Comedy writer who kept pace with Spike Milligan and endured a bumpy landing with David Frost
NEIL SHAND, who has died aged 84, was a versatile comedy writer best known for his long and fruitful associations with David Frost and Spike Milligan. A journalist by training, he excelled in topical material, a quality that Frost drew on extensively for 40 years. However, he also proved to be one of the select few, like Eric Sykes, who could keep up with the surreal inventiveness of Milligan, which he did successfully for more than a decade from 1969 on the Q series and, later, There’s a Lot of It About.
Shand also wrote much of the political material for Mike Yarwood’s BBC shows. Such was the esteem in which he was held at Television Centre that when Yarwood was poached by Thames Television in 1982, the BBC Television head of light entertainment, James Gilbert, and head of variety Jim Moir, responded instantly by offering Shand an exclusive three-year contract.
The son of Glaswegian parents, Neil Hodgson Shand was born in Luton on March 3 1934. Educated at Luton Grammar School, he described himself as “a working-class boy with a strange posh voice”. He was nearly blind in one eye and what sight he had was saved by an operation on July 5 1948, the day the NHS was established; as his initials were the same, he liked to joke that they named the whole thing after him.
He began his journalism career on newspapers in Luton, before moving to an evening daily in Bristol. Eventually arriving in Fleet Street, he worked on the Daily Sketch, Daily Express and Daily Mail.
When he was sacked from the Mail in 1961 after a heated argument with a senior colleague, he went to drown his sorrows at El Vino’s, where he found himself offered a television researcher’s job at Associated-rediffusion by the presenter Michael Ingrams.
There followed some years in current affairs at A-R and ATV before he began contributing jokes to Bernard Braden for use in his consumer affairs programme,
On the Braden Beat.
The first gag he sold referred to a costly Navy advertising campaign that resulted in a pitiful number of new recruits: “They’re calling them petty cash officers.” Frost was watching this rival show eagerly, and soon sought out Shand to join the Frost Report team, which included Barry Cryer.
When Bill Cotton Jr gave the former pirate DJ Simon Dee a prime-time chat show, Dee Time, in 1967, Shand was one of the main writers from the start. A stint adapting the Daily Express columns of JB Morton, aka Beachcomber, for BBC Two brought him into contact with Spike Milligan, who sensed a kindred spirit. When Q5 was commissioned, Milligan called Shand in to co-write, delaying the series until Shand had a gap in his Frost commitments.
Together, Shand and Frost masterminded ITV’S coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. When Frost started a talk show for American television, he took Shand with him as “creative consultant”.
The writer recalled a flight from Long Island to Manhattan in a helicopter that began to fail. All aboard became convinced they were going to die. An emergency landing in Central Park was the only hope. After an extremely rough touchdown, a shaken Shand followed, agog at Frost, who was striding back to the studio as if nothing had happened.
After his return from the US in 1973, Shand wrote for the Two Ronnies, Mike Yarwood, Marti Caine and Derek Nimmo among others, as well as reuniting with Milligan in 1975 for a BBC One sitcom about racial attitudes called The Melting Pot. Six episodes were made, but only the first was transmitted, such was the reaction. The return of Q later that year was better received.
In 1977, Jim Moir called Shand in to shape Des O’connor Tonight, a series that made a point of featuring the best new young comedians from America alongside established names. Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman and Jay Leno all got their first British television exposure on the sofa with Des, as did Kelly Monteith, with whom Shand would go on to write a longrunning BBC sitcom, Kelly Monteith.
Shand’s talent was such that employers overlooked the fact that he could be a troublesome, even unpleasant, drunk. “I think the reason I became a reporter in the first place was that I quite liked a drink and being a reporter made it legitimate,” he told the writer Louis Barfe at an event in Hull last year. “It was the beginning of a long, long downhill slope.”
Colleagues from Dee Time remember him wrenching a fireplace off a wall in a Manchester hotel.
A great jazz fan, he admitted remorsefully from a position of sobriety that he had heckled some of the greatest names in music at Ronnie Scott’s, where he was a regular. “Years later, I asked Pete King why they’d never thrown me out for such appalling behaviour,” he said, “Pete replied that I was family.”
In 1981, he sought therapy and went from scepticism about the value of AA meetings to being one of the organisation’s most eloquent advocates. Younger colleagues who knew only the sober Shand remember a charming and kind mentor with good advice and a fund of anecdotes. From 1983 to 1986, he worked on
The Bob Monkhouse Show, in which Monkhouse interviewed only comedians, one show ending with a young Jim Carrey singing along to Les Dawson’s out-of-tune piano while the Roly Polys danced alongside.
The variety of his later credits is notable: Carrott Confidential, Wogan, The Les Dennis Laughter Show, The Ferguson Theory with Craig Ferguson, The Kenny Everett Television Show. He also wrote most of Ned Sherrin’s monologues for Radio 4’s Loose Ends.
Shand continued to work with Frost and Monkhouse into the new millennium, despite having retreated from London life to settle in Winteringham by the Humber.
Neil Shand was married three times: first to Mary (née Massie); secondly to Pamela (née Reeves); and thirdly to Judith Corcoran, who as Judith Keppel later became famous as the first £1 million winner of Who Wants to Be a
Millionaire. He is survived by a son from his first marriage.
Neil Shand, born March 3 1934, died April 12 2018
Shand, centre, with Barry Cryer as Kenny Everett looks on: his other collaborators included Mike Yarwood, Jasper Carrott and Bob Monkhouse