For years now I’ve been attending the BFI’s legendary Film Quiz. Taking place on the second Wednesday of each month at the BFI IMAX bar, it’s an entertaining, competitive and unbendingly alcohol-fuelled audio-visual experience helmed by the estimable Rachel, Michael and Rhidian (all followable on Twitter, hence the hyperlinks).
Being a BFI film quiz, it tends to attract some serious cinephiles and there’s one team in particular who carry the fight to an almost punishing degree on a monthly basis. Among this team, there’s one face – usually semi-obscured under a natty black pork-pie hat – who’s always stood out.
It took me a moment or two, but once I’d placed that face, I could barely hide my joy at being in the proximity of one of my childhood idols.
Anyone of a certain age will know (and love) Simon Hickson as one half of Trevor and Simon, the gloriously anarchic duo who occupied a regular spot on Saturday kids’ TV bulwark Going Live! (later Live & Kicking) during the late 80s and into the mid 90s. They played the improvisatory live TV game to the hilt, swinging their pants with reckless abandon, riffing ingeniously on contemporary pop culture and terrifying unsuspecting special guests. They were an influence on the work of Reeves and Mortimer and cleared the path for the next generation’s lords of misrule on kids’ TV; the lesser yet similarly uproarious Dick and Dom.
I caught up with Simon recently over a pint and some crisps in a charming Forest Hill boozer (not the Wetherspoon’s) to chat about his comedy career, his love of film and in what ways the cinema influenced his and Trevor’s inimitable brand of humour. What a lovely chap he was, too.
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GOING LIVE! AND KEY INFLUENCES
PPH (in bold): How did you get started on Going Live!?
Simon (in regular): Trev and I met at Uni where we started doing a double act. We decided we wanted to do that for a living. We gigged in London and a BBC producer saw us and said they were looking for acts for a new Saturday morning show. Our first audition didn’t go down too well and they said we only had one joke which was suitable, but we went through a stage of auditions. We got the job for four weeks, and those four weeks eventually became 10 years.
What you were doing was pretty different at the time. Who were the key influences on your style of comedy?
We liked double acts. We loved Morecambe and Wise. But a strong cinematic double act was Abbott and Costello. We used to read a lot about the background and the true stories of these people. We loved that Abbott and Costello were dysfunctional as a double act outside the films. Bud Abbott was completely bullied by Lou Costello and I think that the financial split between them was something like 70-30. Theirs was a skewed business partnership and the bullying character, you could argue, was the funny one although I guess they were both funny. We loved the violence of their routines. Take the Niagara Falls sketch, for example, which is based around Costello being in a prison cell, and this comedian Sidney Fields is an old hermit who’s driven mental by a tragedy that happened to him in Niagara Falls. Whenever the words “Niagara Falls” are mentioned he just strangles him. It’s very funny but very violent.
There were double acts like Mayall and Edmondson, too. At Uni our tutor was David Mayer and his daughter Lisa co-wrote The Young Ones with Ben Elton and Rik Mayall. We were also massively influenced by SNL, and in particular Dan Aykroyd. So many of Trev’s performances were an attempt to be Dan Aykroyd! Aykroyd, Steve Martin, John Belushi, The Wild and Crazy Guys. Stuff like that was a big influence on us.
And were there any films in particular that rubbed off on you?
Time Out got in touch with loads of comedians recently for their top 10 films. I had Neighbours in mine – weirdly it was directed by Rocky‘s John G. Avildsen – in which a nice middle class guy is living with his family and the neighbour from hell walks in. Surprisingly, John Belushi plays the nice guy and Aykroyd is the neighbour from hell which is not the way around you’d expect! It’s very creepy and very weird.
Another one we liked was John Landis’ Into The Night with Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer. Landis had been sued because the actor Vic Morrow and two young children were decapitated by a helicopter on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982. John Landis was sort of held responsible for this. And the next film he made was the grimmest comedy you’ll ever see. It fit into that yuppie syndrome that Scorsese mined in After Hours and Jonathan Demme did in Something Wild, but I think it’s the best one. Goldblum is an insomniac and his life goes horribly wrong. It’s really dark, really weird. And I liked that darkness.
These films became very “culty” for us and they certainly influenced the style me and Trevor were going for.
If you watch clips of Going Live! on YouTube now, some of your material feels quite close to the bone. Obviously when I was 7, 8, 9 years old much of it went straight over my head. Did you ever get a telling off?
Yes, we did. Looking back on it I do think to myself, “That was a bit cheeky”, and as an older man I wouldn’t have done that. When you’re young you don’t think about things too much; that’s what producers and directors are for. Look at the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand thing. Someone should have stepped in.
In doing comedy you should always do what makes you laugh. You shouldn’t try to second guess your audience. We did have producers who did research and said “kids want to see this or that” and we were even then of the opinion that you may not know what you want to see until you see it. Our angle was “you come into our world”. We were largely given free rein.
And did you get any complaints from the public?
We had a handful of complaints. Most were from people who were frankly nutters. When we did [hippie duo] The Singing Corner, we did a record with (60s folkie) Donovan, and we shot a video which went on [children’s news show] Newsround. Because it was on Newsround rather than Saturday morning TV, a Donovan fan saw it and wrote in to the BBC to complain, and said: “I was really appalled to see my hero Donovan openly cavorting with two homosexuals”. As far as I’m aware, we never stated the sexuality of The Singing Corner!
I recently watched the one with The Who’s Roger Daltrey (above), who seemed very game for a laugh. Do you have any good special guest stories? Anyone who couldn’t get down with the anarchic style?
The bigger the star, the better they were. It was perhaps the less well-known ones that were a bit insecure. We used to think “why are they being so arsey?” but to be honest if I’d come on somebody else’s show and they said “do this” and I didn’t want to do it, I’d defend my right not to. There was only two people – or groups of people – in 10 years that ever said no. One was Bros. The other was Jonathan Morris from Bread! Sam Brown (of Stop fame) got overwhelmed mid-sketch and walked off. Oh, and once we made Letitia Dean cry. She appeared in Trevor and Simon’s Summer Special in 1995 and we made her dress up as an aubergine. We did a mock up of a Hello magazine shoot in her home and it was possibly a bit cruel and she cried when we showed her it. We felt bad about that one.
In terms of big stars who did play along, Paul Simon came on on his birthday and he was really ill. But his record company insisted that we gave him a birthday cake. They had a cake made up of the American flag, which was weird as he’s not exactly “Mr George Bush”! They got us dressed up as The Singing Corner to give it to him. So I had to try and maintain the dignity of this Singing Corner character – essentially singing “la la la” in a high-pitched voice – while giving a cake to a man who’s really not well. All the kids were crowded around him singing happy birthday to him and one kid was whacking him with a balloon! Poor Paul Simon.
What’s your favourite comedy creation that you’ve done?
Oh, Ken and Eddie Kennedy the barbers. A friend of ours came up with the name. We did some one-offs that I liked, too. We did the ArtHaus, they were German art critics. Our boss thought it was too weird.
Do you still work with Trevor?
Yes, we do a podcast. We’ve also written a film. We got funding from the European media fund and now we’re just waiting for someone to make it. We’ve done various things. We wrote an episode of My Parents Are Aliens. Through the company Kindle (who we did My Spy Family with) we did the film script I mentioned. It’s always been my dream to write a film. They went for it, we pursued it and now we’re trying to get it made. It’s frustrating. We’ve had lots of very nice “no’s” and what we need is a very nice “yes”!
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You’re a regular at the BFI Film Quiz, would you describe yourself as a big film buff?
Yes, I’m a film buff, or film fan. For my age, I definitely am. I think there are times in your life when film matters more than others, and films can then inform what become your world. When I do the film quiz, the one thing I always lose out on is “teen 80s” films, anything that’s got Huey Lewis and the News in it. The others’ll know every answer and there’s ones I don’t know anything about.
In terms of actors, I had a look at your De Niro piece today, I thought it was fantastic, and it really made me nostalgic for the early De Niro. His early films had the most profound effect on me and liking film. I tend to go with your piece which argues “let’s hope he’s got one or two gems left in him, but give the old guy a break! He’s allowed to make rubbish films if he wants”.
When I was a student in Manchester they showed double bills, and they tended to be films that were two or three years old. I remember seeing things like Mad Max 1 & 2 together and being really excited but perhaps the one that blew me away was when I went to see The Exorcist – which is one of my favourite films now but I’d not seen then. The film that was on with it I couldn’t care less about because I’d never heard of it. It was called Taxi Driver. That’s the weirdness of how you can be thrown into something. I was 18 and it was like when you see something you’ve never seen before, and it blows you away, and it’ll stay with you forever.
For me, it’s all about going to the cinema and being alive when you’re watching something. I want to see films where the directors, the actors etc feel that it’s a vocation. They had to do it. Nicolas Cage, for example. There’s a man with passion!
What would your film of the year  be?
I’d pick Melancholia as my film of the year. Though I thought Antichrist was bollocks. Lars von Trier is a cheeky filmmaker but I felt for him that Melancholia was quite heartfelt. To enjoy the film and get something from it, it helps to be tolerant to a filmmaker who’s going to indulge in very personal stuff. I’m no expert on depression but I do feel that film tackled it well – it got to grips with something real that people don’t like to talk about. I also felt that it was very honest.
You run a film blog – 20th Century Mummified Fox [named in honour of a mummified fox Simon once found on top of a car] and in it you mention that the last film you walked out of was Cop Out. That bad, huh?
Cop Out was atrocious. The only other film I’ve walked out of was Hard Bodies, which I shouldn’t have walked out of, because I was young enough to appreciate a film with gratuitous nudity. Cop Out was appalling. It tries to be a knowing buddy movie, but look to the great ones like 48 Hours and Midnight Run, there’s a real dynamic between two characters who shouldn’t be together. It was truly appalling. Kevin Smith gets Tracey Morgan, who’s great in 30 Rock, to do all of these movie references and it’s just embarrassing. Find me a movie nerd who actually thinks it’s good rather than awful. It’s the worst film I’ve ever seen! I know a lot of people love Kevin Smith, and I know a lot of people laughed at Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back… it’s funny but overall he’s one of those who’s got loads going for him, but he just can’t direct a movie.
A film that annoyed me was The Tree Of Life. The main thing I thought was – oh, Terrence Malick why don’t you become a photographer? I didn’t have a clue what he was up to. I think more people should say that, but instead they like to say it’s profound. What the fuck was Sean Penn up to? He was using Sean Penn as a Sean Penn avatar. All we had to go on was: he’s Sean Penn, he’s moody and he’s got great, wavy hair. It’s frustrating because Penn’s much better than that. And another thing, it’s got all this bloody flickering light. That made me angry. Oh, and if there’s a Christian message in the film, that’s fine. But tell us what it is!
Another film I didn’t like was The Hangover: I thought it was shit. It really annoyed me. The film I’m a fan of is Very Bad Things, which wiped the floor with The Hangover. In Very Bad Things, these guys are terrible, but they’re traumatised by guilt. It’s really dark. The films I find funniest are very dark.
I’m a big fan of these British film oddities that fall by the wayside – like the Gordon Ramsay cooking comedy Love’s Kitchen. And Kill Keith [a comedy-horror starring Keith Chegwin!]. And you’ve written a treatment for Kill Keith Vol. 2. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
That’s a weird thing. That’s very odd. I’ve got a weird history with Keith Chegwin. Trev had told me about Kill Keith, and I thought he’d made it up. So I went away and wrote up an idea for a Kill Keith movie with me and Trevor. And he said, “No, it exists!”. But I put the treatment up on my blog ‘cos I thought it was funny. The people behind Kill Keith got in touch with me and we got invited to the premiere. I kind of enjoyed it and thought I should write a review of it. The truth is, it’s not without its merits, but it would have been cruel to write about it. I think it was a missed opportunity, not what it should have been. It would have been good if it was a bit darker, or more consistent in tone.
When we were on Saturday morning TV Keith Chegwin used to go around banging on people’s doors, and he did that to me. In my youth I might have been a bit precious, and I thought “well he shouldn’t do that”. Now I wouldn’t care. I did meet him and did some filming but I never let him forget it! So, yes, I wrote a jokey thing of Kill Keith where we actually kill him.
For you what makes a great British comedy?
I’m a real miserablist when it comes to comedy, so that element I guess! I’ve been watching Life’s Too Short recently. It has five minutes of greatness, but other than that there’s not much to it; nothing that Ricky Gervais hasn’t already done. Rev’s very good. I’m a massive Stewart Lee fan. When I watch him do his stuff I wonder why other comedians even bother.
According to your website you’re a handy pool player. The Americans have had The Hustler and The Color Of Money. Why hasn’t there been a great British pool film?
Not pool, but snooker. You’ve obviously never seen Number One, then? Well, neither have I, to be honest. It clearly has an Alex Higgins character in the lead part, and guess who plays him? What Irish personality from the 80s would you put in it?
No… it was Bob Geldof! There is a good one out there somewhere, I’ve just not seen it.
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And with that passing reference to a snooker film starring Bob Geldof that neither of us had seen, we decided it was time to wrap up the interview and enjoy another pint and some more crisps. If you’re keen to re-acquaint yourself with more of the Trev and Simon oeuvre, check out these links: