Writing “gags” for a living is a cut throat business Brad Ashton explained to the Probus Club of Basingstoke. The club for retired professional and business managers was amazed to hear that he had written over 1500 comedy shows for television over a working lifetime and the names he mentioned were household favourites that the audience recalled with ease.
Since his retirement he has been telling his anecdotal tales to passengers on cruise ships about working with the comedy greats. Ted Ray, Tommy Trinder, Jimmy Edwards, Jon Pertwee, Leslie Phillips, Harry Worth and Dick Emery from the early days; Benny Hill, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock, Ken Dodd, Bob Monkhouse, Bernard Bresslaw, Mike and Bernie Winters, Morecambe & Wise and Little & Large were the British stars. And Brad worked with Groucho Marx for fourteen weeks on a UK tour.
Brad’s first script was broadcast on the wireless on 28 September 1952, but was unable to listen as it was Yom Kippur. “I come from a traditional Jewish family and my father would not let me turn on the radio during Holy Days, which I respected.”
“In the early 50s I found the BBC a bit anti-Semitic so having the Jewish surname of Abrahams did not help, so for professional reasons I changed my name by deed poll.”
Spike Milligan was a witness at Brad’s marriage in 1961 and had an office below Brad’s for 20 years. They would lunch together with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Johnny Speight and others. In fact there were 16 of them in the building and if unsure of a gag or routine they would pop into one of the other offices and try it out on each other.
Some comedians were well known for being a little tight over money. Brad gave an example “ I sold a gag to a well known name for £250 but six months later he phoned me to tell me that as he had not used it he wanted his money back.”
Brad was asked by Ned Sherrin at the BBC to help decide between David Frost and Brian Redhead who was to be the anchor man on a new topical show called That Was The Week That Was. Initially Brian Redhead was ahead but then Brad saw David Frost handle a 300 strong audience with top quality political impersonations.
“On the day of the show I would get all the newspapers, sit down by 7.00am and by 3pm I’d have my target of 33 gags. I would read them out to David in his dressing room at the BBC for the show that night and those that excited him, he’d remember. On average he would use at least fifteen in that night’s TW3. He was without doubt the most talented person I ever worked with.”
Les Dawson was another of Brad’s favourites and unbeknown to most, spoke seven languages. At lunch with Brad in a Chinese restaurant Les spoke in Mandarin for twenty minutes with a waiter. He was also a good pianist who by deliberately playing out of tune avoided paying royalties.
Brad went on “Everyone says, having written for all these comedians I must have had an exciting life. I probably did but was too busy to notice as each day I would be at rehearsals and script meetings. I slept at my desk using a satchel as a pillow, but they were marvellous experiences. The best thing about my profession was by not having to be a performer I could watch a good comedian get a laugh, sit back and think, I wrote that!”