I don’t know if you’re aware of it but in recent years there’s been this prostitution of a TV sitcom called Still Open All Hours or, as it’s better known around here, ‘David-Jason-is-so-bloody-desperate-to-be-a-srar-again-he’s-robbing-Ronnie-Barker’s-grave’. Yesterday, I paid an impromptu visit to Machester City Centre to look for something that wasn’t there, but, looking round the big Oxfam shop on Oldham Street, I saw and opted to buy the first two series of the real thing, at 99p each. And here we are.
To explain the slightly confusing header of this piece, Open All Hours debuted as the opening episode of a series called 7 of 1. This, in its turn, was a variation on the regular BBC series, Comedy Playhouse, which put out six or seven potential sitcoms, different writers and cast every week: in short, a series of pilots, though back then we hadn’t yet heard, let alone absorbed that term from American TV. What qualified 7 of 1 for an individual title was that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker.
Of course, this was the series that spawned the magnificent Porridge (which pilot, ‘Prisoner and Escort’, was the second episode), written by Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, and that was the one that got the nod straightaway, for which we are all thankful. The third episode, ‘My Old Man’, was also turned into a series, albeit short-lived, on ITV, with Clive Dunn playing the lead: if it had had Ronnie Barker in the part it could have worked, by making its lead character real instead of just another Clive Dunn old bloke, but…
‘Open All Hours’ was overlooked, probably because Ronnie Barker could only do so much, but three and a half years later it was resurrected for a series of six episodes, leading to four series over the following decade, albeit with only the final series attracting massive audiences. By then, writer Roy Clarke was big at the Beeb, thanks to the ever-growing success of what would go on to be the world’s longest lasting sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine.
Changes were made. Though set in Yorkshire, the pilot episode was filmed in London, with London-based actors like Yootha Joyce putting on northern accents. The episode starred Ronnie Barker as Arkwright, the stuttering, mean, grasping owner of a small back-street general store, money-grubbing, peny-pinching and consumed with lust for buxom District Midwife Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, who lives opposite, and a still-not fully-established David Jason (a stalwart of Barker for the past three years) as his nephew Granville, product of an alleged fling between Arkwright’s late unwed sister and a Hungarian seaman, aged 25, wistful, desperate and tied to his shop pinny and shop bike, not the greatest weapons in his desire to meet and attract any girls.
Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, whose clearly amused and sceptical view of her would-be husband was an essentisal component of the show’s humour, was played in the pilot by Sheila Brennan, with a distinct throaty Weksh accent – well, what would you expect with a name like that? – but the part for the series was taken by Lynda Baron, who played a natural northern accent with Yorkshire down-to-earthedness that allowed for a plausible degree of underlying sympathy for her suitor beneath the perpetual embarrassment at his unsuble importuning.
When I first put the DVD in, I misunderstood its contents and ended up watching the first 1976 episode before going back to the pilot. This was salutory for analytical reasons – as a general rule I can recommend occasionally reading series back to front as a means of identifying more cleaely the introduction of ideas – in two respects, in terms of immediately recognising by just how much the series toned down and smoothed out some of the elements of the pilot, and by identifying some aspects of the comedy that the series substituted and which Ireally rather wish they hadn’t.
Looking at them in the right order, the pilot’s underlying theme was much harsher. The comedic ingredients are there immediately, but there’s a more realistic and indeed aggressive tone to them. Clarke’s writing hasn’t yet adopted the shape that Last of the Summer Wine had taken and which would formalise his approach to writing ever after. Arkwright has a slightly meaner edge, whilst Granville’s plight as a young(ish) man (Jason was nearly a decade older than the character and it showed) was more serious, a supposedly mid-twenties man who was trapped by poverty and a job that had him working from 6.00am to 9.00pm six days a week, effectively only for his keep.
It was also noticeable that the pilot featured a smoking scene of a kind wholly eliminated by 1976. A works bus stops outside, half a dozen labourers come in simultaneously, but cigarettes, light up, the air fills with smoke, a hideous fug that I grew up amongst and have thankfully not experienced in nearly fifty years, and everyone starts up with smokers’ cough, hacking and grinding, Granville’s put the covers over the fresh produce in readiness, and it’s all a joke along the lines that this is supposed to be a pleasurable activity. Urghh.
On the other hand, the pilot did feature a cameo by a fresh-faced young lad who I instantly recognised as a then unknown (and wish he’d stayed that way) Keith Chegwin.
When the series was commissioned, production moved to Doncaster, and the exteriors, of which there were plenty, were filmed there. Lynda Baron showed greater comedic potential as the Nurse but the greatest difference between pilot and series was in Clarke’s writing. He was now well-established, thanks to Last of the Summer Wine, and that programme’s deployment of gentle surreality to a natural and downhome Yorkshire working class reality was now his default option.
Arkwright’s still crass, but he’s tuned down to where he can be seen in sitcom terms as loveable. Granville’s wistfulness at the enforced absence of opportunities in his life is somehow pain-free: we are encouraged to only laugh at him, and ignore the underlying black reality. The underlying ‘plot’ of Arkwright’s efforts to sell tinned food without labels, biught dirt cheap at a fire sale, is purely comedic without any element of the riskiness of such a thing: the sole nod to this comes where Arkwright’s belief he can tell what’s inside just by shaking the contents is exploded when the tin of beefy cunks in gravy he’s having for his tea turns out to be pineapple chunks in juice, to which his response is that it’s a good job he opened a tin of sliced carrots before, upending custard all over them.
What shook me, and frankly is why I’ve only watched two instead of the usual three episodes, was the introduction of racist humour on the series. It’s not vicious, just the common or garden low-level stuff that was a feature of the mid-Seventies, but it shook me to hear shite like that again. Gossiping about a lady who appears to not be keeping herself to herself, which has caught Granville’s ear, Arkwright warns him that he’s seen Negroes going in there and coming out looking quite pale, whilst shortly after he reminisces about hard times in the district causing men from Bradford to go off to open a corner shop in Pakistan.
Not good. Not good at all. So the funny lines, the comic juxtapositions, rang just a bit hollow for me., and it didn’t help that, after defending the series’ decision to position Arkwright as a stutterer way back then, I’m now finding that aspect rather more offensive.
Nothing, however, can take away from the fact that this was an original creation, led by a masterful comedy actor who brought his character to fully-composed life, and any subsequent revival as a vampire sucking in the blood of the original and aping it in the most cowardly, disgusting and mishandled fashion. That it is apparently popular is one more sad indication of how decadent our entertainment has become.
Apologies for that bit of late pompousness, though I don’t withdraw it. This last bit is to let those of you who check for my thoughts and opinions every Sunday know that ‘Sunday Watch’ is going on a summer break. A few more DVD films have been spirited in to my pokey little homestead so there will be a summer season of ‘Film 2021’ of at least two months duration, before I go back to the boxsets in the autumn. A change is as good as a change, eh?