Hancock – The Lift

As is well known, Sid James – as requested by Tony Hancock – played no part in Hancock’s final BBC series penned by Galton and Simpson.  In some of the other episodes – The Bedsitter or The Radio Ham, say – it’s clear that Galton and Simpson were writing material which moved away in certain respects from their previously established formula.

It’s easier to imagine Sid taking part in The Lift though (no doubt he would have taken it in turns with Tony to antagonise all of their fellow lift passengers). So Sid’s absence does have the side effect of making Tony seem more irritating than usual – with no confidant to take the strain, he’s the sole antagonist today.

Many of Tony’s familiar character traits are present and correct. Such as his fumbling attempt to chat up the pretty young secretary (Jose Read) and his seething indignation when he has to watch her being sweet-talked by Jack Watling (the smooth BBC producer).

The Hancock character tended to berate those he believed were below him on the social scale (such as Hugh Lloyd’s liftman) and defer to certain people above him.  Not all – the Air Marshall  (John Le Mesurier) is treated with a level of contempt that Tony doesn’t even bother to conceal.  The Vicar (Noel Howlett) is another matter altogether (witness Tony’s chumminess and delight that the Vicar’s first Epilogue went well).

Both Hancock’s Half Hour and Hancock were always so well cast. Not only regulars like Hugh Lloyd and John Le Mesurier, but also the one-off performers like Charles Lloyd Pack and Colin Gordon (who both feature in this one).

They all help to generate a combustible mix of personalities, who are all nicely stoked up when the lift gets stuck between floors. Tony – of course – decides that he should take charge.  His first suggestion – that everybody jumps up and down – is logical, but it has a disappointing lack of success.

So they’re caught in a stalemate situation, which generates some wartime memories for Tony. “It’s just like the old days. Laying on the bottom, still, silent. Nobody daring to move. Jerry destroyers dashing about upstairs, trying to find us sitting there, sweating, waiting, joined together in a common bond of mutual peril”.

This moment is punctured by the Vicar, who recalled that Tony earlier stated he was in the Army! No matter, Tony – with the agility of a born fantasist – quickly rallies, weaving a tale about the Heavy Water plants in Norway (“very tricky stuff. A cup full of that in your font, blow the roof off it would”).

I do love Tony’s attempt to keep everybody entertained by playing Charades. Of course all of his mimes are guessed in double quick time by his nemesis, the producer (“it was simple”).

The twist at the end – having been rescued, Tony and the liftman become trapped once again – doesn’t quite work, but overall there’s very little fat on this one. Not quite the best that the final series had to offer, but that’s only because the competition was very fierce.

Tony Hancock (12 May 1924 – 25 June 1968)

608e273e4a0ec5b4ee1de9b0c9599a3b.jpg

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Tony Hancock’s death. This has generated a crop of newspaper and magazine articles, some – unsurprisingly – focussing on his sad demise.

The essential beats of the story should be familiar to most – the way his decision to gradually divest himself of all his comedy associates (first Kenneth Williams, then Sid James and finally Galton and Simpson) sparked a slow but inevitable decline. Spike Milligan’s famous quote (“he shut the door on all the people he knew, and then he shut the door on himself”) seemingly provides the final word.

And yet … this has always seemed to be not quite the whole picture. For one thing, it’s hard to argue against Hancock’s assertion that his comic character needed to grow and change. Sir Peter Hall (speaking in the Heroes of Comedy programme on Hancock) labelled the Lad as a product of the fifties (comparing him to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim). If so, then carrying this persona unchanged throughout the next decade simply wouldn’t have worked.

The assumption seems to be that Galton and Simpson could just have continued churning out comedy classic after comedy classic for Hancock, but how many more stories were there left to tell? Possibly a move into a regular film career would have been best. It’s well known that Hancock grew to dislike and fear the pressure of the television studio environment – not least due to the problem of having to learn so many lines. Whilst The Government Inspector (bafflingly, still not available on DVD) suggests that – like Max Wall – he could have pursued a dramatic career.

It’s all what ifs of course, but the notion that if only Tony had stuck with the old team everything would have been fine does seem a little flawed. For those who want to dig into the story deeper, there are a number of books available (some much more lurid than others). John Fisher’s biography is by far the best – an unashamed fan and admirer, he nevertheless didn’t shy away from the darker moments. But he also made the observation (which few others have) that Hancock’s life, post Galton & Simpson, wasn’t all downhill. During the later years there were still high spots to be cherished.

But even when the details of Hancock’s final years have been picked apart for the umpteenth time, we still have most of his best work available to enjoy. And this should always be Tony’s enduring legacy.

For any newcomers, a few suggestions to get started.

The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham

These two television episodes, from his final BBC series, were later re-recorded for an LP release and it’s these audio re-recordings (released and re-released numerous times over the years) which are my preferred versions. Slightly tighter and better performed than the television originals (plus The Radio Ham has a little extra value – “If I’d had me key I wouldn’t have knocked on the door, would I?”) they’re an excellent introduction to the world of Tony Hancock.

The Last Bus Home

One of the later radio HHH‘s with the core team of Tony, Sid and Bill, this is simply a joy. Like Sunday Afternoon At Home, it makes a virtue out of the fact that very little happens (they wait for the bus, they can’t get on the bus, they have to walk home). But there’s still so much to enjoy – especially Tony and Sid’s punch-up (“at least I know where I stand”). The way that Sid dissolves into giggles after Bill announces that the bus is finally coming is a lovely unscripted moment.

The Missing Page

An obvious television HHH choice, but that’s because it’s very, very good. Tony and Sid work beautifully together and if the plot doesn’t quite hold water, with so many wonderful lines (not to mention Tony’s beautifully performed library mime act) I’m not complaining.

th

The Rag Trade – Christmas Box

rag 01

Like the later LWT Christmas Rag Trade, this is a programme you can’t imagine receiving a repeat these days – with this one it’s due to the fact that the girls have been making golliwogs on the side.

Although Fenner (Peter Jones) constantly bemoans the poor productivity of his staff, this never seems to be a problem when they’re working on their own initiative.  It’s very impressive that they’ve been able to knock up several hundred golliwogs over the last few days, although since they’ve used Fenner’s materials without his knowledge they have to keep him in the dark …..

Poor Reg (Reg Varney) is deputised to dress up as Father Christmas and is sent out to flog the golliwogs from a street corner, but he runs foul of the law – in the formidable shape of Colin Douglas.  Always good to see Douglas and he’s his usual stolid self as the constable.  This officer may not be the brightest of chaps, but he’s certainly dogged in his determination to run the rogue Father Christmas to justice.

Reg, in haste, has to ditch the Father Christmas costume and so he gives it to Fenner.  It’s not hard to work out what happens next – the constable spies Fenner dressed as Father Christmass and arrests him.  But surely Fenner’s staff will vouch for him?  Mmm, not so.  They have a buyer for the golliwogs coming round and so it suits their purpose for the boss to be out of the way for a few hours.

This seems a tad cruel, especially the way Peter Jones milks the moment.  Fenner can’t even get through to Reg (we learn that they attempted to join the army together but were refused for the same reason – flat feet).  Once Fenner’s been carted off, Fenner’s Fashions undergoes a rapid transformation to become Union Toys!  This may be slightly hard to swallow, but it’s still amusing – especially the way that Reg quickly steps into the role of the boss and Paddy (Miriam Karlin) and Carole (Sheila Hancock) transform themselves into femme fatales as they prepare to use all of their wiles to persuade the hapless buyer that he really should purchase their golliwogs.

The fact that the buyer, Terence Nutley, is played by Terry Scott is something of a bonus since it ensures that every possible bit of comic potential will be wrung from these scenes.  As the girls ply Terence with drinks, he becomes more and more insensible, which creates something of a problem once Fenner returns ….

As with the rest of The Rag Trade, this one’s highly predictable from start to finish, but since everybody attacks the material with such gusto I’ve never regarded this as a problem.  Sheila Hancock is delightful as the dippy Carole whilst Esma Cannon can’t help but steal every scene she appears in (she plays the even dippier Lily).

The ending is quite neat.  After Fenner discovers the toys, the girls are forced to lie and pretend that they’ve made them for the kiddies at the local hospital.  Fenner, touched by this, happily promises to drop them off to the hospital on the way home.  So the workers don’t benefit by their pilfering, instead the only victors are the children – which seems appropriate for a Christmastime story.

rag 02

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two. Simply Media DVD Review

rag trade.jpg

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.

rag 1
Sheila Hancock & Reg Varney

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
8: Stainproofer
9: Doctor
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 ….

rag 2.jpg
Reg Varney & Peter Jones

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.

rag 3.jpg
Esma Cannon & Reg Varney

Here’s Harry – Simply Media DVD Review

harry.jpg

Although largely forgotten today, Harry Worth was a major television star of the sixties and seventies.  His rise to the top was neither straightforward or quick though – born Harry Bourlan Illingsworth in 1917, he left school at 14 and went straight to work down the local mine (he stuck it out for eight years, despite hating every minute of it).

As with so many entertainers of his generation, World War II was to prove defining.  Even when he’d been a miner, Worth had continued to hone his showbiz skills (practising his ventriloquism act whilst hewing coal for example).  Prior to WW2 he’d begun to ply his trade by working as a ventriloquist in the numerous working men’s clubs dotted around Yorkshire, but appearing in RAF shows gave the young Worth further valuable experience.

Following his demob, and still attempting to make it big with his wooden friends (at this point he was dubbed ‘The Versatile Vent’), Worth began his slow ascent to the top.  Like many of his contemporaries he played the notorious Windmill Theatre (“we never clothed”) as well as just about every variety theatre in the country.  During the forties and fifties the variety circuit was still thriving (although the rise of television would eventually kill it off) and Worth was able to make a living, just.

Frequently bottom of the bill, Worth’s career seemed to be heading nowhere, although a tour with Laurel and Hardy in 1952 would prove to be crucial.  After watching him from the wings, Oliver Hardy persuaded Worth that he should abandon his vent act and concentrate on becoming a comedian instead.  This was valuable advice and within a few years Worth would make his television debut, which in time would lead to his own series.

worth 01

John Ammonds, forever associated with the classic BBC Morecambe & Wise shows, would produce Worth’s debut series The Trouble With Harry (1960) and the bulk of the follow-up, Here’s Harry (1960 – 1965).  His next series, simply titled Harry Worth, would enjoy four successful runs between 1966 and 1970, at which point he decided to jump ship and join Thames (Morecambe & Wise and Mike Yarwood would later do exactly the same thing).

Like many other series of this era, Here’s Harry has a rather patchy survival rate.  Out of sixty episodes made, only eleven now exist (although it’s pleasing to note The Musician, recently recovered by Kaleidoscope, is included in this release).  Here’s what’s contained on the two DVDs –

Series Two

The Bicycle – 4th May 1961.  Featuring Wensley Pithy, Sam Kyd, Ivor Salter and Anthony Sharp.

The Holiday – 11th May 1961.  Featuring Ballard Berkeley, Ronnie Stevens, Meg Johnson and Reginald Marsh.

The Request – 18th May 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar and John Snagge.

The Medals – 1st June 1961.  Featuring Anthony Sharp and Totti Truman Taylor.

The Voice – 8th June 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, George Tovey, Sydney Tafler, Joe Gladwin and Meg Johnson.

Series Three

The Dance – 14th November 1961.  Featuring Ronnie Stevens, Reginald Marsh, Colin Douglas, Vi Stevens and Harold Goodwin.

The Plant – 21st November 1961.  Featuring Vi Stevens and Patrick Newell.

The Birthday – 5th December 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, Vi Stevens and Ivor Salter.

The Overdraft – 12th December 1961.  Featuring Gwendolyn Watts, Joe Gladwyn and Jack Woolgar.

The Last Train – 26th December 1961.  Featuring Harold Goodwin, Tony Melody, Jack Woolgar and Reginald Marsh.

Series Five

The Musician – 22nd November 1963.  Featuring Geoffrey Hibbert, Jack Woolgar and Max Jaffa.

What’s interesting about the surviving episodes is that – apart from the recently recovered The Musician – everything we have either comes from the second or third series.  Series two is virtually complete (only one episode missing) whilst the survival rate for the third series is also pretty good (five out of eight).

The various opening titles help to set the tone for the show. The iconic shop window sequence doesn’t debut until later (it’s only featured in this set on The Musician) so in series two and three we observe Harry strolling down the street, politely raising his hat to unseen passers by and almost colliding with a lampost. That he raises his hat to the lampost is a characteristic touch.

Worth, who lives in the fictional town of Woodbridge (at 52 Acacia Avenue with his cat, Tiddles, and his never seen aunt, Mrs Amelia Prendergast) is a familiar comic creation.  Buffeted by events, he rarely seems to be in control of his own destiny – instead he’s at the mercy of officialdom which is sometimes friendly and sometimes not.  But this never concerns Harry as he treats everybody with kindness and always remains totally oblivious to the fact that his presence serves as the catalyst for terrible disasters.

worth 02

Other similar character types – Tony Hancock, Frank Spencer, Victor Meldrew – can easily be brought to mind but Worth’s style is quite different as there’s a warmth about his befuddled comic persona that’s very appealing.

Vince Powell and Harry Driver were the most prolific writers across the seven series, which should allow you to gauge the general level of scripting (both were competent scribes, although hardly in the same league as Galton & Simpson or Clement & Le Frenais).  Not that this really matters as the scripts are simply the starting point – Here’s Harry stands or falls on Worth’s ability to make his shtick work (and when he’s placed in opposition to a decent performer then things chug along very merrily).

The Bicycle serves as a perfect example of the way the show operates. Harry is more than upset when a total stranger regularly decides to leave his bicycle outside his house and decides to seek legal advice, although the solicitor (played by Anthony Sharp) is naturally nonplussed about exactly how he can help. Over the course of about ten minutes Harry’s amiable idiocy is enough to reduce Sharp’s solicitor to a gibbering wreck. But when Harry learns that the bike belongs to Ivor Salter’s police constable, Harry (who’s hidden the bike in his shed) becomes frantic with worry ….

Later tangles with Sam Kyd’s postman and Wensley Pithy’s chief constable are further examples of the way Harry so often leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. The “sit” part of this comedy is remarkably slight (a missing bicycle) but it’s plain that each situation is simply the excuse for Worth to move from one authority figure to the next, each time causing mayhem.

Harry’s child-like nature and undeveloped view of the world is further evidenced in The Holiday (he believes that it’s perfectly possible to catch a bus straight from London to Monte Carlo). A long-suffering travel agent is the latest person to suffer from Harry’s presence, although he gets off relatively lightly (Ronnie Stevens’ remarkably camp photographer – tasked with the job of taking Harry’s passport photos – doesn’t fare so well). Ballard Berkeley and Reginald Marsh – both wonderful performers – are also lined up to take their dose of punishment from Mr Worth.

There’s a touch of gentle satire at play in The Request as Harry turns up at the BBC, keen to ensure that a request for his Auntie gets played on Housewives Choice. Due to a barely credible misunderstanding he gets mistaken for a singer (Worth does croon a little bit of Are You Lonesome Tonight quite well though) and then decides to roam the corridors of the BBC, causing chaos wherever he goes (such as interrupting the iconic newsreader John Snagge mid broadcast). His face may not be familiar, but Snagge’s voice is unmistakable and it’s lovely to see him end up as Harry’s latest victim.

The remaining surviving episodes of series one – The Medals and The Choice – maintain the high standard, with Anthony Sharp, this time as a Brigadier, returning in The Medals to once again cross swords with Harry.

worth 03

Amongst the surviving shows from series three, both The Overdraft and The Last Train are highlights.  A visit by Harry to the bank in The Overdraft has plenty of obvious comic potential.  He informs the long-suffering assistant that he wishes to deposit three pounds ten shillings (to enable him to draw out precisely the same amount!) This is so he can extract his money in a bewildering and precise series of coins, all the better for then depositing them in a plethora of tins (for the gas bill, newspapers, etc, etc).

The Last Train finds a festive Harry patiently waiting for his train home.  It seems a bit odd for trains to be running on Christmas Day but it helps to explain why some of the staff are rather downcast.  Harry’s not of course, he’s a regular ray of Christmas sunshine – although his well-meaning efforts to entertain and help don’t always have the results he’d hoped for.  Not that this concerns Harry who – as always – breezes through each and every situation, totally oblivious to the havoc he’s causing.

The final existing show – the recently returned The Musician – features a guest appearance from Max Jaffa.  Like John Snagge, Jaffa’s a good sport (the typically dense Harry knows that Jaffa is someone famous, he just can’t remember who).  The moment when Jaffa tells him who he is and Harry removes his hat in respect is a delight as is the way that Harry initially mistakes him for the music hall comedian Jimmy Wheeler (for good measure Harry throws in Wheeler’s famous catchphrase – “Aye, aye, that’s your lot!” – to increasingly befuddle his famous companion).

Whilst it’s undeniably formulaic, the surviving episodes of Here’s Harry are also undeniably entertaining. The combustible combination of the well-meaning but inadvertent loose cannon that is Harry and the range of authority figures he finds himself encountering (some pleasant, some not) is the reason why the show works as well as it does. The situations may often be slight, but the way that Harry and his co-stars interact is always a joy.  Something of a neglected comic treat it’s a pleasure to see it available on DVD and comes warmly recommended.

Here’s Harry is released by Simply Media on the 11th of September.  The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.

worth 04

Christmas Night with the Stars 1964

stars

Jack Warner is in the chair for the 1964 Stars, introducing Billy Cotton, Dick Emery, Top of the Pops, Andy Stewart, Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd, The Likely Lads, Richard Briers & Prunella Scales, Benny Hill and Kathy Kirby.

The first observation is that they’ve not exactly splashed out with the set dressings for poor old Jack, who has to present his links in the middle of a cold and deserted studio – with only an armchair, a table, some candles, a Christmas tree and a few other assorted decorations for company.  Still, pro that he is, he soldiers on regardless.

After Billy Cotton and his band gets the show off to a rousing start (“wakey, wakey!”) we move onto film as Dick Emery, in various guises, is stopped in the street and asked how he/she plans to spend Christmas.  It’s interesting to compare and contrast Emery with Benny Hill (who later in the show also plays a variety of characters).  I’d definitely have to give Hill the edge, although Emery has his moments, especially with the man-eating Mandy. “You are awful, but I like you”.

Top of the Pops are represented by …. the Barron Knights.  Well, if you can’t afford the real groups I guess they were the next best thing.  They’d had their first taste of chart success in 1964 with Call up the Groups and their Stars appearance isn’t too dissimilar – parodying popular groups and hits of the day by changing the lyrics, here with a Christmas theme.

Andy Stewart heads up to the North of Scotland for a bit of a toe-tapper, which is followed by Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd in a seasonal Hugh and I skit.  As with the series, Patricia Hayes, Jack Haigh, Molly Sugden and the luvverly Jill Curzon provide strong support.  There’s more than a touch of Tony Hancock in Scott’s performance, meaning that it’s easy to imagine the curmudgeon of East Cheam in a similar situation – a house full of guests at Christmas that he’d sooner weren’t there (and the presence of Pat Hayes and Hugh Lloyd are obvious links to the Lad Himself).  Scott dominates proceedings as he attempts to persuade the others to take part in a parlour game.  A nice segment which doesn’t outstay its welcome.

As Jack Warner says, most of the shows and performers on CNWTS were household favourites, but The Likely Lads had only started a fortnight before – meaning that someone must have quickly spotted this was a series with potential.  And it’s definitely a highlight of the programme, as even this early on both Clement/La Frenais and Bolam/Bewes seemed perfectly comfortable with the characters.

Terry’s keen to head out for an evening’s liquid refreshment, pouring scorn on those who stay in.  “Catch me staying in. Bowl of nuts, box of dates and Christmas Night with the Stars. No thank you!”  But Bob and Terry’s evening out never gets started, thanks to an escalating argument about the name of the elephant in the Rupert annuals.  Bob maintains it was Edward Trunk whilst Terry is convinced it was Edward the Elephant.  So Terry fetches his annuals from the loft to settle the argument once and for all.

The desire of Bob and Terry to hark back to their childhood was a theme of the series that would only grow stronger when it returned in the seventies as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?  This small segment demonstrates that right from the start Clement and La Frenais recognised this aspect of their characters could produce comedy gold.  A pity that it’s not available on the DVD (like many of the other Stars segments sadly) but then 2E did leave a whole episode off the original release …..

Billy Cotton introduces Ralph Reader’s Gang Show, which is followed by Benny Hill.  It’s not surprising that the picture we have today of Benny Hill is from his years at Thames.  Not only because those shows were incredibly successful worldwide, but they’re also the ones that are readily available on DVD.  His 1960’s BBC shows are less accessible (although there is a R1 compilation).  Maybe one day all that remains will be released on DVD, I hope so – since they contain some strong material which gives the lie to the oft repeated claim that Hill was a fairly low-brow performer.

His Stars segment, The Lonely One, is a good case in point.  Shot on film, Hill not only plays the central character in the short mockumentary – a juvenile delinquent called Willy Treader – but all of the other parts as well.  It’s very nicely done and Hill’s creations (possibly because he wrote the script too) feel more like real people than Dick Emery’s more broad characters did.

Richard Briers and Prunella Scales are up next in Marriage Lines.  It’s cosy and twee, but Briers and Scales make it just about worthwhile.  George and Kate Starling are expecting their first child which is reflected in their presents to each other – Kate gives him a sleeping bag (in case the baby gets too noisy, he can move to another room) whilst George gives her a maternity smock (seemingly not realising that she’s due to give birth in a month).

Although billed second, Kathy Kirby appears last to sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Chirstmas.  It’s a fairly short and low-key ending, but overall the 1964 Stars is a consistently strong show with very little filler.

Corrected discs now available for Meet the Wife

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

As touched upon in my review, the recent release of Meet the Wife was missing an episode.  Simply have now issued a statement on their Facebook page, as below, with details about how to obtain a corrected copy.

“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 hannah.page@simplymedia.tv 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.”

 

Q5/Q6/Q7 – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

Terence Alan “Spike” Milligan, one of the key figures of British comedy, rose to prominence thanks to his work on The Goon Show.  He starred alongside Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and (for the first two series only) Michael Bentine, with Milligan penning the majority of the scripts as well.  The Goon Show ran during the 1950’s, at a time when radio was still king, enabling Milligan’s absurd flights of fancy to reach an impressively large audience.  Informed by the traumas of his time spent in the army during WW2, The Goon Show introduced various riffs which would occur again and again in Milligan’s work (Adolf Hitler, for example, became an oft-used comedy figure).

Milligan’s earliest forays into television were on ITV during the 1950’s – The Idiot Weekly – Price 2d, A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred.  But it would be the Q series (made between 1969 and 1982) that would prove to be his enduring television legacy.  The shows were written by Milligan and Neil Shand, with occasional contributions from writers such as John Antrobus and David Renwick.  Just as Shand was an important partner on the scripting front, so Spike also seemed to draw strength from appearing alongside performers who plainly operated on his wavelength.  Some would drop in and out whilst one – John Bluthal – remained an everpresent fixture.

After something of a gap between the first and second series, Q became a more regular television fixture during the mid seventies and early eighties.  Milligan didn’t want the sixth and final series in 1982 (renamed by the BBC as There’s a Lot of it About) to be the last, but it seems that the BBC weren’t interested in commissioning any more.  That Milligan was still keen to continue is interesting – sketch comedy is often seen as a young man’s (and woman’s) game – so the fact that Milligan, at this point in his early sixties, was still energised by the thought of working in the sketch format was quite unusual.

Broadcast in early 1969, Q5 remains a landmark comedy programme.  It’s often been cited as a key influence on the nascent Monty Python team, who at the time were preparing their debut series (it would air at the end of the year).  As is probably well known, the Pythons were rather crestfallen after watching Q5, since Milligan had gleefully broken just about every rule in the comedy book they were left wondering what was left for them to do …

There’s an obvious connection between Q5 and Monty Python (Q5 director Ian McNaughton was especially requested by the Pythons since they’d admired his work with Spike) but the similarities run deeper than that, as it’s very easy to see several Q5 sketches (such as the Grandmother Hurling Contest at Beachy Head) fitting perfectly within the Python format.

But there are differences too – Q5 has a much looser, improvised feel than most of Python.  Milligan was more than happy to play with the artifice and conventions of television – he and the others would step in and out of character, wander off set, arbitrarily stop a sketch mid-way through or seem to be on the verge of corpsing.  Some sections are almost impossible to describe (a comedy riff is built up and developed almost to breaking point).

q5.jpg

This scattergun approach obviously means that not everything works – but sometimes it’s the nonsense that’s the most appealing thing. Often an idea is established but then dropped almost immediately as the show veers off in a completely different direction, meaning that whatever else Q5 is, it’s certainly not boring. Those who believe that The Fast Show pioneered the form of rapid-fire sketch comedy will have to think again ….

Given Q5’s importance in the history of British comedy, it’s a great shame that only three of the seven episodes now exist (and two of those are black and white telerecordings).  Out of the existing material, the absurdist theme is established early on (“pim-pom po-po-pom”) which you simply have to see, describing it just doesn’t do it justice.  It’s ramshackle and nonsensical, but probably the best thing in the episode.

The next surviving Q5 episode develops a theme that Milligan had first used in his Goon Show days.  Any phrase, if repeated often enough, could be guaranteed to get a laugh.  Back then it was “he’s fallen in the water” here it’s “a tree fell on him.”  The link to the Goons is strengthened thanks to several references to Harry Secombe – although he doesn’t appear in this one (but in the next episode we do hear Secombe’s unmistakable tones, as he plays a man trapped inside an elephant).   Milligan’s turn as Ned Teeth,  a mystic guru from Neasden, is another unforgettable Q sketch.

q6-01.jpg

Spike Milligan’s relationship with the BBC was always a rather tense one.  The Corporation may have broadcast many of his finest comedy moments (The Goon Show, Q) but Milligan always felt that they tolerated, rather than respected, him.  This partly helps to explain why a follow up to Q5 didn’t appear for six years.

By the time that Q6 was broadcast in 1975, the comedy landscape was very different.  Monty Python had been and gone, but the legacy of their four series remained.  Although Milligan had pioneered stream of consciousness comedy, Q6 would face a challenging time as it attempted to escape the imposing shadow cast by Python.

The likes of Peter Jones, David Lodge and Robert Dorning are regulars throughout Q6. Along with the ever-present John Bluthal, they all excel at providing solid support for Spike’s surreal flights of fancy. Jones, always a favourite performer of mine, is especially good value at whatever he’s asked to turn his hand to.  On the female front, Julia Breck is there to provide a touch of glamour whilst Stella Tanner handles the character roles.

The opening moments of the first episode sees an attractive topless woman appear for no obvious reason, presumably except that it entertained Milligan. A touch of gratuitous titillation would be a hallmark of the 70’s and 80’s Q. This first edition also has a nice guest appearance by Jack Watling and plenty of digs directed at the BBC. The remainder of Q6 has plenty of stand-out moments as well as numerous ones which can’t be adequately explained. Spike as Adolf Hitler meeting Bluthal’s Quasimodo is one such sketch. If it sounds odd on paper then it’s even odder when seen on the screen.  The economy police sketch is another strange, albeit entertaining, few minutes.

q06-02

John Bluthal’s skill at mimicking Hughie Green is put to good use several times, notably in the game show, Where Does It Hurt? The rules are simple, people with afflications or with a willingness to injure themselves can win cash prizes if the audience – via the painometer – register laughter and applause at their discomfort. With oddles of fake sincerity from “Green” and obviously fake studio applause it’s one of the more straightforward sketches.

Less conventional is Spike’s love song directed at a cardboard cutout Princess Anne. With the noted jazz pianist Alan Clare (who’d later become something of a semi-regular) providing accompaniment, it appears that as Milligan’s ardor increases, so does the size of his nose. It’s just one of many unforgettable Milligan moments.

The final Q6 show has one of its most famous sketches – the Pakistani Dalek. Dalek creator Terry Nation (or more likely his agent Roger Hancock, brother of Tony) was always reluctant to see the Daleks used as figures of fun, but it’s not too surprising that Spike got his way. Nation had been a member of Associated London Scripts (ALS) back in the sixties – a writers cooperative formed by Milligan, Eric Sykes and Galton & Simpson – so Nation’s links to, and respect for, Milligan clearly ran deep.

Also featured throughout Q6 are musical interludes, although they’re sometimes as leftfield as the rest of the series. Highlights include Ed Welch performing The Silly Old Baboon, a song written by himself and Milligan.

It might have been a long time coming, but Q6 is a strong series – all six episodes are packed with Milligan’s trademark oddness and the pace rarely flags.

Most of the regulars from Q6, although sadly not Peter Jones, returned for Q7, along with a few new faces – John D. Collins (later to be a regular in Allo Allo) and Keith Smith (probably best known for playing the irate headmaster Mr Wheeler in Alan Plater’s Biederbecke trilogy).

The first edition has a couple of lengthy sketches (Bermuda triangle/Arabs) and it’s possibly the first example of the series standing on the spot. In the Bermuda Triangle sketch Spike asks “what other TV show gives you a smile, a song and a load of crappy jokes?” and he’s maybe not too far off the mark.

Things pick up in the second show, David Lodge in drag and John Bluthal doing his best W.C. Fields voice are always entertaining, but the best moment – live from Covent Garden – comes towards the end. Milligan dragged up and blowing raspberries, what more could you want?  Overall, Q7 is more hit-and-miss than Q6 and what remains of Q5, but there’s still plenty of gems – you just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

If you have the remotest interest in British television sketch comedy then Q5/Q6/Q7 is an essential purchase.  Whilst all three series are very much of their time, paradoxically in many ways they’re also timeless.  Good comedy never gets old and this is very good comedy.

Q5/Q6/Q7 is released by Simply Media on the 21st of November 2016.  RRP £24.99.

q7.jpg

Till Death us do Part to be released by Network – 5th December 2016

till death.jpg

Till Death us do Part will be released by Network in December.

Highly popular – and more than a little controversial – Johnny Speight’s classic sitcom satirised the less acceptable aspects of conservative working-class culture and the yawning generation gap, creating a sea change in television comedy that influenced just about every sitcom that followed.  As relevant today as when first transmitted, Speight’s liberal attitude to comedy shone a light on some of the more unsavoury aspects of the national character to great effect.

Starring Warren Mitchell as highly opinionated, true-blue bigot Alf Garnett, Till Death Us Do Part sees him mouthing off on race, immigration, party politics and any other issues that take his fancy. His rantings meet fierce opposition in the form of his left-wing, Liverpudlian layabout son-in-law Mike, while liberal daughter Rita despairs and long-suffering wife Else occasionally wields a sharp put-down of her own.

Though all colour episodes exist, many early black and white episodes were wiped decades ago. The recent recovery of the episode Intolerance, however, alongside off-air audio recordings made on original transmission allow us to present a near-complete run of the series from beginning to end.

Meet the Wife – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

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.

meet

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 hannah.page@simplymedia.tv 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.

meet_the_wife

Spike Milligan’s Q Series – Volume One to be released by Simply Media – 21st November 2016

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

A pleasant surprise to see this on the release schedule as it’s the type of series which seemed increasingly unlikely to ever materialise on DVD.  And apart from a few minor trims (to excise unclearable music tracks) it will be as complete as it can possibility be.  Review here.

Spike Milligan’s Q was one of the most surreal sketch shows ever made and a huge influence on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which launched six months after Q first aired in 1969. Now this highly sought-after BAFTA-nominated series gets its first ever home entertainment release courtesy of Simply Media, with Q Volume 1: Series 1-3 released on DVD on 21 November 2016.

Considered one of the best examples of the British Comedy Award winner’s eccentricity and ‘stream-of-consciousness’ humour, Spike Milligan’s sketches in Q make outrageous leaps from one subject matter or location to another, stopping with no apparent conclusion, and not shying away from controversial matters. Filled with invention and taking huge risks, Q provides the perfect showcase for Milligan’s surreal wit.

It is clear to see Monty Python in Spike’s work, and the Pythons were quick to nab director Ian MacNaughton for their own show. The series features regular appearances from John Bluthal (The Vicar of Dibley), John D. Collins (‘Allo ‘Allo), Peter Jones (The Rag Trade), and Margaret Nolan (Goldfinger), with seasoned satirists Richard Ingrams and John Wells prominent in the rarely seen early episodes.

Enjoy the madness and mayhem of Spike Milligan’s Q5, Q6, and Q7 again in this landmark DVD release which contains all surviving episodes from series one, and the complete series two and three.

Dad’s Army – The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage

battle 01

No doubt helped by endless re-runs, Dad’s Army remains one of the most familiar British archive sitcoms.  For some, this familiarity has bred contempt, but whilst parts of it have worn thin over the years (Corporal Jones really needs a good slap) the sheer number of episodes means that you can still stumble over a less well-known instalment which will have a few surprises.

This is particularly true of the surviving episodes from the first two series, as their black and white nature has meant that they don’t get repeated as often as their colour counterparts.  And two episodes from the second series (Operation Kilt and The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage) were only rediscovered in 2001 (in film cans which had spent twenty five years rusting in a garden shed) which gave even hardened Dad’s Army watchers at the time the chance to experience something “new”.

As a child, it was the large-scale visual episodes which appealed, such as The Day the Balloon Went Up, which saw the platoon set off in hot pursuit after Captain Mainwaring, who’d been carried away by a barrage balloon!  As I’ve got older, I find the character-based episodes to be more to my taste.  Ones such as Branded (which saw Godfrey’s courage called into question) and A. Wilson, Manager? (Wilson’s promotion infuriates Mainwaring) now entertain me more.

Although the comedy in Dad’s Army is often broad, it’s also based on historical fact.  The Home Guard was poorly equipped to begin with, which was a worry for many – especially as a German invasion was believed to be imminent.  With guns and ammunition in short supply, other methods of defence and attack had to be found – this webpage has some interesting information, such as the fact that one Home Guard unit carried pepper with them, which they intended to throw into the enemy’s faces!

In The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage, Mainwaring calls his men to the Novelty Rock Emporium, which will be their command post in the event of a German invasion.  The viewer, armed with the knowledge that no invasion was ever attempted, is immediately placed at an advantage over the platoon.  Therefore when the church bells ring and everybody jumps to the wrong conclusion (the Germans have arrived) we can be secure in the knowledge that everything will be all right.

This might been the cue for some slapstick comedy, but instead Perry & Croft go a little darker to begin with.  Mainwaring, Jones and Frazer believe that they’re the only members of the platoon left in the town who can deal with the Germans, so they head off to Godfrey’s cottage (an ideal place to mount a defence, due to its strategic location) in order to make a last ditch attempt to repel the attackers.  All three accept that they’re going to their deaths, but deal with this stoically.  It’s only a brief moment, but it’s a lovely character touch that says so much.

There’s a certain amount of contrivance which has to employed in order to get the plot to work.  Mainwaring, Jones and Frazer have now reached Godfrey’s cottage and Jones puts on an old German helmet (from Godfrey’s adventures in WW1) to defend himself with.  The other members of the platoon, approaching the cottage, see a figure with a German helmet and naturally jump to the wrong conclusion.

Godfrey’s genteel home life – he lives with his two sisters, Dolly (Amy Dalby) and Cissy (Nan Braunton) – is rudely shattered by the arrival of Mainwaring and his machine gun.  If Godfrey seems to be a little disconnected from the realties of life, then that’s even more the case with his sisters.  Dolly’s reaction when she hears that the Germans are coming is just to fret that she’ll have to go and make a great deal more tea for all of their new visitors.

Possibly the most interesting part of the story is how the various members of the platoon deal with the pressure of apparently being under attack from the Germans.  Pike is naturally terrified, Mainwaring is resolute and determined to fight on to the bitter end, whilst Wilson is somewhat hesitant and indecisive (no real change from his normal character then).  But when Wilson believes that the “Germans” in the cottage have surrendered, he initially wants to send Walker out to negotiate with them, whilst he remains behind in safety.  It’s small character moments like this which make The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage a very rewarding episode to rewatch.

battle 02

The Likely Lads – The Other Side of the Fence

likely

The Likely Lads (1964 – 1966) was something of a ground-breaking series.  Fifty years on, its impact may have dulled, but back then a sitcom that revolved around two men who were not only young and working-class but also came from the North was decidedly unusual.

Dick Clement (born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex) and Ian La Frenais (born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear) were two writers with different outlooks and temperaments.  But something about their partnership simply clicked (it’s still going strong today).

Despite the fact that the show was recorded in London, the scripts seemed to catch the authentic feel of working-class life and the show ran for three years.  That it was later rather overshadowed by the sequel series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, is easy to understand. The Likely Lads was made in black and white, so repeats have been more infrequent (plus quite a few of the episodes were wiped and no longer exist).  And to be honest, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is just a better show – the scripting and performances are sharper and the fact that Bob and Terry are a little older is also important.  They’re far from middle-aged, but they’re also no longer the “lads” from the original series.

The Likely Lads seems to take its cue from films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).  Like the central character in that film, Bob (Rodney Bewes) and Terry (James Bolam) work in a factory and live for the weekends, where they can spend their weekly wages on beer, football and girls.

Even in the early episodes, Bob and Terry are very different characters.  Terry never really changes (not even when we meet him again in the 1970’s) but Bob is always keen to “get on”.  This is made plain in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – Bob has a fiancé, a nice new council house and enjoys foreign holidays (a rarity at this time).

But even as early as The Other Side of the Fence (series one, episode four, original tx 6th January 1965) Bob’s desire to better himself comes to the surface.  He has a chance to leave the factory for a job in the office.  It offers better pay and prospects, plus the females are rather nice as well ….

The class/social divide between the factory and office workers is sharply defined.  Terry, waiting for Bob to leave the office for the day, spies the departing office ladies.  They’re a clear class apart from the sort of women he’s used to, but that doesn’t stop him chancing his arm.  Sally Anne (Didi Sullivan), who works in personnel, seems quite responsive whilst Bob has already fallen for Judith (Anneke Wills) who’s the secretary to Bob’s new boss.  The problem is that Judith is in a relationship with the oily rep Nesbit (Michael Sheard).

Despite being born in Aberdeen, Sheard manages a credible Northern accent and is suitably nasty as Bob’s rival in love.  Judith is friendly and helpful to Bob and as played by the lovely Anneke Wills certainly catches the eye.  Is this the reason why Bob attempts to make a go of his office job?

Although you might have expected Terry to be more cynical about Bob’s social climbing, that’s not really the case.  Although it is true that after Bob invites Terry to be his guest at the plush office social he can’t help but stifle a grin at the sight of Bob dressed in a dinner jacket and bow tie.  The fact that most of the other men are similarly attired cuts no ice with Terry, it’s just not the sort of thing that they do.

The evening turns sour when Nesbit gleefully tells Terry that he won’t be able to attend the dance – the function is for office staff only, so Terry (as factory fodder) doesn’t qualify.  Terry doesn’t seem terribly put out, but this slight upsets Bob so much that he jacks in the office job there and then and decides to go back to the factory.

In a way this is rather depressing, the class barrier seems to be still firmly in place as we see the working-class interloper (Bob) returned to where he came from.  But this blow is softened when Bob says he never wanted the job in the drawing office anyway because he’s no good at drawing (the truth or a lie to make Terry feel better?)  The real result occurs just after this, when Sally Anne and Judith decide to go for a drink with Bob and Terry.

Helped by the appearances by Michael Sheard and Anneke Wills, The Other Side of the Fence is entertaining enough.  Bob’s misadventures in the office could be seen as a warning that it’s a good idea to know your place, suggesting that his attempts to better himself were always doomed to failure.  This may be too critical a reading though and since they end up with the girls, everything in the Likely Lads’ world comes right in the end.

Steptoe & Son – The Bird

bird

Following the Comedy Playhouse pilot broadcast in January 1962, The Bird (original tx 14th July 1962) was the first episode of Steptoe & Son proper.  As in the pilot, Harold wishes to break free of the stifling life he leads with his father (here it’s because he’s got a “bird”) whilst Albert (borne out of a fear of being left alone) subtly manipulates his son so that their status quo isn’t disturbed.

The Bird has a very stage-like feel (the opening scene between Harold and Albert lasts for eighteen minutes).  Thanks to the excellent scripting by Galton & Simpson (there’s plenty of funny lines, but many dark ones as well) and the performances of Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett this isn’t really noticeable.  The eponymous bird (played by Valerie Bell) makes a very brief appearance at the end, but The Bird is pretty much a two-hander between Steptoe & Son.

The needle that exists between father and son is re-established right from the start.  After an argument about whether Harold’s done everything for the night (put the horse to bed, closed the gate, etc) their conversation turns to WW1 and WW2.  Harold fought in WW2 whilst Albert tells an incredulous Harold that he was mortally wounded in WW1.  “How could you have been mortally wounded? If you’re mortally wounded, you snuffs it!”

Harold attempts to take Albert’s trousers down to have a look at his war wound, but Albert resists.  The old man threatens that he’ll hit his son if he doesn’t stop larking about, which gives Harold pause for thought.  “Used to wallop me about a lot, didn’t ya? A big fella weren’t ya? When I was seven!”

Harold then recounts his bleak life.  On the cart when he was twelve, in the army for four years and then back on the cart.  He’s now thirty seven and that’s all he’s ever done.  When Albert attempts to stem this bitter tide by appealing to their father/son bond, Harold remains downbeat.  “When was I ever a son to you? Cheap labour that’s all I was”.

After Harold tells his father that’s he’s going out again, Albert is curious and worried.  Any change to their settled domestic life concerns him, and although he threatens to put himself into an old people’s home the next day (since he feels that Harold is neglecting him) it’s plain this is an empty threat.  If he was expecting Harold to react, then he’s sorely disappointed.

Albert’s astounded that his son is having two shaves in one week, although when he learns that Harold’s meeting a bird it all becomes clear.  One of the bleakest exchanges (albeit one that still generates a good laugh from the audience) occurs when Harold, sensing how his father disapproves of his plans, offers him his razor for a quick way out.  “Oh, you poor old man. You ‘aint got nothing to live for, have you? Here, cut your throat. Put yourself out of your misery! No, go on take it, have a go. It don’t take long. It don’t hurt!”  Who said edgy comedy was a relatively new concept?

That Albert is dependent on Harold is once again made clear when his son gleefully mentions some of his father’s less than stellar purchases (an Elizabethan Cocktail Cabinet and a Georgian Record Player for example).  His lack of judgement, together with his failing health (although we’re never sure whether this is genuine or not) are both strong hints that he regards Harold’s bird as a threat.  What would happen to him if Harold and his bird decided to set up home somewhere else?

So this means that Albert’s next suggestion (“bring her ‘ome to dinner”) is a surprising one.   Albert’s clearly been thinking about this for a while – get the good chairs in from the yard, fish and chips from the chip shop, knives and forks and a jar of gherkins.  How could any bird not fail to be impressed?

Shortly after, Harold gives his bird a name for the first time – Roxanne.  The audience reaction to this is quite telling, clearly nice girls weren’t called Roxanne in 1962.  Albert’s re-appearance – all smartened up – delights the audience, although Harold, after making a closer inspection, is disgusted.  “Ugh! You dirty old man! You ‘aint washed yourself, have you. You done yourself up and you ‘aint washed yourself”.  He deals with Albert’s filthy neck by rubbing a bar of soap on it and dunking him into the sink.  Brutal, but effective!

Roxanne’s an hour late, and Albert skilfully plays on Harold’s increasing anger and disappointment.  When she finally turns up, Harold’s in such a state that he turns her away and tells her to never come back.  Albert approves.  “We don’t want no women here, we’re better off by ourselves”.  This just leaves the punchline – Albert moves the hands of the clock back an hour (so Roxanne wasn’t really late at all).

For me, the 1960’s black and white Steptoe & Son is king.  When it returned in the 1970’s in colour there were some great episodes (Divided We Stand, Porn Yesterday, The Desperate Hours) but it never felt quite the same series. The bleakness and bite had somewhat gone and it was rather less subtle.  There are plenty of gags in The Bird, but it’s also brutal in many respects.  Bearing in mind that this was made in the early 1960’s, it’s plain that Steptoe & Son is absolutely key to understanding the development of British situation comedy.  Steptoe & Son demonstrated that you could mix light and dark (a lesson that many other sit-coms down the decades would take to heart).

But The Bird, and the other episodes from the early series of Steptoe & Son, aren’t just curios from another age – they still amuse, entertain and sometimes shock.  It’d be lovely if BBC4 repeated them – but due to their black and white nature that’s sadly not terribly likely.  If you haven’t got the boxset then you should add it to your collection.  True, the quality dips a little later on, but it’s still an essential series.

Hancock’s Half Hour – The Missing Page

missing

If I had to choose a single episode of Hancock’s Half Hour which embodied the spirit of the series, then The Missing Page would be at the top of the list.  Tony was often portrayed as a frustrated intellectual – and this self-delusion is touched upon here.  He claims that he only reads trashy pulp novels in-between tackling heavyweight fare such as Bertrand Russell.  It’s possible to doubt this statement, although Galton & Simpson later develop the theme in The Bedsitter, where we do see him tackle a bit of Bert (albeit not terribly successfully).

Tony’s frustrated with the books on offer at the local library.  He tells the librarian (played with long-suffering irritation by a HHH regular, Hugh Lloyd) that he’s checked out everything they have (“I’ve read Biggles Flies East twenty seven times!”).  This isn’t quite the case though, as there’s one book – Lady Don’t Fall Backwards by Darcy Sartothat’s passed him by.

G&S preface his retrieval of the book (it’s out of reach on the top shelf) with a nice literary joke.  Tony asks the librarian for a number of heavyweight intellectual books and the librarian – clearly impressed – hurries off to find them.  It’s a little contrived that all these obscure books are on the same shelf, but let’s not quibble about that.  Tony’s delighted and uses them as a footstool to retrieve Lady Don’t Fall Backwards!

The sudden arrival of Sid stuns Tony (“you’ve never read a book in your life. You’ve run one, but you’ve never read one”).  This leads into my favourite scene in the episode, indeed one of my all-time favourite Hancock moments.  We’re in the era where it was considered bad form to speak in the library, so more HHH regulars (Alec Bregonzi, Johnny Vyvyan) take turns to shush him.  This is a bit of a problem, as Tony’s keen to tell Sid about another exciting book he’s recently read, so he decides to act it out as a mime.

By the end, both Sid and Peggy Ann Clifford (yet another HHH regular) can’t hide the smiles on their faces.  Was this as scripted or simply a spontaneous reaction?  I’d assume the latter, as it’s such a joyous couple of minutes.

Although G&S have never been regarded as intellectual writers, they continue to slip in some sly literary gags,  one such concerns the formulaic nature of crime fiction.  Tony’s entranced by the book (“good? This is red hot, this is, mate. Hate to think of a book like this getting in the wrong hands. Soon as I’ve finished this I shall recommend they ban it”) and can’t wait to find out who the murderer is, although he reacts with scorn when Sid suggests he simply turns to the final page.

This exchange roots the book firmly in the golden age of detective fiction, a period when crime novels were an intellectual puzzle with everything neatly wrapped up in the final few sentences.  Tony’s also very taken with the book’s hero, Johnny Oxford, telling Sid that from now on he’s switching his allegiance from the Saint to Johnny.  Despite his name, Johnny’s not an English detective, he’s a hard-bitten American PI.  The later revelation that the author, Darcy Sarto, was a British writer seems to be another gag – inferring that the ridiculous and artificial nature of the story (with suspects dropping dead at regular intervals) can be taken even less seriously when it’s learnt that the author had possibly never even been to America.  Was he maybe modelled on James Hadley Chase, a British-born writer who adopted American themes very sucessfully?

Tony shares several nuggets of information about the twisty plot with us.  One of the funniest is the revelation that a trail of footprints in the snow from two left shoes was an error on the part of the murderer (he’d put on a pair of shoes to lay a false trail, but hadn’t realised they were both left ones).  This disappoints Tony. “I was waiting for a pair of one-legged twins to turn up.”

As the title suggests, the final page in the book is missing.  Tony’s distraught – he really, really needs to know the identity of the murderer.  He decides to turn detective himself and re-examines all the suspects (as does Sid).  Neither are successful, so they attempt to find the man who had the book out before them.  They finally track him down (a nice turn by George Coulouris) but he’s no help.  The page was missing when he had the book and he’s spent the last six years in agony, not knowing either!

The mystery is solved in the British Museum, but it doesn’t cheer Tony up.  It’s a nice punchline though and brings to an end another excellent episode of HHH.

 

BBC Landmark Sitcom Season

hancock.jpg

Running across BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4, the upcoming Landmark Sitcom Season is a series of one-off specials designed to celebrate sixty years of the British sitcom (Hancock’s Half Hour, which debuted on BBC tv in 1956, has been taken as the starting point).  Of course, if any prove to be popular they can be developed into full series, which means that the cynics amongst us might regard this as little more than a season of pilots …..

For the purposes of this blog, there’s seven which are of interest – four on BBC1 and the other three on BBC4.  BBC1 gives us Porridge, Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart and Young Hyacinth (a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances) whist BBC4 has Hancock’s Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son.

Goodnight Sweetheart is notable because it’s the only one able to reunite the original cast (alas, time has caught up with most of the stars from the others).  Marks and Gran have already revived another of their sitcoms, Birds of a Feather, on ITV, so it’s not difficult to believe that this has been made with one eye on a full series.

Young Hyacinth is another that’s easy to imagine has been crafted as a back-door pilot.  Writer Roy Clarke has form for this – First of the Summer Wine was an effective (if not terribly popular, ratings-wise) prequel to Last of the Summer Wine – and the current success of Still Open All Hours suggests that Clarke would be up for a revisit of another of his old shows.  Some other time I’ll cast an eye over Clarke’s whole career – it’s amazing that he’s still going strong and it has to be said that his CV is a varied one with a lot more to offer than just umpteen years of Summer Wine.

Are You Being Served looks to be a pitch-perfect recreation of the original series, complete with all the familiar catchphrases.  Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much down to personal taste of course ….

p044wkt3.jpg

Porridge looks to be doing something a little different.  It would have been easy enough to cast someone not physically dissimilar to Ronnie Barker (Peter Kay for example) and simply rehash old glories, but the clips show that it’s very much set in the present day (unlike Are You Being Served which remains stuck in the mid eighties) .  One positive is that the updated Porridge has been scripted by Clement and La Frenais themselves, although it’s slightly concerning that they’re not adverse to plagiarising themselves.  Familiar gags (“I won’t let you catch me”) and a martinet Scottish prison officer are present and correct.

Whilst the BBC1 revivals feature new scripts, the ones on BBC4 take a different approach.  Steptoe, Hancock and Till Death are newly recorded versions of wiped originals …. well sort of.  All the Steptoe episodes still exist, so they’ve chosen one which only remains as a poor quality B&W video recording.

These three episodes have a very different feel to their BBC1 counterparts.  The original sitcoms tended to be rather studio-bound, but these new recordings heighten this feel.  The lack of solid walls in the sets makes them seem rather theatrical and artificial, although it’s more than likely that this has something to do with the fact that BBC4 has a considerably lower budget than BBC1.

Although some of the efforts look interesting rather than rib-tickling, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the Hancock episode.  Kevin McNally has already recorded a number of missing HHH radio scripts for Radio 4 (jolly good they are too) and his performances make it clear just how much love and respect he has for the Lad Himself.

When the season’s up and running I’ll be blogging about some of my favourite British sitcom episodes.  So I guess now’s a good time to go off and do some research …..

The Vital Spark – A Drop O’ The Real Stuff

vital spark

An archive rarity has recently received an unexpected screening on BBC2 and is available, for those who can access it, on the IPlayer.

The tales of Para Handy, written by Neil Munro, first appeared in the Glasgow Evening News between 1905 and 1923.  Para Handy is the skipper of the steamboat The Vital Spark, which is his pride and joy.  Together with his mismatched colleagues – Dan MacPhail, Dougie and Sunny Jim – they wend their way around the coast of Scotland, enjoying various misadventures.

Para Handy first came to BBC television in 1959 with the show Para Handy – Master Mariner, starring Duncan Macrae as Handy.  A few years later came a fresh series of adaptations – entitled The Vital Spark.  Roddy McMillan played Handy (he’d appeared as Dougie in 1959) and there were three series – which aired in 1965, 1967 and 1973/74 (the 1970’s episodes were essentially remakes of selected scripts from the two 1960s runs).

As might be expected, the archive status (like so many other programmes of the era) isn’t particularly good.  Several episodes from the 1970’s series exist (and are available on DVD) whilst only a single episode from the 1960’s run remains in the archive – and this is what has been given a welcome airing.  A Drop ‘O The Real Stuff was the second episode of series one (first aired on the 28th of January 1966).

Para Handy would return to BBC television in the 1990’s, with Gregor Fisher taking the lead role (it’s one of those shows which has inexplicably never been released on DVD).  And whilst this incarnation is quite different to the 1990’s series (it’s a half-hour sitcom with a studio audience, for a start) it’s just as enjoyable.

A Drop ‘O The Real Stuff is worth tracking down.

Hancock – The Bowmans

bowmans

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.

Hancock – The Bedsitter

bedsitter

Tony Hancock told his writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, that he wanted changes for their next (and as it turned out, final) BBC television series.  It’s often been assumed that Hancock’s wish to drop Sid James was motivated from envy and insecurity – Sid was getting too many laughs, so he had to go.

I think it’s much more likely that Hancock understood the format of the series had to change.  Hancock’s Half Hour (both on radio and television) had been a staple of the 1950’s, but now the 1960’s were upon us.  Had the show stayed the same for much longer there might have come a point when both the critical and public acclaim turned to indifference and boredom.

Maybe the seeds for change had been subconsciously sowed by some lines from the classic radio episode Sunday Afternoon at Home.  Tony’s quiet and boring Sunday afternoon is interrupted by next-door neighbour Kenneth Williams.  In this episode, Tony’s radio persona parallels his public one (he’s a successful radio comedian).  But Williams, whilst professing to be a big fan, is monumentally tactless when he tells him that he thinks he’s slipping and that Ted Ray had the edge on him the previous week!

There’s no doubt that these lines from Galton and Simpson were nothing more than affectionate mockery, but for Hancock it may have struck home a little deeper.  So for their final BBC series, renamed Hancock, Sid was gone, East Cheam was gone, and for this first episode Hancock was all on this own, literally.

I love the idea that Galton and Simpson wrote The Bedsitter slightly with their tongues in their cheeks – they reasoned that if Hancock wanted to be by himself, then they’d present him with a script where he’s the only person present!  But Hancock leapt at the chance and despite the one man/one room nature of the episode it’s a tour-de-force for him.

It’s rather like Sunday Afternoon at Home in many ways – a study in boredom.  Tony’s life is basically held in statis, which is made explicit as the last shot of Tony is the same as the first (he’s lying down blowing smoke rings).  And despite his claims that tomorrow will be different, it seems that he’s just deluding himself.  Alone and isolated in an Earls Court flat he has plenty of dreams but lacks the drive to make any of them a reality.

There’s a few nods back to the past.  At one point he picks up a lurid paperback thriller, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards (which was the centrepoint of the classic HHH episode The Missing Page).  Hopefully this time he’s been able to find a copy with that elusive final page!  And when practicing his ventriloquism skills he mentions Peter Brough and Archie Andrews.  One of Hancock’s early radio breaks occurred when he appeared in Educating Archie, acting as a straight-man to Archie Andrews (a vent’s doll voiced by Peter Brough).

Otherwise there’s a stream of unconnected moments – Tony attempts to read Bertrand Russell but is put off by all the long words, burns his lip on a cigarette, attempts to get a signal on his television, etc.  The fragmentary nature of The Bedsitter would be a daunting prospect for many comic actors (as a contrast, Paul Merton’s remake is available to compare) but Hancock is easily up to the task.  Although he was presumably anxious about having to carry a twenty five minute show by himself (and had lines written around the set as a backup) he wasn’t reliant at this point on reading the lines off boards.

Mid-way through the episode it seems that Tony’s luck has changed.  A wrong number leads to an invitation to a cider and gin party (I’ll bring the cider, says Tony).  A chance for a date with (he hopes) an attractive woman brings out a burst of enthusiasm, although this all comes to naught when she rings up later to cancel.  You can hear a few audible awwws from the audience at this point, which is rather nice.

If The Bedsitter teaches us anything, it’s that Tony Hancock was perfectly able to carry the show by himself.  Had Sid been present in the flat then the whole dynamic of the piece would have been totally different – not necessarily better or worse, just different. However, the rest of the series does operate on more traditional lines and sees Hancock crossing swords with a whole host of very good comic actors.

And the quality of the supporting casts that we’ll see over the forthcoming episodes (Patrick Cargill, Hugh Lloyd, June Whitfield, John Le Mesurier, etc) does rather give the lie to the oft-repeated and lazy claim that Hancock hated to be upstaged by others.  If he had, he would have surrounded himself with mediocre talent – which is obviously not the case here.  It does seem plain that one of the reasons why these shows remain fresh, some fifty five years later, is due to the fine ensemble casts.

A wonderfully detailed and thought-provoking analysis of The Bedsitter can be found on the blog You Have Just Been Watching.  It’s well worth a read.

Up next is an everyday tale of country folk which remains very topical today.

1960’s BBC sitcom Hugh and I (Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott) to be released by Simply HE in September 2015

hugh and i

Simply HE have announced that they will release a DVD of Hugh and I on the 7th of September 2015.

Hugh and I was a popular, if not first division, sitcom that ran on the BBC for six series, between 1962 and 1967, and starred Hugh Lloyd (a familiar face from Hancock’s Half Hour) and Terry Scott (later to enjoy sitcom fame, or infamy depending on your point of view, in Terry and June).

According to Lost Shows twenty four episodes exist, although the running time of the DVD suggests that it will contain eighteen.  Either the Lost Shows listing is incorrect or the running time is, as it doesn’t seem likely that Simply would only leave a handful of episodes for a second release.

Time will tell and if more information comes to light I’ll update this post.