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…)

Bingewatch: I Didn’t Know You Cared – series 4


Dierdre Costello

It’s taken me some time to find the time to watch the fourth and final series of Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon family onscreen, and it’s taken an even longer time for the catchphrase I most associate with I Didn’t Know You Cared to make its appearance. And even then, Mrs Brandon experiments with “It’s not conducive, our Mort, it’s not apropos,” before, halfway through episode 5, we finally get the words I remember so well, the full deal: “It’s not conducive, our Mort, it’s not concomitant.” Gloriously, ridiculously meaningless, except in my memory.

The last series of I Didn’t Know You Cared also carries a copyright date of 1978, and despite the drastic change in Keith Drinkel’s haircut (considerably more Young Executive), the series carries almost directly on from its predecessor. Mr Brandon and Carter are still both unemployed, and Pat is still pregnant: “three months and still as slim as a virgin.”

And still obsessed with turning her life into that of the wife of a Young Executive. Indeed, roughly 50% of her lines this series involve those two words appearing, but then Tinniswood is actually relying heavily on repetition for his comedy. To be honest, he’s over-reliant on that, and one other gag, which crops up at least three times an episode. After the general brilliance of series 3, taking the novel of the same name as its framing story, series 4 is a flat finale, drab in its first half and then redeemed by some late flowering surreality in its last three episodes.

The underlying story is original, though Tinniswood borrows slightly from the most recent Brandon novel, Except You’re a Bird, firstly in Pat having dreams where Nigel (Carter: “Who’s Nigel?!”, Pat: “Our unborn baby”) has Young Executive parties in her womb, and, rather more seriously, in having Pat rushed to hospital after a car accident, though the genuinely life-threatening experience of the book is here bathetically reduced to a badly-sprained thumb.

But the story is weak. Uncle Mort has fallen in love, and is proclaiming it to all and sundry. The problem – and the running gag – is that he can never remember the woman’s name, which is Olive Scrimshaw, and has to be reminded of it by everyone, though by the back half of the series it’s exclusively Carter, responding with Pavlovian regularity to a snap of the fingers.

If it seems unusual for ol’ miseryguts Mort to fall in love, then the reasons for this delirium are all too familiar to the series’ concentration on misery, drudgery, boredom and squalor as the ideal way of life. Olive is ugly, loud, rude, aggressive, and the licensee of a pub that is dirty, squalid, uncomfortable, dingy, and never open. Oh, and she throws customers out for such sins as smiling, talking, being women and wanting drinks during licensing hours.

Of course Uncle Mort is in love. Mr Brandon and Carter worship the ground on which this pub squats.

This is of a keeping with the deliberately downbeat Northern world of Tinniswood’s dense and imaginative ear;y novels, but as I’ve said before, once this attitude is concretised into the appearance of actors relishing a life we really wouldn’t want to live, the exaggeration becomes less effective, and Tinniswood is merely turning up the exaggeration at a time when it’s no longer sustaining itself.

Of course, there’s always Linda Preston, whose doo-dahs continually threaten to escape their minimal confinement. Deirdre Costello is once again wonderfully self-aware in a role that could too easily have degenerated into mere blonde-bimbo, and she adds life to the screen every time she sashays across it, rolling her hips and doubling her entendres.

But with the series coming to an end, poor Linda is doomed to frustration. Carter’s all set to run away with the common-as-muck sexpot, who does genuinely care about him, until Pat’s crash reminds him that beneath it all, behind all the irritation she causes him, he does love her, and his rejection of Linda is eventually a positive decision, and not a sliding into the inertia that is his natural state.

Then comes that final trio of episodes, when suddenly the story takes on a bizarre turn. Olive Scrimshaw has decided to marry Mort so Mrs Brandon decides that, six decades after he served “all thru’ t’Furst World War”, her brother is going to be christened. So is her husband (his family was almost more concerned with the dogs than that sort of thing), and even Carter. And you should see the array of suits Olive comes up with for the men! Mr Brandon in a powder-blue teddy boy suit with bootlace tie, Uncle Staveley as a page boy…

And that spirit spills over into the final episode, with the marriage taking place on a clapped-out old canal barge. The trouble is that Staveley’s got confused and, instead of finding the lucky horseshoe with which to present the bridge and groom, he is carrying the lucky bung from the bottom of the canal boat. And the determined Olive, deeply unpleasant to the end, and dressed in jockey colours of purple and yellow bands, goes down with her barge.

There are some good lines in those last three episodes, when the inherent absurdity of the Brandon world finally breaks through normality and establishes its  own suspension of disbelief, and there is one line that had me rolling on the floor laughing. But generally, series 4 is the weakest of the series and it were better it ended then.

Liz Fielding never really gets the chance to impose herself as Pat in the way Anita Carey did, whilst Keith Drinkel is much less forceful this time round, having weaker and more passive material to work with. There’s a final cast change: Bert Palmer was no longer able to play Uncle Staveley and the role was taken over by former Music Hall star Leslie Sarony, who was smaller and more rubicund and who looked too comic for the role.

It’s a long time since I watched these series, and I don’t expect I’ll drag them out again soon. Overall, the Brandons were better in their books, where things could happen that could never have been put into a BBC sitcom of the Seventies. On TV, I Didn’t Know You Cared could only encroach on territory already colonised by Last of the Summer Wine, except that it was too niche an idea to compete with what would become the world’s longest running sitcom. Its audience consisted of the faithful, and there were never enough of us.

But for four series, and twenty-seven episodes, we did indeed care.

Bingewatch – I Didn’t Know You Cared – Series 3


I’ve been looking forward to the third series of Peter Tinniswood’s situation comedy version of the Brandon family, because I remember it being based firmly on the novel from which the sitcom’s title is taken. Uncle Mort being told he’s got a fatal disease and being considerably cheered by it, Carter and Mr Brandon being unemployed and the latter turning into a full-blown housewife and Pat getting a job and falling under the spell of Mr Leatherbarrow, Young Executive (Not Macclesfield, as in the novel: that name had already been spoken for in series 2).

And I was right: this was the best of the four series, even if it couldn’t quite sustain seven episodes, with the final one being more sentimental for (northern) times past than as outright funny as most of he episodes until then.

One thing that was immediately notable was how much more the series used location filming and, in those sequences especially, how much more visual the humour came. Robin Bailey in particular had a glorious time hamming up Uncle Mort’s expressions and movements, and there were several  examples of outdoor scenes that served no more purpose than to let the male side of the cast horse it up in a gentle manner that hazed the humour over into a teasing surreality.

Perhaps the perfect example of how this new approach was handled came at the start of episode 2, which began with Carter Brandon walking down the back lane that lead to Uncle Mort’s allotments: at first, he’s slouching along on his own but then he stops, checks carefully that he is unobserved and then, with a silly grin and a word almost of self-apology, dances down the lane like Morecambe & Wise saying goodnight over the final credits.

But there were location scenes in profusion, almost to the point where more screen-time took place on the allotments, or outside the boozer, or in the street. It wasn’t always silent: Linda Preston (Dierdre Costello having the time of her short-skirted, cleavaged life) is now a cheerfully-unwed mother, moving in next door to the Brandons, which led to an hilarious scene in which everyone examines her baby, and pronounce it the ugliest baby ever!

The majority of the series took its cue from the book, Uncle Mort’s disease (which is no disease after all but pollution from his ‘spring’ on his allotment) and the range of bizarre responses from everybody around. The sitcom can’t encompass the whole of the novel, and especially not the darker aspects, but Tinniswood crams in jokes and lines that I greeted with roaring recognition (though I regret me didn’t see fit to include the wasting disease gag, even whilst he mentioned Uncle Gladwin).

The Peewit Patrol did sneak in in greatly revised form, converted to the 5th International Sea Scouts, Inland Waterways, which in practice turned out to be Sik Skelhorn (Ray Dunbobbin replaced by Bobby Pattinson) and Louis St John in long shorts. Once again, several of the jokes around Louis would not be written in the modern era, but Paul Barber again played the character very broadly, switching from cod-massa’ to gentle Barnsley with an easy fluency that took the sting out of the thoughtlessness.

A lot of the humour did rely on stereotyping male and female roles, which we were inverted to very funny effect. Mr Brandon’s unemployed and has taken over the household, whilst Mrs Brandon goes out to work and does nothing around the house unless nagged into it. John Comer throws himself into this with gusto and makes the most out of what might, in a lesser player’s hands, be a bit thin.

But then everyone’s performing on all cylinders here, thoroughly cognisant in just to what extent their characters are broadened stereotypes, pushed just over the border into caricature, and playing up to it with just the right amount of knowingness. Bert Palmer, as Stavely, has much more to do, though practically every line is either  ‘I heard that! Pardon?’ or some variation of it, and the range and variety he brings to his dialogue is wonderful to observe.

Nevertheless, I can sense you waiting for my comments on the great cast change, with new actors playing Carter and Pat Brandon after Stephen Rea and Anita Carey left, for reasons of which I know not.

Last time out, I said that their replacements, Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding, were not their equals as actors, but that they better fit the roles of Carter and Pat as I imagined them from the book. I’m still of that opinion in respect of Drinkel. Rea, to me, was just too laid-back in his performance, and his accent had a little too much of the Liverpudlian to sit quite right. Nor did his curly hair fit my vision of Carter.

Drinkel, with a squarer face, straight, short black hair, and a more solidly northern accent in keeping with the rest of his family, still comes over as more what I ‘see’ when I read. He plays Carter with a little more forcefulness, a little more demonstrativeness. His range may be narrower, but so too is Carter, and his solidity fits in well with the others.

Liz Goulding is hampered by having a less emotionally-stretched part in this series. She’s still the outsider among the Brandons in her determination to better Carter whether he likes it or not, but despite his not demonstrating his passion for her like he used to because she’s working and he’s not, she isn’t given any insecurity to work with. Pat#’s on course, and she’s loving it, and she’s sailing along undisturbed. Goulding is given a much more superficial part in this series and it’s unfair to compare her to Carey on this evidence.

She chooses to pick up a lot of how Anita Carey played Pat, especially vocally, and Goulding’s voice is how I hear Pat, no question.

Pat’s actually at the centre of the series’ one big inconsistency, which is that, initially, Carter and Pat aren’t having sex, as in the novel. But this is never gone into beyond the first episode, and midway through the series, there’s a dramatic change of tack as Tinniswood steals a story from Except You’re a Bird, and has Pat announce she’s pregnant.

Sadly, as I said, the series did rather tail off in its final episode. Mort’s curability comes out in episode 6, but no-one has the heart to spoil his pleasure and tell him, and in the end the issue of Pat’s pregnancy, and her wholly imaginative response to it, drifts into the background and everything winds up with Uncle Mort feeling well enough to join the others on his post-funeral treat for them, at a Tram museum. The comedy gets overwhelmed by some very Tinniswodian nostalgia for old working class days, until Mort’s finally told he’s going to live, and gets turned down for the Last Tram because it’s full.

He’s promptly run over by the next after the Last Tram, but survives that intact,  allowing him to use the novel’s brilliant last line, albeit in a completely different context.

Despite the weak ending, series 3 was very funny, and the best representation of the Brandon’s world outside the novels. It was filmed and broadcast in 1978, and I watched it miles away from home, from the north I counted myself of, the north of the series that I persisted in forcing into a Manchester setting, in the BBC lounge of the place I lived in Nottingham, among people who, for the most part, didn’t get it at all.

The same would go for the fourth and final series.

Bingewatch – I Didn’t Know You Cared, series 2


Clearly, I Didn’t Know You Cared made enough of an impact for the BBC to re-commission it for a second series in 1976, though there were only six episodes this time, and it was moved from Tuesday night. It had to have been: Tuesday Night Football would continue until 1977 but I did get to see the series this time.

There were a number of changes made to the supporting cast. Auntie Lil had disappeared without explanation and Bert Palmer as Uncle Staveley was now a member of the Brandon household. Two of Carter Brandon’s workmates from the books, Louis St John, the West Indian fitter, and Rudyard Kettle, who never went anywhere without his gauntlets, appeared in a couple of episodes. When it came to Louis, the contemporary racist epithets he attracted in the books were out of the question for a sitcom, but the vigour with which he was played by Paul Barber, many years before his role in Only Fools and Horses, was a small delight.

Unlike the first series, there was no underlying story as such, nor, despite the presence of a considerable number of lines and exchanges from the novels, did what story there was utilise any of the books. It began with Carter and Pat’s return from honeymoon in London, and dealt with their adjustment to married life, firstly under the Brandon roof, then in pursuit of the perfect new home for young executives, and lastly under the threat of moving in next door to Pat’s mother.

This gave Stephen Rea and Anita Carey much more exposure than in the first series, especially so in the second episode where, having retired to bed at 7.30pm but not for sleep, they are disturbed by a succession of visitors completely oblivious to the fact that Pat wants more than a bit of passion. And Carter’s coming round to the idea as well, if only everybody would stop telling him to put his pyjama jacket back on.

Though Carter gets away a lot to sit and moan with his Dad and two Uncles, the extra attention being paid to him and Pat as a couple has the unfortunate side effect of throwing Uncle Mort and Mr Brandon into greater relief with their unrelieved misogyny. With almost no countervailing tendencies, it tends to get a bit monotonous, and coming from the mouths of real people rather than the charged atmosphere of the book, the misogyny is far too prominent and too solid. It doesn’t work at all well.

Nor does it help that, as Mrs Brandon, Liz Smith gets correspondingly less time onscreen, and when she does she’s too often reduced to silence by Vanda Godsell as Mrs Partington, Pat’s Mum, who’s a dedicated and forceful talker.

I’ve mentioned Uncle Staveley, and can I say how brilliant Bert Palmer was in a very limited role, as a deaf and wandering old codger who’s mainly the butt of slapstick humour. Practically his first words in the series are his catch-phrase, “I ‘eard that. Pardon?”, which arrives with regularity. And Deirdre Costello gets a bit more room as Linda Preston, still gleefully overplaying her part, but allowed a little more emotional depth as she slips out of her brassy, sassy character to demonstrate a genuine feeling about Carter.

Overall, the second series wasn’t as good as the first, but it redeemed itself in a brilliant final episode, filmed mostly out of doors. In order to rescue Carter from living next door to his mother-in-law, Uncle Mort plans to persuade the widow Mrs Macclesfield (whose name no-one can remember and who gets addressed by half the towns in Cheshire at one point or another, including Droylsden) to re-marry and stick where she is. He’s planning on foisting the petrified Staveley off on her but finds himself accepted instead, without even knowing his bride-to-be’s Christian name (it’s Persephone!).

But on the day of the intended nuptials, along comes the happily litigious gas-meter reader, Mr Fallowfield, a former admirer and would-have-been husband of the fair Persephone, if only her third husband hadn’t gone and recovered. Mrs Macclesfield is torn between suitors who, like gentlemen, decided to duel for her hand by playing a game of Crown Green bowls for her.

And if you have difficulty imagining that a game of bowls can be in the least bit funny, let alone hysterical, just watch the final episode of series 2.

It made for a fine ending, but to my surprise, my favourite part of series 2 was Anita Carey’s performance as Pat. Though she’s part of the Brandon family now, she’s the outsider in every possible sense, devoted to Carter and devoted to her vision of a modern life of lounge/diners and fitted Venetian blinds, young executives sipping sweet sherry, and going up in the world. Pat’s out of place, but prepared to fight for her place. She’s not afraid to fight Linda Preston over her Carter, even though she hasn’t a tenth of the ammunition. And though Linda’s the obvious blonde with big knockers and the willingness to flaunt them, and Pat/Anita’s a sweet-faced but unspectacular girl with nothing like the cleavage, I found myself on her side throughout. Pat’s life is never going to go the way of her impossible and horizonless dreams, but she’s a nice lass underneath, and doesn’t deserve what Carter Brandon’s going to become. My eyes were on her every time she was onscreen, and her wardrobe was superbly chosen.

Unfortunately, this was her last appearance, When series 3 appeared, both she and Stephen Rea had left the series, and Carter and Pat’s roles had gone to other actors, players who were not as accomplished actors but who I always felt fitted my conception of the parts more closely. I wonder if I’m going to think the same about Anita Carey’s successor after these bingewatches?

 

Bingewatch: I Didn’t Know You Cared, series 1


This is long overdue, given when I completed my Peter Tinniswood readthrough, and it’s a shame that it was not until the death of Liz Smith last week that I finally spurred myself into action, but I have set aside this final afternoon before the great post-New Year return to work, to bingewatch the first series of I Didn’t Know You Cared, the Seventies BBC sitcom that Tinniswood made of his own Brandon family novels.

The first series was broadcast in 1975, on Tuesday nights, which meant that I never saw it until obtaining the video, a decade ago (the day meant Tuesday Night Football with the lads, and these were days when the video recorder was still just an electronic glint in an R&D Lab). It ran to seven episodes, with an underlying story thread, two, in fact, like the books, which was still very rare in 1975, despite the way having been paved by Clement and La Fresnais’s classic Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? three years earlier.

I was already a devotee of Tinniswood, and the books, and horribly disappointed to miss seeing their translation to TV, but that was the way of things back then. Television came and went. It was of the moment and for the moment, and fewer things got repeated than people seemed to think, and then only the ones that had pulled in big audiences first time round. I had to wait for series 2 to see the programme for myself.

It had a strong set-up. It had Tinniswood himself adapting, and it had a cast of tremendous strength, though few of the central cast were well known on TV. John Comer (Mr Brandon) was a veteran face in film and television for supporting roles, most notably that of Sid, of the cafe, in the then still-fledgling Last of the Summer Wine, whilst Liz Smith (Mrs Brandon) had only a prior credit in a Mike Leigh production.  Robin Bailey (Uncle Mort) had appeared in the popular ITV multi-series Sixties drama The Power Game but was only beginning his period of TV recognition.

So the older generation were strongly cast, but the two youngsters, both in their late twenties, were equally good. Stephen Rea (Carter Brandon) and Anita Carey (Pat) had to wait for the series to develop before getting room to demonstrate their abilities, but these were five fine actors and actresses.

As for the first series, though the show took its name from the second Brandon Family novel (presumably because of its sitcom-friendly title), the story was an odd conflation of elements from the first and third novels, with nothing from I Didn’t Know You Cared itself.

So, we begin with Auntie Edna’s death by falling off a trolley bus, Uncle Mort’s anticipated freedom to do what he wants and the decision, taken by the Gorgonic maiden aunts from Glossop, that he should move in with Mr and Mrs Brandon. Then we stir in the fact of it being the senior Brandon’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this year, and Mrs Brandon’s determination to have a Ceremony of Re-Dedication and a Second Honeymoon. Meanwhile, Pat is disappointed at the sheer number of times this week Carter Brandon has failed to propose to her, despite the opportunities she’s created. Between these two set-ups, the series takes as much as it can from the books, including large chunks of dialogue, and rumbles along.

Does it work? Watching it again, I find my answer is a lot more equivocal than it would have been if I’d just relied upon memory. It’s not as good as the books, and it was never possible that it could be. The books are dense and the humour is black, they are surreal and dark in a way that no sitcom airing at 8.30pm on a Tuesday night in the BBC summer of 1975 – a summer that was a forerunner of the Great Drought Summer of the following year – could ever have been. There was no Daniel, no Bentley, no Corporal Parkinson (apart from his ashes, that is).

The story is thus shorn of everything tending to the fantastic, and has to make its way in a reality that is only slightly bent towards eccentricity. In the books, the overwhelming relish the (male) characters had for drudgery, misery, despair and apathy can be ladled on so thick that it creates a distorted worldview that takes the reader with it. Out of the mouths of actors, it doesn’t work so complete a trick. Comer is superbly grounded as Mr Brandon, whereas Bailey is more of a caricature, and Smith is wonderfully eccentric as Mrs Brandon, but she is speaking from the wrong side of the divide.

The male-female divide is far more obvious and male-centric onscreen, and in places, because the worlds of 1975 and 2017 are vastly different in their attitudes to women generally, the misogynistic element of the former, whilst not outstanding at the time, cannot wholly be contained. Where in the books, the relish with which it is treated takes it sufficiently far over the top as to become parodistic in its overstatement, the groundedness of real voices speaking real words keep the words too much in a real word.

And it’s clear from early on that this is a sitcom in which the humour is almost entirely verbal. That’s so for the books, but in the books, when one character is speaking, you don’t have to look at the other four cast members standing and sitting around with nowt to do but react, sometimes clownishly. The words are funny, and like the books, the laughs can come along thick and fast, line after line, but the studio audience’s response are subdued, chuckles rather than guffaws.

But then comes the elopement scene in episode 6 (and it’s not who you think it is), which is performed without a word, and with a surrealisticly improbable sense of solemnity, in broad daylight, that had me rolling about.

Though the older generation get the best of it in the first half of the series, the longer the run goes on, the more time is given to Rea and Carey. Rea is clearly a superb actor, but he was never quite right in the part to me. Nevertheless, he has a central role, and Pat a dependant one, clinging to him. Their engagement is on, off and on again throughout the story, to Carter’s unwilling bemusement.

Anita Carey plays Pat a little more brittle and artificial than she is in the books, where her heart (and her ignorance) are far more firmly on her sleeve, but the longer she is given, the more Carey underlines her performance with the sweetness that Pat really does love Carter, and seriously. At the beginning, there are large chunks of Paula Wilcox as Beryl in The Lovers permeating her performance, and its testament to Carey’s abilities that these disappear so thoroughly. Carter’s not even going to get to look down the front of her blouse until their wedding night on Majorca, a wedding night she has planned in complete detail (except for what it’s going to be like to have sex), but she’s going to throw herself into that in a way Beryl will always find disgusting.

Three supporting roles should be mentioned here. Veteran Bert Palmer, who would have a greater role in later series, cameos in episode1 as Uncle Staveley, but I’d forgotten that Gretchen Franklin has a big role as Auntie Lil. I hadn’t forgotten the cheerfully vulgar performance by the buxom blonde Deirdre Costello, as the cheerfully vulgar Linda Preston: only two episodes, but memorable throughout. Yes, she’s basically playing a scrubber, and she’s pretty much a stereotype that no longer exists outside such times, but there’s a brio to her performance, a self-awareness in both actress and character that makes her delightful.

No, there are many ways in which the sitcom doesn’t work anything like as well as the books, and many ways in which it couldn’t possibly compete, and if you’re thinking of digging this out to watch, read the books first, for your own sake. But watching it this afternoon, as the equivalent of a three and a half hour movie, I laughed more frequently, at lines I could have read with as much facility as Bailey, Comer, Smith et al did, than I expected.

So I think it gets a pass from me, on balance, a qualified thumb’s up and let’s have series 2 sooner rather than later. I hope you won’t think me self-indulgent if I review these as well.

Last of the Summer Wine: (D)evolution of a Sitcom


The original trio

It’s been gone now for four years, the longest running sitcom in the world, the series that everyone, except its audience, loved to hate. In 2010, the BBC killed off Last of the Summer Wine, and millions cheered to think that never again would they have to not watch a programme they despised as ‘three old men sliding down a hillside on a tea tray’. Meanwhile, a regular audience in excess of five million found their viewing diminished in favour of those who wanted something completely unrelated.
I wasn’t one of them, except in that final series, which I watched as much out of defiance. I had been a Last of the Summer Wine fan for many years though, and whilst I’d lost interest in the series in the early Nineties, I’d been a more or less constant viewer for twenty years by then.
The series debuted as part of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse series, in 1972, but I didn’t pick it up until the first series, loving its gentle, mocking, dialogue and the faint air of absurdity surrounding its three, somewhat downbeat characters.
At its beginning, the series was nothing like as sentimental or silly as it became, and indeed was based on a relatively grim situation. Its set-up was that three men, in their late forties/early fifties,  who’d been at school together, were unwillingly re-united by the common factor of unemployment.  Blamire (Michael Bates) had retired from his job as a clerk with the local Water Board, Clegg (Peter Sallis) had been made redundant from his job as a lino salesman at the Co-op, and Compo (Bill Owen) (later named as William Simmonite) was a lifelong layabout.
All three were without marital ties: Blamire had never married, Clegg was a recent widower (without children) and Compo’s wife had run off with a chuffing Pole.
This disparate trio found themselves thrown together by the need to fill the long hours of the day as what seemed to be the only three adult males in Holmfirth who were unemployed.
In this early form, the sitcom skilfully utilised the British preoccupation with class that’s underlaid so many successful comedies. Though the trio were all working class, they represented the classic Upper/Middle/Lower stratas within their ranks.
Blamire, a clerk in a (minor) public office, with an undistinguished military background, regarded himself as a cut above his colleagues, and chafed the most at their enforced presence. He was an instinctive Tory, regarding Compo as an emblem of revolution, hot on a fixed society where everyone knew their place, and used a strange, semi-strangulated accent to signify his coming from better stock, except in situations of great stress, when his natural Yorkshire would spill out. Michael Bates was wonderful in the part, and it’s a genuine shame that his (ultimately fatal) illness kept him from continuing after series 2.
Compo, of course, was the working class working class man, ragged and tatty, a perpetual layabout living on tick and the dole, the Ragwoman’s son, preternaturally scruffy in all respects and a staunch Labour voter with an antipathy to toffs, yet also with a need to be ordered about by the authoritarian Blamire.
Clegg, representing the middle class, was shy, retiring and simply didn’t want to get involved. Between the three characters, there was a perpetual round of sniping, with all capable of, and willing to verbally sting both his comrades in unemployment. The only times the trio came close to being in concert mentally was in their encounters with others, such as Sid and Ivy at the café, or Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge at the Library.

Ivy and Sid

This set-up lasted for two series and was set to continue into a third, until Bates fell ill. Unable to take part in filming, he was rapidly written out, to be replaced by Brian Wilde as ‘Foggy’ Dewhurst.
Fortunately, an easy out was available: in series 2, the trio had travelled to Oswestry, where Blamire re-acquainted himself with a former NAAFI Manageress who he’d known whilst in the services. Now, it was revealed that her husband had died, and Blamire had relocated to Oswestry to ‘get his feet under the table’. Nothing more was heard of him, after his letter to Compo and Clegg at the start of series 3, alerting them that he had encountered another old schoolmate, Foggy, who had just been demobbed from the Army as a Lance-Corporal Signwriter, and on his way home. Compo and Clegg, at something of a loose end without the other part of the trinity, took up Foggy in the hope that he would prove to be sufficiently amusing.
Michael Bates’ illness and death forced a permanent change on Last of the Summer Wine. Where the trio had been drawn, lightly, as eccentrics, but with at least one and a half feet anchored in reality, writer Roy Clarke chose to portray Foggy as a fourteen carat barmpot, steering the series irrevocably onto its course towards absurdity and its own brand of low-key, comfortable surreality.
My Uncle, who had also loved the first two series, chose to stop watching now, complaining that, instead of the equality of bickering between the trio, it was now Compo and Clegg versus Foggy. He was completely correct at that.
Foggy was full of himself, confident that he knew everything in any situation and that he was a natural leader. Compo and Clegg tagged along, watching Foggy get himself (and them) into awkward and silly situations. I don’t, however, think that this development was solely down to the introduction of Foggy, but rather a development that the show would have needed anyway: as originally played, the trio got themselves into trouble naturally, by accident. They were primarily passive characters, reacting to what they saw around them, but not driving the story, and that could not have been continued for long. If the chance had not been seized with Foggy, I have always believed that Clarke would, in series 3, have started presenting Blamire as a more proactive character, and the same development would have advanced.
The series still remained close to its roots, and to its tight cast. Wainwright and Mrs Partridge had been jettisoned after series 1 because Clarke couldn’t see their potential for development. Therefore, in addition to the trio, the regular cast included only Sid and Ivy in the café, and Compo’s upstairs neighbour and object of cartoon lust, the broom-wielding, wrinkled-stocking wearing Nora Batty.

Foggy

Once Foggy was established, the show rolled on at a comfortable plateau, generally amusing, and occasionally offering up extremely funny episodes, such as the hilarious ‘Cheering Up Ludovic’ (which introduced Clegg’s extremely reluctant driving skills) and the one-off ‘The Loxley Lozenge’. This latter introduced Holmfirth local Gordon Wharmby in the role of Wesley Pegden: Wharmby had no acting experience whatsoever, but was a natural, and Clarke kept him firmly in mind for the future.
The series was probably at its commercial peak, and certainly at its most respected, in that late-Seventies/early-Eighties period. A cartoon strip version ran in the Daily Star, and one book collection appeared, whilst Clarke converted LOTSW into a stage show, which toured the UK successfully.
The stage show proved to be the catalyst for another redefinition of the series. Clarke introduced new characters in Howard and Pearl, Clegg’s neighbours, and Marina, Howard’s would-be mutton-dressed-as-lamb girlfriend. However, Brian Wilde found the touring version uncomfortable and this either caused, or at least exacerbated personal differences with Bill Owen which led to his decision to quit the show in 1983. A new Third Man was required.
Michael Aldridge, another veteran character actor, was introduced in the full-length special, ‘Uncle of the Bride’, which would set the tone for the series for the rest of its run. Foggy, like Blamire, disappeared invisibly, leaving Compo and Clegg at a loose end again, but the 90 minute episode set out not only to introduce Aldridge as Seymour Utterthwaite, headmaster of his own eccentric and cut-price academy and crackpot inventor extraordinaire, but also oversaw a massive explosion of the supporting cast.
The series had, sadly, lost Sid, following the great John Comer succumbing to throat cancer (his last performance was as Sid in the first LOTSW ‘movie’, based on Clarke’s own novel of the early Seventies: unable to speak, Comer had acted his role with Tony Melody’s voice dubbed over the performance). ‘Uncle of the Bride’ acknowledged Sid’s death, replacing him with Jonathan Linley, an amiable giant of a young actor as Ivy’s nephew Milburn, learning the café trade, though the lad really wanted to be a rocker and preferred being called Crusher.
In, too, came Howard, Pearl and Marina from the stage show. Wesley Pegden returned, bringing with him his fussy, snobbish, social-climbing wife, Edie, played by Thora Hird. The episode was based around the wedding of Edie and Wesley’s daughter Glenda (Sarah Thomas) to unassuming and nervous Bank Clerk Barry (Mike Grady) and, in case you were wondering how Michael Aldridge fitted in to all this, Seymour Utterthwaite was Edie’s brother.

Seymour

Crusher didn’t last long, but with Nora’s husband Wally (Joe Gladwyn) now taking a regular supporting role instead of occasional appearances, the show suddenly had a wide range of players, each with their own quirks. LOTSW quickly broadened into an increasing number of set-pieces, as characters would do their thing in contrast to whatever piece of trouble had organised for the trio. And with the accent now upon eccentricity underpinning every character, the show began to develop its own disbelief-suspended reality, in which the characters’ foibles were accepted as normal.
One additional development meant that the extended cast began to divide, explicitly, along gender lines, adopting a caricature pose reminiscent of Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon Family novels, in which the men, overall, took on child-like aspects, dreaming and obsessing over things that were essentially games, whilst the women acted as hard-headed and practical, looking down on their menfolk as idiots in need of firm schooling, as they had received in school.
This division into male and female casts was carried over into LOTSW‘s first and only spin-off, First of the Summer Wine.
First of the Summer Wine began as a 45 minute special, which proved sufficiently popular that two series, totalling twelve episodes, were ordered, though these were never repeated and the series disappeared without trace. FOTSW was set in 1939 and featured the trio of Clegg, Compo and Uttherthwaite, plus the young Foggy, and other similarly aged youngsters, in their late teens, with the Second World War approaching (War was declared in the final episode, which saw Clegg’s cousin Brad enlisting). Another among the youngsters was a lad named Sherbet.
Neither Brad nor Sherbet had ever been mentioned in the parent series: their prominence in First of the Summer Wine was a subtle nod by Clarke to the reality of the forthcoming War, and to those who never came back.
The spin-off was a minor, but enjoyable effort. Peter Sallis starred as his younger self’s father, and the series was very successful in finding actors in their late teens/early twenties who could convincingly portray the people they would grow up to become, forty-plus years later. Especially the lad who played the young Wally Batty, attempting Joe Gladwyn’s distinctive strangulated Lancashire burr. Of course, the spin-off paid no attention to continuity as the young Clegg and Compo clearly knew Seymour at the Coop in 1939 when they were supposed only to have been introduced to him in 1983, nor was there any reference to the young Cyril Blamire.

Compo, Sherbet, Seymour, Cleggy, Wally and Foggy before the War

I enjoyed FOTSW a bit more than the main series, mainly because it had more reality to it. An effort had gone into re-creating the period, most effectively, and the boys’ concerns in their youth echoed the early series in being more directly connected to real concerns: and with war looming, especially over the second series, First of the Summer Wine dealt with a more pressing reality.
But the spin-off disappeared, leaving Last of the Summer Wine and its expanded, increasingly absurd reality alone. Michael Aldridge left suddenly, for personal reasons, making room for Brian Wilde to return (for once, the ‘hand-over’ occurred onscreen, with Aldridge appearing in a cameo as he was seen off at the bus station to a real teaching job – very unconvincing – as Foggy turned up unexpectedly). It was more of the same, gradually getting further and further away from reality and more and more characters were added until I gradually lost the ability to suspend disbelief and switched off.
Brian Wilde left again, to be replaced by Frank Thornton, as Retired Detective Inspector Herbert Truelove, aka Truly of the Yard. The characters kept getting older. The stuntmen grew ever more obvious in the ‘sliding on a tea tray down a hillside’ moments.
The show began, increasingly, to feature well known actors and actresses in guest roles, further playing up the show as a collection of eccentrics and grotesqueries. Some, like John Cleese, made a single appearance, others, like Norman Wisdom, were so popular, and enjoyed themselves so much, that they repeated their roles.

Truly of the Yard

The role of the Third Man had, by necessity, always seemed mutable, but the combination of Clegg and Compo was the bedrock of the show’s longevity. Thus, when Bill Owen died in 1999, having filmed only two episodes of a twelve episode season, I was curious as to how LOTSW would handle this, and how it would continue without him.
The series, being staffed by older actors, had suffered losses before, most notably John Comer and Joe Gladwyn. Both Sid and Wally had died offscreen, between series, without fanfare but, given that their widows remained in the series, their loss was, unsentimentally and gently acknowledged, although not directly.
This time it was different. Compo’s death occurred, was acknowledged, and became the central factor of almost a half dozen episodes, as the series played tribute to the loss of one of its stars. It was strange to see all this so openly acknowledged, in a lightweight series that had long since rejected any darker edges and dedicated itself to portraying a fluffy and unreal life, but the sequence was handled immaculately, with care, delicacy, empathy and great, involving humour. I speak as someone who has always found the pain in a situation to overwhelm the intended humour: it takes a lot to make me laugh at tragedy, no matter how much that is the intention, but these episodes had me giggling away as if it were twenty-five years earlier.
Once the sequence played through, once Tom Owen had arrived to play the role of his father’s son (this would not work though the younger Owen stayed with the series), I drifted away again.
I can’t say much about the last decade of the show, nor about Frank Thornton as the last Third Man, replacing Brian Wilde for the second and last time. In its last decade, the show seems to have accumulated new characters hand over fist, to the point where it seems impossible, from the outside, for the series to have worked if everybody’s schtick had to be accommodated in every episode.
And all the while, Peter Sallis and Frank Thornton were getting older and older, until for the last two series the actors – both in their Eighties – were confined to indoor series only: given their seniority, insurance for outdoor shoots was impossible to get.
The show had already shifted through new stars: Keith Clifford as Billy Hardcastle, a would-be survivalist who believed himself a descendant of Robin Hood, and Brian Murphy as the simple-minded Alvin Smedley. Thora Hird and Gordon Wharmby had died, Kathy Staff left after Bill Owens’ death, returned and left again through illness. But Sallis and Thornton’s age led to the surprising, but enterprising idea of creating a new trio.

The new trio

For the last two series, Russ Abbott appeared as Luther ‘Hobbo’ Horndyke, ex-milkman, with Alvin, and Burt Kwouk as Entwistle. The idea of the passing of the show to a new generation, a re-generation, was fascinating. But the BBC were not happy.
Every year, the clamour to kill the series off only grew. It remained popular, with repeat series regularly mustering a 5,000,000 audience, but the tide of protest against it even being allowed to exist grew more intensive every time the show was broadcast. Needless to say, the demand for cancellation came entirely from people who did not watch the series, never had watched the series and would never dream of watching it, yet who believed that they had the right to prevent the programme’s not-so-negligible audience from watching it.
It used to be that this kind of demand came from the Clean Up TV brigade, the spawn of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford, insisting that any programme which showed a flash of tit, or some direct intimation of sexuality, or even too many examples of the ‘B’ word (Bloody, for the less timid of mind) be withdrawn, wiped clean and its Commissioning Editor burnt at the stake.
This time, it came from the smug, self-satisfied and patronising, those who considered themselves very much above that sort of thing, incapable of stopping to question the idea that something they don’t want to watch should therefore not be broadcast, despite the fact that, if they are limited to terrestrial TV, they have at least four alternatives available at the same time, and literally hundreds more with satellite.
And at last, after 31 series in 39 years, long-established as the world’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine was cancelled. It still does well on re-run channels.
The BBC cancelled it not because it wanted to provide something new, something different, something perhaps better for that section of its audience that watched LOTSW, but because it wanted to do something with more appeal to the young. In short, the BBC were saying to that section of its audience that it should fuck off, because we’re not prepared to make programmes for you any more.
I’ve been a lifelong supporter of the BBC, and I still regard it as essential to the integrity of television in this country that it should remain free from commercial pressures (before anyone says anything, I am aware that the BBC has, for some time, been far from that ideal, but as long as it exists in its current form, it remains at least a symbol).
There’s nothing wrong with the BBC wanting to appeal to a young audience, in fact it’s wholly sensible: you don’t get an old audience without their being a young audience first. But should a young audience be sought at the expense of turning your back upon, and disenfranchising your existing older audience?
It’s a valid question, especially for a national, public broadcaster, with a duty to reflect the nation and its tastes.
ITV has it very different. ITV knows no loyalty except to its owners and advertisers, and will go where the money points. The BBC was not supposed to follow that imperative, although the barrage of attacks from commercial interests over several years have forced them far too far along that route.
Maybe I’m just being impossibly idealist, but although I had not watched the show in many years, I was angry at its cancellation following hounding by people who ought simply to have ignored it. The BBC now serves part of its audience worse than it did before, because it lacks the confidence to follow its remit properly.
We are all of us poorer for that.