Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Visiting Day

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Paul’s been laid up in hospital for six weeks with a broken leg.  During that time he’s not had a single visitor, despite the fact his parents only live a short tube trip away.  But when they do finally make an appearance (played by Lynda Baron and Brian Murphy) it’s more of a curse than a blessing ….

Visiting Day formed part of the first series of Comedy Playhouse, broadcast in 1962, Bernard Cribbins played the bed-bound patient with Betty Marsden and Wilfred Brambell as his insensitive parents.  But aficionados of the radio incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour will be aware that it was based pretty closely on a 1959 HHH episode.

The major change was replacing Sid and Bill (the visitors in the radio version) but otherwise a hefty early section was lifted pretty much verbatim.  G&S would later acknowledge that the freedom of writing Comedy Playhouse (new characters and scenarios each week) had ironically turned out to be rather restricting.  So it’s possible that with no new ideas forthcoming they were content to rehash something which had previously worked well.

As with the original HHH, we open with the unwilling patient subjected to a flannel wash from a friendly nurse (Nicole Arumugam).  It’s in preparation for visiting day, but Paul really doesn’t see the point – he’s not had any visitors so far and doesn’t expect this to change today.  He may profess to be not at all bothered, but there’s something rather dark about the way he’s been isolated and rejected.

His part of the ward is bare – no cards, flowers, fruit or other presents.  Although strictly speaking that’s not true, he does have one present – a bar of soap – plucked off the hospital Christmas tree.  That he was hospitalised during Christmas with no visitors or presents (apart from the bar of soap) is a slightly tragic touch.

The radio version is fairly melancholy too, but at least there it’s only Tony’s friends who have forgotten him.  On television, the fact that his parents have found numerous reasons not to visit (chief amongst them, says Paul, are the EastEnders omnibus and bingo) is a remarkably bleak detail.

Lynda Baron’s mother is a monstrous creation.  Overbearing and selfish, she effortlessly steamrollers her husband, played in typical hen-pecked fashion by Brian Murphy (hardly letting him get a word in).  It’s Baron who dominates the latter part of the episode, especially when she gets into conversation with Mrs Thompson (Anne Reid), visiting her husband in the next bed.

Earlier we’d seen Mrs Thompson pay a solicitous visit to Paul, prior to his parents arriving, concerned that yet again he was all on his own.  This was another scene lifted from the radio episode, albeit with the odd change (on radio she’s frequently attempting to press biscuits on him, on television it’s bananas).  Reid is perfect as a kindly, solicitous, but rather irritating woman.

Visiting Day is hard to love, mainly because Lynda Barron’s character is so awful and insensitive.  But its depiction of the despair that visiting days in hospital can sometimes bring is well observed – it’s one of those universal themes which has hardly changed over the years (from the original in 1959 to this version in 1997).

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