The Rag Trade – The Christmas Rush

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Following on from the original BBC run during the early sixties and an abortive BBC attempt in the early seventies to revive the series via an unscreened pilot, The Rag Trade finally returned to television during 1977 and 1978 thanks to this LWT series.

Although only Peter Jones (Fenner) and Miriam Karlin (Paddy) reprised their roles from the BBC incarnation, all of the new characters weren’t terribly dissimilar to the old ones – which made sense, as some of the LWT scripts were directly recycled from the BBC originals.

Christopher Beeney, as Tony, stepped easily to the role vacated by Reg Varney whilst Diane Langton (Kathy) had something of the vague air of Carole, Sheila Hancock’s character (although Kathy was much more pneumatically enhanced).   One interesting conundrum is whether Anna Karen’s character is meant to be the same Olive from On The Buses.  She certain looks and acts like her and since both series were written by Chesney and Wolfe it does seem likely, although it’s never directly confirmed.

The Christmas Rush (tx 24th December 1977) finds a typically harassed Fenner attempting to chivvy the girls (and token male, Tony) into finishing up their latest order.  But of course, they’re much more interested in planning for Christmas …..

There’s a few different story threads in this one.  The first concerns Fenner’s annual dilemma – what to buy both his wife (played by Rowena Cooper) and Paddy for Christmas?  For the last fifteen years he’s abdicated this responsibility by asking Paddy to shop for his wife and his wife to shop for Paddy.  That Paddy elects to buy a smart handbag for Mrs Fenner but then pockets the accessories (purse, manicure set) is characteristic.  Mrs Fenner seem equally contemptuous about Paddy as she decides to give her one of her old presents (a manicure set!).  Fenner reacts in horror, since this was yet another gift selected by Paddy for his wife …..

The set piece comedy moment occurs after Tony bemoans the fact that he’s getting nowhere with Lyn (Gillian Taylforth).  His constant attempts to catch her under the mistletoe haven’t gone the way he planned, so Paddy suggests that if he waits until Lyn’s alone in the rest room and then switches out the light, he could embrace her in the dark.  Paddy tells him – and the other girls agree – that a woman shouldn’t be asked her consent, in fact quite the reverse (they like to be dominated).

Although Paddy later arms herself with a jug of water – all the better to pour over the randy Tony – it seems that the girls weren’t entirely lying when they suggested that the role of the female was to be submissive (although this is undercut in some of the dialogue).  You probably won’t be amazed to learn that things don’t go the way Tony planned since he ends up groping the unfortunate Mrs Fenner instead.

In today’s climate, it’s hard to imagine any scene being deemed less appropriate for broadcast (so don’t expect to see this popping up on ITV3 any time soon).  Mrs Fenner might be a little traumatised by her experience, but everybody else laughs it off and even Fenner doesn’t seem too concerned (telling his wife that Tony looks more upset than she does).

Whilst this scene, like most of the episode, is played very broadly, there’s one quiet moment – which closes the show.  With one dress ruined from an important order, Fenner needs to knock up a replacement quickly, but all the girls are keen to leave – all except Paddy.  Despite their combative relationship, she can’t bring herself to walk out (telling him that he was always a rotten machinist).  This is a beautifully played scene by Jones and Karlin which sees Fenner and Paddy share a drink in the peace and quiet of the workshop before she gets on with the job.  It certainly leaves us with the suggestion that this isn’t the first time they’ve shared a quiet moment together ….

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Telly Addicts – 1989 Christmas Special

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Back in those far off, pre-internet days, Telly Addicts was required viewing since it offered brief, tantalising glimpses into a television past that was otherwise pretty much off limits (look! A clip of Arthur Haynes …).  Today, of course, the archive clippage is less compelling, but it’s still an entertaining quiz.

As was usual, the Christmas special is something of a celebrity fest.  The Crackers (Graeme Garden, George Layton, Liza Goddard, Frank Carson) find themselves locked in a bitter battle with the Clowns (Chris Tarrant, Barry Cryer, Jessica Martin, Jim Bowen).  For some reason (self indulgence maybe) Noel Edmonds dubs each of them with a fictitious soap opera name.  Cryer is gifted the moniker Hugh Jampton, and no doubt he – and the older members of the audience – would have immediately understood the reference.

Memorable rounds include Guess Who, which sees ordinary members of the public stopped in the street and asked to describe a television favourite.  This sounds fair enough, but pretty much everyone picked looks a little, well … odd.  You have to assume that the television crew let the ordinary looking people pass by – it was the nutters they wanted ….

Sing the Sig is also good fun, whilst a clip from the Golden Girls seems to demonstrate that nobody on the Clowns team ever watched it.  We also get to see just the mildest amount of needle between Chris Tarrant and Noel Edmonds whilst Frank Carson (for him) is fairly subdued – although his exasperation in the final round (“why ask me? What’s wrong with them?”) is a joy.

The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1980

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Paul Daniels notched up fifteen consecutive Christmas Specials on the BBC between 1979 and 1993, a staggering feat which no other performer has come close to matching (unless I’ve missed someone blindingly obvious).   Daniels’ sometimes abrasive performing style (forged in the white heat of the Northern Working Mens Clubs) and his outspoken opinions on numerous subjects always ensured that he seemed to be as loathed as he was loved, but there’s no denying the influence he had on modern magic.

Following his death, most of the great and good of the magic world queued up to pay tribute – although it’s also fair to say that many were equally as fulsome when he was alive.  This clip from Penn and Teller: Fool Us never fails to bring a smile to my lips, not least for the obvious respect that both Penn and Teller – but especially the ebullient Penn – had for Paul.

Rewinding back to 1980, this was Daniels’ second BBC Christmas Special and the first to be transmitted on Christmas day itself (surprisingly he’d only manage this feat a further three times – in 1981, 1982 and 1985).  It’s the early days of the series, so the lovely Debbie McGee has yet to appear on the scene.  Daniels’ assistants here are equally as attractive – and sport some remarkable costumes – but are never allowed to speak.  Paul’s wig is still very much in evidence (as is, in the opening few minutes, a remarkable red velvet suit).

Another feature of these early series was “the jury” – a group of handpicked members of the studio audience who were allowed to get up close and personal (their job was to try and work out exactly how the tricks worked).  But it was also useful in another respect, as it meant that Paul didn’t have to trudge out to the wider studio audience in order to find his next hapless victim.

The first trick – involving Peter and his watch – is typical Daniels.  He borrows Peter’s watch in order to do a clever trick which inevitably goes wrong.  All appears lost and Peter seems resigned to losing his precious timepiece, until Paul miraculously pulls it out of the middle of a Christmas cracker (well this is a festive show).  Although Paul gives his victim a slightly hard time, you know that everything will work itself out in the end, so the joshing never seems particularly cruel or unkind.

I like the mentalism trick which he performs with a rather attractive young woman from the jury.  It’s another neat piece of close-up magic and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.  Paul’s next turn – in the Christmas Bunco Booth – is possibly the most memorable part of the show.  Not because it’s a decent trick (in fact, there’s no trick at all) but simply because it demonstrates how some things never seem to change …..

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Paul opens by bemoaning the fact that since the economy is going through something of a rough patch, plenty of people are feeling the pinch (which plays equally as well in 2017 as it did in 1980).  But then he tells us his solution – separate Scotland from England and give the Scots their own currency.  Eerily prescient stuff.  As I said, there’s no trick here – just a clever piece of number juggling which allows him at the end to turn to camera and tell Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe that’s how they should be running the country!

Guest-wise, Lilly Yokoi’s bicycle act is very impressive (a pity it wasn’t a little longer).  Whereas during Michael McGiveney’s quick change act I did wish it was a little shorter.  There’s no denying the ability of McGiveney (acting out a scene from Olivier Twist, playing all the characters) but after you’ve seen one quick change you’ve seen them all (and it’s fair to say that McGiveney’s a better quick change artist than he is an actor).  Compagnie Philippe Genty offer diverting, but not riveting, puppet fun.

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Paul never seemed threatened by other magicians, as the appearance here of Harry Blackstone suggests.  Blackstone performs the sawing a woman in half trick – although by using a circular saw it creates a heightened sense of anticipation.  It’s the one major illusion in the show, which makes it all the more surprising that Paul didn’t perform it – but he was obviously happy doing the smaller stuff.  Other illusionists might have been tempted to throw in blood and screams, but Blackstone – possibly mindful of the Christmas Day audience – keeps it clean.  The camera’s close enough to see the saw apparently slicing through flesh though, so it’s still slightly disquieting.

Paul ends the show by pulling out a bewilderingly large number of Christmas presents from a very small box.  It’s a cute ending (although I’m not sure that they’d get away with using live animals today) and although there’s no staggering illusions in this 1980 Special it’s still a very convivial way to spend fifty minutes.

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Porridge – No Way Out

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1975

Christmas is approaching in Slade Prison and Godber, for one, is getting into the spirit.  He’s encouraged by the number of cons who have congregated around the Christmas tree to sing carols, but Fletcher has to break the bad news to him.

They’re singing in order to drown out the noise of a tunnel that’s being dug in order to allow Tommy Slocombe to escape (“Yeah, that’s the big occasion around here.  It’s not the coming of our Lord, it’s the going of Tommy Slocombe”).  Genial Harry Grout (Peter Vaughan) is behind the escape, so everybody will have to play their part, as Fletcher so memorably puts it “If we are asked to assist, we are in no position to refuse are we?  Otherwise, we’ll wake up one morning and find two more things hanging on the Christmas tree.  Us”.

Fletcher plans to go away for Christmas by wangling a stay in the comfort of the prison infirmary.  But the doctor (Graham Crowden) is having none of it and packs Fletch off to the local hospital for some tests instead.  This allows somebody to slip Fletcher a package containing a blank passport, which is another piece of Grouty’s puzzle, but he still needs something else – a bicycle.  “Certainly” says Fletch.  “What colour?”.

Fletcher, Godber and Warren are able to relive the unfortunate Mr Barrowclough of his bike and Fletcher then professes ignorance when Mr Barrowclough asks him if he knows where it is (“Let’s get this straight.  You are saying that you came to work this morning as a cyclist and will be leaving as a pedestrian?”).

But all of Grouty’s plans seem to have come to naught after some petty pilfering means that the screws declare that Christmas will be cancelled.  This seems to scupper the escape plan but Fletcher has an idea.  Why don’t they let the screws discover the tunnel and whilst they’re busy congratulating themselves, Grouty can quietly spirit Slocombe away by another route?

Grouty agrees and Fletch is delegated to reveal the tunnel to Mr Mackay.  He wants to arrange that Mackay will literally drop right into it.  Unfortunately, it’s Fletcher who drops into the tunnel, right before the astonished eyes of Mackay, but this does mean that Fletch will be able to spend Christmas in the infirmary after all.

Mackay has one unanswered question and promises Fletcher a bottle of scotch if he’ll answer it.  What did they do with all the earth from the tunnel?  Fletch’s answer (“They dug another tunnel and put the earth down there”) is a killer final line.

The first of two Porridge Christmas specials, No Way Out adds another ten minutes to the normal running time, which allows for a few more gags but isn’t so long that it begins to feel drawn out.  That’s one of the problems with Christmas editions of sitcoms when they started to be produced in a 90 minute format – what works in 30 minutes doesn’t always work when extended to 90.  Thankfully, Porridge didn’t go down that route.

Harry Grout is probably the role that Peter Vaughan is most associated with, which is a little surprising when you consider that Grouty only appeared in a handful of episodes.  He is mentioned in a number of others though, so that his presence is always felt (even when he’s not actually seen).  Vaughan’s ability to play everything deadpan and calm is one of the reasons why Grouty works so well – he doesn’t have to raise his voice, just a word or a snap of his fingers will do the trick.

No Way Out is a hardy Christmas perennial, usually to be found each year on BBC2 and certainly receiving several airings on Gold.  Its familiarity might have dimmed a little of its power (and it’s difficult to rewatch it now without hearing the man with the irritating laugh in the audience) but it’s still a Christmas treat.