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.