Only Fools and Horses – Big Brother

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As is well known, Only Fools and Horses took a little time to establish itself as a comedy favourite.  Series one, originally broadcast in 1981, was politely received but it didn’t seem to spark a great deal of interest amongst either the critics or the audience.   This may have been something to do with the Minder effect (Del-Boy Trotter and Arthur Daley trod similar paths to begin with).

But revisiting the early episodes, it’s plain that right from the start all the pieces were in place.  Episode one, Big Brother (8th September 1981) is a good example of this.  As an establishing episode it’s not surprising that it concentrates on the three regulars – Del (David Jason), Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and Grandad (Lennard Pearce).  Joyce the Barmaid (Peta Barnard) gets a few reaction shots and we encounter Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) for the first time, but John Sullivan’s main intention here is to set up the relationship between Del and Rodney.

Familial discord has always been a fruitful source of sitcom material, possibly best exemplified by Steptoe and Son.  Is it fanciful to draw parallels between Big Brother and the original Steptoe pilot, The Offer?  Both see the youngest member of the family desperate to break free from their home environment (although neither are eventually able to do so).  The tone here is quite different though – Harold Steptoe is crushed by his failure to escape from his father’s clutches whilst Rodney and Del, for all their bickering, are happy to be reconciled at the end.

Younger brother Rodney has had a lifetime chafing about how he always gets the short end of the stick, but Del has an instant comeback.

Oh I embarrass you do I? You’ve got room to talk. You have been nothing but an embarrassment to me from the moment you was born. You couldn’t be like any other brother could you, eh, and come along a couple of years later after me. Oh no, not you, you had to wait 13 years. So while all the other Mods were having punch-ups down at Southend and going to the Who concerts, I was at home baby-sitting! I could never get your oystermilk stains out of me Ben Shermans – I used to find rusks in me Hush Puppies.

So Del, following the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father has been in loco parentis since Rodney was a young child. But now, at the age of twenty three, Rodney wants a better future than selling hankies from a suitcase in Oxford Street. Del can’t understand this – to him wheeling and dealing is his lifeblood. It’s a just a pity that he’s so bad at it. This is clear right from the start and it’s his inability to spot a dodgy deal (one-legged turkeys, attaché cases which don’t open) which make him just as a big a victim as his brother. But Del, with his lethal blend of pride and self-assurance, doesn’t realise this.

Tonally, it’s plain that this is very early days. Del is less than gallant when referring to Joycie whilst Trigger carries a faint air of menace. The reason for his nickname (it’s not that he carries a gun, it’s because he looks like a horse) has become a familiar archive clip, although since Del and Trigger have been friends since childhood, quite why Rodney had to ask this question is (in the Only Fools universe) a mystery.  In the real world it’s probable that Sullivan had yet to consider the likes of Trigger and Boycie as regular characters – so their backstories were something that could be sorted later.

Grandad is somewhat cast in the Albert Steptoe role. Fairly housebound and dependent on the others, he’s content to remain a passive observer. But whether it’s mulling over the qualities of Sidney Potter (an actor who always got the black roles), the inability of their computerised chess machine to play a good game of draughts or complaining that Rodney’s bought him a cheeseburger instead of an emperor burger, Lennard Pearce is nothing less than a delight.

Rodney’s plan to run away to Hong Kong doesn’t pan out (since he didn’t take his passport he wasn’t even able to leave the country). Del knew this, but allowed him to wax lyrical about the imagined foreign sights he’d experienced anyway. A little cruel? Not really and by the times the credits roll, the status quo has been restablished as the brothers are reconcilled.

That’s how sitcoms tend to operate, but Only Fools was different.  As the years wore on the characters would develop and grow (whereas most sitcom characters tend to exist in a form of stasis). Big Brother was therefore an important first building block as it gave both Del and Rodney clear backstories and a firm foundation to develop future stories.

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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

Sykes – Christmas Party

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Running during the sixties and seventies, Sykes starred Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques as identical(!) twins Eric and Hattie.  This episode, Christmas Party, was broadcast in December 1975 and finds them enjoying a touch of Christmas hospitality at Corky’s house (the wonderful Deryck Guyler, on fine form as ever).

The way that Eric and Hattie behave to their host highlights how different they are.  Eric, once they’ve finished eating, is keen to make their excuses and leave but Hattie, knowing how this would hurt Corky’s feelings, insists they stay for a while.  It’s clear that Eric’s more than a little cheesed off and Corky’s relatives don’t help to lighten his mood.  There’s the distinctly odd Clara (Sheila Steafel), who never seems to speak, as well as an annoying child, Marlon (Nicholas Drake), who delights in taunting Eric.

Eric Sykes’ writing style has always intrigued me.  Although he had a long association with Spike Milligan (Sykes pitched in during the 1950’s with Goon Show scripts to help ease Milligan’s workload) his own shows were always quite conventional in their tone and outlook.

So Sykes, unlike Milligan, was never an experimental comedian, which means that his work can sometimes be predictable, although – as with Christmas Party – there’s often a twist or two.  One example of using a well-worn gag can be seen when Marlon offers Eric his telescope.  You know (and the studio audience seem clued in as well) that in a minute his eye is going to be covered in black bootpolish – and so it is.  Was it the sheer predictability which appealed to Sykes?  Although his double-take means that he makes the most of it.

With most of the “action” taking place in Corky’s sitting room, there’s a definite feeling of being trapped – certainly most of the audience would probably sympathise with Eric’s sense of despair (he’d much sooner be back at home with his feet up, rather than listening to Clara plonk away on the piano).

Later, there’s a nice reversal of our expectations after Corky demonstrates his favourite card trick.  Eric doesn’t want to play along (he complains that Corky does the same one every year) and explains to Hattie that it’s just so obvious – every card in the deck is the Ace of Spades, so it’s no surprise when Corky’s confederate displays the same card.  Although he, yet again, picks the Ace of Spades he mischievously tells Corky that it was the Ten of Hearts, only for Clara to show him the Ten of Hearts!  Possibly this was the reason why Sykes had crafted the earlier, obvious, gags like the telescope – that way it makes the unbelievable card reveal more of a surprise.

The quick arrival and departure of Jimmy (Jeremy Gagan), a personable pickpocket, seems to provide an explanation as to where all their personal belongings (watches, wallets, etc) have gone, but once again there’s a twist in the tale.

Christmas Party chugs along very nicely thanks to the talents of Sykes, Jacques, Guyler and the guest cast, especially Steafel.

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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People Just Do Nothing – Dazzler Media DVD Review

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The contents of this blog are a good indication that I prefer my television programmes to be old (and preferably in black and white!) but occasionally I do like to haul myself into the 21st Century.  One such trip to the modern world revolves around People Just Do Nothing, a BBC comedy series about a pirate radio station called Kurupt FM which launched in 2012.

The story of how People Just Do Nothing was created is not an uncommon one in the internet age.  It first surfaced in 2010 as a YouTube series called Wasteman TV, this caught the attention of the BBC who commissioned a pilot in 2012.  The pilot, along with the first series, aired on the IPlayer before receiving a terrestrial screening.  This is an increasingly common practice (Car Share, Class) and subsequent series of People Just Do Nothing followed the same route, debuting via the IPlayer first.

What’s really interesting is that none of the cast had ever acted or written anything before the YouTube series.  They carried over their improvised and collaborative working practices to the BBC series, although they also began to script the show beforehand (Steve Stamp, who is the drug-addled Steves, may play a relatively minor character but is a driving force behind the writing).  The mockumentary aspect of the show has led to inevitable comparisons with The Office, but I can also see parallels (although probably not intentional) with the forgotten Operation Good Guys (1997 – 2000), a mock fly-on-the-wall series which predated The Office, but is now all but forgotten (if Ricky Gervais and co hadn’t drawn some inspiration from it though, I’d be amazed).

When the mockumentary format is done well (as in Operation Good Guys and, of course, People Just Do Nothing) it’s a wonderful way of exposing the weaknesses and contradictions of the characters.  This is evident right from the start (in episode one, series one – Secret Location) as Grindah’s (Allan Mustafa) impressive façade is slowly whittled away piece by piece.  He’s the ultimate no-hoper, trapped in a world of delusion where he believes himself to be the main man of an influential pirate radio station.  But in reality the station’s reach is pitifully small and he’s also got problems with the neighbours – who don’t appreciate the noise.  He enlists the help of Chabuddy G (Asim Chaudhry) who agrees to soundproof their studio, that is if he can find enough egg-boxes.  Unsurprisingly, it’s a botched-job.

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The relationship between Grindah and DJ Beats (Hugo Chegwin), his loyal (albeit rather put-upon) right hand man is a key one. In the second episode, Angel’s Birthday, Beats has the chance of a job – at Tie One – and enlists Chabuddy’s help. Chabuddy tells him to grab the goat by the horns and then to penetrate the goat ….

Each episode is packed with killer lines and this one’s no different as Chabuddy admits that his homemade Polish Vodka has a few teething problems – literally, as people lose their teeth after drinking his corrosive brew.  Apart from Beats’ big chance at the tie shop, Grindah’s daughter Angel is celebrating her fifth birthday. Alas, he gives Chabuddy the job of organising the party and is shocked that all the chocolates have a rather phallic air. “Everything’s cock-related. It’s my little girl’s birthday birthday party and there’s cocks everywhere.”

Series two opens with Grindah and Beats on the up – listening figures are well into double figures. Grindah and his girlfriend Miche (Lily Brazier) are preparing for their daughter’s christening, but who is Grindah going to pick to be Angel’s godfather?  It’ll either be Beats or Decoy (Daniel Sylvester Woodford). Chegwin’s downcast face when he isn’t automatically chosen is a lovely comic moment as is the way he cheers up after Grindah tells him he’s reached the final.

Lily Brazier is so good as the self-obsessed Miche. She’s the recipient of many wonderful lines, one of my favourites comes from the first episode of series one where she claims that she’d be totally lost without Grindah – the last time he was away the television was stuck on Dave and she couldn’t change it. That sounds grim ….

By series three, Miche’s proposed marriage to Grindah causes ructions,  Chabuddy’s money-making schemes continue to misfire in spectacular fashion whilst Beats’ girlfriend Roche (Ruth Bratt) gives birth.

People Just Do Nothing‘s profile has slowly built over the last few years.  That they were nominated for a 2016 BAFTA (for best scripted comedy) is a good indication of how the series is moving into the mainstream (it lost to Peter Kay’s Car Share).  As the show has developed during the last few years it’s been able to develop and deepen the core characters – the excellent ensemble cast has responded by delivering nuanced performances of increasing subtlety.

People Just Do Nothing is fast becoming a classic sitcom.  Like all the best examples of this genre, it presents us with a group of characters forced together by circumstances (work, family, etc) and then chips away at their relationships bit by bit.  With a fourth series due to air next year there still seems to be plenty of scope left in the lives of the Kurupt FM crew.

Dazzler’s three disc set, like their Brian Pern release, has a generous selection of bonus features.  Nine episodes feature commentaries (all the episodes from the first two series) and there’s a package of deleted scenes and new features.  On average each of these mini-features lasts around five minutes or less, favourites include Chabuddy’s guided tour of Hounslow and the terrible moment when Steves gets lost in Wickes.  The full list is as follows –

Chabuddy Guide to Hounslow
Miche’s Miracles
Grindah’s Prison Stories
DJ Steves’ Alien Encounters
Lost In Wickes
Inspiration (Grindah & Beats)
Training
Parent Classes
Mural
Valentine’s Day Set
Eight Hour Set
‘Upcycling’
Baby Shower
Dad Advice
Sat Nav
Hartford House

People Just Do Nothing is released by Dazzler Media on the 7th of November 2016.  RRP £29.99.

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Meet the Wife – Simply Media DVD Review

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Meet the Wife made its debut in the third series of Comedy Playhouse, broadcast in December 1963. Comedy Playhouse had been created in 1961 as an outlet for the writing talents of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (following the abrupt termination of their partnership with Tony Hancock) but it quickly expanded to embrace other writers.  The beauty of the format was easy to understand – if something showed promise then it could be developed into a full series, if not then only half an hour had been wasted.

Created by Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe, Meet the Wife is concerned with the domestic trials and tribulations of Thora Blacklock (Thora Hird) and her much put-upon husband Fred (Freddie Frinton).  The Blacklocks are an ordinary working class couple.  Fred, a plumber, yearns for a quiet life but he never has the chance – thanks to his hectoring and snobbish wife Thora.

Chesney and Wolfe started their writing career on the radio, penning episodes of Life with the Lyons and Educating Archie.  By the time Meet with Wife started airing they’d already enjoyed great success with another BBC television series, The Rag Trade, and would continue to enjoy popular (if not critical) acclaim when they later moved over to ITV, with the likes of On the Buses, Romany Jones and Yus My Dear.  These other credits should give you an idea of what to expect with Meet the Wife.  It’s by no means subtle, but it is goodhearted (the Blacklocks might have a fractious relationship but there’s no doubt that deep-down they love each other).

Thora Hird (1911 – 2003) was already by this time a very experienced actress, although her status as a national treasure would lie in the decades ahead, especially during the eighties and nineties.  Born in Morecambe, Lancashire, she started her theatrical career early, making her stage debut when just eight weeks old.  A Rank contract player during the 1950’s, she racked up numerous credits during this period (albeit in mostly fairly undistinguished films).  But greater public recognition would come in the early 1960’s with two film roles – appearing alongside Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1960) and Alan Bates in A Kind of Loving (1962).  Her experience in the business had proved that she could hold her own with just about anybody and these film performances demonstrated that her talent for sketching vivid, memorable characters was already firmly in place.

Freddie Frinton (1909 – 1968) began his working career entertaining his colleagues at a Grimsby fish processing plant.  But, as the legend goes, he didn’t impress the management – who sacked him.  Frinton’s first legitimate success on the stage came with Dinner For One.  Although forgotten in Britain, this eighteen minute skit remains a New Year’s Eve staple in many European countries, such as Germany, thanks to a 1963 telerecording starring Frinton and May Warden.

Meet the Wife’s status in the public’s consciousness has no doubt been maintained by the fact that it was namechecked in the Beatles’ song Good Morning, Good Morning (“it’s time for tea and Meet the Wife”) but save for a handful of episodes on YouTube, the series itself has rather faded from view.  So Simply Media’s release is very welcome and whilst it’s hard to argue that it’s a neglected comedy classic, it certainly has its moments.

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The Comedy Playhouse pilot The Bed is essentially a two-hander between Thora and Fred (apart from Brian Oulton’s enthusiastic bed salesman). The Blacklocks are shortly due to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary and Thora decides that what they really need is a new bed. She gets her way (of course) by streamrollering poor Fred but their troubles aren’t over when they take delivery. Uncooperative lamps, quibbles about which side is the soft one, it’s all enough to drive Fred off to the spare room and the old bed. Chesney and Wolfe undercut these squabbles with a neat revelation which shows us (and Thora) just how much Fred loves his wife.

Fred’s desire to please Thora carries over into the first episode proper, Going Away. It’s a real time capsule of the period, taking us back to when a foreign holiday was pretty much a once in a lifetime experience. Thora desperately wants to go on a posh foreign holiday, mainly because of the bragging rights. Fred glumly tells her that they could probably afford a week in Blackpool but then shortly afterwards returns home with two tickets for an all-expenses paid trip to Majorca. He tells her that he’s had a win on the dogs, but it’s quickly revealed that he’s paying for it on the HP. Thora has a horror of being in debt, so Fred wisely keeps quiet about what he’s done. She finds out, of course, but isn’t angry, instead she’s touched that he would make such a sacrifice for her.

Night Out sees Thora and Fred getting ready for a swanky night out (at the Plumber’s Ball, or somesuch similar event). It’s interesting that as with Going Away, the durtation of the episode is concerned with their preparations, meaning that we never actually see them on holiday/at the dinner. This is a little surprising, as both scenarios offered numerous comic possibilities, but Meet the Wife is quite an enclosed series – whole episodes, like this one, can go by without any other actors appearing.

The first two discs contain the Comedy Playhouse pilot and all seven episodes from the first series. Since the survival rate for series two to five is very patchy, all those episodes (bar the two already discussed) can be found on disc three. The first existing episode from the second series, The Teenage Niece, sees Fred’s seventeen-year-old niece Doreen (Tracy Rogers) come to stay for a while. The generation gap has always been a fruitful generator of comedy and Doreen – with her modern ways – certainly shakes up Thora and Fred’s world. But everybody remains very tolerant – Doreen might regard her aunt and uncle as ancient, but she still loves them, whilst they seem quite calm when she turns up with her boyfriend in tow at 5 o’clock in the morning.

Of the remaining episodes, The Hotel is probably the strongest, since it has a simple, but effective, plotline (Thora and Fred take a trip to a posh hotel). Thora’s in her element – putting on her most genteel and refined voice – but there’s always a worry in the back of her mind that Fred’s common ways are going to embarrass her.

Picture-wise, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a series of this age. The episodes are derived from unrestored telerecordings, although they are all quite watchable with no major problems.

Like many programmes of this era it didn’t escape the archive purges of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  It’s long been assumed that seventeen episodes out of the thirty nine made now exist (as confirmed by Lost Shows), but  only fifteen were included on the DVD when it was released in October 2016 (Shopping and Brother Tom were the two omitted).  Shopping isn’t listed on the BBC’s archive database, so it’s possible that it only exists in private hands and therefore wasn’t accessible for this release.

Brother Tom should have been included, but was missed off in error.  Simply issued the following statement on the 23rd of November 2016 –

“Unfortunately due to an authoring error an episode was missed off the release of MEET THE WIFE.

 For your replacement, which has the error corrected, please contact us either by private message on Facebook, or by emailing hannah.page@simplymedia.tv with your order number and where your DVD was purchased from, along with an address to send the replacement to.

 Many thanks, and Simply Media apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

It’s no Hancock or Steptoe, but Meet the Wife is unpretentious and entertaining, thanks to the efforts of Thora Hird and Freddie Frinton.  It’s certainly pleasing to see it on DVD and also that the issue with the original pressing was attended to.

Meet the Wife was released by Simply Media on the 24th of October 2016.  RRP £29.99.

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Happy Ever After – Simply Media DVD Review

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Happy Ever After first surfaced as a one-off Comedy Playhouse episode in May 1974. Like many other series launched via Comedy Playhouse, including Meet the Wife, it would quickly develop into a fully fledged series.

Since series one of Happy Ever After followed just two months later, in July 1974, it’s clear that audience reaction wasn’t a factor – the BBC must have sensed that this was a format that had legs.  And so it proved, Happy Ever After ran for forty one episodes between 1974 and 1979 and then Terry & June (essentially the same series but with a few differences, which we’ll discuss later) chalked up sixty five episodes from 1979 to 1987.

Out of the two series, Terry & June – thanks to repeats and DVD releases – has by far the greatest profile.  But it’s a profile that’s not always been terribly positive.  Regarded by some as old-hat and embarrassing, T&J has often been cited as an example of all that’s bad and lazy about traditional sitcoms.  An over-reliance on unlikely occurrences and remarkable coincidences (later wonderfully parodied in Chance in a Million) and Terry Scott’s mugging to camera are some of the suggested reasons.  But whilst T&J did run out of steam, it also had more than its fair share of great comedy moments – as did Happy Ever After.

Created by John Chapman and Eric Merriman, Happy Ever After’s format is a simple one. Terry and June Fletcher are a middle-aged, happily married couple who have recently seen their grown-up children, Frank, Susan and Debbie, leave home.  But their hopes for a quiet life spent in each other’s company are rudely shattered when cranky Aunt Lucy (Beryl Cooke) and her mynah bird come to stay.

The format of the series would remain fairly constant.  Terry would hit upon a brilliant idea or become embroiled in events which would spiral out of his control, June would remain on the side-lines – ever patient – whilst Aunt Lucy would chip in with the odd comment.  When the series became Terry & June it carried on pretty much as before (except that Aunt Lucy had been written out).

The other change was that Terry and June’s surname was Fletcher in Happy Ever After but had become Medford in Terry & June.  This was because series creator John Chapman felt that the show had run its course by 1979.  The BBC disagreed, so a change of surname was enough to ensure that Chapman couldn’t claim the new series featured his characters, even if things carried on pretty much as before.

Although it’s difficult not to see both series as one entity, there’s a slightly different tone to Happy Ever After, especially to begin with.  It just feels a little bit more sharper (possibly not surprising since any format will eventually begin to lose its sparkle over the years) and the plots are tighter.  The presence of Aunt Lucy is also a major plus (the absence of a similar character in T&J was a shame).

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But whilst the writing is important, Happy Ever After stands or falls on the performances of the two leads. Terry Scott (1927 – 1994) had been a television star since the 1950’s, starting with Scott Free in 1957.  More success on the small screen would follow in the 1960’s – teaming up with Hugh Lloyd in Hugh and I and the bizarre-sounding (and sadly wiped) Gnomes of Dulwich.  Another series – Scott On … – would air between 1964 and 1974 (running to twenty four episodes).  He also turned up in a number of films, including several Carry Ons.

June Whitfield (b. 1925) is, like Scott, a British comedy legend, and her longevity has only helped to increase her stature.  She began as a supporting player, appearing opposite Peter Sellers in The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, Jimmy Edwards in The Many Faces of Jim and More Faces of Jim as well as Tony Hancock (most notably in The Blood Donor).  She first appeared with Terry Scott in Scott On … and like Scott would make a few appearances in the Carry On series (although they didn’t appear in the same films).  During the last few decades she’s become familiar to several new generations thanks to Absolutely Fabulous.

The pilot shows Terry and June adjusting to home life now that their children have gone.  Terry is remarkably boorish, pouring June a gin and reminding her that it always used to get her going in the old days. June comments on how coarse he is and on this early evidence they seem a very mismatched pair.

Terry is a bundle of nervous energy (incapable of remaining quiet for a minute) whilst June is content to just relax, buried in a good book.  There’s an unspoken feeling that now the house is theirs again they might struggle to restablish their relationship.  That they’ve not been paying each other a great deal of attention is made plain after Terry is amazed to discover that June’s had a pair of glasses for the last two years – he admits he hasn’t really looked at her for a long time.

This moment, along with June’s tearful regret that the chicks have flown the nest, gives the pilot a slightly wistful air, although Terry’s hyperactive personality – a hamsfisted attempt to do some DIY for example – ensures that the mood doesn’t stay reflective for long.  When the demanding Aunt Lucy turns up with bundles of possessions, poor Terry sees his newly-won freedom fast disappearing …

The first episode of Happy Ever After proper sees Terry shocked to learn that June hasn’t been a Conservative like him during their married life (instead she’s always voted Liberal).  This is a perfect opportunity for Terry Scott to deliver some of his trademark overreacting, but when June tells him she’s considering a short break by herself, it ties back to the suggestion in the pilot that the two of them may be fundamentally incompatible.  Terry then suggests she writes a list of his faults, which she does with great glee!  Later they decide to go on a second honeymoon, which (as might be expected) doesn’t go to plan.  It’s good to see some well-known actors lurking in the hotel, such as Hammer Films stalwart Michael Ripper and radio’s original Dick Barton, Noel Johnson.

Containing the Comedy Playhouse pilot, five series and three specials (two Christmas specials and the final one-off from April 1979) this seven disc set offers a generous helping of 1970’s sitcom goodness.  Classic episodes include the series two effort Terry in Court. Returning home after a business trip, Terry’s more than a little upset to learn that their car has had an altercation with the local dustcart. June insists it wasn’t her fault and after learning that the Council refuse to admit liability, Terry decides to sue them. The trouble really starts when Terry learns that he can represent himself and so appears in court complete with a wig and gown! Scott is firing on all his comic cylinders, helped no end by a very dead-pan performance by Basil Dingham as the judge.

Another favourite is Mistaken Identikit. An idenikit picture of a bag snatcher who preys on elderly ladies (giving him the nickname of the “granny grabber”) is broadcast on televison and featured in all the newspapers. And wouldn’t you know it, he looks just like Terry! Robert Gillespie pops up as a phelgmatic desk sergeant and the always-watchable Josephine Tewson also makes a brief appearance.

The Music Went Around & Around is a notable episode, as it was John Kane’s first script for the series.  Kane would only pen a couple of episodes for Happy Ever After, but he’d go on to write the bulk of Terry & June (notching up more than forty episodes). In this one, John Quayle and Janine Duvitski are both wonderful as Ralph and Cynthia, the dinner guests from hell. Terry later attempts to replace one of his classic records from the 1940’s – The Hut Sut Song. Julian Orchard, as the harrased record shop proprietor, is another first-rate guest performer, as is Damaris Hayman (who plays Miss Sneed, an assistant at the record shop). Amazingly, she’s heard of this obscure song and it’s a comic treat when she and Terry launch into a spirited performance of The Hut Sut Song.

Unashamedly middle-of-the-road fare, Happy Ever After has aged very well.  This is partly because of the contrasting comic talents of Terry Scott and June Whitfield, but the scripts are also pretty strong and it’s always nice to see familiar faces popping up in guest roles.

Happy Ever After is released by Simply Media on the 26th of September 2016.  RRP £44.99.

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