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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