Frankie Howerd: The Lost Television Pilots – Kaleidoscope From The Archive Collection

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The third of the Kaleidoscope releases out this week, Frankie Howerd – The Lost Television Pilots offers easily the best value, both in terms of running time and content.

First up is episode three of Up The Convicts (although since it was the first to be recorded it does qualify as a pilot). Up The Convicts was a short-lived (four episodes) series made for the Seven Network in Australia. Howerd is Jeremiah Shirk, a convict transported to a penal colony in New South Wales and put to work as the servant for a wealthy couple. Essentially Up Pompeii in different clothes, it’s a typically raucous fifty minutes of Howerd at full throttle.

The script might be corny, but Howerd was a past-master at spinning gold out of the thinnest material. His trademark style – pausing to berate the audience, either for not getting the joke or for reading dirty innuendoes into his innocent words – is present and correct and he seems to enjoy bouncing off the cast (Frank Thring is especially good value and it’s nice to see Wallas Eaton pop up as well).

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The plot of the episode is pretty thin. His thoughtful mistress arranges a marriage for him, but Jeremiah doesn’t (as he hopes) get to grips with a beautiful serving wench, instead he’s presented with a nightmare vision of a plump woman who never stops eating. But the story isn’t really important – when Howerd’s on, he’s on.

Although all four episodes are reported to exist, only episode three is included in this release – which is a shame, as based on this example I wouldn’t be averse to seeing the rest. Apart from a few brief seconds of tape damage, the videotape is in pretty good shape.

1976 was a busy year for Frankie. Apart from Up The Convicts in Australia, he was also to be found in Canada, where he made The Frankie Howerd Show. Another short-lived series, this DVD contains the pilot and first episode, which you have to assume are the only survivors from the thirteen made.

Frankie is a British ex-pat living in a run-down Toronto boarding house overseen by landlady Mrs. Otterby (Ruth Springford) and her son (Gary Files). Other residents include Wally Wheeler (Jack Duffy), a surly man with a shady past, and Denise (Peggy Mahon), an attractive young woman who inevitably catches Frankie’s eye.

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The series finds Frankie in typical form, bursting through the fourth wall at regular intervals – either to once again berate the dirty-minded audience for seeing innuendos where (he believes) there are none or to apologise for the poor performances of his fellow cast members. Nobody could work an audience like Frankie – had he played a sitcom in the traditional way (ignoring the audience) then the results wouldn’t have been half as interesting.

Mind you, it’s very much a series of its time. The pilot features several Indian stereotypes of an incredibly broad nature (one cast member browns up as Mr Singh, an employment exchange worker who attempts to find Frankie a job). It’s a breathtaking (for all the wrong reasons) performance, but it’s hardly unique from television of this era. As with Up The Convicts, if you like Frankie then you’ll like this – predictable it might be, but Frankie’s never less than a delight.

Although The Gong Show was a popular American format, there was never a hit British version – despite two seperate attempts to launch a series, both with Frankie as the host. The second pilot, made by Channel 4 in 1985, was transmitted to little acclaim – whilst the first (included on this disc) was produced by Southern in 1977 and appears not to have made it to air.

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Barry Cryer, who worked on the programme, noted in his autobiography Butterfly Brain that it didn’t really play to Frankie’s strengths. But whilst Frankie does occasionally feel a little adrift as the host, he’s always good value when interacting with the diverse range of performers. Frankie’s also in his element when crossing swords with the three panellists – Madeline Smith, Russell Harty and Diana Dors (especially Harty, who seems to relish being mean to some of the contestants). And with Caroline Munro as a hostess and Bella Emberg as the stone-faced scorer, you can’t say that the show lacked star quality.

As always with The Gong Show, there’s an incredible grab-bag of performers. From an elderly lady (decked out with a glittering union jack hat) singing God Save The Queen (she was quickly gonged off by all three) to a young eighteen-year old lad tackling Sweet Caroline very credibly via a middle-aged singing muscle-man you can’t deny that there’s something for virtually everyone (and that’s only scratching the surface – I won’t spoil the surprise of some of the odder acts).

This is an enjoyable curio which – had the fates been different – could easily have run to a series. Although it appears to be sourced from VHS, the picture quality is more than watchable.

The set is rounded out by three interviews (listed as special features). All were recorded at the same time – around 1978 – when Howerd was in America plugging his appearance in the Bee Gees’ ill-fated film version of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Hand. The first – with Merv Griffin – runs for 10″32′ whilst the second – with Mike Douglas – runs for 8″06′.

The most substantial is Ryan’s Roost (27″50′). This one looks to be sourced from VHS and is in black and white, which might be the reason why it was relegated to special feature status. All three have moments of interest, although Howerd – without a British audience to play off – does at times appear to be a little diminished.

Any admirer of Frankie Howerd will find plenty to enjoy across these two discs. Highly recommended.

Frankie Howerd – The Lost Television Pilots is available now. It can be ordered from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Rare Chills – Kaleidoscope From The Archive Collection

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Rare Chills collects together two spine-tingling tales. First up is The Fearmakers: The Shadow of Death. Easily the most obscure of the two, I’ve been able to track down very little information about it. The pilot for a proposed series, it was shot on location at Warwick Castle and featured just two actors – Jack Woolgar and Barry Stokes (Woolgar also introduced the story and was one of the producers, so he was clearly a man of many hats).

It’s an odd little piece. Every trick in the book is utilised in order to create an oppressive atmosphere – we’re at a deserted baronial house late at night, the wind is whistling and the thunder is crashing down – at the same time we are observing a man called Booth (Woolgar) searching for something.

Eventually he finds his prize (a diamond) but is later confronted by a younger man – Weaver (Stokes) – who also claims ownership. A brief tussle for supremacy then takes place, but the victor will have to face the supernatural forces which have been unleased by their actions ….

The Shadow of Death is content to take its time. Woolgar wanders around the house by himself for the first five minutes before finding anything and it’s only when Stokes turns up mid-way through that things really start moving. That it was made on a tight budget can be surmised by some of the shot choices, which don’t always match up to the previous ones (if the production ran out of time or money that would explain why they didn’t get all the coverage they wanted).

The plot is a little vague. If Booth stole the diamond sometime in the past, why did he hide it in the house? And how did Stokes know that Booth would return on that night? The mysterious shadow creature which stalks the house is never explained either.

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The print quality is passable, although there’s intermittent damage on the right hand side. A decent time-waster then and worth watching for Woolgar and Stokes, but the story is rather thin.

Much more substantial and enjoyable is Mrs Amworth. It’s certainly loaded with talent – adapted by Hugh Whitemore from the story by E.F. Benson, directed by Alvin Rakoff and starring Glynis Johns (not a bad line-up at all). The original short story by Benson can be accessed here.

Johns gives a lovely performance as the titular Mrs Amworth, a charming lady who’s recently moved into a sleepy English village. A hit with the residents, she’s quickly become the talk of the town, although a recent epidemic has set Francis Urcombe (John Phillips) pondering.

It seems too fantastic to be true, but could the kindly Mrs Amworth really be a vampire – flitting from person to person and draining their blood? Less of a moody chiller than The Shadow of Death, Mrs Amworth still has a few shocks along the way (mixed in with a few amusing moments – or at least I assume they were intended to be amusing). The notion of a vampire hiding out in a bucolic English village is an irresistible one and with the likes of Derek Francis offering strong support, the thirty minute running time clips by most agreeably.

This production of Mrs Amworth will probably be familiar to many, since it escaped onto the internet a few years back. The DVD release does offer an upgrade in picture quality – although by no means pristine (the colours are rather washed out) it’s certainly the best presentation of the materials I’ve seen so far.

A mixed bag then. The Shadow of Death might be the rarer of the two, but it’s Mrs Amworth which really appeals and makes Rare Chills worth a look.

It’s slightly surprising that there’s no contextual information about these programmes supplied with the DVD. Network’s range of curated releases – under the banner of Forgotten Television drama – includes substantial viewing notes which places the programmes in context. Some sort of background on these two dramas – The Shadow of Death especially – would have been welcome. Who made them, how were they lost, how they were rediscovered, etc. Hopefully future releases will contain some info – even if it’s only a brief note on the interior of the DVD case.

Rare Chills is released today by Kaleidoscope, RRP £12.99. It can be ordered from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Steptoe and Son (1965 American Pilot) – Kaleidoscope From The Archive Collection

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Most people will probably be aware of Sanford and Son, the successful US version of Steptoe and Son which ran for a total of 136 episodes during the 1970’s. But an earlier attempt (by Joseph E. Levine in 1965) to adapt the series for the American market has remained, until now, little more than a footnote in the Steptoe and Son story.

This was due to the fact that no recording was known to exist – until, that is, researchers from Kaleidoscope stumbled on a film print in Ray Galton’s basement. This is touched upon in the brief special feature, which we’ll come to later, but what of the main course?

Whilst Ray Galton and Alan Simpson have a prominent “created by” credit on the opening titles, their voices are largely absent. Although the half hour does feature a squabbling father and son duo called Albert and Harold who run a rag and bone business, it has a very different feel from the BBC Comedy Playhouse pilot, The Offer.

That was a claustrophobic two-hander, whereas this is more expansive (there are a number of other speaking parts, most prominently Jonathan Harris). Albert (Lee Tracy) is still the manipulative one, but Tracy doesn’t have Wilfred Brambell’s air of pathetic defeat. Instead, Tracy’s Albert is a spry sort of chap, happy to hang out at the local café (singing along with the local beatniks, no less).

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Aldo Ray’s Harold has the same sort of put-upon air that Harry H. Corbett excelled at, although Ray doesn’t really have long enough to make his mark. There are a few brief moments when his anger comes bubbling to the surface though – had the show gone to a series then this might have been an interesting area to develop.

One part of the pilot which isn’t very effective is the soundtrack. The incidental music is very much in the “waa, waa, waaaaa” tradition – hammering the comedy points home with a lack of subtlety. The laugh track (I’m not sure whether it was canned or actually a genuine audience) also seems a little off.

Although Harold does call Albert a “dirty old man” several times, the context is quite different from the British original. It’s nothing to do with his lack of hygiene (this Albert is always very dapper) instead Harold’s cursing is aimed at the way his father always manages to outsmart him (with a “waa, waa, waaaaa” on the soundtrack, no doubt).

Although you might have expected Phil Shuken’s teleplay to be an adaptation of The Offer (and some of the pre-publicity suggested this was so) the pilot is a totally different story. Although Harold is keen to leave, he’s pre-empted by Albert who signs the business over to him. Of course this is only a ruse and the status quo is restored at the end after Albert tricks Harold into burning the agreement. Harold expresses mild exasperation at this – but there’s no room for the emotional distress displayed by Harry H. Corbett (“I can’t get away, I can’t break free”).

In one way it seems invidious to keep on referring back to the BBC original, but if it wasn’t for the Galton and Simpson connection then this pilot’s appeal would be very limited indeed. As a curio for those interested in Steptoe or G&S then it’s certainly of interest – provided you’re not expecting something as bleak and impressive as The Offer then it’s a diverting enough half hour.

Shot on 35mm film, either it’s undergone some restoration work or Ray Galton’s basement was the ideal place to store film materials, as it looks very nice with only a few intermittent seconds of damage here and there. The sole special feature is a four minute excerpt from the Kaleidoscope documentary The Native Hue of Resolution.

This sees Ray Galton and Tessa Le Bars (G&S’s agent) venturing down to Ray’s basement, where they just happen to stumble over a film can. No doubt this was a moment staged for the documentary, but it’s still nice to see them rummaging around this room of treasures for a few minutes.

Steptoe and Son is worth a look, but with a running time of only thirty five minutes it’s an expensive buy. If these archive releases continue, then there might be some merit in collecting various orphaned titles together – that would be one way of offering decent value for money.

Steptoe and Son – The “Lost” Unaired 1965 American Pilot Episode is released by Kaleidoscope on the 13th of August 2018, RRP £12.99. It can be ordered from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Longford – Simply Media DVD Review

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Lord Longford was a tireless supporter of prisoner’s rights. He believed that nobody was beyond redemption, but his dogged campaign to secure Myra Hindley’s release only served to bring him savage public vilification ….

Even after all these years, the Moors Murders remains a dark stain on the British psyche. And if this horrifying legacy still resonates today, how much more powerful must it have been in the late 1960’s, when Lord Longford visited Myra Hindley for the first time? But despite being dubbed by the tabloids as “Lord Wrongford” he wouldn’t be swayed and carried on tirelessly pleading her case for decades.

Even though he had to submit to several hours of prosthetic make-up each day, Jim Broadbent’s beautifully nuanced performance as Longford is nothing less than quietly stunning. It’s left to the audience to decide whether Longford was a good, innocent man or simply a gullible fool (or a little of both possibly). Broadbent certainly deserved all the plaudits and awards which came his way.

No less compelling and fascinating is Samantha Morton’s performance as Myra Hindley. As much of a victim as the murdered children, or an equal complicit partner with Ian Brady? She certainly seemed like a reformed character in Longford’s presence, but was that simply a ruse to gain his trust? As the film continues we begin to get an idea of the truth and Morton’s quiet, unshowy playing becomes increasingly more memorable.

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Ian Brady’s evil is palpable though. Andy Serkis’ screentime might have been limited but he is still able to create a deeply unsettling atmosphere which lingers even after he’s left the screen. Brady’s first meeting with Longford is a typical snapshot of the short time they spent together. “How good of you not to disappoint! Wonderful, isn’t it, when people look exactly as you imagined? So this is my competition? This is what I’m up against? Myra’s new boyfriend? She certainly picks them, doesn’t she? I did a little research before our first meeting. I’d say there’s great evidence of mental instability in your past and mine”.

Brady’s contention that Hindley destroyed ‘him’ is intriguing. An example of Brady’s manipulative skill, or does the comment contain a kernel of truth? “Take my advice. Go back to your other prisoners. Nice, uncomplicated ones with broken noses and knuckle tattoos. Stay clear of Myra, because she will destroy you. Certainly destroyed me. That’s a thought you’ve not had before – that Myra egged me on”. Before Brady’s furnace of hatred, the affable and kindly Longford could do little but wilt.

Later events, such as Hindley’s confession to several subsequent murders (which she did in order to trump Brady’s own pending confession) wasn’t enough to totally destroy Longford’s faith in her, nor was her description of the first murder. “I’m trying to know the God that you know. But if you had been there, on the moors, in the moonlight, when we did the first one, you’d know that evil can be a spiritual experience too”.

Scripted by Peter Morgan (also responsible for The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Damned United) Longford is a concise ninety minute teleplay which doesn’t contain an ounce of fat. Strong supporting performances help (most notably Lindsey Duncan as Lady Longford) as does the inclusion of genuine archive television reportage. In certain clips (for example, where the real Lord Longford appeared alongside David Frost and Lord Hailsham) a skilful spot of editing ensures that Broadbent replies to the archival comments of Frost and Hailsham.

Posing the difficult, if not insoluble, question as to whether forgiveness should be extended to everyone, regardless of their crimes, Longford offers no easy answers but plenty of food for thought and therefore stands as an absorbing drama which repays repeated viewings. Highly recommended.

Longford is released today by Simply Media, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here – quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

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Brond – Simply Media DVD Review

Out for an early morning jog, Robert (John Hannah) witnesses a shocking murder. A man later identified as Brond (Stratford Johns) casually pushes a young boy over a bridge. But this sudden act of violence is only the beginning as Robert finds himself embroiled in Brond’s scheme to trap an IRA killer ….

Adapted by Frederic Lindsay from his own novel and broadcast in 1987, Brond is one of those 1980’s thriller serials (along with the likes of Edge of Darkness and Dead Head) which eschew narrative clarity in favour of something much more non-linear. But given that Lindsay’s novel was rather baffling in places, it’s no surprise that his television adaptation was also opaque.

Brond’s first appearance is ridiculously memorable. Pushing the boy over the bridge without a second thought, Brond then casually winks at Robert as he passes by.  What’s especially interesting about this scene is that until the incident is revisited towards the end of the serial, it’s possible to believe that Robert was hallucinating and that there was no murder.

Brond might have been John Hannah’s television debut (a major role for such a newcomer) but Alan Stratford Johns was an old hand. He’ll always be best remembered for playing Charles Barlow in a string of BBC police series (Z Cars, Softly Softly, Softly Softly: Task Force, Barlow) but he had a rich and diverse career before and after his time with the police force.

Brond was one of his later signature roles though – it certainly made a considerable impact at the time and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s a peach of a part which offers Johns a number of wonderfully constructed monologues and set piece scenes. The first occurs at a university party, where an increasingly disconnected Robert views Brond in a mirror. The framing is so non-naturalistic that the exact reality of the situation seems to be in doubt (as with the boy’s murder).

Satan must be defeated. But never is quite. So we owe red roses and sunsets to Satan’s joy in being master.

Brond’s materialisation by Robert’s hospital bed is another peculiar and jolting moment. Why the whole ward is suddenly bathed in an unearthly red light is a mystery which is never explained. And yet again Brond’s elliptical, gnomic utterances don’t help to make the situation any clearer.

I remember Paris, young men, far from home. The story was written to make a little money, concerning a lady and her victim who was quite willing – eager to suffer and obey. She did terrible things to him, she might have killed him. But it was all innocent daydreams, some wonder drug of science fiction. So when it was over, no blood, no regrets, just a man and woman and a warm summer evening. Wasn’t that a better world to live in?

In the wrong hands, this sort of florid material could easily fall flat, but it’s testimony to Johns’ skill that he makes moments such as these utterly compelling.

Aside from Johns and Hannah, there’s a strong supporting cast. James Cosmo, as Primo, looms menacingly throughout. Although connected to Brond, he also latches himself onto Robert. Louise Beatty (Margaret) also impresses whilst it’s always a pleasure to see Christopher Ellison. A number of other familiar faces, such as Russell Hunter, pop up in minor roles.

As we proceed to the second episode, the plot only becomes more labyrinth. Robert’s mysterious landlord, Kennedy (Ian McElhinney), casts a menacing shadow whilst the murder of a fellow lodger, Kilpatrick (Laurie Ventry), and Robert’s discovery of a gun wrapped in a blood-soaked cloth are further pieces of the disorienting puzzle. Robert’s later police cell conversation with a gardner (Phil McCall) is another of those strange Brand moments.

Charged with the murder of Kilpatrick, Robert is interrogated by Frew (Christopher Ellison) a character who could be a close cousin of Frank Burnside. But the murder of Kilpatrick is clearly only a sideshow – the assassination of Sir Colin Fraser seems to be much more key ….

The final episode sees Robert released into Brond’s care. Stratford Johns is on fine form, espeically when in interrogation mode. Things then go very strange after the pair pay a visit to high class brothel. Brond has some peculiar ideas about entertainment (and isn’t fussy about who might be looking in). There’s also an intriguing callback to the murder of the boy from episode one, whilst some of the loose ends are tied up. Other aspects of the story (notably why Brond latches onto Robert) remain open to interpretation.

Critical reaction at the time was pretty positive.  The Stage (14th May 1987) reviewing the first episode, declared it to be “a jigsaw thriller, in which you are not expected to see the picture until most of the pieces have slotted into place”.  Johns’ performance (“Brond isn’t the sort of man you would want as a babysitter. He speaks in a calm, measured voice, at once chilling and reassuring”) drew praise as did John Hannah (“a likeable dupe, whose jokes always seemed to fall on deaf ears”).

The three episodes (each approx. 50 minutes) are contained on a single DVD.  The all-film production is unrestored, but for a thirty year old serial is in pretty good shape with no major picture issues.  There’s no special features and, as per Simply’s other recent C4 releases, no subtitles (it appears that Channel 4, unlike the BBC, don’t require subtitles to be added).

Featuring a haunting title theme by Bill Nelson and Daryl Brunswick, Brond lingers long in the memory. The lack of a clear narrative means it won’t appeal to all, but since there’s so much of interest – notably the performances of John Hannah and Stratford Johns – it’s hard not to be drawn into this dark, twisted world.

Brond is released by Simply Media on the 30th of July 2018, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered from Simply here, quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

Norbert Smith: A Life – Simply Media DVD Review

Harry Enfield (b. 1961) first came to prominence in 1986 on Channel 4’s Saturday Live. The two characters he created with Paul Whitehouse – Stavros and Loadsamoney – quickly became public favourites, especially the obnoxious Loadsamoney. But since they only offered limited possibilities for development it wasn’t surprising that Enfield eventually tired of them and moved onto other projects.

In 1990 he would debut Harry Enfield’s Television Programme on the BBC, but just prior to this Norbert Smith: A Life aired on Channel 4. It was the first time that his skill with multiple characters within the sketch format had been given free reign and therefore is a key moment in his early career.

The format is simple. Melvyn Bragg is interviewing the venerable British actor Sir Norbert Smith. In-between the rambling interview sections are clips from the great man’s many films (dating from the 1930’s up to the present day). This is obviously just a device to stop the programme from appearing to be nothing more than a series of film sketches (which it clearly is, but since everything works so well I’m not complaining).

The inspiration for the programme would have been obvious to most people at the time. Broadcast in 1983, Laurence Olivier: A Life found Britain’s greatest theatrical knight in conversation with Melvyn Bragg. In some ways Norbert is a wicked parody of the 1983 original, even down to the aged Norbert’s appearance (he’s the dead spit of the elderly Olivier). But although there’s a visual similarity (and some crossover in films, such as Hamlet) Norbert Smith isn’t a pastiche of Olivier’s career – the subject of this programme was an actor much lower down the food chain.

His film debut – appearing alongside Will Silly in Oh, Mr Bankrobber! – is a case in point. This first parody sets the benchmark for the rest of the programme – it’s a wonderfully observed Will Hay pastiche, capturing the tone perfectly (the crosstalk and ever-increasing verbal confusion is spot on). It’s visually very appealing too, with just the right amount of dirt applied to make it look like a fifty year old film (plenty of hiss on the soundtrack as well).

Another example of this attention to detail can be seen in Lullaby Of London. A 1940 American film featuring oodles of British clichés, not only does the picture have that odd washed-out colour tone of the era but the sound is a little tinny as well. Josie Lawrence joins Harry and a fair number of extras for this extravagant song and dance number.

The Noel Coward inspired Hamlet is another stand-out section – especially since it so closely apes the visuals of Olivier’s own classic version. The Brief Encounter skit (featuring Felicity Montagu) is given a little extra spin when it’s revealed that their over-earnest performances are only in respect of an advert for Sudso washing powder (which has the classic slogan “it washes clothes”).

It’s Grim Up North (1962) is a typically depressing kitchen sink drama, but the same year Norbert would also take on a very different role – that of the father in Keep Your Hair On, Daddio – so clearly Norbert was an actor of some versatility. And around this time an alcoholic Norbert found himself ruthlessly probed on Head to Head. “Why are you so hopeless? Forgive me for saying this, but you’re a complete alcoholic and a lousy actor”. The unmistakable tones of Geoffrey Chater help to make this Face to Face homage even more enjoyable.

There are many other gems scattered throughout (such as Rover Returns Home where Norbert shares the screen with a young Michael Caine) but rather than listing them all (and spoiling the gags) I’ll mention just one more. This is easily my favourite – Carry On Banging. Featuring three Carry On stalwarts (Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor and Jack Douglas) it manages to pack a breathtaking number of innuendoes into just two minutes.

“Now listen, we want you to pull them down and if you don’t, we will”.

“Those unsightly erections of yours are a danger to us all”.

“That man there, he threatened to give me a big stiff one”.

And the killer line ….

“Let us all have a little discussion, where you can all put over your points of view. Yes, let’s have a mass debate”.

With Paul Whitehouse not contributing, Enfield co-wrote Norbert Smith with Geoffrey Perkins, no slouch himself as a writer or performer. And although it only runs for 47 minutes, there’s so much packed in that it seems to be longer.

It’s a pity that there’s no special features or additional footage, which means that whilst this is a treat, it’s a very short one. But given the quality of the programme it’s certainly something I have no hesitation in recommending. A comic gem, it’s a joy from beginning to end.

Norbert Smith: A Life is released by Simply Media on the 16th of July 2018. It can be ordered directly from Simply here. Quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

Alan Bleasdale Presents: Self Catering

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A plane crash leaves five survivors stranded on a desert island. It’s a paradise – or would be if it wasn’t for the absence of food. As the deeply mismatched quintet consider their options, they decide to adopt the names of their favourite film stars ….

Another entry in the short-lived 1994 C4 anthology series Alan Bleasdale Presents, Self Catering chugs along very agreeably thanks to the number of excellent lines contained within Andrew Cullen’s script. The ninety minute screenplay is packed with quotable moments, such as this reaction from the narcissistically self-obsessed Marilyn (Jane Horrocks) to the prospect of having to become a forager. “We’re not hunter/gatherers anymore, we’re shoppers. My idea of a marathon is walking from Boots to C&A, realising I’ve forgotten the deodorant and having to walk back to Boots”.

In addition to Marilyn (who has adopted the name of Marilyn Monroe), we also have a movie buff who has decided he’d like to be Henry Fonda (John Gordon Sinclair), the womanising Clint Eastwood (Andrew Schofield), the acerbic Joan Crawford (Noreen Kershaw) and the unconscious (although she wakes up eventually) Meryl Streep (Jennifer Ehle).

If Cullen’s script is good – creating a group of hopelessly incompatible people (Marilyn detests heavy lifting or indeed any sort of work, Clint can’t keep his eyes off all the females, Joan loathes Marilyn, Henry is a film obsessed bore, etc) – then the actors take the material they’ve been given and run with it.

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Jane Horrocks is a total treat as Marilyn as is Noreen Kershaw as the foul-mouthed Joan. All three females find themselves caught up in an unlikely love-quadrangle with Clint (Joan at one point telling him that he’s “got a great body. But you’ve got a sick mind. But you’ve got a great body”).

It’s hard to imagine any better than John Gordon Sinclair in the role of the deeply pernickety Henry. “Does no-one like Henry Fonda these days? Rocky, Rambo, Robocop. They are nothing compared to Henry Fonda”.

I also love Henry’s doom-laden pronouncement from the opening few minutes. After considering the unconscious Meryl, who appears to be dead, he declares that they shouldn’t bury her too deep. With the only food available being the limited supplies on the plane, pretty soon they’re going to have to tuck into human flesh. It gives a new spin to the title Self Catering.

Robin Lefevre would later direct Alan Bleasdale’s Jake’s Progress (he had also acted in Requiem Apache) whilst Andrew Schofield had earlier prominently featured in G.B.H as well as Requiem Apache, suggesting that Bleasdale liked to work with a core group of creatives on a regular basis.

Jennifer Ehle (who would also appear in another Alan Bleasdale Presents, Pleasure) has the hardest role, since Meryl (who wasn’t even granted the ability to re-christen herself – Henry chose the name Meryl Streep since he liked the actress) is insensible for the first half of the story. After Meryl wanders off and then wanders back, it does allow John Gordon Sinclair the chance to riff in an amusing manner (wondering if the approaching figure might be an android!)

But once Meryl does regain consciousness, she makes up for lost time by indulging in flings with first Clint, then Joan (who promises to teach her about the birds and the birds) before moving on to the voluble, if deeply sexually repressed, Henry. As she slowly unzips his trousers, she asks him if he minds. He responds that he has “the gravest doubts on the subject, by I intend to crush them”. This, like many of his other utterances, derives from one of his favourite films.

Although Self Catering is played as a comedy, it’s sometimes a rather dark one. Both Clint and Marilyn venture, at different times, into the wrecked cockpit. Moving their way through the dead bodies, Marilyn (to the strains of Elvis Costello’s I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down) amuses herself by taking a selfie, whilst Clint is more interested in the contents of a ladies blouse.

Clint’s later madness (he elects to wall himself off from the others) and Henry’s bizarre dreams are some of the later highlights. Lacking a straightforward narrative, Self Catering is more of a collection of character set-pieces with an open-ended conclusion. This isn’t really a problem though – since the cast are firing on all comic cylinders it’s another DVD from the series which is well worth your time.

Alan Bleasdale Presents: Self Catering is released by Simply Media on the 4th of June 2018, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).