Rosie: Of Silent Dog-Whistles and Adjustable Underpants

When his obituary is published, Roy Clarke will be held up as the creator and writer of three classic sitcoms: Last of the Summer Wine, Open All Hours and Keeping Up Appearances.
Other works will be mentioned in passing, but the same prominence will not be given to the 1970s sitcom that Clarke wrote, based on his experiences in the Police Force, Rosie which starred Paul Greenwood and Tony Heygarth, and which seems to have dissolved out of memory.
The central conceit behind Rosie was that Greenwood, as the eponymous PC Michael Penrose, looked so young that nobody – the general public, criminals and especially his own fellow-policemen – could take him seriously as a copper, to the unending frustration of his career.
Rosie is a prime example of the difference between the BBC of the Seventies, and the BBC – and television in general – of the last twenty years or so. When it first appeared, in 1977, it was billed as The Growing Pains of PC Penrose, and was set in a North Yorkshire Police Station, where the newly-transferred Rosie was trying to get people to take him seriously. Greenwood, a newcomer, was paired up with veteran comic actor, Bryan Pringle, as his Station Sergeant.
I can make no comment on The Growing Pains of PC Penrose. I would have watched it on the strength of Clarke’s name, but it was broadcast on a Tuesday night, when I was always out, years before video-recorders were feasible, and was never repeated. Everyone who commented upon it agreed that it simply didn’t work.
Nowadays, that would be it: move on, next idea please. But the BBC had faith in Clarke, and had faith in the idea. And faith in themselves. They were prepared to write off the time and money that had been invested in The Growing Pains of PC Penrose, and to give Clarke the chance to re-think the concept and make it work.
The series was re-named Rosie, to demonstrate its distance from the first, and failed, version. Greenwood was retained, but everyone and everything from the first series was replaced: a brand new scene, and a brand new supporting cast, including Tony Haygarth, who proved invaluable to the new series by giving it an overtly comic second lead, to supplement and support Greenwood’s essentially serious leading character.
The reboot was justified very simply: Rosie had been posted back to his home town of Scarborough (allowing some very scenic settings for outdoor shots), and has returned to live with his family picking things up again with his girlfriend, Gillian (played by Frankie Jordan).
Haygarth, an actor noted for portrayals of down to earth Northerners, was perfectly cast as Rosie’s partner, Wilmot, a lazy, slovenly copper intent on doing as little as possible with even less effort. Wilmot was separated from his wife and pretending not to care, whilst on the look-out for a bird, but in his turn was pursued by the hapless WPC Brenda Whatmough (pronounced Wotmuff), a generous performance by Penny Leatherbarrow as an overweight and plain woman aware that she was regarded as a figure of fun.
The Station staff was completed by the vastly-bellied Paul Luty as Inspector Dunwoody, who had no great opinion of his two most troublesome car patrol constables.

Tony Haygarth as he was (though not as Wilmot)

Wilmot, whose faith in Rosie lay more in his belief that he would educate him into being every bit as uninvolved as himself, was a basically realistic character, whilst girlfriend Gillian, amused and tolerant of everything bar Wilmot’s treatment of WPC Whatmough was virtually a straight role.
However, Rosie’s family were drawn on the eccentric side as soon as they were introduced in series 2, and it was no surprise to see them pushed firmly into the background in the fourth and final series.
Rosie’s household consisted of his mother, Millie, her elder sister Ida, and Ida’s husband, Norman. Millie was an ageing hypochondriac vamp who spent most of her time elegantly laying in bed. Mrs Penrose was forever trying, languidly, to persuade her son to leave the Police Force because she felt that it was beneath him, socially.
In contrast, Aunt Ida was a hysteric, in a constant state of panic about the danger to Rosie out there on the mean back streets of Scarborough, prone to such things as trying to press the bread knife on him when he went out on patrol, for self-defence. In contrast, Uncle Norman was a phlegmatic individual, who spent most of his time in his garden shed, the kind of man who knows that he’s married to someone who, in everyday reality, is a dingbat, but who has decided just to live with it.
As with all the best comedies, the more the characters became established in the audience’s mind, the further situation slipped into the background, leaving the comedy to be generated by the  personalities of its leading pair.
At this point, let us address a fairly obvious subject. Let us go back to WPC Whatmough. Plain, overweight, yet constantly hopeful, Whatmough is a figure of fun, the butt of the joke. Given that Wilmot isn’t that much of a capture, her pursuit of him comes from the less-than-comedic recognition that a) she’s not going to get much better and b) his repulsiveness to other women will one day leave him so short of options that he’ll have to turn to her.
Nowadays, we’d recognise this portrayal as emotionally cruel, and no-one would write such a character such a way. At the time, the joke that was being depicted was Wilmot, and his delusion of being attractive to women, and Whatmough was mainly an element in that.
But look at Rosie’s family: of three relatives, two are eccentric figures of fun, and the third is sensible and normal: guess which is the man?
It would be too harsh to call this misogyny: it’s not a case of malice but rather unenlightenment, and a reflection of times that were only slowly beginning to recognise that such things were not necessarily fair.
Overall, according to Wikipedia, twenty-seven episodes of Rosie were made between 1977 and 1981: six in the first series as Growing Pains and seven each in the three succeeding series.
Not having seen anything of Rosie since that final series, over thirty years ago, I have little in the way of specific memories. One sticks out as an encapsulation of not just the show’s humour, but that of Clarke in general. The opening credits of one episode were shown over a lingering pan across the bay of Scarborough on an immaculate summer morning. The pan ends on a headland overlooking the bay, where a Police Car has parked. Rosie and Wilmot, are stood side by side, against the skyline, silently admiring the beauty of the view. As the credits end, Wilmot reaches behind himself and adjusts the crotch of his underpants.
The other is, I think, one of the finest pieces of sitcom writing I have ever been privileged to watch. It was the opening episode of the final series, one that saw the supporting cast cut back drastically. Rosie had moved in to share Wilmot’s house, removing his family from the picture, whilst he’s also has broken up with Gillian and is, like Wilmot, looking for a new love.
During the course of the episode, our heroic pair are trying to chat up a pair of fit, if not necessarily hyper-intelligent birds. Their efforts are hampered by the fact that they, despite being off-duty, have become responsible for an abandoned baby, which, naturally, they are trying to both protect and keep from the two birds.
It’s funny in itself, but it reaches its comedic climax (as recognised in the episode’s title) when Wilmot, trapped on the doorstep by ‘his’ bird wanting to know why she can’t come in, and carrying the baby’s dummy, makes one last desperate effort not to have to tell the truth by sticking the dummy in his mouth and pretending that it’s the new design for Police silent dog whistles.
What made that scene so gloriously funny is that every moment of the episode, from its inception twenty-five minutes earlier, had been so carefully crafted that, instead of the moment being absurd and unrealistic, you were utterly convinced that this fantastic claim was the only serious possibility that Wilmot could take in the circumstances!
If I watch that episode again, it probably won’t be remotely as funny because I know what’s coming, but the structure of the writing would be worth studying.
Surprisingly, Rosie‘s never been available on DVD. The Growing Pains of PC Penrose was released in 2007, but there’s been nothing of the more successful and popular reboot. No doubt Growing Pains flopped, and despite the past evidence and confidence the series was shown when it was needed, there are no second chances in the Twenty-First Century.
Rosie never enjoyed the success of  Last of the Summer Wine, Open All Hours or Keeping Up Appearances, but in my mind it deserves to be regarded alongside them. If only for that episode, ‘Tune on a Silent Dog Whistle’.

3 thoughts on “Rosie: Of Silent Dog-Whistles and Adjustable Underpants

  1. I too had happy memories of Rosie and in particular the interaction between Paul Greenwood and Tony Haygarth. A few years ago I got the episodes on a ropey DVD but now they are all or mostly available on youtube (unless they’ve been removed). I think you’re right that Clarke ran out of steam for things for the family to do, and watching the episodes in sequence on the DVD I found it was less naturalistic, less well written than I remembered – or maybe I’m saying that the style wasn’t my cup of tea and I wanted and vaguely remembered something more in the Likely Lads vein. But that central relationship was always interesting and Tony Haygarth’s performance was always superb: if he was a lout then he was a nuanced lout. I loved the detail in one episode where Brenda is in despair when she sees him reading a copy of True Romance: it means he’s in love again (with someone else).

    1. Great to hear from you. Tony Haygarth was always a very underrated actor and, from everything I’ve read, a very cultured man. He was the true star of Rosie in my opinion. Roy Clarke’s writing chimed with mine in the Seventies/early Eighties, but Still Open All Hours was execrable and I don’t know if it’s his age or mine. If I can find the dog-whistle episode, I’ll watch (and review) it, but I might leave the rest to that part of the memory where everything was really funny.

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