Comedy Playhouse – Steptoe and Son – The Offer

offer

After Ray Galton and Alan Simpson found their successful working relationship with Tony Hancock had been abruptly terminated (they had written six radio and seven television series for the Lad Himself) the pair were at something of a loose end.

The BBC were keen to keep them working and so made them an attractive offer – a series called Comedy Playhouse in which Galton and Simpson had carte blanche to write whatever they wished.  Out of a variety of different playlets came Steptoe and Son.  When they wrote The Offer it was purely a one-off, but the BBC were keen to develop it into a series, and eventually Galton and Simpson agreed.

The late 1950’s and early 1960’s had seen something of a social revolution in television drama, often dubbed as the “kitchen sink” movement.  It was pioneered by series such as Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) which explored areas previously undocumented on television.  Comedy was also to see similar ground-breaking series produced during the 1960s such as The Likely Lads (1964-1966) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975) which featured working class themes and characters in a much more realistic way than had ever been seen before.

The first of the comedy series to break the mould was Steptoe and Son, although Galton and Simpson would no doubt deny that their intention was to innovate or start a new trend – they were simply attempting to fill a half an hour slot.  Their method of working was to kick around various ideas until something stuck.  One important rule they had was that it had to feature two characters, which had served them well with the television version of Hancock’s Half Hour (it generally revolved around the relationship between Hancock and Sid James).

Once the idea of two rag and bone men was decided on, they then had to agree what their relationship was.  Brothers maybe?  Eventually, father and son seemed to offer the most comic potential as it offered a good chance to explore the generation gap.

Steptoe and Son would run for eight series between 1962  – 1974 and by the 1970’s it would be very much a mainstream sitcom.  However in revisiting the black and episodes (the first four series, made between 1962 and 1965) we find a much darker and sadder character piece that often (in the best way) isn’t funny at all.

Harold Steptoe is 37, unmarried and dreams of a life away from his father and the family rag and bone business.  Albert Steptoe is an old man and apparantly in ill health, although this seems to be mostly faked in order to keep Harold at home.  He clearly doesn’t want to be left alone, so he’ll use any trick at his disposal to thwart Harold’s dreams of bettering himself.

In The Offer (purely a two-hander between Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell) we see Harold’s first attempt to leave Albert behind and forge a new future for himself.  Harold is sick and tired of being a rag and bone man, sick of the horse and sick of Albert’s constant criticisms.  Albert spends the opening part of the story belittling the stuff that Harold’s collected, before scavenging all the best things for himself.  As Harold says, “If anything ‘alf decent comes along you wanna keep it to yerself!  That’s no way to run a business.”

The tragic side of this is that the bric-a-brac so beloved by Albert is worthless junk, but he simply can’t see it.  And the further tragedy is that Harold is no better.  Harold shares some traits with the persona Galton and Simpson created for Tony Hancock, namely the attempts to “better himself” which never really pay off.  But whilst there was a certain warmth to Hancock’s failed attempts to be an intellectual, there’s a harsher feeling to Harold’s failures.

His desire to move up the social scale is palpable, but he has little to show for it.  His “library” is a collection of four books tied up with string and his “wine cellar” is made up from pouring the small remains of the virtually empty bottles he’s collected into his nearly full ones at home.  And this is partly sabotaged when he realises someone has stored paraffin in a bottle of non-vintage Beaujolais just after he’s poured it into his almost complete bottle.  “The rotten, lousy, stinkin’ gits!  Paraffin! They’ve gone and put paraffin in it!  They ruined me bottle of Beaujolais! It’s taken me a year to fill that up!”

Eventually all these frustrations build up and Harold decides to take up a mysterious offer and leave.  Albert tries everything to make him stay, but to no avail.  He loads his possessions onto the cart, but as Albert won’t let him use the horse Harold has to push the cart by himself.  Here we come to probably the most interesting part of the story – the cart won’t move.  Is this because it’s genuinely too heavy or because even when he has the chance to leave, Harold can’t bring himself to actually do it?

This scene is incredibly powerful and is so well acted by both Corbett and Brambell.  As Harold breaks down and is led back into the house by Albert, who tells him that “you can go another day, or you can stay with yer old dad and wait till a better offer comes along” you could have heard a pin drop in the audience.  It doesn’t seem to be that Corbett was attempting to gain the auidence’s sympathy, rather he was just acting to the script.  That’s the notable thing about Steptoe and Son – before this, sitcoms had tended to star comedians and therefore were vehicles written for their talents (such as Hancock’s Half Hour).  But Steptoe and Son was performed by actors rather than comedians, an important distinction.

When Harold attempts, unsuccessfully, to move the cart, Alan Simpson was amazed to see real tears in Corbett’s eyes: “We watched that closing scene as Harry literally crumbles. He’s trying to push his meagre belongings away and start a new life, and he can’t do it. We were watching this scene and Harry actually broke down and cried and I thought, real tears! This is what it’s all about… this is acting! We weren’t used to it with writing for comedians. Usually it would be stylised, shoulder-lurching sobs when comics cried. Harry really got hold of that final scene. It was real drama to him”.

The realisation that Corbett and Brambell could give their scripts a deeper, more nuanced reading than anything they’d previously produced would clearly influence their writing from this point on.

Therefore we have a downbeat ending to a remarkable half hour.  There’s no winners or losers here.  Over the course of the story our sympathies have swung from one character to the other.  We can sympathise with Harold for wanting to leave (particularly at the start, when Albert seems such an unpleasant character).  But over the half hour we’ve come to understand that Albert is a lonely old man who simply couldn’t function on his own and that Harold deep down seems to understand this.

The same basic template would often be played out during the following 56 episodes, but it would be rarely be better than this one.  Impressively written and acted, this is a true classic of British television.

dinnerladies

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Victoria Wood was always faintly unimpressed, visually, with the way that dinnerladies turned out. She had pictured it shot with hand-held cameras but was told that it wasn’t possible.  So what she got was something that looked like a traditional sit-com (although this isn’t really any bad thing).  It seems to be an ever-present fixture on Gold, along with the likes of Porridge and Steptoe and Son, and it’s a good indication of dinnerladies’ quality that it doesn’t seem out of place when broadcast alongside the comedy greats of the 1970’s.

Whilst it may have rankled with Wood that the style of the series was so resolutely traditional (particularly when the likes of The Royal Family and The Office were able to quite easily eschew this format) dinnerladies was a sit-com that probably wouldn’t have benefited from the sort of wobbly-cam single camera shooting that was to dominate comedy in the years to come.

It’s written, essentially, as a stage-play with just a single location (and it’s probably not surprising to know that most of the scripts were adapted successfully for several theatre tours).  We may hear about the world outside but the focus remains firmly on what happens inside the canteen.

Wood was able to assemble a first-rate cast, some of whom (Duncan Preston, Ceila Imrie, Julie Walters) had enjoyed a long association with her, whilst others (Thelma Barlow, Andrew Dunn, Shobna Gulati and Maxine Peake) were newcomers.  She obviously knew what Preston, Imrie and Walters could deliver, but the characters of the others (as well as Anne Reid, who had appeared in Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV) would maybe only really begin to develop towards the end of the first series and into the second as she began to tailor their parts based on her experience of working with them.

As the creator, writer and co-producer, Wood had an enormous amount of power that she was able to wield.  But whilst the overall arc of the two series is the story of Bren and Tony, Wood doesn’t dominate each episode and nor does she give herself all the best lines.  She was comfortable enough to sometimes remain in the background as a passive figure, whilst the others enjoyed the biggest laughs.

If the series was shot in a traditional way, the actual recording process was quite different.  It would be shot on a Friday evening and then Wood and co-producer Geoff Posner would view the results, with Wood re-writing the script which would then be re-recorded on the Saturday evening.  Although this was common practice for American sit-coms, it was unusual, if not unique, for a British sit-com.

It would be lovely one day to have DVD sets released with both the Friday and Saturday recordings, so that we can see exactly what was changed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  The DVD releases we have are resolutely bare-bones, with no commentaries or special features, which indicates that Victoria Wood isn’t particularly keen to spend a great deal of time analyzing her work.

The Good Life – Plough Your Own Furrow

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By 1975 John Esmonde and Bob Larby were a well-established writing team (responsible for hit series such as Please Sir!).  When creating The Good Life they started with pretty much a blank slate – they knew that Richard Briers would star (since the BBC were keen to have Briers appear in another sitcom) but everything else was up for grabs.

The first moment of inspiration came when Esmonde and Larby realised that both Briers and Larby were coming up to the age of forty – as Larby said, it was one of those “Oh God!” ages.  So it was decided that Briers’ character would be facing some mid-life crisis, but what form would this take?

Thoughts such as his character deciding to resign his job and sail around the world or live on a desert island were kicked around (though not terribly seriously) before they hit upon the idea of a man totally fed up with his job and the whole rat-race existence.  So he decides to “drop out” and become self sufficient.  This was a decent idea and the logical move would have been for him to sell his house and buy a place in the country.

But in a stroke of genius, Esmonde and Larby decided that Briers’ character (Tom Good) would do no such thing – instead his house and garden (in the middle of Surbiton) would be turned into a mini-farm, complete with animals, vegetables and all the other paraphernalia that it entailed.

With this initial concept decided, the rest of the small cast fell into place.  Felicity Kendall was Barbara, Tom’s long-suffering wife whilst Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington would be the Good’s long suffering next-door neighbours, Margo and Jerry.

Larby conceded that had Margo and Jerry simply been relentlessly disapproving then the series wouldn’t have worked very well.  Margo and Jerry are Tom and Barbara’s best friends and it’s the conflict between their friendship and their disapproval of the Good’s new lifestyle which drives some of the comedy along.

The first episode, Plough Your Own Furrow, is an interesting one.  It’s not wall-to-wall laughs, as there’s space when the characters (especially Tom) pause to reflect upon the course of their life so far.  Partly this may be because it was the first episode of a new series – as time went on, the audiences would become more attuned to the characters, the writing and the style of the programme and be more inclined to show their approval.

As the episode opens, we see Tom celebrating his 40th birthday.  He’s clearly a man searching for something which is, at that time, undefinable.

It’s quality of life.  That’s what I’m after.  If I could just get it right.  I’ll tackle it and get it right, as soon as I know what it is.

It’s clear that he isn’t getting any job satisfaction.   A whole host of small irritations are highlighted – such as the office car-park attendant knowing Jerry’s name, but not Tom’s (“I’ve really made an impact with you over the years, haven’t I?  Cor blimey, I’ve only been here eight years.”) and the fact there was an office cricket team but nobody thought to ask him (“We didn’t need to.  We got my dad to umpire”).

This is another indication that Tom is standing still at best or even moving backwards.  Everybody else in his department is in their twenties, so what does the future hold for Tom?  Jerry joined the company at the same time as Tom, but he’s ascended to the executive level whilst Tom remains stuck on the fourth floor, engaged in vital work such as designing a toy hippo to be included as a free gift in a popular brand of breakfast cereal.

Jerry spells it out to Tom.

We joined this company – what, eight years ago, wasn’t it it?  And do you know something?  I was frightened of you then.  You were a better draughtsman than I was and you had better qualifications than mine.  I was going to have to rely on pure cunning just to keep up with you.  Still, I needn’t have bothered, need I?  Cos look at us.  I’m up here and you’re down there, not getting picked for cricket teams.  And why?  Because you use about one tenth of your ability.  I have to use all mine and what I lack I make up with sheer, bloody crawling.

Then Sir (Reginald Marsh) joins Tom and Jerry (and every time I type their names I assume that Esmonde and Larby picked those names as a tribute to a popular cat and mouse partnership) for a chat about his latest top-secret project.

The bubble has just come off the top of the think-tank and I don’t mind telling you that this is an absolute blockbuster of an idea.  It’s going to put our wildlife preservation series in the vanguard of world mouldings.  Our mould is going to be a giraffe! And Tom, I’m thinking of putting this giraffe on your plate.

Tom has the chance to advance his career with some “bloody crawling” but his hysterical laughter at the giraffe news scuppers this.  This is point when Tom finally realises the futility of his job (“You should have heard Sir.  You’d think he’d invented penicillin.  I couldn’t help laughing”).  There has to be more to life, but what?  Then Tom has a lightbulb moment, which he explains to Barbara.

I quit work and we become as damned near self-sufficient as possible.  We’ve got bags of garden, we grown our own food.  We keep some animals, chickens, a pig.  We produce our own energy, recycle rubbish.  We design the things we need.  I’ll show you what being a draughtsman is really all about.  Now , some things we can’t make, right.  Some things we can’t grow, right.  So we flog our surplus and buy stuff, and that’s without good old Medieval barter.  It’ll be damned hard work.  We won’t have much in the way of mod cons, but we might enjoy discovering what we can do without.  And we won’t need the world and his wife to give us the yea or nay.  It’ll be just us, doing it for us.  What do you think, eh?

This monologue is the essence of the series.  And Barbara’s reaction is interesting.  The camera cuts back to her on several occasions and her expression is, at best, neutral.  It would have been incredibly unrealistic for her to instantly agree, so even though it’s the middle of the night she puts on her wellies and walks up and down the garden until she finally decides that yes, they’ll do it.

This naturally results in a celebration – and as they dance in the fishpond the noise wakes up the Ledbetters next door.  We see Jerry, but only hear Margo (in this episode we don’t see Penelope Keith).  And the next morning Tom has been up good and early.  He’s sold his car and bought a plough, so he can start on the back garden and take the first step on the road to self-sufficiency.

Hi-de-Hi! – Hey Diddle Diddle

hi

Many of the best sitcoms feature a disparate group of people who, for one reason or another, are trapped together.  Porridge is an obvious example, but it’s a theme that also runs through the work of Jimmy Perry and David Croft.

Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum both had a diverse set of people thrown together by WW2 and in Hi-de-Hi! the characters are bound together because of their job.  It amounts to pretty much the same thing though – as we see people of different attitudes, ages and classes all forced to work with each other.

If there’s one thing that’s notable about most of Perry and Croft’s sitcoms (and also the ones that Croft wrote with other people) it’s the fact they tended to go on far too long.  When something is successful, the obvious thing to do is to continue – few writers are able (like John Cleese and Connie Booth with Fawlty Towers) to decide early on that all the comic potential has been mined from a certain idea.

But for now, let’s take a look at the first episode of He-de-Hi!, transmitted on the 1st of January 1980.  It has an extended running time of forty minutes and is probably best seen as a pilot – since it would be more than a year before the first series proper began.

What’s interesting is the feeling of melancholy that hangs over many of the characters.  Whilst all of them are professional with the holidaymakers, behind the scenes there’s a sense that for many, Maplin’s Holiday Camp is something of a prison for their thwarted dreams and ambitions.

For example, Fred Quilley (Felix Bowness) was a jockey who, it’s implied, threw races – so he’s washed up at Maplin’s, teaching holidaymakers to ride a selection of clapped-out nags.  And Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer) is a Punch and Judy man who has an intense dislike of children, something of a handicap in his job.  Dwyer was a veteran actor with a list of credits stretching back to the 1930’s (In Which We Serve and The Way Ahead were two notable early film appearances).  He’s rarely a central figure in the stories, but his pithy bad temper were always worth watching out for.

Perhaps the most dismissive of the whole Maplin’s environment are Yvonne and Barry Stewart-Hargreaves (Diane Holland and Barry Howard) and Yvonne’s disdain for the common holidaymakers is never far from the surface.  Their marriage is also intriguing, since Barry acts so incredibly camp it’s possible to wonder whether theirs is a marriage of convenience.  There’s this exchange, for example.

BARRY: You’ve got your weight on the wrong foot, you silly cow.  It’s like dancing with an all-in wrestler.
YVONNE: Well you’ve more experience with that kind of thing that I’d have.

There are some positive people though.  Spike (Jeffrey Holland) is young, keen and eager to please.  But it’s possible to wonder if Ted Bovis (Paul Shane) is the sort of person that Spike will become in twenty five years if the breaks don’t come his way.  In the little world of Maplin’s, Ted is King – although the fact he’s still stuck in the holiday camps after all this time implies that his big break never materialised.

Given how Peggy (Su Pollard) came to define the series, it’s surprising that she hasn’t got her face in the opening credits.  Peggy is the most positive person of all, desperate to become a yellowcoat and eager to do anything that will advance her cause.

The person charged with bringing order to this group of misfits is the new Entertainments Manager Jeffrey Fairbrother (Simon Cadell).  Jeffrey is the real fish-out-of-water – formally a professor at Cambidge, he’s thrown that up because, as he tells his mother, “I’m in a rut. My wife’s left me because I’m boring, my students fall asleep at lectures because I bore them. And worst of all, I’m boring myself”.

Cadell is perfect as the indecisive, diffident, but decent man who’s completely out of his depth.  This is highlighted when he meets Gladys Pugh (Ruth Madoc) for the first time.  For Gladys, it’s clearly love at first sight.  For Jeffrey (whilst he’d have to be blind not to see the signs she’s giving off) there’s little more than exquisite embarrassment.

This opening episode has done enough to suggest that the differences between the characters will provide plenty of comic potential in the years to come.  And towards the end Jeffrey is visited by a couple who are about to leave.  The old man’s words help to explicitly state the series’ agenda – whilst the employees of Maplin’s might sometimes be at each others throats, ensuring that the holidaymakers enjoy themselves is something they can all take pride in.

It was wonderful.  Just sheer fun, and we haven’t had a lot of that in our lifetime. It’s grand being daft and forgetting all your troubles for a little while. I was telling Doris here, I said if the whole country could be run like a holiday camp then we’d be alright. We’d have Joe Maplin as prime minister and never mind that Harold Macmillan. He’s always telling us we’ve never had it so good. We’ve never had it. We’ve had a grand holiday and you were marvelous. You joined in the fun, supervising in your own quiet way and you didn’t make a lot of palaver. You just did it and we’d like to thank you, young man.

You have been watching –

Hi-De-Hi! – The Partridge Season

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One of the advantages of a series like Hi-De-Hi! is that the large ensemble cast enables each character, especially those who usually operate on the periphery, to have a chance to shine.  And as might be expected by the title, The Partridge Season (Series One, Episode Four, Tx 12/04/81) puts the spotlight on the perpetually grumpy Punch and Judy man Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer).

Dwyer was a veteran actor (born 1906) who had enjoyed a long career in films and television (although usually in supporting roles).  Therefore, his regular performances in Hi-De-Hi! gave him a late taste of fame (very similar to the experiences enjoyed by the likes of John Laurie and Arnold Ridley in another Perry/Croft vehicle, Dad’s Army).  Mr Partridge was never going to be a character who would be central to the series (he worked better as someone who confined himself to the odd withering one-liner delivered from the comfort of his chair in the staff-room) but every so often he could be moved more up-front, as here.

Jeffrey has received orders to sack him.  Mr Partridge’s contempt for all children has already been well established, but this time he’s overstepped the mark.  When Jeffrey calls him into the office, Mr Partridge knows why he’s there and he gives him his side of the story.

Well, I was packing up the Punch and Judy and I couldn’t find the sausages. So I looked around and there was this snotty-nosed kid sucking an ice-cream cornet. ‘Have you got my sausages?’ I said. ‘Get lost, Grandad’ he said, and I could see ’em sticking out of his pocket. So I grabbed ’em off him, snatched his ice-cream cornet, stuck it in his face, give it a twist, then I clipped ‘im round the earhole and kicked ‘im up the arse.

I’ve already mentioned in my post on Hey Diddle Diddle how an air of melancholy is sometimes not far from the surface.  The forced jollity of the holiday-camp environment has something to do with it, but Mr Partridge (like some of the others) is an individual who’s found himself washed up at Maplins, past his prime and unable to get a job anywhere else.

He gives Jeffrey a brief outline of his career (as the camera slowly closes in on Dwyer, an obvious, but a good way of focusing the audience’s attention).  He started off on the halls as Whimsical Willie, the Juggling Joker.  After he came out of the Army in 1918 he gave up the juggling and became a comic – but talking pictures killed variety so he became a children’s entertainer.  After a stint entertaining the troops with ENSA during WW2 he eventually found himself working at Maplins.

All this is enough to convince Jeffrey that deserves another chance.  Mr Partridge is delighted and promises that he won’t let him down.  He also asks for an advance on his salary – to buy a new cover for the Punch and Judy booth, he says.  Jeffrey agrees and this is where the trouble really starts.

Jeffrey’s mistakenly under the impression that the affair of the ice-cream cornet was an isolated incident, but Ted puts him straight and lists some of Mr Partridge’s numerous run-ins with his audience.  “What about the time he put syrup of figs in the pot at the tiny-tots tea party?”  Worse than all this though is the benders.  “Once or twice every season, he gets a load of whisky and locks himself in his chalet and he’s legless for three days.”  And Jeffrey’s given him the money to do just that.

As ever, it’s the decent and honourable Jeffrey who has to suffer.  Always thinking the best of people, he finds himself left down by Mr Partridge and as a consequence has to share his chalet with Fred Quilley (who apologies for the horsey smell).  Best of all, he’s pressured into covering the Punch and Judy show.  The man-eating Sylvia offers to help, which seems like a good idea, but there’s very little room in the tent for two, much to Sylvia’s delight!

Spike wants to help Mr Partridge, but Ted is unsympathetic.  “I’ve been covering up for him for ten years. And I’ve had it up to here. He’s a rotten, bad tempered old tosspot!”  Ted has never thought of him as anything other than a third-rate Punch and Judy man, but Spike tells him he’s seen the cuttings that record his earlier successes – topping the bill at the Holborn Empire and performing in a Royal Command Performance at Windsor Castle.

Of course, in the end all is well and whilst it’s inevitable that it won’t be long before Mr Partridge causes more trouble, his dysfunctional surrogate family at Maplins will no doubt rally round.  The reveal that he actually was as a big a star as he claimed is a nice, sentimental touch.  It would have been just as easy for him to really have been nothing more than a third-rate musical hall turn, but it’s his genuine (if faded) stardom, as well as the injury he sustained during WW1 (which was the reason he had to give up the juggling), that persuades Ted to talk Jeffrey into giving him another chance.

Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – 1974 Christmas Special

likely

The Likely Lads, broadcast in the mid 1960’s, was the first sitcom success for Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.  They then revived the series in the 1970’s as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

The revival was even better than the original, thanks to the way the characters of Terry Collier (James Bolam) and Bob Ferris (Rodney Bewes) had developed.  In the original series they were unattached men in their twenties, but by the revival they were a decade older and, in Bob’s case at least, men with commitments (Bob had married his long-time fiance Thelma).

This was unusual for a sitcom, as normally they tend to remain static, unchanging affairs.  Think, for example, of Dad’s Army, Porridge or Fawlty Towers.  In those cases, characters are trapped together (because of the war, prison, the job they do).  The format of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was much looser as it revolved around Bob’s eternal dilemma – he loves his wife, but he doesn’t want to lose contact with his best friend.

Over the years Bob and Terry had changed from the people we met in the sixties.  Then, they were equal – both working in the same factory and sharing a similar outlook on life.  But in WHTTLL?, Bob is married, holds down a responsible job, has a nice house on a new estate and is thoroughly middle-class.  Terry is quite different – after a spell in the army he’s content to drift along, with no particular direction in mind.  What keeps them together is their vague sense that things were better when they were younger (the theme song ponders “is the only thing to look forward to, the past?” which sums things up nicely).

This melancholic longing for a simpler time is one of the reasons why the series was so good.  And had Bolam and Bewes not fallen out dramatically (it’s reputed they’ve not spoken for nearly forty years) then it wouldn’t have been surprising if Clement and La Frenais had chosen to revisit the characters every decade or so (in a sort of 7 Up way it would have been fascinating to see how Bob and Terry fared through the eighties, nineties and into the twenty first century).

Broadcast on the 24th of December 1974, this Christmas Special was the final television episode – although Bolam and Bewes would re-record the series one shows for radio in 1975 and shoot a film version in 1976.

We open with Bob feeling trapped.  Thelma (Brigit Forsyth) is in Christmas planning mode – a sight which remains familiar today.  She’s fretting about the cards she needs to write, the presents she has to buy and their social engagements.  Bob isn’t thrilled to learn that he’ll be spending Christmas with his mother-in-law or that Thelma has committed them to a number of parties (when he’d much rather be relaxing at home, watching The Great Escape).  His lack of success at charades last year still rankles – as he reminds Thelma, she had an easy one – Great Expectations –  whilst he had to struggle with The AA Continental Handbook!  The pay-off to the scene is that it’s only late September, another nod to those people who need to get everything organised for Christmas months in advance.

Terry’s spent the duration of WHTTLL? content to be unemployed.  There’s a change here, as Bob and Thelma spy him taking his driving test (and of course they manage to put him off).  Despite this he still passes and he later tells Bob that he’s planning to become a long-distance lorry driver.  He has to settle for a job driving a fork-lift truck though, and it’s clear that he’s disappointed.  Terry had assumed that once he had his driving licence it would be his passport to better things – he really wanted a job where he could take his vehicle home during the evening and impress the girls.  But the only job he found like that involved an ice-cream van!  As Bob says, his chance of pulling birds in that would have been wafer-thin.

Another sign of the timeless nature of the episode is Terry’s complaint that Christmas is just too commercialised these days.  Bob doesn’t agree, he loves every aspect of Christmas (another way in which he hankers for earlier, simpler times?).  Over a pint in the pub, Terry reminds Bob that he was the last person in school to believe in Santa Claus.

I remember the day vividly. Christmas Eve afternoon it was, sitting in our back kitchen in front of the fire, reading Lord Snooty in that years Beano annual. I’d got it early, because the week before I’d been crying a lot with a boil on me neck. Anyhow, there I was, couldn’t have been happier, not a worry in the world except how Santa was gonna get a fire engine down our chimney. Then you show up with an evil, malicious grin on your face and said, ‘Santa Claus is dead.’

Bob goes on to remember that Terry had told him that Santa had been gored to death by his reindeer!

If the pub scene is the heart of the episode, there’s more traditional sitcom fare afterwards as Bob and Terry make their way home, very drunk.  Bob’s lost his car keys, so Terry elects to drive him home in his fork-lift truck.  And since he doesn’t have his front door key either, he uses the fork-lift to raise him up to the bedroom window.

On Christmas Eve, Bob and Thelma are on their way to a fancy dress party – Bob as Captain Hook and Thelma as Peter Pan (Terry’s got the job of driving their mincab).  Judging by the reaction of the studio audience they hadn’t seen Bewes’ costume before he entered the living room, since it draws an audible ripple of appreciation.  Once they get to the party, Thelma is appalled at the goings on – it seems that all their married friends have paired off with other people.  Bob’s not immune – he has his eye on Sylvia Braithwaite.

There’s more sitcom hi-jinks when a fuming Thelma asks Terry to drive her home, with neither realising that Bob and Sylvia are in the back of the cab.  Thelma invites Terry in for a drink and Sylvia insists that Bob drive her home in Terry’s cab.  This he does, but Terry sees the cab driving off and reports it stolen.

Running for just under forty-five minutes rather than the usual thirty, it’s tempting to wonder if it was originally planned as a half hour episode – if so, it would have ended with the fork-lift truck scene.  Was the fancy-dress party sequence bolted on later?  But however it was written, the final moment (when both Thelma and Terry realise that Bob stole the cab) is a great beat to end the series on.

Yes Minister – Party Games

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Broadcast on the 17th of December 1984, Party Games was the final episode of Yes Minster (it lead directly into the sequel series Yes Prime Minster).  It has a slight Chrismassy feel, but it’s not really a surprise that politics (rather than Christmas) dominates proceedings.

We open with Bernard (Derek Fowlds) telling Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) that there’s something much more urgent than the defence papers he’s working on.  Jim pulls a face when he realises that Bernard’s talking about his Christmas cards, but obediently goes over to the desk where a mountain of cards awaits him.  As might be expected, the neat civil servant in Bernard has organised everything down to the finest detail. “These you sign Jim, these Jim Hacker, these Jim and Annie, these Annie and Jim Hacker, these love from Annie and Jim.”

Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) has gone for a meeting with Sir Arnold (John Nettleton). Sir Arnold is the cabinet secretary, and Jim helpfully reminds Bernard (and the audience) exactly how important Sir Arnold is. “In some ways, Sir Arnold is the most powerful chap in the country. Permanent access to the PM, controls Cabinet agenda, controls access to everything.”

He’s due to retire early and is keen to appoint a successor. But the right man for the job has to be able to ask the key question – when Sir Humphrey asks how Sir Arnold plans to spend his retirement, it’s obvious he’s on the right track. “There might be jobs you could pick up, ways you could serve the country, which your successor, whoever he might be, could put your way – er, persuade you to undertake!”

One of the joys of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minster was the way in which it felt horribly credible.  This wasn’t surprising, since the writers (Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) had access to several different high level sources who would feed them valuable material.  But what is surprising about Party Games is how it seems to predict future events (a sheer fluke but it’s fascinating nonetheless).

When the Home Secretary, shortly after launching his Don’t Drink and Drive Campaign, is picked up for drunk driving, he’s forced to retire.  Shortly after, the Prime Minister also announces his retirement – which sparks an intense leadership contest.  It soon becomes clear that the Prime Minister hated the Home Secretary and only stayed in power long enough to ensure that he’d never get the chance to become PM.

Two clear candidates for the top job emerge.  Eric Jefferies (Peter Jeffrey) and Duncan Short (Philip Short).  Both are viewed with disfavour by the Chief Whip Jeffrey Pearson (James Grout).  “If Eric gets it we’ll have a party split in three months. If it’s Duncan, it’ll take three weeks.”

What they need is a comprise candidate – somebody with no firm opinions and lacking the personality to upset anybody.  Jim Hacker, of course, is the perfect man.  When Party Games was repeated in 1990, shortly after Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power, the parallels between Jim Hacker and John Major were simply irresistible.  Both seemed only to have got the job because they were seen as a safe (and bland) pair of hands – as well as preventing other, more divisive, figures from occupying the top job.

As ever with Yes Minister, the script sparkles with killer one-liners.  A favourite of mine comes from Sir Humphrey after Jim wonders what will happen to the Foreign Secretary following his enforced retirement.  “Well, I gather he was as drunk as a lord. So, after a discreet interval, they’ll probably make him one.”

Nigel Hawthorne also has the opportunity to recite a typical tongue-twisting monologue.  This is how Sir Humphrey breaks the news to Jim that he’s been promoted to Cabinet Secretary. “The relationship which I might tentatively venture to aver has been not without some degree of reciprocal utility and perhaps even occasional gratification, is emerging a point of irreversible bifurcation and, to be brief, is in the propinquity of its ultimate regrettable termination.”

Jim is able to persuade both Duncan and Eric to stand down from the leadership contest after he reads their MI5 files. As Sir Arnold says, “you should always send for Cabinet Ministers’ MI5 files, if you enjoy a good laugh.”

Party Games may feel a little bit stretched out at sixty minutes (as well the fact it does feel like an extended intro for the new series) but there’s still more than enough good material to make it an episode that repays multiple viewings.

Dear John – Series One

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By the mid eighties John Sullivan was on something of a roll.  Having started as a gag writer for the Two Ronnies in the late seventies he then quickly created a trilogy of classic sitcoms – Citizen Smith (1977-1980), Just Good Friends (1983-1986) and the series for which he’ll always be best remembered, Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003).

So despite having Just Good Friends and Only Fools and Horses on the go at the same time, Sullivan then increased his workload by adding another show, Dear John (1986-1987), into the mix.  Although popular at the time (and it was strong enough to spawn an American remake a few years later) it’s possibly not so well remembered today.  This may be because unlike Only Fools it never enjoyed blanket repeats (indeed the last terrestrial outing I can find a record of was back in 1991).

It also had quite a short run – two series and a Christmas Special, so just a total of fourteen episodes.  It’s sometimes been assumed that Ralph Bates’ tragically early death was the reason why the series didn’t continue, but the last episode aired in 1987 and Bates died four years later, so it seems more likely that Sullivan had run out of ideas for the characters.  This is something we’ll touch upon when we discuss series two, as there were several very clear attempts made to shake up the format.

The opening titles for the first series act as a very good shorthand to explain the concept of the show.  John Lacey (Ralph Bates) returns home to find a Dear John letter – his wife, Wendy, has left him.  We then cut to the court, where he looks optimistic (before he goes in that is).  Afterwards, things clearly haven’t gone well and he’s forced to pack his bags and move into a dingy one-room flat.

From the first scene John is presented as a loser.  A nice guy maybe, but a loser.  He’s enjoying a solitary pint, when an old friend, Roger (Michael Cochrane), pops up.  John attempts to put a brave face on his life as a divorcee, telling Roger that he’s having a great time – parties every night.  Roger must be pretty dense as he swallows these obvious lies and then tells him that it’s shame he’s so busy as a few of the lads are heading out for a Chinese meal.  John’s now dug himself into a hole – he’d love to go out with Roger and the others, but since he’s created such an active fantasy social life for himself, Roger thinks he’s joking.  It’s interesting that Roger never appears again – he seems to have been created as a potential regular (and Cochrane is the sort of actor that would enhance any series) but after this scene he vanishes, never to be seen again.

Tired of sitting in his tatty bedsit, he decides to join the 1-2-1 club, a divorced/separated encounter group.  It seems to be well attended, although it turns out that most of them are in the wrong room – they want the alcoholics anonymous meeting next door – which caps the opening gag which saw John go into the alcoholics anonymous meeting by mistake.

Once that confusion’s been settled we’re left with the motley bunch of characters who will be the main focus of the first series.  Ralph Dring (Peter Denyer) is a charisma free zone – seemingly a man with little personality or self-awareness.  Kirk St Moritz (Peter Blake) could hardly be a greater contrast – he has personality, far far too much of it and dresses in a way that can best be described as “flamboyant.”  Kate (Belinda Lang) is quiet and fairly reluctant (at first) to be the centre of attention, but she’s not as quiet as Mrs Arnott (Jean Challis) who it’s easy to forget is there at times.  Leading the group is Louise (Rachel Bell).

The characters are clearly defined in their opening scene.  Ralph and Kirk are the obvious comic creations, so they’re particularly useful when the mood needs to be lightened after a serious moment (Ralph can always provide a bizarre conversational non sequitur whilst Kirk usually has an insensitive insult ready).  Kate is a not such an extreme character, but she has a savage wit which is used to great effect to cut Kirk down to size (not that he ever minds, like a rubber ball he just bounces back).

Mrs Arnott rarely speaks – but this is a masterstroke, as whenever she does utter a few words they’re so well chosen by Sullivan that they invariably bring the house down.  Louise is something of a monster, although it takes a little while for her true nature to come to the surface.  Whilst she gives the impression of solicitous interest in her charges, it’s obvious that she really, really enjoys hearing all the gory details.  Her catchphrase (“were there any … sexual problems?”) doesn’t generate any reaction from the studio audience the first time, but when it’s quickly repeated they cotton onto the fact and begin to respond.

We see her delight in learning about all the juicy bits very clearly in episode two when John inadvertently goads Kate into admitting that her three marriages broke up because she was frigid.  Louise’s pleasure is plain to see and later, in the pub, she continues probing (“did your husbands try and force themselves on you?”) even after Kate’s made it quite plain she doesn’t want to talk about it.

My favourite episode from the first series is the third one, since it features Ralph heavily.  Peter Denyer was a joy from start to finish – deadpanning his way through each and every episode.  It’s the sort of character that has to be played completely straight (with no sense of self-awareness) and Denyer was spot on.  Here, he’s holed up at home, bemoaning the fact that not only has he lost his job but he’s suffered a death in the family.  Terry the Terrapin may not look like much, but he meant the world to Ralph.  “He was my best friend. We’d been together for years.”

This episode also shows Kirk in a different light.  He may appear to be rude, obnoxious and  narcissistically self-obsessed, but when he learns that Ralph’s razor is broke he goes out and buys him a top of the range replacement.  We’re waiting for the gag, but it’s a genuine present and offered in a true spirit of friendship.  It’s the hapless John who provides the laughs – he borrows the razor to have a quick shave, but it drops out of his hand into the fishtank (destroying Kirk’s gift and killing Ralph’s replacement terrapins in one fell swoop).  Bates, so good at both verbal and non-verbal comedy, is a delight in this scene.

The seventh and final episode of the first series is another favourite.  Kirk continues to indulge in his wild flights of fancy, which nobody (except for the gullible Ralph) believes.  But the extent of Kirk’s fantasy life is greater than anybody realised – as John discovers when he meets Kirk at home.  He’s not Kirk at all – he’s Eric Morris, a bespectacled nerdy character who lives at home with his mother (who’s entertainly abusive towards him).  The difference between the confident Kirk and the downtrodden Eric is immense (although it just about stays within the bounds of credibility here, unlike the later Christmas Special).  And there’s a decent gag at the end, when Kirk returns and berates John for coming round to one of his safe-houses.  Did he not realise he was undercover on a dangerous spying mission?!

So with a solid series of seven episodes it was inevitable that the show would return for a second series.  But whilst series two was still extremely funny in places, there were also signs that the concept was beginning to run out of steam.

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Dear John – Series Two

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Series two opens with several new recruits to the Wednesday night meetings of the 1-2-1 club.  We’ve already met Sylvia (Lucinda Curtis), possessor of an incredibly annoying nervous laugh, during the first series but Rick (Kevin Lloyd) makes his debut here.  He automatically expects everybody to know who he is – as Ricky Fortune he had a brief moment of pop glory in 1969 – so is crushed when nobody recognises him.  John, nice guy that he is, pretends that he owns all of Ricky’s records, but Kirk recognises this as a barefaced lie and delights in needling the unfortunate Rick.

Rick proudly tells them that his big hit went to number one.  But not in Britain.  Or America.  Eventually he has to shamefacedly admit that he was a chart topper in Iceland. Not quite the same thing really.  The observant viewer may have noticed that Mrs Arnott isn’t present, this is purely so she can turn up later and scream with delight when she spies her pop hero Ricky!  This is another lovely use of Mrs Arnott’s character, which makes Sullivan’s decision to write her out of the series in episode two a baffling move.  As I touched upon before, although she didn’t do much her brief contributions were always telling – with the result that her absence was certainly felt.

I’ve a feeling that Sullivan was tiring of the 1-2-1 club format, as several later episodes are much more focused around John, with the others rather pushed into the background.  The fact that John was becoming more central, a change from the ensemble feel of series one, might also explain why Belinda Lang didn’t appear in the final two episodes (although she briefly returns for the Christmas Special).  But another series which starred Lang, The Bretts, was also in production at this time, so it could be that her commitments meant she could only do the four episodes.  Either way, she’s another loss.

Rick features heavily in the first two episodes and then abruptly leaves.  His departure is left fairly open (his confidence takes a knock after believing he’ll be the star of a 1960’s disco – not realising that Louise had already booked Freddie and the Dreamers) but we never see him again.  A pity, since Kevin Lloyd (probably best known as Tosh Lines in The Bill) has an appealing sense of vulnerability as the faded pop star.

The third episode centres around John’s relationship with his son Toby (played by Ralph Bates’ real son, William).  Knowing this, and also being aware of Ralph Bates’ early death, does add several layers of poignancy to any scenes they share.  This was the younger Bates’ only acting job – he’s now carved out a successful career as a musician.

If Rick’s departure felt like a slight structural oddity, then so are episodes four and five.  In episode four we’re told that John has met an attractive divorcee, Liz (Lucy Fleming), but as we never see their initial meeting she just seems to appear out of nowhere.  Since John’s the eternal loser it seems obvious that his attempts to romance her will come to naught.

This appears to be the case when they both return to his room as he’s astonished to find his best friend Ken (Terence Edmond) sleeping in his bed.  Ken’s been turfed out of his house by his wife Maggie (Sue Holderness) and has sought refuge with John.  Earlier, John, Ken and Maggie shared an icy dinner together (the highlight being Maggie’s forced politeness – nicely played by Holderness).  Ken’s presence puts a dampner on any carnal thoughts that John and Liz might have entertained and she quickly leaves.  That, you would think, would be that, but the next day she tells the dumfounded John that she’s booked them into a hotel in Brighton for the weekend.

It’s an intriguing point to end the episode on, but that’s the last we see of her.  Next time John tells the others that Liz dumped him for another man she met at the hotel (well he did have a Ferrari).  Given all we’d seen of Liz during her – admittedly brief – appearance, this seems rather out of character with the result that everything feels very odd.  If you create a relationship that looks like it has legs then the audience may feel aggrieved if it’s curtailed in such an off-hand way.  Why Sullivan couldn’t have written Fleming into episode five as well is a mystery – as her final, unseen, phone conversation with John doesn’t convince.

The slightly strange tone continues with episode six.  John’s finally got some good news – he’s shortly to be promoted to headmaster.  And when he meets a beautiful young woman called Karen (Elizabeth Morton) everything seems to be going his way.  The revelation that Karen isn’t twenty three as he thought, but is a seventeen year old schoolgirl just transferred to his school, is a brilliant comic moment, although it’s an undeniably dodgy topic which you probably wouldn’t find in a pre-watershed sitcom today (always assuming there are any pre-watershed sitcoms of course).

I do find Sullivan’s treatment of Karen to be a little troubling.  It’s revealed that she has a history of forming relationships with her teachers and has already cost at least one of them his job.  Although she’s presented as innocent romantic, just not interested in boys her own age, there’s something slightly off-putting about the way her character is handled.  For John, it’s another indication that he’s a born loser.  Although innocent of any wrongdoing, his liaison with Karen is enough to ensure that he’s passed over for the headmaster’s job this time.  Although David (Frank Windsor) airily tells him he’ll be able to apply in a few year time, when all this blows over.

It’s always a pleasure to see Windsor, and since Elizabeth Morton (now acting under the name of Elizabeth Heery) was twenty six when this episode was made it’s possible to find her attractive as a schoolgirl with a clear conscience.  But that still doesn’t stop this episode from being a somewhat strange watch.

Dear John ended with the 1987 Christmas special.  Kate returns – as eventually does Kirk.  Peter Blake spends most of the episode as Eric, telling John that Kirk is dead and he’ll never ever be him again.  But when Eric, by a stunning coincidence, happens to be present in the same pub where the others have gathered (he’s not brave enough to meet his former friends as Eric) and observes Ralph being harassed by some Hells Angels, he knows what he has to do.  Clutching his Kirk suit, which he had planned on binning, he strides into the gents toilets – to emerge as Kirk in all his glory.  The Superman theme helps to reinforce the obvious joke, but it’s clearly one that delights the audience as they launch into a round of applause.

The notion that Eric is a feeble nobody whilst Kirk is a master of martial arts is hard to swallow, so this is the moment when Dear John jumped the shark (Kirk is able to take on and beat the gang of Hells Angels without breaking a sweat).  It’s a great comic moment – as is the sight of Ralph hung up on the coatstand! – but it stretches credibility to breaking point.  Still, it was Christmas so we’ll let them off.

Better defined character comedy closes the show.  John has had a strained relationship with Mrs Lemenski (Irene Prador) for the whole of the run.  She regards him as a nutcase and was never backwards in coming forwards to tell him so.  But this episode is where we learn a little more about her and discover that she’s just as lonely as the rest of them.  But whilst John and the others have the dubious pleasures of the 1-2-1 club, she has nothing, so when she offers to cook him Christmas dinner he – after a brief struggle with his conscience – agrees.  His ex-wife has asked him to spend Christmas with her and he’d agreed with alacrity.  Mrs Lemenski seems to have put a spoke in this, but I’ve no doubt that John will be able to work something out, meaning that the series ends on a slightly positive note.

Although I’ve been slightly critical here, series two of Dear John still has plenty of excellent comic moments, it’s just that when watching it back-to-back with series one it becomes clear that something was missing.  Probably John Sullivan was right to introduce new characters and move away from the 1-2-1 club setting (otherwise it could have ended up in a rut) but given the strained nature of some of series two it does seem that everybody was aware that the show had run its course.

Next of Kin – Simply Media DVD Review

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Maggie (Penelope Keith) and Andrew (William Gaunt) are on the verge of a new life.  Following Andrew’s retirement, the pair plan to sell their house in England and move to a quiet village in France.  As they sit in the French sunshine, finalising their plans, talk turns to who they’ll invite over.  Both are adamant that Graham and his wife (unflatteringly known as Bootface) should definitely both be persona non grata.  The clear inference is that Graham’s a boring friend who they’re keen to jettison, but shortly afterwards it’s revealed that he’s their only son.

Returning home to England, they learn that Graham and his wife have been killed in a car crash, which leaves Maggie and Andrew with the difficult task of caring for their three grandchildren – Georgia (Ann Gosling), Philip (Mathew Clarke) and Jake (Jamie Lucraft).

What’s striking about the opening episode of Next of Kin is just how unsympathetic both Maggie and Andrew are (especially Maggie).  Even after the news of Graham’s death has sunk in, Maggie is unable to express any grief at all.  As she tells her housekeeper Liz (Tracie Bennett), she had very little time for her son.  Packed off to boarding school at the earliest opportunity, it’s plain that no mother/son bond (or indeed father/son) bond was ever developed.  Even as an adult, things didn’t improve as she regarded him as a pompous, priggish bore.  The last time they saw Graham was five years ago, after Bootface told her on Christmas Day that she didn’t want her to smoke in the house.  That was enough for them to decide they never wanted to see their son and the rest of his family again.  It’s another of those moments that highlights just how selfish and self-centered Maggie and Andrew are (although dramatically there had to be a reason why they hadn’t seen the children for a while – had they been regular visitors it would have dulled the culture-shock of their arrival)

Penelope Keith was no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters – both Margo Leadbetter and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton were self-centered snobs, so Maggie bears some similarities to her two most famous comic roles.  To begin with, Maggie is violently opposed to acting as a surrogate parent, she made a hash of parenting the first time so why should she have to go through it again?  But as part of the series’ theme is redemption (had they all spent three series sniping at each other things would have become very tedious) there’s obvious dramatic potential in watching how Maggie and Andrew slowly get to know and love their grandchildren.  It’s interesting listening to the studio audience during the scenes where Maggie professes she had no love for her son though, unsurprisingly they’re quite subdued.

William Gaunt, previously the harassed nominal head of the house in No Place Like Home, has a similar role to play here.  If Maggie is uptight, then Andrew is relaxed (he’s quite sanguine about taking care of their grandchildren, seeing it as their duty).

As for the kids themselves, Jake is the youngest (seven), his brother Philip is a couple of years older whilst big sister Georgia is in her early teens.  Georgia is initially presented as the most hostile to their new surroundings – she’s the archetypical stroppy teenager with a host of politically correct views inherited from her parents.  All three children (including young Jake) are shown to have picked up character traits from their parents (he still enjoys a bedtime story, but wants Maggie to continue the tale of the whale stranded in a sea of oil – a victim of human greed and corruption).

Liz is on hand to dispense the occasional nugget of wisdom (gleaned from various television and radio phone in shows) whilst battling off the advances of Tom the builder (Mark Powley – probably best known as Ken Melvin from The Bill).  Real life couple Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton pop up occasionally as Maggie and Andrew’s best friends Rosie and Hugh.  The four spent many happy holidays abroad together, although Rosie and Hugh now serve as a reminder to Maggie and Andrew that their days of freedom have passed – it’ll be a long time before they can simply decide to leave for a holiday on a whim.

As a family based sitcom, Next of Kin probably slightly suffered from the fact that 2.4 Children was running at the same time.  2.4 Children had a deft blend of parenting topics and surrealistic humour and enjoyed a very long run (possibly only curtailed by the death of Gary Olsen).  Although Next of Kin lasted for three years (an indicator that twenty years ago the schedulers were quite generous – today a middling sitcom would be lucky to get a second series) this wasn’t long enough to show the children developing into young adults – although they still managed to cover a fair amount of ground during the three series.

It may not offer belly laughs, but the combination of Penelope Keith and William Gaunt (especially Gaunt, who’s always worth watching in both comedy and drama) and the three young leads is an attractive one and Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie’s scripts are quite sharp in places.  It’s never going to be acclaimed as a lost classic, but it does seem slightly unfair that it seems to have disappeared from the public’s consciousness quite so comprehensively.

Next of Kin – The Complete Collection contains all twenty two episodes (seven for both series one and two, eight for series three) across six discs (two discs per series).   Picture quality is fine, although I did notice some sound issues.  Occasionally the sound is rather tinny and there’s brief moments where the soundtrack has an odd, phasing tone.  It never renders the dialogue inaudible, but the changes in the quality of the soundtrack are quite detectable.  Having spoken to Simply they confirm this was a problem outside of their control – hence the disclaimer on the start-up screens. It’s probably something that some people will notice more than others, but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the series.

Next of Kin is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

BBC Landmark Sitcom Season

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Running across BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4, the upcoming Landmark Sitcom Season is a series of one-off specials designed to celebrate sixty years of the British sitcom (Hancock’s Half Hour, which debuted on BBC tv in 1956, has been taken as the starting point).  Of course, if any prove to be popular they can be developed into full series, which means that the cynics amongst us might regard this as little more than a season of pilots …..

For the purposes of this blog, there’s seven which are of interest – four on BBC1 and the other three on BBC4.  BBC1 gives us Porridge, Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart and Young Hyacinth (a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances) whist BBC4 has Hancock’s Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son.

Goodnight Sweetheart is notable because it’s the only one able to reunite the original cast (alas, time has caught up with most of the stars from the others).  Marks and Gran have already revived another of their sitcoms, Birds of a Feather, on ITV, so it’s not difficult to believe that this has been made with one eye on a full series.

Young Hyacinth is another that’s easy to imagine has been crafted as a back-door pilot.  Writer Roy Clarke has form for this – First of the Summer Wine was an effective (if not terribly popular, ratings-wise) prequel to Last of the Summer Wine – and the current success of Still Open All Hours suggests that Clarke would be up for a revisit of another of his old shows.  Some other time I’ll cast an eye over Clarke’s whole career – it’s amazing that he’s still going strong and it has to be said that his CV is a varied one with a lot more to offer than just umpteen years of Summer Wine.

Are You Being Served looks to be a pitch-perfect recreation of the original series, complete with all the familiar catchphrases.  Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much down to personal taste of course ….

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Porridge looks to be doing something a little different.  It would have been easy enough to cast someone not physically dissimilar to Ronnie Barker (Peter Kay for example) and simply rehash old glories, but the clips show that it’s very much set in the present day (unlike Are You Being Served which remains stuck in the mid eighties) .  One positive is that the updated Porridge has been scripted by Clement and La Frenais themselves, although it’s slightly concerning that they’re not adverse to plagiarising themselves.  Familiar gags (“I won’t let you catch me”) and a martinet Scottish prison officer are present and correct.

Whilst the BBC1 revivals feature new scripts, the ones on BBC4 take a different approach.  Steptoe, Hancock and Till Death are newly recorded versions of wiped originals …. well sort of.  All the Steptoe episodes still exist, so they’ve chosen one which only remains as a poor quality B&W video recording.

These three episodes have a very different feel to their BBC1 counterparts.  The original sitcoms tended to be rather studio-bound, but these new recordings heighten this feel.  The lack of solid walls in the sets makes them seem rather theatrical and artificial, although it’s more than likely that this has something to do with the fact that BBC4 has a considerably lower budget than BBC1.

Although some of the efforts look interesting rather than rib-tickling, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the Hancock episode.  Kevin McNally has already recorded a number of missing HHH radio scripts for Radio 4 (jolly good they are too) and his performances make it clear just how much love and respect he has for the Lad Himself.

When the season’s up and running I’ll be blogging about some of my favourite British sitcom episodes.  So I guess now’s a good time to go off and do some research …..

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.

 

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.

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.

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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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.

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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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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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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