“Please Sir! I’ve Written A Book On A Classic TV Sitcom!” – David Barry Interview – Part 1

First broadcast by London Weekend Television in 1968, Please Sir! is generally considered to hold a firm place in the distinguished ranks of the greatest British sitcoms. Set in a London-based secondary modern school , the top rated series written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey followed the mishaps of a fifth form class, 5C and their teacher, Bernard Hedges portrayed by John Alderton.

50 years on, the Welsh actor and writer David Barry, who played mummy’s boy Frankie Abbott has written a book, Please Sir! The Official History, which has been published in hardback by Acorn Books, an imprint of AUK Ltd.

David, who was born Meurig Wyn Jones, started out with a career in theatre, before going on to appear in all three series of Please Sir! as well as both the 1971 feature film and spin-off TV show The Fenn Street Gang.

In the first part of an interview with Entertainment South Wales, David discusses the book as well as his time on Please Sir! with Andy Howells.

Actor and writer David Barry, remembered for his role as Frankie Abbott in Please Sir! and The Fenn Street Gang recalls his years on the shows in Please Sir! The Official History, which has been published in hardback by Acorn Books, an imprint of AUK Ltd.

What was it like revisiting your memories of Please Sir! for the book because it obviously was such a long time ago?

It is, but because it was such a happy show, I’ve got good memories. Certain things I’ve done in the business I can’t even remember what “that TV thing was called” But Please Sir! was very different because we were all like a family.

You mention in the book not all your experiences on television were great, particularly an earlier stint on Crossroads of which your Please Sir! co-star Peter Cleall also had a similar experience.

I was so miscast in it, you can imagine how young I looked. We were supposed to be playing 15 Year olds in Please Sir! and I had done Crossroads 4 or 5 years prior to that, so you can imagine how young I looked!

I was playing a theatrical agent saying to the chef played by Anthony Morton “I could do things for you; I could turn you into a star!” So, they sent a boy to do a man’s job.

What inspired you to get into acting in the first place?

I was born in North Wales and spent the first six years of my life in Bangor. Then we moved to Amlwch in the Northern most part of Anglesey. Because there were not many theatres around except for the summer season theatres in Rhyl and Llandudno, I can remember at the age of nine going to the local cinema which used to show three main films every week. I used to live there! At the age of nine, I remember seeing – this was inspirational – Marlon Brando in Viva Espata!

Then we moved to Richmond, Surrey when I was 10 years old, and I failed the 11 plus and went to this secondary modern school. My parents were in amateur dramatics performing Emlyn Williams Welsh play, The Corn is Green and the group wanted a Welsh speaking boy, so I went along and did one of the parts. Also, an English-speaking boy who learned Welsh phonetically came along and did one of the parts. He was going to a stage school and had already done two films. I thought that’s what I want to do – that’s for me!

I pestered my parents but of course it was a fee-paying school, and they couldn’t afford the fees, but they thought we’ll go along and investigate anyway. When the school saw me as a 12-year-old looking nine they said they could get me enough work to pay the fees. That’s exactly what happened, I never stopped working and my parents never had to pay a penny!

The cast of Please Sir! line up to take the TV schedules by storm for the first series in 1968. Please Sir! The Official History, by David Barry has been published in hardback by Acorn Books, an imprint of AUK Ltd

You had quite a prolific theatre career before moving into television?

Yes, I was in the West End with Paul Scofield (The Power and The Glory) and toured Europe with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (Titus Andronicus).

Was comedy something you aspired to?

Yes, I loved comedy. My heroes were Tony Hancock and Phil Silvers.

Noel Howlett (The Headmaster) and Deryck Guyler (Norman Potter) also worked with Hancock. That must have been big for you!

It was! Yes! That’s why I remembered them both very well having seen them in Hancock’s Half Hour!

The class of 5C including Penny Spencer, Peter Cleall, David Barry, Malcolm McFee and Liz Gebhardt listen attentively to their teacher Bernard Hedges (John Alderton) in an episode of Please Sir! Please Sir! The Official History, by David Barry has been published in hardback by Acorn Books, an imprint of AUK Ltd

And you worked alongside Richard Davies (Mr Price) who at that point was well-known for his role as a Welsh soldier in the film, Zulu.

He used to blow me away, I loved the cynicism and the way he delivered it. We became great friends and we both toured in Under Milk Wood, many years later.

I notice from the book that you all clearly got on so well that you worked together outside the show as well.

We did, I worked with Peter Cleall (Duffy) afterwards and Malcolm McFee (Craven) especially, we always used to do pantomime together.

When it came to writing Please Sir! – The Official History, did you re-watch some old episodes to jog your memory?

I watched some episodes yes, and that jogged my memory. I had kept a scrapbook over the years – in fact 4 scrapbooks of which I kept cuttings and later in the book you’ll find that when John Alderton as Hedges marries Penny Wheeler (Jill Kerman) I actually had a wedding invitation, because the props gave us proper wedding invitations and that’s in the book! Things like that brought back memories.

There is a bit in the book where the Daily Mirror took us to the bar gave us drinks and asked us if we smoked and drank and all that sort of thing. Trying to tarnish our reputation they lined us all at the bar. I have got that photograph but unfortunately, it’s not good enough quality to go in the book, but I’ve written about it!

The class of 5C in Please Sir! including Liz Gebhardt, Peter Denyer, Peter Cleall, Malcolm McFee, David Barry and Penny Spencer. Please Sir! The Official History, by David Barry has been published in hardback by Acorn Books, an imprint of AUK Ltd

The pupils of 5C were all a lot older in real life than they were on screen. Did this cause problems for you when you were all out and about?

Well, it was mainly schoolkids. We used to get mobbed by young teens.

I remember when Hair (the musical) opened in Amsterdam, we were all invited to the opening night. They would fly us out there and put us up in hotels. I wasn’t able to go and I was really annoyed.  I had an audition for a play, which I didn’t get!

Malcolm McFee, Peter Denyer (Dunstable) and Penny Spencer (Sharon) told me afterwards that they arrived at the airport in Amsterdam and Please Sir! was so hugely popular in the Netherlands, they were mobbed! On the plane, which was a chartered flight, were other people like the American actress Lee Remick, but all the people were flocking to Peter, Malcolm and Penny. Lee Remick was thinking “Who are these kids?” Of course, the series never sold to America!

What inspired you to sit down and write Please Sir! – The Official History?

I got involved with a company called Misty Moon events run by a friend of mine called Stuart Morris. He engaged me to do a talk about my career and when I met him and his wife later on, he said “Your talk went down very well, but you know I think people would have liked you to do a bit of Frankie Abbott. I said “Well, I’m in my 70s, I’d feel a bit stupid doing that.” Then I was hit by an idea and thought “What if I did him in real time and he was in a care home?”. So, I wrote it and we took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it got five-star reviews! It was a two-hander, and my carer was played by Hi-De-Hi’s Linda Regan.

I started it because of how this year has gone really. I had never in the past contemplated it but because we were moving into lockdown and I contacted the publisher. He and his wife are great fans and he said “Yes! I’ll go for that!” So, I was writing it during the lockdown.

You can’t have imagined that 50 years on from the original broadcast, people would still be watching reruns of Please Sir!?

No, and I mention in the book that we never had retakes. Mark Stuart who produced and directed it used to shout and scream at us if we got anything near a mistake.

There was one huge gaff in an episode called The Honour of the School, Peter Cleall as Duffy saying to Malcolm as Peter Craven “You wanna watch yourself Peter!” and Malcolm replied, “Go on then, hit me Peter!” Anyway, it was left in, I expect Mark Stuart thought “Oh well, its TV, its fairly ephemeral, it might get one repeat and that will be that” without thinking that in the 1980s videos would come in and in the 90s, DVD’s! Malcolm’s gaff endures!

Please Sir! The Official History, by David Barry has been published in hardback by Acorn Books, an imprint of AUK Ltd

Of course, Please Sir! wasn’t the only series to have such things happen. I recall seeing boom mic’s appear in the corner of the TV screen in some episodes of Doctor In The House.

You used to get that in Armchair Theatre a lot! There was a Welsh actor, Gareth Jones, who I worked with in the Paul Scofield play. A couple of years later, he was playing a lead in an Armchair Theatre (Underground) and it was about a nuclear bomb been dropped on London, so everyone was in an underground tube station. He went to climb through a tunnel which was already established as being blocked and he suddenly disappeared. My father came in with the newspaper, early the following morning and it reported that Gareth had a heart attack and died in the commercial break.

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