Tuesday, 21 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: And Mother Makes Five... - To The Aid Of The Party (22 May 1974)

 This is one of those stories that initially looks like it might be more interesting than it eventually turns out to be. As often the way in Richard Waring's middle class light comedies, it touches on underexplored contemporary anxieties, when the Redway's daughter and younger son both come home with seemingly reasonable complaints about being badly treated by authoritarian teachers. Reluctantly, both conflict-averse parents agree to complain and meet the teachers at the school the next day. It’s a promising situation, of wider societal relevance with something genuinely emotionally at stake for the protagonists, as seen as the parents are about to leave the house. Wendy Craig looks in the bedroom mirror, trying on different hats and rehearsing different approaches that she might take with the teacher. An essential truth of this series - realised through Craig's performance - is that being recognised as a competent mother is largely a matter of performance, which it takes some courage to accomplish.

 Disappointingly, this situation is then immediately defused in the scenes at the school, the complaints merely having been a catalyst to set up a more conventional comedy situation that takes up the rest of the episode. Both teachers in question turn out to be attractive and charming young people (Jenny Hanley and Norman Eshley) whom the Redways invite round to dinner the next day, the complication being that Mr. Witherspoon's jealous wife - who believes that her husband is having an affair with Miss Jenkins - is also coming.

 In what is - even by sitcom standards - an exceptionally hare-brained scheme, the Redways decide that the best way to avert a scene is to get all of the guests blind drunk. Although watching Wendy Craig and Richard Coleman plying the visitors with drinks are amusing, the most fun is produced from the elaborate prop of a new barbecque, which is made to produce plumes of smoke and suddenly produce leaping two foot-high flames. When did barbecues first appear as consumer goods in Britain - the mid-sixties? It feels like a comical investigation of a comparatively new phenomenon.

Monday, 20 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Doctor In Charge - Which Doctor? (21 May 1972)

 I can remember watching a Galton and Simpson interview decades ago in which they explained why they preferred writing sitcoms for the BBC than ITV. You've got that extra five minutes on the BBC that ITV have to fill with commercials, they said - you can use that time to not go for the laughs.

 This episode - a breakneck farcical caper of borrowed cars reported stolen and assumed identities, which ends with all three Doctors in the cells claiming to be each other - is a good example of a story that could do with those extra five minutes. The viewer has to take quite a lot on trust, especially the one-off characters of the policemen and the dolly bird whom Doctor Collier is trying to impress. The Police Sergeant appears in increased states of strain and exasperation in every scene, ending up with his hair on end. Bob Todd is skilled at conveying this state, but we never really get to actually see what drives him to it. Similarly, Collier's date is only drawn in the broadest of strokes - we're shown her cleavage before her face! - and really deserves just an initial minute more of character comedy for us to get a sense of who she is, to understand what's at stake for her in the action.

 The Doctor series were famously a seedbed for writers of more celebrated comedies of their day (Monty Python and The Goodies). Today's script is co-written by Jonathan Lynn, and the initial scenes of Professor Loftus showing a distinguished consultant around and angling to receive an honour are very Yes, Minister.

 A couple of very nice visual moments along the way. To make up for her sketchy character, Linda Cunningham's character does at least get one (closer than anyone else) close-up, seductively holding a wine glass that's larger than you'd expect for this period. And the closing (filmed) shot of the first half - a receding George Layton desperately running after the 'stolen' car in the road, shot from the car - is an unexpected moment of quality.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: All Gas & Gaiters - The Bishop Entertains (20 May 1971)

 This week's story operates on two different levels. The first is familiar jolly comedy in a sitcom reality, much as you would expect to see. It’s the annual fete at the Bishop's Palace, and the Dean's wife is put out (as only Joan Sanderson could be put out) to discover that the Bishop has invited another woman to open the fete. The Archdeacon is going to tell fortunes in costume. The Dean and his wife - who must be partially sighted for this one week - fail to recognise the Archdeacon in drag swigging the Bishop's sherry from the decanter and assume that he is the Guest of Honour.

 This is pleasant enough, but the second level is a lot more interesting. We learn that the Bishop has invited this unseen woman to open the fete because she is an old flame/ unrequited love from his 1930s youth who has crossed his path again, and that he intends to make up for decades of lost time and propose to her today. William Mervyn is given quite a lot of time and space to reminisce to (the rather uncomprehending) Noote and Blunt about this lost love, telling a sad tale of attacks of shyness, lost opportunities, flares of jealousy at perceived rivals for her hand, and a chance reunion years later in a theatre crowd during the war when he discovered that she has married.

 The Bishop comes across as bit deluded and not especially sympathetic during this reminiscence, but the writers' pleasure in telling a convincing tale of lost opportunities - and the performer's skill in rendering it - still gives him an unexpected vulnerability. So the more familiar comic mechanisms that follow eventually become frustrating in a way that they normally wouldn't. Having shown us this vulnerability, and set up a situation of very high emotional stakes - planning to propose to the great unrequited love of his life - the ball is then dropped. As you might expect the Bishop's plans are thwarted, but the reactions granted to him are only the usual familiar blunder and bluster. Tantalisingly, a little depth is momentarily introduced, but isn't then followed through.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Father, Dear Father: One Dog & His Man (19 May 1970)

 Hurray! This episode concentrates on Father, Dear Father's greatest asset - the Glovers' St Bernard dog, H. G. Wells. It doesn't matter if Patrick Cargill is trying to maintain his dignified composure, or his pretty blonde daughters are on screen, whenever he's in shot my attention will always fix on this large and (normally) docile creature.

 The dog isn't even trained to do very much exceptional in this episode, just head off in the wrong direction on occasions when the script asks him to. Most of H. G.'s funniest actions here occur off-screen in the viewer's imagination, either indicated through props (Patrick's chewed-up manuscript), or merely complained-about in dialogue (H. G. eating Patrick's sausage and bacon breakfast).

 In the face of all this disruption, Mr Glover gives the dog away, an action for which he faces much censure and soon regrets -
PATRICK: Nanny - doesn't anybody love me any more?

NANNY: Of course, Mr. Patrick. There must be lots of people who don't know what you've done.

 In the best scene, Patrick visits a pub at the time when he would normally be taking H. G. for a walk. Curiously, it seems to be a special dog-themed pub, with pictures and rosettes on the wall, and most of the clientele (lead by Ballard Berkeley) having brought their dogs with them. This sequence is really well choreographed, like an H. M. Bateman cartoon, with all the drinkers in the pub - horrified when they learn of Patrick's action - falling completely silent. Three appalled faces are shown in close-up rhythm - a drinker with a handlebar moustache, followed by two dogs. Then the three men at the bar slowly reply, "You gave? your dog? a-way?" in unison, exactly like a Greek chorus. It’s a bold, and televisually sophisticated, realisation of a simple comic moment.

Friday, 17 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: For The Love Of Ada - Ada Tries To Make Walter Jealous (18 May 1970)

 Although Irene Handl's smiles when she says them are endearing, Ada's malapropisms never seem to be very funny in themselves. Far more comically resonant are the occasional, now long-redundant, expressions that someone born in about 1905 must have still used. For example, once a rival for Walter's affections has left the room, Ada exclaims, "Silly bitch! Well, she is... Dressed up like a hambone and grinning like a horse collar."

 More work for John Scott Martin this episode, starting a pub scene in the second half, walking across the bar carrying a pint in each hand and inadvertently looking into the camera.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Comedy Playhouse - The Bishop Rides Again (17 May 1976)

 The chemistry between the leads and general air of jollity makes this a one-off that glows with obvious potential for a future series [All Gas & Gaiters]. This initial playlet is rather stronger on silly situations than ecclesiastical politics, with much fun found out of a stipulation in a legacy that requires the Bishop to re-enact a medieval church ritual (handing out forty pairs of stockings to maidens of the parish on May Day) without deviating from Middle Ages custom, costume or transport. This doesn't score highly for plausibility, but it inspires some arresting comic images, especially in the filmed inserts - Derek Nimmo looking shifty outside a ladies' hosiers! William Mervyn, in a monk's habit, sat on a white horse!

 When dressed as monks and knocking on doors, the Bishop and the Chaplin get mistaken for reps from 'Monks Butter', with housewives presenting them with packaging and repeating a memorised slogan. This is something that comes into a number of sixties things, and which I have a dim remembered sense was still going on when I was an infant in the seventies. Its another one of those precise period details, like Green Shield Stamps or Hire Purchase being a new thing, which you start to pick up an out-of-time understanding of when you watch a lot of old British television.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Peep Show - Jeremy Broke (16 May 2008)

(Dobbie walks away)

MARK (internal thought): Did the right thing there, pretty sure. DON'T listen to you heart. That's what no one tells you, but that's probably the real grown-up truth.

 Some of its viewers seemed to respond primarily to the more grotesque incidents (in this episode Jez in a sperm bank, trying to stimulate his masturbatory impulses with the unpromising visual material of the Queen's head on a £20 note), but Peep Show was always so much more than that. Its one of the most subtly and elaborately structured comedy programmes, and one that I can return to again and again. The viewer's access to Mark and Jez's thought processes means that we gain an insight into why these characters will always by the authors of their own misfortunes, as well as the mechanics of how they contrive to get into appalling messes.

 Both men's difficulties this week stem initially from momentary lapses of judgement - Jez enrages Mark by stealing a sausage off his plate, Mark approaches a woman in a bar whom he already knows isn't interested in him - with each station of their subsequent escalating misfortunes referring back to their previous thoughts and mistakes, and forming a thesis (about Jeremy's impulsiveness and Mark's yearning to prove himself by claiming to have a girlfriend).

 On top of this, there's the novel-like cumulative narrative interest in the development of on-going storylines (the terrible workplace of JLB Credit, Mark's divorce), helped by some acutely good long-term casting. Olivia Coleman might be a very familiar face now, but her ability to convey Sophie's rage and exhaustion in her one scene in this episode has a real conviction to it, and shows sides to her character that weren't apparent in the early series.

 Peep Show's Croydon/anywhere setting and style also provide an interesting historical document of the textures and patterns of everyday life, changing over a decade. For example, Mark attends a speed dating session in this episode, as such a person might do (albeit without pleasure), for only a few years in the noughties. Are they much of a thing anymore? I would have thought that dating apps would have killed off most of them by now.