The Rag Trade – The Christmas Rush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rag Trade – Christmas Box

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Like the later LWT Christmas Rag Trade, this is a programme you can’t imagine receiving a repeat these days – with this one it’s due to the fact that the girls have been making golliwogs on the side.

Although Fenner (Peter Jones) constantly bemoans the poor productivity of his staff, this never seems to be a problem when they’re working on their own initiative.  It’s very impressive that they’ve been able to knock up several hundred golliwogs over the last few days, although since they’ve used Fenner’s materials without his knowledge they have to keep him in the dark …..

Poor Reg (Reg Varney) is deputised to dress up as Father Christmas and is sent out to flog the golliwogs from a street corner, but he runs foul of the law – in the formidable shape of Colin Douglas.  Always good to see Douglas and he’s his usual stolid self as the constable.  This officer may not be the brightest of chaps, but he’s certainly dogged in his determination to run the rogue Father Christmas to justice.

Reg, in haste, has to ditch the Father Christmas costume and so he gives it to Fenner.  It’s not hard to work out what happens next – the constable spies Fenner dressed as Father Christmass and arrests him.  But surely Fenner’s staff will vouch for him?  Mmm, not so.  They have a buyer for the golliwogs coming round and so it suits their purpose for the boss to be out of the way for a few hours.

This seems a tad cruel, especially the way Peter Jones milks the moment.  Fenner can’t even get through to Reg (we learn that they attempted to join the army together but were refused for the same reason – flat feet).  Once Fenner’s been carted off, Fenner’s Fashions undergoes a rapid transformation to become Union Toys!  This may be slightly hard to swallow, but it’s still amusing – especially the way that Reg quickly steps into the role of the boss and Paddy (Miriam Karlin) and Carole (Sheila Hancock) transform themselves into femme fatales as they prepare to use all of their wiles to persuade the hapless buyer that he really should purchase their golliwogs.

The fact that the buyer, Terence Nutley, is played by Terry Scott is something of a bonus since it ensures that every possible bit of comic potential will be wrung from these scenes.  As the girls ply Terence with drinks, he becomes more and more insensible, which creates something of a problem once Fenner returns ….

As with the rest of The Rag Trade, this one’s highly predictable from start to finish, but since everybody attacks the material with such gusto I’ve never regarded this as a problem.  Sheila Hancock is delightful as the dippy Carole whilst Esma Cannon can’t help but steal every scene she appears in (she plays the even dippier Lily).

The ending is quite neat.  After Fenner discovers the toys, the girls are forced to lie and pretend that they’ve made them for the kiddies at the local hospital.  Fenner, touched by this, happily promises to drop them off to the hospital on the way home.  So the workers don’t benefit by their pilfering, instead the only victors are the children – which seems appropriate for a Christmastime story.

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The Rag Trade – Series One and Two. Simply Media DVD Review

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Written by Ronald Chesney and Roland Wolfe, The Rag Trade ran for three series on the BBC during 1961 and 1963 (it was later revived for two runs during the 1970s on LWT, which featured remakes of some of the original BBC scripts).  Set in a clothing workshop called Fenners Fashions, the nominal head of the business, Harold Fenner (Peter Jones), forever finds himself at the mercy of his bolshy workforce – most notably shop steward Paddy Fleming (Miriam Karlin) who’s apt to shout “everybody out!” at the drop of a hat.

Stuck in the middle between management and the workforce is the long-suffering foreman Reg Turner (Reg Varney) whilst the likes of Carole (Sheila Hancock), Shirley (Barbara Windsor), Lily (Esma Cannon) and Gloria (Wanda Ventham) are some of the more prominent members of the motley workforce.

It’s fair to say that the works of Chesney and Wolfe are an acquired taste.  I’m rather fond of Meet the Wife but rather less so of On The Buses and their later 1970s ITV sitcoms.  True, the likes of Don’t Drink The Water and Yus My Dear have a certain grisly interest but you’d be hard pushed to claim they were forgotten classics (or any good).

The original Rag Trade is sharper though, possibly because it occurred earlier in their career, although the high quality cast helps too.  Peter Jones, the original and best Voice of the Book from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, splutters with splendid comic timing throughout.  He’s matched by Miriam Karlin all the way whilst Barbara Windsor (who missed out series two but returned for series three, which sadly no longer exists), Wanda Ventham (who appeared in the second series only) and Sheila Hancock (who appears in both of the series here) all offer strong support. Hancock, as the perpetually vague Carole, is the receipient of some killer lines.

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Sheila Hancock & Reg Varney

Here’s what’s contained across the four discs.

Series 1, Disc 1

1: The French Fashions
2: Christmas Box
3: The Baby
4: Getting Married

Series 1, Disc 2

5: Early Start
6: Unhappy Customer
7: Doctor’s Orders
8: The Sample

Series 2, Disc 1

1: The Thief
2: The Dog
3: Locked In
4: The Flat
5: The Client
6: Stay-In Strike

Series 2, Disc 2

7: Safety Precaution
8: Stainproofer
9: Doctor
10: Barber’s Shop
11: The Bank Manager

The series does pretty well for guest stars, with the likes of Frank Thornton, Terry Scott, Colin Douglas, Patrick Cargill, June Whitfield, Lynda Baron, Fabia Drake, Ronnie Barker and Hugh Paddick all making appearances.

Another familiar face – Peter Gilmore (The Onedin Line) – pops up in The French Fashions. Sporting an interesting American accent, he appears in the middle of a frenetic episode which sees Carole model a rock-hard pair of slacks for Gilmore’s character (it would take too to explain why) whilst the workface later masquerades as French workers in order to snag a lucractive sales contract. None of this is terribly subtle, but there’s some typically deft comedic performances on display (Esma Cannon, as ever, effortlessly mananges to steal every scene she appears in).

Another series one show – Unhappy Customer – sees “everybody out” as the girls go on strike (Mr Fenner’s more than a little unhappy that they’re eating in the workshop, but won’t agree to build a canteen). But then he has a change of heart ….

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Reg Varney & Peter Jones

Considering that he’s supposed to be a penny-pincher, his solution – an automatic food dispenser (“anything you like. Tea, coffee, snacks”) – is a handsome gesture but Paddy’s not happy. This sort of automation might mean that their ten minute tea-break would actually only last ten minutes, rather than the ninety minutes it currently does. So their minds turn to sabotage ….

Highlights from series two include the second episode, The Dog. The pet in question belongs to Lily who brings him to work (she’s concerned about his health, so smuggles him in under Mr Fenner’s nose). This is classic Rag Trade – the workers conspiring against the hapless Fenner – enlivened by the always entertaining Esma Cannon and a lovely guest turn from the elegant Patrick Cargill.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is a straight repress of the previously released edtions by DD, which means that series one is still missing two episodes (series two is as complete as it can be – two of the thirteen episodes no longer exist).

Picture quality is variable (the opening episode of series two is probably the worst, a pretty low quality telerecording). Things are much better elsewhere, although some episodes do feature occassional brief jumps when the picture and soundtrack slips out of sync for a second (a common issue with telerecordings).

The Rag Trade stands up very well. It’s certainly one of the strongest sitcoms from the Chesney/Wolfe partnership, thanks not only to the first-rate cast but also due to the way that it comedically shines a light on British labour relations during the early sixties. Whilst it’s exaggerated for comic effect, there’s more than a kernel of truth in the way that management were at the mercy of their workers (today, the pendulum has firmly swung the other way).

A cracking little sitcom, it’s well worth your time.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered direct from Simply here.

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Esma Cannon & Reg Varney

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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Q5/Q6/Q7 – Simply Media DVD Review

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Terence Alan “Spike” Milligan, one of the key figures of British comedy, rose to prominence thanks to his work on The Goon Show.  He starred alongside Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and (for the first two series only) Michael Bentine, with Milligan penning the majority of the scripts as well.  The Goon Show ran during the 1950’s, at a time when radio was still king, enabling Milligan’s absurd flights of fancy to reach an impressively large audience.  Informed by the traumas of his time spent in the army during WW2, The Goon Show introduced various riffs which would occur again and again in Milligan’s work (Adolf Hitler, for example, became an oft-used comedy figure).

Milligan’s earliest forays into television were on ITV during the 1950’s – The Idiot Weekly – Price 2d, A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred.  But it would be the Q series (made between 1969 and 1982) that would prove to be his enduring television legacy.  The shows were written by Milligan and Neil Shand, with occasional contributions from writers such as John Antrobus and David Renwick.  Just as Shand was an important partner on the scripting front, so Spike also seemed to draw strength from appearing alongside performers who plainly operated on his wavelength.  Some would drop in and out whilst one – John Bluthal – remained an everpresent fixture.

After something of a gap between the first and second series, Q became a more regular television fixture during the mid seventies and early eighties.  Milligan didn’t want the sixth and final series in 1982 (renamed by the BBC as There’s a Lot of it About) to be the last, but it seems that the BBC weren’t interested in commissioning any more.  That Milligan was still keen to continue is interesting – sketch comedy is often seen as a young man’s (and woman’s) game – so the fact that Milligan, at this point in his early sixties, was still energised by the thought of working in the sketch format was quite unusual.

Broadcast in early 1969, Q5 remains a landmark comedy programme.  It’s often been cited as a key influence on the nascent Monty Python team, who at the time were preparing their debut series (it would air at the end of the year).  As is probably well known, the Pythons were rather crestfallen after watching Q5, since Milligan had gleefully broken just about every rule in the comedy book they were left wondering what was left for them to do …

There’s an obvious connection between Q5 and Monty Python (Q5 director Ian McNaughton was especially requested by the Pythons since they’d admired his work with Spike) but the similarities run deeper than that, as it’s very easy to see several Q5 sketches (such as the Grandmother Hurling Contest at Beachy Head) fitting perfectly within the Python format.

But there are differences too – Q5 has a much looser, improvised feel than most of Python.  Milligan was more than happy to play with the artifice and conventions of television – he and the others would step in and out of character, wander off set, arbitrarily stop a sketch mid-way through or seem to be on the verge of corpsing.  Some sections are almost impossible to describe (a comedy riff is built up and developed almost to breaking point).

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This scattergun approach obviously means that not everything works – but sometimes it’s the nonsense that’s the most appealing thing. Often an idea is established but then dropped almost immediately as the show veers off in a completely different direction, meaning that whatever else Q5 is, it’s certainly not boring. Those who believe that The Fast Show pioneered the form of rapid-fire sketch comedy will have to think again ….

Given Q5’s importance in the history of British comedy, it’s a great shame that only three of the seven episodes now exist (and two of those are black and white telerecordings).  Out of the existing material, the absurdist theme is established early on (“pim-pom po-po-pom”) which you simply have to see, describing it just doesn’t do it justice.  It’s ramshackle and nonsensical, but probably the best thing in the episode.

The next surviving Q5 episode develops a theme that Milligan had first used in his Goon Show days.  Any phrase, if repeated often enough, could be guaranteed to get a laugh.  Back then it was “he’s fallen in the water” here it’s “a tree fell on him.”  The link to the Goons is strengthened thanks to several references to Harry Secombe – although he doesn’t appear in this one (but in the next episode we do hear Secombe’s unmistakable tones, as he plays a man trapped inside an elephant).   Milligan’s turn as Ned Teeth,  a mystic guru from Neasden, is another unforgettable Q sketch.

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Spike Milligan’s relationship with the BBC was always a rather tense one.  The Corporation may have broadcast many of his finest comedy moments (The Goon Show, Q) but Milligan always felt that they tolerated, rather than respected, him.  This partly helps to explain why a follow up to Q5 didn’t appear for six years.

By the time that Q6 was broadcast in 1975, the comedy landscape was very different.  Monty Python had been and gone, but the legacy of their four series remained.  Although Milligan had pioneered stream of consciousness comedy, Q6 would face a challenging time as it attempted to escape the imposing shadow cast by Python.

The likes of Peter Jones, David Lodge and Robert Dorning are regulars throughout Q6. Along with the ever-present John Bluthal, they all excel at providing solid support for Spike’s surreal flights of fancy. Jones, always a favourite performer of mine, is especially good value at whatever he’s asked to turn his hand to.  On the female front, Julia Breck is there to provide a touch of glamour whilst Stella Tanner handles the character roles.

The opening moments of the first episode sees an attractive topless woman appear for no obvious reason, presumably except that it entertained Milligan. A touch of gratuitous titillation would be a hallmark of the 70’s and 80’s Q. This first edition also has a nice guest appearance by Jack Watling and plenty of digs directed at the BBC. The remainder of Q6 has plenty of stand-out moments as well as numerous ones which can’t be adequately explained. Spike as Adolf Hitler meeting Bluthal’s Quasimodo is one such sketch. If it sounds odd on paper then it’s even odder when seen on the screen.  The economy police sketch is another strange, albeit entertaining, few minutes.

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John Bluthal’s skill at mimicking Hughie Green is put to good use several times, notably in the game show, Where Does It Hurt? The rules are simple, people with afflications or with a willingness to injure themselves can win cash prizes if the audience – via the painometer – register laughter and applause at their discomfort. With oddles of fake sincerity from “Green” and obviously fake studio applause it’s one of the more straightforward sketches.

Less conventional is Spike’s love song directed at a cardboard cutout Princess Anne. With the noted jazz pianist Alan Clare (who’d later become something of a semi-regular) providing accompaniment, it appears that as Milligan’s ardor increases, so does the size of his nose. It’s just one of many unforgettable Milligan moments.

The final Q6 show has one of its most famous sketches – the Pakistani Dalek. Dalek creator Terry Nation (or more likely his agent Roger Hancock, brother of Tony) was always reluctant to see the Daleks used as figures of fun, but it’s not too surprising that Spike got his way. Nation had been a member of Associated London Scripts (ALS) back in the sixties – a writers cooperative formed by Milligan, Eric Sykes and Galton & Simpson – so Nation’s links to, and respect for, Milligan clearly ran deep.

Also featured throughout Q6 are musical interludes, although they’re sometimes as leftfield as the rest of the series. Highlights include Ed Welch performing The Silly Old Baboon, a song written by himself and Milligan.

It might have been a long time coming, but Q6 is a strong series – all six episodes are packed with Milligan’s trademark oddness and the pace rarely flags.

Most of the regulars from Q6, although sadly not Peter Jones, returned for Q7, along with a few new faces – John D. Collins (later to be a regular in Allo Allo) and Keith Smith (probably best known for playing the irate headmaster Mr Wheeler in Alan Plater’s Biederbecke trilogy).

The first edition has a couple of lengthy sketches (Bermuda triangle/Arabs) and it’s possibly the first example of the series standing on the spot. In the Bermuda Triangle sketch Spike asks “what other TV show gives you a smile, a song and a load of crappy jokes?” and he’s maybe not too far off the mark.

Things pick up in the second show, David Lodge in drag and John Bluthal doing his best W.C. Fields voice are always entertaining, but the best moment – live from Covent Garden – comes towards the end. Milligan dragged up and blowing raspberries, what more could you want?  Overall, Q7 is more hit-and-miss than Q6 and what remains of Q5, but there’s still plenty of gems – you just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

If you have the remotest interest in British television sketch comedy then Q5/Q6/Q7 is an essential purchase.  Whilst all three series are very much of their time, paradoxically in many ways they’re also timeless.  Good comedy never gets old and this is very good comedy.

Q5/Q6/Q7 is released by Simply Media on the 21st of November 2016.  RRP £24.99.

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