Simeon Courtie trained to be a printing press manufacturer before joining BBC Northampton to begin a career in radio. From there he secured a role interviewing pop stars for The O Zone, the music magazine produced by CBBC. In January 1995 he moved over to host CBBC on BBC PRIME - the satellite service for Europe.
Simeon soon appeared on terrestrial screens too where he presented afternoon, birthday, holiday morning and weekend links and launched both the Saturday Aardvark and Breakfast Show strands. After leaving Simeon moved to ITV where he hosted CITV shows WOW and You‘ll Never Believe It. He currently works as a radio presenter for BFBS - the British Forces Broadcasting Service - and writes comedy.
We met up with Simeon to discuss his time on Children’s BBC. He reminisces about recording the “I’ll Be There For You” April Fools Day spoof single, hiding his “run words” and getting stuck in a lift and completely missing the birthdays as a result!
How did your job at Children’s BBC come about?
Before I got into broadcasting I was an engineer. I was training to be a printing press manufacturer and worked in a greasy, horrible, Dickensian factory in Kettering! It was a horrible job, I hated it. I used to arrive home from work whilst Children’s BBC was still on - at about 4.30pm - and Andy Crane was presenting. One day my landlady said to me “You could do that” and I remember I looked and it and thought “That is a different world. I would love to do that”. It was so far removed from the world I was in. But it planted the seed and when I got into radio I always thought that I would really love to do Children’s BBC. So I sent them a showreel and got an audition. But I did really badly in the audition and Zoe Ball got the job!
However the boss there, Paul Smith, made a fatal error! I phoned him up about 6 months later and he let slip that there had been an O Zone film they had wanted to do, but hadn’t had a presenter for. He said my name had come up in conversation but as I was living in Northampton he thought “it just seemed too far away”. I said “You’ve got to be kidding, I could be at your door in an hour!” and he was very apologetic and explained he didn’t realise it was quite so close! I think he felt bad so invited me down for another chat. So I went back down to TV Centre, purely to meet him for lunch. Then afterwards, as we walked back into the office, he introduced me to someone saying “This is Simeon, he’s going to be presenting some O Zone films for us” - and that was it! That was how I got the job!
At what point did you move over from The O Zone and begin presenting on Children’s BBC itself?
I did the O Zone films for about 6 months, then about 2 or 3 months passed without me getting any at all. I thought “Man, this work has dried up. I’m never going to get a job in television”.
Then Paul Smith phoned me and said “The BBC are launching a channel for ex-pats abroad. It’s called BBC PRIME and it’s going to go out to weird places like Iceland and Turkey and places like that. They want to do a Children’s BBC sequence on it. Are you interested?“. I was jumping around the room and asked when they were auditioning. But he said “We’re not auditioning. I‘m just offering it to you if you want it!”.
It was just before Christmas and he said he would be able to confirm it between Christmas and New Year. And of course I didn’t hear from him! I spent the whole of Christmas and New Year wondering whether I had the job or not! And then on January 5th, I remember the date, he phoned and said “It‘s all on!”.
Very quickly after I started, Paul managed to get me across doing the birthdays on BBC TWO in the mornings. That was my first big break on network telly and I had phoned everyone I knew telling them to watch! I still remember the nerves of sitting there, in that top corner of Pres A. They still had a little vision mixer and rostrum camera and you had to do your own birthday cards - your own mixing. It was just brilliant - so scary - but that’s what you do it for.
In September 1995 Toby Anstis left Children’s BBC, leaving the afternoons without a fixed presenter for the first time, instead the shift operated on a rota system. What was it like fronting the afternoons? Was it seen as the ‘big gig’?
Oh yeah, undoubtedly. The ratings themselves were huge. They declined over the years - I don’t think that was our fault (!), it was just by virtue of the fact that more channels appeared. But back in Phillip’s day, that link into Neighbours, he was broadcasting to 8-9 million people. And even when I was there in 95/96 that last link at 5.35 you could be getting up to 6 million people. Now there are shows that commissioners pay millions for that would kill for half of those figures. When you put it into today’s terms, it’s astonishing really.
So yeah, it was all about getting the afternoon gig. But, having said that, some of us were more adult than others. For example Chris Jarvis - who is absolute gold and salt of the earth - was so aware that he was better suited to the pre-school stuff. He ended up always pitching to do the mornings with the pre-school stuff - because that’s where he was brilliant. Indeed, he’s now Mr Cbeebies! So rather than there being a horrible, egotistical scrap for who was going to do the afternoons, Chris became very much Mr Mornings and me, Josie and Otis ended up mainly doing the afternoons.
For April Fools Day 1996 the CBBC team recorded their own version of the song “I’ll Be There For You”, which was supposedly being released that day. What do you remember about that?
Everyone was talking about Friends at that time - so it was a bit of a zeitgeist moment. All the kids were watching it, so it made sense to do something about it.
That was when Kirsten was brand new - she had just got the job after brilliant audition. The very first thing she did, before she had even been on air, was to go to a recording studio to record I’ll Be There For You - the theme to Friends, by the Rembrandts. A local friend of the show had a recording studio in Notting Hill. He kindly offered to do the arranging for us and all the instruments and stuff. We went to his recording studio and all sang the different harmonies. Then we recorded a video too and Kirsten was swept off her feet by the whole experience! I remember her telling me a couple of weeks later that she thought that’s what life would be like working for Children’s BBC! It had just happened to be an amazing 24 hours - that kind of thing didn’t ever happen normally!
We recorded the spoof single and Simon Mayo came on live on a video link from Broadcasting House to supposedly interview us about the single! Of course, it was all just a hoax. It was the most bizarre thing!
You were part of the 10 Years of Children’s BBC afternoon in 1995 where all of the former presenters were reunited on screen. Was it fun being part of a big celebration?
Yeah, it was brilliant! I have a photograph of everyone on the roof set that day - everyone looks brilliant... but I can’t be seen. I’m actually hidden behind Phillip Schofield I think! But it’s a great photo of everybody else!
I had met most of the other presenters before - Simon Parkin had helped me get my job. I phoned him up when I got my audition for Children’s BBC and he gave me lots of tips of what they would ask me to do – for example talk about yourself, but it’s timed to a minute. So I was able to do a lot of prep for the audition thanks to the great Simon Parkin!
So yes, it was great to catch up with them all in a celebratory environment. The great thing about Children’s BBC Presentation is that it’s a bit of a club - there are only so many people that have presented those links that stick those programmes together - so it’s kind of cool. They should do it more! I hope they organise something for the 25th!
In Summer 1996 you launched the Saturday Aardvark. This was Children’s BBC Presentation on a bigger scale - with longer links, bigger items, more phone-in’s and so on. Was it enjoyable to do something bigger?
Prior to Saturday Aardvark we used to pre-record Saturdays. That was the biggest change. A budget appeared from somewhere and they said “We’re going to do live Saturdays" and they wanted to brand it. Paul Smith was very good, with very little money, at making Pres seem bigger than it actually was.
So instead of just saying “Sim, you’re going to come in and do live links and Josie you’ll do them next week” he said “Let’s make it a show, let’s give it a name, let’s create something”.
My Assistant Producer - Simon Scales - and I were a great team and really clicked. And with Dave, who played Otis, the three of us became a little bit of a powerhouse of writing and creating ideas. We had formed a great little union doing BBC One afternoons - forming some great Otis skits and stuff - and that was really the creative drive behind Saturday Aardvark.
The big frustration with doing children’s pres links is the limited time. It’s quite hard to get all your comedy ideas into 20 seconds. Part of the deal on Saturday’s was that you got to do longer links. So all the ideas we had - like Sister Otis (based on Sister Wendy!) all came out of us sitting down and wondering how we were going to fill all that time!
You have explained that you helped come up with ideas and write sketches. As a presenter, was that something you were expected to get involved in – or just something you wanted to do?
You were definitely expected to come up with stuff. On my first ever day in the department – doing BBC Prime - I was sat in the office looking at the paper and Paul Smith walked past and said “What are you doing? Come up with some stuff for BBC PRIME!" He said “You do this on the radio all the time - games, competitions, stupid ideas - just come up with some”. I hadn’t really known that I was supposed to do that. So from day one I thought “Oh right, I had better do that then”. You do a full day at Children’s BBC - you don’t just rock up, do the links and go home.
Can you explain how did a typical day unfold at Children’s BBC then, during your tenure?
A surprising amount of them would end in the bar! There wasn’t really a typical day of course, because of the rota, but if you were on birthdays you had to be in by 9. At 9:15/9:20 you would be in make up, then you’d have half an hour to go through the cards - working out which the best ones were and which ones you wanted to do - horribly ruthless! Then you’d do birthdays at 10:00.
But even if you weren’t on birthdays, you’d definitely be in work by 10:00. You’d have a production meeting in the morning to see what’s in the news, what people are talking about and to decide what you would do that day. You’d bounce around some ideas and there’d be long term planning too. Then at 3pm you’d bomb downstairs and get on with it!
I got stuck in a lift once - when I was due to do birthdays at 10! I got trapped in my own lift in my block of flats and my mobile phone wouldn’t get a signal. It was the only time I didn’t turn up! It’s one of those far fetched things - they couldn’t reach me on the phone and I eventually turned up and said I’d got trapped in a lift and they were like “Yeah, right, whatever”.
Andi Peters had to go on and present the birthdays! He hadn’t been on Children’s BBC for about 2 years! He was in the office producing The O Zone, so when I didn’t show he leapt at the chance to go on and do the birthdays. When I watched the tape back I saw that he had made fun of me all the way through it about the fact that I had failed to show up!
Richard McCourt commented that you were very good at hiding your ‘run-words’. Can you explain what a ‘run word’ is?
What a strange thing to be remembered for, Richard! A run word doesn’t exist anymore because now we’re in a digital age and you can play a programme instantly off a computer. But back then it was all off videotape and the videotape needed five seconds to get up to speed. So they would always cue up Grange Hill, or whatever the programme was, five seconds before. The presenter would arrange with the director what the cue would be to start the tape rolling. The director might say “Do about a minute - give us a run word”. So I’d come up with a runword – for example “cupcake” (I’d make up a runword just to make the gallery laugh really!). Then while I was presenting I would say “Well I don’t know about you, but it’s CUPCAKE time for me. A cup of tea would go down a treat with today’s Grange Hill”. So when I said ‘cupcake’ they would run the tape and I would hear them start to count down from five. By the time they got to zero I would have finished my sentence and the programme would begin!
Did you watch the programmes? What were your favourites?
Yep, you always watched the shows. You were given VHS’ in the morning of all the shows you were introducing. At the very least you would watch the in and the out to help make up your clever or witty way of getting in and out of the show. And if you had time you could watch the whole show.
I remember sometimes sitting there with those VHS’ and thinking “this is terrible!”. I was probably the worst critic. But I was given a great piece of advice that I still live and die by today which is “not everything can be great - there has to be light and shade”. If, as a presenter, you think everything is brilliant then viewers just won’t believe you - because no one likes everything. So it’s ok to say “I really like this show” - then just don’t have an opinion on a show you don’t like. Don’t diss it, but just deal with it and move on because then we’ll believe you when you get passionate about liking a show.
For me I think the stand out show had to be Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. That was a proper comedy and very very funny for adults as well as kids. And the big cartoon was Rugrats, which was also very good.
Do any particular days at Children's BBC stand out as your favourites?
There used to be a thing called the Big Bash - which was a massive Children’s BBC themed party in Birmingham - and we would do an afternoon from there. I got to host that in 1996, I think it was. Me and Otis presented a live afternoon there and it was just the weirdest thing. The place was packed with thousands of screaming kids that were going mental - that was memorable! I recall us walking out saying “We won’t forget that in a hurry!”
You got to meet some brilliant guests as well. I’ve got great memories of interviewing people like Take That and Ant and Dec - who were just coming through and becoming interesting and funny guys to have on. The whole job was a laugh. Just a really good laugh.
You left Children's BBC in August 1996. Why did you decide to go?
To be honest, I had been a bit bored of the job from about 6 months in. That’s not a criticism of Children’s BBC - or any of the people there - that’s just me. I’m terrible for being stuck in a rut. I got a bit frustrated with doing 10 or 30 second links and just wanted to do more.
So I tried to get myself a proper TV show - and had been doing that around the BBC - but my name wasn’t that big, I was still massively overshadowed by people like Toby. So I stuck it out for a year or more and eventually people started approaching me with shows. But the show I really wanted to do was Saturday mornings - Live and Kicking - which I knew was going to come up because Andi was leaving. It was going to be with Zoe, that was pretty much a foregone conclusion, but no one knew who the bloke was going to be.
First of all I wasn’t in the frame in any way - because Rick Adams was in the frame to do it. At the same time ITV had approached me about doing their new Saturday morning show. I didn’t want to jump to ITV unless I knew that Live and Kicking wasn‘t going to happen, but eventually I got the tip off from Live and Kicking that Rick Adams had got it in the bag. So I decided to leave.
Having made that decision and done the deal with ITV, then Rick Adams didn’t do it! They did a trial show with Zoe and Rick and it was a disaster. So all bets were off. But I was already out of the frame by then. I recall that there was a last minute panic - just 3 weeks before Live and Kicking was going to return – with everyone wondering who was going to be the bloke? I think it was between Jamie, Tim Vincent and Stuart Miles from Blue Peter!
But it was great for Jamie and he and Zoe really clicked and it was the best thing for that show. Meanwhile I had already made my decision to jump so I went to ITV and created mayhem on the other side [on WOW] - which was doomed because of ITV funding. It was the year ITV bought F1 and they paid a fortune for it so all of the live programming got axed and that included me. So we had 16 weeks and then off! But that’s TV!
I was sad to leave CBBC, but I think it was a golden age while I was doing it. It has had its ups and downs - good time and bad times - I think it’s going through a really good time at the moment with Ed and Oucho. But, trying to be completely unbiased, I think one of the other peaks was that mid 90s era. I think it was absolutely on fire with Kirsten, Otis, me, Chris and Josie. That was a great era.
Was WOW fun while it lasted?
Oh yeah - it was brilliant fun. We had some great talent like Phil Cornwell from Dead Ringers and so many other people and things. It was really really good fun. I think, if it could have gone on, it would have become cult. But as it is no one remembers it. But we had great fun doing it! And it’s only TV - you’ve got to have fun!
You briefly returned to Children’s BBC a year later...
Yep, I can’t really remember how that happened! I had left and done WOW on CITV and had got a couple of other series off the back of that. Then one day I got a phone call from Paul saying “someone’s off, can you cover afternoons for a week”. I couldn’t have been more surprised if someone had stripped naked and run through Debenhams! So I said yes and came back - and they paid me the same rubbish money that I had been on before! It was good fun though. It was weird to be back.
What are you doing now?
I’ve got a radio show on BFBS – the British Forces Broadcasting Service. I do a daily show for them that goes out all over the world to wherever there are British forces and bases. I’m also writing comedy. I was writing on Have I Got News For You last week and I’ve been invited back to do the next series. So life is good. I’m loving it.