Recently, Robert Banks Stewart, "Shoestring's" creator, producer and writer,
answered our questions at length. His thoughts on "Shoestring", as well as information
on his background, can be found in this two-part interview.
In Part One, Mr Stewart talks at length about his work in television prior to
"Shoestring" and the genesis of that series.
Dene Kernohan and Nick Stewart: Can you describe how you came to be a
writer/producer, and sketch out a little of your background in television?
Robert Banks Stewart: I wrote my first play when I was nine years' old and directed
it at the school I then attended in Edinburgh. I was a journalist on several
newspapers in Scotland, wrote a couple of stage plays, then was signed up by
"Illustrated", the picture magazine, and spent three years travelling around the world
as their chief foreign writer.
When magazines like "Illustrated" and "Picture Post" folded (thanks to tv!), I joined
the story department of Rank and worked on a half-hour tv film series called "Interpol
Calling", writing many episodes and story-editing. Subsequently I wrote for "Danger
Man", and from then on for many series ranging from "Dr Finlay's Casebook" to
"Callan", "Public Eye", "Undermind" (my own creation), "The Human Jungle", and
the first film series of "The Avengers", with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.
DK/NS: How did you come to work at the BBC?
RBS: After a spell at Thames as a producer/story editor/writer, I was invited to come
over to the BBC to produce a retread of their first all-film cop drama series, called
"Target", starring Patrick Mower. It was, by their admission, a bit of a copy of "The
Sweeney", for which I'd also written scripts. Philip Hinchcliffe, who'd produced
"Target" (and before that, "Dr.Who"), had recommended me for the job, as he was
going off to do a mini-series called "Private Schultz", scripted by a brilliant writer,
I duly arrived at Shepherd's Bush (the BBC drama offices overlooked the Green,
above a 1930's Post Office building - Threshold and Union House, which must have
pumped out more tv series and serial dramas than any building in history!). It's ironic
that the BBC had built an almost Olympic building, TV Centre, in Wood Lane, half a
mile away, yet had no place for undeniably their most vital ingredient: drama series
Anyhow, I disliked "Target" as it was, and wanted to redevelop it, recast the lead,
and turn it into a more human story/plus police procedural. I thought of various actors
for the lead, but my favourite was James Bolam, someone whom I greatly admired
for his gritty realism. Unfortunately, he'd starred in two series of an excellent Geordie
drama called "When the Boat Comes In". He wanted to do yet one more series of
that and, later, was willing to do "Target". But the BBC, perhaps quite rightly,
reckoned that was pushing it. They said to him, okay, do another series of "When
the Boat Comes In", but 'no' to subsequently starring in "Target" as well.
DK/NS: How, then, did "Shoestring" originate?
RBS: It was at that point that I was asked by Graeme McDonald, the Head of Series
and Serials: "Do you really want to do this police series? Why don't we scrap it?
Have you got something else in the bag? A popular thriller idea?"
And that's how "Shoestring" happened, because I muttered something like "How
about doing a really good, classy private eye series?" I was a great admirer of "The
Rockford Files", and wondered why the BBC couldn't do a modern, quirky, fast-
paced, all-film private eye series like that, rather than previous humdrum stuff like
Graeme McDonald, a very shrewd drama head said "You're on". Thus, I was in the
rather awkward position of having suggested that I wanted to produce a kind of
series that hadn't yet been devised! There wasn't much time, either - it was late
Autumn of 1977 - with a strong idea yet to be hatched, and ten scripts to be written,
production to begin in March 1978.
DK/NS: You collaborated and created the
"Shoestring" series with Richard Harris.
RBS: Richard Harris and I had been colleagues as
writers on numerous tv drama series, as well as both
being story editors as well (he'd successfully edited,
among others, "Hunter's Walk" and "Hazell"). In fact,
he'd just finished the latter at Thames, so I asked
him if he'd like to co-create a new series for the
We sat around for weeks (or played golf!) trying to
invent a new offbeat private eye. But somehow we
just couldn't latch on to what would give it its
originality - and the deadline was drawing near.
Either we had something to offer, or the BBC would
have to use some other series in the slots
Then, one morning at home, I was listening to the
radio, and heard a lawyer giving advice to listeners,
and I suddenly realised we could have a private eye
who worked for a radio station!
He would have his own show, with listeners phoning
in with their problems, which would lead our man out
of the radio station to investigate their "case" and
his pay-cheque would be met by the radio station. It
would also have to be a commercial radio station
(growing in number for the first time in the UK),
rather than the BBC, who'd be unlikely to provide
such a service.
I phoned Graeme McDonald, and when I was
outlining my thoughts to him I said: "Look, stop me if
you think this is a daft idea…." But he said in a flash
- "It's not, it's a clever background for a new private
Radio Times listing for
That same afternoon Graeme and I went to see Bill Cotton (then Controller, BBC 1)
in his sixth-floor office at the TV centre. Alasdair Milne (then the Managing Director,
BBC) arrived as well. I gave a hasty, but enthusiastic, verbal presentation of how I
thought such an idea would shape up.
DK/NS: What were your initial descriptions of the programme's format?
RBS: There was a name in my head - I still can't think why - which was 'Eddie
Shoestring'. I believe I had an idea that he was actually 'Eddie Schusting', a Jewish guy,
and that people would make fun of it as a 'shoestring' radio programme, and would end
up calling him Shoestring.
Also, I suggested the radio station should be located well away from London, preferably
in Bristol, which would give us (within a thirty mile radius) great scope for locations….
Bristol itself, the surrounding countryside, the Severn Estuary, the seaside (such as
Western-Super-Mare), Bath, and even over the bridge in the Wye valley and South
Wales. Bill Cotton argued for Slough (to save crew and artists' overnights and travelling
costs), but I won my point: Slough would just be another featureless cop-style location,
we might as well be in Greater London….
The decision was taken there and then: the green light!
DK/NS: After that, how did you expand on this initial premise?
RBS: Richard Harris and I got down to the serious work of creating a character called
Eddie Shoestring, his background (the so-called back-story), plus a rattling good yarn to
lead off with. From the very outset I insisted that we should treat this, and every
subsequent episode, as small-screen films, and that all the other actors, not just regulars
- should contribute more than just pushing the plot.
The small-part characters must all have (as top-rated Hollywood tv series like Rockford
and Kojak displayed) even just the tiniest moment to comment or complain about their
own lives, their jobs, their husbands or wives, their children, their back-pain or ulcers,
their wages, etc. This was a dialogue technique that distinguished good American films,
and had carried over into the best of their tv series.
DK/NS: How did the back-story make the transition to pilot script?
RBS: Richard was commissioned to write the opener, from the story we'd hammered
out together. When he delivered the first draft, he had diverged, to a great extent, alas,
from the story, events and, much more importantly, the concept of "Shoestring", which
was to have a Raymond Chandler-style ambience, rather than, put simply, a British
But from Richard's point of view, why not? A gifted and honest writer, Richard had mostly
resisted doing any American pastiche (yet he wrote some scenes with echoes of that).
But the total result wasn't quite what the BBC had in mind, or me, come to that. We were,
after all, intending to make a tv film series to match the current USA series in style. Call it
what you like, but these American series were admired - and getting big ratings - in the
UK, for their grip, their punch, their literacy and verve.
DK/NS: How did you solve the problem relating to Richard Harris' script?
RBS: Graeme McDonald said that the BBC wouldn't go along with Harris's draft
"Shoestring" script as it stood. It was not, as he said, what they had been promised. I
contacted Richard, to say that it would be back to the drawing board, but he refused to
rewrite, and suggested that I should write the opening script myself.
To be honest, I think he was flogged out from his spell on"Hazel", where he had spent an
enormous amount of energy to make that series (devised by an odd, amateur pairing of
Terry Venables and sports journalist, Gordon Williams) actually work.
With so little time left (I was already about to brief and commission other writers), I went
home to script an alternative opener, within a week - 'The Private Ear'. So I sat in my
study in Putney, thrashing out a new version of "Shoestring", giving his oddball character
all kinds of quirky corners (was I thinking of Rockford?), such as his rotting old river
cruiser (which was actually my own boat, moored at Richmond), or his ability to sketch
cartoon-like figures while interviewing people (suspects), even in such locations as a
swimming pool, a Chinese takeaway, or a football supporters' vandalised railway
carriage in a siding, with its windows steamed up by the threatening visit of the villains
who'd arrived to do him over.
Always, we wanted to portray Shoestring as an eccentric, slightly zany sort of bloke,
caught up in his new role as a radio station's private-eye.
When the script was finished, I suggested to Richard co-authorship, having incorporated
a number of his ideas and, indeed, lots of his dialogue. But he said no, he didn't want
anything to do with it, considering it to be an inferior script to anything he personally
would have written, and that in his view it was full of Chandler-style cliches and why didn't
I just go it alone, since it was my baby, and good luck? And we still continued to play golf
together! A couple of dissenting pros, I guess.
Even when Shoestring became the No.1 in the UK ratings for the first season, and again
for a second year, Richard declined to write a script (despite my pleas - but I
understood). Richard Harris is, if nothing else, a man who sticks to his own principles
(you have to admire that) and his reckoning at the start, I think, was that since he didn't
like what was being done with the series and not beginning with his script, it might be a
In Part 2 of this interview, Robert Banks Stewart discusses the casting of
"Shoestring's" characters, and the various people involved with the production of the
The SHOESTRING Story
A gifted BBC art director, Humphrey Jaeger,
designed the set of Radio West, and we later
seamlessly moved from various exterior scenes
and shots of the Post Office phone-exchange in
Bristol, to the radio station, built in the BBC's
Ealing Studios. It was a brilliant piece of design,
and very integral to the authentic feel of
commercial radio of its time.
There was the reception area, with its smart
leather couches and palm trees, corridors,
recording rooms, the actual broadcasting
studios, control desks, and, of course, the
boss's swish office, with his fish-tank and his
window onto the studios, plus an array of
broadcasting awards, mostly belonging to
DK/NS: Now that the series was in pre-production,
can you tell us a little about the regular sets and
RBS: 'Radio West' was located in the centre of Bristol,
using the exterior of a modern Post Office phone-
exchange building, on the basin called the Welsh
Back, where a former lightship had been permanently
moored and turned into a floating bar/restaurant.
For me, for the BBC and, inadvertently for him, it wasn't!
Still, he was always credited on screen as "Series
created by Richard Harris and Robert Banks Stewart". H,
after all, comes before S, and I felt bound to stick to our
original partnership deal.
Richard would eventually graduate to being not just a
journeyman tv writer, described then as a 'foot-soldier',
but he would soon become a tremendously successful
West End playwright - "The Business of Murder",
"Outside Edge", "Stepping Out", etc. I was genuinely
delighted by his success, and after a bit of a blip, we still
played many friendly, competitive rounds of golf. Damnit!
He lowered his golf handicap lower than mine!
This was absolutely ideal: we could play stories, have regular characters stroll across
from the radio station after their shift, to the "Lightship Bar", and talk the talk, discuss
elements of the ensuing story.
RBS Part 2
RBS Part 2