The Beiderbecke Affair January – February 1985
Watching this again was every bit the pleasure it was seeing it for the first time, a quarter century plus ago, and no less fun for watching it with a view to analysing it soon afterwards. The Beiderbecke Affair wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s a detective story being played out in the moonstruck outer limits of Leeds by a cast of characters who are, at one and the same time, down to earth and dead ordinary, and truly English eccentrics, who catch our affection immediately. The story is both silly and serious, at heart and in its execution by one of the most perfectly assembled casts I’ve ever seen, never once crosses the line into parody but creates a slightly off-kilter world in which what happens is a matter of real concern.
And it’s still bloody funny from start to finish.
I’ve already described the set-up of the plot in Part 1, and whilst it’s a motivating factor for Trevor and, to a lesser extent, Jill, it’s really a typically Hitchcockian McGuffin. Indeed, the case of the Missing Records, and the Exploding Hedgetrimmer sold to Trevor and Jill’s colleague, Mr Carter, is solved before the end of episode 2 (the explanation? Little Norm cocked up the paperwork).
This McGuffin (the vital, but essentially meaningless object that gets your characters where they have to be for the story) exposes a local network of people organising to get and do things for their friends and neighbours at cost price. This “White Economy”, actually a reinvention of the original Co-op Movement, combined with Jill’s Save the Planet politics and Conservation Candidacy, attracts attention from two directions.
The first is Sergeant Hobson, B. A. Hobson is a graduate copper with first class honours and a thesis on the grey areas at the margins of crime, from where subversive behaviour is bound to arise because people simply insist on doing things that are not normal. Hobson’s eyes are firmly fixed on Trevor, Jill and Big Al, the redundant lathe operator who has set up this White Economy: somewhere in what they’re doing, something has got to be criminal.
The second is a dirty tricks campaign by a prominent local businessman, his Councillor brother who’s on both the Planning and Police Committee, and a certain local Policeman who regards Hobson as a waste of space and is forever urging him to go out and nick some thieves instead of sitting in his office dictating notes and playing with the Police computer. This trio don’t want to see the boat rocked by people who don’t do normal things.
You may note that, although this is a comedy, an extremely likeable, lighthearted and funny comedy, replete with Yorkshire humour, that under the mockery these are very serious, and decidedly sinister objectives. Just because they’re absurd, it doesn’t mean they aren’t serious.
This being a comedy, goodness prevails, as far as it is allowed to, and the second set of bad guys are brought down by Hobson, whose fanaticism is easily directed into a different course, but whose prescient depiction of a future that we’ve reached without understanding what it all meant, gives him the standing on which to not only survive but thrive.
But the bedrock on which the Affair stands, and without which it would be a dismal failure, is the cast. Both the small ensemble of characters designed by Plater, and the splendid actors who animate everybody, with wit, a fine sense of how far to go without overplaying their part, and the immediate and captivating charm that bubbles under the whole production.
Each episode begins with a title sequence. An LP revolves on a turntable, a hand lifts the needle into place at track 1 (for our younger readers, the needle was the antideluvian equivalent of the laser, scratching its way along a complex and continual winding groove). A jaunty jazz tune springs up. The sequence emphasises the musical theme: decks, headphones, sheet music etc, intercut with domestic details like goldfish in a tank and faggots, and peas in a tray. This segues into the opening scene and an episode title that is the first line of dialogue, such as “What I don’t understand is…”
Thus begins episode one. A long dolly shot descends towards a stream of pupils streaming out of a prefab comprehensive school, slowly closing in on Mr Chaplain and Mrs Swinburne. It is Mr Chaplain who utters the opening words, stopping only at the realisation that he’s lost his little yellow van keys.
This launches into a prolonged, easily distracted conversation that very smoothly delivers enough back-story to let the tale start, whilst equally easily allowing Bolam and Flynn to impress their characters on the viewer.
Bolam, then in his early forties, and looking it, underplays his character throughout as an easygoing, mainly contented man with few ambitions. Flynn, petite, wholesome, fresh-faced and winsome, is five to ten years younger: fresher, more active, strong-willed and tolerant of her colleague. They have been connected for long enough to be content in each other’s company, are understanding enough to bicker without wounding sensitive areas – except when they rub each other up the wrong way and fight.
In short, they are instantly established as, I say again, off-kilter individuals who work together well. They’re never demonstrative or romantic, they are completely different characters, but without a single declaration, or even conventional statement of love, they will make it pretty clear to us – and even themselves – that they do rely upon, and need each other.
But the big pluspoint for the series is that, from the first moment, they are likeable. The audience settles back, interested in this pair, and willing to follow them about.
But Jill and Trevor are merely the centre of things. Dudley Sutton, Dominic Jephcott and Terence Rigby are in the credited cast, as is Special Guest Star Colin Blakely from episode 3 onwards, whilst Keith Smith, Keith Marsh, Robert Longden and Norman Schiller are fine supporters in small roles. Alison Skilbeck, playing Jill’s love-rival, Helen of Tadcaster, is a much more straight part, a foil for Trevor and Jill in the two episodes in which she appears.
Dudley Sutton plays history teacher Mr Carter, a cynical and yet almost florid member of staff (and recipient of the Exploding Hedge-Trimmer from the Dazzlingly Beautiful Platinum Blonde), who regards Trevor and Jill as his private soap opera, a daily source of drama upon which he comments with relish. In return, Jill and Trevor treat him as a harmless observer, responding to or around him with a mixture of fantasy cliches and cryptic encapsulations of what’s going on that confuse way more than they enlighten.
Dominic Jephcott excels as Hobson: conspicuously clever, well-maintained hair, blonde good looks, out of his depth whenever he’s not relying on his role as Police Officer, and a military habit of clicking his heels when addressing his superior officer that’s driving Superintendent Forrest bonkers. Hobson is every inch the graduate smartarse, superior in manner, the light of fanaticism glowing in his eyes whenever he’s not being talked down, past, over and around by Trevor and Jill, neither of whom can take him seriously enough to be concerned about his increasing attempts to fit them up. Until he becomes useful to them as a conduit for turning the tables on the McAllister Brothers, who conduct the spoiler campaign. Hobson turns on a dime, without so much as a squeak.
Terrence Rigby, once a fixture on Z-Cars and Softly Softly plays Big Al, a broad, phlegmatic and philosophic former-building-trade work who, after redundancy, has organised the White Economy around the principle of people helping each other out. He’s introduced at a Cub’s football match, along with the excitable, perennially confused Little Norm (Schiller). Described as having the texture and charm of a small Pennine Chain, Al just wants to be left alone without people poking into his business, especially Hobson. Norm is his brother, as are a great number of people during the story, Trevor included, and Janey the Blonde his sister, though it’s never clear if he has any siblings. Al is, quite simply, a cloth-capped force of nature.
As for the smaller parts, Smith is superb is his somewhat one-dimensional role as Mr Wheeler, the headmaster, brusque with his staff, obsequious with Hobson, appearing from nowhere with his hands clasped behind his back, yet still giving the impression of a man who leaves a silvery trail wherever he passes. Longden, who appears in the last two episodes, plays Town Planning Officer, Mr Pitt, a man of careful demeanour and utter spinelessness. Marsh, a familiar figure from other Yorkshire TV sitcoms, plays Harry, a pensioner who keeps turning up out of nowhere, leading a dog called Jason on a length of string, and who wants to be a supergrass, to regain his self-respect after years of unemployment.
As stated above, Alison Skilbeck plays the only straight role in the entire series. She’s brought in, offstage, in episode 3, when Trevor, in a rush of emotional honesty, confesses to having once been engaged to a woman who, completely unlike Jill, was interested in all the same things as he was, only to call the wedding off because he was boring. Her name was Helen: “of Troy?” enquires Jill, amused and determined not to take her relationship with Trevor seriously enough to admit he really means something to her: “of Tadcaster” Trevor somewhat limply replies.
Needless to say, once summoned by name, Helen appears almost immediately, back from London where she’d “met a bloke”, interested in seeing if Trevor was any less boring, and not expecting to find him in a “relationship”. The ladies get on famously with each other, to the extent of going for a posh meal in a posh restaurant where they get poshly pissed and toss a coin for Trevor. Jill, who has already, in a laconic manner, let Helen know that she’s serious about Trevor, is disturbed less by losing than by being disturbed at losing. She’s typically detached and cool about the whole thing, joking that if Trevor marries Helen, she’ll insist on his moving into the spare bedroom, but underneath it she’s unwillingly distressed at the thought.
It doesn’t matter, actually. Trevor’s repeated question about whether he gets a say in it may be said in jest, but he knows what he wants and between an independent and sassy penurious schoolteacher who hates jazz, and a jazz loving rich girl who lets her Daddy treat her as a child, and who tries to order Trevor’s lifestyle (Daddy is a McAllister Brother, you see, and at the heart of things), Helen doesn’t stand a chance.
Charm, silliness, likeability, political underpinning, belly laugh jokes, perfect casting, an upbeat jazz soundtrack and a gentle, laconic pace. The Beiderbecke Affair is, quite simply, a gem on every level.
And it’s a joy to have found a way to discuss this show without constant comparisons to its hapless predecessor, Get Lost!, which for a while I thought for a while would be impossible. From the first moment of its symbolic credits and its jaunty music, The Beiderbecke Affair joyfully laughs at Get Lost!s failings.
Someone knew in advance that the series was going to hit, for Plater was persuaded to novelise his own script for release as a book, midway through first transmission. It was his first venture into adult prose, and it’s a worthy companion to the series. It was also so popular that it sold out in Manchester before I could get a copy. Fortunately, a friend saw a copy on sale in Wilmslow and grabbed it for me, handing it over on the Thursday night before episode 6.
I took it home and, before going to sleep, read it up to the end of episode 5, and put it away. The series was too good to spoil.
Next, I’ll be looking at The Beiderbecke Affair‘s first sequel, The Beiderbecke Tapes. But, if I may end upon a personal note, if there are any Jill Swinburnes out there, especially ones who look like Barbara Flynn did during this series, would they be so kind as to contact me, with a view to discussing an underplayed, seemingly ill-matched but underneath rather serious relationship. Saying “I love you” strictly excluded, of course.