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

The Diary of a Nobody – Second Sight DVD Review

Charles Pooter lives a perfectly ordinary, totally uninteresting life in late Victorian London.  However he doesn’t see why this humdrum existence should prevent him from sharing his thoughts with the world.  “Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I’ve never heard of and I fail to see, just because I don’t happen to be a ‘somebody’, why my diary should not be just as interesting in its way”.

Written by George and Weedon Grossmith,  The Diary of a Nobody was originally published in Punch magazine between 1888–89 with an expanded book edition appearing in 1892. Although it received only cursory attention at the time, it slowly began to be appreciated as a comic masterpiece as the decades rolled by (Evelyn Waugh once called it “the funniest book in the world”).

There had been several television productions prior to this 2007 adaptation by Andrew Davies.  In 1964, Ken Russell directed a forty minute film version for the BBC, shot in the style of a silent movie with the text delivered as a voice-over.  A more traditional production was mounted in 1979, with Terrence Hardiman as Pooter.

Given that the novel is written in the form of a diary, the obvious difficulty for any adapter is how you keep Pooter’s distinctive voice (which, after all, is the motor which drives the book).  Back in 1979 they went down the traditional full-cast route, but Davies elected to restrict Pooter’s world to just the man himself.

So this is a one-man show, with Hugh Bonneville our sole focus for the duration (four 30 minute episodes).  There is an inherent danger with this approach –  if Bonneville doesn’t engage then we’re in trouble – but he’s on sparking form right from the beginning.  Within the first few minutes Pooter’s character has been laid bare – he’s somewhat pompous and self-important, meaning that most of the minor traumas which constitute his daily life are caused by his own character defects (although he never seems to realise this).

Pooter sets the scene by giving the audience a tour of his house (although the diary is mentioned, he delivers his monologues direct to camera, thereby helping to draw the audience in).  “We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway.  We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent.  He was certainly right; after a week we scarcely noticed them at all.  And apart from the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience”.

In the first episode Pooter sketches the cast of characters who make up his world – friends such as Cummings and Gowing and his wife Carrie.   She’s clearly a long suffering women, something which is made plain after Pooter begins to paint various items in the house red.  “Got some more red enamel paint (red, to my mind, is the best colour), and I painted the coal-scuttle and the backs of our edition of Shakespeare, the binding of which had almost worn out.  I then painted the bath red and was delighted with the result. Carrie, unfortunately, was not.  In fact we had a few words about it.  She said I ought to have consulted her, and she had never heard of such a thing as a bath being painted red.  I replied: ‘That’s merely a matter of taste.’  Unaccountably this seemed to annoy Carrie even more”.

There are further delights to come as the episodes progress.  His son Lupin is a problem, as is his wife-to-be Daisy.  “Coming home from church Carrie and I met Lupin, Daisy Mutlar, and her brother.  Daisy was introduced to us, and we walked home together.  We asked them in for a few minutes, and I had a good look at my future daughter-in-law.  My heart sank.  She is a very big young woman, and I should think at least eight years older than Lupin.  I did not even think her good-looking”.

Susannah White’s direction is naturally limited by the confines of the house, but thanks to numerous changes of costume from Bonneville we’re given the illusion that time is passing – otherwise the fragmentary nature of some of the diary entries would seem somewhat jarring.  Edmund Butt’s music (a solo piano) also helps to underscore the scene changes and like the best incidental music manages to compliment the on-screen action rather than dominate it.

Entirely dependant on a strong performance from the actor playing Pooter, Hugh Bonneville certainly doesn’t disappoint on this score.  Although the production has a restricted, theatrical, air, after a while his storytelling skill is such that it’s easy to visualise the people he’s talking about and they start to become real, breathing characters.

Originally released as a R2 DVD by 2Entertain in 2010, The Diary of a Nobody has now been brought back into print by Second Sight.  All four episodes are contained on a single disc and English subtitles are featured.  There are no issues with the sound or picture that I could see.

An evergreen comic classic, the world of Charles Pooter continues to entertain and this adaptation by Andrew Davies manages to capture the best elements from the original book.  Recommended.

The Diary of a Nobody is released by Second Sight on the 12th of June 2017.  RRP £19.99.

I Didn’t Know You Cared – Second Sight DVD Review

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Peter Tinniswood (1936 – 2003) first came to prominence in the 1960’s, collaborating with David Nobbs on The Frost Report and also penning Lance at Large, a sitcom built around the talents of Lance Percival.  He also pursued a career as a novelist and two of his books – A Touch of Daniel (1971) and I Didn’t Know You Cared (1973) – would form the basis of his most enduring television creation.

The television version of I Didn’t You Know Cared, adapted loosely by Tinniswood from his novels, ran for four series between 1975 and 1979 (a third novel, Except You’re A Bird, was published in 1976).  Although the series was popular at the time, it sadly doesn’t have a very high profile these days.  Some maintain this is because of its strong Northern atmosphere, but I’m not sure this is so – after all, it bears some similarities to Last of the Summer Wine, and that’s a series which has always had broad appeal.

The comparison with LOTSW is a fair one (and not least because John Comer appeared in both series).  They both depict worlds where married life is a constant battle, with neither side giving any quarter.  In I Didn’t Know You Cared it’s the formidable Annie Brandon (Liz Smith) who rules the roost with considerable relish.

The opening episode, Cause for Celebration, sees Uncle Mort (Robin Bailey) bury his wife Edna (who had the bad luck to fall off a trolleybus onto her head).  Mort doesn’t exactly seem heartbroken – fretting that because the funeral’s taking so long he’s going to miss the football results – but later does admit that he’ll miss her.  “She was a dab hand at plumbing you know. God knows who’s going to paint the outside of the house now she’s dead.”  But every cloud has a silver lining and he’s happy that from now on he’ll be able to wear his cap at the dinner-table.

Bailey tended to play upper-class most of the time, so the earthy Northerner Mort was something of a departure for him.  But he’s never less than excellent and thanks to Tinniswood’s pithy dialogue he’s always got plenty of good material to work with.

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Mort sneaks away from the funeral party with his brother-in-law Les (John Comer).  If Mort is starting to relish his new found freedom, then spare a thought for Les, shortly due to celebrate twenty five years of marriage to Annie.  She wants a second honeymoon, whilst Les doesn’t seem to have recovered from the first.  As Mort and Les seek refuge and a nice cup of tea in the comfortable hut at Mort’s allotment (Mort grows weeds, explaining to Les that they’re much better than sprouts) they muse over the mysteries of marriage.  Les believes that having to marry a woman is where the trouble starts – if he could have chosen anyone, he’d have picked King George VI!  They’re joined by Les’ son Carter (Stephen Rea), and after a few moments Mort decides that “t’fly in ointment is the human reproduction system.”

How much better would it be, Mort says, if a woman laid an egg and sat on it for nine months.  “Just think, she’d be stuck in t’house for nine months, sat on her egg. She’d have no excuse for coming to t’pub with you then.”  Carter sees a flaw in this admirable idea though – why couldn’t she put the egg in the oven for a bit?  After considering this, Mort decides that it wouldn’t work, not with the way that gas pressure is like these days.  “You couldn’t rely on it. Just think what would happen. You’d put your oven on at regulo 2, you’d stick you egg in it, you’d nip out for a couple of gills. When you come back you find t’gas pressure’s gone up and your potential son and heir’s turned into a bloody omelette.”

Alas, their peace and quiet doesn’t last for long as Annie tracks them down.  She depresses Mort by telling him that he’s going to come and live with her and Les (so he won’t be sneaking down to the pub every night and doing exactly what he pleases).  Carter also has the sense that the walls are closing in on him after he’s forced to stop prevaricating and propose to Pat (Anita Carey).  Well I say propose, but his mumbled words fall a little short of that – no matter to Pat though, she’s now steaming full ahead and starts by asking him if he’d like a son or a colour television first …

In the space of thirty minutes Tinniswood has set everything up nicely – Annie and Les, Carter and Pat, plus Uncle Mort.  Not to mention Uncle Staveley (Bert Palmer) hovering in the background, constantly asking “pardon?”

During the first series we see the preparations for Carter and Pat’s marriage.  Mort and Les, old hands in the marriage game, are keen to give him the benefit of their experience (they both think it’s a very bad move). Unsurprisingly Pat don’t find this terribly helpful. By series two they’ve tied the knot, although Carter’s finding it rather difficult to adjust to married life.  Both Rea and Carey left after the second series, so Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding took over the roles for the final two series (Leslie Saroney replaced Bert Palmer as Uncle Stavely for the fourth and final series).

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The endless conflict between men and women is explored in the series two episode A Woman’s Work. Mort is depressed at having to spend all day trapped in the house with only Annie and Pat for company. He eyes Les and Carter with envy – they’ll soon be setting off to the factory for a day of filth and squalor (he tells them they don’t know how lucky they are!)

Familiar Tinniswood tropes come to the fore – not only do the women do all the housework (which goes without saying) but they also deal with the household maintenance as a matter of course. Annie recalls the problem they had with the guttering, which wasn’t helped by the fact she was stuck on the roof for six hours after Les took the ladder away. He tells her there was a good reason – he had to repair a hole in the snooker club roof – and he doesn’t seem to appreciate that she may have had different priorities.

Carter and Pat are now married and Pat is eyeing their new home. Anita Carey continues to impress as Pat, an upwardly mobile woman who embraces the new. She’s very taken with the qualities of their potential new neighbours (mainly because of the gadgets on their cars) and is also keen to mould the reluctanct Carter into a new man. This isn’t going to be easy though ….

Mort’s reminisces of his married life are another of the episode’s highlights – especially the moment when he recalls how Edna would demand her conjugal rights every Saturday evening. “Oh ‘ell, I’d say. Can I keep me pyjama jacket on? Undiluted bloody agony.”

Paul Barber pops up in a couple of episodes, including this one, as Les and Carter’s factory colleague Louis St. John. The dialogue Barber has is a little awkward (for example, when asked if he had a good weekend he says that he “took the awd lady to t’witch doctors on Saturday, had a couple of missionaries for Sunday lunch”). Another familiar face lurking in the factory is John Salthouse as the impressively-named Rudyard Kettle. Salthouse would later play DI Galloway in The Bill.

Tinniswood’s dialogue remains endlessly quotable. In a later series two episode, You Should See Me Now, Annie recalls that the last time her husband took her out alone was the week after the Second World War ended. “We went to hotpot supper at Moffat Street tram sheds.” With just a single line Tinniswood is able to paint a very vivid picture.

Taking over roles played by someone else is never easy, but both Keith Drinkel and Liz Goulding fit very nicely into the third series as the new Carter and Pat. The opening episode – Men at Work – develops the theme from A Woman’s Work. There we saw Mort going a little stir-crazy, trapped in the house all day, now matters are made even worse as he’s joined by Les and Carter, both of whom are out of work. They react to the spectre of unemployment in different ways – Carter is building a model battleship painfully slowly whilst Les becomes an efficient house-husband (Comer looking fetching in a pink pinny).

The fourth and final series opened with The Love Match. This sees the Brandon’s throw a posh dinner-partly at which Les mournfully notes that they must be having peas since there’s three forks on the table. Annie is in a much more positive mood though. “It must be years since I got dressed up in a long frock and squirted scent under me armpits.”  It must be said that Liz Smith does look rather, well rather …..

Other highlghts later in the series include Mort’s unexpected expressions of love (given all he’s previously said about the horrors of married life this is more than a little surprising). An especially strong episode is The Great Escape, which sees Pat tell Carter that she’s planning to spend two nights away on business. Poor Pat wants Carter to be absolutely incensed and jealous with rage, but the phelgmatic Carter is his usual calm self. There’s a darker tone to this one though, as Carter’s eyeing the voluptuous charms of Linda (Deidree Costello) even as he’s bidding Pat farewell. But when Pat is hospitalized shortly afterwards, a stricken Carter is forced to abandon his escape plans. Drinkel, sitting by the unconscious Pat’s bedside, plays the scene very well.

With uniformly strong performances from all of the main cast (especially Bailey, Comer and Smith) and sparkling dialogue from Peter Tinniswood, I Didn’t Know You Cared is an obscure sitcom gem.  But with writing and acting as good as this it deserves to be much better known.

I Didn’t Know You Cared is released by Second Sight on the 28th of November 2016.  RRP £24.99.

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