Coronation Street (19th May 1976)

Written by Leslie Duxbury

It’s all peace and love at the Kabin. “You haven’t done a stroke this morning, not a solitary stroke” wails Mavis, more than a little ticked off that Rita’s not pulling her weight. But then why should she, when the rather pliable Mavis will do everything for her?

Crumbs. Looks like Fred might have a chance with Rita after all. We never got to see it, but apparently they danced the night away at the Gatsby (which, as has been observed before, is clearly Weatherfield’s only nightspot). Fred, in high spirits, pops into the Kabin to tell Rita how much he enjoyed the evening. “Keep blooming” he tells her.

Tricia continues to mope. Mind you, she has good reason for a bit of a mope as Renee can’t keep her on at the shop as there simply isn’t enough work for two. There’s a sliver of good news though – she doesn’t have to move out of her room in the shop, although Elsie will have to vacate her flat (Renee has earmarked it for herself, which is quite reasonable).

We then drop in to see Ken and Wendy in their jim jams. “You’re quite good looking aren’t you?” says Wendy. Ken agrees (I can’t decide whether he’s being serious or if it’s just mock humility). He’s not perfect though (Wendy decides that his nose is rather big).

This inconsequential chatter simply serves to mask Wendy’s continuing concern that the pair of them are a foreign body in the bloodstream of Coronation Street. The scene is played out in a single take as an unchanging two-shot, which was an interesting choice. Possibly intentional, or possibly there was one eye on the studio clock and this was the quickest way to get it done.

Alf’s moaning about his job yet again. First he was planning to resign, now he decides not to. As touched upon previously, this isn’t really a storyline that goes anywhere, due to the fact we never see his place of work. But it fills up a few minutes of the episode.

Emily and Ernie have a difference of opinion. She favours a luxury Italian holiday, he’s set on going camping. Judging by her face it’s going to be a hard struggle for him to convince her. He does have a good reason though – it’s all they can afford. Indeed, as the year wears on we’ll see that money becomes increasingly tight at the Bishops.

Bet continues to amuse herself. Now that Fred’s had a minor success with Rita, Ms Lynch delights in telling Rita that he’ll now be very difficult to shake off. Rita’s unleased a monster ….

Elsie pops round to Number 11. Partly for a chat with Wendy since Ken’s out, partly to lay the ground to get her house back (although she denies this). Wendy asks Elsie if she thinks her relationship with Ken will work out. Elsie – who’s been round the block a fair few times – doesn’t have many words of comfort. “If you can’t make it work with one fella, then you usually can’t make it work with another”. Elsie’s parting shot – Ken, like her, is a loser – is especially harsh (although it’s not said unpleasantly, instead it’s more of a weary statement of fact).

Fred’s back in the Kabin, to Rita’s ever decreasing enthusiasm. He has a present for her – a single red rose.

We close at the Rovers. Ken maintains that he’s going to marry Wendy. He seems to have no doubts at all (although maybe he’s just not expressing them). Wendy is clearly not such a good dissembler as she continues to be rather anxious and uncertain. A little spice about their relationship is added when it’s revealed (by Alf to Bet and Elsie) that Ken risks losing his job due to the fact he’s living “over the brush” with a married woman. This sows the seeds for the confrontations that will follow in the next few episodes.

Coronation Street (17th May 1976)

Written by H.V. Kershaw

We open in the corner shop where Renee and Elsie are discussing Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature, much to the general bafflement of Tricia (this is a quick way of establishing that Renee and Tricia live in very different worlds and so are unlikely ever to become bosom friends).

Ding! goes the door. And there stands the imposing, unsmiling Ena Sharples. First she raises an eyebrow at the tardy Elsie (who should already have been at work) before making her way over to Renee.  It’s hard not to be reminded of that iconic scene in the first episode, which saw Ena ruthlessly interrogate the then new shop owner, Florrie Lindley.  This scene doesn’t have the same impact, but as with Florrie you get the sense that Ena is putting Renee under strict probation.

Like the previous episode, this is another scene where Tricia is placed in the centre of the frame, unspeaking, whilst the others (in this case Ena and Renee) do all the running. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it reinforces the notion that Tricia seems to be rather powerless and remains dependent on the actions of others.

Tongues continue to wag, re the fact that Ken is living in sin with a married woman. Mrs Walker – never backwards in coming forwards – makes her royal proclamation. She’s quite fair though – telling Ken that whilst she doesn’t approve, she also sees that matters are difficult (in the period when Wendy is waiting for her divorce). Ken wisely doesn’t stop to debate the ins and outs.

Fred’s in the Kabin, looking rather smart. Why’s that? Well, he’s once again trying his luck with Rita. She casually turns down his invitation to go to the cinema (seemingly more interested in her fingernails than him, which should have been a danger sign). He won’t give up though, and bravely hopes that she’ll join him in the Rovers later for a drink. Poor Fred, he seems fated to always be unlucky in love. Or indeed, so unlucky that he never even gets a sniff at the chance of love ….

Emily is the latest to learn about Ken and Wendy. “That’s nice” she says, partly embarrassed and maybe slightly shocked. Although once the news sinks in, Emily’s not one of those – like Albert and Ena – who disapproves. Wendy, tiring of this piecemeal reveal, tells Ken that they might as well go to the Rovers and get it over with.

An extra with a bushy moustache is the first in the Rovers to react. He’s slap bang in the centre of the frame, behind Ken and Wendy, so you can’t help but look at him for a brief moment. Things go off pretty well – Ernie and Elsie are welcoming, although Mavis does confide to Alf that the lovers are being rather bold. Man of the world Alf counters that it’s the only way to be (“it’s like being a lion tamer, never let them know you’re frightened around here, they’ll tear you to pieces”).

Ena’s not happy with the arrangement, but for now she doesn’t confront Ken – instead she simply makes her displeasure plain to Mrs Walker.

Back home, Wendy’s knocking up a nice salad for Ken. It’s certainly different fare from the egg and chips that Stan no doubt would be eating – another obvious signifier that Wendy’s a fish out of water.

Fred’s dressed up once again, which impresses Bet (or so she says). Fred – ever the innocent – asks her about Rita’s current relationship status and Bet advises him to go for it (“fill yer boots”). You’d have thought that Fred would have known Bet long enough to be aware that she has a very malicious streak. Bet is well aware that Fred doesn’t stand a chance, but no doubt will enjoy watching him fail miserably ….

Coronation Street (12th May 1976)

Written by John Stevenson

Whenever Gail and Tricia are teamed up they’re rather shrill. Having already sampled the more agreeable Suzie/Gail partnership from 1977, I have to admit they work much better (possibly because Suzie was cast in the dominant comic role whilst Gail was content to play her slightly dimwitted sidekick). Whereas Gail and Tricia are just too similar, meaning that they tend to cancel each other out.

They do have some comic appeal though – witness the early scene in the shop where both conspire by vague indifference to frustrate Len’s attempt to buy a packet of razorblades.  This scene serves as a reminder that the shop is rather going to the dogs (and is ripe for someone like Renee to take it over) but it’s fair to note that frustrated customers, kept waiting due to inconsequential gossip, is something that regularly happens in the corner shop. If a joke works then you may as well keep on repeating it.

At least the pair are no longer working together, as Gail still has her plum job at Sylvia’s Separates. But she’s fretting at the moment – as Elsie has handed in her notice. Mind you, with a spot of Machiavellian cunning on her part (telling both Mrs Matthews and Elsie some of the truth in order to get them back together and reconciled) Elsie’s soon back in harness. Hurrah!

Although whether this was because Gail missed her, felt guilty about her departure or simply didn’t fancy running things on her own is open to debate ….

Fred’s continuing to sniff around Rita. His fruitless attempts to arrange a date are played for laughs although Rita’s inability to warn him off can be taken either as kind-heartedness (not wanting to hurt his feelings) or playful spite (she enjoys stringing him along). Given the way Rita can be rather horrible to Mavis I wouldn’t say the latter possibility would be totally out of character for her.

Back to the corner shop, I like the shot of Renee and Betty facing each other (debating the possibility of Renee buying the shop) whilst an out of focus Tricia is centered in the middle of the frame. Renee’s decision will impact Tricia in more ways than one, but she’s totally powerless to intervene or affect the course of events – her position here as a passive and blurred observer makes that plain.

In this era of the programme it’s remarkable how quickly the plots move. Renee arrived for the first time last episode and today she’s setting off to the bank to obtain a loan in order to buy the shop. Speedy! Maybe this has something to do with the fact there were only two episodes a week – spread out the stories over too long a period and you run the risk of the audience losing track of their ins and outs.

This episode has two setpiece confrontations – the first is between Elsie and Hilda, two characters who have a great deal is history. Elsie’s still fuming about the way Hilda bad-mouthed her and is looking for satisfaction (at this point in the story she’s yet to get her job back). For maximum entertainment value they have their row in the Rovers, much to Mrs Walker’s distress.

Annie Walker: I’m well aware dear, Mrs Ogden would try the patience of Job himself, but I would have expected Mrs Howard to show a little more restraint. A woman of breeding does not bend to insults. She can make her point quite effectively without ever raising her voice. My Jack knew that.

Betty Turpin: I bet he did!

Wendy’s moving into Ken’s with some more of her things. The eagle-eyed Hilda spots this and judging by the faint smirk on her face you just know that it won’t be long before the news is disseminated far and wide.

Confrontation scene two closes the episode and occurs between Ken and Albert.  Albert’s not happy to hear the news that Ken’s cohabiting with a married woman, although Ken did hope that he’d at least be slightly flexible. But Uncle Albert’s never been known for his flexibility and – rather like a pocket sized avenging angel dressed in a flat cap – tells Ken that “as long as you stick wi’yer, you’ll not be seeing me. I’ve finished wi’yer”.

Cue closing credits ….

Coronation Street (10th May 1976)

Written by Leslie Duxbury

Uncle Albert’s not happy with Ken – carrying on with a married woman is beyond the pale as far as he’s concerned. And as we’ll see, he’s not alone in thinking that ….

As the Ken Barlow/Wendy Nightingale storyline begins to pick up steam again it’ll be interesting to note the reactions of the Coronation Street residents. Such a situation would hardly register a comment today, but the fact that it was hot news in 1976 suggests that times were very different back then.  But whilst Coronation Street might have reflected current trends and attitudes, there’s a danger in treating the programme as an accurate social document of the times.

Renee Bradshaw (Madge Hindle) debuts. Making a few purchases at the corner shop, she finds it impossible not to quiz the apathetic Tricia about her stock-keeping and shelf-stacking policies. Tricia’s not terribly helpful (“I’m just the dog what they keep to bark”) but it’s plain that Renee’s already got her eye on the shop.

Brought into the series by Bill Podmore, Hindle would enjoy a decent run on the programme before her character was killed off in 1980. Distinct Nostalgia have released a number of podcast interviews with Coronation Street luminaries, all are worth your time, especially the one with Madge Hindle.

Renee is a character that instantly clicks. Her relationship with younger brother Terry is especially entertaining – she’s incredibly bossy (but not in an unfriendly way) whereas he’s content to simply drift along, taking life as it comes.

It’s been a few weeks since Wendy breezed out of Ken’s life. He clearly can’t take it anymore, so rings her up. But first, he has to get past her self-appointed gate-keeper, namely one Diana Kenton (Gwyneth Powell). Yes, Mrs McClusky herself makes the first of three appearances as Diana during May 1976. Trivia fans may like to know that Powell also appeared in the untransmitted Corrie spin-off Rest Assured in 1972. Given that it still exists, it would be nice to see it surface – if only to see whether the concept of a Ray Langton/Jerry Booth sitcom actually had legs.

Back to Ken and Wendy, he manages to arrange a meeting with her (at Diana’s house, where she’s currently living) but the atmosphere between Ken and Diana remains distinctly frosty (she offers him lunch and promises not to doctor it with cyanide!). Their three-way conversation helps to tease out the dynamic of the Ken/Wendy relationship a little more – Ken is convinced (or has he convinced himself?) that Wendy’s marriage was over. Wendy agrees with this, but does so in such a way that we’re left in some doubt about whether she actually means it.

So it’s plain that any continuation of their affair will be on rocky ground right from the start. But she elects to try and moves into Number 11 with him. The last shot of the episode – a pensive Wendy left alone in the house – is another pointer that this isn’t a relationship built to last.

Coronation Street (5th May 1976)

Written by Julian Roach

The episode opens with a typical picture of domestic contentment chez Ogden. Hilda’s ironing her unwanted smock whilst Stan’s pushing a poker down his shoe (don’t ask).  Stan – engrossed in his work – asks Hilda to give him a rest. Uh, oh, he shouldn’t have said that.

“Give you a? Give you a rest? Look, it were hardly coming up to twelve when you come in for yer dinner and now it’s nearly gone three. Mind you, I do understand your difficulty. I mean what with your dinner breaks and your cups of tea and your flitting in and out of the Rovers and putting your bets on and filling your bucket everywhere, you’re hard pushed to fit in a rest aren’t yer?”

This monologue does serve a plot purpose as well as simply providing the viewer with some entertainment. Hilda – distracted by having to harangue Stan for the umpteenth time – doesn’t notice that the iron’s been left on the smock (burning something of a hole in it). How will she be able to return it now and convince an unfriendly Elsie that it’s never been worn?

She tries her best, but Elsie’s having none of it. Indeed, she relishes humiliating Hilda, who goes away chuntering as always. Once again, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Hilda – if it hadn’t been for Gail’s distracted recommendation then Hilda probably wouldn’t have bought the top in the first place.

Hilda returns later, but Mrs Matthews is also steadfast in refusing a refund. So Hilda does what Hilda does best – when cornered she comes out fighting (and in an especially vindictive manner). She tells Mrs Matthews that one of her employees was had up for shoplifting. Long term viewers will know that she’s referring to Elsie (and also that Hilda can never resist sticking the knife into Ms Howard) but Mrs Matthews is less clued up on Coronation Street history – and so looks askance at the innocent Gail ….

This not only upsets Gail, but also infuriates Elsie, who’s more than a little annoyed that this piece of ancient history is dragged up again (even though she was cleared of any wrongdoing). Mind you, if she hadn’t been so uppity with Hilda then none of this would have happened, so the blame has to be shared a little.

Terry’s sister – Renee – is mentioned. Although we don’t see her today, she sounds like a formidable dragon (Terry tells Ray that she’d eat him on a cream cracker!). Cripes, I wonder what she’s like?

It’s the semi-final of the Superbrain competition. Bet – although she’s come dressed to impress – fails to reach the final.  There’s some consolation for her though, as the quizmaster, Philip Lightfoot (the very recognisable Geoffrey Bateman) offers to take her out ….

Coronation Street (3rd May 1976)

Written by Adele Rose

Hilda’s first words in this episode (“jam or dripping?”) are suitably mundane, but Stan – for once – is in a philosophical mood. He tells Hilda that he had a dream in the night – he was a bird, who flapped his wings and flew up into the trees. “A big fat owl?” asks an unsympathetic Hilda. And so another day at Number 13 begins ….

The reason for Hilda’s extreme ire soon becomes clear. Had Stan won the Superbrain contest then he would have walked away with the star prize (a weekend for two in one of Newton & Ridley’s pubs on the Isle of Man). That Hilda is upset to have lost the chance of a fairly mundane prize speaks absolute volumes about her – how she sets her sights so low when considering what constitutes a dream holiday.

Although this opening scene zings with the usual sort of humour that characterised the relationship between Stan and Hilda, on another level there’s something very sad about the way Hilda’s dreams are constantly shattered.  Indeed, the events of today’s episode are a good case in point.

Terry Bradshsaw (Bob Mason) reappears for the first time since February. From now until the end of December he’ll be a regular character, never driving any storylines himself but always a dependable chap in a crisis.  Mason would have a second life with the series (he penned 36 episodes during the eighties). A number of actors had also turned writer over the years, but Mason was the only one who played a regular character to do so.

Alf’s still moaning about his job (he’s doing this an awful lot at the moment).

There’s a sale on at Sylvia’s Separates, which brings in the punters from far and wide. Hilda is one of them and she purchases a top that nobody has the heart to tell her is totally unsuitable for her. At least, not until Tricia pipes up that she looks like mutton dressed as lamb …

It’s a cruel blow which wisely isn’t played for laughs. Hilda is often the instigator of comic storylines but there are also times – as here – when she’s held up to ridicule. Sometimes (when she’s been acid tonged and inquisitive) her humiliation might be justified, but that’s not the case today. But either way, Jean Alexander always knew how to tug at the heartstrings.

It’s a shame that neither Gail or Elsie tried to dissuade Hilda from making the purchase (Gail must shoulder a modicum of blame – after all, she did say that she looked fine, even though Gail wasn’t even looking at her). As for Stan, he was diplomacy personified, making positive noises to Hilda’s face whilst later telling the Rovers regulars that the top made her look like Widow Twankey!

Hilda’s soon back in fighting mood though – returning to Sylvia’s and demanding a full refund (or “full retribution” as she calls it). Gail isn’t budging, so Hilda plans to return when Elsie is present …

Coronation Street (28th April 1976)

Written by Barry Hill

Hilda’s getting no satisfaction at the corner shop. Gail might be behind the counter but since she no longer works there, the girl is disinclined to ruin her nail polish by serving Hilda with half a pound of bacon. “That were why I give all this up. Fat under fingernails. Reeking of strong chedder every time you go out.”

Mrs Ogden’s day gets no better after Elsie makes an appearance. Although the Elsie/Ena relationship has now settled down into a convivial mutual appreciation, there’s no such thawing of the Elsie/Hilda relationship (which remains arctic).

Before Mrs Howard enters, Hilda opines that if Elsie’s “doing her face, then she’s not a sixteen year old any longer is she? A touch of this and a flick of that might have worked wonders at one time but sandblasting does take a bit longer”. Ouch! Elsie’s rejoinder – that some like to make the most of what they’ve got whilst others gave up the ghost a long time ago – is equally cutting.

Ena, continuing to act as an unofficial marriage councillor to the Bishops, now turns her attention to Ernie. He’s dismayed at the prospect of having to explain to the Mission circuit superintendent why he was cavorting with strippers at the Gatsby Club. Ena’s advice is straightforward – all he has to do is pretend he was there to investigate immorality. After all, you can’t fight the evils of the flesh without knowing about them, can you?

This is a surprising move from Mrs Sharples as she’s never been backward in coming forward to denounce anyone whose moral character is a little suspect. Maybe it’s a sign of increasing age and increasing wisdom though – the seventies Ena does tend to be a more genial character and one who’s more tolerant of people’s flaws.

The slowly spreading grin on Ernie’s face shows that he’s keen on the idea. He has no compunction about lying to save his skin (whilst he might believe in God, presumably he’s decided that His vengeance will be mild for such a piddling transgression). Emily, as you might expect, is appalled at this state of affairs. She shows her disapproval by hoovering in a very loud way. Good old Emily.

David Williams has a nice comic turn as a customer at Sylvia’s (he’s come to buy a nightie). Given his eagerness it doesn’t look like it’s a present for his wife. This was one of Williams’ nine roles (between 1973 and 2013).

Frank Mills would later return to the Street during 1995 to 1997 as Billy Williams. Today he’s a one shot character – Ivor Mortlake – the Mission bigwig who Ernie has to lie to. His scenes are wonderfully entertaining – whilst Ernie warms to his task of painting himself as an upright moral crusader (like Lord Longford), Emily stands in the background with a face like thunder.

Ivor seems convinced by Ernie’s story and ends up by wistfully wondering exactly what iniquities go on at these terrible places! That’s a nice little character touch, which allows us to see that some upright moral crusaders would be happy to stray off the path every so often, given half the chance.

Alf has a little something more to do today than just propping up the bar at the Rovers. He’s depressed about the prospect of looming redundancies at the Post Office (which is where he’s currently employed). Many episodes of the Street, like this one, now function as social history time capsules – allowing us a snapshot about how the economy was faring. As we’ll hear time and again during these years, its usually not good news.

Moving onto lighter matters, it’s decided that Stan won’t do the Rovers any favours if he’s their Superbrain representative, so they decide to nobble him. This involves plying him with drinks (it’s like all Stan’s Christmases have come at once!) and sending the beffudled chap off in a taxi to the wrong pub. Meanwhile, Bet heads to the right pub where the next round is being held, and she wins through to the semi finals.

Hilda is incensed to hear this, not least because she doesn’t have a very high regard for Bet’s intellectual capacities. “What does she know about anything? Except throwing herself at fellas”. Hilda gives poor Stan an earbashing, which continues as the credits roll ….

Coronation Street (26th April 1976)

Written by Kay McManus

A crumpled Ernie, forced to spend the night with Len at No 9, is still bemoaning his fate. Len – ever the straightforward sort of chap – suggests he buys Emily a box of chocolates and all will be well. Hmm, okay then.

Elsie has now settled into the corner shop flat. Tricia and Gail make up the current staff, although it’s a far from harmonious partnership. Friends they might be, but the claustrophobic nature of the shop means they tend to spend most of the day sniping at each other. If only there was another job available – such as assistant to Elsie at Sylvia’s Seperates. There is? Oh good.  But with two of them and only one new position to be filled, that’s a problem ….

Their standard of customer service at the corner shop is something to behold. Ena (never the most affable of customers it’s true) asks for a packet of tea – which Gail slams down on the counter (as she’s still arguing with Tricia).  Ena exits by singing the praises of her old sparring partner, Elsie, telling the girls that she’s got “more go in her little finger than the pair of you put together”. Young folk today, eh.

Stan’s next category for the Superbrain competition is the Western Desert (or Western Desserts, as Alf mistakenly believes!). This is where the wheels begin to fall off the Ogden bandwagon. Stan might be an expert on Manchester United, but – having already answered questions on that subject – can’t choose them again. And it becomes clear pretty quickly that this will be a problem.

Stan’s WW2 career as a Desert Rat is briefly mentioned, which suggests that this category should be right up his street. But despite the encouragement of the Rovers regulars, Fred’s rehearsal questions fail to gain many positive results, with Stan looking more and more woebegone every minute. I think we need a Plan B.

Ena Sharples turns up at Emily’s in the role of a marriage councellor. Well, given her capacity for sticking her nose into other people’s affairs, why not? “Go on lass, swallow your pride, make the first move”. Even though Ena has always been presented as a strong woman, unafraid of anybody whether they’re male or female, it’s interesting that she still has an unshakably old fashioned belief in the roles of men and women.

When Emily wonders why it’s always the woman who has to make the first move, Ena replies with a smile that “you’ll never change that, love”.

Poor Ernie just can’t get a break. Still exiled at Len’s, he reluctantly agrees to try on a sweater that Elsie’s brought around. Nothing too terrible there you might think, but Elsie – chuckling away – gives him a helping hand and this happens to be the point at which Emily walks in on them. Oh dear again.

Ernie later screws up enough courage to return home and he pours out his heart. “You’re such a perfectionist. I feel all the time I’m under some sort of test”.  There’s no easy resolution though – after he asks whether they can try again, Emily simply stands immobile by the ironing board.

Sidney Livingstone makes his first appearance as Roy Thornley, Sylvia Matthew’s “business associate”. He’ll return off and on until September, infuriating Elsie but forming a close bond with Gail (which only serves to annoy Elsie all the more). Livingstone might not have been the most obvious casting as a smooth talking lothario (I think it’s the moustache) but Thornley’s later fling with Gail does spice up the storyline for a while.

Having spoken to both girls, Elsie is keen to take on Tricia as she believes that Gail is too cocky by half. Personally, I’d say both of them register pretty high on the cocky scale. Oddly, Elsie elects to let them decide between themselves – so they toss a coin, Gail wins and presents herself to an ever-so-slightly unenthusiastic Elsie.

Coronation Street (21st April 1976)

Written by Julian Roach

Ernie is in no doubt about who’s fault this is (“bloody Mavis”). Unlike Ernie and Ray, Alf doesn’t have a wife waiting at home for him, but he is a man of local standing – a councillor, no less. So all three have their own reasons for not wanting to be questioned by the police in a seedy backstreet club ….

Meanwhile, Emily and Mavis are having a profound(ish) discussion – with Mavis deciding that she’s never really grown up. That they carry this out whilst washing and drying up the tea things is a nice little homespun touch.

Ernie slinks in, attempting to maintain a casual air. Emily (still none the wiser) indulges in some playful banter whilst Ernie wriggles in a decidedly uncomfortable manner. Lovely playing here from both Eileen Derbyshire and Stephen Hancock (and there’s plenty more to come).

There’s always been some needle between Ray and Stan. It stands out because no other character during this period treated Stan in the same way – everybody else tended to regard him with a generous indulgence. But although Ray’s largely put his bad boy past behind him, occasionally – as happens today – it comes bubbling back to the surface. No doubt he’s still smarting over the police raid and is simply looking for someone to verbally attack.

Alf is convinced everything will blow over. After all, it’s not as if the news is important enough to feature in the local paper, is it? Ah.

This is bad for all of them, but it’s Mrs Walker who’s the most upset – as an old picture of her and Alf (taken on one of their official engagements) was used in the article. Annie’s beside herself, convinced that everyone will believe she was also supping away at the Gatsby!

This sort of comic material was grist to Julian Roach’s mill whilst Annie’s incensed phone call to the paper gave Doris Speed the sort of material she always delivered so well.

Briefly dropping into No 13, if you’re more familiar with the décor of the living room post muriel (which is coming soon) then its current very brown appearance comes as something of a shock. For once Hilda and Stan aren’t at each others throats (and she’s looking quite presentable).

The air over at No 3 is far frostier though, with Emily, Ernie and Mavis struggling through a meal. The camera’s placed rather high to begin with, which gives us a bird’s eye view. It’s a nice little flourish (given its production line nature, Coronation Street didn’t tend to be the sort of place to find experimental directors plying their trade).

Emily and Ernie then have a ding dong row. Both seem convinced that they hold the upper hand (when Ernie exits, he requests that Emily apologises for her hurtful remarks). A pity that when he stormed out of the house he didn’t stop to think that she might bolt the door behind him. And so poor Ernie finds himself locked out, shivering in the cold night air.

The poster for the Superbrain competition rather tickles me (“A knockout competition for know-alls”). Oh, and chequered cap extra is back.

Mrs Walker has cast herself in the Magnus Magnusson role, kicking off the evening by quizzing George Benton (Dickie Arnold) on his specialised subject of pigeons (that’s not a Northern cliché, oh no). He does well, but not as well as Stan, who romps home the winner with seventeen points.

Since Stan has always been a perpetual loser, it warms the heart to see him emerge as the champion – not least because, for once, Stan has given Hilda something to be proud about. His success means he moves forward into the next round and whilst logic would suggest there will be a later reversal of fortune, for now he’s enjoying a rare feeling of achievement.

Coronation Street (19th April 1976)

Written by H.V. Kershaw

With her aunt away for a few days, an anxious Mavis doesn’t fancy sleeping in the house by herself. The always hospitable Emily instantly offers her a bed. Unfortunately Ernie wasn’t consulted and doesn’t take the news well. And this sets in motion a chain of misfortune for him ….

When Mavis bounds through the door he does his best to hide his irritation (his best isn’t terribly good though) and heads out to the sanctuary of the Rovers. There he runs into Alf and Ray, who are looking forward to a charity stag night at the Gatsby Club – and guess what, they just happen to have an extra ticket.

Ray’s already proven to be a sneaky sort, as he’s convinced Deirdre that he’ll be working on an all night job (as opposed to swilling pints and ogling strippers). As for Alf, he doesn’t seem to have any sort of personal commitments to worry about (at this point in the series he’s still a character who we never really dig into – he might have his private traumas, but we’re not privy to them). But Ernie is a man of solid respectability.  A lay preacher, with a loving – if rather stern and humourless at times – wife. You can just sense that this night isn’t going to end well.

His excuse to Emily (to explain where he’s off to) is a good ‘un – he’s been asked to play piano down the Legion for the Easter Monday concert. Well he can’t disappoint the old folks, can he? With every word he utters, a web of deceit is spun just a little tighter ….

Also bubbling away in this episode are the first stirrings of Annie’s plan (well, she claims credit for it) for a pub Mastermind quiz. Stan – being a devote of Manchester United – looks like he’ll do well, even if Mrs Walker finds it difficult to imagine Stanley Ogden as a Superbrain! Hilda springs to his defence though.

In the scene (14:46) where Mrs Walker, Bet, Stan and Hilda are discussing the quiz, I found it hard to take my eye off the extra slap bang in the middle of the screen. I think it was his striped cap.

The attractions down at the Gatsby are wonderfully non-risqué, as befits a programme broadcast at 7:30 pm. A belly dancer called Fatima (Vicky Day) briefly wiggles her belly button in the direction of Ernie, who laps it up (as it were). A stripper, going by the wonderful name of Fifi LaTouche (Cindy Trueman), throws her bra at Ray, who comments that “you don’t get many of them at Tesco’s, mate”.

It’s all good unreconstructed male fun then, although these scenes are intercut with shots of the blissfully innocent Deirdre and Emily, which drives the point home that the married chaps are being a little naughty.

Your compere for the evening is Gig Prince (Bernard Wrigley). This was Wrigley’s first Coronation Street role (he’d rack up another five between 1977 and 1999).

The evening’s really beginning to go with a swing, but then Det. Insp. Conroy (John Pickles) takes the mike to inform the well-oiled punters that a police raid is now in operation. Oops, that’s a bit unfortunate.

Coronation Street (14th April 1976)

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Written by H.V. Kershaw

Gail and Tricia are currently in charge at the corner shop. This is something that Bill Podmore was keen to change – believing that the shop should be run by an older hand. It’s difficult not to disagree with him, as the pair aren’t terribly good in a crisis.

The opening of today’s episode is a case in point. Gail pops round with Ken’s groceries, only to find him still spark out on the floor (although we’re denied the moment when Gail clapped her eyes on him). She comes squawking back to the shop in a right old tizzy (“covered in blood he was”). But since Ken wasn’t (after all. he was only felled by one little punch) I think this is good evidence that if you had to rely upon Gail as a witness, you’d be in dead trouble ….

Elsie gets a job at a local clothes shop, Sylvia’s Separates, after impressing the hoity toity proprietress Sylvia Matthews (Rosemarie Dunham). Elsie will remain here for the rest of the year, although not that many exciting (or interesting) storylines are generated from this location. Today’s visit from a customer (played by Roly Poly to be, Maureen Morland) is a bright start though – even if most of her scene was cut out of the Granada Plus repeat.

Len looks after Ken. Experienced old hand Len isn’t buying Ken’s feeble story about slipping over – he can spot the mark of a jealous husband a mile off.  Len gleefully tells Ken that if he (Len) played around then it wouldn’t affect his position as a local councilor, but Ken’s dalliance with one of his lecturers won’t go down at all well with the bigwigs at the Welfare Department (where Ken works). This seems a little unfair, but then life’s unfair.

Wendy pops round to tell Ken that she’s left her husband. End of part one ….

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Part two sees the pair enjoy another heart to heart at the kitchen table. It’s quite a lengthy scene with Susan Tebbs making most of the running.  Ken assumes that Wendy will now be moving in with him, but she shatters his illusions on that score. There then follows some raised voices, harsh words and recriminations.

And if you thought Ken’s day couldn’t get any worse, then it does when Roger later turns up. At least this time he’s not come to fight – instead the pair have a fairly civilized conversation over a cup of tea. We’ve already had Susan’s view of their marriage (Roger as a jealous, controlling bully) so now he’s allowed to have his say and comes across as a reasonable sort of bloke.

This leaves Ken caught in the middle. He still wants Wendy, but within the space of an episode his relationship with her has been shown to be on much rockier ground than he belived. Previously her marriage seemed to be all but over, but is that actually the case? This is something that a still bruised about the face Ken is left to mull over.

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Coronation Street (12th April 1976)

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Written by Adele Rose

It’s breakfast time and Elsie’s looking a little rough. This was always something of a sticking point between Pat Phoenix and the production team – Phoenix always insisted that Elsie looked glamourous, no matter what the circumstances were.  The fact that she allowed Elsie to look a little dowdy here suggests that, having only recently returned to the series, Pat Phoenix was still on her best behavior. It’ll be instructive to see whether later on she slips back into her bad old ways ….

Elsie’s old rival Ena Sharples pops her head round the door. The pair had enjoyed some battle royales back in the sixties, although their chat today is much more convivial.  Indeed, for those brought up on the image of Ena Sharples as a dreadful old battleaxe, her more relaxed and friendly mid to late seventies persona might come as a surprise. Although I’m prepared to concede than sixties Ena also had her lighter side.

Ena hasn’t changed all that much though – she’s still disapproving about the way Len and Elsie are co-habiting. And she’s also still able to land a few gentle jabs and punches (telling Elsie that she’s showing her age, for example!)

A major plotline in this episode concerns Ken’s relationship with Wendy Nightingale (Susan Tebbs). This was running before the Granada Plus repeats began, so it takes a few minutes to get up to speed. Ken (the dirty devil) has been carrying on with a married women, whilst her husband, Roger (Matthew Long), remains totally oblivious.

But now the cat’s been let out of the bag and Roger learns all. Eek! And if that wasn’t enough to raise Ken’s stress level, Elsie pops round and asks him to move out of No 11. He’s not budging though and even though Elsie still owns the house, she seems powerless to force him out. It’s odd for Elsie to capitulate so meekly, but although Ken’s currently living a bachelor life, that will shortly change for a little while (so no doubt it suited the story for him to hang on there a little longer).

But Elsie won’t be cast out into the street as Betty gives her the run of the flat in the corner shop and a number of volunteers – including our Ena – pitch in to make it habitable.

I was rather fond of Susan Tebbs’ role as a regular in the first series of Softly Softly: Task Force, so it was nice to see her pop up in Coronation Street. Wendy seems totally besotted with Ken (clearly the man has depths of charisma which aren’t visible to the naked eye) and her dangerous (well, dangerous in a very understated middle-class way) obsession with him threatens to tear her marriage apart.

Today’s cliffhanger is an absolute doozy. Roger, hanging round Coronation Street in the rain, is keeping an eye on the meeting between Wendy and Ken. Eventually he can’t take it anymore and storms over, punches Ken and spirits Wendy away. Now if that doesn’t make you want to tune in next time I don’t know what will.

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Coronation Street (7th April 1976)

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Written by Leslie Duxbury

The return of Elsie was an event (it ensured that this episode was the most-watched edition of Corrie that year, and indeed the highest rating episode since 18/2/70). Middle-age sparks are still flying between Len and Elsie, as the pair circle each other warily. Len’s on-off relationship with Rita is touched upon – which will set us up for several years worth of Elsie/Rita conflict over the glittering prize of Mr Len Fairclough ….

Elsie’s in a reminiscing mood. “Funny thing. Just as I came round the corner from the corner shop, the feeling that I’d never been away. It felt just like coming home”. I wonder whether this mirrored Pat Phoenix’s feelings? By all accounts, Phoenix wasn’t the easiest actor to accommodate (something which didn’t endear her to the writing or production staff) but she remained an audience favourite.

The inquest into Ray and Deirdre’s cadging of free drinks (on account of her non-existent pregnancy) continues. Mrs Walker is not best pleased about being deceived.  Later, the pair take a stroll along the Weatherfield canal where Deirdre drops the bombshell that she’d like a chequebook. This conversation could easily have taken place at the Rovers, but it was nice to have a chance of scene and get onto film for a minute.

Minnie’s last hurrah is a very brief scene in the Kabin. Margot Bryant’s memory was so bad by this point that she was forced to refer to her script several times (which was nestling on the counter). It’s a very sad and low-key way for such a long-running character to exit the series. We’d learn later in the year that Minnie was happy though, having settled down with Handel Gartside in Whaley Bridge.

Elsie remains holed up with Len in No 9 for most of the episode. Visitors come and go – first Bet and then Rita. Bet’s visit is reasonably convivial, Rita’s less so (as you might expect).  You could have cut the atmosphere with a cricket stump – both swap icy greetings before Rita harshly wonders if Elsie’s making “a flying visit or ….”

Eventually Elsie ventures out to the Rovers, which was probably just as well since tongues had been wagging there at maximum velocity for some time.  Some – like Ken – are welcoming (although they’ll soon clash over a certain house) whilst others – like Rita – remain stony faced.  And Rita’s dour disposition doesn’t improve after she learns that Elsie’s looking for a job in the area ….

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Coronation Street (5th April 1976)

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Written by Leslie Duxbury

For the dedicated Coronation Street aficionado, enjoying the series as broadcast during 1960 to 1975 can only be something of an intermittent pleasure. Having recently catalogued the episodes I hold from this period (well it keeps me off the streets) I’ve established that I have a grand total of 211 (which is a fairly small sample, considering that over 1,500 episodes were broadcast).

But from April 1976 onwards we’re on much firmer ground as that was where Granada Plus started their repeat run from. Between 1996 and 2004 (when the channel was unceremoniously yanked off the air) they managed to go from April 1976 to early February 1994.  And since these episodes are circulating in various corners of the internet, with a little bit of effort it’s possible to enjoy a lengthy consecutive run of the series.

Personally, I probably won’t go too far beyond 1984, but when I get there maybe I’ll have the desire to press on a bit further. I won’t have to worry about that for a while though.

Although April 1976 seems like a rather arbitrary start point (you might have expected Granada Plus to rewind back to the start of the colour era) there looks to have been some method in their madness.  Bill Podmore had taken over as producer in early 1976 and he’d begun to refashion the series in his own image (for example, injecting more humour – which he felt had all but evaporated).

I do wonder just how dour and humourless the series had actually been before this, but until more examples of 1974 and 1975 Corrie turn up, it’s hard to know for sure.

Today’s episode – marking the return of Elsie Howard (nee Tanner) for the first time since October 1973 – is a pretty decent jumping on point. There’s a few unfamiliar characters dotted about, but many of the regulars would have been like old friends to the 1990’s audience.

The episode opens with a one-shot character, Mrs Conroy (Christine Buckley), bitterly complaining to Mavis in the Kabin about the state of her dentures. “You would think wouldn’t you, if they could build Concorde, they could make a pair of dentures that fit”. There’s no answer to that.

Good grief, Rita looks rough. Really rough. Is she feeling delicate after a night of carousing with Len? Mavis thinks so, but Rita is having none of it. We then drop in to see Ray and Deirdre getting dressed. The sight of Ray Langton with no trousers on is something that will haunt me for some time. I’m just grateful that his shirt managed to hide his underpants.

Len receives a mystery call. Who is it? Ah, you’ll have to wait until the end of the episode to find out. But if anyone can discover who it might be before then it’ll be our Hilda. She’s in full snooping mode today (her curiosity working overtime after Len asks her to clean his house). Jean Alexander is wonderful. This is something I know I’ll be repeating again and again and again ….

This era of Coronation Street has many reasons to recommend it – not least the way it’s now become a fascinating social document. Characters will often stop to bemoan the state of the country (some things never change then). Mrs Walker’s monologue today is a case in point. “I don’t trust the government. Industry is either a playground or a battleground according to the whim of the week”.

Minnie’s relaxing in the snug. Make the most of her as she’s soon to vanish, never to return.

Unlike some incoming producers, Bill Podmore didn’t swing the axe too much. But one character he did decide to write out was Tricia Hopkins (Kathy Jones). I’m not quite sure why though – after all, the Street was hardly awash with younger characters at this time and she had formed a decent partnership with Gail.  Her departure is especially odd when you look ahead to January 1977, whuch saw the introduction of Suzie Birchall – a character not too dissimilar to Tricia.

Everyone’s treating Ray and Deirdre to drinks at the Rovers because they believe Deirdre’s pregnant. Except she’s not. There then follows an embarrassed silence when the truth comes out, although I’m not sure how they were going to get away with it (would Deirdre have stuck a pillow up her jumper in a few month’s time?)

Len’s mystery visitor is …. Elsie. And although we don’t see her today, Ena’s curtains are already twitching in anticipation ….

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Tonight at 8:30 – Shadow Play (2nd June 1991)

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Vicky Gayforth’s (Joan Collins) life is collapsing around her.  Following an evening at the theatre, she elects not to go on to a late party as she’s convinced that her husband – Simon (Simon Williams) – will be there with another woman.  Taking three strong sleeping pills, Vicky is settling down for a peaceful night’s sleep when Simon enters her bedroom and requests a divorce.

As the pills begin to take effect, Vicky experiences multiple hallucinations as she relives her life with Simon in a series of highly theatrical vignettes ….

Described by Coward as “a musical fantasy”, Shadow Play is a very pleasing mix of reality and fantasy. It begins in the real world, with Vicky receiving sage advice from Aunt Martha (Jean Anderson). Anderson was the sort of actress who seemed to spend her career playing characters who dished out sage advice (whether the recipients wanted it or not).  Seven years as the matriarch of the Hammond family in The Brothers for example.

Given how perfectly Simon Williams fits into the Tonight at 8:30 world, it’s a little surprising that this was his only role – but he certainly makes the most of it. When we first meet Simon Gayforth he’s behaving in a rather beastly fashion towards the somewhat helpless Vicky (who is one of those characters rather buffeted about by events). But once the fantasies begin and he turns on the charm it’s easy to understand why Vicky fell in love with him in the first place.

I like the way that the sets become very stagey and unreal once we join Vicky in her dream world (this distinction probably would have been harder to draw on stage). Presumably Coward and Gertrude Lawrence handled several of the songs themselves – but Collins and Williams don’t get involved in the singing (I can’t recall either of them warbling in the past, so this was probably a wise move).

As Vicky dreams on, she’s not above re-editing events to make them even better than the real thing.

Vicky: You’re nice and slim. Your eyes smile and you move easily. I’m afraid you’re terribly attractive.
Simon: You never said that!
Vicky: No, but I thought it.
Simon: Stick to the script.

This happens on a number of occasions – characters breaking the reality of the fantasy (if you see what I mean) to pass an ironic commentary on what we’re seeing. This would hardly have been original even back in the 1930’s, but it’s still amusing and effective.

Several Tonight at 8:30 stalwarts turn up for one final bow. Edward Jewesbury is the perplexed Uncle George, unwillingly dragged into Vicky’s dreamworld, whilst Edward Duke plays a silly young ass (something of his signature role).

Even when Vicky returns to reality, there’s still a tinge of fantasy in the air as Simon has banished all thoughts of divorce, meaning he and Vicky will live happily ever after. Is she still dreaming? Maybe, or maybe Coward was simply content to send the theatregoers home in a good mood.

Tonight at 8:30 is a fascinating series. Happy to faithfully adapt the original plays (if the action took place in a single room, then the productions would remain in a single room) it’s the sort of VT show which belongs to a vanished television age. It’s a pity that three episodes are rather marred by the addition of laugh tracks, but that quibble apart it’s been something that I’ve enjoyed revisiting.  Certainly worth a look if you have the Noel Coward DVD boxset on your shelf.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Still Life (26th May 1991)

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Dr. Alec Harvey (John Alderton) and Laura Jesson (Jane Asher) meet by happenstance in a railway station café. An instant attraction blossoms between them and they begin to conduct a highly clandestine affair (both are already married).  As the seasons click by, their railway rendezvous continue – but the tone of their later meetings dissolve into anguish as both realise that their affair has to end ….

Still Life is, of course, Brief Encounter in miniature. What’s interesting about this adaptation is that Joan Collins elected not to play Laura, instead she tackled the role of Myrtle Bagot, the railway café proprietress.  That’s a little surprising since Laura is by far the best female role.  Collins could have done it – and it would have been interesting to see – but maybe she was more content with the comic role of Myrtle.

Myrtle has her own love affair to negotiate – with the cheerful ticket collector Albert Godby (Norman Rossington).  Comedy veteran Rossington was a safe pair of hands and builds up a nice rapport with Collins – who, complete with her dyed hair piled up and a pair of glasses, negotiates the role of Myrtle with a sure touch. I like the way Myrtle attempts (and fails!) to add a touch of refinement to her voice when talking to customers.

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Two relationships clearly weren’t enough, as a third is added for good measure between Myrtle’s assistant, Beryl (Diane Langton), and cheeky young Stanley (Steve Nicholson).  With only thirty minutes to play with, this partnership has the least amount of attention devoted to it – consisting mainly of giggles and pinched bottoms.

Langton had been playing busty sexpots since the mid seventies, so the part was hardly a stretch for her. She might have been nearly twenty years Nicholson’s senior but give her a blonde wig and she could play pretty much the same age as Nicholson quite easily.

Whilst Beryl and Stanley and Myrtle and Albert are able to be quite open about their love, poor Alec and Laura are required to be much more furtive. Their whispered conversations in the corner of the café, oblivious to the hubbub around them, are perfectly pitched though – with both Alderton and Asher managing to take the familiar material and still make it resonate.

Coward later said that Still Life was “well written, economical and well constructed. The characters, I think, are true, and I can say now, reading it with detachment after so many years, that I am proud to have written it.”

I’d agree with his assessment. Unlike the previous play, Ways and Means, in this one you do feel for the central characters, which means that their final, wretched separation comes as a sudden jolt. This is no mean feat when you consider that their whole relationship has taken probably no longer than five minutes, spread across a handful of scenes, to develop.

The way that Laura is denied a final farewell with Alec – due the arrival of her insensitive and oblivious friend, Dolly Messiter (Moyra Fraser) – is the cruelest blow of all and concludes a memorable production.

Sydney Lotterby, who recently passed away at the age of 93, was the director (his sole credit on the series). Lotterby always yearned to direct more drama and based on this example you have to say that it’s a shame that he didn’t.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Ways and Means (19th May 1991)

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Stella and Toby Cartwright (Joan Collins and John Standing), living a comfortable life on the Côte d’Azur, appear to have everything – but appearances can be deceptive. Despite their outward elegance and poise, the pair are flat broke (following Toby’s disastrous misadventures at the casino) and face shame and scandal unless they can find a considerable sum of money very, very quickly ….

Ways and Means is a gossamer thin piece.  The Cartwrights give off an air of innocent decadence, which is best summed up by this comment from Toby. “We were brought up merely to be amiable and pleasant and socially attractive, and we have no ambition and no talent”.

Standing has something of Noel Coward’s delivery, so it’s easy to see how the Master would have tackled the part. Collins, once again cast in the Gertrude Lawrence role, also clicks into gear nicely and the pair (who dominate proceedings) are never less than totally watchable.

Four actors are each given a brief minute to shine. Edward Duke, as the ingenious Lord Chapworth, is first up (not much of a role, but he does his best). Siân Phillips has a little more to work with as Olive Lloyd-Ransome whilst Kate O’Sullivan sports the most outrageous Russian accent as the Princess Elena Krassiloff.

By far the most entertaining of these little cameo performances comes from Miriam Margolyes as Nanny.  Sounding not unlike Nursie from Blackadder II, Margoyles lights up the screen for the short time she’s on.  Harold Innocent, as the imperturbable servant Gaston, also deserves a tip of the hat.

There’s plenty of interest to be found on the acting front then, and there’s one more turn to come – Tony Slattery as Stevens, an ex-chauffer turned armed robber. His misfortune was to attempt to burgle the Cartwrights – who don’t have a bean – but he quickly becomes the object of their salvation.  Stevens readily agrees to rob the other house guests and pass all the loot onto Stella and Toby (taking care to tie them up so they look like victims too).

There seems to be little point in complaining about just how contrived the whole thing feels, as no doubt that was precisely the tone Coward was aiming for.  None of the characters really stir any feelings or emotions (such as whether the Cartwrights sink or swim, for example).  This air of unreality wouldn’t matter so much if the play was a little wittier or had some decent bedroom farce action, but there’s not a great deal to latch onto here.

You can’t fault the acting talent, but Ways and Means doesn’t really click for me. The return of the laugh track (for the first time since Red Peppers) is also a slight disappointment as the laughs still don’t feel totally natural (and they’re often on lines that aren’t really that funny).  This one’s not a total disaster, but it’s something of a dip in form after the last few episodes.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Fumed Oak (12th May 1991)

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Henry Gow (Anthony Newley) lives a life of stifling suburban respectability. The household consists of his nagging wife Doris (Joan Collins), his equally nagging mother-in-law Mrs Rockett (Joan Sims) and his adenoidal daughter Elsie (Prudence Olivier).  It would seem that the elder women rule the roost over the hen-pecked Henry, but initial appearances can be deceptive ….

Described by Coward as an “unpleasant comedy in two acts”, Fumed Oak provides Joan Collins with another opportunity to play very anti-glam. Starting the play with no make up and her hair in a scarf, she makes all the early running – effectively the first act is a two-hander between her and Sims.

It’s hard to know who Doris despises the most, as each member of the family receives a lashing from her caustic tongue in turn. The early conversations between Doris and her mother are incredibly inconsequential, which builds up a feeling of ever-increasing oppression. This is also helped by the way that Henry simply sits and eats his breakfast without speaking at all, seemingly resigned to having little say in the way the house is run.

The second act is where the comedy (and the unpleasantness) really begins, as we see a slightly alcoholically refreshed Henry returning home from work to drop the bombshell that he’s leaving them all for a new life abroad (complete with a small fortune he’s been secretly saving for a number of years).

But before he departs, Henry makes sure to insult them all thoroughly, which is where the cruel comedy is generated. Beginning reasonably gently (telling Doris that her hat is common) his abuse gradually starts to ramp up (when Doris counters that she’ll give him a piece of her mind, Henry responds that “it’ll have to be a small piece, Dorrie, I don’t think you can afford much”)

Several of Henry’s choicest insults (“this old bitch of a mother of yours”) are reserved for Mrs Rockett. Joan Sims reacts beautifully to these verbal volleys whilst Newley seems to be relishing every line.

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Henry then rounds on Doris again, delighted to finally have the opportunity to speak his mind after years of silence.

What right have you got to nag at me and boss me? No right at all. I’m the one that pays the rent and works for you and keeps you. What do you give me in return, I’d like to know! Nothing! I sit through breakfast while you and mother wrangle. You’re too busy being snarly and bad-tempered even to say good morning. I come home tired after working all day and ten to one there isn’t even a hot dinner for me.

Coward rarely dipped his toe into the travails of suburban life. This – along with the more substantial This Happy Breed – are rare examples, and it’s intriguing to consider Fumed Oak as the dark inverse of the later play and film.

Doris, like Ethel Gibbons, lives her life by behaving as respectably as possible. Frank Gibbons responds to Ethel’s chiding and ministering with good humour, but it’s all too much for Henry who has to break free (there’s shades in this piece of the much later exploits of Reginald Perrin).

“You’re mean, you’re cold and you’re respectable”. Henry’s parting shot to Doris is a three pronged attack. I wonder which he deems to be the worst sin? Judging by the tone of the play I’d guess the latter.

The most effective drama of the series to date, Anthony Newley is top notch, but then so are the others (even Prudence Olivier, who doesn’t have a great deal to do except complain and sniffle).

Whilst some of the other plays in the cycle might come across today as rather twee period pieces, Fumed Oak still manages to be rather discomforting (and presumably was even more so back in 1935 when it was first performed). Another definite success.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Family Album (5th May 1991)

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Family Album was described by Coward as “a sly satire on Victorian hypocrisy”. It’s set in the comfortable drawing room of the Featherways family, who have just returned from their father’s funeral. The atmosphere is decidedly formal to begin with, but when the new head of the household, Jasper (Denis Quilley), suddenly breaks into song for no particular reason it triggers a rapid lightening of mood ….

This one has quite the cast. I never knew that Denis Quilley could sing, but sing he does (as do several other cast members – which explains, in part, why the likes of Bonnie Langford and Jessica Martin appear today). It’s a slight pity that all the songs were clearly pre-recorded (when Jasper launches into the first song, Quilley’s voice suddenly gains a large dollop of recording studio echo) but since this isn’t the sort of playlet where realism is key, let’s not quibble.

Joan Collins has undergone yet another transformation. Sporting a rather uncomfortable set of teeth, I doubt she’s ever looked quite as unglamorous as she does here. She’s cast as Lavinia, the eldest daughter of the family, and the one who – initially at least – is by far the most prim and proper. A spinster, and likely to remain so, she begins by casting a disapproving eye when the others begin to make slightly merry, but after swigging some wine she soon gets into the spirit of things.

This isn’t the play with Collins’ largest role, but Lavinia still manages to make the most important story contribution.

She reveals towards the end that their father had made a new will just before he died, leaving some of his money to his several mistresses and the rest to a new church, which was due to contain a gaudy memorial to himself. Lavinia – with the assistance of Burrows, the butler – destroyed the will, thereby ensuring that the family would all receive their inheritances.

Although it was broadcast nearly thirty years ago, it still slightly takes the breath away to remember this was transmitted on BBC1. It’s hard to imagine such a piece, even with this sort of top quality cast, slotting into the schedule today. Goodness knows what the audience watching at the time made of it – personally I love it, but the way the characters continually break into song with no warning would probably have taken most people by surprise. And maybe it wouldn’t have been a pleasant surprise …

Especially since the opening few minutes would have primed them to expect something quite different – a bleak(ish) drawing room playlet.  The way the rug is pulled from beneath the audience’s feet by the reveal that not only was the late head of the household an incurable letch but also that his children (all seemingly stolid and staid citizens) find it very easy to revert to the innocence of childhood at the drop of a hat, is a little stroke of genius.

Dominic Jephcott and Charles Collingwood are further strong additions to the cast whilst John Alderton seems to having a whale of a time as Burrows, the ancient family retainer. Sporting reasonably convincing old-age make up, Alderton manages to milk each comic moment for everything it’s worth.

I’m happy to report there was no laugh track on this one, so hopefully the remainder of the series will be equally unaffected.

Family Album is an odd treat from a series that continues to surprise and entertain.

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Tonight at 8:30 – The Astonished Heart (28th April 1991)

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Two old school friends – Leonora Vail (Collins) and Barbara Faber (Siân Phillips) meet for the first time in many years. Their lives have followed very different paths – Leonara’s brief marriage ended in divorce whilst Barbara lives in blissful contentment with her husband Christian (John Alderton), an eminent psychiatrist.

The playful Leonora teases Barbara that, sight unseen, she plans to seduce Christian. But after this actually comes to pass, their torrid affair ends in bitter tragedy ….

After two comedies we move into more serious territory. That’s good news in one respect as it means there’s no laugh track (the peace and quiet comes as a blessed relief).

The Astonished Heart makes for an odd half hour. It certainly packs a lot into its brief running time (Coward described it as “a tragedy in six scenes” which gives you an idea about how quickly it moves). The play begins at the end of the story – it’s teased out that something terrible has happened, but we don’t know quite what – before rewinding back twelve months to start the tale properly.

Joan Collins is operating well within her comfort zone. Leonora could have slotted into several soap operas as she’s a man-eater with a seemingly impervious shell (although it is suggested several times that beneath her brash exterior lives a lonely and unfulfilled woman).

John Alderton is required to run the emotional gamut today. Christian goes from a gently amused individual, considering that a dalliance with Leonora will be something of an intellectual exercise, to a rampaging monster who’s consumed with jealousy when his mistress dares to even look at another man.  The climatic scene between Leonora and Christian has some powerful moments – but there’s also some rather ripe acting choices from both Collins and Alderton which are hard to take seriously.

That’s one of the drawbacks with The Astonished Heart. It’s always something of a balancing act, with the danger that any moment it could easily tumble over into melodrama.

Siân Phillips emerges with honour though. Whilst Leonora and Christian are called upon to ramp up the histrionics, Barbara is much more self contained (even when calmly deciding that her husband should enjoy a few months holiday with Leonora). Phillips’ skillful underplaying makes the occasional moment when Barbara shows a flash of anger all the more compelling.

Edward Duke, Jessica Martin and Edward Jewesbury fill out the minor roles with Martin catching the eye as Susan Birch, Christian’s dowdy but devoted secretary.

The Astonished Heart is somewhat hit and miss but it’s nice to have a pretty faithful version of the original one-act play to compare to Coward’s expanded 1950 film adaptation (directed by Terence Fisher, which saw Coward play the leading role of Christian with Margaret Leighton and Ceila Johnson as Leonora and Barbara).

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