BBC Landmark Sitcom Season

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Running across BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4, the upcoming Landmark Sitcom Season is a series of one-off specials designed to celebrate sixty years of the British sitcom (Hancock’s Half Hour, which debuted on BBC tv in 1956, has been taken as the starting point).  Of course, if any prove to be popular they can be developed into full series, which means that the cynics amongst us might regard this as little more than a season of pilots …..

For the purposes of this blog, there’s seven which are of interest – four on BBC1 and the other three on BBC4.  BBC1 gives us Porridge, Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart and Young Hyacinth (a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances) whist BBC4 has Hancock’s Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son.

Goodnight Sweetheart is notable because it’s the only one able to reunite the original cast (alas, time has caught up with most of the stars from the others).  Marks and Gran have already revived another of their sitcoms, Birds of a Feather, on ITV, so it’s not difficult to believe that this has been made with one eye on a full series.

Young Hyacinth is another that’s easy to imagine has been crafted as a back-door pilot.  Writer Roy Clarke has form for this – First of the Summer Wine was an effective (if not terribly popular, ratings-wise) prequel to Last of the Summer Wine – and the current success of Still Open All Hours suggests that Clarke would be up for a revisit of another of his old shows.  Some other time I’ll cast an eye over Clarke’s whole career – it’s amazing that he’s still going strong and it has to be said that his CV is a varied one with a lot more to offer than just umpteen years of Summer Wine.

Are You Being Served looks to be a pitch-perfect recreation of the original series, complete with all the familiar catchphrases.  Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much down to personal taste of course ….

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Porridge looks to be doing something a little different.  It would have been easy enough to cast someone not physically dissimilar to Ronnie Barker (Peter Kay for example) and simply rehash old glories, but the clips show that it’s very much set in the present day (unlike Are You Being Served which remains stuck in the mid eighties) .  One positive is that the updated Porridge has been scripted by Clement and La Frenais themselves, although it’s slightly concerning that they’re not adverse to plagiarising themselves.  Familiar gags (“I won’t let you catch me”) and a martinet Scottish prison officer are present and correct.

Whilst the BBC1 revivals feature new scripts, the ones on BBC4 take a different approach.  Steptoe, Hancock and Till Death are newly recorded versions of wiped originals …. well sort of.  All the Steptoe episodes still exist, so they’ve chosen one which only remains as a poor quality B&W video recording.

These three episodes have a very different feel to their BBC1 counterparts.  The original sitcoms tended to be rather studio-bound, but these new recordings heighten this feel.  The lack of solid walls in the sets makes them seem rather theatrical and artificial, although it’s more than likely that this has something to do with the fact that BBC4 has a considerably lower budget than BBC1.

Although some of the efforts look interesting rather than rib-tickling, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the Hancock episode.  Kevin McNally has already recorded a number of missing HHH radio scripts for Radio 4 (jolly good they are too) and his performances make it clear just how much love and respect he has for the Lad Himself.

When the season’s up and running I’ll be blogging about some of my favourite British sitcom episodes.  So I guess now’s a good time to go off and do some research …..

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Hancock’s Half Hour – The Missing Page

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If I had to choose a single episode of Hancock’s Half Hour which embodied the spirit of the series, then The Missing Page would be at the top of the list.  Tony was often portrayed as a frustrated intellectual – and this self-delusion is touched upon here.  He claims that he only reads trashy pulp novels in-between tackling heavyweight fare such as Bertrand Russell.  It’s possible to doubt this statement, although Galton & Simpson later develop the theme in The Bedsitter, where we do see him tackle a bit of Bert (albeit not terribly successfully).

Tony’s frustrated with the books on offer at the local library.  He tells the librarian (played with long-suffering irritation by a HHH regular, Hugh Lloyd) that he’s checked out everything they have (“I’ve read Biggles Flies East twenty seven times!”).  This isn’t quite the case though, as there’s one book – Lady Don’t Fall Backwards by Darcy Sartothat’s passed him by.

G&S preface his retrieval of the book (it’s out of reach on the top shelf) with a nice literary joke.  Tony asks the librarian for a number of heavyweight intellectual books and the librarian – clearly impressed – hurries off to find them.  It’s a little contrived that all these obscure books are on the same shelf, but let’s not quibble about that.  Tony’s delighted and uses them as a footstool to retrieve Lady Don’t Fall Backwards!

The sudden arrival of Sid stuns Tony (“you’ve never read a book in your life. You’ve run one, but you’ve never read one”).  This leads into my favourite scene in the episode, indeed one of my all-time favourite Hancock moments.  We’re in the era where it was considered bad form to speak in the library, so more HHH regulars (Alec Bregonzi, Johnny Vyvyan) take turns to shush him.  This is a bit of a problem, as Tony’s keen to tell Sid about another exciting book he’s recently read, so he decides to act it out as a mime.

By the end, both Sid and Peggy Ann Clifford (yet another HHH regular) can’t hide the smiles on their faces.  Was this as scripted or simply a spontaneous reaction?  I’d assume the latter, as it’s such a joyous couple of minutes.

Although G&S have never been regarded as intellectual writers, they continue to slip in some sly literary gags,  one such concerns the formulaic nature of crime fiction.  Tony’s entranced by the book (“good? This is red hot, this is, mate. Hate to think of a book like this getting in the wrong hands. Soon as I’ve finished this I shall recommend they ban it”) and can’t wait to find out who the murderer is, although he reacts with scorn when Sid suggests he simply turns to the final page.

This exchange roots the book firmly in the golden age of detective fiction, a period when crime novels were an intellectual puzzle with everything neatly wrapped up in the final few sentences.  Tony’s also very taken with the book’s hero, Johnny Oxford, telling Sid that from now on he’s switching his allegiance from the Saint to Johnny.  Despite his name, Johnny’s not an English detective, he’s a hard-bitten American PI.  The later revelation that the author, Darcy Sarto, was a British writer seems to be another gag – inferring that the ridiculous and artificial nature of the story (with suspects dropping dead at regular intervals) can be taken even less seriously when it’s learnt that the author had possibly never even been to America.  Was he maybe modelled on James Hadley Chase, a British-born writer who adopted American themes very sucessfully?

Tony shares several nuggets of information about the twisty plot with us.  One of the funniest is the revelation that a trail of footprints in the snow from two left shoes was an error on the part of the murderer (he’d put on a pair of shoes to lay a false trail, but hadn’t realised they were both left ones).  This disappoints Tony. “I was waiting for a pair of one-legged twins to turn up.”

As the title suggests, the final page in the book is missing.  Tony’s distraught – he really, really needs to know the identity of the murderer.  He decides to turn detective himself and re-examines all the suspects (as does Sid).  Neither are successful, so they attempt to find the man who had the book out before them.  They finally track him down (a nice turn by George Coulouris) but he’s no help.  The page was missing when he had the book and he’s spent the last six years in agony, not knowing either!

The mystery is solved in the British Museum, but it doesn’t cheer Tony up.  It’s a nice punchline though and brings to an end another excellent episode of HHH.

 

Hancock’s Half Hour – The First TV Show

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The first episode of the television incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour called, unsurprisingly, The First TV Show (or Nelson in Hospital, according to the script) was broadcast on the 7th of July 1956.  Like the rest of the first series and all but one episode from series two, no visual recording remains in the BBC archives.

The first three series of HHH were broadcast live (as were nine of the thirteen episodes from series four).  From series five onwards the shows were pre-recorded, which partly explains why the bulk of the surviving episodes are from that era of the programme.  But telerecordings of live programmes had occurred on numerous occasions prior to 1956, so it’s a little disappointing that the survival rate from the early series is so patchy.

Given that HHH had been a successful radio series for several years you’d have assumed someone might have thought it would have been a good idea to record the debut episode, but alas no.

However, all of Galton and Simpson’s scripts still exist and when reading them it’s very easy to imagine how Tony, Sid and the others might have delivered their lines.  Recently I’ve been re-reading the scripts from the first series and even without any visual or verbal assistance they’re still laugh-out-loud funny.

The New TV Show is fascinating.  It would have been easy enough to produce a typical episode, carrying on the themes already developed on radio, but instead Galton & Simpson crafted something which mocked the conventions and artifice of television itself.  Today, these sort of things have been done so many times that they’ve lost their power to disconcert, but remember this was 1956, so it’s fair to say it would have been much more unusual.

We open in, as the script describes it, a lower middle-class lounge where a husband and wife are waiting for the next programme.  When they learn it’s Hancock’s Half Hour neither seem terribly impressed but Bert generously decides to give him a chance.  Unfortunately, Tony doesn’t make a very good first impression with Ede (“I don’t think I’m going to like him. I don’t like his face”) which causes Tony a momentarily spasm of pain.

Yes, somehow Tony can sense the disapproval of Bert and Ede, even though they’re sat at home and he’s in the television studio.  As they continue to pass judgement (Bert: “He hasn’t made me laugh yet, look at his face, a right misery”. Ede: “He’s much fatter than I’d expected”) Tony desperately tries to tailor his opening speech to suit their opinions.  This sly commentary on the expectations of the watching audience is a pure joy.

The fun continues after Tony introduces his co-star, Sidney James.  Ede instantly decides she likes him (“much better looking isn’t he?”) so Tony quickly elbows him out of frame!  This part of the episode culminates with a series of quick impressions as Bert and Ede mention some of their favourite comedians and Tony – ever obliging – desperately imitates them, no doubt seeing it as a last ditch attempt to keep Ede and Bert onboard.  This is just one of the reasons why it’s such a shame the episode no longer exists as I’d love the chance to see Tony give us his Arthur Askey, Norman Wisdom and Terry Thomas.

And just when you think things can’t get any more surreal, Tony appears in person to harangue Ede and Bert and smash their television.  Mind you, he probably had good justification as this is Bert’s final word on Anthony Hancock. “I’d like to know how much he’s getting for this. It’s a disgrace. A waste of public money. Look, the dog’s crawled under the table now, and he’ll watch anything. I’ve never seen a bigger load of rubbish in all my life.”

It takes a certain amount of nerve to spend the first half of your debut episode rubbishing both the star and the programme.  But it seems that Hancock at this point in his career wasn’t plagued by the sort of self-doubt he would succumb to later.  Galton & Simpson’s scripts are often peppered with digs at Hancock (especially his quality – or lack of it – as a performer) but there was rarely the sense that Hancock took offence.  Instead, he’s a willing participant in the mockery.

We then cut to a hospital, where a heavily bandaged Tony is stuck in bed.  As he tells Sid, he wouldn’t have threatened Bert if he’d known he was a heavyweight wrestler.  This leaves Sid with a problem, he’s not only Tony’s co-star but also his manager.  If Tony doesn’t carry on with his programme then Sid will lose a great deal of money.

In addition to the surreal tone of the episode, there’s a weird timeline at work here.  I think we’re supposed to accept that everything’s happening live, so Tony exiting the studio, getting duffed up and sent to the hospital has all happened in real time (very quickly, obviously).  This means that the audience at home are impatiently waiting for HHH to continue and the interlude to cease, which explains why Sid urgently needs Tony to get back to the studio to finish the show.

He’s clearly incapable, so Sid has a brainwave, bring the cameras to the hospital!  They don’t have much time, so Sid decides to end this show with the Nelson sketch.  This means dressing Tony up as Lord Nelson and disguising his hospital bed to look like the HMS Victory.  Tony has his doubts. “Somehow I just can’t help thinking it’s not going to look right. This is supposed to be a serious drama.”

How well this worked is anyone’s guess, but it certainly had potential.  I love the notion of the drama being broken when the bell sounds for the end of visiting time – the nurse on duty is in no mood for argument.  “Tell your little friends to go home, they can finish their game tomorrow.”

Eventually they struggle through it, but what about next week?  Sid already has an idea.  “I thought we’d do the life story of Roger Bannister. Now we can disguise the ward like a running track and get a few block in, spread them around the floor ….”

If maybe the Nelson sketch dragged on a little, the opening section more than made up for it.  Definitely an unusual way to launch the series, but one that played to Hancock’s strengths.

Hancock’s Half Hour – The Artist

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Sid’s made the acquaintance of the Count (Valentine Dyall), an art connoisseur who has commissioned him to “acquire” certain works of art.  The latest acquisition will be made from the Tate Galley (Sid: “It’s not where Harry Tate used to live?”) albiet without their permission. Athough Sid is successful, he only just manages to escape the clutches of the police.

Where to hide the stolen Rembrandt?  Because it’s been cut out of the frame it’s easy to tuck away somewhere, so he chooses a junk shop in Chelsea.  Mixed in with all the other bric-a-brac it should be quite safe, shouldn’t it?  However, this shop is a stones throw away from a small garret where Tony Hancock is eking out a miserable existence as a struggling artist.  Somehow I think these two plotlines will be connected …..

What’s interesting about the start of The Artist is how long the set-up with Sid and the stolen painting goes on for.  This means that we’re well into the episode before Tony makes his first appearance, although it’s worth waiting for.  This is classic Hancock – the misunderstood genius, baffled as to why the world isn’t beating a path to his door.

Galton & Simpson would re-use the theme of Hancock as artist several times (most notably on the big screen in The Rebel).  It’s done wonderfully here and there are so many lines you can just imagine tripping off Tony’s tongue. Here, he’s modestly reviewing his labours.   “I mean it’s good stuff. You can’t grumble at that lot for an hour’s work. The public aren’t ready for me, that’s the trouble. I’m ten years ahead of me time.”

He then goes on to marvel at one of his own works (a picture of a matchstick man sitting on a horse).  “The Saint on horseback. And what about that horse? Albert Munnings had to look twice when he saw it. Shook him rigid it did.”  A great example of Hancock’s self delusion.

Continuity never really featured in HHH.  Last week Tony was a big television star, this week he’s a starving artist, next week he’ll be something else.  It’s slightly strange, but the fact that the reset button is hit every week doesn’t really matter.

His new model turns up – played by Irene Handl.  One can only imagine how she would have looked after she’d changed into what the script called a 1930’s style bathing suit.  It’s quite a thought though.

Popping out for some new canvases, he’s persuaded to buy some used ones from the local junk shop.  It’s not ideal, but since it’s cheaper to paint over existing paintings, for the cash-strapped Tony it makes sense.  Of course one of the canvases is the stolen Rembrandt but neither Tony or the shop owner realise this.  Tony, art philistine that he is, views it with disdain.  “Rubbish. Look at it, no idea. These amateurs, I wish they’d leave it alone. This sort of thing turns the public right off art … then they don’t appreciate blokes like me. It’ll be a pleasure to paint over this.”

When Sid and the Count learn that Tony has acquired the Rembrandt they need to get it back – but since Tony’s now painted over it, they have no idea which of Tony’s terrible efforts it’s hidden behind.  This is another lovely scene, with G&S once again skewering the pretensions of the art world.  The Count desperately tries to pretend that Tony’s daubs have some merit, asking him politely if one of his pictures was painted with yellow ochre and royal blue.  Tony replies that no, it was Chlorophyl toothpaste (“I’m always picking up the wrong tube”).

Even better is the gag about his painting entitled cow in a field.  Tony explains why it’s somewhat impressionistic.  “I only had one sitting. And that was a fleeting glimpse, I was on a train.”  This is simply glorious material.

The Count decides that buying all the pictures would be suspicious, so he buys one, takes it home to see if it’s the Rembrandt and when it isn’t he’s forced to return and buy another.  This happens again and again, until he’s purchased twenty three of Tony’s paintings ….

Because the Count is a noted figure in the art world, everyone has now sat up and taken notice of Tony.  If the Count has bought so many of his pictures, Tony must be a genius.  So the establishment goes crazy for Tony and he quickly becomes one of the most famous (and richest) artists in the country.  It’s another delightful dig at the nature of art and art criticism, topped by the final gag which shows the stolen Rembrandt – still with Tony’s awful painting on top – back in the same place in the Tate where the Rembrandt had originally been.

So for once Tony ends up on top, although I’ve a feeling next week it’ll all be forgotten.  It’s a great pity this one doesn’t exist as it reads so well straight off the page.  I’m sure Irene Handl would have been an absolute treat as would Valentine Dyall (the Man in Black).  It’s yet more evidence that the television incarnation of HHH hit the ground running.