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


Dierdre Costello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same would go for the fourth and final series.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling with Tinniswood: More Tales from a Long Room


There facing each other across the square are those twin bastions of village life, the pub and the church.
Look.
Sitting on a bench outside the Baxter Arms supping scrumpy and linseed oil shandies and drowsing in the sunshine are the venerable village elders Messrs. Arlott, Mosey, Frindall and Alston, endlessly yarning about old campaigns in India, Australia, South Africa and the deathless, arid prose plains of British South West Dexterland.
They raise their forelocks to us as we leave them to their dreams and cross the square to the church.
What an exquisite Saxon edifice.
Clean and pure of line like a cover drive by Peter May.
Sturdy and honest like an over bowled by David Brown.
Chaste and virginal like an anecdote told by Barry Wood.
And inside the church displayed in a place of honour by the statuette of St Kevin de Keegan, the patron saint of endorsements, is one of our village’s most cherished possessions.
It is, of course, a relic of the Blessed St Tony Greig of the Sorrows – a fragment of his money belt torn from his person during the Exodus from Surrey and lovingly restored by the master craftsman, Sebastian Coe, for a fee of £97,000, that being the cost of his second-class train fare from Sheffield.
This is exactly what it appears to be: eleven more monologues by the Brigadier on the theme of ‘the summer game’, from his own unique perspective, each adapted lightly from a second series of monologues delivered on Radio 4 by the late Robin Bailey.
More Tales from a Long Room does move onwards a little. Where the first series was mainly centred upon fantastic and improbable cricketing tales that, at root, were surreal extensions of the real cricket tales told in pavilions the length and breadth of the land, this second set is considerably more directed to the Brigadier himself, his life, prejudices and eccentricities, and to his somewhat bizarre take on issues – not always cricketing, well, not at first – current to the very early Eighties.
Tinniswood, who finds himself beimg mentioned in scathing terms (‘that emaciated vileness’) in a couple of the stories, starts out by introducing us to the seemingly idyllic Somerset Village where the Brigadier lives, Witney Scrotum. We meet various local characters, like the Village Blacksmith, Gooch, Old Squire Brearley and Prodger the Poacher, and learn of such landmarks as the lush water meadows leading to the Coppice at Cowdrey’s Bottom, and how the village is overshadowed by the massive earthworks of Botham’s Gut.
I trust you do not need telling that each of those names, be it personage or georgraphical feature, is of a cricketer of some reknown and appertainance to their namesake.
Otherwise the book is a mass of puns on the names of cricketers, capering slights of the interviews of Mr. Michael Parkinson, a tendency to suggest that Old Trafford Tests are played in a state of perpetual gloom, rain and darkness, misrepresentation of all sorts of people’s names and relationships, and some gleefully libellous comments, such as the mouth of Mr Ritchie Benaud bearing a remarkable resemblance to a hamster’s arsehole.
We learn the cricketing significance of the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer to that bald-headed booby, and the identity of the Mole in the M.C.C. We are treated to a cricketing re-write of one of 1981’s biggest television hits as ‘Blofeld Revisited’.  And we learn the Brigadier’s thoughts upon apartheid. He is in favour. He heaps up the arguments, for all the world like a National Front poster, except with the words spelled correctly. He points out how the two should not meet.
Good God, they are women. And we are men.
Tinniswood writes with relish and ingenuity. He seems to have an endless number of jokes on a cricketing theme and his imagination takes him into areas hitherto untouched by a connection with ‘the summer game’
And it’s still completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t know a thing about cricket, and anyone not around to remember the major events of 1981 is going to struggle with large parts of this book.
And Ritchie Benaud wasn’t too keen on it either.
The two Long Room books were lated republished in a hardback Collected volume, from which I’ve been re-reading. In cricketing circles, they were a phenomenon. The Brigadier was hot, so Tinniswood’s next book didn’t really come as any surprise.

Potter: Redvers to the Rescue


Potter. As in ‘Pottermints – the Hotter Mints’

There’s an odd irony that I should have been researching this piece when I learned that Still Open All Hours had been commissioned for a series, given that this more-or-less forgotten part of Roy Clarke’s history also was affected by the death, and replacement, of its leading actor. But the circumstances and the times, not to mention the response, were somewhat different.
For most of the Seventies, and through into the Eighties, I used to regard Roy Clarke’s name as a guarantee of comedy gold. Any new sitcom that he wrote would have me as part of the audience, knowing that his sense of humour was finely attuned to mine.
All such streaks of gold wear out eventually, and for me it was with Keeping Up Appearances. Despite superb performances from the redoubtable Patricia Routledge, and the long-suffering Clive Swift, I didn’t really get enough out of the social climbing theme and, after the first couple of series, dropped out. Open All Hours and Rosie were done and Last of the Summer Wine was changing, taking off in a direction that would eventually see me done.
But there was still one very funny, but almost completely overlooked little gem from Clarke, which was the Arthur Lowe vehicle, Potter.
We all of us know Lowe as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, the kind of one-in-a-lifetime part that fitted Lowe like a glove. It became impossible to see Lowe without seeing Mainwaring, even in his most successful other vehicle, Bless Me Father, in which he played an Irish Roman Catholic priest with a tendency to drink.
Potter, for all that it’s virtually forgotten today, was one of the most successful efforts to exclude the spirit of Walmington-on-Sea. Lowe played the title character, a successful businessman who’d built a career on mints: ‘Pottermints – the Hotter Mints’. A brusque and officious character, with extreme busy-bodyish tendencies, Redvers Potter starts the series on the first day of his retirement after selling his company for a pretty penny. Without a job to go to, where he can tell people what to do and how to do it, Potter is lost. Naturally, he doesn’t recognise that. Instead, after a fruitless visit to a business that clearly doesn’t want him around, he sees his new leisure time as an opportunity to do good to other people, starting with his amiable, but extremely put-upon next door neighbour, ‘Tolly’ Tolliver, who is far too polite to tell the bustling little man to piss off and leave him alone.
So begins Potter’s well-intentioned but utterly hilarious and horrible reign of terror as a specialist in telling people how to do things he knows nothing about!
Supporting Lowe was his best friend, the Vicar, played with magnificent authority by John Barron, using the audience’s remembrances of CJ in Reginald Perrin to terrific effect in building a more laid-back version of Potter, similarly opinionated, a lifelong Daily Telegraph reader, but an essentially passive character: when the pair are talking together, Tolly has no chance.
And just as Clarke developed the idea of ending each episode of Open All Hours with a wonderfully abstract monologue by Arkwright as he closed up for the night, Potter was characterised by its own double-the-effect habit of ending with a conversation between Lowe and Barron that was, in reality, dual monologues, each conducting their own conversation without regard to whatever the other might be wittering on about. The great skill was in how Clarke paced each monologue to provide bizarre and unexpected correlations, accidental moments where a comment by one provides an actual, but unintended and unpredictable response to the other.
The initial series of Potter ran for six episodes in 1979. As well as Barron, Lowe received sterling support from John Warner as the put-upon Tolly, and the ever reliable Noel Dyson as his long-suffering wife, Aileen, who was happy to keep on getting her husband out of the house.
An addition to the cast in the second series, slightly extended to seven episodes, was Harry H. Corbett in the role of ex-gangster Harry Tooms, adding a somewhat darker edge to proceedings and frequently requiring restraint on the part of his wife, Jane. All of which passed over Potter’s head, naturally.
Sadly, Tooms was one of Corbett’s last television roles, prior to the great loss of his death in 1982, removing him from plans for the third series, also to be of seven episodes. But the show suffered an even greater loss the following month, when Arthur Lowe passed away.
Plans for the third series were well advanced, and the circumstances were reminiscent of that point before the filming of the third series of Last of the Summer Wine, when Michael Bates had fallen ill, and had had to replaced by Brian Wilde. There, a recast to a new part was possible, but Lowe was the star. Surprisingly, for this is an extremely unusual step in British TV, the BBC and Clarke decided to proceed with Potter‘s third series, recasting the title role with Robin Bailey.
Despite roles in such Sixties classic series as The Power Game and The Pallisers, Bailey had been a virtual unknown in television until his casting, in 1975, as Uncle Mort in the first series of Peter Tinniswood’s sitcom, I didn’t know you cared, adapted from his own Brandon Family novels. Bailey had continued to work with Tinniswood, on TV and radio, incarnating Tinniswood’s cricket-mad fantasist the Brigadier, and now he was being asked to inhabit a part written for Arthur Lowe.
Bailey, in his own way, was a superb comic actor. Sensibly, he did not attempt to mimic Lowe’s approach to the character, all choler and fuss, but instead played Potter with a much more languid air, slightly puzzled that anyone should not see the inevitable rightness of his recommendations. He also combined beautifully with Barron, especially in the closing dual monologue stage.
Whether the audience accepted Bailey in the role, I have no information. Presumably, audiences did not abruptly rise, for there was no suggestion that Potter be renewed for a fourth series.
Unlike Rosie, Potter is apparently available on DVD, since 2013, though a search on eBay and Amazon fails to reveal any copies currently available. That this, like the previously discussed Help, is an Australian release suggests that getting hold of a copy will be both difficult and expensive.
Forgotten it may be, and relatively minor as far as sitcoms go, Potter was nevertheless far better and far funnier than a lot of better known series, for all that it relied upon stock characters and situations: Roy Clarke’s facility with naturalistic dialogue, and the abilities of its two leading players saw to that.
And unlike the present day, the recasting of the star was a commitment to a series ready to be made by actors who had factored its filming into their schedules, and the decision not to try in any way to ape Arthur Lowe was a testament to Clarke and the BBC’s long-lost integrity.