“It Was Us, Basil Brush and Terry Wogan”

Ian Jones interviews Peter Christie of Instant Sunshine

First published April 2006

You don’t hear much of the topical song nowadays. An art form that once enjoyed a regular berth on both TV and radio, it’s something that seemed to fall out of view, if not also of fashion, round about the early ’90s along with continuity announcers, the Today newspaper and British Rail. All of which, of course, were just the kind of topics to find their way into an effortlessly whimsical and playfully hummable musical statement from the boys of Instant Sunshine: the consummate purveyors of the topical song on UK screens for much of the 1970s and ’80s. OTT chatted with Peter Christie, selfless brains behind the capricious operation and author of all the group’s material, about a career that spanned such unlikely bedfellows as Jackanory and David Frost, and which led to, among other feats, a bemused audience with Ted Heath and a spot on the Princess Diana memorial album.

OTT: It’s your 40th anniversary this year, isn’t it?

PETER CHRISTIE: That’s right. Good heavens!

OTT: But you haven’t actually been performing non-stop for 40 years.

PETER CHRISTIE: Yes. I guess we didn’t really make it, as it were, until 1975 – the year we went to the Edinburgh Festival, and when we first got invited to do some telly. You see, Instant Sunshine came out of what were called the Christmas Shows at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. That was where myself, David Barlow and Alan Maryon-Davies trained as doctors in the mid-’60s.

OTT: None of you were professional musicians?

PETER CHRISTIE: Oh goodness no. I played the guitar and the trumpet, and at the time I was part of the St Thomas’s jazz band, which is how I first got involved in the Christmas shows. These shows were full of original material, both music and skits, and one year I tried my hand at writing some myself. They seemed to go down quite well, and I enjoyed it, so when David and Alan arrived, who were both a few years younger than me, I wrote stuff for them. This carried on for a while, by which point I’d left St Thomas’s and did a postgraduate year at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. And here’s where it really all sort of started. I had very little income, only a very small grant, and needed some money to live off. Someone then invited me to go for an audition at a place called Tiddy Dol’s Eating House, which was a restaurant in the middle of Mayfair, and which was looking for some regular musical entertainment, cabaret, singing, that kind of thing. And I got the job. I had to sing in this restaurant in the evenings, every night, including Sundays, in return for a free meal and three quid. It kept me going through that year, and David and Alan used to join me from time to time, and eventually we worked up a proper repertoire. By this point it was 1966.

OTT: And had you given yourself a proper name yet?

PETER CHRISTIE: That came when we were invited to sing a cabaret at St Thomas’s New Year’s Eve ball. The original cabaret couldn’t turn up so we were asked to do it at short notice. And we called ourselves Instant Sunshine for some reason. I’ve no idea why!

OTT: Had you any designs on a career as a proper group?

PETER CHRISTIE: Oh no. In fact we never had. And still don’t! What happened was that we sort of carried on at Tiddy Dol’s for a while, with me now working as a locum and David and Alan still students. Then one day into the restaurant came two people called Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, who’d just written Puppet on a String for Sandie Shaw at Eurovision. They listened to our set, came up to us afterwards and declared, “let’s make a record”! So we trooped into this studio in Edgware Road, not really knowing what to expect. Which was just as well as they’d hired a huge orchestra, with brass, strings, the lot! And we recorded 19 songs.

OTT: All your own material?

PETER CHRISTIE: All my songs, all originals. It all seemed very unlikely. The record came out after I had gone to Tanzania – I went to work there for three years at the turn of the decade. I think the LP got played a few times. My mother bought at least one copy.

OTT: And so Instant Sunshine was put on hold?

PETER CHRISTIE: Until I returned in 1971, and more or less picked up where I’d left off! Myself, David and Alan carried on singing, usually every Friday night, in Tiddy Dol’s. It was a very formative time. It was like choir practice, you see, singing on a regular basis, and to an audience. It was good training. And we soon added a bass player, Miles Kington, who’d been at Oxford with David. And then in 1975 we decided to try our luck at the Edinburgh Festival. And strangely we had fantastic acclaim!

OTT: “Strangely”?

PETER CHRISTIE: Well, we were a bit surprised! I guess we thought of ourselves as old men. I was 35, and most people at the Festival, at the Fringe anyway, were youngsters. But we knew our material well, and were quite slick. We ended up being voted the official Hit of the Fringe. Princess Margaret came to the show! It was all very sudden. We were only in this small shabby place on the Royal Mile which had about 100 seats.

OTT: And from there it all took off?

PETER CHRISTIE: A number of things happened. First of all Scottish Television filmed us doing a few songs, which was, I guess, our first proper TV. They invited us back to do a half hour programme later in the autumn, but it was only for viewers in Scotland. At the same time we had an invitation from a chap called Bill Davies, the editor of Punch. Miles knew Bill because he wrote for Punch, and which had already led to us performing at an awards ceremony to honour humour in advertising. Anyhow, Bill was standing in for Robert Robinson on a Radio 4 programme called Stop the Week. While we were doing the Edinburgh Festival he asked us to pop into the BBC studios in Glasgow and record some songs for the programme. And I think the producer, Michael Ember, liked us. Well I know he did, because he kept us on the show for the next 15 years! Lastly, we got an invitation from Thames Television to do a programme called Take Two. That was a late night chat series, shown as live, broadcast a few seconds after it was recorded. And we had to turn up and do a topical song every week.

OTT: How did all these “invitations” come about?

PETER CHRISTIE: I’ve honestly no idea. Somebody would just phone me up and say, would you do this show, and so we did. Simple as that! And so suddenly we were involved in all these different things. Funnily enough about a year or so before we’d done some auditions at the BBC for both radio and television. You could do that in those days. The radio guys said, “Oh well, it’s all very interesting but it’s not really radio.” Which threw us a little. For the TV one, however, we were more concerned with working out what we should wear. In the end we went to C&A in Oxford Street to get something which we thought was incredibly “television”. We ended up with yellow shirts and dung-coloured trousers.

OTT: Certainly a unique look!

PETER CHRISTIE: Absolutely! And of course when we turned up at the BBC there were all these glamorous groups with lots of fashionable clothing. I remember one group sported a rather beautiful girl surrounded by a pack of greyhounds. And there we were in C&A’s best shirts and flares. And of course the chap at the audition said “Oh, that’s great, definitely television material,” and we never heard from him again.

OTT: Yet 12 months later you were on TV.

PETER CHRISTIE: And it all sort of took off. We were suddenly in the public eye a bit. I was working at Great Ormond Street at the time, and the others were at St Thomas’s. But we never thought of packing it in and doing Instant Sunshine full time. We quickly realised that it was fun to keep it as a hobby, and it was quite tricky to say OK, we’ll pack up medicine and make a living out of singing silly songs travelling around the world and living out of a suitcase. We were all mates, all good friends, we all got on very well together and still do. And that’s what made it such a pleasure; it was like playing cricket or darts. If it had become our business, our profession, it wouldn’t have been such fun.

OTT: But you were still able to find the time to start doing more high profile TV and radio?

PETER CHRISTIE: Well, we just did it in our spare time. Or when we were on holiday. We did all our records that way, and a book, and all the tours.

OTT: And no manager, no agent?

PETER CHRISTIE: No, nothing like that. It all just sort of happened. Which did lead to some unlikely turns of events. After the Edinburgh Fringe we were invited to go to America by the New York Light Opera, to perform in a little theatre in Greenwich Village. The first show had about 50 people in the audience – the second, nobody. So we thought, well, we’ll go for a meal instead. While we were eating, however, the first editions of the papers came out, and in both the New York Times and the New York Post were these rave reviews – of us! So the following day we had queues round the block! We even got a call from The Ed Sullivan Show. They said, “Can you be on next Tuesday?”. “Sorry,” we replied, “we’ve got to be back in England to do an outpatients clinic.” We must be the only group in the whole world to turn down Ed Sullivan!

OTT: Your first really big TV work was, I guess, One-Upmanship.

PETER CHRISTIE: That was fabulous, I thought that was great fun. Barry Took wrote, or rather adapted, the scripts from a series of books, spoof manuals really, by Stephen Potter, each one focusing on a different way of behaving, of etiquette – guides to modern life, really. And we had to do a song at the beginning of each episode. Barry had been to see us at Tiddy Dol’s and must have thought we’d have fitted the style of the show. I ended up writing a whole batch of new songs, Peter Jones and Richard Briers were in it, it was really quite remarkable. We even got involved in some of the sketches. It ran for three years, 1976 – 78, on BBC2. There was even a film version which went round the cinemas.

OTT: Was it easy to adapt your act for the TV cameras?

PETER CHRISTIE: Funnily enough, during the first series of One-Upmanship there was something of a slight calamity. Nothing to do with the other guys – and everything to do with me! We were supposed to be recording a song that I knew perfectly well, which I’d performed many times. Knew it like the back of my hand. Except I forgot the words. The producer immediately said, “OK, OK, cut, there’s something wrong with the lights, no problem, let’s run it again.” So we did a second take. And I forgot the words again. And again the producer mumbled something about the lights. Then when it happened a third time he simply said, “OK, let’s have some lunch.” It was incredible. The producer never once blamed me, never said, “For goodness sake, what are you playing at?” and so on. It was most peculiar. Anyway, all through lunch I was desperately trying to remember these words. I felt so ridiculous. And I thought I knew the song so well. Instead I felt like some great actor saying “To be or … er … ” Then first thing after lunch we did the song again, and of course it went perfectly. But that little hiccup I did not forget. I made the decision that, whenever Instant Sunshine were doing live TV, I would always have the words there with me.

OTT: The same for when you were on stage?

PETER CHRISTIE: Absolutely. Well, I figured if the King’s Singers could always perform with the music in front of them, why can’t Instant Sunshine do the same? But this led to another incident a few years later, when we were doing the End of the Year Show on LWT. We did it for at least three or four years running, it was always a very glamorous affair, and the host of course was David Frost. The first year, however, I was determined to have the words to the song in front of me – especially as it was a long song, a summary of the whole year. But David Frost insisted the words be put onto an autocue. He came over during rehearsal and started taking charge and explaining it all, saying, “Oh no, no, don’t worry” – he was all very relaxed about it. “It’ll be fine, there’s no time for rehearsal … ” And I was going “Well, where there’s autocue going to be? Where’s the camera going to be?” “Oh no, no, no,” he replied, “don’t worry, it’ll be here, it’ll be on the screen here, don’t worry”. “But will I be able to see it?” I asked. “Of course,” he drawled, “it’ll be on the camera!” Anyway, we were the last act on the show. David came on and did this big introduction: “Now, we’re going to see in the New Year with the chaps from Instant Sunshine!” And off we went. But as we were coming up to the last verse, suddenly the camera I was reading the autocue off started moving away from me. So I started to move after it. And it kept going. It was trying to get a deep shot of the whole studio, but I kept moving after it to see the words. Then it started moving faster. And I was straining and struggling to keep up. I couldn’t believe it! And it was all totally live. Somehow I made it through, but I was like a wet fish afterwards.

OTT: By this point you must have been picking up quite a bit of work.

PETER CHRISTIE: We did the most extraordinary programmes. We were on The Basil Brush Show with Terry Wogan, for instance. Can you believe it? He was the other guest, before he was truly famous. So it was us, Basil Brush and Terry Wogan! Heaven knows what they both thought of us! But we’d suddenly find ourselves in a studio with the most unlikely people. We did a series with Delia Smith called One is Fun. We did the theme tune for what was supposed to be this big new sitcom for ITV, Constant Hot Water, which we were told was going to be a really big hit. Except the star, Pat Phoenix, who’d just left Coronation Street, suddenly died, and that was that. Alan was always doing a lot of health programmes for both TV and radio, like Bodymatters, and we were often asked to do jingles for them. We did theme tunes for all sorts of things – the thing I wrote for Money Box on Radio 4, which I didn’t think had really taken that long, ended up being used for dozens of years! If I’d have known that I’d have probably put a bit more time into it! We did some adverts. I had to write a jingle for Schweppes, all of nine seconds, which I did about 10 versions of. It turned out Saatchi & Saatchi – for it was they – had tried loads of people before they came to us. But then blow me, the sub-contractors went out of business! So I wasn’t even paid! Though I did get something from Saatchi, I don’t know how it worked out, and the ad went out over Christmas for two weeks. In prime time!

OTT: I’d say one of your finest hours was appearing on Jackanory.

PETER CHRISTIE: That was probably our most favourite bit of telly we ever did. We did two series, the first in 1980, the second in 1981. It was around the time when they were looking at different ways of doing the show, diversifying and changing the format. So they asked us if we could write five stories, and have music in them, one for each day of the week. I wrote two songs per episode, and each of us wrote a short story, I think Miles wrote two. The first batch we did in the studio. But then the next year they asked us to do it again, and this time on location. Which was when Miles wrote The Search for the Source of the M1.

OTT: The one that’s stuck in people’s heads the most.

PETER CHRISTIE: Well, it was just so different.

OTT: It was certainly a change from somebody sitting in a chair holding a book and talking to camera.

PETER CHRISTIE: And it was great fun to make. Fantastic fun. The production team were so nice, they made us really feel welcome. But we were all working, of course, we all still had full-time jobs. I’d just started a period working as a GP, so I said to the Jackanory team, fine, let’s go out on location, but is there any way of filming it so I can get back to the surgery to do my shifts in the clinic? Maybe, well, somewhere near Watford? And they said fair enough, so we ended up doing all this filming in the woods near Watford, down by the canal and everywhere. I was also in the process of buying a new house, you see, so as well as dashing back to the surgery I was having to break off from the filming to keep popping into my solicitors. Except I never had time to change out of my Jackanory costumes – we used to dress up in all these outfits and the like, we really went to town. It meant there was this one time when I had to go into my solicitors wearing this kind of peasant smock. Heaven knows what they thought – especially as, a few days later, I went back to the solicitors this time dressed as an Archbishop!

OTT: Did you get recognised much by the public?

PETER CHRISTIE: Occasionally. But not in the way you’d think! There was one time when we were working in Tiddy Dol’s. We always used to go down the road to the pub during our half-hour break, along a road that was frequented by a lot of women, you know, out for some business. One night we were walking down this road when one of the girls called out, “Can I help you, boys?” Then she caught sight of David, who at this point was working to become a consultant in venereology. “Oh my gawd,” this girl promptly cried, “it’s my doctor!”

OTT: Recognition of a different kind!

PETER CHRISTIE: There was another time when David was working in one of the wards at St Thomas’s, when this man caught his eye – a rather dishevelled chap looking very much the worse for wear, the kind of person you’d normally politely avoid, but he was really in a state, even struggling to speak. He did seem to want David’s attention quite urgently, so David thought he better go over and see what the problem was. Except as he approached, the man looked up and croaked, “Can I … can I have your autograph?!”

OTT: Well, you did get pretty famous pretty quickly.

PETER CHRISTIE: What’s so striking now is that I meet people in the most unlikely places and they say, oh yes, we remember you, we used to listen to you. And it’s such a pleasure.

OTT: When you worked with celebrities and famous personalities, did they have any clue who you were?

PETER CHRISTIE: I guess it is funny when you think about it – we just sort of wafted in to people’s lives and hey presto, here we were with all these stars. They were always very polite to us. And we did meet quite a lot of famous people – politicians, the royal family. We did a thing for Ted Heath in Brighton, I don’t think he really knew who we were. We met Princess Diana a few times, and Princess Anne through Save The Children. It certainly made for a varied life. We’d be singing on the Cutty Sark to a load of plastic surgeons, then off to Trafalgar Square to perform on the day of Charles and Diana’s wedding. Now that was something extraordinary. There we were in Trafalgar Square trying to teach all these thousands of people in the crowd this song, which was then recorded, and ended up on the CD released as a tribute after Diana died. We are on that CD!

OTT: The early ’80s really seemed to be the peak of your fame.

PETER CHRISTIE: Well, the BBC even did a documentary about us. An hour-long documentary, broadcast on in 1980 on Christmas Eve no less! It was a bit of a spoof, but was really good fun. Roads to Stardom it was called. It was all about us performing and then going back and being doctors. They came with us to Edinburgh – it was all very good-natured and funny, and went out on BBC2 on Christmas Eve just before The Old Grey Whistle Test. The Radio Times billing was fabulous: “After almost 70 television appearances and five radio series … offers from British and American impresarios … “

OTT: What’s your take on why your particular kind of music isn’t really on TV and radio anymore?

PETER CHRISTIE: What happened, I suppose, is that in about 1990 Stop the Week was axed from Radio 4, and that was quite a blow because that had given us a regular audience on an almost weekly basis. It was sad, because it had several millions listening to it, and then some new broom came in and and said, “Drop it”. We didn’t have any more series on Radio 2 – we’d done about 12 by that point, all our own songs, recorded at the Paris Theatre in front of an audience, with guests like Donald Swann, George Melly, Humphrey Lyttleton. So that stopped. We carried on doing odd bits and pieces. We did Friday Night is Music Night. But things moved on. We became a bit passé. We still performed, of course, we still do. And we still visit the Edinburgh Festival every other year. We’ve put out three CDs, as well as all the albums back in the 1970s and ’80s. And people still play the stuff. I keep getting emails from people in Australia and such like, saying how do I get hold of this stuff, I’ve just heard it and I want to hear more! Remarkable.

OTT: How many songs do you think you’ve written in total?

PETER CHRISTIE: Well, I’ve written a whole lot of stuff which came to no consequence at all, not that much of it is of any consequence. But I must have written about 500 songs. We’ve recorded over 100 either on album or CD. Of course, some of them have dated dramatically.

OTT: But you keep things in your repertoire?

PETER CHRISTIE: Oh yes. We still do songs that we sang at the first Festival in Edinburgh.

OTT: So are you doing anything special for your 40th year?

PETER CHRISTIE: We’re still trying to decide, really. It’d be nice to have another CD out. And we’ll definitely go to the Edinburgh Festival. I’d really love to put another book out. And to do some big event, maybe a turn at the Festival Hall, raising money for charity. We’ve done a lot for the Tommy’s, the baby charity; when they started we did a concert that raised £20,000; later, on their 10th anniversary and our 35th, we did some shows at the Old Vic and raised £50,000. Something like that would be really nice.

OTT: And 40 years on, it’s no less of a pleasure?

PETER CHRISTIE: I love it. We do have such a laugh. You see, all along it’s really been something we’ve looked on a bit like playing cricket on Sunday afternoon – a hobby, a pastime. It’s been so different, such fun, and widens your horizons so much. And I suppose when you’re working in the medical profession, it’s something of a relief, a release, to spend your free time doing something that’s essentially just harmless fun and silly songs.