Six Dates with Barker – 1971: Come In and Lie Down

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After the disappointment of Lola, things take an upward turn again with Come In and Lie Down.  Doctor Swanton (Barker) is a brusque, seen-it-all psychiatrist who’s possibly met his match with Mr Matting (Michael Bates).  Matting’s tale of being observed all the time by a small man in a Robin Hood hat with binoculars seems like a typical sort of delusion, but then Swanton sees the man as well ….

Since it’s scripted by John Cleese, it’s possibly no surprise that it has a definite Python feel (for example, Reginald Maulding is namechecked).  Bates gives an energised performance as a man who has an intense fear of being labelled a looney.  To this end, when he first enters Swanton’s consulting room he pretends to be the gas man, sympathising about the difficulties Swanton must face.  “Blimey, what a job eh? Talking to loonies all day. Wouldn’t catch me being a psychiatrist, not me. I’ll stick to gas. A load of nutters aren’t they? In here, hopping around on one leg, squawking, think they’re Napoleon.”

Bates, best known for Last of the Summer Wine and It ‘Aint Half Hot Mum, freewheels in a most impressive fashion.  To begin with, it appears that he has the more showy role (Barker comes off as rather pallid in comparison).  But once Swanton believes he can also see Matting’s imaginary man, the power dynamic between the pair subtly shifts and Swanton begins to act in a hysterical fashion.  Matting is rather irritated when Swanton declares Matting isn’t a looney.  “Oh that’s nice isn’t it? If I can see him he’s imaginary but if you can see him he’s real. I get it. You think you’re Lord God Almighty don’t you? If a patent can see something you can’t see, he’s a looney, he should be down on the funny farm, but if Doctor Smartypants can see him, he’s there mate.”

The reveal of the imaginary man (Ian Trigger) is done subtly, as for a few minutes the audience is aware of him, but neither Swanton or Matting react.  As Matting’s used to him being there all the time that’s understandable, but are we viewing the scene through his eyes only?  It’s only when Swanton double-takes that the fun really starts.

Swanton’s mounting hysteria is a gift for Barker, who doesn’t disappoint.  The conclusion, as all three debate the nature of existence, is also nicely handed.  After Swanton proves that the imaginary man is real, Matting is able to leave a happy man – safe in the knowledge that he isn’t a looney.  You can see the final story-beat coming a mile off, but it’s really the only obvious punchline.

Given how the early series of The Two Ronnies recycled material from their time at LWT, it’s easy to see  a cut-down version of this working as a sketch, with Ronnie C taking the role of Michael Bates (despite the twenty five minute length, it’s played very much in the tempo of a typical Two Ronnies sketch).  It’s certainly one that still stands up well today.

Six Dates with Barker – 1915: Lola

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Fritz Braun (Barker) is a rather incompetent shorthand typist in the employ of Kaiser Wilhelm (Dennis Ramsden).  The Kasier dismisses him and then decides that since he knows too many secrets he can’t be allowed to live.  But the man he choses for the task, Captain Otto Von Diesel ( Graham Armitage), finds himself unable shoot his brother-in-law in cold blood.  This presents a problem, Fritz needs to be dead whilst a sultry female spy called Lola is reportedly dead but it would be better if she was alive.  This presents an obvious solution, why doesn’t Fritz drag up as Lola ….

After a couple of good episodes, Lola is a broad and fairly comedy-free farce.  Although Barker would put on women’s clothing on numerous occasions during The Two Ronnies, it was never something he felt terribly comfortable with.  His Lola is therefore a fairly broad creation (although the script by Ken Hoare and Mike Sharland didn’t really give him many opportunities for subtlety).

This studio-bound story flits between Germany and Paris and if the script is rather indifferent, then it’s possible to derive some enjoyment from the guest cast.  Hugh Walters has a few nice moments as a German corporal, Graham Armitage impresses as Von Diesel whilst Freddie Jones plays it very broad (but there’s no other way with this script) as an English officer bewitched by Lola’s charms.  The peerless Valentine Dyall has a small role as Lord Kitchener, posing for his famous portrait, complaining that his arm is going to sleep and taking more than a shine to Lola.

This one is best filed under indifferent.

Six Dates with Barker – 1970: The Odd Job

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David Jason’s early career was very much intertwined with Barker’s.  Jason’s respect and admiration for Barker has never been in doubt (to him, Barker was always “the guvnor”) and it’s plain that Jason considered his work with Barker, especially during the 1970’s, as something of a comedy apprenticeship – a chance for him to watch the master at work and learn from him.

Jason aged-up to play Dithers the gardener in Hark At Barker (1969 – 1970) and His Lordship Entertains (1972).  His old-age make-up would also come in useful when he appeared as Blanco in Porridge (1975 – 1977).  So it wouldn’t be until Open All Hours (1976 – 1985) that he was finally able to play a regular role of his own age opposite Barker.

The Odd Job also sees him act without aged make-up, as he appears as Clive, a man desperate for any odd jobs (“engines you want de-clogged or television sets, I mend typewriters and washing machines you know”).  Arthur Harriman (Barker) does have a job for him – remove the scabbard from a samurai sword.  Arthur can’t take the nagging from his wife Kitty (Joan Sims) any more, so has decided to take his own life.  But when faced with the sword (plus Clive’s graphic description of hari-kari) he finds it impossible to do it himself, so wonders if Clive would do this odd job for him ….

Arthur is a meek, mild and fairly monotonous character whilst Clive (thanks to Jason’s comic tics and Northern accent) rather commands the screen.  Given that Clive is by far the showier part, it’s interesting that Barker chose to play Arthur instead.  This may be because, coming from an acting background, he didn’t have the ego that some comedians possess and wouldn’t have minded if Jason was earning more of the laughs.

Written by Bernard McKenna, who’d earlier penned several instalments of Hark at Barker and would later write several of Jason’s early sitcom efforts, A Sharp Intake of Breath and The Secret Life of Edgar Briggs, it’s a simple, but effective concept which is given a twist when Arthur and Kitty are reconciled.  This means that he no longer needs Clive’s services, but convincing the enthusiastic Clive is a little tricky.

Part two is where we see Clive really begin to treat this odd job with gusto.  He’s a man of limitless invention – for example, putting hydrochloric acid in Arthur’s milk so that his cereal disintegrates, setting up a tripwire which catches an unfortunate milkman instead, and almost managing to shoot Arthur in the park (instead some garden gnomes are dispatched).

It’s always nice to see Joan Sims, even if she has little to do, and the appearance of Derek Ware (playing the milkman) is a sure sign that something nasty is going to happen.  Ware was one of those select band of stuntmen (along with the likes of Terry Walsh and Stuart Fell) who would become so ubiquitous that their arrival on screen was a clear indication that mayhem wouldn’t be far behind.

It’s a pity that The Odd Job only exists as a black and white film print, as I’ve no doubt that the location work in the second half would look rather better in colour.  But no matter, it’s always a pleasure to see Barker and Jason together and whilst the final twist may be obvious it’s also satisfying.  It would later be revived as a 1978 film with Jason reprising his role and Graham Chapman replacing Barker.  Chapman’s involvement makes it an interesting Python curio, but The Odd Job works best in the twenty five minute format.

Six Dates with Barker – 1899: The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town

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The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, thanks in part to the later Two Ronnies remake, is one of the more interesting segments of Six Dates With Barker.  The Six Dates version was written by Spike Milligan whilst the Two Ronnies remake was credited to Milligan and A Gentleman (an indication that Barker had a hand in reshaping the original concept in order to fill out the expanded running time of the Two Ronnies serial format).

Unsurprisingly there’s more than a touch of Goon Show humour about this one.  If the rumours are to believed, then Milligan originally planned it as a film which would have featured himself, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers – but these plans were abandoned due to Sellers’ film commitments.

After the somewhat laboured comedy of The Removals Man, Phantom is a joy right from the start.  Milligan’s eye for the absurd is given free range with numerous sight and dialogue gags.  One of my favourites revolves around Sergeant Bowles, who’s played by different actors of various builds.  One Bowles might enter a room directly behind Inspector Alexander (Barker) only for another to be seen in the next shot.  It’s stupid, but it works.

Barker plays several other roles (including dragging up as Lady Penelope Barclay-Hunt).  Lady Penelope ends up so shocked by the Phantom that her face turns black and her hair white (not something you’d see today of course).  The identity parade is another exercise in total ridiculousness – as we see a topless Scotsman, a Chinaman, a black Chelsea pensioner, a vicar and an upper class toff (played by the lovely Moira Foot, who’d earlier been equally unconvincing – in a comic way – as a newspaper urchin).

With concerns that Queen Victoria may be targeted, a number of male officers with no resemblance at all to her Majesty are drafted in to impersonate her (Pat Gorman is amongst their number).  Another favourite moment is the meeting of the heads of the Commonwealth, who feature a number of dummies amongst their number, including one who has a pumpkin for a head and another who sports a balloon instead!  Moira Foot, who’d also appeared alongside Barker as Effie the maid in Hark at Barker, once again provides a touch of glamour, this time as the pneumatically enhanced Maureen Body.

The later Two Ronnies remake might have seen the addition of many more gags (as well as enjoying the comic talents of Ronnie C) but the compact Six Dates with Barker version is highly entertaining in its own right.  A pity they didn’t spin this one off into its own series, had Milligan been able to keep up this stream of comic invention it might have worked very well.

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Six Dates with Barker – 1937: The Removals Person

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Having transferred over to LWT from the BBC, along with Ronnie Corbett and David Frost, it wasn’t surprising that Ronnie Barker’s talent for playing numerous different characters quickly earned him a series of one-off playlets, Six Dates with Barker, which aired during 1971.

The premise of the series is straightforward – each twenty five minute episode is set in a different year (mostly the 20th century, although the final one – All The World’s A Stooge – ventures into the year 2774AD) and sees Barker tackle a set of diverse characters.  Possibly it was hoped that one or more of them would prove popular enough to spin off into a series – it did happen with this one, although it took seventeen years until Clarence reached the screen (and then on the BBC).

The Removals Person is such a one-joke premise that it’s highly doubtful Clarence would have ever gone ahead had Barker not been so keen to make it.  At that late point in his career, Barker was a comedy heavyweight who was pretty much able to do as he pleased.  Barker clearly saw untapped potential in Hugh Leonard’s The Removals Person and wrote all six scripts of Clarence himself (under the pseudonym of Bob Ferris).  He wasn’t averse to recycling Leonard’s jokes though ….

Here, Barker plays Fred, although visually he’s pretty much identical to the later Clarence.  Josephine Tewson, as in Clarence, is Travers, a maid who attempts to limit the damage caused by the myopic removals man and then slowly falls in love with him.  The year is 1937 and whilst the rest of London is busy celebrating the Coronation, Fred and Albert (Christopher Timothy) have a job to do – pack up all the belongings from a swanky flat and transport them over to Southampton.

Albert (Timothy essays possibly not the most convincing Cockney accent ever heard) has other ideas as he wants to pop off for an hour or so to watch the procession, which leaves Fred in sole charge.  We’ve already had a quick look at the world through Fred’s eyes (blurry to the point of blindness) so nothing that happens subsequently should be a surprise.  For example, he mistakes a post box for a Chelsea pensioner, believes that Travers is a coat stand and decides that the unhappy Miss Angela (Gillian Fairchild) is a standard lamp.

How much this appeals will probably depend on how well disposed you are towards the numerous (lack of) sight gags.  Fred is rather crude and not terribly sympathetic, conversely Tewson is rather appealing as Travers, a woman so obviously lonely that she responds to Fred’s charmless overtures.  Gillian Fairchild soars over the top as Miss Angela, but this is mainly a two-hander between Fred and Travers.

The Removals Person is diverting enough, but it’s chiefly of interest because of the eighties revival – taken on its own this is pretty average fair.  The shocking amount of tape damage on the VT master is quite notable, it’s quite unusual to see something in such poor shape.

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1987

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The 1987 Christmas Special was the Two Ronnies’ last hurrah.  This was primarily the decision of Ronnie Barker, who had decided to walk away from showbusiness at the age of 58.  Although the Two Ronnies was still popular, Barker was wise enough to realise that their time was coming to an end and presumably wanted to avoid the treatment meted out to the likes of Benny Hill (who had been unceremoniously dropped by Thames a few years earlier).  Barker would later confirm exactly why he retired.

“The reason I retired was that the material was getting less good. I’d run out of ideas. I was dry of sketches. Plus, I’d done everything I wanted to do. The situation sort of pushed me, goaded me into asking, ‘Well, haven’t you done enough?’ And I had.”

With one more series to come in 1988 (Clarence) and this final Christmas special from the Rons, Barker could ensure that he was leaving at a point where the audience still wanted more – which was much the best way to go.  He was tempted back for a few decent character roles, but in the main he stuck to his decision and enjoyed a long and happy retirement,

None of this would have been known at Christmas 1987, so it was just another special with none of the baggage that would have surrounded the show had it been known it was the last one.  As ever, there’s nothing radical here – no deviations from the tried and true formula.  But what they do, they do so well.

One of my favourite sketches (which reappeared several times down the years) gets one final outing here.  Ronnie C is a man who can never complete his sentences and Ronnie B is his friend who has several attempts at filling in the missing words.

RONNIE C: We had our Christmas party the other night. Funny old do, it was. It’s always the same every year.  Always takes the form of an egg and …
RONNIE B: Egg and … What, egg and spoon race?
RONNIE C: No, takes the form of an egg and …
RONNIE B: Egon Ronay banquet?
RONNIE C: No, no. No, an egg and chip supper

It’s just a pity that the final punch-line was so weak, but then the Rons never went down the Python route of abolishing punchlines, which was sometimes a problem.  The big musical number was set in the Klondyke Saloon, Alaska and goes from black and white to colour as well as featuring some gorgeous girls.

Ronnie Barker always enjoyed writing the Yokels sketches, since it gave him a chance to reuse old jokes and some of them (“‘Ere, the girl I was with last night wouldn’t kiss me under the mistletoe.  She didn’t like where I was wearing it”) would be familiar to anybody who’s been watching these Christmas specials in sequence.

After Ronnie C’s chair monologue, we’re into the big closing film – Pinocchio II – Killer Doll.  No expense was spared (the village set looks very impressive) and whilst it’s quite long (seventeen minutes) there’s more than enough going on to justify the length.

Ronnie C is wonderful as the evil Pinocchio II whilst Ronnie B has, as you might expect, spot-on comic timing as Geppetto.  They’re well supported by the likes of Lynda Baron and Sandra Dickinson and having Ed Bishop as the narrator was another joy.  Unlike Morecambe & Wise, the Two Ronnies didn’t make such a habit of featuring guest stars but there’s cameos here from Frank Finlay, Dennis Quilley and most unexpected of all, Charlton Heston.

It’s a more than decent way to bring their career to a close and whilst it’s interesting to ponder if they could have continued into the 1990’s, they probably made the best decision by deciding to bow out whilst they were still at the top.

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1984

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As might be expected from the Two Ronnies, there’s several wordplay orientated sketches in the show.  The first (upper class city gents who can’t pronounce their words properly) is amusing enough, but does slightly outstay its welcome.

Ronnie B’s monologue is delivered by a milkman (H.M. Quinn) in the style of the Queen’s Christmas speech.  His delivery clearly appeals to at least one member of the audience (listen out for some very audible female squealing on the most innocuous of lines).  The majority of the monologue doesn’t actually contain any jokes – the idea that Barker is talking like the Queen is obviously supposed to be funny in itself.

Next up are a couple of Northern road-workers who exhume some golden oldies from the Old Jokes Home, such as –

RONNIE C: Sithee, does tha believe in reincarnation?
RONNIE B: Well, it’s all right on fruit salad, but I don’t like it in me tea.

Following the very Chrissmassy musical number (the Rons dressed as a couple of Stereo Santas) and a quick Ronnie C solo sketch we move into the best part of the show.  First up is another wordplay sketch – with the Ronnies as two soldiers in a WW1 trench.  Ronnie C has the unfortunate knack of mishearing everything that Ronnie B says, such as –

RONNIE B: God, I wish I were back in Blightly.
RONNIE C: Do you, sir? What sort of nightie, sir? Black frilly one?

RONNIE B: Sounded like a Jerry rifle.
RONNIE C: Bit strange in the trenches, sir. A sherry trifle.

It’s a lovely, typical Two Ronnies sketch.  The courtroom sketch that follows is something a little different.  It opens quite normally, with Ronnie C prosecuting and Ronnie B in the dock, but it quickly becomes a parody of several popular quiz shows (What’s my Line?, Call My Bluff, Blankety Blank, Mastermind, The Price is Right) – it’s also a pleasure to see Patrick Troughton as the judge.

Ronnie B has a solo singing spot as Lightweight Louie Danvers (not too dissimilar to Fatbelly Jones it has to be said).

Following Ronnie C in the chair, it’s the big film –  The Ballad of Snivelling and Grudge.  Guest star Peter Wyngarde is a delight – mainly because he takes the whole thing totally seriously.  There’s no winks to camera and his dead-pan performance is spot on.  And if, like me, you can spot Pat Gorman in the background, then you’ve probably watched far, far too much old British television.  If you don’t know who Pat Gorman is, then you’ve clearly not watched enough!

No news items to end the show – instead it’s a old-fashioned style song about Christmas.  It’s somewhat comforting and sums up the Two Ronnies quite well.  By the mid eighties they were pretty much out of step with contemporary comedy (and Barker knew that their time was nearly up) but it doesn’t really matter – great comedy is timeless, and there’s several examples here that still work thirty years later and will surely endure for decades to come.

The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1982

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Although the rigidity of The Two Ronnies’ format was sometimes mocked (especially by Not The Nine O’Clock News) it’s always a surprise when a show does depart from what we expect.  The 1982 Christmas Special doesn’t have the usual introductions and farewells (so no “In a packed programme tonight” or “And it’s goodnight from me and it’s goodnight from him”).

Instead we’re pitched straight into a musical number with the Rons dressed as Chas and Dave, entertaining a pub audience with a reasonable facsimile of a typical Chas and Dave song.  It’s entertaining stuff, not only for the cut-away shots of Christmas celebrations but also for the performances of the extras in the pub (some of whom seem to have more enthusiasm than others).

Next door are Sid and George.  Sid guessed that George was in the snug as he saw everybody moving away from there (escaping from the smell of George’s feet) something which George denies.  “There’s nothing wrong with my feet. I’m on the odour eaters now”.  Sid tells him “I had them once. They weren’t half hard to swallow”.

There’s a lovely performance by David Essex of A Winter’s Tale (live and with a full orchestra accompaniment).  Ronnie B doesn’t get his usual monologue, but Ronnie C’s chair ramblings are present and correct.

The film sketch features Ronnie B as a man who travels back in time (thanks to the mysterious Ronnie C) and alters his own personal time-line, so that he was never born.  Thankfully, since it’s Christmas, all is resolved and he ends up back with his wife (Brigit Forsyth) and family, together with a new appreciation of how good his life is.

At just 45 minutes, this is quite a compact special.  Nothing particularly outstanding, but it’s all good solid Christmas fare.

The Two Ronnies Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery (1973)

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Apart from their links and sketches for the 1972 Christmas Night with the Stars, this was the Two Ronnies’ only Christmas special during the 1970’s.  With Morecambe and Wise reigning supreme, there was less need for a Two Ronnies Christmas show as well – but after M&W jumped ship to Thames, the Ronnies would gradually fill the void – with stand-alone specials in 1982, 1984 and 1987 (as well as Christmas shows from other years as part of their regular series).

The 1973 Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery was an attempt to do something a little different from the norm.  It takes place at the country house of Sir Giles (Ronnie Barker) and Lady Hampton.  The year is 1872 and the mystery of the title refers to the Christmas turkey – somebody’s stolen it, so what will Sir Giles’ guests have to eat for Christmas lunch?

He decides to engage the services of that ace detective Piggy Malone (and his trusty assistant Charley Farley).  Given that Malone and Farley appeared in four serials during the 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s a little surprising that none of them were set in Victorian times – maybe something of a missed opportunity.  As might be expected, they bumble about for a while, and the mystery is never really solved (although they do inadvertently provide an alternative for the Christmas dinner).

Although on the surface this looks different from the normal Two Ronnies shows, underneath there’s still plenty that’s familiar.  Ronnie B delivers a monologue, Ronnie C sits in a chair (more comfortable than his usual one) to spin a shaggy dog story and both of them end proceedings with some musical numbers (new words to the familiar tunes of Gilbert & Sullivan).

Along the way there’s some guest stars.  Tux (a man who balances plates on his head) was a throw-back to the specialty acts that were a regular feature during the first series.  Gabrielle Drake is gorgeous as Emma, who has her eye on Ronnie C – although he seems totally immune to her charms.

Cheryl Kennedy provides one of the stand-out moments by performing a monologue, Christmas Bells.  Given the opulent surroundings it’s something that certainly has an impact and serves as a timely reminder that we should always stop to remember (and help) those at Christmas who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Hear the bells are ringing, Bill? That’s cos it’s Christmas Eve. But it ain’t for you and me as there’s a ringing. When we is cold and hungry, Bill, it’s hard to make believe, as we can hear the happy angels singing. If we had a bed to sleep in, and could get a bite to eat, then bells of angel’s voices might remind us. But not when you’re to doss, Bill, in the cold and cruel street, where the Bobbies are nearly always sure to find us. Ah, it’s dreadful hard on you, Bill, cos you’re such a little kid, what didn’t oughta know a bit of sorrow, and wouldn’t if them Christian folks would do as they was bid. Why, him whose birthday’s gonna be tomorrow. But it was him what said, “Let little children come to me.” And meaning just such little coves as you, Bill. But I ain’t got no chance, cos I’m fourteen you see. And I’ll tell you, as I knows a thing or too, Bill, you can’t sell evening papers so as to get a bit to eat, like I done since the time as I was seven, without picking up enough of badness in the street to leave no earthly chance to get to heaven. Them coves what comes around with tracts summed me up a treat. I’m an outcast, little heathen, poor lost sinner.
Perhaps they’d be the same if they’d been brought up in the street and hardly ever had no proper dinner. But Bill, when you and me is dead, I’ll come along wi’ you, and you shall introduce me as your brother. And him who’s knows what sorrow is, he’s sure to let me through. Cos why? We’ve been such pals to one another. Ain’t we, Bill?

Porridge – The Desperate Hours

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1976

The second and final Porridge Christmas special splits rather neatly into two sections.  The first fifteen minutes or so follow Fletch and Godber’s illegal booze making activities and their attempts to interest their fellow prisoners in purchasing the fruits of their labour.  Two selections were on offer – the two-star and the five-star.  Upon sampling the five-star, Fletcher had very specific instructions.

Now, I must warn you, this should be sipped delicately like a fine liqueur.  It should not be smashed down the throat by the mugful.

Judging by their expressions, Warren, McLaren and Tulip found it powerful stuff – although quite what was in it was something of a mystery.  Next up was the two-star and Fletcher warned them that this wasn’t quite so smooth.

So go carefully, otherwise not only will you lose the flavour and the bouquet but you’ll also lose your powers of speech.

Sadly, their activities were discovered by Mackay who promptly marched them off to the Governor’s office.  The second part of the episode runs for about thirty minutes and it’s possible to believe that this was a normal episode which was expanded with the home-brew opening to produce this Christmas special.

Things take an unexpected turn when the new trusty, Urwin (Dudley Sutton), takes Barrowclough, Fletcher, Godber and the Governor’s secretary (Mrs Jameson) hostage.   He has two demands for Barrowclough (“shut that blind and get me a helicopter”).  The first is easy enough, but the second is going to be more of a problem.

During the course of the siege we learn that Mr Barrowclough and Mrs Jameson are more than friends (something which Fletcher will no doubt make use of in the future) and we also discover a great deal about Urwin.  It’s a lovely performance from Sutton who really is the focus of the episode.

Urwin is a somewhat pathetic character.  Passed over for psychiatric treatment, it looks as if the system has driven him to this desperate course of action.  Eventually, Fletch is able to take his home-made gun off him (a tense and well-acted seen between Barker and Sutton).  Just prior to this, Fletch spells out to him exactly why he’s never going to make it.

There ‘aint no way.  The worst thing that could happen to you is if they say OK.  ‘Cos you know as well as I do that you’d never make it to that helicopter.  They got marksmen out there that can shoot a fly’s eyebrows off at 400 yards.  And if flies had other things they could shoot them off ‘an all.

Fletch shrugs off the admiration of Godber.  It was nothing, he says, since he knew that Unwin’s gun was a fake (it wasn’t, of course, which Fletch inadvertently demonstrates by shooting a hole in the ceiling!).

Less Christmas orientated than No Way Out, The Desperate Hours is a cracking episode, full of the usual witty banter and a fine guest turn by Dudley Sutton.

Porridge – No Way Out

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1975

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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