Still Open All Hours – but why?

Arkwright or Granville?

To everything there is a a season – several, if it’s good enough. But, unlike the Biblical injunction, the truth of television is that seasons are not cyclical: harvest does not return each year: once the yield is taken, the time is gone and, like our corporeal bodies, does not return.

That doesn’t stop people from attempting to revive things, in the hope that they can be as good as they were remembered to be. Only today there is a piece in the Guardian arguing for the revival of Top of the Pops, in the face of the fact that none of the reasons for its cancellation have gone away, that the worlds of television and music and their respective audiences bear no resemblance to the conditions which saw the programme thrive and that in order to give any revival a chance of succeeding, it would be necessary to destroy absolutely everything about the programme that is recognisable as Top of the Pops.

Bringing back something once popular has been shown, time and time again, to be disastrous. The problem lies in the essential dichotomy between capturing the elements that made the show appealling to begin with – requiring stasis – and the need to present its characters as they are after a period of time – requiring progress. It’s an impossible burden by its very nature, especially if members of the original cast are involved: they have aged, visibly, and in doing so have changed, therefore their characters must have changed also, in the intervening years, yet what is demanded of them is being what they were.

The only truly successful revival (and I discount Doctor Who because, by its very nature, it could reinterpret itself with a wholly new cast) was Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais’s 1972 sitcom revival, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? This was so complete a success because the writers chose to make the five years since the last episode of The Likely Lads into the driving force of the series. Instead of being about the recreation of the beer, booze and birds obsessions of two Sixties’ lads out to enjoy life, the series focussed on the changes in the characters during a five year spell apart, expertly contrasting Bob Ferris’s middle-class absorption into the young executive early Seventies, with Terry Collier’s suspension in time due to his Army service, and his thwarted intent to pick up where he last was, in a world that no longer existed.

And yes, for those who are not familiar with this programme, it was a comedy, and still is very funny indeed.

It was not an approach that was factored into the BBC’s one-off revival of the Ronnie Barker/Roy Clarke sitcom, Open All Hours.

I used to love that programme, and the occasional repeats of it still make me laugh out loud. It tends to be overlooked a little when people discuss the great sitcoms of the past because both its star and its writer were involved in contemporaneous shows that were more popular: Barker as Fletch, in the immortal Porridge, Clarke as creator and sole writer of Last of the Summer Wine (which would go on to become the world’s longest-running sitcom ever).

The show was a quirky three-hander, featuring Barker as Arkwright, the tight-fisted, grasping yet richly-comic small-town corner shop grocer, David Jason, in his first starring role as errand boy Granville, frustrated at all turns, nephew to Arkwright with a dubious father, and Lynda Barron as District Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, living opposite and nominally Arkwright’s fiancee.

Like most of Clarke’s sitcoms, the show developed its own absurd world, revolving primaily around Arkwright and Granville, but punctuated by the regular customers who were the basis of what were virtually mini-sketches as they came and went. The humour primarily in the dialogue, with occasional slapstick, usually relating to Granville on the shop-bike, or Barker with the finger-trapping till, was deftly played. Each episode took place in a day, starting from the opening of the shop before dawn, and Granville’s perenially frustrated attempts to build a relationship with the milkwoman (Barbara Flynn, looking delightful as ever, even if swaddled in coat and woolly hat). It would end with a monologue from Arkwright, nominally about the events of the day, as he brought in the displays from outside.

Open All Hours first appeared as a one-off in the 1973 series, Seven of One, a variation on the BBC’s old Comedy Playhouse format (in which six different comedy pilots would be broadcast, as an audition for series) in that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker. Porridge was the ‘winner’ from that run, but in 1976, Barker and Clarke followed up the Arkwright pilot with the first of four series between then and 1985. I believe it was David Jason’s idea, initially, to do a revival as a Christmas special, but that Clarke is very happy to write a full series if this goes down well.

So, how was the revival handled? Well, it certainly wasn’t the worst of such things that I’ve seen. It was even mildly amusing at times, and it certainly attracted the likes of Johnny Vegas and Mark Williams into cameo roles (and Barry of the Chuckle Brothers but let’s say no more about that). What it was, basically, was pointless.

Clarke, Jason and the BBC have chosen not to make any changes whatsoever. Apart, that is, from the most central and inescapable change, namely that the great Ronnie Barker is no longer with us (and would probably have had nothing to do with this if he had been). The show gets around this by turning Granville into Arkwright, a virtual carbon copy. It gets around having to have Jason play Barker by introducing newcomer James Baxter to play Jason: he is introduced as Leroy, Granville’s son, abandoned by his mother as a baby and brought up by his Dad, and all the local women.

Actually, Leroy is not a Granville-clone: not entirely. He has the same worries about who his Dad might have been, but as these are directed at the man who has been his Dad in terms of raising him, and who believes himself to be biologically the father, this introduces a note of psychological depth which is not only alien to the show but also unnecessarily cruel. On the positive side, he’s more popular with the girls than Granville ever was.

Apart from that, it’s all the same. The shop is a bit cleaner and lighter, the sign repainted, the pavement display more extensive, but they’ve still got the till. Former Nurse Gladys Emmanuel still lives opposite (Arkwright never did get round to marrying her). Stephanie Cole reprises her role as Mrs Featherstone, the ‘Black Widow’, looking virtually unchanged (a testament to how well she ‘aged up’ thirty years ago) and Maggie Ollerenshaw returns as the indecisive Mavis, still nursing a mutual crush on Granville but steered even further away from any decision by her widowed sister Madge (played by Brigit Forsyth, the former Thelma of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? who really hasn’t aged well at all.)

No Barbara Flynn though. Sigh. And as for the new characters, apart from the introduction of a couple of Pakistani customers, as a gesture to the changing social background of the Doncaster in which the shop is set, not a one of them couldn’t have come out of a thirty year old episode, in word or thought.

But that’s really all there is. Juggle Granville into a near replica Arkwright, introduce a Granville-substitute with nearly all the same hang-ups and don’t change anything from thirty years ago. It gets a mild, nostalgic chuckle, based on the wish that there’d been a few more of them then, in the same way that the debut of NYPD Blue, a vastly inferior copy of Hill Street Blues, immediately reminded you of the absence of anything with the qualities of Hill Street Blues. The outcome could be achieved more effectively, and more economically, by repeating an old episode of Open All Hours.

Still Open All Hours gives its game away in its title. It is firmly rooted in its season which, like all others, has passed, and should be left to be remembered. A series would be a grave mistake.

16 thoughts on “Still Open All Hours – but why?

  1. Brilliant review, I completely agree, loved the original but this felt really wrong. I didn’t laugh once, which could not have been said about the original. Sadly, like OFAH, they should have left it alone, no wonder Ronnie Barker was pulling a face in the photograph!

  2. Paul and UK (if I may address you so, in short).

    Thanks for your visits and comments. I think as a general principle sitcoms shouldn’t be revived unless there is a brand new, spakingly gorgeous idea that demands it. I make an exception again for Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, where Clement and La Fresnais would have loved to keep revisiting it every five years or so, to see where Terry and Bob were – a sort of Seven Up but as a sitcom.

    But that would have worked because The Likely Lads was played naturalistically, and not as comedy characters in their own right. Unfortunately, Bolam’s falling-out with Bewes put an end to that. And Richard Beckinsale’s death put an end to the idea being exercisedin respectof the only other sitcom where I can see it working, Granad’s The Lovers.

  3. As much as I loved the original, I cannot help but feel David Jason is trying to recreate past glories to prove he has still got the magic touch, sadly nothing about any of his recent efforts reinforce that view. I hope there is not a new series commissioned as I feel this would further degrade the original or if there is to be a new series, something dramatic happens to change my view that this was nothing but misplaced nostalgia.

  4. @mbc no, Paul is fine, absolutely no problem. Good call re likely lads and The Lovers, wow that’s a blast from the past, but a good one 😉 Sadly Richard Beckinsale passing at 31 was truly tragic. Great review and I will keep following the site as a result.

    1. Welcome aboard! (Actually, it was UKTV Reviewer whose pardon I was begging for abbreviating to UK – I do first names round here).

      I agree re Beckinsale, a heart-breaking loss. I still remember, less than a week after the news broke, there was a TV Awards show on ITV, where Ronnie Barker was awarded something to do with either Porridge or Going Straight: his only words were “The loss of my friend and co-star Richard Beckinsale has robbed me of any pleasure I can take in this award” and he left the stage before he started crying.

      I’ve never actually reviewed The Lovers TV series but I’ve written about the film under the Film & DVDs category. And I’m currently re-watching the Likely Lads so I’ll be writing about that in due course.

      Thanks again for commemting.

  5. According to the show’s Wikipedia entry, a Summer Special is planned, and there is enthusiasm for a series if the public want it. I have no idea of ratings and I haven’t researched reviews in depth, but what I’ve seen so far is that the programme may have got decent ratings primarily on the back of people like us, attracted by curiosity and the fear of how bad it might be.

    I haven’t followed David Jason’s work for years, not since a long ago and horribly misjudged Only Fools and Horses Xmas special that put me off the series forever, but I do think he’s probably the prime mover behind this.

    If a series is commissioned, I’ll probably ignore it. I’m not as worried as you about it degrading the original: the crappy post-Leonard Rossiter Reginald Perrin series didn’t make the original series any less funny. Nor, frankly, do I see Clarke wanting to make the kind of realistic changes necessary to help this stand on its own two feet.

    Long ago, yes, as in the complete rethinking of The Growing Pains of PC Penrose (which I never saw) to make it into Rosie (which I also loved). But not in his Eighties when dealing with an old favourite. We’ll just have to hope that the majority agree this was a wasted exercise.

  6. Very good point about Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. Clement and La Frenais have usually been a step ahead to my mind. Even the “Whatever…” title betrays the idea that these are not the carefree Bob and Terry of the original series, but older versions whose paths have diverged, introducing new tensions into their evolving relationship.

    Of course, it was Clement and La Frenais who wrote Porridge, giving Barker his greatest role, as well as the brilliant Auf Wiedersehen Pet. Unfortunately, they failed to repeat their Likely Lads trick with AWP when they revived it for three more series a few years back. As a huge fan of the original two series – the second in particular – it was dissapointing to witness that succession of diminishing returns.

    1. I didn’t watch AWP at the time but did try the revival, and, to be fair, enjoyed it without being overly impressed. Then again, I had nothing to compare it to. I did then see the originals, of which the first series was clearly superior, but by then they were so far removed from their contemporary setting, I don’t think I got the best of them.

      Back in the Seventies/Eighties, I developed a rule of thumb about new sitcoms: who’s the writer? Roy Clarke? – watch!, Eric Chappell? – run screaming!. Clement and La Fresnais, until they essentially grew out of sitcoms, were always compulsory viewing. Except for AWP first time: I wonder why?

      1. It’s interesting you found the first series of AWP clearly superior. Apparently Clement and La Frenais themselves share your view but I actually prefer the second. Admittedly it takes a couple of episodes to find its stride and loses it a little in the final instalments when the action moves to Spain, but the episodes set in Derbyshire and Tyneside are pure gold. I feel the characters have progressed and in a similar way to Bob and Terry in Whatever Happened… Oz’s relationship with his son, Dennis’s struggle to conceal his debt problems and Moxy’s “temporary leave of absence” from Her Majesty’s Pleasure all revealed hitherto unseen depths to these characters, as does Wayne’s womanising which now looks more like a weakness in the light of his failed marriage and Barry’s cringeworthy but still affecting persistence in the face of his rejected marriage proposals.

        Perhaps the other aspect that works so well in these episodes (and indeed in the first series), but is let go a little at the end is Clement and La Frenais’s ability to focus on the small stuff. Apparently when the pilot for Porridge succeded they were aghast at how they could stretch the premise over an entire series when all the action would be pretty much confined to the inside of a cell. The first couple of episodes attempted to escape the confines with grave digging excursions and such like but two or three weeks in they had their Eureka moment when they penned an episode that centred entirely on Godber’s efforts to steal a tin of pineapple chunks from the prison kitchen. A winning formula was born – embrace the confines and concentrate on the little victories.

        If you’re ever tempted to revisit AWP you’ll find much that still resonates. The premise of itinerant British building works joining abroad in Germany is quite a ironic mirror image to today’s outrage at immigrants “coming over here, nicking our jobs”; but perhaps my favourite poignant exchange is the lads’ disbelief when the result of Barry’s elaborate voting system selects yellow as the colour to paint the hut, despite being no-one’s first choice:

        Dennis, “Well that’s a smashing system that is Barry – everybody gets what nobody wants”

        Barry, “That’s democracy Dennis”

      2. Never say never, George, but it’s rather a bit ‘so much to do/watch, so little time’. And whilst I did enjoy AWP, there are other things I want to rewatch that take precedence. If I do get into that situation (got to have something to do after I am the sole winner of a seventeen-week rollover EuroMillions), I’ll blog the experience.

  7. Only a fool flogs a dead horse.

    Watched one episode of STILL OPEN and gave up
    why no Barbara Flynn?
    it would have been perfect to see Granville happy at last married to his milk lady
    and to turn him into Arkwright was a mistake
    a radically different personality to young granville
    and then have indecisive Mavis as a love interest
    Nurse Gladys Emanuel was actually sexy in the original.
    Now shes just a frump.
    And the young shop lad doesnt work either.

    Heres an idea they should have used in the new Still Open series.
    get some Barker lookalike in the shop asking for FOUR CANDLES
    then run the entire sketch

    1. I’m not sure about including Barbara Flynn, because I seriously like her and I’d have hated to see her in crap like this. but to bring her in and have her married to Granville, as you suggest, would have made the show impossible. The whole idea was to repeat the past as closely as they could, because David Jason couldn’t stand not being big on TV any more. Everything that worked aout the original was turned into a hopeless hodge-podge trying to duplicate it.

      I love your idea about the Four Candles sketch, but great as that would have been, I’malmost certain that the original wasn’t written by Roy Clarke so, apart from any copyright issues, and budget issues about buying the rights to use it, he never struck me as someone who would collaborate in writing.

      I never did watch any episodes of the series, only this one-off.

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