Actively seeking

Talking to actor and comedian Helen Atkinson Wood.

Helen Atkinson Wood made her first appearances in a Birmingham-based cult classic, appeared in the epic Blackadder the Third and played a leading role in the shows Radio Active and KYTV. The first of these, a parody of every low-budget local radio station you’ve ever heard, is returning to the live circuit and we asked Helen why the team felt the time is now right to hit the road again.

Is it a case of unfinished business?

“No, we just wanted to be out on the road. There’s never unfinished business as far as we’re concerned. We’re all close friends, we all go on holiday and spend Christmas together so any excuse to spend even more time with each other. Eighteen months ago we had an invitation to do the show at the Edinburgh Festival and we didn’t need asking twice because we love the festival both as audience and as performers. The show went down a storm and last summer we did some other festivals, including Glastonbury, and we saw that there’s a very big audience for it, a lot of affection. And vintage is very much in vogue.”

It’s interesting to hear that you did the festival circuit because I’ve been reading Michael Palin’s diaries recently and he says that one of Monthy Python’s big crossovers was when they appeared at the Lincoln Pop Festival in 1972, going on between Slade and the Beach Boys.

“No way! Really? Radio Active is a parody of a local radio station but we also have the very accomplished musician Phillip Pope who was in the band HeeBeeGeeBees, with lyrics by Richard Curtis. It was an absolutely stellar line-up and the Bee Gees take-off Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices went down a storm. Now, Barry Gibb was also on the bill at Glastonbury… We went to see him but I don’t think he had the good grace to come and watch us”

Then again, the Bee Gees never really came across as the most humourous bunch.

“I don’t think they’d ever have asked us to support them. It was a very affectionate, albeit a very accurate, parody.”

Do you work with the rest of the team regularly?

“Not regularly, we just go out to do Radio Active, which in itself is quite a big thing. Do our paths cross in other areas? No. We’ve all had such great independent careers since we did Radio Active and KYTV. Now that we’re back together again this could well be a rolling, touring show that goes on ad infinitum.”

Like a band reunion, but without the arguments over royalties and who owns the name… Will there be any new shows or is it all going to be live from now on?

“We get asked and we haven’t really thought about it. To be quite candid we greatly miss our beloved Geoffrey Perkins, who made up the writing team with Angus Deayton. He and Angus were a very compatible team.”

There’s always someone who holds the show together isn’t there? They might be in the background but once they’re not there the show’s never the same. Like James Beck in Dad’s Army; he was never the big name but it wasn’t the same after he died.

“Geoffrey was a formidable force in British comedy. He was responsible for Harry Enfield, Father Ted, Benidorm, his list of credits was endless but because he was a producer more than a performer he didn’t have the profile that the rest of us have.”

You can’t really parody local radio anymore can you? Smashie & Nicey managed to destroy Radio One but local radio doesn’t seem to have evolved from the seventies. A lot of the presenters just haven’t changed.

“Oh, you can parody it. It’s a timeless thing. Local radio is still very like a parody. It’s why Radio Active has stood the test of time”

KYTV is a bit different because satellite channels have caught up with you now. After the news you now have channels playing roulette through the night.

“Yes. And television is now dictated by the public whereas it used to be the territory of the presenters. When you look at something like Strictly Come Dancing, it doesn’t have brilliant presenters at the heart of it. The dynamics have certainly changed.”

Going back even further than when KYTV first appeared, you were one of the stars of the legendary OTT, arguably the first post-pub Saturday night television show.

“My very, very first appearance. Chris Tarrant saw Radio Active at Edinburgh all those years ago and asked if I’d like to audition for this new late-night TV show. I still hold it dear.”

Chris is richer than God now and doesn’t have to work anymore but it’s a shame how that sort of mix of music and comedy is missing these days. Most musicians say that to be on TV now you have to be either super-cool or else a friend of Jools Holland.

“That was Chris. He has just a collection of friends, people like Roy Wood and Status Quo, that all wanted to spend Saturday night jamming at the Central studios in Birmingham. It probably wouldn’t have been broadcast now, we seemed to do a lot of filing in bed. And Bernard Manning – I rest my case. “

I can’t imagine OTT being allowed now, with all the isms that it featured. But staying on the subject of the eighties, do you get a bit fed up when people still want to talk to you about Blackadder, or ask what Rowan Atkinson’s really like?

“Never. Never ever, never ever. Why would I be fed up of talking about a comedy classic? Being Mrs Miggins, being part of that line-up of talent, people walking in the door like Stephen Fry and Rik Mayall, coming in to do a cameo. As for what Rowan’s like, a genius is the answer.”

We’re talking about work from thirty years ago, but in thirty years time will there still be a radio format for Radio Active to parody?

“That’s a good one. I think it come back that radio is cool now, vinyl and turntables are the big things on the market. A well-crafted vintage piece is timeless.”

Radio Active is at Warwick Arts Centre on Thursday 26th April. Tickets