Sunday Watch: Open All Hours – 7 of 1 e01/s01 e01 – Full of Mysterious Promise


Open

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?

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.

Not opening all hours


Given the fact that I don’t tend to watch much television at all, I’ve not really paid any attention to the Xmas TV Schedules at all. Yes, I know there’s the traditional Doctor Who Xmas Day Special, but I’m not looking forward to it with anything remotely approaching the level of last year (though I have been equally successful in avoiding any but the most basic knowledge of its contents – Santa Claus, Nick Frost, that stuff) and I am gloomily anticipating that it will end up with the continued presence of Jenna Coleman as my least favourite character on TV this millennium.

In all other respects, I remain ignorant of the fare on offer over the holiday fortnight. It was not always thus. Part of the Xmas tradition was buying the Radio and TV Times Xmas and New Year double issues and going through them with a biro marking off everything I wanted to see, a process that then underwent revision when I saw what clashed with what or, considerably more often, what clashed with what my parent(s) – owners of the TV – intended to watch instead.

Last year, the BBC gave in to the pleas and clamours of David Jason to allow him to star in a TV programme again, by reviving the once-wonderful Open All Hours for a one-off episode. In order to get round the fact that Open All Hours was a vehicle for the wonderful Ronnie Barker, and that Ronnie Barker is sadly no longer with us, Jason and writer Roy Clarke turned Granville into Arkwright, introduced a new character to play Granville’s part, screwed their eyes tight shut and hoped it would work sufficiently well for people not to notice what a colossally idiotic thing it was.

They re-named it Still Open All Hours, a title that demonstrated both the paucity of imagination and the faint air of desperation that clung to the whole thing. I reviewed it here. Nevertheless, it brought in a tidy audience and enough appreciation for the BBC to commission an entire series, to be broadcast ‘later in 2014’.

Now there’s not a lot of 2014 left, so curiosity led me to google the programme and, guess what? The series starts broadcasting on Boxing Day, 364 days after the ‘pilot’. There’s a further episode on December 28, and four more in the New Year, so 2015 is not exactly getting off to the pristine, fresh start we might all like.

I don’t know how well it will go down, but I can say that its audience will be diminished by at least one. I watched the 2013 Xmas Special out of more curiosity than anticipation, but I found it to be as pointless as the idea suggests, and so desperate to recreate the genuine joy of the past that it was prepared to foist artificial- and in the case of Granville’s son, Leroy, horribly cruel – character traits onto characters unsuited to them. So I won’t be watching this year.

But I find it unbearably sad to think that so many people want to watch something as joyless as this, a programme that can only exist by digging up the corpse of Ronnie Barker and violating it in such desperate impersonation. It’s horrible to watch Jason and Clarke prostituting themselves in this manner, even as they doubtless think they are honouring Barker.

I wish I could say that I was surprised that such a sizeable audience actively wanted to watch such hollow, inadequate ‘entertainment’, simply because it reminded them of something infinitely better. Shame on you.

Still Open All Hours: Oh no


Graverobber

Back at Xmas, when discussing the senseless debacle that was the BBC/Roy Clarke/David Jason’s decision to revive Open All Hours, despite the debilitating absence of the great Ronnie Barker, I confidently and thankfully reported that the BBC had decided, notwithstanding the one-off’s popularity, not to order a series of Still Open All Hours. Unfortunately, whilst researching certain details about Roy Clarke’s career for a near-future blog, I have now discovered that this was wrong: a six part series has been ordered, and will be broadcast later this year.

I was prepared to do it once, out of a slightly less reprehensible kind of the same fascination about disaster that causes people to slow down whilst driving past car crashes, but I have too much respect for myself and the late Mr Barker to connive at the perpetration of atrocities by watching the series.

Look, I am aware that Sir David Jason may be desperate to recreate the days when he was the biggest draw on television, but the incontrovertible facts are that Open All Hours was dependant in every respect on Ronnie Barker, who has been dead and much-missed for nearly ten years, and the only way Still Open All Hours could be made to function was by Jason doing a virtually note-for-note mimickry of Barker. Add to that the obsessive urge to copy a thirty year old programme by introducing the special’s only new character in the form of Granville’s own won, only to have him replicate Granville’s lack of certainty about his father was the act of desperate men prostituting a thing of value for the cheap thrill of recognition again.

And if you, Messrs Clarke and Jason, can’t see the psychological cruelty of shoehorning Granville’s hang-ups about the father whose name he never knew into Granville’s own son and have him express it to his real father, then you are devoid of shame.

That you are prepared to extend this pillage of Ronnie Barker’s grave, and that the BBC are prepared to let you, is more than my gorge can stand, and I predict that the audience will let you know what a stupid idea this is.

Still Open All Hours – the ratings


Don’t watch that, watch this!

The revival of the classic sitcom Open All Hours as a one-off special, replicating the formula with David Jason mimicking the late Ronnie Barker and a new, genuinely young actor mimicking Jason’s old role as Granville has been revealed as the most popular programme on Boxing Day, with an audience, at its peak, of just over 10,000,000 viewers.

This is not to say that everyone who watched it did so in full enjoyment: I’m far from the only one who watched out of curiosity and concluded it was a waste of time. But with figures like that, the odds are that a very high majority did enjoy it, and the chances of this being revived as a series are correspondingly increased.

Popularity has never been any sort of guide to quality – Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Justin Bieber and One Direction – and I’m as guilty as the next man, in my younger days, of turning up my nose at something that was overly popular. But I have, at least, learned not to dismiss something just because it is popular, and nowadays, if something essentially crap is massively successful, I simply ignore it, rather than get worked up about it.

People are enjoying it, so why not let them get on with it?

And if Still Open All Hours istaken up as a series, I will simply not watch it (unless Barbara Flynn returns as the milkwoman), and it will not spoil the original for me one bit.

Having watched the Xmas Special myself, I do wonder what people found in it that was funny? I suspect it was all the wrong reasons: that is was comfortable and familiar, like a tatty pair of slippers, that they like watching David Jason, that nobody in it said fuck or was rude about the Queen. Perhaps there was also the fact, which we overlook at our peril, that with the exception of the execrable but even more popular Mrs Brown’s Boys, there’s nothing else like it on TV, and that there is a substantial chunk of the audience out there that no longer has anyone making programmes for them.

Even when it was finally cancelled, to choruses of relief and high condecension from people who hadn’t watched the series in decades but still thought it shouldn’t offend their sight, Last of the Summer Wine was pulling in 6,000,000 viewers a week. Which meant 6,000,000 people who had their choice in viewing pleasure ripped out from under them.

Television so desperately wishes to be edgy and would really rather that those for whom edgy is unwelcome and unpleasant might disappear into their bland little holes and, well, die.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish to see this uninspired and meaningless revival proceed but if there is an audience for it, sometimes we should remember that they have no less right to have programmes that suit their taste than we do. Programmes should be made to entertain them.They should be far better than Still Open All Hours, that’s all.

Still Open All Hours – but why?


Arkwright or Granville?

To everything there is a a season – several, if it’s good enough. But, unlike the Biblical injunction, the truth of television is that seasons are not cyclical: harvest does not return each year: once the yield is taken, the time is gone and, like our corporeal bodies, does not return.

That doesn’t stop people from attempting to revive things, in the hope that they can be as good as they were remembered to be. Only today there is a piece in the Guardian arguing for the revival of Top of the Pops, in the face of the fact that none of the reasons for its cancellation have gone away, that the worlds of television and music and their respective audiences bear no resemblance to the conditions which saw the programme thrive and that in order to give any revival a chance of succeeding, it would be necessary to destroy absolutely everything about the programme that is recognisable as Top of the Pops.

Bringing back something once popular has been shown, time and time again, to be disastrous. The problem lies in the essential dichotomy between capturing the elements that made the show appealling to begin with – requiring stasis – and the need to present its characters as they are after a period of time – requiring progress. It’s an impossible burden by its very nature, especially if members of the original cast are involved: they have aged, visibly, and in doing so have changed, therefore their characters must have changed also, in the intervening years, yet what is demanded of them is being what they were.

The only truly successful revival (and I discount Doctor Who because, by its very nature, it could reinterpret itself with a wholly new cast) was Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais’s 1972 sitcom revival, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? This was so complete a success because the writers chose to make the five years since the last episode of The Likely Lads into the driving force of the series. Instead of being about the recreation of the beer, booze and birds obsessions of two Sixties’ lads out to enjoy life, the series focussed on the changes in the characters during a five year spell apart, expertly contrasting Bob Ferris’s middle-class absorption into the young executive early Seventies, with Terry Collier’s suspension in time due to his Army service, and his thwarted intent to pick up where he last was, in a world that no longer existed.

And yes, for those who are not familiar with this programme, it was a comedy, and still is very funny indeed.

It was not an approach that was factored into the BBC’s one-off revival of the Ronnie Barker/Roy Clarke sitcom, Open All Hours.

I used to love that programme, and the occasional repeats of it still make me laugh out loud. It tends to be overlooked a little when people discuss the great sitcoms of the past because both its star and its writer were involved in contemporaneous shows that were more popular: Barker as Fletch, in the immortal Porridge, Clarke as creator and sole writer of Last of the Summer Wine (which would go on to become the world’s longest-running sitcom ever).

The show was a quirky three-hander, featuring Barker as Arkwright, the tight-fisted, grasping yet richly-comic small-town corner shop grocer, David Jason, in his first starring role as errand boy Granville, frustrated at all turns, nephew to Arkwright with a dubious father, and Lynda Barron as District Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, living opposite and nominally Arkwright’s fiancee.

Like most of Clarke’s sitcoms, the show developed its own absurd world, revolving primaily around Arkwright and Granville, but punctuated by the regular customers who were the basis of what were virtually mini-sketches as they came and went. The humour primarily in the dialogue, with occasional slapstick, usually relating to Granville on the shop-bike, or Barker with the finger-trapping till, was deftly played. Each episode took place in a day, starting from the opening of the shop before dawn, and Granville’s perenially frustrated attempts to build a relationship with the milkwoman (Barbara Flynn, looking delightful as ever, even if swaddled in coat and woolly hat). It would end with a monologue from Arkwright, nominally about the events of the day, as he brought in the displays from outside.

Open All Hours first appeared as a one-off in the 1973 series, Seven of One, a variation on the BBC’s old Comedy Playhouse format (in which six different comedy pilots would be broadcast, as an audition for series) in that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker. Porridge was the ‘winner’ from that run, but in 1976, Barker and Clarke followed up the Arkwright pilot with the first of four series between then and 1985. I believe it was David Jason’s idea, initially, to do a revival as a Christmas special, but that Clarke is very happy to write a full series if this goes down well.

So, how was the revival handled? Well, it certainly wasn’t the worst of such things that I’ve seen. It was even mildly amusing at times, and it certainly attracted the likes of Johnny Vegas and Mark Williams into cameo roles (and Barry of the Chuckle Brothers but let’s say no more about that). What it was, basically, was pointless.

Clarke, Jason and the BBC have chosen not to make any changes whatsoever. Apart, that is, from the most central and inescapable change, namely that the great Ronnie Barker is no longer with us (and would probably have had nothing to do with this if he had been). The show gets around this by turning Granville into Arkwright, a virtual carbon copy. It gets around having to have Jason play Barker by introducing newcomer James Baxter to play Jason: he is introduced as Leroy, Granville’s son, abandoned by his mother as a baby and brought up by his Dad, and all the local women.

Actually, Leroy is not a Granville-clone: not entirely. He has the same worries about who his Dad might have been, but as these are directed at the man who has been his Dad in terms of raising him, and who believes himself to be biologically the father, this introduces a note of psychological depth which is not only alien to the show but also unnecessarily cruel. On the positive side, he’s more popular with the girls than Granville ever was.

Apart from that, it’s all the same. The shop is a bit cleaner and lighter, the sign repainted, the pavement display more extensive, but they’ve still got the till. Former Nurse Gladys Emmanuel still lives opposite (Arkwright never did get round to marrying her). Stephanie Cole reprises her role as Mrs Featherstone, the ‘Black Widow’, looking virtually unchanged (a testament to how well she ‘aged up’ thirty years ago) and Maggie Ollerenshaw returns as the indecisive Mavis, still nursing a mutual crush on Granville but steered even further away from any decision by her widowed sister Madge (played by Brigit Forsyth, the former Thelma of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? who really hasn’t aged well at all.)

No Barbara Flynn though. Sigh. And as for the new characters, apart from the introduction of a couple of Pakistani customers, as a gesture to the changing social background of the Doncaster in which the shop is set, not a one of them couldn’t have come out of a thirty year old episode, in word or thought.

But that’s really all there is. Juggle Granville into a near replica Arkwright, introduce a Granville-substitute with nearly all the same hang-ups and don’t change anything from thirty years ago. It gets a mild, nostalgic chuckle, based on the wish that there’d been a few more of them then, in the same way that the debut of NYPD Blue, a vastly inferior copy of Hill Street Blues, immediately reminded you of the absence of anything with the qualities of Hill Street Blues. The outcome could be achieved more effectively, and more economically, by repeating an old episode of Open All Hours.

Still Open All Hours gives its game away in its title. It is firmly rooted in its season which, like all others, has passed, and should be left to be remembered. A series would be a grave mistake.