Ed Bazalgette was walking purposefully around central London one dark November afternoon when I caught him on the phone, searching for a quiet spot and a suitable cafe to conduct our interview.
He clearly knows his way around, having moved to the capital during his first brush with fame with The Vapors in the late ‘70s, settling North of the river. Yet Ed was brought up across the other side of my hometown of Guildford, Surrey, a location which had already served up punk legends The Stranglers. He was ‘out in the sticks’ in Worplesdon’ initially, but later shared a flat with his good friend Howard Smith, far handier for the room above a launderette where their band practised.
I’m still happy to argue with anyone the merits of The Vapors’ 1980 debut album New Clear Days, and there are plenty of others out there keen to stand up for follow-up LP Magnets. But I have to face the fact that they’re still mostly remembered by the wider public for top-three hit Turning Japanese, which – criminally, in my view – was the only one of their six singles to pierce the UK top-40.
The history of the band is covered pretty well elsewhere (not least via this site’s interview with David Fenton in mid-September, with a link here). So this time I’m taking a different tack, concentrating on Ed’s story and how, when it was all over, he went off to college, putting his energies into following a different creative path – starting out on a career in television.
It’s fair to say that’s been a great success too, this dad-of-two – with his sons now based in Berlin and Manchester, setting out on their own careers – regularly popping up on our screens. If you go to the imdb website, you’ll see that for yourself – a wealth of past and present Ed Bazalgette credits including directing roles on A Mother’s Son, Endeavour, The Guilty, and DCI Banks, and further back including EastEnders, Doctors, Casualty and Holby City.
More recently there was a key role in helping successfully relaunch Poldark, plus further roles in the director’s chair (if there is still such a thing) on Dr Who and its latest spin-off Class, which my 16-year-old daughter is already hooked on. Yet now it seems that this real-life Timelord is traversing between two creative worlds again – his TV work supplemented by a return to that lead guitar role with his old band, a one-off guest slot with two of his bandmates at a South London pub leading to four heralded live dates this year (with more already lined up for next year).
Having already wowed the crowds in Dublin (at the Opium Rooms) and London (at Dingwall’s in Camden), the story is set to continue at Liverpool Arts Club tomorrow (Friday, November 18th) and Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms on Saturday (November 19th). But I start our conversation by talking telly with Ed, not least the forthcoming Dr Who Christmas Day special he’s directed – The Return of Dr Mysterio.
It’s a Steven Moffat script and Matt Lucas is involved, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor teaming up with Justin Chatwin’s comic book superhero Dr Mysterio (aka Grant) in a bid to save New York from a deadly alien threat, the pair joined on their quest by an investigative journalist played by Charity Wakefield. What more can Ed add?
“I can tell you it’s brilliant! It’s got a fantastic cast, including Justin, who’s in the US version of Shameless, and I reckon British audiences will remember him as Tom Cruise’s son in War of the Worlds, and Charity, who was in Wolf Hall. Steven’s story has been described as an homage and it’s safe to say if it was a movie it would be exactly the kind of film you’d have on Christmas Day, so absolutely perfect for the time and place it will be shown. It’s a world Steven’s wanted to delve into for a long time, and he’s done it beautifully. We had a great time shooting it, we’ve just finished editing, and it’s looking fantastic.”
Good old ‘all the family’ entertainment then?
“It has that kind of resonance where it can speak to everyone on the sofa at once. And like all fantastic TV and film it will appeal to a youthful audience but is peppered full of moments that appeal to adults as well. Tonally, I think we’ve got it spot-on.”
Ed’s worked on many successful small screen productions over the years, but as far as I know Peter Capaldi is the first Doctor he’s directed outside of Holby or Letherbridge.
“Peter is fantastic to work with, and it came for me at a time and place where it was realistic to throw my hand into the ring. When I heard he was going to be the 12th doctor, I was really excited about what he would do, going back to the likes of Jon Pertwee – although I think Peter’s Doctor owes a lot to Tom Baker.”
Was Jon Pertwee Ed’s favourite Timelord, growing up?
“Certainly that era, although in the very distant recesses I remember Patrick Troughton with the Yetis and the (London) Underground. That was probably my introduction to Dr Who. And what really excites me about Dr Who, and when it’s at its best for me, is when it’s firmly grounded in our world, but other worlds start to force their way in and the cracks appear. The rifts of space and time allow things through – that juxtaposition, with other planetary beings forcing themselves in but the reality of our own world strongly established. That always works so well.”
Well, as the newly-departed Leonard Cohen put it on Anthem, ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’. Meanwhile, it turns out that Ed has been ‘completely absorbed’ of late in the new creation of Dr Who‘s universe, Class, written by Patrick Ness (author of A Monster Calls, now a film), directing the first three episodes.
“Class has been very well received, and again I had a chance to do something within the Dr Who universe which went off in another direction, but remained totally accessible to that heartland audience. Also, as it’s on BBC 3, that gave us a freedom to explore the outer limits of that world, something we leapt at.”
Filmed last year but also screened in 2016 was Houdini & Doyle, a UK/North American drama series based on the friendship of Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Michael Weston and Stephen Mangan.
“It’s great to work with American writers. That was a co-production with Fox, and one of the show-runners, David Shore, ran House. And as I absolutely adored Green Wing, I’ve now worked with Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan, so I’m very lucky!”
There’s a Dr Who link there too, you may realise – regarding a certain ‘Missy’, who memorably played hospital staff liaison officer Sue White in the medical comedy.
“Yeah, exactly – Michelle Gomez!”
And of course 2015 saw the return of Poldark, Ed proud to have directed the opening four episodes of the first series, in what quickly proved – quite rightly – to be a big hit. Returning this week to the pre-series Q&A session with writer Emma Kennedy that he did with Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza), Aidan Turner (Ross) and Debbie Horsfield (who adapted Winston Graham’s books), I see he helped with casting too.
“Absolutely, I was there from the get-go, and although the offer had already gone out to Aidan, we cast Eleanor and the other principal parts, including Jack Farthing (George Warleggan), Heida Reed (Elizabeth), and the absolutely mesmeric Kyle Soller (Francis). A terrific team, and with a show like that, if you’re there to set it up and help re-establish it, it’s never going to get better than that. An amazing experience.
“Also, my mother’s from the West Country and moved back to settle on the Devon side of the Tamar about 30 years ago, so my earliest and happiest experiences of parenthood revolve around going down to Cornwall. My kids spent holidays on the beaches of the north coast, exactly the landscape where Poldark is set. On a personal level that really spoke to me. I had a strong sense of the kind of landscapes and places I wanted to explore to get into the story.”
He did a lot of research too, not least into 18th century tin and copper mining. Did he read Winston Graham’s books as well as Debbie Horsfield’s scripts?
“When I was reading the script I was reading the first couple of books, so had a really strong sense of what Debbie was doing in her adaptation. The other thing I got was a sense of clues as to how to dig into the emotional heart of the story.
“There’s a wonderful chapter in Ross Poldark, from Verity’s point of view, in her room looking at her possessions and furniture, painting a picture of what a desolate life it would turn out to be if she couldn’t find the right person, in terms of what life was like throughout the social strata of that time. Being a spinster to a high-borne family was not the worst fate that could befall you, but to have all that privilege around you gave you that sense that you weren’t stepping up to the mark.
“That was a fantastic insight, and as whatever I’m doing is always qualified by being tight for time, any research you can do around the story and subject is always going to open up possibilities of the light and shade of storytelling.
“On the screen the mining is a relatively small part of the story, but to help the cast really invest in their characters it was worth noting that the world of Poldark was there because of tin and copper mining. That’s why those families came to be. That’s where the wealth came from. It was that precarious, capricious nature of a wild and unruly industry amid a very wild and unruly landscape upon which people were made and broken.
“It was a fickle time. Ventures would be established but then die on their feet within a few years. Also at that time the acceleration of the industrial revolution was moving at such a pace. And all the battles Ross goes through were founded on absolute reality. Some of the foundations of modern banking can be traced back to mining in Cornwall. Families like the Warleggans started out as smelters but progressed to become moneylenders. They were at the point of the chain where the money would accumulate, giving them tremendous power and influence.
“As the Warleggans came from very humble origins in just a couple of generations, it’s about constantly craving acceptance. That’s the beautiful contradiction at the heart of that fractious relationship. Ross has it all but doesn’t want it, while George wants it all but no amount of money and finery can make up for the fact that his family are nouveau riche.”
I also choose to see a few early socialist leanings in Ross, well ahead of his time in his thinking.
“Well, Winston Graham started writing the novels towards the end of the war and was looking at a world where massive social change was not only important but also necessary and happening. I think the consciousness in the Graham family – if Andrew, his son, is anything to go by – is certainly left-leaning. Andrew was an economic advisor in the Wilson government, and a really interesting person.
“But yes, I’m always fascinated by that part of the world and find it all really compelling, not least how those grand families persisted through.”
Did Ed make some good friends filming the show?
“It was a fantastic team. In this industry you tend to do something then move on, but there are always people you love to work with and go back to work with again and again. And Poldark is something that’s going to leave a mark on your career and your life for a very long time.”
As far as I’m concerned, he should be very proud of his part in Poldark’s return. When I saw a remake was on the cards I worried it might not reach the mark. Yet I was hooked from episode one, so tricorn hats off to Ed, Debbie Horsfield, and co. for their part in delivering the goods.
But how did Ed get from being a guitarist in a post-punk band to a leading director?
“I got a place at Goldsmith’s College when The Vapors were signed, and was going to go to do film then, but turned it down. Four years later, with all that been and gone, I was still craving that experience, so went back. What I really landed on and focused on was editing. That eventually through the cours eof a few years took me to the BBC, and I was very happy working as an assistant editor with a wonderful series of editors and directors through the early ‘90s.”
Learning your craft?
“Absolutely, and it’s always been an interesting experience. And from someone being looked after very nicely to someone sat at the back of a room hanging up bits of film it was something I absolutely loved, learning the craft from the best, working on lots and lots of wonderful BBC dramas, with Middlemarch a very fine example. From there I went to being an editor and gravitated to directing, first to make a series of short films for various different strands within the BBC. I tried it and they kept asking me to do more, basically.”
One such film was for 2003’s Seven Wonders of the Industrial World series, The Sewer King, about his ancestor, Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian civil engineer responsible for building London’s sewer network, instrumental in relieving the city from cholera epidemics. And the previous year – in a similar vein – there was a film about Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the Great Britons series, made with Jeremy Clarkson.
There was also a film about J.M.W. Turner – 12 years before Mike Leigh’s own big screen production centred on the Romanticist landscape artist.
“It was fascinating watching that. Ours was commissioned by BBC Arts, for a biographical piece at a time when people were getting interested in drama documentaries. That was at the beginning of that revival of interest in mixing that different form, and I was doing that and the Seven Wonders series, making that film about the London sewers.
“We were going back to work like Peter Watkins’ The War Game and Culloden, all those fantastic cross-pollination pieces from the BBC in the ’60s, drawing on all that material. That was inflected by the brilliant social realist films coming out of the BBC at that time, including a lot of Ken Loach’s early work, like Cathy Come Home, during that period of consciousness.
“And the Turner film was the first time I did anything that could be described as drama – shooting scenes that were dotted into the rest of the film. And it was fascinating that Mike Leigh landed on the same dramatic moments of Turner’s life.”
In more general terms, can Ed switch off when he’s watching the telly, or is he sat there mentally framing shots?
“It’s very easy to get immersed in the form. You can spend your whole life striving to get better and better at it, but there’s never enough time to get as good as I’d like to be. It’s about understanding the art of storytelling. You have to discipline yourself to be immersed in a story.
“The first time you read a script you should be reading it with an eye to how it works as a story, where you’re interested and where you get bored or lose the thread. On that first read it’s important to try and resist the temptation to start directing in your head. Initially. You need to embrace it on its own terms – its strengths and weaknesses.”
So – he says, attempting a seamless link back to The Vapors – when he recorded that four-track Radio One session for John Peel in July 1979, could he have dared to dream he’d ever work again at the BBC?
“I didn’t have any sense of where life would go after the music, but – put it this way – I was sh** at maths and science, so it was going to have to be something to do with the arts!”
He’s clearly got a love of history, judging by his track record in television.
“Absolutely. I’d love to do a history degree – as well as learning about 60 languages – when it gets to a point where nobody will employ me!”
Was that original college place left open to him after the band went their separate ways?
“No that was all closed off. David (Fenton, lead singer/main songwriter) gave me an ultimatum, and if I accepted I was resigning from The Vapors. And that was fair enough – he’d given up a career for music and wanted to work with like-minded individuals. But eventually I went back to do film at Central London Poly.”
Going further back, does he remember David approaching him about joining the band?
“I remember that really vividly – I’d had a band, and me and Howard had watched The Vapors. The band we’d been in had split, so I put a pick-up band together.”
What were you called?
“I don’t think we even had a name. We might have informally called ourselves The Parrots. There was a teacher from my school playing saxophone, Howard playing drums, and a bloke playing bass called John, who I saw at Dingwall’s the other night! It was a right old mish-mash. We got pulled off the stage after about three songs because the landlord, Tony McManus – wrestler Mick McManus’s son – thought we were shit!”
Ah, then I’m guessing that was at The Royal in Stoughton, just outside Guildford.
“Yes, supporting another Guildford band, just doing covers. David was in the audience, saw me, and I got a call about three months later from his then bass player asking if I was interested in auditioning. By that stage I was doing nothing. So fortunately David didn’t think I was shit, and his girlfriend at the time told me he said if we were in a band together we’d make a real impact. So you have to praise that insight!”
Michael Bowes is drumming with the band for these current dates, Ed’s friend Howard having decided against a return.
“Yes, we’ll always be the best of friends, and were thick as thieves in every which way from around the age of 14. In fact, I spent an hour talking to him on the phone yesterday. I would dearly love him to do it, but he feels his involvement in that way is history, and I respect that. I understand that – I very firmly belief life’s ahead of us and we should never look back. I suppose what tipped the balance in terms of going on stage again was the extraordinary response of people on social media to our music. It leaves me speechless.”
This was all a one-off initially, David and Ed guesting with Steve Smith’s band The Shakespearos at the Half Moon in Putney. But it’s become so much more. Might this reunion be a way to prove you were far more than just ‘one-hit wonders’?
“Well, there’s a brilliant review in Mojo of the Dingwall’s gig, where the reviewer (Danny Eccleston) starts, ‘There are worse things to be than a one-hit wonder.’ I guess that’s why my narrative is that it’s important that we’re different. We formed the perfect pop capsule, in my opinion. And pop music by its very nature is ephemeral.
“For me, the best songs – like Shake Some Action by Flamin’ Groovies and The Letter by The Box Tops’ – are by people who came, left a spark, caused an explosion, burned brightly, then went away. That’s exactly what happened with The Vapors. And it was fantastic.”
Could Ed pick out just a few stand-out moments along the way?
“I’ll think of walking out on The Marquee stage when it was packed and you’ve got 600 people in there. I’ll also think of the last gig at Guildford Civic Hall, in the spring of 1981. We were pretty much washed up by then, but it was an amazing night and incredibly emotional – that was the place where I’d watched every musician I ever admired.
“Then there was The Ritz in New York … and I have to say also walking out and playing Dingwall’s last week. That was amazing!”
Any specific memories of North West dates, ahead of your Liverpool show?
“Playing Manchester Poly when Turning Japanese reached No.45 in the charts – a fantastic moment. We drove up on the day and when we heard we’d charted knew from then on it was going to go some. That night I shredded my nails playing!
“Also, the first time we supported The Jam at The Apollo in Ardwick. We did two nights there in November 1979, and there was a pea-souper of fog across Manchester. I grew up supporting United, so it was so great to be kicking off in Manchester. That was an extraordinary voyage into the unknown.
“I remember Southport Floral Hall, but we never actually played Liverpool, so I’m really looking forward to this.”
What’s more, the story goes on, with The Vapors set to play the 100 Club in Soho in April, supported by another great band I didn’t quite manage to see live first time around – The Members. Did Ed know those fellow Surrey lads (from Camberley) back in the day?
“We met (lead singer) Nicky Tesco when we played The Rainbow in ’79, and hung out with him, then bumped into JC (guitarist JC Carroll) when we played the Half Moon. Yes, that’s really exciting too, and it’s practically sold out already.”
Finally, is that right that Ed was on washing-up duty at the Corona cafe in Guildford to pay for his guitar back in the early days?
“Absolutely true. That was just before the band kicked off, and a very slow way to earn the money to buy a Gibson, I can tell you! Actually, it breaks my heart when I look back, we’d all change things, but I’d definitely wave a wand and get those guitars back. I paid for that for two years. It was a walnut SG special and I think it cost me around £170.”
The Vapors visit Liverpool’s Arts Club on Friday, November 18th, supported by Klammer and with DJ Jacqui Carroll. For ticket details and all the latest visit their Facebook page. You can also keep in touch via their Twitter and Instagram pages.