Film 2018: The Lovers!

Welcome back to 1972, and not just 1972, but my Manchester of that year, from George Best’s Boutique to a St Ann’s Square that cars still drove through, with the extension of the Arndale Centre to the other side of Corporation Street undergoing construction in the background.
I’ve written about The Lovers! Twice before on this blog, and some of what follows is adapted from what I’ve said before: this is another working Sunday, upon which times are limited, and what I said before is still the larger part of what I see and think whenever I watch this film.
The Lovers (no exclamation mark) was a Granada TV sitcom created and (in the first series, in 1970) written by the great Jack Rosenthal. In my memory, I was sure it ran for ages but the programme actually only lasted two series, a total of 13 episodes.
It starred Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox, both of whom were in their first starring roles, and both would go on next to their most popular parts: Beckinsale as Godber in Ronnie Barker’s classic Porridge and Wilcox as Chrissy in ITV’s successful Man About the House. Sadly, Beckinsale would die young, in 1979, though his daughter Kate become a very popular actress, whilst Wilcox, after a long absence from the screen, resumed her career in the late Nineties to very great effect.
Rosenthal was already a successful television writer when The Lovers debuted. He had cut his teeth on more than 100 episodes of Coronation Street and had developed his comedy play There’s a hole in my Dustbin, Delilah into the crude, ballsy and very funny sitcom The Dustbinmen, leaving the latter after two series to develop The Lovers. He was a very funny, very perceptive writer, often drawing on his Jewish North Manchester background, and his lifelong love of Manchester United.
The Lovers was a complete contrast to The Dustbinmen, being a sweet, gentle comedy, drawing its laughs from the dialogue between its two principals, twentyish bank clerk Geoffrey Scrimgeor and twentyish secretary Beryl Battersby. Its underlying theme was the Permissive Society of the late Sixties, and how far it had – or hadn’t – penetrated working class Manchester. Geoffrey and Beryl were boyfriend and girlfriend and the comedic tension came from their diametrically opposite desires. Beryl, being a bird, wanted what all birds wanted: marriage, and a ring. Geoffrey, being a bloke, wanted what all blokes wanted: sex, and the word ring being stricken from the dictionary. The duo duelled constantly over what would come first: a sparkling (though probably tiny) jewel for the third finger of Beryl’s left hand, or her knickers being sent to Oxfam.
Both actors were perfect and wholly natural in their roles: Geoffrey’s frustration and uncertainty – he was, after all, just as virginal as Beryl as his pretence otherwise revealed at every moment – Beryl’s determination and waspish disdain – Wilcox was an absolute master of the withering put-down, in voice and expression – in the face of her ignorance of any subject that had nothing to do with engagement or marriage.
It was completely of its time, when the matter of saving one’s virginity for marriage was of much greater importance than now. Indeed, in 1970, the subject of pre-marital sex was still a controversial one for family viewing, especially when taken as lightly as this.
The show took a certain risk in basing its humour on so small a cast, though in doing so it did no more than Steptoe and Son, a two-hander from start to finish, over a decade later. There were only two regular supporting players, Geoffrey’s flash and successful workmate Roland (Robin Nedwell) and Beryl’s Mum (Joan Scott), forever making lampshades and sardine sandwiches.
The Lovers was renewed for a second series, but Rosenthal had moved on, gearing himself towards comic plays such as the classic trio of Bar Mitzvah Boy, Ready when you are, Mr McGill and the taxi-driver’s favourite, The Knowledge. Series two was written by stalwart writer Geoffrey Lancashire (father of actress Sarah Lancashire, and creator a few years later of his own popular Granada sitcom, The Cuckoo Waltz, giving Diane Keen her first starring role). Lancashire did not tamper with a winning formula, though the second series was a little less successful, and The Lovers was not renewed.
It was, however, enough of a hit to be granted the dubious honour of being turned into a feature film, for which Rosenthal wrote the screenplay.
Those of you too young to have experienced this era should count yourselves fortunate. Virtually every sitcom to last more than one series seemed to get a film version in the Seventies – apart from a few tail end Carry Ons and the Confessions films, it seemed all the British film industry could do – and the films are, almost universally, crap. Mostly this is because the creators were writers practiced at episodes that ran for 25 – 30 minutes and had no idea how to stretch an idea to 90 minutes: several such films are little more than three ‘episodes’ with some awkward dove-tailing. Several others flopped in realising that, on film, they could go further with the sex stuff than on TV, without understanding that most of the humour lay in the ways they found to suggest what they couldn’t say or do upfront on TV.
Porridge is generally accounted to be the best of the breed, and it’s one of the few to have a cohesive and structured story throughout, but it is still weak in comparison with the small screen version, and when it came to their other hit series, Clement and La Frenais couldn’t make anything halfway decent of The Likely Lads, completely wasting the last time James Bolam was prepared to work with Rodney Bewes. The Dad’s Army film is better than most but, except in its final quarter hour, it’s barely equal to the weakest TV episode.
However, The Lovers! (exclamation mark added) was, and I am biassed here, surprisingly successful, and genuinely funny in places. It was almost completely forgotten when it was released on DVD for the first and only time in 2013, by The British Film.
So much of it is familiar, familiar gags, familiar cringes, familiar faces. It’s extensively shot on location in Manchester, and it’s the Manchester of my late teens, Manchester gone, none more so than the pre-credit scene, shot outside the long-vanished George Best Boutique. That scene depicts Geoffrey and Beryl’s first meeting, as the leftovers when, one Friday lunchtime, three bank clerks pair off with three secretaries (Geoffrey: “I’m Geoffrey, and I don’t happen to be attached.” Beryl: “I’m Beryl, and I don’t happen to be surprised.”)
Rosenthal structures the film around the lovers’ relationship from beginning to end. There are the old familiar lines, and several new ones, and the film structure allows the field of vision to be widened: Beryl’s mate Sandra and Geoffrey’s mate Neville (the film’s equivalent of Roland) also meet outside the boutique and their relationship – first date, lashings of sex, pregnancy, engagement, marriage and going away outfit – for hospital, not honeymoon – is the parallel to Beryl and Geoffrey’s dysfunctional course. There’s also room for several scenes with Geoffrey’s parents, the great John Comer, and Stella Moray, who are convinced that Geoffrey is actually having the life he can only dream of.
Two things are plain over the meandering course of the film: that Geoffrey and Beryl have absolutely nothing in common except the fear of being without someone, and that their genuine relaxation at the thought of having split up will never last in the face of their fear of being without someone. ‘Not really the End’ is the final caption, but it’s easy to recognise that, one day, the pair will end up marrying because they’ve nothing better to do. The gift of Rosenthal’s script, and the naturalness of Wilcox and Beckinsale’s playing is that you can see the two of them eventually being ok with it, once Percy Filth arrives for both, and N-O finally stops meaning No.
I’m also disposed in the film’s favour because I recognise that awkwardness, that uncertainty, the unbridgeable gap between what you want and how to get there, the lack of experience to know that failure now is not final for your whole life. And I don’t just recognise emotions, I recognise me: I will never forget watching the scene when Geoffrey takes Beryl home after their first date, sitting there cringing in redfaced embarrassment and wondering how long they’d been following me – a hideousness made all the worst by the fact that, as Beryl, Paula Wilcox looked so much like my first ‘girlfriend’, even to the slightly ungainly legs under the white box-pleat miniskirt…
As well as the fine and subtle performances of both leads, I also appreciate the playing of Susan Littler as Sandra: a fine actress, who went on to play the lead part in Rosenthal’s famous teleplay, Spend, Spend, Spend, about the pools winner Viv Nicholson, and who had a superb reputation building when she died of cancer, only ten years after this film.
With reference to The Likely Lads, I recall Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais once saying that they’d have liked to have returned to Bob and Terry down the years, a new series every five years or so, to see what was happening in their lives and their relationship, a course rendered impossible by James Bolam’s refusal to ever work with Rodney Bewes again.
The only other sitcom that I thought could live up to that kind of continuity, to a return to the developing fortunes of its leading lights was indeed The Lovers, but that too was never to be, because of the equally tragic and premature death of Richard Beckinsale in 1979. And, of course, only Jack Rosenthal could have told such a story.
But each time I watch the film, I find myself wanting to see how this silly, naive, misunderstood and misunderstanding pair handled the rest of a life in which, however awkwardly, they were going to be together. I’d like to prove my instinct that they really would, against all likelihood, have made it, and to watch their future stumblings.
And I’d especially have loved to see how Paula Wilcox (who I love as both Beryl and Paula) would have handled her feelings towards Geoffrey, which are so open and revealing in her every look. Forget him, Beryl, I’d be so much better for you. Come with me, back to Manchester forty-six years ago (but let’s not stand on the roof of the Hotel Piccadilly, eh, my vertigo won’t take it…)

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