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If there is one thing that we fail to acknowledge in this country is our proud heritage. I understand the usefulness and even the advantages to having a castle at every turn, a dysfunctional Royal Family, a series of losing sports teams and a prolific ability to cast aside some of the greatest entertainers who have ever graced our screens, to the other side of the planet. Yet there is a certain breed of Englishman who entertains us each week who goes silently unnoticed. Every week in many circumstances - they make us laugh, cry, think about ourselves and even be moved when we witness their craft.
It has occurred to me that there is something gravely wrong in the things that we appreciate. Whilst I have been keen to keep abreast with the ins and outs of comedy over the last forty years in some, socially staved, hobby of mine, it has come to my notice in my findings that there are some greats in the world of showbiz who are, or have, gone right passed us without as much as a mere thank you from us, let alone a knighthood. I immediately think of Eric Sykes, who back in the late Fifties shared a cramped office somewhere in a corner of Shepherds Bush with the manic and fairly unknown, Spike Milligan. A picture forms in my head of these two young, yet to be found geniuses with sleeves rolled up, frantically scribbling away on tiny desks, banging out silly skits to make a few quid. This romantic notion has stayed with me and forever haunts me to the point that I feel these heroes will continue to die off without, what I consider, a decent enough tribute. Dare I say it, we will lose the last one of that particular partnership without so much as a touch of the Queen's sword on his shoulders if we are not too careful.
So what is it that makes, as a country, so unreflecting to acknowledge the hard working, sweating, sore fingered writers who have given us such classic comedy over the years, yet we are quick to celebrate their accomplishments, but not the source from whence they came? We are fond of remarking on some wonderful lollipop lady who regularly saves the lives of thousands of squashed hedgehogs all over Derbyshire, or the small child who miraculously put out the blazing inferno that would have perished his school had he not been the only one to be quick thinking. These beings all show courage in the face of something along the lines of adversity but not one note of recognition twice a year goes to the last remaining few of a generation now fading away. The people who make us laugh. I apologise for not acknowledging Midge Ure for another accolade in the fight against Developing World poverty, but enough is enough. Sir Geldof only ever had one hit record...
Onward I travel and delve into the pits of comedy to find out who was really behind arching sides, chesty coughs and stamping of feet., (well, that's what I do when I laugh,) and mark a small tribute of my own...
The situation comedy writer weaves a tangled web of laughter, tears and observation beyond our own daily troubles. We may not even like what we see, even avoid it or watch something else, but that's the chance they take. The writer may care not to employ his mind with equal attention as the director or the producer may, for it is the job of the script writer to cast the magic and let us in to a family or a situation in which we, sometimes feel at home. We befriend their characters who we either adore or dislike. We sympathize with them, agree or disagree with them - either way, we may delight in their company, secure in the knowledge that they will, if anything, simply make us smile. I will guarantee we have all, at some point in our lives tuned in to little half and hour programme each week to be eagerly entertained by a series of fictional characters in their hilarious situations. We are keen to indulge in a dribble more of their misfortunes or their daily tasks peppered with unusual pitfalls. Yet what is the appeal of the average situation comedy? One point that seems stronger than the rest is the realisation that these programmes reflect, very deeply, our own lives.
A certain young jobbing actor came onto the scene through the stage striding school of RADA, hoping for a life treading the boards or tripping over the camera wires. Back in the heady days of the Sixties, actors found a niche on television where they could, if they managed it, kept employment by hopping in and out of one serial to another. The world of the BBC was full of serials, be them straight or funny. A multitude of 'family' based sit coms were taking shape, thus keeping a vast majority of general actors in food and warmth. Many stayed quite happy in the their minor roles, not wanting to go any further out into the gloom. Others struck gold in what the old darlings term as 'big break.' Here, we find actors who then turn into stars, and possibly find grasping the reins even more exciting than just sitting on the horse.
One of these particular up and coming actors was George Layton. Yorkshire born, he had a twinkling smile and a charming tone. With these attributes at his disposal, he quickly found himself in the first knicker wetting series full of all the best twinkling smiles on TV - 'Doctor In The House.' Layton fitted in well along side other TV hopefuls, Richard O'Sullivan, Barry Evans and Robin Nedwell. All enjoying good, regular comedies throughout the Seventies. It appeared that this show, however, was somewhat cursed. Two of the afore mentioned actors died under tragic circumstances whilst Mr O'Sullivan now spends his life in a retirement home. Sometimes the life of the comedy actor, is the one that contains the least amount of laughs.
Stepping away from the limelight to a point, Layton went about writing some of the scripts for the show. Daring to break the unwritten law of 'decide which end of the camera you want son, and stick to it,' Layton couldn't bare to make a choice. Getting around this he started writing episodes for 'Doctor In The House' under a different name. By this, he found yet another string to his bow, and serials quickly followed whilst acting, or in-between parts. Yet the pan stick was to call for full time commitment again. Jimmy Perry saw Layton as the Army Concert Party producer that he too, once was hence the role of 'Bombardier 'Solly' Solomons in 'It Ain't 'Arf Hot Mum,' went to the perfectly experienced George.
Leaving after the second series, he had already started work on another comedy show. Throughout his career he had set up on and off writing residence in the company of fellow actor, writer and old Cambridge Footlights member, Jonathan Lynn. Following in parallels with the legendary Croft and Perry, the pair produced minor comedies, but not as exceptionally acknowledged as the Croft/Perry collaborations. Notably, it was Lynn who went on to write and direct the extraordinary 'Clue,' with Tim Curry and the humorous film comedy 'Nun's On The Run,' with Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane. Like his counterpart Layton, Lynn dared never to sit down and kept following his own path from one talent to another.
The Seventies was a time when once your face fitted amongst the mixed veg and the pastries in the BBC canteen, you were able to spread yourself around the writing round table. Many actors and budding script writers lent a hand, credited or otherwise, in a whole host of other shows. Perhaps it can be said that the Pythons were the biggest contenders for such scribbling antics that people followed suit. Messer's Idle and Cleese were among the professionals already trying their hand at radio as well as TV.
In a game where everyone had once worked with everyone else, the doors were open to try a hand at a bit here and a bit there. Layton found himself brushing comical shoulders with the best writers of the time, one of which, he was growing rapidly into. His credits featured, 'On The Buses,' and 'Robin's Nest,' naming the most memorable two. Yet his real success came with the back breaking 39 episodes of the medical comedy, 'Don't Wait Up.' Enlisting film actor, Nigel Havers and veteran comedy father figure, 'Tony Britten,' the show as a warming relationship between father , son and viewers. Showing us a situation that could well be familiar with it's audience, Layton touched on the highs and lows of a family thrown together and at the same time, thrown apart, trying to get back together. The two Latimer Doctors, father and son (one private, one NHS respectively) find themselves in a flat together after both getting divorced. The running theme of this wonderful series was the conflicting relationship between the two generations both practising what the other objects to. Full of pathos, emotion and traditional farcical British humour, it was an immediate hit appealing to both classes. One admiring the similarities in their fellow members, the other, poking fun at the higher classes.
Towards the end of it's run which found both doctors finding themselves in happier relationships, Layton was already working his next project. In his usual style, he has worked on two at a time over lapping, in remarkable continuity, two completely different scripts at the same time. This time, what little he had to spare, was moved into the direction of high flying ITV sit-com, 'Executive Stress,' an enjoyable scenario of a successful couple finding themselves working together after years of supporting their own careers starring Penelope Keith and Geoffrey Palmer (series one) and Peter Bowles (series 2 onwards.) Keith and Bowles, already had shared great credibility from 'To The Manor Born.'
If none of this had been enough to be credited as one of the most favoured, all round actors of both stage, film and television and one of the best known British comedy writers, then it was also not surprising that George Layton has managed to fit in theatre direction across the country onto his c.v as well as author of two well received novels of growing up in post war Northern Britain. Are their no ends to these talents?
His theatre credits have included Fagin in 'Oliver!' at the London Palladium and Felix in 'The Odd Couple,' at the Theatre Royal in Windsor - two characters of extreme qualities that couldn't be any further apart in regard to acting requirements. Just these two roles themselves, can conjure up a picture of an actor who is more than capable of realising real acting identities within himself. London's West End, has naturally not been the only boards he has treaded. Australia and New York as well, of course! Well, what did you expect? Many strings to the bow plus a non avoidance to air travel would have to be all part of the course if one wanted to follow in his shoes. For any young, enthusiastic script writer, he is not only a squint making dot in the sky, but a life that very few would consider trying to match...
So what next for the restless career of this man who is only a young and sprightly 64 this year? He has recently written another book (with the working title of 'The Promise And Other Stories,') and a comedy drama series for television called, 'The Boys.' It would seem that we are yet to still enjoy the work of George Layton - the man who can't sit still.
As all the best writers and performers are irritatingly the least smug and the most modest and George Layton is no exception. Still regarded as a nice guy, although too hard working, he sits back comfortably and is mildly contented with his work so far. It would seem all the best writers follow this rule, (sweat like a dog over the typewriter, just don't tell everyone about it).
Recently for the BBC 1 series, 'Comedy Connections,' featuring 'Don't Wait Up,' he beamed when he said 'No one admires my work more than I do!' Yes, this statement does flow with the milk of human smugness, but if anyone deserves to be, it is writers like George Layton. The people who refuse to retire. (If only Des O' Connor would....)
The list of his achievements to date, is far too long to print here. (George Layton that is, not Des O'Connor...)
Happy Birthday Mr Layton for March the 2nd.
'Don't Wait Up,' can be found on DVD from Amazon.com (series I and II) for £10.97
Also at Sendit.com for £11.98 and HMV I, II and III for £11.99 delivered.
'Doctor In The House' series I and II together on Amazon.com for £29.98
HMV for £16.99 (I and II)
Fearless writers, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin set out on the dusty road of alternative laughs years before when they submerged themselves in the river of Church gags and minor political laughs for the pioneering, Not The Nine Oclock News, back in the late Seventies. Sharpening their wit and wisdom ten years later, the duo banged their heads together and came up with yet another ground breaking idea for a topical situations comedy - Drop The Dead Donkey,
First aired on Channel 4, late, one sticky August night in 1990, the entrance of this bang-up-to-the- minute spoof news outfit, came tip toeing in totally unnoticed. Spot on with current affairs from the word go, it was, towards the end of its staggering eight year reign, (a feat for any Channel 4 broadcast) the best thing to hit the unlovable channel since Desmonds.
Writing something that so clearly had to be no more than half an hour old still remains a mystery to the viewer. The script had to basic - plot lines already set out and throw away lines about news headlines appearing that very day had to be shoe horned in at the very last minute. Not only did this nightmare of a project require writers of the Lindford Christie kind, but equal actors needing only a few stolen moments to learn vital lines. Naturally a spoof comedy with the backdrop of a news broadcasting company had to be as believable as possible. What lay in the minds of the viewer whilst he watches, was that undoubted feeling that he was actually watching something live.
The story of GlobeLink News, was one mounted in greedy and power. The fictional, yet uncannily initialled, Sir Roysten Merchant, who just happened to have the initials of the then breathing, Robert Maxwell, was the money encrusted and dodgy tyrant behind the company. With enough force of a hurricane, he controlled each nerve ending on a daily basis, although his visual identity always remained anonymous, up until the very last episode. His heavy presence was always a regular ghost amongst the team, yet his empire came under question every so often about the legality of his companies. Holding everyone of his basket cases in contempt, he caused friction in every corner, yet his employees had their own frictions to encounter between themselves without the enforcement of a figure with no face. Perhaps the most memorable of these logger heads were the very news casters who brought the viewer a perfectly chiselled face and an endearing smile. Henry Davenport - a man in control of his being, not to mention his own lunch break, he dared not to impose too often without insult, marking on the fact that he was of the old school of broadcasting. Once in his prime in front of the camera, he was now, in his twilight years as a presenter, was repeatedly found drunk and in the arms of a younger acquaintance. He bellows his voice over the hap hazard ways he feels the news has grown since his day, yet nothing twists his toupee more than the tight lipped snobberish ways of his co host, Sally Smedley.
Miss Smedley was, to Davenport, the very reason why, given two Gins of a chance, he would have walked out at any given time. Posh to the point of exasperation, she was as prim as any news caster could get. In her twin set and pearls, she takes aim at Henry on every valuable occasion to comment on his failure to conduct his own life with decorum. A spinster, fussed with fashion and her visual appeal, she wass a woman in her forties who never smiles and means it, she is the least liked member of the team. The viewer on a regular basis is given hints that she may be quite a tigress on the quiet so long as the man in question is rough with dirty fingernails - a side of herself that she regularly defends.
When it is obvious that these characters throughout the show are based on real people or at least, true to the stereotypes who work in broadcasting, we seem not the least bit surprised if the afore mentioned characters are anything to go by. Bedraggled editor and brown cardigan wearing, George Dent appears to be the usual state in which any editor is normally in. Be it magazine, newspaper or broadcasting, he looks down trodden, weary and in need of a good nights sleep. Holding the entire network together by the scruff of the neck, he is the stop in which the buck slams on the brakes. Hounded by guilt from his grabbing ex wife, he also has to deal with a wayward daughter. Edging dangerously towards a nervous breakdown, he comes a damp fence between his whining staff and the blonde flicked, smooth Gus Hedges. The only person who legitimately takes control and appears to be the most grounded of the team is the raven haired Alex who is young enough to be Georges daughter, yet was capable many times to grab the proverbial steering wheel before George hurtles the car over the cliff. Like any reasonably behaved hard worker with an explosive private life who naturally leaves such embarrassing matters at home, she is snapped up by the BBC after series two.
Slightly twisted and twenty years out of date, Gus Hedges is the epitome of most masturbating Chief Executives, whilst being the only member of the force to be holding a ten foot wooden spoon. Dishing out sarcasm, low wit and general grease in the hope of indoctrinating his slaves, even though he addresses the staff with his Im not here, speech, he devours any story, be it true or otherwise, in or out of the office. More in tune with the ghastly Fleet Street gossip, he desires the bring the news link company down to the sleaze and titillation he thinks will win bigger ratings. A mouthy man with more front than the Suffolk coast, he is in private and very different character who, in one episode, practically breaks down on the moist shoulder of George, wailing that his life is meaningless. Since he is, in truth, a producer of corny one liners more than anything else, he is easy to wind up and pin down by the rest of the team, and the lads of the office pass the time with such pranks rather than actually do any real work.
Dave Charnley and Damien Day were played by actors who were, surprisingly, the most successful minor role players who turned their characters to their advantage. Both embarking on forward thinking careers off the back of Drop The Dead Donkey, Messers Tompkinson and Pearson went on to bigger things and in the process, creating household names for themselves. Their characters on the show were largely, found as extremes from each others personalities, yet remain good colleagues. Day was just about the only member of the team who got to step outside the office every day. As field reporter, his outside broadcasts inadvertently saw him standing in the middle of a muddy field desperately trying to make his flopped news story sound exciting. As his antics became more bizarre, he was seen, off camera to fix certain stories to make them look real. Punching a small boy in the face to make him look as if he had been shot was not a far cry from the lengths that Day would go to get himself even more ratings. His loathing of the company only urged him on to elaborate on his reporting more so in the hope of being head hunted by another channel - failing to do so, his job, unfortunately for him, only stuck with him more each day. A man who lived a good life with no wish to toy with the sins of life, he was the complete opposite to sub editor, Dave Charnley.
As Day was as clean living as the day was long, then Charnley was as remote from a Scrabble board and an early night as humanly possible. Drinking, gambling and generally Davenport but only twenty years younger, he took each day with the contempt it deserved. Quick to have a flutter on the briefest of bets, he tried to make his life on the job for interesting, bedding married women and getting into trouble with their husbands. Constantly late for work, hung over or generally hiding from a husband larger than himself, he liked to live fast only finding true love once, for the lesbian Helen who only confirmed her feelings more for women, rather than him. Breaking his heart silently, he continued to gamble more, work less stay kindred spirits to the equally failed Davenport.
From the start of the second series a small host of characters came and went allowing the show to thrive on the illusion of a real news broadcasting company. As flippant as the staff got to producing news items that were actually true or at least partly genuine became a running gag. Only the days topics needed to be added.
Despite the complexities of the show, the result of a simple, yet eye catching theme remained fairly simple. A script was generalised and up to date quips were added her and there. Its sparkle came from the cast who entwined their characters with off the cuff lines and thrown away poses. The success of the show was embedded in the idea of its exciting anthem. We were compelled to watch just to see if we could catch them out - very rarely did the writers miss a trick. In true documented style without the shaky camera angles, this show was a moment behind any broadcasting company. Watching Sky or CNN was never going to be the same again. The same bustle was captured, the tantrums and pitfalls of any hard working, behind the scenes show was open for full viewing. If life was really like that in the world of broadcasting, then we should all be glad of the mundane, everyday jobs we already have
As with all compelling shows, we crave for the episode when we feel as if the world is changing into something as good as we would like it to be. As regards to comedy, it is the subjects that we think are not covered or are dusted under the carpet in the hope of not to offend which really seek our attention. In the days of Drop The Dead Donkey, we were delighted and even secretly relieved that jokes were made on the madness of the IRA and musty politicians who thought the world was square. Through these characters, we see beyond their shallow faces and explore their own personal failings. Each having as much depth as the Grand Canyon.
We miss such shows as this. The planet seemed a better place because someone, somewhere in a television studio said it was okay to have a laugh at the things that make us sad about the society we have to live in. Its that ability that we will always need.
The final episode saw Globelink being sold, as the characters find themselves other occupations-some good, some fair. Each having sold their souls in some way over the years to the company now face a future of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Perhaps the ironic ending to any show ever broadcast, in a fit of anxiety, Gus breaks into Sir Roystons house, finding he doesnt even know who Gus is .
Six series on total, it finished on 9th December 1998.
Repeats can be found on the second of the Paramount Channels on Sky.
Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (mostly)
Gus Hedges - Robert Duncan
George Dent - Jeff Rawle
Helen Cooper - Ingrid Lacey
Sally Smedley - Victoria Wicks
Alex Pates - Haydn Gwynne
Henry Davenport - David Swift
Joy Merry weather - Susannah Doyle (PA from series two)
Damien Day - Stephen Tompkinson
Dave Charnley - Neil Pearson.
Sir Royston Merchant - Roger Hammond (only appears in the final episode)
Drop The Dead Donkey can be found on DVD from;
Sendit.com from £9 to £12.95 each series sold seperately.
Same applies to Amazon.com.
HMV - each series ranging from £10 to £18.
Ciao and dooyoo
Taking a leaf out of the ancient theory of door kept open for material, the largely credited, Smack The Pony, did just that. Appealing to the most daring of new comedy writers, this brave sketch show embarked on a journey through the female psyche exposing her for all her foibles, faults and intimate thoughts. Reading through the long, endless list of material masterfuls, is a bit like running ones eyes down a school board of past Sports captains. With the idealists at the helm, Smack The Pony, engaged the minds of the audience and endangered lives at Channel Four staff.
Where as female comedy writers had stepped into the safe zone of placing humour on the shoulders of fictional characters, the performers of the Pony club threw themselves onto the fire for all to laugh at instead. Life had been a notably safe haven for the inspired writers at the Beeb when a certain Miss Victoria Wood had been on the throne. Casting a wise eye across the set we find the comfortable characters of Mrs Overall and Babs. Although these extraordinary women made us laugh, chortle, guffaw and generally titter at their outrageous and highly amusing scenarios, we still had yet to tread the unreliable waters of our own misgivings. In short - it was only the most sturdy of relationships that could survive an episode of Smack The Pony. Yet, wait to be shocked; there were just as many male writers collaborating on this show as there were females
Setting out on its ambitious four year run, the show could only grow from strength to strength and judging by its ratings, the spell was already working before the end of the first series. Writers Fiona Allen and Doon Mackichan teamed up with well established comedy actress, Sally Phillips to engage on their stripping of the mysterious female allure. Since these new comers were already attuned to the preciseness of what tight knitted observational humour should entail, they instantly knew how far to go. Obviously to the moon and back, was just simply not enough as their goal was not to shock, but to force the audience to laugh nervously.
Like most comedienne writers of the more recent generation, they have had to rely on a good old wrench up the ladder from someone more well established. Phillips, perhaps the innovator for Catherine Tates style of humour, first found herself playing a brief role along the cracked path of Steve Coogans Alan Partridge. It was also here that Scot girl, Doon Mackichan made her acquaintance with modern humour in the factious chat show. From a slightly different angle, Allen found a great wealth of experience by taking on minor key roles in sketch shows including Goodness Gracious Me, and The All Star Comedy Show. The show was set to be a platform where these new age writers could simply vent off their diversities for half an hour each week. What actually transpired was to be and Emmy winning cult show from which now, future female writers consider to be one of the most important benchmarks in British comedy history.
What the trio of young talent gave us was an edgy feel to the way we appreciate sketch show comedy. Since the days of afore mentioned, Victoria Wood, the world had come a long way along the A road of observational humour. Where Wood had touched upon an area more inclined to be of a class breaking nature, Allen, Phillips and Mackichan shoved Wood into a Jean Brodie Basque and set her out to dry. Smack The Pony, had shudderingly dealt with the unspeakable, the inscrutable and the damn well shoved under the carpet. Whilst using the very title of the show as a slang term used in female masturbation, it was fairly obvious (or not to most of us) how far this type of unfelt comedy would intend to go.
After the first series, one could get a feel of the pattern that was being repeatedly used. As a loose tribute to the previous Not The Nine oclock News, the show would end with a mock up of a recent music style of anthem - a running ending snatched by many a comedy show which never fails to delight audiences. Another key slot was a quick firing video shot where the trio posed as women looking for dates - a video dating link in its tackiest form. An idea originally conceived by Victoria Wood, in which she, along with other characters posed as members of the public venting a personal niggles on screen. Another link to this sort of on the street one line humour was also given ground by university chums, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. In their show, they devised a series of one lines, thrown away by members of the public half way through their interviews. Effective and used to the hilt since Python, roots to any remedy of comic humour can usually be traced back to someone or show which appears totally unrelated. Smack The Pony, was, in that sense, no different.
Touching on the very personal issues of what women seemingly experience from time to time, it was not primarily a show for female eyes only. One could almost hazard a guess that there were many a man watching through slatted blinds and frantically taking notes. A lot could be learned about a womans mind through the eyes of some serial flaunting cheap gags on the fairer sex on Channel Four.
Something that sounds all too familiar on the channel that taste forgot, even so, Smack The Pony, how ever it was taken, was undoubtedly a new turning point for female humour, shifting the pattern for female writers to delve more into the realms of comedy possibility.
Everything was out in the open for thirty minutes each week and the format of this well adjusted show in disguise certainly rolled around mischievously through the fields of modern unpredictability. We were subjected to skits dwelling on the dullness of parties, lousy sex and bad jobs. Each only showing us a few seconds of cringing time, these skits were loving crafted to reveal the truth behind the complexities of the female world. Some held our gaze through the masterful play on words in flittish dialogue, whilst others, silently step over our souls to stamp, whole heartedly on our pride. What other show made us howl like banshees on a thirty second skit of the extraordinary lengths a woman would go to park her car in an empty car park ? Gliding and dancing around each space not making up her mind until deciding on horizontally park across four spaces and walk away without a second glance - perfect visual and factual comedy.
Since the event of such factual genius, the road has laid bare over some considerable time. What seems to have taken shape since has been a reflection back to the good old days of fictional characters in general scenarios. A void seems to have been widened and the future of observational comedy in its direct sense is a free for all.
Until then, we have guys in drag, wheelchairs and bondage to keep us amused, well, some of us, at least
But, there is always Green Wing .
First aired on Channel Four 1999 to 2003
The Best Of Smack The Pony can be found at;
Amazon.com for £17.99
Kelkoo for £12.99
HMV for £11.99
Naturally, the mere idea that a high flying West London flat would be housing a hypochondriac bimbo, a radical feminist, a failing actress and an immature Girl Guide type, not to mention an eccentric novelist - broke and futureless is crazy, (okay, so perhaps the former mentioned writer might still reside here.) Yet, the Kensington cosmos surrounding these strange, hapless, dead end types seems quite plausible for 1985. Only a stones throw away from indulgent sea of Sloanies, yuppies and all who are loaded, this shambling clutter of penniless lip gloss and army boots acted out their missable lives in this wondrous situation comedy we knew as Girls On Top.
Bringing together the alternative minds of Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Ruby Wax at a party one Christmas, the three young, unaccredited writers joined forces on this extraordinary idea of four mismatched female wonders thrown together to help pay the rent on a flat in London under the eccentric orders of the flightily novelist and general air head, Joan Greenwood. After enlisting the attributes of pretty ex Three Of A Kind, comedienne, Tracey Ullman, the cast was complete, and the girls set to work on stamping hard down on the quaking ITV studio floor.
When sub-assistant editor for feminist rag, Spare Cheeks, Amanda Ripley turns up on Lady Caltons doorstep begging for a roof over her head, she is given the keys so long as she can come up with the extortionate rent. Ripley (Dawn French) quickly flags down failing, foul mouthed Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax) to help along with old childhood tagger and general punch bag, Jennifer Marsh (Saunders.) The quartet is complete with the presence of high pitched, irritating and plastic doll-esque Candice Valentine played with equal annoyance by Tracey Ullman. The show then conducts itself around the general friction between the stereotypical females who not just rub each other up the wrong way but more how each character clashes in regard to their backgrounds.
Candice; every boys nightmare, followed a religious belief that there was always something incurable from which she suffered. Adding a sea of lies, mild extortion and failing relationships with unseen male characters, she dreamed to pots of money from some fictional sugar daddy. Made worse, visually in her sequined outfits and dolly bird image, she was, in particular, the most excruciating character of the lot. She was certainly the most self absorbed and given tuppence, she would have cast aside her so called girlfriends, like yesterdays fish. However, the other three were not held to ransom by Candices fictional tales and promptly saw straight through peroxided hair and spangly boob tubes, yet the others had just as many faults of their own. Shelleys puffed up career fell from one acting ridge down to another. Selling herself to be more talented than she actually was, it appears now to the viewer, that these characters were failures in just about everything their tried to achieve. Not even united in their friendship, they all would quickly back stab the other three to get what they wanted and Shelley was no exception - perhaps the second most likely to bring home a wage, she flung herself at one cruddy audition after another, never appearing in anything for more than a week. Obsessively preening herself, she walked on the backs of the others, believing herself to be the next big thing. Loudly American, she flounced her way through each episode gaining little more than mild, false approval from everyone else.
Amanda Ripley was not just the only one to pull in a weekly wage, but the character who kept the whole performance together. Straight faced, stout and only two larger cans away from Greenham Common, she rallied around the rest of the crumbling crowd in her bossy air. Constantly using the dull, withdrawn Jennifer as a mental stress ball, she stamped out her authority from the word go. Taking the lead in every argument, apology and bill avoidance, she was masterful, in her devout ideas of an anti male environment. On few occasions, we see the real side of Ripley - the one who would give up her last bovver boot for a roll in the sack with a testosterone meat head.
Perhaps the one character with whom we feel largely uncomfortable with is Jennifer. Solemn, dull and expressively one dimensional, she appears not only grey and with a faint pulse, but the most air headed of the lot. Incapable of rising to answer the simplest of questions, she remains throughout the programme a slave to all that Amanda desires. General dogsbody to the house, Jennifer fails to stand her ground in the vast swamp of tasteless characters around her. We feel a slight amount of pity for her, yet on the one or two occasions, she does speak, we feel an absurd sense of achievement for her. All be it short lived, it is not long before she is quickly slapped down into her place.
The head of this bedlam of bad taste, is the Cartland - esque, Lady Calton played remarkably by gracefully ageing, Joan Greenwood. Appearing two years before she died of a heart attack, she is remembered for her theatrically eccentric, Lady Calton. Perhaps notably, the greatest performance of her career, she is a wonderfully English, presence whose character apparently writes romantic novels although appears pissed in many an episode. This remarkable grand lady of English theatre, is brought to us in a character who is dazed, forgetful and frightfully amusing, as it became the making of Greenwood. Not unlike the muttering genius of June Whitfield in Saunderss masterpiece, Absolutely Fabulous. Miss Greenwood here completes the cast in this explosively female comedy, which has to be said, wasnt that funny all the time...
Equalled to the male dominating, The Young Ones, a few years before, the French/Saunders and Wax phenomenon were not just simply fighting back here with a female version of the same hap hazard and habitual horror as their male counterparts, but with an enwrapped, emotional edge and depth that only a female orientated comedy can deliver. Where The Young Ones, had focussed on silly noises, teenage, sexual depravation and downright student felt humour, the mimicking Girls On Top, shouted out female originated splendour, engaging on the strengths of each character. Where as The Young Ones, had depended on each other to generate the theme, it was the external influences of Girls On Top, which intrigued the audience and gave us the impression, that the very house in which they dwelled, was only a small part of their own lives.
Despite the extremities in which each of their engaging lives depend upon, it is the relationship (or not, as the case may be,) through the existence of each other that pulled the show through its trashy, low budget surface. However crass and frighten bad the show was, it was a pioneer for a whole host of future girl power comedy chows which followed with much adoration for their predecessor. We were subjected to the greatest female writers ever to set foot onto stage or in front of screen throughout the back end of the 20th Century through this show, and through the broadened eyes of ITV; who dared to tread on many occasions on untreated ground, these writers could venture into pastures unchallenged. Perhaps in hindsight, it was through the absurdities of Girls On Top, in which French/Saunders and Wax could let loose the immaturities of their minds before engaging on future, more experienced projects. Tightening their script abilities, the show not only introduced the households to their names, but fused together a partnership between Saunders and French that continued for well over another decade
After the first series, it was apparent that Tracey Ullman had been bitten by the American flea which promptly sat her on a plane to forward a career over the pond and thus, never came back. It was rather humorously written in to the second series that she had died from one of her extraordinary ailments which had actually been true. It was, however, let to the audience to decide whether she had died or been bumped off by either one of the two most Candice hating of the other characters, Amanda or Shelley. Indeed the show continued well since Ullman had not been a lead writer in the first instance, but after a short run, the crew had decided to kill off the cast in a Lady Calton exploit in which she blows everyone up in the building with accidentally igniting petrol. The idea, came from the very plot which killed off the characters in The Young Ones, once and for all, the idea of the most female indulgent series needed to be finalized and never to return. With better, brighter projects up their sleeves, Girls On Top, had achieved exactly what it was set out to do - bring on the voice of a new breed of alternative writers - the girls.
The series worked on one main level; the fact that these characters - however bizarre, were believable in the sense that we were fooled for a moment that the actresses were actually playing sides of their own characters. Parallels can been seen through these characters in the workings of future productions from the cast. Where as Ruby Wax has made a successful career out of simply being a loud mouthed American, the other two paved their own paths for future successes; both characters, Ripley and Marsh can be found in other French and Saunders acts, be them sketches or in long running series, Girls On Top, proved to be the powerful fore runner than it actually was, even more so today.
The only character to stand out was Ullmans Candice. Since embarking on an entire life long route through the American TV system, Ullman has never gone back to Candice. Focusing herself on a serious comedy career, it would have been believed that the yanks simply would not have understood Candice and certainly not in the way we knew her
Since the new wave of alternative comedy linked arms with each other, and never letting go, the troop of new comedy actors marched their way in, rigidly, never breaking the chain. In such situations, they breathed on each other like life giving providers and practically queued up to be on each others shows. A whole line of future celebrities strolled onto to the set of Girls On Top, for the CV filling - cameo role. Robbie Coltrane, Harry Enfield, John Sessions and Hugh Laurie to name only a small crowd of house hopping chums shuffled their squeaky loafers onto the credits. All patting themselves on the backs from unmasking yet another brilliant showcase of new talent. A breed of new comedians who simply shook Britain by the balls and told them to set aside their Monty Python re runs for just a brief while .
Since the explosion of alternative routes - this one was certainly on the girls .
Only 13 episodes were written, recorded and broadcast
Series one - October to December 1985
Series two October - December 1986
Written by ;
Script Editor - Ben Elton
Witzend Productions for ITV.
Available on DVD complete series at www.sendit.com for £15.89
Amazon.com - £19.49
HMV - £21.99
Whilst the great British public were settling back in comfortable armchairs to witness the anecdotes of David Croft and Jimmy Perry once a week, a new breed of comedy writers were climbing, ever so quietly up the ranks..
John Esmonde and Bob Larbey may not have names that are easy to roll off ones tongue and perhaps arent as well known to the average brain as their counterparts, Croft and Perry, yet I will wager you that you know of at least one of their credible comedy moments. After finding their feet through the airwaves writing quick fire sketches for the BBCs Home Service programme, Im Sorry Ill Read That Again, from 1964, it was to feature budding stars as pre Python, John Cleese and future Goodies; Brooke-Taylor, Garden and Oddie. They decided that their writing partnership could take on better scope in the world of television. Writing the class shifting comedy, Please Sir!, in 1968, their next big success was to in be 1975 when they wrote, practically side by side, the Air Force cadet comedy, Get Some In, starring Robert Lindsay, but the more memorable of the two, was the middle class, suburban story, The Good Life.
Charting the highs and lows of a childless couple in middle class Surbiton, pushing away from the comfortable, corporate world of nine to five, it seemed the perfect idea to produce a comedy through social acceptance and class barriers. Sounding more like a Sociology lesson, this show set out to prove, if anything, the world of money and status wrong. Esmonde and Larbey had already tackled the boundaries of the class system in a class atmosphere (if you pardon the pun) in Please Sir!, when bumbling, well educated John Alderton finds himself being taught rather than being teacher to a class full of working class South London school. If you could possibly take your eyes away from the fact that the average age of the actors playing the parts of the kids was around thirty, the show seemed much less harmless than originally thought. Thus, the writing duo became known within the walls of the BBC, to write gentle, easy going comedies which didnt ask in return for depth of thought from its viewers.
Its four key characters were names who were not known the trained television eye. The head of the team, the enthusiastic, Richard Briers, presented us with the idealist, Tom Good. Briers had played minor roles in television since the mid Sixties and trained at RADA. Finding an edge for theatre, he would spent most of his career successfully finding his way to tread the boards. Setting Tom up with an equally enthusiastic wife first came in the shape of serious supporting actress, Hannah Gordon. Turning the job down, next in line was unknown Felicity Kendal, still waiting for her break into television. Chirpy, pretty and young enough to be Barbara Good, she got the part - a role which was to be her most noted through her entire career.
Next came the job of casting the social climbing neighbours. Originally scripted to be only minor supporting roles, it appeared to Esmonde and Larbey that the relationship between the Goods and the Leadbetters, (Margo and Jerry next door) was just as significant as the actual plot line. The elegant housewife with no sense of humour, Margo went to experienced actress in TV and stage, Penelope Keith and long suffering, middle management employee went to repertory trained, Paul Eddington.
Dusting off his suit for the last time, Tom Good hangs up his nine to five image on his 40th birthday, leaving behind all the comforts that his money had given him. Keeping hold of the beautiful house in Surbiton (the show was not actually filmed in Surbiton at all,) he decides on a life of self sufficiency with his wife, Barbara. Selling the car and buying a pig and a goat, they set about growing crops in their semi detached back garden much to the disgust of their neighbours. Whilst Jerry feels it a capital idea and praises Tom in various occasions, his wife, Margo is appalled and makes no quibble in saying so. A social animal, Margo fills her days at home with the Womens Institute and local amateur dramatics, for which she is keen, to act herself. The general joke is on Margo most of the time, where upon, she finds herself fin situations of mud and muck out of the goodness of her helping heart. She finds comfort in her friendship with pig tailed, Barbara who behaves ten years Toms junior at times, and often cries on Barbaras shoulder. Though it is apparent that Jerry fancies the young, mucky faced Barbara in her dungarees and wellies, he only admires her from afar. At the same time, it is humorously apparent that Tom finds the upper class, hockey club girl, Margo just as attractive in her flowing Seventies dresses and bouffant hair. A subtle under current in the show, these attractions only come to the surface in an episode where the four taste Toms home made wine.
Not so much a show featuring self contained plots, the gags are minor and run gently through the entire series like a steady stream. The laughter is brought upon through the relationships between the couples, both experiencing the same neighbourhood, yet worlds apart in their lifestyles. As Tom, on occasions is almost persuaded to return to his mediocre office employment by the well meaning, Jerry, he never buckles. Very rarely showing strain from his new found life change, he still holds a certain arrogance at the supposedly automatic appraisal from his suffering wife. Trying her hand at everything including making their clothes, Barbara is a character who has found herself in a situation she would have preferred not to embark on. Missing her little luxuries, she puts these feels aside for the adoration she has for her husband - a relationship that is full of giggles and physical attraction. As opposed to Margo and Jerry, for ever proving that money doesnt give you everything - their marriage is based on his job whilst trying to find some comfort through their flatly uninteresting hobbies
The Good Life, appeared to be of the same inoffensive quality which gave its audience the ability to laugh at a system rather than themselves. Mixing the audiences on a physical scale, its appeal was felt by both sides of the pay packet. This was a barrier uncrossed through British comedy in previous years. Since the only shows that may have come close before, used the cunning disguise of the generation gap to hide the social point being made. The Good Life, thus, found itself on the map of social good nature.
Larbey and Esmonde also found the key to good humour where perhaps the afore mentioned, Croft and Perry had failed. The Good Life, like the rest of the Larbey and Esmonde list, only ran for short runs. The Good Life, in itself, only ran for four series. Since Croft and Perry had, had their share of criticism for letting a show run for two years longer than it should, the smaller writers, won fairer hearts through shorter shows. Hence, The Good Life, ceased after only 30 episodes.
The genuine appeal to the show was the good natured approach to snobbery on one side of the fence and muck and penniless pride on the other. Although the Goods slum into poverty is totally through choice, it appears to be acceptable. We do still wonder, how on Earth the Goods still manage to pay their mortgage when Tom sees no qualms with bartering with the local Gas board with some home grown potatoes to pay a bill. Yet to this couple who have still managed to keep their social novelty, their class rank is still very much in tact. Perhaps giving the rest of societys self building sufficiency a clean break from stereotypical mockery, The Good Life, provided a warm, peace offering to such people and handed back their dignity. If Tom and Barbara can achieve it in middle class Surrey, then its okay to wash clothes in the sink and eat everything from the garden.
However sensational the idea may have been, I can almost guarantee there is no one living such a lifestyle in Surbiton today. That may have something to do with the fact that you have got to be earning in excess of forty grand a year to live their in the first place (my brother does), yet this idealism leaves a warm feeling in the soul and tragically, it is now that we find this show dated. It was of its time and although it wasnt truly historic like most shows created by Croft and Perry, it still gives the viewer the realisation that a life style such as this could only have been remotely possible in Surbiton, some thirty years ago. It is the general cost of living today that makes the epitome of The Good Life, so inexcusable. So there, it is left in the decade when it could have been possible
A special episode was performed in front of Her Majesty, The Queen and The Duke Of Edinburgh. Noted as being one of her favourite shows, the Duke may have only liked it for Felicity Kendal in wellies and bunches
Esmonde and Larbey went on to write Briers in the equally popular Ever Decreasing Circles, were upon similarities where drawn between Briers's characters in both shows.
The only one who didnt enjoy a memorable career after the show was Felicity Kendal, who appeared in minor programmes, apart from the recent Rosemary and Thyme.
Esmonde and Larbey also wrote Brush Strokes, (1986) and Mulberry, (1992) both starring Karl Howman.
The Good Life, main cast were;
Tom Good - Richard Briers
Barbara Good - Felicity Kendal
Jerry Leadbetter - Paul Eddington
Margo Leadbetter - Penelope Keith.
Four series ran from April 1975 to June 1978
First shown on BBC 1
Written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey
Complete series on DVD from Acorn Media - Amazon.com - £69.99 Box Set
Each series available from BBC shop £24.99 each.
Carrying on from one perfectly personal recollection to the next, the next natural surge of Perry and Croft overload came in the form of another, smooth riding venture. From Army anecdotes to hapless, hey day enlightening of Perrys Summer Holidays as a Butlins Redcoat, the next instalment could only be Eighties miracle, Hi-De-Hi!
Filmed out of season at Warners holiday camp at Dovercourt, Essex, the set seemed credible enough to pass as a 1959 fictional Maplins, at the even more fiction postcard town of Crimpton-on-Sea. Due to the desertion of such a camp out of season (a phrase now as long gone as the show,) the camp, in itself, needed no finery and plumpness to bring it into the Fifties era. The chalets needed no down treading and the swimming pool look just as uninviting - even the fictitious Hawaiian Ballroom eerily needed no plastic palm trees. What was needed now was a strong cast and more importantly - a believable one.
Head of the crew was bumbling, bored academic, Professor Jeffery Fairbrother, played by theatre actor and Crofts son in law, Simon Cadell, had grown tired of the pen pushers of his sullen world. He found himself curious with the world of amateur light entertainment, and proceeded to contact his straight faced manner with the gushy crowds who appeared every Summer at Maplins. Entertainments manager and aging teddy boy, Ted Bovis held on to his stirring resentment after being pipped to the post by the inexperienced Fairbrother. Instead, the over weight, Northern funny man stood back in his proud position of entertainments manager. His hapless right hand man and general dogsbody was the tall, lanky Spike Dixon who dreamed of being a real star. Perhaps the only yellow coat to take each performance seriously, his usual first laugh of each episode was so enter the scene dressed up in some weird, heavy costume of either a six foot duck or a policeman. His face, almost as long as his inside leg measurement meant that Ted was usually pulling the wool over this young lads eyes. This fairly mediocre father figure would encourage great spirit in Spike only to have him drop from a great height by the end of the episode.
The next failing character was the memorable Peggy Ollerenshaw - the high hoped chalet maid whose constant knockdown came usually from Gladys, the commander-ess of the Yellowcoats. Peggys one wish was to become a Yellowcoat and although she came so close on a couple of occasions, her dream was sadly, never to be fulfilled. Her guardian in all her dreams and wishes was Ted. He felt a responsibility over her in order for her dreams to stay alive. He would encourage her in much the same way as he would Spike, yet mildly in the knowledge that it was only his name and his pocket he was interested in. He would dish out sympathy to Peggy like tonic, when she had been trodden on. The saddest character in the show, she was guaranteed to get the sighs of sympathy from the audience. Eager, excitable and ready to please anyone dressed in a canary colour, she was undoubtedly the only character, it would seem, would genuinely wanted to be there.
Peggys greatest nemesis was Gladys Pugh. Short haired, overly made up and with a Welsh accent that even the other side of Cardiff were none the wiser, she had a heart on fire for the idiot, Fairbrother. Thrusting herself in his general direction when alone in the office, she used every inch of her colourful face to tease him into submission. Fairbrother - far from appetized, he was already in the throws of a divorce himself, stayed wary of the temptresss charms and generally tried to avoid her from every angle. Her main duty was to open the mornings events over the tannoy to the inmates of the days arrangements. This usually came in the form of a stimulating knobbly knees competition, chuck your granny in the pool contest and perhaps rounded off with some bathing beauties. These freezing cold mothers and sisters were parked out next to the icy pool in all the latest in Fifties swim wear, and if you have any recollection as to what that may have entailed, then check out some outlandishly patterned nylon number. Somewhere along the line, someone had told Gladys that she could sing - in the dreamiest of poses, she would promptly start to warble precariously over the speakers, (cut to shots of buckets being thrown over the outdoor camp speakers )
The tight lipped, middle class Barry and Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves (Dianne Holland, sister in law of Perry,) had danced their way around the Ballroom every night in the hope of keeping their wilting career from going completely down the pan. From their younger days as award winning dance instructors, they never feel quite at rest in amongst the working class masses on their cheap and cheeky holidays. Sickened and disgusted with anyone from a lower class than them with a pulse, they prided themselves in having the only teas maid and net curtained chalet of the lot. Twinkle toed they still were, they were, treading water so fast to keep them away from the clutches of the panto season outside the camp. They delighted themselves, especially on lowering their eyes onto the innocent Peggy.
There came a list of characters who played timely key supporting roles; miserable, whiskey swilling and child hater, Mr Partridge, the Punch and Judy man spent most of his time avoiding the little brats and propping up the bar. Somehow, the darlings would always find him, stinking of booze with a face waiting for conscription to make a comeback. One would like to think that behind every squeaky voiced Punch and Judy show, there is a sullen Mr Partridge just living for the moment that the kids go home.
Fred Quilly is the typical jockey who is more in love with his animals that anything else. Giving out rides to ungrateful children, he too wears a face as long as a wet June having to subject himself and his horses to such a motley bunch of miserable holidaymakers. He too, an aging professional in bright yellow and white silks, he waves his whip at the slightest point he makes and never smiles. It is these wretches to society who make us laugh even more. The big gag here being the fact that these ex pros end up in a holiday camp at the end of their careers and are, in their eyes, living an eternal Hell for it
After the showing of the first couple of series, the cast seemed to grow into more Yellowcoats of both male and female. We can vaguely remember the Webb Twins who just about strung a sentence between them in an episode and girlie entrants, April and Dawn - obviously thrown in to keep the forty something Sylvia company - the only other leg showing, pretty face, threat to Gladys. During Series 5 and onwards, the cast grew even more until nearly a complete camp staff list was made. Even Carry On veteran, Kenneth Connor made a brief appearance as entertainer, Uncle Sammy, (as well as also turning his hand to other sit coms such as Allo, Allo.)
Each episode was fairly predictable; Gladys would inevitably find a dead end on the road to true love with the deflated Fairbrother whose dead pan face would not even twitch over the microphone when jeering the audience into shouting Hi De Hi, louder. Spike, in what ever costume took precedence that day would have a custard pie in his face or be either thrown or fall into the Olympic Sized pool (not surprisingly, Spike, played by Jeffrey Holland came down with hyperthermia one year that the series had to be shot in September instead,) Peggy would do her level best to sing/dance/crack a joke loud enough so someone would take notice - inevitably, it would have had to have been the masterful Joe Maplin, who, although never appeared, his presence was felt every week. Ted would take centre stage and conduct the audience into something along the lines of the entertainment they had come from the East End to see, and everyone else fell in around the main cast. However blunt this synopsis may seem, the gags were loud, original and most of all, believable. To a vastly faithful audience of forty to fifty somethings, this was exactly how the cheaper end of holiday camps were to them as children. In the days after the War, people werent exactly loaded. Many things were actually still rationed and no one was venturing abroad just yet. For the working class man and his large family, the Essex/Sussex/Kent week away was the only thing he could afford. Hopping was considered to be what the very lower classes did for a week each year, just to get of South London. Those with a tiny amount more of cash, went to a holiday camp.
Thus Hi-De-Hi! grew into a fan club all of its own - the very people who had been to such places. The show was only the side step of the British, holiday revolution swamped in nostalgia. As a part of vital social history, this show, which ran for an incredible nine years was the key to parents finally showing, through the laughter of a good, all round comedy, what they got up to when they were children too. Showing real life clips each week, at the ending credits, we are given a true taste of the great British holiday camp - boating contests and eat as much pie and mash as you can, may seem to us now as corny, lower class, cheap and somehow unbelievable, yet this was how the British loved to relax - doing all the things that they couldnt have even dreamt about ten years before.
The show came with its own tragedies as all lengthy sit coms do. Leslie Dwyer, the most miserable of the entertainers, Mr Partridge was seriously ill, and not unlike Michael Bates, in It Aint Arf Hot, Mum, he decided to keep going through filming as long as he could. Yet unlike Bates, Dwyers death was written in, most disturbingly eighteen months before he actually died. Becoming one the most watched episodes in the shows entire run, the Who Killed Mr Partridge? was seen to be a classic in series six. Towards the end of series five, it was written in that Jeffery Fairbrother was to leave as Cadell wanted to go back into theatre. At the start of series six, and from one extreme to another, Squadron Leader Clive Dempster rolls into town in an open top Morgan and steals Gladyss heart leaving no room for wistful memories for Fairbrother. However, in a cold twist of fate, it is Gladys who finds herself no longer the temptress but the tempted where she finds her undying love a mockery in a tragic situation of Dempsters ability to charm any woman, leaving Gladys out in the cold. On reflection of the excellence of Cadells straight manner and quick timing, David Griffin, who played gung ho Dempster, said he felt that the strength of Cadells presence had taken a great deal of the show away with him. In respect of his predecessor, Griffin said he could never fill Cadells shoes
As with all Croft and Perry stories, the show was brought to its natural end in true pathos style. The camp is to be shut down and its employees are given the boot. In the last tear jerking episode shown the day before New Years Eve in 1988, it leaves us with a lump in our throat. We suddenly realise how important these characters had become - like a Croft and Perry ending we are used to, Hi-De-Hi, left us with something to mull over. These characters whom we had taken for granted were now departing from our screens. Although the show was never seen as being as immensely successful as its predecessors, it was the characters at Maplins who we find ourselves remembering the most. It was years gone by before I realised that no one was going Peggy impressions anymore, yet no one had ever talked about Dads Army in the same way.
That was what appealed to us the most about Hi-De-Hi, each character reached out to a bit of us who dreamed about something better, like a small part of our own inner lives wanted to loved, noticed or just plain recognised as we find all the characters in this show wanted for themselves. Perhaps the most memorable scene was the shows very last, where Peggy stands alone in the camp and shouts at the top of her voice as her words echo around the vast, empty site.
Since Dads Army, and It Aint Arf Hot, Mum were of their time and had shown us a piece of history that has long gone before, Hi-De-Hi gave us something that is still with us - the good old British holiday camp .
I still have memories of dunking for apples with my hands tied behind my back ..
Hi-De-Hi - The Holiday Musical enjoyed a short run at three venues North and South in 1983/84.
Paul Shane who played Ted Bovis entered the charts with the theme to the show.
First shown on BBC 1 1980 to 1988
Written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft.
Amazon.com - series one and two on DVD - new £11.97
Series three and four - new £11.97
Series five and six - new £16.99
BBC shop - 1&2 + 3&4 - £46.98
5&6 at HMV - £24.99
Some would argue that the best material comes from within. It cant be read, or over heard, but it can experienced, so where could growing script legends Jimmy Perry and David Croft go for situation comedy genius? After existing careers had since flourished both behind and in front of the camera from their own memories of National Service and the Home Guard, what more could be tempt the BBC into script writing submission? A Royal Artillery Concert Party.
Since the acclaimed success of the original series in 1968 of Dads Army, the BBCs most successful partnerships decided to create a follow up but on a different slant. Since the highly regarded series of the British spirit of the Home Guard ran on for an incredible 9 years, the two extraordinary writers, still in their prime, needed to vent their material towards a slightly different audience. Since the praise they had both achieved with their attributed Dads Army, surely the idea behind the second greatest hit for the duo would be from the next chapter of their young lives in Burma as soldiers, and it was these years which gave us It Aint Arf Hot, Mum, first broadcast in 1974 for BBC 1. Reflecting with great strength back on Perrys days as a Sergeant and producer for the Royal concert party in Burma, India, it also appeared to the once Major, David Croft, to be a stoke of writing intelligence.
Basing their episode ideas on true events as they had done for Dads Army, material, it had meant that for a situation comedy to be a real as possible in It Aint Arf Hot, Mum, then the sets, accents and the feel of the hot sweaty jungle had to be right or the idea simply wouldnt work. As soon as filming began, the actors found themselves in uniform for long hours in a sand pit in Kings Lynn being sprayed with a mixture of sugar, water and glycerine to make it look like sweat. For the jungle shoots, they piled down to a thick wooded area near Farnham in Surrey. Everything had to be authentic. For one particular scene, they needed a busy town shot of an old Indian bus crowded in and out with Indian peasants and much bustle and noise to make it look as though it was a real street scene in Deolali, India, 1945. Extras clambered all over the bus in the studio, quite frightening the film crew close by. It was these extraordinary moments where upon the well educated Croft and ex comedy actor, Perry pulled out all the stops and engaged in television making that had never been dared to be created before.
As well as pushing out the physical boundaries of programme making, there was another hurdle in which Perry and Croft took the public, as well as the BBC by surprise and into a world of awkwardness and political correctness. One of the stars of the show was a character with the important relationship between the natives and the army troop itself. A well experienced, white actor by the name of Michael Bates appeared to the writing pair who could speak fluent Urdu and with a rather convincing Indian accent. Blacked up, he became the first white actor to be as convincing enough that an Asian audience wouldnt be able to tell the difference.
This sparked immense controversy amongst the ranks at the BBC. Audiences complained of racism on the show and refused to believe that there was such a derogatory relationship between the countries during the war. What the audience hadnt realised was the theme that was being depicted had to be true, in its brutal sense. As the majority found it enjoyable and entertaining viewing, some small groups found it insulting. These groups were obviously people who had not fought in Burma during the war. Besides, as many Asian and Indian actors trying to get work in Britain found, it was such talented actors as the late Michael Bates who stole the part of bearer to the British Army in the series - he was the epitome of all that was Victorian colonial. With exaggerated accent, he would express his continuous gratitude to the Army being present in his country. He spoke as being one of them and would finalise each episode with a fable which would start off as , ..there is an old saying in Hindu or words to that effect
Although the programme was shot around the fumblings of a concert party, simply there to entertain the troops, it showed the strengths and the weaknesses of these men who preferred to drag up as women instead of go into the jungle and fight the enemy. Each character was as important as the next, sharing individual complexities yet engaging within each others characters to create great British comedy. The key to the show was Sergeant Major Williams played by the up standing, regimental Windsor Davis; an absolute Pitball of a men who expected his men to be real men. Again, reflecting back on his own personal days in the army, Jimmy Perry created the loud mouthed, patronising Battery Sergeant. Using such catchy lines as the very hilarious Shut Up, at the ending credits in belittling the local Indian musical melodies and yet belittling his company even more by shouting You Is A Bunch Of Poofs, on parade then promptly getting them to repeat it back, maybe be offensive to some today, yet, one can take away the fact that this is the way the British Army was, and in some aspects, still is. It is with this, that we can see the failings of the world today and the way we were more at ease with each other in the days when Aint Arf Hot, Mum, was shot. We understand that its these realised concepts of real men and the relationship between India and the British Army towards the end of the Second World War is the pathetic reasons why this series is not shown on television today.
Perhaps the next notable character who, like Batess Rangi Ram, figure was naturally, Gloria. Played by the effervescent Melvyn Hayes, he was as camp as ten John Inmans. Surprisingly, the latter was first thought when it came around to casting, until Croft had picked up on Hayes who appeared flamboyant if only in his voice - the camp ness would come later. Gunner Gloria Beaumont lived the theatre. Along with budding concert party producer and Perry - like Bombardier Solly Solomons, they were the only characters who wanted to take each performance for the troops seriously. Inspired by the Golden Age of Hollywood, both characters breathed life and glamour into each fumbling performance. Gloria, who was always featured in silky dresses and theatrical make up was constantly thrilled at her public, when the soldiers would shout out for her. She believed that her fate was to be the next Ginger Rogers, or Betty Grable, yet, the Gunner was appalled on a daily basis with the fighting, the heat and everything that was the Army, whereas, Solly, the producer played by actor and writer in his own write, George Layton was loosely based on Jimmy Perry in his early Army days as producer for his own concert party.
A mixture of hap hazard figures completed the incredible farce that was the amateur concert party - the very essences of what gave troops the spirit to keep going under the most extreme circumstances, particular in Burma, where conditions in the jungle were the most unbearable and many returned home with bouts of Malaria for the rest of their lives. So, even though it was one of the greatest comedies ever written, its back drop was of one of the worst British conflicts in living memory, and it could not have been any more serious. Yet the party featured the very best of the lousiest acts you could imagine from Old Time Music Hall; Gunner Lofty Sugden whose angelic singing voice was just as remarkable as his squeaky speaking voice and his lack of physical height on which, Sergeant Major would refer to him as the mushroom. Gunner Atlas Mackintosh who was supposedly the strong man act although he could barely tear a flimsy book in half and not forgetting Gunner Parky Parkins who was the most diabolical ventriloquist act and also the suspected love child of a brief fling Sergeant Major had had with his Parkys mother whist on training at Aldershot barracks. It was this relationship that supposedly kept the entire troop our of moving forward on to the frontline in the jungle. The Major was always complementing the boy on his wonderful talent and smart shoulders. He would have nothing said bad against him, believing the young Gunner to be his own flesh and blood.
These characters strolled on each night in front of the troops exactly the way that similar acts had done in real life. Whistling, playing piano complement amongst other things and each night, the troops applauded the awful barrage of poor acts and flat singing. Men in make up, dressed in drag was, according the Sergeant, a poor excuse to join the Army where soldiers fought and killed the enemy, not ponced about on stage like a bunch of poofs. When, in the third series and at the exit of Layton, his stripes are handed over to Gloria, to take the roll of Bombardier and this infuriated the Sergeant Major. Suddenly Gloria was next down the rank from him and the party found themselves moved into the jungle - their greatest fear. This piece of shift in story line was written in after the end of Michael Batess long battle with cancer finally won him and the troop was moved, to a different location in respect.
The Sergeant Major found himself, repeatedly in the middle of not only the bumbling, ram shackled excuse for a Artillery troop, but up against the very British, middle class Colonel and Captain Ashwood. Setting themselves almost in a Noel Coward relationship of their own, the two higher ranked service men conducted their own interaction like a marriage between husband and wife. Ashwood appeared as the upper class twit, who had merely found his way up the ranks of the British Army through education and connections. The Colonel Reynolds was a stereotype of the First World War when he remembered how the Great War was won, yet, now serving his country from behind a desk, he preferred to have little to do along the lines of fighting the enemy and stood back enough to guarantee to go home alive, after the War.
Keeping each episode self contained, the whole show represented not just a true to life account of the one of the most famous British conflicts, we, as the viewer, knew very little about, but the essence of what humour is genuinely all about. Since the birth of the relationship between two of the greatest comedy writers of all time, we have started to understand a pattern from such a show to the comedy we have on television today - or not, as the case maybe. We certainly cant get away from the fact that writers now have to be vigilant about their work- engaging in a state of mind where upon no minority is offended, so in that respect, we can no longer be free to laugh at anyone, even though the first laugh is on us - and at our expense..
None the less, this piece of comedy history deserves a place in our hearts and also on the format we now know as DVD. Since a lot of the BBCs best work has been scrapped, deleted or just plain taped over, over the years, we should be lucky that some gems have survived the great cull. This is one of them so I leave you with one last final thought from the land of Perry and Croft comedy
If, by any chance, you may find the suggestion that this show could offend and degrade, let me prove to you this; the biggest laugh is upon the British Army. Despite the fact that they are the most defiant in the world
Windsor Davis and Don Estelle released the swoon some Whispering Grass, on EMI records in 1975 and stayed at number one for three weeks.
It Aint Arf Hot, Mum, came to a natural end in 1978 when the end of the War comes and the troop is sent home - a final episode of thought provoking pathos.
Towards the end of It Aint Arf Hot, Mum, Perry and Croft had started writing Hi De Hi.
Written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft.
Starred Windsor Davis, Melvyn Hayes, Don Estelle and George Layton.
Series One - Spring 1974
Series Two - Spring 1975
Series Three - Spring 1976
Series Four - Autumn 1976
Series Five - Autumn 1977
Series Six - Autumn 1978.
All shown on BBC 1
A collection has now been released on DVD featuring a series on each one. The entire collection includes all 56 episodes. On Sendit.com for £12 each.
Another DVD was released in 1998 which featured only three episodes on BFS Entertainment. None of them have been released by the BBC. Price unknown.
Series One is available from HMV on DVD at £6.99, also for this price at HMV, Series Two.
Series One included the episodes;
Meet The Gang, My Lovely Boy, The Mutiny Of Punkah Wallahs, A Star Is Born, The Jungle Patrol, Its A Wise Child, The Road To Bannu, The Inspector Calls.
Suffolk born straight actor, Brian Cant was a minor household name in the mid Sixties for a selection of mediocre roles on stage, screen and schools programmes, but turned his hand at prime time childrens programmes for a lighter refreshment, and hence, started a life long love affair with childrens television, so much so, that towards the beginning of the Eighties, he was Mr Childrens T.V.
Firstly tripping the light fantastic with the greatly received Play School, he immediately caught the eye, or should I say, the ear of Gordon Murray who had a team of clever animators at hand and eagerly wanting to get a new project off the ground. The name of that show, was Camberwick Green.
Rarely does a childrens show directed to such a young audience become equally cult viewing. From its humble beginnings in 1966, it was still watched by millions of tots over a decade later. The primary key to this show was simplicity in its highest regard. The sets looked like they had been knocked up in a commercial break on the other side and the puppets were a great advertisement for felt and card. No tricks, or gimmicks were thrown as the dribbling audience, just harmless, simple and visually applauding characters in fairly reasonable situations. At fifteens minutes a go, the nappy wearers wouldnt get bored and the cash flowed into pockets like lollipops from a sweet shop.
Every episode, something fairly normal would go wrong in the small, cardboard and felt world of Camberwick Green. Leaks, cars breaking down, the sails of the windmill have stopped; all something along the lines that a basic builder could sort out in an afternoon without having a nervous breakdown. The characters didnt exactly have names that rolled off a pre school tongue (only us sniggering adults remember Windy Miller,) Ill wager that us thirty somethings dont recall Mickey Murphy. Any takers? Well, at little more acquainted to Windy than we thought - he was the baker, so you see, children dont actually take in that much, (despite the fact that scientists say children are like damp sponges )
What gave Mr Cant the ability to be the voice of all who had a pulse (or not, as the case maybe) in The Green was the visual fact that none of the characters had mouths. If Mr Cant asked the character a question which normally started off with Can you help..? or I bet that hurt (the latter probably didnt happen,) then the character would nod sweetly to the camera, with that every so important vacant look on his face. The programme was fail proof.
Although the mighty Camberwick Green never got to see the entire production team up on stage receiving a BAFTA or even a Golden Globe, it was true, that the fictitious and idealistic place had a well deserved place in our hearts. There was no violence, not too much action (mums didnt want upset Rusks all over the carpet) and the stories were simple, effective and none threatening. It was just a shame that the programme didnt last any longer that fifteen minutes. Its hardly enough time to do the washing up, is it?
Neither parent nor babe could wait for that gentle, harpsichord like and slightly irritating tune to start and that plastic rotating music box appear on our screens in its low budget, its-only-for-kids-so-we-can-get-away-with-any-old-rubbish, BBC glory. The key character to the featured episode appears from the box, (probably suffering motion sickness) and Mr Cant tells a simple few lines about the character in front of us. To be honest, the entire episode is summed up in the first few seconds, but what the hell, we just cant wait to sit behind our kids and have a good old guffaw at the subtlest of lines. So the village goes about its daily life and the mildest of traumas. Mrs Honeyman, who cant wait to talk to anyone about everyone else may have been a reflection of the gossip that hurls around the BBC canteen, in a parody, she is constantly holding a baby - surely, it cant be a cheap gag? Left holding the baby? Perhaps on the days that we turn in, Mothercare is shut thus, this poor woman (and you never see a husband) is left holding the baby. (That is one of my cheap gags.)
The characters speak through Mr Cant (we have established that much) yet, he doesnt not give anyone any special treatment, (voice wise.) Again. Children responded to the simplicity of not just the visual content but from what they could hear also. There was no time for laughs here and even slap stick methods that was always a guaranteed laugh in childrens entertainment, are very much, given the day off. One would think that there was hardly anything remotely amusing or engaging about this programme at all, and in fact, looking back as a small child, I think, I though to myself, this is a bit dull.. Somehow it drew in my attention. Perhaps the fascination of the way the puppets moved kept me going .
There were the strangest of characters but all with realistic occupations; Mr Bell, the mechanical farmer (who was Mr Crop Sprayer before the term was introduced to prime time) who loved old Windy Im Staying Organic So Stuff You Miller, yet hated the free thinking farmer at the same time. They shared a joke or two (so mild, one would hardly notice) over some E numbers and go back to their chosen lifestyles; nothing wrong a bit of harmless rivalry - try telling that to Tescos Such a political statement (and lets face it, every childrens programme is not complete without one) went over our heads. Just as much as Master Bates in Captain Pugwash (think about it )
Who could possibly forget Mr Dagenham the rough looking, over weight salesman ? Travelling in his Dagenham dustbin no doubt (okay, two gags per review!) who came whizzing in and whizzing out again. Perhaps we should also remember Captain Snort (Im saying nothing) who was head man at Pippin Fort and an occasionally whislte from Mr Cant (believably) was sounded when the flag went up, as soon as the Captain returned from doing some little odd job for one of the villagers. This all went along with the comfortable, middle class England that was buried along with everything that the end of the Sixties destroyed.
Yet this comfortable, clean living and simple set up was the way that most of our parents remembered the good old U.K. It was terribly British with its fine, well spoken Brian Cant and its dutiful villagers who were there to help and campaign to keep the well being of the village alive. The community spirit was vivid and strong in each episode, perhaps to somehow, sub consciously guide children into their adult world where they may do the same. Although we may poke fun as such a show which recently, has become a joke yet again in a Quaker Oats TV advert (using adult humour) we smile at the warmth and harmony that this little programme presented itself in, into our living rooms. Us children may have thought it amusing and sweet, yet it was our parents that probably breathed a comfortable sigh of relief that the world was still safe for just a decade longer.
The last episode was aired on 28 of March 1966, before it was welcomed in its repeated fashion in the mid to late seventies and adored by another generation of young viewers. Around 1967, the animators of The Green; Bob Bura, Ferrari and Hardwick were working furiously on its sequel. Realising quickly, they were onto a money spinner, the show, Trumpton, was to run along side of its original show. The latter gave the viewer more action (from a newly presented Fire Station) and movable figures with joints (something that the residents of Camberwick Green most certainly lacked,) This show was more dynamic, yet there was a basic theme was The Green had that made it so timeless and warming, that The Green was the preferred favourite.
Somehow or another, the show has continued to enjoy great admiration although it hasnt appeared on our screen for thirty years. Snippets of jingles, the title theme and even certain characters have popped up here and there on television over the last decades, urging us still to reflect on such innocent childrens programmes.
A world in which we lived in, with no hatred, no bombs, no anger is such a world in which children should live themselves and cherish while they still are young enough to do so
God knows, we have enough violence in our adult world .
Camberwick Green puppets supplied by - Gordon Murray
Narration - Brian Cant
Music - Freddie Phillips
First shown on BBC 1 1966.
www.trumpton3.homstead.com A guide to the Trumpton Trilogy.
DVD releases of Camberwick Green, Trump ton (1967) and Chigley, (1969) have been released since 2004 and the promptly deleted.
The more recent DVD boxset release of all three programmes including 39 episodes now can be found and was released on sale in September 2005. £13.99 HMV sold separately.
£11.99 at Play.com
£13.49 at Amazon.com
Starting as a series of short monologues of only eight minutes long first shown on BBC2 in 2000, Marion And Geoff, was a show, through no fault of its own, which became mild cult viewing. Hushed and unadvertised, the series was meant to be a time filler in the avant-garde BBC2 evening schedule. Eleven of these short scripted pieces were produced giving us a personal, but brief insight into the life of the unknown cabbie, Keith Barratt.
He first comes to our screens in the throws of a divorce and it is in this, that he represents a state of mind that just simply isnt normal. What he is actually experiencing is what many of us would give up breathing over - a messy divorce with a wife who mentally abuses him along with her new lover who is possibly the father of one of Barratts two children. Sons he adores, yet he is not allowed to visit. Just some of these aspects would have the rest of us seething, bitter and at least, mildly aggressive yet, Barratt is calm, uplifted, optimistic and full of understanding. All attributes, we couldnt possibly be in this sort of circumstance - this is the key of this torturous comedy. He fills our despair for him with lines such as if it wasnt for Marion, I wouldnt have met Geoff, whom he sees as a smashing guy. (I hear your screams!) There was something critically exceptional about a certain type of person who can, in an extraordinary way, be contented, unnaturally like the captain of a sinking ship, as it slips into the deathly, icy waters. Undoubtedly, the word, Fine has got to be the most misused word in our language. Add another two fines on top of it and you have the makings of a person contemplating suicide, murder or both. Yet Barratt takes this flippant word and decorates it with flowers and a red carpet leading up to it and even worse - means it.
The camera sits in the same position, (on the dashboard on the passenger side,) and he talks freely at most, yet what holds our gaze is the flickers of realism that sometimes appear in his expressions. Deep inside, he is crying out from behind his iron exterior and throughout his journey of acceptance and understanding, we can see him come across failed attempt after another to see his children. His wife, would, quite frankly have him disappear for ever since successfully turning his children against him. Unknown to Keith, they dont really want to see him anyway.
So if it isnt enough that the programme is named after his estranged wife and her boyfriend, our key character bases his entire existence around the two people who have systematically destroyed his life, yet he praises them. We wonder if it was this peculiar, unnatural outlook on the world and its failings that lead to the infidelity of his wife in the first place. Not unlike the extremes in which Gordons Brittass wife is driven to by her irritating husband in the BBCs The Brittas Empire, another situation comedy of the early Nineties which featured around the same annoyingly bright character.
Rob Brydon and co writer Hugo Blick gave us perfectly timed pieces that quickly became addictive for the viewer. We found ourselves tuning in every Tuesday night at ten to ten to find out how Keith was, along the bittersweet path to seeing his little smashers. (The affectionate and misconstrued term he used to describe his children.) Each time we visited him, like invited, amateur psychiatrists, Keith was sitting behind the wheel of his trusty cab, waiting for his customer of that day. He talked as one would to a friend - a friend who knows the people he is talking about. We quickly drew up visual conclusions as to what these awful people were like. (The other of the shows producers, the diverse, Steve Coogan appeared briefly in one episode in the second series as Geoff.) We, the cringing viewers, found we wanted to throttle Marion and her bit on the side, but all Keith wanted to do, is embrace them.
The second series saw Barratt in a higher position. Swapping his cabbie licence for a cap and suit, he began working for a wealthy American family and their brattish kid who finds joy in putting down at any given moment, this tormented driver. This time, the show gave us 20 minutes more per episode of excruciating viewing two years after the first pain ridden series in 2003. Before this second shot at the soul took to our tellys, Rydon reverted to the West End stage to torture the world in 2002 for s short run of monologues. (the second most watched show through the hands of an audience since Derren Browns 2006 tour.)
Eventually, the BBC decided that enough was enough, and since Brydon had wanted to close the story before it got too suicidal, the hapless character was given a spoof chat show in 2004. Despite the old cliché of most loved fictional character taken to greater strangulated heights of the showbiz emporium, it actually worked. Only because it wasnt allowed to run too long. Barratt, the chat show host got to ask minor celebrity couples about marriage, relationships and sex. Only aired in that one year, it ran long enough not for the genuine novelty of the character to wear off into ghastly cheese ridden commercialism.
We have never experienced such tortures in a comedy situation before as we do in Marion And Geoff. We witness his personal thoughts, his fears, (very few) his feelings for a better future where they can all be happy together (yes, all of them,) but we know this will never be. It is, about as black as comedy gets. We applaud him for his courage against a world that the rest of us would emigrate from, and the struggle we have with this extraordinary concept of this unique character is the unquestionable force of which we are drawn in by. We are friends with Keith. We know him and agree with him (and hate ourselves in the morning.) We admire his emotionless views and cry out when his situation is laid bare in all its unfulfilled despair. He is harmless and it is this, if anything, that we warm to.
Much is still to be learnt from Keith Barratt - as unbelievable as it may seem.
Keith Barratt - Rob Brydon
Written by Brydon and Hugo Blick
Direction - Blick/Steve Coogan/Henry Normal.
Series one - September to November 2000 BBC2 DVD £13.97 on Amazon.com and £15 from the BBC shop.
Series two - January to March 2000 BBC2. £19. BBC Shop.
Buy the compilation of I and II on DVD from the BBC shop for £26.99.
First shown on the 8th of September 1981 at 8.30pm on BBC1, the very first episode of Only Fools And Horses, appeared unknowingly onto our screens. From the glamour of Morecambe and Wise and even the theatrical perfection ofAint Arf Hot Mum, we found our eyes being filled with all the glitz of a council flat in Peckham. How little we knew that this squalor of unemployment and deceit, several minutes from the ground, in a block referred to as Nelson Mandela House, would be set in stone in out hearts for all eternity.
It was, however successful we know if it today, a long, up hill struggle for its writer, John Sullivan through those early years. The episode Big Brother, may have had the title of the programme we love to hate on Channel Four today, but back in 1981, it was received with little more enthusiasm. The first two series for Sullivan had been touch and go. Since the end of the second series had been selected for the cutting room floor, Sullivan and its produce, Ray Butt managed to plead with the Light Entertainment department to continue filming, after showing the first and second series again in 1983. By around half way through the fourth series, the British public were starting to take note, and the Horses revolution had begun.
From this first episode to be broadcast, all those years ago, it was important to cram in as much information for the viewer as possible. John Sullivan was determined to continue the story from one series to another. Basing each original episode as a contained story, from the third series, the plot lines started on journeys of their own. Running gags were formed, for example; the apparent love affair between Del and Marlene (Boycies wife), triggers unexplained convinced theory that Dels younger brother was called Dave instead of Rodney and Dels seedy long line of failed romantic engagements.
Each running gag was created due to the natural flow of each series.
What was vital for the viewer in this first episode was to create defining lines between the two brothers who were far apart in both age, personality and physical appearance. It was probably obvious to some that the two brothers didnt share either the same mother or father at first. Another visual comedy theme of Del being short and of stocky build and Rodney being tall and lanky.
Set on a strong backdrop of the world of the black market trader during the Thatcher years, the element of modern London appears immediately in this first episode. Del frequently uses references to the struggle of high taxes, high unemployment and increases in property demand which was apart of daily life in the early to mid Eighties. This topic was given a great deal of stage time during this first story line. The scene of the three mens existence is perfectly set in the viewers mind within this first half an hour. Looking across the two generations (the flats occupants consisted of older brother in his thirties, Del Boy. Younger brother in his twenties, Rodney and aging Granddad) the struggles are seen from both sides. The background for Big Brother, forces us straight into the suffocation of Rodney by his overpowering and domineering older brother. Rodney is 23 at this time, desperate to be his own man and stand lone, away from Del. He comes across obstacles of unemployment and his continuing resistance of his actual dependency on Del. As he fights an inner battle of rebellion and acceptance of his bad luck of growing up in such a limiting, working class world, his Brother, Del continues to strive to keep his family roofed and fed.
Writing an analysis for the best loved comedy show of the 20th Century is an extraordinary thing. Whilst trying to describe the first episode, I find I am reciting a Greek tragedy, and as much as I would hate to take the wind out of your devoted humorous sails for this programme, the pathos of such a comedy turned drama, at times, should be dealt with. What we find as hilarious in this show is the failings of it and its characters. Whilst Del comes to realise that he has yet again fallen on a dodgy deal with a load of unknown rejected brief cases, Rodney is found to have packed his ruck sack and had it away on his toes
Rodney fights for some recognition from his brother and employs Del to see him as a financial advisor in the business and not the 60/40 partner, he appears himself, to be. Del delights in jogging his brothers mind when he tells of his financial advisor paying 200 quid instead 175 for 25 cases and then promptly tell him to chuck them in the river, on discovering that the reason they are reject is that the combination for each case is written on a bit of paper inside. It is nothing that Del can do with these Old English Vinyl cases than to take Rodneys advice. Rodney despairs when he sees Dels care free reaction and wonders how on Earth they are managing to pay for the heat and the rent when they had, the previous week, swapped a load of goods for a van full of one legged turkeys. The strongest amusing note is always, the short descriptions of the nicked stuff they always come across.
So there, Granddad sits in front of his two tellys. (Something my granddad did too.) As he deliberates over Sydney Poitier or Sydney Potter. Rodney sits with open accounts book and scribbles madly with all the confidence of a young man with two GCEs. The flat is a mess of piled up boxes of hooky goods that changed in every episode. Some of us might remember that three cases of Scotch with un paid duty of them. They sat there for weeks. This time, we can see a tyre for a Cortina and other dubious goods wrapped quickly with Cellophane in case of unwanted eyes prowling.
We learn through the arguments of this first episode that there is a 13 year age gap between the brothers, making them almost from different social generations. Del talks about missing out on The Who concerts due to looking after the infant Rodney. We learn that their Mother died when Rodney was only six, and two months after that, their father left. Leaving a teenage Del to fend for the family as well as a Granddad who refused to go back out to work as a lamp lighter - another indication of London employment of a certain era. Del also recalls the age of their Mother when she fell pregnant with Rodney. At 39, a woman having a baby was considered to be a mistake that she had made in those days (which would have been mid to late Sixties) as Del makes a reference that for the first three months of her pregnancy, you were treated as an ulcer.
We are not given much of an insight to their surroundings as regards to other supporting characters at first. Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) does have a scene here and is the only other character who appears in almost as many episodes as the leading cast members. We visit The Nags Head, briefly and notice that no real mention of a landlord is made, only a barmaid, Joycie. In fact, a Land lord is not present until a long time later into the series and comes in the form as Mike, another occasional victim of Del Boy scams. Rodney points out another of the running gags of the entire show, whilst leaning up against the bar he says,
Dyou know, we have always had something missing in our lives? First we was Motherless, then we was Fatherless, now were flogging one legged turkeys from a three wheeled van
Yet there is an exciting, adventurous streak that Rodneys fails to see in his brothers life. Del delights in the daily ducking and diving, wheeling and dealing, as it is the only life he has ever known as prides himself at being the businessman we know he is not. Rodney, on the other hand can see beyond that and into a uncertain future. He can see that there are better opportunities out there for him, and although he admires and looks up to his brother in many ways, he still feels that need to expand his horizons and channel his ideas into a idealistic approach. Del, tragically, is always there to bring Rodney back down to Earth in making him understand that there isnt a way out for him, and his place should stay with Del, so he can forever use his younger brother as a lad to watch out for coppers for in the market, as well as, flog sunhats when its peeing down with rain
Within his nationalised industry Del revels in the fact that he owns the floor. He relies on his contacts (when desperately trying to get rid of the cases, he resorts to the little book of gullible mates,) and enjoys the showmanship that he delivers with ease to his customers. finally frustrated with the strangulation of his older brother and his meaningless lifestyle, Rodney packs and leaves, supposedly for Hong Kong to find his girl friend and partner in expulsion from their Art College after smoking pot, only to return six days later full of an elaborate story of how he made it to San Tropez and met the daughter of a rich tax exile who invited he aboard their yacht. He overly greets his brother on his prodigal return with his story, only to find that Del know exactly where he has been simply be finding his passport on the top of the wardrobe.
Del, the master of one up man ship, has the last crack as he does in 90 % of the episodes that ran from 1981 to the last Christmas special in 2003. Rodney suffers the biggest fall when Del throws him the passport and Rodney has to come clean about where he has really been. He confesses in only getting as far as a doss house in Stoke Newington.
The episode gave the show a shaky platform as well as a test for Sullivan and his new, inspired idea from his own youth. Basing Rodney on his own mishaps as an awkward lad with a much older brother, the success of the previous Sullivan creation, Citizen Smith, was enough to give him the confidence that he needed to fight for the air space that he thought Only Fools, deserved. If he hadnt then, I doubt it would have lasted more that two series.
Perhaps we wonder why it took so long for us to cotton onto the failings of the working class comedy. I guess for most of us and for me, growing up in South London, it was too near the mark. We didnt want someone ridiculing a world in which we either lived of knew of. There were markets full of traders and many Dels filled the streets shouting out their wares from a suitcase on a chair, so because these rough rogues just as warm and welcoming to the rest of us punters, we didnt want to see them taken apart, brutally on a show - particularly, a comedy one. Yet, when we did start to watch, we saw that it was charming, warming and a tribute to the failures of such people who probably worked harder than the rest of us with nine to fives, who got paid to do naff all
You never saw Del having a duvet day .
The cast of this first episode was;
Del Boy Trotter- David Jason
Rodney Trotter - Nicholas Lyndhurst
Granddad - Lennard Pearce
Trigger- Roger Lloyd Pack.
Written by John Sullivan
Produced by Ray Butt
Original music by Ronnie Hazlehurst.
BBC VHS video containing the first three episodes
014503467821 BBC Enterprises Ltd 1991 PG cert.
What could be better that on a cold and miserable Sunday than to idly while away the hours with a gentle stroll around some entertaining and rather beautifully arranged shops? Right! I hear you say! So, from feeling refreshed as I do, from a mornings meander down the Portobello Road, I find myself wandering dangerously near to the North side of that wonderful place we affectionately know as Londinium, (or London, to the rest of us
After teasing my purse strings with the delights of all that modern, yet sweetly trendy Notting Hill experience, my sub conscious obviously felt a strong desire to pull me towards something that can only be described as, ugly. Why on Earth would we want to hurry around the manic depressively concrete hovel that is Brent Cross Shopping Centre, when Griff Rhys Jones cant wait to get away from it?
Although the sky was twinkling with blue hues and the sun was in its wintry state of relaxation from my usual haunt of Portobello, there came, drifting over my car towards Cricklewood, a strange darkness, and a sound that only a cello can make on impending danger. I was worming my way towards Brent Cross (what was the matter with me? Was the A41 shut that day?) The great concreted breeze block came into view from my journey over the Edgware Road, surrounded by the defiant North Circular above my head and a mass of whirling dual carriage ways tangling around each other around me, I felt that I had come to the end of the World, or London, at least. A point of no return, I edged towards this prison with in trepidation.
Having successfully navigated my way around the car park, only finding that after half an hour waiting for a space, I could have carried on around the back to a multi story- I found that my afternoon of sheer angst and confusion had only just begun. The first thing I head for, like the British tourist that I am in such places, is this warming sight of a large protruding map, glowing from all angles in the middle of the walk way. It was a vision that one dreams about in such places (I might add that it is only after years of experienced circum navigation of Blue Water, that I can walk, freely passed a board shouting, YOU ARE HERE) and here I was, now with eyes transfixed like a short sighted refugee looking at a map of the Northern Line, trying to figure out my way (out) of this loosely titled, shopping centre.
What I discovered, to my temporary relief, was a small map (to the stars would have been more helpful) which only erased my smile when I was faced with a series of maps of all exits out of Brent Cross. One showing the A406, in its notable glory, both East and West via all the best places - Wembley, Barnet, Enfield and also, if you desired a quick escape, the M1. I should have read the signs there and then. On the minute I venture into this forsaken venue, I am already being shown every conceivable way out.
I should have ran like the wind ..
Eventually, after I had stopped crying, I noticed another oasis in the sea of scruffy legs and wailing kids. It seem to call to me with angelic voices, yes! It was another glowing board in the obstacles of life showing me little leaflets which told me the numbers of the shops, but made no other sense what so ever. I scrambled over, thirsty and hungry for information. I flicked through the collapsible pamphlet where I could make out Lower Mall and Upper Mall, and lots of numbers. So, in my wisdom, I decided to play this game of Crystal Maze, and did my best to link secret codes and their retail counterparts....
Not easy, so I thought - stuff it - where's MacDonalds?
So there I was, sitting in the most crowded (apart from Croydon) MacDonalds I had experienced in a long time. They are all here for piling on the pounds - Burger King, Pizza Hut, Yo! Sushi (fine, if you want raw stickleback) Starbucks and BBs - the list is endless. You can knock yourself out with serious amounts of fat whilst squeezing into a size 0 from the multitude of girlie boutiques that are on offer.
The usual high street suspects are hugged warmly by Karen Millen, Kookai and Jane Norman, which, are fabulous, if you can afford to spend wads of cash in there. I find, for a woman about town like my good self (a twice married, grumpy old bat the wrong side of 35) that there is little in the way of us matures. Dotty Ps I guess if were really desperate, or there is John Lewis. Again, a second mortgage may come in handy here for the latter.
So we may be swamped to death with the biggest high street names you can swing a Gucci handbag at, but whats for the darling beefcakes in our lives? Here, this is were it falls flat. If its a suit he is after, then take your pick from anything off the peg from Top Man to something for several weekends and a handful of funerals from Hugo Boss. One cant wait to stroll passed without doing a quick Fast Show rendition of Suits you.
For the kiddie winks, you can pamper the little darlings in Baby Gap (arh!) and let them run riot in the Early Learning Centre but the statutory toy shops are on a day off here. Not a bad thing, when you think about it, most kids of a primary school age, can spot an ELC at twenty paces. There is no sneaking around the lifts with my son, I can tell you
There is an Abbey National for those who have an account, and if not - tough. There is also a Bureau de Change in Marks and Spencers for those of you who just feel the need to buy something in euros, (you should really get out more) - or who have just got off the boat. There are, in fact, a great amount of shops, but there is just one question - where the hell are they? One gets the impression that these shops just dont exist. As I sit and look back over my painful afternoon at Londons worst venue to spend money, I find it incredible that I managed to walk around it in less than half an hour, so is it possible that I sped round these shops, not really looking at them, only for a need to get back to the car and drive as fast as I could away from the place? Who knows, all I remember is vacantly saying to my family, hang on - havent we done Fenwick's already?
I could let you in on the workings and the fundamental thinking behind Londons most ugliest building, so I will, just to make some interesting reading....
The idea came to the borough of Barnet of the first shopping centre to be built in this country. Built in 1976, it laid, would you believe, the foundations of the way we were to shop from then on. Going, or at least, slightly disintegrating, were the small, corner shops and old curiosity shops from where we just to go. (It is here, that I realise, what I had actually done, was crossed over a generation of shoppers - from the smallest of businesses in Notting Hill in the morning to the powerless, slums of Brent Cross in the afternoon.) It is made me ask the question - why on Earth have we swapped the niceties of the small shop for the concrete coldness of the shopping centre? We have, gone for convenience in the modern world. We dont like to be out in all weathers anymore. We want comfort, practicality and choice. Or do we?
When we look at Brent Cross, we see the failings in out own complex ideas of better living. What was unique in 1976, seems faceless, uneventful and depressing in 2007. Strangely, it has won awards for its successful event holding and marketing from recent advertising campaigns - perhaps, the only thing that Brent Cross has going for it. It is hard to imagine why it has never been knocked down. Since the mass intrusion of the afore mentioned Blue Water and Lakeside both in pressing their noses against the outer edges of the M25, Brent Cross has had to work hard to keep up with its super sonic peers. Like the old lady of the shopping centre dynasty, Brent Cross still stands, and possibly will be the only man made mark in industrial history left standing after Armageddon.
Squashed in by its tightening boundaries, Brent Cross has no where to expand, so stuck in the vaults of time, this tragic building lacking in charm and tranquillity can only ever be, what it will always be and always has been - a mess. Despite the tube station only a few minutes away, it does have free parking. A feat in London in itself and should be applauded just for keeping that one going
The opening times are somewhat peculiar, especially for a Sunday. Proud to be different (in everyway) the shops dont open on a Sunday until noon, although, one can browse from 11.30 am. The idea is so that the shopper can lay in bed for a while longer, after the night before. Something that some of us have forgotten about. Obviously, the Brent Cross shopper has been out on the waz and needs a few more Alcazeltzers before embarking on a upheaving shopping expedition. But, if you want, you can hang around till six!! (Its then dark, and you have yet to refer back to your multitude of maps for a preferred exit - dont forget that Hanger Lane is pretty nasty if youre not used to it.)
There are a few hidden extras, if you can be bothered to find them; why not pick up all your shopping from one of the big stores at a Collect By Car point? Straight off the Northern Line, it has its own tube station Brent Cross, or just look out for it from either the A5 from Paddington, Cricklewood and Kilburn or the North Circular by the M1 junction. Of course, it includes shop mobility help and an information desk that you can email before your visit (should you really want to still go )
Despite the baby friendly services and the dry cleaners that you wouldnt normally get from anywhere else (how about a free buggy on your visit?) These little things go completely unnoticed due to the impending structure that it both intimidating and raw. It is, it has to be said, a shame that this block of dust and sand is still standing and given no attention at all. Whilst the two great sisters of the M25 stand proud, Brent Cross seems to have become a bit of an embarrassment (like Ken Livingstone) over the last few years.
Its Feed Your Addiction, campaign through advertisement marketing seems to have poured in some revenue and despite its off putting physical state and its marble polished prison like interior, it still attracts a vast amount of people - even on a Sunday. Its parking for 8000 cars for its 110 stores and cafés seems to be full no matter what day.
The website, should you feel the need to stay at home, is still worth a visit. One can browse around something that doesnt quite fit with the actually venue. You can see the best images shot in the best light and even sign up for a news letter on the Feed The Addiction, campaign (the shoppers delight.) So, the story isnt all bad, yet a tear to the eye may find itself rolling down you cheek in sadness. If not you, then your bank manager at least - simply for the mere fact that you can wander in and out of the entire place in less that 30 minutes and not buy a thing
Mon - Fri - 10am to 8pm
Saturday - 9am to 7pm
Sunday - 12 noon to 6pm
Bank Holidays - 10 am to 6pm.
A406 North Circular,
ciao and dooyoo.
Using the title as a running gag opposing the statutory mid evening news on BBC1, Not The Nine oclock News, favoured as funnier, topical viewing at the same time on BBC2. Chancing their livelihoods on the 17th of October 1979, the first show was broadcast, but not in the politically incorrect style that it was supposed to have first hit our screens. Sworn in by the legendary Basil Fawlty at the end of the final Fawlty Towers, the cast of Not The Nine.. appeared young, arrogant and opinionated, or at least, in very much the same manner as Python was heralded a decade before.
After more line up changes than a heavy metal band, the crew was finally set as Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Pamela Stevenson (who replaced Victoria Wood who had turned the venture down and balancing out an all male cast,) and Griff Rhys Jones (who, in turn, replaced Chris Langham who decided on other pursuits.)
After a shaky will they or wont they start in regards to broadcasting fixtures, the first series seemed to go down a storm. Whilst taking on the tried and tested formula of open house to any comedy writer theme from Python, the world of the written joke/sketch was at last, fair game. This alternative approach to comedy writing of an even more alternative style of television comedy brought great wealth of new, hidden talent to the fore. Names started to creep into view and themselves, became permanent fixtures in the BBC vaults of the written word. Unheard of scribblers were Clive Anderson and Richard Curtis (the latter itching to flex his muscles before embarking on the future years of successful Blackadders.) The years rolled by eclipsing the team in a cocoon of comic genius that lived for three years, four series and two directors. Eventually giving us Billy Connollys wife, Blackadder himself and one of the greatest British comedy double acts since Morecombe and Wise .. Not bad for another low budget gag show ?
The art of the alternative comedy era was firstly, one of excitement and anti establishment. Hardly a ground breaking prospect when you think about it in todays terms, yet a show like Not The Nine oclock News, was floodlit in its forward thinking, surrealism in the same light as Python in the Sixties and The Goons further back in the Fifties. Young comics were suddenly given the full park to charge around in. They could think, act and perform in every way or shape possible. Since making social comment a joke had been something only left to the domestic absurdities through situation comedy in Father, Dear Father, or Bless This House, now, all at once, the man in the street or the blind woman crossing the road was open to ventfulls of ridicule. Young talents could create comedy out of every day life, far from the comforting surroundings of behind the front door.
It wasnt just left to write silly songs about The Prince Of Wales or misrepresent serious television interviewers; no, past kings, queens and figures of religious authority were open to offers of fun also. From the same country that only a hundred years before, would have experienced heads literally rolling for such personal poking, suddenly, it was here, for all to laugh at, on mankinds biggest medium, ever.
If the breaking moment had been the first glimpse of David Frost in a suit applauding the failing works of MPs and the class system in his newly built brand of satire, then aspects of Not The Nine, should have been seen as coming from several miles away. Alternative, was the new little black number and it gave good reason for shattering taboos, black comedy and anything observational. Ad libbing or improvisation, as we professionally term it, was enough at one point, to put the look of fear in the Controller of Light Entertainments eyes, so what all of a sudden made this approach to visual and play on words comedy so approving? It was the way forward. Radio was dying a death, and especially since the untimely death of Kenneth Horne, one of British radios long serving and most loved shows; Round The Horne, ceased to exist and Sellers had found Hollywood, it was time to drive on. Move over the wireless - the telly is coming through .
Since shows like Not The Nine, had come exploding onto our goggle boxes without warning, to the humble knotted hankie man, it was still teetering on the brink of mainstream - a word that such young, innovative talents dread to hear. Rebellious to the bone, these young movements of comedy writers ploughed their way into our minds and for this show in particular, the word cult was one that was not just used for strange groups of Americans living in one large house in the middle of nowhere. Kids at school were no rein acting sketches in the playground like their fathers had mimicked voices from The Goons two decades before. Yet the latter was audible, and the other, visual, that same quick fire approach to comedy brought to us speed for gags. It was a sure thing to rely on in those early days of British alternatives; if the audience didnt like it or at least, didnt get the joke, they wouldnt have time to think about it before being plunged into the next sketch. Young writers could test the water quickly to see what worked and what didnt without having the trauma of dying, literally, on stage.
The system had vastly changed since the days of nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more, when Idle donned a tweed suit and sat in a middle class public house swigging an equally middle class pint. Through Not The Nine we are presented with street figures from our daily society. Mods, punks and social outcasts; for example, politicians, were on show for topical humour. The sketches more troublesome, and aggressive in their approach to observational comedy. It wasnt hard to find a sketch knocking the Catholic Church or ethnic minorities - puns that couldnt possibly be broadcast on todays screens for fear of starting a riot or a tube train being blown up. Yet, it appears to us now, that the world must have been a far more relaxed place if we have programmes such as Not The Nine to reflect back on. We were, as a nation, stronger from post war in our daily society. Unlike today, when the sturdy back bone that was once post war Britain, has now crumbled away into the sea like West Pier in Brighton. We cant even laugh at ourselves anymore.
One thing that the team of Not The Nine did successfully conceive was the remarkable parodies of our own lives. Looking back, it is surprising how much the team attacked the church. Not just the Catholic, but the Christian and Anglican also. Parallels were focused on through current adverts from ITV and the advert of the time Made In Wales, was given up for comical moments in sketches titled; Laid In Wales, and Made From Whales, Nothing was safe from the claws of the lesser spotted alternative comedians.
Even if Rowan Atkinson dressed up as a six foot gorilla being accompanied by Professor Mel Smith, on a television interview about evolution wasnt enough to tickle your ribs, it still has to be noted as one of the turning points in British television comedy. Not for just catapulting certain careers into mainstream, but for unleashing the inner humour of us all. The formats were copied to the hilt and still can be seen in the highly successful and more recent, Little Britain, or The Fast Show, and even, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, from a few years before. Again, not to everyones taste, but when a style of format is still trusted nearly thirty years on, it cant be knocked.
Although Monty Python had been groundbreaking for its day from the old school ties of the young establishment rebels, it was Not The Nine that gave us working class humour. As surreal as Python was from a bunch of highly talented University students, Not The Nine was from a level that the rest of us could tune in to. It appeared to be cold humour, and sometimes, bad taste, but always true to the life that it represented - our lives, and the world we lived in.
Comedy sketch shows had not been formatted before to add some sort of musical anecdote as the final scene and also to over run the credits. Perhaps the one video clips that we remember the most was the song entitled, I Love Truckin, which controversially showed a flat hedgehog on the front of a trucks grill. Such songs recorded on external film, then run along side video tape from inside a studio included songs about the Royal family, the Church again and other political figures, all given double the amount of ridicule only to music. Albums were made to run in the shops at the same time as the programme schedule. Three albums even made the top ten, an unusual achievement.
To the humble young and very impressionable viewer, Not The Nine oclock News, was effortless rude, impertinent and close to the mark. Our parents tutted loudly at it, much the same as their parents before had, at The Beatles. The world was changing and the days had died when the whole family, all three generations could sit and enjoy a comedy show - all inoffensive and above board. Now the ever widening valley in society was growing fast, breaking the generations in two. Kids could snigger at Not The Nine Not like Python, when your dad would join the mimicking with you
Nowadays, humour has taken a turn once more. If were not giggling at Little Britain, we are sinking heavily into the deep waters of satirical panel game shows like QI, and Mock The Week, Suddenly to be up to the moment, topical and simply poke fun at the news or the newspapers is about as creative as we can get.
Gone are the days of imagination in the comedy script writers world. Writers can only sit down now with a bunch of todays new papers and think up jolly good gags, from doing just that. Hardly a qualification for a BAFTA is it ? Cleverer with the spoken word rather than with the visual concept is the new in thing.
It would be nice to go back to the days of comedy when we didnt have to our wit each other with quirky anecdotes of plays on words using historical figures. If they are still lost as to what it was all about and what the rise of British Comedy was like before the great fall, then I shall leave you with this
A series of scenes were shot and featured across the four series of Not The Nine in which Rowan Atkinson is filmed, walking down a street, when after a short time, he spots the camera from the other side of the road. He side glances at it in a smug way and smiles. In a moment of being so transfixed on the camera focusing on him, he walks straight into a lamppost, (the clever bit here being that the lamppost doesnt come into view until the last second.)
On the second piece of filming, Atkinson spots the camera again, but this time notices the lamppost in front of him, he points, acknowledges the camera on his intelligent discovery then drops promptly down a man hole ..
The whole sequence lasted only a few seconds ..
Not The Nine oclock News were;
Mel Smith - (now a highly acclaimed director.)
Griff Rhys Jones - (now gathers huge amounts of money to stop old buildings from being knocked down..)
Pamela Stevenson - (Married to Billy Connolly. She is a Doctor in that stuff about psyches and brains.)
Rowan Atkinson - (After a mile run of Blackadders, whiles away his time by racing vintage cars at Goodwood at the same time campaigning to the government to keep comedians employed and material of any subject open as fair game. Here, here!)
First shown on BBC2 between October 1979 and March 1982.
On DVD - The Best of Vol One (2003) BBC Shop at £12.99
The Best of .Vol Two (2004) BBC Shop £13.99
Ciao and dooyoo
Born out of a momentary lapse of mild reason or enthusiasm for Monty Python, Rutland Weekend Television was conceived, carried and strenuously given birth to by the most convincing of the MP team, Eric Idle.
The ex president of Footlights at Cambridge came to us as being one of the most forward thinking comedy writers of the 20th Century, leading the path already paved by performers such as Peter Sellers and Kenneth Williams. Idle had been a solo writer from his days at Python so working on an idea created from the depths of his own brain was not a difficult concept to perform. From originally thinking of an project based around a spoof radio station (strangely, Radio Five, was to be the title,) Idle was convinced that the general idea of a spoof something was to be a winning show. Yet, after two years of two series and one Christmas special, the studio of Rutland Weekend television closed its doors and hung up the To Let sign outside.
Back in the days of proper script writers sweating on a continues theme behind even sweatier desks, the BBC were known throughout the land as being not just the high almighty of the broadcasting universe but also the stingiest so and sos for paying decent wages to worn out performers and sleep deprived writers. A story was busting out of the mind and chest of the young Idle - a creation for one of the greatest comedy serial killer serials ever to be ignored by both Beeb and audience - it could only be the sounds and smells that graced our screens in the fuzzy form of - Rutland Weekend Television.
So what would the man in the street with microphone in hand, have to say to a fast moving cameraman about the show? We revelled (or at least, some of us did) at the spoofier than spoof take off documentary The Rutles, which came from the placenta of Rutland Weekend Television. (Those of you smarter than the average bear may notice a minute connection with the word, rut.) The idea, brain stormed by our blond hero came from the very essence that kept and still does, the BBC tied down to leather arm chair - money. Auntie had offered a rather poor budget for Idles project, since their money was, they insisted, far more of an investment in yet another series of Monty Python, than an off the cuff comedy sketch show. Young Eric was not having any of this and turned the game around. By showing to the outside world what life was like inside the box, he decided to centre the whole show around the low budget that the Beeb had offered him. RWT was a hit, if only to the team behind it at first. The concept of the show was about producing a broadcasting company on a budget. Due to the mess up of the government by moving the borders around of the once, smallest county in Britain in the Seventies, a producer namely, Sir Nat Kosher, from the Beeb thought it would be an amazingly good trick if he could produce a company in a county that actually didnt exist. The tax man couldnt touch him and neither could a long line of money grabbing authorities. Thus - Rutland, was put back on the map, with cunning dignity .apparently
The show that was probably the fore runner of such meaningful sides of broadcasting as KYTV, the television spin off of the Radio hit, Radio Active, with Angus Deayton, ten years after RWT, should have been, a true to the bone, cult television show, but it wasnt. Due to the over powering force that was better known as Monty Python, RWT didnt actually stand a chance. However, just as the yanks take part in knotted hankie conventions even today (of which George Bush is the president (!)) there is still a small corner of British society that hold up their Ticket To Rut, Rutle singles with pride and continue to flop over lines and trip over feet whilst pretending to hold a mic and talk to an invisible cameraman.
Fever hit the several houses of eager viewers between 1975 and 1976 and Rutland fever grew into a mild cold. Mr Neil Bonzo Dog, Innes and great acquaintance of Idle provided the silliness of the songs whilst Idle became writer, actor and tea boy to all involved. From Inness website today, he recalls and still does receive the odd email each year, from people who actually thought the show came from a production company in Rutland. When it was pointed, very kindly out to them that Rutland wasnt big enough and they should mind their own business, their enthusiasm for the show didnt seem to budge.
What the public failed to also realised is that what they saw to be a pathetic budget as a visual gag, was actually the very budget that Idle and his chums had been given to spend on RWT. Inness and his happy band of erm, musicians who knew a thing or two soon had the rest of showbiz tuning in for the half an hour slots each week.
George Harrison quite suddenly leapt at the chance of appearing on the shows Christmas special as a unusual pirate character presumably because he went back miles with Innes and the other Beatles. (Appeared as a friend that is, and not as a pirate.) Minor, low key guests followed, probably hoping for quirkiness on their C.V, but it all made for great filming and an enjoyable show, for the team, even if the BBC thought it was to be a waste of time, and no one out there was actually watching it, but hey, thats showbiz .
The full outline of each episode was brought to us in true London Weekend Television style (this weekly feature in our viewing was making quite an impact at the time, anyway) an announcer, usually in the shape of Idle in a badly fitting toupee, would appear, fumble over some words, ruffle a few papers and notably fall off his chair. (Not as dull sounding as that, but genius comedy all the same. Its Eric Idle, did you expect anything less?) The show was faultless, sketches were on cue and the act of such an amateur set up of chaotic broadcasting was polished, perfected and of the highest low budget quality that made this show the best thing since Python. (And all the others were jealous - Idle )
It doesnt take long before we can instantly start recalling all the great shows that have graced our screens since RWT that have worked successfully on the same cheap broadcasting theme. Victoria Woods As Seen On TV, first came on air in 1985, revelling secretly in the delight of the cant fail ethics of the sudo budget broadcast. It was here that she gave us the gem equal to RWTs The Rutles, titled, Acorn Antiques. Proving that this theme can work even in the strongest of winds. The original, although, not covered before, didnt fail to impress Idles family and Inness closest of friends.
Sadly, none of the original BBC tapes still exist today (one can imagine the Beeb once having a spring clean of what was so great about Seventies shows, including the entire collection of Please Sir and Terry And June,) There is a site, where one can reminisce with pure affection at the scripts of each classic episode from the land of Rut. (Where it is in amongst my Rutlemania, I havent a clue,) if you dont feel the need to go that far, and it could only be nearer to you that Rutland, itself, you can always swoon happily over Neil Innes site that makes one proud to be on the net - site address at the bottom of this review.
We can, however, take stock (where from?) of what has been before us, or at least, to some of us. Whilst still in nappies (the terry kind) at the time, (of course, not now,) we can reflect on this great show that everyone, including Greg Dyke forgot. It is easy to analysis such a programme and delve deep into the psyche of Idle and chums and try to find a meaning underneath it all. Was it an introverted reflection on the lack of diversity surrounding the theories of modern communication? Perhaps it was an intuitive science of an adaptation of what the British Broadcasting Company appeared to be controlling to the essence of a great comedy writer and performance? Personally, I think it was a neatly produced stab at the Beeb who refused to write out a fatter cheque to someone who now, should be knighted, not just for co creating Monty Python but releasing RWT to an unsuspecting Britain.
The making of such a messy show was hardly thrown together, although, it was its amateur like production that was the biggest gag. Idle spoke of shifting scenery up and down four floors for each sketch to keep to budget as well as time since Idles budget was of presentation level and not even enough for a comedy show. Each three minute piece of comic surrealism was worked upon for ten hours a day and then on each take, made to look as if the whole show took only an hour to record. It was this, on a serious note, where Idle flourished and returned to the outside world with material that was tighter, funnier and more professionally produced.
It is sad to find that the only piece of RWT left to this day is the film Innes and Idle produced of The Rutles. A published book of Idles entitled, The Rutland Dirty Weekend Book, (Idle 1976) was the only piece that consisted of any material to do with the show, yet the album, Rutland Weekend Songbook, is also apparently still in existence, somewhere.
The giant over grown baby, The Rutles, which set off on its own path to stardom paradoxing The Beatles, spawned a book of the film and the soundtrack LP, but even with this, there is still not enough left of one of the better, yet forgotten programmes of our historical British T.V. Who can forget such characters as the one that Innes was famous for in RWT whose name was Stoop Solo (think about it) and David Battley who also appeared in The Rutles as the character who most likely to be George Harrison?
Whilst gathering up the initial notion for a feature length film about The Rutles, Idle stepped over the pond and guest hosted a recording of Saturday Night Live, where, in front of a gullible American, partially awake audience, he convinced them that the real Beatles were about to reform, showing the crowd a few well rehearsed clips of The Rutles, he magnificently convinced the dumb audience that The Beatles really were coming back to life. The reaction from the crowd was far from what Idle had been expecting. Literally on this excitement from the show, a full length film The Rutles, was made. In March 1978, this movie created almost equal mania in the U.S as well as the U.K, from the initial Beatle revolution - and the only evidence of Rutland Weekend Television that still exists and we still treasure today, (well, some of us do ) Gary Weis from Saturday Night Live was interested to get involved with the film. The budget was upped somewhat and he was invited to co direct it. The biggest names in music and comedy queued around the block to get a few seconds on the same celluloid as The Rutles. Mick Jagger, Roy Wood, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Paul Simon, to name only a handful of names, that got their minute of Rutle time. The first spoof ever of its kind to be produced, long before the days of Bad News and Spinal Tap.
Despite the growing audience towards the end of its reign, another series wasnt in the making. Innes went on to grow ever further into the world of silly song writing and floated into a preVH-1 style of hosting on a musical scale in The Innes Book Of Records, between 1979 and 1981. A pleasurable comedy show that featured more humour that musical talent. A certain new-ish comic appeared on this childlike show - Rowan Atkinson.
So, there went yet another comic masterpiece from the doors of the BBC, alone out in the snow, homeless and soon to be forgotten, making way for another series of sketches and musically whimsical interludes. Perhaps the most fitting of swansongs for Rutland Weekend Television was the one record that Innes wrote and performed for as one of The Rutles; dear BBC, All You Need Is Cash. .. The one thing the Beeb didnt have enough of
Mr Idle wrote the book and the lyrics behind the immense Spamalot which goes to Las Vegas in March this year.
The original Broadway cast featured David Hyde Pierce better known as Niles in Channel Fours Frasier.
The authors father appeared as an extra on RWT on a handful of occasions.
The underpaid RWT cast were;
Written by Eric Idle and Neil Innes
1975 - 1976. First shown on BBC2 Monday (S1) and Friday (S2)
Ciao, dooyoo and anywhere else were I can get paid.
From the sun kissed beaches of Oz, the Scottish bums turned surfer dudes returned to London to explode into our brains with the sweaty smell of good old rock and roll. From one loud album after another, AC/DC has become, undoubtedly, the Gods of British rock.
Yet, after the death of wild vocalist Bon Scott in February 1980, there we many of us who thought that the end was nigh for the masters of rock. Acquiring the forty a day tones of Brain Johnson, the band found, if you pardon the pun, a new voice. With mop of fuzzy hair sprouting from under a flat cap, AC/DC found the image that they had, all this time represented - long haul truckers.
From the days of Bon Scot, they had developed a style which when fans were drawn in, they became fans for life, although by the time the mid Eighties rolled around, it was the sons and daughters of the original followers who found the school boy stage outfit fitted like a glove. For anyone who now sits at a desk, worrying about being in their mid thirties (author included) the better years of this band started with their number one album soon after Scots death, the metal mournful, Back In Black, an album that just about got off the ground and out of the studio door. The albums got tighter, stronger and dare I say it, more commercial, yet top fives continued to stack up for one album after another.
Perhaps their flying list of greatness, dipped into a downward spiral towards the end of the Eighties decade. Since the madness of Flick Of The Switch, (1983), the band saw a surprising drop to number 11 for the Maximum Overdrive soundtrack, Who Made Who, notably one of their best albums post Scot, yet failed the top ten in May 1986. This 1990 album, The Razors Edge, heralded the mark of a difficult time for the band who could only rely heavily on their faithful fan base. Music had changed dramatically over the Eighties and into the Nineties and there seemed no pigeon hole for an aging pure rock band whose sound never swayed from middle aged reassurance.
Still riding high on commercialism, it appeared that AC/DC had settled comfortably into the pop charts and felt it the best and safest way to make their living. The public enjoyed the diversity of this sturdy band sitting amongst the dance ditties and swoonfull love operas floating around the charts at this time. Since the fans could not distinguish one album from another, it didnt make any difference to the band who was behind it all. Who cared that Blow Up Your Video,(1988) sounded identical to The Razors Edge? It meant nothing to the head banging, old and new rockers revelling in the idea of tour tee shirts and dirty trainers. After all, all the best bands stand firm along side a style forever more, and it is this policy that fans adore the most.
So, what can we say about The Razors Edge, that hasnt already been said before? This distinctly polished performance by band and producer, still is a cut above the messiness of rock bands knocking around in the Nineties. AC/DC were always tuneful, non offensive and never once annoyed certain religious sects or nationalities. No one in their right mind is going to feel threatened by the racy Rock Your Heart Out, or the equally fuelled dragster feel to Shot Of Love. It is with these good old fashioned rock song subjects that they never once felt the need to put anyone down and always expressed their desires for womankind (the latter probably goes without saying,) so to an avid AC/DC follower like myself, this album was just as much welcomed into my record collection as all the others were. No hidden surprises, no gimmicks, no special guest stars to rely on pumping up a flat album, no, none of that. Just a tremendous opening of drums, chanting and a quick riff loop to keep us excited from Thunderstruck.
So long as we can still smile a reflective smile when we notice a track on the album that refers to either balls or guns then we can breathe a sigh of relief and knowing that what we have in our little mitts, is another stunningly loud album. We can almost hear it before weve even got the wrapper off.
The packaging of this thunder filled album is still, what you would expect from a true rock album. It is, as usual, not short of references to strong headed women and ammunition that doesnt work. Ever known as the band that delivers high voltage hard rock, they still pack out stadium after stadium to the point that from the stage, all Johnson can see visible is a sea of shaking hair.
The photographs in the note book have been carefully selected to show all the ugliest faces a rock band can pull. As pictures that the rest of mankind would happily take back to Boots, here they are, proudly on show in this album, you can almost smell from here. A little anecdote flicks casually through the pages of this one dimensional rock tour, that gives us enough time to reflect upon spinal injuries from Donnington and Knebworth (for those of us who were there and who vaguely remember.)
In every aspect, this album doesnt fail us. The visual impact is there when the band in the flesh are not. The sounds of a band, heavily giving everything that their wrinkles can in a studio that will only let them bounce around so much, is here to entertain and delight.
We are not usually impressed by how much a band works on an album, or at least, its an aspect that passes us clean by, yet, after The Razors Edge, I will guarantee you, that you too, will feel just as knackered at the end of it, as they were from recording it.
AC/DC, again, we still salute you.
Fire Your Guns
The Razors edge
Mistress For Christmas
Rock Your Heart Out
Are Your Ready?
Got You By The Balls
Shot Of Love
Lets Make It
Goodbye And Good Riddance To Bad Luck
If You Dare.
AC/DC will always be;
Angus Young - lead guitar
Malcolm young - rhythm guitar
Brian Johnson - vocals
Cliff Williams - bass guitar
Chris Slade - drums
All songs written by the Young brothers
HMV - £9
Epic records 1990
Ciao and dooyoo and outer space
Rock legends, Fleetwood Mac stunned home grown American audiences when the band announced a one off special come back gig with the original Rumours line up. Despite all the tantrums, splits and divorces that have cloaked the band with the same sensationalism as Electro Shock Treatment, they still managed to hold their heads up high and smile affectionately at each other throughout the performance. It was filmed for television and shown so late one night on BBC1 that the entire world forgot to tape it. The soundtrack of the phenomenal occurrence was this perfectly produced album, The Dance.
With a inner sleeve that depicts the band in incredulous poses of well lit miracles, it is hard to imagine this band still sounding, and above all, still looking exactly the same. If only for Mick perhaps looking a touch greyer around the gills, it is amazing to see Stevie Tinkerbelle Nicks still looking not a day over Rumours. If Diana, the Princess of Wales was the most photographed woman of the 20th Century, then Fleetwood Mac were the most beautified band. Their charisma is quite staggering to the point that they appear out of this world. It is hard to believe that the two old gits at the back, one on drums, the other on bass, once shared the back of a transit van to use as transport and dressing room when their biggest venues was either The Swan in Fulham or The Toby Jug in Tolworth. (If you have ever patronised these establishments as much as the author here, then you will have some idea as to the impact of their fame.) So, through countless line up changes, solo careers plus members leaving and then suddenly returning after admitting never to darken the studio door again; here we are with yet another, masterpiece
In the Summer of 1997, Fleetwood Mac showed off their immortal talents for a special gathering for MTV. (Well, anyone would say yes to MTV), and the result was this polished live album. Perhaps there are very few bands in this world who can get away with a pitch perfect live set. The Stones, is about the only other band who can pull off a live performance, but then again, Jagger never had a pitch perfect voice. For a band who managed to fuse live sounds and studio effects with imagination and versatility, Fleetwood Mac had tricked us over the years with what was ever better, live or studio recordings? In this set, they show also their ability to put on a shining performance. Born to play live, their feed from an audience where they do, feel the most comfortable.
The usual suspects are all here. There really is not need to remind ourselves how The Chain goes or the fiddly bits of Go Your Own Way, end, so there is no room for disappointment here. We are, however, treated to a clutch of pieces that may have passed us by. To be a truly focused FM fan, one has to be totally converted to a new type of religion, that is to say, a lifestyle where upon you are obliged to listen avidly to every album and single B side. It is the latter, where you will always find the best gems. Even on a live recorded show, ten years after the reality of Tango In The Night, (in Christine McVies die hard Brummie accent,) they can still surprise, just when you thought you knew all there was to know. A running theme of percussion gives a new twist to Everywhere, the dreamy anthem from Tango.. mixes beautifully with the darker, more disturbing Rhiannon, that follows. Nicks proves with this track that although her vocals have certainly deepened over the years, it can only be a good thing. An atmosphere of bewitching tales surrounds this aging singer now, who, dare I say it, is growing into an ever more fascinating woman through her older years.
Buckingham has to flex his rhythms somewhere doesnt he, and even he, an accomplished guitarist and songwriter in his own right, has leant heavily on the steadfast-ness of the world of Fleetwood Mac for his hunger penetrated recognition. The extraordinarily titled, Im So Afraid, may not be everyones cup of tea and certainly exposes us to the introverted side of the band, is the baby of the Buckingham limelight. It twists through the chords and spirals out of control towards the end as all great Buckingham tracks do. Well let him be and flick over to the next. One cat howling is enough for one evening, I think
Yet the night is young and much merriment is in store for a frantically over paid audience of media this and that so why not throw them off balance by shoving in a jolly ditty entitled, Temporary One? If Buckingham has a mental illness, it would be a split personality. We still are in awe of the fact that this musician of the highest calibre can set our brains a wondering if he is quite well one minute and transfix us the next with he cutesy harmonies and jumpy Tweenie lyrics. Can this man be okay with himself, or does he just mull over paranoia behind closed doors? Who knows, if being a member of FM can dampen his extraordinary soul every so often then he can play anything backwards if it makes him happy in the privacy of his own front room.
Strangely a track pops up here which we also find on the massive come back album, Say You Will, which they didnt record for another six years. The folksy themed Bleed To Love Her, appears in this 1997 set, a track that they were working on for a while before this set was even recorded. Another trick of the FM clan here, they write a song, record it a few times, play around with it for a while then shove it onto an album six years later and make us all believe that its new. (!)
We have to mention that there is many a snap still left in a floppy piece of celery, and this acoustic take on the yet thunderous Big Love is a piece that will force you to reconsider who is in your top ten of greatest guitarists. I shall not say too much here, only that if Lindsay Buckingham is not on your list after this track, then you need the nearest audiology clinic
Of course a Fleetwood Mac concert would not be the same without Stevie input and she doesnt fail to inspire us here either. Giving us the very best of her lowered vocal, she rocks us to sleep with an emotional and yet, magically musical rendition of Landslide, with her friend, ex lover and guitarist, Lindsay Buckingham. Watching these two perform in a single spot light will take the oldest of the audience back to when these two were young, in love and impressionable. A gentle and very romantic moment. But fear not, our ears are in for a stage breaking treat as we move towards the end of this perfected album. We are thrown back an era with the loud, chants of My Little Demon, and perhaps the best track on the album that certainly needed no real introduction, back to back with another Nicks delight, a gentle country themed love song, Silver Springs.
We are subjected to Go Your Own Way, in full band filling style which leads neatly into an even mightier Tusk, and then finally Dont Stop, the swansong of the band complete with marching band, streamers, balloons, fireworks and questions of well, this is all very well and good but where the hell has the band gone ?
This military, glossy ending captures a warmth in the heart and a melting of the soul when we suddenly realise that the world is not as threatening and as violent as every one thinks it is. It is still warm, heart felt and sincere, if we just look hard enough, and on the days that we fail in their search for humanity, we find an album by a band who we can trust and hug, not to mention, forgive for all those line up changes that just really didnt work
Just when we thought it was over, the album, Say You Will, was released in 2003 and they, again enjoyed a handful of minor single releases from it. It didnt feature Christine McVie. She had been reported to have been touched by the desire to retire from the band
Solo projects for certain members will always pull the band in different directions for the rest of their days.
Tracks included on this album;
Im So Afraid
Bleed To Love Her
Say You Love Me
My Little Demon
You Make Loving Fun
Go Your Own Way
On The Dance, FM were;
Mick Fleetwood Mac
HMV - £7.99
The video of the show is available from HMV
Reprise records 1997
Ciao and dooyoo and the world.