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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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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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 …..

Dear John – Series Two

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Series two opens with several new recruits to the Wednesday night meetings of the 1-2-1 club.  We’ve already met Sylvia (Lucinda Curtis), possessor of an incredibly annoying nervous laugh, during the first series but Rick (Kevin Lloyd) makes his debut here.  He automatically expects everybody to know who he is – as Ricky Fortune he had a brief moment of pop glory in 1969 – so is crushed when nobody recognises him.  John, nice guy that he is, pretends that he owns all of Ricky’s records, but Kirk recognises this as a barefaced lie and delights in needling the unfortunate Rick.

Rick proudly tells them that his big hit went to number one.  But not in Britain.  Or America.  Eventually he has to shamefacedly admit that he was a chart topper in Iceland. Not quite the same thing really.  The observant viewer may have noticed that Mrs Arnott isn’t present, this is purely so she can turn up later and scream with delight when she spies her pop hero Ricky!  This is another lovely use of Mrs Arnott’s character, which makes Sullivan’s decision to write her out of the series in episode two a baffling move.  As I touched upon before, although she didn’t do much her brief contributions were always telling – with the result that her absence was certainly felt.

I’ve a feeling that Sullivan was tiring of the 1-2-1 club format, as several later episodes are much more focused around John, with the others rather pushed into the background.  The fact that John was becoming more central, a change from the ensemble feel of series one, might also explain why Belinda Lang didn’t appear in the final two episodes (although she briefly returns for the Christmas Special).  But another series which starred Lang, The Bretts, was also in production at this time, so it could be that her commitments meant she could only do the four episodes.  Either way, she’s another loss.

Rick features heavily in the first two episodes and then abruptly leaves.  His departure is left fairly open (his confidence takes a knock after believing he’ll be the star of a 1960’s disco – not realising that Louise had already booked Freddie and the Dreamers) but we never see him again.  A pity, since Kevin Lloyd (probably best known as Tosh Lines in The Bill) has an appealing sense of vulnerability as the faded pop star.

The third episode centres around John’s relationship with his son Toby (played by Ralph Bates’ real son, William).  Knowing this, and also being aware of Ralph Bates’ early death, does add several layers of poignancy to any scenes they share.  This was the younger Bates’ only acting job – he’s now carved out a successful career as a musician.

If Rick’s departure felt like a slight structural oddity, then so are episodes four and five.  In episode four we’re told that John has met an attractive divorcee, Liz (Lucy Fleming), but as we never see their initial meeting she just seems to appear out of nowhere.  Since John’s the eternal loser it seems obvious that his attempts to romance her will come to naught.

This appears to be the case when they both return to his room as he’s astonished to find his best friend Ken (Terence Edmond) sleeping in his bed.  Ken’s been turfed out of his house by his wife Maggie (Sue Holderness) and has sought refuge with John.  Earlier, John, Ken and Maggie shared an icy dinner together (the highlight being Maggie’s forced politeness – nicely played by Holderness).  Ken’s presence puts a dampner on any carnal thoughts that John and Liz might have entertained and she quickly leaves.  That, you would think, would be that, but the next day she tells the dumfounded John that she’s booked them into a hotel in Brighton for the weekend.

It’s an intriguing point to end the episode on, but that’s the last we see of her.  Next time John tells the others that Liz dumped him for another man she met at the hotel (well he did have a Ferrari).  Given all we’d seen of Liz during her – admittedly brief – appearance, this seems rather out of character with the result that everything feels very odd.  If you create a relationship that looks like it has legs then the audience may feel aggrieved if it’s curtailed in such an off-hand way.  Why Sullivan couldn’t have written Fleming into episode five as well is a mystery – as her final, unseen, phone conversation with John doesn’t convince.

The slightly strange tone continues with episode six.  John’s finally got some good news – he’s shortly to be promoted to headmaster.  And when he meets a beautiful young woman called Karen (Elizabeth Morton) everything seems to be going his way.  The revelation that Karen isn’t twenty three as he thought, but is a seventeen year old schoolgirl just transferred to his school, is a brilliant comic moment, although it’s an undeniably dodgy topic which you probably wouldn’t find in a pre-watershed sitcom today (always assuming there are any pre-watershed sitcoms of course).

I do find Sullivan’s treatment of Karen to be a little troubling.  It’s revealed that she has a history of forming relationships with her teachers and has already cost at least one of them his job.  Although she’s presented as innocent romantic, just not interested in boys her own age, there’s something slightly off-putting about the way her character is handled.  For John, it’s another indication that he’s a born loser.  Although innocent of any wrongdoing, his liaison with Karen is enough to ensure that he’s passed over for the headmaster’s job this time.  Although David (Frank Windsor) airily tells him he’ll be able to apply in a few year time, when all this blows over.

It’s always a pleasure to see Windsor, and since Elizabeth Morton (now acting under the name of Elizabeth Heery) was twenty six when this episode was made it’s possible to find her attractive as a schoolgirl with a clear conscience.  But that still doesn’t stop this episode from being a somewhat strange watch.

Dear John ended with the 1987 Christmas special.  Kate returns – as eventually does Kirk.  Peter Blake spends most of the episode as Eric, telling John that Kirk is dead and he’ll never ever be him again.  But when Eric, by a stunning coincidence, happens to be present in the same pub where the others have gathered (he’s not brave enough to meet his former friends as Eric) and observes Ralph being harassed by some Hells Angels, he knows what he has to do.  Clutching his Kirk suit, which he had planned on binning, he strides into the gents toilets – to emerge as Kirk in all his glory.  The Superman theme helps to reinforce the obvious joke, but it’s clearly one that delights the audience as they launch into a round of applause.

The notion that Eric is a feeble nobody whilst Kirk is a master of martial arts is hard to swallow, so this is the moment when Dear John jumped the shark (Kirk is able to take on and beat the gang of Hells Angels without breaking a sweat).  It’s a great comic moment – as is the sight of Ralph hung up on the coatstand! – but it stretches credibility to breaking point.  Still, it was Christmas so we’ll let them off.

Better defined character comedy closes the show.  John has had a strained relationship with Mrs Lemenski (Irene Prador) for the whole of the run.  She regards him as a nutcase and was never backwards in coming forwards to tell him so.  But this episode is where we learn a little more about her and discover that she’s just as lonely as the rest of them.  But whilst John and the others have the dubious pleasures of the 1-2-1 club, she has nothing, so when she offers to cook him Christmas dinner he – after a brief struggle with his conscience – agrees.  His ex-wife has asked him to spend Christmas with her and he’d agreed with alacrity.  Mrs Lemenski seems to have put a spoke in this, but I’ve no doubt that John will be able to work something out, meaning that the series ends on a slightly positive note.

Although I’ve been slightly critical here, series two of Dear John still has plenty of excellent comic moments, it’s just that when watching it back-to-back with series one it becomes clear that something was missing.  Probably John Sullivan was right to introduce new characters and move away from the 1-2-1 club setting (otherwise it could have ended up in a rut) but given the strained nature of some of series two it does seem that everybody was aware that the show had run its course.

Dear John – Series One

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By the mid eighties John Sullivan was on something of a roll.  Having started as a gag writer for the Two Ronnies in the late seventies he then quickly created a trilogy of classic sitcoms – Citizen Smith (1977-1980), Just Good Friends (1983-1986) and the series for which he’ll always be best remembered, Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003).

So despite having Just Good Friends and Only Fools and Horses on the go at the same time, Sullivan then increased his workload by adding another show, Dear John (1986-1987), into the mix.  Although popular at the time (and it was strong enough to spawn an American remake a few years later) it’s possibly not so well remembered today.  This may be because unlike Only Fools it never enjoyed blanket repeats (indeed the last terrestrial outing I can find a record of was back in 1991).

It also had quite a short run – two series and a Christmas Special, so just a total of fourteen episodes.  It’s sometimes been assumed that Ralph Bates’ tragically early death was the reason why the series didn’t continue, but the last episode aired in 1987 and Bates died four years later, so it seems more likely that Sullivan had run out of ideas for the characters.  This is something we’ll touch upon when we discuss series two, as there were several very clear attempts made to shake up the format.

The opening titles for the first series act as a very good shorthand to explain the concept of the show.  John Lacey (Ralph Bates) returns home to find a Dear John letter – his wife, Wendy, has left him.  We then cut to the court, where he looks optimistic (before he goes in that is).  Afterwards, things clearly haven’t gone well and he’s forced to pack his bags and move into a dingy one-room flat.

From the first scene John is presented as a loser.  A nice guy maybe, but a loser.  He’s enjoying a solitary pint, when an old friend, Roger (Michael Cochrane), pops up.  John attempts to put a brave face on his life as a divorcee, telling Roger that he’s having a great time – parties every night.  Roger must be pretty dense as he swallows these obvious lies and then tells him that it’s shame he’s so busy as a few of the lads are heading out for a Chinese meal.  John’s now dug himself into a hole – he’d love to go out with Roger and the others, but since he’s created such an active fantasy social life for himself, Roger thinks he’s joking.  It’s interesting that Roger never appears again – he seems to have been created as a potential regular (and Cochrane is the sort of actor that would enhance any series) but after this scene he vanishes, never to be seen again.

Tired of sitting in his tatty bedsit, he decides to join the 1-2-1 club, a divorced/separated encounter group.  It seems to be well attended, although it turns out that most of them are in the wrong room – they want the alcoholics anonymous meeting next door – which caps the opening gag which saw John go into the alcoholics anonymous meeting by mistake.

Once that confusion’s been settled we’re left with the motley bunch of characters who will be the main focus of the first series.  Ralph Dring (Peter Denyer) is a charisma free zone – seemingly a man with little personality or self-awareness.  Kirk St Moritz (Peter Blake) could hardly be a greater contrast – he has personality, far far too much of it and dresses in a way that can best be described as “flamboyant.”  Kate (Belinda Lang) is quiet and fairly reluctant (at first) to be the centre of attention, but she’s not as quiet as Mrs Arnott (Jean Challis) who it’s easy to forget is there at times.  Leading the group is Louise (Rachel Bell).

The characters are clearly defined in their opening scene.  Ralph and Kirk are the obvious comic creations, so they’re particularly useful when the mood needs to be lightened after a serious moment (Ralph can always provide a bizarre conversational non sequitur whilst Kirk usually has an insensitive insult ready).  Kate is a not such an extreme character, but she has a savage wit which is used to great effect to cut Kirk down to size (not that he ever minds, like a rubber ball he just bounces back).

Mrs Arnott rarely speaks – but this is a masterstroke, as whenever she does utter a few words they’re so well chosen by Sullivan that they invariably bring the house down.  Louise is something of a monster, although it takes a little while for her true nature to come to the surface.  Whilst she gives the impression of solicitous interest in her charges, it’s obvious that she really, really enjoys hearing all the gory details.  Her catchphrase (“were there any … sexual problems?”) doesn’t generate any reaction from the studio audience the first time, but when it’s quickly repeated they cotton onto the fact and begin to respond.

We see her delight in learning about all the juicy bits very clearly in episode two when John inadvertently goads Kate into admitting that her three marriages broke up because she was frigid.  Louise’s pleasure is plain to see and later, in the pub, she continues probing (“did your husbands try and force themselves on you?”) even after Kate’s made it quite plain she doesn’t want to talk about it.

My favourite episode from the first series is the third one, since it features Ralph heavily.  Peter Denyer was a joy from start to finish – deadpanning his way through each and every episode.  It’s the sort of character that has to be played completely straight (with no sense of self-awareness) and Denyer was spot on.  Here, he’s holed up at home, bemoaning the fact that not only has he lost his job but he’s suffered a death in the family.  Terry the Terrapin may not look like much, but he meant the world to Ralph.  “He was my best friend. We’d been together for years.”

This episode also shows Kirk in a different light.  He may appear to be rude, obnoxious and  narcissistically self-obsessed, but when he learns that Ralph’s razor is broke he goes out and buys him a top of the range replacement.  We’re waiting for the gag, but it’s a genuine present and offered in a true spirit of friendship.  It’s the hapless John who provides the laughs – he borrows the razor to have a quick shave, but it drops out of his hand into the fishtank (destroying Kirk’s gift and killing Ralph’s replacement terrapins in one fell swoop).  Bates, so good at both verbal and non-verbal comedy, is a delight in this scene.

The seventh and final episode of the first series is another favourite.  Kirk continues to indulge in his wild flights of fancy, which nobody (except for the gullible Ralph) believes.  But the extent of Kirk’s fantasy life is greater than anybody realised – as John discovers when he meets Kirk at home.  He’s not Kirk at all – he’s Eric Morris, a bespectacled nerdy character who lives at home with his mother (who’s entertainly abusive towards him).  The difference between the confident Kirk and the downtrodden Eric is immense (although it just about stays within the bounds of credibility here, unlike the later Christmas Special).  And there’s a decent gag at the end, when Kirk returns and berates John for coming round to one of his safe-houses.  Did he not realise he was undercover on a dangerous spying mission?!

So with a solid series of seven episodes it was inevitable that the show would return for a second series.  But whilst series two was still extremely funny in places, there were also signs that the concept was beginning to run out of steam.

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Yes Minister – Party Games

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Broadcast on the 17th of December 1984, Party Games was the final episode of Yes Minster (it lead directly into the sequel series Yes Prime Minster).  It has a slight Chrismassy feel, but it’s not really a surprise that politics (rather than Christmas) dominates proceedings.

We open with Bernard (Derek Fowlds) telling Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) that there’s something much more urgent than the defence papers he’s working on.  Jim pulls a face when he realises that Bernard’s talking about his Christmas cards, but obediently goes over to the desk where a mountain of cards awaits him.  As might be expected, the neat civil servant in Bernard has organised everything down to the finest detail. “These you sign Jim, these Jim Hacker, these Jim and Annie, these Annie and Jim Hacker, these love from Annie and Jim.”

Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) has gone for a meeting with Sir Arnold (John Nettleton). Sir Arnold is the cabinet secretary, and Jim helpfully reminds Bernard (and the audience) exactly how important Sir Arnold is. “In some ways, Sir Arnold is the most powerful chap in the country. Permanent access to the PM, controls Cabinet agenda, controls access to everything.”

He’s due to retire early and is keen to appoint a successor. But the right man for the job has to be able to ask the key question – when Sir Humphrey asks how Sir Arnold plans to spend his retirement, it’s obvious he’s on the right track. “There might be jobs you could pick up, ways you could serve the country, which your successor, whoever he might be, could put your way – er, persuade you to undertake!”

One of the joys of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minster was the way in which it felt horribly credible.  This wasn’t surprising, since the writers (Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) had access to several different high level sources who would feed them valuable material.  But what is surprising about Party Games is how it seems to predict future events (a sheer fluke but it’s fascinating nonetheless).

When the Home Secretary, shortly after launching his Don’t Drink and Drive Campaign, is picked up for drunk driving, he’s forced to retire.  Shortly after, the Prime Minister also announces his retirement – which sparks an intense leadership contest.  It soon becomes clear that the Prime Minister hated the Home Secretary and only stayed in power long enough to ensure that he’d never get the chance to become PM.

Two clear candidates for the top job emerge.  Eric Jefferies (Peter Jeffrey) and Duncan Short (Philip Short).  Both are viewed with disfavour by the Chief Whip Jeffrey Pearson (James Grout).  “If Eric gets it we’ll have a party split in three months. If it’s Duncan, it’ll take three weeks.”

What they need is a comprise candidate – somebody with no firm opinions and lacking the personality to upset anybody.  Jim Hacker, of course, is the perfect man.  When Party Games was repeated in 1990, shortly after Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power, the parallels between Jim Hacker and John Major were simply irresistible.  Both seemed only to have got the job because they were seen as a safe (and bland) pair of hands – as well as preventing other, more divisive, figures from occupying the top job.

As ever with Yes Minister, the script sparkles with killer one-liners.  A favourite of mine comes from Sir Humphrey after Jim wonders what will happen to the Foreign Secretary following his enforced retirement.  “Well, I gather he was as drunk as a lord. So, after a discreet interval, they’ll probably make him one.”

Nigel Hawthorne also has the opportunity to recite a typical tongue-twisting monologue.  This is how Sir Humphrey breaks the news to Jim that he’s been promoted to Cabinet Secretary. “The relationship which I might tentatively venture to aver has been not without some degree of reciprocal utility and perhaps even occasional gratification, is emerging a point of irreversible bifurcation and, to be brief, is in the propinquity of its ultimate regrettable termination.”

Jim is able to persuade both Duncan and Eric to stand down from the leadership contest after he reads their MI5 files. As Sir Arnold says, “you should always send for Cabinet Ministers’ MI5 files, if you enjoy a good laugh.”

Party Games may feel a little bit stretched out at sixty minutes (as well the fact it does feel like an extended intro for the new series) but there’s still more than enough good material to make it an episode that repays multiple viewings.

Hi-De-Hi! – The Partridge Season

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One of the advantages of a series like Hi-De-Hi! is that the large ensemble cast enables each character, especially those who usually operate on the periphery, to have a chance to shine.  And as might be expected by the title, The Partridge Season (Series One, Episode Four, Tx 12/04/81) puts the spotlight on the perpetually grumpy Punch and Judy man Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer).

Dwyer was a veteran actor (born 1906) who had enjoyed a long career in films and television (although usually in supporting roles).  Therefore, his regular performances in Hi-De-Hi! gave him a late taste of fame (very similar to the experiences enjoyed by the likes of John Laurie and Arnold Ridley in another Perry/Croft vehicle, Dad’s Army).  Mr Partridge was never going to be a character who would be central to the series (he worked better as someone who confined himself to the odd withering one-liner delivered from the comfort of his chair in the staff-room) but every so often he could be moved more up-front, as here.

Jeffrey has received orders to sack him.  Mr Partridge’s contempt for all children has already been well established, but this time he’s overstepped the mark.  When Jeffrey calls him into the office, Mr Partridge knows why he’s there and he gives him his side of the story.

Well, I was packing up the Punch and Judy and I couldn’t find the sausages. So I looked around and there was this snotty-nosed kid sucking an ice-cream cornet. ‘Have you got my sausages?’ I said. ‘Get lost, Grandad’ he said, and I could see ’em sticking out of his pocket. So I grabbed ’em off him, snatched his ice-cream cornet, stuck it in his face, give it a twist, then I clipped ‘im round the earhole and kicked ‘im up the arse.

I’ve already mentioned in my post on Hey Diddle Diddle how an air of melancholy is sometimes not far from the surface.  The forced jollity of the holiday-camp environment has something to do with it, but Mr Partridge (like some of the others) is an individual who’s found himself washed up at Maplins, past his prime and unable to get a job anywhere else.

He gives Jeffrey a brief outline of his career (as the camera slowly closes in on Dwyer, an obvious, but a good way of focusing the audience’s attention).  He started off on the halls as Whimsical Willie, the Juggling Joker.  After he came out of the Army in 1918 he gave up the juggling and became a comic – but talking pictures killed variety so he became a children’s entertainer.  After a stint entertaining the troops with ENSA during WW2 he eventually found himself working at Maplins.

All this is enough to convince Jeffrey that deserves another chance.  Mr Partridge is delighted and promises that he won’t let him down.  He also asks for an advance on his salary – to buy a new cover for the Punch and Judy booth, he says.  Jeffrey agrees and this is where the trouble really starts.

Jeffrey’s mistakenly under the impression that the affair of the ice-cream cornet was an isolated incident, but Ted puts him straight and lists some of Mr Partridge’s numerous run-ins with his audience.  “What about the time he put syrup of figs in the pot at the tiny-tots tea party?”  Worse than all this though is the benders.  “Once or twice every season, he gets a load of whisky and locks himself in his chalet and he’s legless for three days.”  And Jeffrey’s given him the money to do just that.

As ever, it’s the decent and honourable Jeffrey who has to suffer.  Always thinking the best of people, he finds himself left down by Mr Partridge and as a consequence has to share his chalet with Fred Quilley (who apologies for the horsey smell).  Best of all, he’s pressured into covering the Punch and Judy show.  The man-eating Sylvia offers to help, which seems like a good idea, but there’s very little room in the tent for two, much to Sylvia’s delight!

Spike wants to help Mr Partridge, but Ted is unsympathetic.  “I’ve been covering up for him for ten years. And I’ve had it up to here. He’s a rotten, bad tempered old tosspot!”  Ted has never thought of him as anything other than a third-rate Punch and Judy man, but Spike tells him he’s seen the cuttings that record his earlier successes – topping the bill at the Holborn Empire and performing in a Royal Command Performance at Windsor Castle.

Of course, in the end all is well and whilst it’s inevitable that it won’t be long before Mr Partridge causes more trouble, his dysfunctional surrogate family at Maplins will no doubt rally round.  The reveal that he actually was as a big a star as he claimed is a nice, sentimental touch.  It would have been just as easy for him to really have been nothing more than a third-rate musical hall turn, but it’s his genuine (if faded) stardom, as well as the injury he sustained during WW1 (which was the reason he had to give up the juggling), that persuades Ted to talk Jeffrey into giving him another chance.

Hi-de-Hi! – Hey Diddle Diddle

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Many of the best sitcoms feature a disparate group of people who, for one reason or another, are trapped together.  Porridge is an obvious example, but it’s a theme that also runs through the work of Jimmy Perry and David Croft.

Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum both had a diverse set of people thrown together by WW2 and in Hi-de-Hi! the characters are bound together because of their job.  It amounts to pretty much the same thing though – as we see people of different attitudes, ages and classes all forced to work with each other.

If there’s one thing that’s notable about most of Perry and Croft’s sitcoms (and also the ones that Croft wrote with other people) it’s the fact they tended to go on far too long.  When something is successful, the obvious thing to do is to continue – few writers are able (like John Cleese and Connie Booth with Fawlty Towers) to decide early on that all the comic potential has been mined from a certain idea.

But for now, let’s take a look at the first episode of He-de-Hi!, transmitted on the 1st of January 1980.  It has an extended running time of forty minutes and is probably best seen as a pilot – since it would be more than a year before the first series proper began.

What’s interesting is the feeling of melancholy that hangs over many of the characters.  Whilst all of them are professional with the holidaymakers, behind the scenes there’s a sense that for many, Maplin’s Holiday Camp is something of a prison for their thwarted dreams and ambitions.

For example, Fred Quilley (Felix Bowness) was a jockey who, it’s implied, threw races – so he’s washed up at Maplin’s, teaching holidaymakers to ride a selection of clapped-out nags.  And Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer) is a Punch and Judy man who has an intense dislike of children, something of a handicap in his job.  Dwyer was a veteran actor with a list of credits stretching back to the 1930’s (In Which We Serve and The Way Ahead were two notable early film appearances).  He’s rarely a central figure in the stories, but his pithy bad temper were always worth watching out for.

Perhaps the most dismissive of the whole Maplin’s environment are Yvonne and Barry Stewart-Hargreaves (Diane Holland and Barry Howard) and Yvonne’s disdain for the common holidaymakers is never far from the surface.  Their marriage is also intriguing, since Barry acts so incredibly camp it’s possible to wonder whether theirs is a marriage of convenience.  There’s this exchange, for example.

BARRY: You’ve got your weight on the wrong foot, you silly cow.  It’s like dancing with an all-in wrestler.
YVONNE: Well you’ve more experience with that kind of thing that I’d have.

There are some positive people though.  Spike (Jeffrey Holland) is young, keen and eager to please.  But it’s possible to wonder if Ted Bovis (Paul Shane) is the sort of person that Spike will become in twenty five years if the breaks don’t come his way.  In the little world of Maplin’s, Ted is King – although the fact he’s still stuck in the holiday camps after all this time implies that his big break never materialised.

Given how Peggy (Su Pollard) came to define the series, it’s surprising that she hasn’t got her face in the opening credits.  Peggy is the most positive person of all, desperate to become a yellowcoat and eager to do anything that will advance her cause.

The person charged with bringing order to this group of misfits is the new Entertainments Manager Jeffrey Fairbrother (Simon Cadell).  Jeffrey is the real fish-out-of-water – formally a professor at Cambidge, he’s thrown that up because, as he tells his mother, “I’m in a rut. My wife’s left me because I’m boring, my students fall asleep at lectures because I bore them. And worst of all, I’m boring myself”.

Cadell is perfect as the indecisive, diffident, but decent man who’s completely out of his depth.  This is highlighted when he meets Gladys Pugh (Ruth Madoc) for the first time.  For Gladys, it’s clearly love at first sight.  For Jeffrey (whilst he’d have to be blind not to see the signs she’s giving off) there’s little more than exquisite embarrassment.

This opening episode has done enough to suggest that the differences between the characters will provide plenty of comic potential in the years to come.  And towards the end Jeffrey is visited by a couple who are about to leave.  The old man’s words help to explicitly state the series’ agenda – whilst the employees of Maplin’s might sometimes be at each others throats, ensuring that the holidaymakers enjoy themselves is something they can all take pride in.

It was wonderful.  Just sheer fun, and we haven’t had a lot of that in our lifetime. It’s grand being daft and forgetting all your troubles for a little while. I was telling Doris here, I said if the whole country could be run like a holiday camp then we’d be alright. We’d have Joe Maplin as prime minister and never mind that Harold Macmillan. He’s always telling us we’ve never had it so good. We’ve never had it. We’ve had a grand holiday and you were marvelous. You joined in the fun, supervising in your own quiet way and you didn’t make a lot of palaver. You just did it and we’d like to thank you, young man.

You have been watching –

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1987

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The 1987 Christmas Special was the Two Ronnies’ last hurrah.  This was primarily the decision of Ronnie Barker, who had decided to walk away from showbusiness at the age of 58.  Although the Two Ronnies was still popular, Barker was wise enough to realise that their time was coming to an end and presumably wanted to avoid the treatment meted out to the likes of Benny Hill (who had been unceremoniously dropped by Thames a few years earlier).  Barker would later confirm exactly why he retired.

“The reason I retired was that the material was getting less good. I’d run out of ideas. I was dry of sketches. Plus, I’d done everything I wanted to do. The situation sort of pushed me, goaded me into asking, ‘Well, haven’t you done enough?’ And I had.”

With one more series to come in 1988 (Clarence) and this final Christmas special from the Rons, Barker could ensure that he was leaving at a point where the audience still wanted more – which was much the best way to go.  He was tempted back for a few decent character roles, but in the main he stuck to his decision and enjoyed a long and happy retirement,

None of this would have been known at Christmas 1987, so it was just another special with none of the baggage that would have surrounded the show had it been known it was the last one.  As ever, there’s nothing radical here – no deviations from the tried and true formula.  But what they do, they do so well.

One of my favourite sketches (which reappeared several times down the years) gets one final outing here.  Ronnie C is a man who can never complete his sentences and Ronnie B is his friend who has several attempts at filling in the missing words.

RONNIE C: We had our Christmas party the other night. Funny old do, it was. It’s always the same every year.  Always takes the form of an egg and …
RONNIE B: Egg and … What, egg and spoon race?
RONNIE C: No, takes the form of an egg and …
RONNIE B: Egon Ronay banquet?
RONNIE C: No, no. No, an egg and chip supper

It’s just a pity that the final punch-line was so weak, but then the Rons never went down the Python route of abolishing punchlines, which was sometimes a problem.  The big musical number was set in the Klondyke Saloon, Alaska and goes from black and white to colour as well as featuring some gorgeous girls.

Ronnie Barker always enjoyed writing the Yokels sketches, since it gave him a chance to reuse old jokes and some of them (“‘Ere, the girl I was with last night wouldn’t kiss me under the mistletoe.  She didn’t like where I was wearing it”) would be familiar to anybody who’s been watching these Christmas specials in sequence.

After Ronnie C’s chair monologue, we’re into the big closing film – Pinocchio II – Killer Doll.  No expense was spared (the village set looks very impressive) and whilst it’s quite long (seventeen minutes) there’s more than enough going on to justify the length.

Ronnie C is wonderful as the evil Pinocchio II whilst Ronnie B has, as you might expect, spot-on comic timing as Geppetto.  They’re well supported by the likes of Lynda Baron and Sandra Dickinson and having Ed Bishop as the narrator was another joy.  Unlike Morecambe & Wise, the Two Ronnies didn’t make such a habit of featuring guest stars but there’s cameos here from Frank Finlay, Dennis Quilley and most unexpected of all, Charlton Heston.

It’s a more than decent way to bring their career to a close and whilst it’s interesting to ponder if they could have continued into the 1990’s, they probably made the best decision by deciding to bow out whilst they were still at the top.

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1984

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As might be expected from the Two Ronnies, there’s several wordplay orientated sketches in the show.  The first (upper class city gents who can’t pronounce their words properly) is amusing enough, but does slightly outstay its welcome.

Ronnie B’s monologue is delivered by a milkman (H.M. Quinn) in the style of the Queen’s Christmas speech.  His delivery clearly appeals to at least one member of the audience (listen out for some very audible female squealing on the most innocuous of lines).  The majority of the monologue doesn’t actually contain any jokes – the idea that Barker is talking like the Queen is obviously supposed to be funny in itself.

Next up are a couple of Northern road-workers who exhume some golden oldies from the Old Jokes Home, such as –

RONNIE C: Sithee, does tha believe in reincarnation?
RONNIE B: Well, it’s all right on fruit salad, but I don’t like it in me tea.

Following the very Chrissmassy musical number (the Rons dressed as a couple of Stereo Santas) and a quick Ronnie C solo sketch we move into the best part of the show.  First up is another wordplay sketch – with the Ronnies as two soldiers in a WW1 trench.  Ronnie C has the unfortunate knack of mishearing everything that Ronnie B says, such as –

RONNIE B: God, I wish I were back in Blightly.
RONNIE C: Do you, sir? What sort of nightie, sir? Black frilly one?

RONNIE B: Sounded like a Jerry rifle.
RONNIE C: Bit strange in the trenches, sir. A sherry trifle.

It’s a lovely, typical Two Ronnies sketch.  The courtroom sketch that follows is something a little different.  It opens quite normally, with Ronnie C prosecuting and Ronnie B in the dock, but it quickly becomes a parody of several popular quiz shows (What’s my Line?, Call My Bluff, Blankety Blank, Mastermind, The Price is Right) – it’s also a pleasure to see Patrick Troughton as the judge.

Ronnie B has a solo singing spot as Lightweight Louie Danvers (not too dissimilar to Fatbelly Jones it has to be said).

Following Ronnie C in the chair, it’s the big film –  The Ballad of Snivelling and Grudge.  Guest star Peter Wyngarde is a delight – mainly because he takes the whole thing totally seriously.  There’s no winks to camera and his dead-pan performance is spot on.  And if, like me, you can spot Pat Gorman in the background, then you’ve probably watched far, far too much old British television.  If you don’t know who Pat Gorman is, then you’ve clearly not watched enough!

No news items to end the show – instead it’s a old-fashioned style song about Christmas.  It’s somewhat comforting and sums up the Two Ronnies quite well.  By the mid eighties they were pretty much out of step with contemporary comedy (and Barker knew that their time was nearly up) but it doesn’t really matter – great comedy is timeless, and there’s several examples here that still work thirty years later and will surely endure for decades to come.

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1982

ronnies 82

Although the rigidity of The Two Ronnies’ format was sometimes mocked (especially by Not The Nine O’Clock News) it’s always a surprise when a show does depart from what we expect.  The 1982 Christmas Special doesn’t have the usual introductions and farewells (so no “In a packed programme tonight” or “And it’s goodnight from me and it’s goodnight from him”).

Instead we’re pitched straight into a musical number with the Rons dressed as Chas and Dave, entertaining a pub audience with a reasonable facsimile of a typical Chas and Dave song.  It’s entertaining stuff, not only for the cut-away shots of Christmas celebrations but also for the performances of the extras in the pub (some of whom seem to have more enthusiasm than others).

Next door are Sid and George.  Sid guessed that George was in the snug as he saw everybody moving away from there (escaping from the smell of George’s feet) something which George denies.  “There’s nothing wrong with my feet. I’m on the odour eaters now”.  Sid tells him “I had them once. They weren’t half hard to swallow”.

There’s a lovely performance by David Essex of A Winter’s Tale (live and with a full orchestra accompaniment).  Ronnie B doesn’t get his usual monologue, but Ronnie C’s chair ramblings are present and correct.

The film sketch features Ronnie B as a man who travels back in time (thanks to the mysterious Ronnie C) and alters his own personal time-line, so that he was never born.  Thankfully, since it’s Christmas, all is resolved and he ends up back with his wife (Brigit Forsyth) and family, together with a new appreciation of how good his life is.

At just 45 minutes, this is quite a compact special.  Nothing particularly outstanding, but it’s all good solid Christmas fare.