Written by Ronald Chesney and Roland Wolfe, The Rag Trade ran for three series on the BBC during 1961 and 1963 (it was later revived for two runs during the 1970s on LWT, which featured remakes of some of the original BBC scripts).
Set in a clothing workshop called Fenners Fashions, the nominal head of the business, Harold Fenner (Peter Jones), forever finds himself at the mercy of his bolshy workforce – most notably shop steward Paddy Fleming (Miriam Karlin) who’s apt to shout “everybody out!” at the drop of a hat.
Stuck in the middle between management and the workforce is the long-suffering foreman Reg Turner (Reg Varney) whilst the likes of Carole (Sheila Hancock), Shirley (Barbara Windsor), Lily (Esma Cannon) and Gloria (Wanda Ventham) are some of the more prominent members of the motley workforce.
It’s fair to say that the works of Chesney and Wolfe are an acquired taste. I’m rather fond of Meet the Wife but rather less so of On The Buses and their later 1970s ITV sitcoms. True, the likes of Don’t Drink The Water and Yus My Dear have a certain grisly interest but you’d be hard pushed to claim they were forgotten classics (or any good).
The original Rag Trade is sharper though, possibly because it occurred earlier in their career, although the high quality cast helps too. Peter Jones, the original and best Voice of the Book from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, splutters with splendid comic timing throughout.
He’s matched by Miriam Karlin all the way whilst Barbara Windsor (who missed out series two but returned for series three, which sadly no longer exists), Wanda Ventham (who appeared in the second series only) and Sheila Hancock (who appears in both of the series here) all offer strong support. Hancock, as the perpetually vague Carole, is the recipient of some killer lines.
Here’s what’s contained across the four discs.
Series 1, Disc 1
1: The French Fashions
2: Christmas Box
3: The Baby
4: Getting Married
Series 1, Disc 2
5: Early Start
6: Unhappy Customer
7: Doctor’s Orders
8: The Sample
Series 2, Disc 1
1: The Thief
2: The Dog
3: Locked In
4: The Flat
5: The Client
6: Stay-In Strike
Series 2, Disc 2
7: Safety Precaution
10: Barber’s Shop
11: The Bank Manager
The series does pretty well for guest stars, with the likes of Frank Thornton, Terry Scott, Colin Douglas, Patrick Cargill, June Whitfield, Lynda Baron, Fabia Drake, Ronnie Barker and Hugh Paddick all making appearances.
Another familiar face – Peter Gilmore (The Onedin Line) – pops up in The French Fashions. Sporting an interesting American accent, he appears in the middle of a frenetic episode which sees Carole model a rock-hard pair of slacks for Gilmore’s character (it would take too to explain why) whilst the workforce later masquerades as French workers in order to snag a lucrative sales contract. None of this is terribly subtle, but there’s some typically deft comedic performances on display (Esma Cannon, as ever, effortlessly manages to steal every scene she appears in).
Another series one show – Unhappy Customer – sees “everybody out” as the girls go on strike (Mr Fenner’s more than a little unhappy that they’re eating in the workshop, but won’t agree to build a canteen). But then he has a change of heart ….
Considering that he’s supposed to be a penny-pincher, his solution – an automatic food dispenser (“anything you like. Tea, coffee, snacks”) – is a handsome gesture but Paddy’s not happy. This sort of automation might mean that their ten minute tea-break would actually only last ten minutes, rather than the ninety minutes it currently does. So their minds turn to sabotage ….
Highlights from series two include the second episode, The Dog. The pet in question belongs to Lily who brings him to work (she’s concerned about his health, so smuggles him in under Mr Fenner’s nose). This is classic Rag Trade – the workers conspiring against the hapless Fenner – enlivened by the always entertaining Esma Cannon and a lovely guest turn from the elegant Patrick Cargill.
The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is a straight repress of the previously released editions by DD, which means that series one is still missing two episodes (series two is as complete as it can be – two of the thirteen episodes no longer exist).
Picture quality is variable (the opening episode of series two is probably the worst, a pretty low quality telerecording). Things are much better elsewhere, although some episodes do feature occasional brief jumps when the picture and soundtrack slips out of sync for a second (a common issue with telerecordings).
The Rag Trade stands up very well. It’s certainly one of the strongest sitcoms from the Chesney/Wolfe partnership, thanks not only to the first-rate cast but also due to the way that it comedically shines a light on British labour relations during the early sixties. Whilst it’s exaggerated for comic effect, there’s more than a kernel of truth in the way that management were often at the mercy of their workers (today, the pendulum has firmly swung the other way).
A cracking little sitcom, it’s well worth your time.
The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered direct from Simply here.