Steptoe and Son (1965 American Pilot) – Kaleidoscope From The Archive Collection

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Most people will probably be aware of Sanford and Son, the successful US version of Steptoe and Son which ran for a total of 136 episodes during the 1970’s. But an earlier attempt (by Joseph E. Levine in 1965) to adapt the series for the American market has remained, until now, little more than a footnote in the Steptoe and Son story.

This was due to the fact that no recording was known to exist – until, that is, researchers from Kaleidoscope stumbled on a film print in Ray Galton’s basement. This is touched upon in the brief special feature, which we’ll come to later, but what of the main course?

Whilst Ray Galton and Alan Simpson have a prominent “created by” credit on the opening titles, their voices are largely absent. Although the half hour does feature a squabbling father and son duo called Albert and Harold who run a rag and bone business, it has a very different feel from the BBC Comedy Playhouse pilot, The Offer.

That was a claustrophobic two-hander, whereas this is more expansive (there are a number of other speaking parts, most prominently Jonathan Harris). Albert (Lee Tracy) is still the manipulative one, but Tracy doesn’t have Wilfred Brambell’s aura of pathetic defeat. Instead, Tracy’s Albert is a spry sort of chap, happy to hang out at the local café (singing along with the local beatniks, no less).

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Aldo Ray’s Harold has the same sort of put-upon air that Harry H. Corbett excelled at, although Ray doesn’t really have long enough to make his mark. There are a few brief moments when his anger comes bubbling to the surface though – had the show gone to a series then this might have been an interesting area to develop.

One part of the pilot which isn’t very effective is the soundtrack. The incidental music is very much in the “waa, waa, waaaaa” tradition – hammering the comedy points home with a lack of subtlety. The laugh track (I’m not sure whether it was canned or actually a genuine audience) also seems a little off.

Although Harold does call Albert a “dirty old man” several times, the context is quite different from the British original. It’s nothing to do with his lack of hygiene (this Albert is always very dapper) instead Harold’s cursing is aimed at the way his father always manages to outsmart him (with a “waa, waa, waaaaa” on the soundtrack, no doubt).

Although you might have expected Phil Shuken’s teleplay to be an adaptation of The Offer (and some of the pre-publicity suggested this was so) the pilot is a totally different story. Although Harold is keen to leave, he’s pre-empted by Albert who signs the business over to him. Of course this is only a ruse and the status quo is restored at the end after Albert tricks Harold into burning the agreement. Harold expresses mild exasperation at this – but there’s no room for the emotional distress displayed by Harry H. Corbett (“I can’t get away, I can’t break free”).

In one way it seems invidious to keep on referring back to the BBC original, but if it wasn’t for the Galton and Simpson connection then this pilot’s appeal would be very limited indeed. As a curio for those interested in Steptoe or G&S then it’s certainly of interest – provided you’re not expecting something as bleak and impressive as The Offer then it’s a diverting enough half hour.

Shot on 35mm film, either it’s undergone some restoration work or Ray Galton’s basement was the ideal place to store film materials, as it looks very nice with only a few intermittent seconds of damage here and there. The sole special feature is a four minute excerpt from the Kaleidoscope documentary The Native Hue of Resolution.

This sees Ray Galton and Tessa Le Bars (G&S’s agent) venturing down to Ray’s basement, where they just happen to stumble over a film can. No doubt this was a moment staged for the documentary, but it’s still nice to see them rummaging around this room of treasures for a few minutes.

Steptoe and Son is worth a look, but with a running time of only thirty five minutes it’s an expensive buy. If these archive releases continue, then there might be some merit in collecting various orphaned titles together – that would be one way of offering decent value for money.

Steptoe and Son – The “Lost” Unaired 1965 American Pilot Episode is released by Kaleidoscope on the 13th of August 2018, RRP £12.99. It can be ordered from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Hancock’s Half Hour – The Artist

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Sid’s made the acquaintance of the Count (Valentine Dyall), an art connoisseur who has commissioned him to “acquire” certain works of art.  The latest acquisition will be made from the Tate Galley (Sid: “It’s not where Harry Tate used to live?”) albiet without their permission. Athough Sid is successful, he only just manages to escape the clutches of the police.

Where to hide the stolen Rembrandt?  Because it’s been cut out of the frame it’s easy to tuck away somewhere, so he chooses a junk shop in Chelsea.  Mixed in with all the other bric-a-brac it should be quite safe, shouldn’t it?  However, this shop is a stones throw away from a small garret where Tony Hancock is eking out a miserable existence as a struggling artist.  Somehow I think these two plotlines will be connected …..

What’s interesting about the start of The Artist is how long the set-up with Sid and the stolen painting goes on for.  This means that we’re well into the episode before Tony makes his first appearance, although it’s worth waiting for.  This is classic Hancock – the misunderstood genius, baffled as to why the world isn’t beating a path to his door.

Galton & Simpson would re-use the theme of Hancock as artist several times (most notably on the big screen in The Rebel).  It’s done wonderfully here and there are so many lines you can just imagine tripping off Tony’s tongue. Here, he’s modestly reviewing his labours.   “I mean it’s good stuff. You can’t grumble at that lot for an hour’s work. The public aren’t ready for me, that’s the trouble. I’m ten years ahead of me time.”

He then goes on to marvel at one of his own works (a picture of a matchstick man sitting on a horse).  “The Saint on horseback. And what about that horse? Albert Munnings had to look twice when he saw it. Shook him rigid it did.”  A great example of Hancock’s self delusion.

Continuity never really featured in HHH.  Last week Tony was a big television star, this week he’s a starving artist, next week he’ll be something else.  It’s slightly strange, but the fact that the reset button is hit every week doesn’t really matter.

His new model turns up – played by Irene Handl.  One can only imagine how she would have looked after she’d changed into what the script called a 1930’s style bathing suit.  It’s quite a thought though.

Popping out for some new canvases, he’s persuaded to buy some used ones from the local junk shop.  It’s not ideal, but since it’s cheaper to paint over existing paintings, for the cash-strapped Tony it makes sense.  Of course one of the canvases is the stolen Rembrandt but neither Tony or the shop owner realise this.  Tony, art philistine that he is, views it with disdain.  “Rubbish. Look at it, no idea. These amateurs, I wish they’d leave it alone. This sort of thing turns the public right off art … then they don’t appreciate blokes like me. It’ll be a pleasure to paint over this.”

When Sid and the Count learn that Tony has acquired the Rembrandt they need to get it back – but since Tony’s now painted over it, they have no idea which of Tony’s terrible efforts it’s hidden behind.  This is another lovely scene, with G&S once again skewering the pretensions of the art world.  The Count desperately tries to pretend that Tony’s daubs have some merit, asking him politely if one of his pictures was painted with yellow ochre and royal blue.  Tony replies that no, it was Chlorophyl toothpaste (“I’m always picking up the wrong tube”).

Even better is the gag about his painting entitled cow in a field.  Tony explains why it’s somewhat impressionistic.  “I only had one sitting. And that was a fleeting glimpse, I was on a train.”  This is simply glorious material.

The Count decides that buying all the pictures would be suspicious, so he buys one, takes it home to see if it’s the Rembrandt and when it isn’t he’s forced to return and buy another.  This happens again and again, until he’s purchased twenty three of Tony’s paintings ….

Because the Count is a noted figure in the art world, everyone has now sat up and taken notice of Tony.  If the Count has bought so many of his pictures, Tony must be a genius.  So the establishment goes crazy for Tony and he quickly becomes one of the most famous (and richest) artists in the country.  It’s another delightful dig at the nature of art and art criticism, topped by the final gag which shows the stolen Rembrandt – still with Tony’s awful painting on top – back in the same place in the Tate where the Rembrandt had originally been.

So for once Tony ends up on top, although I’ve a feeling next week it’ll all be forgotten.  It’s a great pity this one doesn’t exist as it reads so well straight off the page.  I’m sure Irene Handl would have been an absolute treat as would Valentine Dyall (the Man in Black).  It’s yet more evidence that the television incarnation of HHH hit the ground running.

Hancock’s Half Hour – The First TV Show

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The first episode of the television incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour called, unsurprisingly, The First TV Show (or Nelson in Hospital, according to the script) was broadcast on the 6th of July 1956.  Like the rest of the first series and all but one episode from series two, no visual recording remains in the BBC archives.

The first three series of HHH were broadcast live (as were nine of the thirteen episodes from series four).  From series five onwards the shows were pre-recorded, which partly explains why the bulk of the surviving episodes are from that era of the programme.  But telerecordings of live programmes had occurred  prior to 1956, so it’s a little disappointing that the survival rate from the first two series is so patchy.

Given that HHH had been a successful radio series for several years you’d have assumed someone might have thought it would have been a good idea to record the debut episode, but alas no.

However, all of Galton and Simpson’s scripts still exist and when reading them it’s very easy to imagine how Tony, Sid and the others would have delivered their lines.  Recently I’ve been re-reading the scripts from the first series and even without any visual or verbal assistance they’re still laugh-out-loud funny.

The New TV Show is fascinating.  It would have been easy enough to produce a typical episode, carrying on the themes already developed on radio, but instead Galton & Simpson crafted something which mocked the conventions and artifice of television itself.  Today, these sort of things have been done so many times that they’ve lost their power to disconcert, but remember this was 1956 – so it’s fair to say it would have been much more unusual.

We open in, as the script describes it, a lower middle-class lounge where a husband and wife are waiting for the next programme.  When they learn it’s Hancock’s Half Hour neither seem terribly impressed but Bert generously decides to give him a chance.  Unfortunately, Tony doesn’t make a very good first impression with Ede (“I don’t think I’m going to like him. I don’t like his face”) which causes Tony a momentarily spasm of pain.

Yes, somehow Tony can sense the disapproval of Bert and Ede, even though they’re sat at home and he’s in the television studio.  As they continue to pass judgement (Bert: “He hasn’t made me laugh yet, look at his face, a right misery”. Ede: “He’s much fatter than I’d expected”) Tony desperately tries to tailor his opening speech to suit their opinions.  This sly commentary on the expectations of the watching audience is a pure joy.

The fun continues after Tony introduces his co-star, Sidney James.  Ede instantly decides she likes him (“much better looking isn’t he?”) so Tony quickly elbows him out of frame!  This part of the episode culminates with a series of quick impressions as Bert and Ede mention some of their favourite comedians and Tony – ever obliging – desperately imitates them, no doubt seeing it as a last ditch attempt to keep Ede and Bert onboard.  This is just one of the reasons why it’s such a shame the episode no longer exists as I’d love the chance to see Tony give us his Arthur Askey, Norman Wisdom and Terry Thomas.

And just when you think things can’t get any more surreal, Tony appears in person to harangue Ede and Bert and smash their television.  Mind you, he probably had good justification as this is Bert’s final word on Anthony Hancock. “I’d like to know how much he’s getting for this. It’s a disgrace. A waste of public money. Look, the dog’s crawled under the table now, and he’ll watch anything. I’ve never seen a bigger load of rubbish in all my life.”

It takes a certain amount of nerve to spend the first half of your debut episode rubbishing both the star and the programme.  But it seems that Hancock at this point in his career wasn’t plagued by the sort of self-doubt he would succumb to later.  Galton & Simpson’s scripts are often peppered with digs at Hancock (especially his quality – or lack of it – as a performer) but there was never the sense that Hancock took offence.  Instead, he’s a willing participant in the mockery.

We then cut to a hospital, where a heavily bandaged Tony is stuck in bed.  As he tells Sid, he wouldn’t have threatened Bert if he’d known he was a heavyweight wrestler.  This leaves Sid with a problem, he’s not only Tony’s co-star but also his manager.  If Tony doesn’t carry on with his programme then Sid will lose a great deal of money.

In addition to the surreal tone of the episode, there’s a weird timeline at work here.  I think we’re supposed to accept that everything’s happening live, so Tony exiting the studio, getting duffed up and sent to the hospital has all happened in real time (very quickly, obviously).  This means that the audience at home are impatiently waiting for HHH to continue and the interlude to cease, which explains why Sid urgently needs Tony to get back to the studio to finish the show.

He’s clearly incapable, but then Sid has a brainwave, bring the cameras to the hospital!  They don’t have much time, so Sid decides to end this show with the Nelson sketch.  This means dressing Tony up as Lord Nelson and disguising his hospital bed to look like the HMS Victory.  Tony has his doubts. “Somehow I just can’t help thinking it’s not going to look right. This is supposed to be a serious drama.”

How well this worked is anyone’s guess, but it certainly had potential.  I love the notion of the drama being broken when the bell sounds for the end of visiting time – the nurse on duty is in no mood for argument.  “Tell your little friends to go home, they can finish their game tomorrow.”

Eventually they struggle through it, but what about next week?  Sid already has an idea.  “I thought we’d do the life story of Roger Bannister. Now we can disguise the ward like a running track and get a few blocks in, spread them around the floor ….”

If maybe the Nelson sketch dragged on a little, the opening section more than made up for it.  Definitely an unusual way to launch the series, but one that played to Hancock’s strengths.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Lunch in the Park

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Geoffrey Tupper (Merton) and Sarah Tiptree (Josie Lawrence) are both trapped in loveless marriages and for the last ten years have met in the park each day for lunch.  It offers them a small release from the anguish of their home lives and there’s nothing to suggest that today will be different from any other.  But things end up taking a surprising turn ….

Lunch in the Park, along with Visiting Day and Sealed with a Loving Kiss, was broadcast as part of the first series of Comedy Playhouse.  Back in 1961 Stanley Baxter and Daphne Anderson played the park-bench would-be lovers.  Unfortunately all of the shows from the first series of Comedy Playhouse – apart from The Offer – have been wiped, so there’s no way to compare and contrast.

The most noticeable thing about this episode is that there’s no laugh track.  This is probably because – deliberately – Lunch in the Park is not terribly funny.  Galton and Simpson resisted the temptation to throw in many gags, instead there’s more of a straight-play feel as Geoffrey and Sarah’s characters are slowly drawn out.

We learn that Geoffrey works for the Ministry of Defence and has a bed-ridden wife, whilst Sarah is married to a lorry-driver who possesses a very limited culinary palate.  Their chat is of a very inconsequential nature – Geoffrey frets that something might have happened to Sarah because she wasn’t waiting for him (she’s always there first).  When she does arrive – just two minutes late – talk turns to weighty topics such as how difficult it is to get all the shopping done, especially when the shops shut early.

Geoffrey then remembers the time when, as a child, he went shopping for his mother.  He bought eggs and then potatoes in that order, which ensured that the eggs were crushed.  Sarah asks if his mother was angry but Geoffrey has only good things to say about her.  “She was a very kind woman my mother. She’d never hit me. Not once in her whole life. She used to get me father to do it. She wouldn’t look, she used to go out the room, she couldn’t bear violence. She used to say ‘you wait till your father comes home’ and then she’d tell him. And then she’d have to go out because she didn’t like to hear me screaming.”

Moments like that make it obvious to see why a studio audience wouldn’t have enhanced this one.  There are laughs to be had elsewhere – Geoffrey offers Sarah a bite of his apple, but warns her to look out for a worm – but the general tone isn’t comedic.  Galton and Simpson had already tried this on occasions with Tony Hancock – the classic radio episode Sunday Afternoon at Home being a good example.  Back then they weren’t scripting gags, it was inconsequential character interaction and pauses (a risky thing to do on radio) which made the episode work.

Merton and Lawrence are excellent, as they were in Sealed with a Loving Kiss.  Merton dials down his usual persona, presenting Geoffrey as a kindly, thoughtful man whilst Lawrence’s Sarah is also shown to be a thoroughly decent type.  Right up until the end it’s uncertain where this is heading – will they depart with a promise to meet again tomorrow or will something definite happen?  Galton and Simpson elect to take the latter option and it finally becomes clear that the whole episode has simply been the setup for the final thirty second punchline.

That took a great amount of nerve.  To make the payoff effective it was important not to even hint such a conclusion was possible, meaning that the episode had to maintain its humdrum course.  There’s a certain amount of irony to be had from the fact that some online reviews of this episode found people bailing long before the ending, complaining that nothing was happening.  If they’d made it to the end they might have understood what G&S had intended.

Does it work?  Yes I think it does, but even if it didn’t, it was well worth trying.  It’s an atypical effort from the Galton & Simpson catalogue, but one which I’m glad was dug out to conclude the series.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Being of Sound Mind

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Following the death of Enoch Merton, his family meet for the reading of his will.  Paul is astonished to discover that the man he believed to be his uncle was actually his father, and is further shocked – and delighted – to learn he’s been left Enoch’s fortune (some five hundred thousand pounds).  There’s one caveat though – Paul is currently single, but the will demands that he gets married within seven days.  If he doesn’t then Enoch’s fortune will go to a cat’s home ….

Being of Sound Mind was originally broadcast as part of Dawson’s Weekly in 1975, where it was titled Where There’s A Will.  Les Dawson took the main role whilst Roy Barraclough played Evelyn.

Before Paul arrives, we observe the rest of his family – two warring sisters and their husbands.  Freida (Toni Palmer) and Arthur (Brian Murphy) run a motorway café famed for its terrible hygienic reputation.  An example is provided by Freida’s sister, Fanny (Pamela Cundell), who recalls the time that a lorry driver found a mouse inside one of Freida’s pies, but asked for it not to be taken away as it was the first bit of decent meat he’d seen in her establishment!  Fanny’s husband, George (Reginald Marsh) agrees with her wholeheartedly.

It’s nice to see Brian Murphy again and Reginald Marsh (a familiar sitcom performer but someone who could also turn his hand to drama – The Plane Makers, for example) is another welcome addition to the cast.  It’s just a pity that they’re overshadowed by their respective spouses – Freida and Fanny are clearly the dominant hands in both their marriages.  Palmer and Cundell deliver rather broad and unsubtle performances, but thankfully Merton, Murphy and Marsh are on hand to deliver the odd decent putdown to them.

Being of Sound Mind is an episode of two halves.  Part one features Paul, his relatives and the solicitor (Geoffrey Whitehead) whilst the second half sees Paul set out in his quest to find a partner – and quick.

He rolls up to a computer dating agency where he gets into a conversation with Evelyn (Sam Kelly) who’s also waiting patiently to be fixed up.  Evelyn flatters Paul by telling him that he should have no trouble finding a partner.  This is an excuse for Merton to throw in a few digs at his Have I Got News For You co-stars, replying that whilst he’s not as handsome as Angus Deaton at least he’s taller than Ian Hislop (“but then again who isn’t? A pigeon’s taller than Ian Hislop”).

There’s an odd tone from then on.  Given the slightly overpowering interest that Evelyn pays to Paul it seems possible that Evelyn will turn out to be gay.  And when Evelyn turns up at Paul’s door – as his date – this seems to be the way the story will develop.  But no, it’s just a glitch in the computer system – Evelyn had been incorrectly logged in the system as a woman.

Paul is just preparing to turn him away when it’s revealed that Evelyn runs the cats home where Enoch’s money will end up if Paul doesn’t marry.  So Paul decides that romancing Evelyn is now his best option …..

Not only is it an incredible coincidence that Paul would run into the possible recipient of Enoch’s fortune, there’s also something a little off about the way he suddenly decides to seduce Evelyn, especially since Evelyn’s looking for female company.  Although Kelly is less camp than Roy Barraclough in the original, it’s still rather jarring.  You could be generous and say that it might have worked in the seventies, but two decades later it doesn’t play well.

As I said, this  is very much a tale of two halves.  The first has some decent byplay, but the second really doesn’t work.  It wasn’t effective back in 1975 and without a major rewrite it suffered the same fate in 1997.  Something of a damp squib, even with all the comic talent onboard.

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Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Suit

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Howard (Merton) and Penny (Katy Carmichael) have spent the evening together, but while they were sleeping a burglar broke in and stole Howard’s suit.  It’s now well past midnight and Howard has to return home to his wife (played by Louisa Rix).  But how can he do so when he’s dressed only in his underwear?

The Suit was originally broadcast in 1969 as part of Galton and Simpson Comedy (just released on DVD from Network) with Leslie Phillips and Jennie Linden as the lovers.

One of the interesting things about PM in G&S …. is the fact that the scripts were, obviously, written for a variety of performers.  Some – like Hancock – were a pretty close fit for Merton’s persona, but others – like Phillips in The Suit – are much more of a stretch.  Leslie Phillips always excelled at playing louche womanisers and it’s plain that (mixed metaphor ahoy) The Suit fitted him like a glove.  It’s slightly harder to accept Paul Merton as a philander though, just as it wouldn’t have been a role which would have suited Tony Hancock.

When Penny mentions how she’d earlier viewed Howard (“suave, sophisticated, unruffled, debonair”) it’s something of a stretch to reconcile this mental image to Merton.  But if we do accept him as a devastating babe magnet, once his trousers are removed he reverts to a much more frantic type.  Penny, puffing on a cigarette, isn’t too much help – now viewing Howard with an air of disfavour.  He’s had his way with her and now he’s attempting to make a speedy exit (or would do, if only he could find some clothes ….)

If we can swallow the central premise of a burglar stealing clothes (true, he does also pinch a few reasonable trinkets, like a watch and a ring), then there’s a decent farce at work here.  And the way that the suit makes a late reappearance, to ensure that Howard receives his well-due comeuppance, is a nice moment.

Carmichael is once again excellent (she’d also played Sandra in The Clerical Error).  After Howard is stripped to his underwear he’s also reduced in stature – which allows Penny to take the dominant role.  And it’s Carmichael who really drives the episode along, partly because Merton seems a little adrift, but also because Howard’s written as a rather ineffectual character.

The Suit may not be top-notch G&S, but Leslie Phillips was still able to make the most of the material back in 1969.  Paul Merton wasn’t as successful, but there’s still some laughs to be had along the way.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Visiting Day

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Paul’s been laid up in hospital for six weeks with a broken leg.  During that time he’s not had a single visitor, despite the fact his parents only live a short tube trip away.  But when they do finally make an appearance (played by Lynda Baron and Brian Murphy) it’s more of a curse than a blessing ….

Visiting Day formed part of the first series of Comedy Playhouse, broadcast in 1962, Bernard Cribbins played the bed-bound patient with Betty Marsden and Wilfred Brambell as his insensitive parents.  But aficionados of the radio incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour will be aware that it was based pretty closely on a 1959 HHH episode.

The major change was replacing Sid and Bill (the visitors in the radio version) but otherwise a hefty early section was lifted pretty much verbatim.  G&S would later acknowledge that the freedom of writing Comedy Playhouse (new characters and scenarios each week) had ironically turned out to be rather restricting.  So it’s possible that with no new ideas forthcoming they were content to rehash something which had previously worked well.

As with the original HHH, we open with the unwilling patient subjected to a flannel wash from a friendly nurse (Nicole Arumugam).  It’s in preparation for visiting day, but Paul really doesn’t see the point – he’s not had any visitors so far and doesn’t expect this to change today.  He may profess to be not at all bothered, but there’s something rather dark about the way he’s been isolated and rejected.

His part of the ward is bare – no cards, flowers, fruit or other presents.  Although strictly speaking that’s not true, he does have one present – a bar of soap – plucked off the hospital Christmas tree.  That he was hospitalised during Christmas with no visitors or presents (apart from the bar of soap) is a slightly tragic touch.

The radio version is fairly melancholy too, but at least there it’s only Tony’s friends who have forgotten him.  On television, the fact that his parents have found numerous reasons not to visit (chief amongst them, says Paul, are the EastEnders omnibus and bingo) is a remarkably bleak detail.

Lynda Baron’s mother is a monstrous creation.  Overbearing and selfish, she effortlessly steamrollers her husband, played in typical hen-pecked fashion by Brian Murphy (hardly letting him get a word in).  It’s Baron who dominates the latter part of the episode, especially when she gets into conversation with Mrs Thompson (Anne Reid), visiting her husband in the next bed.

Earlier we’d seen Mrs Thompson pay a solicitous visit to Paul, prior to his parents arriving, concerned that yet again he was all on his own.  This was another scene lifted from the radio episode, albeit with the odd change (on radio she’s frequently attempting to press biscuits on him, on television it’s bananas).  Reid is perfect as a kindly, solicitous, but rather irritating woman.

Visiting Day is hard to love, mainly because Lynda Barron’s character is so awful and insensitive.  But its depiction of the despair that visiting days in hospital can sometimes bring is well observed – it’s one of those universal themes which has hardly changed over the years (from the original in 1959 to this version in 1997).

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Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds

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A family holiday in Spain is blighted for several reasons.  Firstly the weather is appalling and secondly they find themselves having to entertain an incredibly annoying neighbour (Paul).  He’s popped by just as they’re settling down to watch a film and Paul, uninvited, joins them.  When Paul is convinced that the bit-part actor standing behind John Wayne is Burt Reynolds, despite all their protests to the contrary, he won’t let it lie.  Instead, he goes to extremes in order to prove he’s right and they’re all wrong ….

I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds was originally broadcast in 1977 as part of The Galton & Simpson Playhouse, with Leonard Rossiter playing the insufferable know-it-all.  I took a look at it here.

Changing the location to Spain was a slightly pointless move which doesn’t really add anything to the story (it’s an entirely studio-bound piece, taking place in one room).  Since he’d already played Nicholas Craig, Nigel Planer is perfectly cast as Gavin, a “resting” actor whilst there’s another part for Jim Sweeney, one of Merton’s fellow Comedy Store Players.  Sweeney plays Steve, Maria McErlane is his wife Jill whilst Jean Haywood has some nice comic lines as the grandmother (complete with a whistling hearing-aid).

This is another case where the remake doesn’t really add a great deal to the original.  As with Hancock, Rossiter’s shoes were large ones to fill and Merton never really captures the same sense of mounting hysteria that Rossiter excelled at.  But although he lacks Rossiter’s manic intensity, Merton still manages to make his character a profoundly irritating one – simply by the dogged way he is calmly prepared to contradict the others.

No reversal daunts him.  Burt isn’t listed in the TV Times, well not all the actors were, were they?  He doesn’t feature on the end credits, still not a problem.  There’s only one way to solve this once and for all, and that’s to phone Hollywood and speak to Burt direct.  Amazingly he gets through, but he’s not at all pleased when Burt denies he was in the film.  Of course, Paul can’t accept that and has to beg to differ ….

The ending’s rather flat.  The credits roll and the argument continues with Burt (as in the original).  The difference is that Rossiter was apoplectic by this point, whilst Paul is merely a little put out – and because he doesn’t sound too bothered the studio audience only responds with a few half-hearted titters, so we don’t close with a pleasing crescendo.

I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds is a fairly thin piece that’s totally dependant on the lead actor.  Leonard Rossiter was able to take it by the scruff of the neck and wring every last comic drop out of it but Paul Merton’s style wasn’t really suited to the same sort of full-throttle attack.  Amusing but inessential.

Alan Simpson (1929 – 2017)

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Ray Galton & Alan Simpson

The works of Alan Simpson and his writing partner Ray Galton have been an ever-present part of my life since the early eighties.  It would have been about 1980 when, rooting around in my parents record collection for something of interest, I found two LPs – Steptoe & Son on the Pye label (The Bird on side one, a selection of series one highlights on side two) and the Golden Guinea LP of Tony Hancock’s The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham.

They may have already been twenty years old, but they didn’t feel like crackly relics from another age – instead they seemed quite fresh, even if some of the references were rather obscure (it took me years to work out what the Blue Streak was!)  For me that’s one of the many reasons why I love their work – it may be rooted in a specific time but it’s also strangely timeless.

The blog’s been on a bit of a G&S trip recently, with the Paul Merton series, and once that’s done I’ll be moving onto a series of posts about series one of the television incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour.  Although only the scripts are left, the quality of the writing is so good that even without Tony, Sid and the others you can still get an excellent impression about how they would have played out.  Which is a true testament to the skill of Alan and Ray.

Although Alan Simpson’s health had failed a little in recent years, he was still able to witness how the scripts he wrote with Ray Galton all those years ago continued to connect with fresh audiences.  When they attended one of the R4 re-recordings of HHH a few years back they received a very warm reception (and a standing ovation) but Alan seemed more touched that the audience still responded enthusiastically to the script, just as they had sixty years ago.

Which returns me to my earlier point.  Classic comedy is timeless and will endure long after more transient fare is forgotten.  Nobody can tell what will be remembered in fifty years time, comedy-wise, but if anything deserves to be, then it’s the work of Alan Simpson and Ray Galton.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Wrong Man

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Paul, visiting the police station to report a flying saucer, agrees to do his civic duty and take part in an identity parade.  The only problem is that three independent witnesses become convinced he’s the guilty man ….

The Wrong Man was the sole series two script to be adapted from a Hancock episode (series four, episode ten, broadcast on the 6th of March 1959).  Because no recording of it exists, it would have been new to the majority of the audience and therefore, unlike the ones tacked in the first series, wouldn’t be overshadowed by a familiar original.

A significant amount of retooling was done, so it’s interesting to read the HHH script to see exactly what changes were made.  Sid’s character was totally deleted (although some of his later dialogue was given to one of the other members of the identity parade who joins up with Paul in an attempt to prove his innocence).  The original features a lengthy opening scene with Tony and Sid at home, playing various games.  Following Snakes & Ladders, Sid suggests they try a card game but Tony, wary of Sid’s cheating ways, isn’t sure (unless it’s something like Snap or Happy Families).  The arrival of a policeman, asking if they’d attend an identity parade, then moves the story onto the more familiar ground we see in this adaptation.

The Merton version opens with Paul arriving at the police station by himself.  He’s come to report a flying saucer to the desk officer (Roger Lloyd Pack).  The policeman asks if it came from outer space.  “No, from next door’s kitchen window. Closely followed by a teapot, a saucepan and a wok. This has got to stop. Every time they have a row I get bombarded. I possess more of their wedding presents than they do.”

This two-handed scene takes up most of the first five minutes, with Lloyd Pack deadpanning delightfully.  Along the way there’s time to slip in various digs at the underfunded nature of the modern police force (the security camera has been stolen, although it doesn’t really matter as the monitors were pinched the previous week).

Upon entering the identity parade, Paul spots a menacing looking character.  He’s convinced that it’s the criminal, but instead it turns out to be the Inspector (Nicky Henson).  Henson’s the latest quality actor to grace the series and wisely he decides not to milk the comedy, playing it straight instead.  I’m not entirely sure why he’s dressed like he’s stepped out of 1940’s Film Noir though (raincoat, hat, etc).

The line-up has a bizarre mix of people, who are all different ages, heights and weights.  This is never commented upon, but the oddness is plain to see.  Lurking amongst the disparate characters are the familiar features of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.  A lovely little in-joke.

Once the first witness has identified Paul unhesitatingly it’s plain how things will play out.  We know there’s two more witnesses, and whilst Paul is convinced they’ll clear his name, the wiser viewer knows that the opposite is bound to happen.  Part of the comedy here comes from the anticipation, with the viewers being a few steps ahead of Paul and the others.

That they’re all convinced he’s guilty makes no sense at all, especially when the real criminal – who naturally enough looks nothing like Paul, is captured at the end.  Credibility is stretched to breaking point after it seems that wherever Paul goes in an attempt to clear his name (such as the cinema to find a witness who’ll provide him with an alibi) someone will pop up to accuse him of yet another crime he wasn’t involved in.

This makes it hard to take the episode that seriously, but since there aren’t too many opportunities to see remakes of the missing episodes of HHH (even if this one has undergone major changes) it’s still a more than interesting curio.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Clerical Error

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The Vicar and his wife (Geoffrey Whitehead and Sally Giles) are anxiously waiting for their babysitter to turn up.  But since they were expecting a woman, the arrival of Paul – in full wise-cracking mode – comes as something of a shock ….

The Clerical Error first surfaced in Comedy Playhouse back in 1963, with John Le Mesurier, although the 1975 remake, part of Dawson’s Weekly, is probably more familiar to most.  There, Les Dawson played the irresponsible babysitter with John Bird as the Vicar.

The Vicar complains that he was expecting an experienced young woman.  “You should have tried the rent-a-blonde escort service then” says Paul.  Both services are available from the same phone number, with Paul’s mother (“Red Maggie Merton. The finest woman ever to bring down three mounted policeman in one charge. She was the one charging”) running things.

Paul’s character is so utterly horrible (his reassurance to the Vicar that he’s “been responsible for more babies than a nine-year old rabbit” doesn’t really inspire any confidence) that it seems odd anyone would leave him in charge of four children – aptly named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But since the Vicar and his wife are desperate to leave for an important dinner with the Bishop, it was clearly Paul or nothing.  Before they depart, Paul continues to bulldoze his way through their lives, lounging in the living room like he owns the place, asking the Vicar to move the television a little and complaining that the drinks cabinet is locked.  He also mistakes the Vicar’s wife for his daughter.  When he’s put straight on this, he enquires if the Vicar has “being going in for a little bit of font snatching? And why not? There’s many a good hymn come out of a good organ”!

With several hours stretching out in front of him, Paul decides to dress up and puts on a dog collar (as you do) which is the catalyst for several different comedy misunderstandings.  Firstly, an attractive young woman, Sandra Evans (Katy Carmichael), comes knocking.  She’s in a distressed state – her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend has beaten her up (and after she gave her ex-boyfriend the best two weeks of her life as well) – and is clearly looking for succour elsewhere ….

The arrival of two elderly parishioners (played by Rosalind Knight and Daphne Oxenford) only adds to the confusion.  They spy the slightly undressed Sandra (she was hunting for some new clothes to replace her ripped ones) and are shocked and stunned.   Paul’s decision to open the Vicarage up to a group of homeless people (a Christian act true, but not one that the Vicar will appreciate) and the arrival of Sandra’s ex-boyfriend, looking to duff up the Man of God who took advantage of his ex-girlfriend (of course he ends up throttling the totally innocent real Vicar) tops things off nicely.

If you can accept that anyone in their right minds would entrust the care of children to such an unpleasant force of nature, then The Clerical Error is a highly entertaining twenty five minutes.  Katy Carmichael is deliciously tarty as Sandra and Sally Giles is good as the Vicar’s respectable young wife.  Geoffrey Whitehead, as always, is pitch perfect as the unbending and humourless authority figure, although for once it’s easy to sympathise with his character,  nobody deserves a babysitter like Paul.

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Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Bedsitter

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This took nerve.  The Bedsitter is a daunting challenge for any performer – a twenty five minute solo performance where there’s nowhere to hide and no-one else to take the pressure off.  The Hancock original was simply sublime, one of the Lad’s finest half hours (well, twenty five minutes, to be strictly accurate).

Throughout this first series it’s been noticeable that Paul Merton really comes alive when he’s playing opposite good actors.  Reacting to others is one of Merton’s strengths (a reason why he’s a natural on panel games such as Have I Got News For You) whereas it’s harder to imagine him as a successful stand-up comedian, since the solo spotlight isn’t really his forte.  The fact that his comedy credentials were formed as part of a team – the Comedy Store Players – supports this observation.

Given this, I approached The Bedsitter with a little trepidation.  Could Merton pull it off or would it be another pallid remake?  Read on …..

Like some of other adaptations, this was a slightly weird viewing experience, mainly because some of the cultural references have been updated but others are left intact.  So Paul still sings Coward’s A Room With a View (this can be taken as an ironic comment on his surroundings of course).  His crooning of Maurice Chevailer’s Louise seems a little more out of place though.

Musings on the nature of bicuspids (“two swearing teeth”) and his inability to penetrate the works of Bertrand Russell are left intact and come over well.  One noticeable difference comes mid-way through when Paul looks out the window.  In the original, Tony stares out and we see a world of pain behind his eyes whereas Paul essays only mild irritation.

This is probably the main difference between their two approaches – Hancock was so good at expressing despair (possibly tapping into his real life melancholic nature) whilst Merton, whose performing persona isn’t too dissimilar to Hancock’s, offers a more buoyant outlook on life.   When Paul receives a wrong call and tells the lady on the other end that he’s a resting artiste, you get the sense that despite the fact he’s out of work and living in a crummy bedsit he still believes that things will turn around.

The remainder plays out pretty much as per the original, even the television set with the dodgy aerial (given the antiquated nature of the bedsitter this doesn’t jar too much).  Paul’s less than impressed with the number of repeats, although the BBC2 programme with Stephen Hawking (Bronowski in the original) is more to his taste.

He might clear up that theory he was postulating in his book. If I fell into a black hole a thousand light years away, my son would be fifty four, I’d be thirty five, and my dad would be ten and a half. Nah, he must be up the spout there.

It’s an obvious ironic touch that Paul, the failed intellectual, after singing the praises of Hawking, attempts to watch something rather more low-brow – a Western.

Once again, it’s hard to imagine this production supplanting Hancock’s original in many people’s affections, but it was a more than credible effort.  It was the final show in the first series and when PM in G&S’s … returned the following year, 1997, for a second run, the seven episodes adapted were much more obscure examples from the Galton & Simpson catalogue.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Lift

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The Lift is one of the best Hancock adaptations from series one of PM in G&S’s ….  Partly this is because of the supporting cast – Michael Fenton Stevens as the oily producer, Sam Kelly as the truculent lift man and the always reliable Geoffrey Whitehead as the Air Marshall, amongst others.

The episode keeps the same location (a television studio) although it’s no longer the BBC, instead we’re at the rather obviously made-up Alpha Television (why they didn’t simply call it Carlton is a bit of a mystery).  As in the original, the queue for the lift slowly grows and as each new person appears they press the button, no doubt under the impression that no-one else would have thought of it!

Paul’s rather taken with an attractive secretary (Sheridan Forbes) who’s joined the queue, but she’s immune to his charms, preferring instead to bask in the glow of a producer (Fenton Stevens), who can’t help but modestly mention all the top shows he’s involved in.  Also present and correct is Paul’s baiting of the Air Marshall, here he’s taunting him to press the lift button.  “Go on, pretend it’s a rocket. You’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you? Go on, five, four, three, two, one …”

Also waiting patiently is Peter Jones as the Vicar.  He’s probably best known as the Voice of the Book from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although that was just a small part of a long and distinguished career.  Having a comedy great like Jones onboard is yet another reason why this one is so enjoyable.

A few tweaks are made to bring it up to date.  The lift man from the original is replaced with a maintenance man (lift men were clearly a thing of the past).  Also, the producer has a mobile phone with him – although he keeps quite about it for a while!

Anne Reid ramps up the hysteria as a woman suffering from claustrophobia (“that’s a handy thing to have in a lift” says Paul cheerfully).  From Paul musing about how there won’t be enough oxygen left for everyone in the future (“the man with the biggest hooter will survive”) to his attempts to keep the others entertained with parlour games, there’s plenty to enjoy.

A fine ensemble piece.  Whilst the original is a classic slice of comedy, this version is not too shabby at all.

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Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way

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Kevin (Merton) and Joyce (Gwyneth Strong) are saying goodbye to their old house.  Kevin can’t wait to see the back of it, but Joyce just can’t let go.  This is something of a problem, because the new occupants are due any minute.   And then Joyce locks herself in the toilet and refuses to come out ….

Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way was adapted from an episode of The Galton & Simpson Comedy, broadcast in 1969.  If the release date doesn’t slip again, the series will be out shortly from Network, so it’ll be interesting to see how Jimmy Edwards and Pat Coombs fared in the same roles.

This is an odd little tale.  By 1969 many of Galton & Simpson’s best days were behind them, although they weren’t a totally spent force – some excellent episodes of Steptoe still lay ahead (along with some pretty average ones it must be said).  The premise here feels rather unnatural (as does the sight of Kevin returning to the house, sleeping bag in hand, quite prepared to sleep outside the bathroom door – oblivious to the fact that the newlyweds have just moved in!)

One of the biggest laughs from the studio audience comes earlier on when Kevin tells Joyce that if she doesn’t get out soon then “that four-eyed twit and his flat-chested wife will be here”.  Matthew Ashforde and Emma Cunniffe (David Jason and Jacki Piper in the original) as Gordon and Avril do the best with the material they have, but it’s fairly thin.

Sam Kelly and Anne Reid fare rather better as Gordon’s parents.  They’ve come round to inspect the house and Gordon’s father is far from impressed – woodworm, rising damp and a woman locked in the toilet.  It’s not the ideal way to spend your first day of married life ….

Merton’s less central in this one than in some of the other episodes.  Understandable, since the Hancock episodes were built around the central performance of Tony Hancock, whilst Don’t Dilly Dally is more of an ensemble piece.  He has some choice moments though, such as when he invites himself to join Gordon, Avril and Gordon’s parents for dinner!

The final punchline (the location of Kevin and Joyce’s new house) is a gag that falls a little flat.  This is probably because, like the central premise, it doesn’t feel terribly plausible.  You can’t fault the cast, but you can fault the script.  Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way is something of a lesser pleasure from the Galton & Simpson catalogue.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Missing Page

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Paul’s latest book from the library, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, has him gripped all the way to the final page.  Or it would have done if it was actually there.  The last page is missing, which leaves both Paul and his wife Caroline (Caroline Quentin) desperate to know whodunnit ….

Another Hancock evergreen gets the 1990s remake treatment.  Most of the topical references are naturally updated (although it’s pleasing that Paul, just like Tony, admits to having read Biggles Flies East twenty seven times).

Patrick Barlow is good as the long-suffering librarian who crosses swords with Paul whilst it’s also nice to see James Bree as one of the shushing members of the library.  It’s noticeable that the section where Tony mimed the plot of another of his favourite books was excised.  Maybe this due to timing issues (these episodes, since they were broadcast on ITV, only ran for twenty five minutes as opposed to the thirty minutes of most of the originals) or it could have been that Merton decided he’d never be able to top Hancock’s performance.

The most obvious change, of course, was replacing Sid with Caroline.  Merton and Quentin were married at the time, so it wasn’t surprising that an episode was crafted which showed them as a couple.  She’s aggressive (becoming apoplectic when shushed in the library) and sarcastic – it’s easy to believe that both Merton and Quentin had a hand in crafting their on-screen relationship (which possibly mirrored real-life).  For me, she’s rather one note – I would have preferred Sam Kelly to carry on with the Sid role, as he did in Twelve Angry Men.

Jim Sweeney, an old colleague of Merton’s from the Comedy Store Players, has another small role (this time as the last man to read the book, who’s still upset that he doesn’t know whodunnit!).  Previously he’d walked on as one of the two policeman at the end of The Radio Ham.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this one, and it certainly zips along nicely, but as with The Radio Ham it feels slightly redundant.  When the original is so good, there’s little reason for it to exist.  And updating it to the mid nineties does rather stretch credibility to breaking point.  The information super highway might not have been as wide then as it is now, but the Internet was certainly in existence, so why not use it?  And some of the logical flaws inherent in the original are carried over.  If Paul has read every book in the library countless times, why does he have no knowledge of Lady Don’t Fall Backwards?

A diverting enough twenty five minutes, but it can never hope to eclipse the original.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Sealed with a Loving Kiss

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Arnold (Merton) and Primrose (Josie Lawrence) are carrying on a passionate, albeit long-distance, affair by post.  The only problem is that they’ve yet to meet and both have been rather economical with the truth.

Arnold, a coalman by trade, has rechristened himself Damon, a hard-working brain surgeon who drives a Porsche whilst Primrose is Michelle, an international model often to be found in the pages of Vogue.  Both exchange photographs (not of themselves naturally) which means that when they finally come face to face confusion is bound to reign ….

The original Sealed with a Loving Kiss was broadcast in 1962, during series one of Comedy Playhouse, with Ronald Fraser and Avril Elgar as the two would-be lovers.

Comedy and melancholy often sit side-by-side in Galton & Simpson’s material – countless examples can be found in their most famous works (Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe & Son).  Hancock and Harold were classic under-achievers, constantly knocked about by an uncaring world that seemed not to even notice they were there.

This same theme is deftly developed here.  Both Arnold and Primrose are perfectly nice people who live respectable lives, but there’s clearly self-esteem issues which have made them take refuge in fantasy.  We never learn precisely what makes Primrose tick, but Arnold’s neuroses are laid bare in part one.

Arnold still lives with his mother (an excellent turn by Rosemary Leach) who has sabotaged his previous relationships and now seems to relish telling him that he’s too old to get married.  After all, who would look twice at him?  Merton really seems to spring to life when he’s acting opposite quality players and sparkles here.

Both Arnold and Primrose are disappointed that their dates (Michelle and Damon) haven’t turned up, so they decide to have a cup of tea in the railway station café.  Merton and Lawrence, both members of the Comedy Store Players, had a long performing history, which helps to explain why they’re so comfortable in each others company.  Lawrence displays a pleasing vulnerability and both combine to clearly touch the hearts of the studio audience (whenever you hear an “awww” from the audience, you know you’ve struck gold).

After the disappointment of The Radio Ham, we’re on firmer ground here.  No doubt helped by the fact it was a much more unfamiliar piece, we feel more invested in the fates of Arnold and Primrose, especially when they decide to eschew their fantasy lives and embrace the reality in front of them.

Packed with nice touches (for example, when Primrose reads Arnold’s letter, the voice she hears is that of the urbane Michael Jayston) Sealed with a Loving Kiss is a series one highlight.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Radio Ham

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Given how highly regarded Galton & Simpson’s final television series for Tony Hancock has always been, it’s no surprise that three episodes were adapted for series one of PM in G&S’s ….  Possibly the only surprise was that they didn’t tackle The Blood Donor – maybe they felt that one was just too iconic.

The Radio Ham has always been inexorably linked to The Blood Donor though, by virtue of the fact that both were re-recorded by Tony Hancock for LP release.  And because the only way to relive classic comedy performances in the pre-VHS days was via record or cassette, for decades the re-recordings of The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham were one of the few ways you could experience classic Tony Hancock.

So for a generation, or two, you can guarantee that many would know The Radio Ham virtually word by word – which means that a remake has to pass a fairly stern test ….

Neatly, there’s an explanation provided at the start to explain why Paul, in the mid 1990’s, is mucking about with equipment so antiquated that it requires new valves.  It’s ex-Army surplus (which possibly was extracted from a WW2 Lancaster).

Apart from the odd cosmetic touch like this, the script remains pretty much as it was.  So Paul has to run the gamut with his uncomprehending friend in Tokyo (“it is raining not here also”), carry on long-distance games of chess, poker and snakes and ladders, whilst organising trays of bread pudding for ex-pats in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s interesting that they kept the moment where Paul puts on a cod Japanese accent, all the better – he hopes – to get through to his friend in Tokyo.  It wouldn’t have surprised me had it been snipped out, but no, it’s present and correct.

Merton seems a little stiff to begin with, especially when he’s by himself.  Once he starts interacting with the voices on the radio, things pick up a little – especially when all his dreams come true and a May Day distress call starts broadcasting …..

Michael Jayston is suitably frantic as the misplaced mariner, but there’s still something missing here.  It’s competent enough, but maybe because I’m so familiar with the Hancock original this version can’t help but feel a little second best.  In an ensemble piece, like Twelve Angry Men, the load can be shared, but in The Radio Ham, where Merton is on-screen by himself for most of the duration, it’s impossible not to remember how skilled Hancock’s performance was in the same piece.

By comparison Paul Merton is competent, but somewhat lacking.  Direct comparisons are invidious, but when you’re remaking a comedy classic they’re sadly inevitable.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Impasse

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Two cars meet in a narrow country lane.  One will have to back up and give way, but neither Dave (Merton), driving a Volkswagen Beetle, nor Mr Ferris (Geoffrey Whitehead), behind the wheel of a Bentley, are prepared to give any quarter.  So a tense battle of nerves begins ….

The original version of Impasse was broadcast during the second series of Comedy Playhouse in 1963. Bernard Cribbins and Leslie Phillips were the implacable motorists, whilst Yootha Joyce and Georgina Cookson played their long-suffering wives.  Here, Tilly Vosburgh is Dave’s wife, Kirsty, whilst Phyllida Law plays Mr Ferris’ spouse.

You might expect the script to lean towards the side of Dave, the little man facing off against the rich and privileged Mr Ferris, but that’s not really the case at all.  Both are shown to be equally pig-headed and unlikable (it’s plainly no coincidence that they treat their wives in pretty much the same way – badly).

Mr Ferris has decided that Dave’s truculence is due to class envy, but maybe Dave just likes a fight.  They nearly come to blows a little later, although their fight is more notable for the way each circles around the other, throwing punches in the air.  It rather brings to mind a similarly non-contact scrap between Hancock and Sid in the classic radio HHH episode The Last Bus Home.

Just as you get the sense that the comic potential has been wrung out of this scenario, then help – in the form of an AA Man (Sam Kelly) turns up – shortly followed by an RAC Representative (Denis Lill).  Kelly and Lill are just as good (if not better) than Merton and Whitehead, with the AA Man standing firmly behind his member, Dave, and the RAC Man equally steadfast in defending the interests of his member, Mr Ferris.

I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again, but it’s a joy to see the quality of the casts in this series.  It’s fair to say that Vosburgh and Law have little to do – although they do have a nice scene (not present in the original) where they’re able to pour scorn on their respective husbands. This leaves the field open for the two squabbling male sides to dominate proceedings and it’s amusing that the AA and RAC representatives carry on exactly the same sort of one-upmanship we’d previously seen from Dave and Mr Ferris.

The late arrival of a policeman (played by Roger Lloyd-Pack) who finally solves the impasse is another bonus.  The sting in the tail – the winner of the battle finds he is forced to back up anyway – brings events to a satisfying conclusion.  And unlike the original this benefited from being shot on location, rather than in the studio.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Twelve Angry Men

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The rather unwieldy titled Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s …. aired for two series during 1996/97.  The fifteen episodes cherrypicked both familiar and unfamiliar scripts from Galton & Simpson’s impressive back catalogue, with series one leaning heavily on adaptations of classic Tony Hancock shows.

Five of the eight series one episodes were based on Hancock material.  This one, The Radio Ham, The Missing Page, The Lift and The Bedsitter.  These choices no doubt helps to explain the rather muted critical reception the series received.  Tackling five comedy classics is asking for trouble –  since it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to match, let alone surpass, the originals.

It’s puzzling why they chose these ones.  Any G&S series had to include some Hancock, but it might have been better if they’d gone for less iconic picks (any of the missing episodes would have been obvious choices).   Possibly this had been taken onboard by the second series – only one episode was adapted from a Hancock script and it was a pretty obscure one.

Merton first came to prominence with the Comedy Store Players.  Their brand of improvised comedy lead directly to C4’s Whose Line is it Anyway? and R4’s The Masterson Inheritance.  He also found time to star in his own sketch series (imaginatively titled Paul Merton – The Series) between 1991 and 1993 and has been a regular panellist on Have I Got News For You since the series launched in 1990.

Merton wasn’t an experienced sitcom performer, which might explain why the supporting casts were so strong.  Sam Kelly, Geoffrey Whitehead, Michael Fenton-Stevens, Anne Reid, Jim Sweeney, Josie Lawrence, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Michael Jayston, Gary Waldhorn and Brian Murphy all appear in multiple episodes (often playing different characters – a very Hancockian touch) whilst an equally impressive list of performers make one-off appearances.

So let’s take a look at the first episode, which aired on the 26th of January 1996, Twelve Angry Men.

With the passage of nearly four decades, there’s numerous small topical references which have been retooled – for example, Paul regards the proceedings as the spit of Rumpole of the Bailey, rather than Hancock’s The Verdict Is Yours.  A few new gags are popped into the courtroom scene, which sound more like Merton than G&S.  This surreal exchange between Paul and Sam, for example.  “You know, my mother once changed a fillet of salmon for a pair of shoes. Well she had to pay the difference of course, well her feet were bigger for a start.”

Sam Kelly takes on the role played by Sid James in the original.  Kelly was no stranger to the world of sitcom (Porridge, Allo Allo!, On The Up) and is characteristically rock sold here. He’d appear in another four episodes of PM in G&S’s … and is great value each time.

There’s plenty of other familiar faces on show.  Peter Jeffrey plays the increasingly exasperated judge to perfection whilst Gary Waldhorn and David Daker spend the courtroom scene sitting directly behind Paul and Sam.  Waldhorn and Daker don’t have any dialogue until the action moves into the jury room, so during the first five minutes they have to be content to steal the attention of the audience with a glance or a facial expression.  And since both are old pros it’s hard not to find your eye drawn towards them ….

Daker is the farmer pining for his livestock, Waldhorn the company director fretting about losing money, whilst Geoffrey Whitehead is the juror most opposed to Paul’s increasingly bizarre flights of fancy as he continues to argue that John Harrison Peabody must be innocent. Another juror picking up a few lines is a young Rob Brydon, in one of his first television roles.

“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

As a Hancock fan, I’ve no doubt Merton relished delivering one of the Lad’s most famous monologues, although it’s fair to say that the Magna Carta line only receives a polite response from the studio audience.  Clearly they were weren’t Hancock aficionados.

A credible effort with Merton impressing.  It didn’t hurt that he was surrounded by talent though and whilst the original remains a comedy classic, this 1996 remake is more than watchable.

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.