I recently discovered several interviews I did a number of years ago that, for one reason or another, were never published. Rather than have them continue to gather "dust" in my computer, I thought I would share them with you. In this interview, British actor/singer Mike Berry talks about his singing career as well as playing Bert Spooner in the popular 70s British TV comedy series Are You Being Served?
It was a surprise to everyone at Grace Brothers Department Store when junior salesman Bert Spooner unveiled his secret singing talents at a staff concert. When his rendition of "Chason d'Amour" is mentioned in the local papers, the silver-throated retail crooner is offered a television spot and the opportunity to make a name for himself in the music industry. Having already been a pop star in real life, it was destiny that Mike Berry was cast to play Spooner in the BBC's hugely successful television comedy series Are You Being Served?
Born Michael Bourne in North Hampton, a small town in England about sixty miles outside London, Berry was influenced at an early age by such singers as Little Richard and Elvis. "I didn't want to do anything else but sing," he recalls. "I was going to be Britain's answer to Buddy Holly.
"My friends liked my voice and used to encourage me. I would sit on the corner of my street with a guitar and sing Buddy Holly songs to them. I didn't know many of the chords, but I managed to muddle through it. No one listening to me back then was a professional, so, it didn't matter, and what I did was just fine. I admired singers from America and when I saw singers on English television I would say to myself, 'I'm sure I'm as good as these blokes are, so, I'm going to wait for my big break.' I waited and waited," laughs Berry. "It took its time, but it eventually came."
Berry formed his own group, Kenny Lord and the Statesmen, but, according to his recording manager, Joe Meek, the band accompanying Berry "wasn't up to scratch." He had heard of a new group, Bill Gray and The Stormers, and asked The Stormers if they would be interested in signing on as Berry's new back-up band. They accepted.
"As you might expect, there was a bit of a bad feeling there at the time," says the actor, "but The Stormers became my group and backed me. Joe Meek renamed the band The Outlaws and named me Mike Berry, so, we became Mike Berry and the Outlaws."
Berry, who was only twenty at the time, and the Outlaws took Britain by storm. In 1963, following the success of their hit record, "Tribute to Buddy Holly," the group was promoting their latest hit, "Don't You Think It's Time?" on television's Thank Your Lucky Stars. Backing them up was a relatively new group, The Beatles, who had previously worked with the band at The Cavern Club, London's Swinging Sixties teenager hangout.
"The Cavern was a great place to play," Berry recalls. "It was one of the few places in England where the kids joined in with the songs. They all did it in tune and I was really impressed. I dare say Cilla Black was there, although I never met Cilla at the time, but I did meet The Beatles there. I remember Paul McCartney giving me a lift back to my hotel in his Ford Classic Capri or some other English car that was around at the time. We were just mates along with other people like Jerry and the Pacemakers.
"One night, a couple of Outlaws and myself were invited back by Brian Epstein to his flat to listen to some Beatles tapes. I just seem to remember that they were a bit messy and weren't very clear, so, I wasn't that impressed with them. Again, I was into Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, people who were really making some pretty hot sounds, so, to me, The Beatles didn't mean much at the time."
The first taste of acting Berry had was working in pantomimes throughout the mid-Sixties. He appeared in amateur dramatic productions and then started to get offers for various television commercials. It was while filming one of these commercials that Berry was asked to join the cast of a children's television series about a scarecrow called Worzel Gummidge. "I played Mr. Peters, which was my first decent acting part. I'd done lots of bits and pieces on television before, but this was how I really made the transition, if you like, into acting. I still maintained the singing and had hit records while I was acting.
"At the time I had just gotten a new agent, Richard Stone, who also represented David Croft, who produced and wrote [with Jeremy Lloyd] Are You Being Served? Richard knew they were looking for a new character to replace Mr. Lucas, who was played by Trevor Bannister. He called up David and said, 'I've got the very person for you. He's a young man who's been very good in Worzel Gummidge,' and so forth, so, I was asked to go see David Croft.
"I met him at the BBC and read for him. Then I went back and read for Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft at somebody's flat. I didn't think I was very good, actually, but they gave me the part, and it was like all my birthdays coming at once. It was rather a good part to be acquired by an actor of such inexperience as myself."
Berry describes his character of Bert Spooner as a near-do-well, workshy, a touch rude and ignorant, a bit of a layabout and one for the girls. "At least he fancied himself with the girls but was never very good," says the actor. "Miss Brahms [Wendy Richard] would always give him the cold shoulder. He didn't like discipline, of course, and was quite typical of how I probably was when I was sixteen. I loved the character and was very pleased to do it."
The actor began his retail career at Grace Brothers in an episode entitled Is It Catching. He recalls his first days on the set with great clarity. "Although I didn't have that much to do in this episode it was still pretty terrifying, especially since you had between fifteen and twenty million people watching. At one point I remember poking my tongue out at someone, which wasn't in the script, and David Croft said, 'I like that. Keep it in.'
"I loved working with John [Inman], Mollie [Sugden] and the rest of the cast. They were so good to me and really welcomed me into the cast. It was flattering because Wendy Richard told me, 'It's only because we know you can do it.' When people got into the cast who weren't really the right ones or couldn't to it - either act terribly well or see the humor - they would get the cold shoulder, so, I was very lucky that it worked for me and I fitted the part."
In another episode, Memories Are Made of This, the store's golf pro, Mr. Walpole, joins the Men's Department and attempts to improve Captain Peacock's [Frank Thornton] swing. "This chap wasn't the best of actors," recalls Berry. "His first line was something like, 'All right, Captain Peacock, hold your club this way and line yourself up with the ball.' Once he had Captain Peacock lined up with the ball he was then supposed to say, 'Look, straight-away, the Arnold Palmer grip.'
"This chap said, 'Look,' pointed up in the air and then said, 'the Arnold Palmer grip.' We assumed that he thought a grip was something you threw up in the air, and when he said his line we all looked up. Mollie Sugden almost wet herself because she was crying so much with laughter, and John Inman was practically in the same state himself. We all collapsed in a heap because this chap didn't understand his line," laughs the actor. "It had to be delicately explained to him by the director, Bob Spiers, who, by the way, was a very good director."
As one of the youngest members of the Are You Being Served? cast, Berry had the chance to work with a group of consummate professionals, most of whom had been in the business for many years. He recalls the time he spent on the program as being enjoyable as well as a tremendous learning experience.
"Frank Thornton was great. If I had any problems with the dialogue or couldn't see the right stress in a particular line, Frank would help me. I loved his acting and his Captain Peacock was probably my favorite character. I just liked the snobbishness of Peacock and the fact that he always got taken down a peg in the end. I always considered Frank to be the most accomplished of the cast, simply because he had worked on the classics as well as done a lot of Shakespeare.
"Mollie Sugden [Mrs. Slocombe] was such a laugh and would always encourage me. There was one episode where we had to dance around in a circle with our arms hooked together. I remember being frightened because I thought I would throw her off balance and hurt her. She said, "Oh, no, I'm a tough old bird. Don't pussyfoot. Just go for it.' So we hooked arms and swung each other around and had a great time.
"I used to laugh constantly with John Inman [Mr. Humphries]. He said to me once, 'You're a joy to be with, 'and it probably was because I was such a great audience and used to laugh so much. My face used to ache by the time I went home. John, Wendy Richard and I used to go to the pub for lunch between rehearsals. John had his gin and tonic and I sometimes had a vodka, which meant that we were a bit silly in the afternoon. He used to have some lovely parties back at his house and was such a good host.
"Arthur English [Mr. Harmon] has, sadly, passed away. I spoke with him very briefly on the phone two weeks before he died. He phoned me at a gig that I was doing near to where he lived and I'd arranged to go see him. I phoned up to get his address and found out then that he had died. He had emphysema and was living in a nursing home. It was very sad because he died a fairly lonely man, and I was very disappointed that I didn't get to see him before he died.
"I loved Arthur. He used to tell me all sorts of stories about the old days in music halls and working as a stand-up comic. I really enjoy listening to older people tell stories. They're a wonderful source of life's rich pattern. Unfortunately, we don't pay enough attention to them. In England and America, in particular, we tend to chuck them on the scrap heap and don't look after them. I'm as guilty as any. They're a great source of knowledge and experience, and we should listen far more than we do."
And what about Bert Spooner's boss, Cuthbert Rumbold, affectionately known to his employees as jug ears? "Nicholas Smith, bless him, he's another man that used to have some great stories. I got on just fine with Nick and all the others in the cast. The whole series was just one long fond memory for me and, although I only did three series, it's a very big part of my life because it was such a big part for any actor to do. Are You Being Served? was, and is, so popular and one really became a household name because of it."
Reality becomes fantasy for Berry in The Pop Star, the last episode ever filmed of Are You Being Served? It looks as if Bert Spooner is headed for the big time when he makes his television debut as a singer, but, in the best tradition of the program, comic misadventure takes over.
"That episode was, in a way, my big break in Are You Being Served? because it was the most dialogue Mr. Spooner ever had to say," he laughs. "I loved dressing up in that mad outfit that they got me; the hairpiece with a blond streak down the front, those crazy red trousers and the gold shirt. I actually wore a chest wig - I don't have a hairy chest - and they stuck a chest wig on me along with a medallion, sun glasses and those funny high-healed shoes, which I was tottering around on. I should have been used to those because I wore them in the seventies when flared trousers and stacked shoes were in.
"I thought it was a great episode to go out with. I really enjoyed that and I was so disappointed that we never did any more shows after that because I felt as though I was really getting my teeth into the part."
Berry recently made an appearance on the popular British police series The Bill. He also returned to the London stage to star in the rock-and-roll musical Great Balls of Fire, a sequel to the popular Tutti Frutti, which the actor also co-wrote and starred in. Berry is currently busy writing the third sequel to the above musicals, Stupid Cupid, in which he hopes to be able to further explore all the show's characters.
Although he's been performing in front of audiences for years, Berry still gets the odd butterfly in his stomach before stepping up onto the stage or in front of the camera. "Anyone in the entertainment business who isn't terrified about going up on stage or on television every night either has a screw loose," he laughs, "or they're not the right people in the right business.
"Sometimes I find I have difficulty learning the words if they're not terribly well-written, but, knock wood, most of the things I've done have been quite well-written. I'm not the most experienced of actors in the world, so, when I work on something I just keep watching others and learning. I think I pick up things fairly quickly, but it's all a challenge, really, believe me."