Any sitcom starring Leonard Rossiter is going to be worth a look (even Tripper’s Day, although only the strong or foolhardy will probably be able to watch all six episodes of that one).
The Losers has plenty going for it – the series was scripted by Alan Coren and featured Alfred Molina (making his television debut) as Rossiter’s co-star. It’s pretty tough going though, for several reasons.
Firstly the picture quality isn’t great. The videotape masters were wiped, so we’re left with off airs of the first five episodes (the final episode has presumably disappeared for good) which can be headache inducing. This is particularly noticeable during the series’ debut episode – A Star Is Born – where at certain points the picture keeps going to black every few seconds.
Set in the world of pro-wrestling, The Losers reinforced the widely held belief about the rigged nature of British wrestling (the sport was still a Saturday afternoon staple on ITV but its days were numbered). Sydney Foskitt (Rossiter) is a manager in desperate need of a fighter to lose convincingly in a big match. All seems doomed for Sydney, until he stumbles across the monosyllabic Nigel (Molina).
Good points about this first episode. Rossiter is his usual immaculate self and plays comfortably to type – he’s on decent form when the increasingly hysterical Sydney finds himself backed into a corner by the sport’s Mr Big, Max Snow (Peter Cleal). Joe Gladwin, as a cynical old trainer, is also good value as is Paul Luty, who throws himself around the ring with reckless abandon.
Possibly the best part of the episode takes place at a fairground where Sydney is hiding out (he’s attempting to dodge the wrath of Mr Snow). Sydney, as befits a WW2 veteran, breezily demonstrates his skill at the shooting range – only to miss the target and fill the top prize (a teddy bear) full of holes.
The stallholder and his wife (John Cater and Stella Tanner) are both dismayed about this, as is their son Nigel. Things are about to turn nasty, when Sydney realises that Nigel (by a wonderful coincidence) is a wrestler. He may be a rubbish one, but that’s exactly what Sydney needs, someone who’ll lose when instructed.
There’s a harshness throughout A Star Is Born. Nigel’s father is more than happy to offload his son onto Sydney (“his mother and me always wanted a dwarf, there’s midgets on her side”) whilst the manipulation by Sydney of the simple and trusting Nigel does leave you with a nasty taste in the mouth.
Critical reaction to the series was muted at best. The Stage and Television Today reported that “there wasn’t much to say – except perhaps to express regret that it was written by Alan Coren” (16th November 1978). Meanwhile the Daily Mirror’s postbag contained this missive from R. Jackson of London. “Oh dear! What has that wonderful actor Leonard Rossiter done, getting mixed up in The Losers?” (25th November 1978).
The fact that the third and final series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin began airing in late November 1978 did The Losers no favours, as it clearly came off second best when compared to Perrin. Presumably ATV agreed and decided that the series had little or no repeat value, wiping the tapes sometime after transmission.
Although there were later archive loses (the erasure of BBC children’s programmes like Rentaghost and Animal Magic not to mention the accidental destruction of most of Granada’s Lift Off With Ayshea) The Losers has to be one of the last British dramas or sitcoms to have been deliberately wiped in its entirety.
The fact that most of it has been recovered is a cause for celebration, but the first episode suggests that it’s no lost classic (to put it mildly). No doubt I’ll brave the rest of the series in due course, but I’ll probably take it nice and slowly.