Sunday Watch: The Lovers – s01 e04-06 – Brainwashing/A Pipe and a Moustache/The Truth Game


Lovers

It’s never unwelcome to spend part of your Sunday morning in 1970, when things are other than they are now and the nation’s greatest concern was coping with England being beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the 1970 World Cup, six months earlier.

The back half of the first series of The Lovers, created and writen by the great Jack Rosenthal, begins with my absolute favourite episode of the series, an episode that stands out for both its surreal and ironic reversal and for its portrayal of an abusive marriage as comedy, in a way that could never even be suggested let alone depicted fifty years later. I’m aware of the dichotomy but I can’t help laughing anyway. When I’m in a receptive mood, this episode can make me laugh until I’m sick, and when I’m not in a receptive mood it pretty quickly turns me round.

We open with Geoffrey and Beryl sat opposite one another in a train carriage, scenes of Manchester at its ugly finest outside the window. Each are reading a magazine, Nova for Beryl, Playboy for Geoffrey. It starts with an almost casual conversation between our star-crossed lovers about Geoffrey’s desire to do ‘it’ in the carriage and Beryl’s determination not to do ‘it’, either there or anywhere under the rain (I know that the usual phrase is ‘under the sun’ but this is set in Manchester…). They are on a cheap Day Return to Rochdale to visit Beryl’s former office friend Sandra, for whom Beryl was chief bridesmaid, and her new baby, or as Beryl’s one-track mind anticipates, demonstrate to her reluctant boyfriend the benefits and joys of marriage. Which it will do but not in the way she expects . in the meantime, one of the many reasons our lovely little sponge pudding gives for not engaging in Percy Filth (Geoffrey, N-O spells No) is the risk of 38 Bishops getting on at Oldham. Or even 37.

We get an early taste of what marriage is really like for Sandra (Maureen Lipman, Rosenthal’s wife, stunninglky good and beautifully cynical) and Neville Appleton (John Flanagan, at ease, only once rising from his backyard deckchair), just before the lovers arrive. He’s sat in the deckchair, reading the paper, she’s in the kitchen preparing the lunch, the baby’s skriking loudly in the pram right next to him, who’s complaining about having to put up with guests he doesn’t know, and he’s yelling at her to come and quiet the baby down. Which she does by leaning over the pram, rattling its toys and saying ‘Belt up!’.

It shouldn’t be funny, and on its own it isn’t. He’s lazy, domineering and a total pig, constantly shouting at her to do things, getting her to do everything, gardening, decorating etc., whilst she’s openly and viciously sarcastic towards him in retaliation. The pair hate each other. Why are they married at all? Well, the baby being eight months old and the marriage being twelve months old might tell you something about that.

But the point of this, and the source of the humour is the way that it explodes Beryl’s naive imaginings of the bliss pf marriage. But not just that, it overturns Geoffrey’s expectations at the same time. For Beryl it’s almost instantaneous, no matter how hard she clings to her dream notions. Paula Wilcox is always superb but here her confused, her imbalance at how ruthlessly Sandra demolishes her ideation is there in every nervous glance, start and shrinking away. Beryl’s news is of engagements and weddings, but Sandra comes alive over exciting reports of neighbours getting divorced: desertion! Adultery!

And with the help of a recollection of an office do when everyone was drunk on egg flips and talking into a dictaphone about their secret desires, she pressurises Beryl into recalling that what she wanted to do with Paul McCartney wasn’t to marry him… No, Sandra is strong on what women want is to indulge theit animal passions and that Beryl should be Percy Filthing Geoffrey until her eyes change colour.

Whereas, in the back yard, in a much slower fashion, Geoffrey’s eyres are being open to the ‘delights’ of marriage by Neville, who is a pig who is not only unashamed of it but couldn’t care less. Geoffrey’s pursuing the cliche fantasy of playing the field, pulling the birds, which Neville is blowing up in his face, down to the brutal dismantling of Geoffrey’s fantasies about Brigitte Bardot, telling him that she wouldn’t have him.

It’s a glorious inversion of their separate expectations, w hich leaves Beryl rattled and shaky, especially after Geoffrey’s enthusiastic adoption of Neville’s mannerisms. Leading to the episode’s quite brilliant coda. They’re on the train, going back, still sat opposite each other but now reading each other’s magazine. Geoffrey starts talking, rather abstractedly, about what they’d seen. He seems to be talking himself into proposing, and he may well have done so but for Beryl’s awed recognition of how he nearly proposed to her. But she wants to come sit next to him, though that’s actually on his knee, and she’s talking about her animal passions, and they close in on a snog, disappearing onto the horizontal on the carriage seat. Geoffrey talks wonderingly about how theworld seems to be slowing down. Beryl tells him it’s the train slowing down. It’s coming into a station, Oldham in fact. ‘Oldham?’ wails Geoffrey, and thje carriage fills up with Manchester-bound passengers, the first four of whom are wearing dog-collars…

After that, any follow up episode would pale in comparison, but though much of ‘A Pipe and a Moustache’ is strong, particularly in the exchanges between Beryl and her patient, cynical, deadpan mother (Joan Scott), it suffers from an embarrasingly awkward but prominent scene. Basically, Beryl has decided to change Geoffrey, against her mother’s advice and his natural inertia. One of the ways she intends to do this is to try to make Geoffrey jealous, by pretending an interest in his mate Roland (Robin Nedwell), who’s the bird-p[ulling sharp-dresser of the two. It’s an uphill battle in that Roland doesn’t fancy her at all, but it reaches it’s zenith, or rsather its nadir, in a scene in the pub where they all go out as a foursome, the fourth being Betyl’s friend’s friend Samantha (Gillian Rhind), a tall, attractive, short-skirted dolly bird who turns out to not only be interested in football but to br able to talk intelligently about it.

This causes Beryl to stand up snd storm out, bringing to an end a scene which comes extremely close to transgressing my one unshakable Law of Comedy, which is that in Comedy of Embarrassment you must ensiure that you only embarrass the character and not embarrass the audience. Beryl comes very close to doing that, or perhaps she does and it’s only my inherent bias towards Paula Wilcox (which must be obvious by now and is not only because Beryl in appearance so strongly reminds me of the first girl I ever fell in love with) that suggests otherwise.

Once that’s out of the way, the episode picks up, even though Geoffrey has stayed in the pub to enviously watch Rolsand and Samantha neck, tries to pick her up whilst he’d in the loo and then goes back to Beryl’s even though it’s nearly 11.00pm and her hair’s up in a towel because she’s washed it, and basically the two tell each other a happily fictional version of their evening and everything’s ok again and Beryl tells him its wicked to try to change a person.

Which is exactly the point behind the final episode. Unusually for the era and indeed for sitcoms generally, Rosenthal plays up the fact that this is the last episode. With the Battersby’s telly not working, Geofrey sees the opportunity for three hours wrestling on the couch, but Beyl deflects him with this supposedly harmless Truth Game, where you take turns telling each other any little niggling things you don’t like about then, so that they can then change. You just know this is going to be an utter disaster. Basically, it starts as a way for Beryl to criticise Geoffrey’s habit of wearing crimson shoes with bottle green socks at which he takes the hump, and it starts from there and goes on, provoking more and more frowns,m slow burns and huffs intil the couple decide they’re completely incompatible and they’d better call it off.

What we get is heavy moping of a kind that could rival Manchester’s traditional cloud cover, attempts by Beryl’s Mum and Roland to be infuriatingly reasonable about how they’d only been going out together for five weeks and their separate appearances at a party that sees both of them wandering around, Geoffrey failing absolutely to pick up girls (Liz Goulding and Rosalind Ayres) and Beryl failing to get any boys to pick her up.

We know what’s coming. We know that this ill-matched pair are an ordained-to-be pair, even if it’s only because they’ll never get anyone else to accept them. So here they are, at the bus stop, agreeing what a lucky escape they’ve had, and that after this they’ll never see each other again… and as Beryl gets on her bus, Geoffrey shouts out if she’d like to go to the pictures Wednesday, she agrees where to meet him, then rushes back and the series ends with the first and only real, in-each-other-arms-like-they-mean-it all-out snog.

There would be a second series but, just as he had with The Dustbinmen, Rosenthal would leave it to other hands to write. He would only revisit Geoffrey and Beryl for the 1973 feature film, which recycled at least one gag from thid episode, which was far better coming from Paula Wilcox. It’s heavily outdated now, especially in its sexual mores but I was there in 1970, and I still like to visit sometimes.

Sunday Watch: The Lovers – s01 e01-03 – Sardine Sandwiches, The Date, Freckle-Face


Lovers

It was such a long time ago.

Jack Rosenthal, who will be forever missed, had cut his writing teeth on Coronation Street. He’d written a very successful play for Granada TV called There’s a Hole in my Dustbin, Delilah which was picked up on and expanded into a very funny half hour sitcom as The Dustbinmen of which he wrote the first series of three. Rosenthal left the show when it was well established to develop another sitcom for Granada, which would co-star a young actress who’d broken into TV in 1969 include two guest slots on The Dustbinmen. Her name was Paula Wilcox. Her co-star, Richard Beckinsale, had even fewer credits, the first of which as a one-off appearance in Coronation Street, playing a Police Constable, ironically named Wilcox. Two young unknowns, staring in a prime-time ITV sitcom at 8.00pm on Monday nights, immediately after Coronation Street. And they were bloody magnificent.

I say that for three reasons. One of them is inevitably nostalgia. I loved it then, a Manchester based sitcom, a Manchester sense of humour, a premise that did not directly affect me whilst turning 15 during its first series but which was steadily encroaching on my mind. Another was, to put it simply, Jack Rosenthal, an incredibly funny writer who took a contemporary subject and built a frequently surreal and absurd comedy upon it in the most straightforward and naturalistic manner. And the third was Paula Wilcox. I fell in love with her then, and watching the first three episodes this morning I am reminded why. Richard Beckinsale is good, very good, he was born good and his early death was a terrible loss, but Paula Wilcox runs rings round him here, seemingly effortlessly.

The subject of the series was young and extremely awkward love between two very naive and awkward people with two very different objectives in mind, crossed with the question of the Permissive Society and how far it had – or hadn’t – penetrated Manchester.

The opening episode featured a gloriously funny location scene around the old Shudehill bookstalls. Beryl Battersby, a twenty-year old girl, slightly dumpy in a box-pleat mini-skirt is wandering around, seemingly aimlessly. Abiut ten feet away, trying to look inconspicuous, bundled up in a long coat and where the soon-to-be-infamous pairing of crimson shoes with bottle green socks (the line on its own is wonderfully funny for its precise description of the two shades) is Geoffrey P. Scrimgeour, also aged twenty. Geoffrey is following Beryl but is pretending not to. Beryl is well aware he’s there but is pretending not to notice him. Each provides their own voice over commentary about how much they’re not interested in the other, don’t find them in the least attractive, wouldn’t go out with them if they were the last boy/girl on Earth…

Actually I have to interrupt here to bring up the episode’s – indeed rhe whole series’ – only serious mistake. The voiceovers are broken up once each by Beryl and Geoffrey speaking their thoughts out loud, in the presence of an uncredited woman (actually Alison King, who will go on to be a kind of silent Greek Chorus). Beryl bursts out with ‘”God, I’d love to nibble his earlobes!” but the damage is before that, as Geoffrey, after all he’s thought about how ugly, stupid, repulsive Beryl is, bursts out wirh “God, I’d love to rape her!” Now that’s not funny, then or now, though you can see the basis for the ‘joke’ and it’s a stain on things that, thankfully, was never repeated.

Back to the ‘plot’. Of course you know what’s coming. This pair used to go out together but they broke up, exactly 409 days ago but who’s counting. They’re dodging around as if this were some eccentric dance, avoiding seeing the other, neither having the nerve to go up to the other though they both obviously want to. And finally, when they get too close to avoid it, it’s all faux innocence, how are you, didn’t see you there, and it beginsall over again.

The idea behind the series is this young couple with different ideas. Beryl’s ambition is to be married. Geoffrey just wants sex. Naturally, it’s not expressed that crudely, but Rosenthal comes up with a whole language in which to conduct the rather one-sided debate. Beryl’s constant and battering-ram subtle use of the word marriage in all it’s derivations, up to a dozen times a minute, matched by Geoffrey’s instinctive twisting of his right sideburn the moment the m-word is mentioned matched to Beryl’s indignant denunciation of Percy Filth and the near matra of N-O spells No.

The opening episode is obviously all about set-up. We learn that this ‘accidental’ meeting was in no way accidental when Geoffrey sees Beryl home all the way out of his eay to Altrincham, is upset when Beryl won’t ask him in, leading to more verbal fencing until Betyl’s Mum (Joan Scott) opens the front door: she’s got sandwiches ready for him, Beryl told her this morning he’d be coming round. And they’re sardine sandwiches, swimming in oil.

In one sense, the series is a bit one-sided, since Beryl isn’t going to have sex with Geoffrey (which would blow the whole ‘will-they-or-won’t-they? basis of the entire series) nor even let him do the least amount of fumbling, and those odd moments when Beryl actually feels a certain randiness, enough to let Geoffrey put his arms around her and even kiss him, are invariably interrupted by her mother coming back into the room. So Rosenthal keeps the pot boiling with the dialogue between this pair, and some of it crackles, such as the moment when the two bitterly compare each others aims, with Geoffrey’s complaint about Beryl’s obsession with getting a ring on her finger countered with her snap back about his ambition being to send her knickers to Oxfam.

That’s what I mean about Paula Wilcox. For an actress in her first starring part, playing a girl who’s a mass of contradictions, she has the meat of the show and she knocks everything out of the park for six. Betyl’s moods swing all over the show but there are no transitions, each one is brilliantly effective, she switches so smoothly and so convincingly, whether the new mood is real or clearly artificial. I say clearly but that’s only to us: Geoffrey is behind her at every turn, incapable of understanding her and aware of that, taking refuge in silences and ignorances.

And for someone supposedly playing a slightly dump, plain and in manyways ignorant girl, Wilcox stands out to me as both very much smarter than Geoffrey and also beautiful in a very individual way. She has a lovely face, with fine bone-structure, leaving her still gorgeous even though she’s now in her seventies.

The episodes don’t have titles on the DVD, only in imdb. Having established what will be a primarily two-handed but three-cornered world in the opening episode, Rosenthal goes on the expand very cautiously. ‘The Date’ is a wonderfully complex story of how Beryl, seeing two guys ordering their girlfriends about, gets it into her head that the way of things is for Geoffrey to diminate her. Unfortunately, Geoffrey couldn’t dominatre the skin off a rice pudding and Beryl is only prepared to be dominaed into getting her own way. The third episode, ‘Freckle-Face’, expands the cast by introducing Robin Nedwell as Roland, Geoffrey’s self-confidrnt and obviously sexually active mate and fellow Bank Clerk.

Roland can easily see through Geoffrey’s ham-fisted attempts to claim that he and Beryl are setting the bed-clothes on fire. His advice is to play it cool. He also mentions that Geoffrey has someone else who fancies him, a girl he names only as Freckle-Face who’s in their night class. When Geoffrey walks out on Beryl midway through a game of Scrabble that her mother criticises as an inadequate courting tool, it’s to go to the pub with Roland, where Freckle-Face is sitting in a corner with her mate. So Geoffrey wanders over, hell bent on playing it cool. He’s already got his arm round her shoulders, but Geoffrey’s idea of playing it cool is akin to Alexander the Great invading Persia, and he gets a wonderfully cruel and Mancunian dismissal that sends him back to Beryl, whose eyes are all puffy and piggy from crying (well, they should be, she’s peeled an onion and is carrying it in her purse for just such a reason…)

Oh, but this is lovely stuff, and so funny, real bellylaugh funny in approximately 78% of its lines (you’ve got to have straight lines, don’t you?) Do Beryl and Geoffrey actually love each other? Can they get along together? Will Beryl’s knickers ever end up in a used lingerie bin at Oxfam? Or are they desperately clinging to each other because neither would attract anyone better? That’s the dichotomy that lies under The Lovers and gives it that level of depth that allows the dialogue, and Wilcox and Beckinsale’s delivery of it, to bowl along like firecrackers. I can’t wait to get back to this series.

Film 2018: The Lovers!


Welcome back to 1972, and not just 1972, but my Manchester of that year, from George Best’s Boutique to a St Ann’s Square that cars still drove through, with the extension of the Arndale Centre to the other side of Corporation Street undergoing construction in the background.
I’ve written about The Lovers! Twice before on this blog, and some of what follows is adapted from what I’ve said before: this is another working Sunday, upon which times are limited, and what I said before is still the larger part of what I see and think whenever I watch this film.
The Lovers (no exclamation mark) was a Granada TV sitcom created and (in the first series, in 1970) written by the great Jack Rosenthal. In my memory, I was sure it ran for ages but the programme actually only lasted two series, a total of 13 episodes.
It starred Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox, both of whom were in their first starring roles, and both would go on next to their most popular parts: Beckinsale as Godber in Ronnie Barker’s classic Porridge and Wilcox as Chrissy in ITV’s successful Man About the House. Sadly, Beckinsale would die young, in 1979, though his daughter Kate become a very popular actress, whilst Wilcox, after a long absence from the screen, resumed her career in the late Nineties to very great effect.
Rosenthal was already a successful television writer when The Lovers debuted. He had cut his teeth on more than 100 episodes of Coronation Street and had developed his comedy play There’s a hole in my Dustbin, Delilah into the crude, ballsy and very funny sitcom The Dustbinmen, leaving the latter after two series to develop The Lovers. He was a very funny, very perceptive writer, often drawing on his Jewish North Manchester background, and his lifelong love of Manchester United.
The Lovers was a complete contrast to The Dustbinmen, being a sweet, gentle comedy, drawing its laughs from the dialogue between its two principals, twentyish bank clerk Geoffrey Scrimgeor and twentyish secretary Beryl Battersby. Its underlying theme was the Permissive Society of the late Sixties, and how far it had – or hadn’t – penetrated working class Manchester. Geoffrey and Beryl were boyfriend and girlfriend and the comedic tension came from their diametrically opposite desires. Beryl, being a bird, wanted what all birds wanted: marriage, and a ring. Geoffrey, being a bloke, wanted what all blokes wanted: sex, and the word ring being stricken from the dictionary. The duo duelled constantly over what would come first: a sparkling (though probably tiny) jewel for the third finger of Beryl’s left hand, or her knickers being sent to Oxfam.
Both actors were perfect and wholly natural in their roles: Geoffrey’s frustration and uncertainty – he was, after all, just as virginal as Beryl as his pretence otherwise revealed at every moment – Beryl’s determination and waspish disdain – Wilcox was an absolute master of the withering put-down, in voice and expression – in the face of her ignorance of any subject that had nothing to do with engagement or marriage.
It was completely of its time, when the matter of saving one’s virginity for marriage was of much greater importance than now. Indeed, in 1970, the subject of pre-marital sex was still a controversial one for family viewing, especially when taken as lightly as this.
The show took a certain risk in basing its humour on so small a cast, though in doing so it did no more than Steptoe and Son, a two-hander from start to finish, over a decade later. There were only two regular supporting players, Geoffrey’s flash and successful workmate Roland (Robin Nedwell) and Beryl’s Mum (Joan Scott), forever making lampshades and sardine sandwiches.
The Lovers was renewed for a second series, but Rosenthal had moved on, gearing himself towards comic plays such as the classic trio of Bar Mitzvah Boy, Ready when you are, Mr McGill and the taxi-driver’s favourite, The Knowledge. Series two was written by stalwart writer Geoffrey Lancashire (father of actress Sarah Lancashire, and creator a few years later of his own popular Granada sitcom, The Cuckoo Waltz, giving Diane Keen her first starring role). Lancashire did not tamper with a winning formula, though the second series was a little less successful, and The Lovers was not renewed.
It was, however, enough of a hit to be granted the dubious honour of being turned into a feature film, for which Rosenthal wrote the screenplay.
Those of you too young to have experienced this era should count yourselves fortunate. Virtually every sitcom to last more than one series seemed to get a film version in the Seventies – apart from a few tail end Carry Ons and the Confessions films, it seemed all the British film industry could do – and the films are, almost universally, crap. Mostly this is because the creators were writers practiced at episodes that ran for 25 – 30 minutes and had no idea how to stretch an idea to 90 minutes: several such films are little more than three ‘episodes’ with some awkward dove-tailing. Several others flopped in realising that, on film, they could go further with the sex stuff than on TV, without understanding that most of the humour lay in the ways they found to suggest what they couldn’t say or do upfront on TV.
Porridge is generally accounted to be the best of the breed, and it’s one of the few to have a cohesive and structured story throughout, but it is still weak in comparison with the small screen version, and when it came to their other hit series, Clement and La Frenais couldn’t make anything halfway decent of The Likely Lads, completely wasting the last time James Bolam was prepared to work with Rodney Bewes. The Dad’s Army film is better than most but, except in its final quarter hour, it’s barely equal to the weakest TV episode.
However, The Lovers! (exclamation mark added) was, and I am biassed here, surprisingly successful, and genuinely funny in places. It was almost completely forgotten when it was released on DVD for the first and only time in 2013, by The British Film.
So much of it is familiar, familiar gags, familiar cringes, familiar faces. It’s extensively shot on location in Manchester, and it’s the Manchester of my late teens, Manchester gone, none more so than the pre-credit scene, shot outside the long-vanished George Best Boutique. That scene depicts Geoffrey and Beryl’s first meeting, as the leftovers when, one Friday lunchtime, three bank clerks pair off with three secretaries (Geoffrey: “I’m Geoffrey, and I don’t happen to be attached.” Beryl: “I’m Beryl, and I don’t happen to be surprised.”)
Rosenthal structures the film around the lovers’ relationship from beginning to end. There are the old familiar lines, and several new ones, and the film structure allows the field of vision to be widened: Beryl’s mate Sandra and Geoffrey’s mate Neville (the film’s equivalent of Roland) also meet outside the boutique and their relationship – first date, lashings of sex, pregnancy, engagement, marriage and going away outfit – for hospital, not honeymoon – is the parallel to Beryl and Geoffrey’s dysfunctional course. There’s also room for several scenes with Geoffrey’s parents, the great John Comer, and Stella Moray, who are convinced that Geoffrey is actually having the life he can only dream of.
Two things are plain over the meandering course of the film: that Geoffrey and Beryl have absolutely nothing in common except the fear of being without someone, and that their genuine relaxation at the thought of having split up will never last in the face of their fear of being without someone. ‘Not really the End’ is the final caption, but it’s easy to recognise that, one day, the pair will end up marrying because they’ve nothing better to do. The gift of Rosenthal’s script, and the naturalness of Wilcox and Beckinsale’s playing is that you can see the two of them eventually being ok with it, once Percy Filth arrives for both, and N-O finally stops meaning No.
I’m also disposed in the film’s favour because I recognise that awkwardness, that uncertainty, the unbridgeable gap between what you want and how to get there, the lack of experience to know that failure now is not final for your whole life. And I don’t just recognise emotions, I recognise me: I will never forget watching the scene when Geoffrey takes Beryl home after their first date, sitting there cringing in redfaced embarrassment and wondering how long they’d been following me – a hideousness made all the worst by the fact that, as Beryl, Paula Wilcox looked so much like my first ‘girlfriend’, even to the slightly ungainly legs under the white box-pleat miniskirt…
As well as the fine and subtle performances of both leads, I also appreciate the playing of Susan Littler as Sandra: a fine actress, who went on to play the lead part in Rosenthal’s famous teleplay, Spend, Spend, Spend, about the pools winner Viv Nicholson, and who had a superb reputation building when she died of cancer, only ten years after this film.
With reference to The Likely Lads, I recall Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais once saying that they’d have liked to have returned to Bob and Terry down the years, a new series every five years or so, to see what was happening in their lives and their relationship, a course rendered impossible by James Bolam’s refusal to ever work with Rodney Bewes again.
The only other sitcom that I thought could live up to that kind of continuity, to a return to the developing fortunes of its leading lights was indeed The Lovers, but that too was never to be, because of the equally tragic and premature death of Richard Beckinsale in 1979. And, of course, only Jack Rosenthal could have told such a story.
But each time I watch the film, I find myself wanting to see how this silly, naive, misunderstood and misunderstanding pair handled the rest of a life in which, however awkwardly, they were going to be together. I’d like to prove my instinct that they really would, against all likelihood, have made it, and to watch their future stumblings.
And I’d especially have loved to see how Paula Wilcox (who I love as both Beryl and Paula) would have handled her feelings towards Geoffrey, which are so open and revealing in her every look. Forget him, Beryl, I’d be so much better for you. Come with me, back to Manchester forty-six years ago (but let’s not stand on the roof of the Hotel Piccadilly, eh, my vertigo won’t take it…)

Porridge Regurgitated


As it ought to be

On a scale of Still Open All Hours to 10, the one-off Porridge revival rated about a 3. That was based on one point for making me laugh, softly, half way through the episode, and two for not being anything like as dire as Still Open All Hours. That still doesn’t mean it was in any way a good idea, nor that the show worked, and it certainly doesn’t mean that time or energy should be expended on making any more.

I picked out Porridge as being the only one of this mercifully short season of sitcom revivals with the potential to work because it was the only one to acknowledge the passage of time since its primary’s heyday. Also, it had Dick Clement and Ian la Fresnais going for it. This showed in the scripting, which was easily recognisable as the duo’s work.

It just wasn’t funny enough, though.

Some of it has to be put down to the actors. Kevin Bishop inherits the Fletch role as grandson of the original (sad to say, his grandad has also passed away, even in fiction, five years before, but he never went back inside, and Uncle Lennie was inspired by him and eventually set Fletch up with a North London pub, a real pub). I’ve not watched Bishop before. He’s not Ronnie Barker, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but on this showing he’s no more than a stereotypical, cheeky chappie Cockney, and he’s considerably younger than the old Fletch.

Clement and la Fresnais are to be applauded for not slavishly following their original, especially when the cell-mates set-up is reversed by having Fletch squared away with an old lag (Joe Lotterby, 77 years old, knew Fletch Senior in Slade, inspired the only real laugh I had when he related the true circumstances of his conviction for murder).

But that exposes a serious weakness in the revival. The point of Porridge was that Fletch was an old lag, a wily old lag, experienced in doing his bird, fly and far ahead of the screws. Nigel Fletch is a smartarse cyber-criminal, doing his first sentence. He’s too young and inexperienced to be a convincing wily old lag, yet that’s what he’s got to be.

As for the rest of the show, Clement and la Fresnais have been wise enough to go for recreating the atmosphere rather than slavishly duplicating the cast. There are recognisable figures: Mancunian gang boss Richie Weeks (Ralph Ineson) is the Harry Grout du nos jours, whilst Dominic Coleman as Senior Warder Braithwaite and Mark Bonnar as Chief Warder Meekie, are obvious replacements for Barrowclough and Mackay.

As for the rest of the lags, we do not have direct substitutes for Warren, McLaren, Godber, Lukewarm, etc., which is good in one way, but none of the new characters are as neatly drawn, nor so deftly played, as a result of which they make little impression.  The only one who succeeds is Bonnar, as Warder Meekie, and he is the one who most shamelessly channels his original, Fulton Mackay.

So there you have it. The show fails to be as distinctive and promising as its original because, in a clearly applaudable decision not to duplicate the original, it fails to set a clear enough tone of its own. Nobody is really sure how to play their characters without coming over as plagiarising the first cast, and the only one who says, soddit, I’m going for it, is the most convincing character of all, mainly be reminding us how much better the Seventies Porridge was. And still is.

Let common sense and ordinary decency prevail. Do not order a series. Please.

A Bank Holiday Weekend for Going Out


Do not let these men’s memory be so vilely degraded

I warned you about this some time ago, and now the disaster is almost upon us: the BBC’s Classic Sitcoms season, starts on Saturday and runs through the Bank Holiday weekend and into the next fortnight. Do not even think of staying in this weekend, do not switch on your TV set or, if you absolutely must, avoid BBC1 as you value your values and any sense of decency in your life.

Herewith a link to the Guardian‘s summary of what is to come. As you will see, a half dozen unsuspecting sitcoms are to be ravished unmercifully. These include absolute legends like ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Till Death us do Part’ and ‘Porridge’, the popular ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and that pile of steaming old tosh that nevertheless doesn’t deserve it, ‘Are You Being Served?’

Of the sextet, the first three are being remade. Selected scripts have been marginally updated and will be performed by actors prostituting their talent by attempting to impersonate the original stars, looking as much like them as they possible can. Of course, the ‘Till Death’ script has had to be carefully selected to avoid the very satirical purpose of the entire series; in this benighted age you cannot satirise the ignorance of racists unless you can do so whilst not sounding like a racist in the slightest.

Something similar applies to ‘Are You Being Served?’, although that is being honoured with a new, pastiche script, to go with the pastiche acting. A black character is to be inserted but there will not, of course, be anything remotely like the kind of gag the show’s creators, the late Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, would have written when the programme was current.

‘Keeping Up Appearances’ has fared the best of all, by not actually being revived. At least a degree of sanity has prevailed in recognising that it is impossible to duplicate Patricia Routledge. Instead, we will have ‘Young Hyacinth’, a flashback tale of the future Mrs Bucket’s teenage years, setting her snobbery against her lower class family background, starring a much maltreated young actress who will be strait-jacketed into trying to duplicate all Miss Routledge’s mannerisms.

The only one in which I have the remotest interest is ‘Porridge’, which is the only one with the courage to update the story, whilst retaining the situation. Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais are on hand to tell the story of Nigel Norman Fletcher, grandson of the magnificent Fletch who, like Lennie Godber and the unfortunate Richard Beckinsale, remains alive in the backstory of this latest chip off the old block.

It’s the only one of the sextet to show signs of facing the new era, and it’s therefore the only one of these artistic and comedic abortions to stand the remotest chance of being watchable or even, dare I dream it? Funny.

The big danger, as with the wretched ‘Still Open All Hours’, is that one or more of these one-offs will attract enough of an audience to tempt the BBC to order a series. So do everyone a favour, switch off your TVs, do not add so much as an eyeball to the audience of any of these, help avert the further degradation of British TV, that believes that the capturing of lightning in a bottle can be repeated by bringing back comedies that were successful representations of their times, and asking invariably lesser men and women to copy towering talents.

It is an Abomination.

The Lovers! 2


In October last year, I wrote a piece celebrating my discovery that the film version of the late Jack Rosenthal’s Granada sitcom, The Lovers, had been uploaded to YouTube, taken from a video of the film when broadcast on the TV.

I had this to say about the film itself:

So much of it is still familiar after all this time, familiar gags, familiar cringes, familiar faces. It’s extensively shot on location in Manchester, and it’s a picture of Manchester forty years ago, when I was in my late teens, of Manchester gone, especially in the film’s pre-credit scene, which is shot outside the long-vanished George Best Boutique. That scene depicts Geoffrey and Beryl’s first meeting, as the leftovers when, one Friday lunchtime, three bank clerks pair off with three secretaries (Geoffrey: “I’m Geoffrey, and I don’t happen to be attached.” Beryl: “I’m Beryl, and I don’t happen to be surprised.”)

Rosenthal structures the film around the idea of it being about the lovers’ relationship from beginning to end. There are the old familiar lines, and several new ones, and the film structure allows the field of vision to be widened: Beryl’s mate Sandra and Geoffrey’s mate Neville (the film’s equivalent of Roland: the Roland in the film is another character entirely, though still a bank clerk) also meeting outside the boutique and their relationship – first date, lashings of sex, pregnancy, engagement, marriage and going away outfit – for hospital, not honeymoon) is the parallel to Beryl and Geoffrey’s dysfunctional course. There’s also room for several scenes with Geoffrey’s parents (the great John Comer, and Stella Moray) who are convinced that Geoffrey is actually having the life he can only dream of.

Two things are plain over the meandering course of the film: that Geoffrey and Beryl have absolutely nothing in common except the fear of being without someone, and that their genuine relaxation at the thought of having split up will never last in the face of their fear of being without someone. ‘Not really the End’ is the final caption, but it’s easy to recognise that, one day, the pair will end up marrying because they’ve nothing better to do. The gift of Rosenthal’s script, and the naturalness of Wilcox and Beckinsale’s playing is that you can see the two of them eventually being ok with it, once Percy Filth arrives for both, and N-O finally stops meaning No.

I’m also disposed in the film’s favour because I recognise that awkwardness, that uncertainty, the unbridgeable gap between what you want and how to get there, the lack of experience to know that failure now is not final for your whole life. And I don’t just recognise emotions, I recognise me: I will never forget watching on TV in Nottingham in 1978, the scene when Geoffrey takes Beryl home after their first date, and sitting there cringing in redfaced embarrassment and wondering how long they’d been watching me – a hideousness made all the worst by the fact that, as Beryl, Paula Wilcox looked so much like my first ‘girlfriend’, even to the slightly ungainly legs under the white box-pleat miniskirt…

The download is off the TV, and is no better than VHS standard, but it’s still a reasonable image and it’s been well kept between recording and uploading. I’d rather have a DVD, not just for the improved picture quality, and size aspect ratio, but if they’re not going to release it, I’ll take what I can get.

Well, it’s available on DVD now, and I’ve got my copy today and watched in, in full-screen mode and in infinitely better clarity (for 1973’s film stock) than the transferred from video YouTube effort. Enough so at any rate for the soles of my feet to tingle throughout the entire scene on the roof of the Hotel Piccadilly, during which Beckinsale and Wilcox spend entirely too much time casually leaning against parapets overlooking Manchester-as-was for the good of my incipient vertigo!

It’s still a joy, and I still love Paula Wilcox as Beryl (both Paula and Beryl), and I’m even more in awe of the subtlety of their performances and the sheer delight of Rosentha’s scripts than I was last time, now I can see it even better.

I’m also better able to appreciate the playing of Susan Littler as Sandra: a fine actress, who went on to play the lead part in Rosenthal’s famous teleplay, Spend, Spend, Spend, about the pools winner Viv Nicholson, and who had a superb reputation building when she died of cancer, only ten years after this film.

With reference to The Likely Lads, on which I’ve recently written, I recall Clement and Las Fresnais once saying that they’d have liked to have returned to Bob and Terry down the years, new series every five years or so, see what was happening in their lives and their relationship, a course rendered impossible by James Bolam’s refusal to ever work with Rodney Bewes again.

The only other sitcom that I thought could live up to that kind of continuity, to a return to the developing fortunes of its leading lights was indeed The Lovers, but that too was never to be, because of the equally tragic and premature death of Richard Beckinsale in 1979. And, of course, only Jack Rosenthal could have told such a story.

But I watch the film again, and I find myself wanting to see how this silly, naive, misunderstood and misunderstanding pair handled the rest of a life in which, however awkwardly, they were going to be together. I’d like to prove my instinct that they really would, against all likelihood, have made it. Not that I’ll ever know now.