The Jewel In The Crown, Southall, Middx by Johnny Speight (1985, unscreened pilot)

jewel.jpg

It’s fair to say that Johnny Speight remains a rather controversial figure, more than twenty years after his death.  The news that the recently established UK streaming service BritBox will not carry Till Death Us Do Part has brought his name to the fore once again. Although this, to be honest, is a bit of a non-story. At present, the list of archive television from the sixties, seventies and eighties not on BritBox dwarfs the small amount which is …

With Till Death, the argument (a pretty convincing one) has always been that whilst Alf Garnett often espouses bigoted and racist opinions, the series – and the other regular characters – are laughing at him, not with him.  This defence was also (less convincingly) used for Speight’s LWT sitcom Curry and Chips, in which Spike Milligan (browned up as Paki Paddy) joined his old friend Eric Sykes for a short lived series which was mired in controversary right from the start.

Milligan clearly enjoyed browning up as he later played Mr Van Gogh, an illegal Pakistani immigrant, in The Melting Pot which was written by Milligan and Neil Shand.  Only the pilot was transmitted, the remaining six episodes have remained locked up in the BBC’s vaults for over forty years.

Given all this, what were the chances that a mid eighties BBC pilot featuring Sykes and Milligan (once again browned up) and written by Speight would prove to be a roaring success? Clearly very slim ….

Watching The Jewel In The Crown now, it’s interesting for many reasons – not least the fact that it’s precisely the sort of programming which alternative comedy was supposed to have killed off.  Of course, the notion that alternative comedy was always some sort of positive cleansing force has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Not all trad comedy was bad, not all alternative comedy was good.

Anybody looking to claim that The Jewel In The Crown is a satire on racism will have their work cut out for them. In the first few minutes Spike explains to Eric why he’s opened a crummy café whilst caked in brownface. “All those Pakistanis come over here and steal our jobs, right? Well, I’ve opened up a Pakistani restaurant and I’ve blacked myself up every night and I steal some of their bloody jobs”. Eric looks perplexed but doesn’t issue a challenge, so the point is allowed to stand.

The thirty five minutes aren’t without some merit though.  Even allowing for the fact that Spike’s Irish accent comes and goes at will, Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes are always worth watching (even if it’s slightly sad that they didn’t seem to have any issue with Speight’s script).

The fact that they’re playing versions of themselves is also interesting (there’s a gentle dig from Spike about the fact that Eric’s spent twenty years making the sitcom I Love Hattie). There might have been some merit in developing this theme had the pilot by some miracle generated a series. And Josephine Tewson and Keith Smith (an old colleague of Spike from his Q days) both add a little touch of quality, even if they can’t do anything with the script either.

I haven’t been able to source a great deal of info about this pilot, save for the usual rumblings that it was never broadcast due to “political correctness”. It’s probably more to do with the fact that it was horribly misjudged and not really very funny.  As a curio it’s certainly worth a look, but it’s hard to see it as any sort of missed opportunity.

The Good Life – Silly, but it’s fun (26th December 1977)

Unsurprisingly, the message of Silly, but it’s fun is that you don’t have to spend a fortune in order to have an enjoyable Christmas – all you need is the company of good (no pun intended) friends.

The Goods, of course, have no other choice than to economise (Tom scavenging a Christmas tree – or at least part of it – from the greengrocers, Barbara using her craft skills to make a yule log with a rather substantial Robin). But on the plus side, it does mean that this year’s Christmas has only cost them fifteen pence!

But next door, commercialism is rampant – with Margo railing against tradesmen. David Battley is the tradesman in question, offering a wonderfully phlegmatic performance which was something of his trademark (a similar turn in The Beiderbecke Tapes immediately springs to mind).

Margo’s unhappy that her tree – part of her Christmas delivery – is slightly under the required height, so she decides that everything will have to go back (it’s all or nothing for her). Given that it’s Christmas Eve this seems a little reckless. I know that the seventies was another era, but surely nobody would have been expecting another delivery on Christmas Day? And yet, this is the crux of the story.

Suspension of disbelief also has to come into play when pondering the question as to why Margo’s left it so late to take delivery of all her Christmas provisions – not only the tree, but the food, drink and decorations. A severe lack of forward planning?

The upshot is that when no fresh delivery is forthcoming, she’s forced to ring up all her friends and fob them off from coming around (claiming that Jerry has chickenpox and therefore is out of bounds for the duration). Jerry’s “political” chickenpox cheers him up, as he – naturally enough – wasn’t looking forward to spending yet another Christmas with all their friends, mouthing the same pointless trivialities at the same round of endless parties.

I daresay his wish (which came true) to simply have a quiet Christmas at home would have struck a chord with many ….

So Margo and Jerry spend Christmas Day with Tom and Barbara. It may just have been the especially potent peapod burgundy, but Jerry does get rather frisky with Barbara (although you can’t really blame him). The same sort of sexual tension doesn’t crackle with Tom and Margo (the mind boggles at the thought of that) but they do share a rather intimate scene in the privacy of the kitchen – although this is more about Tom forcing Margo to unbend a little, and embrace their silly Christmas revels.

It’s rather touching that Margo confesses that she’d like to, but simply doesn’t know how. But it doesn’t take long before she’s completely warmed up and throwing herself into all the party games with gusto.

Some sitcom Christmas specials, especially from the eighties onwards, tended to offer something more expansive than their usual fare. Silly, but it’s fun revels in the fact that nothing much happens except that the Goods and the Leadbetters have a jolly enjoyable Christmas day. This embrace of simple pleasures might be one of the reasons why the episode always seems to strike a pleasing chord whenever it makes another Christmas appearance.

 

Tony Hancock (12 May 1924 – 25 June 1968)

608e273e4a0ec5b4ee1de9b0c9599a3b.jpg

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Tony Hancock’s death. This has generated a crop of newspaper and magazine articles, some – unsurprisingly – focussing on his sad demise.

The essential beats of the story should be familiar to most – the way his decision to gradually divest himself of all his comedy associates (first Kenneth Williams, then Sid James and finally Galton and Simpson) sparked a slow but inevitable decline. Spike Milligan’s famous quote (“he shut the door on all the people he knew, and then he shut the door on himself”) seemingly provides the final word.

And yet … this has always seemed to be not quite the whole picture. For one thing, it’s hard to argue against Hancock’s assertion that his comic character needed to grow and change. Sir Peter Hall (speaking in the Heroes of Comedy programme on Hancock) labelled the Lad as a product of the fifties (comparing him to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim). If so, then carrying this persona unchanged throughout the next decade simply wouldn’t have worked.

The assumption seems to be that Galton and Simpson could just have continued churning out comedy classic after comedy classic for Hancock, but how many more stories were there left to tell? Possibly a move into a regular film career would have been best. It’s well known that Hancock grew to dislike and fear the pressure of the television studio environment – not least due to the problem of having to learn so many lines. Whilst The Government Inspector (bafflingly, still not available on DVD) suggests that – like Max Wall – he could have pursued a dramatic career.

It’s all what ifs of course, but the notion that if only Tony had stuck with the old team everything would have been fine does seem a little flawed. For those who want to dig into the story deeper, there are a number of books available (some much more lurid than others). John Fisher’s biography is by far the best – an unashamed fan and admirer, he nevertheless didn’t shy away from the darker moments. But he also made the observation (which few others have) that Hancock’s life, post Galton & Simpson, wasn’t all downhill. During the later years there were still high spots to be cherished.

But even when the details of Hancock’s final years have been picked apart for the umpteenth time, we still have most of his best work available to enjoy. And this should always be Tony’s enduring legacy.

For any newcomers, a few suggestions to get started.

The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham

These two television episodes, from his final BBC series, were later re-recorded for an LP release and it’s these audio re-recordings (released and re-released numerous times over the years) which are my preferred versions. Slightly tighter and better performed than the television originals (plus The Radio Ham has a little extra value – “If I’d had me key I wouldn’t have knocked on the door, would I?”) they’re an excellent introduction to the world of Tony Hancock.

The Last Bus Home

One of the later radio HHH‘s with the core team of Tony, Sid and Bill, this is simply a joy. Like Sunday Afternoon At Home, it makes a virtue out of the fact that very little happens (they wait for the bus, they can’t get on the bus, they have to walk home). But there’s still so much to enjoy – especially Tony and Sid’s punch-up (“at least I know where I stand”). The way that Sid dissolves into giggles after Bill announces that the bus is finally coming is a lovely unscripted moment.

The Missing Page

An obvious television HHH choice, but that’s because it’s very, very good. Tony and Sid work beautifully together and if the plot doesn’t quite hold water, with so many wonderful lines (not to mention Tony’s beautifully performed library mime act) I’m not complaining.

th

Are You Being Served?

served.jpg

Are You Being Served? is a series I’ve never added to my DVD collection – mainly because the R2 sounded a little unappealing (certain episodes used shorter edits prepared by David Croft for a nineties repeat season) and in the past I didn’t have a R1 compatible player, so the uncut American release was out of reach.

Which meant that I’ve come to the recent Gold repeats pretty fresh and – so far – AYBS? has proved to be a more than pleasant surprise. Of course, it’s early days yet (I’m currently on series three) and there will no doubt come a point – as happens with most Croft/Perry and Croft/Lloyd sitcoms – where the show starts to run out of steam.

Often it’s cast changes which seem to signal the beginning of the end. Dad’s Army was never the same after James Beck’s death, although it’s true that his absence wasn’t the only reason why the post Beck episodes lacked a little spark. On the other hand, the departure of Simon Cadell from Hi-De-Hi! was a major tipping point. When Jeffrey Fairbrother was replaced by someone more streetwise and less vulnerable it was a blow which the series never recovered from.

I’m expecting the post Trevor Bannister years to be a little tricky and I can’t say I’m looking forward to the introduction of Old Mr Grace. Young Mr Grace (Harold Blewett) was always a charming character, but Old Mr Grace (Kenneth Waller) was just a nasty type.

But one piece of replacement casting which I think did work was that of Arthur English stepping in for Larry Martyn (as the general handyman/dogsbody character). Martyn’s Mr Mash stands out during the early series, mainly because Martyn is playing much broader than the others (had he appeared during the later run this might not have been such a problem). Another issue with Mash is that Martyn’s clearly been made up to play older, which didn’t work very well. So the later hiring of a more mature actor (English) made sense.

If the Gold repeats continue, then I await with interest the numerous replacements for Mr Grainger, none of whom lasted very long.

The innuendo of AYBS? started fairly mildly, although you can see that series by series things are getting broader. One such barometer is Mrs Slocombe’s pussy, whose misadventures become much more suggestive over time ….

Apart from the increasing lashings of sexual innuendo, highlights so far have included Camping In (S01E04). There’s something rather charming about the way that the members of staff – forced as they are to sleep in the store overnight – reminisce about the good old days of WW2 and engage in a spot of Blitz-era spirt with a good old singalong. This one also ties the programme to another specific moment in British history – namely the early seventies when strikes and power shortages were increasingly common (other episodes also make capital out of this).

Several episodes focus on work/office politics in a way that’s still highly recognisable today. How the others react unfavourably to Captain Peacock being rewarded for twenty years loyal service (with the key to the executive washroom) will no doubt strike a chord with many. The travails of Coffee Morning (S02E02) is another one which seems just as relevant today as it did then. Stores like Grace Brothers might be long gone, but companies who react unfavourably whenever workers elect to nip off for a tea break or a visit to the toilet are still very much with us ….

The last word should be left to Mrs Slocombe.

It’s a wonder I’m here at all, you know. My pussy got soaking wet. I had to dry it out in front of the fire before I left!

The Rag Trade – Christmas Box

rag 01

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.

rag 02

dinnerladies – Christmas

dinner 01

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.

dinner 02.jpg

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.

dinner 03.jpg

Only Fools and Horses – Big Brother

fools

As is well known, Only Fools and Horses took a little time to establish itself as a comedy favourite.  Series one, originally broadcast in 1981, was politely received but it didn’t seem to spark a great deal of interest amongst either the critics or the audience.   This may have been something to do with the Minder effect (Del-Boy Trotter and Arthur Daley trod similar paths to begin with).

But revisiting the early episodes, it’s plain that right from the start all the pieces were in place.  Episode one, Big Brother (8th September 1981) is a good example of this.  As an establishing episode it’s not surprising that it concentrates on the three regulars – Del (David Jason), Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and Grandad (Lennard Pearce).  Joyce the Barmaid (Peta Barnard) gets a few reaction shots and we encounter Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) for the first time, but John Sullivan’s main intention here is to set up the relationship between Del and Rodney.

Familial discord has always been a fruitful source of sitcom material, possibly best exemplified by Steptoe and Son.  Is it fanciful to draw parallels between Big Brother and the original Steptoe pilot, The Offer?  Both see the youngest member of the family desperate to break free from their home environment (although neither are eventually able to do so).  The tone here is quite different though – Harold Steptoe is crushed by his failure to escape from his father’s clutches whilst Rodney and Del, for all their bickering, are happy to be reconciled at the end.

Younger brother Rodney has had a lifetime chafing about how he always gets the short end of the stick, but Del has an instant comeback.

Oh I embarrass you do I? You’ve got room to talk. You have been nothing but an embarrassment to me from the moment you was born. You couldn’t be like any other brother could you, eh, and come along a couple of years later after me. Oh no, not you, you had to wait 13 years. So while all the other Mods were having punch-ups down at Southend and going to the Who concerts, I was at home baby-sitting! I could never get your oystermilk stains out of me Ben Shermans – I used to find rusks in me Hush Puppies.

So Del, following the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father has been in loco parentis since Rodney was a young child. But now, at the age of twenty three, Rodney wants a better future than selling hankies from a suitcase in Oxford Street. Del can’t understand this – to him wheeling and dealing is his lifeblood. It’s a just a pity that he’s so bad at it. This is clear right from the start and it’s his inability to spot a dodgy deal (one-legged turkeys, attaché cases which don’t open) which make him just as a big a victim as his brother. But Del, with his lethal blend of pride and self-assurance, doesn’t realise this.

Tonally, it’s plain that this is very early days. Del is less than gallant when referring to Joycie whilst Trigger carries a faint air of menace. The reason for his nickname (it’s not that he carries a gun, it’s because he looks like a horse) has become a familiar archive clip, although since Del and Trigger have been friends since childhood, quite why Rodney had to ask this question is (in the Only Fools universe) a mystery.  In the real world it’s probable that Sullivan had yet to consider the likes of Trigger and Boycie as regular characters – so their backstories were something that could be sorted later.

Grandad is somewhat cast in the Albert Steptoe role. Fairly housebound and dependent on the others, he’s content to remain a passive observer. But whether it’s mulling over the qualities of Sidney Potter (an actor who always got the black roles), the inability of their computerised chess machine to play a good game of draughts or complaining that Rodney’s bought him a cheeseburger instead of an emperor burger, Lennard Pearce is nothing less than a delight.

Rodney’s plan to run away to Hong Kong doesn’t pan out (since he didn’t take his passport he wasn’t even able to leave the country). Del knew this, but allowed him to wax lyrical about the imagined foreign sights he’d experienced anyway. A little cruel? Not really and by the times the credits roll, the status quo has been restablished as the brothers are reconcilled.

That’s how sitcoms tend to operate, but Only Fools was different.  As the years wore on the characters would develop and grow (whereas most sitcom characters tend to exist in a form of stasis). Big Brother was therefore an important first building block as it gave both Del and Rodney clear backstories and a firm foundation to develop future stories.