And I used to love Open All Hours.
Of course tastes change. I used to love Last of the Summer Wine until, one day, it passed that invisible line between gentle exaggeration and surreality. Roy Clarke was a very skilful writer of half hour sitcoms, with a Northern sensibility to his sense of humour that fitted in perfectly with mine, but I suppose it’s yet one more example of the Law of Diminishing Returns: exaggeration must always outdo itself next time, until suddenly you realise you’ve travelled the equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats and you’ve nowhere left to go without walking on water.
And then there’s the Reginald Perrin effect. I wrote about this at some length here, but to summarise, watching the third series exposed the structure of the comedy, that it was a thing of catchphrases, and the moment I realised that, the insight travelled backwards to undermine my enjoyment of the good, and very good stuff before it. And since the last time I watched Open All Hours, we have had the miserable, witless, necrophiliac Still Open All Hours, my opinion of which I made plain here. Still Open soured me, by its blatant attempt to recreate the original, whilst ignoring the thirty year lapse in time and any changes between, and like Reggie Perrin, it exposed the bones of theworkings too clearly, and I think that’s gone backwards too.
I’ve only watched two episodes, instead of the traditional three, because that’s all I could stand in a single sitting. And what I’ve watched has been less a sitcom than a structure that repeats each week. Let me take you through that formula.
We open in daylight, outside the shop. Arkwright is stood outside in the sunshine, taking in the day and musing about selling things. Ronnie Barker’s name comes up. Then he calls for Granville. David Jason appears in the shop doorway, mugging and grinning, before going back inside. He’s only there to show his face, in isolation, and get his screen credit, and it’s the same sequence in both episodes.
Then we cut inside and it’s dark. Most of the episode is two-handed dialogue between Barker and Jason, mainly focussing on Arkwright’s money-grasping obsessions or Granville’s naive, romantic fascination with a life with women in it, or actually just a life at all. Granville wants a woman, even though she’d have to show him everything about what to do with her. Arkwright also wants a woman, in his case Nurse Gladys Emmanuel who lives opposite (Lynda Baron). Now, Arkwright knows what to do with a woman and he’s ready, willing and able to do all of it, except spend money on her. She treats him with amusement, as the picture postcard luster and buffoon he is, though she will give him some time, every now and then, which indicates two things to me. One is that she can’t be arsed about sex, kissing and cuddling, and the other is that if she’s prepared to allow Arkwright a little licence every now and then, the rest of the other unattached males in Doncaster must be pretty poor stuff.
That’s the basic, overall theme. An episode then consists of one basic idea , pursued at irregular intervals and interspersed with as many sketches involving different customers, walk-on-and-offs, as Clarke needs to spin out the episode to thirty minutes transmission. In ‘A Mattress on Wheels’, the central notion is that Granville, fed up of doing deliveries and trying to court passing ladies on an old-fashioned shop bicycle, tries to tempt Arkwright into buying a shop van, in which a mattress can be spread on the floor, and which will get Gladys Emmanuel to go out with him. The jokes then are all about Arkwright trying to do it on the extremely cheap. ‘A Nice Cosy Little Disease’ is essentially the same story, except that this time, seeing how solicitous the Nurse is of Granville falling and hurting his leg, he tries to come up with some plausible disease that will have her being equally solicitous of him, in his bedroom.
The only thing I can say about this latter episode is to complement Clarke on his professional skill at binding an episode together. Two minor running gags in the episode are about Granville’s frustration at his black, heavy, lace-up shop boots and what they do to his i,mage, leading him to decide to buy a pair of suede shoes, and how Arkwright can sell a box of biscuits he’s inadvertently crushed. And the finale is that, when leading Nurse Gladys upstairs to Arkwright’s bedroom, Granville slips and falls down them, leading her to run him to Outpatients. Granville’s fallen because he slipped in his new suede shoes, and Arkwright passes the crushed biscuits off to him to eat whilst waiting.
Episodes then end at night, with Arkwright, after dark, bringing the pavement display in and muses in a monologue about the events of the day.
Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a formula or a structure. If it’s strong enough, and interesting enough, it can serve as the basis for good, funny writings in between its fixed points. And British Seventies sitcoms were very often the home to very good writing which, in its time, I’d have classed Open All Hours. But the writing has to be very good when it comes to doing the same thing every week. There has to be enough flexibility to hang different things on the scaffolding. Last of the Summer Wine was essentislly the same episode every week: three middle-aged unemployed men representing different social classes have to find ways to occupy themselves, but that allowed for the possibility of tremendous variation. I’m now looking at Open All Hours and finding that that doesn’t.