Friday, 18 January 2019

A Comedy On This Day: The Arthur Haynes Show (18 January 1964)

 Johnny Speight could always have done with a rigorous script editor, and both long sketches do ramble on a bit without much of a punch line this week. The first one - Haynes visits the Ministry of Defence - includes jokes about Alec Douglas Home for of-the-moment period specificity and scarcity value. It’s easy to hear Alf Garnett speaking Hayne's ill-informed theories ("Joe Stalin was the best spy America ever 'ad!"). The second one - the tramp and Irish cause mayhem in the waiting room of Harley Street psychiatrist Dr Nicholas Parsons - has a bit more legs, but the pair's speculations as the mental illnesses of the mute elegant ladies who surround them does start to leave a rather nasty taste in the mouth after a while.
 'Bobby's Girl' one hit wonder Susan Maughan performs her latest non-hit 'Hey Lover'. She's a perky girl and gives an animated reading direct to camera in medium close-up for most of the song. Not much thought has gone into directing this performance. Frustratingly, the ITC overseas print cuts out the week's other musical guests The Searchers, who must surely have been the best thing on it.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Steptoe & Son - The Stepmother (17 January 1963)

 Earlier Steptoe stories do tend to concentrate on the essence of their situation more often - How can Harold ever break away and does he even, in his heart, want to? Albert becoming engaged causes the potential break in this one. It’s an enjoyable reversal of the usual situation to watch Albert with his fiancée, spruced-up and acting with greater reserves of gallantry and consideration than we're used to seeing.
 The balance of sympathy is fascinating, with Harold generally coming across as the more unreasonable party, waiting for Albert to return home like a nagging mother, incredulous that a 65-year old would want to get married, calling up the dimly-remembered (and rarely-mentioned) figure of Mother Steptoe as some kind of saint. But what is at stake for him is also significant - Albert and Emma plan to move to Cornwall, leaving him alone, homeless and having to start up again. And what are Emma's intentions? The swift way that this all gets resolved - in one scene with several reversals of the situation and each character's understanding of where they stand with each other - is implausible, but the quality of the writing makes it all psychologically true and engaging. And, as always, the father and son are back to the usual status quo by the end of the episode.

  A 1963 viewer could then immediately turn over to ITV to see what Galton & Simpson were missing out on in Hancock. Their old muse wasn't in a very good way, and his new writers had come up with a long routine for him (Hancock as a film actor endlessly cocking up his scene) that harked back to older, les sophisticated comic traditions. Its not a comedy of the same calibre, and is most interesting when Denholm Elliott turns up as a new wave film director. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Next Of Kin - The Puppy (16 January 1996)

 This is rather good, but - despite its excellent pedigree - isn't exactly laugh-out-loud. The series' premise (when the estranged parents' son dies they have to take custody of the three grandchildren) would have as much promise as a drama, although the grim nature of the situation might prove overpoweringly unhappy. The best moments of this episode are dramatic ones of Maggie Prentice talking to herself and remembering her son, rather than anything especially comic.

 Even by the standards of the comfortable sitcom, the Prentices have got a massive house. The interior sets have been very well designed and dressed, like a show home. They've even got ceilings! In this episode the Prentices have a garden party, so we see more of it from the outside.

 Its a shame that the lovely black Labrador pup couldn't have become a regular character, although she does naturally become the focus of attention and the most cheerful thing in the programme.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

A Comedy On This Day: One Foot In The Grave - Rearranging The Dust (15 January 1995)

 The five single-location, self-contained, OFITG episodes (Victor and Margaret in bed, the traffic jam, Victor home alone, waiting in the solicitor's office - this one - and the power cut) are amongst the very highest order of sitcom creation, I think. They're the type of thing that should probably be only attempted once programme-makers know that they're on to something special in a series - when the audience has something invested in the characters, and the writer knows what the lead actors are capable of.

  This episode is far from low-key or downbeat. In fact, it’s packed with incident! Just small discomforts and humiliations, that help the viewer to accept the more off-centre oddities that eventually occur - the complications arising from Victor starting an argument with the dog owner outside, or the peculiar habits of Mr Protheroe.
 A few reflections -
 No opening credits this week.
  It’s a wholly naturalist, seemingly unexceptional set - until you notice that a print of Munch's 'The Scream' is on the wall. There's also a peculiar high window that isn't drawn attention to... but you keep it subconsciously in mind when Victor starts to tap the hollow wall under it... and you only connect how the rooms must be connected later on, in another humiliation for Victor.

 I've always thought that (early in the episode) Victor dusting the barometer, it crashing to the floor and breaking, and Margaret telling him to leave it was a brilliant moment. Not only for the gag, but also for the shock value - it really wasn't his fault, he was trying to help - and how it isn't referred to again (and we never see it). But most of us would feel terribly anxious if we broke something valuable in a waiting room when no one else was there, and it sets up an awkward mood.

 I vividly remember watching this one at the time - on my own on a little black and white portable in my Halls of Residence room, on a Sunday evening at the end of a doubtless eventless January campus weekend. Also thinking about my parents, because I'd watched the first three episodes of this series together with them back at home during the Christmas holidays, and I knew that they would particularly enjoy this one.

 An almost unique TV comedy appearance for Antony Sher as Mr Protheroe.

 The two almost identically dressed women, who enter and leave the waiting room together, are a great creation, registering as something curious and unexplained, without being outlandish.

 Margaret doesn't seem to have much to do in this episode while Victor fiddles about and complains, but you do register what she's feeling and how she's responding at any given moment. Sometimes she barely reacts and stays concentrated on her magazine, sometimes looks up but elects not to speak, making the moments when she does snap in exasperation more convincing. It’s in the writing and Annette Crosbie is a great actress, but it’s also the product of proper rehearsal.

 Maragret's complaint "Its worse than taking a toddler out. I should have you in reins!" puts a mother-child relationship in the viewer's mind, which we then see when she starts to clean Victor up, or tells him to behave himself.

 And then the ending - when we learn how the couple first met, 37 years ago - belongs to Margaret, and you understand why she's starting to speak about it at this moment. Partly because she's annoyed with him and to shut him up, partly because they're trapped together in a disconcerting environment for a long and indeterminate stretch of time - but also, as her story goes on, to be kind to him. These moments, when we learn something of the Meldrews' past are rare, and always fascinating.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

A Comedy On This Day: The Brittas Empire - That Creeping Feeling (14 January 1993)

 The Brittas Empire feels like a progression for the mainstream BBC1 sitcom. There's something (early nineties) contemporary about the series' structure, characterisation, tone and milieu, but achieved in a way that might excite, rather than antagonise, a large mainstream audience.

 The pace of it zips along, with more scenes in more locations than was usual. Sometimes this can be a bit counterproductive, when a funny idea with a lot of mileage - such as Brittas holding an antenatal class - is cut down to a few amusing vignettes when it could have been a memorable longer scene. The location is the type of place where sitcoms hadn't been set before. The leisure centre being a recently built building (those heavy fire doors) of a type that viewers would have been likely to have been in more often than they'd seen onscreen.

 There's a terrific prop tarantula in this episode, crawling about the place unseen by the staff, which gives the episode a nice tactile quality.

A Comedy On This Day: Only Fools & Horses - Stage Fright (13 January 1991)

 Oddly, I haven't seen any of this late series since it was first broadcast. The gap of 28 years helped today - I could remember that the pay-off was funny, but couldn't remember what it actually was! I'm much more responsive to the supper-club cabaret setting of this episode than I was when I last saw it at 18. These days, even though it's a joke, the Engelbert/Tom Jones act of 'Tony Angelino, The Singing Dustman' is just the sort of thing that I know I'd really enjoy. This one appearance must be the one thing that Philip Pope is best known for, not Who Dares Wins or writing 'The Chicken Song'.

 I recollect this second series of 50-minute episodes as feeling less successful than the 1989 one. I remember watching them with my mother, and her complaining that, "this programme is much better when they're being funny, rather than all this business with their wives".

Saturday, 12 January 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Home To Roost - High Noon (12 January 1990)

 There are a handful of pretty good episodes scattered throughout the run of Home To Roost, thanks to either Eric Chappell's instinctive skill in setting up diverting situations, an interesting guest, or both. I can't say that this is one of them, though, even with Ray Winstone as a menacing boxer friend of Matthew's.

 It doesn't feel very distinctive, and would have been done just the same in 1975. Save for the costume of Sara Crowe (Matthew's love interest this episode), which is bang-on accurate what London girls were wearing circa 1987-90 - a low cut tight-zipped jacket, denim cut-offs over tights. A disconcerting period detail if you were around at the time. I'm also intrigued to spot, among the CND and Rastafarian posters that dress the set of Matthew's bedroom, a large model police box/ TARDIS. I wonder how he came to have that? It would have been as interesting a story as this one.