The T-Room
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Tales From the T-Room

An Email Interview with Lee Pressman and Grant Cathro

Lee's Response
Grant's Response

Well, what can I say? What a nice pair of blokes! Approachable, good humoured, and, above all, honest! I am so grateful to them both for being so supportive of this, my humble T-Room, and I really value their input.

I got in touch with Lee and Grant a few days ago now, because I thought it would be really interesting to have an insight into the process by which T-Bag was devised and produced. I expected nothing like the kind of support I got from both of them. Both offered to help with the T-Room in whatever way they possibly could and both read the comments that you have left in the Guestbook and were very touched by your response. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to them both for taking the time to answer the questionnaire that I sent to them.



Lee's Responce
Q. Where did the idea behind the T-Bag series come from? What was the first spark of inspiration?
A. The idea for the series started when the head of children's television at Thames, Marjorie Sigley, decided that she wanted to make a series of "educational" shows about words and letters of the alphabet. The first of the shows was "Words words words", a mishmash of cobbled together sketches, songs and poems. I had been writing BBC's "Play Away" (a far superior light entertainment fest), and Thames TV blatantly asked me whether I had any unused stuff in my bottom drawer that I could contribute to "Words" since they were a tad short on material. Little did I know that many other writers were being asked the very same question... and one of them was Grant Cathro. And that's where we met.After that short-lived series, Marjorie asked me to come up with an idea that would feature letters of the alphabet this time. I pitched something which I believe was called "Dotty in Dictionaria" - a story about a young girl who travels across a board game where every square features a different letter of the alphabet. There were various suggestions for adventures such as "Revenge of the Killer B" on the 'B' square, etc. and so on.When I was given the go ahead to develop the series (at very short notice), I contacted Grant and asked if he wanted to help write it.

Q.  How did the character of T-Bag develop from the very first idea to when she finally appeared on screen?
A.  Right from the very beginning there was always a character called T-Bag living in the 'T' square. And before the birth of T-Shirt, one early idea paired her up with a puppet called Alfie Bat.

Q.  How long did each series take to write? Did you collaborate on every episode, or did you write some and Grant write others?
A.  I can't remember exactly how long each series took to write - maybe six to ten weeks, not sure. Under pressure, we often had to crank out two episodes per week. For the first six years, I think we wrote all of the episodes together. After that, we often planned out a whole series then maybe wrote six together and two each separately. Towards the end, we were probably writing two together and four each separately.

Q. Where was T-Bag filmed? How were the sets arranged (i.e. were they all constructed at once ready for filming, or was the series filmed in sections, e.g. the T-Room scenes filmed together before dismantling it for the next set to be constructed and filmed)?
A.  Every episode was filmed at Thames TV Studios at Teddington Lock, mostly in the unbelievably tiny studio 3 (while next door they were filming Benny Hill). Towards the end they started letting us into the big boys studio. At the beginning, the rules were very rigid. We were only allowed three sets per episode (and one of them was the T-Room). So if we were doing say an Egyptian story, we would have the outside of the pyramid, inside the pyramid, and the T-Room scenes would always be recorded last. That was in case we overran - then the following week, we would be able to catch up the missing T-Room scenes at the end. By then, of course, we could have moved on to a cowboy story, and the pyramid set would have been scrapped already. Sometimes, by the end of a run, the poor actors would be recording missed T-Room scenes from half a dozen different shows.

Q. Whilst filming was taking place, did you have much say in the process, delivery of lines, etc., or was this completely at the discretion of the director and performers? Were you pleased with the finished series?
A. Alas Grant and I were young and without much clout. We didn't really hit it off with the original director, and, and without any consultation, many changes were crudely made to our scripts during the early series. Ultimately we were more often or not disappointed with the results because most people working on the show knew how much better it could have been.

Q. Was the series initially intended to be a trilogy? I am referring to Debbie's line in "Bounces Back", when she states that T-Bag is gone for good and won't "bother any of us ever again".
A. Nobody knew how long the show would last at the beginning. Because the ratings were so phenomenal, it just kept getting recommissioned.

Q. Why did Elizabeth Estensen leave the series? Did she feel that it was time for a change? Did you feel that it was time for a change? Or was she written out so dramatically in "Revenge of the T-Set" that it would have been impossible for her to return?
A. Liz Estensen was, and still is the most wonderful actress (see how we used her again as Daphne Fawkes-Bentley in Mike & Angelo). We loved working with her and never wanted her to go. But the working environment became so troubled and uncomfortable that after five years she chose to leave.

Q. If Tallulah or Tabatha were about today, what would they be doing (apart from the obvious career choice for mad, power-crazed individuals who think they rule the Universe - traffic wardens)?
A. Interesting that you should ask me this. In front of me I have an outline entitled "T-Bag (the series that was never made)". It gives an indication of what might have been:

It's finally happened; T-Shirt has broken free from the evil clutches of T-Bag. Now he's leading a normal life as a teenager in a small suburban town, and he's got a nice little earner on the go - "Tommy's" - a teashop-cum-cafe. It's a guaranteed money spinner for T-Shirt, the best tea maker in the land.

The place is such a success that T-Shirt advertises for staff. Enter a straggly old bag lady pushing a supermarket trolley seeking work.

It's some time before he recognises her. Can this sad, pathetic creature really be T-Bag, the one-time omnipowerful high priestess of the T-Set? It's true. Down on her uppers, T-Bag sees the fateful encounter as her one last chance to seize her former glory. T-Shirt alone knows the teamaking secrets that can restore her magical powers. So it is that she worms her way into T-Shirt's employ and in no time at all, has him wrapped around her little finger.

Her megalomania knows no bounds. She forces T-Shirt to build her a time machine so that she can seek out a batch of the now extinct magical tealeaves. But the best laid plans...

In search of her goal, T-Bag launches the whole of "Tommy's" into space. No longer doomed to the provincial back-waters, the cafe-cum-spaceship whisks the duo off, destined for a weird and wonderful journey through history. This wild ten part adventure story features the return of Liz Estensen who created the role of T-Bag so successfully in the first five series.


Q.  Finally, what projects do you have in the pipeline at the moment?
A.  Not a lot, actually. I helped to create the series "STARStreet" and I'm writing a few more episodes of that. The series I'd had great hopes for, "Polterguests", failed to get recommissioned after just eight episodes. Last year, I sold two options for new shows - the first is called "Marooned" and the second "The Wild Side". I don't know if they'd ever get made. My favourite non-commissioned series of mine is an X-Files type kids show called "Weird Stuff". I was asked by Carlton to write the first episode - "Night of the Living Hair", but so far it hasn't been taken up.
Grant's Responce
Q. Where did the idea behind the T-Bag series come from? What was the first spark of inspiration?
A. Lee and I first met in a South London rehearsal room, where five frantic grinning actors were hurriedly trying to learn their parts in comedy sketches which Lee and I had been commissioned to write independently. The show was called "Words, Words, Words" (or as it became affectionately known, "Worst, Worst, Worst"), the brainchild of Marjorie Sigley, Head of Children's Programmes at Thames TV. She was trying to disguise education-based material as pure light entertainment, which seemed quite an interesting challenge. Other writers were involved too, but somehow Lee and I became the main contributors and so we began seeing a lot of each other's work at the following readthroughs. I thought Lee's stuff was annoyingly good, and he thought my stuff was irritatingly splendid, so when Lee was later given the go-ahead to develop a comedy-drama which shared similar aspirations to the one-off "Words" series, he rang and asked if I would like to collaborate. Up until this time I had trained and worked mostly as an actor (Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Royal Shakespeare Company) but because I also loved writing (and had a tax bill to pay) I immediately said "certainly".

It was Lee's idea to set the drama inside an alphabet-based board game; each letter would suggest a character and a story ... for instance, T-Bag would be the main character on the T-Square. A little girl would become the main protagonist who must work her way round the board, overcoming obstacles of every sort but finally winning the game and emerging triumphant.

Our very first pass at the idea was incredibly grandiose, involving all sorts of impossible special effects and fantastic landscapes. Draft One was greeted with a resounding scowl, and a new objective was added to the original remit: keep it cheap, lads. So, thinking inexpensive, Lee and I began again. And again. And again. By now, the pressure of time was impacting on everyone, so the hard-pressed director made it plain to us exactly what he reckoned he could and couldn't achieve, given the time and the budget, and pretty much dictated half of Episode One to us! Overnight we had gone from being screenwriters to shorthand typists! As relative newcomers to television, we had no real say at this stage, and we found our (admittedly over-enthusiastic) efforts on Series One to be massively and disappointingly diminished.

There was one mad final rewrite at an even later stage when one of the producers had the idea of peppering the character dialogue with alliterations appropriate to the "square" on which they appeared. Cue: several singularly unsayable sentences. We were never at home with this, finding it stultifying, strained and stonking-well stilted. Still, there were things about Series One which worked really well. We were especially heartened by the rapport which quickly developed between Elizabeth Estensen and John Hasler as T-Bag and T-Shirt. Lee and I became much more interested in their growing relationship than in almost anything else, and I think we realised pretty early on that we'd stumbled upon a terrific double-act in the making. The T-Room scenes, for me, became the highlights.

We were also stuck with a title we loathed: "Wonders In Letterland". We were quietly pleased when, thanks to a copyright infringement on somebody's part, the show was subsequently renamed: "Troubles With T-Bag". This wasn't perfect either, but at least it focused attention on the central character rather than on the board game, suggesting the possibility of further, newer adventures in different settings. T-Bag would, from now on, feature in the title of every one of the nine series and the four Christmas specials (not to mention the book and the CD of songs from the series. Okay, I lied about the CD).


Q.  How did the character of T-Bag develop from the very first idea to when she finally appeared on screen?
A. First thoughts were, perhaps predictably, of an old hag dressed in a large white square sack. Finally, that seemed incredibly dull, so we tried to forget how the character would look and concentrated instead on her personality. The truth is that T-Bag didn't really spring to life until we'd decided to partner her with T-Shirt.

Episode One of Series One is the only show in which T-Shirt doesn't appear: as a result, T-Bag comes across as a slightly off-the-shelf-ish "wicked person" made individual more by Elizabeth Estensen's flamboyant performance than by any particular character delineations in the script. But as soon as we arrive in the T-Room, in Episode Two, the fun starts. A fractious mother-and-son relationship kicks in. The famous headaches appear. The sparring and joshing and backbiting begin. Soon we realised that we had created, almost by accident, that strangest and most delicious of items: baddies who we like even better than the goodies!

T-Shirt's ambivalent role in the relationship became the key; T-Bag's frustrated dependency on the boy to make her vital cuppas, along with her ever-growing megalomania and stupidity, powered the partnership for year after year. Today I'm amazed that all of this was so firmly established right from Series One, when Lee and I were still feeling our way as writers.

I don't think Lee would disagree with me when I say that much of the credit actually goes to Liz and John for so subtly fleshing out their roles: time and again, on studio days, I'd stand behind the cameras and wriggle my toes in delight at the way they interpreted scenes which we obviously hoped were amusing but which then came out hilarious. Where would we have been without Liz and John? Answer: standing behind the cameras filming a sofa.


Q.  How long did each series take to write? Did you collaborate on every episode, or did you write some and Grant write others?
A. A lot depended on the deadline. Usually it was pretty tight, seldom allowing us more than a week in total per episode. Often we wrote a script in two or three days, but that was after the careful planning-out of each episode in advance. I've just dug out my 1990 Desk Diary, so I can give you an accurate snapshot of how a typical series of T-Bag went.

So as you can see, the making of a series took about five months from start to finish, with most of the writing happening pretty intensely in the first half of that period. (And just in case all of that wasn't head-mincing enough, Lee and I were simultaneously conceiving and writing Series Two of our other show, "SPATZ"!) So there you have it. The Train Spotter's Guide To Series 7. Well, you did ask!!


Q. Whilst filming was taking place, did you have much say in the process, delivery of lines, etc., or was this completely at the discretion of the director and performers? Were you pleased with the finished series?
A. After the mad scramble to get Series One in the can, our situation did improve steadily over the years as the show grew in popularity and we became more confident. All the same, what with our insatiable taste for the surreal and the bizarre, there were constant battles to get our ideas onto the screen. Some of these fights we won, others, well ... that's showbiz, kid!

A well-known producer recently put it to me perfectly: "Us producers (metaphorically speaking) always want our writers to give us Mickey Mouse - nice, smiley, a bit bland, yet universally (inexplicably!) popular. But writers keep giving us Donald Duck! - all that angry quacking and storming about, muttering under his beak! - treading on garden rakes and knocking his face inside out! We would really rather they gave us THE MOUSE!" It's a sentiment which explains why so much television is the way it is.

One of the hardest things to deal with when writing for the screen is that, actually, there exist two versions of your script: the one which explodes inside your head, full of beautifully-timed comedy sequences, shot with pace and panache on a multi-million dollar budget; the other version is the one which turns up one day on the telly. Often the difference between the two is astounding, the result disappointment. Lee and I often bemoaned the way T-Bag always seemed a mere shadow of what it could have been. And yet ...

The years roll by, and the versions which once rattled around in the addled nut have dissolved away. All that remains is the show as it finally hit the airwaves. It's a lot easier to be objective about it a decade on: any time I sneak a look at T-Bag these days, I do find there's a massive amount to enjoy; some of it I'm very proud of - usually scenes and sequences where everything came together tremendously well. Donald Duck moments. There's often some terrific comic acting from our fantastically talented cast of guest performers - mixed occasionally with turns so dud you're laughing even harder for different reasons ... and I can absolutely see why it ran for an incredible 94 episodes. So the answer to your question: was I pleased with the finished series? is: "Not exactly, but I am now!"


Q. Was the series initially intended to be a trilogy? I am referring to Debbie's line in "Bounces Back", when she states that T-Bag is gone for good and won't "bother any of us ever again".
A. No, T-Bag wasn't conceived as a trilogy. Every series the audience grew and grew, and the commissioning editor at ITV thought: "cheap and extremely popular, excellent, have another series lads!" and so it went on, for nine consecutive years until everyone screamed "enough already!" (although as Lee just reminded me, we actually planned a tenth series which was never made).

Q. Why did Elizabeth Estensen leave the series? Did she feel that it was time for a change? Did you feel that it was time for a change? Or was she written out so dramatically in "Revenge of the T-Set" that it would have been impossible for her to return?
A. We'd have been delighted if Liz had stayed right through till the end, but I guess everybody likes to move on after a while. The stresses and strains of playing Her Majes-T for 50-odd episodes must have been intense. Let's face it, Liz carried most of the show. She was frequently leaping in and out of absurd costumes, often being blown up and abused ... yet consummate professional as she is, she'd always keep her energy levels at maximum right through rehearsals and onto the studio floor. So when series six got commissioned, without Tallulah! - it was quite a shock.

Controversy rages amongst my family and friends: who was the best T-Bag? Tallulah or Tabatha? Liz or Georgina? I don't think it's possible to compare them. I love them both in very different ways. Liz's Tallulah is full of nuance and subtlely; she's petulant and vulnerable and pompous and a hundred other wondrous things which go to make the character incredibly human and endearing. It's a marvellous, sophisticated, funny and intelligent performance. Georgina's Tabatha makes me think of some hilariously insane cross between Harpo Marx and a Dalek. A completely unique actress, Georgina Hale brought unpredictability to the role - and to the series - which in my opinion is a very rare thing. That full-on bolshie bluster, the towering, rampaging stupidity, the sheer high-flying fearlessness of it all ... Tabatha may indeed be an acquired taste, but she is the T-Bag who makes me laugh the loudest, the longest and the hardest. So in the end, I'm incredibly glad that we ended up with two T-Bags. And had there been a third? Intriguing! Casting suggestions by e-mail, please ...


Q. If Tabatha and Tallulah are sisters, then early life in the Bag family must have been hell! Any thoughts about what it could have been like?
A. It doesn't bear thinking about, does it? Consider this: Denise Coffey (Granny Bag) is the mother of Peggy Mount (Mumsy Bag), despite (I believe) being several years younger than her. It could only happen at Bag Towers.

Q. If Tallulah or Tabatha were about today, what would they be doing (apart from the obvious career choice for mad, power-crazed individuals who think they rule the Universe - traffic wardens)?
A. What do you mean, if? Of course they're about! I heard a quiet rumour that Tallulah is now working in the telephone sales office at the Royal Albert Hall these days. She's given up her quest for world domination, obviously, but keeps herself entertained by deliberately sending out the wrong tickets to confused and angry customers. This being power of a sort, it amuses her greatly.Tabatha is temporarily employed by the Civil Aviation Authority. She turns up at Prestwick Airport six times a day, pulls a face and shouts at the seagulls to clear them from the runway. It's not a great job but it keeps her off the street

Q.  Finally, what projects do you have in the pipeline at the moment?
A. Most recently, with co-writer Alex Bartlette: the BBC/DISNEY BAFTA-winning show "Microsoap", a mainstream comedy pilot for BBC2 called "Fiction", a Cleopatra sitcom for Carlton TV "Queen Of The Nile", and a commissioned feature film screenplay currenly doing the rounds in Hollywood. Which suddenly gives me an idea: T-Bag The Movie! Whoopie Goldberg as Tallulah, anyone ...?