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 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
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
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
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
John Simpson is Roland
Lennox-Brown, the indefatigable Number 1.
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
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
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
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.
Adair is Mildred Murfin, who's so busy with her thingies
she hardly has time to make the tea.
Read as Humbert Snetherswaite, the man who's a walking
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
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
"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.