Are You Being Served? – The Father Christmas Affair (26th December 1976)

AYBS? is a curious beast. No other series in the Croft/Lloyd and Croft/Perry canon has quite the same feel – this was a show that often resembled Frankenstein’s monster (in the way that numerous disconnected pieces were jammed together in order to form a whole).

I’m not entirely sure how the writing process worked – presumably Croft and Lloyd worked separately and then cherrypicked the best moments from each of their scripts. If so, that would explain how in today’s episode we jump from Mr Grainger performing the hits of Al Jolson to the whole department dressing up as Santa Claus ….

If there’s one moment from The Father Christmas Affair which has endured then it’s the flashing Father Christmas.  BBC Visual Effects seemed to relish working on AYBS? almost as much as they did on Doctor Who and this very silly Santa is well up to their usual standard.  It’s Mr Humphries’ reaction which really sells the moment though – but since we’ve already had the reveal (Santa – like Action Man – is bereft of working parts) this doesn’t quite satisfy.  Surely it would have been better not to have shown exactly what Santa was hiding under his robe, that way we would have been left guessing about why Mr Humphries suffered such a dramatic swoon.

If I was the sort of person to worry about these things, then I’d worry about who was looking after the customers whilst all the staff were crowded around this work of technological art. Luckily I don’t.

I always enjoy the canteen scenes. In the first phase of the series they provided Mr Lucas with the opportunity to grievously insult Mrs Slocombe on a regular basis (he doesn’t disappoint on this score). They also provided ample scope for some ramblings from Mr Grainger (again, we’re well served today).  Possibly the most notable thing about the scene is the way that Wendy Richard very visibly corpses on more than one occasion. Something was clearly tickling her fancy.

The middle part of the episode is where things get a little odd, although as I touched upon at the start, complaining about structure in an average episode of AYBS? seems to be a pretty futile pastime.

Mr Grainger has, once again, elected to entertain the old folks at Christmas. And since his impression of Winston Churchill has been deemed to be old hat, he’s decided to come right up to date – by impersonating Sir Stafford Cripps. There’s something rather delightful about this reference, which would have been dated in 1976 (after all, Cripps passed away in the early 1950’s) never mind forty or more years later.

This idea is quickly knocked on the head and it’s suggested that miming to an Al Jolson record would be a safer bet (although maybe not if you want to earn any repeat fees in the twenty first century …)

There’s no reason why Mr Humphries and Mr Lucas should have learnt such an intricate series of dance moves, but it provides us with a few minutes of entertainment, so let’s be generous (it is Christmas after all).

Since the automated Santas wern’t a great success, a human replacement has to be found. With a handy cash bonus on offer from young Mr Grace it’s no surprise that everybody rushes into their suits with alacrity. Mrs Slocombe has some lovely lines, reminding a nonplussed Mr Rumbold that since “Parliament has passed a Sexual Relations act” there’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t take on the role.

Mr Humphries once again steals the show with his Santa ensemble. I wonder what the rest of the cast felt, every time that Inman was handed a prime bit of comedy business? With a few exceptions they remained together for a long time, so presumably they accepted that there was a definite pecking order.

When Mr Grainger arrives he’s still blacked up as a Minstrel (he was unable to get the make-up off). This provides us with the episode’s punchline – a young child (Donald Waugh) is brought in to pick out the best Father Christmas from the line-up and naturally picks the one who – like him – is black.

This moment hasn’t aged well, but since AYBS? never comes across as unpleasantly dated as the likes of On The Buses, it seems more like an innocent gag rather than anything inherently racist. Certainly it’s of its time, but since this a strong – if bitty – Christmas special, it’s a slight shame to think that it’s probably not now going to be the first to get a repeat airing. Mind you, it last surfaced on BBC2 as recently as 2009, so you never know.

Are You Being Served? – Christmas Crackers (22nd December 1975)

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It’s Christmas, so we can forgive the employees of Grace Brothers for indulging in a spot of dress up. Mind you, as the series progressed they tended to do it virtually every week ….

Christmas Crackers is a game of four halves.  It begins with a brain-storming meeting called by Mr Rumbold – although in his absence Captain Peacock moves into his seat with alacrity. He also quickly acquires Mr Rumbold’s cup of tea (the only one in a real cup – the others have to make do with plastic ones). It’s a reminder of the rigid herichary which exists at Grace Brothers.

Elsewhere the chat is, as you’d expect, very dependent on double entendres. Mrs Slocombe frets about her pussy whilst Mr Grainger – late once again – tells the others that Mrs Grainger failed to rouse him this morning. Mr Lucas supplies the obvious punchline.

The strangest moment occurs just after Mr Humphries suggests that they should organise a glee club.  This seems reasonable enough, but it tickles the fancy of one member of the audience who hoots in a very distracting fashion.  John Inman, pro that he was, carried on regardless which meant they didn’t have to go for a retake.

When Mr Rumbold eventually does turn up, he reveals that young Mr Grace has already decided exactly how the department should get into the Christmas spirit, thereby negating the previous ten minutes of chat.  This is either a clever touch or it reveals that the plotting of AYBS? was never that solid.

The second section of the episode revolves around a shop-floor spat between Mrs Slocombe and Captain Peacock.  Mrs Slocombe doesn’t like the high-kicking automated display model which has been wheeled onto the floor by the ever-annoying Mr Mash. She wants it removed, but Captain Peacock stands firm and tells her to return to her counter.  So she turns it on when his back is turned and the inevitable happens (it kicks him up the backside).  Mr Humphries then notes that it’s playing the Nutcracker Suite ….

Christmas dinner is next on the agenda, which is a good example of the fact that Grace Brothers remains the most parsimonious of employers.  A microscopic chicken has to be shared amongst them all, whilst their Christmas pudding deflates after Mr Mash liberally sprinkles it with a dose of powerful wood alcohol.  Mind you, their crackers were very large and did include decent novelties, so it wasn’t all bad. Chief amongst these were Captain Peacock’s googly eyes and Mr Grainger’s sticky-out ears, which allows him to cosplay as Mr Rumbold.

This just leaves the reveal of the shop floor, now transformed into a very credible Christmas grotto (clearly all the money went on this, rather than the staff Christmas dinner) and the emergence of the regulars, all decked out in their costumes (this was young Mr Grace’s brainwave).  Whenever dress up was on the cards it seemed there was a strict pecking order (with Mr Humphries always being the last to show his face). This suggests that the writers had quickly latched onto the fact that Inman had clicked with the audience (he certainly gets the loudest whoop of appreciation – although it’s debatable whether his costume is the funniest).

Captain Peacock’s snowman is wonderful (I think it’s the addition of the pipe which really sells it) whilst Miss Brahams and Mr Lucas, as a fairy and Long John Silver, don’t let the side down. Mrs Slocombe’s Robin Hood isn’t too way out but it’s counterbalanced by Mr Grainger’s egg costume (my favourite). As always, Arthur Brough helps to sell the moment – Mr Grainger’s long-suffering miserablism is pitched at just the right level.  Like all Croft/Lloyd and Croft/Perry series, AYBS? was never the same once the original cast began to break up and Brough’s death (following the conclusion of series five) undeniably affected the balance of the show.

Once all the staff have assembled, out of nowhere music begins to play and also out of nowhere everybody starts to sing a song based on the way their day has gone.  This isn’t quite as jolting as raising a glass and wishing everyone at home a very Merry Christmas, but it’s not far short.

Gideon’s Way – The Reluctant Witness

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Red Carter (Mike Pratt) and his brother Syd (David Gregory) run a successful stolen car ring.  Their success sticks in the craw of Tiny Bray (Frederick Piesley) though.  Tiny spent four years inside for a crime he didn’t commit, thanks to Red, and the thought of revenge has obsessed him ever since his release.

Tiny is one of Gideon’s top informers – but Syd caches up with him before he can spill the beans to the Commander.  The younger Carter brother dishes out a savage beating and Tiny later dies from his injuries.  There was an eye-witness – Rachel Gulley (Audrey Nicholson) – but she’s a quiet, shy girl who’s reluctant to speak out.  However, the local beat copper, PC John Moss (Trevor Bannister), has a plan …..

The Reluctant Witness is packed full of incident and interest.  Like a number of actors, Mike Pratt made two appearances in Gideon’s Way, playing different characters.   Red was the more substantial role and Pratt certainly holds the viewers attention.  Red’s the elder brother and it’s plain that the younger Syd idolises him.  But Red’s not only older, he’s also wiser (at least during the early part of the story) since it seems more than likely he’d have never lost his temper with Tiny, as Syd did.

In contrast, Syd is portrayed as violent and reckless.  An insight into his personality is given during a party thrown by the two brothers.  Syd is slightly rough with his female companion, but is unrepentant – with the clear implication given that his treatment of the opposite sex is often far from chivalrous.

The party scene also has one of my favourite Gideon/Keen moments, as the officers gatecrash the swinging hop to sow a little discord.  They tell the brothers a fairy story – all about a stolen car ring – although there’s no happy ending (they drop the bombshell that Tiny’s dead).  Gregson and Davion work really well here.

You might wonder why Tiny was Gideon’s informant or indeed why the Commander is involved in such a low-key murder.  It’s a fair question, but for once there’s a good reason – Tiny was the only man convicted by Gideon who he later discovered was innocent.  If Gideon’s never been responsible for convicting anyone else who wasn’t guilty, then that’s a remarkable (if slightly unbelievable) strike-rate.  So Gideon feels obligated to get involved (not that he usually needs an excuse, he just tends to pitch in!).  But with Rachel hesitant to speak up, how will they obtain a confession from Syd?

This is a fairly unusual episode of GW, since a generous amount of screentime is given over to a uniformed copper.  Trevor Bannister, forever Mr Lucas in Are You Being Served?, is the fresh-faced man on the beat.  He gives a lovely performance as the friendly beat bobby who’s been carrying a torch for Rachel for some time.  Their relationship hasn’t got past the “good morning” stage, although there’s no doubt that he’s smitten.  The way that he stops the traffic to allow her to cross the road is a good example of this.

The only criticism I have of Audrey Nicholson’s performance as Rachel Gulley is that several times the script tells us that she’s plain and mousy.  Eh?  She’s a lovely looking girl!  But it’s true she’s something of a downtrodden waif, thanks to her domineering mother (played to great comic effect by Patricia Burke).

Mrs Gulley is a man-eater, plain and simple.  She tells Rachel to pretend to be her younger sister, as she doesn’t want her latest date to know that she’s old enough to have a grown-up daughter.  Later, when the relationship between Rachel and John deepens, Mrs Gulley is invited to tea with Rachel, John and John’s mother.  The tone is set when she asks for something a little stronger than tea – both John and Mrs Moss look a little askance at this, but politeness dictates that they don’t comment directly.  Alas, things go downhill from there, but John isn’t bothered – he tells Rachel that he wants to marry her, not her mother.

John’s plan to catch Syd is a decent one.  Gideon, Keen and John lie in wait at Rachel’s house and when Syd calls round – threating her to keep quiet or else – they’re in a position to overhear everything. But Rachel will still need to testify and this is the point in the story where Red starts to become a little unhinged.  When he sent Syd round to threaten the girl, he was quite clear – no excessive violence.  But once Syd’s been arrested he changes his tune – now he wants the girl dead.  As he says himself, Syd’s all he’s got in the world, so he’ll do anything – including murder – to protect him.

However, Rachel escapes his clutches (quite why he didn’t send more men after her is something of a mystery).  This means that he has to make an even more desperate gamble – attempting to hijack the prison van.  He must clearly love his brother, although it might have been a good idea for at least one of his gang to tentatively ask if this was altogether wise.  No matter, it concludes the story in an exciting way and there’s a nice twist which totally knocks the wind out of Red’s sails.

Mike Pratt, Trevor Bannister and Audrey Nicholson are three reasons why this episode is a favourite of mine.  The supporting players are far from shabby though and there’s familiar faces to spot, such as Gretchen Franklin (playing Tiny’s wife).  The eagle-eyed may also spy an uncredited Peter Purves as one of Red’s gang.

It’s getting a little predictable to keep on saying how good this series is, but it’s true nonetheless and The Reluctant Witness maintains the high standard.