“It Was Great While it Lasted”

Graham Kibble-White interviews “Bernie the Bolt”, Alan Bailey

First published June 2004

Latterly working as a teacher at Lutterworth Grammar School in Leicestershire, Alan Bailey is perhaps better known as one of the people to have played the role of Bernie the Bolt in the legendary game show The Golden Shot. As a props master, special effects operator and then a model maker, he enjoyed a career in independent television which spanned the 1960s and the first half of the ’70s.

Chancing upon OTT’s Golden Shot article, Alan kindly dropped us a line, and we took the opportunity to find out just what it had been like working on the famously chaotic Shot.

OTT: Can you give us an idea of your career in TV before joining The Golden Shot? How did you get into the industry and what programmes did you work on?

ALAN BAILEY: I suppose it was almost inevitable that I would work in the entertainment industry. My father was an entertainer who made his living advertising events and shows around the country. He was a stilt walker and rode a specially made bicycle, he was also a Punch and Judy man and member of the Magic Circle. He broke his wrists falling from his stilts during a gig at the Festival of Britain, but that did not stop him getting on them again.

I joined Alpha Television in October 1960 as Propertyman/Drapesman after two years with Lewis’ Ltd in Leicester, where I worked as a Display Artist. In early 1960 I approached the BBC and Alpha enquiring if they had any vacancies. Alpha contacted me and offered me a job in Aston, Birmingham. Alpha TV was a service company at that time, providing studios for ATV during the week and for Thames TV at the weekend. The weekday programmes were mainly local Midland oriented with a daily lunchtime music and chat show hosted by Noele Gordon, called Lunchbox. We also covered news and other events with magazine type programmes such as Midlands Today, and in the early years there were a number of pure advertising programmes where the presenter worked his/her way along a selection of products, extolling their virtues.

The Arnold Doodle Show was one such programme. I can remember being particularly irritated by the tardy manner the “pack shots” were presented to camera, since all my training as a display artist screamed “this isn’t right”, but what they wanted was to clearly see the product and its label. They weren’t interested in “pretty presentation”. I just had to bite my lip!

In 1964 we started Crossroads, and this became our staple weekday diet. We would spend Monday setting up for the week’s shows and then do two on Tuesday, two on Wednesday and one on Thursday. All the other local shows still continued so this was a really busy period for the studios.

The weekends were much livelier with big shows brought up from Teddington. The most memorable was Thank Your Lucky Stars, which ran through most of the 1960s as a counter to BBC’s Top of the Pops, and Rediffusion’s Ready Steady Go. If a pop star was in the charts, they were on TYLS. It was hosted by Brian Matthew and performed in front of a live audience, although all the music was mimed. My job was as one of the props crew, mainly responsible on this show for changing the sets – for example swapping drum kits on Brian Matthews’ introductions. In practice we usually had more time than just an intro as the show was performed in two or three different areas, including Studio 2 which was under the audience, who sat in the circle of what was once the Aston Astoria cinema.

A couple of particularly memorable shows were two successive weeks when we had first The Rolling Stones, then The Beatles topping the bill, and the audience down on the studio floor all around the boxing ring-like stage. It was mayhem with girls continually screaming and trying to pull the lads off the stage. For those shows we all became unofficial bouncers, trying to get the girls back to their seats. There were lots of wet ones when we put them away afterwards!

OTT: Do you remember when you heard The Golden Shot was moving from Borehamwood to Birmingham? What was the feeling in the company about taking on this show which had been previously made in London?

ALAN BAILEY: We were excited to learn that The Golden Shot was to come to Birmingham. It would be quite a challenge as the studio was very small compared with that at Elstree, and the audience would be on a different level. Another problem was that the crossbow equipment was operated in Elstree by their Special Effects department – a department that we did not have at Aston. After some protracted and difficult negotiations with the three main unions, the company advertised for four operatives. Myself and John Baker, plus George Hansen and Graham Bowden were eventually set on as the new Special Effects Department. John and I would be responsible for the crossbows and the targets, George and Graham would man the safety equipment and the electronic triggers from the booth that was sited just to the side of the firing range. George had a further responsibility for preparing the exploding apples used in the first part of the show.

John and I agreed to work 15-week stints “out front” as Bernie, and then swap over. Bob Monkhouse was agreeable to this and it worked fine as far as I know. We used to start at 7am by test firing and setting the sights on the bows as accurately as possible. The two camera mounted bows were a bit of a problem in that they had very tall sights and were easily knocked when the bows were stored off set, but to my knowledge no-one was ever given an inaccurate bow to use on the show.

Once that was over we would meet the contestants for the day and give them a guided tour of the studios before introducing them to the crossbows. We would go through the show with them and give them an opportunity to fire the freestanding bows. This brings to mind the incident of the “blind” contestant mentioned in Bob’s book (Crying With Laughter, 1993). This was a week where, for some reason, we were a studio contestant short (they were usually the successful apple contestants from the previous week). Bob’s answer was to throw an apple over his shoulder, into the audience. Whoever caught it would be our contestant. It was caught by a man of about 45 years, or so, of age, but he insisted that his mother, who sat next to him, should be the contestant. She was about 4′ 6″ tall and 80-years-old, with thick pebble glasses. Despite the absurdity of it, the man was insistent, and she came down to the studio floor as the contestant. I had about five minutes talking in hushed whispers, jammed into a mass of stored crossbows and cables, to explain to this poor woman what she had to do, and how to do it. Needless to say when it came to her turn, she stepped forward and the first thing she got hold of was the trigger. The crossbows were tail heavy and rested on a back stop that restricted their field of fire, but she still managed to fire the bolt through the fibreglass scenery above the target, and on into the back wall of the studio, from which it bounced and dropped among a very surprised bunch of scene hands waiting for their next move.

OTT: What were your first impressions of Bob Monkhouse?

ALAN BAILEY: He was always totally in command. Nothing ever seemed to fluster him. He had a gag or something for every situation. One incident is worth telling to give some idea how quick witted he could be, although I can’t remember now exactly what was said. We were in the lift going up to the canteen for a break, when my watchstrap broke and the watch dropped to the floor. Bob saw this happen, and had made a very witty comment about it before the watch hit the floor.

I did not attend production meetings, but colleagues did, and it was clear that Bob was the driving force of what happened on the show. John and I developed a special target that had a large metallic bauble bouncing on a jet of air that tracked back and forth across the target area. We had designed it as an alternative to the “cutting the string” target that had been in use for a number of years. It was a very testing target to hit under any circumstances, but Bob insisted on introducing a gamble element to the show. I think I am right when I say that the contestant gambled what they had already won against a much bigger prize if they hit the bauble. Most contestants chickened out and took what they already had, and the target had a short life before we returned to the “string” version.

OTT: Was The Golden Shot a fun show to work on, or a nightmare?

ALAN BAILEY: The show was fun. Despite doing largely the same thing each week, the contestants were unpredictable and it was live. This fact alone kept you on your toes and led to situations that are only seen on shows like It’ll be Alright on the Night these days.

OTT: The Shot has a reputation for often falling apart on screen. How do you think Bob and the team coped with these problems, and are there any particular instances of mayhem that stick in your mind?

ALAN BAILEY: One incident must have tested Bob’s ability to ad-lib to the hilt. John was on Bernie duty and I was on target duty. The targets were pretty crude and consisted of circles of thick plywood that were pulled by cords attached to motors, along simple plywood guides. On this show one of the guides dropped off during the first round with the freestanding bows, when two contestants are firing against one another simultaneously. It was obvious that we couldn’t continue until it was fixed but the tools for the job were back in our workshop two floors down and at the opposite end of the building. I flew out of the door and hared to the workshop, grabbed the necessary tools and returned very dishevelled to the studio, where I quickly repaired the target amid much loud hammering. After a ripple of applause from the audience Bob was able to continue with the show. How long it had been held up is anyone’s guess. It seemed an age to me.

Another that occurred after the show had finished is worth a mention. We were newly in the Bridge Street studios and were nearly finished clearing the set away when one of the scene hands pushed a piece of scenery on to the top of the special effects booth that was stored under the control rooms to the side of the studio. He unfortunately hit a sprinkler, knocking it clean off the pipe. The rush of water – all 22,000 gallons of it – had to be seen to be believed. Fortunately immediately outside the studio door at that time was a building site (later the Holiday Inn car park) and the water was guided in that direction. Everyone who was still around came in to help with the emergency, including, I believe, Bob Monkhouse for a while. No one knew how to turn it off and it just had to run until the tank was empty. The floor was nearly dried off and most people had left to go home when the same scene hand that caused the deluge in the first place, opened the door of the booth to look inside and found the roof sagging under the weight of about half a ton of water. He poked it with a broom handle. Whoosh! We were back to mopping up for a further half an hour!

OTT: When Bob “retired” from The Shot in 1972, was there ever any whispering as to the real reasons behind his departure?

ALAN BAILEY: If there were any whispers, I didn’t hear them.

OTT: What was it like working on the programme with Norman Vaughan hosting, and then Charlie Williams? What were they like to work with, and how did you rate them?

ALAN BAILEY: To be quite honest Norman Vaughan was a bag of nerves and needed a lot of reassurance from the crew, especially the floor manager. Whereas Bob Monkhouse led the show, the show and crew led Norman Vaughan. Likewise Charlie Williams would be the first to admit that he was out of his depth much of the time. Charlie was a great person to work with but he really did struggle.

OTT: When the programme began to lose viewers, how did that affect the mood on the studio floor?

ALAN BAILEY: In 1974 I changed my job to be the prop-maker and no longer crewed the shows on the studio floor. My role was taken over by Harry Webley, who with John Baker, carried on until The Shot finished. I left the studios in 1976 for pastures new near Caernarfon in North Wales where I took a degree course at Bangor Normal College that led me back to my old school in Lutterworth, Leicestershire – only this time as a teacher of Design and Technology. I was not aware of the changing fortunes of the show as most of my work during 1974 – 76 was for Crossroads, or Tiswas with Chris Tarrant.

OTT: Why did you leave the industry in 1976?

ALAN BAILEY: Industrial relations within the studio at that period were difficult and I decided to make a complete break with it. I will not elaborate further. I had married in 1970 and by 1976 had two young daughters, the eldest of whom was due to start school. It seemed an appropriate time if we were ever going to do it. So we sold up and moved west. During my subsequent teaching career of nearly 20 years much of my TV experience was used in school drama productions and festivals, where I found myself responsible for lighting, set design and construction and courses for students, many of whom aspired to working in the theatre or television.

OTT: How do you look back on The Golden Shot today?

ALAN BAILEY: With a certain amount of nostalgia. It was great while it lasted.