I’ve Just Seen a Face

Ian Jones presents a guide to small screen cameo-spotting

First published September 2006

When was the first time you realised TV stars didn’t just live in their own self-enclosed worlds, orbiting each other in splendid isolation, but could turn up all over the box when you least expected it? Maybe it was on a Saturday night when Larry Grayson suddenly wrenched open the sliding door of his mystery booth and Don Maclean popped out. Perhaps it was at Christmas, tuning in for an edition of All-Star Record Breakers and discovering the likes of Noel Edmonds and Kenneth Williams hoofing along with Roy Castle in some outrageous period costumes. Or could it have been one of the seemingly dozens of episodes of The Goodies graced with a walk-on from a Nationwide presenter?

Whenever it happened, whatever your age, TV was never the same again. From that moment on the thrill of spotting, and the anticipation of expecting, a choice cameo or two could lift a programme from the desultory to the dazzling. Unlike in America, where the pre-title proclamation, “featuring a special guest appearance by …” is less a tantalising promise than a undisguised threat, in this country the business of the walk-on has always been, and to an extent remains, much to be applauded. If the practice has become more ubiquitous of late, that’s only because there are more channels to fill with more shows requiring more in the way of personality pop-ins.

That being said, a great deal of those channels are in the business of recycling old programmes, so the chances of catching a classic turn are now just as high as encountering a contemporary one. So as a tribute to the pursuit of this fine art, and by way of a handy compendium for those so minded to track down and assemble their own archive of antique walk-ons, OTT now offers you a guide to the six essential categories of celebrity cameo.

1. Newsreaders
The sound of Huw Edwards grappling with the responsibility of delivering one of the most absurd speeches in the history of Doctor Who (“Not you too, Bob! … It’s not just about hope, it’s about love! … They’ve reappeared!”) confirmed that the historic practice of the newsreader cameo is alive, if not necessarily kicking, in 2006.

Indeed, thanks to the rise of the docudrama, the last few years have witnessed something of a flowering of such occasions, with many second 11 anchors on News 24 and Sky readily moonlighting on grown up networks and dutifully playing the bearer of bad tidings about the latest environmental or terrorist catastrophe.

This is no bad thing, especially as it gives the likes of Philip Hayton primetime exposure on the BBC again, in his case on both factual efforts (Dirty War, The Day Britain Stopped) and out-and-out comedy (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). But in reality Hayton and his colleagues are but footsoldiers trekking in the steps of true titans of the TV crossover, whose command of the cameo could span decades, embrace almost any genre, and in some cases re-invent and revive entire careers.

Consider Richard Whitmore. His days of stepping in at the last minute to deputise for John Craven on Newsround or bravely sporting a fashion-defying moustache in millions of suburban front rooms seemed to be fading, until he promptly found a new niche playing himself in other shows. An episode of The New Statesman in 1989 saw Richard debut his dapper-yet-doleful newsreader act for comic audiences, a turn that quickly won him appearances in Only Fools and Horses (twice), Love Hurts and even, incredibly, Hollywood regal ribtickler King Ralph. He continued to keep his hand in right through the 1990s, even turning up as late as 1997 in the woeful Ian Hislop-scripted BSE “satire” Gobble, in doing so treating a whole new generation to his unusual pronunciation and starched vowels.

Yet Richard himself was only aping the example of his older peers, some of whom were dabbling in cameo as far back as the 1960s. The trailblazer was undoubtedly Michael Aspel, who as early as 1961 turned up as himself in an episode of Hancock titled “The Bedsitter”. Four years later came Mike’s most notorious cameo when he announced the end of the world in The War Game, albeit out of shot and hence able – when the programme was postponed – to emerge from the controversy relatively unscathed. He later rubbed shoulders with Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers in the 1969 film The Magic Christian, helmed coverage of a botched space mission in Doomwatch, and virtually became a regular on The Goodies. In fact, Asp did more than anyone to “open up” other TV departments for colonisation by his newsroom cohorts, and was still showing the new guard how to do it in Bob Martin just a few years ago.

Less ubiquitous but just as iconic was Richard Baker, thanks to somewhat demented but good-natured cameos in Joyce Grenfell and Monty Python’s Flying Circus (“Lemon curry?”), the latter distinction shared with ITN rival and lovable rogue Reginald Bosanquet. A trio of walk-ons in Yes, Minister guaranteed Robert Dougall some lingering BBC residuals (“The Greasy Pole”, “The Compassionate Society” and “The Official Visit”), while more recent turns from Michael Buerk (Dangerfield, Drop the Dead Donkey) and Dermot Murnaghan (an impressive recent run including Absolute Power, Trevor’s World of Sport and The Legend of the Tamworth Two) have helped keep the tradition alive – although Michael’s erstwhile fellow 10 O’Clock News frontman Peter Sissons has only a single desultory appearance in Spiceworld to boast about (should he wish to), a tally that doesn’t look like increasing any time soon.

The king of the newsdesk cameo, however, can only ever be one man: Kenneth Kendall. Where to begin? There’s his avuncular appearance as himself on Doctor Who in 1966; a similar turn on Adam Adamant Lives! the very same year; no less than two separate cameos on The Troubleshooters in both 1965 and 1967; excursions into celluloid, most famously in 2001: A Space Odyssey (as an announcer for the obviously-never-imaginable BBC12) and also in They Came from Beyond Space in 1967; similarly alien-themed offerings in A for Andromeda in 1961, plus the anthology series Suspense in 1962; and even a dabble in the supernatural courtesy of Dead of Night: The Exorcism in 1972.

Most preposterously, Kenneth even attempted an international career in cameo, gracing the German series Ein Toter Sucht Seinen Morder, which translates as A Dead Man Seeks his Murderer and about which OTT knows nothing. And although he officially swapped his newsreader jacket for the casual blazer of Treasure Hunt in the early 1980s, he could still be occasionally coaxed back behind a desk (always a sign of the true cameo connoisseur), popping up in an episode of KYTV as late as 1992 to deliver an unashamedly textbook, “Hello”.

2. Nationwide presenters
This category shares a number of members with the one above, but merits a section of its own thanks to the way the nation’s undisputed favourite family of TV faces proved repeatedly unable to resist the beckon of a slew of walk-ons. But who was the nation to begrudge them such an indulgence? After all, an extra few turns in the telly spotlight was most definitely to be welcomed for any of Britain’s top teatime team.

Michael Barratt led the charge, coordinating (as he would call it) cameos in various episodes of The Goodies, a stint alongside Aspel as TV commentator in The Magic Christian, plus an appearance in the big screen phallo-perennial Percy’s Progress. Frank Bough followed up with a couple of career-bookending look-ins on Sykes (1972) and Cluedo (1991), while Bob Wellings opted for the time-honoured 1970s sitcom strategy with a stint as that old reliable warhorse, “Newsreader”, in a 1976 episode of Sykes. Alas, he seemingly lost heart afterwards, not risking another cameo until an unlikely turn in The Buddha of Suburbia in 1993.

Similarly unexpected were Sue Cook’s extra-curricular pop-ins, particularly as she bravely decided to launch a career in cameo while she still had a proper job, a move that gave her stints in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil and Edge of Darkness that bit more potency. By the time KYTV and The Imaginatively Titled Punt and Dennis Show came calling, however, any danger of being double-booked had probably diminished. In contrast, Bernard Falk went for the less-is-more option, but somehow got this mixed up with the do-what-my-mate’s-done option resulting in the calamitous choice of, yes, Percy’s Progress (aka, lest we forget, It’s Not the Size that Counts).

Julian Pettifer bided his time before dipping his toe into similar waters, waiting until well past his Nationwide days before essaying a couple of impressive cameos in Alexei Sayle’s Stuff. By contrast David Dimbleby wasn’t going to sully himself with any of that alternative comedy nonsense: no, it was a joylessly predictable guest spot on, yawn, The Goodies for Dimbumblum, a mere eight years or so since that self-same practice had gone out of fashion. Closing the door behind him was Stuart Hall, doing his bit in The Goodies and The Beanstalk and not venturing back until 2001 and – yikes – an engagement hosting a Non-It’s a Knockout-affiliated Wacky Outdoor Inflatables-Based Tournament in a copyright-wary Hollyoaks.

To be honest we’d really have hoped for more of a showing from Richard Stilgoe here, but then again he never does drama, sitcom or anything other than light-hearted revue where he can play a mirth-toting maestro with music in mind. As it is we’re left to sign off with Sue Lawley and a typically unfussy yet sizable roster of cameos beginning with (boo!) The Goodies, then Yes, Minister in 1981, Bergerac (playing “Nationwide Interviewer”) in 1983, Yes, Prime Minister in 1986 (cheating!), Absolutely Fabulous (but then, who hasn’t?) and most recently My Dad’s the Prime Minister. Now that she’s quit Desert Island Discs, we’re tipping Sue as one to watch for definite future cameo potential.

3. Breakfast TV presenters
TV-am’s “Famous Five” had a collective cameo quotient that was always destined to turn heads as well as stomachs. After all, David Frost had been perfecting the art 20 years earlier when he’d made a guest appearance as “Man About Town” in the BBC’s Election ’64 coverage, and Anna Ford had already left the world of duelling limericks with Reginald Bosanquet far behind by treading the boards for The Secret Policeman’s Ball.

It was Angela Rippon who went on to set the running here, however, by topping all that lascivious limb-waving on Morecambe and Wise with cameos in Drop the Dead Donkey, the not-short-lived-enough panel game about children’s sci-fi programmes Space Cadets, and the appalling The Legacy of Reginald Perrin. Meanwhile the country’s most miserable journalist Michael Parkinson soon slunk out of TV-am the same way he floated in (“On a cloud of bullshit”) to do, presumably, a lot of personal appearances in Australia. He later came back to take a surprisingly convincing role in Ghostwatch as a weak-willed and hapless anchorman whose incompetence is exposed on a grand scale when he lets Sarah Greene get brutally killed in someone’s basement. “There’s cameras … but … I don’t know which one’s working …” complained Parky – last week.

The Famous Five’s various replacements had far more success at securing cameos both flattering and frivolous. Omnipresent newsreader Gordon Honeycombe, for instance, demonstrated how you needed to be multi-skilled to work at Eggcup Towers by effortlessly turning in roles as “Announcer” in an episode of The Professionals and, later, a walk-on in Terry and Julian. Anne Diamond showed up in Filthy, Rich and Catflap, Chris Tarrant looked in on Roland Rat: The Series and later Holby City as “Radio DJ: voice”, Lorraine Kelly notched up turns in One Foot in the Grave and The Bill, and Michaela Strachan slipped serenely between pathos and bathos – in other words, from Cluedo to Game On.

Henry Kelly somewhat spoilt this pattern, however, by waiting too long then trying to make up for it with two successive appearances in episodes of dinnerladies. He should really have taken an economical leaf out of Nick Owen’s CV: a simple, solitary yet snappy few lines in an edition of Doctors is often all it needs.

Things were far patchier over at the Beeb. We’ve already mentioned Frank Bough’s track record in cameos, while Selina Scott famously and deliberately got paid for doing bugger all else including not appearing on Breakfast Time. Nick Ross kept the flag flying with a spot as “TV Presenter” in a 1985 episode of Are You Being Served? enticingly titled “The Pop Star”, and Debbie Greenwood tackled the unfamiliar role of “Interviewer” in a 1987 edition of Pulaski. But that was more or less it, if you don’t include Jeremy Paxman’s later surfeit of walk-ons that currently encompasses The Vicar of Dibley, My Dad’s the Prime Minister, Adrian Mole: The Cappucino Years and even Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. A mixed score for the BBC, then, but one that’s still far more than that accomplished by the assorted presenters of the Channel Four Daily, whose current total is a paltry one: Carol Barnes in Shaun of the Dead.

4. Sports presenters
Now that Trevor’s World of Sport is safely behind us, the practitioners of this particular category can get back to the proper business of unexpectedly turning up as themselves in decent TV programmes.

Des Lynam set the standard here, courtesy of skits on Alas Smith and Jones, Harry Enfield and Chums, Kiss Me Kate and more, besides selflessly agreeing to appear in the TV version of the stage play My Summer With Des. Of course once he’d followed the money to ITV he had to appear in any old tat going, including a million editions of Saturday Night Takeaway and Parkinson, but now that’s behind him it’s time for Des to put up or shut up: namely, will he be available for the next series of Doctor Who or not?

By hanging around at the BBC Gary Lineker has already stolen a march on Des by not just doing the usual mix of variety (Richard Curtis’s 1991 here’s-my-contacts-book effort Bernard and the Genie, with Gary rubbing sainted shoulders with Bob Geldof, Melvyn Bragg, Trevor McDonald and Vincent Hanna) and ill-advised forays onto the big screen (Eric Idle’s vanity project Splitting Heirs) but kids drama Spatz and even political satire in Jeffrey Archer: The Truth. He actually beat Des to the honour of playing himself in a TV adaptation of a stage play about himself, namely An Evening With Gary Lineker, and invented a series to boot (ho ho), All in the Game. He recently raised the bar again by lending his talents to premier league docudramaThe Day Britain Stopped. Come on Des; dry one-liners about how the inside of the TARDIS is even bigger than Jimmy Hill’s dressing room is the only way forward!

A namecheck in A Bit of Fry and Laurie (“I was sprawled in bed with Kathleen Turner and David Vine”) and a walk-on in a 1999 episode of French and Saunders is all the erstwhile Question of Sport ringleader can proffer by way of a comeback. That’s more than Elton Welsby (“Football Commentator (uncredited)” in Fever Pitch), but even that in turn is somehow more creditable than Sue Barker’s portfolio of the obligatory Trevor’s World of Sport and French and Saunders gigs plus walk-ons in My Dad’s the Prime Minister and Mike Bassett: England Manager. Somehow we’d have thought she’d have picked more, well, estimable projects. After all, Gary Lineker starred as the England Manager in that Jeffrey Archer affair.

Then there’s John Motson, able to step easily from hard-hitting agit-prop (Hillsborough) to time-travelling family fun (Goodnight Sweetheart) to broad spoof (The Detectives) to, erm, Trevor’s World of Sport. Finally we can’t overlook Dickie Davies’s sterling groundbreaking work playing himself in an episode of Budgie from 1972 and then Mind Your Language in 1979 (presumably in the role of celebrity announcer at the evening class’s annual fundraising amateur pentathlon: “The only races we’re talking about here are the ones you run in!”).

5. Old school disc jockeys
There’s a simple reason why most of the candidates in this category happened to spend the bulk of their careers well away from the TV camera. But it’s also the same reason why, in later life, they more or less collectively signed up to any gig going. In both cases the answer is vanity: in the first instance, being too big to appear on television; in the second, being too big not to appear on television.

Step forward Tony Blackburn, who despite stockpiling his memoir The Living Legend with breathless accounts of how there just weren’t enough hours in the day for all his post-Radio 1, post-intercontinental fame commitments, curiously enough still found room in his appointments book for turns on The Brain Drain, The Music Game, KYTV (twice – one being a memorable stitch-up courtesy of a phone call off “Anna from the Challenge programme”), Days Like These and The Bill amongst many others. Of course after his stint on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! he became a celebrity again, or rather an Official ITV Celebrity, and hence everything dating from after that cannot be counted as a cameo.

Tone did notch up a few look-ins back when he was properly famous, however, principally a double booking on The Goodies in 1975. Indeed, dabbling in 1970s sitcom became the height of fashion at Broadcasting House for a time, encouraging even the by-that-point wireless-confined David Jacobs to step in front of the camera as a TV interviewer in the hastily staged ending tacked onto the 1975 Christmas special of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Suffice to say he was the only thing worth watching in the episode by dint of him being the only person in the history of the show to speak his lines using a normal, human voice. It also reminded everyone of how great and unflappable a TV face he’d been back in his 1960s heyday on the likes of Juke Box Jury, The Big Noise and It’s Trad Dad (aka the brilliantly-named Ring-a-Ding Rhythm in America), and hence led to a handful of charming appearances on Blankety Blank.

Terry Wogan has himself phoned in a fair few cameos – literally in the case of The Vicar of Dibley – but not as many as you’d think, the man’s acting ability somewhat overshadowed by his status as The Nation’s Raconteur. Nonetheless there was the obligatory 1970s sitcom (Bless This House), the semi-ironic business on a 1980s alternative chat show (The Full Wax) and the more recent self-deprecation elder-statesman routine (Bob Martin). By contrast his sometime colleague Ed Stewart, fully-fledged presenter stints aside, has only managed a solitary cameo to date – but what a cameo, playing “Disc Jockey” in the 1973 episode of Moonbase “Views of a Dead Planet”.

The great Desmond Carrington has always officially been a professional actor as well as voice artiste, so his various on-camera opuses don’t strictly count. However his appearance as Uncle Jim in the intriguingly named Calamity the Cow in 1967 needs to be mentioned just for the title alone, as does his brief tenure as capricious cleric Reverend Beaumont in Softly Softly. Meanwhile less accomplished achievers include Dave Cash somehow landing the role of “Newscaster” in an episode of The Troubleshooters in 1969 (evidence of the recurring assumption that anyone from radio, including DJs, can read the news); Andy Peebles notching up no cameos but still managing to present and narrate a programme called, who’d have thought it, I Knew John Lennon; and John Peel doing the most unfunny impression in the world of Sir Jimmy Savile on The Goodies.

It’s Alan Freeman, though, who remains overlord of the old school cameo. Fluff notched up everything from the Galton and Simpson Playhouse in 1977, an episode of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors in 1965 and the inevitable shoo-in on Absolute Beginners to two appearances as God in The Young Ones, something called Passionata in 1992, a 1968 TV play called Sebastian (playing “TV Disc Jockey”) and – along with most of the above personnel – a good-natured knockabout on Smashey and Nicey: The End of an Era. In terms of sheer variety, he’ll never be beaten.

6. 1980s disc jockeys
To complete our inventory, and meriting a category all of their own, this suite of savants differ from their elder cousins above thanks to making their break into TV during arguably the best decade there ever was, and hence doing it in a spectacularly artless yet memorable manner.

Take Peter Powell (please!) That’s precisely the sort of gag he’d have felt most at home in making on precisely the sort of show most of his forerunners would’ve earmarked for potential empire-building from the off. Instead he turned up on Roland Rat: The Series, trading quips about Selina Scott with Colin Baker and D’Arcy De Farcy. That’s not the place for a representative of the Nation’s Favourite first 11!

Mike Read, on the other hand, started off choosing his cameos wisely: a turn on Only Fools and Horses. This was an astute pick, one that found its way back onto BBC1 again a mere year or so ago thanks to the then-continuing heavy rotation meted out to Sullivan’s mob, and which still holds up reasonably well. A shame, then, that it was followed up with an engagement for an episode of Cluedo entitled “A Traveller’s Tale”, and then a bizarre appearance on The Curse of Noel Edmonds “acting” a version of himself 100 years old.

Steve Wright waited 25 years after his first cameo work in Pauline’s Quirkes before signing up for another one in an episode of Happiness, and for some it still felt too soon. Janice Long appeared on the very first edition of 3-2-1 in a brown trouser suit and won nothing. She was then sacked from Radio 1 before she could make any more cameos.

Elsewhere we’ve Mike Smith’s stint in a studio telephone booth in Ghostwatch, Gary Davies delivering the business on A Bit of Fry and Laurie (“Now it’s time to crank it up and really boogie to some back to back beats, let’s have ourselves a rockin’ good time – give me at least five!”) and Tommy Vance showing his face on an episode of Steptoe and Son in 1972.

And then there’s Simon Bates. You’d have thought a man running a gossip network the size of NATO and who is prepared to take a phone call from a PR agent “even if it’s three o’clock in the morning” would have had no trouble wangling some walk-ons. Sadly this overlooks the fact he tried to bankrupt the BBC with his many frenzied charity initiatives and attempts to host his show from inside a giant parcel travelling on the overnight mail train from Inverness. Hence no cameos on the Beeb for Simes, and instead a cap-in-hand plea to Channel 4 (Sean’s Show in 1992) and, later, ITV (The Royal in 2003).

Such a tally seems somehow ill-befitting a man of Bates’s stature; surely some of those legendary Bates Mates could pull a few strings? Still, there’s always time. The man’s still working, unlike many of the others listed here. And remember, the one abiding hallmark of the business of cameo spotting is to expect the unexpected. Albeit in the most expected of places.