Reproduced from an article published in Family Radio and TV magazine, April 25 1976 (South Africa) IT'S THE MEN
FROM
THE MINISTRY


WHEN Springbok Radio chiefs wanted to re-organise the Saturday programme schedules last year, they decided to axe "The Men From The Ministry" - one of South Africa's long-running radio comedy series. Thousands of fans wrote in to demand that the shows continue. So the radio executives reconsidered their decision, and now another series of half-hour hits is being recorded at the SABC studios in Durban.

On a weekday evening once a fortnight at thestudios in Old Fort Road, 200 fans queue up in the foyer, the live audience who will watch and participate in the night's performance. The actors arrive in dribs and drabs, swop greetings, cigarettes and cups of coffee in a dressing room at the side of the stage and read through the script.

 
Sir Gregory Pitkin (Tom Meehan) drops in on the staff of the General Assistance Department. From the left: Number 2, Richard Lamb (played by Roger Service); Number 1, Roland Lennox-Brown (John Simpson); and Mildred Murfin (Maureen Adair). At the window is Humbert Snethersthwaite (Tommy Read).
They've been in the cast so long and  know  the characters so well that there's no need for more than one run through.
 

The only first-night nerves in the place are those of the audience who murmur with anticipation as they take their seats.
Tom Meehan, resplendent in Civil Service suit and bowler, welcomes them as producer of the series and one of the cast. "All we ask you to do is enjoy yourselves," he says.
He introduces the actors as they take their places behind the microphones, separated from the audience by a battery of coloured code lights and a couple of grand pianos in the wings. "John Simpson plays Number One, Roland Lennox-Brown. Roger Service is Number Two, Richard Lamb. Maureen Adair is Mildred Murfin..."
The studio audience responds enthusiastically. There's no need for the "applause" instruction board used in some recording studios. Most of the audience are regular listeners and firm fans of The Men From The Ministry.
The plot gradually unfolds. Like the 399 programmes that have gone before, this one concerns another spectacular bungle by Number One and Number Two in the General Assistance Department of an unspecified ministry. Their secretary Mildred, with the aid of numerous unspecified "thingies," usually manages to help them out of hot water.
Sir Gregory Pitkin, the permanent under-secretary played by Tom Meehan, is their immediate superior and continually urges Lennox-Brown and Lamb not to "make a muck of it"- but in vain.
Numerous other characters make regular appearances, among them the minister who spends his days in a club ordering more brandies on Sir Gregory's account, Humbert Ssssnethersssthwaite and his unlikely wife Lolita, and Creepie "Whatsisname" Crawleigh from the office next door.
The Men From The Ministry was first broadcast in Britain in 1964. Since then, the original writers have produced 130 programmes but South Africa has demanded so many more that scripts have had to be written locally.
"We've done about 300 so far," says Tom Meehan. "How do we find the jokes? Well you've got the basic characters so all you have to do is dream up a situation, a topical one if possible, and then you know how they're going to react and what they'll say."
Director Brian Squires says: "It takes about eight hours to write a 30-minute script when everything is flowing easily,



John Simpson is Roland Lennox-Brown, the indefatigable Number 1.

but of course if you're disturbed one script can keep you busy for a couple of days and nights."
There's quite a difference between what goes on in the studio and what is broadcast. The live audience hear little of the special effects and fade outs engineered in the control room. Two huge tape machines record the show, in duplicate in case of an accident, and three record turntables are loaded with sound effects.
Tonight they're using falling rain, an oil pipeline gurgling, and the show's signature tune.
From time to time Brian isn't happy with the recording. "Can we retake from speech six," his voice booms in the studio. The audience giggles as the actors wade through their script for the second time. "Mukerjee didn't come in right the first time," Squires explains.
On stage, the actors use some visual humour as they pace the stage, scripts in hand, stepping in on cue to add their lines at the microphone. It's a bit like a group of chefs creating a culinary masterpiece, each adding his own ingredients.
The garnish is a few sounds , added by the cast, the clatter of a typewriter or the slamming of a door, and they also change hats for the benefit of the studio audience.
The slight changes in costume, help audience and actors to identify different characters during the recording session. On some nights one actor will play as many as four different parts. In one epic show about a boarding-house in London there were 20 characters all played by the five actors in the studio.
Maureen Adair puts on a ghastly velvet affair covered with fruit and feathers to play Lolita Snethersthwaite, or a furry Russian hat to become Tanya. She also plays



Roger Service is Richard Lamb, the the craziest Number 2 in the business.


Tom Meehan is Sir Gregory Pitkin, who'd rather like to boil the whole General Assistance Department in oil.

Maureen Adair is Mildred Murfin, who's so busy with her thingies she hardly has time to make the tea.


Tommy Read as Humbert Snetherswaite, the man who's a walking shower-bath.

Miss Bentwater (Sir Gregory Pitkin's secretary whose only lines are giggles in the appropriate places) and Lady Prudence Witheringfoot (an inebriated society lady) without head-gear.
Tom Meehan switches Sir Gregory Pitkin's bowler for a flat hat when he becomes Horace Phenomenal (who can never pronounce any word correctly), or a deer-stalker as Rodney Mellish (the silly-ass radio commentator).
And Tommy Read plays several incidental parts, among them Rampersad Haribhai Spoonilal V. Mukerjee (in turban). The 'V' can stand for anything he can do very well, The Minister (a bowler), radio commentator Arthur Bollett (deer stalker), and without hats, Creepie Crawleigh and lvor the Russian.
If there's a big gap between lines, they retire to the dressing-room for one of Maureen Adair's cough sweets. "Right from the beginning we fell about laughing at the scripts," she says, "and as the years have gone by we've increasingly accepted the characters we play. Sometimes it's as if the character is the real you".
And there's always plenty of ad lib comedy. Like the time they put on a show in the Durban City Hall. When they got outside after the performance it was raining hard and one of them realised he'd left the car keys in the dressing-room. Roger Service decided to sit on the pavement to wait, in the downpour.
"He had a dummy telephone in a bag with him," says Maureen. "So he pulled it out and asked for room service. You should have seen the onlookers' faces."
John Simpson fills in time between lines by doodling on his script, drawing fantastic Heath Robinson machines such as Ashton's Hay Detonator or Fielding's Lettuce Wafter. "Sometimes I get carried away and can't read the script," he confesses.
When Tom Meehan announces the end of the show and invites listeners to join the cast for another "romp down the corridors of power next week," he's looking back on more than 400 programmes and seven years of broadcasting, and looking forward to a great many more.


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Published to the Internet in January 2002
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