It was such a long time ago.
Jack Rosenthal, who will be forever missed, had cut his writing teeth on Coronation Street. He’d written a very successful play for Granada TV called There’s a Hole in my Dustbin, Delilah which was picked up on and expanded into a very funny half hour sitcom as The Dustbinmen of which he wrote the first series of three. Rosenthal left the show when it was well established to develop another sitcom for Granada, which would co-star a young actress who’d broken into TV in 1969 include two guest slots on The Dustbinmen. Her name was Paula Wilcox. Her co-star, Richard Beckinsale, had even fewer credits, the first of which as a one-off appearance in Coronation Street, playing a Police Constable, ironically named Wilcox. Two young unknowns, staring in a prime-time ITV sitcom at 8.00pm on Monday nights, immediately after Coronation Street. And they were bloody magnificent.
I say that for three reasons. One of them is inevitably nostalgia. I loved it then, a Manchester based sitcom, a Manchester sense of humour, a premise that did not directly affect me whilst turning 15 during its first series but which was steadily encroaching on my mind. Another was, to put it simply, Jack Rosenthal, an incredibly funny writer who took a contemporary subject and built a frequently surreal and absurd comedy upon it in the most straightforward and naturalistic manner. And the third was Paula Wilcox. I fell in love with her then, and watching the first three episodes this morning I am reminded why. Richard Beckinsale is good, very good, he was born good and his early death was a terrible loss, but Paula Wilcox runs rings round him here, seemingly effortlessly.
The subject of the series was young and extremely awkward love between two very naive and awkward people with two very different objectives in mind, crossed with the question of the Permissive Society and how far it had – or hadn’t – penetrated Manchester.
The opening episode featured a gloriously funny location scene around the old Shudehill bookstalls. Beryl Battersby, a twenty-year old girl, slightly dumpy in a box-pleat mini-skirt is wandering around, seemingly aimlessly. Abiut ten feet away, trying to look inconspicuous, bundled up in a long coat and where the soon-to-be-infamous pairing of crimson shoes with bottle green socks (the line on its own is wonderfully funny for its precise description of the two shades) is Geoffrey P. Scrimgeour, also aged twenty. Geoffrey is following Beryl but is pretending not to. Beryl is well aware he’s there but is pretending not to notice him. Each provides their own voice over commentary about how much they’re not interested in the other, don’t find them in the least attractive, wouldn’t go out with them if they were the last boy/girl on Earth…
Actually I have to interrupt here to bring up the episode’s – indeed rhe whole series’ – only serious mistake. The voiceovers are broken up once each by Beryl and Geoffrey speaking their thoughts out loud, in the presence of an uncredited woman (actually Alison King, who will go on to be a kind of silent Greek Chorus). Beryl bursts out with ‘”God, I’d love to nibble his earlobes!” but the damage is before that, as Geoffrey, after all he’s thought about how ugly, stupid, repulsive Beryl is, bursts out wirh “God, I’d love to rape her!” Now that’s not funny, then or now, though you can see the basis for the ‘joke’ and it’s a stain on things that, thankfully, was never repeated.
Back to the ‘plot’. Of course you know what’s coming. This pair used to go out together but they broke up, exactly 409 days ago but who’s counting. They’re dodging around as if this were some eccentric dance, avoiding seeing the other, neither having the nerve to go up to the other though they both obviously want to. And finally, when they get too close to avoid it, it’s all faux innocence, how are you, didn’t see you there, and it beginsall over again.
The idea behind the series is this young couple with different ideas. Beryl’s ambition is to be married. Geoffrey just wants sex. Naturally, it’s not expressed that crudely, but Rosenthal comes up with a whole language in which to conduct the rather one-sided debate. Beryl’s constant and battering-ram subtle use of the word marriage in all it’s derivations, up to a dozen times a minute, matched by Geoffrey’s instinctive twisting of his right sideburn the moment the m-word is mentioned matched to Beryl’s indignant denunciation of Percy Filth and the near matra of N-O spells No.
The opening episode is obviously all about set-up. We learn that this ‘accidental’ meeting was in no way accidental when Geoffrey sees Beryl home all the way out of his eay to Altrincham, is upset when Beryl won’t ask him in, leading to more verbal fencing until Betyl’s Mum (Joan Scott) opens the front door: she’s got sandwiches ready for him, Beryl told her this morning he’d be coming round. And they’re sardine sandwiches, swimming in oil.
In one sense, the series is a bit one-sided, since Beryl isn’t going to have sex with Geoffrey (which would blow the whole ‘will-they-or-won’t-they? basis of the entire series) nor even let him do the least amount of fumbling, and those odd moments when Beryl actually feels a certain randiness, enough to let Geoffrey put his arms around her and even kiss him, are invariably interrupted by her mother coming back into the room. So Rosenthal keeps the pot boiling with the dialogue between this pair, and some of it crackles, such as the moment when the two bitterly compare each others aims, with Geoffrey’s complaint about Beryl’s obsession with getting a ring on her finger countered with her snap back about his ambition being to send her knickers to Oxfam.
That’s what I mean about Paula Wilcox. For an actress in her first starring part, playing a girl who’s a mass of contradictions, she has the meat of the show and she knocks everything out of the park for six. Betyl’s moods swing all over the show but there are no transitions, each one is brilliantly effective, she switches so smoothly and so convincingly, whether the new mood is real or clearly artificial. I say clearly but that’s only to us: Geoffrey is behind her at every turn, incapable of understanding her and aware of that, taking refuge in silences and ignorances.
And for someone supposedly playing a slightly dump, plain and in manyways ignorant girl, Wilcox stands out to me as both very much smarter than Geoffrey and also beautiful in a very individual way. She has a lovely face, with fine bone-structure, leaving her still gorgeous even though she’s now in her seventies.
The episodes don’t have titles on the DVD, only in imdb. Having established what will be a primarily two-handed but three-cornered world in the opening episode, Rosenthal goes on the expand very cautiously. ‘The Date’ is a wonderfully complex story of how Beryl, seeing two guys ordering their girlfriends about, gets it into her head that the way of things is for Geoffrey to diminate her. Unfortunately, Geoffrey couldn’t dominatre the skin off a rice pudding and Beryl is only prepared to be dominaed into getting her own way. The third episode, ‘Freckle-Face’, expands the cast by introducing Robin Nedwell as Roland, Geoffrey’s self-confidrnt and obviously sexually active mate and fellow Bank Clerk.
Roland can easily see through Geoffrey’s ham-fisted attempts to claim that he and Beryl are setting the bed-clothes on fire. His advice is to play it cool. He also mentions that Geoffrey has someone else who fancies him, a girl he names only as Freckle-Face who’s in their night class. When Geoffrey walks out on Beryl midway through a game of Scrabble that her mother criticises as an inadequate courting tool, it’s to go to the pub with Roland, where Freckle-Face is sitting in a corner with her mate. So Geoffrey wanders over, hell bent on playing it cool. He’s already got his arm round her shoulders, but Geoffrey’s idea of playing it cool is akin to Alexander the Great invading Persia, and he gets a wonderfully cruel and Mancunian dismissal that sends him back to Beryl, whose eyes are all puffy and piggy from crying (well, they should be, she’s peeled an onion and is carrying it in her purse for just such a reason…)
Oh, but this is lovely stuff, and so funny, real bellylaugh funny in approximately 78% of its lines (you’ve got to have straight lines, don’t you?) Do Beryl and Geoffrey actually love each other? Can they get along together? Will Beryl’s knickers ever end up in a used lingerie bin at Oxfam? Or are they desperately clinging to each other because neither would attract anyone better? That’s the dichotomy that lies under The Lovers and gives it that level of depth that allows the dialogue, and Wilcox and Beckinsale’s delivery of it, to bowl along like firecrackers. I can’t wait to get back to this series.