Love on a Branch Line – Second Sight DVD Review

7457The year is 1957 and civil servant Jasper Pye (Michael Maloney) is stuck in a rut.  When his girlfriend mentions to a fellow party guest that he’s something of a bore, Jasper decides to take immediate action.  But his initial plan – to move to France and become a painter – is shelved after his superiors send him deep into the English countryside.

Since 1940, a small outpost of the Ministry of Information (Output Statistics) has been in residence at Arcady Hall.  Jasper is sent with the express mission of discovering a reason to close it down, but he finds himself constantly distracted.

The delightfully eccentric Lord Flamborough (Leslie Phillips), owner of Arcady Hall, is happy with the status quo – especially since the upkeep of his house depends on the subsidies he receives from a benevolent government.   Lady Flamborough (Maria Aitken) intrigues Jasper, but it’s Flamborough’s three daughters – Belinda (Abigail Cruttenden), Chloe (Cathryn Harrison) and Matilda (Charlotte Williams) – who all manage to bewitch him at different times …..

Based on John Hadfield’s 1957 novel, Love on a Branch Line is a serial which simply oozes class.  Adapted by David Nobbs (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) it has the sort of cast to die for.  Leslie Phillips looks to be enjoying himself enormously as Lord Flamborough, an idiosyncratic aristrocrat who, along with his wife, lives on a train at the defunct local station. He bought the station, track and train and he now indulges himself by travelling backwards and forwards.  That he never actually goes anywhere might be a not-so-subtle metaphor.

There’s no doubt that the serial’s appeal rests with the quintessentially English atmosphere it generates even if, as with the best examples of the genre (such as PG Wodehouse), events are clearly taking place in an idealised and stylised England that never was.  Therefore steam trains, cricket matches and village fetes are all very much to the fore.

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Charlotte Williams, Michael Maloney, Cathryn Harrison and (front) Abigail Cruttenden

When Jasper arrives he suspects that the team at the Statistics outpost, having been left to their own devices for so long, might be somewhat behind with their work.  Both the statistician Professor Pollux (Graham Crowden) and the data collector Quirk (Stephen Moore) have found numerous distractions over the years – Pollux has been researching the history of Arcady whilst cricket is Quirk’s passion.  Luckily for both of them, they have the efficient Miss Mounsey (Amanda Root) on hand to keep them in some sort of order.  Crowden and Moore are great value with Crowden (arch scene-stealer that he was) never failing to entertain every time he sidles onto screen.

Belinda (“the wicked one”) is the first of Lord Flamborough’s daughters encountered by Jasper. Within a few minutes she’s already kissed him, although this unexpected moment of pleasure is short-lived after Lady Flamborough interrupts them. As so often throughout the serial Michael Maloney’s comic timing is spot on (he delightfully leaps back in horror after Lady Flamborough calls out).

Matilda, the youngest daughter, is neatly summed up by her mother. “Funny girl. She spends all her time reading old-fashioned thrillers and wating to be seduced by a sinister monk. She’ll grow out of it”. Chole, the eldest, is plainly the apple of her father’s eye (“she’s a damn good engine driver”).  A later encounter at the pub with the drunken Lionel Virley (David Haig), husband to Chole, puts another piece of the jigsaw in place. Also there is railway enthusiast Mr Jones (the always entertaining Joe Melia).

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Charlotte Williams

Jasper quickly becomes a part of the local cricket team and is also drafted onto the local fete’s organising committee. That the fete is in aid of fallen women is something which has endless comic potential. Lord Flamborough declines to be chairman.  “I never could be trusted with fallen women”.  This line is delivered in the trademark Leslie Philips style.

By the end of the first episode Jasper’s been kissed by all three daughters and is somewhat perplexed by his experiences. He continues to ping between them like a pinball as the rest of the serial plays out.

A lovely comic moment occurs in episode two after Belinda decides that Jasper’s proposed painting of the Hall doesn’t sound terribly interesting. Surely he’d much prefer to paint her in the nude? Belinda’s very keen and Jasper doesn’t take too much persuading either (although he valiantly attempts to keep his mind on his art). Although he does wonder if they should ask Lady Flamborough’s permission so Belinda, stripped to the waist, casually leans out of the window and shouts down to her!

Further complications ensue when Pollux turns up with Miss Tidy (Gillian Rayne). Pollux is giving her a guided tour of the Hall and his desire to show her every nook and cranny means that Belinda is forced to beat a hasty retreat. The vision of a fully-frontal nude Abigail Cruttenden, albiet in long shot, was a slight surprise (I wonder what the original Sunday evening audience made of it?)

The sight of a desperate Jasper – convinced that Lord Flamborough knows about his dalliances with his daughters – dancing the Charleston whilst his Lordship tunelessly bashes away on the drums is another stand-out scene. Maloney cuts some impressive moves whilst Phillips is his usual louche self.

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Leslie Phillips, Abigail Cruttenden, Maria Aitken, Michael Maloney & Cathryn Harrison

The big cricket match occurs in the third episode. Unfortunately, Jasper and Lionel are locked in one of Arcady’s wine cellars with only several thousand bottles for company. Few actors can resist a spot of drunk acting and Michael Maloney and David Haig are certainly no exception as Jasper and Lionel take solace in some of the more obscure vintages.  Carrot whisky anyone?

Things look grim for the village since their two best batsman have failed to appear but – improbable as it may sound – Jasper and Lionel do eventually stagger up to the crease. But will they be able to save the day? The cricket match is another entertaining setpiece sequence, as is the aftermath (everybody crowds into the pub for a hearty rendition of Yes, We Have No Bananas).

Love on a Branch Line has a delicate path to tread regarding tone.  It would be easy for Jasper to appear as little more than a letch  – after all, he’s already seduced (or been seduced by) Belinda and Chloe and when the sweetly virginal Matilda comes crashing down his bedroom chimney it seems that his cup runneth over.  Luckily, the unreal tone of the serial – and Michael Maloney’s skilful playing – ensures this is never too much of a problem.

The concluding episode promises to bring a dash of reality to the Shangri La of Arcady.  Jasper’s recommendation that the Statistical Unit be closed down forthwith doesn’t please either Lord Flamborough or Pollux and the arrival of jazz musician Ozzie Tipton (Simon Gregor) seems to turn Belinda’s head.  But Jasper – pressganged into becoming a judge at the Fallen Women fete – might just have secured his own future after he awards first prize in the prettiest ankle contest to Miss Mounsey.

In the end everything turns out fine for everybody and as the credits roll you can be assured that the sun at Arcady will always continue to shine (just as it will at Blandings Castle).

With an experienced cast of comic hands, beautiful locations and a sharp script from David Nobbs, Love on a Branch Line is a treat from start to finish.  Abigail Cruttenden, Cathryn Harrison and Charlotte Williams all catch the eye (although it’s Abigail Cruttenden that we definitely see the most of) whilst Michael Maloney, as the lucky Jasper, reels from one unlikely encounter to the next with aplomb.

Originally released on DVD by Acorn back in 2006, it’s now been brought back into print by Second Sight.  It comprises of four 50 minute episodes and whilst there are no additional features, the episodes are subtitled.

Something of a forgotten gem, this really is something that any devotee of British archive television should have in their collection.  Highly recommended.

Love on a Branch Line is released by Second Sight on the 17th of July 2017.  RRP £15.99.

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Michael Maloney
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All Good Things to be released by Simply Media – 28th November 2016

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All Good Things, originally broadcast in 1991, will be released by Simply Media on the 28th of November 2016.  Review here.

A marriage and home can be made complete with the arrival of a new baby, but Shirley Frame (Brenda Blethyn) feels a need to share her good fortune by going out into the world and helping others – driving husband Phil (Warren Clarke) up the wall.

Shirley Frame (39) gives birth to her third child and is over the moon. Intent on sharing her delight with the world she embarks on a plan to make life a better place for as many people as possible. Husband Phil and their two teenagers aren’t easily convinced.

Very quickly Shirley learns that it’s not easy being a Good Samaritan, especially in a world of tower blocks, drug abuse and homelessness, even if your own life is rosy. Shirley identifies a string of potential good causes, leaving Phil holding the baby as she tries and fails to fix the lives of others.

Whether coaxing a potential suicide from a watery grave, giving reading lessons to an illiterate young mum with an abusive husband, or trying her hand at marriage guidance, Shirley puts her foot in it at every good turn – and invariably brings other people’s problems too close to home for comfort.

Joining double Oscar nominee, BAFTA and Golden Globe winner Blethyn (Secrets & Lies, Little Voice) and the ever-dependable Clarke (Dalziel & Pascoe, Nice Work) in this 1991 BBC six-parter are Celia Imrie, Jemma Redgrave and Ken Stott, who were all on track to become equally well-loved household names.

Screenwriter Lesley Bruce’s TV credits also include Doctor Finlay, Lizzie’s Pictures, The Practice and Home Video.

Now on DVD for the first time, this is a wry comedy of errors about losing the plot while attempting to mend the ways of life’s ne’er-do-wells and no-hopers.

The Mrs Merton Show – Series One

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Mrs Merton made her first television appearance on Anthony H. Wilson’s gameshow Remote Control back in 1991.  Caroline Aherne clearly felt that the character had potential, although it took several pilot programmes before Mrs M landed herself a full series.

The first pilot from early 1991 wasn’t broadcast (since there was no studio audience it seems to have been produced simply as a test production).  The second pilot was broadcast on the 5th of December 1993 and was followed by a series in 1995.

From the original pilot, the format was firmly in place.  Mrs Merton was a sweet-looking elderly lady (albeit played by thirtysomething Aherne) who took advantage of her unprepossessing appearance to ask the questions that no other chat show host (apart from maybe Dame Edna) would dare to.

Mrs Merton set out her stall in the first very episode of series one, by asking Debbie McGee “what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”.  Voted the second best TV one-liner of all time, it gave her guests an early idea about what to expect if they ventured onto her sofa.  This didn’t deter them though, as across five series (including a trip to America) she netted a wide cross-section of stars.

Today, some are still very much in the public eye, some (like Aherne herself) are sadly no longer with us, some are forgotten, whilst a few (Dave Lee Travis and Fred Talbot from the first series, for example) are very much persona non grata.  Indeed, Travis’ Mrs Merton appearance continues to haunt him.

Another feature of the series is the audience of regular faces, all arranged behind Mrs Merton and the sofa.  Many of them would feature regularly (“let’s have a heated debate”) and the guest-list was cut from three to two from the third series onwards partly to accommodate more chat between Mrs Merton and the (genuine) octogenarians in the audience.

Dave Gorman was one of the series writers and on his website he briefly described how the show worked.

From 1994 to 1997 I was one of the four writers on The Mrs Merton Show. What a ridiculously giddy time that was. The show moved from a late night BBC2 slot to being a big award winning BBC1 show. The gold-standard lines that people still quote were almost always written by Caroline Aherne herself. Looking back on the situation I reckon I was a very lucky 23 year old. A brilliant way to learn a lot about writing. It’s sometimes described as a “spoof chat show” but it was no such thing. It was a real chat show with a spoof host. The team won BAFTAs two years running. Best Entertainment Series in 1996 and Best Chat Show in 1997.

The best encounters are those where there’s some give and take between Mrs Merton and the guest.  If her baiting is simply too merciless then it becomes monotonous.  And although all of Mrs Merton’s barbed questions were firmly scripted beforehand, her victim’s replies weren’t – so Aherne had to be adept at ad-libbing.

There’s some very entertaining encounters during the first series.  Kriss Akabusi hardly lets her get a word in edgeways, but his steam-rolling approach makes for wonderful television.  She does have the odd incisive question though, such as “do you have to plan your tactics before the race or do you just try and run faster than the other blokes?”

Mrs Merton’s encounter with Steve Coogan is great fun.  Pressed to deliver some impressions, such as Frank Spencer, he gamely agrees and also has time to discuss how a series with a fictional chat-show host is a good idea (Knowing Me, Knowing You had just finished airing).

Equally as good value is Cynthia Payne, whilst others (such as Mandy Smith) are less satisfying, mainly because Smith is never really able to give as good as she gets, so it ends up as something of a one-sided affair.  Mrs Merton’s encounter with Mary Whitehouse is also a disappointment.  On paper it sounds like a great idea, but Whitehouse (clearly not in the best of health, since the interview was recorded at her home) seems rather disconnected from proceedings.  The whole interview seems to have been set-up so that Aherne can deliver this final one-liner.  “When you retire, do you think they’ll put up a statue of you? If they do, it would be the first erection you’ve not complained about, wouldn’t it, Mary?”  There’s little reaction from Whitehouse, except that she seems to regard the comment as a flattering one.  So either Mary still had the driest of dry wit or we’ve just witnessed a rather cruel taunting of an elderly lady.

This was very much the exception though as most of the other interviews are much jollier.  As I’ve said, they’re not all hits, but there’s still a very decent strike rate.  It was certainly good enough for a second series to be swiftly commissioned, which would see Mrs Merton have some of her most memorable encounters (Jo Brand, Chris Eubank, George Best, Germaine Greer and Des Lynham, amongst others).

BBC Landmark Sitcom Season

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Running across BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4, the upcoming Landmark Sitcom Season is a series of one-off specials designed to celebrate sixty years of the British sitcom (Hancock’s Half Hour, which debuted on BBC tv in 1956, has been taken as the starting point).  Of course, if any prove to be popular they can be developed into full series, which means that the cynics amongst us might regard this as little more than a season of pilots …..

For the purposes of this blog, there’s seven which are of interest – four on BBC1 and the other three on BBC4.  BBC1 gives us Porridge, Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart and Young Hyacinth (a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances) whist BBC4 has Hancock’s Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son.

Goodnight Sweetheart is notable because it’s the only one able to reunite the original cast (alas, time has caught up with most of the stars from the others).  Marks and Gran have already revived another of their sitcoms, Birds of a Feather, on ITV, so it’s not difficult to believe that this has been made with one eye on a full series.

Young Hyacinth is another that’s easy to imagine has been crafted as a back-door pilot.  Writer Roy Clarke has form for this – First of the Summer Wine was an effective (if not terribly popular, ratings-wise) prequel to Last of the Summer Wine – and the current success of Still Open All Hours suggests that Clarke would be up for a revisit of another of his old shows.  Some other time I’ll cast an eye over Clarke’s whole career – it’s amazing that he’s still going strong and it has to be said that his CV is a varied one with a lot more to offer than just umpteen years of Summer Wine.

Are You Being Served looks to be a pitch-perfect recreation of the original series, complete with all the familiar catchphrases.  Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much down to personal taste of course ….

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Porridge looks to be doing something a little different.  It would have been easy enough to cast someone not physically dissimilar to Ronnie Barker (Peter Kay for example) and simply rehash old glories, but the clips show that it’s very much set in the present day (unlike Are You Being Served which remains stuck in the mid eighties) .  One positive is that the updated Porridge has been scripted by Clement and La Frenais themselves, although it’s slightly concerning that they’re not adverse to plagiarising themselves.  Familiar gags (“I won’t let you catch me”) and a martinet Scottish prison officer are present and correct.

Whilst the BBC1 revivals feature new scripts, the ones on BBC4 take a different approach.  Steptoe, Hancock and Till Death are newly recorded versions of wiped originals …. well sort of.  All the Steptoe episodes still exist, so they’ve chosen one which only remains as a poor quality B&W video recording.

These three episodes have a very different feel to their BBC1 counterparts.  The original sitcoms tended to be rather studio-bound, but these new recordings heighten this feel.  The lack of solid walls in the sets makes them seem rather theatrical and artificial, although it’s more than likely that this has something to do with the fact that BBC4 has a considerably lower budget than BBC1.

Although some of the efforts look interesting rather than rib-tickling, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the Hancock episode.  Kevin McNally has already recorded a number of missing HHH radio scripts for Radio 4 (jolly good they are too) and his performances make it clear just how much love and respect he has for the Lad Himself.

When the season’s up and running I’ll be blogging about some of my favourite British sitcom episodes.  So I guess now’s a good time to go off and do some research …..

Next of Kin – Simply Media DVD Review

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Maggie (Penelope Keith) and Andrew (William Gaunt) are on the verge of a new life.  Following Andrew’s retirement, the pair plan to sell their house in England and move to a quiet village in France.  As they sit in the French sunshine, finalising their plans, talk turns to who they’ll invite over.  Both are adamant that Graham and his wife (unflatteringly known as Bootface) should definitely both be persona non grata.  The clear inference is that Graham’s a boring friend who they’re keen to jettison, but shortly afterwards it’s revealed that he’s their only son.

Returning home to England, they learn that Graham and his wife have been killed in a car crash, which leaves Maggie and Andrew with the difficult task of caring for their three grandchildren – Georgia (Ann Gosling), Philip (Mathew Clarke) and Jake (Jamie Lucraft).

What’s striking about the opening episode of Next of Kin is just how unsympathetic both Maggie and Andrew are (especially Maggie).  Even after the news of Graham’s death has sunk in, Maggie is unable to express any grief at all.  As she tells her housekeeper Liz (Tracie Bennett), she had very little time for her son.  Packed off to boarding school at the earliest opportunity, it’s plain that no mother/son bond (or indeed father/son) bond was ever developed.  Even as an adult, things didn’t improve as she regarded him as a pompous, priggish bore.  The last time they saw Graham was five years ago, after Bootface told her on Christmas Day that she didn’t want her to smoke in the house.  That was enough for them to decide they never wanted to see their son and the rest of his family again.  It’s another of those moments that highlights just how selfish and self-centered Maggie and Andrew are (although dramatically there had to be a reason why they hadn’t seen the children for a while – had they been regular visitors it would have dulled the culture-shock of their arrival)

Penelope Keith was no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters – both Margo Leadbetter and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton were self-centered snobs, so Maggie bears some similarities to her two most famous comic roles.  To begin with, Maggie is violently opposed to acting as a surrogate parent, she made a hash of parenting the first time so why should she have to go through it again?  But as part of the series’ theme is redemption (had they all spent three series sniping at each other things would have become very tedious) there’s obvious dramatic potential in watching how Maggie and Andrew slowly get to know and love their grandchildren.  It’s interesting listening to the studio audience during the scenes where Maggie professes she had no love for her son though, unsurprisingly they’re quite subdued.

William Gaunt, previously the harassed nominal head of the house in No Place Like Home, has a similar role to play here.  If Maggie is uptight, then Andrew is relaxed (he’s quite sanguine about taking care of their grandchildren, seeing it as their duty).

As for the kids themselves, Jake is the youngest (seven), his brother Philip is a couple of years older whilst big sister Georgia is in her early teens.  Georgia is initially presented as the most hostile to their new surroundings – she’s the archetypical stroppy teenager with a host of politically correct views inherited from her parents.  All three children (including young Jake) are shown to have picked up character traits from their parents (he still enjoys a bedtime story, but wants Maggie to continue the tale of the whale stranded in a sea of oil – a victim of human greed and corruption).

Liz is on hand to dispense the occasional nugget of wisdom (gleaned from various television and radio phone in shows) whilst battling off the advances of Tom the builder (Mark Powley – probably best known as Ken Melvin from The Bill).  Real life couple Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton pop up occasionally as Maggie and Andrew’s best friends Rosie and Hugh.  The four spent many happy holidays abroad together, although Rosie and Hugh now serve as a reminder to Maggie and Andrew that their days of freedom have passed – it’ll be a long time before they can simply decide to leave for a holiday on a whim.

As a family based sitcom, Next of Kin probably slightly suffered from the fact that 2.4 Children was running at the same time.  2.4 Children had a deft blend of parenting topics and surrealistic humour and enjoyed a very long run (possibly only curtailed by the death of Gary Olsen).  Although Next of Kin lasted for three years (an indicator that twenty years ago the schedulers were quite generous – today a middling sitcom would be lucky to get a second series) this wasn’t long enough to show the children developing into young adults – although they still managed to cover a fair amount of ground during the three series.

It may not offer belly laughs, but the combination of Penelope Keith and William Gaunt (especially Gaunt, who’s always worth watching in both comedy and drama) and the three young leads is an attractive one and Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie’s scripts are quite sharp in places.  It’s never going to be acclaimed as a lost classic, but it does seem slightly unfair that it seems to have disappeared from the public’s consciousness quite so comprehensively.

Next of Kin – The Complete Collection contains all twenty two episodes (seven for both series one and two, eight for series three) across six discs (two discs per series).   Picture quality is fine, although I did notice some sound issues.  Occasionally the sound is rather tinny and there’s brief moments where the soundtrack has an odd, phasing tone.  It never renders the dialogue inaudible, but the changes in the quality of the soundtrack are quite detectable.  Having spoken to Simply they confirm this was a problem outside of their control – hence the disclaimer on the start-up screens. It’s probably something that some people will notice more than others, but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the series.

Next of Kin is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

dinnerladies

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Victoria Wood was always faintly unimpressed, visually, with the way that dinnerladies turned out. She had pictured it shot with hand-held cameras but was told that it wasn’t possible.  So what she got was something that looked like a traditional sit-com (although this isn’t really any bad thing).  It seems to be an ever-present fixture on Gold, along with the likes of Porridge and Steptoe and Son, and it’s a good indication of dinnerladies’ quality that it doesn’t seem out of place when broadcast alongside the comedy greats of the 1970’s.

Whilst it may have rankled with Wood that the style of the series was so resolutely traditional (particularly when the likes of The Royal Family and The Office were able to quite easily eschew this format) dinnerladies was a sit-com that probably wouldn’t have benefited from the sort of wobbly-cam single camera shooting that was to dominate comedy in the years to come.

It’s written, essentially, as a stage-play with just a single location (and it’s probably not surprising to know that most of the scripts were adapted successfully for several theatre tours).  We may hear about the world outside but the focus remains firmly on what happens inside the canteen.

Wood was able to assemble a first-rate cast, some of whom (Duncan Preston, Ceila Imrie, Julie Walters) had enjoyed a long association with her, whilst others (Thelma Barlow, Andrew Dunn, Shobna Gulati and Maxine Peake) were newcomers.  She obviously knew what Preston, Imrie and Walters could deliver, but the characters of the others (as well as Anne Reid, who had appeared in Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV) would maybe only really begin to develop towards the end of the first series and into the second as she began to tailor their parts based on her experience of working with them.

As the creator, writer and co-producer, Wood had an enormous amount of power that she was able to wield.  But whilst the overall arc of the two series is the story of Bren and Tony, Wood doesn’t dominate each episode and nor does she give herself all the best lines.  She was comfortable enough to sometimes remain in the background as a passive figure, whilst the others enjoyed the biggest laughs.

If the series was shot in a traditional way, the actual recording process was quite different.  It would be shot on a Friday evening and then Wood and co-producer Geoff Posner would view the results, with Wood re-writing the script which would then be re-recorded on the Saturday evening.  Although this was common practice for American sit-coms, it was unusual, if not unique, for a British sit-com.

It would be lovely one day to have DVD sets released with both the Friday and Saturday recordings, so that we can see exactly what was changed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  The DVD releases we have are resolutely bare-bones, with no commentaries or special features, which indicates that Victoria Wood isn’t particularly keen to spend a great deal of time analyzing her work.