Tuesday, 25 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Doctor In The House - Doctor On The Box (26 June 1970)


 Another Garden and Oddie script, Garden even briefly appearing this week in a cameo as a television presenter. This week, the cameras of 'London Television' are filming a report about student life at St Swithins'. In the words of Professor Loftus: "Television, Upton - the cause of so many cases of myopia, bad posture, stagnation of the blood and premature senility!"

 This is an episode in which the set-up is slightly laborious - a succession of scenes of the students either behaving in a stilted manner as soon as the cameras start rolling, or being filmed behaving rowdily - but the pay-off (of the students watching themselves on the eventual televised report) is worth waiting for, rewarding the viewer with the novel experience of seeing what has already happened from a new perspective. Within the context of a Doctor sitcom, the report itself works in a different comic register, which requires a level of quick-witted televisual literacy on the part of the viewer to work out what's wrong about the sequencing and editing of how its been put together. Also relatively tricky to put together in the studio, I would have thought. Might this final scene, which requires an edited version of scenes from the recording to be assembled and fed through a monitor on the set, have been recorded at a later date?

Monday, 24 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width - Blood Is Thinner Than Water (25 June 1970)


 You can tell what confidence Powell and Driver had in their narrative powers by the way that the entire first half of this episode is given over to one scene played in continuous time.

 It covers a multitude of changes of expectations and reversals of fortune - Manny's rich distant American cousin Lionel is coming to visit; Manny tells Patrick that he expects Lionel to expand the business with his funds; the flash Yankee cousin arrives and impresses the tailors; once Patrick is out of the room, Lionel tells Manny that he's lost his fortune and he expects him to fire Patrick and give him his job; Lionel goes, Patrick returns and Manny hasn't got the heart to fire his friend; Manny goes, Lionel returns and fires Patrick; Manny returns and Patrick is upset. Most comedy writers would have divided this story up into sections to create some ellipsis between the different stages, but it works rather well dramatically as a single scene.

 In the second act the two colleagues are (of course) reconciled in a crisis, both climbing out on a sixth floor ledge, each mistakenly believing that a reported suicide risk is their friend. The ensuing vertiginous peril is hardly Harold Lloyd's Safety Last!, but it is enhanced by canny use of quick cutaways to film inserts and Chroma key. Shots of traffic on the street below (also used as a backdrop) have a strange Toytown model-like quality. When I first looked at them, I couldn't be sure that they were even real, but they are, just shot from a further distance away than you're used to seeing. This onscreen vista has that same miniature quality that you get looking at cars and houses out of an aeroplane window just after take-off, and the disconcerting sense of distance adds visual credibility to a very cheaply-realised scene.


Sunday, 23 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: George & The Dragon - Table Manners (24 June 1967)


 A particularly loosely-structured episode this week, with not much happening in the first half until George and Gabrielle decide - on a whim and for no good reason - to start a 'battle of the sexes' contest, to determine who has the greater willpower by going without food for the longest.

 The highlight of the first act is a very simple, almost music hall, routine of Sid James and Keith Marsh doing the washing up. This works through the viewer following a disrupted right-to-left rhythm, with Marsh perpetually returning the same cleaned plate to the pile of dirty dishes, meaning that James never makes any progress. Although the first thing that you think of when someone mentions Sid James is his dirty laugh and a hangdog expression, when I watch him in these sitcoms I'm often struck by how physically nimble a performer he was. There's a lovely fastidious movement in the washing up routine when he is repeatedly about to hand the plate to Marsh but pauses and brings it back to scour again.

 Realisation of the competition is quite ambitious and sophisticated. Most of the second act is taken up with solo routines for the light-headed and food-fixated James and Mount in their bedrooms, complete with voice overs ("sausages... eggs... bacon") and visual mixes of their hungry faces superimposed over a mobile point-of-view shot of an imagined surreptitious visit to the kitchen and opening the fridge door. I was interested to see what was stored in the Maynard household's refrigerator - a cold roast chicken, a joint of beef, sausages, a gala pie and two packets of butter. The four of them get through a lot of meat!

Saturday, 22 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Hancock - The Blood Donor (23 June 1961)


 As you might expect, I know this very well, but also hadn't seen it for about 20 years - very good conditions for enjoying something.

 Why was it this episode in particular that got remembered, I wonder? It's one of Galton and Simpson's very best scripts. The structure has a pleasing circularity to it, with the end leading back to the beginning in a way that feels natural, rather than forced - both surprising and fitting. The donor scenario and situation of the episode is genuinely original, rather than overly familiar. It’s very good on the absurd reasoning that we can produce in conversation when pressed on a subject that we don't really know about:
MAN: But I still don't see what good blood is, though
HANCOCK: Well... your body's full of veins, isn't it?
MAN: Yes.
HANCOCK: Well, you've got to fill then up with something, haven't you?
MAN: Ah yes, I see. Are you a doctor then?

 The whole 25 minutes is continually filled with very finely crafted elaborate lines - far too many for the viewer to remember after a single viewing, which accounts for its phenomenal subsequent success as an LP. But the thing that I'd forgotten which made me laugh and laugh this time round was a very simple illustration of the gap between Hancock's self-image as a generous man and the immediate limits of that generosity: "(to Hugh Lloyd) Do you like wine gums? Don't take the black one."

 Watching with the knowledge of Hancock's car accident before recording and that he's reading the dialogue off an autocue prompts two responses in me. You're really aware of how wrong the eye lines are, and how rarely Hancock looks at the person who he's talking to, giving the performance a rather glazed feel. But at the same time, his fluency with the dialogue is amazingly good. The emphasis and phrasing in some quite complicated and allusive speeches is almost invariably comically right - it couldn't be spoken in a different way without being less funny.

 With Hancock not really making eye contact with the other performers, it's fortunate that his supporting cast were such accomplished comic actors. June Whitfield, Frank Thornton and Patrick Cargill all have to respond to Hancock with a form of reserved exasperation, and each manages to convey a distinctive individual character with a life beyond a stooge reacting to a star performance. With none of their high-status characters able to humour Hancock's delusions, the viewer gets a sense of reward when Hugh Lloyd's modest and trusting fellow donor appears at the next bed when Hancock comes around after the transfusion. His naïve and accepting responses are also beautifully performed and draw out another side to the lead.

Friday, 21 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: The Black Adder - Born To Be King (22 June 1983)


 Every time that I tried to watch the first series of Blackadder, from the original broadcast when I was ten to repeats in the nineties, I drew a blank with it. Still that was in a previous century and half a lifetime ago, so let's see if it appeals any more now...

 No, not much, I'm afraid. There's something particularly laboured and effortful about it. At this early stage Rowan Atkinson's very mannered squirming ninny performance feels like it works against what the character is trying to achieve in some scenes. That incidental music certainly doesn't help.

 The exterior scenes are much more to my taste, which feel quieter and to have more breathing space. At least you can notice and think about the horses, the sheep, the snow and what it might feel like to be in that place during these sequences, all of which put me in a more receptive frame of mind for such jokes as there are outdoors.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

A Comedy On This Day: The Gaffer - There Goes The Bride (21 June 1983)


 Bill Maynard sounds worryingly out of breath in this episode, panting heavily in the middle of sentences - unless its an actor's device for conveying Graham White's dense dialogue!

 There's a fair amount of filmed inserts this week, something that I don't really associate with The Gaffer beyond the factory yard. A pub stag night starts off in the studio, but then oddly turns into a filmed montage sequence of an idyllic night's debauch for the regulars, downing yards of ale and leaching after barmaids, to a smoky saxophone soundtrack. The effect is peculiar, especially as there is no continuity of design between the two pub sets and a different barmaid on film.

 This is followed by the Gaffer driving through the Yorkshire countryside at the end of a freezing winter with melting snow on the ground, and a shot of the gaffer petting a border collie outside a farmhouse - a unique moment when we see him as a likeable character. None of these inserts are remotely funny, but the extra dimension of real-world conditions enhances the programme.

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.