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.
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.
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.
When his obituary is published, Roy Clarke will be held up as the creator and writer of three classic sitcoms: Last of the Summer Wine, Open All Hours and Keeping Up Appearances.
Other works will be mentioned in passing, but the same prominence will not be given to the 1970s sitcom that Clarke wrote, based on his experiences in the Police Force, Rosie which starred Paul Greenwood and Tony Heygarth, and which seems to have dissolved out of memory.
The central conceit behind Rosie was that Greenwood, as the eponymous PC Michael Penrose, looked so young that nobody – the general public, criminals and especially his own fellow-policemen – could take him seriously as a copper, to the unending frustration of his career. Rosie is a prime example of the difference between the BBC of the Seventies, and the BBC – and television in general – of the last twenty years or so. When it first appeared, in 1977, it was billed as The Growing Pains of PC Penrose, and was set in a North Yorkshire Police Station, where the newly-transferred Rosie was trying to get people to take him seriously. Greenwood, a newcomer, was paired up with veteran comic actor, Bryan Pringle, as his Station Sergeant.
I can make no comment on The Growing Pains of PC Penrose. I would have watched it on the strength of Clarke’s name, but it was broadcast on a Tuesday night, when I was always out, years before video-recorders were feasible, and was never repeated. Everyone who commented upon it agreed that it simply didn’t work.
Nowadays, that would be it: move on, next idea please. But the BBC had faith in Clarke, and had faith in the idea. And faith in themselves. They were prepared to write off the time and money that had been invested in The Growing Pains of PC Penrose, and to give Clarke the chance to re-think the concept and make it work.
The series was re-named Rosie, to demonstrate its distance from the first, and failed, version. Greenwood was retained, but everyone and everything from the first series was replaced: a brand new scene, and a brand new supporting cast, including Tony Haygarth, who proved invaluable to the new series by giving it an overtly comic second lead, to supplement and support Greenwood’s essentially serious leading character.
The reboot was justified very simply: Rosie had been posted back to his home town of Scarborough (allowing some very scenic settings for outdoor shots), and has returned to live with his family picking things up again with his girlfriend, Gillian (played by Frankie Jordan).
Haygarth, an actor noted for portrayals of down to earth Northerners, was perfectly cast as Rosie’s partner, Wilmot, a lazy, slovenly copper intent on doing as little as possible with even less effort. Wilmot was separated from his wife and pretending not to care, whilst on the look-out for a bird, but in his turn was pursued by the hapless WPC Brenda Whatmough (pronounced Wotmuff), a generous performance by Penny Leatherbarrow as an overweight and plain woman aware that she was regarded as a figure of fun.
The Station staff was completed by the vastly-bellied Paul Luty as Inspector Dunwoody, who had no great opinion of his two most troublesome car patrol constables.
Wilmot, whose faith in Rosie lay more in his belief that he would educate him into being every bit as uninvolved as himself, was a basically realistic character, whilst girlfriend Gillian, amused and tolerant of everything bar Wilmot’s treatment of WPC Whatmough was virtually a straight role.
However, Rosie’s family were drawn on the eccentric side as soon as they were introduced in series 2, and it was no surprise to see them pushed firmly into the background in the fourth and final series.
Rosie’s household consisted of his mother, Millie, her elder sister Ida, and Ida’s husband, Norman. Millie was an ageing hypochondriac vamp who spent most of her time elegantly laying in bed. Mrs Penrose was forever trying, languidly, to persuade her son to leave the Police Force because she felt that it was beneath him, socially.
In contrast, Aunt Ida was a hysteric, in a constant state of panic about the danger to Rosie out there on the mean back streets of Scarborough, prone to such things as trying to press the bread knife on him when he went out on patrol, for self-defence. In contrast, Uncle Norman was a phlegmatic individual, who spent most of his time in his garden shed, the kind of man who knows that he’s married to someone who, in everyday reality, is a dingbat, but who has decided just to live with it.
As with all the best comedies, the more the characters became established in the audience’s mind, the further situation slipped into the background, leaving the comedy to be generated by the personalities of its leading pair.
At this point, let us address a fairly obvious subject. Let us go back to WPC Whatmough. Plain, overweight, yet constantly hopeful, Whatmough is a figure of fun, the butt of the joke. Given that Wilmot isn’t that much of a capture, her pursuit of him comes from the less-than-comedic recognition that a) she’s not going to get much better and b) his repulsiveness to other women will one day leave him so short of options that he’ll have to turn to her.
Nowadays, we’d recognise this portrayal as emotionally cruel, and no-one would write such a character such a way. At the time, the joke that was being depicted was Wilmot, and his delusion of being attractive to women, and Whatmough was mainly an element in that.
But look at Rosie’s family: of three relatives, two are eccentric figures of fun, and the third is sensible and normal: guess which is the man?
It would be too harsh to call this misogyny: it’s not a case of malice but rather unenlightenment, and a reflection of times that were only slowly beginning to recognise that such things were not necessarily fair.
Overall, according to Wikipedia, twenty-seven episodes of Rosie were made between 1977 and 1981: six in the first series as Growing Pains and seven each in the three succeeding series.
Not having seen anything of Rosie since that final series, over thirty years ago, I have little in the way of specific memories. One sticks out as an encapsulation of not just the show’s humour, but that of Clarke in general. The opening credits of one episode were shown over a lingering pan across the bay of Scarborough on an immaculate summer morning. The pan ends on a headland overlooking the bay, where a Police Car has parked. Rosie and Wilmot, are stood side by side, against the skyline, silently admiring the beauty of the view. As the credits end, Wilmot reaches behind himself and adjusts the crotch of his underpants.
The other is, I think, one of the finest pieces of sitcom writing I have ever been privileged to watch. It was the opening episode of the final series, one that saw the supporting cast cut back drastically. Rosie had moved in to share Wilmot’s house, removing his family from the picture, whilst he’s also has broken up with Gillian and is, like Wilmot, looking for a new love.
During the course of the episode, our heroic pair are trying to chat up a pair of fit, if not necessarily hyper-intelligent birds. Their efforts are hampered by the fact that they, despite being off-duty, have become responsible for an abandoned baby, which, naturally, they are trying to both protect and keep from the two birds.
It’s funny in itself, but it reaches its comedic climax (as recognised in the episode’s title) when Wilmot, trapped on the doorstep by ‘his’ bird wanting to know why she can’t come in, and carrying the baby’s dummy, makes one last desperate effort not to have to tell the truth by sticking the dummy in his mouth and pretending that it’s the new design for Police silent dog whistles.
What made that scene so gloriously funny is that every moment of the episode, from its inception twenty-five minutes earlier, had been so carefully crafted that, instead of the moment being absurd and unrealistic, you were utterly convinced that this fantastic claim was the only serious possibility that Wilmot could take in the circumstances!
If I watch that episode again, it probably won’t be remotely as funny because I know what’s coming, but the structure of the writing would be worth studying.
Surprisingly, Rosie‘s never been available on DVD. The Growing Pains of PC Penrose was released in 2007, but there’s been nothing of the more successful and popular reboot. No doubt Growing Pains flopped, and despite the past evidence and confidence the series was shown when it was needed, there are no second chances in the Twenty-First Century. Rosie never enjoyed the success of Last of the Summer Wine, Open All Hours or Keeping Up Appearances, but in my mind it deserves to be regarded alongside them. If only for that episode, ‘Tune on a Silent Dog Whistle’.
It’s been gone now for four years, the longest running sitcom in the world, the series that everyone, except its audience, loved to hate. In 2010, the BBC killed off Last of the Summer Wine, and millions cheered to think that never again would they have to not watch a programme they despised as ‘three old men sliding down a hillside on a tea tray’. Meanwhile, a regular audience in excess of five million found their viewing diminished in favour of those who wanted something completely unrelated.
I wasn’t one of them, except in that final series, which I watched as much out of defiance. I had been a Last of the Summer Wine fan for many years though, and whilst I’d lost interest in the series in the early Nineties, I’d been a more or less constant viewer for twenty years by then.
The series debuted as part of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse series, in 1972, but I didn’t pick it up until the first series, loving its gentle, mocking, dialogue and the faint air of absurdity surrounding its three, somewhat downbeat characters.
At its beginning, the series was nothing like as sentimental or silly as it became, and indeed was based on a relatively grim situation. Its set-up was that three men, in their late forties/early fifties, who’d been at school together, were unwillingly re-united by the common factor of unemployment. Blamire (Michael Bates) had retired from his job as a clerk with the local Water Board, Clegg (Peter Sallis) had been made redundant from his job as a lino salesman at the Co-op, and Compo (Bill Owen) (later named as William Simmonite) was a lifelong layabout.
All three were without marital ties: Blamire had never married, Clegg was a recent widower (without children) and Compo’s wife had run off with a chuffing Pole.
This disparate trio found themselves thrown together by the need to fill the long hours of the day as what seemed to be the only three adult males in Holmfirth who were unemployed.
In this early form, the sitcom skilfully utilised the British preoccupation with class that’s underlaid so many successful comedies. Though the trio were all working class, they represented the classic Upper/Middle/Lower stratas within their ranks.
Blamire, a clerk in a (minor) public office, with an undistinguished military background, regarded himself as a cut above his colleagues, and chafed the most at their enforced presence. He was an instinctive Tory, regarding Compo as an emblem of revolution, hot on a fixed society where everyone knew their place, and used a strange, semi-strangulated accent to signify his coming from better stock, except in situations of great stress, when his natural Yorkshire would spill out. Michael Bates was wonderful in the part, and it’s a genuine shame that his (ultimately fatal) illness kept him from continuing after series 2.
Compo, of course, was the working class working class man, ragged and tatty, a perpetual layabout living on tick and the dole, the Ragwoman’s son, preternaturally scruffy in all respects and a staunch Labour voter with an antipathy to toffs, yet also with a need to be ordered about by the authoritarian Blamire.
Clegg, representing the middle class, was shy, retiring and simply didn’t want to get involved. Between the three characters, there was a perpetual round of sniping, with all capable of, and willing to verbally sting both his comrades in unemployment. The only times the trio came close to being in concert mentally was in their encounters with others, such as Sid and Ivy at the café, or Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge at the Library.
This set-up lasted for two series and was set to continue into a third, until Bates fell ill. Unable to take part in filming, he was rapidly written out, to be replaced by Brian Wilde as ‘Foggy’ Dewhurst.
Fortunately, an easy out was available: in series 2, the trio had travelled to Oswestry, where Blamire re-acquainted himself with a former NAAFI Manageress who he’d known whilst in the services. Now, it was revealed that her husband had died, and Blamire had relocated to Oswestry to ‘get his feet under the table’. Nothing more was heard of him, after his letter to Compo and Clegg at the start of series 3, alerting them that he had encountered another old schoolmate, Foggy, who had just been demobbed from the Army as a Lance-Corporal Signwriter, and on his way home. Compo and Clegg, at something of a loose end without the other part of the trinity, took up Foggy in the hope that he would prove to be sufficiently amusing.
Michael Bates’ illness and death forced a permanent change on Last of the Summer Wine. Where the trio had been drawn, lightly, as eccentrics, but with at least one and a half feet anchored in reality, writer Roy Clarke chose to portray Foggy as a fourteen carat barmpot, steering the series irrevocably onto its course towards absurdity and its own brand of low-key, comfortable surreality.
My Uncle, who had also loved the first two series, chose to stop watching now, complaining that, instead of the equality of bickering between the trio, it was now Compo and Clegg versus Foggy. He was completely correct at that.
Foggy was full of himself, confident that he knew everything in any situation and that he was a natural leader. Compo and Clegg tagged along, watching Foggy get himself (and them) into awkward and silly situations. I don’t, however, think that this development was solely down to the introduction of Foggy, but rather a development that the show would have needed anyway: as originally played, the trio got themselves into trouble naturally, by accident. They were primarily passive characters, reacting to what they saw around them, but not driving the story, and that could not have been continued for long. If the chance had not been seized with Foggy, I have always believed that Clarke would, in series 3, have started presenting Blamire as a more proactive character, and the same development would have advanced.
The series still remained close to its roots, and to its tight cast. Wainwright and Mrs Partridge had been jettisoned after series 1 because Clarke couldn’t see their potential for development. Therefore, in addition to the trio, the regular cast included only Sid and Ivy in the café, and Compo’s upstairs neighbour and object of cartoon lust, the broom-wielding, wrinkled-stocking wearing Nora Batty.
Once Foggy was established, the show rolled on at a comfortable plateau, generally amusing, and occasionally offering up extremely funny episodes, such as the hilarious ‘Cheering Up Ludovic’ (which introduced Clegg’s extremely reluctant driving skills) and the one-off ‘The Loxley Lozenge’. This latter introduced Holmfirth local Gordon Wharmby in the role of Wesley Pegden: Wharmby had no acting experience whatsoever, but was a natural, and Clarke kept him firmly in mind for the future.
The series was probably at its commercial peak, and certainly at its most respected, in that late-Seventies/early-Eighties period. A cartoon strip version ran in the Daily Star, and one book collection appeared, whilst Clarke converted LOTSW into a stage show, which toured the UK successfully.
The stage show proved to be the catalyst for another redefinition of the series. Clarke introduced new characters in Howard and Pearl, Clegg’s neighbours, and Marina, Howard’s would-be mutton-dressed-as-lamb girlfriend. However, Brian Wilde found the touring version uncomfortable and this either caused, or at least exacerbated personal differences with Bill Owen which led to his decision to quit the show in 1983. A new Third Man was required.
Michael Aldridge, another veteran character actor, was introduced in the full-length special, ‘Uncle of the Bride’, which would set the tone for the series for the rest of its run. Foggy, like Blamire, disappeared invisibly, leaving Compo and Clegg at a loose end again, but the 90 minute episode set out not only to introduce Aldridge as Seymour Utterthwaite, headmaster of his own eccentric and cut-price academy and crackpot inventor extraordinaire, but also oversaw a massive explosion of the supporting cast.
The series had, sadly, lost Sid, following the great John Comer succumbing to throat cancer (his last performance was as Sid in the first LOTSW ‘movie’, based on Clarke’s own novel of the early Seventies: unable to speak, Comer had acted his role with Tony Melody’s voice dubbed over the performance). ‘Uncle of the Bride’ acknowledged Sid’s death, replacing him with Jonathan Linley, an amiable giant of a young actor as Ivy’s nephew Milburn, learning the café trade, though the lad really wanted to be a rocker and preferred being called Crusher.
In, too, came Howard, Pearl and Marina from the stage show. Wesley Pegden returned, bringing with him his fussy, snobbish, social-climbing wife, Edie, played by Thora Hird. The episode was based around the wedding of Edie and Wesley’s daughter Glenda (Sarah Thomas) to unassuming and nervous Bank Clerk Barry (Mike Grady) and, in case you were wondering how Michael Aldridge fitted in to all this, Seymour Utterthwaite was Edie’s brother.
Crusher didn’t last long, but with Nora’s husband Wally (Joe Gladwyn) now taking a regular supporting role instead of occasional appearances, the show suddenly had a wide range of players, each with their own quirks. LOTSW quickly broadened into an increasing number of set-pieces, as characters would do their thing in contrast to whatever piece of trouble had organised for the trio. And with the accent now upon eccentricity underpinning every character, the show began to develop its own disbelief-suspended reality, in which the characters’ foibles were accepted as normal.
One additional development meant that the extended cast began to divide, explicitly, along gender lines, adopting a caricature pose reminiscent of Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon Family novels, in which the men, overall, took on child-like aspects, dreaming and obsessing over things that were essentially games, whilst the women acted as hard-headed and practical, looking down on their menfolk as idiots in need of firm schooling, as they had received in school.
This division into male and female casts was carried over into LOTSW‘s first and only spin-off, First of the Summer Wine. First of the Summer Wine began as a 45 minute special, which proved sufficiently popular that two series, totalling twelve episodes, were ordered, though these were never repeated and the series disappeared without trace. FOTSW was set in 1939 and featured the trio of Clegg, Compo and Uttherthwaite, plus the young Foggy, and other similarly aged youngsters, in their late teens, with the Second World War approaching (War was declared in the final episode, which saw Clegg’s cousin Brad enlisting). Another among the youngsters was a lad named Sherbet.
Neither Brad nor Sherbet had ever been mentioned in the parent series: their prominence in First of the Summer Wine was a subtle nod by Clarke to the reality of the forthcoming War, and to those who never came back.
The spin-off was a minor, but enjoyable effort. Peter Sallis starred as his younger self’s father, and the series was very successful in finding actors in their late teens/early twenties who could convincingly portray the people they would grow up to become, forty-plus years later. Especially the lad who played the young Wally Batty, attempting Joe Gladwyn’s distinctive strangulated Lancashire burr. Of course, the spin-off paid no attention to continuity as the young Clegg and Compo clearly knew Seymour at the Coop in 1939 when they were supposed only to have been introduced to him in 1983, nor was there any reference to the young Cyril Blamire.
I enjoyed FOTSW a bit more than the main series, mainly because it had more reality to it. An effort had gone into re-creating the period, most effectively, and the boys’ concerns in their youth echoed the early series in being more directly connected to real concerns: and with war looming, especially over the second series, First of the Summer Wine dealt with a more pressing reality.
But the spin-off disappeared, leaving Last of the Summer Wine and its expanded, increasingly absurd reality alone. Michael Aldridge left suddenly, for personal reasons, making room for Brian Wilde to return (for once, the ‘hand-over’ occurred onscreen, with Aldridge appearing in a cameo as he was seen off at the bus station to a real teaching job – very unconvincing – as Foggy turned up unexpectedly). It was more of the same, gradually getting further and further away from reality and more and more characters were added until I gradually lost the ability to suspend disbelief and switched off.
Brian Wilde left again, to be replaced by Frank Thornton, as Retired Detective Inspector Herbert Truelove, aka Truly of the Yard. The characters kept getting older. The stuntmen grew ever more obvious in the ‘sliding on a tea tray down a hillside’ moments.
The show began, increasingly, to feature well known actors and actresses in guest roles, further playing up the show as a collection of eccentrics and grotesqueries. Some, like John Cleese, made a single appearance, others, like Norman Wisdom, were so popular, and enjoyed themselves so much, that they repeated their roles.
The role of the Third Man had, by necessity, always seemed mutable, but the combination of Clegg and Compo was the bedrock of the show’s longevity. Thus, when Bill Owen died in 1999, having filmed only two episodes of a twelve episode season, I was curious as to how LOTSW would handle this, and how it would continue without him.
The series, being staffed by older actors, had suffered losses before, most notably John Comer and Joe Gladwyn. Both Sid and Wally had died offscreen, between series, without fanfare but, given that their widows remained in the series, their loss was, unsentimentally and gently acknowledged, although not directly.
This time it was different. Compo’s death occurred, was acknowledged, and became the central factor of almost a half dozen episodes, as the series played tribute to the loss of one of its stars. It was strange to see all this so openly acknowledged, in a lightweight series that had long since rejected any darker edges and dedicated itself to portraying a fluffy and unreal life, but the sequence was handled immaculately, with care, delicacy, empathy and great, involving humour. I speak as someone who has always found the pain in a situation to overwhelm the intended humour: it takes a lot to make me laugh at tragedy, no matter how much that is the intention, but these episodes had me giggling away as if it were twenty-five years earlier.
Once the sequence played through, once Tom Owen had arrived to play the role of his father’s son (this would not work though the younger Owen stayed with the series), I drifted away again.
I can’t say much about the last decade of the show, nor about Frank Thornton as the last Third Man, replacing Brian Wilde for the second and last time. In its last decade, the show seems to have accumulated new characters hand over fist, to the point where it seems impossible, from the outside, for the series to have worked if everybody’s schtick had to be accommodated in every episode.
And all the while, Peter Sallis and Frank Thornton were getting older and older, until for the last two series the actors – both in their Eighties – were confined to indoor series only: given their seniority, insurance for outdoor shoots was impossible to get.
The show had already shifted through new stars: Keith Clifford as Billy Hardcastle, a would-be survivalist who believed himself a descendant of Robin Hood, and Brian Murphy as the simple-minded Alvin Smedley. Thora Hird and Gordon Wharmby had died, Kathy Staff left after Bill Owens’ death, returned and left again through illness. But Sallis and Thornton’s age led to the surprising, but enterprising idea of creating a new trio.
For the last two series, Russ Abbott appeared as Luther ‘Hobbo’ Horndyke, ex-milkman, with Alvin, and Burt Kwouk as Entwistle. The idea of the passing of the show to a new generation, a re-generation, was fascinating. But the BBC were not happy.
Every year, the clamour to kill the series off only grew. It remained popular, with repeat series regularly mustering a 5,000,000 audience, but the tide of protest against it even being allowed to exist grew more intensive every time the show was broadcast. Needless to say, the demand for cancellation came entirely from people who did not watch the series, never had watched the series and would never dream of watching it, yet who believed that they had the right to prevent the programme’s not-so-negligible audience from watching it.
It used to be that this kind of demand came from the Clean Up TV brigade, the spawn of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford, insisting that any programme which showed a flash of tit, or some direct intimation of sexuality, or even too many examples of the ‘B’ word (Bloody, for the less timid of mind) be withdrawn, wiped clean and its Commissioning Editor burnt at the stake.
This time, it came from the smug, self-satisfied and patronising, those who considered themselves very much above that sort of thing, incapable of stopping to question the idea that something they don’t want to watch should therefore not be broadcast, despite the fact that, if they are limited to terrestrial TV, they have at least four alternatives available at the same time, and literally hundreds more with satellite.
And at last, after 31 series in 39 years, long-established as the world’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine was cancelled. It still does well on re-run channels.
The BBC cancelled it not because it wanted to provide something new, something different, something perhaps better for that section of its audience that watched LOTSW, but because it wanted to do something with more appeal to the young. In short, the BBC were saying to that section of its audience that it should fuck off, because we’re not prepared to make programmes for you any more.
I’ve been a lifelong supporter of the BBC, and I still regard it as essential to the integrity of television in this country that it should remain free from commercial pressures (before anyone says anything, I am aware that the BBC has, for some time, been far from that ideal, but as long as it exists in its current form, it remains at least a symbol).
There’s nothing wrong with the BBC wanting to appeal to a young audience, in fact it’s wholly sensible: you don’t get an old audience without their being a young audience first. But should a young audience be sought at the expense of turning your back upon, and disenfranchising your existing older audience?
It’s a valid question, especially for a national, public broadcaster, with a duty to reflect the nation and its tastes.
ITV has it very different. ITV knows no loyalty except to its owners and advertisers, and will go where the money points. The BBC was not supposed to follow that imperative, although the barrage of attacks from commercial interests over several years have forced them far too far along that route.
Maybe I’m just being impossibly idealist, but although I had not watched the show in many years, I was angry at its cancellation following hounding by people who ought simply to have ignored it. The BBC now serves part of its audience worse than it did before, because it lacks the confidence to follow its remit properly.
We are all of us poorer for that.
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.
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 Guardianarguing 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.