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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All This and Christmas Too!

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Headed by Sidney James and Kenneth Connor and featuring cameos from the likes of Janet Webb and Joe Gladwin, All This and Christmas Too! doesn’t lack for on-screen talent.

Sidney James is probably best known for his appearances in a string of Carry On films, but his film career in general (particularly during the 1950’s) was extensive – The Lavender Hill Mob, The Belles of St Trinians, Quatermass 2 and Hell Drivers are just a few highlights.  He also served as an excellent comic foil to Tony Hancock, both on radio and television, as well as starring in a number of different television series – such as Citizen James, Taxi!, George and the Dragon and Bless This House.

Kenneth Connor was also a familiar Carry On name, although prior to his appearance in the first of the series, Carry on Sergeant in 1958, he’d already amassed a diverse list of credits – appearing alongside Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan during their early forays into television, for example.

So by the time All This and Christmas Too! was broadcast in 1971, both had built up a considerable reserve of affection from the British public, which was probably just as well.  All This and Christmas Too! is a variable fifty minutes of pretty broad comedy – but thanks to the star quality of Sid James and Kenneth Connor I can’t help but feel a little indulgent towards it.

James plays Sid Jones (they must have spent hours thinking that name up) whilst Connor is his rather dim next-door neighbour, Willie Beattie.  Like the not completely dissimilar Sid Abbot in Bless This House, this Sid is also a devoted family man – with a wife, Peggy (Beryl Mason) and two daughters, Linda (Juliette Kempson) and Sally (Katie Allen).

The best gag is reserved for the opening scene, where – to the strains of Also sprach Zarathustra – a spaceman (Sid) makes his entrance.  The incongruity of a spaceman walking down the streer is quickly explained though, as Sid’s been entertaining the kids at a local party (although why he didn’t remove his costume before returning home is anyone’s guess ….).

With Sally shortly due to give birth, the hapless Sid is put in charge of keeping an eye on her whilst Peggy heads out to do some last minute Christmas shopping.  But any thoughts of a quiet few hours are quickly dismissed when Willie pops around – he wants Sid’s advice on negligees (for Willie’s wife, naturally).

I have to confess to being somewhat smitten with Juliet Kempson, who plays Sid’s non-pregnant daughter Linda. She’s really rather lovely and her presence helps to make the programme a little more enjoyable. Sam Cree’s script mines familiar generational tropes as Sid finds himself frequently baffled by his youngest daughter – the music she likes, the make-up she wears, etc. Watch out for the moment when Sid tells Linda to turn her record off, it stops several seconds before she reaches the player. The grams operator must have been a tad quick off the mark!

When Sally tells her father that it might be a good idea to call for a taxi, Sid goes into panic mode. The baby! James and Connor are both excellent at playing flustered – Willie rushes off to call a taxi whilst Sid runs round and round in circles, attempting to get Sally’s suitcase ready. Clearly forward planning isn’t big in the Jones’ household ….

Next day, Sid is surprised to find a baby in the hall. Even though it’s black, he decides that it must be Sally’s (it’s not of course). Cue more frantic activity from James and Connor as they attempt to stop the baby crying (the production clearly didn’t record a real child’s cries – it’s painfully obvious that what we can hear is an adult doing a baby impression).

When news of Sally’s baby comes through, Sid and Willie decide to toast its health, several times in fact. James and Connor both indulge in a nice spot of drunk acting, although the speed at which they become virtually insensible (mere seconds after taking a drink) is bizarre.

Unfortunately they have to try and pull themselves together and entertain Sally’s husband’s parents, Mr and Mrs Hall (the ever lugubrious Gladwin and the stoney-faced Rose Power).  What’s interesting about Sid’s attempt to make casual conversation with the foreboding Mrs Hall is that the same exchange (“I tried it once, didn’t like it”) also turned up in the following year’s Carry on Abroad.

Janet Webb, like Gladwin, has a nice comic cameo – she plays the flighty Aunt Maud. Her interplay with Gladwin’s vitually catatonic Mr Hall is something of a treat, as is the transformed Mr Hall after Sid’s special drink has taken effect.

A mixed bag then, with some of the farce elements feeling rather forced, but Sid James and Kenneth Connor do their best with the material on offer.

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Six Dates with Barker – 2274: All the World’s a Stooge

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The year is 2274 and comedy is now a religion with Chaplin, Keaton and W.C. Fields revered as gods.  Life is an endless stream of corny jokes, but Prince Boffo (Barker), shortly to ascend to the throne, is increasingly dissatisfied with this.  His wife, Princess Hysteria (Joyce Grant), is baffled to learn that Boffo’s lost his sense of humour, but his daughter, Cheeky (Lesley Anne-Down) is more sympathetic.  Is Boffo fit to be King?  That’s for the Arch Funster (Michael Horden) to find out ….

Written by Barker (under his regular pseudonym of Gerald Wiley), All the World’s a Stooge is an intriguing and vaguely experimental sci-fi story.  No expense was spent to bring 2274 AD to life, although it’s possible this was an intentional nod to series such as Out of the Unknown, which also tended to depict future times on a shoestring budget.  And even if it wasn’t, it works anyway – flimsy looking sets and lashings of CSO just seem to be right for this type of story.

Did this obscure little playlet influence future writers?  It’s easy to see parallels in several later Doctor Who stories.  Vengeance on Varos also featured a couple who provide a running commentary on events, watching via their television screen (here it’s Joy Stewart and Victor Maddern as Tarty and Atlas).  And The Happiness Patrol could easily be depicting a sister world to this one.

Ronnie Barker loved corny gags and would later recycle many of them in the Two Ronnies Yokels sketches.  I’ve no doubt he enjoyed giving the old jokes featured here another airing, but there was also room to air a serious point.  This sort of humour becomes mechanical over time, with no joy to be gained from the responses and punchlines.  Boffo wants a world where humour is natural and unforced and it appears by the end of the episode that he’s got his wish, even if most of the planet (including his wife) don’t understand this and are simply glad he appears to be his old, funny self again.

A strong guest cast helps to enhance Wiley’s script.  Horden looks to be enjoying himself as the Arch Funster, especially when doing the Groucho walk.  Lesley-Anne Down is very appealing as Boffo’s idealistic daughter whilst Jack Tripp also impresses as the doctor who tells Boffo that his father is dead (“do you know what’s good for water on the brain? A tap on the head”).

Although it features a couple of indifferent instalments, overall Six Dates with Barker is a pretty strong series.  A few years later, after Barker moved back to the BBC, they did something similar with Seven of One, although that would produce both of Barker’s biggest sitcom successes …

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Six Dates with Barker – 1971: Come In and Lie Down

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After the disappointment of Lola, things take an upward turn again with Come In and Lie Down.  Doctor Swanton (Barker) is a brusque, seen-it-all psychiatrist who’s possibly met his match with Mr Matting (Michael Bates).  Matting’s tale of being observed all the time by a small man in a Robin Hood hat with binoculars seems like a typical sort of delusion, but then Swanton sees the man as well ….

Since it’s scripted by John Cleese, it’s possibly no surprise that it has a definite Python feel (for example, Reginald Maulding is namechecked).  Bates gives an energised performance as a man who has an intense fear of being labelled a looney.  To this end, when he first enters Swanton’s consulting room he pretends to be the gas man, sympathising about the difficulties Swanton must face.  “Blimey, what a job eh? Talking to loonies all day. Wouldn’t catch me being a psychiatrist, not me. I’ll stick to gas. A load of nutters aren’t they? In here, hopping around on one leg, squawking, think they’re Napoleon.”

Bates, best known for Last of the Summer Wine and It ‘Aint Half Hot Mum, freewheels in a most impressive fashion.  To begin with, it appears that he has the more showy role (Barker comes off as rather pallid in comparison).  But once Swanton believes he can also see Matting’s imaginary man, the power dynamic between the pair subtly shifts and Swanton begins to act in a hysterical fashion.  Matting is rather irritated when Swanton declares Matting isn’t a looney.  “Oh that’s nice isn’t it? If I can see him he’s imaginary but if you can see him he’s real. I get it. You think you’re Lord God Almighty don’t you? If a patent can see something you can’t see, he’s a looney, he should be down on the funny farm, but if Doctor Smartypants can see him, he’s there mate.”

The reveal of the imaginary man (Ian Trigger) is done subtly, as for a few minutes the audience is aware of him, but neither Swanton or Matting react.  As Matting’s used to him being there all the time that’s understandable, but are we viewing the scene through his eyes only?  It’s only when Swanton double-takes that the fun really starts.

Swanton’s mounting hysteria is a gift for Barker, who doesn’t disappoint.  The conclusion, as all three debate the nature of existence, is also nicely handed.  After Swanton proves that the imaginary man is real, Matting is able to leave a happy man – safe in the knowledge that he isn’t a looney.  You can see the final story-beat coming a mile off, but it’s really the only obvious punchline.

Given how the early series of The Two Ronnies recycled material from their time at LWT, it’s easy to see  a cut-down version of this working as a sketch, with Ronnie C taking the role of Michael Bates (despite the twenty five minute length, it’s played very much in the tempo of a typical Two Ronnies sketch).  It’s certainly one that still stands up well today.

Six Dates with Barker – 1915: Lola

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Fritz Braun (Barker) is a rather incompetent shorthand typist in the employ of Kaiser Wilhelm (Dennis Ramsden).  The Kasier dismisses him and then decides that since he knows too many secrets he can’t be allowed to live.  But the man he choses for the task, Captain Otto Von Diesel ( Graham Armitage), finds himself unable shoot his brother-in-law in cold blood.  This presents a problem, Fritz needs to be dead whilst a sultry female spy called Lola is reportedly dead but it would be better if she was alive.  This presents an obvious solution, why doesn’t Fritz drag up as Lola ….

After a couple of good episodes, Lola is a broad and fairly comedy-free farce.  Although Barker would put on women’s clothing on numerous occasions during The Two Ronnies, it was never something he felt terribly comfortable with.  His Lola is therefore a fairly broad creation (although the script by Ken Hoare and Mike Sharland didn’t really give him many opportunities for subtlety).

This studio-bound story flits between Germany and Paris and if the script is rather indifferent, then it’s possible to derive some enjoyment from the guest cast.  Hugh Walters has a few nice moments as a German corporal, Graham Armitage impresses as Von Diesel whilst Freddie Jones plays it very broad (but there’s no other way with this script) as an English officer bewitched by Lola’s charms.  The peerless Valentine Dyall has a small role as Lord Kitchener, posing for his famous portrait, complaining that his arm is going to sleep and taking more than a shine to Lola.

This one is best filed under indifferent.

Six Dates with Barker – 1970: The Odd Job

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David Jason’s early career was very much intertwined with Barker’s.  Jason’s respect and admiration for Barker has never been in doubt (to him, Barker was always “the guvnor”) and it’s plain that Jason considered his work with Barker, especially during the 1970’s, as something of a comedy apprenticeship – a chance for him to watch the master at work and learn from him.

Jason aged-up to play Dithers the gardener in Hark At Barker (1969 – 1970) and His Lordship Entertains (1972).  His old-age make-up would also come in useful when he appeared as Blanco in Porridge (1975 – 1977).  So it wouldn’t be until Open All Hours (1976 – 1985) that he was finally able to play a regular role of his own age opposite Barker.

The Odd Job also sees him act without aged make-up, as he appears as Clive, a man desperate for any odd jobs (“engines you want de-clogged or television sets, I mend typewriters and washing machines you know”).  Arthur Harriman (Barker) does have a job for him – remove the scabbard from a samurai sword.  Arthur can’t take the nagging from his wife Kitty (Joan Sims) any more, so has decided to take his own life.  But when faced with the sword (plus Clive’s graphic description of hari-kari) he finds it impossible to do it himself, so wonders if Clive would do this odd job for him ….

Arthur is a meek, mild and fairly monotonous character whilst Clive (thanks to Jason’s comic tics and Northern accent) rather commands the screen.  Given that Clive is by far the showier part, it’s interesting that Barker chose to play Arthur instead.  This may be because, coming from an acting background, he didn’t have the ego that some comedians possess and wouldn’t have minded if Jason was earning more of the laughs.

Written by Bernard McKenna, who’d earlier penned several instalments of Hark at Barker and would later write several of Jason’s early sitcom efforts, A Sharp Intake of Breath and The Secret Life of Edgar Briggs, it’s a simple, but effective concept which is given a twist when Arthur and Kitty are reconciled.  This means that he no longer needs Clive’s services, but convincing the enthusiastic Clive is a little tricky.

Part two is where we see Clive really begin to treat this odd job with gusto.  He’s a man of limitless invention – for example, putting hydrochloric acid in Arthur’s milk so that his cereal disintegrates, setting up a tripwire which catches an unfortunate milkman instead, and almost managing to shoot Arthur in the park (instead some garden gnomes are dispatched).

It’s always nice to see Joan Sims, even if she has little to do, and the appearance of Derek Ware (playing the milkman) is a sure sign that something nasty is going to happen.  Ware was one of those select band of stuntmen (along with the likes of Terry Walsh and Stuart Fell) who would become so ubiquitous that their arrival on screen was a clear indication that mayhem wouldn’t be far behind.

It’s a pity that The Odd Job only exists as a black and white film print, as I’ve no doubt that the location work in the second half would look rather better in colour.  But no matter, it’s always a pleasure to see Barker and Jason together and whilst the final twist may be obvious it’s also satisfying.  It would later be revived as a 1978 film with Jason reprising his role and Graham Chapman replacing Barker.  Chapman’s involvement makes it an interesting Python curio, but The Odd Job works best in the twenty five minute format.