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 – One Man’s Meat

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Alan Joyce (Barker) has been put on a strict diet by his wife Marion (Prunella Scales) and is told that he has to last the entire day without any food.  When she leaves he naturally heads straight off to the kitchen, but is appalled to find she’s taken every last scrap of food away.  And heading out to the shops is going to be a problem, because she’s removed all his pairs of trousers too …..

Written by Barker, under the penname of Jack Goetz, it’s not a surprise that One Man’s Meat gives him the (ahem) plum role.  Despite the heavyweight supporting cast – Scales, Sam Kelly, Glynn Edwards, Barbara New and Joan Sims – Barker is by himself for a large part of the episode’s duration.

Scales tops and tails the episode.  It’s nothing to do with the story, but Marion mentions that they’ve recently seen a blue movie at Bill and Nora’s house – this shines a light into the ways that the respectable middle-classes entertained themselves during the 1970’s.  Did they then indulge in a spot of wife swapping?  That would have made an interesting story, but possibly a post watershed one.

There’s more touchstones to the 1970’s as Alan mentions that he plans to fight the flab with Terry Wogan.  He’s too late to catch him though, so has to put up with Jimmy Young instead.  And since JY is delivering his latest recipe it’s all too much (he dunks the radio in the sink).

Although Alan attempts to order a takeaway from a Chinese restaurant (cue slanty-eyed acting from Barker, another moment which helps to date the story) he appears to be unsuccessful.  Presumably there were no other takeaways in the area?  This is something of a story weakness.

His desire for food then causes him to pretend he’s been burgled.  Two policemen (Edwards & Kelly) turn up, with Alan eyeing their trousers enviously.  It’s nice to see Sam Kelly and Glynn Edwards, even if they’ve not got a great deal to do.  I wonder if this small role led to Kelly being cast as Bunny Warren in Porridge?

The inimitable Joan Sims fairs a little better as the Joyce’s housekeeper, Mrs Dawkins.  Barker gives her some good lines which allows Sims to deadpan with her usual skill, ensuring that her scenes with Barker are the undoubted highlight of the whole thirty minutes.  Alas, she don’t appear for very long as Alan decides to steal Mrs Dawkins’ clothes, dress up as a woman and head out to the shops.  When in doubt, drag up, I guess.

One Man’s Meat has a sparkling cast and is a lovely time capsule of the seventies, but, like Alan’s stomach for most of the day, is a rather empty affair.  However if the story doesn’t appeal then you always entertain yourself by counting how many times microphone shadows appear (director Harold Snoad must have been having an off day).

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Seven of One – Another Fine Mess

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Sydney (Roy Castle) and  Harry (Barker) are keen to head off to the talent night at the Dirty Dachshund, but Harry’s ogre of a wife – Doris (Avis Bunnage) – doesn’t want him to go.  A few extra sleeping pills helps to ensure she sleeps like a baby, enabling Sydney and Harry to transform themselves into the spitting image of Laurel and Hardy and slip out into the night  …

Even before they’ve dressed up it should be fairly to easy to guess the direction that this one will take (the episode title is a bit of a giveaway too).  It’s a little strange that Sydney and Harry both talk and act like Laurel and Hardy in real life (meaning that their characters stay exactly the same once they’ve got the clothes on).  The opening finds Doris mourning the death of her mother, who passed away earlier in the day.  This provides the opportunity for Doris and her guests to poor scorn on Harry, who we’re told was an American GI (that explains why he talks like Olivier Hardy).  This part feels a little stilted.  A family bereavement offers plenty of comic potential, but Hugh Leonard’s script never really sparks during these scenes.

But once Roy Castle turns up and the pair decide to head out for the talent show, things pick up.  Slapstick humour abounds, even if Castle’s Sydney is a lot duller than Stan Laurel.  En-route to the talent show they spot a damsel in distress, Edwina (Pauline Delaney), and go to her aid.  She’s rather intoxicated, and curiously also seems to be American, and the pair decide to see her home.  Delaney (Mrs Mortimer in Public Eye, alongside a good many other roles) is amusing as the vampish Edwina, and her arrival on the scene enables Leonard to spring the big setpiece ending as Sydney and Harry demolish her flat.

Setting her electric fire ablaze, fun with soda-siphons and a nicely cued sequence where a chain of events ensure that one disaster follows another – like a row of dominos – all draw appreciative laughter from the audience.  It’s the moment where Another Fine Miss really springs into life and both Barker and Castle seem to be having a ball.

It’s hard to imagine this one as a series, every week they’d dress up as Laurel and Hardy and get into scrapes?   Hmm, maybe not, but as a one-off it certainly has its moments.

Seven of One – Spanner’s Eleven

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Albert Spanner (Barker) is coach of Ashfield Athletic Football Club, a team firmly stuck at the bottom of the local league.  Their lack of success has even reached the hallowed halls of the council, so much so that Councillor Todd (Bill Maynard) presents Albert with an ultimatum – unless the team win their next match he’s out.

Although written by Roy Clarke, Spanner’s Eleven is no Open All Hours.  The concept of a hopeless non-league football team is a decent one, but for some reason the players hardly feature in the story at all (apart from a training film mid-way through, we don’t really see them emerge as characters until the last few minutes).  This is something of a wasted opportunity, especially since the likes of Christopher Biggins and Louis Mansi are amongst their number.

Unsurprisingly, since the whole series was mainly a vehicle for Barker, football-mad Albert Spanner has the lion’s share of the action, interacting with his wife Vera (Priscilla Morgan), Horace (John Cater) who covets the manager’s job and the harassed Councillor Todd.  It’s hard to really identity with Albert or to ever feel on his side.  He seems to have taken the coaching job for two reasons – firstly because he hoped it would generate a little profit for his day job (as a taxi driver) and secondly because he’s got the hot-dog concession on match days.

He’s undeniably passionate about the game (ignoring Vera, dressed in an alluring nightie, when a match is on television, for example) but given the poor string of results Ashfield have suffered it’s easy to assume he’d be happy to walk away.  Maybe he really loves the game, even at this low level, so much that he simply can’t – but this doesn’t really come over terribly well.

Bill Maynard doesn’t have much to do, but it’s nice to see him nonetheless.  John Cater, one of those naggingly familiar character actions who racked up hundreds of film and television credits during a long career, has a decent role as Horace, a man who delivers first aid during matches and – according to Albert – spends his time waiting for one of the players to have a really nasty accident!

If Spanner’s Eleven had concentrated on Albert coaching his hopeless squad then there might have been some potential in a possible series, but what we ended up with was one of Roy Clarke’s misfires.

Seven of One – My Old Man

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With his home of forty years scheduled for demolition, crusty old Sam Cobbett (Barker) is forced to move in with his daughter Doris (Ann Beach) and his uppity son-in-law Arthur (Graham Armitage).  Their flat has every mod-con, but Sam pines for the old days and the old ways ….

My Old Man is a generational comedy.  Given that Sam mentions he worked the markets as a boy before the first war, he has to be seventy plus, although Barker (in his mid forties at the time) does rather struggle to play up to Sam’s age, which is a bit of a problem.

It’s an eye-opener to go back to a time when living in a high-rise flat was seen as both modern and desirable.  The opening sequence has a nice filmic sweep as we go from Sam’s house to view the vista of demolitions beyond and then onwards to the brave new world of the high-rise flats looming in the distance.  Doris and Arthur may be seventeen flights up but their flat is immaculate – packed with numerous labour-saving devices as well as central heating in every room.

Arthur is proud of this, as well as his own upwardly mobile status, but the earthy Sam reacts with mild horror at their clean and pre-packaged world.  It’s obvious right from the start that Arthur and Sam have diametrically opposed viewpoints, but neither are terribly sympathetic characters, so it’s maybe not possible to immediately take sides.

The eleven o’clock cup of tea is an early flashpoint.  Arthur prefers coffee, since tea’s so common, but Doris (at pains to make Sam feel settled) serves tea instead.  Sam immediately pours it into his saucer and drinks it from there.  This vignette shines a light on both their characters – Arthur (born from the same working class stock as Sam) is maybe ashamed of his roots, whilst Sam continues to embrace them.

A visit to the local pub provides another interesting character moment.  It’s the sort of modern pub that Sam feels totally out of place in, especially when greeted by the effeminate barman.  Sam later catches his attention by calling him “poofy” which generates a gale of laughter from the audience.  This is Arthur’s local, a place where he feels at home, but he finds it disquieting when Sam, along with another old friend of his, Willie (Leslie Dwyer), begins to stamp his authority on the place – having a merry sing-song and entertaining the regulars.  Are the affluent clientele laughing with them or at them I wonder?

Sam’s given several opportunities to articulate why he considers the modern world is inferior to the one he knew and loved, but the best example comes towards the end as he has a tête-à-tête with his grandson.  “To hear your father talk you’d think I was born in a slum and lived all me life in a slum. Well let me tell you something, those ugly little houses, they used to have a fire in the grate. Your gran used to bake bread of a Sunday. The smell of it used to fill the house. Lovely. We used to have the back door open in the summer, see all the flowers. Garden used to be full of flowers, flowers you could pick. Grass you could walk on.”

Both Barker and the BBC passed on a possible series, so it ended up on ITV with Clive Dunn (another actor who tended to play older than his age) taking on the role of Sam.  Barker probably made a wise choice, as whilst My Old Man made a passable half hour, it turned out to be a rather forgettable series.

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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Seven of One – Open All Hours

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A couple of years after Six Dates with Barker aired on LWT, the very similar Seven of One was broadcast on BBC1.  Both the BBC and Barker hoped that several of these one-off comedy playlets might have the potential to be developed into fully fledged series and this proved to be the case as Seven of One would spawn both of Barker’s most successful sitcoms – Open All Hours and Porridge.

As good as the Seven of One pilot of Open All Hours is, it would be hard to imagine that such a restrictive and enclosed format would later spawn four popular series which ran between 1976 and 1985.  It’s even more amazing that Roy Clarke has revived the series in the 21st century with David Jason still going strong as Granville, now the spitting image of the late lamented Arkwright.

Roy Clarke (b. 1930) had contributed to a number of drama series in the late sixties and early seventies (The Troubleshooters, Mr Rose, The Power Game, Manhunt, etc) but comedy proved to be his enduring strength and in retrospect 1973 turned out to be a very significant year.  At this point he was a respected, if not terribly high-profile, writer.  But the Open All Hours pilot as well as the launch of Last of the Summer Wine would both help to launch him into the mainstream.

This Seven of One pilot presents the world of Arkwright and Granville to us pretty much fully formed.  All of the familiar tics are here – Arkwright’s first words are “fetch a cloth Granville” as he spies something nasty left by a passing bird on the shop-front window, Granville fears the bite of the unforgiving till whilst Arkwright lusts after the generously formed figure of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (played here by Sheila Brennan, later replaced by Lynda Barron for the series proper).

Virtually all good sitcoms feature peopled trapped together (Porridge is the ultimate example of this, of course).  Mostly the ties are family or work-related, Open All Hours (like Steptoe & Son) neatly manages to combine the two.  Granville is twenty five and yearns for a life outside of the restrictive and stifling world of Arkwright’s corner shop.  How, he argues, can he possibly have any social life when they open in the early hours of the morning and don’t close until ten at night?  The grasping Arkwright rides roughshod over these concerns – after all, if Granville ever left then he’d probably have to pay his replacement a decent wage (it’s almost certain that Granville receives little more than a pittance).

But there’s also some familial love shown by Arkwright (possibly).  It’s a harsh world out there and he’s convinced that Granville will eventually be happier if he stays with what he knows (plus all of Arkwright’s empire will eventually come to Granville).  Still Open All Hours has confirmed that despite all of Granville’s hopes and dreams he never managed to escape, turning into an Arkwright clone instead, which is something of a bitter joke.

Roy Clarke’s gift for wordplay is already in evidence.  Arkwright is more than a little perturbed that Nurse Gladys Emmanuel seems to spend more time than he considers proper dealing with Wesley Cosgrave’s bottom, whilst the corner shop setting allows for a stream of characters to pass through (here it’s Yootha Joyce with a Northern accent and a young Keith Chegwin).

Favourite line?  Mrs Scully (Joyce) asks Arkwright if she’ll give him half a bottle of sherry for her Claudine.  He tells her that it sounds like a fair exchange!