It’s never unwelcome to spend part of your Sunday morning in 1970, when things are other than they are now and the nation’s greatest concern was coping with England being beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the 1970 World Cup, six months earlier.
The back half of the first series of The Lovers, created and writen by the great Jack Rosenthal, begins with my absolute favourite episode of the series, an episode that stands out for both its surreal and ironic reversal and for its portrayal of an abusive marriage as comedy, in a way that could never even be suggested let alone depicted fifty years later. I’m aware of the dichotomy but I can’t help laughing anyway. When I’m in a receptive mood, this episode can make me laugh until I’m sick, and when I’m not in a receptive mood it pretty quickly turns me round.
We open with Geoffrey and Beryl sat opposite one another in a train carriage, scenes of Manchester at its ugly finest outside the window. Each are reading a magazine, Nova for Beryl, Playboy for Geoffrey. It starts with an almost casual conversation between our star-crossed lovers about Geoffrey’s desire to do ‘it’ in the carriage and Beryl’s determination not to do ‘it’, either there or anywhere under the rain (I know that the usual phrase is ‘under the sun’ but this is set in Manchester…). They are on a cheap Day Return to Rochdale to visit Beryl’s former office friend Sandra, for whom Beryl was chief bridesmaid, and her new baby, or as Beryl’s one-track mind anticipates, demonstrate to her reluctant boyfriend the benefits and joys of marriage. Which it will do but not in the way she expects . in the meantime, one of the many reasons our lovely little sponge pudding gives for not engaging in Percy Filth (Geoffrey, N-O spells No) is the risk of 38 Bishops getting on at Oldham. Or even 37.
We get an early taste of what marriage is really like for Sandra (Maureen Lipman, Rosenthal’s wife, stunninglky good and beautifully cynical) and Neville Appleton (John Flanagan, at ease, only once rising from his backyard deckchair), just before the lovers arrive. He’s sat in the deckchair, reading the paper, she’s in the kitchen preparing the lunch, the baby’s skriking loudly in the pram right next to him, who’s complaining about having to put up with guests he doesn’t know, and he’s yelling at her to come and quiet the baby down. Which she does by leaning over the pram, rattling its toys and saying ‘Belt up!’.
It shouldn’t be funny, and on its own it isn’t. He’s lazy, domineering and a total pig, constantly shouting at her to do things, getting her to do everything, gardening, decorating etc., whilst she’s openly and viciously sarcastic towards him in retaliation. The pair hate each other. Why are they married at all? Well, the baby being eight months old and the marriage being twelve months old might tell you something about that.
But the point of this, and the source of the humour is the way that it explodes Beryl’s naive imaginings of the bliss pf marriage. But not just that, it overturns Geoffrey’s expectations at the same time. For Beryl it’s almost instantaneous, no matter how hard she clings to her dream notions. Paula Wilcox is always superb but here her confused, her imbalance at how ruthlessly Sandra demolishes her ideation is there in every nervous glance, start and shrinking away. Beryl’s news is of engagements and weddings, but Sandra comes alive over exciting reports of neighbours getting divorced: desertion! Adultery!
And with the help of a recollection of an office do when everyone was drunk on egg flips and talking into a dictaphone about their secret desires, she pressurises Beryl into recalling that what she wanted to do with Paul McCartney wasn’t to marry him… No, Sandra is strong on what women want is to indulge theit animal passions and that Beryl should be Percy Filthing Geoffrey until her eyes change colour.
Whereas, in the back yard, in a much slower fashion, Geoffrey’s eyres are being open to the ‘delights’ of marriage by Neville, who is a pig who is not only unashamed of it but couldn’t care less. Geoffrey’s pursuing the cliche fantasy of playing the field, pulling the birds, which Neville is blowing up in his face, down to the brutal dismantling of Geoffrey’s fantasies about Brigitte Bardot, telling him that she wouldn’t have him.
It’s a glorious inversion of their separate expectations, w hich leaves Beryl rattled and shaky, especially after Geoffrey’s enthusiastic adoption of Neville’s mannerisms. Leading to the episode’s quite brilliant coda. They’re on the train, going back, still sat opposite each other but now reading each other’s magazine. Geoffrey starts talking, rather abstractedly, about what they’d seen. He seems to be talking himself into proposing, and he may well have done so but for Beryl’s awed recognition of how he nearly proposed to her. But she wants to come sit next to him, though that’s actually on his knee, and she’s talking about her animal passions, and they close in on a snog, disappearing onto the horizontal on the carriage seat. Geoffrey talks wonderingly about how theworld seems to be slowing down. Beryl tells him it’s the train slowing down. It’s coming into a station, Oldham in fact. ‘Oldham?’ wails Geoffrey, and thje carriage fills up with Manchester-bound passengers, the first four of whom are wearing dog-collars…
After that, any follow up episode would pale in comparison, but though much of ‘A Pipe and a Moustache’ is strong, particularly in the exchanges between Beryl and her patient, cynical, deadpan mother (Joan Scott), it suffers from an embarrasingly awkward but prominent scene. Basically, Beryl has decided to change Geoffrey, against her mother’s advice and his natural inertia. One of the ways she intends to do this is to try to make Geoffrey jealous, by pretending an interest in his mate Roland (Robin Nedwell), who’s the bird-p[ulling sharp-dresser of the two. It’s an uphill battle in that Roland doesn’t fancy her at all, but it reaches it’s zenith, or rsather its nadir, in a scene in the pub where they all go out as a foursome, the fourth being Betyl’s friend’s friend Samantha (Gillian Rhind), a tall, attractive, short-skirted dolly bird who turns out to not only be interested in football but to br able to talk intelligently about it.
This causes Beryl to stand up snd storm out, bringing to an end a scene which comes extremely close to transgressing my one unshakable Law of Comedy, which is that in Comedy of Embarrassment you must ensiure that you only embarrass the character and not embarrass the audience. Beryl comes very close to doing that, or perhaps she does and it’s only my inherent bias towards Paula Wilcox (which must be obvious by now and is not only because Beryl in appearance so strongly reminds me of the first girl I ever fell in love with) that suggests otherwise.
Once that’s out of the way, the episode picks up, even though Geoffrey has stayed in the pub to enviously watch Rolsand and Samantha neck, tries to pick her up whilst he’d in the loo and then goes back to Beryl’s even though it’s nearly 11.00pm and her hair’s up in a towel because she’s washed it, and basically the two tell each other a happily fictional version of their evening and everything’s ok again and Beryl tells him its wicked to try to change a person.
Which is exactly the point behind the final episode. Unusually for the era and indeed for sitcoms generally, Rosenthal plays up the fact that this is the last episode. With the Battersby’s telly not working, Geofrey sees the opportunity for three hours wrestling on the couch, but Beyl deflects him with this supposedly harmless Truth Game, where you take turns telling each other any little niggling things you don’t like about then, so that they can then change. You just know this is going to be an utter disaster. Basically, it starts as a way for Beryl to criticise Geoffrey’s habit of wearing crimson shoes with bottle green socks at which he takes the hump, and it starts from there and goes on, provoking more and more frowns,m slow burns and huffs intil the couple decide they’re completely incompatible and they’d better call it off.
What we get is heavy moping of a kind that could rival Manchester’s traditional cloud cover, attempts by Beryl’s Mum and Roland to be infuriatingly reasonable about how they’d only been going out together for five weeks and their separate appearances at a party that sees both of them wandering around, Geoffrey failing absolutely to pick up girls (Liz Goulding and Rosalind Ayres) and Beryl failing to get any boys to pick her up.
We know what’s coming. We know that this ill-matched pair are an ordained-to-be pair, even if it’s only because they’ll never get anyone else to accept them. So here they are, at the bus stop, agreeing what a lucky escape they’ve had, and that after this they’ll never see each other again… and as Beryl gets on her bus, Geoffrey shouts out if she’d like to go to the pictures Wednesday, she agrees where to meet him, then rushes back and the series ends with the first and only real, in-each-other-arms-like-they-mean-it all-out snog.
There would be a second series but, just as he had with The Dustbinmen, Rosenthal would leave it to other hands to write. He would only revisit Geoffrey and Beryl for the 1973 feature film, which recycled at least one gag from thid episode, which was far better coming from Paula Wilcox. It’s heavily outdated now, especially in its sexual mores but I was there in 1970, and I still like to visit sometimes.