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).
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 identikit 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.