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 air 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 7th 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 on numerous occasions prior to 1956, so it’s a little disappointing that the survival rate from the early 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 might 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 rarely 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, so 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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