Wednesday 4 July 2012

A Classical Dish... Python's David Ballantyne speaks!

One of the more recognisable supporting actors in Python, David Ballantyne appeared in several episodes recorded in 1969 and 1970.  He already had quite a varied career – in the Swinging Sixties he appeared in the BBC’s childrens’ series ‘Quick Before They Catch Us’ and starred in Thames TV’s ‘The Tinagree Affair’ as Martin Ferrera in May 1969, as well as pursuing fame as a budding pop star.  His first single, ‘I Can’t Express It’ outperformed David Bowie’s ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ – Ballantyne’s single peaked at Number 2 on the Melody Maker chart while Bowie’s disc slummed it at Number 34.  David’s second single, ‘Love Around The World’, was heavily promoted by Radio London.

“I did several promotional appearances with Bowie for Radio London. The release of my first single coincided with his second as David Bowie and my second came out at the same time as his next single so I used to see him quite often at Radio London promotional events. The thing I remember most about him was his sense of humour.  I always thought he was a very charismatic performer, even in the days of the beehive hairdo and the outrageously large flares made of lining material – more like a flamenco dancer's skirt than a pair of trousers.”

Later singles included ‘Crazy Crazy’ in 1971, as part of Just Plain Jones, ‘Roof Above My Head’, credited to David Ballantyne & Solitude and released by Regal Zonophone in 1972 to support the homeless charity Shelter, and 1972’s ‘If’ by Esprit De Corps, now considered a freakbeat classic.

In 1974, David studied English, French, German, Music and Psychology at Ealing College of Higher Education (now Thames Valley University) and made a sideways move into computing in the early days of the IT revolution, developing software for Comtec in the ‘80s. Later TV credits included appearing in the BBC’s 1981 historical drama ‘The Borgias’ and alongside Michael Gambon in ‘De Profundis’, part of the BBC’s 1985 trilogy of Oscar Wilde plays.  David then travelled around the world and for the last eleven years has been the morning voice of classical music radio station WPCE-FM Radio, hosting ‘Rise and Shine’.

"When Monty Python's Flying Circus first started I had just finished making a little-known series for Thames TV called The Tingaree Affair, in which I played the leading role.  The Pythons kind of adopted me and sheltered me from the storms of life, temporarily.

"I worked with Katya Wyeth well before either of us appeared in Monty Python’s Flying Circus and I was a personal friend of Ian MacNaughton and his wife, Rita Davies, who also appeared in several episodes. I also did the 'studio warm-up', armed only with a guitar and a few songs.

"I was on reasonably friendly terms with Eric Idle and Michael Palin by the time I had worked with them on a couple of programmes. Eric was a music fan and Michael was the most gregarious of the team.  I suspect Michael Palin might have known me from several things – he introduced a pop music show early in his career and he was also working on Do Not Adjust Your Set at Thames TV while I was there making The Tingaree Affair.  Sadly, the Tingaree Affair seems to have vanished into the mists of time.

"I appeared with Flanagan in one episode.  That was the 'mad psychiatrist' episode with Carol Cleveland, Flanagan and others. I rehearsed it at a church hall in Hammersmith, top of Fulham Palace Road. I remember it well because it was the start of a new year (1970) and I didn't dare ask for the time off to attend my brother's wedding, which was taking place about a mile up the road at Kensington Registry Office.  Several bits of this episode were later cut – one of the scenes I remember clearly was a whole preamble about the police using magic to detect crime. (A very Cleesian notion, if I may say so). I was sitting at a desk in a police uniform with my ridiculously long hair staring into a crystal ball. My line was something along the lines of: "I see a cyclist proceeding along the Balls Pond Road without a rear light", which was more Terry Jones-ish. Parts of this sketch survive in the episode available on DVD, but I can assure you that all the original material was included in the first showing.

"I appeared several times in the ‘Timmy Williams’ episode – two roles in the same sketch, obviously quite a quick-change artiste!  Curiously enough, my name does not appear on the credits like it did for other Monty Python appearances. No repeat fees, either.  My gripe about repeat fees was with the BBC, not with the Pythons themselves. They, unashamedly, 'did a Dave Clark' and bought the world rights, for which they paid me a small blanket fee. I certainly never imagined it would take off anywhere other than England. The BBC, however, made numerous edits to the original episodes and refused to pay me and others legitimate UK repeat fees.

"I was one of the gasmen, part of the episode known to the BBC accounts department as Silly Walks. This episode was originally aired "as was" but was heavily edited before it was aired again.  I was in the 'original' Gasmen sketch, it was remade for the Montreux special.  By the time the Montreux special came around I was in the musical Canterbury Tales at the Phoenix Theatre. The Python office called my agent and asked for me to take part in the 'new, improved' version. Obeying professional etiquette, I asked the company manager if it would be OK to fulfil their request. Permission was denied, not for any good reason I could work out. It would have been a very simple shoot and I'm sure I would have got to the theatre in time for the evening performance. Shafted again!"

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