NMP Live Meets... broadcaster & TV presenter Johnny Ball, best known for making maths and science fun though his numerous children’s television series such as BBC’s ‘Think of a Number” and ITV’s “Johnny Ball Reveals All". We joined Johnny for an exclusive chat about his career and what he brings to corporate events. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Johnny Ball
What was your first job?
I’d failed at school, I only got two O’ Levels: one was maths and the other one… wasn’t. But I knew I was good at maths, it was crazy, there were lots of reasons for that. And when I left school, I got a job with De Havilland aircraft corporation, and I just took off – well they made aircraft you see – no, I really did; as soon as I was in the workplace I had no trouble, only in education did I have any trouble. And I just went like a rocket.
So, I was going to be an industrial accountant, but I thought, ‘for the rest of my life? – ooh, no’. And at that time, I had to go into the forces for National Service. But instead I signed on, and if you sign on you get twice the money; it’s all beer money when you’re that age and you can dictate your career and the path. So I elected for a career, or a path, that would most certainly take me abroad. So they sent me to Wales!
How did you venture into stand-up comedy?
The forces was my university. For three years I just learnt and enjoyed every minute, and I worked hard as well. I was successful, so it was all great. But I knew I’d always wanted to be a comedian, and what I was going to do when I came out of the forces was to be a Butlin Redcoat. Then that happened and I had three great years – including a winter as well – and that was great, and it set me up to be a comic.I left them and for the next twelve years I was a stand-up comic.
What was your experience performing in comedy clubs?
Some clubs can be very tough but mostly they were tough because they were too lively and you had to settle them down and control them. But generally, they were okay; if you weren’t good at it, you didn’t do it for long, and you learnt how to handle just about any audience.
So it was great. I used to only have eight or nine nights off a year, and sometimes do two or three clubs a night! So it was very lucrative. I used to tour in my car with about six mohair suits, it was a great time. But it’s a young man’s game, and I thought I can’t go around the clubs forever, I won’t do that.
So I got the opportunity to go into children’s television. I tried it and I loved the integrity of the whole thing. I suddenly realised that perhaps there’s something more creative going that way.
How did you break into children’s presenting?
A radio producer in Manchester heard that they were looking for people for children’s television, and suggested me – thinking it would be Crackerjack! – and that I would be ideal for it. That’s what I thought when I went for the interview. So I rushed in, and I knew I’d got this job within two or three minutes, and the guy said “oh you’re going to be wonderful on Playschool”… (me) “err, sorry, playschool? – what’s playschool?”. And he said, “it’s on at eleven o’clock in the morning, on BBC2, and it’s for under-fives”… and so I’m off for the door... I’m away… I’m a comedian! And he came and grabbed me, and he said “come back, no, have a go…”.
So I went to an audition, because you have to do an audition, and all these actors were (posh thespian accent) “Now, Humpty and I… Humpty and myself…”. And I thought, what is all this about!? So I went in, and we did it, and I sorted of winged it. This is what happens: you always get the job you don’t want! And immediately I got this job.
Once I’d done it for a couple of weeks I loved the integrity. It’s a programme for under-fives, so you have to block out all other audiences, and just think ‘it’s a programme for under-fives’, so that’s what I did. And I stayed for sixteen years! That was the start – I learnt television.
I wrote all of my scripts knowing what you could do with television. Knowing all the intricacies… all the kinds of things, three-pass systems where you could talk to yourself, where you could be yourself, play yourself in sketches and things like that. All of that I learnt, whilst I was with children’s television.
How did you move into writing for children’s television?
I was a jobbing writer – and a jobbing writer would get thirty-five pounds a minute. The trouble was, even if you put a four-minute script in, for a Les Dawson or a Mike Yarwood, it would get whittled down to two-and-a-half… and they’d probably pay you two-and-a-bit!... and you couldn’t earn one hundred pounds in a week! And there were lots of jobbing writers; the (future) Monty Python people were jobbing writers then; Monty Python hadn’t started yet.
So we were all scrambling for very little. And suddenly somebody said “would you write for Play Away?”, and I said “Yes”, and they said “well how much should we pay you?”, and I said “well, pay me thirty-pounds a minute, because the adults pay thirty-five”, so they said “okay”. And the first week it was for sixteen minutes... and suddenly I thought “hello!... I’ve struck gold!”. And that’s what I did, I wrote most of the comedy and I loved it. And I had a great time.
I knew where other writers had got their ideas from; like Ronny Barker, all the ideas he used for his sketches – his mispronunciation - all those things had come from other ideas from books and things like that, which I knew about. So I did all kinds of different versions of them myself, but for a smaller audience. We found actually, that our adult audience was about sixty-percent, and that was because the humour was clean – it wasn’t adult – but it was pretty funny.
What led you to specialise in maths programmes?
I’m in children’s television for a good number of years, and I did a couple of comedy series which were very good, but they were also very expensive, because it was all costume; a bit like ‘Horrible Histories’ that they have now. It was very similar to that, but earlier.
But there wasn’t mileage in that because it was too costly. So they said “if you had your own series, what would you do?”, and I said “I’d do a programme on maths”. Because it had been my hobby since I left school; I knew I was good at maths, and I knew I should’ve done better at education. So it was there. And I realised that what I wanted to do was write factual information. And when I wrote ‘Think of a Number’ it all came out. Suddenly the world is your oyster, you can talk about absolutely anything, and the mathematical aspect of it, or the science aspect of it.
So twenty series later, I wrote them all and presented them all, and I was a totally different person. But I didn’t write that first script until I was thirty-nine. So the whole career started from then, if you like. So it’s amazing what you can do. And since then, I’ve just never been out of work.
How did it feel to inspire a generation?
When I started writing, after a few shows we started getting letters… “I’m going to be a scientist because of you”, and they showed them to me, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I thought ‘I’ve got pressure here!’. By the second series there were lots of letters coming in, and eventually they didn’t show me anymore… I got no more fan mail because the pressure was too great, because I had to write new programmes. But as long as I was in my own cocoon, writing my own programmes it was ok.
I used to go to the pub, until about half-past-ten or quarter-past-eleven, just a couple of pints, and then come home and write to about three or four in the morning. It was the only time I could write, when I was troubled by it. Zoe was in the next room and she used to be sometimes awakened by my click, click, click – me on the typewriter – which she said she found fine. But I had to write all of those scripts, and as I say, the pressure was great but it was so fulfilling.
It was so enjoyable, and the crew that I had around me were so good, and helped so tremendously well, so we worked as a great team… with ‘Think of a Number’, ‘Think Again’, ‘Think Backwards’ and ‘Johnny Ball Reveals All’... good heavens, it’s so long ago, I’m forgetting the titles! But they were so enjoyable, twenty series of factual information programmes that I wrote, and I enjoyed them.
Then we found out that the audiences were always about sixty-percent adults. Retired engineers used to write and say “that was wonderful, nobody’s ever mentioned that, and did you know this…” and so suddenly I had more ammunition for the next show! And it was just tremendous, so when I stopped doing them - and I had sort of almost run that out – I thought, ‘what am I going to do in television next?’ But it didn’t matter, because the corporate world beat a path to my door.
I worked for National Grid for six years, explaining how the National Grid works to the general public. I wrote their brochures explaining it. All of those things started to happen, because of my doing those shows. And it was just a wonderful start.
How would you describe your speaking style?
I don’t do jokes as such anymore and if there are they’re probably very old jokes, they’ve probably heard them. I don’t do jokes. But I can make very serious information, entertaining and that’s what I do.
I show all kinds of ways of making it entertaining and relatable. It’s basically the way I did my programmes. And that worked when I did it that way, so it doesn’t matter what subject I’m talking about to an after-dinner, or to a conference audience. I can get some vitality into it, some excitement into it, some positive attitude into it, definitely a confidence-growing attitude into it – the idea that people can go further than they think, and can achieve more than they think. And that’s what I add.
I think I’m more motivational than I ever was, now. I’m chuffed that I stand behind that. It seems to work, and the audiences seem to latch onto it.
What impact can your keynote speeches have?
Not so long ago, I did a speech for a major building company, one of the biggest, they asked me in first. I was hooked on and had a lot to say about climate change and global warming – and what I said in the 1990s has not changed an iota; if you look back at what I said, I haven’t changed one word of what I said then, to what I say now.
I was absolutely right then but lots of people thought that I was going off on all kinds of tacks. I wasn’t saying there was no such thing as climate change, but I was trying to evaluate what we’re talking about, a lot of it is scientifically unsound.
It went very well, that keynote speech, for that conference. I talked to the organiser the next Thursday, and I asked how did it go? He said, “I tell you, not one speaker in the conference, didn't mention your opening – not one – everyone mentioned something you said, and that triggered something”. Many of them were agreeing with me, some of them perhaps not, but that’s not the issue! I stimulated so much more thought outside the box and that’s the important thing!
You’ve got to make it flexible, there’s no good a company thinking internally, thinking inwardly, and it being stifling – you’ve got to broaden it out.
If you're interested in booking Johhny Ball you can enquire online, email us or pick up the phone and speak to one of our friendly booking agents. For further information, testimonials and video clips,about Johnny view his profile.