Comedy Playhouse – Steptoe and Son – The Offer

offer

After Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s successful working relationship with Tony Hancock had been abruptly terminated by him (they had written six radio and seven television series for the Lad Himself) they found themselves at something of a loose end.

The BBC were keen to keep them working and so made them an attractive offer – a series called Comedy Playhouse in which Galton and Simpson had carte blanche to write whatever they wished.  Out of a variety of different playlets came Steptoe and Son.  When they wrote The Offer it was purely a one-off, but the BBC were keen to develop it into a series, and eventually Galton and Simpson agreed.

The late 1950’s and early 1960’s had seen something of a social revolution in television drama, often crudely dubbed as “kitchen sink” drama.  It was pioneered by series such as Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) which explored areas previously undocumented on television.  Comedy was also to see similar ground-breaking series produced during the 1960s such as The Likely Lads (1964-1966) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975) which featured working class themes and characters in a much more realistic way than had ever been seen before.

The first of the comedy series to break the mould was Steptoe and Son, although Galton and Simpson would no doubt deny that their intention was to innovate or start a new trend – they were simply attempting to fill a half an hour slot.  Their method of working was to kick around various ideas until something stuck.  One important rule they had was that it had to feature two characters, which had served them well with the television version of Hancock’s Half Hour which generally revolved around the relationship between Hancock and Sid James.

Once the idea of two rag and bone men was decided on, they then had to agree what their relationship was.  Brothers maybe?  Eventually, father and son seemed to offer the most comic potential as it offered a good chance to explore the generation gap.

Steptoe and Son would run for eight series between 1962  – 1974 and by the 1970’s it would be very much a mainstream sitcom.  However in revisiting the black and episodes (the first four series, made between 1962 and 1965) we find a much darker and sadder character piece that often (in the best way) isn’t funny at all.

Harold Steptoe is 37, unmarried and dreams of a life away from his father and the family rag and bone business.  Albert Steptoe is an old man and apparantly in ill health, although this seems to be mostly faked in order to keep Harold at home.  He clearly doesn’t want to be left alone, so he’ll use any trick at his disposal to thwart Harold’s dreams of bettering himself.

In The Offer (purely a two-hander between Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell) we see Harold’s first attempt to leave Albert behind a forge a new future for himself.  Harold is sick and tired of being a rag and bone man, sick of the horse and sick of Albert’s constant criticisms.  Albert spends the opening part of the story belittling the stuff that Harold’s collected, before scavenging all the best things for himself.  As Harold says, “If anything ‘alf decent comes along you wanna keep it to yerself!  That’s no way to run a business.”

The tragic side of this is that the bric-a-brac so beloved by Albert is worthless junk, but he simply can’t see it.  And the further tragedy is that Harold is no better.  Harold shares some traits with the persona Galton and Simpson created for Tony Hancock, namely the attempts to “better himself” which never really pay off.  But whilst there was a certain warmth to Hancock’s failed attempts to be an intellectual, there’s a harsher feeling to Harold’s failures.

His desire to move up the social scale is palpable, but he has little to show for it.  His “library” is a collection of four books tied up with string and his “wine cellar” is made up from pouring the small remains of the virtually empty bottles he’s collected into his nearly full ones at home.  And this is partly sabotaged when he realises someone has stored paraffin in a bottle of non-vintage Beaujolais just after he’s poured it into his almost complete bottle.  “The rotten, lousy, stinkin’ gits!  Paraffin! They’ve gone and put paraffin in it!  They ruined me bottle of Beaujolais! It’s taken me a year to fill that up!”

Eventually all these frustrations build up and Harold decides to take up a mysterious offer and leave.  Albert tries everything to make him stay, but to no avail.  He loads his possessions onto the cart, but as Albert won’t let him use the horse Harold has to push the cart by himself.  Here we come to probably the most interesting part of the story – the cart won’t move.  Is this because it’s genuinely too heavy or because even when he has the chance to leave, Harold can’t bring himself to actually do it?

This scene is incredibly powerful and is so well acted by both Corbett and Brambell.  As Harold breaks down and is led back into the house by Albert, who tells him that “you can go another day, or you can stay with yer old dad and wait till a better offer comes along” you could hear a pin drop in the audience.  Corbett wasn’t attempting to gain the auidence’s sympathy, he was simply acting to the script.  This was another notable thing about Steptoe and Son, as before this sitcoms had tended to star comedians and were vehicles especially written for their talents, such as Hancock’s Half HourSteptoe and Son was performed by actors rather than comedians, which is an important distinction.

When Harold attempts, unsuccessfully, to move the cart, Alan Simpson was amazed to see real tears in Corbett’s eyes: “We watched that closing scene as Harry literally crumbles. He’s trying to push his meagre belongings away and start a new life, and he can’t do it. We were watching this scene and Harry actually broke down and cried and I thought, real tears! This is what it’s all about… this is acting! We weren’t used to it with writing for comedians. Usually it would be stylised, shoulder-lurching sobs when comics cried. Harry really got hold of that final scene. It was real drama to him”.

The realisation that Corbett and Brambell could give their scripts a deeper, more nuanced reading than anything they’d previously produced would clearly influence their writing from this point on.

Therefore we have a downbeat ending to a remarkable half hour.  There’s no winners or losers here.  Over the course of the story our sympathies have swung from one character to the other.  We can sympathise with Harold for wanting to leave (particularly at the start, when Albert seems such an unpleasant character).  But over the half hour we’ve come to understand that Albert is a lonely old man who simply couldn’t function on his own and that Harold deep down seems to understand this.

The same basic template would often be played out during the following 56 episodes, but it would be rarely be better than this one.  Impressively written and acted, this is a true classic of British television.

dinnerladies

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Victoria Wood was always faintly unimpressed, visually, with the way that dinnerladies turned out. She had pictured it shot with hand-held cameras but was told that it wasn’t possible.  So what she got was something that looked like a traditional sit-com (although this isn’t really any bad thing).  It seems to be an ever-present fixture on Gold, along with the likes of Porridge and Steptoe and Son, and it’s a good indication of dinnerladies’ quality that it doesn’t seem out of place when broadcast alongside the comedy greats of the 1970’s.

Whilst it may have rankled with Wood that the style of the series was so resolutely traditional (particularly when the likes of The Royal Family and The Office were able to quite easily eschew this format) dinnerladies was a sit-com that probably wouldn’t have benefited from the sort of wobbly-cam single camera shooting that was to dominate comedy in the years to come.

It’s written, essentially, as a stage-play with just a single location (and it’s probably not surprising to know that most of the scripts were adapted successfully for several theatre tours).  We may hear about the world outside but the focus remains firmly on what happens inside the canteen.

Wood was able to assemble a first-rate cast, some of whom (Duncan Preston, Ceila Imrie, Julie Walters) had enjoyed a long association with her, whilst others (Thelma Barlow, Andrew Dunn, Shobna Gulati and Maxine Peake) were newcomers.  She obviously knew what Preston, Imrie and Walters could deliver, but the characters of the others (as well as Anne Reid, who had appeared in Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV) would maybe only really begin to develop towards the end of the first series and into the second as she began to tailor their parts based on her experience of working with them.

As the creator, writer and co-producer, Wood had an enormous amount of power that she was able to wield.  But whilst the overall arc of the two series is the story of Bren and Tony, Wood doesn’t dominate each episode and nor does she give herself all the best lines.  She was comfortable enough to sometimes remain in the background as a passive figure, whilst the others enjoyed the biggest laughs.

If the series was shot in a traditional way, the actual recording process was quite different.  It would be shot on a Friday evening and then Wood and co-producer Geoff Posner would view the results, with Wood re-writing the script which would then be re-recorded on the Saturday evening.  Although this was common practice for American sit-coms, it was unusual, if not unique, for a British sit-com.

It would be lovely one day to have DVD sets released with both the Friday and Saturday recordings, so that we can see exactly what was changed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  The DVD releases we have are resolutely bare-bones, with no commentaries or special features, which indicates that Victoria Wood isn’t particularly keen to spend a great deal of time analyzing her work.

The Good Life – Plough Your Own Furrow

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By 1975 John Esmonde and Bob Larby were a well-established writing team (responsible for hit series such as Please Sir!).  When creating The Good Life they started with pretty much a blank slate – they knew that Richard Briers would star (since the BBC were keen to have Briers appear in another sitcom) but everything else was up for grabs.

The first moment of inspiration came when Esmonde and Larby realised that both Briers and Larby were coming up to the age of forty – as Larby said, it was one of those “Oh God!” ages.  So it was decided that Briers’ character would be facing some mid-life crisis, but what form would this take?

Thoughts such as his character deciding to resign his job and sail around the world or live on a desert island were kicked around (though not terribly seriously) before they hit upon the idea of a man totally fed up with his job and the whole rat-race existence.  So he decides to “drop out” and become self sufficient.  This was a decent idea and the logical move would have been for him to sell his house and buy a place in the country.

But in a stroke of genius, Esmonde and Larby decided that Briers’ character (Tom Good) would do no such thing – instead his house and garden (in the middle of Surbiton) would be turned into a mini-farm, complete with animals, vegetables and all the other paraphernalia that it entailed.

With this initial concept decided, the rest of the small cast fell into place.  Felicity Kendall was Barbara, Tom’s long-suffering wife whilst Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington would be the Good’s long suffering next-door neighbours, Margo and Jerry.

Larby conceded that had Margo and Jerry simply been relentlessly disapproving then the series wouldn’t have worked very well.  Margo and Jerry are Tom and Barbara’s best friends and it’s the conflict between their friendship and their disapproval of the Good’s new lifestyle which drives some of the comedy along.

The first episode, Plough Your Own Furrow, is an interesting one.  It’s not wall-to-wall laughs, as there’s space when the characters (especially Tom) pause to reflect upon the course of their life so far.  Partly this may be because it was the first episode of a new series – as time went on, the audiences would become more attuned to the characters, the writing and the style of the programme and be more inclined to show their approval.

As the episode opens, we see Tom celebrating his 40th birthday.  He’s clearly a man searching for something which is, at that time, undefinable.

It’s quality of life.  That’s what I’m after.  If I could just get it right.  I’ll tackle it and get it right, as soon as I know what it is.

It’s clear that he isn’t getting any job satisfaction.   A whole host of small irritations are highlighted – such as the office car-park attendant knowing Jerry’s name, but not Tom’s (“I’ve really made an impact with you over the years, haven’t I?  Cor blimey, I’ve only been here eight years.”) and the fact there was an office cricket team but nobody thought to ask him (“We didn’t need to.  We got my dad to umpire”).

This is another indication that Tom is standing still at best or even moving backwards.  Everybody else in his department is in their twenties, so what does the future hold for Tom?  Jerry joined the company at the same time as Tom, but he’s ascended to the executive level whilst Tom remains stuck on the fourth floor, engaged in vital work such as designing a toy hippo to be included as a free gift in a popular brand of breakfast cereal.

Jerry spells it out to Tom.

We joined this company – what, eight years ago, wasn’t it it?  And do you know something?  I was frightened of you then.  You were a better draughtsman than I was and you had better qualifications than mine.  I was going to have to rely on pure cunning just to keep up with you.  Still, I needn’t have bothered, need I?  Cos look at us.  I’m up here and you’re down there, not getting picked for cricket teams.  And why?  Because you use about one tenth of your ability.  I have to use all mine and what I lack I make up with sheer, bloody crawling.

Then Sir (Reginald Marsh) joins Tom and Jerry (and every time I type their names I assume that Esmonde and Larby picked those names as a tribute to a popular cat and mouse partnership) for a chat about his latest top-secret project.

The bubble has just come off the top of the think-tank and I don’t mind telling you that this is an absolute blockbuster of an idea.  It’s going to put our wildlife preservation series in the vanguard of world mouldings.  Our mould is going to be a giraffe! And Tom, I’m thinking of putting this giraffe on your plate.

Tom has the chance to advance his career with some “bloody crawling” but his hysterical laughter at the giraffe news scuppers this.  This is point when Tom finally realises the futility of his job (“You should have heard Sir.  You’d think he’d invented penicillin.  I couldn’t help laughing”).  There has to be more to life, but what?  Then Tom has a lightbulb moment, which he explains to Barbara.

I quit work and we become as damned near self-sufficient as possible.  We’ve got bags of garden, we grown our own food.  We keep some animals, chickens, a pig.  We produce our own energy, recycle rubbish.  We design the things we need.  I’ll show you what being a draughtsman is really all about.  Now , some things we can’t make, right.  Some things we can’t grow, right.  So we flog our surplus and buy stuff, and that’s without good old Medieval barter.  It’ll be damned hard work.  We won’t have much in the way of mod cons, but we might enjoy discovering what we can do without.  And we won’t need the world and his wife to give us the yea or nay.  It’ll be just us, doing it for us.  What do you think, eh?

This monologue is the essence of the series.  And Barbara’s reaction is interesting.  The camera cuts back to her on several occasions and her expression is, at best, neutral.  It would have been incredibly unrealistic for her to instantly agree, so even though it’s the middle of the night she puts on her wellies and walks up and down the garden until she finally decides that yes, they’ll do it.

This naturally results in a celebration – and as they dance in the fishpond the noise wakes up the Ledbetters next door.  We see Jerry, but only hear Margo (in this episode we don’t see Penelope Keith).  And the next morning Tom has been up good and early.  He’s sold his car and bought a plough, so he can start on the back garden and take the first step on the road to self-sufficiency.

Hi-de-Hi! – Hey Diddle Diddle

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Many of the best sitcoms feature a disparate group of people who, for one reason or another, are trapped together.  Porridge is an obvious example, but it’s a theme that also runs through the work of Jimmy Perry and David Croft.

Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum both had a diverse set of people thrown together by WW2 and in Hi-de-Hi! the characters are bound together because of their job.  It amounts to pretty much the same thing though – as we see people of different attitudes, ages and classes all forced to work with each other.

If there’s one thing that’s notable about most of Perry and Croft’s sitcoms (and also the ones that Croft wrote with other people) it’s the fact they tended to go on far too long.  When something is successful, the obvious thing to do is to continue – few writers are able (like John Cleese and Connie Booth with Fawlty Towers) to decide early on that all the comic potential has been mined from a certain idea.

But for now, let’s take a look at the first episode of He-de-Hi!, transmitted on the 1st of January 1980.  It has an extended running time of forty minutes and is probably best seen as a pilot – since it would be more than a year before the first series proper began.

What’s interesting is the feeling of melancholy that hangs over many of the characters.  Whilst all of them are professional with the holidaymakers, behind the scenes there’s a sense that for many, Maplin’s Holiday Camp is something of a prison for their thwarted dreams and ambitions.

For example, Fred Quilley (Felix Bowness) was a jockey who, it’s implied, threw races – so he’s washed up at Maplin’s, teaching holidaymakers to ride a selection of clapped-out nags.  And Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer) is a Punch and Judy man who has an intense dislike of children, something of a handicap in his job.  Dwyer was a veteran actor with a list of credits stretching back to the 1930’s (In Which We Serve and The Way Ahead were two notable early film appearances).  He’s rarely a central figure in the stories, but his pithy bad temper were always worth watching out for.

Perhaps the most dismissive of the whole Maplin’s environment are Yvonne and Barry Stewart-Hargreaves (Diane Holland and Barry Howard) and Yvonne’s disdain for the common holidaymakers is never far from the surface.  Their marriage is also intriguing, since Barry acts so incredibly camp it’s possible to wonder whether theirs is a marriage of convenience.  There’s this exchange, for example.

BARRY: You’ve got your weight on the wrong foot, you silly cow.  It’s like dancing with an all-in wrestler.
YVONNE: Well you’ve more experience with that kind of thing that I’d have.

There are some positive people though.  Spike (Jeffrey Holland) is young, keen and eager to please.  But it’s possible to wonder if Ted Bovis (Paul Shane) is the sort of person that Spike will become in twenty five years if the breaks don’t come his way.  In the little world of Maplin’s, Ted is King – although the fact he’s still stuck in the holiday camps after all this time implies that his big break never materialised.

Given how Peggy (Su Pollard) came to define the series, it’s surprising that she hasn’t got her face in the opening credits.  Peggy is the most positive person of all, desperate to become a yellowcoat and eager to do anything that will advance her cause.

The person charged with bringing order to this group of misfits is the new Entertainments Manager Jeffrey Fairbrother (Simon Cadell).  Jeffrey is the real fish-out-of-water – formally a professor at Cambidge, he’s thrown that up because, as he tells his mother, “I’m in a rut. My wife’s left me because I’m boring, my students fall asleep at lectures because I bore them. And worst of all, I’m boring myself”.

Cadell is perfect as the indecisive, diffident, but decent man who’s completely out of his depth.  This is highlighted when he meets Gladys Pugh (Ruth Madoc) for the first time.  For Gladys, it’s clearly love at first sight.  For Jeffrey (whilst he’d have to be blind not to see the signs she’s giving off) there’s little more than exquisite embarrassment.

This opening episode has done enough to suggest that the differences between the characters will provide plenty of comic potential in the years to come.  And towards the end Jeffrey is visited by a couple who are about to leave.  The old man’s words help to explicitly state the series’ agenda – whilst the employees of Maplin’s might sometimes be at each others throats, ensuring that the holidaymakers enjoy themselves is something they can all take pride in.

It was wonderful.  Just sheer fun, and we haven’t had a lot of that in our lifetime. It’s grand being daft and forgetting all your troubles for a little while. I was telling Doris here, I said if the whole country could be run like a holiday camp then we’d be alright. We’d have Joe Maplin as prime minister and never mind that Harold Macmillan. He’s always telling us we’ve never had it so good. We’ve never had it. We’ve had a grand holiday and you were marvelous. You joined in the fun, supervising in your own quiet way and you didn’t make a lot of palaver. You just did it and we’d like to thank you, young man.

You have been watching –

Hi-De-Hi! – The Partridge Season

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One of the advantages of a series like Hi-De-Hi! is that the large ensemble cast enables each character, especially those who usually operate on the periphery, to have a chance to shine.  And as might be expected by the title, The Partridge Season (Series One, Episode Four, Tx 12/04/81) puts the spotlight on the perpetually grumpy Punch and Judy man Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer).

Dwyer was a veteran actor (born 1906) who had enjoyed a long career in films and television (although usually in supporting roles).  Therefore, his regular performances in Hi-De-Hi! gave him a late taste of fame (very similar to the experiences enjoyed by the likes of John Laurie and Arnold Ridley in another Perry/Croft vehicle, Dad’s Army).  Mr Partridge was never going to be a character who would be central to the series (he worked better as someone who confined himself to the odd withering one-liner delivered from the comfort of his chair in the staff-room) but every so often he could be moved more up-front, as here.

Jeffrey has received orders to sack him.  Mr Partridge’s contempt for all children has already been well established, but this time he’s overstepped the mark.  When Jeffrey calls him into the office, Mr Partridge knows why he’s there and he gives him his side of the story.

Well, I was packing up the Punch and Judy and I couldn’t find the sausages. So I looked around and there was this snotty-nosed kid sucking an ice-cream cornet. ‘Have you got my sausages?’ I said. ‘Get lost, Grandad’ he said, and I could see ’em sticking out of his pocket. So I grabbed ’em off him, snatched his ice-cream cornet, stuck it in his face, give it a twist, then I clipped ‘im round the earhole and kicked ‘im up the arse.

I’ve already mentioned in my post on Hey Diddle Diddle how an air of melancholy is sometimes not far from the surface.  The forced jollity of the holiday-camp environment has something to do with it, but Mr Partridge (like some of the others) is an individual who’s found himself washed up at Maplins, past his prime and unable to get a job anywhere else.

He gives Jeffrey a brief outline of his career (as the camera slowly closes in on Dwyer, an obvious, but a good way of focusing the audience’s attention).  He started off on the halls as Whimsical Willie, the Juggling Joker.  After he came out of the Army in 1918 he gave up the juggling and became a comic – but talking pictures killed variety so he became a children’s entertainer.  After a stint entertaining the troops with ENSA during WW2 he eventually found himself working at Maplins.

All this is enough to convince Jeffrey that deserves another chance.  Mr Partridge is delighted and promises that he won’t let him down.  He also asks for an advance on his salary – to buy a new cover for the Punch and Judy booth, he says.  Jeffrey agrees and this is where the trouble really starts.

Jeffrey’s mistakenly under the impression that the affair of the ice-cream cornet was an isolated incident, but Ted puts him straight and lists some of Mr Partridge’s numerous run-ins with his audience.  “What about the time he put syrup of figs in the pot at the tiny-tots tea party?”  Worse than all this though is the benders.  “Once or twice every season, he gets a load of whisky and locks himself in his chalet and he’s legless for three days.”  And Jeffrey’s given him the money to do just that.

As ever, it’s the decent and honourable Jeffrey who has to suffer.  Always thinking the best of people, he finds himself left down by Mr Partridge and as a consequence has to share his chalet with Fred Quilley (who apologies for the horsey smell).  Best of all, he’s pressured into covering the Punch and Judy show.  The man-eating Sylvia offers to help, which seems like a good idea, but there’s very little room in the tent for two, much to Sylvia’s delight!

Spike wants to help Mr Partridge, but Ted is unsympathetic.  “I’ve been covering up for him for ten years. And I’ve had it up to here. He’s a rotten, bad tempered old tosspot!”  Ted has never thought of him as anything other than a third-rate Punch and Judy man, but Spike tells him he’s seen the cuttings that record his earlier successes – topping the bill at the Holborn Empire and performing in a Royal Command Performance at Windsor Castle.

Of course, in the end all is well and whilst it’s inevitable that it won’t be long before Mr Partridge causes more trouble, his dysfunctional surrogate family at Maplins will no doubt rally round.  The reveal that he actually was as a big a star as he claimed is a nice, sentimental touch.  It would have been just as easy for him to really have been nothing more than a third-rate musical hall turn, but it’s his genuine (if faded) stardom, as well as the injury he sustained during WW1 (which was the reason he had to give up the juggling), that persuades Ted to talk Jeffrey into giving him another chance.

Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – 1974 Christmas Special

likely

The Likely Lads, broadcast in the mid 1960’s, was the first sitcom success for Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.  They then revived the series in the 1970’s as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

The revival was even better than the original, thanks to the wa the characters of Terry Collier (James Bolam) and Bob Ferris (Rodney Bewes) had developed.  In the original series they were unattached men in their twenties, but by the revival they were a decade older and, in Bob’s case at least, men with commitments (Bob had married his long-time fiance Thelma).

This was unusual for a sitcom, as normally they tend to remain static, unchanging affairs.  Think, for example, of Dad’s Army, Porridge or Fawlty Towers.  In those cases, characters are trapped together (because of the war, prison, the job they do).  The format of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was much looser as it revolved around Bob’s eternal dilemma – he loves his wife, but he doesn’t want to lose contact with his best friend.

Over the years Bob and Terry have changed from the people we met in the sixties.  Then, they were equal – both working in the same factory and sharing a similar outlook on life.  But in WHTTLL, Bob is married, holds down a responsible job, has a nice house on a new estate and is thoroughly middle-class.  Terry is quite different – after a spell in the army he’s content to drift along, with no particular direction in mind.  What keeps them together is their vague sense that things were better when they were younger (as the theme song says “is the only thing to look forward to, the past?”).

This melancholic longing for a simpler time is one of the reasons why the series was so good.  And had Bolam and Bewes not fallen out dramatically (it’s reputed they’ve not spoken for nearly forty years) then it wouldn’t have been surprising if Clement and La Frenais had chosen to revisit the characters every decade or so (in a sort of 7 Up way it would have been fascinating to see how Bob and Terry fared through the eighties, nineties and into the twenty first century).

Broadcast on the 24th of December 1974, this Christmas Special was the final television episode – although Bolam and Bewes would re-record the series one shows for radio in 1975 and shoot a film version in 1976.

We open with Bob feeling trapped.  Thelma (Brigit Forsyth) is in Christmas planning mode – a sight which remains familiar today.  She’s fretting about the cards she needs to write, the presents she has to buy and their social engagements.  Bob isn’t thrilled to learn that he’ll be spending Christmas with his mother-in-law or that Thelma has committed them to a number of parties (when he’d much rather be relaxing at home, watching The Great Escape).  His lack of success at charades last year still rankles – as he reminds Thelma, she had an easy one – Great Expectations –  whilst he had to struggle with The AA Continental Handbook!  The pay-off to the scene is that it’s only late September, another nod to those people who need to get everything organised for Christmas months in advance.

Terry’s spent the duration of WHTTLL content to be unemployed.  There’s a change here, as Bob and Thelma spy him taking his driving test (and of course they manage to put him off).  Despite this he still passes and he later tells Bob that he’s planning to become a long-distance lorry driver.  He has to settle for a job driving a fork-lift truck though, and it’s clear that he’s disappointed.  Terry had assumed that once he had his driving licence it would be his passport to better things – he really wanted a job where he could take his vehicle home during the evening and impress the girls.  But the only job he found like that involved an ice-cream van!  As Bob says, his chance of pulling birds in that would have been wafer-thin.

Another sign of the timeless nature of the episode is Terry’s complaint that Christmas is just too commercialised these days.  Bob doesn’t agree, he loves every aspect of Christmas (another way in which he hankers for earlier, simpler times?).  Over a pint in the pub, Terry reminds Bob that he was the last person in school to believe in Santa Claus.

I remember the day vividly. Christmas Eve afternoon it was, sitting in our back kitchen in front of the fire, reading Lord Snooty in that years Beano annual. I’d got it early, because the week before I’d been crying a lot with a boil on me neck. Anyhow, there I was, couldn’t have been happier, not a worry in the world except how Santa was gonna get a fire engine down our chimney. Then you show up with an evil, malicious grin on your face and said, ‘Santa Claus is dead.’

Bob goes on to remember that Terry had told him that Santa had been gored to death by his reindeer!

If the pub scene is the heart of the episode, there’s more traditional sitcom fare as Bob and Terry make their way home, very drunk, from the pub.  Bob’s lost his car keys, so Terry elects to drive him home in his fork-lift truck.  And since he doesn’t have his front door key either, he uses the fork-lift to raise him up to the bedroom window.

On Christmas Eve, Bob and Thelma are on their way to a fancy dress party – Bob as Captain Hook and Thelma as Peter Pan (Terry’s got the job of driving their mincab).  Judging by the reaction of the studio audience they hadn’t seen Bewes’ costume before he entered the living room, since it draws an audible ripple of appreciation.  Once they get to the party, Thelma is appalled at the goings on – it seems that all their married friends have paired off with other people.  Bob’s not immune – he has his eye on Sylvia Braithwaite.

There’s more traditional sitcom hi-jinks when Thelma asks Terry to drive her home, with neither realising that Bob and Sylvia are in the back of the cab.  Thelma invites Terry in for a drink and Sylvia insists that Bob drive her home in Terry’s cab.  This he does, but Terry sees the cab driving off and reports it stolen.

Running for just under forty-five minutes rather than the usual thirty, it’s tempting to wonder if it was originally planned as a half hour episode – if so, it would have ended with the fork-lift truck scene.  Was the fancy-dress party scene bolted on later?  However it was written, the final moment (when both Thelma and Terry realise Bob stole the cab) is a great beat to end the series on.

Yes Minister – Party Games

party

Broadcast on the 17th of December 1984, Party Games was the final episode of Yes Minster (it lead directly into the sequel series Yes Prime Minster).  It has a slight Chrismassy feel, but it’s not really a surprise that politics (rather than Christmas) dominates proceedings.

We open with Bernard (Derek Fowlds) telling Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) that there’s something much more urgent than the defence papers he’s working on.  Jim pulls a face when he realises that Bernard’s talking about his Christmas cards, but obediently goes over to the desk where a mountain of cards awaits him.  As might be expected, the neat civil servant in Bernard has organised everything down to the finest detail. “These you sign Jim, these Jim Hacker, these Jim and Annie, these Annie and Jim Hacker, these love from Annie and Jim.”

Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) has gone for a meeting with Sir Arnold (John Nettleton). Sir Arnold is the cabinet secretary, and Jim helpfully reminds Bernard (and the audience) exactly how important Sir Arnold is. “In some ways, Sir Arnold is the most powerful chap in the country. Permanent access to the PM, controls Cabinet agenda, controls access to everything.”

He’s due to retire early and is keen to appoint a successor. But the right man for the job has to be able to ask the key question – when Sir Humphrey asks how Sir Arnold plans to spend his retirement, it’s obvious he’s on the right track. “There might be jobs you could pick up, ways you could serve the country, which your successor, whoever he might be, could put your way – er, persuade you to undertake!”

One of the joys of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minster was the way in which it felt horribly credible.  This wasn’t surprising, since the writers (Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) had access to several different high level sources who would feed them valuable material.  But what is surprising about Party Games is how it seems to predict future events (a sheer fluke but it’s fascinating nonetheless).

When the Home Secretary, shortly after launching his Don’t Drink and Drive Campaign, is picked up for drunk driving, he’s forced to retire.  Shortly after, the Prime Minister also announces his retirement – which sparks an intense leadership contest.  It soon becomes clear that the Prime Minister hated the Home Secretary and only stayed in power long enough to ensure that he’d never get the chance to become PM.

Two clear candidates for the top job emerge.  Eric Jefferies (Peter Jeffrey) and Duncan Short (Philip Short).  Both are viewed with disfavour by the Chief Whip Jeffrey Pearson (James Grout).  “If Eric gets it we’ll have a party split in three months. If it’s Duncan, it’ll take three weeks.”

What they need is a comprise candidate – somebody with no firm opinions and lacking the personality to upset anybody.  Jim Hacker, of course, is the perfect man.  When Party Games was repeated in 1990, shortly after Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power, the parallels between Jim Hacker and John Major were simply irresistible.  Both seemed only to have got the job because they were seen as a safe (and bland) pair of hands – as well as preventing other, more divisive, figures from occupying the top job.

As ever with Yes Minister, the script sparkles with killer one-liners.  A favourite of mine comes from Sir Humphrey after Jim wonders what will happen to the Foreign Secretary following his enforced retirement.  “Well, I gather he was as drunk as a lord. So, after a discreet interval, they’ll probably make him one.”

Nigel Hawthorne also has the opportunity to recite a typical tongue-twisting monologue.  This is how Sir Humphrey breaks the news to Jim that he’s been promoted to Cabinet Secretary. “The relationship which I might tentatively venture to aver has been not without some degree of reciprocal utility and perhaps even occasional gratification, is emerging a point of irreversible bifurcation and, to be brief, is in the propinquity of its ultimate regrettable termination.”

Jim is able to persuade both Duncan and Eric to stand down from the leadership contest after he reads their MI5 files. As Sir Arnold says, “you should always send for Cabinet Ministers’ MI5 files, if you enjoy a good laugh.”

Party Games may feel a little bit stretched out at sixty minutes (as well the fact it does feel like an extended intro for the new series) but there’s still more than enough good material to make it an episode that repays multiple viewings.