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.


Peter Skellern, R.I.P.

hadn’t seen the news myself, but as I write, Graham Norton has just informed me of the death, yesterday, of the singer and occasional actor, Peter Skellern. In tribute, he has just played Skellern’s delicately beautiful arrangement of the standard ‘The way you look tonight’. Skellern was 69, and had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer four months ago.

Yes, that tribute track was beautiful, and as an occasional thing, I can enjoy such music, though it is my parents’ music. Typically of Skellern, the arrangement was a combination of his piano and a muted brass band, the style of his unexpected massive hit in 1972, the no. 3 single, ‘You’re a Lady’. It’s not my style, and it certainly wasn’t in 1972, though I absolutely loved his only other chart single, 1975’s ‘Hold on to Love’, a soul-tinged ballad that avoided being contemporary without sounding in the slightest archaic.

But Peter Skellern has a place in my estimation for his acting career, as Peter Tinniswood’s creation, Carter Brandon. He didn’t appear in any of the I Didn’t Know You Cared sitcoms, and the only credit as Carter in his Wikipedia entry is for the Radio 4 series, Uncle Mort’s North Country (which I have today learned was produced by another of my favourites, Pete Atkin, the singer).

But Skellern went on to play the part on television in an odd, short, documentary series entitled Tinniswood’s North Country. This featured Peter Tinniswood himself, visiting various parts of the North and reminiscing about his connection with them. There was a one-off programme, which I think was simply called Tinniswood Country, that was primarily autobiographical, and then a series of three in which he toured the North, looking at how it had changed.

Tinniswood appeared on screen but never  spoke, except in voiceovers. But the series’ ‘gimmick’ was that on his tours, he took his creations with him, Carter and Pat Brandon, played by Skellern and Liz Fielding. Tinniswood would sit in the back seat on an open-topped touring car, his pipe in his mouth, his cravat blowing in the wind, forever silent whilst, in the front seats, Carter and Pat would argue, surreptitiously, about who he was, what he was doing there and what this was all about.

As Carter, Skellern was a bit blander, softer, smoother, but then again he was playing an older Carter, and his gentle Lancastrian tones seemed suited to the part. This was a Carter we never really got to see otherwise, without the shadow of his Uncle Mort, a bit settled, a bit staid, a bit more accepting of Pat’s obsessions with the better life she would never have fitted.

I videoed the series, and may still have the VHS tape somewhere. If I can find it – and there may be a couple of things on VHS that’ll never appear on commercially available DVDs that I want to see again, including that episode of The Home Front – I shall have it converted, and enjoy Peter Skellern’s performance once more.

Another good guy gone. For Carter Brandon, and for this, I shall remember him.

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 the 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 became. 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 he 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 Sid 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 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 as to just 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.

Neither conducive nor concomitant: RIP Liz Smith

I Didn't Know You Cared
I Didn’t Know You Cared

Most of you will remember her for playing the Granny in The Royle Family, but I remember Liz Smith, who is the latest to leave us in 2016’s great toll, for another role entirely, almost at the beginning of her career on television.

Liz Smith played – was – Mrs Brandon on all four series’ of Peter Tinniswood’s sitcom I didn’t know you cared, its title, and the underlying plot of its second series, taken from his second novel about the Brandon family. Robin Bailey as Uncle Mort, John Comer as Mr Brandon and Liz Smith as Mrs Brandon, Jesus!, was that series blessed with a heavyweight cast.

Of the three, Liz Smith was probably the least experienced, but did that show? No, it didn’t. She was immaculate, brilliant, crushingly funny. And she went on to be as willfully, and unashamedly, oddball in everything I saw her do. This bastard year cannot be over fast enough.

This blogpost’s title? Tinniswood already had one catchphrase lined up, Carter Brandon’s mumbling, “Aye. Well. Mm.” and he gave Robin Bailey the angry, “I served all through t’First World War!” Liz Smith got the spectacularly meaningless, “It’s not conducive, our Mort, it’s not concomitant,” with which she would weekly berate her brother.

It never caught on, except with me. I remember it fondly, I remember Liz Smith spendidly, and I mark her passing, however grand the age, with regret, yet again.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Dolly’s War

Peter Tinniswood’s last novel was published in 1997, and after that he wrote only for Radio 4. He was already suffering from the throat cancer that would see his voice box removed, and which would lead to his death in 2002. All these things, and even more so the early work he achieved, make it painful for me to say that his final book, a novel, was completely unworthy of him, his life and his talent. Dolly’s War is a disaster, car crash literature, a book in which the shadow of Tinniswood’s talent is pale and wan and mocking.
The Dolly of the title is Dolly Bradman, headmistress of a private school in Surrey, and the War of the title is the Second World War, in its earlyish stages in the autumn of 1941 when a lone German bomber drops its bombs on the school. As a consequence, Dolly gathers together her staff and proposes to evacuate the school from England to the West Indies. That, such as it is, is the story.
It is broken into three parts: the Ocean journey, in convoy, to St David’s, the school’s residence on St David’s and the planned flight back to England which crashes, leaving the school in danger on an unnamed island in the throes of a war that has nothing to do with the Second World War.
The whole thing is a series of disjointed careers as the school lurches from place to place and disaster to disaster, losing staff and children at various points, but never discovering a sense of purpose or any kind of shape.
It’s a very strange school anyway: it has a mixed intake of genders and ages that appears to be two-thirds female, and a staff of unlikely teachers that seems to be overloaded to the extent that there is something like one teacher for every two children – or ‘shits’ which is the term Dolly uses incessantly to refer to the pupils in her charge.
Dolly doesn’t teach. She has no interest in teaching. She falls in and out of love but never stops drinking excessively. She is a tall, buxom woman in her late forties, with a generous head of black ringlets, a fine figure of a woman. Neither she, nor anyone else in the book, behaves in any manner consistent with this being 1941, because, of course, the whole book is unreal and unbelievable and aimless. It is just a succession of things until it ends, not with a point or a purpose but because the requisite number of pages – too many of them, to be honest – have been filled.
Now you and I know that this does not automatically make a bad book. If the characters are interesting and entertain, and the situations they get into are absorbing, a journey of sorts, a glorified peg, is all you need to tell a tale. But that peg needs a point, needs something to signal an end, a satisfying moment that demonstrates that the story is over, and Dolly’s War fails completely to provide this.
Tinniswood fills his novel with characters who strike exactly one note each. As well as Dolly, there’s her shy, retiring, maiden yet hopeful cousin Celia, the somnolent Mrs Otto, cradling a casket of rotting, scavenged food, Mamselle, French teacher with a cyncial Lancashire background, Major Pickavance, a shortarse in search of a wealthy widow, Mr Dugdale, slowly succumbing to what appears to be Alzheimers, besotted by Natasha, besotted of Delphine, aging.
The boys consist of head boy, the languid, self-entitled, homosexual Lance Egerton, whose throat is slit by a Goanese steward on the voyage to the West Indies, Burnaby the masturbator, who later falls in love with the exotic Samira, and who hangs himself alongside her on her wedding day to an enormous, rich and blubbery Sultan, and the Doucemain twins, who die defiantly when their treehouse is burned down.
As for the more numerous girls, these include the dumpy Delphine with her unrequited love of Mr Dugdale, head girl the beautiful, blonde Natasha, who loves Lance Egerton but gives herself passionately and, initially, lovelessly to the stowaway, Roger Carey, the aforementioned Samira, a quartet of little girls, the innocent but sexy Margot, who dies of fever: no, I can’t go on with this. These aren’t people, these are barely credible as one-note cyphers, and the deaths which occur thorughout the book are meaningless to both the characters and the story. The dead just get to check out early, that’s all.
The only major character from outside the school is Roger Carey. Carey’s on the run from something he’s keeping from everyone. At one point, he claims to have murdered someone, at another to have embezzled millions, but instead he is a moral coward who has run away from the prospect of seeing the woman he loved die of cancer.
He’s also the character who keeps going on, at certain moments, about where he’s seen these things before?
That’s part of the dustjacket blurb, that Tinniswood’s story contains echoes of famous moments in other stories, and Carey is the one who draws our specific attention to what I take to be specific moments. In the final part of the book, there are explicit allusions to Swallows and Amazons, or rather to Missee Lee, and you could certainly argue a case that Dolly and Celia are patterned on a grown up Nancy and Peggy: Tinniswood has form for references to the grown-up Peggy on occasions.
But as an Arthur Ransome fan myself, I cannot recognise anything more that the most fantastically tangential connections between the events of this story and the children’s adventure holidays of Ransome’s classics.
And there’s not a laugh to be had. It’s not like the Winston books, or the later Uncle Mort and Brigadier collections, which are meant to be funny and where what are meant to be jokes are recognisable from where they lie on the page. Dolly’s War harks back, in a sense, to The Stirk of Stirk in being an ostensibly serious story subject to exaggeration in a comic/satirical manner, except that this time the exaggeration has gone beyond anything that is tied to reality.
Books like this can succeed, but to do so they need to create their own, internally consistent world, governed by a logic that underpins the departure from our recognisable world. Tinniswood fails dismally to even approach this state and the outcome is a final book that should have been forgotten completely, committed to the wastebin instead of the publishers’ hands.
Don’t read this. You can find the hardback cheap on Amazon, but even the single penny you’ll be asked to pay is not worth it. If you enjoy his work, if you love his sense of humour, if you are thrilled or in any way excited by his writing, spare yourself. Buy another copy of I didn’t know you cared instead. Petition whoever owns the rights to The Home Front  to release it on DVD (I’ll sign). Download Tinniswood’s 90 minutes Radio 4 play, Stoker Leishman’s Diary and wonder why he didn’t adapt that as a book, because it would have been very good.
Just don’t bother with this book.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Witney Scrotum


Slakehouse is an elderly gentleman of obvious Northern extraction who lives in our village under an upturned zinc bath in the back yard of the cricket bag repository.
What other village, I ask you earnestly, would tolerate the presence in its midst of a wizened, moth-infested, fetid, belching, terminal inebriate with congenitally unbuttoned flies and a yellowing tongue encrusted with what appears to be a full set of aged rusting mountaineers’ crampons?
Who is he?
What is he?
No, he is not an ITN newscaster ‘down on his luck’.
No, he is not a former financial advisor to the Duchess of York.
No, he is not a younger version of Mr. Ned Sherrin.
The answer is far more potent and pungent – he is, dear readers, a sportsman.
And thus he is welcome in our village.
How and when did he arrive in Witney Scrotum?
On the matter of date we cannot e precise.
But neither can Mr. Raymond Illingworth be certain of the date on which he last captained Yorkshire from his bath chair.
And Sir Geoffrey Boycott is in a sea of total confusion concerning the date on which he is to have the next mammogram on his wallet under local anaesthetic.
There were four years between Winston, and Witney Scrotum, a far cry from the prolific Eighties when Peter Tinniswood was producing two Brigadier books a year. Not that he had eased up on his workload: in the Nineties, Tinniswood’s energy was directed towards Radio 4, to Winston serials and a plethora of well-received plays.
Witney Scrotum returns us one last time to the village and the world of the Brigadier, forever unchanged. I was concerned at the lack of imagination in the book’s title: we had already had Tales from Witney Scrotum, and this latest volume was confusingly close in name.
What can I say? It’s the Brigadier, and by now we know all there is to know about what we’ll be reading. Tinniswood changes the formula in no whit, save to include references to cricketers who have come along since the very Eighties era of the Brigadier’s creation: thus we have the shy Reverend Michael Atherton and those cheerful vandalisers, the Tufnell Twins, but apart from a handful of throwaway references, we might still be back where England were thrashing the Aussies in 1981.
The major difference between this and other Brigadier efforts is that I can’t find anything funny in it. It’s not simply a case of once too often to the well, though the sheer familiarity of the format is discouraging. It’s more that, whilst previous works have seemed to be effortless, too effortless as I have remarked, Witney Scrotum is constantly striving for effect.
Paragraphs droop with the density of improbable, incongruous adjectives. Tinniswood tries to cram in more and more detail into each moment, oversalting the fantastic elements. It’s the perils of any kind of eccentric or exaggerated humour: the writer continually has to overtop himself, to the point that the exaggeration ceases to be of real life, but of the previous level(s) of exaggeration. At some point, it snaps.
What’s worse is that Tinniswood is running out of sustainable ideas. There a couple of chapters that are made up of letters written by the Brigadier, with no genuine connection between them that would sustain a viable chapter. They are pressed into contiguity simply because the individual ideas are limited in length.
And the book ends with a Cricket Quiz that, in terms of humour, falls flat on its face. There are pages and pages of questions, followed by pages of answers, all serious and factual, save for the odd comic one thrown in to drown. The level of the humour can be demonstrated by the section on cricketer’s middle names, about one in every three of which is John.
It’s desperately sad to see a book like this published by Tinniswood, who was by now well-ensconced on Radio 4. It’s a pale reflection of his gifts, and a sad justification for his complaint, late in life, that he had spread himself too thin, accepted too many commissions to do his best work. In books, at least, it was far behind him. And one last utter disaster awaited.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Winston


Usually I like family conferences. I’m very good at them. I let everyone have his or her say and then I have my say and everyone does as they’re told. I do like neatness and tidiness in human affairs, don’t you?
But that night I just couldn’t arouse any interest.
My mind kept wandering to Winston.
What was he doing? Was he using my toenail clippers again to trim his moustache? Was he sticking his gilberts on the corner of the oilcloth on the kitchen table? Was he happy? Was he out with one of his bits of fluff with yellow teeth and big berdongers? Was he trying to make it up with his wife, his missus? Did he want to go back to her? Was he tired of living with us? Did he like being the the same house as me? Did he like smelling my perfume when I’d been to the loo? Was he fed up with my cheery laugh and the butter under my fingernails when I made french toast for Father? Oh Lord, was he happy? Really, really?
He’d done nothing about the house since he moved in. Not once had I seen him paying attention to the stench pipe. Indeed he seemed to go positively out of his way to ignore it. He hadn’t served at table or unblocked the drains. Not once had he rewired the house or put a new roof on the stables. All he’d done was hose down his dog in the bathroom and hang his dirty socks over the bannisters. Oh Lord, was he happy? Really, really?
Winston is the sequel to Hayballs, but only in the sense of featuring substantially the same characters in substantially the same setting. Almost everything of importance about Hayballs, and especially its plot, has been obliterated for the purposes of this book. Gone are The Duke of Wiltshire, the Marquess of Sturmbridge, Grampy Hayballs, and all the inhabitants of Winterleaf Gunner except Winston himself and the occasional, walk-on, non-speaking part.
Even Father’s death is clumsily swept aside as having taken place only in Nancy Empson’s imagination (and that doesn’t accord with Hayballs, as Nancy arrogates to herself the part played by Grampy in the first book).
It’s very odd indeed.
But that’s because Winston is not a sequel. It is a novelisation of the first of what would eventually be six six-part Radio 4 comedy serials written by Tinniswood. The series were five-handers, centring upon Winston’s various entanglements with the life of the Empson family, now restored to four people with younger daughter Rosie – blonde, beautiful, stylish and thoroughly bad-tempered and argumentative – being whisked back from her never-again mentioned relationship in Derby.
The effect is to further neuter Hayballs, in retrospect, by treating it as a mistake, a false start that should never have appeared at all. The only real gesture of recognition Tinniswood pays to his earlier novel – which, as you may recall, was written the same year as the radio series upon which this is based – is to acknowledge that the Empsons have been living in the Dower House for about a year, that it was in a disastrous state when they bought it, that Winston has done it up for them single-handed and on his own look, for next to nothing.
Oh yes, and that last Autumn Festival, he took Nancy Empson out back under this beech tree and had sex with her, despite their social differences. Strictly speaking, Nancy – who was in her late forties then but has now swept backwards into her mid-forties – had her virginity taken, but let’s not dwell on that.
It doesn’t work with me. It feels all wrong to have an entire story, an entire world deleted by a writer, and have him yet pretend that these two books are a continuum.
The other distinction Tinniswood draws is in having Nancy Empson narrate the novel, as she does in the radio serial: that is, for about 80% of the story, during which she is present. When it is necessary that there be a scene where she is excluded, the novel simply dips into the third person for as long as it has to, before racing back for the sanctuary of Nancy’s mind. The bald-faced manner in which this is done smacks of cheap contrivance.
The story can be summed up very easily. Winston turns up at the Dower House, having been thrown out by his extremely ugly missus (his extremely ugly, totally under his thumb, doormat wife, yeah, right) because of his bits of fluff. He’s come to live with the Empsons.
Initially, they’re against the idea (not that they stop him moving in, the Empsons being, individually and collectively, completely ineffectual) because he’s, well, not really their type is he? A working class man amongst so many superior, cultured, refined upper middle class folk. Of course, the moment Winston slicks himself up and becomes a world class chef/butler/manservant/maid and all round treasure, they change their minds.
But Winston has a plan, which he relates to Nancy. He’s going to work on and manipulate the rest of the family until they all up sticks and leave, so that he can stay in bed with Nancy all day.
And she lets him go about his plan, despite her self-martyrdom to her family and keeping it close by and dependent upon good old Nancy, the only sensible one. Even though it’s blatantly obvious that Father is sufficiently doolally and ga-ga as to be a danger to himself anytime he’s not looked after twenty-four seven three six five.
And it’s not as if he’s subtle about it, though the Empsons – even the seemingly intelligent and uneccentric Rosie – are unlikely to spot anything less subtle than a sledgehammer to the back of the neck. And Nancy knows his plans, but she is so far under the magical influence of this greasy-haired, Zapata-moustached, fat-bellied, dirty, wellied classic Male Chauvinist Pig with the tattoos of ‘Mild’ and ‘Bitter’ above each nipple, that she can’t bring herself to stop him.
Winston’s plans are, however, foiled (this is based upon a Radio serial, with the requirement of a status quo to be restored, ready for the next series) by Father falling ill, and William and Rosie deciding that a) they prefer family comforts and b) they are too scared to make it on their own, and thus deciding to stay.
In the case of William, the inveterate railway enthusiast whose hyper-detailed books appear to constitute the family income, that’s obvious to the proverbial three-month-old baby, but in Rosie’s case it’s a bit of a stretch and has to be stapled on for it to stick.
That’s not all though. Winston decides that if the other Empsons are going to stay, he and Nancy will go. He plans for them to elope after the Autumn Festival but, guess what, he reminds himself of why he married his wife and goes back to her. But not before having sex with Nancy under the beech tree again (poor woman: it can’t be much fun having a lover who only gives you an orgasm once a year, though according to legend most marriages don’t even achieve that much).
End of story.
I really don’t like this book at all. It’s recognisably Tinniswodian in that no-one else could have written this, but it’s a far cry from the wonderfully funny, grounded books of his early career. It’s irretrievably affected by the fact that I don’t like Winston one bit. He’s meant to be the romantic hero, using the term romantic in its more archaic sense. He’s the rogue, the charmer, the vagabond, the working-class hero befuddling and confusing the stultified middle class that thinks itself so much more sophisticated but which is wide open to the hero’s schemes. Winston follows that template almost to a ‘T’ – it’s not that far from the milieu of the early Leslie Charteris stories of The Saint – but Tinniswood blows it by exaggeration. Winston is so bleeding obvious, and the Empsons so bleeding oblivious that the humour inherent in seeing the stuffy and stuck-up humiliated by the wily ‘inferior’ goes completely by the board. Especially when the stuffies don’t get any comeuppance whatsoever and wouldn’t notice if they did.
Winston – incarnated superbly on radio by Bill Wallis – went on to star in another five radio serials, interfering with the life of the Empsons. It provided gainful employment for Tinniswood’s wife, Liz Goulding, who had been the second TV Pat Brandon, and who appeared in several of her husband’s radio plays, including the part of Rosie Empson. Winston never appeared in print again.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Uncle Mort’s South Country

The dreams of an old man.
Northern city rife with frost and haltered horses in station yard. Being poorly. Two weeks in bed. Coal fire flickering the black skirts of night. Saturday roar of distant, clinkered football terraces. Calf’s-foot jelly and junket. Mother’s anxious face. Creak of mangle. Smell of sour, spent ale on father’s breath. Deep nicotine of thumbs.Doctor’s whisper on ice-breathed landing.
The dreams of a young man.
Morecambe Bay. Ponies plodding for prawns. The tumble off the wall.Stone jag on bridge of nose. Swab of steel-rimmed chemist. Grass-tufted shore. Dunlin wheeling. Dizziness. Oozing pus from wound. Darkness of stranger’s bedroom. Mother’s anxious face. Slow car ride home.No jolting. Urgent – no jolting. Jolting verboten. Home. The bedroom with its soothing walls. Tight coil of purring cat. Calf’s-foot jelly and junket. Pepperminted breath of father fighting back the smell of sour, spent ale. Shy, stubby fingers stroking at his brow. I love you, lad. I love you. But don’t tell your mam.
Northern dreams fighting back the South.
They awoke simultaneously.
As you might have guessed from the title, Uncle Mort’s South Country is a sequel. To the earlier North Country book, to the earlier North Country radio series. It’s the same idea: Carter Brandon is given a fortnight off work and decides to go on a touring holiday down South. Pat won’t accompany him, so Uncle Mort does.
It’s the last appearance of the Brandons in print. There is no Mrs Brandon, whose final words lie back in North Country. Mr Brandon has passed on, his original words quoted by Uncle Mort, gone to join the late, great John Comer, who incarnated him so perfectly on television.
There’s still Pat, swooping in in the final chapter to drag Carter and Uncle Mort back north. And then it’s over. They’re all gone (though Tinniswood would write another sequel for Radio 4, Uncle Mort’s Celtic Fringe, which, for reasons unknown was never converted to prose). It’s a simultaneously sad and unhappy ending.
I have very mixed feelings about this book.To be frank, I don’t enjoy it. It’s thin, it’s insubstantial. Tinniswood has ‘refined’ his style to the extent where the most important aspect is the radio-oriented use of language. The situation is perfunctory, there are no events, the wordage is lush but ineffectual. Uncle Mort waxes locquacious in ever-expanding monologues. His TV catch-phrase, ‘I served all through the First World War’ makes a belated appearance, and repeats and repeats. The flow is continually being interrupted by paragraphs of verbless statements, bedizened with adjectives, as the extract quoted above demonstrates. This is not Uncle Mort and Carter Brandon as far as I am concerned. The thread of continuity that ran through A Touch of Daniel, I Didn’t Know You Cared, Except You’re a Bird and even the weaker Call it a Canary is here snapped, as is the connection to reality. Tinniswood has become a parody of a parody and there is nothing but eccentricity and grotesquerie left. The years of the Brigadier have, to me, destroyed his ability to focus upon a humour whose strength lies in its proximity to the mundane and real instead of its ever-widening distance from it.
And yet.
And yet you look at the quote above. Both tell stories, both tell the same story of illness of a child, fear of parents, the encompassing world that binds and eventually heals the boys. They’re told in compressed language, mundane poetry that removes any inessential word, strips down the experience to a series of snapshots that, in turn, reflect the memories of ailing boys.
It’s extraordinarily deep writing, and you can’t dismiss out of hand a book that contains a passage like this, a writer who can come out with that.
Perhaps if this wasn’t Carter Brandon and Uncle Mort, if it were two other characters without the baggage of those wonderfully funny early books, I might enjoy this book more?
Maybe, and maybe not. Tinniswood paints so many quasi-poetic pictures, employing startling and vivid adjectives, but the effect tires, and the adjectives frequently come across less as startling, head-turning moments that shed new lights than as random, unconnected images pulled out of a dictionary. There are so many, at such regular intervals, that they become much of a muchness, sandbars breaking up the tide, something to be gotten across whilst not really paying attention. Just another landscape.
And in between, the conversations are not really conversations. Carter’s pithyness is little more than an excuse to break up Uncle Mort’s endless rambling into bite-sized pieces. Indeed, his entire presence is primarily to be the mover, the activist, continually moving the pair on from scene to scene, to counteract Uncle Mort’s natural tendency to stop at home and do nothing.
Which is to take Carter himself out of character, a character most firmly established as avoiding change, avoiding decisions, preferring to be left to himself, where he is. In truth, were this taking place in the novels, it would be Pat who wanted to visit the South, climb it socially, bask in its refinement and cleanliness and young-executive friendliness, and Carter who would not want to budge.
And that leads to another question that I cannot avoid asking myself, seeing the Brandons as part of a continuum: the novels were set in the Sixties, but the North and South Country stories are very clearly contemporary. That would make Carter and Pat, who were in their late twenties in Call it a Canary, close to fifty years old: enough time for their basic characters to have crossed over, but given that Uncle Mort was sixty-bloody-six in I Didn’t Know You Cared, he’s now got to be about bloody-ninety.
Reading the final chapter, I can’t help but think that Tinniswood was saying goodbye to his oldest and best characters. Mr Brandon’s gone. Mrs Brandon isn’t there and may very well have followed her husband to his grave. Carter’s lost a lot of his fire: the woman he’s sniffing around is not an Erika, an Alison Shirtliffe, a Hazel Huskisson, not even a Linda Preston, but instead a small girl with rimless spectacles, hair in a pony tail, given to long cotton frocks, with bare, spindly arms, who’s part of a Methodist convention from Selby, Humberside. And Pat’s smart enough to suss him out over the phone and sweep him off before he seduces the flat-chested, freckle-nosed, insignificant thing.
And Uncle Mort? Uncle Mort has lost his cloth cap, blown off his head after fifty-three years. And he’s ill and convinced his time is up, though it turns out only to be mild heat-stroke.
It’s over. It’s all over, and the worst of it is that it’s all for the best. I couldn’t have stood another Brandon story that wasn’t worthy of them. Not long before his death in 2002, Tinniswood was rumoured to be writing another Brandon novel, but nothing ever came of it. I’m sorry to say that I’m probably glad of that.