“Are ye him off the telly?”
It’s been a while since Malcolm Gerrie has been asked that. “And I never knew how to answer,” laughs the now 63-year-old veteran TV producer, who spent a bit of time on the aforementioned telly when he was starting out.
That was back in the seventies when the Newcastle-born former teacher put in a stint as Lyn Spencer’s presenting other half on the memorable magazine show, Lyn’s Look-In and kids’ weekend show, Saturday Shake Up - both of which came from the youth programming stable at Tyne Tees Television, which also produced Alright Now, Check It Out and the groundbreaking music show, The Tube, of which Malcolm was a co-founder.
More of that later though, and back to Lyn’s Look-In and its mascot, Sisily the snake.
“Ah we had lots of fun,” says Malcolm. “I used to get the odd shout out in the street up at home, but those two shows were pretty much it when it came to my presenting career.”
Until now, that is.
On Monday night, the two-line on-screen section of Malcolm’s otherwise extensive CV will be dusted off for a new entry, which frankly (no offence to Lyn’s Look-In meant here) knocks his previous credits squarely into a cocked hat. And then stamps on it.
Talks Music is a new, 10-part series on Sky Arts and will see Malcolm interview some of the biggest names in music.
Tony Bennett, Jeff Beck, Ray Davies, Nile Rodgers, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, Graham Nash and Earth, Wind and Fire are among the legends who will have an hour-long programme devoted to their life’s work, with Malcolm steering the conversation.
Based on the format of the legendary US series, Inside the Actors Studio, which kicked off in 1994 with Paul Newman and has maintained the standard of guest ever since, each episode sees the subject being interviewed about their art in front of an audience of students.
“We were approached by Jeff Wurtz, who directs the Actor’s Studio,” says Malcolm, rewinding the story a little.
“He wanted to do a music version of that show, but coming out of London, and my company were one of those pitching for it.”
That would be Whizz Kid Entertainment, a production company with a reputation for producing top quality event television and documentaries, such as the Baftas, Let’s Dance for Comic Relief, Camp Bestival, Stand Up to Cancer, Jools Holland: My Life in Music and The Turner Prize.
“Anyway, we won the tender and set away screen testing to find our presenter,” says Malcolm who describes the five presenters they tested as ‘pretty well known’ but won’t divulge names.
Well you don’t get to where he is by screen testing and telling.
After sending the tapes to Sky, who had bought into the idea of the series for their well-thought-of arts channel, Malcolm and his team were gutted to be told the bad news that ‘none of the above’ were suitable.
“I thought, well that’s it,” says Malcolm.
“But then Lisa, my managing director, said ‘there’s good news as well, but you’d better sit down’.”
Sky had sensibly come to the conclusion that Malcolm, who had spent his life putting the cream of the music industry’s crop on the small screen with shows like The Tube, The White Room, The Brit Awards, Elton John’s New Year’s Eve Party and U2 at The Rose Bowl, might actually be the right person for the job.
“It completely took me by surprise, and I thought everyone had gone mad,” he laughs.
“But she said, ‘well if you don’t do it, we won’t get the series’. Basically I had to take one for the team.”
Following his own screen test the next day, featuring Will Young as “the sweetest” of stand in guests, Malcolm was given the job.
“They loved it, and the rest as they say was bloody history,” he laughs, “and bloody hard work too.”
Although he relished the challenge of getting his teeth into new TV territory, the London-based father-of-three is the first to admit it hasn’t been an easy ride.
“It’s been very stressful on two levels. Firstly because I still have a company to run and can’t take my eye off the ball there, but also, this show is not like Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton where someone comes in, sits on the sofa and they talk to them for three or four minutes about their new film or latest record.
“This is a conversation which will definitely last two hours, and might last up to three-and-a-half, about their entire life and body of work.
“The amount of research you have to do is enormous. I knew some of the back stories pretty well, but there were others I didn’t know a huge amount about.
“There was a lot of midnight oil being burned.”
Malcolm’s first interview date was with Nile Rodgers, the legendary American music producer who co-founded Chic, and it offered a valuable lesson concerning wardrobe choice.
“I’d just got some new jeans and they were ridiculously tight... I thought I was going to faint,” he laughs. “We talked for three hours and 45 minutes. That’s a long time to wait for a pee.”
That first interview, which featured Nile demonstrating how he turned a ‘terrible folk song’ by David Bowie into the 80s anthem Let’s Dance, was filmed inside the “hallowed ground” of Abbey Road Studios, as was his chat with Jeff Beck, who recorded The Tube’s distinctive opening music all those years ago... and provided Malcolm with a memorable moment for his latest series.
“He had done a version of (Beatles classic) Day in the Life for a George Martin tribute album, and I asked him if he would give us a taste during the interview.
“He said ‘I’ll do better than that, I’ll play you the whole thing’. So you had Jeff Beck, playing Day In The Life, dedicated to George Martin, in Abbey Road Studios. It was like a dream.”
As was his interview with Tony Bennett in New York.
“He is one of my heroes - the last of that era with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis and Dean Martin - he’s 87 and just wonderful. We did the interview in Gotham Hall in New York and in the middle of it, he stopped and said ‘you know Malcolm, I’ve been doing these kinds of interviews for the past 60 years and no-one has looked after me the way you have today. You are the real deal’.
“It felt like I’d been hit on the head with a baseball bat. It was such a gorgeous compliment.”
Moments like that, and others like Boy George revealing the biggest regret of his life was ‘leggings’ and Lindsey Buckingham talking about his tempestuous relationship with Stevie Nicks, have made all the effort worth it.
“It’s been a huge privilege,” says Malcolm.
“I always said the same when we were doing The Tube - and Miles Davis or someone would be sitting in the corner of the Egypt Cottage - it was a massive honour to be doing the job and getting paid for it.”
And now he’s got to grips with being in front of the camera again - and has taken note to wear trousers with a bit of give in them - Malcolm feels the same about his latest challenge.
“It has some of the hardest work I’ve done - and I still hate seeing myself on the telly - but I’m delighted with the line up for the series and I’m excited about the possibilities of another one, should we get one. Pete Townshend and Stevie Nicks have already said they’d be up for it.
“And I’d love to do Brian Johnson from AC/DC.
“I was one of the first people he rang for advice when he got the call to audition. He was still in Geordie then. I think he called me from either Horden or Easington Club where he was doing a show.
“Mind, it’s a funny old life isn’t it?”
:: Talks Music starts on Monday, November 11 at 9pm on Sky Arts.