Robin’s Nest – Christmas at Robin’s Nest

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Airing on ITV between 1977 and 1981, Robin’s Nest (one of two sitcoms spun off from Man About The House) is centred around the restaurant of the title, run by Robin Tripp (Richard O’Sullivan) and his wife Victoria (Tessa Wyatt).  She provides him with moral support and able assistance whilst less able assistance comes from the enthusiastic but incompetent one-armed washer-upper, Albert Riddle (David Kelly).  Also on hand is Victoria’s father, James Nicholls (Tony Britton), a sleeping partner in the business who’s always keen to make the maximum amount of money from his investment.

Although the series was created by Brian Cooke and Johnnie Mortimer, by this time they’d stepped away from scripting duties, so Robin’s Nest at Christmas was penned by George Layton, the second of his thirteen contributions to the show.  Enjoying an equally successful career as both an actor and writer (with his writer’s hat on he’d be reunited with Britton on the middle-of-the-road but nonetheless popular sitcom Don’t Wait Up a few years later) Layton seemed to easily pick up the rhythms of the series.

Although guest actors drop by occasionally, Robin’s Nest concentrates on the four regulars – with Robin and Victoria usually playing the straight-men to the more comic characters of Albert (inept at whatever he attempts) and James (a mean skinflint, content to work Robin into the ground to generate a healthy profit).

Easily the most memorable character of the four is Albert Riddle.  Kelly effortlessly steals every scene he’s in and is an endless delight to watch – without him it would be a much more routine show.  Albert’s complete ineptness is clearly on display in the opening few minutes as he attempts to help Robin to put up the Christmas decorations in the restaurant.  Of course he’s no help at all, and his endless off-key singing of Christmas songs (“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. We are doing up Robin’s Nest, just for Christmas day”) doesn’t help to reduce Robin’s stress levels.

Albert then pops by at one o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day to deliver a bombshell – after coming into a small windfall he’s been able to buy a business of his own so will be resigning from Robin’s Nest forthwith …..

There then follows a rather tense Christmas Day meal at James’ house, with a glum Robin and Victoria and a rather merry Albert, whilst Peggy Aitchison has a nice scene as James’ domestic servant, Gertrude.  Many sitcoms tended to have an extended running time for their Christmas Specials, but this Robin’s Nest remains at its normal twenty-five minute format.  This means that it all feels quite compact (with more time, the Christmas meal could have been extended and made to feel even more awkward) but the one interesting wrinkle is that the reset button with Albert isn’t hit at the end.  His arrival back at the restaurant in the last few minutes seems to indicate that he’s had a change of heart, but the reason for his reappearance is quite different and a good comic moment to end on.

Coasting by for 48 episodes thanks in no small part to the regulars, Robin’s Nest is undemanding but always watchable entertainment.  As for this one, I’ve always been a little puzzled why Robin is so upset at Albert’s decision to leave – since he spends all his time complaining about him you’d have thought he’d have welcomed it!

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Return of the Saint – Vicious Circle

 

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Roberto Lucci (Massimiliano Baratta) is killed in a car accident en-route to a meeting with Simon. His widow, famous fashion designer Renata (Elsa Martinelli), isn’t surprised – Roberto was a former racing driver with a love of driving far too fast.  The Saint is convinced that his car was forced off the road deliberately – but as there’s no evidence the police aren’t interested. Simon, of course, isn’t discouraged and starts to dig about …..

Shot on location in Italy and directed by Sam Wanamaker, Vicious Circle has a mainly local cast.  This is something of a mixed blessing – it’s better to have native Italians rather than English actors putting on fake accents (as happened in the Collision Course two-parter) but the drawback is that they tend to be less fluent in English, hence their performances can feel slightly broader than normal.  Part of the problem with this one may also be that the dubbing on this episode is more obvious than usual (series like ROTS would tend to redub the majority of the dialogue as a matter of course).

Elsa Martinelli is icily detached as Roberto’s widow.  Following the accident that cut his career short, she was forced to nurse him – and Simon suspects she may know more about his death than she admits.  She’s a character drawn in fairly broad strokes – not helped by the dubbing which does create a little distance.

Tessa Wyatt (as Renata’s assistant Anna) seems to be initially positioned as this episode’s female helper, but the revelation that her ex-husband may have killed Roberto is an unexpected twist (and there’s more revelations to come).  It helps to isolate the Saint even further – most episodes see him paired up with female company and enjoying the tacit assistance of the authorities (something which doesn’t happen here).

The harder edge of this episode is demonstrated in several ways.  Firstly, Simon finds Anna drugged and hysterical in her room and we also have the unusual sight of Simon brandishing a gun (even if he doesn’t fire it).  And apart from a few quips, he’s in a pretty serious mood throughout.

The mystery of the episode – who killed Roberto and why? – is maintained until the end.  This is another break from the norm as normally the narratives are much more straightforward.  It’s a pity there weren’t a few more episodes like this scattered through the run, but partly because it’s a rarity Vicious Circle rates four halos out of five.

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Public Eye – The Comedian’s Graveyard

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The Comedian’s Graveyard boasts a wonderful performance from Joe Melia as Billy Raybold.  Raybold is an end-of-the-pier entertainer, who is seen at the start of the story holding auditions for his latest show.  When Judy Blackburn (Tessa Wyatt) turns up, his attention is immediately drawn to her, since she’s young, nervous and very attractive.  He does his best to calm her nerves by telling her that they’re not here to eat her (“I wouldn’t mind” mutters his sidekick Arthur Mack, played by Leslie Dwyer).  So the scene seems to be set for Raybold to take advantage of the naive girl, but it doesn’t quite work out like that.

Raybold is always performing, even when off-stage, cracking corny jokes – but there’s plenty of opportunity to view the real man behind the greasepaint (and he’s someone who’s well aware of his mediocrity).  This is clearest at the end, when he tells Judy that “I could stand being a has-been, but a never-was, that takes some swallowing.”

Frank’s still working for Joe Ryland’s detective agency (although not for long – by the end of the story he’s resigned, finally worn down by the endless form-filling and his personal dislike of Ryland) and has been given the case of locating Judy.  There’s a clear difference of opinion between Frank and Ryland – Ryland is happy to take the client’s money, but Frank feels they’d be better off going to the police.  “I’m one man.  With one pair of eyes and one pair of feet.  The population of Brighton and Hove is something like 240,000, not counting the tourists.  I”d have to get very, very, lucky.”

Eventually he agrees with Judy’s aunt, Mrs Reid (Mona Bruce) that he’ll spend a few days looking for her.  And since this is television, he does manage to find her fairly easily.  Frank spies her on the pier, handing out leaflets for Raybold’s show.  This brings Frank into conflict with Raybold, since he showed him Judy’s picture earlier in the day and he claimed not to have seen her.  Frank’s suspicious of Raybold’s motives, but the comedian tells him that “I don’t want any trouble, I’ve done nothing wrong.  All I want is some decent trade, bit of fishing, little money to show for it at the end.”

Earlier, Raybold confessed to Mack that he wasn’t getting anywhere with Judy, and he’d decided not to.  His reputation as a womanizer in the past was well known, but he now admits he’s “too old for the chase, the lies, promises, chat.”

As I’ve said, Melia’s riveting as a third-rate comedian, hiding the pain of his mundane existence behind the false bonhomie of the professional comic.  It’s a familiar character (think of Archie Rice in The Entertainer) but it works just as well here.  Tessa Wyatt is appealing as the seventeen year-old Judy, who dreams of stardom but finds that the reality is somewhat different.  Leslie Dwyer (later to be a regular in the early series of Hi-De-Hi!) offers solid support as Arthur Mack, who seems keen to move in on Judy, since Raybold isn’t interested.

Another thread developed in the story is the continuing relationship between Frank and Mrs Mortimer.  Together they take Mrs Reid to see Judy perform in the show.  Although it’s essentially a professional trip (after Judy’s performance, Mrs Reid confronts her and pleads with the girl to come home) it could also said to be virtually a date for Frank and Mrs Mortimer.  Certainly as they reach home, they’re both still in high spirits – and even though Raybold has never topped the bill at the London Palladium, he’s still able to put on a good show which they both seemed to enjoy.

Over a nightcap, the conversation turns to Frank’s long-term plans.  He confesses that he doesn’t see himself staying with Rylands much longer.  Mrs Mortimer tells him he should set up on his own again, but Frank knows that’s easier said than done.  “There’s a little item buzzing around Parliament called the private investigators bill.  The bit that caught my eye said ‘agents would have to satisfy a judge of their competence and honesty.’  And here am I, still on parole.  You’d also have to deposit a one thousand pound bond before you could set up shop.”

Mrs Mortmer offers without hesitation to provide the bond.  Frank refuses (“finance and friendship, like oil and water”) and the fact he mentioned friendship is picked up by Mrs Mortimer (“coming out of your shell, aren’t you?”)  It’s a far cry from the start of the series, where Frank was an isolated character with no friends at all.

The end of the scene does imply that Mrs Mortimer would like to be more than friends though.  But since series five would see Frank relocate again (this time to Windsor) their relationship is already on borrowed time.  Had Frank stayed in Brighton, it’s intriguing to wonder exactly what would have happened to the pair of them.  But maybe it was the fear that he was getting too domesticated that caused the programme-makers to move him on again.