And A Nightingale Sang – Simply Media DVD Review

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The 3rd of September 1939 may be a momentous day in the history of the British nation (with Neville Chamberlain shortly due to announce that the country is now at war with Germany) but not everybody has Hitler on their minds.  For example, in a terraced house in Newcastle, young Joyce (Pippa Hinchley) is debating whether to marry Eric (Stephen Tompkinson), who is shortly due to depart with his army colleagues to France.  As for the rest of Joyce’s dysfunctional family, they all have concerns of their own ….

And A Nightingale Sang was adapted by Jack Rosenthal from C.P. Taylor’s 1978 play.  Rosenthal (1931 – 2004) was one of British television’s greatest dramatists, equally adept at adapting other people’s material as he was at crafting his own.  He also slipped easily between genres – penning over a hundred episodes of Coronation Street during the 1960’s whilst also working on sitcoms and original one-off plays.

In many respects, the 1989 production of And A Nightingale Sang was a perfect fit for him – since it deftly mixed humour with drama in a way that was highly characteristic of his own output.  It’s very much a home-front drama (we may see soldiers, but only when they return home on leave).  But despite this, the war-time feel is very strong, partly due to the soundtrack.

Many of the familiar songs are delivered by John Woodvine’s character, George, on the piano.  George and his wife, known only as Mam (Joan Plowright), head an incredibly impressive core cast.  Woodvine has long been a favourite actor of mine, and George is a plumb of a part – there’s plenty of scope for humour (when at home George spends all his time in the front room, banging out tunes on the piano whilst the rest of the household ignores him) but he’s also afforded moments of drama and pathos.  George, who works at the shipyards, later breaks down in tears after he confesses to a workmate that he’s spent hours cleaning a ship which has recently arrived back from Dunkirk.

When his friend tells him that the bowels of the ship smell like a compost heap, George replies that it’s “human bloody compost. Stuck to the bulkheads like shit to a blanket. I’ve been trying to wash them off, scrape them off. Somebody’s lads, somebody’s flesh and blood”.

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John Woodvine

For Woodvine, born in South Shields, And A Nightingale Sang provided him with an opportunity to use his natural accent.  Some of the others, such as Joan Plowright, might not have been as local, but everybody manages credible accents.  Plowright, as the religious matriarch of the family, doesn’t get quite as much to do as Woodvine, but she makes every scene count.  The moment when she reacts in horror to the foibles of her family (such as George’s decision to become a communist) is very nicely done.

This was an early screen credit for Stephen Tompkinson, who had previously made several brief sitcom appearances in series such as After Henry, The Return of Shelley and Never The Twain.  It’s a substantial role, calling on him to experience a roller-coaster of emotions, but he handles it well.  Eric’s main problem is Joyce, who initially can’t decide whether she wants to marry him or not.  The cons (“he smells of bacon”) seem somewhat trivial, but the physical side of their potential union also seems to be troubling her.

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Pippa Hinchley & Stephen Tompkinson

But eventually she puts her worries behind her and they wed.  After all, with him shortly to leave for France it’s not as if they actually have to live together.  It’s only when he returns home on leave that the cracks really begin to show.  “When are you going back?” is one of her first questions (she’s also unimpressed with the French knickers he’s bought her).  Mind you, she quickly shrugs off her sexual anxieties – the only problem is that she seems to be spreading her favours very widely, with just about every American serviceman she can get her hands on ….

Pippa Hinchley and Stephen Tompkinson share some wonderful scenes together, as do Phyllis Logan (Helen) and Tom Watt (Norman).  Helen, Joyce’s elder sister, is the sensible one of the family, seemingly destined for a life where her own wishes and desires are secondary to the demands of others.  But when she meets Norman, one of Eric’s army buddies, everything changes.  In contrast to the bickering between Eric and Joyce, Norman and Helen instantly bond.  But, as you’d expect, things don’t turn out to be straightforward.  Watt, who’d recently left his signature role (as Lofty in EastEnders) and Logan are possibly at the dramatic heart of the play.  Like the rest of the main cast, they offer first-rate performances.

Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and directed by Robert Knights, And a Nightingale Sang is a glossy production with a filmic sweep.  The Newcastle locations (cobbled streets, shipyards) help enormously with this, plus it’s an ironic bonus that certain areas of the North West in the late 1980’s were so run-down and desolate that they could easily stand in for the parts of the city devastated by German bombs.

Also included on the disc are three wartime public information films – They Keep The Wheels Turning (8″15′), Britannia is a Woman (9″17′) and The New Britain (10″16′).  These are fascinating extras which help to place the main feature into its correct historical context.  Britannia is a Woman as you might expect, looks at the role played by women during the conflict (which is obliquely touched upon during the play – both Joyce and Helen work at a munitions factory) whilst The New Britain considers the future of the country and They Keep The Wheels Turning looks at how everybody has their part to play in ensuring that the wartime effort is maintained.

A sharply observed human drama, And a Nightingale Sang is a treat, featuring an excellent cast who never put a foot wrong.  It’s available from the 6th of November 2017, RRP £12.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Tom Watt & Phyllis Logan
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The Rag Trade – Series One and Two. Simply Media DVD Review

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Written by Ronald Chesney and Roland Wolfe, The Rag Trade ran for three series on the BBC during 1961 and 1963 (it was later revived for two runs during the 1970s on LWT, which featured remakes of some of the original BBC scripts).  Set in a clothing workshop called Fenners Fashions, the nominal head of the business, Harold Fenner (Peter Jones), forever finds himself at the mercy of his bolshy workforce – most notably shop steward Paddy Fleming (Miriam Karlin) who’s apt to shout “everybody out!” at the drop of a hat.

Stuck in the middle between management and the workforce is the long-suffering foreman Reg Turner (Reg Varney) whilst the likes of Carole (Sheila Hancock), Shirley (Barbara Windsor), Lily (Esma Cannon) and Gloria (Wanda Ventham) are some of the more prominent members of the motley workforce.

It’s fair to say that the works of Chesney and Wolfe are an acquired taste.  I’m rather fond of Meet the Wife but rather less so of On The Buses and their later 1970s ITV sitcoms.  True, the likes of Don’t Drink The Water and Yus My Dear have a certain grisly interest but you’d be hard pushed to claim they were forgotten classics (or any good).

The original Rag Trade is sharper though, possibly because it occurred earlier in their career, although the high quality cast helps too.  Peter Jones, the original and best Voice of the Book from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, splutters with splendid comic timing throughout.  He’s matched by Miriam Karlin all the way whilst Barbara Windsor (who missed out series two but returned for series three, which sadly no longer exists), Wanda Ventham (who appeared in the second series only) and Sheila Hancock (who appears in both of the series here) all offer strong support. Hancock, as the perpetually vague Carole, is the receipient of some killer lines.

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Sheila Hancock & Reg Varney

Here’s what’s contained across the four discs.

Series 1, Disc 1

1: The French Fashions
2: Christmas Box
3: The Baby
4: Getting Married

Series 1, Disc 2

5: Early Start
6: Unhappy Customer
7: Doctor’s Orders
8: The Sample

Series 2, Disc 1

1: The Thief
2: The Dog
3: Locked In
4: The Flat
5: The Client
6: Stay-In Strike

Series 2, Disc 2

7: Safety Precaution
8: Stainproofer
9: Doctor
10: Barber’s Shop
11: The Bank Manager

The series does pretty well for guest stars, with the likes of Frank Thornton, Terry Scott, Colin Douglas, Patrick Cargill, June Whitfield, Lynda Baron, Fabia Drake, Ronnie Barker and Hugh Paddick all making appearances.

Another familiar face – Peter Gilmore (The Onedin Line) – pops up in The French Fashions. Sporting an interesting American accent, he appears in the middle of a frenetic episode which sees Carole model a rock-hard pair of slacks for Gilmore’s character (it would take too to explain why) whilst the workface later masquerades as French workers in order to snag a lucractive sales contract. None of this is terribly subtle, but there’s some typically deft comedic performances on display (Esma Cannon, as ever, effortlessly mananges to steal every scene she appears in).

Another series one show – Unhappy Customer – sees “everybody out” as the girls go on strike (Mr Fenner’s more than a little unhappy that they’re eating in the workshop, but won’t agree to build a canteen). But then he has a change of heart ….

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Reg Varney & Peter Jones

Considering that he’s supposed to be a penny-pincher, his solution – an automatic food dispenser (“anything you like. Tea, coffee, snacks”) – is a handsome gesture but Paddy’s not happy. This sort of automation might mean that their ten minute tea-break would actually only last ten minutes, rather than the ninety minutes it currently does. So their minds turn to sabotage ….

Highlights from series two include the second episode, The Dog. The pet in question belongs to Lily who brings him to work (she’s concerned about his health, so smuggles him in under Mr Fenner’s nose). This is classic Rag Trade – the workers conspiring against the hapless Fenner – enlivened by the always entertaining Esma Cannon and a lovely guest turn from the elegant Patrick Cargill.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is a straight repress of the previously released edtions by DD, which means that series one is still missing two episodes (series two is as complete as it can be – two of the thirteen episodes no longer exist).

Picture quality is variable (the opening episode of series two is probably the worst, a pretty low quality telerecording). Things are much better elsewhere, although some episodes do feature occassional brief jumps when the picture and soundtrack slips out of sync for a second (a common issue with telerecordings).

The Rag Trade stands up very well. It’s certainly one of the strongest sitcoms from the Chesney/Wolfe partnership, thanks not only to the first-rate cast but also due to the way that it comedically shines a light on British labour relations during the early sixties. Whilst it’s exaggerated for comic effect, there’s more than a kernel of truth in the way that management were at the mercy of their workers (today, the pendulum has firmly swung the other way).

A cracking little sitcom, it’s well worth your time.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered direct from Simply here.

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Esma Cannon & Reg Varney

Betjeman – The Collection. Simply Media DVD Review

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Sir John Betjeman (1906 – 1984) described himself with characteristic understatement in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”.  There was rather more to him than that though – he was a writer, broadcaster and from 1972 until his death also served as the Poet Laureate.

Betjeman’s love of architecture (especially from the Victorian era) and landscape is explored in detail across the three series which make up this boxset – A Passion for Churches, Bird’s Eye View and Four with Betjeman: Victorian Architects and Architecture.

Four With Betjeman finds him indulging one of his most strongly held passions – that of the Victorian architects and the buildings they left behind.  “I have known for years and so have most of you that there were great Victorian architects, but they have never been given their due. Today, thank goodness, we can see Victorian architecture in perspective”.

This excerpt from a contemporary Daily Telegraph review articulates just why this short series was so entertaining and absorbing.  “There is a precision about his informed enthusiasm which enables one to see the most familiar buildings, such as the Houses of Parliament, in a new light … Sir John, who succeeds in making his conducted tours seem addressed to a personal friend, can move without pause from an appreciation of shape and proportion to an anecdote about an Irish peer rolling the full length of a Barry staircase”.

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Four With Betjeman contains four half-hour programmes – (Charles Barry & Augustus PuginWilliam Butterfield & Gilbert ScottAlfred Waterhouse & Norman ShawSir Ninian ComperWilliam Robinson & Sir Edwin Lutyens).

In Bird’s Eye View we, unsurprisingly, observe Britain from a different angle as we take to the air for an unusual take on the familiar.  The first programme, An Englishman’s Home, sees Betjeman waxing lyrical (with the occasional sharp barb) as the camera swoops over a diverse selection of dwellings.  From stately castle, Georgian terrace, suburban semi to looming concrete tower blocks, Betjeman has words for all.  His comments on tower blocks (“but where can be the heart that sends a family to the twentieth floor in such a slab as this?”) carries a particular resonance today, following the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

From the same series, Beside the Seaside is a treat as we tour past some of England’s most popular seaside destinations.  The somewhat faded colour print helps to give the visuals a faint air of melancholy.

A swooping seagull takes its flight
From Weymouth to the Isle of Wight
From Cornish cliff tops wild and bare
To crowds at Weston-super-Mare
The seaside seen as history
Bournemouth, Butlin’s and Torquay
Whatever paddles, surfs or sails
Braves the waves or rides the gales
A scrapbook made at Christmastime
Of summer joys in film and rhyme

The title music for Bird’s Eye View is a typically jazzy piece from John Dankworth (the incidentals are more classically inclined, all the better to compliment Betjeman’s words).

Also included on the same disc is One Man’s Country – Cornwall (1964).  This isn’t part of the Bird’s Eye View series, but since it has a similar style it fits well with the two later programmes.  The stark black and footage of Cornwall is very striking and helps to make it especially memorable.

Although he’s not on camera, these three programmes (a perfect marriage of visuals and Bejeman’s poetic prose) are probably my favourite from the set.  Both of the Bird’s Eye View programmes run for fifty minutes whilst Cornwall is shorter, at twenty five.

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A Passion for Churches (1974) sees Betjeman explore his long-held fascination with church architecture.  “What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky, without church towers to recognise you by?”  His love of churches began exactly sixty years prior to this, as the eight-year old Betjeman went rowing on the River Bure in Norfolk with his father.  Delightfully, this film opens with Betjeman re-enacting this. He then moves on to take a whistle-stop tour around the area.

From Medieval stained glass and brass rubbings, to weddings and the Edwardian parish church on the Queen’s estate of Sandringham, A Passion for Churches is another leisurely treat.  As with all the programmes, the visuals are anchored by Betjeman’s measured, poetic narration.

Also included on the same disc are ABC of Churches (two episodes of approx. 23 minutes, 1961), Journey to Bethlehem (30 minutes, 1966) and a ten-minute fragment from a later edition of the ABC of Churches series (since the two complete editions only go from A – F, presumably the others were wiped).  All of these, unlike A Passion for Churches, are in black and white.

I’m sure that Doctor Who fans will appreciate the tour of Aldbourne’s church (memorably later depicted in 1971’s The Daemons) in the first edition of ABC of Churches whilst Journey to Bethlehem still captures the attention some fifty years on.

Given the age of the source materials, the picture quality is naturally a little variable.  The colour film prints are rather faded in places, although the black and white prints aren’t in too bad a condition at all.  But everything’s perfectly watchable with no major picture glitches to report.

A wonderful collection of programmes, Betjeman – The Collection should appeal to anybody interested in archive documentaries. Recommended.

Betjeman – The Collection is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of October 2017.  It can be ordered direct from Simply here.

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Ivanhoe – Simply Media DVD Review

The year is 1194.  Sir William of Ivanhoe (Eric Flynn) has returned home to England following the disastrous Third Crusade in Palestine.  Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric (Peter Dyneley), one of the few remaining Saxon nobles in an England now dominated by the Normans, has broken off relations with his son due to Ivanhoe’s support for King Richard.

The young Ivanhoe doesn’t seem too disheartened by this familial disapproval though, as he has scores to settle – most notably with Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert (Anthony Bate), a member of the Knights Templar.  They will not only clash on the tournament field but also off it and two desirable young women – the Lady Rowena (Clare Jenkins) and Rebecca (Vivian Brooks) – will both have parts to play in their bitter feud.

Meanwhile, King Richard and Prince John find themselves locked in a grim battle for control of the English throne ….

Published in 1820 across three volumes, Ivanhoe – A Romance has proven to be one of Sir Walter Scott’s most enduring works.  Its mixture of Medieval derring-do and romance is an intoxicating one, with numerous film and television adaptations serving as a testament to the timelessness of the story.

Possibly one of the most notable things about Ivanhoe is how Scott’s novel helped to solidify the modern myth of Robin Hood.  Robin (referred to as Locksley for most of the serial) appears throughout and his characterisation here – a freedom fighter first, an outlaw second – chimes with how we view Robin today (the Robin Hood of the earlier ballads was a much less likeable and noble chap).

Scott wasn’t the first writer to set the struggles of Robin Hood during the reign of Richard I, but this story undeniably helped to create the template which many in the future would emulate.  Certain aspects of the Robin Hood myth are established here – most notably the way that Robin splits the arrow of his challenger during a test of skill.  It’s also interesting how subsequent writers took aspects of Ivanhoe’s character – his return to England from the Crusades, for example – and grafted them onto Robin.

The opening episode wastes no time in creating a sense of place and time. With the rightful King of England, Richard, believed to be languishing in a foreign jail, his brother John sees an opportunity to sieze power. The downtrodden Saxons find themselves suffering under the rule of the Normans, whilst Sir Brian casts a baleful shadow over proceedings.

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Anthony Bate

Right from his first appearance, Anthony Bate impresses as Sir Brian. Although Bate tended to play establishment types and professional men, he throws himself into this role – a black-hearted villain, albeit one with his own code of honour – with gusto.  Eric Flynn, as Ivanhoe, is perfectly cast as the square-jawed hero. Whilst it’s true that Bate, as befits a baddy, has the more interesting role to play, Flynn has a boyish charm which suits the character.

Ivanhoe’s first acknowledged appearance is held back until the end of the opening instalment (although it’s rather obvious that the mysterious hooded pilgrim who makes several enigmatic comments throughout the episode is Ivanhoe). That he and Sir Brian (bitter rivals from the Holy Land) happen to run into each other at the castle of Ivanhoe’s estranged father is something of a coincidence ….

Clare Jenkins, as Rowena, makes for a very appealing herione (coincidentally she and Flynn had appeared together a few years earlier in the Doctor Who story The Wheel In Space). Rowena and Ivanhoe are in love but he has a challenger for Rowena’s affections, the arrogant de Bracy (David Brizley), a Norman lord.

Rebecca (Vivian Brooks), daughter of the despised Jewish moneylender Isaac of York (John Franklyn-Robbins), is somewhat taken with Ivanhoe (she nurses him back to health after Sir Brian gains the upper hand during Prince John’s tourney) but she’s doomed to be unsuccessful as Ivanhoe only has eyes for Rowena.  Sir Brian later attempts to woo Rebecca, but she shuns his advances.

Ivanhoe was Vivian Brooks’ third and final television job (following appearances in Thirty Minute Theatre and Z Cars).  It’s a slight mystery why she didn’t go on to have a longer career as she’s really rather good here, especially when she and Bate cross verbal swords. Brooks may have been very inexperienced compared to Bate, but she more than holds her own during the scenes where Sir Brian and Rebecca warily circle each other.  Vivian Brooks certainly has the meatier of the two main female roles (Clare Jenkins’ Rowena doesn’t have a great deal to do except pine for Ivanhoe).

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Although Vivian Brooks only racked up a handful of credits, most of the other main roles were filled by very familiar faces.  That Ivanhoe was directed by David Maloney should be fairly obvious by taking a quick glance at the cast list.  The likes of Graham Weston, John Franklyn-Robbins, Tim Preece, Michael Napier Brown, Bernard Horsfall, Noel Coleman and Hugh Walters had already appeared or would later appear in other productions directed by Maloney.  David Maloney, like many other directors, tended to use a “rep” of actors – dependable people he knew would deliver the performances required.

The strength in depth of the cast is one of the reasons why this serial works as well as it does.  Tim Preece entertains as the capacious and vain Prince John, Hugh Walters is pleasingly off-kilter as Cedric’s fool Wamba, Bernard Horsfall is suitably imposing as the Black Knight, John Franklyn-Robbins impresses as the persecuted Isaac and Noel Coleman is characterically strong as Fitzsurse, one of John’s advisors.  Clive Graham, as Locksley, also offers a vivid performance and it’s always a pleasure to see Michael Craze, here as one of Lockley’s men (Thomas).

Graham Weston, clearly one of David Maloney’s favourite actors (apart from Ivanhoe, Maloney cast him in two Doctor Who stories – The War Games and Planet of Evil), gets a chance to display his skills with a quarterstaff when his character – Ivanhoe’s loyal servant, Gurth – tangles with the outlaws. It’s not a badly directed sequence, although like all fight scenes taped in the studio it pretty much had to be done in a single take (had it been shot on film then it could have been edited much more tightly).

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With Ivanhoe injured and insensible during the middle part of the serial, other characters move to the forefront of the action. Bernard Horsfall’s mysterious Black Knight (a vision in blond wig and beard) has an entertaining tustle with Barry Linehan’s disolute Friar. The Friar, living the life of a hermit deep within the forest, may claim to exist on a diet of peas and water but the truth is rather different!

When Ivanhoe, Cedric, Isaac, Rebecca and Rowena are captured by a group of Norman knights led by Sir Brian, they find themselves the prisoners of Godfrey Front de Boeuf (Francis de Wolff). Godfrey has usurped Ivanhoe’s lands and now seeks his death in order to secure his position. de Wolff cackles with evil intent (like Peter Dyneley he’s somewhat of a stranger to subtlety).

Rebecca is later denounced as a witch by the leader of the Templars – angered by Sir Brian’s infatuation with her – and is sentenced to death. She claims the right of trial by combat and nominates Ivanhoe to be her champion. And with Sir Brian in the opposite corner it seems that the final reckoning between them is now at hand ….

Although the Classic Serials had just moved into colour, this ten part adaptation (broadcast during January, February and March 1970) maintained the same production model from the black and white days.  Therefore the bulk of each episode was recorded on videotape in the studio, with film inserts used to open out the narrative.  Whilst this means that it isn’t as glossy or filmic as some of the later television versions, the quality of the performances are more than adequate compensation for the occasional production shortcomings (such as the unconvincing beards and the way some battles largely take place off screen).

Although some of the turns are rather on the ripe side (there are times when it’s impossible not to be reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) there are subtler pleasures to be found elsewhere – Anthony Bate, for example, is excellent throughout. Overall, this is a strong and faithful adaptation of a sprawling epic and certainly deserves a place in your collection.

Ivanhoe is released by Simply Media on the 18th of September 2017.  The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Here’s Harry – Simply Media DVD Review

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Although largely forgotten today, Harry Worth was a major television star of the sixties and seventies.  His rise to the top was neither straightforward or quick though – born Harry Bourlan Illingsworth in 1917, he left school at 14 and went straight to work down the local mine (he stuck it out for eight years, despite hating every minute of it).

As with so many entertainers of his generation, World War II was to prove defining.  Even when he’d been a miner, Worth had continued to hone his showbiz skills (practising his ventriloquism act whilst hewing coal for example).  Prior to WW2 he’d begun to ply his trade by working as a ventriloquist in the numerous working men’s clubs dotted around Yorkshire, but appearing in RAF shows gave the young Worth further valuable experience.

Following his demob, and still attempting to make it big with his wooden friends (at this point he was dubbed ‘The Versatile Vent’), Worth began his slow ascent to the top.  Like many of his contemporaries he played the notorious Windmill Theatre (“we never clothed”) as well as just about every variety theatre in the country.  During the forties and fifties the variety circuit was still thriving (although the rise of television would eventually kill it off) and Worth was able to make a living, just.

Frequently bottom of the bill, Worth’s career seemed to be heading nowhere, although a tour with Laurel and Hardy in 1952 would prove to be crucial.  After watching him from the wings, Oliver Hardy persuaded Worth that he should abandon his vent act and concentrate on becoming a comedian instead.  This was valuable advice and within a few years Worth would make his television debut, which in time would lead to his own series.

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John Ammonds, forever associated with the classic BBC Morecambe & Wise shows, would produce Worth’s debut series The Trouble With Harry (1960) and the bulk of the follow-up, Here’s Harry (1960 – 1965).  His next series, simply titled Harry Worth, would enjoy four successful runs between 1966 and 1970, at which point he decided to jump ship and join Thames (Morecambe & Wise and Mike Yarwood would later do exactly the same thing).

Like many other series of this era, Here’s Harry has a rather patchy survival rate.  Out of sixty episodes made, only eleven now exist (although it’s pleasing to note The Musician, recently recovered by Kaleidoscope, is included in this release).  Here’s what’s contained on the two DVDs –

Series Two

The Bicycle – 4th May 1961.  Featuring Wensley Pithy, Sam Kyd, Ivor Salter and Anthony Sharp.

The Holiday – 11th May 1961.  Featuring Ballard Berkeley, Ronnie Stevens, Meg Johnson and Reginald Marsh.

The Request – 18th May 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar and John Snagge.

The Medals – 1st June 1961.  Featuring Anthony Sharp and Totti Truman Taylor.

The Voice – 8th June 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, George Tovey, Sydney Tafler, Joe Gladwin and Meg Johnson.

Series Three

The Dance – 14th November 1961.  Featuring Ronnie Stevens, Reginald Marsh, Colin Douglas, Vi Stevens and Harold Goodwin.

The Plant – 21st November 1961.  Featuring Vi Stevens and Patrick Newell.

The Birthday – 5th December 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, Vi Stevens and Ivor Salter.

The Overdraft – 12th December 1961.  Featuring Gwendolyn Watts, Joe Gladwyn and Jack Woolgar.

The Last Train – 26th December 1961.  Featuring Harold Goodwin, Tony Melody, Jack Woolgar and Reginald Marsh.

Series Five

The Musician – 22nd November 1963.  Featuring Geoffrey Hibbert, Jack Woolgar and Max Jaffa.

What’s interesting about the surviving episodes is that – apart from the recently recovered The Musician – everything we have either comes from the second or third series.  Series two is virtually complete (only one episode missing) whilst the survival rate for the third series is also pretty good (five out of eight).

The various opening titles help to set the tone for the show. The iconic shop window sequence doesn’t debut until later (it’s only featured in this set on The Musician) so in series two and three we observe Harry strolling down the street, politely raising his hat to unseen passers by and almost colliding with a lampost. That he raises his hat to the lampost is a characteristic touch.

Worth, who lives in the fictional town of Woodbridge (at 52 Acacia Avenue with his cat, Tiddles, and his never seen aunt, Mrs Amelia Prendergast) is a familiar comic creation.  Buffeted by events, he rarely seems to be in control of his own destiny – instead he’s at the mercy of officialdom which is sometimes friendly and sometimes not.  But this never concerns Harry as he treats everybody with kindness and always remains totally oblivious to the fact that his presence serves as the catalyst for terrible disasters.

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Other similar character types – Tony Hancock, Frank Spencer, Victor Meldrew – can easily be brought to mind but Worth’s style is quite different as there’s a warmth about his befuddled comic persona that’s very appealing.

Vince Powell and Harry Driver were the most prolific writers across the seven series, which should allow you to gauge the general level of scripting (both were competent scribes, although hardly in the same league as Galton & Simpson or Clement & Le Frenais).  Not that this really matters as the scripts are simply the starting point – Here’s Harry stands or falls on Worth’s ability to make his shtick work (and when he’s placed in opposition to a decent performer then things chug along very merrily).

The Bicycle serves as a perfect example of the way the show operates. Harry is more than upset when a total stranger regularly decides to leave his bicycle outside his house and decides to seek legal advice, although the solicitor (played by Anthony Sharp) is naturally nonplussed about exactly how he can help. Over the course of about ten minutes Harry’s amiable idiocy is enough to reduce Sharp’s solicitor to a gibbering wreck. But when Harry learns that the bike belongs to Ivor Salter’s police constable, Harry (who’s hidden the bike in his shed) becomes frantic with worry ….

Later tangles with Sam Kyd’s postman and Wensley Pithy’s chief constable are further examples of the way Harry so often leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. The “sit” part of this comedy is remarkably slight (a missing bicycle) but it’s plain that each situation is simply the excuse for Worth to move from one authority figure to the next, each time causing mayhem.

Harry’s child-like nature and undeveloped view of the world is further evidenced in The Holiday (he believes that it’s perfectly possible to catch a bus straight from London to Monte Carlo). A long-suffering travel agent is the latest person to suffer from Harry’s presence, although he gets off relatively lightly (Ronnie Stevens’ remarkably camp photographer – tasked with the job of taking Harry’s passport photos – doesn’t fare so well). Ballard Berkeley and Reginald Marsh – both wonderful performers – are also lined up to take their dose of punishment from Mr Worth.

There’s a touch of gentle satire at play in The Request as Harry turns up at the BBC, keen to ensure that a request for his Auntie gets played on Housewives Choice. Due to a barely credible misunderstanding he gets mistaken for a singer (Worth does croon a little bit of Are You Lonesome Tonight quite well though) and then decides to roam the corridors of the BBC, causing chaos wherever he goes (such as interrupting the iconic newsreader John Snagge mid broadcast). His face may not be familiar, but Snagge’s voice is unmistakable and it’s lovely to see him end up as Harry’s latest victim.

The remaining surviving episodes of series one – The Medals and The Choice – maintain the high standard, with Anthony Sharp, this time as a Brigadier, returning in The Medals to once again cross swords with Harry.

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Amongst the surviving shows from series three, both The Overdraft and The Last Train are highlights.  A visit by Harry to the bank in The Overdraft has plenty of obvious comic potential.  He informs the long-suffering assistant that he wishes to deposit three pounds ten shillings (to enable him to draw out precisely the same amount!) This is so he can extract his money in a bewildering and precise series of coins, all the better for then depositing them in a plethora of tins (for the gas bill, newspapers, etc, etc).

The Last Train finds a festive Harry patiently waiting for his train home.  It seems a bit odd for trains to be running on Christmas Day but it helps to explain why some of the staff are rather downcast.  Harry’s not of course, he’s a regular ray of Christmas sunshine – although his well-meaning efforts to entertain and help don’t always have the results he’d hoped for.  Not that this concerns Harry who – as always – breezes through each and every situation, totally oblivious to the havoc he’s causing.

The final existing show – the recently returned The Musician – features a guest appearance from Max Jaffa.  Like John Snagge, Jaffa’s a good sport (the typically dense Harry knows that Jaffa is someone famous, he just can’t remember who).  The moment when Jaffa tells him who he is and Harry removes his hat in respect is a delight as is the way that Harry initially mistakes him for the music hall comedian Jimmy Wheeler (for good measure Harry throws in Wheeler’s famous catchphrase – “Aye, aye, that’s your lot!” – to increasingly befuddle his famous companion).

Whilst it’s undeniably formulaic, the surviving episodes of Here’s Harry are also undeniably entertaining. The combustible combination of the well-meaning but inadvertent loose cannon that is Harry and the range of authority figures he finds himself encountering (some pleasant, some not) is the reason why the show works as well as it does. The situations may often be slight, but the way that Harry and his co-stars interact is always a joy.  Something of a neglected comic treat it’s a pleasure to see it available on DVD and comes warmly recommended.

Here’s Harry is released by Simply Media on the 11th of September.  The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Oliver Twist (BBC, 1962) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following the death of his mother in childbirth, the young Oliver Twist (Bruce Prochnik) is placed in the indifferent care of the state.  His childhood is a miserable one and eventually he runs away to London to seek his fortune.  There he encounters the devious Fagin (Max Adrian) who has no compunction in manipulating the trusting and naïve Oliver to serve his own ends ….

Published between February 1837 and April 1839, Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel and remains one of his evergreen tales, evidenced by the numerous film, television and stage adaptations it has inspired.  David Lean’s 1948 film and the stage/film musical by Lionel Bart (Oliver!) are possibly the most memorable, although there have also been multiple television adaptations as well.

This one, broadcast between January and April 1962, was the first BBC version and as might be expected remained very faithful to the original novel.  Constance Cox had already adapted Bleak House and would go on to tackle several other classic Dickens novels during the 1960’s (The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewitt, A Tale of Two Cities) although sadly out of those three only a few episodes from A Tale of Two Cities currently exist.

Bruce Prochnik, playing the eponymous Olivier, had a pretty short television career (1961 – 1965) with Olivier Twist by far his most substantial role (he had a handful of later credits in series such as Taxi! and Emergency Ward-10).  It’s interesting to note that post-Olivier he popped up a couple of times on Juke Box Jury.  Clearly this serial had been successful enough to turn him into a household name for a short time.

An early signature moment occurs when Olivier, by this point a starving inmate of the workhouse, timorously asks for another bowl of gruel. There’s a grimy hopelessness about these early episodes. Workhouse life is shown to be hard and unrelenting (with a piece of bread, once a week on Sundays, about the only thing the boys have to look forward to).

Bruce Prochnik

Mr Bumble (Willoughby Goddard), the Parish Beadle, is shocked by Oliver’s behaviour. It’s hard to imagine anybody could have been better cast as Bumble than the corpulant Goddard, who’s always a pleasure to watch.

Olivier’s insurrectionist behaviour makes him an embarrasment to the workhouse board, so they decide to remove the problem. He’s apprenticed to the undertaker Sowerberry (Donald Eccles), although it’s debatable whether he’s better off here than he was in the workhouse. Mrs Sowerberry (Barbara Hicks) certainly has little time for the boy (Oliver’s first meal are the cold scraps which had been left out for the dog). Hicks, who had gone way over the top in Barnaby Rudge, is thankfully more restrained in her brief appearance here.

Once this section of the story is completed, the action moves to London where the innocent Olivier falls in with the worst crowd impossible.  Two very familiar actors (Melvyn Hayes and Alan Rothwell) appear as the Artful Dodger and his wise-cracking sidekick Charley Bates. Both Hayes and Rothwell make for appealing rogues, although their roles in the story are fairly slight.

It’s the grotesque Fagin (Max Adrian) and the intimidating Bill Sikes (Peter Vaughan) who will come to dominate the narrative.  Adrian was a noted classical stage actor who also managed to carve out an impressive film and television career. Across the decades Peter Vaughan would rack up some memorable appearances in Charles Dickens serials and his portrayal of Bill Sikes is a typically impressive one – from the moment we first meet him there’s an air of menace and simmering violence in the air.

The corruption of the green Oliver (Prochnik continues to radiate a sense of wide-eyed innocence) by Fagin, Dodger and Charley is another horrifying and distubing scene. Far removed from the chirpy cockney sing-alongs of Oliver!, this adaptation accurately reflects the bleakness of Dickens’ original novel.

Max Adrian & Bruce Prochnik

As the serial progreases, the plot-threads deepen. Why does a gentleman like Monks (John Carson) consort with the likes of Fagin and why is Monks so insistent that Fagin keeps a tight grip on Oliver? Carson, later to take the lead in Dombey & Son, was one of those actors who enhanced any production he appeared in (his tortured, conflicted Monks is no exception to this rule).

Everybody we’ve met so far has either mistreated Oliver or desired to use him for their own ends, so it’s therefore jolting when he finally runs into somebody who treats him with kindness. Mr Brownlow (George Curzon) initially accused the blameless Oliver of picking his pocket (Dodger and Charley were responsible). The contrite Brownlow takes him home and nurses the emaciated boy back to health.

Now that Oliver has a benevolent benefactor, his luck finally seems to have changed. But Fagin and Sikes, convinced that Oliver intends to inform on them, are determined to snatch him back ….

Bill Sikes’ relationship with the prostitute Nancy (Carmel McSharry) runs through the middle part of the serial with Nancy’s most famous scene – her murder at the hands of a vicious Sikes – proving to be a shocking moment. Although it’s not graphically violent, Vaughan and McSharry manage to give the scene considerable resonance by their performances alone.  Sikes’ clubbing to death of the unfortunate Nancy was deemed to be so disturbing that it was later edited down before the serial was offered for sale (the prints we have here were recovered from overseas, hence the reason why they’re slightly edited at this point).

Poor Olivier is again ensnared in Fagin’s web of crime although it’s not too long before he finds himself free once more.  It slightly stretches credibility that Olivier would stumble across another well-to-do family who elect to take him in, although this sort of plotting (and remarkable coincidences regarding Olivier’s parentage) are par for the course with early Dickens.

The production – as with the other Dickens serials recently released by Simply – is very studio-based. Photographic blow-ups of buildings are used to give a sense of depth (these work pretty well, although there’s no doubt that on the lower-definition television sets of the 1960’s the illusion would have been even more convincing). Sound-effects are utilized to generate a sense of hustle and bustle whilst Ron Grainer’s incidental music is used sparingly at key moments.

If Bruce Prochnik begins to irritate after a while (his Olivier is rather squeaky and a little too clean-cut) then there’s substantial acting compensations to be found elsewhere. Apart from those already mentioned, Peggy Thorpe-Bates and the always entertaining William Mervyn help to enliven proceedings.

The telerecordings were restored by Peter Crocker at SVS (Crocker, well known in archive television circles for his work on the Doctor Who DVDs, is the very definition of a safe pair of hands). VidFIRE seemed to be out of the question (presumably because the telerecordings weren’t of a sufficent standard) but the restoration helps to make the serial a more pleasant viewing experience than it would have been before.

Whilst there’s numerous adaptations of Olivier Twist to choose from, this one – thanks to the fidelity it displays to Dickens’ original novel and the performances (especially Peter Vaughan’s rampaging Bill Sikes) – is certainly worth checking out.  Recommended.

Olivier Twist is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Melvyn Hayes, Carmel McSharry & Peter Vaughan

Barnaby Rudge (BBC, 1960) – Simply Media DVD Review

Barnaby Rudge was the first of Charles Dickens’ two historical novels (the other being The Tale of Two Cities).  Set during the late eighteenth century, it climaxed at the Gordon Riots of 1780.  Largely forgotten today, the Gordon Riots were an anti-Catholic protest which quickly spiralled out of control.  A group of between 40,000 and 60,000 protestors nursing various grievances – including the increasing Catholic influence sweeping the country, high taxes, overcrowded cities and repressive laws – ran amok on the streets of London.  The riots raged on for several days until the army were eventually able to brutally restore order.  But by this point some 285 people had been shot dead with several hundred more wounded.

If the Gordon Riots are forgotten today, then a similar fate has befallen Barnaby Rudge.  Easily Dickens’ most obscure novel, this is evidenced by the fact that this 1960 serial remains the only television adaptation.   Published between February and November 1841, it came quite early in his career – which explains why it feels a little episodic and unfocused at times.

Barnaby Rudge himself (played by John Wood) is a simple-minded chap, buffeted along by events rather than directly influencing them.  It’s a difficult part to play – there’s no malice in Barnaby – but Wood is generally pretty effective as the easily-manipulated innocent. But whilst he may be the title character he’s not the central one – Barnaby drifts in and out of the narrative, appearing and disappearing as required.

John Wood & Isabel Dean

Episode one opens with a stranger (played by Nigel Arkwright) asking the local innkeeper about the nearby grand house owned by Geoffrey Haredale (Peter Williams). It’s a dark and stormy night outside – achieved via sound effects and camera trickery (simple but effective).

Arthur Brough, later best known as Mr Grainger in Are You Being Served?, here plays John Willet, the innkeeper. Puffing on a long pipe he helps to tease out a strange story which much will later become significant. The mysterious murders twenty two years ago of Geoffrey’s brother, Reuben, and Reuben’s loyal servant Rudge (Barnaby’s father) are mysteries which are still debated by the locals to this day.

Arkwright doesn’t offer a subtle performance, but it’s a menacing one as he brings out the simmering violence which powers his character. Joan Hickson, as Mrs Varden, also isn’t holding back, but this broad playing suits the shrewish character she plays.

The remainder of the Varden household are also deftly sketched out. Head of the household, Gabriel (Newton Blick), is an affable sort who’s often to be found allied with his attractive young daughter Dolly (Jennifer Daniel) against their wife and mother.

Rellgious dogma will later become the central theme of the story, although to begin with it’s teased out in a casual manner – Mrs Varden’s constant quoting from the bible or the way that John Chester (Raymond Huntley) regards Emma Haredale (Eira Heath) as an unsuitable wife for his son due to her religion – but as the serial progresses the conflict between Catholics and Protestants will become more marked. Huntley, playing to type as the austere and flinty Chester, offers a standout performance. Some others may essay broad, comic performances during the serial, but Huntley is agreeably more naturalistic.

Gabriel Varden, a locksmith by trade, has an apprentice, Simon Tappertit (Timothy Bateson), who has set his cap at Dolly (although she regards him with casual indifference). As in Bleak House, Bateson delivers a lovely comic performance, although there’s a harder edge to this character. Like many others, he possesses a simmering discontent (although with him it’s not relgious concerns, instead his ire is directed towards those he regards as his wealthy oppressors).

As the first half of the serial progresses, various plotlines are developed. Simon’s links with a group of dissident apprentices who meet in secret and dream of violent disobedience against their oppressive masters, the curious link between Barnaby’s mother and the mysterious stranger, Joe Willit’s (Alan Haywood) longing for the flitish Dolly and the forbidden love between Edward Chester (Bernard Brown) and Emma Haredale are all teased out.

Eira Heath & Jennifer Daniel

Mid way through the serial, several major new characters – such as anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon (Anthony Sharp) – are introduced as we proceed on the path to the Gordon Riots. Gordon is a fanatic, whose cry of “No Popery” quickly becomes a popular sentiment amongst the masses.

Geoffrey Haredale, a staunch Catholic, spells out what precisely what these two simple words could mean. “I have, tonight, seen an ignorant and unhappy people roused. They know nothing of what the repeal of the act means, but ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to right all their wrongs. ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to give them food, shelter, clothes, work and drink”.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it …..

The production design is very sound. Real horses (never easy to control in a studio) occasionally appear and the outside of Geoffrey Haredale’s house is depicted via a painted backdrop. This is a very theatrical way of generating a sense of depth and scale, but it works. More backdrops are in evidence when the action moves to the streets of London, whilst the later episodes are also opened out thanks to a judicious use of filmed inserts. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the riots was far beyond the means of the production, but director Morris Barry marshalled his resources well. Even with the limited number of extras at his disposal, Barry was effectively able to show the ugliness of mob violence.

It’s fair to say that some parts of the story work better than others. Edward and Emma’s romance never really sparks into life – not really the fault of the actors though, it’s simply that the two characters are never sharply defined. Barbara Hicks, as the Varden’s maid Miggs, gives a performance that can best be described as “broad”. It’s a typically comic Dickens character, but Hicks’ shrieking does become wearying after a while.

But on the credit side there are many fine performances, most notably that of Raymond Huntley. His timing is spot-on (plus his brief interactions with Timothy Bateson and Joan Hickson are rather delightful).

The introduction of Lord George Gordon is the point at which the story rapidly changes direction. This is a little jarring, but the influx of new characters does help to give the serial a fresh impetus. One notable new arrival is Esmond Knight (previously he had memorably played Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend) .  Here he appears as Dennis the Hangman, one of a number of individuals who encapsulate the baser end of society.

Like other surviving drama of this era, the source materials are telerecordings taken from the original 405 line broadcasts. The recordings may exhibit the occasional spot of damage or dirt, but overall the picture quality is more than watchable (although the concluding episode is notably poorer than the others).

Although a handful of performances are less than effective and the story feels somewhat disjointed (it’s essentially two seperate tales bolted together) Barnaby Rudge is still a serial of considerable interest. The theme of the later episodes feels eerily topical, offering a sharp change of pace from the countryside intrigues of the first half.  It’s another well-crafted Classic Serial which, despite its length, never outstays its welcome. Well worth adding to your collection.

Barnaby Rudge is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.