Tonight at 8:30 – Shadow Play (2nd June 1991)

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Vicky Gayforth’s (Joan Collins) life is collapsing around her.  Following an evening at the theatre, she elects not to go on to a late party as she’s convinced that her husband – Simon (Simon Williams) – will be there with another woman.  Taking three strong sleeping pills, Vicky is settling down for a peaceful night’s sleep when Simon enters her bedroom and requests a divorce.

As the pills begin to take effect, Vicky experiences multiple hallucinations as she relives her life with Simon in a series of highly theatrical vignettes ….

Described by Coward as “a musical fantasy”, Shadow Play is a very pleasing mix of reality and fantasy. It begins in the real world, with Vicky receiving sage advice from Aunt Martha (Jean Anderson). Anderson was the sort of actress who seemed to spend her career playing characters who dished out sage advice (whether the recipients wanted it or not).  Seven years as the matriarch of the Hammond family in The Brothers for example.

Given how perfectly Simon Williams fits into the Tonight at 8:30 world, it’s a little surprising that this was his only role – but he certainly makes the most of it. When we first meet Simon Gayforth he’s behaving in a rather beastly fashion towards the somewhat helpless Vicky (who is one of those characters rather buffeted about by events). But once the fantasies begin and he turns on the charm it’s easy to understand why Vicky fell in love with him in the first place.

I like the way that the sets become very stagey and unreal once we join Vicky in her dream world (this distinction probably would have been harder to draw on stage). Presumably Coward and Gertrude Lawrence handled several of the songs themselves – but Collins and Williams don’t get involved in the singing (I can’t recall either of them warbling in the past, so this was probably a wise move).

As Vicky dreams on, she’s not above re-editing events to make them even better than the real thing.

Vicky: You’re nice and slim. Your eyes smile and you move easily. I’m afraid you’re terribly attractive.
Simon: You never said that!
Vicky: No, but I thought it.
Simon: Stick to the script.

This happens on a number of occasions – characters breaking the reality of the fantasy (if you see what I mean) to pass an ironic commentary on what we’re seeing. This would hardly have been original even back in the 1930’s, but it’s still amusing and effective.

Several Tonight at 8:30 stalwarts turn up for one final bow. Edward Jewesbury is the perplexed Uncle George, unwillingly dragged into Vicky’s dreamworld, whilst Edward Duke plays a silly young ass (something of his signature role).

Even when Vicky returns to reality, there’s still a tinge of fantasy in the air as Simon has banished all thoughts of divorce, meaning he and Vicky will live happily ever after. Is she still dreaming? Maybe, or maybe Coward was simply content to send the theatregoers home in a good mood.

Tonight at 8:30 is a fascinating series. Happy to faithfully adapt the original plays (if the action took place in a single room, then the productions would remain in a single room) it’s the sort of VT show which belongs to a vanished television age. It’s a pity that three episodes are rather marred by the addition of laugh tracks, but that quibble apart it’s been something that I’ve enjoyed revisiting.  Certainly worth a look if you have the Noel Coward DVD boxset on your shelf.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Still Life (26th May 1991)

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Dr. Alec Harvey (John Alderton) and Laura Jesson (Jane Asher) meet by happenstance in a railway station café. An instant attraction blossoms between them and they begin to conduct a highly clandestine affair (both are already married).  As the seasons click by, their railway rendezvous continue – but the tone of their later meetings dissolve into anguish as both realise that their affair has to end ….

Still Life is, of course, Brief Encounter in miniature. What’s interesting about this adaptation is that Joan Collins elected not to play Laura, instead she tackled the role of Myrtle Bagot, the railway café proprietress.  That’s a little surprising since Laura is by far the best female role.  Collins could have done it – and it would have been interesting to see – but maybe she was more content with the comic role of Myrtle.

Myrtle has her own love affair to negotiate – with the cheerful ticket collector Albert Godby (Norman Rossington).  Comedy veteran Rossington was a safe pair of hands and builds up a nice rapport with Collins – who, complete with her dyed hair piled up and a pair of glasses, negotiates the role of Myrtle with a sure touch. I like the way Myrtle attempts (and fails!) to add a touch of refinement to her voice when talking to customers.

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Two relationships clearly weren’t enough, as a third is added for good measure between Myrtle’s assistant, Beryl (Diane Langton), and cheeky young Stanley (Steve Nicholson).  With only thirty minutes to play with, this partnership has the least amount of attention devoted to it – consisting mainly of giggles and pinched bottoms.

Langton had been playing busty sexpots since the mid seventies, so the part was hardly a stretch for her. She might have been nearly twenty years Nicholson’s senior but give her a blonde wig and she could play pretty much the same age as Nicholson quite easily.

Whilst Beryl and Stanley and Myrtle and Albert are able to be quite open about their love, poor Alec and Laura are required to be much more furtive. Their whispered conversations in the corner of the café, oblivious to the hubbub around them, are perfectly pitched though – with both Alderton and Asher managing to take the familiar material and still make it resonate.

Coward later said that Still Life was “well written, economical and well constructed. The characters, I think, are true, and I can say now, reading it with detachment after so many years, that I am proud to have written it.”

I’d agree with his assessment. Unlike the previous play, Ways and Means, in this one you do feel for the central characters, which means that their final, wretched separation comes as a sudden jolt. This is no mean feat when you consider that their whole relationship has taken probably no longer than five minutes, spread across a handful of scenes, to develop.

The way that Laura is denied a final farewell with Alec – due the arrival of her insensitive and oblivious friend, Dolly Messiter (Moyra Fraser) – is the cruelest blow of all and concludes a memorable production.

Sydney Lotterby, who recently passed away at the age of 93, was the director (his sole credit on the series). Lotterby always yearned to direct more drama and based on this example you have to say that it’s a shame that he didn’t.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Ways and Means (19th May 1991)

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Stella and Toby Cartwright (Joan Collins and John Standing), living a comfortable life on the Côte d’Azur, appear to have everything – but appearances can be deceptive. Despite their outward elegance and poise, the pair are flat broke (following Toby’s disastrous misadventures at the casino) and face shame and scandal unless they can find a considerable sum of money very, very quickly ….

Ways and Means is a gossamer thin piece.  The Cartwrights give off an air of innocent decadence, which is best summed up by this comment from Toby. “We were brought up merely to be amiable and pleasant and socially attractive, and we have no ambition and no talent”.

Standing has something of Noel Coward’s delivery, so it’s easy to see how the Master would have tackled the part. Collins, once again cast in the Gertrude Lawrence role, also clicks into gear nicely and the pair (who dominate proceedings) are never less than totally watchable.

Four actors are each given a brief minute to shine. Edward Duke, as the ingenious Lord Chapworth, is first up (not much of a role, but he does his best). Siân Phillips has a little more to work with as Olive Lloyd-Ransome whilst Kate O’Sullivan sports the most outrageous Russian accent as the Princess Elena Krassiloff.

By far the most entertaining of these little cameo performances comes from Miriam Margolyes as Nanny.  Sounding not unlike Nursie from Blackadder II, Margoyles lights up the screen for the short time she’s on.  Harold Innocent, as the imperturbable servant Gaston, also deserves a tip of the hat.

There’s plenty of interest to be found on the acting front then, and there’s one more turn to come – Tony Slattery as Stevens, an ex-chauffer turned armed robber. His misfortune was to attempt to burgle the Cartwrights – who don’t have a bean – but he quickly becomes the object of their salvation.  Stevens readily agrees to rob the other house guests and pass all the loot onto Stella and Toby (taking care to tie them up so they look like victims too).

There seems to be little point in complaining about just how contrived the whole thing feels, as no doubt that was precisely the tone Coward was aiming for.  None of the characters really stir any feelings or emotions (such as whether the Cartwrights sink or swim, for example).  This air of unreality wouldn’t matter so much if the play was a little wittier or had some decent bedroom farce action, but there’s not a great deal to latch onto here.

You can’t fault the acting talent, but Ways and Means doesn’t really click for me. The return of the laugh track (for the first time since Red Peppers) is also a slight disappointment as the laughs still don’t feel totally natural (and they’re often on lines that aren’t really that funny).  This one’s not a total disaster, but it’s something of a dip in form after the last few episodes.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Fumed Oak (12th May 1991)

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Henry Gow (Anthony Newley) lives a life of stifling suburban respectability. The household consists of his nagging wife Doris (Joan Collins), his equally nagging mother-in-law Mrs Rockett (Joan Sims) and his adenoidal daughter Elsie (Prudence Olivier).  It would seem that the elder women rule the roost over the hen-pecked Henry, but initial appearances can be deceptive ….

Described by Coward as an “unpleasant comedy in two acts”, Fumed Oak provides Joan Collins with another opportunity to play very anti-glam. Starting the play with no make up and her hair in a scarf, she makes all the early running – effectively the first act is a two-hander between her and Sims.

It’s hard to know who Doris despises the most, as each member of the family receives a lashing from her caustic tongue in turn. The early conversations between Doris and her mother are incredibly inconsequential, which builds up a feeling of ever-increasing oppression. This is also helped by the way that Henry simply sits and eats his breakfast without speaking at all, seemingly resigned to having little say in the way the house is run.

The second act is where the comedy (and the unpleasantness) really begins, as we see a slightly alcoholically refreshed Henry returning home from work to drop the bombshell that he’s leaving them all for a new life abroad (complete with a small fortune he’s been secretly saving for a number of years).

But before he departs, Henry makes sure to insult them all thoroughly, which is where the cruel comedy is generated. Beginning reasonably gently (telling Doris that her hat is common) his abuse gradually starts to ramp up (when Doris counters that she’ll give him a piece of her mind, Henry responds that “it’ll have to be a small piece, Dorrie, I don’t think you can afford much”)

Several of Henry’s choicest insults (“this old bitch of a mother of yours”) are reserved for Mrs Rockett. Joan Sims reacts beautifully to these verbal volleys whilst Newley seems to be relishing every line.

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Henry then rounds on Doris again, delighted to finally have the opportunity to speak his mind after years of silence.

What right have you got to nag at me and boss me? No right at all. I’m the one that pays the rent and works for you and keeps you. What do you give me in return, I’d like to know! Nothing! I sit through breakfast while you and mother wrangle. You’re too busy being snarly and bad-tempered even to say good morning. I come home tired after working all day and ten to one there isn’t even a hot dinner for me.

Coward rarely dipped his toe into the travails of suburban life. This – along with the more substantial This Happy Breed – are rare examples, and it’s intriguing to consider Fumed Oak as the dark inverse of the later play and film.

Doris, like Ethel Gibbons, lives her life by behaving as respectably as possible. Frank Gibbons responds to Ethel’s chiding and ministering with good humour, but it’s all too much for Henry who has to break free (there’s shades in this piece of the much later exploits of Reginald Perrin).

“You’re mean, you’re cold and you’re respectable”. Henry’s parting shot to Doris is a three pronged attack. I wonder which he deems to be the worst sin? Judging by the tone of the play I’d guess the latter.

The most effective drama of the series to date, Anthony Newley is top notch, but then so are the others (even Prudence Olivier, who doesn’t have a great deal to do except complain and sniffle).

Whilst some of the other plays in the cycle might come across today as rather twee period pieces, Fumed Oak still manages to be rather discomforting (and presumably was even more so back in 1935 when it was first performed). Another definite success.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Family Album (5th May 1991)

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Family Album was described by Coward as “a sly satire on Victorian hypocrisy”. It’s set in the comfortable drawing room of the Featherways family, who have just returned from their father’s funeral. The atmosphere is decidedly formal to begin with, but when the new head of the household, Jasper (Denis Quilley), suddenly breaks into song for no particular reason it triggers a rapid lightening of mood ….

This one has quite the cast. I never knew that Denis Quilley could sing, but sing he does (as do several other cast members – which explains, in part, why the likes of Bonnie Langford and Jessica Martin appear today). It’s a slight pity that all the songs were clearly pre-recorded (when Jasper launches into the first song, Quilley’s voice suddenly gains a large dollop of recording studio echo) but since this isn’t the sort of playlet where realism is key, let’s not quibble.

Joan Collins has undergone yet another transformation. Sporting a rather uncomfortable set of teeth, I doubt she’s ever looked quite as unglamorous as she does here. She’s cast as Lavinia, the eldest daughter of the family, and the one who – initially at least – is by far the most prim and proper. A spinster, and likely to remain so, she begins by casting a disapproving eye when the others begin to make slightly merry, but after swigging some wine she soon gets into the spirit of things.

This isn’t the play with Collins’ largest role, but Lavinia still manages to make the most important story contribution.

She reveals towards the end that their father had made a new will just before he died, leaving some of his money to his several mistresses and the rest to a new church, which was due to contain a gaudy memorial to himself. Lavinia – with the assistance of Burrows, the butler – destroyed the will, thereby ensuring that the family would all receive their inheritances.

Although it was broadcast nearly thirty years ago, it still slightly takes the breath away to remember this was transmitted on BBC1. It’s hard to imagine such a piece, even with this sort of top quality cast, slotting into the schedule today. Goodness knows what the audience watching at the time made of it – personally I love it, but the way the characters continually break into song with no warning would probably have taken most people by surprise. And maybe it wouldn’t have been a pleasant surprise …

Especially since the opening few minutes would have primed them to expect something quite different – a bleak(ish) drawing room playlet.  The way the rug is pulled from beneath the audience’s feet by the reveal that not only was the late head of the household an incurable letch but also that his children (all seemingly stolid and staid citizens) find it very easy to revert to the innocence of childhood at the drop of a hat, is a little stroke of genius.

Dominic Jephcott and Charles Collingwood are further strong additions to the cast whilst John Alderton seems to having a whale of a time as Burrows, the ancient family retainer. Sporting reasonably convincing old-age make up, Alderton manages to milk each comic moment for everything it’s worth.

I’m happy to report there was no laugh track on this one, so hopefully the remainder of the series will be equally unaffected.

Family Album is an odd treat from a series that continues to surprise and entertain.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Red Peppers (21st April 1991)

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The first of Anthony Newley’s two appearances, Red Peppers is a delight from start to finish (my continuing grumbles about the odd audience laughter notwithstanding). There’s obviously considerable curiosity value in seeing Joan Collins teamed up with one of her ex-husbands (especially since Collins and Newley play a bickering married couple).

George and Lily Pepper are a middling music hall act, currently stuck in a nondescript provincial town in the middle of a fairly uninspiring (if varied) bill. They open the show on stage, dressed as sailors, with a saucy, innuendo laden song that I found to be great fun. How you could not love the sight of Newley and Collins bedecked in shocking orange wigs giving it everything they’ve got?

The one slight problem with this is they’re not supposed to be very good. Like Archie Rice in The Entertainer, the act should fall a little flat (which explains why the theatre audience react throughout with pained expressions). This doesn’t really come off though, since the studio audience are much more receptive, laughing regularly and applauding at the end.

Yet again this studio laughter doesn’t feel totally natural, although I didn’t find it as distracting as it was during Hands Across The Sea (maybe I’m just getting used to it). Mins you. if the studio audience did applaud warmly at the end of the song then I don’t know why it wasn’t removed, as it rather ruins the intention of the scene.

Post performance, the pair have a lengthy dressing room discussion about what went wrong. The barbs between George and Lily come flying thick and fast, with Collins and Newley both on very decent form.

Today’s playlet has a great deal of incidental colour. We never see any of the other acts perform – and only meet one of them, the tragedian Mabel Grace (Moyra Fraser), backstage – but enough comments about their fellow pros are slipped into the dialogue to build up an intriguing picture. The seediness of their current surroundings (at one point Lily laments that they don’t play the number one halls) also adds something – the production certainly benefited from location shooting in a real theatre.

Although Lily and George seem to loathe each other, they clearly despise everybody else even more. So when they’re attacked on several fronts – firstly by the alcoholically refreshed conductor Bert Bentley (Reg Varney) and then by the theatre manager Mr Edwards (Henry McGee) – they forget their differences and display an imposing united front. Watching Collins and Newley bickering is good fun, but it’s equally entertaining when they become a solid unit.

Reg Varney has the pick of the remaining roles. Bert is initially on affable terms with George but eventually they fall out when he dares to criticise George and Lily’s act. Varney looks to have been retired at the time (his previous television credit to this was a brief cameo in the Thames remake of The Plank back in 1979) but presumably the lure of acting with Collins and Newley was too intriguing a prospect to resist.

As for Joan, she’s good fun as a fast-talking, thoroughly working class turn. Quite a change from the previous week, but then that was the point of the series (and the original playlets too of course).

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Tonight at 8:30 – Hands Across The Sea (14th April 1991)

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Tonight at 8:30 was the umbrella title for a series of ten one-act plays written by Noël Coward and performed in London and New York during 1936 and 1937.  One of the plays (Star Chamber) was quickly dropped but the other nine were performed regularly in various permutations of three per evening.

In 1991, eight of the ten plays (excluding Star Chamber and We Were Dancing) were adapted for this BBC series starring Joan Collins. Given that all the plays had originally been written as vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence, there was clearly plenty of good material here for a versatile leading actress.

However, whether that actress was Joan Collins was a topic somewhat debated at the time. Although Collins’ career received a massive boost thanks to her role in Dynasty between 1981 and 1989, she was still viewed by some critics with a degree of suspicion (who presumably didn’t consider a decade or so performing in Dynasty to be real acting).

Having not rewatched the series for a while, I’ve found it refreshing to come back to the episodes with few preconceptions, except a general anticipation about the first rate casts ….

The first thing to note is that the series has an opening title sequence to die for. Set in London’s glittering West End, we see a number of stars – led by Joanie of course – making their way to the theatre for tonight’s performance.  It helps to highlight Tonight at 8:30‘s rep-like nature – there’s ex-husband Anthony Newley all smiles, Denis Quilley on his bike, a dapper John Alderton taking time to sign an autograph, Reg Varney getting out of a taxi, Joan Sims walking to the stage door ….

None of them appear with Joan Collins in tonight’s production, but we don’t do badly for performers. John Nettles (complete with a ferocious looking beard) is Peter Gilpin, married to Collins’ Piggie. Nettles delivers all of his dialogue in a rather clipped fashion – it’s quite the turn.

Siân Phillips and Nickolas Grace are spot on as two of Piggie and Peter’s best pals – Clare Wedderburn and Bogey Gosling. Phillips is the recipient of some of the best lines (Clare’s description of a nightmare night out at the Cafe De Paris – all thanks to a performer whose duck quacks out Land of Hope and Glory once its bottom has been pinched – for example).

Piggie, Peter, Clare and Bogey are a perfect interlocking quartet (with a few other minor players added to the mix). So the introduction of Mr and Mrs Wadham (Bernard Cribbins and Miriam Margoyles) helps to shake things up a little.  They’re colonials (he’s in rubber) who Piggie met once and, hospitable to a fault, decides to invite round for drinks.

But as the conversation continues it becomes clear that they’re not the people Piggie believed them to be. This leads to a frantic barrage of subtle (and not so subtle) questioning to discover their true identities.  To be honest there’s no real mystery or sense of achievement once this question has been answered – with only thirty minutes to play with, the whole setup is simply an excuse for a large dollop of Coward wit (I daresay we’ll be saying that again as the series proceeds).

Poor Mr and Mrs Wadham are somewhat mistreated but always with the upmost courtesy, which means that both sides part with total equanimity. Margoyles tackles her role – a somewhat pushy social climber – perfectly whilst Cribbins is content to sit back and react with resignation to the chaos unfolding around him.

Despite the opening West End flavour, the series was recorded in the studio rather than on location at a theatre. It would have been interesting to have had the feel of a theatrical night out, as what we end up with here slightly misfires.

The direction is fine – multi-camera VT, largely concentrating on a single set (the drawing room). It’s the laugh track which rather disconcerts me.  I find it hard to believe that canned laughter was used, but it certainly doesn’t feel natural. Possibly the completed recording was shown to a studio audience (a not uncommon sitcom practice) but something odd seems to have happened somewhere down the line.  I’d like to hear Hands Across The Sea without the laughter, I certainly think the production would benefit.

A decent opener then (even allowing for the strange audience participation) with Joan Collins in her element as the distracted, but always unfailingly polite, society hostess.

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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).

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 …..

Next of Kin – Simply Media DVD Review

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Maggie (Penelope Keith) and Andrew (William Gaunt) are on the verge of a new life.  Following Andrew’s retirement, the pair plan to sell their house in England and move to a quiet village in France.  As they sit in the French sunshine, finalising their plans, talk turns to who they’ll invite over.  Both are adamant that Graham and his wife (unflatteringly known as Bootface) should definitely both be persona non grata.  The clear inference is that Graham’s a boring friend who they’re keen to jettison, but shortly afterwards it’s revealed that he’s their only son.

Returning home to England, they learn that Graham and his wife have been killed in a car crash, which leaves Maggie and Andrew with the difficult task of caring for their three grandchildren – Georgia (Ann Gosling), Philip (Mathew Clarke) and Jake (Jamie Lucraft).

What’s striking about the opening episode of Next of Kin is just how unsympathetic both Maggie and Andrew are (especially Maggie).  Even after the news of Graham’s death has sunk in, Maggie is unable to express any grief at all.  As she tells her housekeeper Liz (Tracie Bennett), she had very little time for her son.  Packed off to boarding school at the earliest opportunity, it’s plain that no mother/son bond (or indeed father/son) bond was ever developed.  Even as an adult, things didn’t improve as she regarded him as a pompous, priggish bore.  The last time they saw Graham was five years ago, after Bootface told her on Christmas Day that she didn’t want her to smoke in the house.  That was enough for them to decide they never wanted to see their son and the rest of his family again.  It’s another of those moments that highlights just how selfish and self-centered Maggie and Andrew are (although dramatically there had to be a reason why they hadn’t seen the children for a while – had they been regular visitors it would have dulled the culture-shock of their arrival)

Penelope Keith was no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters – both Margo Leadbetter and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton were self-centered snobs, so Maggie bears some similarities to her two most famous comic roles.  To begin with, Maggie is violently opposed to acting as a surrogate parent, she made a hash of parenting the first time so why should she have to go through it again?  But as part of the series’ theme is redemption (had they all spent three series sniping at each other things would have become very tedious) there’s obvious dramatic potential in watching how Maggie and Andrew slowly get to know and love their grandchildren.  It’s interesting listening to the studio audience during the scenes where Maggie professes she had no love for her son though, unsurprisingly they’re quite subdued.

William Gaunt, previously the harassed nominal head of the house in No Place Like Home, has a similar role to play here.  If Maggie is uptight, then Andrew is relaxed (he’s quite sanguine about taking care of their grandchildren, seeing it as their duty).

As for the kids themselves, Jake is the youngest (seven), his brother Philip is a couple of years older whilst big sister Georgia is in her early teens.  Georgia is initially presented as the most hostile to their new surroundings – she’s the archetypical stroppy teenager with a host of politically correct views inherited from her parents.  All three children (including young Jake) are shown to have picked up character traits from their parents (he still enjoys a bedtime story, but wants Maggie to continue the tale of the whale stranded in a sea of oil – a victim of human greed and corruption).

Liz is on hand to dispense the occasional nugget of wisdom (gleaned from various television and radio phone in shows) whilst battling off the advances of Tom the builder (Mark Powley – probably best known as Ken Melvin from The Bill).  Real life couple Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton pop up occasionally as Maggie and Andrew’s best friends Rosie and Hugh.  The four spent many happy holidays abroad together, although Rosie and Hugh now serve as a reminder to Maggie and Andrew that their days of freedom have passed – it’ll be a long time before they can simply decide to leave for a holiday on a whim.

As a family based sitcom, Next of Kin probably slightly suffered from the fact that 2.4 Children was running at the same time.  2.4 Children had a deft blend of parenting topics and surrealistic humour and enjoyed a very long run (possibly only curtailed by the death of Gary Olsen).  Although Next of Kin lasted for three years (an indicator that twenty years ago the schedulers were quite generous – today a middling sitcom would be lucky to get a second series) this wasn’t long enough to show the children developing into young adults – although they still managed to cover a fair amount of ground during the three series.

It may not offer belly laughs, but the combination of Penelope Keith and William Gaunt (especially Gaunt, who’s always worth watching in both comedy and drama) and the three young leads is an attractive one and Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie’s scripts are quite sharp in places.  It’s never going to be acclaimed as a lost classic, but it does seem slightly unfair that it seems to have disappeared from the public’s consciousness quite so comprehensively.

Next of Kin – The Complete Collection contains all twenty two episodes (seven for both series one and two, eight for series three) across six discs (two discs per series).   Picture quality is fine, although I did notice some sound issues.  Occasionally the sound is rather tinny and there’s brief moments where the soundtrack has an odd, phasing tone.  It never renders the dialogue inaudible, but the changes in the quality of the soundtrack are quite detectable.  Having spoken to Simply they confirm this was a problem outside of their control – hence the disclaimer on the start-up screens. It’s probably something that some people will notice more than others, but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the series.

Next of Kin is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

dinnerladies

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Victoria Wood was always faintly unimpressed, visually, with the way that dinnerladies turned out. She had pictured it shot with hand-held cameras but was told that it wasn’t possible.  So what she got was something that looked like a traditional sit-com (although this isn’t really any bad thing).  It seems to be an ever-present fixture on Gold, along with the likes of Porridge and Steptoe and Son, and it’s a good indication of dinnerladies’ quality that it doesn’t seem out of place when broadcast alongside the comedy greats of the 1970’s.

Whilst it may have rankled with Wood that the style of the series was so resolutely traditional (particularly when the likes of The Royal Family and The Office were able to quite easily eschew this format) dinnerladies was a sit-com that probably wouldn’t have benefited from the sort of wobbly-cam single camera shooting that was to dominate comedy in the years to come.

It’s written, essentially, as a stage-play with just a single location (and it’s probably not surprising to know that most of the scripts were adapted successfully for several theatre tours).  We may hear about the world outside but the focus remains firmly on what happens inside the canteen.

Wood was able to assemble a first-rate cast, some of whom (Duncan Preston, Ceila Imrie, Julie Walters) had enjoyed a long association with her, whilst others (Thelma Barlow, Andrew Dunn, Shobna Gulati and Maxine Peake) were newcomers.  She obviously knew what Preston, Imrie and Walters could deliver, but the characters of the others (as well as Anne Reid, who had appeared in Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV) would maybe only really begin to develop towards the end of the first series and into the second as she began to tailor their parts based on her experience of working with them.

As the creator, writer and co-producer, Wood had an enormous amount of power that she was able to wield.  But whilst the overall arc of the two series is the story of Bren and Tony, Wood doesn’t dominate each episode and nor does she give herself all the best lines.  She was comfortable enough to sometimes remain in the background as a passive figure, whilst the others enjoyed the biggest laughs.

If the series was shot in a traditional way, the actual recording process was quite different.  It would be shot on a Friday evening and then Wood and co-producer Geoff Posner would view the results, with Wood re-writing the script which would then be re-recorded on the Saturday evening.  Although this was common practice for American sit-coms, it was unusual, if not unique, for a British sit-com.

It would be lovely one day to have DVD sets released with both the Friday and Saturday recordings, so that we can see exactly what was changed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  The DVD releases we have are resolutely bare-bones, with no commentaries or special features, which indicates that Victoria Wood isn’t particularly keen to spend a great deal of time analyzing her work.

Stuart Fell interview

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There’s a rather nice interview with stuntman Stuart Fell on this Last of the Summer Wine blog, Summer Winos.

It doesn’t just concentrate on his work on LOTSW though, there’s plenty of information about the rest of his long and varied career.  Well worth a read.

As is the blog, in which Bob Fischer and Andrew T. Smith work their way through every episode of Roy Clarke’s immortal comedy creation.  They’ve been a bit quiet of late, but hopefully they’ll come back to it soon as they’ve a long way to go – they’re only up to 1982 at the moment!