The Mrs Merton Show (27th December 1997)

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After 1996’s half-hearted Christmas titles, I’m pleased to report that things were much better this year – not only was there a snow effect, we also had sleigh-bells added to the opening theme (always a quick and easy way of Chrismassing something up). Well done!

1997 was a busy year for Mrs Merton. Following the transmission of series three during February and March, she and the gang then decamped to Las Vegas for several more shows. Fair to say that her humour didn’t always translate – with one show (featuring Tammy Wynette and La Toya Jackson) deemed unsuitable for transmission. Hopefully it still exists in the archives, as it would be fascinating to see it. Unlikely it’ll ever resurface, but you never know.

Mrs Merton’s final Christmas special opens with the audience in a very jolly mood. But she’s got just the answer to deal with these hi-jinks.  “There’s only one way to dampen down this party atmosphere, and that’s with my first guest – yes it’s very scary spice, Edwina Currie!”

The Merton/Currie encounter is as awkward as you’d expect although, at least to begin with, Currie is fairly game (allowing Mrs Merton to check the back of her neck to see if ‘666’ is tattooed there). However it doesn’t take long before the initial lukewarm temperature drops well below freezing.   The first flashpoint occurs when they have a difference of opinion about exactly when Currie’s husband left her – Mrs Merton maintains it was on the day her book was published, Currie says it was a week later.

It’s when Currie mentions that she’s currently suing somebody for making the same claim (and Mrs Merton should therefore proceed with caution) that you sense they’re not going to be the best of friends. There’s a fairly obvious edit immediately after this, which suggests that some contentious material was snipped out.

Currie’s ordeal isn’t over yet though, as Horace is plucked out of the audience and settles down on the sofa beside her. A heated political debate then breaks out for a few minutes, with Horace managing to hold his own whilst Mrs Merton sits back and has a chat to the audience.

Mrs Merton’s first words to Max Bygraves – “he’s not dead at all” – sets the tone for an enjoyable ramble in which Bygraves gives as good as he gets. Maybe he dwells a little too much on his double hernia operation (you do get the sense that once Max launches into an anecdote nothing’s going to divert him) but there are some nice nuggets uncovered along the way.

Every so often, a question from the audience actually paid dividends. And so it was here, after Max was asked about playing the Wigan Hippodrome in 1947 (where he had to face some tough audiences mainly made up of coal-miners).  The acrobat on before him broke both his arms, leaving Max to muse that he never got laughs like that ….

Max is corralled into a duet with Mrs Merton (whose singing voice hasn’t improved since last year) before the big closing number – Perfect Day. In the style of the BBC promo, each line of the song is taken by a different person. Mrs Merton couldn’t quite run to a full celebrity line-up, so her loyal audience filled the gaps with performances of variable tunefulness.

The Mrs Merton Show (24th December 1996)

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Alas, there’s no festive border slapped round the opening titles this year. Humbug!

Having enjoyed two series in 1995, Mrs Merton sat out most of 1996 with only this Christmas Eve special airing (series three would begin in early 1997).  It was the last show to feature three guests and whilst some of the caveats previously expressed still stand, this one is stronger than the 1995 Christmas special, mainly because the guests are a little more engaging.

It’s somewhat jolting to remember that we’ve gone far back in time – to a period when the likes of Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter could be mentioned in casual conversation without a sharp intake of breath. Since the first guest, Clive James, is an Australian he’s clearly the perfect person to discuss the enigma that is Rolf – especially his wobble board and digeridoo. Innocent times.

Later, Noddy Holder is quizzed about Gary Glitter, although it’s mostly innocent fun. Mind you, Mrs M doesn’t miss the opportunity to crack the gag about her son Malcolm taking his friend to a new nightclub named after the seventies glam rocker (that’s right, they were going up the Gary Glitter). Judging by the very muted reception this comment received I think we can assume it was a reference which flew over the heads of most of her audience.

Both Clive and Noddy are good fun, with Clive musing about whether people up t’North say t’North (they don’t apparently) and Noddy reminiscing about his younger days as a window cleaner (although Mrs Merton was concerned that climbing up ladders in those big platform boots would have been tricky).  There’s also time for a quick audience burst of Merry Christmas Everybody – although it seems a bit remiss to have Noddy on and not get him to perform his party piece.  But there was clearly only room for one musical guest and it’s pretty obvious who has stolen the hearts of both Mrs Merton and the audience ….

Clive and Noddy are unceremoniously bundled out of the studio in favour of Mrs Merton’s star guest – lovely Daniel O’Donnell. Daniel has the second half of the show to himself, which means there’s plenty of time to answer such burning questions as to whether he likes to scratch himself and trump when he’s lying in bed (although this took a while to settle as Daniel didn’t understand what ‘trump’ meant at first – the penny did drop eventually).

The highlight of the interview must be when Horace wades in.  One of Mrs Merton’s rogues gallery of elderly questioners, Horace could always be guaranteed to launch into a rambling monologue with seemingly no end.  And so it proves here – after issuing a backhanded compliment (he hadn’t heard of Daniel O’Donnell until several weeks prior to the recording of this special) he then redeems himself by revealing that he’s booked tickets for one of Daniel’s shows in the new year. But due to a prior commitment he’s found that he can’t now attend it (I’ve given you the edited highlights – the actual explanation is a good deal more tortuous than that).

Ending with Daniel and Mrs Merton duetting on One Day At A Time, Sweet Jesus, this was very decent fare. I wonder what the third and final Christmas special (featuring the unlikely combination of Max Bygraves and Edwina Currie) will be like? Time will tell.

The Mrs Merton Show (24th December 1995)

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Following a couple of pilots (the first on ITV and the second on the BBC) the series proper of The Mrs Merton Show began airing in early 1995. Clearly it did well, as the second run started later that same year and culminated in this Christmas Eve special.

Top marks for the Christmassy border around the opening titles – a cheap way of creating a spot of festive cheer without having to go to the expense of shelling out for new titles.  Mrs Merton is in full holiday mode – handing out mince pies and greetings – prior to her first guests, Alma and Mike from the Street ….

It was an unexpected treat (I think that’s the right word) to witness Amanda Barrie and Johnny Briggs duetting on the evergreen Something Stupid.  You have to give them top marks for being game (the largely octogenarian audience lapped it up of course).

We’re still in the early days of the series, which meant three guests jostling for position in each half hour show.  Later, TMMS would drop down to just two guests – this was a wise move as it meant that there was the possibility a half-decent interview might develop.  Amanda and Johnny are amiable enough but they’re really never given any questions that they can actually answer (a pity, but not surprising, that they didn’t confess which of their co-stars they hated ….)

There’s slightly more substance when Mrs M meets Glenys Kinnock. It’s always fun to see a combative guest who isn’t content to simply take the blows, but instead elects to gently go on the offensive.  When Glenys started to deal with the questions by asking her own, you got the sense that Aherne was forced to do a bit of speedy adjustment. As entertaining as the show often was, this was its main weakness (especially to begin with). Aherne often appeared to be more interested in delivering her scripted barbs than dealing with the answers she might receive.

Up next is by far the oddest part of the show. Seven year-old orphan little Tommy Regan is subjected to a special treat – a song from Mrs Merton. As she begins to blub her way through The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot, some of the audience are clearly getting a little misty-eyed too.  The punchline to this spot of mawkish sentimentalism? There isn’t one, which I guess was the point.

Gary Rhodes closes proceedings with some entertaining back and forth banter and a spot of food, tested by some of Mrs Merton’s most trusted lieutenants. That leaves just enough time for Hooky and the boys to play us out with that Slade song.

An entertaining enough half-hour, but many of  the series’ most entertaining moments (the unforgettable Bernard Manning/Richard Wilson face-off, for example) were still in the future at this point.

Love on a Branch Line – Second Sight DVD Review

7457The year is 1957 and civil servant Jasper Pye (Michael Maloney) is stuck in a rut.  When his girlfriend mentions to a fellow party guest that he’s something of a bore, Jasper decides to take immediate action.  But his initial plan – to move to France and become a painter – is shelved after his superiors send him deep into the English countryside.

Since 1940, a small outpost of the Ministry of Information (Output Statistics) has been in residence at Arcady Hall.  Jasper is sent with the express mission of discovering a reason to close it down, but he finds himself constantly distracted.

The delightfully eccentric Lord Flamborough (Leslie Phillips), owner of Arcady Hall, is happy with the status quo – especially since the upkeep of his house depends on the subsidies he receives from a benevolent government.   Lady Flamborough (Maria Aitken) intrigues Jasper, but it’s Flamborough’s three daughters – Belinda (Abigail Cruttenden), Chloe (Cathryn Harrison) and Matilda (Charlotte Williams) – who all manage to bewitch him at different times …..

Based on John Hadfield’s 1957 novel, Love on a Branch Line is a serial which simply oozes class.  Adapted by David Nobbs (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) it has the sort of cast to die for.  Leslie Phillips looks to be enjoying himself enormously as Lord Flamborough, an idiosyncratic aristrocrat who, along with his wife, lives on a train at the defunct local station. He bought the station, track and train and he now indulges himself by travelling backwards and forwards.  That he never actually goes anywhere might be a not-so-subtle metaphor.

There’s no doubt that the serial’s appeal rests with the quintessentially English atmosphere it generates even if, as with the best examples of the genre (such as PG Wodehouse), events are clearly taking place in an idealised and stylised England that never was.  Therefore steam trains, cricket matches and village fetes are all very much to the fore.

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Charlotte Williams, Michael Maloney, Cathryn Harrison and (front) Abigail Cruttenden

When Jasper arrives he suspects that the team at the Statistics outpost, having been left to their own devices for so long, might be somewhat behind with their work.  Both the statistician Professor Pollux (Graham Crowden) and the data collector Quirk (Stephen Moore) have found numerous distractions over the years – Pollux has been researching the history of Arcady whilst cricket is Quirk’s passion.  Luckily for both of them, they have the efficient Miss Mounsey (Amanda Root) on hand to keep them in some sort of order.  Crowden and Moore are great value with Crowden (arch scene-stealer that he was) never failing to entertain every time he sidles onto screen.

Belinda (“the wicked one”) is the first of Lord Flamborough’s daughters encountered by Jasper. Within a few minutes she’s already kissed him, although this unexpected moment of pleasure is short-lived after Lady Flamborough interrupts them. As so often throughout the serial Michael Maloney’s comic timing is spot on (he delightfully leaps back in horror after Lady Flamborough calls out).

Matilda, the youngest daughter, is neatly summed up by her mother. “Funny girl. She spends all her time reading old-fashioned thrillers and wating to be seduced by a sinister monk. She’ll grow out of it”. Chole, the eldest, is plainly the apple of her father’s eye (“she’s a damn good engine driver”).  A later encounter at the pub with the drunken Lionel Virley (David Haig), husband to Chole, puts another piece of the jigsaw in place. Also there is railway enthusiast Mr Jones (the always entertaining Joe Melia).

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Charlotte Williams

Jasper quickly becomes a part of the local cricket team and is also drafted onto the local fete’s organising committee. That the fete is in aid of fallen women is something which has endless comic potential. Lord Flamborough declines to be chairman.  “I never could be trusted with fallen women”.  This line is delivered in the trademark Leslie Philips style.

By the end of the first episode Jasper’s been kissed by all three daughters and is somewhat perplexed by his experiences. He continues to ping between them like a pinball as the rest of the serial plays out.

A lovely comic moment occurs in episode two after Belinda decides that Jasper’s proposed painting of the Hall doesn’t sound terribly interesting. Surely he’d much prefer to paint her in the nude? Belinda’s very keen and Jasper doesn’t take too much persuading either (although he valiantly attempts to keep his mind on his art). Although he does wonder if they should ask Lady Flamborough’s permission so Belinda, stripped to the waist, casually leans out of the window and shouts down to her!

Further complications ensue when Pollux turns up with Miss Tidy (Gillian Rayne). Pollux is giving her a guided tour of the Hall and his desire to show her every nook and cranny means that Belinda is forced to beat a hasty retreat. The vision of a fully-frontal nude Abigail Cruttenden, albiet in long shot, was a slight surprise (I wonder what the original Sunday evening audience made of it?)

The sight of a desperate Jasper – convinced that Lord Flamborough knows about his dalliances with his daughters – dancing the Charleston whilst his Lordship tunelessly bashes away on the drums is another stand-out scene. Maloney cuts some impressive moves whilst Phillips is his usual louche self.

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Leslie Phillips, Abigail Cruttenden, Maria Aitken, Michael Maloney & Cathryn Harrison

The big cricket match occurs in the third episode. Unfortunately, Jasper and Lionel are locked in one of Arcady’s wine cellars with only several thousand bottles for company. Few actors can resist a spot of drunk acting and Michael Maloney and David Haig are certainly no exception as Jasper and Lionel take solace in some of the more obscure vintages.  Carrot whisky anyone?

Things look grim for the village since their two best batsman have failed to appear but – improbable as it may sound – Jasper and Lionel do eventually stagger up to the crease. But will they be able to save the day? The cricket match is another entertaining setpiece sequence, as is the aftermath (everybody crowds into the pub for a hearty rendition of Yes, We Have No Bananas).

Love on a Branch Line has a delicate path to tread regarding tone.  It would be easy for Jasper to appear as little more than a letch  – after all, he’s already seduced (or been seduced by) Belinda and Chloe and when the sweetly virginal Matilda comes crashing down his bedroom chimney it seems that his cup runneth over.  Luckily, the unreal tone of the serial – and Michael Maloney’s skilful playing – ensures this is never too much of a problem.

The concluding episode promises to bring a dash of reality to the Shangri La of Arcady.  Jasper’s recommendation that the Statistical Unit be closed down forthwith doesn’t please either Lord Flamborough or Pollux and the arrival of jazz musician Ozzie Tipton (Simon Gregor) seems to turn Belinda’s head.  But Jasper – pressganged into becoming a judge at the Fallen Women fete – might just have secured his own future after he awards first prize in the prettiest ankle contest to Miss Mounsey.

In the end everything turns out fine for everybody and as the credits roll you can be assured that the sun at Arcady will always continue to shine (just as it will at Blandings Castle).

With an experienced cast of comic hands, beautiful locations and a sharp script from David Nobbs, Love on a Branch Line is a treat from start to finish.  Abigail Cruttenden, Cathryn Harrison and Charlotte Williams all catch the eye (although it’s Abigail Cruttenden that we definitely see the most of) whilst Michael Maloney, as the lucky Jasper, reels from one unlikely encounter to the next with aplomb.

Originally released on DVD by Acorn back in 2006, it’s now been brought back into print by Second Sight.  It comprises of four 50 minute episodes and whilst there are no additional features, the episodes are subtitled.

Something of a forgotten gem, this really is something that any devotee of British archive television should have in their collection.  Highly recommended.

Love on a Branch Line is released by Second Sight on the 17th of July 2017.  RRP £15.99.

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Michael Maloney

All Good Things to be released by Simply Media – 28th November 2016

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All Good Things, originally broadcast in 1991, will be released by Simply Media on the 28th of November 2016.  Review here.

A marriage and home can be made complete with the arrival of a new baby, but Shirley Frame (Brenda Blethyn) feels a need to share her good fortune by going out into the world and helping others – driving husband Phil (Warren Clarke) up the wall.

Shirley Frame (39) gives birth to her third child and is over the moon. Intent on sharing her delight with the world she embarks on a plan to make life a better place for as many people as possible. Husband Phil and their two teenagers aren’t easily convinced.

Very quickly Shirley learns that it’s not easy being a Good Samaritan, especially in a world of tower blocks, drug abuse and homelessness, even if your own life is rosy. Shirley identifies a string of potential good causes, leaving Phil holding the baby as she tries and fails to fix the lives of others.

Whether coaxing a potential suicide from a watery grave, giving reading lessons to an illiterate young mum with an abusive husband, or trying her hand at marriage guidance, Shirley puts her foot in it at every good turn – and invariably brings other people’s problems too close to home for comfort.

Joining double Oscar nominee, BAFTA and Golden Globe winner Blethyn (Secrets & Lies, Little Voice) and the ever-dependable Clarke (Dalziel & Pascoe, Nice Work) in this 1991 BBC six-parter are Celia Imrie, Jemma Redgrave and Ken Stott, who were all on track to become equally well-loved household names.

Screenwriter Lesley Bruce’s TV credits also include Doctor Finlay, Lizzie’s Pictures, The Practice and Home Video.

Now on DVD for the first time, this is a wry comedy of errors about losing the plot while attempting to mend the ways of life’s ne’er-do-wells and no-hopers.

The Mrs Merton Show – Series One

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Mrs Merton made her first television appearance on Anthony H. Wilson’s gameshow Remote Control back in 1991.  Caroline Aherne clearly felt that the character had potential, although it took several pilot programmes before Mrs M landed herself a full series.

The first pilot from early 1991 wasn’t broadcast (since there was no studio audience it seems to have been produced simply as a test production).  The second pilot was broadcast on the 5th of December 1993 and was followed by a series in 1995.

From the original pilot, the format was firmly in place.  Mrs Merton was a sweet-looking elderly lady (albeit played by thirtysomething Aherne) who took advantage of her unprepossessing appearance to ask the questions that no other chat show host (apart from maybe Dame Edna) would dare to.

Mrs Merton set out her stall in the first very episode of series one, by asking Debbie McGee “what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”.  Voted the second best TV one-liner of all time, it gave her guests an early idea about what to expect if they ventured onto her sofa.  This didn’t deter them though, as across five series (including a trip to America) she netted a wide cross-section of stars.

Today, some are still very much in the public eye, some (like Aherne herself) are sadly no longer with us, some are forgotten, whilst a few (Dave Lee Travis and Fred Talbot from the first series, for example) are very much persona non grata.  Indeed, Travis’ Mrs Merton appearance continues to haunt him.

Another feature of the series is the audience of regular faces, all arranged behind Mrs Merton and the sofa.  Many of them would feature regularly (“let’s have a heated debate”) and the guest-list was cut from three to two from the third series onwards partly to accommodate more chat between Mrs Merton and the (genuine) octogenarians in the audience.

Dave Gorman was one of the series writers and on his website he briefly described how the show worked.

From 1994 to 1997 I was one of the four writers on The Mrs Merton Show. What a ridiculously giddy time that was. The show moved from a late night BBC2 slot to being a big award winning BBC1 show. The gold-standard lines that people still quote were almost always written by Caroline Aherne herself. Looking back on the situation I reckon I was a very lucky 23 year old. A brilliant way to learn a lot about writing. It’s sometimes described as a “spoof chat show” but it was no such thing. It was a real chat show with a spoof host. The team won BAFTAs two years running. Best Entertainment Series in 1996 and Best Chat Show in 1997.

The best encounters are those where there’s some give and take between Mrs Merton and the guest.  If her baiting is simply too merciless then it becomes monotonous.  And although all of Mrs Merton’s barbed questions were firmly scripted beforehand, her victim’s replies weren’t – so Aherne had to be adept at ad-libbing.

There’s some very entertaining encounters during the first series.  Kriss Akabusi hardly lets her get a word in edgeways, but his steam-rolling approach makes for wonderful television.  She does have the odd incisive question though, such as “do you have to plan your tactics before the race or do you just try and run faster than the other blokes?”

Mrs Merton’s encounter with Steve Coogan is great fun.  Pressed to deliver some impressions, such as Frank Spencer, he gamely agrees and also has time to discuss how a series with a fictional chat-show host is a good idea (Knowing Me, Knowing You had just finished airing).

Equally as good value is Cynthia Payne, whilst others (such as Mandy Smith) are less satisfying, mainly because Smith is never really able to give as good as she gets, so it ends up as something of a one-sided affair.  Mrs Merton’s encounter with Mary Whitehouse is also a disappointment.  On paper it sounds like a great idea, but Whitehouse (clearly not in the best of health, since the interview was recorded at her home) seems rather disconnected from proceedings.  The whole interview seems to have been set-up so that Aherne can deliver this final one-liner.  “When you retire, do you think they’ll put up a statue of you? If they do, it would be the first erection you’ve not complained about, wouldn’t it, Mary?”  There’s little reaction from Whitehouse, except that she seems to regard the comment as a flattering one.  So either Mary still had the driest of dry wit or we’ve just witnessed a rather cruel taunting of an elderly lady.

This was very much the exception though as most of the other interviews are much jollier.  As I’ve said, they’re not all hits, but there’s still a very decent strike rate.  It was certainly good enough for a second series to be swiftly commissioned, which would see Mrs Merton have some of her most memorable encounters (Jo Brand, Chris Eubank, George Best, Germaine Greer and Des Lynham, amongst others).