Feature in Issue 9-3 | Autumn 1997

Earlier this year mime artist Jason Maverick co-devised and presented Channel 5's new children's series Havakazoo. Here he describes the pleasures and pain of producing material for 78 half-hour programmes on a tight budget and in a short amount of time.

The Executive Producer at Meridian TV had seen my promotional video and I was invited to an audition. I went armed with a number of ideas for my role and fifty self-penned verses for children and was offered the job. It was five months of work which at times was so intense I would fantasise about having the responsibilities of an amoeba. Luckily this was counterbalanced by moments of joy akin to finding the golden ticket for Willy Wonker's chocolate factory.

I was given my own three-minute animal slot as well as the role of presenter in the rest of the programme. The premise was to aim at young viewers without excluding older ones. This was fine as I relished the thought of devising characters and scenarios which could entertain all the family. It became apparent quite early on that I would have a reasonable amount of freedom, particularly in the animal slot. This lead to Slugs World – a real slug in a dolls house who speaks in a high voice about everyday subjects like DIY and step aerobics.

The mix of presenters – Gabrielle Bradshaw (artist and presenter), Vo Fletcher (musician) and myself – allowed for one person's skills to act as a catalyst for another's ideas. However, the devising process seemed never-ending. Gabrielle and I would devise the main elements for each programme taking a single word as a starting point. Words such as transport, sound and holidays were relatively easy as they lent themselves to physicality, whereas a few, such as envy and temper, turned our brains to fudge. We would improvise five programmes every Thursday and Brian Jordan the scriptwriter would formulate them into structured plotlines. The tight budget meant the creative process had to be a continuous cycle. However I got a great buzz from working with a talented artist and an experienced musician. I had the luxury of devising a mime piece for which Gabrielle would create a set and Vo would improvise musical accompaniment. In the rehearsal situation whilst the director was doing a shooting script for the previous scene, I'd have about five minutes to rehearse with Vo, during which I'd be saying things like 'more funky, less bass, how about some mid tempo tinkly piano?' The ever amiable Vo would translate my ramblings into a made-to-measure piece.

Although I've had short spots in numerous programmes before, the studio experience was largely a new one for me. Live performances (on a good day) are an 'unvicious circle’ – you perform, the audience reacts, you feel good, you perform better, the audience reacts more, etc. The studio situation however has its own peculiarities. One of which I shall call delayed laughter syndrome. You perform, they record it, scene ends, recording stops, crew laugh.

When the first block of filming ended and we hadn't reached the target of three programmes per day, the decision was taken to have the programmes scripted rather than improvised. First beads, then rivers and finally oceans of sweat engulfed me. Solo performance enables you to capitalise on your strengths and hide your weaknesses. This revised situation would quite literally put my weakness under the spotlight. Gulp! My training has been in physical theatre at The Desmond Jones School. Scripts, were another matter. Discussions between myself and Brian ensued. He was cool and helped to ease the pressure. The devising notes I passed to him were laced with scenarios involving actions, rather than exchanges of words.

Brian agreed to leave gaps in the script for me to devise a short piece, providing I gave him appropriate timings, e.g. Jason enacts five bizarre reasons for wearing a chicken mask on a trampoline (duration one minute). This worked well because a) It gave Brian a slight breather in his monumental script writing schedule, b) The director was content because the running time of the storyline was not affected, and c) I had more opportunity to be creative (muck about!).

I cringed when I watched some of the programmes on air, especially the earlier ones, but overall I've been pleased and audience reaction has been very favourable. What have I learnt? 78 programmes later I'd say: you have to work consistently hard; be prepared to compromise and stand your ground when necessary and so keep your sanity. Oh, and don't take it too seriously. Verbally I've been offered another series of 78 programmes and despite the hair loss it will inevitably induce, I'm looking forward to it!

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 9-3
p. 5 - 6