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

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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.