Thursday, 22 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Astronauts - Going Home (23 August 1983)

 The final episode, broadcast on this day only in certain ITV regions, and at 11.35pm. An ignominious end for a series initially held in high hopes...
 You can see the promise in the situation, with the three astronauts preparing to return to earth, the scientist frightened of the dangerous process, and the Captain traumatised to learn that his wife has been having an affair at home. That promise is dramatic rather than comic, though, in a Moonbase 3 sort of way. Unfortunately, whenever the character and situation goes somewhere interesting, the programme remembers that it's a sitcom and quickly (if unamusingly) undercuts it.
 This isn't helped by canned (rather than recorded with a studio audience) laughter, a jarring feature in several ITV programmes of this period. Once you start to notice it you can hear it, in the way that the laughter suddenly starts and stops and the silences in between, and it sounds nothing like the organic responses of a real audience. It also has an unfortunate editorialising effect. Garden and Oddie's dialogue doesn't have much in the way of jokes, but it has got a comic rhythm which gets undercut by sudden bursts of loud laughter at exchanges which are only tangentially amusing in themselves. Then, once the scientist astronaut gets frightened and the evangelist pilot attempts to comfort her, you get a similar exchange like "God is your pilot/ I hope that he has a fully qualified license", received in an unnaturally sterile silence, because it was decided that laughter at a joke would be distracting during a serious bit.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Yanks Go Home - Bed Of Roses (22 August 1977)

 Written by Anthony Couch, a writer with only a handful of previous comedy credits to his name. There's not much in the way of actual jokes in this episode, but lots of scenes of the G.I.s making observations to each other about their perfumed laundry.

 This week, the pub is losing American custom to the W.V.S. canteen, where the ladies are laundering the G.I.s' clothes in exchange for nylons, candies, etc. There's a canteen set that I wouldn't have minded seeing more of and a few new characters only seen in this episode. Watching this series - which seems to have one new single-use set and two or three guest performers every episode - reminds me of being a child and buying one new set of Town Lego with my pocket money each weekend, a fireman or policeman, say. You eventually build up a whole town's population week by week. Unlike with the toys, though, you never get to see them all together.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Happy Ever After - Keeping Fit! (21 August 1974)

 Just four scenes in this all-studio episode. For a light domestic comedy, the dialogue-heavy nature of the exercise requires the viewers to bring quite a lot of imagination with them.
 The first scene is in the Fletchers' garden, of which we only see the porch. Two orange floral garden loungers, June sat on hers drinking tea, Terry fidgiting restlessly around his. We don't actually see the garden, buring a long stretch of dialogue about it and Terry and June's different understanding of what the space represents to each of them - for June a place to sit in, for Terry a source of constant work. From the mass of details about what's in the garden and what needs doing there, the attentive viewer builds up a cumulative picture of what this space must look like - the one bad that Terry hasn't done yet on the left, the compost heap in front of a flowering plant to the bottom right, etc. It requires maintaining attention to get the most out of this sort of dialogue.
 The third scene - the Fletchers in bed - also requires sustained imaginative concentration. In slightly unexpected territory for this programme, June imagines her possible life as a widow, with Terry becoming jealous of any future husbands, his wife teasing him about how he wouldn't be able to do anything about it. This scene doesn't really have any bearing upon the situation going on in the moment, and it shows a certain confidence in the ability of the performers to trust the audience to go along with it.
 I'm sobered to realise that Terry is supposed to be my age now, 45-46! He's having a midlife crisis, alternating between acute hypochondria and a short-lived keep-fit resolution. Both phases are ideal material for Terry Scott's abilities as a physical comic, attempting to walk when full of imaginary aches and pains (a stiff back, a stuck out dead arm and a leg with cramp), then making a great to-do of three press-ups and failing to touch his toes.
 The mynah bird flaps about in its little cage loudly, and looks highly agitated by the studio lights.

Monday, 19 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Doctor In Charge - Yellow Fever (20 August 1972)

I have a feeling Professor Loftus wants to speak to me about that patient sitting up in the middle of his operation.

What happened?

He took one look at his intestines and fainted.

 Another Graham Chapman script (with Bernard McKenna) and about as absurd as the Doctor comedies got, with a delegation of 28 representatives from the People's Republic of China visiting St Swithin's. A busy episode that packs an awful lot of gags into 25 minutes, largely visual jokes about herding multiple Mao-suited figures who go to places where they shouldn't, hide behind doors, etc. At one point the script even requires the Chinese to stand in line and fall like dominoes.
 Two modes of comedy intertwine - the absurd (culturally specific details of trying to integrate with Chinese customs) and the farcical (moving the delegates about). The two styles reach their best moment of synthesis in a scene when the delegates, in surgical masks and swabs, attend an operation. Dr Waring prepares for the surgery by reciting from the Little Red Book, before Dr Bingham enters with a Policeman - "Arrest these Chinamen!"

Sunday, 18 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Sez Les (19 August 1972)

 For such a bevvy of elegant ladies, the Les Girls dance troupe do get put through some indignities on Sez Les. In a visual sketch this is deliberate - Dawson as top hatted crooner with three dancers descending a misproportioned staircase behind him: when the stairs get larger the dancers have to clamber down and eventually use a stepladder. But when in this week's big roaring twenties number - Amii MacDonald singing 'Black Bottom' - the women get dressed as (Mickey) mice, the effect is... peculiar.

 Les Girls are put to more conventional use in the first number from today's big guest star, Roy Orbison. Roy hasn't had a hit since 1969 and is working from his back catalogue. He has updated his look for the seventies, though - still with the dark glasses of course, but replacing his familiar dark suits with a costume in thick white fabric. He performs 'Dream Baby' with Les Girls surrounding him from above, below, to the left and to the right, the dancers wearing either pink or orange tops and silver hot pants as they cavort to the music.

 The effect is jolly, but detracts from the song's more ethereal, spectral, qualities. At one point Orbison is seen to give an amused smile, a rare sight. For his second number, he performs 'Running Scared' alone at the foot of a huge white staircase. It's still an amazingly dramatic narrative song, but has been frustratingly truncated for this performance.

 Today's other musical guests, The Peddlers, have been placed in front of the audience. A veteran jazz/soul trio, they aren't really light entertainment crowd pleasers. The three hairy men are dressed in matching crocheted waistcoats, not an image that ever caught on. Singer Roy Phillips' voice is a rather vomity-sounding shriek (like Roger Chapman of Family) and their latest single 'Back Alley Jane', a churning locked-on groove largely performed on Hammond organ, is a bit too heavy for this show, as seen in the audience reaction.

 With so many musical guests, Les Dawson does end up a rather marginal figure in his own show. But he does get the best moment, in an elaborate filmed sequence after the end credits, as a marching Salvation Army drummer who takes a wrong turning and ends up unknowingly leading another march before returning to the back of his own band. For added contemporary relevance the march that he heads is a rabble of bra-burning women's libber

Saturday, 17 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Shelley - A Little Learning (18 August 1992)

 By Guy Jenkin this week, whose solo work is slightly coarser and less dextrous than his writing partner Andy Hamilton's scripts. Shelley is again a somewhat marginal figure in his own programme, largely there to make sardonic observations about Ted's plans, while David Ryall actually does stuff.
 Two interlocking storylines, Ted's prowess in pub quizzes and a private detective conducting surveillance operations from Ted's house. The greatest interest is derived from some bang-on specific 1990 details. Ted's nemesis in the pub quiz, a young Irishwoman, is wearing a tight satin bomber jacket with a very high waistband - a look that had a very limited shelf life. Meanwhile, the shifty detective - despite being middle-aged and too old for this sort of thing - is styled in a 'baggy' image with a mop-of-curls-shaved-at-the-sides hairstyle as if he was in The Milltown Brothers. Taking pride of place in his collection of expensive surveillance equipment is a Toshiba T1000 computer.

Friday, 16 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Terry & June - Bats In The Belfry (17 August 1987)

 A Sunday morning in Purley. Terry's boiled egg has exploded. I am interested to spot that the Medfords take the Sunday Telegraph (headline: "Labour tears at poll smear campaign"), although Terry admits that he only gets it for the comic strips and the easy crossword (both of which there would be more of in other papers, I would have thought). Watching Terry handling the Sunday Telegraph, I imagined him struggling with some complex report about the Iran-Contra affair or Geoffrey Wheatcroft piece about the fortunes of David Owen after Sunday lunch and quickly falling asleep. I would have imagined the Medfords taking the Mail On Sunday myself, although that paper (est. 1982) would still have been a bit newfangled in 1987.
 June is slow cooking a joint of beef - no one else appears to be invited to lunch. She asks Terry about getting one of those new microwaves, which Terry thinks is a hairstyle. They are still churchgoers, which makes sense considering what we can make out of their backgrounds. June's mother phones up, and Terry and June have to take her to hospital for her legs.
 In a sense, Terry & June would be a more interesting programme if fewer incidents occurred in it. Before long we're into the story proper, in which the Medfords become trapped in the church's belfry when Terry offers to mend the bell (a bell which doesn't look very metallic, incidentally). "He might have a heart attack going up all those stairs!", June exclaims, exactly what I was thinking at the time.
 The ending of this caper is rather muffed. Terry and June secure their release when they attract the attention of the police by throwing slates at their car, but we don't ever see them actually get rescued or interacting with the police (who only exist in a filmed insert). The situation peters out instead of reaching a memorable climax.