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.