The Bowmans is a popular and long-running rural radio series (“an everyday story of simple folk” as the announcer puts it) which features Tony as local yokel Joshua Merryweather. Even after almost fifty five years there’s no mistaking that this is a deliberate parody of The Archers – the theme tune of The Bowmans is almost a note-for-note copy of The Archers, for example.
Joshua Merryweather was modelled on Walter Gabriel (Joshua’s catchphrase “me old pal, me old beauty” is a direct crib – they were the first words ever heard on the debut episode of The Archers back in 1950). Galton and Simpson clearly had great fun in satirising some of the conventions of a series that had, even by 1961, become an institution.
The fact that The Archers is still running today means that the jokes remain relevant and it’s also interesting that many of the gentle digs could also be applied to the various television soaps (especially Coronation Street) which would in time supplant The Archers in the nation’s affections.
One of the most telling is the way that some members of the audience seem to be unable to distinguish fiction from fact. At the start of The Bowmans Tony mentions how Joshua received gallons of cough syrup when his character had a cold and proposals of marriage when he was jilted at the alter! Examples continue to this day, possibly most notably the Free Deirdre Rachid campaign. There’s an obvious post-modern irony at work with many of these public outcries but it’s also clear that people enjoy playing the game.
As for Tony, he feels totally secure in the series. He’s played Joshua for five years and considers himself to be easily the best thing about the programme, although it’s plain that everybody else, including the harassed producer (played by Patrick Cargill) disagree. Joshua Merryweather gives Tony Hancock the perfect opportunity to indulge in some ripe overacting – with an accent switching from Welsh, Suffolk, Robert Newton and all points in-between. He also arrives singing a song of his own devising (all about mangle-wurzels) and likes to perform in rustic clothes, although he angrily denies that he’s a method actor.
However he’s not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, soap actor to find out that he’s not as indispensable as he thought. When he receives the next script he’s horrified to find that Joshua falls in the threshing machine and dies. Was this ruthlessly quick exit a comment on the death of Grace Archer some six years previously?
The next week poor old Joshua breathes his last (although Tony doesn’t go quietly) and he’s then forced to find alternative work. This leads us into a short five minute interlude which could have easily worked as a one-off sketch. Firstly he fails to impress in a Shakespearean audition and then finds his level in a series of adverts for Grimsby Pilchards. These are wicked parodies of exactly the sort of thing which were appearing on ITV at the time and they see Tony dressed in various different period costumes, pausing at the most inappropriate moment to pull out a tin of Grimsby Pilchards.
The most atypical thing about The Bowmans is that Tony emerges on top. He’s so frequently the loser that it does come as a surprise when the death of Joshua produces a massive outcry which forces the BBC to beg him to come back. After a brain-storming session they decide he can return as a relative of Joshua’s, Ben Merryweather. Real soap operas have done far worse, so this seems quite credible.
He also gets script approval and his first action is to write a scene where most of the villagers fall down an abandoned mine-shaft. We end with Tony promising to repopulate the village with more of his relatives (was he planning to play all the parts himself?)
With a script that still feels fresh today (actors are still finding themselves written out and then back into soap operas just as unconvincingly as Joshua) The Bowmans is an entertaining twenty five minutes. Patrick Cargill might not have as a large as role as he does in the upcoming Radio Ham or The Blood Donor, but he’s still excellent as the producer driven to the end of his tether. Peter Glaze also amuses as the all-purpose voice man who brings the village’s animals to life. One of his main roles is as Joshua’s dog, much to Tony’s disgust (he’s often threatening him with his stick!).
Although there’s a faint air of unreality about it all (Joshua is such a badly acted character that it’s impossible to believe his departure would have created such an uproar, and the new Ben-dominated series seems just as bad) there’s still a lot to enjoy in this one.