This year sees the 20th anniversary of what appears to be a long forgotten comedy series, written by and starring Black Country comedian Frank Skinner, called Blue Heaven. The series was filmed in and around Birmingham and the Black Country and featured a number of early television appearances from people who were to go on to much bigger things.
Blue Heaven started out in 1992, as episode two in a five part series of comedy pilots called Bunch of Fives. The other four episodes were;
- Dead At Thirty – featuring Jesse Birdsall (Bugs), Paterson Joseph (Casualty, Hustle, Survivors) and Mark Williams (Harry Potter, Hustle, Kinsey)
- The Weekenders – starring Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer
- Shall We gather At The River? – featuring Francis Matthews (the voice of Captain Scarlett) and Beryl Reid
- Miles Better – featuring a young 21 year old actor called David Tennant (Dr Who)
In 1994 Channel 4 commissioned a six part series of Blue Heaven, which aired between 30 July 1994 – 3 September 1994. It told the story of singer Frank Sandford (Skinner) and his keyboard player Roache (Conleth Hill) and their hopes of making it big in the world of pop. Frank is out of work and lives with his parents (played by John Forgeham and Paula Wilcox) who make his life a constant embarrassment. Listed below is an episode summary along with details of the guest stars and some of the locations used for filming.
This episode centres on the ‘Song For Albion’ contest, which is looking for a local band to write and perform a theme tune for Frank’s beloved West Bromwich Albion Football Club.
The episode is mainly shot on interior sets but there are some scenes filmed in and around West Bromwich Albion football ground, The Hawthorns, where you can see the price for entrance back in 1994 was just £7.00!
The episode also features a very young looking Bill Bailey, credited as Mark Bailey, as part of a double act, dressed in a huge bird costume ( I assume this is a Throstle as this is the bird associated with The Albion).
The second half of the episode is all about the song competition, which was filmed at The Night Inn, Great Arthur Street, Smethwick.
Episode Two opens at Stourbridge junction train station where Frank is waiting to catch a glimpse of a mystery woman who arrives at the station each morning. The scenes at the station feature a young Birmingham actress called Lorna Laidlaw, who plays Ursula, and now better known as Mrs Tembe in the daytime soap Doctors (BBC).
The mystery woman is played by Tamsin Greig, in her earliest television appearance. She later went on to star in Black Books (with the aforementioned Bill Bailey), Green Wing and Episodes. In keeping with the local connections of the programme, she is also a graduate of University of Birmingham.
The social security on the other hand are obsessed with Frank and to avoid getting a job he pretends to be Napoleon Bonaparte and pleads insanity.
The episode opens with Frank delivering a monologue to camera as he walks across the red footbridge over Tollhouse Way in Smethwick. It’s here that he spots a poster for Eddie Nicholls (played Brian Hibbard of The Flying Pickets fame) and his show at The Tower Ballroom, and this is the subject of this episode.
The Tower Ballroom hosted concerts by The Damned and The Smiths in the 1980s and was famous for its revolving stage, which is shown in this episode. After closing around 2006, and an uncertain period where it was facing demolition, the Tower Ballroom was reopened in April 2008.
Frank and Roache go to The Tower Ballroom to meet Eddie but are halted by his personal assistant, Kenny Mills (Sir Tony Robinson, post-Blackadder but pre-Time Team).
Kenny tries to put them off in their quest to meet the singer, however, when Kenny’s secretary (played by Lucy Davis, daughter of Birmingham comedian Jasper Carrot, who went on to star in The Office) brings news of an unfortunate injury to the keyboard player in Eddie’s band, Frank sees an opportunity to meet his idol.
Frank’s plan looks like it may be the end for Blue Heaven as Roache becomes a member of Eddie’s backing band and leaves Frank to go solo, but when Eddie receives a beating in his dressing room the tour is cancelled. Roache and Frank are reunited at the end of Frank’s solo Blue Heaven gig in a scene filmed at Temple Bar, Lower Temple Street, Birmingham.
The Temple Bar closed in 1999 and is now home to a clothing retail outlet called The Size?
The episode ends with Frank and Roache walking out of the Temple Bar and up to New Street where the walk off towards the Town Hall. As the credits roll you can make out the lights outside the Piccadilly Arcade along New Street.
In this episode we see Blue Heaven spotted by Shereen Allen-Turner (Serena Gordon), a video producer, who Frank thinks has a ‘nice arse.’ She wants to make a video of the band but insists it features Frank’s parents, a suggestion that horrifies him, still he will do almost anything for the woman of his dreams and agrees to the suggestion.
Serena Gordon had previously starred in the BBC series Kinsey, where she played Neil Kinsey’s partner Tricia Mabbott. She later went on to appear in the Bond movie GoldenEye.
The second half of the episode opens at a fairground where Frank is due to meet Shereen. While he is waiting, assuming he’s been stood up, he meets stall holder Prem, played by Nadim Sawalha (who appeared in the Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me and is father to Julia and Nadia).
The scene takes place at The Black Country Museum Fairground in Dudley in front of the Helter Skelter and the Hall of Mirrors (aka The Fun Show) which has a sign that reads “It makes ya look saft, but it makes ya laf! Why doh yo have a go?”
Shereen eventually arrives and the pair go for a stroll around Dudley Zoo and Castle before retiring to a pub for a drink.
Frank goes in search of a Jewellery gift for Shereen and eventually buys a pair of earrings from market stall. The stall owner is played by Beryl Reid, in one of her final television appearances.
Beryl Reid had previously appeared in two episodes in the Bunch of Five series, Miles Better and Shall We Gather At The River?, however she did not appear in the Blue Heaven episode.
The video is shot at Frank’s parents house and shortly afterwards Frank and Roache arrive at the video producers offices to see the results. They find the offices of Barney Bruce unattended and discover that the video is not as they were expecting . Frank’s dreams of stardom and his relationship with his dream woman, with the ‘nice arse’, lie in tatters.
The dejected duo leave ‘The Edit Studio’ offices on Birmingham’s New Street where they bump into Shereen and have a brief argument about the video. The episode ends with Frank and Roache heading off in the direction of Lower Temple Street towards Pizzaland (now Café Rouge) on New Street.
Frank is mistaken for his brother Brian, who is a violent psychopath serving time in Winson Green for manslaughter. This mistaken identity attracts the attention of the local nutter, Willetts, played by Peter-Hugo Daly (who went on to appear in the award winning movie The Gangs of New York).
Willett’s attaches himself to Frank who eventually invites him to a café for a drink.
The main scenes of the episode take place inside Ralph’s Footlights Café, a location I was struggling to identify, probably due to the 20 year gap between filming and my research into the series. The dialogue in the scene mentions Anderson Street but there is no such street in Birmingham or Smethwick, but there is an Anderson Road, however, there is no sign of a café along there.
Thanks to mickeycool34 (see comments below) for correctly spotting that the café is located on Buttress Way, Smethwick
As part of Willett’s ransom demands he asks for newsreader Carol Barnes to come to the café. The siege is ended before the newsreader appears but she does make a brief appearance at the celebration party at the end of the episode.
Another guest appearance comes from David Neilson (shortly before he secured the role of Roy Cropper in Coronation Street) who plays the police Sergeant in charge of ending the café siege.
In the last episode things are looking up for Frank. He has found a woman that he hasn’t had to pay, so he thinks it must be love! When Paul Twice, the most popular guy at his old school and now a tour manager, turns up at a Blue Heaven gig, Frank develops an extreme case of one-upmanship.
Paul Twice is played by, a very young looking, Philip Glenister in his early television career, before he went on to have huge success in hit shows such as Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and Mad Dogs. The Glenister family are no strangers to filming in Birmingham with Philip’s brother Robert filming 18 episodes of Hustle (series six to eight) in the city between 2009 and 2011.
The pair, accompanied by Roache, head to The Carson Club to have a few drinks and catch up on old times, as Frank and Roache continue to invent tales of Blue Heaven’s huge success.
On the way to The Carson Club the three carry on their discussion about fame and fortune as they make their way across Chamberlain Square. The route they take is a rather odd one as they walk from Victoria Square, past the Town Hall and the Art Gallery and Museum up towards Paradise Forum. They continue past the entrance and walk down the side of the Central Library towards the Birmingham Conservatoire before turning around and walking back in front of McDonalds, Paradise Silks (another long lost location, now Greggs) and the now closed Birmingham Central Library.
Once they enter the Carson Club they encounter a collection of Frank Carson look-a-like waiters, one of them played by John Thomson. This would have been around the time he joined the cast of The Fast Show, after which he became a regular on our TV screens in shows such as Cold Feet and Coronation Street. John Thomson was also a cast member in the Bunch of Five series, where under the name of John Patrick-Thomson he played a policeman in The Weekenders.
When Paul promises Blue Heaven a gig supporting David Bowie, Frank thinks his time for stardom has finally arrived.
Frank’s world soon falls apart again as his relationship with Sam ends in very public fashion (on Smethwick High Street) and he has an argument with Roache along the Smethwick canal. It also turns out that Paul’s claims of David Bowie tours are about as realistic as the Spiders From Mars so it looks like Frank’s road to stardom has reached yet another roadblock.
The series ends with Frank discovering Paul’s real occupation as he desperately tries to save his Elvis record collection while dealing with the wrath of his violent father.
A second series was written, but it never saw the light of day, but the first series can still be seen on Channel 4OD. If you do seek it out and spot any locations I’ve missed out then please let me know so I can update the page.
Finally here is that strange stroll across Chamberlain Square and back again by Frank, Roache and Paul as they discuss fame and fortune.