The Rag Trade – The Christmas Rush

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Following on from the original BBC run during the early sixties and an abortive BBC attempt in the early seventies to revive the series via an unscreened pilot, The Rag Trade finally returned to television during 1977 and 1978 thanks to this LWT series.

Although only Peter Jones (Fenner) and Miriam Karlin (Paddy) reprised their roles from the BBC incarnation, all of the new characters weren’t terribly dissimilar to the old ones – which made sense, as some of the LWT scripts were directly recycled from the BBC originals.

Christopher Beeney, as Tony, stepped easily to the role vacated by Reg Varney whilst Diane Langton (Kathy) had something of the vague air of Carole, Sheila Hancock’s character (although Kathy was much more pneumatically enhanced).   One interesting conundrum is whether Anna Karen’s character is meant to be the same Olive from On The Buses.  She certain looks and acts like her and since both series were written by Chesney and Wolfe it does seem likely, although it’s never directly confirmed.

The Christmas Rush (tx 24th December 1977) finds a typically harassed Fenner attempting to chivvy the girls (and token male, Tony) into finishing up their latest order.  But of course, they’re much more interested in planning for Christmas …..

There’s a few different story threads in this one.  The first concerns Fenner’s annual dilemma – what to buy both his wife (played by Rowena Cooper) and Paddy for Christmas?  For the last fifteen years he’s abdicated this responsibility by asking Paddy to shop for his wife and his wife to shop for Paddy.  That Paddy elects to buy a smart handbag for Mrs Fenner but then pockets the accessories (purse, manicure set) is characteristic.  Mrs Fenner seem equally contemptuous about Paddy as she decides to give her one of her old presents (a manicure set!).  Fenner reacts in horror, since this was yet another gift selected by Paddy for his wife …..

The set piece comedy moment occurs after Tony bemoans the fact that he’s getting nowhere with Lyn (Gillian Taylforth).  His constant attempts to catch her under the mistletoe haven’t gone the way he planned, so Paddy suggests that if he waits until Lyn’s alone in the rest room and then switches out the light, he could embrace her in the dark.  Paddy tells him – and the other girls agree – that a woman shouldn’t be asked her consent, in fact quite the reverse (they like to be dominated).

Although Paddy later arms herself with a jug of water – all the better to pour over the randy Tony – it seems that the girls weren’t entirely lying when they suggested that the role of the female was to be submissive (although this is undercut in some of the dialogue).  You probably won’t be amazed to learn that things don’t go the way Tony planned since he ends up groping the unfortunate Mrs Fenner instead.

In today’s climate, it’s hard to imagine any scene being deemed less appropriate for broadcast (so don’t expect to see this popping up on ITV3 any time soon).  Mrs Fenner might be a little traumatised by her experience, but everybody else laughs it off and even Fenner doesn’t seem too concerned (telling his wife that Tony looks more upset than she does).

Whilst this scene, like most of the episode, is played very broadly, there’s one quiet moment – which closes the show.  With one dress ruined from an important order, Fenner needs to knock up a replacement quickly, but all the girls are keen to leave – all except Paddy.  Despite their combative relationship, she can’t bring herself to walk out (telling him that he was always a rotten machinist).  This is a beautifully played scene by Jones and Karlin which sees Fenner and Paddy share a drink in the peace and quiet of the workshop before she gets on with the job.  It certainly leaves us with the suggestion that this isn’t the first time they’ve shared a quiet moment together ….

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The Rag Trade – Christmas Box

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Like the later LWT Christmas Rag Trade, this is a programme you can’t imagine receiving a repeat these days – with this one it’s due to the fact that the girls have been making golliwogs on the side.

Although Fenner (Peter Jones) constantly bemoans the poor productivity of his staff, this never seems to be a problem when they’re working on their own initiative.  It’s very impressive that they’ve been able to knock up several hundred golliwogs over the last few days, although since they’ve used Fenner’s materials without his knowledge they have to keep him in the dark …..

Poor Reg (Reg Varney) is deputised to dress up as Father Christmas and is sent out to flog the golliwogs from a street corner, but he runs foul of the law – in the formidable shape of Colin Douglas.  Always good to see Douglas and he’s his usual stolid self as the constable.  This officer may not be the brightest of chaps, but he’s certainly dogged in his determination to run the rogue Father Christmas to justice.

Reg, in haste, has to ditch the Father Christmas costume and so he gives it to Fenner.  It’s not hard to work out what happens next – the constable spies Fenner dressed as Father Christmass and arrests him.  But surely Fenner’s staff will vouch for him?  Mmm, not so.  They have a buyer for the golliwogs coming round and so it suits their purpose for the boss to be out of the way for a few hours.

This seems a tad cruel, especially the way Peter Jones milks the moment.  Fenner can’t even get through to Reg (we learn that they attempted to join the army together but were refused for the same reason – flat feet).  Once Fenner’s been carted off, Fenner’s Fashions undergoes a rapid transformation to become Union Toys!  This may be slightly hard to swallow, but it’s still amusing – especially the way that Reg quickly steps into the role of the boss and Paddy (Miriam Karlin) and Carole (Sheila Hancock) transform themselves into femme fatales as they prepare to use all of their wiles to persuade the hapless buyer that he really should purchase their golliwogs.

The fact that the buyer, Terence Nutley, is played by Terry Scott is something of a bonus since it ensures that every possible bit of comic potential will be wrung from these scenes.  As the girls ply Terence with drinks, he becomes more and more insensible, which creates something of a problem once Fenner returns ….

As with the rest of The Rag Trade, this one’s highly predictable from start to finish, but since everybody attacks the material with such gusto I’ve never regarded this as a problem.  Sheila Hancock is delightful as the dippy Carole whilst Esma Cannon can’t help but steal every scene she appears in (she plays the even dippier Lily).

The ending is quite neat.  After Fenner discovers the toys, the girls are forced to lie and pretend that they’ve made them for the kiddies at the local hospital.  Fenner, touched by this, happily promises to drop them off to the hospital on the way home.  So the workers don’t benefit by their pilfering, instead the only victors are the children – which seems appropriate for a Christmastime story.

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All Star Comedy Carnival – 1972. Part Two

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Christmas With Wogan

I think this could just be the greatest piece of television ever.  Things start sedately enough, with a song from Carl Wayne and Penny Lane (oh, their names rhyme) but after that the fun really begins.

Recorded on the set of Lunchtime with Wogan (all of which sadly seems to have been wiped) you can see that they’ve attempted to get the audience into the Christmas spirit by handing out some party hats.  But since there weren’t enough to go round, the camera tends to focus on the handful of lucky souls who do have one.  The audience shots are fascinating by the way (average age seems to be about eighty).

This segment is a celebration of ATV, so Crossroads naturally features quite heavily.  The sight of Amy Turtle (Ann George) pushing a tea trolley would surely melt even the hardest of hearts whilst Nurses Price and Shaw (Lynda Bellingham and Judy Buxton) from General Hospital also shuffle on.

The fun just keeps on coming as Peggy Mount, Hugh Lloyd, Leslie Crowther and Sylvia Syms appear as two ordinary couples who have been pulled out of the audience to play a game.  The sight of Crowther and Wogan attempting to shovel Mount’s ample form onto a high stool is something that will live long in the memory.

Larry Grayson, resplendent in a black cloak and mask, is brought on as the mystery guest. He has to recite his most famous catchphrases whilst the others attempt to guess his identity.  Simply sublime.

And just when you think things can’t get any better, Meg Richardson (Noele Gordon) arrives …..

Easily worth the price of the DVD alone, this is a rare Christmas treat.  Indeed, had the whole show come from the Wogan studio I would have been quite happy (although had this happened no doubt it would have been wiped along with the rest of his shows).

The Wandsworth School Choir are up next, entertaining Jimmy and the studio audience with The Holly and The Ivy.  Then Jimmy gets in the act and joins them for a trot through Do-Re-Me.  Bob Todd, as a drunken milkman, causes a little havoc for Jimmy.

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On The Buses

Like Love Thy NeighbourOn The Buses was one of those programmes which pulled huge contemporary audiences but hasn’t (in critical terms) aged well.  Although unlike Neighbour it does run regularly on ITV3, so clearly somebody still seems to enjoy it.  Like a number of later episodes, this was written by Stephen Lewis (Blakey) and Bob Grant (Jack).  Reg Varney is conspicuous by his absence, but he seems to have left the show after the 1972 run.

If you enjoy broad slapstick and incredible feats of mugging to the camera then this should appeal.  The story – a goose has been left on the bus and they have to stop it escaping – is the cue for everybody, including Olive (Anna Karin) and Mum (Doris Hare), to get covered in soot and flour.  For me, a little of On The Buses goes a very long way, so this is another series that I don’t have in my collection (but I don’t feel I’m missing out).

Jimmy welcomes David Nixon, who restores a touch of class to the programme.  It’s a mystery why Nixon’s existing magic shows aren’t available on DVD as he’s such an affable entertainer.  He does the eggs in the glass party trick which Tommy Cooper also attempted on his 1973 Christmas Show.  Tommy managed to get two out of four eggs in the glasses whilst David went one better – three out of three.

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Sez Lez

Les Dawson is on fine monologue form here.  “I bought my mother-in-law a nice fireside chair which cost me twenty five pounds and the first time I plugged it in, it fused”.  The Syd Lawrence Orchestra and Les’ dancers (Les Girls) also get in on the act.  The band are clearly all professionals as the sight of a group of attractive young ladies leaping about in silk pyjamas doesn’t put them off, not one little bit.

A moustachioed Tony Jacklin has a chat about golf with Jimmy.  They also sing ….

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The Fenn Street Gang

Spun out of Please Sir! after it became painfully obvious that the actors were no longer convincing as schoolchildren (they were well into their twenties by this point) The Fenn Street Gang followed their misadventures, post school.  Never as popular as Please Sir!, possibly due the fact that the characters no longer had a reason to be together and therefore the plotlines had to be split up, it still racked up an impressive thirty eight episodes.  This sketch has a good excuse for a reunion – Christmas dinner – and it passes the time nicely enough, although it’s not exactly an all-out showstopper.

Jimmy leads everybody, including Moria Anderson, Rod Hull & Emu and David Nixon, in a rousing singalong of White Christmas.  A traditional end to a real selection box of a programme – not every chocolate is especially tasty, but luckily there’s only a few hard centres.

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All Star Comedy Carnival – 1972. Part One

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Airing for five years from the late sixties, All Star Comedy Carnival was ITV’s answer to the long-running BBC institution that was Christmas Night With The Stars.  Like its BBC counterpart, not all of All Star Comedy Carnival has survived intact, but at least the complete shows from 1972 and 1973 do exist.

“Mixed bag” is a far summation.  There’s some comedy greats and then there’s Love Thy Neighbour ….

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Love Thy Neighbour

Love Thy Neighbour is one of those programmes that seems to ebb in and out of fashion.  Incredibly popular in the early seventies, by the eighties it had deeply fallen out of favour.  But whilst you shouldn’t expect a re-run on ITV3 any time soon, over the last few decades it’s begun to attract the odd kind comment – arguing that it’s not just a series of (ahem) off-colour jokes, but that there’s also an element of satire – as with Till Death.

Eddie (Jack Smethurst) tells next-door neighbour Barbie (Nina Baden-Semper) that he wishes to give her husband, Bill (Rudolph Walker), the compliments of the season (“peace on earth and goodwill to all men. Even Sambos”).  Eddie is quite happy to extend this goodwill to the wives too, which he demonstrates when he forcibly kisses Barbie under the mistletoe.  That she’s wearing the tiniest pair of hotpants imaginable suggests that the disdain Eddie shows towards Nig Nogs doesn’t extend to the attractive female ones ….

As might be expected, Bill storms in to find his wife being pawed by Eddie and then Eddie’s wife, Joan (Kate Williams), also appears.  What happens next?  Yep, Bill and Joan have a snog under the mistletoe.

To be generous, you could argue that Eddie and Bill are always equally as combative as each other and that, deep down, they have a spark of friendship.  This can be seen when Eddie (after losing the Christmas turkey on his way home from the pub) and Joan are invited round to share Christmas dinner with Bill and Barbie.

But the joke, such as it is, to close this segment is that Bill and Barbie have invited a fair few others – all of them black – which causes Eddie to visibly flinch at the thought of spending time in a room with them.  “I’m dreaming of a black Christmas”.

At the very least Love Thy Neighbour is a fascinating time capsule of the period, but I don’t think I’m going to be shelling out for the boxset anytime soon.

Jimmy Tarbuck, resplendent in an orange jacket, is our ebullient host – on hand to link all the segments. He’s also present to receive visitors, such as Rod Hull and Emu.  Jimmy has the perfect face for some loving attention from Emu and luckily the bird doesn’t let us down.

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Nearest and Dearest

It’s Christmas time and brother and sister Eli and Nellie Pledge (Jimmy Jewell and Hylda Baker) are in a reminiscent mood.  As Nellie mentions that she gets filled with neuralgia (nostalgia) thinking about Christmases past, we’re transported back in time via the age-old trick of making the camera go in and out of focus.  Hylda Baker was a true one-off and therefore sight of her dressed as a young girl is worth the price of admission alone (the reaction of the studio audience makes it plain that they weren’t in on the gag).  Jimmy Jewell, resplendent in a sailor suit, and Madge Hindle (Lily) and Edward Main (Walter) also make for the most ridiculously unconvincing children imaginable.  Which is the point of the skit I guess.

Given that Baker and Jewel reputably loathed the sight of each other, it gives the combative relationship between Nellie and Eli something of an edge.

Once we’ve negotiated this part of the show, Jimmy Tarbuck introduces Moira Anderson singing Silver Bells.  It’s a slightly upmarket sort of song, given that the tone of most of the comedy segments are fairly low brow.  That there’s a full orchestra in the studio suggests that All Star Comedy Carnival had a more than generous budget.

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Father Dear Father

Father Dear Father may have had a fairly thin premise – Patrick Glover (Patrick Cargill) finds his life endlessly complicated thanks to his two grown-up daughters Anna and Karen (Natasha Pyne and Ann Holloway) – but it’s still very agreeable.  Partly this is because of Cargill’s affable performance, although the attractiveness of Pyne and Holloway is another obvious plus (for this viewer at least).  So whilst Cargill bumbles and pratfalls about (here he manages to trip on a roller skate and fall into a lake whilst pulling the most incredible faces throughout), the girls provide an oasis of beauty.  The plot – Patrick’s dog has gone missing – shouldn’t really detain us for too long.

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Thirty Minutes Worth

Harry is the increasingly disgruntled butler of a Lord and Lady.  Fuming because he hasn’t been given Christmas day off, he buttles between each end of their very long dining table, giving them increasingly garbled messages from the other whilst all the time helping himself to their port and brandy.  You’ve got to love a bit of Harry Worth.  His comic stumbles and general air of befuddlement isn’t subtle, but then the All Star Comedy Carnival isn’t really the place to find subtle.  It’s also a bonus to see the peerless William Mervyn playing the Lord.

Now we’ve reached the mid-way point it seems like the right time to take a break.  Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the remainder – Christmas With Wogan, On The Buses, Sez Lez and The Fenn Street Gang whilst various guests – including David Nixon – pop in to join Jimmy.

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Tommy Cooper’s Christmas – 25th December 1973

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Tommy Cooper’s ability to keep the audience in hysterics whilst apparently doing very little is firmly in evidence at the start of this Christmas Special.  Maybe it’s simply because the audience can see tables laden with magic props and therefore know that almost anything could happen ….

The first fifteen minutes is typical freewheeling Cooper – a captive audience, a wide selection of props and an almost endless supply of gags (“my wife’s just had a facelift. But it’s not high enough, I can still see her”).  How scripted this part of the show was is open to debate – there’s certainly a few sharp edits which suggests that some flab was excised (the fact that Cooper dashes from one trick to the other, apparently at random, may not entirely be an act then).  There are a few successes (a vanishing watch for example) but the standard of illusions here never rises above trick shop fare – although he does have a nice line in dexterity.  But then nobody watches Tommy Cooper for skilful magic.

In order to pad things out to an hour, Cooper later takes part in various sketches.  These are often not quite as entertaining as his magical efforts, but two of the longer efforts – playing snooker with Allan Cuthbertson and cooking with a puppet duck – stand out.

Cuthbertson was a Cooper regular during this time.  He’s the perfect straight man – able (almost always) to keep his composure whilst Cooper causes anarchy.  The premise of the sketch (Cooper is a golfer, not a snooker player, and so attempts to clamber on the table to take his shot, etc) may be thin but the pair of them make it work.  One of the best moments is an unscripted one after Cuthbertson has a temporary dry and garbles the order of the colours.  His slight loss of composure is palpable, although after sharing a wry grin with Cooper he pulls himself together (it’s noticeable that Cooper didn’t attempt to make capital from Cutherberton’s stumble – easy to imagine some other comics wouldn’t have been so forgiving).  The arrival of snooker legend Joe Davis (attired, like Cooper, for the golf course) proves to be a nice moment to close the sketch on.

Clodagh Rodgers and Sacha Distel provide the music.  Both have their own solo spots before joining forces for a duet.  Rogers essays a Christmas medley whilst standing in front of a series of silvery Christmas trees (maybe there was a lack of baubles that year – the trees look very underdressed).  Distel plumps for the non-Christmassy Playground in My Mind.  He doesn’t have to contend with denuded Christmas trees – instead he’s surrounded by slightly menacing masks.

Although Tommy Cooper tended to work better in the half hour format (The Tommy Cooper Hour, although boasting some impressive guests – including Abba – across its run, did sometimes feel a bit padded out) this is a decent special.  Unusual to see Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke on scripting duties, as they were much better known for sitcoms than sketches.

dinnerladies – Christmas

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Following directly on from the previous episode, Christmas finds the relationship between Bren (Victoria Wood) and Tony (Andrew Dunn) deepening – although the dramatic cliffhanger from last time (Tony and Bren enjoyed their first kiss, only to be interrupted by Bren’s estranged husband) has to be addressed first.

Although the first series of dinnerladies was traditional sitcom fare (in that each episode had a fairly linear plot) it’s clear that Victoria Wood had more ambitious plans for the second and final series.  Sitcoms with continuing storylines aren’t unique (Brass is a good example of a show with a strong serial theme) but they are unusual.

The growing attraction between Tony and Bren is one of the major plot-threads of series two, but all of the main characters have their own individual story arcs which peak at different times.  Drama mixes with comedy here, as Bren finds herself plagued by self doubt.  She can see a possible future with Tony, but her life to date (exemplified by her disastrous first marriage) makes her convinced that she’ll “bugger it all up” somehow.

Tony initially reassures her that nothing’s changed between them, but then later he becomes distant and distracted – which suggests that he’s lost interest.  He hasn’t of course (instead he’s rushing around attempting to organise an impressive Christmas and Birthday treat for her).  It has to be said that this is a slightly clumsy piece of plotting, since it demands that Bren has to jump to the wrong conclusion several times.

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With Victoria Wood doing the heavy-lifting, drama-wise, the rest of the cast get all the best jokes.  Anita (Shobna Gulati) has her usual stream of bizarre conversational non sequiturs (today involving Disco Monks, thoughts of Michael Aspel, Sooty’s suitability as James Bond and bacon) whilst Jean (Anne Reid) and Dolly (Thelma Barlow) continue their gentle game of one-upmanship.  Jean’s latest attempt to roll back the years (she’s wearing an all-in-one bodyshaper but is having a spot of trouble with the studs) causes much merriment amongst those waiting for bacon – most notably Bob (Bernard Wrigley).

Bob later returns with Jane (Sue Devaney) for a spot of singing and dancing which draws a round of applause from the studio audience.  The unexpected arrival of Bren’s mother, Petula (Julie Walters), also – as always – entertains the audience.  With Janette Krankie in tow as her equally down-at-heel friend, Janice, Petula causes her usual amount of strife and discord, although there’s a nice sense of community as everybody else – in Bren’s absence – elects to send her packing.  If Bren has commitment issues then it’s in no small part due to her mother, who dumped her at an orphanage when she was a child (“I had her too early, there was too much going on. You can’t jive with one hand on a pram handle”).

There’s not a great deal of Stan (Duncan Preston) in this one, which is a shame, although he does have one lovely and typically bizarre monologue.  “Did I ever tell you about the day I had to go to casualty with a dart in me head? If you take my head as a dartboard it went in here (pointing to his chin) low score. Double top I’d have been dead”.  Although there’s method in his madness as he’s attempting to distract Bren, who’s on the verge of leaving Tony and the canteen forever.

But then it’s revealed that Tony hadn’t forgotten to get her a present – in fact he’s managed to smuggle the Black Dyke Band into the canteen ….

This is another of those moments where you have to suspend your disbelief somewhat – not only that Tony could persuade the Black Dyke Band to give up their Christmas Eve but also that they were able to get Bren out of the way just long enough to sneak them all in.  Well it’s Christmas, so let’s be generous.

Slightly iffy plot mechanics aside, it’s still a touching moment and had the series ended here then it would have seemed like a natural conclusion.  But there were four more episodes to come, meaning that everybody’s stories still had a little time to run.

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Telly Addicts – 1989 Christmas Special

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Back in those far off, pre-internet days, Telly Addicts was required viewing since it offered brief, tantalising glimpses into a television past that was otherwise pretty much off limits (look! A clip of Arthur Haynes …).  Today, of course, the archive clippage is less compelling, but it’s still an entertaining quiz.

As was usual, the Christmas special is something of a celebrity fest.  The Crackers (Graeme Garden, George Layton, Liza Goddard, Frank Carson) find themselves locked in a bitter battle with the Clowns (Chris Tarrant, Barry Cryer, Jessica Martin, Jim Bowen).  For some reason (self indulgence maybe) Noel Edmonds dubs each of them with a fictitious soap opera name.  Cryer is gifted the moniker Hugh Jampton, and no doubt he – and the older members of the audience – would have immediately understood the reference.

Memorable rounds include Guess Who, which sees ordinary members of the public stopped in the street and asked to describe a television favourite.  This sounds fair enough, but pretty much everyone picked looks a little, well … odd.  You have to assume that the television crew let the ordinary looking people pass by – it was the nutters they wanted ….

Sing the Sig is also good fun, whilst a clip from the Golden Girls seems to demonstrate that nobody on the Clowns team ever watched it.  We also get to see just the mildest amount of needle between Chris Tarrant and Noel Edmonds whilst Frank Carson (for him) is fairly subdued – although his exasperation in the final round (“why ask me? What’s wrong with them?”) is a joy.