Porridge – No Way Out

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1975

Christmas is approaching in Slade Prison and Godber, for one, is getting into the spirit.  He’s encouraged by the number of cons who have congregated around the Christmas tree to sing carols, but Fletcher has to break the bad news to him.

They’re singing in order to drown out the noise of a tunnel that’s being dug in order to allow Tommy Slocombe to escape (“Yeah, that’s the big occasion around here.  It’s not the coming of our Lord, it’s the going of Tommy Slocombe”).  Genial Harry Grout (Peter Vaughan) is behind the escape, so everybody will have to play their part, as Fletcher so memorably puts it “If we are asked to assist, we are in no position to refuse are we?  Otherwise, we’ll wake up one morning and find two more things hanging on the Christmas tree.  Us”.

Fletcher plans to go away for Christmas by wangling a stay in the comfort of the prison infirmary.  But the doctor (Graham Crowden) is having none of it and packs Fletch off to the local hospital for some tests instead.  This allows somebody to slip Fletcher a package containing a blank passport, which is another piece of Grouty’s puzzle, but he still needs something else – a bicycle.  “Certainly” says Fletch.  “What colour?”.

Fletcher, Godber and Warren are able to relive the unfortunate Mr Barrowclough of his bike and Fletcher then professes ignorance when Mr Barrowclough asks him if he knows where it is (“Let’s get this straight.  You are saying that you came to work this morning as a cyclist and will be leaving as a pedestrian?”).

But all of Grouty’s plans seem to have come to naught after some petty pilfering means that the screws declare that Christmas will be cancelled.  This seems to scupper the escape plan but Fletcher has an idea.  Why don’t they let the screws discover the tunnel and whilst they’re busy congratulating themselves, Grouty can quietly spirit Slocombe away by another route?

Grouty agrees and Fletch is delegated to reveal the tunnel to Mr Mackay.  He wants to arrange that Mackay will literally drop right into it.  Unfortunately, it’s Fletcher who drops into the tunnel, right before the astonished eyes of Mackay, but this does mean that Fletch will be able to spend Christmas in the infirmary after all.

Mackay has one unanswered question and promises Fletcher a bottle of scotch if he’ll answer it.  What did they do with all the earth from the tunnel?  Fletch’s answer (“They dug another tunnel and put the earth down there”) is a killer final line.

The first of two Porridge Christmas specials, No Way Out adds another ten minutes to the normal running time, which allows for a few more gags but isn’t so long that it begins to feel drawn out.  That’s one of the problems with Christmas editions of sitcoms when they started to be produced in a 90 minute format – what works in 30 minutes doesn’t always work when extended to 90.  Thankfully, Porridge didn’t go down that route.

Harry Grout is probably the role that Peter Vaughan is most associated with, which is a little surprising when you consider that Grouty only appeared in a handful of episodes.  He is mentioned in a number of others though, so that his presence is always felt (even when he’s not actually seen).  Vaughan’s ability to play everything deadpan and calm is one of the reasons why Grouty works so well – he doesn’t have to raise his voice, just a word or a snap of his fingers will do the trick.

No Way Out is a hardy Christmas perennial, usually to be found each year on BBC2 and certainly receiving several airings on Gold.  Its familiarity might have dimmed a little of its power (and it’s difficult to rewatch it now without hearing the man with the irritating laugh in the audience) but it’s still a Christmas treat.

Porridge – The Desperate Hours

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Originally Transmitted – 24th December 1976

The second and final Porridge Christmas special splits rather neatly into two sections.  The first fifteen minutes or so follow Fletch and Godber’s illegal booze making activities and their attempts to interest their fellow prisoners in purchasing the fruits of their labour.  Two selections were on offer – the two-star and the five-star.  Upon sampling the five-star, Fletcher had very specific instructions.

Now, I must warn you, this should be sipped delicately like a fine liqueur.  It should not be smashed down the throat by the mugful.

Judging by their expressions, Warren, McLaren and Tulip found it powerful stuff – although quite what was in it was something of a mystery.  Next up was the two-star and Fletcher warned them that this wasn’t quite so smooth.

So go carefully, otherwise not only will you lose the flavour and the bouquet but you’ll also lose your powers of speech.

Sadly, their activities were discovered by Mackay who promptly marched them off to the Governor’s office.  The second part of the episode runs for about thirty minutes and it’s possible to believe that this was a normal episode which was expanded with the home-brew opening to produce this Christmas special.

Things take an unexpected turn when the new trusty, Urwin (Dudley Sutton), takes Barrowclough, Fletcher, Godber and the Governor’s secretary (Mrs Jameson) hostage.   He has two demands for Barrowclough (“shut that blind and get me a helicopter”).  The first is easy enough, but the second is going to be more of a problem.

During the course of the siege we learn that Mr Barrowclough and Mrs Jameson are more than friends (something which Fletcher will no doubt make use of in the future) and we also discover a great deal about Urwin.  It’s a lovely performance from Sutton who really is the focus of the episode.

Urwin is a somewhat pathetic character.  Passed over for psychiatric treatment, it looks as if the system has driven him to this desperate course of action.  Eventually, Fletch is able to take his home-made gun off him (a tense and well-acted seen between Barker and Sutton).  Just prior to this, Fletch spells out to him exactly why he’s never going to make it.

There ‘aint no way.  The worst thing that could happen to you is if they say OK.  ‘Cos you know as well as I do that you’d never make it to that helicopter.  They got marksmen out there that can shoot a fly’s eyebrows off at 400 yards.  And if flies had other things they could shoot them off ‘an all.

Fletch shrugs off the admiration of Godber.  It was nothing, he says, since he knew that Unwin’s gun was a fake (it wasn’t, of course, which Fletch inadvertently demonstrates by shooting a hole in the ceiling!).

Less Christmas orientated than No Way Out, The Desperate Hours is a cracking episode, full of the usual witty banter and a fine guest turn by Dudley Sutton.

K9 and Company: A Girl’s Best Friend

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Originally Transmitted – 28th December 1981

K9 and Company might be something of a guilty pleasure, but it’s a pleasure nonetheless.

When devising a spin-off series for K9, there were already two ready-made possibilities.  K9 Mk 1 was on Gallifrey with Leela, whilst K9 Mk 2 was journeying through E-Space with Romana 2.  Possibly neither Louise Jameson or Lalla Ward were interested in playing second fiddle to a tin dog, so this left the way clear for the return of Sarah-Jane Smith.

Elisabeth Sladen is, of course, the main selling point of K9 and Company.  And although we didn’t know it at the time, this was essentially the first of a two part story (the second, School Reunion, would follow a mere twenty five years later).

A Girl’s Best Friend is an odd story.  It’s full of red-herrings and innocent people acting in the most suspicious way (in order to con us into believing that they’re wrong-‘uns).  Colin Jeavons and Bill Fraser liven up proceedings with some interesting performances that teeter on the edge of credibility (and Jeavons later topples over completely).

Given that a running thread through the story is the mysterious disappeance of Aunt Lavinia, it’s a little anti-climatic to find out that nothing at all has happened to her.  And the reason why Brendan (Ian Sears) should be lined up for sacrifice is a bit vague – unless it was explained and I just drifted off for a moment.

Terence Dudley’s novelisation managed to put some more meat on the bones of the story (just likes his novelisations of Black Orchid and The Kings Demons) which proved that there was a decent tale buried here, but it just didn’t quite come over on television.

Doctor Who – The Feast of Steven

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Originally transmitted – 25th December 1965

I can’t have been the only person to have the cockles of their heart warmed by the prominent sight and sound of William Hartnell in the new BBC Christmas trailer.  Of course, if they hadn’t wiped the tapes some forty years ago then we wouldn’t have had to have a shot of Hartnell from The War Machines matched up with audio from The Feast of Steven, but as it’s the season of goodwill we’ll let that pass.

That brief clip of Billy wishing everybody the compliments of the season made me think that The Feast of Steven would be an ideal addition to my Christmas television viewing.  I wouldn’t normally watch an individual episode of Doctor Who, but let’s be honest – The Feast of Steven has no connection to the rest of The Daleks’ Master Plan, so why not?

Indeed, as others have noted in the past, The Daleks’ Master Plan is a curiously constructed story.  The beginning and the end of the serial can be said to form one story, whilst the episodes in the middle are essentially The Chase Part Two.  And since it’s debatable whether The Chase was a good idea to begin with, the notion of a sequel is an interesting idea.  Within this second story, sits The Feast of Steven, an odd episode (yes, a very odd episode) all on its own – broadcast on Christmas Day 1965.

The fact it was broadcast on Christmas Day must explain the tone of the episode.  Presumably it was felt that 25 minutes of the Daleks exterminating all and sundry would be out of place – so instead we have something much lighter.  It’s difficult to believe that the original plan was to have the cast of Z Cars appear in the first section, but if they had it would have been a bizarre crossover, more in the nature of a Children in Need skit than a normal episode of Doctor Who.  But it does give us one of Hartnell’s best lines, when the Doctor describes himself as “A citizen of the Universe, and a gentleman to boot”.

After the Doctor, Steven and Sara extract themselves from the clutches of the police, the TARDIS drops them in the middle of Hollywood’s golden age, where they rub shoulders with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby.  This section of the story is probably not best served by the lack of visuals (you can be sure Douglas Camfield would have had a few tricks up his sleeve).  There are a few memorable lines, though some (like Hartnell’s “Arabs”) are memorable for the wrong reasons.

And it ends with that line from the Doctor, wishing everybody at home a Happy Christmas.  A Hartnell ad-lib or something scripted? I’m not sure, but I do find it bizarre that some recons (although fortunately not the LC one below) have removed it.  This seems to be similar to snipping out the fast-talking Ogron (“no complications”) from the Day of the Daleks SE.  Don’t they know that you can’t re-write history, not one line?

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1969

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Compared to their later BBC Christmas shows, the 1969 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show was a rather modest affair.  After reaching an early peak in 1971, they (together with writer Eddie Braben), obviously felt a need to try and make the next Christmas show even better than the last – with bigger production numbers, more impressive guests, etc.

But when the 1969 special was transmitted all this was in the future, so what we have here is basically an extended version of one of their normal shows.  It’s still hugely enjoyable, but there’s few of the stand-out moments that their later Christmas shows would become famous for.

There’s plenty of guests though.  Fenella Fielding stars in the end play, whilst Frankie Vaughan, Nina, Sacha Distel, The Pattersons and Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen provide the music.  Five musical guests might be too much for some people (and some of them are certainly better than others) but for me, Nina and Kenny Ball are the pick of the guests .

Eddie Braben had started writing the Morecambe and Wise show in 1969, during the second series (following the departure of Sid Green and Dick Hills who had worked with M&W throughout the rest of the 1960’s).  Since the second series was only four episodes long, the 1969 Christmas show was still very early days for Braben, but many of the familiar traits were already in place.

Braben’s chief innovations were to turn Ern into a writer, giving a shape and form to the end of episode productions as well as softening the byplay between the two (the Green and Hills M&W tended to be more combative).

Chief pleasures in any Braben scripted M&W show are the opening byplay and the flat sketch.  The opening sees Ern dressed in a hip and happening way.  Since by December 1969 the Swinging Sixties had run their course, he looks even more ridiculous then if he’d been dressed that way in 1967, which I presume is part of the joke (although from the modern perspective it’s possibly not so clear).

There’s plenty of great lines here as Ern tells Eric, “A couple of nights ago, I had a happening.  I freaked out in the King’s Road.  Pow!  I went to this discotheque.  I met this dolly bird and we really moved it!” whilst Eric is fascinated by Ern’s coat, “Does it tug when you go past a lampost?  Now, promise me one thing, Don’t ever go to the countryside wearing that coat.  If a big lusty farmer sees you, you’ve had it.  You’ll be dipped and sheared before you know where you are”.

In the flat sketch, Ern is taking a bath and of course Eric has to interrupt.  Ern’s far from pleased (“You did this the last time I had a bath”) to which Eric replies, “You’ve got a good memory”.  Eric’s also impressed with Ern’s chest hair.  “By golly, aren’t you hairy?  That is hair, that, isn’t it?  Thick hair all over your body.  I wouldn’t have had a bath if I were you.  I would have got dry cleaned”.

Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen were a reguar feature on M&W’s shows dating back from their time at ATV earlier in the 1960’s and they’d continue to pop up during their BBC shows.

The lovely Nina appears to sing Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? which had featured in that years James Bond film.  This begins a short-lived tradition (Shirley Bassey appeared on the 1971 M&W Christmas show to sing Diamonds are Forever).

Elsewhere, the ventriloquist dummy sketch is so stupid, which probably explains why I like it so much.

Fenella Fielding is suitably alluring as Lady Hamilton playing opposite Ern (and Eric) as Lord Nelson.  The playlets tend to drag a little (some like the John Thaw/Dennis Waterman one seem to last forever) but this isn’t too bad and at least it allows Eric the opportunity to dress up as Long John Silver.

A modest start then, but the 1970 show would see the stakes raised with a notable increase in the quality of the guest stars.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1970

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Ern’s less than delighted with Eric’s Christmas present to him – a pair of socks that Eric has just removed from his own feet.  When Ern complains that they’re still warm, Eric explains that he was airing them for him.  Ern’s present to Eric is much more impressive – a silver fob watch, although Eric isn’t pleased when he opens it up and it plays the Colonel Bogey march.  There might be a reason why this would have offended him, but it’s a bit of a mystery to me (presumably a topical reference).

Later on, Eric plans to do something different – sawing a woman in half.  When he asks Ern to get into the box, Ern protests that he isn’t a woman, to which Eric replies, “I haven’t used the saw yet”.  Luckily, there’s a diversion – Peter Cushing turns up, still looking for his fee from his appearance as King Arthur several years ago.  It’s always a pleasure to see Cushing and they’d certainly get some mileage from this running gag over the years.  His appearance here gives Eric the chance to “saw a Peter Cushing in half”.

Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen perform Hello Dolly with a few changed lyrics welcoming Eric and Ernie back (this was recorded shortly after Eric’s heart attack).

The flat sketch features Eric cooking Christmas dinner for Ern and their guest Ann Hamilton.  Ann Hamilton was such a good utility player for M&W, able to pitch in and play a wide variety of roles over many years. There’s an interesting interview with her here.

Next, Eric and Ernie are joined by Eric Porter, much to Eric’s alarm (“A drunk. A drunk’s just come on. Play it cool. Don’t worry about it”). Eventually they twig that he’s not a drunk but the famous actor Eric Porter, although Eric’s still not happy (“We don’t want him on. He was rotten the last time”). They then all perform a song and dance act, which allows Porter to demonstrate his hoofing skills. This was always one of the pleasures of the M&W show – watching familiar faces demonstrating unfamiliar skills.

Nina’s back and like Shirley Bassey the following year, she performs two songs – one straight and the other with “help” from Eric and Ernie.  She should have realised there’d be trouble when they told her they’d built a special set just for her …..

The stars keep coming, with a special appearance by John Wayne – although he looks a little different from his big screen appearances (see picture seven below).   And then a real star turns up – Edward Woodward.  It’s difficult to tell if he’s genuinely a little ill at ease or if he’s playing at being irritated – I’d assume the later, since numerous interviews over the years seemed to indicate that he had a healthy sense of humour.  He’s not come on to act – instead he wants to sing, which he does (performing The Way You Look Tonight).  Although it’s something of a footnote to his career now, he had some success as a recording artist as well as a short-lived Thames series (The Edward Woodward Hour) where he was able to demonstrate his vocal talents.

William Franklyn joins Eric and Ernie for barely controlled chaos in the closing skit, loosely adapted from The Three Musketeers.

The 1970 Christmas Show was a step up from 1969, and the 1971 Show would be better still.

Christmas Night with the Stars

Christmas Night with the Stars was a BBC staple, running between 1958 and 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966).  The format remained the same – a familiar face would introduce specially made Christmas editions of popular BBC shows (each running for about ten minutes).

There’s several examples on YouTube.  The 1958 edition, features Tony Hancock amongst others and is introduced by David Nixon.

The 1964 edition features the likes of James Bolam & Rodney Bewes in The Likely Lads and Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd in Hugh and I and is introduced by Jack Warner.