrial relations and how to motivate a crew in difficult circumstances. I learnt the importance of creating a strong production team and ensemble cast. From a creative point of view, I think I learnt that some comedy shows work better without audiences. The 'Frank' episode is a perfect example of this. If BBC Worldwide ever release the series on DVD I think it would be great to offer the original pre-audience soundtrack as an option. If it still exists. The other thing I would do is reinstate the F word in the funeral parlour scene. We all felt very strongly about it at the time because it presaged Colin's breakdown in the next episode, but were eventually over-ruled by Alan Yentob. That kind of swearing wasn't allowed in comedy programmes back then. That definitely still exists. We left it on tracks 3 and 4 of the master just in case. Oh, and never try and get young Iranian students to understand middle-aged, middle-class humour about the futility of life in a dead-end white-collar job.

Have you worked on any comedy productions since 'Colin's Sandwich'?
I was fortunate enough to work with John and Jamie again on all of KYTV, and I've worked on shows like Bottom, Saturday Night Armistice, The Man From Auntie, Fist of Fun, Newman & Baddiel, I'm Alan Partridge, The Armando Iannucci Shows and a lot of other stuff in more managerial capacities.

Did you ever find out what Colin's Sandwich meant?
The eponymous sandwich is the one Colin lives in. Sandwiched halfway between his creative life as a writer and his rat-race life as a British Rail employee. Or that's what I always thought. You might think otherwise.

A few months later, Adam also sent me a studio schedule which is reproduced below, and gives a real picture of the problems Series 2 faced during production:

The summer of 1989 - this is how the strike hit us.......
Friday 23rd June - Strike 1500
Saturday 24th June - Strike 1100
Friday 30th June - Asbestos problem - couldn't record a thing until 1930!
Saturday 1st July - Remount due to asbestos
Friday 7th July - Strike 1030
Saturday 8th July - Remount
Friday 14th July - Strike 1430
Saturday 15th July - Strike 1100
Sunday 16th July - Remount
Friday 21st July - Strike 1230
[Saturday 22nd July should have been a remount]
[Monday 24th July should have been a remount]
Thursday 27th July - Remount
Friday 28th July - Remount
12 days in the studio and three episodes achieved.......

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Great interview about a show with precious little information floating around. I remember this from when you first published it; I’ll gladly spend some time enjoying it again.

By Phil
April 23, 2009 @ 11:14 pm

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