The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Car Along The Pass

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Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s writing career started in the late 1940’s (when they were both confined in the same tuberculous sanatorium) and it continued for the next thirty years – coming to an end with this series.  After The Galton and Simpson Playhouse was transmitted in 1977, Alan Simpson retired from scriptwriting whilst Ray Galton carried on, working with several other collaborators (such as Johnny Speight).

Galton and Simpson, are of course, best known for Hancock’s Half Hour (six radio series and six television series), Hancock (their seventh and final television series written for Tony Hancock, featuring classics such as The Bedsitter, The Lift, The Bowmans, The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham) and Steptoe and Son.

Following Tony Hancock’s decision to fire them as his writing team, the BBC offered them carte-blanche to write about anything they wished, and so the Comedy Playhouse series was born.  One episode, The Offer concerned two rag and bone men and it seemed to have potential – out of this came the long-running Steptoe and Son.

YTV’s The Galton and Simpson Playhouse seemed to be a conscious nod to this series, as the programme clearly emulated the style of Comedy Playhouse (one off comedy playlets featuring some of the best acting talent around).  It’s a pretty decent effort for them to bow out on, as whilst it’s fair to say that their writing heyday was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, this series isn’t completely without merit.

Having said that, it’s a shame that it kicked off with Car Along The Pass, easily the weakest of the seven shows.  Henry and Ethel Duckworth (Arthur Lowe and Mona Washbourne) take a cable-car trip in the Swiss Alps.  Henry hasn’t enjoyed his holiday at all and things don’t improve when the cable-car stops when it’s only half way across.  The passengers are told that repairs will take a few hours, so naturally Henry (since he’s an Englishman) decides to take charge.

Henry Duckworth has faint echoes of Lowe’s most famous comedy character (Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army).  Both are rather pompous and incredibly proud of their country of birth, but Mainwaring is also a basically decent man (plus he has the rest of the platoon to keep him in check).  Duckworth is just a blinkered bore, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

There’s plenty of comic potential in taking a disparate group of people and trapping them in a confined space – after all, Galton and Simpson did this to great comic effect with the Hancock episode, The Lift.  But Car Along The Pass is a very pale imitation.  Had Henry learnt anything about his fellow passengers, or himself, then it might have been worthwhile – but his worldview remains the same at the end as it was at the start.

He’s dismayed to find there’s only a few British people aboard and even more upset to discover that means he’s surrounded by foreigners.  The one that seems to cause him the most pain is a smooth-talking German, Heinz Steiner (Anton Differing).  Steiner is something of an anglophile and professes a love of rugby (which he played whilst at public school in England).  When Steiner asks if Duckworth attended public school, the Englishman is reticent.  “That, um, is something that we never ask in England.  We just know.”  Predictably, Ethel spoils the moment by saying she didn’t think Henry played rugby at Witham Grammar, she though he played football instead.

Steiner wonders if Henry has visited Germany.  Yes, he says, in 1945.  The presence of French and Italians gives him further scope to restate the superiority of the English.  During this, it’s hard to decide whether we should be laughing at him or with him.  It’s the Alf Garnett problem, I suppose – some of the audience will probably agree with his sentiments whilst others will view him as an out-of-date dinosaur.

My affection for Arthur Lowe means that I can find some merit in this (although you have to dig deep) and Anton Differing is very good, but to be honest, Car Along The Pass is pretty poor stuff.

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The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Swop You One Of These For One Of Those

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One major theme running throughout so much of British comedy during the 1970’s was that of sexual frustration. The Carry On’s, Benny Hill and Les Dawson’s Cosmo Smallpiece are just some examples of the typically frustrated British comedy male.  Richard Briers as Henry Fairlane in Swop You One Of These For One Of Those is another prime example.

The 1960’s may have been the decade of sexual revolution, but for some (and especially Henry) it seems to have totally passed them by.  He spends his time in the office ruminating on the clothes the secretaries wear.  “Shouldn’t be allowed to walk around the office dressed like that. They’re asking for it, they really are. Trouble is, they don’t ask me for it.”

He’s happily married, but his eye is certainly roving.  When one of the secretaries (Linda Hayden) wonders why he should bother to play around, he tells her that “I’m not old enough to turn it in.  I should be playing around, it’s natural.  I mean it keeps you young and healthy, it gives you a better disposition.”

Linda Hayden
Linda Hayden

Briers is perfect as the twitchy forty-something, desperately yearning for new horizons and as luck would have it, his colleague Roger Gresham (Henry McGee) has the answer – an invitation to a wife-swopping party.  You couldn’t really get any more 1970’s than that!  Henry’s keen, but Roger tells him that he has to make sure he brings his wife along – no wife, no entry.

Come the night of the party and Henry’s been separated from his wife – he lost her at Belsize Park tube station.  Roger refuses to let him in without her, so he has to keep a lonely vigil outside, watching enviously as numerous other couples gain admittance.  The frustration part is key to the comedy – Henry has to remain constantly unfulfilled – otherwise the joke doesn’t work.

Eventually, Henry’s wife Linda (Jan Waters) does turn up – just as Henry stepped away from the door.  Roger’s delighted to see her and and instantly lets her in (after some hesitation she throws herself into the party with gusto).  So by the time the party’s over, Linda’s had a great time (with many different people) and poor Henry’s been stuck outside the whole time.  Henry, like so many comedy characters from this decade, is forced to constantly have his nose pressed to the glass, watching others enjoy themselves.

Richard Briers gives a very nice turn and Henry McGee (a familiar Benny Hill stooge) makes an impression as one of the oldest swingers in town.  It’s also good to briefly see the imposing figure of Peggy Ann Clifford.  She made a memorable non-speaking appearance in The Missing Page episode of Hancock’s Half Hour as the woman who watches Tony mime the plot of a particularly exciting book.

Swop You One Of These For One Of Those is a step up from Car Along The Pass and is, if nothing else, a good time-capsule of the period.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Cheers

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Charles (Charles Gray) and Peter (Freddie Jones) operate under a strictly fixed routine.  Friends since childhood, they went through the army together and now share the same house.  Charles likes to organise everything and as they enjoy their regular evening drink at the pub, he outlines how he sees the week progressing.  Friday night sounds particularly exciting.  “In here for our usual and then off home and wash our hair.  I’ll wash yours and you can wash mine, I never get all the soap out otherwise.”

Then Peter drops a bombshell – he’s getting married on Saturday.  This throws Charles into a spin, how can Peter get married when they’ve got the laundrette to do?  Peter is firm though, he’s in love and he’s going to be married at 12.00 noon on Saturday.

Charles continues to be baffled that Peter could desert him, after all they’ve been through.  “After thirty five years, school chums, brother officers, comrades-in-arms, joint lease-holders of a maisonette and an allotment – which we were going to manure on Sunday.”

But Peter wants to break free from his routine existence and do something very different.  He tells an increasingly appalled Charles that he and his wife-to-be will be “staying in South America.  We’re taking a raft up the Amazon, right into the rainforest.”

If all this sounds very unlikely, then there’s a good reason why – Peter’s made it all up.  There’s no girlfriend, no marriage and on Saturday he’ll be locked into the same old routine.  He then confesses to Charles that he created this wild fantasy in order to try and break the monotony.  Charles agrees that they should try and do something different, but it’s clear that they never will.

A bittersweet tale, Cheers is pretty good stuff, although there are a few awkward moments which do firmly place it in the 1970’s.  Charles is disgusted to see a black woman on the arm of one of the other pub regulars (Nicholas Courtney).  He mutters that such a thing shouldn’t be allowed and he declares that “I’d like to know where he gets his money from, I’m sure he’s a mercenary.”  Awkward though this is, it’s always nice to see Nicholas Courtney and whilst it’s not a large part, he makes the most of it.

Charles is also amazed to learn that people consider that he and Charles are a couple of “poofs”.  The fact they do everything together (including washing each others hair) has clearly not gone unnoticed by the other pub regulars (who call them “Pinky and Perky” behind their backs) but Charles doesn’t understand this at all.  “I don’t believe it! I don’t look anything like a poof.”

Freddie Jones gives a lovely turn as a middle-aged man yearning for escape from his humdrum life whilst the always solid Charles Gray is suitably bluff as another middle-aged man who lives for exactly the routine that drives Peter up the wall.  If anything changes, you can tell that Charles simply wouldn’t be able to cope.

If the scripting of The Galton and Simpson Playhouse so far hasn’t always been the sharpest, the star-quality of the actors has been enough to hold my interest.  Cheers is another good example of this.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Naught for Thy Comfort

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Richard Burton (Roy Kinnear) is an airline steward who returns home to find a Dear John (or rather a Dear Richard) letter from his wife.  She’s left him for another man, but in-between informing him that his dinner’s in the oven and that his spare uniform is at the dry-cleaners, she goes on to tell him not to “blame yourself in any way for what has happened.  You’ve been a good husband and I’ve nothing to reproach you for, which makes it even harder to do what I’m doing.”

This is an obvious blow and he desperately needs to find somebody to pour out his troubles to.  The problem is that nobody’s interested – as his so-called friends seem to regard him as something of an encumbrance, to put it mildly.  After finding no useful information from his mother-in-law, he calls “good old Harry, one of the best.”  Harry desperately conjures up an excuse to avoid talking to him – Richard seems like a nice enough fellow, but Harry gives the impression that he’s a crashing bore that no-one wants to spend any time with.

Possibly part of the reason for his lack of social success is his complete inability to appreciate the problems of others.  Later on, we seem him conducting a lengthy conversation on the phone with another friend, Jack, who he’s stunned to discover is burying his wife the next day.  He then remembers that Jack did mention this fairly important fact earlier on (Richard’s call has lasted over an hour) but Richard’s so wrapped up in his own world of pain that he has little empathy for anybody else’s grief.

Encounters with a barman (Robert Gillespie), a vicar (Frank Gatliff) and a phone-in host (Alan Freeman) don’t go well either and it seems that nobody wants to listen to him.  He then receives a call from a man in a phone-box (John Clive).  This is the man who his wife was originally going to run off with (which raises the interesting question as to how many men she was seeing!) and he’s just as upset as Richard to find she loves another.  Richard cams him down and tells him to pour out his troubles – as it’s good to talk these things through.

Naught for Thy Comfort operates in familiar Galton and Simpson territory.  Burton, like Hancock or the Steptoes, is something of an outsider from the normal run of society.  And like them, he’s not always the most sympathetic of characters, although this changes right at the end when, ironically, he takes a great interest in the welfare of his wife’s former lover.  Is this because he understands the pain that occurs when nobody will listen to you and therefore he’s able to derive some comfort by offering a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, even when it’s for a man who’s cuckolded him?

Roy Kinnear was something of a British comedy legend and his casting certainly gave the episode a lift.  There’s not many belly-laughs here, but it does raise a smile or two.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Variations on a Theme

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Variations on a Theme is an interesting concept. It’s essentially two very short one act plays with the same actors (John Bird and Frances de la Tour) and the same setting (a park bench)  In both cases the story develops from the same line from de la Tour’s character – “Robert’s found out” – and both stories have a twist at the end.

In part one, the two are lovers – meeting in the park after their afternoon of passion the previous day.  The bombshell that Robert (her husband) has found about their relationship strikes fear into the heart of Bird’s character.  She consoles him that he had to find out sometime, which he disagrees with.  “We only met yesterday.  Some men get away with it for years.  Some men never get found out at all.”

Bird’s character is particularly anxious, since Robert is a television wrestler (the Streatham Strangler) who’s well known for his violent temper.  Another cause for concern is what the scandal will do to him – as chairman of the Marriage Guidance Council it’s more than a little embarrassing.  “I’m expected to save marriages.  You came into my office yesterday for advice.  Two hours later we were in bed together, people aren’t going to understand that.”

John Bird is excellent as the twitchy adulterer, constantly looking over his shoulder in case Robert’s lurking in the bushes nearby.  Frances de la Tour is equally good as a woman seemingly possessed of a deep passion.  However, the twist is that after he’s paid her £5000 to keep his name out of the divorce proceedings, she moves onto the next park bench where it’s clear that there’s another mark who she’s also enjoyed a one night stand with (and presumably she’ll be conning him out of a similar sum of money).

In part two, the pair are a married couple and Robert is their son – who’s found out about the facts of life from a friend.  Bird’s character reproaches himself.  “It’s a father’s responsibility to tell his son about these things.  I failed that boy.  I had it all planned about how I was going to tell him.  I mean it’s only three months since I brought the rabbits home.”  Although, as de la Tour’s character points out, the rabbits were both female, which was a bit of a problem.

It quickly transpires that Bird’s character, despite being a psychiatrist, has something of a hang-up when it comes to sex – so he’s very reluctant to broach the subject with his son.  He then wonders if Robert ever saw the two of them in bed.  de la Tour’s character thinks not, but Bird’s character isn’t convinced since “you usually have a pillow over your head and I have my eyes shut.”

Eventually he decides to employ a course of aversion therapy on Robert and then bring up the subject in a couple of years time.  She then reminds him that it’s Robert’s birthday the following day – when he asks how old he is (nine or ten he thinks) she informs him that he’s twenty three.  As they leave the park together, they discuss appropriate presents (she thinks a cowboy suit would be right, whilst he thinks a railway set would be ideal).

Again, Bird and de la Tour are excellent in another two-hander.  Had either of the two story ideas been stretched to the whole twenty-five minutes it probably wouldn’t have been as memorable an episode.  But spinning two totally different plots from the same opening is what make this stand out a little from the norm.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds

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I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds takes place in the living room of a typical family home.  The arrival of Jim (Leonard Rossiter) is enough to send the kids to their room (“he never stops talking”) although the adults are less fortunate.  They’re just about to watch McMillan and Wife and although Jim tries to tempt them with the football on the other side, he settles down to watch it as well.

Jim is an insuffrable know-it-all.  This starts when he tells Joyce (Gillian Rayne) about the deficiencies of her television set.  “You know your colour’s all wrong? There’s too much red. You can’t watch it like that, it looks like he’s been boiled.”  Granny (the peerless Patricia Haynes) is old enough to speak her mind.  “What’s he want to keep coming round here for?”

After they manage to prevent Jim taking the television set apart with a screwdriver, he keeps quiet for a moment.  But it doesn’t last long, as he spies a familiar face just behind Rock Hudson.  What, he wonders, is Burt Reynolds doing in an episode of McMillan and Wife?  Everybody else tells him that it’s not Burt Reynolds and indeed that it looks nothing like him, but Jim is convinced.  “Course it is.  Don’t tell me I don’t know Burt Reynolds when I see him.”

Thanks to Leonard Rossiter, this is the best episode of The Galton and Simpson Playhouse and it’s fair to say that few comic actors would have been able to deliver such a tremendous performance of ever-increasing hysteria.

Although Burt isn’t listed in the TV Times or on the end credits, Jim isn’t going to give up, despite the fact that nobody else cares.  Calls to Yorkshire Television and the Daily Telegraph (Jim disgustedly tells them he’ll be buying the Daily Express from now on) are fruitless – so he decides the only way to settle this is to call Burt Reynolds in Hollywood.  Incredibly he gets through, but when Burt doesn’t give him the answer he wants, is Jim finally going to admit defeat?  Of course not!

Twenty years later, this was remade with Paul Merton in the main role.  The two series of Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson’s … are interesting.  Merton was always on something of a hiding to nothing, since many of the episodes were television classics (such as the various Hancock episodes selected, including The Radio Ham and Twelve Angry Men).  The Paul Merton I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds is fine, but it really doesn’t work without the full-throttle attack of a top comedy performer like Rossiter.  The Galton and Simpson Playhouse was very fortunate to get a performer at the top of his game, as he was able to wring every last comic drop out of the scenario.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Big Deal at York City

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Albert Cakebread (Warren Mitchell) has had a good day at York Races.  On the train back to London, he flashes his winnings (over two thousand pounds) in the bar and offers to buy everyone a drink.  This catches the attention of one of the passengers, Basil Trenchard (Gerald Flood).

Later on, Trenchard, along with two other people (played by Alister Williamson and Robert Dorning), asks Albert if he fancies a friendly game of cards to while away the journey.  Albert agrees, as does another passenger in the carriage (a businessman played by Robin Parkinson).  In order to keep things fair, Albert asks the imposing figure of the Bishop (Lockwood West) to deal the cards.

It’s obvious that Flood and his two friends are con-men who plan to fleece the ebullient Albert out of his winnings.  Each hand reduces Albert’s money little by little, so that by the last hand he desperately stakes everything he has  The others do as well and it seems that Trenchard is going to walk away with the lot.  But amazingly, it’s the mild-mannered businessman (Parkinson) who actually has the winning hand and he scoops the whole pot.  The twist is that he, Albert and the Bishop are also a gang of con-men (who have managed to outfox the other three by being a little more subtle).

Big Deal at York City boasts an interesting performance from Warren Mitchell who affects an accent which I believe is a West Country one.  Why he didn’t use his more familiar London tones is a bit of a mystery, unless it was supposed to lull the three marks into believing him to be a country bumpkin.  His character certainly comes over as something of a simple, trusting soul (although as we see that isn’t the case at all).

Gerald Flood (bad King John, or at least something that looked like him, in the Doctor Who story The Kings Demons) is rather good as the card-sharp who spies what he thinks is an easy mark, only to be taken to the cleaners himself.  Another solid performance comes from Lockwood West as a man of the cloth who seems to gain a great deal of knowledge about poker as the game goes on!

Although Mitchell’s accent and slight overplaying is a little distracting, Big Deal at York City is an entertaining twenty-five minutes that brings the Galton and Simpson Playhouse to a close.  Although the quality of the series was a little variable, the first-rate casts in each episode do help to sometimes lift the material.  It’s not Hancock or early Steptoe standard by any means, but it’s certainly worth a look.