The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds

burt

I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds takes place in the living room of a typical family home.  The arrival of Jim (Leonard Rossiter) is enough to send the kids to their room (“he never stops talking”) although the adults are less fortunate.  They’re just about to watch McMillan and Wife and although Jim tries to tempt them with the football on the other side, he settles down to watch it as well.

Jim is an insuffrable know-it-all.  This starts when he tells Joyce (Gillian Rayne) about the deficiencies of her television set.  “You know your colour’s all wrong? There’s too much red. You can’t watch it like that, it looks like he’s been boiled.”  Granny (the peerless Patricia Haynes) is old enough to speak her mind.  “What’s he want to keep coming round here for?”

After they manage to prevent Jim taking the television set apart with a screwdriver, he keeps quiet for a moment.  But it doesn’t last long, as he spies a familiar face just behind Rock Hudson.  What, he wonders, is Burt Reynolds doing in an episode of McMillan and Wife?  Everybody else tells him that it’s not Burt Reynolds and indeed that it looks nothing like him, but Jim is convinced.  “Course it is.  Don’t tell me I don’t know Burt Reynolds when I see him.”

Thanks to Leonard Rossiter, this is the best episode of The Galton and Simpson Playhouse and it’s fair to say that few comic actors would have been able to deliver such a tremendous performance of ever-increasing hysteria.

Although Burt isn’t listed in the TV Times or on the end credits, Jim isn’t going to give up, despite the fact that nobody else cares.  Calls to Yorkshire Television and the Daily Telegraph (Jim disgustedly tells them he’ll be buying the Daily Express from now on) are fruitless – so he decides the only way to settle this is to call Burt Reynolds in Hollywood.  Incredibly he gets through, but when Burt doesn’t give him the answer he wants, is Jim finally going to admit defeat?  Of course not!

Twenty years later, this was remade with Paul Merton in the main role.  The two series of Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson’s … are interesting.  Merton was always on something of a hiding to nothing, since many of the episodes were television classics (such as the various Hancock episodes selected, including The Radio Ham and Twelve Angry Men).  The Paul Merton I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds is fine, but it really doesn’t work without the full-throttle attack of a top comedy performer like Rossiter.  The Galton and Simpson Playhouse was very fortunate to get a performer at the top of his game, as he was able to wring every last comic drop out of the scenario.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Variations on a Theme

variations

Variations on a Theme is an interesting concept. It’s essentially two very short one act plays with the same actors (John Bird and Frances de la Tour) and the same setting (a park bench)  In both cases the story develops from the same line from de la Tour’s character – “Robert’s found out” – and both stories have a twist at the end.

In part one, the two are lovers – meeting in the park after their afternoon of passion the previous day.  The bombshell that Robert (her husband) has found about their relationship strikes fear into the heart of Bird’s character.  She consoles him that he had to find out sometime, which he disagrees with.  “We only met yesterday.  Some men get away with it for years.  Some men never get found out at all.”

Bird’s character is particularly anxious, since Robert is a television wrestler (the Streatham Strangler) who’s well known for his violent temper.  Another cause for concern is what the scandal will do to him – as chairman of the Marriage Guidance Council it’s more than a little embarrassing.  “I’m expected to save marriages.  You came into my office yesterday for advice.  Two hours later we were in bed together, people aren’t going to understand that.”

John Bird is excellent as the twitchy adulterer, constantly looking over his shoulder in case Robert’s lurking in the bushes nearby.  Frances de la Tour is equally good as a woman seemingly possessed of a deep passion.  However, the twist is that after he’s paid her £5000 to keep his name out of the divorce proceedings, she moves onto the next park bench where it’s clear that there’s another mark who she’s also enjoyed a one night stand with (and presumably she’ll be conning him out of a similar sum of money).

In part two, the pair are a married couple and Robert is their son – who’s found out about the facts of life from a friend.  Bird’s character reproaches himself.  “It’s a father’s responsibility to tell his son about these things.  I failed that boy.  I had it all planned about how I was going to tell him.  I mean it’s only three months since I brought the rabbits home.”  Although, as de la Tour’s character points out, the rabbits were both female, which was a bit of a problem.

It quickly transpires that Bird’s character, despite being a psychiatrist, has something of a hang-up when it comes to sex – so he’s very reluctant to broach the subject with his son.  He then wonders if Robert ever saw the two of them in bed.  de la Tour’s character thinks not, but Bird’s character isn’t convinced since “you usually have a pillow over your head and I have my eyes shut.”

Eventually he decides to employ a course of aversion therapy on Robert and then bring up the subject in a couple of years time.  She then reminds him that it’s Robert’s birthday the following day – when he asks how old he is (nine or ten he thinks) she informs him that he’s twenty three.  As they leave the park together, they discuss appropriate presents (she thinks a cowboy suit would be right, whilst he thinks a railway set would be ideal).

Again, Bird and de la Tour are excellent in another two-hander.  Had either of the two story ideas been stretched to the whole twenty-five minutes it probably wouldn’t have been as memorable an episode.  But spinning two totally different plots from the same opening is what make this stand out a little from the norm.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Naught for Thy Comfort

roy

Richard Burton (Roy Kinnear) is an airline steward who returns home to find a Dear John (or rather a Dear Richard) letter from his wife.  She’s left him for another man, but in-between informing him that his dinner’s in the oven and that his spare uniform is at the dry-cleaners, she goes on to tell him not to “blame yourself in any way for what has happened.  You’ve been a good husband and I’ve nothing to reproach you for, which makes it even harder to do what I’m doing.”

This is an obvious blow and he desperately needs to find somebody to pour out his troubles to.  The problem is that nobody’s interested – as his so-called friends seem to regard him as something of an encumbrance, to put it mildly.  After finding no useful information from his mother-in-law, he calls “good old Harry, one of the best.”  Harry desperately conjures up an excuse to avoid talking to him – Richard seems like a nice enough fellow, but Harry gives the impression that he’s a crashing bore that no-one wants to spend any time with.

Possibly part of the reason for his lack of social success is his complete inability to appreciate the problems of others.  Later on, we seem him conducting a lengthy conversation on the phone with another friend, Jack, who he’s stunned to discover is burying his wife the next day.  He then remembers that Jack did mention this fairly important fact earlier on (Richard’s call has lasted over an hour) but Richard’s so wrapped up in his own world of pain that he has little empathy for anybody else’s grief.

Encounters with a barman (Robert Gillespie), a vicar (Frank Gatliff) and a phone-in host (Alan Freeman) don’t go well either and it seems that nobody wants to listen to him.  He then receives a call from a man in a phone-box (John Clive).  This is the man who his wife was originally going to run off with (which raises the interesting question as to how many men she was seeing!) and he’s just as upset as Richard to find she loves another.  Richard cams him down and tells him to pour out his troubles – as it’s good to talk these things through.

Naught for Thy Comfort operates in familiar Galton and Simpson territory.  Burton, like Hancock or the Steptoes, is something of an outsider from the normal run of society.  And like them, he’s not always the most sympathetic of characters, although this changes right at the end when, ironically, he takes a great interest in the welfare of his wife’s former lover.  Is this because he understands the pain that occurs when nobody will listen to you and therefore he’s able to derive some comfort by offering a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, even when it’s for a man who’s cuckolded him?

Roy Kinnear was something of a British comedy legend and his casting certainly gave the episode a lift.  There’s not many belly-laughs here, but it does raise a smile or two.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Cheers

cheers

Charles (Charles Gray) and Peter (Freddie Jones) operate under a strictly fixed routine.  Friends since childhood, they went through the army together and now share the same house.  Charles likes to organise everything and as they enjoy their regular evening drink at the pub, he outlines how he sees the week progressing.  Friday night sounds particularly exciting.  “In here for our usual and then off home and wash our hair.  I’ll wash yours and you can wash mine, I never get all the soap out otherwise.”

Then Peter drops a bombshell – he’s getting married on Saturday.  This throws Charles into a spin, how can Peter get married when they’ve got the laundrette to do?  Peter is firm though, he’s in love and he’s going to be married at 12.00 noon on Saturday.

Charles continues to be baffled that Peter could desert him, after all they’ve been through.  “After thirty five years, school chums, brother officers, comrades-in-arms, joint lease-holders of a maisonette and an allotment – which we were going to manure on Sunday.”

But Peter wants to break free from his routine existence and do something very different.  He tells an increasingly appalled Charles that he and his wife-to-be will be “staying in South America.  We’re taking a raft up the Amazon, right into the rainforest.”

If all this sounds very unlikely, then there’s a good reason why – Peter’s made it all up.  There’s no girlfriend, no marriage and on Saturday he’ll be locked into the same old routine.  He then confesses to Charles that he created this wild fantasy in order to try and break the monotony.  Charles agrees that they should try and do something different, but it’s clear that they never will.

A bittersweet tale, Cheers is pretty good stuff, although there are a few awkward moments which do firmly place it in the 1970’s.  Charles is disgusted to see a black woman on the arm of one of the other pub regulars (Nicholas Courtney).  He mutters that such a thing shouldn’t be allowed and he declares that “I’d like to know where he gets his money from, I’m sure he’s a mercenary.”  Awkward though this is, it’s always nice to see Nicholas Courtney and whilst it’s not a large part, he makes the most of it.

Charles is also amazed to learn that people consider that he and Charles are a couple of “poofs”.  The fact they do everything together (including washing each others hair) has clearly not gone unnoticed by the other pub regulars (who call them “Pinky and Perky” behind their backs) but Charles doesn’t understand this at all.  “I don’t believe it! I don’t look anything like a poof.”

Freddie Jones gives a lovely turn as a middle-aged man yearning for escape from his humdrum life whilst the always solid Charles Gray is suitably bluff as another middle-aged man who lives for exactly the routine that drives Peter up the wall.  If anything changes, you can tell that Charles simply wouldn’t be able to cope.

If the scripting of The Galton and Simpson Playhouse so far hasn’t always been the sharpest, the star-quality of the actors has been enough to hold my interest.  Cheers is another good example of this.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Swop You One Of These For One Of Those

swap

One major theme running throughout so much of British comedy during the 1970’s was that of sexual frustration. The Carry On’s, Benny Hill and Les Dawson’s Cosmo Smallpiece are just some examples of the typically frustrated British comedy male.  Richard Briers as Henry Fairlane in Swop You One Of These For One Of Those is someone who fits snugly into this niche as well.

The 1960’s may have been the decade of sexual revolution, but for some (and especially Henry) it seems to have totally passed them by.  He spends his time in the office ruminating on the clothes the secretaries wear.  “Shouldn’t be allowed to walk around the office dressed like that. They’re asking for it, they really are. Trouble is, they don’t ask me for it.”

He’s happily married, but his eye is certainly roving.  When one of the secretaries (Linda Hayden) wonders why he should bother to play around, he tells her that “I’m not old enough to turn it in.  I should be playing around, it’s natural.  I mean it keeps you young and healthy, it gives you a better disposition.”

Linda Hayden
Linda Hayden

Briers is perfect as a twitchy forty-something who’s desperately yearning for new horizons.  And as luck would have it, his colleague Roger Gresham (Henry McGee) has the answer – an invitation to a wife-swopping party.  You couldn’t really get any more 1970’s than that!  Henry’s keen, but Roger tells him that he has to make sure he brings his wife along – no wife, no entry.

Come the night of the party and Henry’s been separated from his wife – he lost her at Belsize Park tube station.  Roger refuses to let him in without her, so he has to keep a lonely vigil outside, watching enviously as numerous other couples gain admittance.  The frustration part is key to the comedy – Henry has to remain constantly unfulfilled,  otherwise the joke doesn’t work.

Eventually, Henry’s wife Linda (Jan Waters) does turn up – just after Henry stepped away from the door.  Roger’s delighted to see her and and instantly lets her in (after some hesitation she throws herself into the party with gusto).

So by the time the party’s over, Linda’s had a great time and poor Henry’s been stuck outside the whole time.  Henry, like so many comedy characters from this decade, is forced to constantly have his nose pressed to the glass, watching others enjoy themselves.

Richard Briers gives a very nice turn and Henry McGee (a familiar Benny Hill stooge) makes an impression as one of the oldest swingers in town.  It’s also good to briefly see the imposing figure of Peggy Ann Clifford.  She made a memorable non-speaking appearance in The Missing Page episode of Hancock’s Half Hour as the woman who watches Tony mime the plot of a particularly exciting book.

Swop You One Of These For One Of Those is a step up from Car Along The Pass and is, if nothing else, a good time-capsule of the period.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Car Along The Pass

car

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s writing career started in the late 1940’s (when they were both confined in the same tuberculous sanatorium) and it continued for the next thirty years – coming to an end with this series.  After The Galton and Simpson Playhouse was transmitted in 1977, Alan Simpson retired from scriptwriting whilst Ray Galton carried on, working with several other collaborators (such as Johnny Speight).

Galton and Simpson, are of course, best known for Hancock’s Half Hour (six radio series and six television series), Hancock (their seventh and final television series written for Tony Hancock, featuring classics such as The Bedsitter, The Lift, The Bowmans, The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham) and Steptoe and Son.

Following Tony Hancock’s decision to fire them as his writing team, the BBC offered them carte-blanche to write about anything they wished, and so the Comedy Playhouse series was born.  One episode, The Offer concerned two rag and bone men and it seemed to have potential – out of this came the long-running Steptoe and Son.

YTV’s The Galton and Simpson Playhouse seemed to be a conscious nod to this series, as the programme clearly emulated the style of Comedy Playhouse (one off comedy playlets featuring some of the best acting talent around).  It’s a pretty decent effort for them to bow out on, as whilst it’s fair to say that their writing heyday was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, this series isn’t completely without merit.

Having said that, it’s a shame that it kicked off with Car Along The Pass, easily the weakest of the seven shows.  Henry and Ethel Duckworth (Arthur Lowe and Mona Washbourne) take a cable-car trip in the Swiss Alps.  Henry hasn’t enjoyed his holiday at all and things don’t improve when the cable-car stops when it’s only half way across.  The passengers are told that repairs will take a few hours, so naturally Henry (since he’s an Englishman) decides to take charge.

Henry Duckworth has faint echoes of Lowe’s most famous comedy character (Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army).  Both are rather pompous and incredibly proud of their country of birth, but Mainwaring is also a basically decent man (plus he has the rest of the platoon to keep him in check).  Duckworth is just a blinkered bore, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

There’s plenty of comic potential in taking a disparate group of people and trapping them in a confined space – after all, Galton and Simpson did this to great comic effect with the Hancock episode, The Lift.  But Car Along The Pass is a very pale imitation.  Had Henry learnt anything about his fellow passengers, or himself, then it might have been worthwhile – but his worldview remains the same at the end as it was at the start.

He’s dismayed to find there’s only a few British people aboard and even more upset to discover that means he’s surrounded by foreigners.  The one that seems to cause him the most pain is a smooth-talking German, Heinz Steiner (Anton Differing).  Steiner is something of an anglophile and professes a love of rugby (which he played whilst at public school in England).  When Steiner asks if Duckworth attended public school, the Englishman is reticent.  “That, um, is something that we never ask in England.  We just know.”  Predictably, Ethel spoils the moment by saying she didn’t think Henry played rugby at Witham Grammar, she though he played football instead.

Steiner wonders if Henry has visited Germany.  Yes, he says, in 1945.  The presence of French and Italians gives him further scope to restate the superiority of the English.  During this, it’s hard to decide whether we should be laughing at him or with him.  It’s the Alf Garnett problem, I suppose – some of the audience will probably agree with his sentiments whilst others will view him as an out-of-date dinosaur.

My affection for Arthur Lowe means that I can find some merit in this (although you have to dig deep) and Anton Differing is very good, but to be honest, Car Along The Pass is pretty poor stuff.

Whodunnit? – Series Five – Forthcoming from Network

who 5

After something of a gap (mainly due to Network negotiating a new ten year licencing deal with ITV Studios) it’s pleasing to see a number of archive television titles are listed as forthcoming on their website.

Whodunnit? – Series Five is particularly welcome – it’s a lovely slice of 1970’s nostalgia with many familiar faces (both on the panels and featured in the playlets).  After a somewhat shaky start (I love Edward Woodward but he was never best suited to the role of panel-game host – see series one for evidence of this) the programme was firmly in the groove by this time, helped no end by Jon Pertwee.  As ever with Network, there’s always the possibility that release dates will slip, but at present it’s scheduled for release at the end of April 2015.

Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee is your host in this highly popular, light-hearted panel game which invites viewers to play detective – pitting their wits against a panel of celebrity sleuths to solve a fictitious murder mystery.

Devised by comedians Jeremy Lloyd and Lance Percival, the show’s brilliantly original formula presents short dramas laden with clues – and a few red herrings – to be pieced together by the panellists who, having grilled the suspects, point the accusing finger at the likely felon…

A star-studded guest panel for this volume includes Prunella Scales, Connie Booth, Liza Goddard, Terry Wogan, Dinah Sheridan, Patrick Mower and Jimmy Jewel; Françoise Pascal, Kate O’Mara, Josephine Tewson and Denis Lill feature among the casts.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 20th April 1974

wheel s01e02

Tonight’s Turns:

The Three Degrees
The Krankies
Brandy Di Franck
Bill Haley and the Comets
Martin and Sylvia Konyot
Ronnie Hilton

The first turn up on stage tonight are The Three Degrees who perform I Like Being A Woman.  The group had formed in 1964, although the 1974 incarnation didn’t include any of the original members (over the years the line-up would see quite a few changes – some fifteen women have been one of the Three Degrees at one time or another).

The 1974 line-up consisted of Fayette Pinkney, Valerie Holiday and Sheila Ferguson. Shortly after this appearance, When Will I See You Again would top the UK charts for two weeks and it would herald a run of successful singles which would continue for a number of years.  It’s a pity then that their Wheeltappers appearance wasn’t later in the year, as I Like Being A Woman is nice enough, although fairly forgettable.

There are two points of interest though, first is at 1:35 when they all bump into each other (they won’t be the only act to find performing on that tiny stage to be a bit of a problem!) and the second is the interesting spoken-word section, which must have gladdened the hearts of a certain section of the audience.

You know, women’s liberation is cool.
I mean, it had it’s good points and it’s bad points.
But you know sometimes… I just want to be loved,
And that’s why I become your slave.
I don’t want to be your equal, I just want to be a part of you.
All you gotta do is treat me like you treat yourself.

Next up are The Krankies.  They’d spend the 1970’s working clubs like the Wheeltappers before moving onto mainstream television in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.  They always seemed to be a staple fixture on Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!!) at one time, for example.

Even though wee Jimmy Krankies’ cross-dressing antics only has a limited amount of comic potential, you have to admire the career they were able to build out of it.  This Wheeltappers appearance is fairly typical of their comic shtick – Ian Krankie is attempting to tell a few jokes and sing a song but he’s prevented from doing so by a small boy in the audience.  This is our Jimmy, who clearly has the audience’s sympathy as he tells them his mother doesn’t love him (awwww).  The closing part of their act (where Ian treats Jimmy as a ventriloquists doll, swinging him around) is quite impressive and does raise a few laughs.

After somewhat fading from view, the revelation that they used to be swingers put them back into the spotlight a few years ago – and the fact that the likes of The Telegraph reported it is an example of how times have changed (it would be hard to imagine them running showbiz stories like that a few decades earlier).

Following the stripper Brandy Di Franck (yes really!) there’s the main treat of the show – Bill Haley and the Comets.  Although Haley’s time at the top was quite short (his main chart success came between 1954 and 1956) his influence was far-reaching and thanks to a handful of classic singles he remains a significant figure in the development of rock and roll.

He gave the audience at the Wheeltappers exactly what they wanted – two of his biggest hits (Shake, Rattle and Roll and Rock Around the Clock).  The only mystery about his appearance is why he wasn’t the headliner – c’mon it’s Bill Haley!

Next act on stage are Martin and Sylvia Konyot, who attempt to provide a touch of class with their dancing, although this is somewhat sabotaged by the fact the one of them is usually face-down on the stage.  Not a bad spesh act which obviously took a good deal of training in order to execute the moves.

Tonight’s headliner is Ronnie Hilton, who rather cruelly (but accurately) is introduced by Bernard like this.  “Ladies and gentleman, if there’s ever a nuclear attack then it’s all round to the next artist’s house.  Because he’s never had a hit for years”.

Ronnie Hilton had a successful recording career in the 1950’s as a middle-of-the-road crooner.  He built his career on recording cover versions of successful American songs.  Hilton wasn’t the only artist to do this as back in the fifties it was the song – not the singer – that was king.  His biggest hit, No Other Love (originally recorded by Perry Como) made number one in 1955, but by the early 1960’s the hits had dried up – so like many others before him, he took to touring the club circuit.

On the evidence of this appearance, he had become a decent club singer – although as he never had any particularly identifiable songs it does mean that the show ends with a bit of a whimper.  Alas, if only they’d put Bill Haley on last!

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 13th April 1974

wheel s01e01

Tonight’s Turns:

Ukranian Cossack Brotherhood
Lambert and Ross
Barbara Law
La Vivas
Freddie Garrity
Tessie O’Shea

Wheeltappers is a fascinating series for several reasons.  Although the club was a studio mock-up, by all accounts it’s a pretty accurate recreation of a typical club of the era – and therefore it gives a good impression of the sort of environment that the majority of the Wheeltappers acts would regularly perform in.

Many up-and-coming performers honed their skills in clubs like these, appearing on the bill alongside popular acts from the 1960’s (like, for example, Roy Orbison), who found success harder to come by in the 1970’s and were therefore happy to find regular employment in the numerous clubs dotted up and down the country.

I can’t put my hand on my heart and claim that everything in the Wheeltappers is good, but there’s certainly some gold there.  Alas, there’s plenty of god-awful singers and unfunny comedians as well – but for those hardy souls prepared to sift through the series, there’s quite a few nuggets of interest.

And for those who lack the stamina to watch it all, and because Network rather annoyingly don’t list the performers on the DVD sleeves, I’ve decided on this rewatch to put an artist listing on each entry, as well as highlighting those acts who are worth seeing (or are best avoided).

The Ukranian Cossack Brotherhood were quite good fun, although I’m not sure whether they were actually Ukranian or not – seems a long way to come just to appear on the Wheeltappers.  Their performance is particularly impressive considering the small stage they have to perform on – one false move and they’d be sitting in somebody’s lap!

Lambert and Ross were certainly no Morecambe and Wise – or even Little and Large.  Their’ USP seemed to be that one (Ross) was camp and one (Lambert) wasn’t.  Sample gag: “We could appear in a film. What film? Ben Hur, I’ll play Ben. And I’ll play Her”.  Although there’s little evidence of it here, Willie Ross would go on to have a successful career in television, on the stage and in films such as Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Riff Raff and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, before his death in 2000.

Barbara Law belts out her song quite well.  It’s worth watching the man directly behind her at the start – was he a plant or was he genuinely that drunk?  La Vivas indulge in some knife-throwing, roping in a lady from the audience and Bernard for good measure.

Freddie Garrity has plenty of energy – that’s for sure.  The former lead-singer of Freddie and the Dreamers would return to the Wheeltappers in the future and he’d be even more deranged – so this performance, by his standards, is fairly restrained.

Headliner Tessie O’Shea was something of an entertainment legend.  Born in Cardiff in 1913, she was a popular music-hall act during the 1930’s – 1950’s and she’d go on to pick up a Tony award in 1963 for her appearance in Noel Coward’s musical The Girl Who Came to Supper.  Another notable American appearance was on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, where she shared the bill with a young up-and-coming beat combo from England called the Beatles.

On the Wheeltappers she plays a paper bag and invites the audience to join her in a good old fashioned sing-along.  It’s the sort of thing that we’ll see a lot of at the Wheeltappers (the sing-along that is, not playing with a paper bag).