Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Visiting Day

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Paul’s been laid up in hospital for six weeks with a broken leg.  During that time he’s not had a single visitor, despite the fact his parents only live a short tube trip away.  But when they do finally make an appearance (played by Lynda Baron and Brian Murphy) it’s more of a curse than a blessing ….

Visiting Day formed part of the first series of Comedy Playhouse, broadcast in 1962, Bernard Cribbins played the bed-bound patient with Betty Marsden and Wilfred Brambell as his insensitive parents.  But aficionados of the radio incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour will be aware that it was based pretty closely on a 1959 HHH episode.

The major change was replacing Sid and Bill (the visitors in the radio version) but otherwise a hefty early section was lifted pretty much verbatim.  G&S would later acknowledge that the freedom of writing Comedy Playhouse (new characters and scenarios each week) had ironically turned out to be rather restricting.  So it’s possible that with no new ideas forthcoming they were content to rehash something which had previously worked well.

As with the original HHH, we open with the unwilling patient subjected to a flannel wash from a friendly nurse (Nicole Arumugam).  It’s in preparation for visiting day, but Paul really doesn’t see the point – he’s not had any visitors so far and doesn’t expect this to change today.  He may profess to be not at all bothered, but there’s something rather dark about the way he’s been isolated and rejected.

His part of the ward is bare – no cards, flowers, fruit or other presents.  Although strictly speaking that’s not true, he does have one present – a bar of soap – plucked off the hospital Christmas tree.  That he was hospitalised during Christmas with no visitors or presents (apart from the bar of soap) is a slightly tragic touch.

The radio version is fairly melancholy too, but at least there it’s only Tony’s friends who have forgotten him.  On television, the fact that his parents have found numerous reasons not to visit (chief amongst them, says Paul, are the EastEnders omnibus and bingo) is a remarkably bleak detail.

Lynda Baron’s mother is a monstrous creation.  Overbearing and selfish, she effortlessly steamrollers her husband, played in typical hen-pecked fashion by Brian Murphy (hardly letting him get a word in).  It’s Baron who dominates the latter part of the episode, especially when she gets into conversation with Mrs Thompson (Anne Reid), visiting her husband in the next bed.

Earlier we’d seen Mrs Thompson pay a solicitous visit to Paul, prior to his parents arriving, concerned that yet again he was all on his own.  This was another scene lifted from the radio episode, albeit with the odd change (on radio she’s frequently attempting to press biscuits on him, on television it’s bananas).  Reid is perfect as a kindly, solicitous, but rather irritating woman.

Visiting Day is hard to love, mainly because Lynda Barron’s character is so awful and insensitive.  But its depiction of the despair that visiting days in hospital can sometimes bring is well observed – it’s one of those universal themes which has hardly changed over the years (from the original in 1959 to this version in 1997).

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Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Lift

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The Lift is one of the best Hancock adaptations from series one of PM in G&S’s ….  Partly this is because of the supporting cast – Michael Fenton Stevens as the oily producer, Sam Kelly as the truculent lift man and the always reliable Geoffrey Whitehead as the Air Marshall, amongst others.

The episode keeps the same location (a television studio) although it’s no longer the BBC, instead we’re at the rather obviously made-up Alpha Television (why they didn’t simply call it Carlton is a bit of a mystery).  As in the original, the queue for the lift slowly grows and as each new person appears they press the button, no doubt under the impression that no-one else would have thought of it!

Paul’s rather taken with an attractive secretary (Sheridan Forbes) who’s joined the queue, but she’s immune to his charms, preferring instead to bask in the glow of a producer (Fenton Stevens), who can’t help but modestly mention all the top shows he’s involved in.  Also present and correct is Paul’s baiting of the Air Marshall, here he’s taunting him to press the lift button.  “Go on, pretend it’s a rocket. You’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you? Go on, five, four, three, two, one …”

Also waiting patiently is Peter Jones as the Vicar.  He’s probably best known as the Voice of the Book from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although that was just a small part of a long and distinguished career.  Having a comedy great like Jones onboard is yet another reason why this one is so enjoyable.

A few tweaks are made to bring it up to date.  The lift man from the original is replaced with a maintenance man (lift men were clearly a thing of the past).  Also, the producer has a mobile phone with him – although he keeps quite about it for a while!

Anne Reid ramps up the hysteria as a woman suffering from claustrophobia (“that’s a handy thing to have in a lift” says Paul cheerfully).  From Paul musing about how there won’t be enough oxygen left for everyone in the future (“the man with the biggest hooter will survive”) to his attempts to keep the others entertained with parlour games, there’s plenty to enjoy.

A fine ensemble piece.  Whilst the original is a classic slice of comedy, this version is not too shabby at all.

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Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way

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Kevin (Merton) and Joyce (Gwyneth Strong) are saying goodbye to their old house.  Kevin can’t wait to see the back of it, but Joyce just can’t let go.  This is something of a problem, because the new occupants are due any minute.   And then Joyce locks herself in the toilet and refuses to come out ….

Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way was adapted from an episode of The Galton & Simpson Comedy, broadcast in 1969.  If the release date doesn’t slip again, the series will be out shortly from Network, so it’ll be interesting to see how Jimmy Edwards and Pat Coombs fared in the same roles.

This is an odd little tale.  By 1969 many of Galton & Simpson’s best days were behind them, although they weren’t a totally spent force – some excellent episodes of Steptoe still lay ahead (along with some pretty average ones it must be said).  The premise here feels rather unnatural (as does the sight of Kevin returning to the house, sleeping bag in hand, quite prepared to sleep outside the bathroom door – oblivious to the fact that the newlyweds have just moved in!)

One of the biggest laughs from the studio audience comes earlier on when Kevin tells Joyce that if she doesn’t get out soon then “that four-eyed twit and his flat-chested wife will be here”.  Matthew Ashforde and Emma Cunniffe (David Jason and Jacki Piper in the original) as Gordon and Avril do the best with the material they have, but it’s fairly thin.

Sam Kelly and Anne Reid fare rather better as Gordon’s parents.  They’ve come round to inspect the house and Gordon’s father is far from impressed – woodworm, rising damp and a woman locked in the toilet.  It’s not the ideal way to spend your first day of married life ….

Merton’s less central in this one than in some of the other episodes.  Understandable, since the Hancock episodes were built around the central performance of Tony Hancock, whilst Don’t Dilly Dally is more of an ensemble piece.  He has some choice moments though, such as when he invites himself to join Gordon, Avril and Gordon’s parents for dinner!

The final punchline (the location of Kevin and Joyce’s new house) is a gag that falls a little flat.  This is probably because, like the central premise, it doesn’t feel terribly plausible.  You can’t fault the cast, but you can fault the script.  Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way is something of a lesser pleasure from the Galton & Simpson catalogue.