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.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Call it a Canary


‘Dear Carter,
‘I cannot stand no more.
‘I have left you for good and all with your son, Nigel. I intend to live with my gentleman friend. He works in the gas showrooms and has excellent prospects.
I can no longer live with you and your selfishness and your drinking in pubs and your sleeping with your mouth open and showing no consideration for myself and Nigel.
‘You never make an effort.
‘I never want to see you again for the rest of my life.
Your dinner is in the oven between two enamel plates on regulo two and there is a junket in the fridge or you can have a slice of Battenburg if you prefer, but don’t cut it too thick as it has to last.
‘I remain,
‘Yours faithfully,
‘Your wife (Pat).’
So. We’re back in the North, with the Brandon family. With Carter Brandon. Time’s passed. Not just the eleven years since Except You’re A Bird but for the family. Five years or so have gone by. It’s still the Sixties, but they’re limping towards the end. They’ve started Swinging, but that’s for down South. The North doesn’t Swing. It never has. It’s not made for Swinging is the North. It doesn’t like enjoyment, or happiness, or fun. That’s not what it’s about.The country’s got no use for the North, it doesn’t want it. Bits of it are dying, shutting off, closing down.
Carter Brandon’s marriage is over, Pat’s walked out on him and taken their son, Nigel (no points for guessing who was going to name him). Carter’s not much mithered about Pat upping and offing, in fact he can’t even remember to tell his Dad and Uncle Mort until several pints have passed at the Whippet.
Carter can’t really be mithered at all. Even if it’s obvious from the second note that there is no gentleman friend and Pat’s simply trying to get his attention, all it means to Carter is that he can carry on boozing and birding, wear industrial boots to work and not turn into a young executive without being nagged.
And the birds are all the more interested in him now Pat’s out of the picture. Not Linda Preston, though. For once she’s not offering it, because she’s going to get married again, this time to Count Jugular, the all-in wrestler and proud homebody. Linda’s going to turn herself into a good, loyal, prissy-arsed wife, like Pat.
And Louis St John’s changed too. After taking home Thelma Thurlow when Carter got too drunk at the Reception, Louis’s gone all strait-laced and disapproving, intent on marriage, disgusted at Carter’s morals, language and boozing.
But first Count Jugular, then Louis St. John and Thelma Thurlow are killed, in car crashes at that notorious accident black spot, Wilson’s Bar.
They were happy, see.
Linda Preston survives, though, determined to be the wife she intended to be. Not that Carter’s going short. There’s plenty of women from Wagstaffe and Broome’s that are up for a night with him, though it’s never anything special for them. And for a time, he’s taken over by skinny, needle-titted, beaky-nosed Dorothy Fearnley from (aptly) Complaints, until he scares himself off.
But the North is dying. People are dying, industries are closing, popular mine host and ex-Green Howard, Bert Coleridge, is moving South. Even Wagstaffe and Broome’s closes down, putting everyone on the dole. Mr Brandon’s on the dole alongside Carter, the snuff warehouse having shut. The men stand together in proud solidarity, craftsmen deprived of their craft. Eventually, they give in and find other jobs.
It could all be put back right for Carter, if he wants to take advantage. Pat still loves him, even after she does get a gentleman friend, none other than Mr Macclesfield, for whom she worked in I Didn’t Know You Cared. She moves in with him and his avacado bathroom suite, though there’s nothing like that going on.
But it’s not going to happen. Carter’s more interested in Pat’s best mate and former colleague at Maison Enid’s, Hazel Huskisson, she of the blonde hair, mini-skirts, long lissome legs and mobile caravanette. Hazel’s keeping an eye on Carter for Pat, reporting back what he does. On the other hand, her husband Ken’s spending every weekend house-hunting in London. Carter’s obsessed just as he was with Alison Shirtcliffe, and it’s all there for him. If he makes a move.
But he doesn’t.
Carter’s got a big problem. Well, two, actually. Or three, really. One is the one he’s always had, indecision. Not a Hamlet-like indecision, but instead an urgent desire not to take decisions, not to bring about change.
The next one is Sid Jones. Sid used to be Carter Brandon’s oppo in their National Service days in Germany. Two young men with time on their hands, exploring the mysteries of a strange country that was endlessly romantic in comparison with the emptiness and deprivation of the North.
Sid’s back now, and staying with Carter. But he’s not the booze-guzzling, bird-pulling Sid of yore. For one thing, he’s in gentleman’s fittings and he’s as bald as a coot. He’s clean, neat, a fastidious housekeeper, disapproving of strong drink and strong language, and unable to talk to women. Everyone says he’s a homo, even Daniel: only Carter insists he’s not.
But Carter’s biggest problem is that he’s become a drunk. A mean, swilling soak who’s unable to sleep for body-wracking hangovers. Hairs of the dog that get earlier and stronger every day. The classic alcoholic in classic denial about it.
There are still moments of sanity. Sid Jones persuades him to come away on a holiday in Scarborough: seaside, fresh air, no drinking. Even though Uncle Mort invites himself along, it’s working. Carter even bumps into Pat, staying here with a jealous Mr Macclesfield. They enjoy a gentle, happy day together and Carter presses for another. Then stands her up and goes home.
And then it happens. Carter has one final chance of Hazel, and he decides to take it, turn it into a future he’s badly in need of. He drives over in his blood-red Mini Cooper S. But a dog off its leash runs into the road, he swerves, and crashes. At Wilson’s Bar.
Is this novel solely about Carter Brandon? Is there no parallel story of comparable importance? Well, no, not really. There is a secondary thread, running alongside Carter’s story and forming an undercurrent, but it’s hardly on the same level of intensity and focus.
It’s about Uncle Mort, and his overgrown allotment once more. Uncle Mort has got a canary nesting in one of his bushes, a pair, with eggs. Only they’re not canaries, they’re warblers. To be precise, Mourning Warblers, except that, according to the bird books, they don’t nest in Britain, they only nest in America. Which makes them rare birds, poor sods.
Once the word gets out, the nest becomes a magnet for egg-collectors. The former Wagstaffe and Broome’s men set up a night watch, but they make a piss-poor fist of it. Between boozy sleeps, treachery and Mrs Brandon’s womanly disgust at grown men playing about like kids instead of getting jobs, only one egg survives to hatch into a strange looking chick, nesting in Uncle Mort’s hair, under his cap.
And everyone continues to call it a canary, over Carter’s constant corrections.
Ah yes, Carter. Aye. Well. Mm. Carter’s alive, and his blood-red Mini Cooper S isn’t even a write-off, but Hazel Huskisson is. Ken’s been manking around in London and she needs to take him in hand, so that’s that.
Everyone’s coming to see him in hospital: his mother and father, separately, Uncle Mort with the surviving eggs which Carter has to incubate, Sid Jones, half his harem. And Pat. Who still loves him and wants him back, despite his total indifference to her. She loves him. And so does Sid Jones.
And something unusual happens. Firstly, Mr Brandon declares, openly and for the first time in his life, that he loves Mrs Brandon, and then Carter not only decides that he wants Pat back, and that he’ll do all the things she wants of him, but when he discovers that she’s not going to come back, says – actually shouts – that he loves her. But it’s all too late.
But not necessarily for Carter. His self-destruction seems unstoppable. His selfishness has driven a wedge between himself and his parents. His best friend wants to make a home both for and with him. But there is Linda Preston.
Good old good-time Linda Preston, always available, always willing. She’s the one who didn’t come to the hospital, not to visit, that is. She stood outside every day, paralysed by memories of her own time there, but she was there for him.
And she’s there for him now. Not for sex, but to take him in hand, straighten him out, begin to calm and cure him. It’s an old-fashioned courtship, slow and gentle. Easy-paced and, above all, dry. No sex before a honeymoon night, if Carter wants to marry her.
It would work. Two unassuming, unambitious people, content to let the day come, comfortable in each other. Linda also resolves the Sid Jones problem, setting himself up with awkward, unprepossessing, curler-haired Connie Watkinson, to whom he proposes. After all, she’ll let him take nude photos of her, provided she can keep her clothes on.
Carter even decides to instruct Solicitors.
And a Policeman knocks on the door with news. There’s been another crash at that well-known accident black spot, Wilson’s Bar. Mr Macclesfield is dead. So too is his passenger, Nigel, Carter and Pat’s son.
Nothing is to be what it was going to be. A night of sex, in lieu of that forever postponed honeymoon, and then Carter and Pat are back together. Till death them do part.
There is, of course, a happy ending, happy in the terms that the Brandons world sets for itself. After Bert Coleridge went south, the new Landlord of the Whippet started making changes, altering the pub to attract a new, young with-it, Swinging clientele. Uncle Mort got banned for refusing to take his cap off.
But Sid Jones and Connie Watkinson’s reception is at the Whippet, and everyone’s crowded in. Only, when Uncle Mort takes his cap off, his canary flies straight into the heart of the disco equipment, and when they tried to extract it, a fire started, and the pub burned down to the ground.
Unfortunately, the poor canary succumbed to the smoke.
Canary? “Warbler,” roared Carter Brandon, “Call it a Warbler.”
It had been more than a decade since the last Brandon family book, a decade in which Peter Tinniswood had been refining his writing towards shorter and shorter works. There had been nothing to equal the density, intensity and especially the delightfully morbid style of his earliest novels. Call it a Canary stood in danger of being that most risky of endeavours, the self-pastiche.
Indeed, many of my friends and fellow Tinniswood fans at that time thought he’d succumbed. I, being less analytical than I am now, was simply glad to be amongst old pals, and rated the book accordingly. Now, I’m less sure.
Even at the time, I could see that Call it a Canary was a much darker book, darker for its blackness being on the surface. In the Eighties, I saw the overt decay – the deaths, the closures, the demolitions – as a comic element, but now I see something more. At the heart of this book is the disintegration of its central character, Carter Brandon. Not an undercurrent, half-hidden by a superficial, almost pantomime morbidity, it is the entirety of the story.
Carter and Pat’s separation is the symbol of the divide that widens in this book, the gulf between men and women, their differing, and wholly incompatible thoughts, feelings, desires and priorities. It’s noticeable that Mrs Brandon is alone in he generation of women to stand up for their viewpoint:  except for a cameo from Mrs Partington at the hospital, all the other women are much younger, and are sexual, bringing them momentarily closer to the men’s world.
Nor are there the jokes, not in the same profusion, not in the way that has characterised Tinniswood even through the Brigadier books. Even Daniel, present in Carter’s head from an incredibly early stage, isn’t what he once was. His voice is antipathetic to Carter almost from the off, carping and criticising and offering little or no encouragement to Carter.
This more than anything sets Call it a Canary apart from its predecessors. Even if you take Daniel only to be a kind of superego, Carter cloaking his impulses towards relief in a highly visible and totally irresponsible form, the fact that even his other self is tearing him down constantly deepens the gloom of this book past the point where the laughter has sufficient air with which to breathe.
I used to love Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s a plain fact that, after the original two radio series, the books got progressively, exponentially worse. The last of them, Mostly Harmless, cannot disguise from the least critical eye that it is the work of a writer who has grown to hate his characters, who felt trapped by them, and who was determined to ensure that he could never ever be forced to write about them again.
Though it is nowhere so extreme, Call it a Canary is in the same mould, even if only subconsciously. Tinniswood is burning boats here, breaking down the world he had constructed in a way that could not be put back together again. Towards the end of his life, there were apparently announcements that he was writing another Brandon family novel. I am glad it never materialised.
Some of the Brandons, most notably Uncle Mort and Carter, would reappear, on television, radio and in print. But there would never be a real book again, not with any grounding, any weight.
A number of Tinniswood’s obituaries spoke of his bitterness in later life that he had spread himself too thin, accepted too many commissions too eagerly, had failed to give himself the time to produce his best work. Despite its good aspects, Call it a Canary stands testament that he was not merely being self-deprecating.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Except You’re a Bird


Mrs Brandon closed her eyes. The shadows from the fire flickered on her cheeks.She sighed.
“I feel exactly now as what I felt before we got married all them years ago,” she said.
“Christ, you’re not getting another attack of lumbago, are you?”
“I’m not talking about bodily functions. I’m talking about emotional functions. I’m talking about emotions,” said Mrs Brandon. “I’m talking about being starry-eyed and all of a flutter. I’m talking about how it was twenty-five years ago with me rushing round making all the arrangements and you sitting on your BTM doing nowt.”
“Me? Doing nowt?” said Mr Brandon.”Who was it mended your Dad’s chain-guard? Who was it tarpaulined his bloody rabbit hutch for him?”
Mrs Brandon’s eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed in the gentle firelight.The creases in her neck were smoothed away in the mellow orange glow.”
“Les?” she said quietly.
 What?”
“Did you ever get second thoughts about getting married? I mean, did you ever get cold feet or owt like that?”
“No,” said Mr Brandon after a moment’s thought. “Once we’d bought the stair carpet there was no going back, was there?”
Though it had been implicit in earlier books, it’s in Except You’re a Bird – the third Brandon family novel – that Peter Tinniswood explicitly developed a vision of men and women as creatures alien to each other, with completely different concerns, feelings and wishes. It’s also where the accusations of a misogynist element to his work take serious hold.
The novel begins with thoughts of love and romance from Mrs Brandon. It’s six months until the Brandon’s twenty-fifth Wedding Anniversary, their Silver Anniversary, and Mrs Brandon has her heart set upon a grand celebration of love, which is going to feature a service of re-dedication, and a Second Honeymoon.
Mr Brandon, in contrast, would rather ignore the whole thing. He wasn’t impressed with the first honeymoon (The breakfasts was rubbish), the Re-dedication ceremony is bound to involve him dressing up (Women are buggers for spats), and the thought of resuming sex is an anathema to him (I’d rather bath an Airedale any day).
It’s not that Mr Brandon isn’t romantic in himself, it’s just that his romance is directed towards his job on the bowls greens at the Park (to which he was taken whole-heartedly) and his ever-giddier ideas about transforming a very functional Municipal Park into a riot of colour and scent.
So from the offset, Mr and Mrs Brandon are on two widely separated courses about their impending Anniversary, with one inevitable outcome: Mrs Brandon will get her way andMr Bramdon will put up with it.
Mr Brandon would prefer to concentrate on his remote chance of promotion to head gardener. The current incumbent, George Furnival, is shortly to retire, and he’s a man who knows bugger all about flowers and everything about forms and chitties. Plus he hates Mr Brandon, so the dream is not on.
Which is where Uncle Mort steps in. George Furnival is married to Olive, who is notably ugly, although the apple of George’s eye. Uncle Mort plans to romance Olive, to the point where George will catch the pair in a compromising position. George Furnival will then have to recommend Mr Brandon for his job, if he doesn’t want the news of his humiliation to get out.
It’s not Mr Brandon’s idea of a plan, but it works perfectly, except in two respects. Firstly, it appears that George Furnival is happy to be released from the suffocating prison of Olive Furnivals love, expressed primarily through the dinner table, and secondly Olive Furnival transfers her affections to Uncle Mort and, fattening him up with top notch grub, takes him away on a tour of her relatives.
Still, Mr Brandon gets the head gardener’s job and starts planning, whilst Uncle Mort’s opinions are pithily expressed in the postcard he sands home: “Barrow-in-Furness is worse than Hartlepools. Hartlepools was worse than Mexbourough. Mexborough was worse than Droylsden. There wasn’t much to choose between Droylsden and Birkenhead.”
(In all my years of reading, this is one of only two references I have come across in literature to Droylsden, of whom I was, when Except You’re a Bird came out, an avid fan. The other? A passing reference in I Didn’t Know You Cared. Incidentally, a later postcard from Uncle Mort concluded: “Birkenhead is worse than Droylsden. Infinitely.” I love Peter Tinniswood’s books!)
Now all of this is primarily comic, though that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a quite serious and dark underpinning to it. It’s one thing to laugh at the wildly contrasting emotions of the Brandons, but that doesn’t mean that Mr Brandon’s obstinate refusal to show interest isn’t deeply cruel and hurtful. Tinniswood seems to side with his downtrodden, beaten men, who only want a life of drudgery and dullness, preferring to avoid change, but his portrayal of that state, even of the men’s own innate belief in a certain nobility in their assuming it, is in itself subtley comic and exaggerated.
But this, as in I Didn’t Know You Cared, is only half the story. There is a second, deeper, and very much darker strand to this novel, and it involves Carter Brandon and Pat.
At first, it looks like it’s going to be similarly playful. A few heavy-handed hints are dropped by Pat, about not doing certain things “on account of (her) condition”, making it no surprise to anyone, except Carter, when she announces that she is pregnant.
Everyone’s impressed. Mrs Brandon tries to work out when it must have been conceived, and drives Mr Brandon mad by calling him Bompa, which is apparently her family’s traditional name for Grandads. Mrs Partington is scandalised at Pat wanting to emphasise to the world that she’s pregnant, even before she’s got the slightest bump (the bit about Carter and Pat sharing a bath together is priceless!).
But there’s a fly in Pat’s ointment and that’s her mother’s sudden announcement that she is going to re-marry. Her intended is Mr Shirtcliffe, who works at the snuff warehouse. Mr Shirtcliffe has two children of his own, Artie and Alison.
Pat puts her foot down and refuses her consent to her mother marrying Mr Shirtcliffe before even meeting him. It’s supposed to be all about her and baby, and she is full of fantasies about Baby’s future successful life, living each increasingly ambitious projection as if it were real and already happening. She’s already forbidden the sleep-deprived Carter from playing for the Works Football team, on account on his failure to get a cut looked at developing into gangrene and having his leg amputated, leaving her with no-one to dance with when Baby is Professor of Diffiicult Sums at Sheffield University.
But there’s the Shirtcliffes themselves. Mr Shirtcliffe is a near-midget whose primary concerns are housekeeping: he doesn’t want to marry Mrs Partington at all. Artie is the star forward for the local Rugby League team, praised by all except Mr Brandon, who thinks he’s rubbish. He’s is a fast-talking, high-living young man freeloading through life on the back of the ‘punters’ who hero-worship him and give him things for nothing, and who he openly despises whilst taking advantage. Alison is a mainly silent, anti-social young woman who dresses in mens shirts and pullovers and jeans. She has an offstage baby that she neglects, leaving it to scream endlessly.
She also has pale green eyes with flecks of tawny and long blonde hair, and absolutely fascinates Carter Brandon, who thinks she is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
Again, so far, so comic. Autumn is turning into winter. A cold snap hasseized the city and is slowly getting stronger. Things are freezing, roads are icing. Cars slip and slither. Carter hates driving, hates his car but can’t get rid of it.
Until Pat has a crash, and is rushed into hospital, in a coma, with suspected brain damage. Her baby is well, but Pat is not expected to live.
Everybody reacts. Mrs Brandon is utterly practical, accepting that her daughter-in-law is going to die, and pretty soon at that, and making plans for Carter’s future therafter in ways that echo Pat’s own plans for Baby. Mr Brandon suggests that the Anniversary be cancelled, as a mark of respect. Mrs Partington accepts it as a judgement upon her for defying Pat’s wishes about Mr Shirtcliffe. Artie adopts Carter, giving him lifts to the hospital every night and waiting for him. On a couple of occasions, Alison is with him, but she doesn’t respond to any of Carter’s stilted attempts to start a conversation.
And Carter? Carter who gives the impression that he spends most of his life putting up with Pat? If we doubted him, we cannot any longer. He is desperate with fear, pleading with Pat’s unconscious body to hang on, to stay. Hell, we’ve even heard him tell her that he loves her, though not until she was fast asleep and couldn’t hear it.
Life at home, alone, is unbearable and Carter asks to go live with his parents again. It’s a godsend for his mother, who immediately starts treating him as if he was seven years old again. Mrs Brandon is showering on her son the love she wants to shower on Mr Brandon,and Carter is in no condition to resist.
He’s also experiencing visions. Of pale green eyes with tawny flecks, of flashes of blonde hair. And this despite Artie’s warnings not to start sniffing, not to get interested.
One night, he can’t sleep, gets up and goes down to the parlour. Before long, his Dad, equally wakeful, joins him. Then Uncle Mort, complaining that insomnia’s catching. In the early hours, with the fire lit, Uncle Mort tries to cheer him up, reminiscing about bereavements, including that of Thingie, or as Mr Brandon hurriedly reminds him, his son, Daniel.
Immediately, Carter returns to bed, sleeps and dreams, and hears Daniel in his head, comfortable and chatty. Daniel’s heard about Pat, and unlike everyone at the hospital, he is confident: nothing’s going to happen to her, he’ll see to that.
The next day, which Carter takes off work, he’s urgently summoned to the hospital. The journey has him sick with fear at every second, but the Registrar greets him with words of a miracle. Pat is awake again, and though she’ll have to stay in the hospital until Baby is born, all will be well. She’s had a dream, a party in her womb, with Baby and with Daniel. Daniel who, at the end, gave her a small wrapped-up present: her life.
So all is going to be well again,once time takes its course. Except it isn’t, is it?
It starts with Alison. Carter bumps into her at the bus stop after football training, gets her to go for a drink with him. She’s willing to see him, from time to time, though it’s always instead of Visiting Time with Pat. Carter fobs his absences off as overtime, which Pat happily builds into Baby’s fantasy future. And Daniel’s egging him on with visions of a future of travel, an escape from mundanity, even as Carter clings on to dreariness and drudgery.
Artie doesn’t approve. Linda Preston knows something about Artie that Carter doesn’t, and about his bird that he’s ashamed of, but she’s not telling.
Then Pat drops a bombshell (apart from the one about Alison turning up at one of these increasingly regular parties in her womb): Mrs Partington is to be allowed to marry Mr Shirtcliffe after all, because Baby needs two grandfathers for Who’s Who when he’s a High Court Judge with a kindly twinkle.
(Actually, as Daniel explains later, it’s a demarcation issue, the Amalgamated Society of Unborn Babies and Allied Trades having passed a motion threatening to withdraw Pat’s labour if their member was to be born with less than the nationally agreed number of grandfathers.)
Mr Shirtcliffe doesn’t take to the idea and threatens to expose Carter’s relationship with his daughter – which, as yet, hasn’t even got as far as a kiss – unless Carter does something (an unnatural state that he abhors). Of course, Alison has the answer: her father ‘disappears’ to live with Carter back at his home.
And the icy grip of winter continues, holding the city in its fist (the book is undated beyond ‘the Sixties’, but this is clearly the long winter of 1962-3). Mr Brandon and Carterboth feel increasingly trapped, and both dream of escape asthe pressure mounts and the days of the Silver Wedding and the birth get ever closer.
And then the great chance arises, legitimately. Carter is invited to join a specialist team doing maintenance work internationally (though Pat disapproves). He wavers, plans to decline it, but finds that his intended message has been completely misinterpreted and been put through as acceptance. He wants to tell Artie of his fortune. Instead, he finds out about Artie and his bird… and the whole thing explodes under his feet.
The tragedy that ensues arrives on the eve of a fast spring, a sudden melt. Mr Brandon runs out on his Silver Wedding, leaving Uncle Mort to take his place on both ceremony and honeymoon! Carter confesses his plans to run away after the Works Cup semi-final, only for it to be ended by someone who knows him better than he knows himself. And they’re trapped again.
This time Mr Brandon’s off the bowling greens, replacing Mr Shirtcliffe at the snuff warehouse (aaaaa-chooo!) and Carter’s both a husband and father, though his feelings of guilt begin to alleviate. Order is returned, the world is as it was for both men and women.
Except You’re a Bird (whose title comes from a speech by the Eighteen Century Irish politician, Boyle Roche, mis-identified in the book as Boyd Roche, who may have been a model for Mrs Malaprop) was to be the last Brandon family book for over a decade, although Tinniswood continued writing the Brandon’s for TV until 1979. It displays all the characteristics that, in a short space of time, had made him such a highly-valued comic novellist, and it remains gloriously funny now, forty years later.
But, as we’ll begin to see, it and I Didn’t Know You Cared represent something of a peak for Tinniswood’s work. It’s continually funny, hitting little peaks of laughter over and again, and its anchored in a concrete reality based on Tinniswood’s own experience of northern life, and how people talked and thought.
For his next novel, Tinniswood would break away from that setting, seeking to broaden his horizons. It worked well, given that he maintained that down to earth tone, and there were still great things to come. But the early part of his career was to end here, and there is much debate to be had about where his talent would now lead him.