An Oddie, but a Goodie

Last updated 20:29 20/09/2008
Oddie: bird-watcher and comic.

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BILL ODDIE was the shouting Goodie - the strutting beardy one with a northern accent and a problem with authority, whose voice seemed perpetually hoarse from ranting and raving. A quarter of a century since the demise of the The Goodies, he's still noisy.

From his home near Hampstead Heath in north London, Oddie is talking to the Sunday Star-Times loudly enough to distort the telephone speaker. He chunters and chuckles and laughs wheezily, full of chumminess and chirpiness as he talks about his autobiography, which reveals that he has spent his life being highly strung to the extent of plucking the hair from his own head, terrified of his fans to the point of phobia, feared in turn by colleagues because of his grumpiness and ill temper, and latterly prone to clinical depression.

The odd thing is it took until he was 60 - he's now 67 - before Oddie realised there was anything wrong with him. Perhaps no one felt brave enough to tell a man with multiple wildly successful careers - actor, writer, comic, composer, musician, celebrity bird-spotter - that he was in fact a psychological wreck and a bit of a bully. Perhaps it was that everyone was misdirected by the fact he was forever being unnaturally cheerful.

"The one thing I never was was lugubrious," says Oddie. "You see someone like [depressive comedian and suicide Tony] Hancock, and you think Jesus Christ - you can see it all there."

Not that Oddie's problems are particularly secret now. His memoir, One Flew into the Cuckoo's Egg, published in New Zealand next month, is a portrait of the artist as a damaged child, interspersing boilerplate northern English childhood memories (uncomfortable school shoes, collecting birds' eggs, playing cricket with milk crates for wickets etc) with tales of family dysfunction - notably his mother Lilian's long-term incarceration in a psychiatric hospital.

In 2000, decades of suppressed anger and stress caught up with the motherless man, triggering the first of a series of crippling bouts of depression. A few years later Oddie learnt more of Lilian's story, finally developing some empathy for a woman he barely knew and felt only resentment towards the few times they met.

It turns out Lilian's decades of mental illness probably began as postnatal depression, triggered by a late miscarriage and then the death of a newborn girl after a difficult birth. Most disturbingly, Lilian's deeply unpleasant live-in mother-in-law had refused to call for a midwife as the birth went wrong, and had stopped Lilian from comforting the crying baby during the five days she lived. Oddie was born the following year.

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Little wonder, writes Oddie, that Lilian ended up in the institution locals called "Barmy Hill". "You didn't have to be mad to live there," he writes, "just heartbroken."

The second half of the memoir, rather more cheerily, is a freewheeling collection of observations and vignettes from a life of celebrity and success, written in the form of an interview of Bill Oddie by Bill Oddie, in alternating typefaces.

Oddie's worldwide fame peaked with The Goodies, the madcap TV series co-starring Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden that ran from 1970 to 1982 and attracted audiences in the UK of up to 15 million people. The trio also wrote three bestselling annuals and had five top 20 singles and a top 20 album - Oddie wrote all the music.

From this side of the world, Oddie faded from view along with The Goodies, but he was still writing and presenting for British TV through the 80s.

Then in the 90s he parlayed his life-long obsession with bird-spotting into a career as a wildlife presenter. His enthusiastic and knowledgeable on-camera extemporisations on the marvels of blackbirds, grebes and the lesser spotted tit have made him famous all over again. He is recognised almost as often as during the height of Goodies-mania, only these days fans don't give him the screaming heebie-jeebies. Oddie and co may have asked for it by creating skits where they are attacked by a giant kitten or squashed with a weight marked "1 TON" but some fans had difficulty separating reality from fantasy.

"It was like meeting Tom and Jerry in the street," says Oddie. "They could punch us, knock us over and we'd still get up and smile at them. But of course that was not the case."

His new fans are far less dangerous. They include "little kids and grannies, and 90% of the time the approaches are really really nice, because you're not a cartoon figure any more".

The book's self-interview lets Oddie flagrantly boast about his talents and achievements, then save himself from appearing unbearably smug by switching fonts and accusing himself of being a "cocky little bugger". It's not as irritating to read as it might sound.

Oddie is less boastful, though, about the rivalry between the Goodies and Monty Python's Flying Circus, both of which grew from the ashes of the 1963 Cambridge Circus, the university revue that proved so popular it toured the world (including New Zealand). The Goodies never won the critical respect accorded their friends and rivals in Monty Python, writes Oddie. They were a pop group to Python's classic rock act; the Bay City Rollers of comedy versus Python's Steely Dan. How does Oddie feel about his team failing the posterity test while Monty Python passed?

"Bitter is the word, possibly," says Oddie. He pauses. "But not really."

Oddie sees the Goodies' legacy in the comedians who followed them, from The Young Ones in the 1980s to The Mighty Boosh this century.

"I get nothing but pleasure in thinking I might have influenced or even inspired a few people to have a bash. Though I've often thought the biggest inspiration for young comedians was to watch and think `bloody hell we can do better than that'."

Oddie has been to New Zealand twice. There was the 1964 tour with John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and other members of the Cambridge revue, during which Cleese supposedly encountered the diabolical hotel service that would later inspire Fawlty Towers. And in 1981 Oddie was a Telethon celebrity, based in the Dunedin studio (other guests included Kamahl, Kenny Everett and Basil Brush).

He has fond memories of monstrous jetlag, charming locals and improvising a curled-lip punk version of the Telethon theme song, which to the best of his recollection was called "We're all looking for love". He also looked for birds. Once the jetlag was out of the way Oddie stayed on a little longer and hooked up with New Zealand's birdwatching fraternity, visiting Little Barrier Island and an albatross colony, and ringing yellow-eyed penguins.

He says he'd like to get back, perhaps make a wildlife programme or two. But his favourite Kiwis at the moment are the Flight of the Conchords. As the composer of hundreds of comedy songs and ditties for The Goodies and other shows, Oddie feels a strong affinity with New Zealand's hottest comedy export.

"I'm a big fan. I'm sure they have no idea that I used to write so many comedy songs... I doubt whether there's any conscious connection. But I'd be very proud to think that there might be, somewhere in the ether, because I love their stuff."

One Flew into the Cuckoo's Egg - Hodder & Stoughton, $39.99.

- Sunday Star Times

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