Ooh Betty! Michael Crawford reveals where the catchphrases came fromby Fiona Rae
In the 70s, Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, which is screening on Jones!, was once the biggest thing on television but, says Crawford, the accident-prone Frank Spencer was a hard act to follow.
Well I was completely inspired by physical comedy of silent films. Buster Keaton was my favourite. Laurel & Hardy were my equal favourites and then thereafter Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and a long list. All I could still watch today and be totally entertained and amused by. The French part of it, not really. I was impressed by French mime, but the beret actually had nothing to do with that – that was an idea that came about from the wardrobe supervisor, the designer, who also thought of the raincoat. But it was very useful, because it would cover up padding when I was doing stunts – as it was a long coat, I could always wear my knee pads, my arm pads and my American-footballer sort of hips that I wore if I was doing something that was really dangerous.
The series was famous for its stunts – what was the most dangerous stunt you ever did? Were you ever hurt?
I fortunately wasn’t hurt badly on any of them. I was battered and bruised, but we did rehearse them an awful lot and we had an extra day in the studio to rehearse, which was unheard of at the BBC. The most dangerous – I only thought of recently – was when we were in Bedfordshire and they were bringing down a 500-foot chimney from a brick factory and Frank had a job working on the site and was working away and a whistle started to blow and sirens went and he thought “oh it must be the lunch break”, but of course it was the fact that they were going to demolish a 500-foot stack. I really did like this stunt. The idea was that the stack starts to collapse from the bottom and it falls to the floor in front of me. So I stood behind it about 50 yards away and I saw the explosion and the chimney start to fall and it fell away from me, so I started to run towards the bricks that were now on the ground and I ran across the top of them all the way to where the top of the chimney had landed. That was the most dangerous one, because if you’re going over bricks that are moving, that are going from under you, your ankles are in danger, so I strapped my ankles until they were so tight I was absolutely rigid up to my knees. It still makes me laugh at how absurd I was.
Frank’s catchphrases entered the popular culture; were they a collaboration between you and the show’s creator Raymond Allen?
Yes they were, because a lot of the stuff came out as ad lib in rehearsals or when we were shooting pre-record. For instance, “ooh nice” was something that my aunts used to say when I was a baby – I lived with about four aunts and my mum and my nan when I was very, very small and all the men were away at war, so I was just spoiled. But I remember they always had these expressions – say we’re having cake this afternoon, my aunty would go “oh nice”. Or say we’re going to church on Sunday – “oh nice”. And if you said “oh we’re going to meet the Pope on Monday”, she’d have still said “oh nice”, so I thought this was a lovely expression that I could bring in. We were trying to find a polite word to say the cat had done a wee on the floor, so – I think this was mine – I said he’d “done a whoopsie”. Raymond would pick up on things, or I would pick up on something Raymond wrote, so we did work very, very well together, but I’ve got to say that the majority of the innocence of the writing was most certainly Raymond Allen.
In the final series you had more input into the stories – did you feel you needed to send the character in a different direction?
Well I was frightened that we were running out of ideas and so I did put some storylines in there. The stunts were more daring – I mean, I was flying a plane – so they were far more sophisticated, but Frank began to feel a little too knowing and I’m not sure that I was right to take him to where he was. I felt he was less innocent. So that was entirely my fault and not Raymond’s.
What did Betty see in Frank?
Honesty. Simplicity, for sure, but his honesty and his love. He was totally sincere, and I like that.
What’s your favourite memory of making Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em?
I think the team. All the best things I’ve ever done have been a team effort. Phantom was a team effort. I think my favourite memory was the comradery. We had so much fun – and not too much fun. We didn’t think everything was funny. We were very picky about what we did. We had really good actors, so it was great to work with such fine character actors in the very important supporting roles.
Was Frank Spencer a hard act to follow?
Well obviously, yes. I did a series afterwards called Chalk and Cheese and the public wouldn’t accept it at all. We had 18 million viewers, and the papers call it a failure. I couldn’t believe it! But I know what they meant – the public weren’t prepared to see me as this nasty little man, and I thought he was really funny. I loved the writing and enjoyed playing the character, but I was obviously being too self-indulgent and I should have known I couldn’t go from one end of the spectrum to the other.
SOME MOTHERS DO ’AVE ’EM, Jones!, Sky 008, Sundays at 7.35pm
This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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