The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show Three

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Original Transmission – 24th April 1971

Written by Garry Chambers, Eric Idle, David McKellar, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley

Intro/News Items
Party Sketch – Hello
New World – Listen to the Falling Rain
Ronnie B Solo – Weather Forecaster
Tina Charles – Close to Me
Hampton Wick – Episode Three
Ronnie C in the Chair
Doctor’s Sketch – Ronnie B as a man who’s caught Radio 4
Georges Schlick
Moira McKellar and Kenneth Anderson
Outro

Notes: Yet another party sketch with Ronnie B as the dominant force, in this case a man so sensitive that he reacts with suspicion to Ronnie C’s innocent greeting of hello.  For example, Ronnie B’s first response is to wonder whether Ronnie C really meant to say “hello, you boring old git, who invited you?” Given that most of the Pythons have writing credits on these early shows, it seems that some of the material had originally been earmarked for Monty Python. Indeed, in the past the Pythons have joked that if a sketch didn’t work then they’d send it onto the Ronnies!

This is one that could easily have fitted into Monty Python (and so seems a little out of place here) as the punchline sees the camera pull back to reveal that everyone in the party, expect for Ronnie C, is dead. Not quite the way you’d expect a Two Ronnies sketch to end.

New World are a vision in matching outfits whilst Tina Charles demonstrates she’s able to show restraint by tackling a quieter song in Close to Me.

There’s another typically convoluted chair monologue from Ronnie C, with plenty of incidental pleasures along the way.  “I was just stretching my legs there. Did you see that? Stretching my legs. Left it a bit late in life, haven’t I really?”

A short sketch features the Ronnies as doctor and patient (Ronnie B is a man who’s caught Radio 4). After he asks if it’s bad, there’s an obvious punch-line. “Bad? Have you heard it? It’s terrible.”

Georges Schlick is the latest speciality act – a rather good ventriloquism performance – which leads into the Ronnies as Moira McKellar and Kenneth Anderson. Any similarities to Kenneth McKellar and Moira Anderson must be purely coincidental then ….

The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show Two

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Original Transmission – 17th April 1971

Written by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer, Eric Idle, David McKellar, Chris Miller, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Bill Solly, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley

Introduction/News Items
Party Sketch – Ronnie C’s embarrassing baldness
New World
Hampton Wick – Episode Two
Tina Charles – Ruby Tuesday
Ronnie C in the Chair
Tarzan in Suburbia sketch
Jo, Jac and Joni
Gilbert and Sullivan
Outro

Notes: The desks are no longer at a weird angle and although a smaller CSO back screen remains – seemingly showing a shot of the universe – it no longer changes to display a picture for every news item.

The party sketch features Ronnie C as Mr Goldie, a rather bald man (wearing a not very convincing bald cap). After being told not to mention his baldness, of course Ronnie B can’t help himself (referring to him as Baldy, rather than Goldie to begin with). Ronnie B gets most the lines here as he attempts to dig himself out of this unpromising start, whilst Ronnie C is able to sit back and simply react. Such is Ronnie B’s over-sensitiveness, that even words like “wig-wam” are off limits – he quickly changes it to “wog-wam” (“you know, the wams where the wogs live”). Politically correct this is not …

Episode Two of Hampton Wick is chiefly memorable for Madeline Smith’s dress, which at times is unable to restrain her ample charms.  How they got away with some of the shots is anyone’s guess ….

New World warble an unknown (to me) song whilst Tina Charles continues her full-throttle attack on pop classics by tackling the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday. She certainly doesn’t hold back, that’s for sure.

Although some of the productions misteps from the opening show have been ironed out, there’s still a sense that this is early days – as sometimes sketches don’t finish with a musical flourish, as they do later on, but rather with a fade to black.

Ronnie B makes an unlikely looking Tarzan (but then Ronnie C would have been even less convincing). But the strange juxtaposition of Tarzan crashing into the suburban garden of Ronnie C’s Arthur Norris is an appealing one.

As with the first show, there’s a moment of fourth-wall breakage, as the end of this sketch is interrupted to prepare the way for the spesh act – in this case Jo, Jac and Joni. They demonstrate that variety isn’t dead with a spot of musical comedy.

For a long time, the show would often end with a musical number – in this case Gilbert and Sullivan entertain (or not) us with a some of their favourite numbers, albeit cunningly re-worded. At least this one doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show One

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Original Transmission – 10th April 1971

Written by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cyer, Eric Idle, Chris Miller, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Bill Solly, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley

Introduction/News Items
Party Sketch – Ronnie B finds it impossible not to keep attacking Ronnie C
Tina Charles – River Deep, Mountain High
Ronnie B Solo – A Doctor who has a cure for people who say everything twice
Hampton Wick – Episode One
Ronnie C – Interpol Sketch
New World – Rose Garden
Ronnie C in the Chair
Hearing Aid Sketch
Alfredo
Big Jim Jehosophat and Fat Belly Jones
Outro

Notes: Although the Ronnies had worked together for a number of years prior to this, there’s still a slight sense of nervousness on show (especially in Ronnie B’s case). This is evident in the opening news items which seem more than a little stilled – although the weird set design (angled desks) and CSO back projections don’t help. This would be swiftly amended for show two.

The first of many party sketches finds Ronnie B in an abusive mood, first slapping Ronnie C’s face and then kneeing him in the groin! And since the slaps sound real it seems that Ronnie B wasn’t holding back.

Some of the Ronnies serials tend to drag a bit and Hampton Wick is the first example of this.  Luckily Madeline Smith’s winsome beauty is some recompense for the fairly laboured comedy.

These early series have an abundance of guests (later on they’d be pared down to just a single guest spot). The sixteen-year old Tina Charles impressively belts out River Deep, Mountain High whilst New World offer a blend of laid-back acoustic warbling that’s rather relaxing – although the moustaches and hairstyles on display make it a little hard to take them seriously.  But Rose Garden was a hit for them in 1971, reaching no 15 in the UK charts.

As for Alfredo, well he’s the first in a series of speciality acts who pop up in most of the series one shows.  Where else are you going to see a man dressed in German military uniform playing the drums and (sometimes) catching ping pong balls in his mouth?  If that’s not entertainment I don’t know what is.

Q – Volume 2 (Q8/Q9). Simply Media DVD Review

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Q  – Volume 2 contains the final two series of Spike Milligan’s highly distinctive (and that’s putting it mildly) comedy series – Q8 and Q9, broadcast in 1979 and 1980.  For those new to Q, I’ve discussed the first three series here.

The formula remains the same – scripted by Milligan and Neil Shand, Q8/Q9 offers up another twelve episodes of unique comedy.  Familiar faces from previous series – John Bluthal, David Lodge, Alan Clare, Stella Tanner, the remarkably curvaceous Julia Breck and Keith Smith – return for Q8, whilst Bob Todd makes his Q debut.  A familiar face from his years with Benny Hill, be slips seamlessly into the fold.

Todd was an excellent utility player and quickly became a key figure in many of the sketches (similar to Peter Jones in Q6), Bluthal’s gift for mimicking Hughie Greene and others is put to good use again, Keith Smith has some nice moments (most notably dangling upside down on a rope), David Lodge (he starred in Cockleshell Heroes you know) is always a joy, Stella Tanner handles all the non-glamorous female roles with aplomb, Alan Clare is still (deliberately) a terrible actor whilst Julia Breck unashamedly provides more than a touch of glamour.

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Q8, like the three previous series, is almost impossible to characterise.  It delights and baffles – sometimes in equal measure, although sometimes the balance decisively tips one way or the other.

Q often seems to be teetering on the brink, with all the cast, especially Spike, frequently having to fight the giggles (often not very successfully). Most sketch shows tend to break the fourth wall occasionally, but few ever played about with the artifice and conventions of television like Q did.

Having said all that, some elements are quite trad. Proceedings tend to kick off with Spike behind the desk, reading a series of news items which depend on wordplay. Not too dissimilar from The Two Ronnies …..

But after the relative sanity of the news we rush headlong into the first sketch of Q8. Stella Tanner is a housewife, Spike is her husband. Out of nowhere a pantomime horse, wearing pyjama bottoms, comes clopping across the screen to the sound of The Onedin Line theme.

This gets a polite reception from the audience, but Spike clearly wanted more. “Well, that didn’t get much of a laugh, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t think you understood the full nuance of that joke.” This is typical Spike – toying with the audience (both in the studio and at home) by producing moments which aren’t particularly funny, but then forcing the laughs to come by various methods. Bringing an elephant on seems to do the trick here.

The sketch then moves to a doctor’s office, where the doctor (Todd) is, naturally enough, dressed as Adolf Hitler. Spike drops his trousers to reveal he’s wearing stockings and suspenders whilst a football theme (Tony Gubba on commentary duties) continues. And when there’s nowhere else to go, all the cast edge towards the camera, repeating the mantra “what are we going to do now?”

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And that sketch, in a nutshell, sums up Q. You have to be prepared to buy into Spike’s world and go with the flow – if you’re looking for well constructed comedy with neat punchlines you’re very much in the wrong place. Staples of the previous series (such as blackface and Irish jokes) remain very much in evidence, meaning that those who are easily offended are definitely in the wrong place.

Spike’s obession with Adolf Hitler remains as constant as ever. Hitler highlights include his song and dance act as a contestant on Opportunity Knocks. The Royal Family are also regular targets (the sight of the Royals all wearing tubas on their heads is an unforgettable image).

The musical spots throughout Q8 and Q9 are provided by Spike and Ed Welch, who perform a selection of their own songs. Spike’s skills as a comic songwriter are well known, but here we have an opportunity to hear some of his non-comic material (as well as providing him with a chance to occasionally play the trumpet). These spots offer the audience a few moments of calm each week.

Later highlights of Q8 include a typically surreal sketch which mashes up traffic wardens and WW2 (and also features stripteases from both Julia Breck and Bob Todd – something for everyone then). Johnny Vyvyan, a highly distinctive stooge probably best known for his appearances with Tony Hancock, makes a few brief appearances. Spike’s tribute to the late Sir Edward Elgar, utilising the B-flat garden hose, is yet another typically unique Q moment.

After being absent for a few shows, David Lodge makes a welcome return for a sketch where he and Spike demonstrate how different nationalities would deliver that old chestnut, “there’s a fly in my soup.” With Katie Boyle on hand to provide scores, ala the Eurovision Contest, it’s a typically ramshackle few minutes with both Spike and Lodge (but especially Spike of course) barely able to control their giggles. Michael Parkinson pops up in the last episode of Q8 to take part in another ramshackle skit.

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It’s business as usual for Q9. Spike and most of his regular band of contributors (apart from Stella Tanner) return.

The first Q9 sketch has a WW1 theme, featuring Alan Clare as an umpire (with ridiculously large shoes) overseeing a battle between the Germans (Spike) and the English (Todd). It gets much stranger from there on in, although since Julia Breck makes an appearance in a remarkably tight top it’s inevitable there will be a reference to knockers ….

Spike dresses as Max Miller for an undertakers sketch, whilst Breck is dressed in very little (there’s clearly something of a theme here). Lounging on the other side of the set is Raymond Baxter, yet another familiar BBC face making an unexpected appearance. Baxter, a long-time presenter on Tomorrow’s World, is the ideal host for a feature which promises to “defeat the cemetery shortage” by “firing your loved one into outer space”. Baxter’s authoritive persona and his scripted disdain at the lines he’s been given helps to make the sketch even funnier.

Later in the series there’s a sketch set in a British Rail lost property office. Spike is the attendant, dressed as the Lord Chief Justice of England, and proceedings kick off with Spike and Bob Todd conversing in morse code. Say what you like about Q, but it’s never predictable. Todd can barely control his giggles, whilst David Rappaport passes by purely so that Spike can make a groanworthy pun. Throw in a spot of blackface, Keith Smith as a ghost and David Lodge dressed as a woman and you’ve got everything that made Q the series it was in highly concentrated form.

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One of the notable things about Q9 is the way in which the audience is involved. The news items feature regular cutaways to the audience and on other occassions Spike will stop a sketch if he senses things aren’t going well in order to seek feedback from the audience. It’s always interesting to see exactly who turned up to watch these shows (something of a cross-section it must be said, with both young and old represented).

Bracing and baffling, but never boring, Q8 and Q9 are further examples of the skewered genius of Spike Milligan.  Whatever era of British comedy you love, you’re bound to get something out of this set so, like Q Volume 1, it’s an essential purchase.

Hopefully There’s A Lot of It About (Q10 in all but name) will follow shortly, maybe with some of the Milligan miscellanea from his time at the BBC, but if even it doesn’t, at least all that exists of Q (bar a few small trims for rights reasons) is now available on shiny discs, something which just a year ago would have seemed highly unlikely.

Q – Volume Two is released by Simply Media on the 27th of February 2017.  RRP £19.99.

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Christmas Night with the Stars 1972

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This was the final regular edition of CNWTS, with the Two Ronnies on hand on introduce Cilla Black, the Young Generation, Lulu, Mike Yarwood & Adrienne Posta, The Liver Birds, The Goodies and Dad’s Army.

Unlike David Nixon and Jack Warner, the Ronnies took a much more active role in proceedings, which means that it feels somewhat like an extended Two Ronnies show (most notably at the start, which opens in the time honoured way – news items, followed by a Two Rons party sketch).  This explains why the cut-down DVD version (excising all the other participants apart from Lulu and Cilla Black) still works pretty well as a Two Ronnies show in its own right.

The Young Generation back Lulu, as well as enjoying their own spot.  There’s rather a lot of them, aren’t there?  After Lulu and the Young Generation have leapt about for a few minutes, the Goodies arrive – via a film sequence which promises a grubby urchin the Christmas of his life (thanks to the Goodies Travelling Instant Five Minute Christmas).  Dialogue-free, it’s packed with typical Goodies sight gags as well as a healthy dose of comic violence (would they be able to get away with hitting a boy over the head with an outsized mallet today? Probably not).

Up next is The Liver Birds, which sees Beryl (Polly James) and Sandra (Nerys Hughes) reflecting on various aspects of Christmas – overindulgence and family relationships being top of the agenda.  The kind-hearted Sandra regards the remains of the turkey with sadness, whilst Beryl – always more pragmatic – has a different point of view. “Well, it’s his destiny isn’t it? I mean we’ve all got to die sometimes, it’s just that some of us go in black cars surrounded by flowers and some of us go in roasting tins surrounded by spuds.”

The Two Ronnies return for a some chat about their respective Christmases, which is notable for the number of times that Ronnie B stumbles over his lines. It’s a little odd that they didn’t do a retake, so either time was tight or it was decided that on Christmas Day the audience would be in a mellow mood and therefore more forgiving.

I’ve written elsewhere, about Mike Yarwood’s later career when his star was somewhat waning.  Here, a decade earlier, he’s pretty much at the top of his game – although this is a sequence that’s very much of its time (and if I’m being honest, a few of the impressions are a little weak).  The setting is a party at Number 10, so you won’t be surprised to hear that Harold Wilson and Edward Heath are in attendance (as is Frankie Howerd, for some strange reason).  Adrienne Posta provides support, but the topical nature of the piece makes it less effective than the more universal nature of the rest of the programme.

As a child, I tended to find Ronnie C’s chair monologues rather dull.  Now they’re often the highlight of their shows (funny how times and tastes change) so I’m glad one was included here.  Ronnie C also joins Cilla Black for a little crosstalk and a song, although how much you get from this part of the show will probably depend on how high your tolerance to Cilla Black is.

For me, we’re on firmer ground with Dad’s Army.  The platoon are incredibly proud to have been selected by the BBC to broadcast live to the nation on Christmas Day, but things aren’t as straightforward as Mainwaring would have hoped.  The rehearsals are slightly chaotic – thanks to the script provided by the BBC.  They’d assumed that the sergeant would be a cockney and the officer a gentleman, so Wilson is somewhat bemused that his part is full of slang whilst Mainwaring is incensed to be told that he doesn’t sound like an officer!  When the BBC man suggests that maybe they swop roles, the expressions on the faces of both Le Mesurier and Lowe are a joy!  With the rest of the platoon pitching in, notably to produce sound effects (Pike is in his element when asked to provide bird sounds) this is a nicely-written sequence with a decent pay off.

Following another quick Two Ronnies sketch, Cilla Black is back (along with a children’s choir – always a good bet at Christmas) to round things off before the Two Rons say goodbye with a selection of news item.

“And now it’s a Merry Christmas from me. And it’s a Happy New Year from him. Goodnight.”

 

Porridge – The Harder They Fall

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Upon hearing the news of Peter Vaughan’s death, I decided  to grab one of his performances off the shelf to watch as a tribute.  But as you’ll see from a quick skim of his résumé on IMDB, he was an incredibly prolific actor (over two hundred individual film and television credits), so which one to choose?

He’s solid throughout The Gold Robbers (1969) as DCS Craddock.  It’s a series that I’ve now moved a little higher up my rewatch pile and I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you don’t own it.  Another memorable performance came in the 1985 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, where he played Tulkinghorn.  Vaughan’s trademark menace is clearly in evidence as he dominates every scene he’s in (frankly he makes Charles Dance, Tulkinghorn in the more recent adaption, look very ordinary).

Vaughan also graced numerous series with fine guest appearances.  One such was The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1991, where he played John Turner in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, opposite Jeremy Brett as Holmes .  Generally, the last few series of Brett’s Sherlock Holmes are a little patchy – partly this was because of various real-life factors (Edward Hardwicke’s availability, Brett’s illness) but it’s mainly because most of the really good stories had already been adapted.  The Boscombe Valley Mystery is something of a rarity then, a decent early tale that hadn’t been tackled, featuring a brief – but compelling – turn from Vaughan.

Having considered these and more, in the end I plumped for one of his signature roles – Grouty in Porridge.  That Vaughan remains indelibly linked to Porridge is all the more remarkable when you consider that he only appeared in three television episodes (this one, No Way Out and Storm in a Teacup) as well as the feature film.  But although his screentime is incredibly limited, it’s interesting how Genial Harry Grout casts a shadow over the whole series.  He’s mentioned in several episodes before he makes his debut (quite late in fact, The Harder They Fall came towards the end of the second series) so the audience has already been well primed about exactly who he is.

Genial Harry Grout’s place in the narrative is quite straightforward.  He always pops up to ask Fletch to do him a little favour, making Fletch an offer he can’t refuse.  As seen throughout the series, Fletch either likes to steer clear of trouble or initiate it himself – only Grouty has the power to manipulate him.  Most of Vaughan’s scenes in Porridge were played opposite Ronnie Barker and it’s a treat to watch the pair of them at work.

Grouty’s first scene is a case in point.  Unlike every other prisoner, he has an impressively decorated cell – pictures on the wall, a bird in a cage, an expensive hi-fi system – which are clear signifiers of his special status.  Quite why Mackay and the Governor turn a blind eye to this is a mystery that’s never answered (there are a few possibilities though – all of them sinister).

Offering Fletch a cup of cocoa and a Bath Olivier, Grouty settles down for a chat.  He reminisces about his time in Parkhurst, this provides Vaughan with a killer line as he tells Fletch what happened to the pigeon he kept there.  This is a mere preamble though, as Grouty soon makes his intentions clear – he has a rival (Billy Moffatt) who’s running a book on the inter-wing boxing tournament.  Grouty wants him taken to the cleaners – so they have to nobble one of the boxers. The scene’s desgned to set up the premise of the episode, but thanks to the writing and playing this never feels obvious – instead, the audience is invited to enjoy the dangerous charm of Harry Grout.

Young Godber is the one chosen to take a dive and it’s down to Fletch to break the bad news.  Both Barker and Beckinsale are wonderful throughout this later scene – capped by the revelation from Godber that he can’t take a dive for Grouty in the second round, because he’s already agreed to take a dive for Billy Moffatt in the first!

The exceedingly good Cyril Shaps plays the twitchy Jackdaw, the newest and weediest of Grouty’s gang, whilst Fulton Mackay has a couple of decent scenes (Brian Wilde only pops up briefly – on film – at the start though).

If the ending’s a little weak (it’s hard to believe that everyone – especially Grouty – was happy with the outcome) then thanks in no small part to the interplay between Barker and Vaughan, The Harder They Fall is still a classic half-hour.

I Didn’t Know You Cared – Second Sight DVD Review

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Peter Tinniswood (1936 – 2003) first came to prominence in the 1960’s, collaborating with David Nobbs on The Frost Report and also penning Lance at Large, a sitcom built around the talents of Lance Percival.  He also pursued a career as a novelist and two of his books – A Touch of Daniel (1971) and I Didn’t Know You Cared (1973) – would form the basis of his most enduring television creation.

The television version of I Didn’t You Know Cared, adapted loosely by Tinniswood from his novels, ran for four series between 1975 and 1979 (a third novel, Except You’re A Bird, was published in 1976).  Although the series was popular at the time, it sadly doesn’t have a very high profile these days.  Some maintain this is because of its strong Northern atmosphere, but I’m not sure this is so – after all, it bears some similarities to Last of the Summer Wine, and that’s a series which has always had broad appeal.

The comparison with LOTSW is a fair one (and not least because John Comer appeared in both series).  They both depict worlds where married life is a constant battle, with neither side giving any quarter.  In I Didn’t Know You Cared it’s the formidable Annie Brandon (Liz Smith) who rules the roost with considerable relish.

The opening episode, Cause for Celebration, sees Uncle Mort (Robin Bailey) bury his wife Edna (who had the bad luck to fall off a trolleybus onto her head).  Mort doesn’t exactly seem heartbroken – fretting that because the funeral’s taking so long he’s going to miss the football results – but later does admit that he’ll miss her.  “She was a dab hand at plumbing you know. God knows who’s going to paint the outside of the house now she’s dead.”  But every cloud has a silver lining and he’s happy that from now on he’ll be able to wear his cap at the dinner-table.

Bailey tended to play upper-class most of the time, so the earthy Northerner Mort was something of a departure for him.  But he’s never less than excellent and thanks to Tinniswood’s pithy dialogue he’s always got plenty of good material to work with.

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Mort sneaks away from the funeral party with his brother-in-law Les (John Comer).  If Mort is starting to relish his new found freedom, then spare a thought for Les, shortly due to celebrate twenty five years of marriage to Annie.  She wants a second honeymoon, whilst Les doesn’t seem to have recovered from the first.  As Mort and Les seek refuge and a nice cup of tea in the comfortable hut at Mort’s allotment (Mort grows weeds, explaining to Les that they’re much better than sprouts) they muse over the mysteries of marriage.  Les believes that having to marry a woman is where the trouble starts – if he could have chosen anyone, he’d have picked King George VI!  They’re joined by Les’ son Carter (Stephen Rea), and after a few moments Mort decides that “t’fly in ointment is the human reproduction system.”

How much better would it be, Mort says, if a woman laid an egg and sat on it for nine months.  “Just think, she’d be stuck in t’house for nine months, sat on her egg. She’d have no excuse for coming to t’pub with you then.”  Carter sees a flaw in this admirable idea though – why couldn’t she put the egg in the oven for a bit?  After considering this, Mort decides that it wouldn’t work, not with the way that gas pressure is like these days.  “You couldn’t rely on it. Just think what would happen. You’d put your oven on at regulo 2, you’d stick you egg in it, you’d nip out for a couple of gills. When you come back you find t’gas pressure’s gone up and your potential son and heir’s turned into a bloody omelette.”

Alas, their peace and quiet doesn’t last for long as Annie tracks them down.  She depresses Mort by telling him that he’s going to come and live with her and Les (so he won’t be sneaking down to the pub every night and doing exactly what he pleases).  Carter also has the sense that the walls are closing in on him after he’s forced to stop prevaricating and propose to Pat (Anita Carey).  Well I say propose, but his mumbled words fall a little short of that – no matter to Pat though, she’s now steaming full ahead and starts by asking him if he’d like a son or a colour television first …

In the space of thirty minutes Tinniswood has set everything up nicely – Annie and Les, Carter and Pat, plus Uncle Mort.  Not to mention Uncle Staveley (Bert Palmer) hovering in the background, constantly asking “pardon?”

During the first series we see the preparations for Carter and Pat’s marriage.  Mort and Les, old hands in the marriage game, are keen to give him the benefit of their experience (they both think it’s a very bad move). Unsurprisingly Pat don’t find this terribly helpful. By series two they’ve tied the knot, although Carter’s finding it rather difficult to adjust to married life.  Both Rea and Carey left after the second series, so Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding took over the roles for the final two series (Leslie Saroney replaced Bert Palmer as Uncle Stavely for the fourth and final series).

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The endless conflict between men and women is explored in the series two episode A Woman’s Work. Mort is depressed at having to spend all day trapped in the house with only Annie and Pat for company. He eyes Les and Carter with envy – they’ll soon be setting off to the factory for a day of filth and squalor (he tells them they don’t know how lucky they are!)

Familiar Tinniswood tropes come to the fore – not only do the women do all the housework (which goes without saying) but they also deal with the household maintenance as a matter of course. Annie recalls the problem they had with the guttering, which wasn’t helped by the fact she was stuck on the roof for six hours after Les took the ladder away. He tells her there was a good reason – he had to repair a hole in the snooker club roof – and he doesn’t seem to appreciate that she may have had different priorities.

Carter and Pat are now married and Pat is eyeing their new home. Anita Carey continues to impress as Pat, an upwardly mobile woman who embraces the new. She’s very taken with the qualities of their potential new neighbours (mainly because of the gadgets on their cars) and is also keen to mould the reluctanct Carter into a new man. This isn’t going to be easy though ….

Mort’s reminisces of his married life are another of the episode’s highlights – especially the moment when he recalls how Edna would demand her conjugal rights every Saturday evening. “Oh ‘ell, I’d say. Can I keep me pyjama jacket on? Undiluted bloody agony.”

Paul Barber pops up in a couple of episodes, including this one, as Les and Carter’s factory colleague Louis St. John. The dialogue Barber has is a little awkward (for example, when asked if he had a good weekend he says that he “took the awd lady to t’witch doctors on Saturday, had a couple of missionaries for Sunday lunch”). Another familiar face lurking in the factory is John Salthouse as the impressively-named Rudyard Kettle. Salthouse would later play DI Galloway in The Bill.

Tinniswood’s dialogue remains endlessly quotable. In a later series two episode, You Should See Me Now, Annie recalls that the last time her husband took her out alone was the week after the Second World War ended. “We went to hotpot supper at Moffat Street tram sheds.” With just a single line Tinniswood is able to paint a very vivid picture.

Taking over roles played by someone else is never easy, but both Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding fit very nicely into the third series as the new Carter and Pat. The opening episode – Men at Work – develops the theme from A Woman’s Work. There we saw Mort going a little stir-crazy, trapped in the house all day, now matters are made even worse as he’s joined by Les and Carter, both of whom are out of work. They react to the spectre of unemployment in different ways – Carter is building a model battleship painfully slowly whilst Les becomes an efficient house-husband (Comer looking fetching in a pink pinny).

The fourth and final series opened with The Love Match. This sees the Brandons throw a posh dinner-partly at which Les mournfully notes that they must be having peas since there’s three forks on the table. Annie is in a much more positive mood though. “It must be years since I got dressed up in a long frock and squirted scent under me armpits.”  It must be said that Liz Smith does look rather, well rather …..

Other highlghts later in the series include Mort’s unexpected expressions of love (given all he’s previously said about the horrors of married life this is more than a little surprising). An especially strong episode is The Great Escape, which sees Pat tell Carter that she’s planning to spend two nights away on business. Poor Pat wants Carter to be absolutely incensed and jealous with rage, but the phelgmatic Carter is his usual calm self. There’s a darker tone to this one though, as Carter’s eyeing the voluptuous charms of Linda (Deidree Costello) even as he’s bidding Pat farewell. But when Pat is hospitalized shortly afterwards, a stricken Carter is forced to abandon his escape plans. Drinkel, sitting by the unconscious Pat’s bedside, plays the scene very well.

With uniformly strong performances from all of the main cast (especially Bailey, Comer and Smith) and sparkling dialogue from Peter Tinniswood, I Didn’t Know You Cared is an obscure sitcom gem.  But with writing and acting as good as this it deserves to be much better known.

I Didn’t Know You Cared is released by Second Sight on the 28th of November 2016.  RRP £24.99.

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Seven of One – I’ll Fly You For a Quid

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Count the number of Welsh clichés in the opening thirty seconds.  Male voice choir, check.  Shot of the village with the colliery prominent, check.  A full house at the chapel, check.  If this one had ever gone to a series then goodness knows how many more clichés it would have racked up.

At least it has a decent number of Welsh actors. Talfryn Thomas, at times the BBC’s stock Welshman, naturally appears as does the always watchable Emrys James as Reverend Simmonds.  Barker, of course, wasn’t Welsh but he manages a decent accent (which he’d later revive for the largely forgotten Roy Clarke sitcom The Magnificent Evans).  Barker plays Grandpa Owen (who doesn’t last long) as well as the younger Evan Owen.

Gambling fever has long gripped the village and the late Grandpa Owen leaves his family with a problem.  His son Evan realises that just before he died his father had a big win on the horses.  But where is the betting slip?  After searching the house with no success, Evan decides that the slip must be in the coffin, meaning that Grandpa Owen’s peace has to be disturbed ….

The second of two Seven of One scripts penned by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, this was the one that Barker felt had the best chance of going to a series (he had to be persuaded that a prison-based comedy had legs).  And if it had moved away from the rather limiting topic of gambling then the quality of the cast (including Richard O’Callaghan and Beth Morris as Evans’ son and daughter) would have been a major plus point.

O’Callaghan may not be Welsh, but he still makes a good impression as Mortlake, a man just as keen as his father to dive into the coffin to see if the betting slip is there.  Although since the coffin isn’t yet screwed down you have to wonder just why they just don’t open it up and be done with it.  The lovely Beth Morris doesn’t have a great deal to do except stand around and look lovely (especially at the end, where her low-cut dress has Talfryn Thomas’ Mr Pugh rather lost for words).

Apart from Prisoner and Escort and Open All Hours, Seven of One offers up fairly forgettable fair.  I’ll Fly You For a Quid is one of the stronger later entries, but overall the series lacks the consistency of Six Dates with Barker.

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Seven of One – One Man’s Meat

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Alan Joyce (Barker) has been put on a strict diet by his wife Marion (Prunella Scales) and is told that he has to last the entire day without any food.  When she leaves he naturally heads straight off to the kitchen, but is appalled to find she’s taken every last scrap of food away.  And heading out to the shops is going to be a problem, because she’s removed all his pairs of trousers too …..

Written by Barker, under the penname of Jack Goetz, it’s not a surprise that One Man’s Meat gives him the (ahem) plum role.  Despite the heavyweight supporting cast – Scales, Sam Kelly, Glynn Edwards, Barbara New and Joan Sims – Barker is by himself for a large part of the episode’s duration.

Scales tops and tails the episode.  It’s nothing to do with the story, but Marion mentions that they’ve recently seen a blue movie at Bill and Nora’s house – this shines a light into the ways that the respectable middle-classes entertained themselves during the 1970’s.  Did they then indulge in a spot of wife swapping?  That would have made an interesting story, but possibly a post watershed one.

There’s more touchstones to the 1970’s as Alan mentions that he plans to fight the flab with Terry Wogan.  He’s too late to catch him though, so has to put up with Jimmy Young instead.  And since JY is delivering his latest recipe it’s all too much (he dunks the radio in the sink).

Although Alan attempts to order a takeaway from a Chinese restaurant (cue slanty-eyed acting from Barker, another moment which helps to date the story) he appears to be unsuccessful.  Presumably there were no other takeaways in the area?  This is something of a story weakness.

His desire for food then causes him to pretend he’s been burgled.  Two policemen (Edwards & Kelly) turn up, with Alan eyeing their trousers enviously.  It’s nice to see Sam Kelly and Glynn Edwards, even if they’ve not got a great deal to do.  I wonder if this small role led to Kelly being cast as Bunny Warren in Porridge?

The inimitable Joan Sims fairs a little better as the Joyce’s housekeeper, Mrs Dawkins.  Barker gives her some good lines which allows Sims to deadpan with her usual skill, ensuring that her scenes with Barker are the undoubted highlight of the whole thirty minutes.  Alas, she don’t appear for very long as Alan decides to steal Mrs Dawkins’ clothes, dress up as a woman and head out to the shops.  When in doubt, drag up, I guess.

One Man’s Meat has a sparkling cast and is a lovely time capsule of the seventies, but, like Alan’s stomach for most of the day, is a rather empty affair.  However if the story doesn’t appeal then you always entertain yourself by counting how many times microphone shadows appear (director Harold Snoad must have been having an off day).

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Seven of One – Another Fine Mess

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Sydney (Roy Castle) and  Harry (Barker) are keen to head off to the talent night at the Dirty Dachshund, but Harry’s ogre of a wife – Doris (Avis Bunnage) – doesn’t want him to go.  A few extra sleeping pills helps to ensure she sleeps like a baby, enabling Sydney and Harry to transform themselves into the spitting image of Laurel and Hardy and slip out into the night  …

Even before they’ve dressed up it should be fairly to easy to guess the direction that this one will take (the episode title is a bit of a giveaway too).  It’s a little strange that Sydney and Harry both talk and act like Laurel and Hardy in real life (meaning that their characters stay exactly the same once they’ve got the clothes on).  The opening finds Doris mourning the death of her mother, who passed away earlier in the day.  This provides the opportunity for Doris and her guests to poor scorn on Harry, who we’re told was an American GI (that explains why he talks like Olivier Hardy).  This part feels a little stilted.  A family bereavement offers plenty of comic potential, but Hugh Leonard’s script never really sparks during these scenes.

But once Roy Castle turns up and the pair decide to head out for the talent show, things pick up.  Slapstick humour abounds, even if Castle’s Sydney is a lot duller than Stan Laurel.  En-route to the talent show they spot a damsel in distress, Edwina (Pauline Delaney), and go to her aid.  She’s rather intoxicated, and curiously also seems to be American, and the pair decide to see her home.  Delaney (Mrs Mortimer in Public Eye, alongside a good many other roles) is amusing as the vampish Edwina, and her arrival on the scene enables Leonard to spring the big setpiece ending as Sydney and Harry demolish her flat.

Setting her electric fire ablaze, fun with soda-siphons and a nicely cued sequence where a chain of events ensure that one disaster follows another – like a row of dominos – all draw appreciative laughter from the audience.  It’s the moment where Another Fine Miss really springs into life and both Barker and Castle seem to be having a ball.

It’s hard to imagine this one as a series, every week they’d dress up as Laurel and Hardy and get into scrapes?   Hmm, maybe not, but as a one-off it certainly has its moments.

Seven of One – Spanner’s Eleven

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Albert Spanner (Barker) is coach of Ashfield Athletic Football Club, a team firmly stuck at the bottom of the local league.  Their lack of success has even reached the hallowed halls of the council, so much so that Councillor Todd (Bill Maynard) presents Albert with an ultimatum – unless the team win their next match he’s out.

Although written by Roy Clarke, Spanner’s Eleven is no Open All Hours.  The concept of a hopeless non-league football team is a decent one, but for some reason the players hardly feature in the story at all (apart from a training film mid-way through, we don’t really see them emerge as characters until the last few minutes).  This is something of a wasted opportunity, especially since the likes of Christopher Biggins and Louis Mansi are amongst their number.

Unsurprisingly, since the whole series was mainly a vehicle for Barker, football-mad Albert Spanner has the lion’s share of the action, interacting with his wife Vera (Priscilla Morgan), Horace (John Cater) who covets the manager’s job and the harassed Councillor Todd.  It’s hard to really identity with Albert or to ever feel on his side.  He seems to have taken the coaching job for two reasons – firstly because he hoped it would generate a little profit for his day job (as a taxi driver) and secondly because he’s got the hot-dog concession on match days.

He’s undeniably passionate about the game (ignoring Vera, dressed in an alluring nightie, when a match is on television, for example) but given the poor string of results Ashfield have suffered it’s easy to assume he’d be happy to walk away.  Maybe he really loves the game, even at this low level, so much that he simply can’t – but this doesn’t really come over terribly well.

Bill Maynard doesn’t have much to do, but it’s nice to see him nonetheless.  John Cater, one of those naggingly familiar character actions who racked up hundreds of film and television credits during a long career, has a decent role as Horace, a man who delivers first aid during matches and – according to Albert – spends his time waiting for one of the players to have a really nasty accident!

If Spanner’s Eleven had concentrated on Albert coaching his hopeless squad then there might have been some potential in a possible series, but what we ended up with was one of Roy Clarke’s misfires.

Seven of One – My Old Man

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With his home of forty years scheduled for demolition, crusty old Sam Cobbett (Barker) is forced to move in with his daughter Doris (Ann Beach) and his uppity son-in-law Arthur (Graham Armitage).  Their flat has every mod-con, but Sam pines for the old days and the old ways ….

My Old Man is a generational comedy.  Given that Sam mentions he worked the markets as a boy before the first war, he has to be seventy plus, although Barker (in his mid forties at the time) does rather struggle to play up to Sam’s age, which is a bit of a problem.

It’s an eye-opener to go back to a time when living in a high-rise flat was seen as both modern and desirable.  The opening sequence has a nice filmic sweep as we go from Sam’s house to view the vista of demolitions beyond and then onwards to the brave new world of the high-rise flats looming in the distance.  Doris and Arthur may be seventeen flights up but their flat is immaculate – packed with numerous labour-saving devices as well as central heating in every room.

Arthur is proud of this, as well as his own upwardly mobile status, but the earthy Sam reacts with mild horror at their clean and pre-packaged world.  It’s obvious right from the start that Arthur and Sam have diametrically opposed viewpoints, but neither are terribly sympathetic characters, so it’s maybe not possible to immediately take sides.

The eleven o’clock cup of tea is an early flashpoint.  Arthur prefers coffee, since tea’s so common, but Doris (at pains to make Sam feel settled) serves tea instead.  Sam immediately pours it into his saucer and drinks it from there.  This vignette shines a light on both their characters – Arthur (born from the same working class stock as Sam) is maybe ashamed of his roots, whilst Sam continues to embrace them.

A visit to the local pub provides another interesting character moment.  It’s the sort of modern pub that Sam feels totally out of place in, especially when greeted by the effeminate barman.  Sam later catches his attention by calling him “poofy” which generates a gale of laughter from the audience.  This is Arthur’s local, a place where he feels at home, but he finds it disquieting when Sam, along with another old friend of his, Willie (Leslie Dwyer), begins to stamp his authority on the place – having a merry sing-song and entertaining the regulars.  Are the affluent clientele laughing with them or at them I wonder?

Sam’s given several opportunities to articulate why he considers the modern world is inferior to the one he knew and loved, but the best example comes towards the end as he has a tête-à-tête with his grandson.  “To hear your father talk you’d think I was born in a slum and lived all me life in a slum. Well let me tell you something, those ugly little houses, they used to have a fire in the grate. Your gran used to bake bread of a Sunday. The smell of it used to fill the house. Lovely. We used to have the back door open in the summer, see all the flowers. Garden used to be full of flowers, flowers you could pick. Grass you could walk on.”

Both Barker and the BBC passed on a possible series, so it ended up on ITV with Clive Dunn (another actor who tended to play older than his age) taking on the role of Sam.  Barker probably made a wise choice, as whilst My Old Man made a passable half hour, it turned out to be a rather forgettable series.

Seven of One – Prisoner and Escort

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Ronnie Barker’s most enduring comic character made his debut in this instalment of Seven of One, Prisoner and Escort (original tx 1st April 1973).  Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker) is a habitual criminal and therefore someone who’s constantly in and out of prison.  It’s New Years Eve and Fletcher is being escorted to begin his latest prison stretch – in the company of two prison officers, Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay) and Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde).

The three-cornered dynamic between Fletcher, Mackay and Barrowclough would yield plenty of comedy when the series proper launched, and the potential for humour and conflict is just as clear here.  Mackay is a Scottish martinet, unyielding in his contempt for all prisoners, but especially a cynical one like Fletcher.  After he nips off to buy some teas, the much more kindly Barrowclough decides that Mackay is upset because he’s missing the chance to celebrate the arrival of the new year.  Fletcher is rather lacking in compassion.  “Only one thing worse than a drunk Scotsman you know, and that’s a sober one.”

If Mackay is hard as nails then Barrowclough is soft as butter.  Mackay sees criminals as people who need to be punished, whilst Barrowclough wants to rehabilitate them.  It’s plain that his liberal nature is a gift for Fletcher, who begins to subtly manipulate him whilst at the same time he entertains himself by needling Mackay, but always ensuring that he stays just within the bounds of civility.

Barrowclough is proud of the prison, telling Fletcher that it’s an experimental one.  “We’ve got a cricket pitch and a psychiatrist.”  Fletcher’s not convinced but Barrowclough continues to evangelise, telling him that if he knuckles down he could come out as an intermediate welder or an accomplished oboe player.  Barrowclough paints a vision of the prison as a place where prisoners aren’t punished, but instead are treated with compassion and understanding.  This, of course, is far removed from the Slade Prison we see in Porridge, so either Barrowclough is hopelessly deluded or Clement and La Frenais decided to craft a more traditional prison environment when the show went to series.

After surviving a lengthy train journey, they’re now on the last lap – a prison van will take them the rest of the way, across desolate and isolated countryside, to their destination.  Fletcher, desperate to use the toilet, spies an irresistible opportunity after Mackay tells him to go behind the van – he unhooks the petrol cap and relives himself.  The combination of his urine and the van’s petrol is not a good mix and soon the van breaks down, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Given that it’s clear, even this early on, that Fletcher has been in and out of prison all his adult life, there’s something not very credible about his attempt to launch a bid for freedom (as the voice-over states, he accepts arrest as an occupational hazard).  It works in the context of this one-off, but it’s impossible to imagine the series Fletcher ever attempting it.

With Mackay setting off to find help, Fletcher and Barrowclough hole up in a nearby empty cottage.  There’s more lovely interaction between Barker and Wilde as Barrowclough unburdens himself about his desperate homelife.  His wife isn’t a happy woman and this is manifested in different ways, such as “a bad temper and spots and sleeping with the postman.”  A great two-handed scene, which is really the core of the episode.

Fletcher’s escape attempt is dealt with quite neatly (if he’s as inept a criminal as he is as an escapee, then it’s no surprise he spends so much time in prison).  Ronnie Barker may have been initially unsure (as were Clement and La Frenais) that a sitcom set in a prison would work, but Prisoner and Escort clearly points the way ahead.

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Seven of One – Open All Hours

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A couple of years after Six Dates with Barker aired on LWT, the very similar Seven of One was broadcast on BBC1.  Both the BBC and Barker hoped that several of these one-off comedy playlets might have the potential to be developed into fully fledged series and this proved to be the case as Seven of One would spawn both of Barker’s most successful sitcoms – Open All Hours and Porridge.

As good as the Seven of One pilot of Open All Hours is, it would be hard to imagine that such a restrictive and enclosed format would later spawn four popular series which ran between 1976 and 1985.  It’s even more amazing that Roy Clarke has revived the series in the 21st century with David Jason still going strong as Granville, now the spitting image of the late lamented Arkwright.

Roy Clarke (b. 1930) had contributed to a number of drama series in the late sixties and early seventies (The Troubleshooters, Mr Rose, The Power Game, Manhunt, etc) but comedy proved to be his enduring strength and in retrospect 1973 turned out to be a very significant year.  At this point he was a respected, if not terribly high-profile, writer.  But the Open All Hours pilot as well as the launch of Last of the Summer Wine would both help to launch him into the mainstream.

This Seven of One pilot presents the world of Arkwright and Granville to us pretty much fully formed.  All of the familiar tics are here – Arkwright’s first words are “fetch a cloth Granville” as he spies something nasty left by a passing bird on the shop-front window, Granville fears the bite of the unforgiving till whilst Arkwright lusts after the generously formed figure of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (played here by Sheila Brennan, later replaced by Lynda Barron for the series proper).

Virtually all good sitcoms feature people trapped together (Porridge is the ultimate example of this, of course).  Mostly the ties are family or work-related, Open All Hours (like Steptoe & Son) neatly manages to combine the two.

Granville is twenty five and yearns for a life outside of the restrictive and stifling world of Arkwright’s corner shop.  How, he argues, can he possibly have any social life when they open in the early hours of the morning and don’t close until ten at night?  The grasping Arkwright rides roughshod over these concerns – after all, if Granville ever left then he’d probably have to pay his replacement a decent wage (it’s almost certain that Granville receives little more than a pittance).

But there’s also some familial love shown by Arkwright (possibly).  It’s a harsh world out there and he’s convinced that Granville will eventually be happier if he stays with what he knows (plus all of Arkwright’s empire will eventually come to Granville).  Still Open All Hours has confirmed that despite all of Granville’s hopes and dreams he never managed to escape, turning into an Arkwright clone instead, which is something of a bitter joke.

Roy Clarke’s gift for wordplay is already in evidence.  Arkwright is more than a little perturbed that Nurse Gladys Emmanuel seems to spend more time than he considers proper dealing with Wesley Cosgrave’s bottom, whilst the corner shop setting allows for a stream of characters to pass through (here it’s Yootha Joyce with a Northern accent and a young Keith Chegwin).

Favourite line?  Mrs Scully (Joyce) asks Arkwright if she’ll give him half a bottle of sherry for her Claudine.  He tells her that it sounds like a fair exchange!

Q5/Q6/Q7 – Simply Media DVD Review

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

I Didn’t Know You Cared to be released by Second Sight – 28th November 2016

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Second Sight will be releasing all four series of Peter Tinniswood’s classic sitcom I Didn’t Know You Cared in late November.  Review here.

Classic BBC sitcom I Didn’t Know You Cared arrives as a fantastic DVD Box Set featuring all four series courtesy of Second Sight.

Based on Peter Tinniswood’s renowned books comes one of television’s greatest comedy families, The Brandons, in this hilarious 1970s series. There’s miserable pessimist Uncle Mort (Robin Bailey – Charters & Caldicott), his sharp-tongued sister Annie played by the inimitable Liz Smith (The Royle Family), who is forever rowing with her husband Les (John Comer – Last Of The Summer Wine), there’s their laid-back son Carter and his not so laid-back fiancee Pat and finally old Uncle Staveley who carries his friend’s ashes around his neck in a box and only enters the constant bickering with his cry of ‘I ‘eard that! Pardon’.

This brilliant slice of great British comedy arrives as a bumper four-disc DVD box set on 28 November 2016.

In series one we meet the feuding Brandon family, the only thing that unites them is their determination to turn their lazy son Carter (Stephen Rea – Dickensian) into a go-getting executive before he marries his fiancee Pat (Anita Carey – Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads?). Uncle Staveley (Bert Palmer – Z Cars), contributes to the family rows with his familiar catchphrase. There are seven episodes: ‘Cause For Celebration’; ‘A Knitter in the Family’; ‘The Old Tin Trunk’; ‘After the Ball Was Over’; ‘Aye…Well…Mm…’; ‘Large or Small, Big or Tall’ and ‘The Axe and the Cleaver’.

The second series sees Carter return from his honeymoon but he hasn’t quite adjusted to married life. There are six episodes: ‘The Way My Wife Looks At Me’; ‘Chez Us’; ‘A Woman’s Work’; ‘A Signal Disaster’; ‘You Should See Me Now’; and ‘Good Wood, God’.

Series three sees Uncle Mort worrying about dying and Carter, this time played by Keith Drinkel (Gandhi), worrying about his future at work, this series see his wife Pat played by Liz Goulding (Within These Walls). It features six episodes: ‘Men At Work’; ‘Grave Decision’; ‘Party Games’; ‘A Bleak Day’; ‘Stout Deeds’; ‘Paradise Lost’; and ‘The Last Tram’.

The fourth and final series sees the Brandons get a lodger, Pat (Liz Goulding), goes on a work trip to Europe and Uncle Mort’s pending nuptials. This series sees Leslie Sarony (Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life) star as Uncle Staveley. There are seven episodes: ‘The Love Match’; ‘Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing’; ‘A Tip Top Day’; ‘Don’t Answer That’; ‘The Great Escape’; ‘What’s In a Name?’; and ‘The Great Day’.

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Happy Ever After – Simply Media DVD Review

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Happy Ever After first surfaced as a one-off Comedy Playhouse episode in May 1974. Like many other series launched via Comedy Playhouse, including Meet the Wife, it would quickly develop into a fully fledged series.

Since series one of Happy Ever After followed just two months later, in July 1974, it’s clear that audience reaction wasn’t a factor – the BBC must have sensed that this was a format that had legs.  And so it proved, Happy Ever After ran for forty one episodes between 1974 and 1979 and then Terry & June (essentially the same series but with a few differences, which we’ll discuss later) chalked up sixty five episodes from 1979 to 1987.

Out of the two series, Terry & June – thanks to repeats and DVD releases – has by far the greatest profile.  But it’s a profile that’s not always been terribly positive.  Regarded by some as old-hat and embarrassing, T&J has often been cited as an example of all that’s bad and lazy about traditional sitcoms.  An over-reliance on unlikely occurrences and remarkable coincidences (later wonderfully parodied in Chance in a Million) and Terry Scott’s mugging to camera are some of the suggested reasons.  But whilst T&J did run out of steam, it also had more than its fair share of great comedy moments – as did Happy Ever After.

Created by John Chapman and Eric Merriman, Happy Ever After’s format is a simple one. Terry and June Fletcher are a middle-aged, happily married couple who have recently seen their grown-up children, Frank, Susan and Debbie, leave home.  But their hopes for a quiet life spent in each other’s company are rudely shattered when cranky Aunt Lucy (Beryl Cooke) and her mynah bird come to stay.

The format of the series would remain fairly constant.  Terry would hit upon a brilliant idea or become embroiled in events which would spiral out of his control, June would remain on the side-lines – ever patient – whilst Aunt Lucy would chip in with the odd comment.  When the series became Terry & June it carried on pretty much as before (except that Aunt Lucy had been written out).

The other change was that Terry and June’s surname was Fletcher in Happy Ever After but had become Medford in Terry & June.  This was because series creator John Chapman felt that the show had run its course by 1979.  The BBC disagreed, so a change of surname was enough to ensure that Chapman couldn’t claim the new series featured his characters, even if things carried on pretty much as before.

Although it’s difficult not to see both series as one entity, there’s a slightly different tone to Happy Ever After, especially to begin with.  It just feels a little bit more sharper (possibly not surprising since any format will eventually begin to lose its sparkle over the years) and the plots are tighter.  The presence of Aunt Lucy is also a major plus (the absence of a similar character in T&J was a shame).

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But whilst the writing is important, Happy Ever After stands or falls on the performances of the two leads. Terry Scott (1927 – 1994) had been a television star since the 1950’s, starting with Scott Free in 1957.  More success on the small screen would follow in the 1960’s – teaming up with Hugh Lloyd in Hugh and I and the bizarre-sounding (and sadly wiped) Gnomes of Dulwich.  Another series – Scott On … – would air between 1964 and 1974 (running to twenty four episodes).  He also turned up in a number of films, including several Carry Ons.

June Whitfield (b. 1925) is, like Scott, a British comedy legend, and her longevity has only helped to increase her stature.  She began as a supporting player, appearing opposite Peter Sellers in The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, Jimmy Edwards in The Many Faces of Jim and More Faces of Jim as well as Tony Hancock (most notably in The Blood Donor).  She first appeared with Terry Scott in Scott On … and like Scott would make a few appearances in the Carry On series (although they didn’t appear in the same films).  During the last few decades she’s become familiar to several new generations thanks to Absolutely Fabulous.

The pilot shows Terry and June adjusting to home life now that their children have gone.  Terry is remarkably boorish, pouring June a gin and reminding her that it always used to get her going in the old days. June comments on how coarse he is and on this early evidence they seem a very mismatched pair.

Terry is a bundle of nervous energy (incapable of remaining quiet for a minute) whilst June is content to just relax, buried in a good book.  There’s an unspoken feeling that now the house is theirs again they might struggle to restablish their relationship.  That they’ve not been paying each other a great deal of attention is made plain after Terry is amazed to discover that June’s had a pair of glasses for the last two years – he admits he hasn’t really looked at her for a long time.

This moment, along with June’s tearful regret that the chicks have flown the nest, gives the pilot a slightly wistful air, although Terry’s hyperactive personality – a hamsfisted attempt to do some DIY for example – ensures that the mood doesn’t stay reflective for long.  When the demanding Aunt Lucy turns up with bundles of possessions, poor Terry sees his newly-won freedom fast disappearing …

The first episode of Happy Ever After proper sees Terry shocked to learn that June hasn’t been a Conservative like him during their married life (instead she’s always voted Liberal).  This is a perfect opportunity for Terry Scott to deliver some of his trademark overreacting, but when June tells him she’s considering a short break by herself, it ties back to the suggestion in the pilot that the two of them may be fundamentally incompatible.  Terry then suggests she writes a list of his faults, which she does with great glee!  Later they decide to go on a second honeymoon, which (as might be expected) doesn’t go to plan.  It’s good to see some well-known actors lurking in the hotel, such as Hammer Films stalwart Michael Ripper and radio’s original Dick Barton, Noel Johnson.

Containing the Comedy Playhouse pilot, five series and three specials (two Christmas specials and the final one-off from April 1979) this seven disc set offers a generous helping of 1970’s sitcom goodness.  Classic episodes include the series two effort Terry in Court. Returning home after a business trip, Terry’s more than a little upset to learn that their car has had an altercation with the local dustcart. June insists it wasn’t her fault and after learning that the Council refuse to admit liability, Terry decides to sue them. The trouble really starts when Terry learns that he can represent himself and so appears in court complete with a wig and gown! Scott is firing on all his comic cylinders, helped no end by a very dead-pan performance by Basil Dingham as the judge.

Another favourite is Mistaken Identikit. An identikit picture of a bag snatcher who preys on elderly ladies (giving him the nickname of the “granny grabber”) is broadcast on televison and featured in all the newspapers. And wouldn’t you know it, he looks just like Terry! Robert Gillespie pops up as a phelgmatic desk sergeant and the always-watchable Josephine Tewson also makes a brief appearance.

The Music Went Around & Around is a notable episode, as it was John Kane’s first script for the series.  Kane would only pen a couple of episodes for Happy Ever After, but he’d go on to write the bulk of Terry & June (notching up more than forty episodes). In this one, John Quayle and Janine Duvitski are both wonderful as Ralph and Cynthia, the dinner guests from hell. Terry later attempts to replace one of his classic records from the 1940’s – The Hut Sut Song. Julian Orchard, as the harrased record shop proprietor, is another first-rate guest performer, as is Damaris Hayman (who plays Miss Sneed, an assistant at the record shop). Amazingly, she’s heard of this obscure song and it’s a comic treat when she and Terry launch into a spirited performance of The Hut Sut Song.

Unashamedly middle-of-the-road fare, Happy Ever After has aged very well.  This is partly because of the contrasting comic talents of Terry Scott and June Whitfield, but the scripts are also pretty strong and it’s always nice to see familiar faces popping up in guest roles.

Happy Ever After is released by Simply Media on the 26th of September 2016.  RRP £44.99.

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Fawlty Towers – The Hotel Inspectors

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Fawlty Towers is as close to sitcom perfection as you can get.  If one were being picky then you could say that the second series does have one sub-par effort (The Anniversary) but this is only because the other eleven were so good.

There are several obvious reasons as to why the series clicked from the start (even if the public and critical feedback for series one was a little muted to begin with).  These include the scripts by John Cleese and Connie Booth and the four regulars (Cleese, Booth, Scales, Sachs).

But equally important were the guest casts.  Basil Fawlty has to have strong characters to interact with, otherwise his manic personality ends up unbalancing the show.  Strong characters require good actors though, but Fawlty Towers never had a problem in acquiring the best comic actors around.

Joan Sanderson, Geoffrey Palmer and Bruce Boa were amongst those who were able to stand toe-to-toe with Cleese.  Some sitcom stars (especially if they were the co-writer as well) may have found themselves threatened by having to share the screen with experienced old pros (there’s plenty of evidence down the years to suggest that certain actors hated to have the limelight shone on anyone but themselves).  Cleese had a refreshing lack of ego on this score though and never seemed worried that others may get bigger laughs than him.

The Hotel Inspectors has one of the series’ most recognisable guest stars.   Bernard Cribbins (b. 1928) remains a national treasure.  He first came to prominence in the 1960’s with a number of film appearances (several Carry Ons, The Wrong Arm of the Law with Peter Sellers, etc).  In the 1970’s he became a children’s favourite, narrating The Wombles and making regular appearances on Jackanory.  He continues to act, probably his most high-profile recent credit was as Wilfred Mott in Doctor Who.

Mr Hutchinson (Cribbins) has arrived for a stay at Fawlty Towers.  His profession is a bit of a mystery but Basil, getting the wrong end of the stick, mistakenly believes that he’s a hotel inspector.

If Basil was rude to every guest who walked through the door then it would be amusing, but the joke would wear thin pretty quickly.  The genius of Cleese and Booth’s scripting is that Basil is a man of many and varied prejudices, which then informs us about which guests he favours or disfavours.  If you’re a member of the promiscuous society, for example, you’ll attract Basil’s ire, but a titled or professional person is guaranteed a much easier ride.

To begin with, Mr Hutchinson irritates Basil, mainly because of the way he talks.

Mr. Hutchinson: There is a documentary on BBC2 this evening about Squawking Bird, the leader of the Blackfoot Indians in the late 1860s. Now this starts at 8.45 and goes on for approximately three-quarters of an hour.
Basil: I’m sorry, are you talking to me?
Mr. Hutchinson: Indeed I am, yes. Now is it possible for me to reserve the BBC2 channel for the duration of this televisual feast?
Basil: Why don’t you talk properly?
Mr. Hutchinson: I beg your pardon?
Basil: No it isn’t.
Mr. Hutchinson: What?
Basil: It is not possible to reserve the BBC2 channel from the commencement of this televisual feast until the moment of the termination of its ending thereof, thank you so much.

The sudden gear-change which occurs when Basil believes Hutchinson to be a hotel inspector is a lovely moment.  From indifference and contempt, Basil quickly becomes the perfect host.  But even when Basil’s trying his best, things never quite work out (witness the saga of the omelette) and like every other week his house of cards slowly collapses until he’s left humiliated and isolated.  This sounds a little bleak, but luckily for us Basil always seems to recover from whatever crushing reversal he’s received in order to do battle the following week.

BBC Landmark Sitcom Season

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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 ….

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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 …..