Wednesday, 19 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Citizen Smith - Prisoners (20 June 1980)

 This final series does feel rather exhausted, and as though it doesn't really seem to know what it’s about or why it exists anymore. There isn't much comedy derived from the small beer revolutionary movement this episode, with an extremely familiar storyline of escaped convicts taking shelter in the heroes' home.

 Naturally, the chief villain is a menacing angry Glaswegian, with a towering physique and scar, downing litres of whiskey neat from the bottle. The most engaging moments derive from Wolfie's attempts at showing an aggressive stance towards him:
WOLFIE: Are you deaf as well as ugly? You think you're tough don't you? Come down 'ere from the Mull of Kintyre with your Stepney boxing glove! Well, let me tell you something, sunshine. You're nothing, you're fourth division. We ain't scared of you mate. These boys look scared? Eh?

(Shot of two of the friends cowering behind cushions)

 This conflict doesn't end well for Wolfie, but at least it's created one of the series' better moments of his leadership abilities being put to the test.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Dawson's Weekly - Where There's A Will (19 June 1975)

 As a Yorkshire Television production, I think that these playlets were probably the only specifically Northern comedies that Galton & Simpson ever wrote. The opening scene - the familiar scenario of a solicitor reading a will to a party of grieving relatives - is cast like a J. B. Priestley play or Last of the Summer Wine, with the grasping mourners including such familiar North Country performers as Kathy Staff and Bert Palmer.

 The reading of wills is one of those inherently dramatic and suspenseful situations that its almost impossible not to make at least slightly entertaining, and the writers and actors certainly know what they're doing in this scene. Richard Vernon's Solicitor: "As for George and Arthur, my two brothers in law, I leave them-" (close-up of Bert Palmer and John Sharp's expectant faces - "Yes?") "- with great pleasure".

 Naturally, distant cousin Dawson inherits the lot, with the absurd proviso that he has to get married in a week. The second half of the story is much less sure-footed, enlivened by scenes between Dawson and Roy Barraclough (although what the joke is with Barraclough fluctuates rather irritatingly - sometimes its the perception of suspect homosexuality, and sometimes the man's hopelessness with women and Dawson projecting himself as a man of the world - the second option is much the more amusing).

Monday, 17 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Doctor In Charge - The Fox (18 June 1972)

 This Graham Chapman and Bernard McKenna episode mostly consists of the kind of hi-jinks that you expect to find in a routine Doctor episode - Doctors chasing nurses, fearsome matrons, practical jokes and the like. Searching for trace elements of Chapman preoccupations, there's a particularly absurd rustic patient who takes carrots and potatoes to bed and a rather sharply drawn retirement party for the drunken retiring matron.

 There's also lots of conflict. You don't generally see the students disliking each other in these series, but Richard O'Sullivan's priggish Bingham is shown to be actively unpopular with his peers - the one large close-up that we get is of him and another doctor squaring up to each other, eyeball-to-eyeball. Its one of a handful of thoughtfully-directed visual moments, along with an unexpected overhead shot of Dr Waring grappling with a nurse on a couch, and an understated close-up insight into Bingham - who has just closed a door on his fellows after an argument about his lack of interest in pursuing women - the camera lingering on his pensive face.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: George & The Dragon - The Old Flame (17 June 1967)

 An old flame of Colonel Maynard's from thirty years ago returns to England from Australia, having accepted his proposal by post.

 This episode is a good example of a sitcom with modest ambitions that are achieved exceptionally well. Importantly, something of genuine significance is at stake over the 25 minutes, the Colonel's emotional well being and the servants' position. The guest role of the childhood sweetheart, Priscilla (Sonia Dresdel), isn't given much time to form a well-rounded character, but instead is realised as a creation of almost Dickensian cruelty, making impossible demands of the staff ("I don't bandy works with the working classes!") behind the Colonel's back.

 The chief reason for the success lies in the top-drawer casting. Unlike a lot of star vehicles, real thought and care has been given into giving the performers things to do that suit their talents, remain in character and have something emotionally real at stake. So the Colonel puts John Le Mesurier's crumpled suaveness to good use - looking dapper but anxious when awaiting the his lover's return, beautifully turned out but wearing odd shoes, charmingly gallant when she arrives, very politely vexed when he realises that he's made a terrible mistake. Sid James' chauffeur doesn't have so much to do this week, but what he's been given is well judged - rude enough not to curry favour with the viewer, but loyal enough to persuade us that he's on the right side.

 The heart of the piece lies with Peggy Mount's housekeeper, radiantly happy at the Colonel's romantic story before Priscilla arrives, rapturously embracing a coat hanger, elegantly arranging flowers. And then, once Priscilla turns out to be a monster, the only character able or prepared to stand up to her, an outcome that combines convincing character traits with skills that the performer was supremely good at.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Hancock - The Lift (16 June 1961)

 I haven't seen this one for over 20 years, and when watched in isolation I'm struck by just how unsympathetic the Hancock persona is in it - when you watch it in conjunction with other episodes, you have more emotionally invested in the lead and are more prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s because of the combination of the Hancock character at his most petty and insufferable with others and being trapped in a confined space with him that makes the character hard to watch here.

 The eight other passengers in the lift offer something of a social microcosm; medicine, the church, the military and broadcasting are all represented, along with the bureaucratic lift attendant. Interestingly, the only person whom Hancock responds kindly to, managing to curtail his sarcasm and disparagement, is the Vicar, whom he presumably sees as the agent of a higher power. The script describes the TV producer as a "young man", but 38-year old Jack Watling doesn't really fit that description! The made-up programmes that have lead him to great success do sound intriguing and plausible from the titles that Galton & Simpson have invented for them; Up You Go, Let's Get Dancing and Thursday Magazine...

Friday, 14 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Sorry, I'm A Stranger Here Myself - Death Of A Songbird (15 June 1981)

 On his sixtieth birthday, henpecked husband Henry receives a £13,000 insurance payout and inherits a house in another part of the country so leaves home to start a new life.

 The second of three Peter Tilbury sitcoms for Thames (this one written in collaboration with David Firth), this was not quite so fondly remembered or satisfactory as the early series of Shelley or It Takes A Worried Man. It shares some aspects of the Tilbury style: a lead character who speaks in an externalised internal monologue, a sense of life being full of absurd petty irritations and rules, and clever sequencing where each scene seems to start a bit later than you'd expect. Also, it has an unusual concentrated structure as a series, with a serial narrative depicting events in 48 hours.

 This first episode displays both promise and some potential problems. Aside from Henry, the supporting characters look to be rather trying stereotypes of the period; a militant shop steward who finds objection to everything; Nadim Sawalha as an ingratiating turbaned corner shop owner who misunderstands English expressions; and - worst of all - a cockney punk rocker young person, costumed in mohair jumper, black leather jacket and green hair. None of these strike me as characters that would make me want to tune in again next week to see more of. Curiously, we get a much better idea of Henry's wife as a distinctive character in her own right, even though we never actually see her apart from as a arm, waving dismissively from behind a door.

 Against this, you do get Robin Bailey as Henry, playing exactly the type of role to which he was particularly suited.. "I have to admit that I really prefer comedy," he once said, "because it's where I can most easily share the attitude of the writer. Irony is my normal state of mind." Henry's qualities of fluency and detachment couldn't be better achieved, and much of the comedy of the character stems from Bailey's natural authority failing to be recognised or realised.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: You're Only Young Twice - Who's Calling? (14 June 1979)

 Cissie receives an obscene phone call. In order to make Miss Milton believe Cissie's story, Flora persuades the handyman to make a similar phone call to Miss Milton. I'm sorry, run that by me again? This series has some of the most hare-brained will-this-do? plotting that I've seen in any sitcom.

 I'm not particularly drawn towards edgy, 'dark', comedy but this is one storyline that would be considerably improved by full consideration of its unsettling implications. It only took a minute or so of watching this for me to start daydreaming about how it might be done. An old lady in second childhood answers the obscene caller in innocence and finds herself deriving pleasure from the experience - as realised by Samuel Beckett in the style of Krapp's Last Tape, say. A forceful old lady gets a handyman to making an obscene phone call against his will - that would have worked well as a sketch on Chris Morris' Blue Jam...