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.