Given the fact that I don’t tend to watch much television at all, I’ve not really paid any attention to the Xmas TV Schedules at all. Yes, I know there’s the traditional Doctor Who Xmas Day Special, but I’m not looking forward to it with anything remotely approaching the level of last year (though I have been equally successful in avoiding any but the most basic knowledge of its contents – Santa Claus, Nick Frost, that stuff) and I am gloomily anticipating that it will end up with the continued presence of Jenna Coleman as my least favourite character on TV this millennium.
In all other respects, I remain ignorant of the fare on offer over the holiday fortnight. It was not always thus. Part of the Xmas tradition was buying the Radio and TV Times Xmas and New Year double issues and going through them with a biro marking off everything I wanted to see, a process that then underwent revision when I saw what clashed with what or, considerably more often, what clashed with what my parent(s) – owners of the TV – intended to watch instead.
Last year, the BBC gave in to the pleas and clamours of David Jason to allow him to star in a TV programme again, by reviving the once-wonderful Open All Hours for a one-off episode. In order to get round the fact that Open All Hours was a vehicle for the wonderful Ronnie Barker, and that Ronnie Barker is sadly no longer with us, Jason and writer Roy Clarke turned Granville into Arkwright, introduced a new character to play Granville’s part, screwed their eyes tight shut and hoped it would work sufficiently well for people not to notice what a colossally idiotic thing it was.
They re-named it Still Open All Hours, a title that demonstrated both the paucity of imagination and the faint air of desperation that clung to the whole thing. I reviewed it here. Nevertheless, it brought in a tidy audience and enough appreciation for the BBC to commission an entire series, to be broadcast ‘later in 2014’.
Now there’s not a lot of 2014 left, so curiosity led me to google the programme and, guess what? The series starts broadcasting on Boxing Day, 364 days after the ‘pilot’. There’s a further episode on December 28, and four more in the New Year, so 2015 is not exactly getting off to the pristine, fresh start we might all like.
I don’t know how well it will go down, but I can say that its audience will be diminished by at least one. I watched the 2013 Xmas Special out of more curiosity than anticipation, but I found it to be as pointless as the idea suggests, and so desperate to recreate the genuine joy of the past that it was prepared to foist artificial- and in the case of Granville’s son, Leroy, horribly cruel – character traits onto characters unsuited to them. So I won’t be watching this year.
But I find it unbearably sad to think that so many people want to watch something as joyless as this, a programme that can only exist by digging up the corpse of Ronnie Barker and violating it in such desperate impersonation. It’s horrible to watch Jason and Clarke prostituting themselves in this manner, even as they doubtless think they are honouring Barker.
I wish I could say that I was surprised that such a sizeable audience actively wanted to watch such hollow, inadequate ‘entertainment’, simply because it reminded them of something infinitely better. Shame on you.
Back at Xmas, when discussing the senseless debacle that was the BBC/Roy Clarke/David Jason’s decision to revive Open All Hours, despite the debilitating absence of the great Ronnie Barker, I confidently and thankfully reported that the BBC had decided, notwithstanding the one-off’s popularity, not to order a series of Still Open All Hours. Unfortunately, whilst researching certain details about Roy Clarke’s career for a near-future blog, I have now discovered that this was wrong: a six part series has been ordered, and will be broadcast later this year.
I was prepared to do it once, out of a slightly less reprehensible kind of the same fascination about disaster that causes people to slow down whilst driving past car crashes, but I have too much respect for myself and the late Mr Barker to connive at the perpetration of atrocities by watching the series.
Look, I am aware that Sir David Jason may be desperate to recreate the days when he was the biggest draw on television, but the incontrovertible facts are that Open All Hours was dependant in every respect on Ronnie Barker, who has been dead and much-missed for nearly ten years, and the only way Still Open All Hours could be made to function was by Jason doing a virtually note-for-note mimickry of Barker. Add to that the obsessive urge to copy a thirty year old programme by introducing the special’s only new character in the form of Granville’s own won, only to have him replicate Granville’s lack of certainty about his father was the act of desperate men prostituting a thing of value for the cheap thrill of recognition again.
And if you, Messrs Clarke and Jason, can’t see the psychological cruelty of shoehorning Granville’s hang-ups about the father whose name he never knew into Granville’s own son and have him express it to his real father, then you are devoid of shame.
That you are prepared to extend this pillage of Ronnie Barker’s grave, and that the BBC are prepared to let you, is more than my gorge can stand, and I predict that the audience will let you know what a stupid idea this is.
Despite its ratings success over Xmas, the word appears to be that Still Open All Hours will not be commissioned for a new series. On the other hand, David Jason has been called upon to recreate his most famous role, that of Del-Boy Trotter in yet another revival of Only Fools and Horses.
That piece of news burst upon the nation a few days ago in the form of a newspaper front page headline. I recoiled immediately. Still Open All Hours may have been fatally flawed in lacking the great Ronnie Barker, but given that writer John Sullivan died in 2007, surely it was impossible to resurrect Only Fools and Horses without its creator?
Needless to say, the press were not interested in highlighting the more nuanced report that the popular sitcom was to return only as a six minute sketch in Sport Relief, with a script to be supplied by Sullivan’s sons, Jim and Dan.
(Depressingly, having made it plain that he was up for a full series of Still Open All Hours, David Jason is now trying to rally support for a full-scale return of Only Folls and Horses, despite Sullivan’s absence, and his having said, years ago, that the show had come to a final end. What next? The revival of Captain Fantastic in a renewed Do Not Adjust Your Set?)
Nevertheless, I won’t be tuning in on the night, much though I respect the series: many many years ago, there was an awful extended Xmas special which burnt out of me any ability to enjoy the show.
When Only Fools and Horses started, I automatically started to watch it because John Sullivan was the writer. Back then, the first thing I looked for in any new sitcom was the writer. It enabled me to avoid any amount of dross: for instance, if an ITV sitcom was produced by Yorkshire TV, it would be written by Eric Chappell and would consist of the cheapest, tattiest, most predictable jokes.
But what of Chappell’s biggest success, Rising Damp, a very funny show that brought Leonard Rossiter to deserved prominence, with tremendous support from Richard Beckinsale, Frances de la Tour and Don Warrington. It was, and still is, deservedly popular, but one night, as an experiment, I closed my eyes and ears to the superb performances of the cast and concentrated upon the script: the jokes, the plot were nothing more that the usual trite, predictable Chappell fare, which did rather spoil the thing for me.
John Sullivan came with a good track record. He had broken through with Citizen Smith starring Robert Lindsay (still a newcomer, having first appeared in ITV’s RAF conscription sitcom, Get Some In). Citizen Smith was fresh, bright and sparky, and I found it innovative in one respect, in that it was the first sitcom whose characters appeared to watch television and made jokes and references based on television tropes.
Next had come the romantic comedy, Just Good Friends, about former lovers meeting up again, several years after he left her at the altar, which was not only just as funny, but which made up for featuring Paul Nicholas by having the lovely Jan Francis as a co-star.
So Only Fools and Horses came with a good track record from the writer, and held up its end of the bargain by being funny and engaging. I mean, you don’t need me to tell you anything about it, it’s one of the nation’s most popular and most famous sitcoms, and in the part of Del-Boy, David Jason found one of the great starring roles, a role for which he was perfectly cast.
Like everyone else, I lapped it up. That is, until the Xmas Special of 1986, following on from series 5.
Allow me to digress for a moment, and introduce the topic of the Laws of Comedy.
The first thing to say about the Laws of Comedy is that nobody ever agrees what they are. The second thing to say is that each and every single one that you choose to formulate can be broken with impunity by the right person at the right time. Because, above all, the one shiny, unbreakable Law of Comedy surely has to be Be Funny, although there are plenty of people who will argue with that one.
But there are certain Laws that are all but unshakable, and one of those relates to Comedy of Embarrassment. Comedy of Embarrassment centres upon a character(s) who is out of their depth, in an unfamiliar situation in which he or she is almost completely ignorant and, for the most part, wholly unaware of it. The Law relating to Comedy of Embarrassment is that it works for as long as you are embarrassed for the character. It ceases to be funny when you become embarrassed by him.
The 1986 Only Fools and Horses Xmas special ran for 76 minutes, only the second extended length episode of the series. Rodney meets an impoverished artist called Vicky, who turns out to be the daughter of the Duke of Maylebury Sensing the opportunity to make money from the connection, Del-Boy arranges tickets for the Opera so that Rodney can impress Vicky, although he proceeds to turn up himself, with peroxide girl-friend, and be embarrassing. Nevertheless, Vicky invites Rodney to her father’s for a weekend. Del-Boy gatecrashes and proves to be highly embarrassing, hideously so in fact.
I was enjoying it, up to a point. But the point was lost in a long scene at dinner as Del-Boy got drunk, got coarser and more offensive, and the Law kicked in. I stopped being able to laugh, and became as much embarrassed at the tedious, unending goings-on as the entirety of the dinner party was.
I cannot remember if I even finished watching the episode.
The point was that there was nothing wrong with the idea. It was a perfect fit for the series, and completely in character for everyone concerned. It would have made a classic thirty minute episode. But over 75 minutes, the episode required Del-Boy to go to such lengths that the joke was drained and the experience tainted with the hideous embarrassment, to the extent that I could not, and did not watch the series again.
(The only scene in subsequent episodes that I regret not having seen is, of course, the classic fall through the bar. I have seen the clip many times, and it is hilarious: beautifully conceived and brilliantly executed. But I saw it having been forewarned, and without context: I deeply regret never having seen it for the first time, without knowing what was coming. Typically, I now discover that it was in the very first episode I didn’t watch.)
In researching A Royal Flush (the episode’s title) for this piece, I’m interested to find out that it has proved to be something of a controversial episode for the series, for the reasons that so affected me. I understand that whilst the episode was originally released on VHS in its full-length, that it was subsequently edited under Sullivan’s direction, and it is the edited version that has been available on DVD since 2004.
According to Wikipedia, the edited version has had a laugh track added – something apparently omitted originally due to the limited time between completion and broadcast – but has been cut due to “Sullivan’s dissatisfaction with the original version, feeling that it seemed to show Del Boy in a negative light. Whereas Del was always seen to be a lovable rogue, in this episode there were some scenes where he came over as boorish and offensive.”
Indeed, yes, and very much so. Sullivan was also quoted, in the relevant issue of the Only Fools and Horses magazine/DVD part-work, as saying “Although Del comes across as rather cruel in the episode, his heart is in the right place.” I’m bound to say, from my memories, that he came across as selfish, ignorant, mean and grasping, unable to see anything but the possibility of personal gain, but then again, I probably switched it off and missed anything resembling a redeeming moment.
In a back-handed way, the entire episode is, I suppose, a tribute to John Sullivan’s skills as a television scripter. Del-Boy Trotter embarrassed me to the point where I no longer wanted to have anything to do with him, and I never watched Only Fools and Horses again. But he was only a television character, and a comedy character at that, always intended to be an exaggeration, an imbalanced, unrealistic version of a type of figure.
Yet Sullivan made him so real that I didn’t want to know him any more.
And even for six minutes I shalln’t be re-forging auld acquaintance.
The revival of the classic sitcom Open All Hours as a one-off special, replicating the formula with David Jason mimicking the late Ronnie Barker and a new, genuinely young actor mimicking Jason’s old role as Granville has been revealed as the most popular programme on Boxing Day, with an audience, at its peak, of just over 10,000,000 viewers.
This is not to say that everyone who watched it did so in full enjoyment: I’m far from the only one who watched out of curiosity and concluded it was a waste of time. But with figures like that, the odds are that a very high majority did enjoy it, and the chances of this being revived as a series are correspondingly increased.
Popularity has never been any sort of guide to quality – Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Justin Bieber and One Direction – and I’m as guilty as the next man, in my younger days, of turning up my nose at something that was overly popular. But I have, at least, learned not to dismiss something just because it is popular, and nowadays, if something essentially crap is massively successful, I simply ignore it, rather than get worked up about it.
People are enjoying it, so why not let them get on with it?
And if Still Open All Hours istaken up as a series, I will simply not watch it (unless Barbara Flynn returns as the milkwoman), and it will not spoil the original for me one bit.
Having watched the Xmas Special myself, I do wonder what people found in it that was funny? I suspect it was all the wrong reasons: that is was comfortable and familiar, like a tatty pair of slippers, that they like watching David Jason, that nobody in it said fuck or was rude about the Queen. Perhaps there was also the fact, which we overlook at our peril, that with the exception of the execrable but even more popular Mrs Brown’s Boys, there’s nothing else like it on TV, and that there is a substantial chunk of the audience out there that no longer has anyone making programmes for them.
Even when it was finally cancelled, to choruses of relief and high condecension from people who hadn’t watched the series in decades but still thought it shouldn’t offend their sight, Last of the Summer Wine was pulling in 6,000,000 viewers a week. Which meant 6,000,000 people who had their choice in viewing pleasure ripped out from under them.
Television so desperately wishes to be edgy and would really rather that those for whom edgy is unwelcome and unpleasant might disappear into their bland little holes and, well, die.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish to see this uninspired and meaningless revival proceed but if there is an audience for it, sometimes we should remember that they have no less right to have programmes that suit their taste than we do. Programmes should be made to entertain them.They should be far better than Still Open All Hours, that’s all.