TALK OF THE OLD TOWN
I have a houseguest this week in the form of Captain Pat, back in Thailand for a brief holiday after 10 years away.
He’s been with me two days now and it’s interesting to see the reaction on the faces of some Thais he runs into, one of whom literally melted upon seeing him.
“I grew up with you,” she gushed, clutching her chest. “You were a part of my morning when I was ten years old!”
It’s true. A little more than ten years ago, Captain Pat was probably the most well-known farang face here in Thailand.
Had you stood him next to Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Michael Jackson, the average Thai would have immediately pointed at him, broken into a smile and exclaimed: “Talk Of The Town!”
Back in 1997 Patrick was an ad executive in Bangkok working for Brian Marcar, of BEC-Tero Entertainment fame.
Patrick and Brian came up with an idea for a TV show that taught English for Thais who had just returned from overseas.
“What can we call it? It needs to be a show that will become the talk of the town,” Patrick said.
“You just named it,” said Brian.
Channel 3 gave Talk Of The Town the (then) graveyard timeslot of 6 am. It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago nobody wanted that time; it’s morning prime time today.
Patrick’s background was in advertising and comedy, and with a local beauty queen presenter he entertained an audience of one and a half million Thais each morning with slapstick routines in English.
In the first year they went through TV hosts as often as the country was experiencing coup d’etats. Then a bit of market research discovered that Thais returning from overseas weren’t paying the slightest interest in Talk of The Town.
But look at the student numbers!
English teachers across the country were setting homework, which was to watch Talk Of The Town and write down all the idioms and phrases that were being used. The show did a sudden about-face, ditched the recently-returned Thai audience, and turned to students.
They also needed a new host. Tall, bald, Australian Patrick contacted tall, bald, Australian Andrew Biggs. Thais loved us both, and to this day I suspect it was because nobody could tell us apart.
I always thought Patrick chose me to replace the beauty queens because of my good looks and talent.
“Nothing of the sort,” Patrick told me only this week. “It was because the beauty queens took too long in make-up, sometimes up to two hours. You took ten minutes.”
That was 1998. For the next eight years I was the host, playing Abbot to Patrick’s Costello.
The show became something of a morning TV institution. Schools started inviting us to film there, and in Captain Pat’s eyes, the more remote and inaccessible the better. We travelled from Surin to Mukdahan, from a remote hill tribe village in Chiang Mai to the coast of Ranong.
“Come and visit! Our village is about to have its annual Eel Festival!” one teacher, Ajarn Yaowapa from Chumpolburi in Surin, wrote to us once. Soon we were all in her tiny village, staying at Ajarn Yaowapa’s house because there was no hotel, trying to keep down curried eel over rice we’d been served just before filming.
We had a lot of fun with our celebrity status. Captain Pat and I were stopped on the street by Thais telling we were the very first faces they saw upon waking. What a thought.
One night I was in Patpong and caused a minor commotion on the street when a group of katoey performers screamed upon seeing me.
“We watch you every day!” they chortled.
“First thing in the morning?” I asked.
“No – last thing before bed!” the leader of the group announced.
Fan mail flowed in from Laos and Malaysia. Once, a group of 80 monks in two age-old buses from the monk university came to visit the studios. They caused a massive traffic jam on Sukhumvit Road as they attempted to manoeuver an illegal U-turn in the middle of peak hour to get to us.
When they finally arrived, the chief monk shrugged it off. “We can do anything in the monk bus,” he said with an ethereal smile.
(Even more bizarre was the fact I wore an orange silk shirt with no collar the day they came. In the photo I took with them, you simply cannot locate me.)
One time I was singled out of a very long line waiting to go through customs at Don Meuang International airport. The immigration officer had a look of thunder as he motioned for me to a small interrogation room. Everybody looked at me as if I were a drug dealer as he led me away and demanded to see my passport.
He took my passport, stamped it, handed it back and said with a cheeky grin: “I watch Talk of The Town every morning.” I had just jumped the queue in the cutest way possible.
But we knew we had made it when counterfeit Talk Of The Town merchandise went on sale around town. One day one of Captain Pat’s staff rushed into his office with some terrible news.
“On Sukhumvit Soi 101 there’s a street stall selling Talk of The Town embroided logos for 50 Baht each!” he gasped.
“Buy a hundred of ‘em,” ordered Captain Pat. The counterfeiter was 30 percent cheaper than the supplier he was using at the time.
Australia Day each year became a big event for Talk of The Town, as we took the opportunity to teach such important phrases as “G’day” and “Stone The Crows!” and “I’m Off Like A Bucket Of Prawns In The Queensland Sun.”
It led one columnist to lament that “Andrew Biggs and Captain Pat are teaching the entire country to speak English with an Australian accent” — as if that was a bad thing!
Sadly in 2002 Patrick said goodbye to Thailand. We recycled Patrick’s sections for a long time, without him ever knowing nor receiving residuals.
In 2008 the show finally came to an end. Nine years on Thai TV is like dog years, and the idiom “Talk of the Town” is still used by Thais to describe anything that is enjoying popularity.
Recently BEC-Tero got time on Burmese television to make TV shows. And what was the very first show they resurrected? Patrick is now a celeb in Myanmar, as reruns of his segments have been on prime time TV there for three years.
Last December I gave a speech in Chiang Rai and afterwards a lady in her forties approached me clutching a big bag. “My name is Ratchada,” she said in perfect English. “And I have something to show you.”
She dug deep into her bag and drew out a dozen or so big writing pads, full of her scribble.
“Thirteen years ago I was a physical education teacher. I wanted to be an English teacher, but didn’t have the qualifications or the experience.
“Then I started watching your show every morning, writing down everything you and Captain Pat taught me. See?” I gasped at hundreds of hand-written pages of former Talk of The Town scripts.
“Now I am the head teacher for the foreign language department at my school. And it’s all because of you two!”
Both you, dear reader, and I know it wasn’t because of Patrick and me at all. It was her hard work and motivation. But it does give you a glimpse as to why we have a unique perspective on Thailand. The show is gone and we have both moved on, but the legacy remains.
I do miss the immigration fast track, though.