I know what people think about the North.
They think it’s all muck and living over the brush with women like Elsie Tanner.
Well, it isn’t.
There’s a part of the North that Southerners know nothing about.
I’m talking about the respectable North.
When I was little we always had satsumas at Christmas.
We had a box at the Theatre Royal for the Panto.
We had a sideboard filled of mixed nuts and sultanas.
Mother never went short of housekeeping.
She had an account at Atkinson-Sievewright’s.
She paid two visits per annum each year to her unmarried cousin at Bispham first class on the LMS, and Father never knew what it was like to miss the Old Trafford Test.
That’s what I call the respectable North.
The Southerners don’t know it exists, do they?
They think the North consists entirely of tripe and onions, the Rovers Return, flat caps and whippets, unemployment and Bill Maynard and his disgusting belly.
It wouldn’t be so bad if he could act, would it?
It’s people like him who give the North a bad name.
Any road, why should I bother to defend it?
There’s no need.
It stands up to criticism, does the North.
Am I right?
The Home Front came out of nowhere. I was on my way to my Grandad’s for the traditional Saturday dinner that had been going on all my life. I was in good time for the bus so I went in the newsagents’ for the paper. There was a spinner rack of books, which you never see these days, and I saw Peter Tinniswood’s name and immediately bought the book.
It was the first Tinniswood to appear as a paperback original, a Star TV tie-in as it proclaimed on the back. Which only made things the more strange as I’d read nothing about another Tinniswood scripted new series.
The book featured a new northern family, the Place’s. There was Mrs Place, a narrow-minded, tight-lipped, disapproving, interfering caricature of a kind of northern woman, tied to the past and unforgiving of anything in the modern world. Then there were her three children: Hallam, who wrote comedy scripts for Television and lived on Wimbledon Common, Garfield, a junior executive in a shirt-making company with a neat little home on a neat little estate, and Avril, who married beneath herself and shamefully produced a gifted child. And then there was Hazel, married to Garfield, but who had been prepared to give herself to Hallam.
It was an oddity as a book, it’s structure unusual. Although it progressed in a series of normal chapters, the story-line broke down into a succession of six events, each linked by a perfunctory continuity, which, of course, would represent episodes of the series. Or, if that were the case, it would be more appropriate to say five-and-a-half events, as the last one seemed to tail off, frustratingly, with something left dangling.
It’s quite clearly a novelisation of the series, which did not appear until some four to six months later, 9.00pm Wednesday night, ITV, for six weeks. This was not unusual in itself: the mid-to-late Seventies had seen several sitcoms appear in spin-off paperbacks that did no more than use unknown writers to adapt the episodes of a series.
However, Tinniswood was the writer of both book and series, and The Home Front was not a work that lent itself to a straightforward adaptation. Indeed, it’s difficult to fully understand the book without seeing or having seen the TV series. And it’s over thirty years since The Home Front was shown, and it was, as far as my knowledge goes, never repeated.
The work, in both its forms, focuses on the internal tensions behind the facade of the family. Each episode introduced a strong element of fantasy, making it difficult to tell what, exactly, was real (most likely the strongest factor in the series not being repeated). The first episode, which features only Mrs Place, takes place on a high speed train to London, to visit Hallam and his girl-friend Shirley, but it is mostly about an outsider, Kay Washbrook, going to London for the wedding of her only daughter, who she has not seen in fifteen years.
Kay, a low key lady, hasn’t seen her ex-husband in that time either. He took her daughter away, had her declared an unfit mother, for good and proper reasons, yet he and his daughter are equally torn between the urge to see her again and the desire for her to stay away.
Similarly, Kay is equally divided between wanting to see her family again and paralysing fear. Mrs Place, with her nosiness and prying, her caustic judgementalness, is the catalyst for all this to spill out, but the ending muddies the waters, suggesting that Kay changed her mind and never caught the train, even as her family, having played their part of the drama, are at the barrier at Euston as Mrs Place goes through.
The line’s more blatantly drawn in the next episode, which takes place in Hallam’s flat by Wimbledon Common. Hallam, we learn, is currently a TV writer by default: after one, very successful sitcom, he hasn’t and doesn’t write anything else. Hallam’s detached from everyone, especially Shirley, and he’s living off an allowance from his mother, who threatens to cut him off if he doesn’t a) get back to writing and b) marries Shirley.
The problem is that Hallam isn’t totally detached. He has an overwhelming concern for Wilfred. Wilfred is a standard poodle, unclipped (which means that, in a centrally heated flat, he is continually bothered with itchy balls, they being surrounded by wool). He was bought to keep Hallam and Shirley together, at which he’s signally failing. Well, he will go and crap in all sorts of corners. But then they keep forgetting to feed him. Or take him out for walks so he can do his business.
Because the greater part of this episode is narrated by Wilfred himself.
That was Tinniswood’s primary approach to converting his television scripts into prose: at very frequent intervals, the characters drop into the first person. What’s more, rather than an internal monolgue, they talk to the reader. They ask questions designed to justify themselves. Am I right? I am, says Mrs Place a hundred times during the course of this book, but everyone who talks to the reader is engaged in a conversation.
Wilfred might be the most improbable source of conversation, but not by much. On screen, he never appeared. Camera shots from his perspective, and a final shot that’s clearly a man in a dog suit. The sequence ends on a twist.
As a consequence, Hallam returns north with his mother, to the bosom of the family. Firstly, Mrs Place takes her younger son Garfield to visit Auntie Medora in her home. Auntie Medora, a very ugly old woman, was once a stunningly beautiful young woman,married to Jake but part of a virtual trio with Jake’s best friend Thurston.
Despite the use of a scenario taken from the 1968 film, The Family Way, the episode is written in such a way as to give the strong impresson that Thurston was an imaginary person, casting the events of the entire sequence into doubt.
This is followed by an episode set at the Place brothers’ old school, on a night honouring their former Headmaster, Mr J. W. H. T. Garlick. Garfield’s wife, Hazel, makes her debut here, a little too smart, too sophisticated for him, with a little-disguised thing for Hallam himself.
But the sequence centres upon Garlick. The tribute is held twenty-five years to the night, the anniversary of a dance organised between the boy’s school and the neighbouring girl’s school, a dance at which, we slowly learn, Garlick’s wife, Mademoiselle, publicly disgraced him with his fellow teacher, the clammy handed Mr Ullapool.
Mr Garlick set out to take his revenge on the school, by turning all his boys into mediocrities: designing their lives to become ‘future tennis club romeos, snug bar braggarts, golf club lechers, wasdhers of Sunday morning cars, pushers of suoermarket trolleys, drivers of mobile caravanettes, tenders of rows and rows and rows of suburban roses’. Garfield is his success, Hallam his one failure.
Mr Garlick is still manipulative. In a foreshadowing moment, he offers Hallam as his successor, a writer who, if asked nicely, will re-write your life, re-design your past and your future.
The episode ends in tragedy: Garlick has been drinking steadily throughout the evening, which in the series drifts backwards and forwards between past and present. This proves to be fatal when, brought up on stage to receive the painting done in his honour, he sees something that is not there but which completes the pattern, and he expires of a heart attack.
The third Place sibling, Avril, finally appears in the penultimate sequence. Avril, as I said, had disgraced the family by marrying beneath herself. The Place’s are a middle class family, bedrock of the respectable North, but Avril turned down the unprepossessing Geoffrey Lancaster for the working class Vernon Hemingway, a storeman in a furniture repository.
As far as Mrs Place is concerned, Avril has ruined her life through stubbornness. She’s determined to remind Avril of that, bringing up Geoffrey Lancaster and everything Avril could have had if she’d only seen sense and married him. Especially when it comes to the matter of Curtis.
Curtis is Avril and Vernon’s son. And he is a Gifted Child, writing letters to the editor of the local paper at the age of two. Everyone is mortally ashamed. Curtis just isn’t like anyone else. He talks to the reader, just as Wilfred did. He blames Hallam as well.
On the other hand, after being apologetic for his son’s intelligence, Vernon becomes the closest of friends with him, father seeking to learn from his infant son, forever struggling. And Vernon begins to learn, as the authorities seek to take Curtis away, to be among his own kind. Ostensibly, it’s for Curtis’s good, but the shadow of the social worker, breaking up families, only darkens the picture of something that is getting increasingly disturbing.
And they come, and they take away, only not Curtis. It is Vernon who’s taken away, to an asylum, Vernon who has taken Curtis’s intelligence into himself, who has become a Gifted Adult, who needs to be removed. It’s an ending that shudders, especially as Curtis has now become an ordinary, everyday, far-from-gifted child.
Who, a fortnight later, is run over by a pantechnicon, and killed.
It was this episode that brought the steadily-growing bleakness and darkness underlying Tinniswood’s humour into full focus. But there was still one final sequence to come.
I’d watched the series week-in, week-out. I knew the book, knew the story well by then. I preferred the book, preferred the additional level of darkness Tinniswood could always access in prose but which could never be fully unfolded for network TV. Being a drama series as much as it was a comedy, The Home Front had gone far deeper than I Didn’t Know You Cared, but the fantastic elements, the attempts to pull off differing levels of reality, had not convinced me on screen.
The final episode was set to facinate me. What we had in the book was not enough, was cut off abruptly. There was more, had to be more, in the last episode. Presciently, I videoed it. I have watched it several times over, though not for several years now, as I do not have a video-player. Though this series is a series of book reviews, in this one instance I have to go beyond the page in order to fully explain the experience of ‘Walk in my Shoes’.
The sequence begins conventionally at first. The Places are all staying at Hallam’s flat, as a treat for Mrs Place’s birthday. She and Hazel are out shopping, Avril’s cooking the meal, Hallam’s at his desk writing, and Garfield enters carrying a bowl of hot water in which he proceeds to soak his feet.
The brothers begin to speculate what their mother will say when she returns, about London, its shops, the minorities, why Garfield has his feet in a bowl of water. Avril joins in, having prepaed a huge repast. When Mrs Place and Hazel return, her words are exactly as predicted.
The meal is excellent, though Mrs Place characteristically is ungrateful, rude and caustic about it, still bringing up Geoffrey Lancaster, which provokes the usually placid Avril into a rant to her mother, in which she states that she hates Geoffrey Lancaster with a passion and a fury, and that if her mother continues in this fashion she will grow to hate her mother with a passion and a fury.
What this might lead to is interrupted by a knock on the door. Hallam has invited some of his friends over for his mother’s birthday.
All this, thus far, is in the book, and took the tv episode up to the first commercial break. But where the book did not, could not, go further, what followed on the TV took the story light-years beyond anything else I had or have ever seen.
The Second Act begins in identical manner to the First. Mrs Place and Hazel are out shopping, Avril’s cooking the meal, Hallam’s at his desk writing, and Garfield enters carrying a bowl of hot water in which he proceeds to soak his feet. The dialogue is identical. But the Places, Mrs Place smiling all over her face, are the audience, sat on the mezzanine balcony. Hallam’s friends, actors all, are performing a script he has written for them. A play that duplicates what has taken place.
They are, of course, actors. They are recognisable in their roles, but they ‘act’ their parts, adding an artificiality to what we have already seen. The ‘play’ plays out, an exact replica, cutting to the ‘audience’ as they take it what is happening before them. Hallam casts several concerned looks at his mother, having second thoughts as her expression shows her reaction to this portrayal.
Until she shrieks for them to stop. It’s not like that, not like that at all. She descends to the ‘stage’, interrupting the actors, bitterly complaining that it’s not like that at all. The Places follow, arguing about what as been going on. Gradually, the ‘actors’ slip away in the background, leaving the stage to the Places, until their arguments reach a peak, and the actors-turned-audience stand to applaud loudly.
Things have already gotten so intense that the relief of a commercial break is welcome. The episode is intensely theatrical. What would follow that?
The Third Act begins,with a sense of both symmetry and inevitably, with the same scene. But Tinniswood has taken things to a yet deeper levels, for now it is the Places, playing the actors playing the Places, with a levity and an archness that is completely at odds with what the scene has become through its previous repetitions. It is impossible not to follow dialogue you are now hearing for the fourth time in less than an hour without trepidation as to what will next be revealed.
And it comes from Mrs Place again, breaking character by being her own character, choosing a moment in the dialogue to turn on Hallam: Hallam the writer, Hallam the manipulator, Hallam who has controlled and shaped their lives, as earlier chapters have hinted. Not just Mrs Place, but Hazel as well, and Garfield and Avril, and even the actors, forcing him to retreat behind his desk as they crowd upon him, characters turning upon their writer, challenging his right to design their lives as dark, difficult and miserable.
Until Hallam begins to speak. Not a conversation, not a dialogue, but a monologue, a monologue about the responsibility of designing people’s lives, that ends in his dismissal of them. He doesn’t like them, not any of them. He’s tired of them, he will not have them in his head any longer. And he is alone.
In the book, Mrs Place’s fluff about how she loves her family and wouldn’t have them any other way merges into the beginning of the book/series, as she gets talking to an anonymised Kay Washbrook. To my shame, I cannot emember the exact ending of the series. I have not watched the tape in many years: I do not have a means of watching it now.
The Home Front is an oddity of a book. The Northernness of the characters echoes the Brandons, presumably deliberately, but nowhere do the Places rise to the solidity of their forerunners: whilst Tinniswood eschews the stripped-down approach of The Stirk of Stirk or Shemerelda, both book and series lack depth. Tinniswood’s work is still sufficiently stylised to make the characters caricatures to one degree or another.
I can easily imagine the Brandon’s going about their lives beyond their books: I cannot see the Places outside The Home Front.
Though it’s likely next to impossible to get to see the series, it’s still entirely possible to read and enjoy the book in its own right, excepting that final episode, which should have been recognised as a classic of television in itself. But apart from the final episode, the series was less successful than the book. Indeed, it was quite weak in many places.
In the series, Mrs Place was played by Brenda Bruce, a Manchester born actress with a prolific TV career behind her, though her open-facedness and comeliness never fitted my conception of her from the book, whilst Hallam was played by a young, but still superb Warren Clarke. With the exception of Cherith Mellor, as Avril, I don’t recollect seeing any of the cast in anything else, though Malcolm (Garfield) Tierney also had a prolific career, appearing in Dr Who and Dalziel and Pascoe among many things, so I obvioudly didn’t recognise him.
The part of Kay Washbrook was played by Jennie Linden, who was stunningly gorgeous, but that has nothing to do with the book.
If anyone knows of any repeats of the series, or any proposals to release it on DVD, I’d love to hear it.
For the next few years, Tinniswood’s career in print would run only one way, as we shall see.