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 – A Touch of Daniel

A Touch of Daniel

When Auntie Edna fell off the bus she handed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty-three days. At the end of that period she died, and they had a funeral.
At the party Uncle Mort, husband of the deceased said:
“What I can’t fathom out is why conductor didn’t tell her they was only stopped at a zebra crossing.”
“Well, he was one of them Pakistanis, weren’t he?” said cousin George, who had brought his blue hankie.
“Aye, you’re got something there,” said Uncle Mort, and he placed a spoonful of piccalli on his pressed beef sandwich.
I don’t usually remember the opening words of novels, and certainly not to the extent of that, but I can quote the opening paragraphs of Peter Tinniswood’s first novel, A Touch of Daniel from heart (give or take the odd word that I’ve corrected by checking against the book itself).
Go back and read them again. That’s not just an introduction, that’s a world. The first paragraph alone is a world in itself. What’s it about? It’s about a woman suffering a terrible head injury that puts her in a coma for over two months before she dies without regaining consciousness. It’s a tragedy,a death, a deprivation, a family broken. Until that last sub-clause: At the end of that period she died, and they had a funeral.
The dryness, the deadpan nature, the simplicity of that understatedly comic undercutting, sends the book off on a 90 degree turn into a world of its own, a world that, as we see from the exchange between Uncle Mort and cousin George, who had brought his blue hankie, will mire itself in the everyday mundanity of a working class life in an unnamed Northern City at an unspecified time, will have the same concerns as we have, in which people will talk the way we do, but in which something is not entirely the same.
It’s precise, it’s authentic, it’s subtly comic, and in its little details it will spark grins and laughs and moments of recognition in amongst the most surreal of its scenes.
A Touch of Daniel was first published in 1969, but the words I’ve quoted were written in a freezing cold Sheffield bedsit in the piercing winter of 1962/3. They came out of nowhere to Peter Tinniswood – born in Liverpool, raised in Sale, Manchester, then a leader and feature writer on the Sheffield Telegraph – who wrote them down with no idea what they meant or what they led to.
Tinniswood was also writing sketches for That Was The Week That Was, Dick Emery and The Frost Report, as well as a TV series for Lance Percival, with his writing partner David (Reginald Perrin) Nobbs. But what he’d written that winter stayed with him and eventually became a book that was lauded on its appearance, and which launched a career that encompassed twenty books – ten novels and ten books of short, linked, stories.
A Touch of Daniel was the first of four to centre upon the Brandon family.There’s Mr and Mrs Brandon – Les and Annie – and their son Carter Brandon, and Uncle Mort – Annie’s elder brother and widower of the late Auntie Edna, and Pat (nee Partington), who’s successively Carter’s girlfriend, fiancee (twice) and wife all in the course of Daniel.
There’s also Uncle Staveley (Mr Brandon’s elder brother) and Auntie Lil (whose relative she is is never established but she is the widow of Her Bob, who was taken from her in a grand piano accident in Egremont), and also Corporal Parkinson (Uncle Staveley’s oppo). And there’s also Daniel, though it’s fair to say that, despite the somewhat surprising part Daniel plays in this novel, he doesn’t really come into his own until the next book in the series.
Tinniswood takes his own good time in developing what, for a long time, appears to be a story without a story. Carter Brandon is introduced in the next line after the extract I’ve quoted above. He’s about twenty when the book starts, though the slow build-up covers something like eighteen months, and he’s going out with Pat, a hairdresser at Maison Enid’s (was there ever a more quintessentially northern name for a hairdresser’s salon? This novel is not dated but I’d place it as being on the very cusp of the Sixties). They’re at the stage of heavy petting, of Pat telling Carter she loves him, she really does, and Carter going “Aye. Mm.”
The earliest ‘plot’ element is dealt with with characteristic briefness. Mr Brandon, railing against having had a supper of cream crackers, Lancashire cheese and pickled onions every night of his married life, doesn’t come home one night from work. He’s missing for eight weeks, during which one postcard arrives (from Stevenage) and he never explains his absence (though it does lead to one of the few expressions of two-sided affection between the Brandons in all the books).
Instead, there’s a slow accumulation of death and disaster that leads to the Brandon household being filled up. Uncle Mort’s son Cyril is decapitated in a cycling race after a collision with a charabanc, leading to Uncle Mort moving into the box room. Auntie Lil arrives after her Bob’s unfortunate conjunction with a runaway grand piano (Tinniswood’s comic skill knows enough not to elaborate on that single detail) leads to her being taken in and Carter having to sleep on the couch.
Then Uncle Mort and Auntie Lil agree to share a bedroom, in a very prim, nonsexual kind of way (Uncle Mort is, after all, sixty-bloody-six) giving Carter his room back. And what do you know? Auntie Lil becomes pregnant! So a wedding is needed, to which attend the three spinster aunts from Glossop, insistent on wearing their confirmation frocks (we always wear our confirmation frocks to weddings involving members of the family), cousin George, who had brought his blue hankie, and cousin Celia, who had brought That Mr Coppersedge from Derby.
Staveley Brandon is brought over from the nursing home where he resides to act as Uncle Mort’s best man, even though he’s plainly pots for rags (a northern expression suggesting a lack of mental capacity). Staveley, who’s spent most of his life at sea, physically at any road, is forgetful and deaf, and after all is done Mrs Brandon – whose motherly devotion to everyone around her is genuine, if expressed in strange ways – decides that Staveley should be brought into the bosom of the family, rather than be left among strangers.
So Staveley moves into the attic where, some months later, he is joined for company by his oppo, Corporal Parkinson, a wizened, dried-up, legless man who speaks in unintelligible rasps, interpreted in increasingly florid and unbelievable torrents by Uncle Staveley.
So that makes seven people living in the Brandon household, which is nothing but an ordinary terraced house. Sort of crowded, really.
Little of this has to do with Carter’s life. Carter drifts along at the edges. Carter is always going to drift along, keeping out of things, not concerned, not bothered. True, he does propose to Pat, who he does like for all that her mithering drives him up the spout most of the time, but the L word is only in play on her side, and he’s not bothered enough to do anything to move the relationship along.
Though he’s perceptive enough to recognise, when the wedding plans are very much advanced, that if he suggested putting off the wedding a year, Pat would jump at it, for an extra twelve months of organising, planning, shopping.
Carter takes it in his stride. Takes being made redundant, takes getting another job, takes whatever’s going on at home, all in his stride. There’s lunchtime chats at work with Linda Preston during which he tells her trivial things that he never bothers to mention to Pat. There’s the works outing to New Brighton with Linda, a cheerfully drawn slattern with no pretensions, who relieves him of his virginity in a filthy house. There’s his Mam using him as a dogsbody, ferrying people here, there and everywhere. There are occasional foursomes with Derek Warrender (son of Mrs Warrender, the neighbour from number thirty six) and his girlfriend, Jessie Lewis. There’s Mrs Partington and her incessant talking. The only thing that really involves Carter is his pet, an owlet that he calls Bentley.
That, according to David Nobbs, in an introduction to a posthumous edition, is where this down-to-earth, utterly mundane book starts to turn towards the surreal. I’d argue that the surreal is there from the outset, implicit from that first paragraph, but he’s right in marking that as the point at which the surreal first noses itself above ground and the book starts to expand itself towards the unbelievable.
It starts with Auntie Lil. Things are not right with her late pregnancy. Not physically, not necessarily, though Lil refuses to do any of the exercises the doctor prescribes: indeed, she becomes more and more inert, leaving her bed only to go downstairs for shorter and shorter periods. But it’s in her mind that things are starting to spiral.
It’s not just that Auntie Lil constantly refers to her unborn child belonging to her and ‘My Bob’, with Uncle Mort as nothing more than a, well, agency – to which Uncle Mort responds with a passion for cleaning boots, shoes, galoshes, anything that goes on people’s feet – but there’s the evil fluences. These start as soon as Staveley arrives, coming through the ceiling, down the light fitting, straight through the coverlet and into her womb.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Staveley wasn’t complaining of the evil fluences coming from Auntie Lil and her unborn child. Not to mention the owlet.
That’s until Corporal Parkinson is added to the household. Corporal Parkinson’s presence puts an end to the evil fluences, for a time at least, but sparks a jealousy in Uncle Mort about the old, legless soldier’s presence.
To cut to the chase, everything on and around the household is slowly tuned up towards breaking point. The old men in the attic, after much eccentric and noisy behaviour, fall ill (Corporal Parkinson goes into what can only be called hibernation), and their health starts to fade away towards the inevitability of death. Mrs Brandon brings in a nurse to take care of them: it is Jessie Lewis, which creates yet another complication.
And then Auntie Lil gives birth. And dies two days later.
So Uncle Mort, at his age, has a new-born baby to deal with, Thingie as he calls him, unable to remember that Auntie Lil has named her son Daniel. And everyone is astonished at the level of interest Carter takes in the babby, no-one knowing of his promise to his Auntie Lil to take care of Daniel.
Carter takes Daniel to see the dying men. Staveley reacts in terror, shying away from Daniel’s kiss, protesting at similar treatment for Corporal Parkinson. But the visit seems to do the men good. Each visit sees their health improve. Wrinkles disappear, Corporal Parkinson starts growing hair again, his voice becomes audible at last and, most impressive and horrific of all, his legs begin to grow back.
Because somehow Daniel is bringing the old men back to life, is rejuvenating not only them but everyone in, or who visits the house. From the simple mundanity of that opening sentence, of a death treated with comic indifference, to a baby that is giving life to everyone about him.
From there to the end is turmoil. Daniel is denied to the denying men, except when Carter can sneak him through security. Jessie Lewis becomes a monstrous character, playing games in the middle of this chaos. Mr Brandon admits that Mrs Otter (Celia) is a fiction he made up to seek attention. But she and Uncle Mort become engaged to each other. How Tinniswood sorts this out, separates the strands, ends the story, becomes a fascination.
I won’t say how it ends, save that it is abrupt, and certain threads are left to be undone in the reader’s mind. But there are deaths before it is over: Daniel the impossible baby is one, and the spider at the centre off the web another. After all the careful preparations, Carter marries Pat in a registry office, having broken a strike and lost his Union card and all prospects of a job. The final line is a triviality in the midst of a serious situation, but it is characteristic of everything that has gone before.
I’ve written what seems to be a very full synopsis of the story, but in reality it’s a thin gruel that gives only a momentary flavour of the novel, which is dense in conversation and event. More, much more than I reveal takes place in its pages, and what I’ve spoken of is merely an outline. This is a book with a world in it, at one and the same time utterly recognisable, and horrifyingly strange, and it cannot be properly described without using all the words inside it.
I say utterly recognisable, but that may no longer be so. The world Tinniswood is describing no longer exists. It was already being pushed towards the margin of memory when  A Touch of Daniel was being published, when I first read it, in 1975 or thereabouts. And it is, always was a very northern world.
A dirty, put upon world of working men and wives, of factories and mills and industries, of caps and the Daily Herald, a world of nothing and making a living out of it. Was the city Liverpool, Manchester or Sheffield? It depended on where you came from: for decades I would have argued ferociously that it was Manchester: there were clues that supported that, and it felt like my home, just as it did to other readers who came from other places. Now, reading it again, I’m not so sure, for there are enough pieces to argue it as being Sheffield. In reality it’s neither, and both.
The dialogue, the rhythms of speech, the preoccupations, the details are absolutely true. Tinniswood’s mother ran a dry-cleaner’s in Sale and the young Tinniswood would sit underneath the counter, listening to the customer’s talk, and bigod did he listen! I grew up in a back-street terrace in East Manchester and reading the Brandon family books is like walking back into my own childhood even as it was disappearing.
So the humour is very northern, as much as the references. That world’s gone, and maybe people will now be unable to see the mundanity that houses and grounds the impossible, and maybe the balance of the book will be upset for them.
I love this book, though it’s not the best of the Brandon stories. As I’ve hinted, there’s more to come from Daniel, dead though he is, and in all of Carter Brandon’s impassiveness, Tinniswood has not yet come to the full phrase that signifies the young man, and which would crease my ex-wife up with laughter every time it appeared: “Aye. Well. Mm.”
Two things have to be dealt with here. Firstly, I’ve been conscious throughout that the extract I used to begin this essay includes what will undoubtedly be seen as a racist statement: “Well, he was one of them Pakistanis, weren’t he?”
It’s misleading in the context in that it’s seen as placing blame on another because of his race. Elsewhere, there are two other references to Pakistanis, simply in relation to their presence, and as for other races, there’s a minor character where Carter works, Louis St. John, the West Indian fitter, who gets a line or two.
But this is a book set in a place and time where non-white characters were unusual. Though Louis St. John will have bigger parts to play in later books, any racism in the books are the attitudes of its characters, and reflect the times not the author.
There’s a much more pertinent argument, and more debatable, to be had over the question of whether Peter Tinniswood, in his Brandon family novels, was a misogynistic writer. There’s a massive difference between men and women in this series, though it’s not overly developed at this point. Everybody is eccentric: even Carter, the most normal character in the whole book, keeps an owlet as a pet and holds imaginary conversations in his head with his baby cousin, even after Daniel’s death.
The signs are there. Male and female perceptions and preoccupations are different. The women have an attitude to life that is simultaneously more romantic and more pragmatic than the men, who tend to avoid having attitudes to life in the first place. Witness Carter’s description of his first meeting with Pat against hers: his is the flatter, more casual, whilst hers is, predictably, romantic as all get out and plainly unreal, especially as it comes after Carter’s version.
The debate’s to be had, but perhaps not here. For all it’s brilliance, A Touch of Daniel was a set-up for the later books, as we shall see.
The novel can currently be found on Amazon for as little as 1p plus postage, whilst there are thirteen copies available on eBay, one of them the First Edition hardcover, which has the advantage of the page titles which, for some unaccountable reason, were omitted from the paperback editions.
Tinniswood would write several books about the Brandons, as well as adapt them to television and radio. His next book was not about the Brandons, but even so, they still found their way in, as we shall see.