Sykes At Christmas (22nd December 1977)

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Sykes isn’t necessarily the sort of sitcom you’d imagine would delight in breaking through the fourth wall – but this Christmas edition does just that. We open with Eric and Hattie addressing the viewers at home (which helps to make it plain that this won’t be a run of the mill show) before the action cross-fades back to last year’s Christmas.

We find a distinct lack of Christmas decorations (and indeed cheer). Eric does encourage Hattie to take a swig of wine, but from her expression it’s more of a chore than a pleasure.  Corky briefly pops around but doesn’t linger – which leaves Eric to wonder where the magic of Christmas has gone. And indeed, the magic of television ….

This is a good reminder that people complaining about the current state of television isn’t a new phenomenon.  Eric hankers for the good old days – a single channel with Muffin the Mule, the potter’s wheel and Sylvia Peters. She’s very much a name from the past, but I daresay the majority of the audience watching at the time would still have fondly remembered her. Even though her television heyday was already twenty years in the past.

Then both Eric and Hattie fall asleep (yes, I know, a little Christmas indulgence is required) and a good fairy (a dressed up Hattie achieved via the wonder of CSO) pops up and grants Eric a wish. He wishes for Sylvia and she duly appears.

If Sykes had been a modern sitcom, then no doubt there would have been plenty of mileage to be found in examining the character of the socially stunted Eric – a man whose one true love was a television favourite from a past decade.  This angle isn’t a feature of this seventies sitcom of course, instead we can either view Eric’s awkward attempt to kiss Sylvia as rather charming (or rather creepy, depending on your point of view).

Even when he invites her up to his bedroom you know that no funny business (of a sexual type, anyway) will be going on – despite what Hattie, listening aghast on the other side of the door, might think.  The reason for him taking her upstairs is delightfully odd – he’s got a cardboard cut out television set and asks her to sit behind it, reading 1950’s news headlines ….

I like the way that when Sylvia begins by mentioning Mr Callaghan, Eric immediately stops her – he wants the comfort and security generated by names from the past, the unpleasant present isn’t required.  The ironic implication that old television can be used as a security blanket isn’t lost on me – although I don’t watch archive tv just for nostalgia purposes (honest).  Still, it was amusing to see an archive television programme reach back even further back in time to a previous “golden age”.

Hattie also gets a wish (from a fairy Eric) but her desire for Paul Newman goes awry – Jimmy Edwards in a tennis outfit doesn’t quite cut the mustard for her.  The arrival of Edwards delights the studio audience, although he doesn’t have a great deal of screentime.

The conclusion – Sylvia Peters is at a party next door, but Eric refuses to believe it (thereby missing the chance to really meet his heroine) – seems almost as unreal as the rest of the episode.  Are we still sleeping or has Eric finally woken up?

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

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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 a trademark of his (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? Or maybe back in the seventies, Christmas really did begin on Christmas Eve and not – as it seems today – in late November ….

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 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. The way it’s content to embrace the joy of simple pleasures may be one of the reasons why this episode always seems to strike a pleasing chord whenever it makes a Christmas appearance.

 

Tony Hancock (12 May 1924 – 25 June 1968)

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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.

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Are You Being Served?

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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

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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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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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Only Fools and Horses – Big Brother

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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.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two. Simply Media DVD Review

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Written by Ronald Chesney and Roland Wolfe, The Rag Trade ran for three series on the BBC during 1961 and 1963 (it was later revived for two runs during the 1970s on LWT, which featured remakes of some of the original BBC scripts).

Set in a clothing workshop called Fenners Fashions, the nominal head of the business, Harold Fenner (Peter Jones), forever finds himself at the mercy of his bolshy workforce – most notably shop steward Paddy Fleming (Miriam Karlin) who’s apt to shout “everybody out!” at the drop of a hat.

Stuck in the middle between management and the workforce is the long-suffering foreman Reg Turner (Reg Varney) whilst the likes of Carole (Sheila Hancock), Shirley (Barbara Windsor), Lily (Esma Cannon) and Gloria (Wanda Ventham) are some of the more prominent members of the motley workforce.

It’s fair to say that the works of Chesney and Wolfe are an acquired taste.  I’m rather fond of Meet the Wife but rather less so of On The Buses and their later 1970s ITV sitcoms.  True, the likes of Don’t Drink The Water and Yus My Dear have a certain grisly interest but you’d be hard pushed to claim they were forgotten classics (or any good).

The original Rag Trade is sharper though, possibly because it occurred earlier in their career, although the high quality cast helps too.  Peter Jones, the original and best Voice of the Book from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, splutters with splendid comic timing throughout.

He’s matched by Miriam Karlin all the way whilst Barbara Windsor (who missed out series two but returned for series three, which sadly no longer exists), Wanda Ventham (who appeared in the second series only) and Sheila Hancock (who appears in both of the series here) all offer strong support. Hancock, as the perpetually vague Carole, is the recipient of some killer lines.

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Sheila Hancock & Reg Varney

Here’s what’s contained across the four discs.

Series 1, Disc 1

1: The French Fashions
2: Christmas Box
3: The Baby
4: Getting Married

Series 1, Disc 2

5: Early Start
6: Unhappy Customer
7: Doctor’s Orders
8: The Sample

Series 2, Disc 1

1: The Thief
2: The Dog
3: Locked In
4: The Flat
5: The Client
6: Stay-In Strike

Series 2, Disc 2

7: Safety Precaution
8: Stainproofer
9: Doctor
10: Barber’s Shop
11: The Bank Manager

The series does pretty well for guest stars, with the likes of Frank Thornton, Terry Scott, Colin Douglas, Patrick Cargill, June Whitfield, Lynda Baron, Fabia Drake, Ronnie Barker and Hugh Paddick all making appearances.

Another familiar face – Peter Gilmore (The Onedin Line) – pops up in The French Fashions. Sporting an interesting American accent, he appears in the middle of a frenetic episode which sees Carole model a rock-hard pair of slacks for Gilmore’s character (it would take too to explain why) whilst the workforce later masquerades as French workers in order to snag a lucrative sales contract. None of this is terribly subtle, but there’s some typically deft comedic performances on display (Esma Cannon, as ever, effortlessly manages to steal every scene she appears in).

Another series one show – Unhappy Customer – sees “everybody out” as the girls go on strike (Mr Fenner’s more than a little unhappy that they’re eating in the workshop, but won’t agree to build a canteen). But then he has a change of heart ….

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Reg Varney & Peter Jones

Considering that he’s supposed to be a penny-pincher, his solution – an automatic food dispenser (“anything you like. Tea, coffee, snacks”) – is a handsome gesture but Paddy’s not happy. This sort of automation might mean that their ten minute tea-break would actually only last ten minutes, rather than the ninety minutes it currently does. So their minds turn to sabotage ….

Highlights from series two include the second episode, The Dog. The pet in question belongs to Lily who brings him to work (she’s concerned about his health, so smuggles him in under Mr Fenner’s nose). This is classic Rag Trade – the workers conspiring against the hapless Fenner – enlivened by the always entertaining Esma Cannon and a lovely guest turn from the elegant Patrick Cargill.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is a straight repress of the previously released editions by DD, which means that series one is still missing two episodes (series two is as complete as it can be – two of the thirteen episodes no longer exist).

Picture quality is variable (the opening episode of series two is probably the worst, a pretty low quality telerecording). Things are much better elsewhere, although some episodes do feature occasional brief jumps when the picture and soundtrack slips out of sync for a second (a common issue with telerecordings).

The Rag Trade stands up very well. It’s certainly one of the strongest sitcoms from the Chesney/Wolfe partnership, thanks not only to the first-rate cast but also due to the way that it comedically shines a light on British labour relations during the early sixties. Whilst it’s exaggerated for comic effect, there’s more than a kernel of truth in the way that management were often at the mercy of their workers (today, the pendulum has firmly swung the other way).

A cracking little sitcom, it’s well worth your time.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered direct from Simply here.

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Esma Cannon & Reg Varney

Sykes – Christmas Party

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Running during the sixties and seventies, Sykes starred Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques as identical(!) twins Eric and Hattie.  This episode, Christmas Party, was broadcast in December 1975 and finds them enjoying a touch of Christmas hospitality at Corky’s house (the wonderful Deryck Guyler, on fine form as ever).

The way that Eric and Hattie behave to their host highlights how different they are.  Eric, once they’ve finished eating, is keen to make their excuses and leave but Hattie, knowing how this would hurt Corky’s feelings, insists they stay for a while.  It’s clear that Eric’s more than a little cheesed off and Corky’s relatives don’t help to lighten his mood.  There’s the distinctly odd Clara (Sheila Steafel), who never seems to speak, as well as an annoying child, Marlon (Nicholas Drake), who delights in taunting Eric.

Eric Sykes’ writing style has always intrigued me.  Although he had a long association with Spike Milligan (Sykes pitched in during the 1950’s with Goon Show scripts to help ease Milligan’s workload) his own shows were always quite conventional in their tone and outlook.

So Sykes, unlike Milligan, was never an experimental comedian, which means that his work can sometimes be predictable, although – as with Christmas Party – there’s often a twist or two.  One example of using a well-worn gag can be seen when Marlon offers Eric his telescope.  You know (and the studio audience seem clued in as well) that in a minute his eye is going to be covered in black bootpolish – and so it is.  Was it the sheer predictability which appealed to Sykes?  Although his double-take means that he makes the most of it.

With most of the “action” taking place in Corky’s sitting room, there’s a definite feeling of being trapped – certainly most of the audience would probably sympathise with Eric’s sense of despair (he’d much sooner be back at home with his feet up, rather than listening to Clara plonk away on the piano).

Later, there’s a nice reversal of our expectations after Corky demonstrates his favourite card trick.  Eric doesn’t want to play along (he complains that Corky does the same one every year) and explains to Hattie that it’s just so obvious – every card in the deck is the Ace of Spades, so it’s no surprise when Corky’s confederate displays the same card.  Although he, yet again, picks the Ace of Spades he mischievously tells Corky that it was the Ten of Hearts, only for Clara to show him the Ten of Hearts!  Possibly this was the reason why Sykes had crafted the earlier, obvious, gags like the telescope – that way it makes the unbelievable card reveal more of a surprise.

The quick arrival and departure of Jimmy (Jeremy Gagan), a personable pickpocket, seems to provide an explanation as to where all their personal belongings (watches, wallets, etc) have gone, but once again there’s a twist in the tale.

Christmas Party chugs along very nicely thanks to the talents of Sykes, Jacques, Guyler and the guest cast, especially Steafel.

I Didn’t Know You Cared – Second Sight DVD Review

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Peter Tinniswood (1936 – 2003) first came to prominence in the 1960’s, collaborating with David Nobbs on The Frost Report and also penning Lance at Large, a sitcom built around the talents of Lance Percival.  He also pursued a career as a novelist and two of his books – A Touch of Daniel (1971) and I Didn’t Know You Cared (1973) – would form the basis of his most enduring television creation.

The television version of I Didn’t You Know Cared, adapted loosely by Tinniswood from his novels, ran for four series between 1975 and 1979 (a third novel, Except You’re A Bird, was published in 1976).  Although the series was popular at the time, it sadly doesn’t have a very high profile these days.  Some maintain this is because of its strong Northern atmosphere, but I’m not sure this is so – after all, it bears some similarities to Last of the Summer Wine, and that’s a series which has always had broad appeal.

The comparison with LOTSW is a fair one (and not least because John Comer appeared in both series).  They both depict worlds where married life is a constant battle, with neither side giving any quarter.  In I Didn’t Know You Cared it’s the formidable Annie Brandon (Liz Smith) who rules the roost with considerable relish.

The opening episode, Cause for Celebration, sees Uncle Mort (Robin Bailey) bury his wife Edna (who had the bad luck to fall off a trolleybus onto her head).  Mort doesn’t exactly seem heartbroken – fretting that because the funeral’s taking so long he’s going to miss the football results – but later does admit that he’ll miss her.  “She was a dab hand at plumbing you know. God knows who’s going to paint the outside of the house now she’s dead.”  But every cloud has a silver lining and he’s happy that from now on he’ll be able to wear his cap at the dinner-table.

Bailey tended to play upper-class most of the time, so the earthy Northerner Mort was something of a departure for him.  But he’s never less than excellent and thanks to Tinniswood’s pithy dialogue he’s always got plenty of good material to work with.

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Mort sneaks away from the funeral party with his brother-in-law Les (John Comer).  If Mort is starting to relish his new found freedom, then spare a thought for Les, shortly due to celebrate twenty five years of marriage to Annie.  She wants a second honeymoon, whilst Les doesn’t seem to have recovered from the first.  As Mort and Les seek refuge and a nice cup of tea in the comfortable hut at Mort’s allotment (Mort grows weeds, explaining to Les that they’re much better than sprouts) they muse over the mysteries of marriage.  Les believes that having to marry a woman is where the trouble starts – if he could have chosen anyone, he’d have picked King George VI!  They’re joined by Les’ son Carter (Stephen Rea), and after a few moments Mort decides that “t’fly in ointment is the human reproduction system.”

How much better would it be, Mort says, if a woman laid an egg and sat on it for nine months.  “Just think, she’d be stuck in t’house for nine months, sat on her egg. She’d have no excuse for coming to t’pub with you then.”  Carter sees a flaw in this admirable idea though – why couldn’t she put the egg in the oven for a bit?  After considering this, Mort decides that it wouldn’t work, not with the way that gas pressure is like these days.  “You couldn’t rely on it. Just think what would happen. You’d put your oven on at regulo 2, you’d stick you egg in it, you’d nip out for a couple of gills. When you come back you find t’gas pressure’s gone up and your potential son and heir’s turned into a bloody omelette.”

Alas, their peace and quiet doesn’t last for long as Annie tracks them down.  She depresses Mort by telling him that he’s going to come and live with her and Les (so he won’t be sneaking down to the pub every night and doing exactly what he pleases).  Carter also has the sense that the walls are closing in on him after he’s forced to stop prevaricating and propose to Pat (Anita Carey).  Well I say propose, but his mumbled words fall a little short of that – no matter to Pat though, she’s now steaming full ahead and starts by asking him if he’d like a son or a colour television first …

In the space of thirty minutes Tinniswood has set everything up nicely – Annie and Les, Carter and Pat, plus Uncle Mort.  Not to mention Uncle Staveley (Bert Palmer) hovering in the background, constantly asking “pardon?”

During the first series we see the preparations for Carter and Pat’s marriage.  Mort and Les, old hands in the marriage game, are keen to give him the benefit of their experience (they both think it’s a very bad move). Unsurprisingly Pat don’t find this terribly helpful. By series two they’ve tied the knot, although Carter’s finding it rather difficult to adjust to married life.  Both Rea and Carey left after the second series, so Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding took over the roles for the final two series (Leslie Saroney replaced Bert Palmer as Uncle Stavely for the fourth and final series).

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The endless conflict between men and women is explored in the series two episode A Woman’s Work. Mort is depressed at having to spend all day trapped in the house with only Annie and Pat for company. He eyes Les and Carter with envy – they’ll soon be setting off to the factory for a day of filth and squalor (he tells them they don’t know how lucky they are!)

Familiar Tinniswood tropes come to the fore – not only do the women do all the housework (which goes without saying) but they also deal with the household maintenance as a matter of course. Annie recalls the problem they had with the guttering, which wasn’t helped by the fact she was stuck on the roof for six hours after Les took the ladder away. He tells her there was a good reason – he had to repair a hole in the snooker club roof – and he doesn’t seem to appreciate that she may have had different priorities.

Carter and Pat are now married and Pat is eyeing their new home. Anita Carey continues to impress as Pat, an upwardly mobile woman who embraces the new. She’s very taken with the qualities of their potential new neighbours (mainly because of the gadgets on their cars) and is also keen to mould the reluctanct Carter into a new man. This isn’t going to be easy though ….

Mort’s reminisces of his married life are another of the episode’s highlights – especially the moment when he recalls how Edna would demand her conjugal rights every Saturday evening. “Oh ‘ell, I’d say. Can I keep me pyjama jacket on? Undiluted bloody agony.”

Paul Barber pops up in a couple of episodes, including this one, as Les and Carter’s factory colleague Louis St. John. The dialogue Barber has is a little awkward (for example, when asked if he had a good weekend he says that he “took the awd lady to t’witch doctors on Saturday, had a couple of missionaries for Sunday lunch”). Another familiar face lurking in the factory is John Salthouse as the impressively-named Rudyard Kettle. Salthouse would later play DI Galloway in The Bill.

Tinniswood’s dialogue remains endlessly quotable. In a later series two episode, You Should See Me Now, Annie recalls that the last time her husband took her out alone was the week after the Second World War ended. “We went to hotpot supper at Moffat Street tram sheds.” With just a single line Tinniswood is able to paint a very vivid picture.

Taking over roles played by someone else is never easy, but both Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding fit very nicely into the third series as the new Carter and Pat. The opening episode – Men at Work – develops the theme from A Woman’s Work. There we saw Mort going a little stir-crazy, trapped in the house all day, now matters are made even worse as he’s joined by Les and Carter, both of whom are out of work. They react to the spectre of unemployment in different ways – Carter is building a model battleship painfully slowly whilst Les becomes an efficient house-husband (Comer looking fetching in a pink pinny).

The fourth and final series opened with The Love Match. This sees the Brandons throw a posh dinner-partly at which Les mournfully notes that they must be having peas since there’s three forks on the table. Annie is in a much more positive mood though. “It must be years since I got dressed up in a long frock and squirted scent under me armpits.”  It must be said that Liz Smith does look rather, well rather …..

Other highlghts later in the series include Mort’s unexpected expressions of love (given all he’s previously said about the horrors of married life this is more than a little surprising). An especially strong episode is The Great Escape, which sees Pat tell Carter that she’s planning to spend two nights away on business. Poor Pat wants Carter to be absolutely incensed and jealous with rage, but the phelgmatic Carter is his usual calm self. There’s a darker tone to this one though, as Carter’s eyeing the voluptuous charms of Linda (Deidree Costello) even as he’s bidding Pat farewell. But when Pat is hospitalized shortly afterwards, a stricken Carter is forced to abandon his escape plans. Drinkel, sitting by the unconscious Pat’s bedside, plays the scene very well.

With uniformly strong performances from all of the main cast (especially Bailey, Comer and Smith) and sparkling dialogue from Peter Tinniswood, I Didn’t Know You Cared is an obscure sitcom gem.  But with writing and acting as good as this it deserves to be much better known.

I Didn’t Know You Cared is released by Second Sight on the 28th of November 2016.  RRP £24.99.

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People Just Do Nothing – Dazzler Media DVD Review

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The contents of this blog are a good indication that I prefer my television programmes to be old (and preferably in black and white!) but occasionally I do like to haul myself into the 21st Century.  One such trip to the modern world revolves around People Just Do Nothing, a BBC comedy series about a pirate radio station called Kurupt FM which launched in 2012.

The story of how People Just Do Nothing was created is not an uncommon one in the internet age.  It first surfaced in 2010 as a YouTube series called Wasteman TV, this caught the attention of the BBC who commissioned a pilot in 2012.  The pilot, along with the first series, aired on the IPlayer before receiving a terrestrial screening.  This is an increasingly common practice (Car Share, Class) and subsequent series of People Just Do Nothing followed the same route, debuting via the IPlayer first.

What’s really interesting is that none of the cast had ever acted or written anything before the YouTube series.  They carried over their improvised and collaborative working practices to the BBC series, although they also began to script the show beforehand (Steve Stamp, who is the drug-addled Steves, may play a relatively minor character but is a driving force behind the writing).  The mockumentary aspect of the show has led to inevitable comparisons with The Office, but I can also see parallels (although probably not intentional) with the forgotten Operation Good Guys (1997 – 2000), a mock fly-on-the-wall series which predated The Office, but is now all but forgotten (if Ricky Gervais and co hadn’t drawn some inspiration from it though, I’d be amazed).

When the mockumentary format is done well (as in Operation Good Guys and, of course, People Just Do Nothing) it’s a wonderful way of exposing the weaknesses and contradictions of the characters.  This is evident right from the start (in episode one, series one – Secret Location) as Grindah’s (Allan Mustafa) impressive façade is slowly whittled away piece by piece.  He’s the ultimate no-hoper, trapped in a world of delusion where he believes himself to be the main man of an influential pirate radio station.  But in reality the station’s reach is pitifully small and he’s also got problems with the neighbours – who don’t appreciate the noise.  He enlists the help of Chabuddy G (Asim Chaudhry) who agrees to soundproof their studio, that is if he can find enough egg-boxes.  Unsurprisingly, it’s a botched-job.

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The relationship between Grindah and DJ Beats (Hugo Chegwin), his loyal (albeit rather put-upon) right hand man is a key one. In the second episode, Angel’s Birthday, Beats has the chance of a job – at Tie One – and enlists Chabuddy’s help. Chabuddy tells him to grab the goat by the horns and then to penetrate the goat ….

Each episode is packed with killer lines and this one’s no different as Chabuddy admits that his homemade Polish Vodka has a few teething problems – literally, as people lose their teeth after drinking his corrosive brew.  Apart from Beats’ big chance at the tie shop, Grindah’s daughter Angel is celebrating her fifth birthday. Alas, he gives Chabuddy the job of organising the party and is shocked that all the chocolates have a rather phallic air. “Everything’s cock-related. It’s my little girl’s birthday birthday party and there’s cocks everywhere.”

Series two opens with Grindah and Beats on the up – listening figures are well into double figures. Grindah and his girlfriend Miche (Lily Brazier) are preparing for their daughter’s christening, but who is Grindah going to pick to be Angel’s godfather?  It’ll either be Beats or Decoy (Daniel Sylvester Woodford). Chegwin’s downcast face when he isn’t automatically chosen is a lovely comic moment as is the way he cheers up after Grindah tells him he’s reached the final.

Lily Brazier is so good as the self-obsessed Miche. She’s the recipient of many wonderful lines, one of my favourites comes from the first episode of series one where she claims that she’d be totally lost without Grindah – the last time he was away the television was stuck on Dave and she couldn’t change it. That sounds grim ….

By series three, Miche’s proposed marriage to Grindah causes ructions,  Chabuddy’s money-making schemes continue to misfire in spectacular fashion whilst Beats’ girlfriend Roche (Ruth Bratt) gives birth.

People Just Do Nothing‘s profile has slowly built over the last few years.  That they were nominated for a 2016 BAFTA (for best scripted comedy) is a good indication of how the series is moving into the mainstream (it lost to Peter Kay’s Car Share).  As the show has developed during the last few years it’s been able to develop and deepen the core characters – the excellent ensemble cast has responded by delivering nuanced performances of increasing subtlety.

People Just Do Nothing is fast becoming a classic sitcom.  Like all the best examples of this genre, it presents us with a group of characters forced together by circumstances (work, family, etc) and then chips away at their relationships bit by bit.  With a fourth series due to air next year there still seems to be plenty of scope left in the lives of the Kurupt FM crew.

Dazzler’s three disc set, like their Brian Pern release, has a generous selection of bonus features.  Nine episodes feature commentaries (all the episodes from the first two series) and there’s a package of deleted scenes and new features.  On average each of these mini-features lasts around five minutes or less, favourites include Chabuddy’s guided tour of Hounslow and the terrible moment when Steves gets lost in Wickes.  The full list is as follows –

Chabuddy Guide to Hounslow
Miche’s Miracles
Grindah’s Prison Stories
DJ Steves’ Alien Encounters
Lost In Wickes
Inspiration (Grindah & Beats)
Training
Parent Classes
Mural
Valentine’s Day Set
Eight Hour Set
‘Upcycling’
Baby Shower
Dad Advice
Sat Nav
Hartford House

People Just Do Nothing is released by Dazzler Media on the 7th of November 2016.  RRP £29.99.

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Meet the Wife – Simply Media DVD Review

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Meet the Wife made its debut in the third series of Comedy Playhouse, broadcast in December 1963. Comedy Playhouse had been created in 1961 as an outlet for the writing talents of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (following the abrupt termination of their partnership with Tony Hancock) but it quickly expanded to embrace other writers.  The beauty of the format was easy to understand – if something showed promise then it could be developed into a full series, if not then only half an hour had been wasted.

Created by Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe, Meet the Wife is concerned with the domestic trials and tribulations of Thora Blacklock (Thora Hird) and her much put-upon husband Fred (Freddie Frinton).  The Blacklocks are an ordinary working class couple.  Fred, a plumber, yearns for a quiet life but he never has the chance – thanks to his hectoring and snobbish wife Thora.

Chesney and Wolfe started their writing career on the radio, penning episodes of Life with the Lyons and Educating Archie.  By the time Meet with Wife started airing they’d already enjoyed great success with another BBC television series, The Rag Trade, and would continue to enjoy popular (if not critical) acclaim when they later moved over to ITV, with the likes of On the Buses, Romany Jones and Yus My Dear.  These other credits should give you an idea of what to expect with Meet the Wife.  It’s by no means subtle, but it is goodhearted (the Blacklocks might have a fractious relationship but there’s no doubt that deep-down they love each other).

Thora Hird (1911 – 2003) was already by this time a very experienced actress, although her status as a national treasure would lie in the decades ahead, especially during the eighties and nineties.  Born in Morecambe, Lancashire, she started her theatrical career early, making her stage debut when just eight weeks old.  A Rank contract player during the 1950’s, she racked up numerous credits during this period (albeit in mostly fairly undistinguished films).  But greater public recognition would come in the early 1960’s with two film roles – appearing alongside Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1960) and Alan Bates in A Kind of Loving (1962).  Her experience in the business had proved that she could hold her own with just about anybody and these film performances demonstrated that her talent for sketching vivid, memorable characters was already firmly in place.

Freddie Frinton (1909 – 1968) began his working career entertaining his colleagues at a Grimsby fish processing plant.  But, as the legend goes, he didn’t impress the management – who sacked him.  Frinton’s first legitimate success on the stage came with Dinner For One.  Although forgotten in Britain, this eighteen minute skit remains a New Year’s Eve staple in many European countries, such as Germany, thanks to a 1963 telerecording starring Frinton and May Warden.

Meet the Wife’s status in the public’s consciousness has no doubt been maintained by the fact that it was namechecked in the Beatles’ song Good Morning, Good Morning (“it’s time for tea and Meet the Wife”) but save for a handful of episodes on YouTube, the series itself has rather faded from view.  So Simply Media’s release is very welcome and whilst it’s hard to argue that it’s a neglected comedy classic, it certainly has its moments.

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The Comedy Playhouse pilot The Bed is essentially a two-hander between Thora and Fred (apart from Brian Oulton’s enthusiastic bed salesman). The Blacklocks are shortly due to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary and Thora decides that what they really need is a new bed. She gets her way (of course) by streamrollering poor Fred but their troubles aren’t over when they take delivery. Uncooperative lamps, quibbles about which side is the soft one, it’s all enough to drive Fred off to the spare room and the old bed. Chesney and Wolfe undercut these squabbles with a neat revelation which shows us (and Thora) just how much Fred loves his wife.

Fred’s desire to please Thora carries over into the first episode proper, Going Away. It’s a real time capsule of the period, taking us back to when a foreign holiday was pretty much a once in a lifetime experience. Thora desperately wants to go on a posh foreign holiday, mainly because of the bragging rights. Fred glumly tells her that they could probably afford a week in Blackpool but then shortly afterwards returns home with two tickets for an all-expenses paid trip to Majorca. He tells her that he’s had a win on the dogs, but it’s quickly revealed that he’s paying for it on the HP. Thora has a horror of being in debt, so Fred wisely keeps quiet about what he’s done. She finds out, of course, but isn’t angry, instead she’s touched that he would make such a sacrifice for her.

Night Out sees Thora and Fred getting ready for a swanky night out (at the Plumber’s Ball, or somesuch similar event). It’s interesting that as with Going Away, the durtation of the episode is concerned with their preparations, meaning that we never actually see them on holiday/at the dinner. This is a little surprising, as both scenarios offered numerous comic possibilities, but Meet the Wife is quite an enclosed series – whole episodes, like this one, can go by without any other actors appearing.

The first two discs contain the Comedy Playhouse pilot and all seven episodes from the first series. Since the survival rate for series two to five is very patchy, all those episodes (bar the two already discussed) can be found on disc three. The first existing episode from the second series, The Teenage Niece, sees Fred’s seventeen-year-old niece Doreen (Tracy Rogers) come to stay for a while. The generation gap has always been a fruitful generator of comedy and Doreen – with her modern ways – certainly shakes up Thora and Fred’s world. But everybody remains very tolerant – Doreen might regard her aunt and uncle as ancient, but she still loves them, whilst they seem quite calm when she turns up with her boyfriend in tow at 5 o’clock in the morning.

Of the remaining episodes, The Hotel is probably the strongest, since it has a simple, but effective, plotline (Thora and Fred take a trip to a posh hotel). Thora’s in her element – putting on her most genteel and refined voice – but there’s always a worry in the back of her mind that Fred’s common ways are going to embarrass her.

Picture-wise, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a series of this age. The episodes are derived from unrestored telerecordings, although they are all quite watchable with no major problems.

Like many programmes of this era it didn’t escape the archive purges of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  It’s long been assumed that seventeen episodes out of the thirty nine made now exist (as confirmed by Lost Shows), but  only fifteen were included on the DVD when it was released in October 2016 (Shopping and Brother Tom were the two omitted).  Shopping isn’t listed on the BBC’s archive database, so it’s possible that it only exists in private hands and therefore wasn’t accessible for this release.

Brother Tom should have been included, but was missed off in error.  Simply issued the following statement on the 23rd of November 2016 –

“Unfortunately due to an authoring error an episode was missed off the release of MEET THE WIFE.

 For your replacement, which has the error corrected, please contact us either by private message on Facebook, or by emailing hannah.page@simplymedia.tv with your order number and where your DVD was purchased from, along with an address to send the replacement to.

 Many thanks, and Simply Media apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

It’s no Hancock or Steptoe, but Meet the Wife is unpretentious and entertaining, thanks to the efforts of Thora Hird and Freddie Frinton.  It’s certainly pleasing to see it on DVD and also that the issue with the original pressing was attended to.

Meet the Wife was released by Simply Media on the 24th of October 2016.  RRP £29.99.

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Happy Ever After – Simply Media DVD Review

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Happy Ever After first surfaced as a one-off Comedy Playhouse episode in May 1974. Like many other series launched via Comedy Playhouse, including Meet the Wife, it would quickly develop into a fully fledged series.

Since series one of Happy Ever After followed just two months later, in July 1974, it’s clear that audience reaction wasn’t a factor – the BBC must have sensed that this was a format that had legs.  And so it proved, Happy Ever After ran for forty one episodes between 1974 and 1979 and then Terry & June (essentially the same series but with a few differences, which we’ll discuss later) chalked up sixty five episodes from 1979 to 1987.

Out of the two series, Terry & June – thanks to repeats and DVD releases – has by far the greatest profile.  But it’s a profile that’s not always been terribly positive.  Regarded by some as old-hat and embarrassing, T&J has often been cited as an example of all that’s bad and lazy about traditional sitcoms.  An over-reliance on unlikely occurrences and remarkable coincidences (later wonderfully parodied in Chance in a Million) and Terry Scott’s mugging to camera are some of the suggested reasons.  But whilst T&J did run out of steam, it also had more than its fair share of great comedy moments – as did Happy Ever After.

Created by John Chapman and Eric Merriman, Happy Ever After’s format is a simple one. Terry and June Fletcher are a middle-aged, happily married couple who have recently seen their grown-up children, Frank, Susan and Debbie, leave home.  But their hopes for a quiet life spent in each other’s company are rudely shattered when cranky Aunt Lucy (Beryl Cooke) and her mynah bird come to stay.

The format of the series would remain fairly constant.  Terry would hit upon a brilliant idea or become embroiled in events which would spiral out of his control, June would remain on the side-lines – ever patient – whilst Aunt Lucy would chip in with the odd comment.  When the series became Terry & June it carried on pretty much as before (except that Aunt Lucy had been written out).

The other change was that Terry and June’s surname was Fletcher in Happy Ever After but had become Medford in Terry & June.  This was because series creator John Chapman felt that the show had run its course by 1979.  The BBC disagreed, so a change of surname was enough to ensure that Chapman couldn’t claim the new series featured his characters, even if things carried on pretty much as before.

Although it’s difficult not to see both series as one entity, there’s a slightly different tone to Happy Ever After, especially to begin with.  It just feels a little bit more sharper (possibly not surprising since any format will eventually begin to lose its sparkle over the years) and the plots are tighter.  The presence of Aunt Lucy is also a major plus (the absence of a similar character in T&J was a shame).

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But whilst the writing is important, Happy Ever After stands or falls on the performances of the two leads. Terry Scott (1927 – 1994) had been a television star since the 1950’s, starting with Scott Free in 1957.  More success on the small screen would follow in the 1960’s – teaming up with Hugh Lloyd in Hugh and I and the bizarre-sounding (and sadly wiped) Gnomes of Dulwich.  Another series – Scott On … – would air between 1964 and 1974 (running to twenty four episodes).  He also turned up in a number of films, including several Carry Ons.

June Whitfield (b. 1925) is, like Scott, a British comedy legend, and her longevity has only helped to increase her stature.  She began as a supporting player, appearing opposite Peter Sellers in The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, Jimmy Edwards in The Many Faces of Jim and More Faces of Jim as well as Tony Hancock (most notably in The Blood Donor).  She first appeared with Terry Scott in Scott On … and like Scott would make a few appearances in the Carry On series (although they didn’t appear in the same films).  During the last few decades she’s become familiar to several new generations thanks to Absolutely Fabulous.

The pilot shows Terry and June adjusting to home life now that their children have gone.  Terry is remarkably boorish, pouring June a gin and reminding her that it always used to get her going in the old days. June comments on how coarse he is and on this early evidence they seem a very mismatched pair.

Terry is a bundle of nervous energy (incapable of remaining quiet for a minute) whilst June is content to just relax, buried in a good book.  There’s an unspoken feeling that now the house is theirs again they might struggle to restablish their relationship.  That they’ve not been paying each other a great deal of attention is made plain after Terry is amazed to discover that June’s had a pair of glasses for the last two years – he admits he hasn’t really looked at her for a long time.

This moment, along with June’s tearful regret that the chicks have flown the nest, gives the pilot a slightly wistful air, although Terry’s hyperactive personality – a hamsfisted attempt to do some DIY for example – ensures that the mood doesn’t stay reflective for long.  When the demanding Aunt Lucy turns up with bundles of possessions, poor Terry sees his newly-won freedom fast disappearing …

The first episode of Happy Ever After proper sees Terry shocked to learn that June hasn’t been a Conservative like him during their married life (instead she’s always voted Liberal).  This is a perfect opportunity for Terry Scott to deliver some of his trademark overreacting, but when June tells him she’s considering a short break by herself, it ties back to the suggestion in the pilot that the two of them may be fundamentally incompatible.  Terry then suggests she writes a list of his faults, which she does with great glee!  Later they decide to go on a second honeymoon, which (as might be expected) doesn’t go to plan.  It’s good to see some well-known actors lurking in the hotel, such as Hammer Films stalwart Michael Ripper and radio’s original Dick Barton, Noel Johnson.

Containing the Comedy Playhouse pilot, five series and three specials (two Christmas specials and the final one-off from April 1979) this seven disc set offers a generous helping of 1970’s sitcom goodness.  Classic episodes include the series two effort Terry in Court. Returning home after a business trip, Terry’s more than a little upset to learn that their car has had an altercation with the local dustcart. June insists it wasn’t her fault and after learning that the Council refuse to admit liability, Terry decides to sue them. The trouble really starts when Terry learns that he can represent himself and so appears in court complete with a wig and gown! Scott is firing on all his comic cylinders, helped no end by a very dead-pan performance by Basil Dingham as the judge.

Another favourite is Mistaken Identikit. An identikit picture of a bag snatcher who preys on elderly ladies (giving him the nickname of the “granny grabber”) is broadcast on televison and featured in all the newspapers. And wouldn’t you know it, he looks just like Terry! Robert Gillespie pops up as a phelgmatic desk sergeant and the always-watchable Josephine Tewson also makes a brief appearance.

The Music Went Around & Around is a notable episode, as it was John Kane’s first script for the series.  Kane would only pen a couple of episodes for Happy Ever After, but he’d go on to write the bulk of Terry & June (notching up more than forty episodes). In this one, John Quayle and Janine Duvitski are both wonderful as Ralph and Cynthia, the dinner guests from hell. Terry later attempts to replace one of his classic records from the 1940’s – The Hut Sut Song. Julian Orchard, as the harrased record shop proprietor, is another first-rate guest performer, as is Damaris Hayman (who plays Miss Sneed, an assistant at the record shop). Amazingly, she’s heard of this obscure song and it’s a comic treat when she and Terry launch into a spirited performance of The Hut Sut Song.

Unashamedly middle-of-the-road fare, Happy Ever After has aged very well.  This is partly because of the contrasting comic talents of Terry Scott and June Whitfield, but the scripts are also pretty strong and it’s always nice to see familiar faces popping up in guest roles.

Happy Ever After is released by Simply Media on the 26th of September 2016.  RRP £44.99.

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Fawlty Towers – The Hotel Inspectors

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Fawlty Towers is as close to sitcom perfection as you can get.  If one were being picky then you could say that the second series does have one sub-par effort (The Anniversary) but this is only because the other eleven were so good.

There are several obvious reasons as to why the series clicked from the start (even if the public and critical feedback for series one was a little muted to begin with).  These include the scripts by John Cleese and Connie Booth and the four regulars (Cleese, Booth, Scales, Sachs).

But equally important were the guest casts.  Basil Fawlty has to have strong characters to interact with, otherwise his manic personality ends up unbalancing the show.  Strong characters require good actors though, but Fawlty Towers never had a problem in acquiring the best comic actors around.

Joan Sanderson, Geoffrey Palmer and Bruce Boa were amongst those who were able to stand toe-to-toe with Cleese.  Some sitcom stars (especially if they were the co-writer as well) may have found themselves threatened by having to share the screen with experienced old pros (there’s plenty of evidence down the years to suggest that certain actors hated to have the limelight shone on anyone but themselves).  Cleese had a refreshing lack of ego on this score though and never seemed worried that others may get bigger laughs than him.

The Hotel Inspectors has one of the series’ most recognisable guest stars.   Bernard Cribbins (b. 1928) remains a national treasure.  He first came to prominence in the 1960’s with a number of film appearances (several Carry Ons, The Wrong Arm of the Law with Peter Sellers, etc).  In the 1970’s he became a children’s favourite, narrating The Wombles and making regular appearances on Jackanory.  He continues to act, probably his most high-profile recent credit was as Wilfred Mott in Doctor Who.

Mr Hutchinson (Cribbins) has arrived for a stay at Fawlty Towers.  His profession is a bit of a mystery but Basil, getting the wrong end of the stick, mistakenly believes that he’s a hotel inspector.

If Basil was rude to every guest who walked through the door then it would be amusing, but the joke would wear thin pretty quickly.  The genius of Cleese and Booth’s scripting is that Basil is a man of many and varied prejudices, which then informs us about which guests he favours or disfavours.  If you’re a member of the promiscuous society, for example, you’ll attract Basil’s ire, but a titled or professional person is guaranteed a much easier ride.

To begin with, Mr Hutchinson irritates Basil, mainly because of the way he talks.

Mr. Hutchinson: There is a documentary on BBC2 this evening about Squawking Bird, the leader of the Blackfoot Indians in the late 1860s. Now this starts at 8.45 and goes on for approximately three-quarters of an hour.
Basil: I’m sorry, are you talking to me?
Mr. Hutchinson: Indeed I am, yes. Now is it possible for me to reserve the BBC2 channel for the duration of this televisual feast?
Basil: Why don’t you talk properly?
Mr. Hutchinson: I beg your pardon?
Basil: No it isn’t.
Mr. Hutchinson: What?
Basil: It is not possible to reserve the BBC2 channel from the commencement of this televisual feast until the moment of the termination of its ending thereof, thank you so much.

The sudden gear-change which occurs when Basil believes Hutchinson to be a hotel inspector is a lovely moment.  From indifference and contempt, Basil quickly becomes the perfect host.  But even when Basil’s trying his best, things never quite work out (witness the saga of the omelette) and like every other week his house of cards slowly collapses until he’s left humiliated and isolated.  This sounds a little bleak, but luckily for us Basil always seems to recover from whatever crushing reversal he’s received in order to do battle the following week.

Dad’s Army – The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage

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No doubt helped by endless re-runs, Dad’s Army remains one of the most familiar British archive sitcoms.  For some, this familiarity has bred contempt, but whilst parts of it have worn thin over the years (Corporal Jones really needs a good slap) the sheer number of episodes means that you can still stumble over a less well-known instalment which will have a few surprises.

This is particularly true of the surviving episodes from the first two series, as their black and white nature has meant that they don’t get repeated as often as their colour counterparts.  And two episodes from the second series (Operation Kilt and The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage) were only rediscovered in 2001 (in film cans which had spent twenty five years rusting in a garden shed) which gave even hardened Dad’s Army watchers at the time the chance to experience something “new”.

As a child, it was the large-scale visual episodes which appealed, such as The Day the Balloon Went Up, which saw the platoon set off in hot pursuit after Captain Mainwaring, who’d been carried away by a barrage balloon!  As I’ve got older, I find the character-based episodes to be more to my taste.  Ones such as Branded (which saw Godfrey’s courage called into question) and A. Wilson, Manager? (Wilson’s promotion infuriates Mainwaring) now entertain me more.

Although the comedy in Dad’s Army is often broad, it’s also based on historical fact.  The Home Guard was poorly equipped to begin with, which was a worry for many – especially as a German invasion was believed to be imminent.  With guns and ammunition in short supply, other methods of defence and attack had to be found – this webpage has some interesting information, such as the fact that one Home Guard unit carried pepper with them, which they intended to throw into the enemy’s faces!

In The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage, Mainwaring calls his men to the Novelty Rock Emporium, which will be their command post in the event of a German invasion.  The viewer, armed with the knowledge that no invasion was ever attempted, is immediately placed at an advantage over the platoon.  Therefore when the church bells ring and everybody jumps to the wrong conclusion (the Germans have arrived) we can be secure in the knowledge that everything will be all right.

This might been the cue for some slapstick comedy, but instead Perry & Croft go a little darker to begin with.  Mainwaring, Jones and Frazer believe that they’re the only members of the platoon left in the town who can deal with the Germans, so they head off to Godfrey’s cottage (an ideal place to mount a defence, due to its strategic location) in order to make a last ditch attempt to repel the attackers.  All three accept that they’re going to their deaths, but deal with this stoically.  It’s only a brief moment, but it’s a lovely character touch that says so much.

There’s a certain amount of contrivance which has to employed in order to get the plot to work.  Mainwaring, Jones and Frazer have now reached Godfrey’s cottage and Jones puts on an old German helmet (from Godfrey’s adventures in WW1) to defend himself with.  The other members of the platoon, approaching the cottage, see a figure with a German helmet and naturally jump to the wrong conclusion.

Godfrey’s genteel home life – he lives with his two sisters, Dolly (Amy Dalby) and Cissy (Nan Braunton) – is rudely shattered by the arrival of Mainwaring and his machine gun.  If Godfrey seems to be a little disconnected from the realties of life, then that’s even more the case with his sisters.  Dolly’s reaction when she hears that the Germans are coming is just to fret that she’ll have to go and make a great deal more tea for all of their new visitors.

Possibly the most interesting part of the story is how the various members of the platoon deal with the pressure of apparently being under attack from the Germans.  Pike is naturally terrified, Mainwaring is resolute and determined to fight on to the bitter end, whilst Wilson is somewhat hesitant and indecisive (no real change from his normal character then).  But when Wilson believes that the “Germans” in the cottage have surrendered, he initially wants to send Walker out to negotiate with them, whilst he remains behind in safety.  It’s small character moments like this which make The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage a very rewarding episode to rewatch.

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The Likely Lads – The Other Side of the Fence

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The Likely Lads (1964 – 1966) was something of a ground-breaking series.  Fifty years on, its impact may have dulled, but back then a sitcom that revolved around two men who were not only young and working-class but also came from the North was decidedly unusual.

Dick Clement (born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex) and Ian La Frenais (born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear) were two writers with different outlooks and temperaments.  But something about their partnership simply clicked (it’s still going strong today).

Despite the fact that the show was recorded in London, the scripts seemed to catch the authentic feel of working-class life and the show ran for three years.  That it was later rather overshadowed by the sequel series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, is easy to understand. The Likely Lads was made in black and white, so repeats have been more infrequent (plus quite a few of the episodes were wiped and no longer exist).  And to be honest, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is just a better show – the scripting and performances are sharper and the fact that Bob and Terry are a little older is also important.  They’re far from middle-aged, but they’re also no longer the “lads” from the original series.

The Likely Lads seems to take its cue from films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).  Like the central character in that film, Bob (Rodney Bewes) and Terry (James Bolam) work in a factory and live for the weekends, where they can spend their weekly wages on beer, football and girls.

Even in the early episodes, Bob and Terry are very different characters.  Terry never really changes (not even when we meet him again in the 1970’s) but Bob is always keen to “get on”.  This is made plain in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – Bob has a fiancé, a nice new council house and enjoys foreign holidays (a rarity at this time).

But even as early as The Other Side of the Fence (series one, episode four, original tx 6th January 1965) Bob’s desire to better himself comes to the surface.  He has a chance to leave the factory for a job in the office.  It offers better pay and prospects, plus the females are rather nice as well ….

The class/social divide between the factory and office workers is sharply defined.  Terry, waiting for Bob to leave the office for the day, spies the departing office ladies.  They’re a clear class apart from the sort of women he’s used to, but that doesn’t stop him chancing his arm.  Sally Anne (Didi Sullivan), who works in personnel, seems quite responsive whilst Bob has already fallen for Judith (Anneke Wills) who’s the secretary to Bob’s new boss.  The problem is that Judith is in a relationship with the oily rep Nesbit (Michael Sheard).

Despite being born in Aberdeen, Sheard manages a credible Northern accent and is suitably nasty as Bob’s rival in love.  Judith is friendly and helpful to Bob and as played by the lovely Anneke Wills certainly catches the eye.  Is this the reason why Bob attempts to make a go of his office job?

Although you might have expected Terry to be more cynical about Bob’s social climbing, that’s not really the case.  Although it is true that after Bob invites Terry to be his guest at the plush office social he can’t help but stifle a grin at the sight of Bob dressed in a dinner jacket and bow tie.  The fact that most of the other men are similarly attired cuts no ice with Terry, it’s just not the sort of thing that they do.

The evening turns sour when Nesbit gleefully tells Terry that he won’t be able to attend the dance – the function is for office staff only, so Terry (as factory fodder) doesn’t qualify.  Terry doesn’t seem terribly put out, but this slight upsets Bob so much that he jacks in the office job there and then and decides to go back to the factory.

In a way this is rather depressing, the class barrier seems to be still firmly in place as we see the working-class interloper (Bob) returned to where he came from.  But this blow is softened when Bob says he never wanted the job in the drawing office anyway because he’s no good at drawing (the truth or a lie to make Terry feel better?)  The real result occurs just after this, when Sally Anne and Judith decide to go for a drink with Bob and Terry.

Helped by the appearances by Michael Sheard and Anneke Wills, The Other Side of the Fence is entertaining enough.  Bob’s misadventures in the office could be seen as a warning that it’s a good idea to know your place, suggesting that his attempts to better himself were always doomed to failure.  This may be too critical a reading though and since they end up with the girls, everything in the Likely Lads’ world comes right in the end.

Steptoe & Son – The Bird

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Following the Comedy Playhouse pilot broadcast in January 1962, The Bird (original tx 14th July 1962) was the first episode of Steptoe & Son proper.  As in the pilot, Harold wishes to break free of the stifling life he leads with his father (here it’s because he’s got a “bird”) whilst Albert (borne out of a fear of being left alone) subtly manipulates his son so that their status quo isn’t disturbed.

The Bird has a very stage-like feel (the opening scene between Harold and Albert lasts for eighteen minutes).  Thanks to the excellent scripting by Galton & Simpson (there’s plenty of funny lines, but many dark ones as well) and the performances of Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett this isn’t really noticeable.  The eponymous bird (played by Valerie Bell) makes a very brief appearance at the end, but The Bird is pretty much a two-hander between Steptoe & Son.

The needle that exists between father and son is re-established right from the start.  After an argument about whether Harold’s done everything for the night (put the horse to bed, closed the gate, etc) their conversation turns to WW1 and WW2.  Harold fought in WW2 whilst Albert tells an incredulous Harold that he was mortally wounded in WW1.  “How could you have been mortally wounded? If you’re mortally wounded, you snuffs it!”

Harold attempts to take Albert’s trousers down to have a look at his war wound, but Albert resists.  The old man threatens that he’ll hit his son if he doesn’t stop larking about, which gives Harold pause for thought.  “Used to wallop me about a lot, didn’t ya? A big fella weren’t ya? When I was seven!”

Harold then recounts his bleak life.  On the cart when he was twelve, in the army for four years and then back on the cart.  He’s now thirty seven and that’s all he’s ever done.  When Albert attempts to stem this bitter tide by appealing to their father/son bond, Harold remains downbeat.  “When was I ever a son to you? Cheap labour that’s all I was”.

After Harold tells his father that’s he’s going out again, Albert is curious and worried.  Any change to their settled domestic life concerns him, and although he threatens to put himself into an old people’s home the next day (since he feels that Harold is neglecting him) it’s plain this is an empty threat.  If he was expecting Harold to react, then he’s sorely disappointed.

Albert’s astounded that his son is having two shaves in one week, although when he learns that Harold’s meeting a bird it all becomes clear.  One of the bleakest exchanges (albeit one that still generates a good laugh from the audience) occurs when Harold, sensing how his father disapproves of his plans, offers him his razor for a quick way out.  “Oh, you poor old man. You ‘aint got nothing to live for, have you? Here, cut your throat. Put yourself out of your misery! No, go on take it, have a go. It don’t take long. It don’t hurt!”  Who said edgy comedy was a relatively new concept?

That Albert is dependent on Harold is once again made clear when his son gleefully mentions some of his father’s less than stellar purchases (an Elizabethan Cocktail Cabinet and a Georgian Record Player for example).  His lack of judgement, together with his failing health (although we’re never sure whether this is genuine or not) are both strong hints that he regards Harold’s bird as a threat.  What would happen to him if Harold and his bird decided to set up home somewhere else?

So this means that Albert’s next suggestion (“bring her ‘ome to dinner”) is a surprising one.   Albert’s clearly been thinking about this for a while – get the good chairs in from the yard, fish and chips from the chip shop, knives and forks and a jar of gherkins.  How could any bird not fail to be impressed?

Shortly after, Harold gives his bird a name for the first time – Roxanne.  The audience reaction to this is quite telling, clearly nice girls weren’t called Roxanne in 1962.  Albert’s re-appearance – all smartened up – delights the audience, although Harold, after making a closer inspection, is disgusted.  “Ugh! You dirty old man! You ‘aint washed yourself, have you. You done yourself up and you ‘aint washed yourself”.  He deals with Albert’s filthy neck by rubbing a bar of soap on it and dunking him into the sink.  Brutal, but effective!

Roxanne’s an hour late, and Albert skilfully plays on Harold’s increasing anger and disappointment.  When she finally turns up, Harold’s in such a state that he turns her away and tells her to never come back.  Albert approves.  “We don’t want no women here, we’re better off by ourselves”.  This just leaves the punchline – Albert moves the hands of the clock back an hour (so Roxanne wasn’t really late at all).

For me, the 1960’s black and white Steptoe & Son is king.  When it returned in the 1970’s in colour there were some great episodes (Divided We Stand, Porn Yesterday, The Desperate Hours) but it never felt quite the same series. The bleakness and bite had somewhat gone and it was rather less subtle.  There are plenty of gags in The Bird, but it’s also brutal in many respects.  Bearing in mind that this was made in the early 1960’s, it’s plain that Steptoe & Son is absolutely key to understanding the development of British situation comedy.  Steptoe & Son demonstrated that you could mix light and dark (a lesson that many other sit-coms down the decades would take to heart).

But The Bird, and the other episodes from the early series of Steptoe & Son, aren’t just curios from another age – they still amuse, entertain and sometimes shock.  It’d be lovely if BBC4 repeated them – but due to their black and white nature that’s sadly not terribly likely.  If you haven’t got the boxset then you should add it to your collection.  True, the quality dips a little later on, but it’s still an essential series.

Hancock’s Half Hour – The Missing Page

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If I had to choose a single episode of Hancock’s Half Hour which embodied the spirit of the series, then The Missing Page would be at the top of the list.  Tony was often portrayed as a frustrated intellectual – and this self-delusion is touched upon here.  He claims that he only reads trashy pulp novels in-between tackling heavyweight fare such as Bertrand Russell.  It’s possible to doubt this statement, although Galton & Simpson later develop the theme in The Bedsitter, where we do see him tackle a bit of Bert (albeit not terribly successfully).

Tony’s frustrated with the books on offer at the local library.  He tells the librarian (played with long-suffering irritation by a HHH regular, Hugh Lloyd) that he’s checked out everything they have (“I’ve read Biggles Flies East twenty seven times!”).  This isn’t quite the case though, as there’s one book – Lady Don’t Fall Backwards by Darcy Sartothat’s passed him by.

G&S preface his retrieval of the book (it’s out of reach on the top shelf) with a nice literary joke.  Tony asks the librarian for a number of heavyweight intellectual books and the librarian – clearly impressed – hurries off to find them.  It’s a little contrived that all these obscure books are on the same shelf, but let’s not quibble about that.  Tony’s delighted and uses them as a footstool to retrieve Lady Don’t Fall Backwards!

The sudden arrival of Sid stuns Tony (“you’ve never read a book in your life. You’ve run one, but you’ve never read one”).  This leads into my favourite scene in the episode, indeed one of my all-time favourite Hancock moments.  We’re in the era where it was considered bad form to speak in the library, so more HHH regulars (Alec Bregonzi, Johnny Vyvyan) take turns to shush him.  This is a bit of a problem, as Tony’s keen to tell Sid about another exciting book he’s recently read, so he decides to act it out as a mime.

By the end, both Sid and Peggy Ann Clifford (yet another HHH regular) can’t hide the smiles on their faces.  Was this as scripted or simply a spontaneous reaction?  I’d assume the latter, as it’s such a joyous couple of minutes.

Although G&S have never been regarded as intellectual writers, they continue to slip in some sly literary gags,  one such concerns the formulaic nature of crime fiction.  Tony’s entranced by the book (“good? This is red hot, this is, mate. Hate to think of a book like this getting in the wrong hands. Soon as I’ve finished this I shall recommend they ban it”) and can’t wait to find out who the murderer is, although he reacts with scorn when Sid suggests he simply turns to the final page.

This exchange roots the book firmly in the golden age of detective fiction, a period when crime novels were an intellectual puzzle with everything neatly wrapped up in the final few sentences.  Tony’s also very taken with the book’s hero, Johnny Oxford, telling Sid that from now on he’s switching his allegiance from the Saint to Johnny.  Despite his name, Johnny’s not an English detective, he’s a hard-bitten American PI.  The later revelation that the author, Darcy Sarto, was a British writer seems to be another gag – inferring that the ridiculous and artificial nature of the story (with suspects dropping dead at regular intervals) can be taken even less seriously when it’s learnt that the author had possibly never even been to America.  Was he maybe modelled on James Hadley Chase, a British-born writer who adopted American themes very sucessfully?

Tony shares several nuggets of information about the twisty plot with us.  One of the funniest is the revelation that a trail of footprints in the snow from two left shoes was an error on the part of the murderer (he’d put on a pair of shoes to lay a false trail, but hadn’t realised they were both left ones).  This disappoints Tony. “I was waiting for a pair of one-legged twins to turn up.”

As the title suggests, the final page in the book is missing.  Tony’s distraught – he really, really needs to know the identity of the murderer.  He decides to turn detective himself and re-examines all the suspects (as does Sid).  Neither are successful, so they attempt to find the man who had the book out before them.  They finally track him down (a nice turn by George Coulouris) but he’s no help.  The page was missing when he had the book and he’s spent the last six years in agony, not knowing either!

The mystery is solved in the British Museum, but it doesn’t cheer Tony up.  It’s a nice punchline though and brings to an end another excellent episode of HHH.