The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1985

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Right from the start, the 1985 Christmas Special suffers from something of a dance overload.  Paul introduces us to his two assistants (Kate Bellamy and Donald Waugh.  Yes, Hughsey from Grange Hill) who he proceeds to lock into two individual cabinets which have been made to look like chimneys.  So far, so predictable.  But then Paul ambles off the stage as the Brian Rogers dancers move onstage and proceed to leap about in a highly energetic manner.  They add a bit of glamour – albeit on the cheesy side.

As the orchestra grinds out a version of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, the dancers take over the illusion – some of  them start to slice the cabinets up whilst the more attractive lady dancers are content to preen themselves.  This is all very odd, although there is a reasonable payoff when we see Paul – clearly deciding that he should get a little more involved in proceedings – mildly berates them for mixing up the boxes.  This means that the assistant’s clothes are revealed to have been swopped once the boxes are reassembled (a neat extra trick to go with the puzzle of where they disappeared to in the first place).

If Paul largely sits this one out, then he doesn’t really contribute a great deal to the remainder of the show.  There’s a few close-up illusions – the three card trick (done with four cards!) and a trick with a fifty pound note – but otherwise he’s fairly inactive until the end of show spectacular.  More on that in a minute.

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The Jazzy Jumpers come from America and are a young, energetic skipping troupe.  Not the most exciting of speciality acts, but undeniably skilful.  Lance Burton (direct from Las Vegas) offers us a reasonably good performance of the substitution trunk (created by Maskelyne, popularised by Houdini) although it’s odd that we never actually see the person inside the trunk who Burton had swopped with. Zhou Shurong offers eye-watering feats of flexibility.

It’s always fun when two great magicians meet – and so it is here as Paul comes face to face with Sooty.  Yes it’s Sooty, making a rare return to the BBC (and mistaking Paul for Terry Wogan – easy to do) whilst causing havoc with a miniature fountain.  This is apparently a scaled down version of an illusion performed by Dante and although it’s only a bit of throwaway fun it’s still appealing.  It was nice to see Sweep as well (oh, and Matthew Corbett too I guess).

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We then have a cutesy overload as Paul proceeds to tell a young chap called David all about Snow White. David looks too neat and scrubbed up to have been pulled out of the audience, so presumably he was selected well in advance (not that this really matters, as David’s main function is to react with wonder as the story of Snow White comes to life).

This is the cue for the return of the Brian Rogers dancers and there’s more dancing to come as we meet Snow White – who just happens to be played by Debbie.  It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the whole closing sequence had been designed in order to show off her dancing talents (you may not be surprised to hear that Snow White gets the chance to do a spot of hoofing).  A few illusions are thrown in but they’re all rather secondary to the showbizzy razzle dazzle (the seven dwarfs are played by children, for that extra awww factor).  It’s nice to see Fenella Fielding as the wicked Queen though.

The showbiz feel is maintained right until the end as each performer returns to the stage in order to take their bows.  As a Christmassy extravaganza this is decent enough fare, but as a magic show it’s something of a disappointment.

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The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1984

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The 1984 Christmas Show comes front-loaded with celebrities as Clare Francis, Anneka Rice, Bonnie Langford, Val Doonican and Larry Grayson are brought on for a spot of banter and magic.  All receive a warm reception from the studio audience but it’s Grayson who generates the most whoops and cheers by far.

Both Bonnie and Anneka are very eye-catching (Bonnie sports a silver pair of trousers whilst Anneka has a sparkly top and a  very short skirt).  Paul was never slow in appreciating female beauty, so it’s no surprise that he seems a little smitten with Anneka (“lovely leg, shame about the other one”).  Although I’m not sure whether his mispronunciation of her first name was deliberate or not ….

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This is a nice, relaxed opening to the show – allowing the likes of Larry Grayson to camp it up a little (unsurprisingly).  He’s also selected to wear a bag on his head (in order to check that when Paul puts it on, he can’t see out of it).  Given that Paul’s still wearing the wig, I was slightly concerned they’d be an accident, but everything passes off without a hitch (although it’s noticeable that when Paul removes the bag, he does instinctively check that everything’s still in place).

There are two speciality acts on the show.  Both are perfect for Christmastime viewing (maybe one day somebody might decide that a variety show on Christmas day would be a good idea – stranger things have happened).  First up is Kris Kremo.  I love a juggler, and they really don’t come any better than Kremo – who not only juggles with his hands but also his feet to begin with.  His act climaxes with the juggling of three cigar boxes – a familiar sight, but Kremo’s dexterity is something special.

George Carl has to slowly work the audience – his style of silent clowning proves to be something of a slow burn – but by the end he seems to have won everybody over (at the start, laughter is more sporadic – meaning that it’s possible to pick out several very distinctive hearty laughing types).

Debbie is now a part of the show.  She doesn’t have a great deal to say, but it’s plain that she’s higher up in the pecking order than Paul’s previous assistants (she appears in one of the six picture boxes on the end credits).

When I wrote about the 1980 special, I mentioned that there were no big illusions.  That’s redressed here, as Paul contrives to vanish one million pounds under the watchful eyes of Owen Rout (the general manager of Barclays Bank) and Robert Maxwell.  Maxwell’s later misdeeds gives this whole illusion something of a bleak irony.  It certainly proves hard to take your eyes off him.

When Paul announces that the money is shortly to enter the studio, it’s impossible to miss the way that Maxwell’s eyes light up.  Maxwell also can’t prevent himself from getting involved every step of the way (instinctively reaching for the safe key, constantly wanting to touch the money, etc). And then there’s the moment when Paul refers to Rout and Maxwell as men of integrity ….

As an unashamed television geek, one of the reasons I love this part of the show is that the cameras are allowed to shoot off the edge of the set.  So we get to see the studio cables, monitors and doors as well as the orchestra (who rarely, if ever, appeared on screen).  The money arrives in the studio to the strains of The A Team (no, me neither) and then the long process begins – opening the safe, extracting another safe containing the money, checking that the money is genuine, moving the safe with the money into a clear Perspex container.

This is one of those illusions where you know right from the start what’s going to happen (and also that it’ll only take a few seconds) but in order to have any impact the whole thing has to build very slowly.  Therefore some twenty minutes (the climax of the show) is spent on this trick – a considerable amount of time, but it never feels drawn out.  Luckily, after all the preamble it turns out to be a baffling mystery – no doubt if I searched hard enough I could find the solution, but discovering how tricks work is much less enjoyable than wondering how it was achieved.

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The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1980

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Paul Daniels notched up fifteen consecutive Christmas Specials on the BBC between 1979 and 1993, a staggering feat which no other performer has come close to matching (unless I’ve missed someone blindingly obvious).   Daniels’ sometimes abrasive performing style (forged in the white heat of the Northern Working Mens Clubs) and his outspoken opinions on numerous subjects always ensured that he seemed to be as loathed as he was loved, but there’s no denying the influence he had on modern magic.

Following his death, most of the great and good of the magic world queued up to pay tribute – although it’s also fair to say that many were equally as fulsome when he was alive.  This clip from Penn and Teller: Fool Us never fails to bring a smile to my lips, not least for the obvious respect that both Penn and Teller – but especially the ebullient Penn – had for Paul.

Rewinding back to 1980, this was Daniels’ second BBC Christmas Special and the first to be transmitted on Christmas day itself (surprisingly he’d only manage this feat a further three times – in 1981, 1982 and 1985).  It’s the early days of the series, so the lovely Debbie McGee has yet to appear on the scene.  Daniels’ assistants here are equally as attractive – and sport some remarkable costumes – but are never allowed to speak.  Paul’s wig is still very much in evidence (as is, in the opening few minutes, a remarkable red velvet suit).

Another feature of these early series was “the jury” – a group of handpicked members of the studio audience who were allowed to get up close and personal (their job was to try and work out exactly how the tricks worked).  But it was also useful in another respect, as it meant that Paul didn’t have to trudge out to the wider studio audience in order to find his next hapless victim.

The first trick – involving Peter and his watch – is typical Daniels.  He borrows Peter’s watch in order to do a clever trick which inevitably goes wrong.  All appears lost and Peter seems resigned to losing his precious timepiece, until Paul miraculously pulls it out of the middle of a Christmas cracker (well this is a festive show).  Although Paul gives his victim a slightly hard time, you know that everything will work itself out in the end, so the joshing never seems particularly cruel or unkind.

I like the mentalism trick which he performs with a rather attractive young woman from the jury.  It’s another neat piece of close-up magic and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.  Paul’s next turn – in the Christmas Bunco Booth – is possibly the most memorable part of the show.  Not because it’s a decent trick (in fact, there’s no trick at all) but simply because it demonstrates how some things never seem to change …..

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Paul opens by bemoaning the fact that since the economy is going through something of a rough patch, plenty of people are feeling the pinch (which plays equally as well in 2017 as it did in 1980).  But then he tells us his solution – separate Scotland from England and give the Scots their own currency.  Eerily prescient stuff.  As I said, there’s no trick here – just a clever piece of number juggling which allows him at the end to turn to camera and tell Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe that’s how they should be running the country!

Guest-wise, Lilly Yokoi’s bicycle act is very impressive (a pity it wasn’t a little longer).  Whereas during Michael McGiveney’s quick change act I did wish it was a little shorter.  There’s no denying the ability of McGiveney (acting out a scene from Olivier Twist, playing all the characters) but after you’ve seen one quick change you’ve seen them all (and it’s fair to say that McGiveney’s a better quick change artist than he is an actor).  Compagnie Philippe Genty offer diverting, but not riveting, puppet fun.

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Paul never seemed threatened by other magicians, as the appearance here of Harry Blackstone suggests.  Blackstone performs the sawing a woman in half trick – although by using a circular saw it creates a heightened sense of anticipation.  It’s the one major illusion in the show, which makes it all the more surprising that Paul didn’t perform it – but he was obviously happy doing the smaller stuff.  Other illusionists might have been tempted to throw in blood and screams, but Blackstone – possibly mindful of the Christmas Day audience – keeps it clean.  The camera’s close enough to see the saw apparently slicing through flesh though, so it’s still slightly disquieting.

Paul ends the show by pulling out a bewilderingly large number of Christmas presents from a very small box.  It’s a cute ending (although I’m not sure that they’d get away with using live animals today) and although there’s no staggering illusions in this 1980 Special it’s still a very convivial way to spend fifty minutes.

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Christmas Top of the Pops 1981

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Although BBC4 are continuing to plug away with their archive TOTP repeats (we’ll shortly be hitting 1983) sadly there will continue to be considerable gaps.  It’s understandable why any that feature Jimmy Savile get chopped, although DLT’s continuing blacklisting is a little harder to comprehend.

The recent news that the late Mike Smith elected not to authorise repeats of any shows in which he featured (a decision supported by his widow, Sarah Greene) is another blow.  The reason for this isn’t clear, although it’s possible that Smith felt tainted by association with the likes of Savile.

Still, at least many of these “banned” shows are in circulation, although complete editions tend to get pulled quite quickly from YouTube (other video sharing sites tend to retain them a little longer).  But one that has remained on YouTube for a number of years is the 1981 Christmas Special, which I’ve recently been revisiting.

It opens with the Teardrop Explodes and Reward.  It’s still fairly early in Michael Hurll’s reign, so there’s not an excessive party atmosphere – Julian and the boys share the stage with a few depressed-looking tinsel Christmas trees and some balloons – but hey, with a song as strong as this you don’t really need much in the way of set dressing.

Up next are Ultravox with Vienna, which was held off the top spot by Joe Dolce (surely one of those facts that just about everybody knows).  The rest of the band decided to dress quite normally, but Midge went for the full biker look.  It means nothing to me (sorry).  We do get a ballerina though, which is nice.

The lovely Kim Wilde sings Kids in America.  Sigh …..

I’ve always liked the Human League, which means that this edition of TOTP is on a bit of a roll at present.  The League perform Love Action (“this is Phil talking”) and it’s back in the day when Philip had plenty of hair whilst Susan and Joanne haven’t really gone down the glam route (but look most attractive, nonetheless).

The good stuff keeps coming, with Godley & Crème and Under Your Thumb.  It’s not exactly a cheery party song, but the audience jig about a bit from side to side – which shows they’re attempting to get into the spirt of things.  Perhaps wisely the camera tends to focus on Kevin and Lol, especially Kevin who’s in full emoting mode at the end.

There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears he’s Elvis saw Kirsty MacColl labelled as something of a novelty artist, but in the years to come she’d more than prove her quality as a singer/songwriter (and there’s nothing wrong with this song anyway).  Thanks to Fairytale of New York she’s always present at Christmas, but MacColl shouldn’t just be for Christmas, she’s good enough to be enjoyed all year round.  Make it your New Year’s resolution to check out her back catalogue, you won’t regret it.

Awkward interviews were a feature of TOTP during this era and Simon Bates draws the short straw when he encounters Adam Ant.  Colin Blunstone and Dave Stewart are up next with their cover of What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.  If you don’t already have it, then a copy of Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies should be a last minute Christmas present to yourself.  The Zombies, with the core partnership of Blunstone and Rod Argent, are still going strong today – gigging and recording albums – and they’re well worth checking out.

Zoo dance to the Jacksons’ Can You Feel It.  Linx have got into the Christmas spirit (their keyboard player is dressed as Santa!).  Intuition is one of those songs that I haven’t heard for years, but it still sounds pretty good and fits perfectly into the Christmassy atmosphere.

Too Nice to Talk Too is one of The Beat’s lesser-known hits, but it jigs along nicely.  Spandau Ballet are next, and the good news is that they haven’t yet turned into slick balladeers.  But the music (Chant No 1) wasn’t uppermost in my mind – where’s your shirt Martin Kemp?  You’ll catch your death of cold in that drafty studio ….

Nothing screams early eighties like Toyah does.  Why?  It’s a Mystery (sorry again).

Laurie Anderson’s O Superman defies description and it’s wonderful that a fairly short-lived (Peter Powell mentions that they never featured it on the regular TOTPs as it exited the charts shortly after entering) and decidedly left-field hit made the Christmas edition.

Clare Grogan’s covered in streamers as Altered Images perform Happy Birthday.  It’s another track that fits in perfectly with the happy, party vibe and it’s an undeniably slick slice of pop.

At this point in their career, Depeche Mode (with I Just Can’t Get Enough) look impossibly young and fresh-faced.  Sensible clothes (especially jumpers) are well to the fore.  Also well-turned out are OMD.  As they perform Souvenir some of the dancers do a bit of smoochy dancing (watch where you’re putting those hands!) whilst members of the audience, in time-honoured TOTP fashion, turn around to gawp at the camera.

We end with a big old singalong as the groups and the DJs join forces to warble through All You Need is Love.  Other familiar faces, like Justin Hayward, also pop up (was he just passing?) and it brings to an end an almost faultless edition of the show.  Pop perfection pretty much from beginning to end.

Sykes – Christmas Party

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Running during the sixties and seventies, Sykes starred Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques as identical(!) twins Eric and Hattie.  This episode, Christmas Party, was broadcast in December 1975 and finds them enjoying a touch of Christmas hospitality at Corky’s house (the wonderful Deryck Guyler, on fine form as ever).

The way that Eric and Hattie behave to their host highlights how different they are.  Eric, once they’ve finished eating, is keen to make their excuses and leave but Hattie, knowing how this would hurt Corky’s feelings, insists they stay for a while.  It’s clear that Eric’s more than a little cheesed off and Corky’s relatives don’t help to lighten his mood.  There’s the distinctly odd Clara (Sheila Steafel), who never seems to speak, as well as an annoying child, Marlon (Nicholas Drake), who delights in taunting Eric.

Eric Sykes’ writing style has always intrigued me.  Although he had a long association with Spike Milligan (Sykes pitched in during the 1950’s with Goon Show scripts to help ease Milligan’s workload) his own shows were always quite conventional in their tone and outlook.

So Sykes, unlike Milligan, was never an experimental comedian, which means that his work can sometimes be predictable, although – as with Christmas Party – there’s often a twist or two.  One example of using a well-worn gag can be seen when Marlon offers Eric his telescope.  You know (and the studio audience seem clued in as well) that in a minute his eye is going to be covered in black bootpolish – and so it is.  Was it the sheer predictability which appealed to Sykes?  Although his double-take means that he makes the most of it.

With most of the “action” taking place in Corky’s sitting room, there’s a definite feeling of being trapped – certainly most of the audience would probably sympathise with Eric’s sense of despair (he’d much sooner be back at home with his feet up, rather than listening to Clara plonk away on the piano).

Later, there’s a nice reversal of our expectations after Corky demonstrates his favourite card trick.  Eric doesn’t want to play along (he complains that Corky does the same one every year) and explains to Hattie that it’s just so obvious – every card in the deck is the Ace of Spades, so it’s no surprise when Corky’s confederate displays the same card.  Although he, yet again, picks the Ace of Spades he mischievously tells Corky that it was the Ten of Hearts, only for Clara to show him the Ten of Hearts!  Possibly this was the reason why Sykes had crafted the earlier, obvious, gags like the telescope – that way it makes the unbelievable card reveal more of a surprise.

The quick arrival and departure of Jimmy (Jeremy Gagan), a personable pickpocket, seems to provide an explanation as to where all their personal belongings (watches, wallets, etc) have gone, but once again there’s a twist in the tale.

Christmas Party chugs along very nicely thanks to the talents of Sykes, Jacques, Guyler and the guest cast, especially Steafel.

That’s Christmas Sez Les!

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That’s Christmas Sez Les!, Les Dawson’s 1973 Christmas extravaganza, certainly doesn’t lack on the guest front.  Along with regular contributors Eli Woods, Roy Barraclough and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, Clive Dunn, Jack Douglas and Ronnie Caroll are on hand for comic duties whilst Slade, David Essex, the Kessler Twins and Lynsey de Paul provide the music.

If you watch all the surviving episodes of Sez Les in sequence then there’s a considerable progression from series three (broadcast in early 1972) to this special in late 1973.  The third series shows were very tightly formatted – each twenty-five minute edition contained an opening and closing monologue from Dawson, a spot from the Syd Lawence Orchestra, a couple of musical guests, one studio sketch and possibly a brief bit of location filming.

By 1973 there was clearly more money in the kitty, as the regular shows had been extended to forty minutes (this special runs for an addtional ten minutes). Another change is that there’s now a considerable number of very short sketches rather than a couple of longer ones, which means that in some ways it feels like The Fast Show twenty five years early. You certainly can’t complain that the sketches are too drawn out, since many only consist of an establishing line and a punchline.

One slightly longer sketch features Dawson as a barman and Barraclough as a customer who’s confused when Dawson keeps throwing the drinks into his face.  A basic rule of comedy – repetition – is in play here, every time Barraclough complains, it appears that Dawson has finally understood, only for him to repeat the drink throwing once again.  There’s a predictable pay-off, but it’s pleasant to see a young Gordon Kaye pop up.

Dunn, Douglas and Caroll, along with Dawson and Barraclough, are good value as a group of wise-cracking vicars.  This enables them to rescue gags from the old jokes home (“do you save fallen women?”) but they’re good enough to get away with it, just ….

With so many very brief sketches,  Dawson sometimes struggles to make an impression whilst the deluge of guests also helps to reduce his screen-time. Still, at least the musical performers are pretty top notch, although was Noddy Holder really upset at Dawson’s trademark mocking introduction?  Noddy’s rejoinder (“ta for that introduction, fatty. Don’t call us, we’ll call you”) could be taken as good-natured banter, or maybe he really didn’t see the joke.

No matter, as Slade’s performance – lipsyncing to Merry Christmas Everybody – is just about perfect.  The average age of the typical Sez Les audience tended to be a little outside of Slade’s usual demographic, which explains why director David Mallet elected to surround the group with an enthusiastic young crowd.  With Noddy’s trademark mirrored hat and platform boots, together with Dave Hill’s gleaming Super-Yob guitar, this is a classic Christmas moment.

David Essex elected to sing live, the pick of his two songs being Lamplight.  He doesn’t have the teen audience around him, instead he’s on a darkened stage (rather apt I suppose, considering the song title) but showman that he is, he soldiers on regardless.  Lyndsey de Paul is possibly one musical guest too many, but her dancing with Les is a nice comic moment.

Actually thinking about it, Clive Dunn’s musical spot is definitely one too many.  The good news is that it isn’t Grandad, the bad news is that it isn’t as good as Grandad.  As with his earlier smash hit, he’s surrounded by a group of cute children, which is either endearing or sickly, depending on your point of view.  But it’s Christmas, so let’s be generous ….

More Les Dawson would have been welcome, especially some decent monologues (always his comic strength) but That’s Christmas Sez Les! is a compelling selection box of entertainment from a diverse group of performers.

Robin’s Nest – Christmas at Robin’s Nest

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Airing on ITV between 1977 and 1981, Robin’s Nest (one of two sitcoms spun off from Man About The House) is centred around the restaurant of the title, run by Robin Tripp (Richard O’Sullivan) and his wife Victoria (Tessa Wyatt).  She provides him with moral support and able assistance whilst less able assistance comes from the enthusiastic but incompetent one-armed washer-upper, Albert Riddle (David Kelly).  Also on hand is Victoria’s father, James Nicholls (Tony Britton), a sleeping partner in the business who’s always keen to make the maximum amount of money from his investment.

Although the series was created by Brian Cooke and Johnnie Mortimer, by this time they’d stepped away from scripting duties, so Robin’s Nest at Christmas was penned by George Layton, the second of his thirteen contributions to the show.  Enjoying an equally successful career as both an actor and writer (with his writer’s hat on he’d be reunited with Britton on the middle-of-the-road but nonetheless popular sitcom Don’t Wait Up a few years later) Layton seemed to easily pick up the rhythms of the series.

Although guest actors drop by occasionally, Robin’s Nest concentrates on the four regulars – with Robin and Victoria usually playing the straight-men to the more comic characters of Albert (inept at whatever he attempts) and James (a mean skinflint, content to work Robin into the ground to generate a healthy profit).

Easily the most memorable character of the four is Albert Riddle.  Kelly effortlessly steals every scene he’s in and is an endless delight to watch – without him it would be a much more routine show.  Albert’s complete ineptness is clearly on display in the opening few minutes as he attempts to help Robin to put up the Christmas decorations in the restaurant.  Of course he’s no help at all, and his endless off-key singing of Christmas songs (“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. We are doing up Robin’s Nest, just for Christmas day”) doesn’t help to reduce Robin’s stress levels.

Albert then pops by at one o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day to deliver a bombshell – after coming into a small windfall he’s been able to buy a business of his own so will be resigning from Robin’s Nest forthwith …..

There then follows a rather tense Christmas Day meal at James’ house, with a glum Robin and Victoria and a rather merry Albert, whilst Peggy Aitchison has a nice scene as James’ domestic servant, Gertrude.  Many sitcoms tended to have an extended running time for their Christmas Specials, but this Robin’s Nest remains at its normal twenty-five minute format.  This means that it all feels quite compact (with more time, the Christmas meal could have been extended and made to feel even more awkward) but the one interesting wrinkle is that the reset button with Albert isn’t hit at the end.  His arrival back at the restaurant in the last few minutes seems to indicate that he’s had a change of heart, but the reason for his reappearance is quite different and a good comic moment to end on.

Coasting by for 48 episodes thanks in no small part to the regulars, Robin’s Nest is undemanding but always watchable entertainment.  As for this one, I’ve always been a little puzzled why Robin is so upset at Albert’s decision to leave – since he spends all his time complaining about him you’d have thought he’d have welcomed it!

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