Meet the Wife made its debut in the third series of Comedy Playhouse, broadcast in December 1963. Comedy Playhouse had been created in 1961 as an outlet for the writing talents of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (following the abrupt termination of their partnership with Tony Hancock) but it quickly expanded to embrace other writers. The beauty of the format was easy to understand – if something showed promise then it could be developed into a full series, if not then only half an hour had been wasted.
Created by Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe, Meet the Wife is concerned with the domestic trials and tribulations of Thora Blacklock (Thora Hird) and her much put-upon husband Fred (Freddie Frinton). The Blacklocks are an ordinary working class couple. Fred, a plumber, yearns for a quiet life but he never has the chance – thanks to his hectoring and snobbish wife Thora.
Chesney and Wolfe started their writing career on the radio, penning episodes of Life with the Lyons and Educating Archie. By the time Meet with Wife started airing they’d already enjoyed great success with another BBC television series, The Rag Trade, and would continue to enjoy popular (if not critical) acclaim when they later moved over to ITV, with the likes of On the Buses, Romany Jones and Yus My Dear. These other credits should give you an idea of what to expect with Meet the Wife. It’s by no means subtle, but it is goodhearted (the Blacklocks might have a fractious relationship but there’s no doubt that deep-down they love each other).
Thora Hird (1911 – 2003) was already by this time a very experienced actress, although her status as a national treasure would lie in the decades ahead, especially during the eighties and nineties. Born in Morecambe, Lancashire, she started her theatrical career early, making her stage debut when just eight weeks old. A Rank contract player during the 1950’s, she racked up numerous credits during this period (albeit in mostly fairly undistinguished films). But greater public recognition would come in the early 1960’s with two film roles – appearing alongside Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1960) and Alan Bates in A Kind of Loving (1962). Her experience in the business had proved that she could hold her own with just about anybody and these film performances demonstrated that her talent for sketching vivid, memorable characters was already firmly in place.
Freddie Frinton (1909 – 1968) began his working career entertaining his colleagues at a Grimsby fish processing plant. But, as the legend goes, he didn’t impress the management – who sacked him. Frinton’s first legitimate success on the stage came with Dinner For One. Although forgotten in Britain, this eighteen minute skit remains a New Year’s Eve staple in many European countries, such as Germany, thanks to a 1963 telerecording starring Frinton and May Warden.
Meet the Wife’s status in the public’s consciousness has no doubt been maintained by the fact that it was namechecked in the Beatles’ song Good Morning, Good Morning (“it’s time for tea and Meet the Wife”) but save for a handful of episodes on YouTube, the series itself has rather faded from view. So Simply Media’s release is very welcome and whilst it’s hard to argue that it’s a neglected comedy classic, it certainly has its moments.
The Comedy Playhouse pilot The Bed is essentially a two-hander between Thora and Fred (apart from Brian Oulton’s enthusiastic bed salesman). The Blacklocks are shortly due to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary and Thora decides that what they really need is a new bed. She gets her way (of course) by streamrollering poor Fred but their troubles aren’t over when they take delivery. Uncooperative lamps, quibbles about which side is the soft one, it’s all enough to drive Fred off to the spare room and the old bed. Chesney and Wolfe undercut these squabbles with a neat revelation which shows us (and Thora) just how much Fred loves his wife.
Fred’s desire to please Thora carries over into the first episode proper, Going Away. It’s a real time capsule of the period, taking us back to when a foreign holiday was pretty much a once in a lifetime experience. Thora desperately wants to go on a posh foreign holiday, mainly because of the bragging rights. Fred glumly tells her that they could probably afford a week in Blackpool but then shortly afterwards returns home with two tickets for an all-expenses paid trip to Majorca. He tells her that he’s had a win on the dogs, but it’s quickly revealed that he’s paying for it on the HP. Thora has a horror of being in debt, so Fred wisely keeps quiet about what he’s done. She finds out, of course, but isn’t angry, instead she’s touched that he would make such a sacrifice for her.
Night Out sees Thora and Fred getting ready for a swanky night out (at the Plumber’s Ball, or somesuch similar event). It’s interesting that as with Going Away, the durtation of the episode is concerned with their preparations, meaning that we never actually see them on holiday/at the dinner. This is a little surprising, as both scenarios offered numerous comic possibilities, but Meet the Wife is quite an enclosed series – whole episodes, like this one, can go by without any other actors appearing.
The first two discs contain the Comedy Playhouse pilot and all seven episodes from the first series. Since the survival rate for series two to five is very patchy, all those episodes (bar the two already discussed) can be found on disc three. The first existing episode from the second series, The Teenage Niece, sees Fred’s seventeen-year-old niece Doreen (Tracy Rogers) come to stay for a while. The generation gap has always been a fruitful generator of comedy and Doreen – with her modern ways – certainly shakes up Thora and Fred’s world. But everybody remains very tolerant – Doreen might regard her aunt and uncle as ancient, but she still loves them, whilst they seem quite calm when she turns up with her boyfriend in tow at 5 o’clock in the morning.
Of the remaining episodes, The Hotel is probably the strongest, since it has a simple, but effective, plotline (Thora and Fred take a trip to a posh hotel). Thora’s in her element – putting on her most genteel and refined voice – but there’s always a worry in the back of her mind that Fred’s common ways are going to embarrass her.
Picture-wise, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a series of this age. The episodes are derived from unrestored telerecordings, although they are all quite watchable with no major problems.
Like many programmes of this era it didn’t escape the archive purges of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It’s long been assumed that seventeen episodes out of the thirty nine made now exist (as confirmed by Lost Shows), but only fifteen were included on the DVD when it was released in October 2016 (Shopping and Brother Tom were the two omitted). Shopping isn’t listed on the BBC’s archive database, so it’s possible that it only exists in private hands and therefore wasn’t accessible for this release.
Brother Tom should have been included, but was missed off in error. Simply issued the following statement on the 23rd of November 2016 –
“Unfortunately due to an authoring error an episode was missed off the release of MEET THE WIFE.
For your replacement, which has the error corrected, please contact us either by private message on Facebook, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with your order number and where your DVD was purchased from, along with an address to send the replacement to.
Many thanks, and Simply Media apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
It’s no Hancock or Steptoe, but Meet the Wife is unpretentious and entertaining, thanks to the efforts of Thora Hird and Freddie Frinton. It’s certainly pleasing to see it on DVD and also that the issue with the original pressing was attended to.
Meet the Wife was released by Simply Media on the 24th of October 2016. RRP £29.99.