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.