HIGHLIGHTS OF A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN LEYTON –
ABOUT HIS ROLE IN THE 1960’S BIGGLES TV SERIES AND MEETING CAPTAIN W. E. JOHNS
8TH APRIL 2022
ON THE ABOVE DATE, I HAD THE GREAT PLEASURE OF SPENDING SOME TWO HOURS CHATTING WITH MR. JOHN LEYTON, THE FAMOUS SINGER AND ACTOR WHO AGREED TO DO AN INTERVIEW FOR MY BIGGLES.COM WEB SITE REGARDING HIS MEMORIES OF THE 1960 TV SERIES “BIGGLES” WHERE HE PLAYED “GINGER HEBBLETHWAITE”. “BIGGLES” WAS PLAYED BY NEVILLE WHITING AND “BERTIE” WAS PLAYED BY DAVID DRUMMOND.
RH – Were you an actor before you were a singer, because you made Biggles in 1960?
JL – No, it was actually 1959.
RH – I’ve got a list of all the episodes, now you are not going to believe this, the first episode was transmitted on 1st April 1960, so today, 8th April, is exactly 62 years after the second episode was transmitted. It’s the anniversary. So you filmed them all in ’59, you think?
JL – That’s interesting, now let’s work this out.
RH – There’s 44 episodes.
JL – Now we did it at Granada in Manchester for Granada Television. I can’t remember the address of the studios, I imagine they are still there.
RH – Is it where they made Coronation Street?
JL – I remember talking to the man who started that – Tony Warren – in the pub near the studios where we all used to go to. He said “I’ve got this idea for a street in the north of England and it will probably revolve around a pub a bit”.
RH – And you said it will never take off?
JL – He said what do you think of it and I said it sounds boring and terrible. But we laughed about it later. I could have sworn I was there in 1959 because in 1958, I was at the Theatre Royal, York in repertory.
RH – So you were an actor first before you were a singer?
JL – Yes, I had never done any singing at all. So I came out of drama school and I went to the Theatre Royal, York and repertory those days, wonderful training.
RH – Different play every week?
JL – Yes. It wasn’t uncommon at the end of one week for somebody to say a line from the following play.
RH – So you were rehearsing next week’s play when you were doing this week’s play?
JL – Yes, it was a good training ground because we were paid, albeit a pittance.
RH – And were you living in digs and did you move around?
JL – Yes.
RH – So a typical actor’s life?
JL – Yes. That was definitely 1958 as I was 22.
RH – Have a look at this. (RH shows John Leyton the following magazine)
RH – This is a cover of the TV Times from 1960
JL – Yes, I remember that. That was an Auster. Because we went up in an Auster to get a feel for it.
RH – Do you remember that cover?
JL – Yes, I remember it. Is Neville Whiting still alive?
RH – I think he is. (NB - I WAS WRONG, LATER RESEARCH FOUND THAT NEVILLE WHITING HAD DIED ON 6th JUNE 2006)
JL – And David Drummond is?
RH – Yes
JL – One of the tours I did, David Drummond was in the audience and I introduced him.
RH – So you hadn’t seen him for 40 years or so?
JL – Yes. I introduced him as Bertie. I remember saying to the audience, and I was Ginger. David was Bertie the posh one and I was Ginger, the scruffy one.
RH – Now this is an Australian TV Times (RH shows John Leyton the following magazine).
JL – I have never seen that before.
RH – This is from February 1962. It’s a brilliant picture of the three of you.
JL – Yes – Our eyes stand out. They have spelt my name wrong! (THE COVER HAS THE NAME JOHN LAYTON INSTEAD OF JOHN LEYTON)
RH – Yes, I had noticed that, I was going to say to you. So, you don’t recall seeing that when that came out?
JL – No, I have never seen that.
RH – Well, in which case, may I give it to you as a gift. I bought it from Australia, but please, let me give that to you.
JL – Thank you very much.
RH – If you have never seen that one, it’s vital that you have it for your records.
JL – I could have sworn – because I came out of repertory in late ’58 and I always thought I did Biggles the following year in 1959.
RH – Was it your first TV job? You very first TV job?
JL – Yes. The first thing I ever did if you like, professionally because the Theatre Royal, York, was semi-professional. People attended the theatre and paid to see plays. Then I went back to London to find an agent, which was quite difficult because of the old thing, “What have you done?” “Well, I need an agent ………..”
RH - Catch 22.
JL – Anyway, I teamed up with Robert Stigwood and he put me up for Biggles which I had to go up to Manchester to test for and there were several other “Gingers” on the train going up. And anyway, they decided they would go with me. I would question that date.
RH – These are the transmission dates they were shown on TV. I have only got them off the Internet so I can’t swear it’s Gospel.
JL – Well maybe we did it late ’59, then these came out in ’60.
RH – How did you get on with Neville (Whiting who played Biggles) and David (Drummond who played Bertie)? Were you all good friends?
JL – Oh, yes.
RH – Did you keep in touch afterwards?
JL – Well sadly, no. Once it finished, we went our separate ways. I don’t know what happened to Neville. I never heard of him again. Being in anything or doing anything. David Drummond had a passion for walking sticks. He used to pitch up for rehearsals and on the day when we were actually trying to record and he always had a different walking stick. And he finished up, I know, he had a shop in Leicester Square which sold antique walking sticks and various other antiques. When I saw him again, he wrote to the theatre where I was appearing.
RH – And said “I am going to be in the audience?”
JL – Yes. So I introduced him. We were going to meet but I seem to remember that at the time there was a lot of problems at theatres and public gatherings. There were terrorist bombings so nobody was allowed back stage, so I couldn’t ask him back stage. So we never actually got to see each other again. I thought Neville, was a lot older than me. I’m 86. (John was born on 17th February 1936). When I was doing that, I was 22, no I wasn’t, I was 23 and Neville was 35 (Neville Whiting was born on 14th February 1924) so he was 12 years older than me, so he would be 98.
RH – If he is still alive ……. So probably not then.
JL – And David also was quite a bit older than me. He was 30, so he would be 93.
RH – Did you ever meet Captain W. E. Johns?
JL – Yes. I met him very briefly, we all met him.
RH – Did you? I have something I want to show you.
RH – It’s a Biggles book (a second edition of Biggles Works it Out published in May 1952) and it’s signed by W. E. Johns and the cast. Do you remember signing any books together?
JL – We met W. E. Johns.
RH – He was known as Bill, wasn’t he?
JL – It was a very brief meeting.
RH – So it was just Captain Johns?
JL – I remember he was always referred to as W. E. Johns in the brief time that I met him.
RH – Did you all sign something at the same time?
JL – No.
RH – So you signed it later?
JL – Yes, we signed it later. But I do remember telling Captain Johns, what was his full name?
RH – William Earl, but he was known as Bill to his friends.
JL – I do remember talking to him. You’ll forgive me, it’s such a long time ago.
RH – Presumably back in ’59 when you were filming?
JL – Yes, it would have been. Yes, it was when we were actually filming. I do remember, he was a very pleasant man. Very quiet. And I remember saying to him “When I was a little boy, I used to read your books”. And in those original books, I seem to remember there was a page where it said “This book belongs to” and I used to write my name in them. (JOHN MAY BE REMEMBERING THE BOOK CLUB EDITIONS OF THE BOOKS WHICH SOMETIMES HAD THIS STICKER IN THEM).
JL – I told Captain Johns that. I had all these books and little did I know that I would end up playing Mr. Hebblethwaite.
RH – Were you a fan of the Biggles books then?
JL – Yes, as a boy.
RH – Because they are extremely good, aren’t they? Really well written.
JL – Yes.
RH – This one (referring to the book signed by Johns and the cast of Biggles) I managed to buy, but it looks like it’s been signed by the entire cast. Is that your signature?
JL – It definitely is.
RH – You don’t remember signing it? I presume you signed loads of Biggles books?
JL – Well I don’t think we did, actually and that book is quite rare.
RH – Interesting. I have never seen another one and I am a big collector of Johns memorabilia. I have never seen one signed by the entire cast before.
JL – I vaguely remember signing this.
RH – Would it have been a schoolboy saying “Mr. Leyton will you sign here”? Or something like that? Or would it have been signing a book for a prize, perhaps? Do you reckon that would have been signed at the same time as when you meet W. E. Johns?
JL – I would have thought so. He was in the studio.
RH – Perhaps one of the producers asked him to sign the book?
JL – He would have seen us filming or something and I would have thought he probably signed that the day I met him.
RH – And then somebody said can the cast sign as well?
JL – I don’t remember. I vaguely remember signing this because I vaguely remember looking at it, David signed first and then I signed and poor old Neville he signed at the bottom and I remember saying “You should be at the top because you’re Biggles!”
RH – Isn’t that incredible that you can remember that?!
JL – I said to him, you should be at the top, you’re Biggles, it’s the wrong way around. I don’t remember signing any other books.
RH – That is most interesting.
JL – That’s a one off.
RH – So it’s absolutely unique? Well, that’s fascinating to hear. That is incredible. In order to prepare for the role of Ginger, then, would you have read any more books or was it just a case of learning the script – as simple as that?
JL – Having read the books as a boy, I knew the character. I knew all about Biggles and I remember Algy. I was very familiar.
RH – So when you went to the audition, did you say that you were familiar with the character and the books and that sort of gets you the role?
JL – No I didn’t. I went for the audition and I remember the audition, I was there …… I went up on the train and I must have got there just after 12.00 o’clock. They didn’t get round to me, I was the very last one to audition and I tested. Every test had a Biggles, a Bertie and a Ginger and I tested with Neville (Whiting). So he was tested for Biggles, I was tested for Ginger and another actor was tested for Bertie but he didn’t get it, obviously Neville and I did.
RH – What did they get you to do? Just read some scripts?
JL – I was wondering if they would get around to testing me before I had to go home. I remember that after my test, I thought I had probably got it because the producers came into the dressing room and they seemed to be terribly pleased with what I had done.
RH – So you felt confident? What did the testing involve? Would they give you a few pages of script to learn or do you read from the script as you test – or do you learn it first?
JL – They gave us a scene. I had already been given a couple of pages of a scene which I had learnt – I had learnt the lines; I knew what to do. It was all very straight-forward. I suppose by the time they got around to me, I had been hanging around all day, so I was quite relaxed about it. I thought “Let’s get on with it”. Anyway, that was my very first break, my first acting role, professional, really.
RH – Was it all done in studio or did you go on location for anything?
JL – No, it was all done in the studio and in those days, it was very basic.
RH – So what are we talking about? Two cameras? One camera?
JL – I think it was one camera, yes.
RH – And they didn’t have recording breaks as I understand it? You did it “as live”? Is that right?
JL – Yes. The episodes – correct me if I am wrong – were half an hour.
RH – They were – can I say that I have never seen them. You can’t get them on DVD and I was born in 1965 so I haven’t seen them – I would love to see them. They all still exist.
JL – Well, we did the whole episode – half an hour – like a play and we ran from one end of the stage, where all the sets were, from one set to the next set and sometimes you would just get to the set in time to say the lines.
RH – It was all filmed continuously as it was expensive to cut the video tape in those days?
JL – Anything that needed filming, which was very little, they used to say “Cut to Telecine” whatever that meant.
RH – So they had pre-filmed something? Like perhaps you were running across a field or something like that? So, when would you do the pre-filming? Would that be done a week before?
JL – There was very, very little Telecine, very little and it would be done locally. I remember sitting in a helicopter and it was a fake helicopter on the stage.
RH – So somebody is turning the rotor round and round?
JL – There is something going round and round to look as if we were ……. to get the shadow of it and I was sitting with, I can’t remember if it was David or Neville, and the whole front doesn’t exist, so we are just sitting there, like you and I and the camera is here (John indicates to his near left).
RH – And you’re saying “Biggles, look down there!”
JL – That’s right – and to make matters worse, they put on a helicopter noise so we had this huge noise and it was very difficult to hear the other actor and in fact, I didn’t hear the other actor. There was a lovely girl, a continuity girl, with the script and I said the line. I mean I knew the line but I didn’t hear the other actor stop. And the other extraordinary thing that happened, the special effects in those days were awful. Everything was done with miniatures.
RH – OK – So you would look down at a boat or something and it would be a toy boat?
JL – And of course they were filmed in one piece. One episode was filmed all the way through.
RH – In order?
JL – Yes. I think it was a week’s rehearsal and then we shot an episode and then another week’s rehearsal and the next episode. On one occasion we sunk a boat – a speedboat. It went out live. How they got away with it, I don’t understand it but anyway, it went out and it was a miniature, the speedboat was a miniature and there was a lake and the speedboat or boat was attached to a piece of cotton and so when we blew it up – I don’t know how they did that – there was somebody pulling this cotton down to sink it and unfortunately the cotton broke so the boat wouldn’t sink and it shot up again, so it didn’t sink. I can’t believe they let that go. Some of the episodes we did, not all of them, very few, some of them were actually live and that was terrifying as you were running from one end of the stage to the other to get to the set in time.
RH – What would happen if you fluffed a line then? Would they stop filming or would they keep going?
JL – They would just keep going. You knew it was live. If somebody fluffed a line or forgot a line you just carried on.
RH – Do you know why the series came to an end? Was it not popular? I presume it’s all to do with ratings ……..
JL – I think so, yes. I don’t know. I was quite disappointed that it did end. I don’t know how many episodes we did do.
RH – They made 44.
JL – Oh, it did go on for quite a time.
RH – I suppose that’s almost a year’s work?
JL – I remember there was a television show on at the time – an American one, a police, a cop series and it starred an actor called Broderick Crawford. (John is remembering “Highway Patrol” which ran from 1955 – 1959) and he had a saying, when he finished a conversation on the radio he would say “Ten four”. “OK, let’s do it, ten four”. And I remember we hoped that “Chock’s away” would catch on like that but it didn’t seem to quite do it.
RH – That’s incredible. I wasn’t aware that was your first acting job, so fond memories for you?
JL – Of Biggles? Oh yes. It was a very exciting time of my life. I decided to become an actor and you never know. It’s a very precarious life. You never know if anything is ever going to happen or if you are going to work.
JL – I was with Robert Stigwood, who took me on as an actor and then the singing developed. Then in 1961, which wasn’t long after Biggles, because when I was doing Biggles, I got quite a big following of teenage girls.
RH – So that led to the singing?
JL – So I had this huge following and I think Stigwood, being a businessman thought, “Hello, there’s a market there” and he said “Can you sing?” and I said, “Well, yes, I can sing. Whether I can sing professionally or not is another matter, but sure, I can sing”.
(John Leyton, of course, went on to have a number of hits in the 1960’s – his biggest hit reaching number one in August 1961 – “Johnny, Remember Me”).
RH – We have got to talk about “THE GREAT ESCAPE”. Since I was six, it has been my favourite film my whole life. I absolutely love it. I must have seen it 40 times and I am afraid that I am one of those people who knows every line.
JOHN THEN KINDLY SPENT THE BEST PART OF ANOTHER HOUR TALKING ABOUT HIS MEMORIES OF THAT FILM, THE RECORD OF WHICH WILL APPEAR ON MY WEB SITE – http://www.stevemcqueen.co.uk– IN DUE COURSE.
Transcribed and edited by Roger Harris - with grateful thanks to Mr. John Leyton