Sandy Ross talks about producing the children’s programme ‘The Mersey Pirate’

The other thing that we did was a kids’ Saturday morning programme called the Mersey Pirate, which we broadcast from the Royal Iris. Steve Leahy again joined me later on as a co-producer of that, but I was given the job under Chris Pye of putting together this kids’ Saturday morning programme from a boat in Liverpool during the summer of 1979. Plowright, …he’d just suddenly woken up with this idea. Liverpool’s maritime history, the Mersey, ferry cross the Mersey, all of this kind of stuff; ‘I know we’ll do a kids’ Saturday morning show from a boat’.

I was assigned to find the boat. I still remember Chris Pye and I went down to Bristol, up to Glasgow, I think we went to Hull, looking for a boat you could present a television programme from on a Saturday morning. I remember the thing we came closest to was the Waverley paddle steamer, which was based in the Clyde. That would have been ideal because it looked great and it was paddle steamer and all of the rest of the stuff. But no way was it available to come down and be based in Liverpool over the summer because it did trips up and down the Clyde. So in the end we came back, and there was a ship called the Royal Iris, which was a Mersey ferry. It didn’t do the conventional ferry stuff, but it was used much more as a pleasure craft and you could go on wee trips in it and all the rest of the stuff.

We went along and discussed it with them and they agreed that we could do the show from the Royal Iris but part of the conditions on which we were going to make the show was that it couldn’t be taken out of service. So it had to continue on a Friday, the rehearsal day was a Friday and the show went out live on a Saturday morning. The Saturday morning wasn’t a problem because it didn’t do anything on a Saturday morning. But on the Friday afternoon it had a series of trips that it made up and down the Mersey as a pleasure craft and these trips had to continue while we rehearsed. It was a nightmare.

The technology that we were using was very basic. Apparently it had been developed by Southern Television to cover the homecoming of Sir Francis Chichester when he had sailed round the world. It was all based on line of sight. We had a guy with a dish on the top of the Liver Building. The Iris sailed up and down the Mersey and there was a line it could not cross, the mouth of the Mersey. The Mersey then becomes the sea and it couldn’t go into the sea, so it could sail as far as that and then had to turn and come back round but the water could be very choppy, even in the river. The guy on top of the Liver Building had to direct his thing and it was line of sight. It had to hit the exact spot on the Royal Iris at the other end in order for the picture to work. Of course if the sea was choppy or the boat went from side to side you would lose the picture. If you ever watched it on a Saturday morning there would be instantaneous, tiny black flashes because the boat would have rocked one way or another and the picture would have been lost. So we worked on the thing and worked on the thing and we built this Buckminister Fuller bubble on top of the Royal Iris. It looked spectacular, I have to say, and that was the control room because the producers, directors and all the team were all on view during the show. It was presented by a comedian called Dougie Brown.

The day that we went for the pilot, just to see if the whole thing worked, we set out into the River Mersey on a morning where the whole deck of the boat was covered in snow. The whole boat was covered in snow because the weather was awful.

The pilot was a bit of a disaster. One of the other things that we did was we decided if it was a proper boat it would have stowaways. We had a DJ on the boat as well who knew there were stowaways but wouldn’t tell the captain. Billy Butler, who used to duck back and forward between Radio Merseyside and the commercial station, City. I can’t remember which one he was working for at the time. Billy was the entertainment officer, and he used to wear a straw boater and a blazer.

I’d met and got quite friendly with Alan Bleasdale. I thought the Scully books were absolutely fantastic so I managed to convince Alan that Scully and Mooey, his mate, should be the stowaways on the ship. Alan used to write the stuff, almost like a spin off of the Scully books.

What we would do when we rehearsed on a Friday, we would pre record most of the Scully and Mooey bits, shoot them separately and then play them in on the Saturday morning although they were involved live in some of the stuff as well. The Friday would be really busy to try and get the whole thing together and all the rest of it.

One of the problems was about 14:30 on a Friday afternoon it would stop off in Birkenhead and a group of adults who had learning difficulties would come onto the ship. This was part of their weekly routine; that their carers brought them onto the ship on a Friday afternoon and they would sail up and down and after about two hours come back to Birkenhead and they would get off. One of the things they did on the ship was they would have a disco and they would dance. But of course every time we had to go for a take or to record something, Scully or Mooey or something else, we had to stop the disco. We couldn’t have the noise and all the rest of it, so there was always this element of tension between the social workers, the carers, the dancers and us as we tried to rehearse.

So the show eventually went on air without ever having had a proper pilot because the day that we had done it was the day there had been snow and the thing never worked.

We went live to air and it was meant to run until 12:15 when ‘World of Sport’ took over with Dickie Davis. We’d never really had a proper chance to work out timings and running orders and all the rest of it. So at 12:05 we were finished and there were still ten minutes to go before ‘World of Sport’ happened. I can still remember going through on the comms, Stuart Orden was the director, Jane McNaught was the PA, I remember that. I went through to transmission control in Manchester, remember this show was going out to the Network, and said “transmission control, we’ve finished can you take us?” This voice came back saying, “can we f***, you’re on your own.”

By a stroke of good fortune, that day on the very first show, we had Frank Carson on the show as well. Dougie Brown was a stand up comedian as well. So I said to Stuart “we’re on our own”. I remember saying, “Dougie, Frank can you fill for eight minutes?” And they did until 12:15, ‘right that’s all from us, bye. We’ll see you next week’ and off we went to ‘World of Sport’.

The only good thing I can say about the ‘Mersey Pirate’; it was a great experience and great fun to do but nine weeks later the ITV strike happened and the show came off the air, never to reappear. It was an experience.

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