This is long overdue, given when I completed my Peter Tinniswood readthrough, and it’s a shame that it was not until the death of Liz Smith last week that I finally spurred myself into action, but I have set aside this final afternoon before the great post-New Year return to work, to bingewatch the first series of I Didn’t Know You Cared, the Seventies BBC sitcom that Tinniswood made of his own Brandon family novels.
The first series was broadcast in 1975, on Tuesday nights, which meant that I never saw it until obtaining the video, a decade ago (the day meant Tuesday Night Football with the lads, and these were days when the video recorder was still just an electronic glint in an R&D Lab). It ran to seven episodes, with an underlying story thread, two, in fact, like the books, which was still very rare in 1975, despite the way having been paved by Clement and La Fresnais’s classic Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? three years earlier.
I was already a devotee of Tinniswood, and the books, and horribly disappointed to miss seeing their translation to TV, but that was the way of things back then. Television came and went. It was of the moment and for the moment, and fewer things got repeated than people seemed to think, and then only the ones that had pulled in big audiences first time round. I had to wait for series 2 to see the programme for myself.
It had a strong set-up. It had Tinniswood himself adapting, and it had a cast of tremendous strength, though few of the central cast were well known on TV. John Comer (Mr Brandon) was a veteran face in film and television for supporting roles, most notably that of Sid, of the cafe, in the then still-fledgling Last of the Summer Wine, whilst Liz Smith (Mrs Brandon) had only a prior credit in a Mike Leigh production. Robin Bailey (Uncle Mort) had appeared in the popular ITV multi-series Sixties drama The Power Game but was only beginning his period of TV recognition.
So the older generation were strongly cast, but the two youngsters, both in their late twenties, were equally good. Stephen Rea (Carter Brandon) and Anita Carey (Pat) had to wait for the series to develop before getting room to demonstrate their abilities, but these were five fine actors and actresses.
As for the first series, though the show took its name from the second Brandon Family novel (presumably because of its sitcom-friendly title), the story was an odd conflation of elements from the first and third novels, with nothing from I Didn’t Know You Cared itself.
So, we begin with Auntie Edna’s death by falling off a trolley bus, Uncle Mort’s anticipated freedom to do what he wants and the decision, taken by the Gorgonic maiden aunts from Glossop, that he should move in with Mr and Mrs Brandon. Then we stir in the fact of it being the senior Brandon’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this year, and Mrs Brandon’s determination to have a Ceremony of Re-Dedication and a Second Honeymoon. Meanwhile, Pat is disappointed at the sheer number of times this week Carter Brandon has failed to propose to her, despite the opportunities she’s created. Between these two set-ups, the series takes as much as it can from the books, including large chunks of dialogue, and rumbles along.
Does it work? Watching it again, I find my answer is a lot more equivocal than it would have been if I’d just relied upon memory. It’s not as good as the books, and it was never possible that it could be. The books are dense and the humour is black, they are surreal and dark in a way that no sitcom airing at 8.30pm on a Tuesday night in the BBC summer of 1975 – a summer that was a forerunner of the Great Drought Summer of the following year – could ever have been. There was no Daniel, no Bentley, no Corporal Parkinson (apart from his ashes, that is).
The story is thus shorn of everything tending to the fantastic, and has to make its way in a reality that is only slightly bent towards eccentricity. In the books, the overwhelming relish the (male) characters had for drudgery, misery, despair and apathy can be ladled on so thick that it creates a distorted worldview that takes the reader with it. Out of the mouths of actors, it doesn’t work so complete a trick. Comer is superbly grounded as Mr Brandon, whereas Bailey is more of a caricature, and Smith is wonderfully eccentric as Mrs Brandon, but she is speaking from the wrong side of the divide.
The male-female divide is far more obvious and male-centric onscreen, and in places, because the worlds of 1975 and 2017 are vastly different in their attitudes to women generally, the misogynistic element of the former, whilst not outstanding at the time, cannot wholly be contained. Where in the books, the relish with which it is treated takes it sufficiently far over the top as to become parodistic in its overstatement, the groundedness of real voices speaking real words keep the words too much in a real word.
And it’s clear from early on that this is a sitcom in which the humour is almost entirely verbal. That’s so for the books, but in the books, when one character is speaking, you don’t have to look at the other four cast members standing and sitting around with nowt to do but react, sometimes clownishly. The words are funny, and like the books, the laughs can come along thick and fast, line after line, but the studio audience’s response are subdued, chuckles rather than guffaws.
But then comes the elopement scene in episode 6 (and it’s not who you think it is), which is performed without a word, and with a surrealisticly improbable sense of solemnity, in broad daylight, that had me rolling about.
Though the older generation get the best of it in the first half of the series, the longer the run goes on, the more time is given to Rea and Carey. Rea is clearly a superb actor, but he was never quite right in the part to me. Nevertheless, he has a central role, and Pat a dependant one, clinging to him. Their engagement is on, off and on again throughout the story, to Carter’s unwilling bemusement.
Anita Carey plays Pat a little more brittle and artificial than she is in the books, where her heart (and her ignorance) are far more firmly on her sleeve, but the longer she is given, the more Carey underlines her performance with the sweetness that Pat really does love Carter, and seriously. At the beginning, there are large chunks of Paula Wilcox as Beryl in The Lovers permeating her performance, and its testament to Carey’s abilities that these disappear so thoroughly. Carter’s not even going to get to look down the front of her blouse until their wedding night on Majorca, a wedding night she has planned in complete detail (except for what it’s going to be like to have sex), but she’s going to throw herself into that in a way Beryl will always find disgusting.
Three supporting roles should be mentioned here. Veteran Bert Palmer, who would have a greater role in later series, cameos in episode1 as Uncle Staveley, but I’d forgotten that Gretchen Franklin has a big role as Auntie Lil. I hadn’t forgotten the cheerfully vulgar performance by the buxom blonde Deirdre Costello, as the cheerfully vulgar Linda Preston: only two episodes, but memorable throughout. Yes, she’s basically playing a scrubber, and she’s pretty much a stereotype that no longer exists outside such times, but there’s a brio to her performance, a self-awareness in both actress and character that makes her delightful.
No, there are many ways in which the sitcom doesn’t work anything like as well as the books, and many ways in which it couldn’t possibly compete, and if you’re thinking of digging this out to watch, read the books first, for your own sake. But watching it this afternoon, as the equivalent of a three and a half hour movie, I laughed more frequently, at lines I could have read with as much facility as Bailey, Comer, Smith et al did, than I expected.
So I think it gets a pass from me, on balance, a qualified thumb’s up and let’s have series 2 sooner rather than later. I hope you won’t think me self-indulgent if I review these as well.