With his home of forty years scheduled for demolition, crusty old Sam Cobbett (Barker) is forced to move in with his daughter Doris (Ann Beach) and his uppity son-in-law Arthur (Graham Armitage). Their flat has every mod-con, but Sam pines for the old days and the old ways ….
My Old Man is a generational comedy. Given that Sam mentions he worked the markets as a boy before the first war, he has to be seventy plus, although Barker (in his mid forties at the time) does rather struggle to play up to Sam’s age, which is a bit of a problem.
It’s an eye-opener to go back to a time when living in a high-rise flat was seen as both modern and desirable. The opening sequence has a nice filmic sweep as we go from Sam’s house to view the vista of demolitions beyond and then onwards to the brave new world of the high-rise flats looming in the distance. Doris and Arthur may be seventeen flights up but their flat is immaculate – packed with numerous labour-saving devices as well as central heating in every room.
Arthur is proud of this, as well as his own upwardly mobile status, but the earthy Sam reacts with mild horror at their clean and pre-packaged world. It’s obvious right from the start that Arthur and Sam have diametrically opposed viewpoints, but neither are terribly sympathetic characters, so it’s maybe not possible to immediately take sides.
The eleven o’clock cup of tea is an early flashpoint. Arthur prefers coffee, since tea’s so common, but Doris (at pains to make Sam feel settled) serves tea instead. Sam immediately pours it into his saucer and drinks it from there. This vignette shines a light on both their characters – Arthur (born from the same working class stock as Sam) is maybe ashamed of his roots, whilst Sam continues to embrace them.
A visit to the local pub provides another interesting character moment. It’s the sort of modern pub that Sam feels totally out of place in, especially when greeted by the effeminate barman. Sam later catches his attention by calling him “poofy” which generates a gale of laughter from the audience. This is Arthur’s local, a place where he feels at home, but he finds it disquieting when Sam, along with another old friend of his, Willie (Leslie Dwyer), begins to stamp his authority on the place – having a merry sing-song and entertaining the regulars. Are the affluent clientele laughing with them or at them I wonder?
Sam’s given several opportunities to articulate why he considers the modern world is inferior to the one he knew and loved, but the best example comes towards the end as he has a tête-à-tête with his grandson. “To hear your father talk you’d think I was born in a slum and lived all me life in a slum. Well let me tell you something, those ugly little houses, they used to have a fire in the grate. Your gran used to bake bread of a Sunday. The smell of it used to fill the house. Lovely. We used to have the back door open in the summer, see all the flowers. Garden used to be full of flowers, flowers you could pick. Grass you could walk on.”
Both Barker and the BBC passed on a possible series, so it ended up on ITV with Clive Dunn (another actor who tended to play older than his age) taking on the role of Sam. Barker probably made a wise choice, as whilst My Old Man made a passable half hour, it turned out to be a rather forgettable series.