Christmas Night with the Stars 1964

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Jack Warner is in the chair for the 1964 Stars, introducing Billy Cotton, Dick Emery, Top of the Pops, Andy Stewart, Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd, The Likely Lads, Richard Briers & Prunella Scales, Benny Hill and Kathy Kirby.

The first observation is that they’ve not exactly splashed out with the set dressings for poor old Jack, who has to present his links in the middle of a cold and deserted studio – with only an armchair, a table, some candles, a Christmas tree and a few other assorted decorations for company.  Still, pro that he is, he soldiers on regardless.

After Billy Cotton and his band gets the show off to a rousing start (“wakey, wakey!”) we move onto film as Dick Emery, in various guises, is stopped in the street and asked how he/she plans to spend Christmas.  It’s interesting to compare and contrast Emery with Benny Hill (who later in the show also plays a variety of characters).  I’d definitely have to give Hill the edge, although Emery has his moments, especially with the man-eating Mandy. “You are awful, but I like you”.

Top of the Pops are represented by …. the Barron Knights.  Well, if you can’t afford the real groups I guess they were the next best thing.  They’d had their first taste of chart success in 1964 with Call up the Groups and their Stars appearance isn’t too dissimilar – parodying popular groups and hits of the day by changing the lyrics, here with a Christmas theme.

Andy Stewart heads up to the North of Scotland for a bit of a toe-tapper, which is followed by Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd in a seasonal Hugh and I skit.  As with the series, Patricia Hayes, Jack Haigh, Molly Sugden and the luvverly Jill Curzon provide strong support.  There’s more than a touch of Tony Hancock in Scott’s performance, meaning that it’s easy to imagine the curmudgeon of East Cheam in a similar situation – a house full of guests at Christmas that he’d sooner weren’t there (and the presence of Pat Hayes and Hugh Lloyd are obvious links to the Lad Himself).  Scott dominates proceedings as he attempts to persuade the others to take part in a parlour game.  A nice segment which doesn’t outstay its welcome.

As Jack Warner says, most of the shows and performers on CNWTS were household favourites, but The Likely Lads had only started a fortnight before – meaning that someone must have quickly spotted this was a series with potential.  And it’s definitely a highlight of the programme, as even this early on both Clement/La Frenais and Bolam/Bewes seemed perfectly comfortable with the characters.

Terry’s keen to head out for an evening’s liquid refreshment, pouring scorn on those who stay in.  “Catch me staying in. Bowl of nuts, box of dates and Christmas Night with the Stars. No thank you!”  But Bob and Terry’s evening out never gets started, thanks to an escalating argument about the name of the elephant in the Rupert annuals.  Bob maintains it was Edward Trunk whilst Terry is convinced it was Edward the Elephant.  So Terry fetches his annuals from the loft to settle the argument once and for all.

The desire of Bob and Terry to hark back to their childhood was a theme of the series that would only grow stronger when it returned in the seventies as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?  This small segment demonstrates that right from the start Clement and La Frenais recognised this aspect of their characters could produce comedy gold.  A pity that it’s not available on the DVD (like many of the other Stars segments sadly) but then 2E did leave a whole episode off the original release …..

Billy Cotton introduces Ralph Reader’s Gang Show, which is followed by Benny Hill.  It’s not surprising that the picture we have today of Benny Hill is from his years at Thames.  Not only because those shows were incredibly successful worldwide, but they’re also the ones that are readily available on DVD.  His 1960’s BBC shows are less accessible (although there is a R1 compilation).  Maybe one day all that remains will be released on DVD, I hope so – since they contain some strong material which gives the lie to the oft repeated claim that Hill was a fairly low-brow performer.

His Stars segment, The Lonely One, is a good case in point.  Shot on film, Hill not only plays the central character in the short mockumentary – a juvenile delinquent called Willy Treader – but all of the other parts as well.  It’s very nicely done and Hill’s creations (possibly because he wrote the script too) feel more like real people than Dick Emery’s more broad characters did.

Richard Briers and Prunella Scales are up next in Marriage Lines.  It’s cosy and twee, but Briers and Scales make it just about worthwhile.  George and Kate Starling are expecting their first child which is reflected in their presents to each other – Kate gives him a sleeping bag (in case the baby gets too noisy, he can move to another room) whilst George gives her a maternity smock (seemingly not realising that she’s due to give birth in a month).

Although billed second, Kathy Kirby appears last to sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Chirstmas.  It’s a fairly short and low-key ending, but overall the 1964 Stars is a consistently strong show with very little filler.

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Porridge – The Harder They Fall

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Upon hearing the news of Peter Vaughan’s death, I decided  to grab one of his performances off the shelf to watch as a tribute.  But as you’ll see from a quick skim of his résumé on IMDB, he was an incredibly prolific actor (over two hundred individual film and television credits), so which one to choose?

He’s solid throughout The Gold Robbers (1969) as DCS Craddock.  It’s a series that I’ve now moved a little higher up my rewatch pile and I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you don’t own it.  Another memorable performance came in the 1985 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, where he played Tulkinghorn.  Vaughan’s trademark menace is clearly in evidence as he dominates every scene he’s in (frankly he makes Charles Dance, Tulkinghorn in the more recent adaption, look very ordinary).

Vaughan also graced numerous series with fine guest appearances.  One such was The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1991, where he played John Turner in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, opposite Jeremy Brett as Holmes .  Generally, the last few series of Brett’s Sherlock Holmes are a little patchy – partly this was because of various real-life factors (Edward Hardwicke’s availability, Brett’s illness) but it’s mainly because most of the really good stories had already been adapted.  The Boscombe Valley Mystery is something of a rarity then, a decent early tale that hadn’t been tackled, featuring a brief – but compelling – turn from Vaughan.

Having considered these and more, in the end I plumped for one of his signature roles – Grouty in Porridge.  That Vaughan remains indelibly linked to Porridge is all the more remarkable when you consider that he only appeared in three television episodes (this one, No Way Out and Storm in a Teacup) as well as the feature film.  But although his screentime is incredibly limited, it’s interesting how Genial Harry Grout casts a shadow over the whole series.  He’s mentioned in several episodes before he makes his debut (quite late in fact, The Harder They Fall came towards the end of the second series) so the audience has already been well primed about exactly who he is.

Genial Harry Grout’s place in the narrative is quite straightforward.  He always pops up to ask Fletch to do him a little favour, making Fletch an offer he can’t refuse.  As seen throughout the series, Fletch either likes to steer clear of trouble or initiate it himself – only Grouty has the power to manipulate him.  Most of Vaughan’s scenes in Porridge were played opposite Ronnie Barker and it’s a treat to watch the pair of them at work.

Grouty’s first scene is a case in point.  Unlike every other prisoner, he has an impressively decorated cell – pictures on the wall, a bird in a cage, an expensive hi-fi system – which are clear signifiers of his special status.  Quite why Mackay and the Governor turn a blind eye to this is a mystery that’s never answered (there are a few possibilities though – all of them sinister).

Offering Fletch a cup of cocoa and a Bath Olivier, Grouty settles down for a chat.  He reminisces about his time in Parkhurst, this provides Vaughan with a killer line as he tells Fletch what happened to the pigeon he kept there.  This is a mere preamble though, as Grouty soon makes his intentions clear – he has a rival (Billy Moffatt) who’s running a book on the inter-wing boxing tournament.  Grouty wants him taken to the cleaners – so they have to nobble one of the boxers. The scene’s desgned to set up the premise of the episode, but thanks to the writing and playing this never feels obvious – instead, the audience is invited to enjoy the dangerous charm of Harry Grout.

Young Godber is the one chosen to take a dive and it’s down to Fletch to break the bad news.  Both Barker and Beckinsale are wonderful throughout this later scene – capped by the revelation from Godber that he can’t take a dive for Grouty in the second round, because he’s already agreed to take a dive for Billy Moffatt in the first!

The exceedingly good Cyril Shaps plays the twitchy Jackdaw, the newest and weediest of Grouty’s gang, whilst Fulton Mackay has a couple of decent scenes (Brian Wilde only pops up briefly – on film – at the start though).

If the ending’s a little weak (it’s hard to believe that everyone – especially Grouty – was happy with the outcome) then thanks in no small part to the interplay between Barker and Vaughan, The Harder They Fall is still a classic half-hour.

Seven of One – I’ll Fly You For a Quid

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Count the number of Welsh clichés in the opening thirty seconds.  Male voice choir, check.  Shot of the village with the colliery prominent, check.  A full house at the chapel, check.  If this one had ever gone to a series then goodness knows how many more clichés it would have racked up.

At least it has a decent number of Welsh actors. Talfryn Thomas, at times the BBC’s stock Welshman, naturally appears as does the always watchable Emrys James as Reverend Simmonds.  Barker, of course, wasn’t Welsh but he manages a decent accent (which he’d later revive for the largely forgotten Roy Clarke sitcom The Magnificent Evans).  Barker plays Grandpa Owen (who doesn’t last long) as well as the younger Evan Owen.

Gambling fever has long gripped the village and the late Grandpa Owen leaves his family with a problem.  His son Evan realises that just before he died his father had a big win on the horses.  But where is the betting slip?  After searching the house with no success, Evan decides that the slip must be in the coffin, meaning that Grandpa Owen’s peace has to be disturbed ….

The second of two Seven of One scripts penned by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, this was the one that Barker felt had the best chance of going to a series (he had to be persuaded that a prison-based comedy had legs).  And if it had moved away from the rather limiting topic of gambling then the quality of the cast (including Richard O’Callaghan and Beth Morris as Evans’ son and daughter) would have been a major plus point.

O’Callaghan may not be Welsh, but he still makes a good impression as Mortlake, a man just as keen as his father to dive into the coffin to see if the betting slip is there.  Although since the coffin isn’t yet screwed down you have to wonder just why they just don’t open it up and be done with it.  The lovely Beth Morris doesn’t have a great deal to do except stand around and look lovely (especially at the end, where her low-cut dress has Talfryn Thomas’ Mr Pugh rather lost for words).

Apart from Prisoner and Escort and Open All Hours, Seven of One offers up fairly forgettable fair.  I’ll Fly You For a Quid is one of the stronger later entries, but overall the series lacks the consistency of Six Dates with Barker.

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Seven of One – Prisoner and Escort

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Ronnie Barker’s most enduring comic character made his debut in this instalment of Seven of One, Prisoner and Escort (original tx 1st April 1973).  Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker) is a habitual criminal and therefore someone who’s constantly in and out of prison.  It’s New Years Eve and Fletcher is being escorted to begin his latest prison stretch – in the company of two prison officers, Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay) and Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde).

The three-cornered dynamic between Fletcher, Mackay and Barrowclough would yield plenty of comedy when the series proper launched, and the potential for humour and conflict is just as clear here.  Mackay is a Scottish martinet, unyielding in his contempt for all prisoners, but especially a cynical one like Fletcher.  After he nips off to buy some teas, the much more kindly Barrowclough decides that Mackay is upset because he’s missing the chance to celebrate the arrival of the new year.  Fletcher is rather lacking in compassion.  “Only one thing worse than a drunk Scotsman you know, and that’s a sober one.”

If Mackay is hard as nails then Barrowclough is soft as butter.  Mackay sees criminals as people who need to be punished, whilst Barrowclough wants to rehabilitate them.  It’s plain that his liberal nature is a gift for Fletcher, who begins to subtly manipulate him whilst at the same time he entertains himself by needling Mackay, but always ensuring that he stays just within the bounds of civility.

Barrowclough is proud of the prison, telling Fletcher that it’s an experimental one.  “We’ve got a cricket pitch and a psychiatrist.”  Fletcher’s not convinced but Barrowclough continues to evangelise, telling him that if he knuckles down he could come out as an intermediate welder or an accomplished oboe player.  Barrowclough paints a vision of the prison as a place where prisoners aren’t punished, but instead are treated with compassion and understanding.  This, of course, is far removed from the Slade Prison we see in Porridge, so either Barrowclough is hopelessly deluded or Clement and La Frenais decided to craft a more traditional prison environment when the show went to series.

After surviving a lengthy train journey, they’re now on the last lap – a prison van will take them the rest of the way, across desolate and isolated countryside, to their destination.  Fletcher, desperate to use the toilet, spies an irresistible opportunity after Mackay tells him to go behind the van – he unhooks the petrol cap and relives himself.  The combination of his urine and the van’s petrol is not a good mix and soon the van breaks down, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Given that it’s clear, even this early on, that Fletcher has been in and out of prison all his adult life, there’s something not very credible about his attempt to launch a bid for freedom (as the voice-over states, he accepts arrest as an occupational hazard).  It works in the context of this one-off, but it’s impossible to imagine the series Fletcher ever attempting it.

With Mackay setting off to find help, Fletcher and Barrowclough hole up in a nearby empty cottage.  There’s more lovely interaction between Barker and Wilde as Barrowclough unburdens himself about his desperate homelife.  His wife isn’t a happy woman and this is manifested in different ways, such as “a bad temper and spots and sleeping with the postman.”  A great two-handed scene, which is really the core of the episode.

Fletcher’s escape attempt is dealt with quite neatly (if he’s as inept a criminal as he is as an escapee, then it’s no surprise he spends so much time in prison).  Ronnie Barker may have been initially unsure (as were Clement and La Frenais) that a sitcom set in a prison would work, but Prisoner and Escort clearly points the way ahead.

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Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – 1974 Christmas Special

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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.