Back to May 1986 (22nd May 1986)

It doesn’t look like a classic Top of the Pops line-up tonight, but it’ll give me a good snapshot of musical tastes from mid 1986, so it’s going on the list.

The Clairvoyant on BBC2 will also be worth a look. The combination of the two Roys (Clarke and Kinnear) promised much and whilst you didn’t have to be a mind reader (sorry) to have predicted that this sitcom wouldn’t have a long run, it’s still amusing enough.

ITV offers Never the Twain. It’s a sitcom which ran for an incredibly long time and was sustained throughout its life almost entirely by the larger than life performances of Windsor Davies and Donald Sinden. They could always be guaranteed to make something out of the most predictable situations.

I’ll round the evening off with the 1983 American TV movie version of A Caribbean Mystery.  I’m rather fond of all the 1980’s US Agatha Christie TVMs and whilst it’s obvious that Helen Hayes was no Joan Hickson, on her own terms she makes for an appealing Miss Marple.

Most of the US Christie TVMs of this era feature impressive supporting casts (for example, the other Helen Hayes Marple mystery has Bette Davis, Leo McKern, Dorothy Tutin and John Mills amongst others) but A Caribbean Mystery is a bit bereft in this respect, although the likes of Bernard Hughes, Brock Peters and George Innes do feature.

Back to May 1986 (20th May 1986)

Once again, the number of prime time repeats rather surprises me. My recollection of this era tended to confine re-runs mostly to July and August (a dead couple of months,  which saw the impatient viewer counting down the days before the exciting new season launched in September).

One Arabian Night is the Terry and June episode on offer. Written by Colin Bostock-Smith, it’s a politically incorrect half hour – Derek Griffiths guests as an Arab Prince who takes a shine to June and offers to buy her for fifty camels.

We’re on firmer ground with Juliet Bravo (The Day The Circus Left Town). The Kenny Everett Show is also worth a look – it’s a re-run from the third series, so the strike rate is still pretty high (the show tended to tail off somewhat during the next few years).

Over on ITV there’s Duty Free – a series that was incredibly popular at the time (even displacing Coronation Street at the top of the ratings) although didn’t seem to generate an equal amount of love. Even today, it’s seen as a lesser part of the Eric Chappell canon – but I’ve always loved it. Very studio-bound, it has the feel of a stage farce which is one of the reasons why I’ve always found it appealing. When the Christmas Special went to Spain for location filming it seemed to kill the comedy stone dead, which suggests that the artificiality of studio VT work can sometimes be a positive.

And if there’s time I’ll catch a bit more of Edward and Mrs Simpson.

Back to May 1986 (16th May 1986)

The randomiser has taken me back to 1986, to sample a week’s television. What does Friday the 16th of May offer? Let’s take a look ….

BBC1 offers a repeat of Home and Dry, the final episode from Big Deal’s first series (watching this might spur me into attempting a complete rewatch). There’s more repeats on ITV – Me and My Girl and Home to Roost. Me and My Girl isn’t greeted with much enthusiasm by the Daily Mirror blurb writer, Tony Pratt (who also seems unaware that the show had already clocked up three series by this point) but you can’t argue with the combined talents of O’Sullivan, Brooke-Taylor and Sanderson.

Home to Roost isn’t a sitcom that’s ever really clicked with me (which is surprising, since I’ve always enjoyed most of Eric Chappell’s output). Maybe time to give it another go and see if it’s more engaging this time round.

The undoubted pick of the evening is Quo Vadis, Pet, the final episode of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet‘s second series. At the time this seemed to be the final end (although it’s slightly disturbing to realise that the first comeback series aired twenty years ago. Where has that time gone?)

The second series, of course, was overshadowed by the death of Gary Horton – especially towards the end of the run when his absence had to be explained away by a double passing through shot or amended dialogue. Despite this, all of the series’ remaining story threads are neatly tied up and even if the second half of series two did sag a little, I’d have to say it slightly edges the first run as my favourite.

Back to April 1986 (10th April 1986)

TOTP, EastEnders and I Woke Up One Morning are all tempting on BBC1. EastEnders is still in the middle of the who fathered Michelle’s baby saga, so sparks look likely to fly – especially when the normally mild-mannered Arthur finds his dander is well and truly up.

I Woke Up One Morning is one of those programmes that seems to have totally slipped from view – despite a first-rate cast and sharp scripts by Carla Lane. The series’ theme (it’s centered around the travails of a group of recovering alcoholics) doesn’t look like it promises merriment but it manages to be wryly amusing (although bleakness is never too far away).

I might catch the repeat of Star Trek on BBC2 whilst bemoaning the lack of Karen Kay’s show online. Rounding things off with an episode of Kojak on ITV that’s a pretty full evening.

Back to April 1985 (9th April 1985)

Skipping 1984 (which had fairly slim pickings) I’ve moved onto 1985 which looks a little more promising.

EastEnders, No Place Like Home and The Day The Universe Changed offers a pretty decent early evening lineup on BBC1.

I continue to pine about the scarcity on Pot Black online. Maybe one day there might be a stash added to the iPlayer – we can but dream. Tonight’s 1985 match isn’t available, but there’s another from the same series close at hand, so that will have to do.

There are a few possibilities on ITV, but the only thing that really appeals is the repeat of Chance in a Million.

Back to April 1981 (6th April 1981)

BBC1 is my first stop for Star Trek and The Lights of Zetar. It’s a series three episode, which is the cue for disappointment for some (although I’ve never found the later episodes to be that bad). And since this is the only one co-written by Shari (Lamb Chop) Lewis, it’s worth a look for that reason alone. According to Genome, it was previously broadcast in 1971 and 1973, so Zetar fans have had quite a wait to see it again.

Today’s Coronation Street is slightly ahead of my current rewatch, but I think I’ll dip in to see what’s going on (possible romance for Fred, according to the Daily Mirror blurb).

Undoubted highlight of the day is Yes Minister on BBC2 at 9.00 pm. The final episode of series two, A Question of Loyalty is as sharp today (if not more) than it’s ever been.

If there’s time, I might catch the repeat of The Sweeney over on ITV. Ranald Graham’s Nightmare is the episode getting another airing today.

On this day (13th January)

Series one of A Bit of Fry and Laurie began airing on BBC2 in 1989.

Following a pilot episode in 1987, ABoFaL began in earnest today. Whilst you could argue that series four was a little below par, the rest (and this first series especially) continues to hit the mark for me.

The pair’s love of Python has always been plain (breaking the fourth wall as a matter of course) and there’s very little chaff in this opening edition. ‘Bitchmother, Come Light My Bottom’ indeed.

The White Wedding, the first episode of A Bit of a Do, was broadcast on ITV.

What are the chances that two new A Bit Of series should have both begun on the same evening?

Adapted by David Nobbs from his novels, A Bit of a Do is a series that I’ve always enjoyed coming back to, although there’s a definite iciness about it. All of the main characters are flawed and none are particularly likeable – although over time most are allowed to display their vulnerable sides.

Given the repetition inherent in the format (most episodes end with a shattering revelation and either a drunken Betty or Rodney saying something that they shouldn’t) it’s not the sort of programme that you want to binge-watch, but if you take an episode each week then it slips by very nicely.

Having concentrated on playing Del Boy for most of the 1980’s, A Bit of a Do was a reminder that Jason could do more. Although it’s true that he’s not stretched too far here as the vain Ted Simcock (a man frequently forced to endure humiliations) is the sort of role well within his comfort zone. Having said that, Jason never disappoints though and his comic timing is always spot on.

You can’t grumble about the rest of the main cast either – Gwen Taylor, Nicola Pagett, Paul Chapman, Michael Jayston, Stephanie Cole, Tim Wylton – and there are some lovely cameos and smaller roles across the series (Keith Marsh as Percy Spragg in this episode, for example).

Today’s the anniversaries of the births of Ian Hendry and Jack Watling. For Mr Watling I think another viewing of HancockThe Lift is in order, whilst Mr Hendry will be represented by Battleground, the final episode of Village Hall. If you don’t own either series of Village Hall, then this is a reminder that you really should – both are excellent.

 

On this day (11th January)

Sleeping Partners, the first episode of Robin’s Nest, was broadcast on ITV in 1977.

Having already played Robin Tripp in six series of Man About The House, Richard O’Sullivan clearly hadn’t tired of the character as he pretty swiftly moved onto this spin-off (which also ran for six series).

Joined by Tessa Wyatt, Tony Britton and David Kelly (as the unforgettable Albert Riddle – the one-armed washer-upper) this is typical Mortimer/Cooke fare – although they didn’t write all the episodes. Adele Rose, Terence Feeley and Willis Hall were some of the more unexpected names who pitched in with scripts.

Armed and Extremely Dangerous, the first episode of Dempsey and Makepeace, was broadcast on ITV in 1985.

It’s easy to imagine that D&M was an attempt to replicate the success of The Professionals (which in turn owed something of a debt to The Sweeney). The problem is that a copy of a copy might turn out to be a little faint ….

Given that The Professionals never played that well in America, maybe the casting of Michael Brandon was an attempt to crack that market, just like those old ITC shows. Will they/won’t they was part of the D&M formula (we know what happened in real life of course) although never a large part – catching villains, shooting guns and crashing cars were always the first orders of business.

The excellent Ray Smith was cast as Spikings (this series’ Cowley or Haskins). It’s probably the role for which he’s best remembered today, which is a shame since his relatively short career was full of excellent character performances that stretched him much further (Callan, Colditz, How Green Was My Valley and 1990, to name just four).

With the likes of Roger Marshall and Murray Smith later contributing scripts, D&M is always going to be worth a watch but it can be rather hit or miss.

The first edition of Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV was broadcast on BBC2 in 1985.

If Dempsey and Makepeace doesn’t appeal, then maybe the first show in Victoria Wood’s new series might be more entertaining.

Many of the building blocks of As Seen On TV were already evident in Wood & Walters (C4, 1981 – 1982), although Wood was later to disown it. Mainly this seems to be because the audience were comprised of pensioners who’d never heard of her and proved to be a pretty tough crowd to crack.

But by the time of As Seen on TV, Wood had built up a head of steam through touring and the BBC2 audiences were much more appreciative right from the off. And there’s plenty to appreciate in this opening show, not least the first installment of Acorn Antiques.

On this day (9th January)

Strangers on a Train, the first episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, was broadcast on BBC1 in 1973.

There might be previous examples which have slipped my mind, but WHTTLL has to be one of the first sitcoms which allowed its characters to grow and develop. Most sitcoms prior to this (Steptoe & Son or Dad’s Army, say) existed in a kind of stasis, but the Bob and Terry of 1973 were certainly different from the young lads we first met in the early sixties.

Given Bolam and Bewes’ later estrangement, it’s hard not to rewatch the series without pondering how far real life mirrored fiction. Graham McCann’s summation of their relationship (click here) might be a little waspish towards Bewes, but it does help to redress the balance previously painted (largely by Bewes as a victim, it must be said).

Throughout WHTTLL it becomes obvious that Bob and Terry have little now in common and it’s mainly the ties of childhood friendship which still keep them together. For Bolam and Bewes during the 1970’s, it was only the work that kept them together – like Bob and Terry they were totally different people with few shared interests.

Mind you, I don’t have a problem with discovering this and am always surprised when someone states that they find it difficult to now watch the series after learning that the stars weren’t the best of friends. For me, they’re simply giving an acting performance – and if they convince, then they’re very good actors.

The Grand Design, the first episode of Yes Prime Minister, was broadcast on BBC2 in 1986.

I think that the first series of YPM has to be my favourite run of episodes (Yes Minister was always consistent, but these eight episodes just have the edge). By now the formula was well established, the three regulars were totally comfortable with their characters and the elevation of Jim Hacker to the PM’s chair gave the series a little extra spice.

Sitcom fans were well catered for this evening, as you could then switch over to BBC1 to catch the first episode of Blackadder IIBells.

Sirens, the first episode of Rockliffe’s Babies, was broadcast on BBC1 in 1987.

For the best part of thirty years the BBC pumped out a series of top-rated police series – Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars and its various sequels and Juliet Bravo. After Juliet Bravo came to an end in 1985, they struggled to find a long-running replacement.

Rockliffe’s Babies briefly looked like it might have the legs, but in the end it only ran for two series. Oh, plus there was the faintly bizarre spin-off in which Rockliffe became a country copper (which was almost as jarring as seeing DI Maggie Forbes in the C.A.T.S. Eyes environment).

Reviewing it now, Rockliffe’s Babies is patchier than I remember, but there are some strong episodes and it has the same urban feel of The Bill from this period (like its Thames counterpart, the show was shot entirely on VT).

Ian Hogg’s always good to watch (although in this one he’s only called upon to utter a few words) and maybe casting seven relatively unknown young actors was done in the hope that one or two stars might emerge who could then be given their own series (as had happened with the likes of Auf Wiedersehen Pet). Most are still acting today, although Susanna Shelling’s post Rockliffe career was fairly brief (her last television credit was in 2007).

On this day (4th January)

The first episode of Ivanhoe was broadcast on BBC1 in 1970.

Adapted by Alexander Baron in ten parts, this Classic Serial was directed by David Maloney, so you can expect to see plenty of familiar faces (such as Graham Weston, John Franklyn-Robbins, Hugh Walters, Tim Preece, Bernard Horsfall and Noel Coleman) filling out the cast.

Eric Flynn cuts a dash as Ivanhoe with the always dependable Anthony Bate as his nemesis, Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert. Vivian Brooks and Clare Jenkins supply the female interest.

Released on DVD by Simply Media in 2017, I reviewed it at the time and it’s still an enjoyable watch – albeit with the usual strengths and weaknesses of the Classic Serial from this era.

The Prisoner of Spenda, the first episode of Carry on Laughing, was broadcast on ITV in 1975.

Hmm, I wonder what novel this could be based on?

There’s a good reason why the television incarnation of the Carry On franchise doesn’t receive the same number of rescreenings as its big screen counterpart (they’re not very good) but approached in the right mood it’s still possible to derive some enjoyment from most of them.

This one features most of the main Carry On players (one notable absentee was Kenneth Williams, who loathed the whole idea) and at 22 minutes it’s brisk enough.

The first episode of The Prince and the Pauper was broadcast on BBC1 in 1976.

Another Classic Serial debuting on this day, The Prince and the Pauper boasts an impressive duel performance from Nicholas Lyndhurst as well as the usual strong supporting cast. With Barry Letts directing, it’s no surprise that CSO comes into play – the meeting between Prince Edward and Tom Canty is excellently done (the mirror shot still looks very good today).

Another Classic Serial released by Simply Media, you can read my full review here.

The first episode of Clarence was broadcast on BBC1 in 1988.

Ronnie Barker’s sitcom farewell is a series that I’ve never warmed to – the single joke premise (Clarence is a short-sighted removals man) wore pretty thin when the character (with a different name though) appeared back in 1971, so a whole series based around this concept has never seemed inviting to me. Still, Barker and Josephine Tewson are always worth watching, so maybe I’ll give it another go this year.

Iain Cuthbertson, born in 1930.

I’ve chosen Mutiny, an episode from The Onedin Line‘s first series, as my anniversary Cuthbertson programme. It sounds promising – Cuthbertson plays the dangerously unstable Captain Kirkwood with the likes of Kevin Stoney and John Thaw also making appearances. It’s written by Ian Kennedy Martin (his sole script for the series).

The Jewel In The Crown, Southall, Middx by Johnny Speight (1985, unscreened pilot)

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It’s fair to say that Johnny Speight remains a rather controversial figure, more than twenty years after his death.  The news that the recently established UK streaming service BritBox will not carry Till Death Us Do Part has brought his name to the fore once again. Although this, to be honest, is a bit of a non-story. At present, the list of archive television from the sixties, seventies and eighties not on BritBox dwarfs the small amount which is …

With Till Death, the argument (a pretty convincing one) has always been that whilst Alf Garnett often espouses bigoted and racist opinions, the series – and the other regular characters – are laughing at him, not with him.  This defence was also (less convincingly) used for Speight’s LWT sitcom Curry and Chips, in which Spike Milligan (browned up as Paki Paddy) joined his old friend Eric Sykes for a short lived series which was mired in controversary right from the start.

Milligan clearly enjoyed browning up as he later played Mr Van Gogh, an illegal Pakistani immigrant, in The Melting Pot which was written by Milligan and Neil Shand.  Only the pilot was transmitted, the remaining six episodes have remained locked up in the BBC’s vaults for over forty years.

Given all this, what were the chances that a mid eighties BBC pilot featuring Sykes and Milligan (once again browned up) and written by Speight would prove to be a roaring success? Clearly very slim ….

Watching The Jewel In The Crown now, it’s interesting for many reasons – not least the fact that it’s precisely the sort of programming which alternative comedy was supposed to have killed off.  Of course, the notion that alternative comedy was always some sort of positive cleansing force has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Not all trad comedy was bad, not all alternative comedy was good.

Anybody looking to claim that The Jewel In The Crown is a satire on racism will have their work cut out for them. In the first few minutes Spike explains to Eric why he’s opened a crummy café whilst caked in brownface. “All those Pakistanis come over here and steal our jobs, right? Well, I’ve opened up a Pakistani restaurant and I’ve blacked myself up every night and I steal some of their bloody jobs”. Eric looks perplexed but doesn’t issue a challenge, so the point is allowed to stand.

The thirty five minutes aren’t without some merit though.  Even allowing for the fact that Spike’s Irish accent comes and goes at will, Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes are always worth watching (even if it’s slightly sad that they didn’t seem to have any issue with Speight’s script).

The fact that they’re playing versions of themselves is also interesting (there’s a gentle dig from Spike about the fact that Eric’s spent twenty years making the sitcom I Love Hattie). There might have been some merit in developing this theme had the pilot by some miracle generated a series. And Josephine Tewson and Keith Smith (an old colleague of Spike from his Q days) both add a little touch of quality, even if they can’t do anything with the script either.

I haven’t been able to source a great deal of info about this pilot, save for the usual rumblings that it was never broadcast due to “political correctness”. It’s probably more to do with the fact that it was horribly misjudged and not really very funny.  As a curio it’s certainly worth a look, but it’s hard to see it as any sort of missed opportunity.

Bob’s Full House

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If you were looking to crown a British King of Quiz shows, then surely Bob Monkhouse would be your man. The Golden Shot and Family Fortunes were a couple of his big hitters, although he also had some very obscure shows on his cv.  Ironically, it seems that few people today remember Monkhouse’s Memory Masters whilst his first quiz effort (Do You Trust Your Wife?) has also fallen down a crack in time.

Bob’s Full House is one that’s endured though. And thanks to repeats on Challenge, a heathy selection are available to enjoy on YouTube.

“In Bingo lingo clickety-clicks, it’s time to take your pick of the six”

This was the perfect show for Bob. It allowed him to do a bit of stand-up at the start and then interact with the four contestants in a mildly teasing (but always friendly) way before the serious part of the quiz began.  Although there were a few rumblings that bingo was too down market for the BBC, BFH was actually a pure quiz rather than a televised bingo session (although surely that’s been done by someone somewhere).

Round one was Four Corners, where you had to … well, you can probably guess.  The first contestant to answer four questions correctly would also get a prize (there would be much cooing from the studio audience in that sort of semi-ironic Blankety Blank way).

The pace would pick up with Round two – the Monkhouse Mastercard. This time the contestants could select one of their numbers which matched with a variety of quiz topics.  A slightly more impressive prize would be given to the one who managed to light up their middle line.

By the time we get to round three – Full House – things are going full throttle. Now it’s just a straight race to the finishing line, with a series of rapid fire questions requiring good fingers on buzzers action.  Bob comes into his own here, rattling through question after question like the pro he was.

The winner would then join Bob for the Golden Card. A holiday destination (which always had to be around seven letters) was the prize and there were fifteen questions to be answered.  With a time-limit of just one minute things could get tense – the more wrong answers, the harder it would be to locate the letters (other squares on the board contained money, which was nice but no help when you were looking for an all-expenses paid holiday).

BFH was a hit straight away – by the end of the first series in December 1984, the show was pulling in more than thirteen million viewers. It’s early evening Saturday timeslot may be one of the reasons why it’s fondly remembered today – possibly it wasn’t the programme that we were all tuning in for, but it was a dependable part of the television furniture for a good number of years.

And maybe it plays a little better today than it did then. Bob was respected in the eighties, but he also had to fend off a fair number of brickbats. In the last few years of his life, and in the decades following his death, his critical standing has certainly increased.  Maybe at the time we just took him for granted – now, some thirty years on, it’s easier to see just how good he was.

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The Dawson Watch – Simply Media DVD Review

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Les Dawson’s road to television stardom was a long and rocky one. Born in Collyhurst, Manchester in 1934, Dawson pursued numerous dead-end jobs whilst attempting to break into the comedy world.  After many false starts, thanks to a spot on Opportunity Knocks his luck slowly began to change.

His own show – Sez Lez – which ran on Yorkshire Televison from 1969 to 1976 was key in establishing his brand of entertaining miserablism.  Whilst some of the early editions were a bit thin comedy-wise, the arrival of a crop of experienced writers such as Barry Cryer and David Nobbs gave the show a considerable boost.  Having John Cleese as a regular co-star for a while didn’t hurt either.

Whilst with Yorkshire, Dawson also appeared in The Loner (scripted by Alan Plater) and Dawson’s Weekly (penned by Galton and Simpson) so he didn’t lack for heavyweight writers. Throw in a number of one-off specials, guest spots on other people’s programmes and appearances on panel shows such as Joker’s Wild and Celebrity Squares and it’s fair to say that by the mid seventies Dawson had well and truly arrived.

His defection to the BBC in 1977 wasn’t a shock on the same level as the departure of Morecambe and Wise to Thames, but it still raised a few eyebrows.  Lacking his familiar group of writers (even though they would have been happy to continue working with him) Dawson’s first BBC starring venture – imaginatively titled The Les Dawson Show – turned out to be something of a damp squib.

The writers – including Eddie Braben and a young David Renwick – were strong, but in some respects it seemed to be little more than a Sez Lez rehash (Les interacting with guest stars – such as Lulu – plus regular spots for singers and dancers).  The time was clearly right for Les to do something a little different next time and so The Dawson Watch (1979 – 1980) was born.

Dawson’s monologues (which he wrote himself, the sketches tended to be penned by other writers) often railed at life’s follies, so a series in which Les examined a different hot topic each week (Housing, Transport, Money, etc) was something which played to his strengths.

Along with a new writing team – Ian Davidson as script editor, Terry Ravenscroft and Andy Hamilton providing the sketches – the show began to take shape.  The Dawson Watch has the air of a consumer programme in which Les introduces sketches illustrating the topic of the week whilst moving around a studio packed with high-tech equipment (well, high-tech for the late seventies) and attractive young ladies pushing buttons.

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It’s fair to say that the first series was a learning experience for all concerned.  Dawson seemed a little ill-at-ease in the first programme, only coming to life when he began to banter with the audience about where they live.  Once he does that – and presumably starts to go off-script – he visibly perks up.  Although there’s plenty of new material in his monologues, several old favourites (“until I was fifteen, I thought that knives and forks were jewellery”) also receive airings.

There are so many gems which can be mined from Dawson’s routines, such as this bleak portrait of Christmas.  Les confided that he could “only remember being given one Christmas present by my father. It was a do-it-yourself electric train set. Turned out to be a roll of fuse wire and a platform ticket”.

Possibly the major failing of the first series is the fact that Dawson doesn’t appear in many of the sketches.  Familiar faces such as Cosmo Smallpiece and Cissie and Ada do pop up, but most of the sketches are handled by others.  There’s certainly some very talented performers on view during these early shows – Sam Kelly, Johnny Ball, Michael Knowles, John Junkin, Patrick Newell, Terence Alexander, David Lodge, Andrew Sachs – but it would have been much more enjoyable had we seen Dawson playing off against them.

However, one of Les’ early sketch appearances (with Roy Barraclough as Cissie) is a Dawson classic.

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.
ADA: Oh, Bert and I have been to Greece, with Wallace Arnold’s Sunkissed Package Holiday and Inter-Continental Tours.
CISSIE: Oh, really? Did you have the shish kebabs?
ADA: From the moment we arrived. All down that side.
CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?
ADA: See it? We were never off it.

Clearly lessons had been learned for series two as Dawson takes a much more central role in the sketches whilst Vicki Michelle (as one of the computer girls) proved to be a welcome additon to the line-up. The girls in the first series were rarely called upon to be anything more than mute and attractive – acting simply as fodder for Dawson’s remarks – but Michelle possessed the comic chops to be able to engage in banter with him (which made Les’ lecherous advances seem a little less uncomfortable).

The astonishing roster of familiar faces making guest appearances during series one was reduced for the second and third series.  As was more common with series of this type, a “rep” of performers was used instead – Roy Barraclough headed the list, with Daphne Oxenford and Gordon Peters amongst the other regulars.

The formula remained the same for the third and final series (broadcast in 1980 and culminating with a Christmas Special discussing the obvious topic of Christmas). Vicki Michelle wasn’t featured so prominently, although one of her future Allo, Allo! co-stars, Kirsten Cooke, made a few appearances whilst it was also nice to see the likes of George Sweeney and Michael Keating.

Compared to some of his contemporaries, such as Mike Yarwood and Dick Emery, Les Dawson is very well represented on DVD. Virtually all of his surviving ITV material can be purchased from Network whilst this release from Simply constitutes a welcome chunk of his later BBC work. Hopefully more will surface in the future.

Whilst some aspects of Dawson’s humour haven’t aged well, there’s still so much of interest here – his wonderfully crafted monologues, the impressive parade of supporting actors – to make it easy for me to wholeheartedly recommend this release.

The Dawson Watch consists of nineteen 30 minute episodes spread across three discs (six, six, seven) and is subtitled. It’s released tomorrow (4th March 2019) by Simply Media and can be ordered directly here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

 

 

A Very Peculiar Practice – Contact Tracer

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At the start of this episode Lyn and Stephen enjoy a relaxing post-coital moment. Lyn tells him that she’s his best client and that their experiences (with the names changed of course) will make valuable research material. Is she attempting to unsettle him with her talk of other partners – all part of her researches maybe? Stephen, although he’s immensely grateful to Lyn, can’t help but feel like an experiment subject. At one point he likens himself to a “smoking beagle”.

John Bird returns as Vice Chancellor Ernest Hemmingway with Frances White appearing as his ever-loyal secretary Dorothy Hampton. The members of the practice are called to an early morning meeting with the VC, where the drinks on offer – apple juice – doesn’t meet with the approval of Bob (“I’m not a bloody hippy”).

Hemmingway is a jargon-spouting bureaucrat, keen for the practice to pay its way. Stephen’s weak protestation (made even less impressive by the way he’s clutching his carton of apple juice) that they have an impressive treatment rate piques the VC’s interest for a fleeting second, but since it’s not actually something that’s generating income he’s unsure of how they can spin it into a success story.

Stephen’s encounter with Jeannie MacAllister (Geraldine Alexander) has unforseen consequences. She’s charming and Stephen is his usual affable and friendly self, but she’s also a journalist and despite Stephen’s protests that he can’t discuss confidential medical matters with her, he attempts to put a positive spin on their treatment successes. Alas, this means that he turns into Doctor Blue Eyes whilst their success at treating VD becomes a major talking point of the article.

But then there’s a rash – as it were – of cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Stephen and Rose Marie, of course, are delicate, patient and understanding with their patients whilst Bob is forthright, brisk and uncaring. “Below the waist I take it? Front or back? So we’ve got a bit of tool trouble, well, well, well”. Jock is his usual avuncular self, telling one student that it’s “one of the minor penalties extracted from us by the goddess aphorpdite”.

With thirteen cases in two days (“trouble with the trouser snake” as Bob puts it) Jock and the others have a race against time to stop the epidemic growing. Graham Crowden once again ramps the intensity up and effortlessly steals the scene as Jock rages to Bob that they have to tackle this undercover and with a Falklands spirit. Later bulletins to the troops (“we’re holding the enemy, but only just”) are delivered in the same entertaining military manner.

With only a limited number of extras on hand, a little bit of creative work ensures that the illusion of a stream of patients is created. First, we see a number of mute patients before rapidly cutting to close-ups of the doctors as they continue to work their way through a backlog of appointmemts. By this point we simply have to accept that the unseen people they’re talking to are actually there.

Bob’s rundown of which departments were the worst offenders is a classic VPP moment. “Arts Faculty produced the largest number of cases. Idle sods. Too much time on their hands. Whole department’s going down like dominos. Similar pattern with the secretaries and porters, and Communication Studies lived up to their name. Waitresses and bar staff were a problem till we sewed up the catering managers’ trousers with cobbler’s thread. Sociologists only appear to do it with each other and we’ve got control there. Engineers, you’ll be interested to hear, have a very low rate of sexual activity. Singing about it in the bar seems to be their only outlet. And Physical Sciences hardly troubled the scorer”.

The nuns – who have been ever-present background figures – call in to see Jock. Stephen’s shocked expression – surely, they can’t have … ? – offers Peter Davison a lovely reaction moment. The late twist that even the VC is affected is another gift for Davison as Stephen is forced to reluctantly approach Hemmingway in his den. Naturally, the VC immediatly jumps to the conclusion that Stephen’s attempting to blackmail him.

The VC is appreciative but as a skilled politician he finds it impossible to believe that Stephen won’t attempt to use this embarrassing information at a later date. So Stephen’s told gently but firmly that his days at Lowlands are strictly numbered ….

A Very Peculiar Practice – Black Bob’s Hamburger Suit

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An old school friend of Bob’s, Jimmy Partington (David Gwillim), is able to put a potentially lucrative consultancy deal his way. Jimmy, now working for Hamburger – a major international pharmaceutical company – wants him to trial Confidan, a wonder drug that can cure just about any ill.

And with Jock under pressure from the Vice Chancellor, this could be just the sort of thing to prove their worth. Bob ropes Stephen in and the pair start to prescribe the drug (Stephen as and when required, Bob to anybody who walks through the door). Everything seems to be going swimmingly, until ….

Black Bob’s Hamburger Suit is, as the title suggests, a Bob-centric episode. This is a very good thing. Given a little more time and space, David Troughton is able to flesh out the character of Bob Buzzard very nicely. We start by dropping in on his home life (a swooping camera pan across a number of expensive-looking, but identical houses). After a few hurried and angry words with his wife, Daphne (Kay Stoneham), he’s straight into his car. His first job is drop his boys, Ollie and Simon, off at school.

Diminutive and bespectacled, they decide that daddy is in one of his rages. The way that Bob drives – aggressively and fast – suggests this is so, however much he denies it. His children don’t seem to have a very happy school life – duffed up by the boarders who refer to them as double-glazing salesmen. No doubt this is due to their impressive briefcases – gifts from a prestigious multi-national drugs company.

Bob is clearly happy to receive trinkets like this (as well as an expensive new suit of which he’s very proud) but until he meets Jimmy he doesn’t seem to be aware that further rewards could be his. Not only money, but a trip to Bermuda possibly. Only for him of course, no room for Marjorie. Delightfully this doesn’t seem to concern him that much. His off-hand comment when Jimmy asks how Marjorie is (“oh she’s all right I suppose”) is nicely done.

Bob, for all his aggressive outer shell, is little more than a child. Unlike the more machevilian Rose Marie, he doesn’t view Stephen as a threat (on the contrary, he invites him to join the Confidan project). And with everybody urged to develop papers or topics, Stephen – with nothing on hand – agrees with alacrity. Jock is working on a new book – The Sick University – whilst the ever industrious Rose Marie has dozens of projects to choose from.

Jock’s frequent asides into his tape recorder (as he compiles material for The Sick University) is an episode highlight. It causes some of his patients to run away although others are built of sterner stuff. “A typical consulation in the sick university. All is the same, all is new. One face, one body, taken at random from the long procession of pain. This is a young man. The unlined, greasy, pustules skin denotes innocence and ignorance. But then the eyes meet the eyes of the doctor and everything is changed, changed utterly. In that moment of acknowledgment, a shared mortality in which each symptom inscribes itself as an ideograph of the inevitable death that is all we humans share”.

And the pay-off? The young man’s come to him about his piles …

There’s yet another incredibly awkward conversation between Stephen and Rose Marie. She once again turns on the full power of her considerable sexuality to discomfort him (I love the production detail that plastic nipples were sown into Barbara Flynn’s costume – thereby ensuring that Rose Marie proved to be just that little more distracting at all times!)

When Rose Marie leans in even closer to tell Stephen that she finds him attractive, there’s another lovely touch from Davison as he swallows nervously and clears his throat. Once again, he’s mainly reacting, but it’s still done very well. It hard to take your eyes off Flynn though – the way she doesn’t break eye contact, how she uses her hand to draw attention to the points she’s making – it’s another masterclass in allure.

Rose Marie has come to tell him that he really should claim joint ownership of Bob’s paper. As we’ve already had a faint suggestion that there’s something wrong with Confidan, this is obviously another of Rose Marie’s manuvoures designed to embarrass and weaken her colleagues. There’s a very interesting cynical line reading from Davison late in the scene (“as a colleague and a friend?”) that seems to suggest he’s aware that Rose Marie is playing him, but this doesn’t seem to be as scripted as afterwards Stephen goes on merrily assisting Bob.

Both Bob and Stephen are presented somewhat as innocents. Lyn’s the one who suggests they set up a control group – supplied with a placebo – so their results can be compared against those prescribed Confidan. Stephen reacts in wonder at this (“that’s brilliant”) whilst she considers it to be simply common sense.

Lyn’s a constant presence throughout the episode. Whether she’s slowly drawing out Stephen’s confidence (first with a kiss and then by sharing the same bed) it’s plain that a great deal of his new-found resolve comes from her. The fact that he’s beginning to fall in love doesn’t please her though. She likes him a lot, but she also has interests elsewhere.

Bob’s noticed the change in him, approvingly putting it down to his “totty” (“she’s not my totty” Stephen weakly replies). Daphne refers to her as a “tart” and is highly undelighted that Bob’s invited her and Stephen to Sunday lunch. Daphne’s so utterly horrible during the scene where she and Bob are discussing the upcoming lunch, that it does shine a little light into what may be a fairly wretched home life for Bob. But when he plaintively asks Daphne if she actually loves him (again, a very child-like question) she does cease her sniping and responds to him as a mother would to her son.

Stephen and Lyn are left alone with Ollie and Simon while Bob and Daphne argue in the kitchen. The boys keen them entertained with a rundown of the terrible people their daddy has to work with. “The mad old fart and the uppity dyke. And the wet liberal. He’s so wet you could shoot snipe off his back”.

It’s no surprise to learn that Confidan has a major flaw (nothing serious, but it causes a nasty ear inflammation) which means that Bob has to reluctantly file a negative report. Stephen berates him over the fact that he already knew an American trial was similarly affected, but Bob weakly responds that he was assured the problems had been fixed. After all, if you can’t trust a major international pharmaceutical company who can you trust?

Black Bob’s Hamburger Suit has always been a favourite, thanks to the way it puts David Troughton front and centre. He seems to relish every line and delivers them perfectly. There are a number of stand-out scenes, but one of most memorable has to be when Bob – making an early start – discovers Jock attempting to hang himself (a bleak moment, albiet dealt with in a comic way).

After Bob is told to go away he does, all the way to his office. There’s a few exquisitely timed beats until he wheels around and returns to Jock. He then tells Jock that he shouldn’t really kill himself. Instead he prescribes him a course of Confidan ….

A Very Peculiar Practice – Wives of Great Men

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Professor John Furie (Timothy West) is a middle-aged senior academic going through a serious mid life crisis. Suffering from listlessness and a lack of drive, he reacts with anger after Stephen tentatively suggests they dig a little deeper to discover what the problem might be. But Furie is a man of wild mood swings and shortly after he informs Stephen that he’s made an enemy for life, he’s suddenly changed tack and decides that Stephen is “one hell of a doctor”. Although whether it’s better to have Furie as an ally or an enemy is debatable ….

The obvious highlight of Wives of Great Man is Timothy West’s barnstorming bewigged performance as Professor Furie (aptly named, since he’s in constant state of … well, fury). But the rest of the episode is excellent too, kicking off with a typically entertaining practice meeting.

Today there’s an innovation as Maureen (Lindy Whiteford) is an unwilling attendee. It’s interesting to see whilst Rose Marie supported her presence, after Maureen praises Stephen there’s a decidedly chilly atmosphere between the two women. And even affable old Jock, who brought Maureen into the meeting in the first place, is irritated by the fact that she actually has the temerity to open her mouth and voice an opinion. The practice hierarchy (with Maureen at the bottom – despite doing a good deal of the work) is made very clear here.

Clashes between Jock and Bob are always a highlight.

Jock: Bob has some figures for us, culled from his rinky-dinky little computer. Bob!
Bob: Thanks Jock! [pause] Do you think you could manage “Robert”?
Jock: I’ll try, Bob. Old habits die hard.
Bob: Riiight.

Bob continues to look for savings. Closing down the sick bay and ceasing treatment for the wives of the staff would certainly be one way to streamline (and then they could look for some lucrative private income). But everyone else rejects this, leaving poor Bob frustrated (Troughton’s tight-lipped affability at this point is perfectly done). When Jock calls him “cynical” and an “opportunist” Bob doesn’t react with annoyance, instead he agrees with him. “Not dirty words in my book”. It is the 1980’s after all.

Stephen later has several meetings with his colleagues. First of all Jock, who tells him to “search out the deep sexual anxiety” when dealing with his patients. Stephen later does this with Furie of course, with disastrous results. Rose Marie once again unsettles him (she describes Furie as a “hollow plaster phallus”). Davison may not seem to be doing too much during these scenes except react (as he also does when facing the Furie onslaught) but it’s the way he reacts that’s key.

Stephen’s first meeting with Furie is rocky. “You insulting little bastard” rages the Professor after Stephen has tentatively attempted to find out how Furie’s tiredness manifests itself. Stephen’s suggestion that Furie undertakes a full medical doesn’t go down any better. “Oh yes you’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you? Feel a little more in control of the situation if you had me naked and bent double with two rubber-gloved fingers up my arse”.

Post consultation, a shattered Stephen seems to have regressed to a schoolboy, anxiously looking out the window and then skulking in corners when he does leave the practice, convinced that Furie will leap out at any moment and duff him up. Jock and Bob – united for once – offer no comfort as they tell him that whilst Furie isn’t exactly a homicidal personality he’s definitely a bit of a ruffian. The glee on Bob’s face makes it plain that he’s anticipating some pain (a few broken ribs maybe) to come Stephen’s way.

When Furie suddenly treats Stephen as his best friend (“one hell of a doctor”, remember) it’s another wonderful opportunity for Davison to play the straight man. But he’s gifted some nice comic touches too – when Stephen spies Furie advancing on him and Lyn he dives under the table, convinced that a battering is on the cards. So when Furie instead wants to shake him by the hand, Stephen has to do so from under the table ….

Earlier, Stephen had reacted with surprise at the news that the wives of the university staff required so much treatment. Rose Marie wasn’t (telling him that their husbands make them sick, literally). As per the episode title, this is a theme developed throughout as Furie’s manic suspicion that his long-suffering and ever-loving wife Helen (Philippa Urquhart) is having an affair colours his every action. Thanks to his manic mood swings (not helped by mixing the pills prescribed by Stephen with alcohol) he changes from acidly suspicious to remorseful in a heartbeat.

Although given that it seemed to be earlier set up that Furie was unsure about whether his wife was having an affair, when we later discover that she is (and Furie knows about it) it does feel slightly odd. Why was he so suspicious if everything was already out in the open?

The humour of Furie’s earlier, unbridled public insults (telling the waitress after an indigestible steak that he wished to pass “my compliments to the chef, and would he care for a fistfight with Professor Furie?”) gives way to a quieter tone as Helen unburdens herself to Stephen. That he reacts in horror to the tales of her home-life whilst she treats the stories of her husband’s manic mood swings with amused indulgence is an interesting touch.

Furie has been down, then up and then down again. His climatic encounter with Stephen – now once again more his enemy – is another classic moment. Having walked through the pond to reach the surgery, he bursts into Stephen’s consulting room, convinced that the mild Dr Daker has been conducting an affair with his wife.

Stephen: Do sit down, I was hoping we could have a chat.
Furie: About my wife, perhaps?
Stephen: No. I did speak to her yesterday, I hope you don’t mind.
Furie: In bed, no doubt. While you were shafting her, no doubt! Typical of you cold-blooded Tavvy types! Yes I do mind, very much indeed, does that surprise you? My God, I thought of Buzzard, I even thought of McCannon, but it was you, you all the time, Daker! And don’t think I’m unaware of the part the Chilean government played in this!
Stephen: [pressing intercom, meekly] Help!

Delightfully, after pressing the intercom, Furie’s continuing diatribe is then broadcast to a rapt waiting room full of patients who soak up every word!

Help arrives. Bob is felled with a single blow and Jock cowers in the corner, so it’s possibly not too surprising that Rose Marie is the one who takes charge – efficiently pinning Furie to the floor whilst calmly advising Stephen that he should phone for an ambulance.

The parting shot of the episode – Rose Marie suggests to Stephen that she is the person Helen is having an affair with – is intriguing. Whether it’s true or not – and with Rose Marie you often can’t be sure – it ensures that the episode closes on a reflective note.

A Very Peculiar Practice – We Love You, That’s Why We’re Here

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The episode begins with Stephen suffering from an anxiety nightmare. Dressed in his pyjamas, he finds himself driving through the confusing university one-way system. The honking incidental music slightly spoils the mood alas.

He’s broken from this reverie by Chen, his roommate, who’s brought him a cup of tea. Chen’s a rarity – someone who accepts Stephen for who he is and was friendly towards him from their initial meeting. He listens with sympathy when Stephen tells him that his nightmare was simply “panic and terror, just ordinary stuff”.

The practice meetings are always a joy. Jock is holding forth on today’s topic with Bob and Rose Marie sniping at each other whilst Stephen looks on (a common occurrence). It’s the first day of term and Jock decides that – King Lear like – he’s inclined to share his kingdom amongst the others.

The prize on offer is Jock’s job of informing the freshers precisely what the health centre can offer them. After Jock’s delightfully condescending treatment of Rose Marie (calling her a lovely wee lassie and patting her knee) the three outline their ideas.

Bob’s all for telling the new intake precisely how much it costs to treat them and why they should be grateful. To him they’re machines and whilst he’s prepared to patch them up, he also believes that they need to look after themselves (a very Thatcherite spiel). Rose Marie is more concerned about the way that the university is little more than a phallocentric organisation designed to oppress women.

Given all he’s observed, Stephen’s initially reluctant to articulate his own opinions. But his stuttering heartfelt philosophy chimes with perfectly with Jock. It’s inevitable then that Jock will offer the job to a very unwilling Stephen. Bob (offering an ironic slow handicap) and Rose Marie (later telling Stephen that she’s unable to help him with his speech as he’s part of the problem, not the solution) are both far from delighted but it’s interesting that neither attempt to challenge the decision. Do they believe that the job is a poisoned chalice?

More dream sequences follow as Stephen – in pyjamas again – faces an oppressive hall full of chanting students. Even Lyn offers no succour (she jogs out of the hall smiling). Will the real meeting be better? Well, a dangerous mix of drink and drugs helps to loosen his tongue ….

The drugs – of the anti anxiety kind – were supplied by Bob. This was an act of decency on his part (after gleefully telling Stephen he was “up shit creek”). Troughton’s embarrassed reaction after Stephen thanks Bob is a lovely little moment. The alcohol was supplied by Chen (in Stephen’s tea) which is a problem since the drugs and any alcohol don’t really mix. Stephen’s freewheeling speech goes down a storm with the students although the grim-faced academics sitting alongside him seem less impressed.

We also follow two new students, Megan (Kate Eaton) and Angie (Francesca Brill), throughout the episode. Roommates they may be, but they could hardly be more different. Megan is Welsh, plain, humourless and dedicated to her studies whilst Angie is attractive, hyperactive, stylish and desperately keen to throw herself into university life (she’s constantly on the look out for the in crowd).

Angie later seeks out Stephen for a consultation. This helps to chip away at her confident public image (revealing the anxious girl underneath). Davison has an excellent bedside manner it has to be said. Angie wants to go onto the pill as she’s decided that her new drama teacher, Carl Pierce (Peter Blake), is the man for her.

Stephen and Lyn enjoy a drink as she fills in a bit of her background. Lyn’s a policewoman who’s come to the university to take a PhD in body language. That couldn’t be more perfect as she’s therefore uniquely qualified to heal Stephen’s touch taboo. He’s fine with patients, it’s just everyone else he can’t touch (admitting to Lyn that nobody gives him any cuddles).

Hugh Grant makes a brief appearance as Colin, a Scottish preacher. Megan and Stephen both attend one of his overpowering sermons – Megan is an instant convert whilst Stephen is much less connected.

Peter Blake’s role isn’t much larger than Grant’s, but it’s fairly key. Participating in Carl’s drama workshop is another way of attempting to cure Stephen of his touch taboo. What’s more important though is that Stephen’s on hand to diagnose that Carl is suffering from glaucoma. This scene also punctures Angie’s hopes and dreams – Carl tells her that he doesn’t mess around with his students, plus he’s in a long term relationship and there’s the small matter that he’s gay. Brill – who appears to have dropped out of acting some twenty years ago – handles this scene well. Indeed, overall it’s a very nicely judged performance.

Angie later admits to Stephen that she’s something of a fantasist (which of course should have been plain by now). But she maintains a cheerful persona and we leave her in a hopeful place. The news that Megan has got engaged to Preacher Colin is more of a surprise (when the pair visit Stephen, Hugh Grant isn’t called upon to do anything more than look faintly surprised and/or apprehensive).

With Stephen and Lyn ending the episode holding hands, it seems that things are looking up for him as well …

A Very Peculiar Practice – A Very Long Way From Anywhere

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AVPP was born out of necessity rather than inspiration. Andrew Davies had been commissioned to write a series about three mature women students but had lost inspiration after penning several episodes. The BBC, having already paid him upfront for the whole series, gave him two options – either return the money or write something else.

Davies decided that writing something else would be less painful, so the bizarre world of Lowlands University began to take shape. Drawing on his memories of his own past (Davies had been a lecturer at the Warwick Institute of Education) he set to work.

Receiving top billing, Peter Davison, as Stephen Daker, is the still point of the series. Surrounded by three grotesques – Jock, Bob and Rose Marie – Stephen’s function (especially in this opening episode) is to operate as their straight man. Although Davison possesses a sly and sharp sense of humour, he was quite relaxed at the prospect of being the “normal” one. “I was quite happy to be surrounded by lunatics. In effect, I was the one who the audience related to in the midst of these madmen – or madwomen”.

Miscommunication is at the heart of A Very Long Way From Anywhere. Stephen, having made the decision to make a clean break from the shattered detritus of his marriage, is determined to make a fresh start at Lowlands. But his problems start right from the moment he runs into the formidable practice receptionist – who needs some convincing that he’s a doctor and not a patient.

But that’s nothing compared to the confusion generated when he meets the senior member of the practice, Dr Jock McCannon (Graham Crowden). It won’t surprise you to hear that Crowden has a habit of stealing scenes, although when he’s placed opposite David Troughton then the honours are more even.

Jock: Would you care for a wee drop of something, Stephen?
Stephen: Oh, not for me! Bit early in the morning.
Jock: Oh! Very wise! I’m delighted to hear you say it. As a matter of fact, your predecessor gave us some cause for anxiety there. Ohhh, he gave the vodka bottle a most tremendous pummelling! [he pours himself a very generous tumbler full of scotch]
Jock: A total abstainer, eh? Very wise!

David Troughton’s Dr Bob Buzzard is gifted a whole tranche of sparkling dialogue. He begins by outlining to Stephen exactly how the University runs. “I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like a very, very inefficient sector of British industry. Top management are totally corrupt and idle, middle management are incompetent and idle, and the workforce are bolshy. And idle. And of course, there’s no bloody product!”

The moment when they compare notes, re their respective careers, is also wonderfully quotable. Davison underplays beautifully.

Bob: Now then. What’s your track record, old chap?
Stephen: Track record?
Bob: Absolutely right! Fair’s fair: Mine first. Classical tale of a promising career gone sour. Shrewsbury. Trinity. Guy’s. Royal Durham, ICI, Princeton. Spell in Saudi. Then, fatal mistake: Came here. What about you?
Stephen: Birmingham… Birmingham… Birmingham… Walsall.

Dr Rose Marie (Barbara Flynn) is a formidable feminist whose character seems to be just as relevant today as she was then (easy to imagine she’d be a hit on Twitter). Stephen’s introduction to her is short but not terribly sweet (I love the way that Davison’s face falls when Bob cheerily tells Stephen afterwards that she’ll now be his enemy for life!)

Rose Marie’s modus operandi is made clear when she later tells a patient, Antonia (Liz Crowther), that illness “is something that men do to women”. Flynn’s performance is a great deal more contained than the hyperactive Troughton, but it’s the contrast between the polar opposite characters of Rose Marie and Bob which helps to generate some lovely comic clashes in the upcoming episodes.

After reeling from these three encounters, Stephen then has a more pleasant meeting with ministering angel Lyn Turtle (Amanda Hillwood) at the pool (she eventually saves him from drowning). But Stephen’s continuing inability to express himself clearly leads to conflict later, after he runs into her at a drinks party organised by the Vice Chancellor Ernest Hemmingway (not that one). He’s surprised to see a pool attendant at such a party, a faux pas which he regrets straight away. And she twists the knife, just to drive the point home.

Hemmingway (John Bird) doesn’t have a great deal to do here, although he’ll play a major role later in the first series. Instead it’s his wife, Deirdre (Harriet Reynolds), who’s more to the fore during the rather excruciating (for Stephen, anyway) drinks party. Told it was very informal, Stephen’s choice of dress (a scruffy jumper) proved to be just a tad too informal. The way that Deirdre sweetly attempts to rationalise this breach of etiquette (possibly he’s just got off a flight and the airline has lost his luggage?) is another delight.

The final significant moment of the episode comes after Stephen dispatches a Chinese student (Sarah Lam) suffering from acute appendicitis to the hospital. Jock had examined her earlier, but decided that her symptoms were nothing more than home sickness. The fundamentally decent Stephen is appalled at the way that Jock let her down (made worse by the fact that she later displayed no malice towards Jock). But since Stephen can’t bring himself to publicly reproach his new boss, Jock’s little mistake is brushed under the carpet and life goes on.

Except, of course, this has served to bind Stephen just a little closer to Jock ….

Only Fools and Horses – Big Brother

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As is well known, Only Fools and Horses took a little time to establish itself as a comedy favourite.  Series one, originally broadcast in 1981, was politely received but it didn’t seem to spark a great deal of interest amongst either the critics or the audience.   This may have been something to do with the Minder effect (Del-Boy Trotter and Arthur Daley trod similar paths to begin with).

But revisiting the early episodes, it’s plain that right from the start all the pieces were in place.  Episode one, Big Brother (8th September 1981) is a good example of this.  As an establishing episode it’s not surprising that it concentrates on the three regulars – Del (David Jason), Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and Grandad (Lennard Pearce).  Joyce the Barmaid (Peta Barnard) gets a few reaction shots and we encounter Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) for the first time, but John Sullivan’s main intention here is to set up the relationship between Del and Rodney.

Familial discord has always been a fruitful source of sitcom material, possibly best exemplified by Steptoe and Son.  Is it fanciful to draw parallels between Big Brother and the original Steptoe pilot, The Offer?  Both see the youngest member of the family desperate to break free from their home environment (although neither are eventually able to do so).  The tone here is quite different though – Harold Steptoe is crushed by his failure to escape from his father’s clutches whilst Rodney and Del, for all their bickering, are happy to be reconciled at the end.

Younger brother Rodney has had a lifetime chafing about how he always gets the short end of the stick, but Del has an instant comeback.

Oh I embarrass you do I? You’ve got room to talk. You have been nothing but an embarrassment to me from the moment you was born. You couldn’t be like any other brother could you, eh, and come along a couple of years later after me. Oh no, not you, you had to wait 13 years. So while all the other Mods were having punch-ups down at Southend and going to the Who concerts, I was at home baby-sitting! I could never get your oystermilk stains out of me Ben Shermans – I used to find rusks in me Hush Puppies.

So Del, following the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father has been in loco parentis since Rodney was a young child. But now, at the age of twenty three, Rodney wants a better future than selling hankies from a suitcase in Oxford Street. Del can’t understand this – to him wheeling and dealing is his lifeblood. It’s a just a pity that he’s so bad at it. This is clear right from the start and it’s his inability to spot a dodgy deal (one-legged turkeys, attaché cases which don’t open) which make him just as a big a victim as his brother. But Del, with his lethal blend of pride and self-assurance, doesn’t realise this.

Tonally, it’s plain that this is very early days. Del is less than gallant when referring to Joycie whilst Trigger carries a faint air of menace. The reason for his nickname (it’s not that he carries a gun, it’s because he looks like a horse) has become a familiar archive clip, although since Del and Trigger have been friends since childhood, quite why Rodney had to ask this question is (in the Only Fools universe) a mystery.  In the real world it’s probable that Sullivan had yet to consider the likes of Trigger and Boycie as regular characters – so their backstories were something that could be sorted later.

Grandad is somewhat cast in the Albert Steptoe role. Fairly housebound and dependent on the others, he’s content to remain a passive observer. But whether it’s mulling over the qualities of Sidney Potter (an actor who always got the black roles), the inability of their computerised chess machine to play a good game of draughts or complaining that Rodney’s bought him a cheeseburger instead of an emperor burger, Lennard Pearce is nothing less than a delight.

Rodney’s plan to run away to Hong Kong doesn’t pan out (since he didn’t take his passport he wasn’t even able to leave the country). Del knew this, but allowed him to wax lyrical about the imagined foreign sights he’d experienced anyway. A little cruel? Not really and by the times the credits roll, the status quo has been restablished as the brothers are reconcilled.

That’s how sitcoms tend to operate, but Only Fools was different.  As the years wore on the characters would develop and grow (whereas most sitcom characters tend to exist in a form of stasis). Big Brother was therefore an important first building block as it gave both Del and Rodney clear backstories and a firm foundation to develop future stories.

Howards’ Way – Series Two, Episode Nine

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Tom is downcast that the beam on his catamaran broke during its trial.  Bill believes this vindicates his earlier concerns but Tom is convinced that Bill’s still wrong and he’s still right.  It’s interesting that Tom doesn’t mention this problem to either Avril or Jack – instead it’s Bill who breaks the potentially bad news.

Charles agrees to take Gerald back, but Gerald is forced to do a little grovelling first.  He later admits to Polly that it was somewhat humiliating and it certainly highlights the master/servant relationship that exists between Charles and Gerald.  The lingering awkwardness is touched upon later in the episode, after Charles tells Gerald to fire George Johnson (Wensley Pithey), a managing director of one of Charles’ companies who has failed to deliver.

For a brief moment it looked as if Gerald would decline to be Charles’ hatchet man, but in the end he said nothing.  Given that Charles has so often been totally ruthless in business, I wonder why he didn’t tell Johnson to his face that he was out?  The fact that Charles instructs Gerald to get rid of Johnson seconds after talking affably to him suggests that he doesn’t relish personal conflict (or is it simply that he’s a master of delegation?)

Kate’s minding the boutique whilst Jan’s away.  She proves to be an excellent saleswoman, although she’s not above telling potential customers that the dresses they’ve chosen really don’t suit.  Which is a potentially dangerous course!  Ken is surprised to see her manning the till, whilst Kate continues to view him with barely suppressed loathing.  He attempts to mend fences by telling her he wasn’t involved with the people who beat up Leo.  We know that’s not true, although I suppose he could claim that he didn’t know Leo would be singled out (although maybe he did instruct them to target Leo, with Ken you never can be sure).

Apart from crossing swords with Kate, he’s also attempting to restore his fortunes and – thanks to Dawn – has a meeting with Mark Foster (Graham Pountney).  Mark services speedboats and also has a franchise to sell them – although given the fact that they’re luxury items, sales are slow.  Ken has a suggestion – if Mark moves to a prime site that he owns then they’ll be much more visible, and if Mark starts racing again (and winning) then sales should go through the roof.  Mark seems to be a man who knows his own mind, although next episode – when we meet his wife, Sarah – it becomes clear that she’s the dominant member of their partnership.  And as we’ll see during the next few series, it’s Sarah who’ll stick around.

If it was thought that Orrin’s departure would enable Abby and Leo to spend more time together, then the arrival of Curtis Jaeger (Dean Harris) rather puts a stop to that.  Jaeger is an activist who believes in action, not words.  Abby is taken with him, whilst Leo stands in the background looking disapproving.

Jan is told that if she wants to use the house as collateral then she needs Tom’s permission.  Remembering the way that she was so reluctant to allow him to do so when he wanted to buy into the Mermaid, she’s more than a little diffident about approaching him.  But Tom is instantly agreeable.  No doubt this is partly because (the catamaran excepted) things are going well for him at present, but it’s also evidence that he’s always been supportive of her.  Whether Jan has been equally supportive of him is a moot point ….

Jack’s depressed, which leads to another heart-to-heart with Avril (she’s more than a little upset that he’s drinking heavily again).  The reason’s the same as before – with Tom’s fancy non-wood designs taking over the yard he feels surplus to requirements.  But luckily salvation’s on hand – in the shapely form of Mrs Davis-Segram (Christina Greaterex).  However, Jack does all he can to avoid her to begin with (calling her “a fat old bag”!).  What he doesn’t realise is that the late Mr Davis-Segram remarried, so the new Mrs Davis-Segram is a much more agreeable proposition than the old one was.

This has been the year when Jack Rolfe’s interest in the opposite sex has become abundantly apparent.  Yes, you can make the case that he’s wining and dining her simply because he wants her business, but it’s also plainly no hardship for him.

His wooing seems to have paid off though, as she decides that the Mermaid is the yard for her.  She orders a forty footer in solid wood which causes him to crow to Bill.  “You can forget about Tom Howard’s fancy designs. The old firm is back in business, Bill. And this time … she’s here to stay.”

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