Saturday, 5 September 2020

A Comedy On This Day: Dad's Army - Ring Dem Bells (5 September 1975)


 The first episode of the eighth series. If you've got a programme as well-established as Dad's Army was by 1975, with much loved regular characters, you only need to have one very good idea per episode. A premise that's original, can be easily described and creates an image in the mind will is probably be enough to carry your audience. "The platoon dress up as Germans" is just one such idea.

 Having dressed them up, the eventual plot that stems from this idea ends up as a bit of a runaround. Far funnier are the little character bits that arise from the change of costume - Pike dressed as a German officer playacting behind Mainwaring's desk when he's alone in the office, or Wilson's approval of the "awfully smart" Nazi uniform.

 The reason why they are dressed up as the enemy is because they're extras in a film. The 'Crown Films' people that the platoon deals with are the part of this story that most extends the Dad's Army world. Instead of glamorous characters, they turn out to be a pair of unpreposessing cockneys played by John Bardon and Hilda Fenemore, who often appeared as variations of these roles, and it's diverting to see a bit of London visit Walmington-on-Sea. Neither has very much distinctive to do, but costume woman Queenie's combined solicitousness (calling the soldiers 'dear' as she measures them up) and practicality rings true to me.


Friday, 4 September 2020

A Comedy On This Day: Man About The House - The Last Picture Show (4 September 1975)




 When I'm watching Man About The House I often find myself thinking that Robin is just the type of person who I'd really dislike. There's an unappealing cockiness, taking the form of being unwilling to take anything seriously and a lack of regard for anyone else. There's an odd sequence when Chrissy brings her new boyfriend Neil home and Robin immediately starts impersonating him and agreeing with him in a sarcastic way that the boyfriend doesn't register but Chrissy does. And it makes me think, 'But Chrissy is supposed to be your friend! She'd have good cause to be upset by your behaviour!'

 The bespectacled boyfriend is an interesting period character, a film buff of the 1970s and - as one of him female friends who bumps into him when he's on a date with Chrissy tells him that "you were on that panel at the BFI" - some type of film scholar, to boot. He turns out to be a film-obsessed monomaniac, assuming that Chrissy knows all about nitrate stock, Melies and Edwin S. Porter and will be happy to come the cinema society with him to see two hours of Eisenstein offcuts. His downfall comes when he gives Chrissy a birthday present that he would want himself, a cinecamera (Robin of course gives her nothing) and is honest about her filmmaking efforts.

 The boyfriend is supposed to be a crashing bore, but such care and detail has gone into making his film history talk authentic and accurate that I'm afraid that my ears pricked up with interest whenever he launched into his boring lectures. He is certainly inconsiderate towards Chrissy, but then so is Robin... The film buff material reaches a peak of interest when Neil takes Chrissy to a film history exhibition of stills from early silents at the NFT! The exhibition set is only a few pokey panels in the Teddington studio, but Production Designer Alex MacIntyre has gone to some effort to get the exhibits right... I like to think that Thames had these items in stock from some Arts programme.

Monday, 31 August 2020

"Competent and combative"

 A dubious privilege of having attended a quite-famous public school is the opportunity to read obituaries of your teachers, an experience unknown to most other people. This school finally stopped sending me an annual print copy of The Old Grundian a few years ago, but I do still look at the online copies, just to check that no-one who I remembered has died.

 I learn that Mr B, my form master and mathematics teacher when I was a first former, is no more. When I was twelve I was terrified of this man. What do I remember of him?

 On my first day at school, talking to some other boys - who I had been at primary school with, but who had left to go to Grundwich a year earlier, when our classes were being allocated. "You don't want to get Mr B - he's a bastard." And a sense of confirmed fatalism when my name came up for his class.

 Our classroom still had wooden desks all facing the teacher's desk. How did he address us? The one recurring phrase that I do remember was, instructing a boy to come up to his desk, "Slither hither, wretched toad", said for his own amusement. He had a heavy physical presence. Most men - and particularly teachers - show flashes of a certain residual boyishness at some moments, but I never saw that in him.

 You never felt that he was speaking to a boy as an equal, having an ordinary conversation without a side to it. I recall one algebra lesson when a boy asked (not cheeking him - Mr B wasn't a teacher who you'd treat in that way), What's the point of this? I mean, how will it ever apply to our lives? With most of what we do I can see how it will go on to help us with money or measuring things. He refused to answer and we were disappointed in him. Disappointed for his not recognising the genuine spirit of enquiry and for his failure to covey an enthusiasm in maths, something that he was clearly very good at. I suppose that his best side would probably have been seen if you were a gifted mathematician at A-Level.

 Apart from mathematics, the other thing that he was interested in was sport. During the weekly class free period, he would put a little transistor on his desk and listen to test match commentaries. His valedictory speech to the class on the last day of summer term told us that we should spend our summer going to events like athletics meetings with our friends ("and you should have made plenty of those over this year") rather than wasting our time watching television. I didn't follow this advice.

 Mr B had a temper on him. College gossip recounted that he had been suspended a few years ago for brawling with an Art master. A curious thing about my memory of that year is that I remember his reputation for hitting boys, perhaps throwing things at us, but I can't clearly recollect his actually doing it, although I do recall the atmosphere of severity when he had been displeased with a boy. I don't know whether I've blanked out the memory. Maybe as a sensitive boy I wasn't capable of processing it at the time, or perhaps it didn't actually happen at all.

 One thing that I do remember. Because I was a boy who was brought to tears on most days at school, other boys would scathingly ask me, well, why didn't you cry when Mr B hit you, then? The object of the question was to prove some shamming or hypocrisy on my part, because if I didn't cry if the teacher hit me then it would in some way invalidate the authenticity of the many other occasions when I was brought to tears. But I don't think that he ever did hit me. Its the sort of thing that you ought to remember. Plus I don't think that I was the sort of insubordinate boy who would have brought out that kind of rage in him.

 The lasting impression that he left on me is that I don't think that I've ever come across a man with less femininity in his nature. I had the strong sense that he was the type of man with no interest in or understanding of women's things. Obviously this doesn't come up very much in a boy's school  but I do recall all the other masters in his position referring to wives or families on occasion, or just conveying a fluent interest in the wider world beyond school. For the type of boy that I was, having spent the previous seven years at a co-ed primary school around the corner, growing up alongside girls and boys with mostly women teachers, Mr B was exactly the sort of schoolmaster that I shouldn't have had, at that age and in that institution.

 Reading his obituary, thirty years after I last saw the man, is a sobering experience. I'm surprised to learn that he was only thirty-nine when he taught me. Twelve year-old boys aren't very good readers of the age of grown-ups but he exuded the sense of someone older. The obituary doesn't reveal any surprising details or aspects of his nature. He doesn't appear to have had any personal attachments. Mathematics, school and sport really were his life, even to the extent of regularly attending College matches and tournaments after he had left the school, a participation that is presented as admirably committed rather than illustrative of a sadly empty retirement.

 But my lasting impression is of the sense of something suppressed, that something being what are our best qualities - warmth, openness, kindliness. I'm struck by the lack of warmth in the obituary, with the best that can be found by way of colourful character detail provided by recollections of his "unsparingly critical observations". Mr B was a sarcastic schoolmaster, I think. One of the few things I've learned in life is that there's nothing as freezing as sarcasm. It shrivels people up, which is what its designed to do. Its invariably a bad thing to deploy, always reflecting badly on the person who uses it. I'd definitely rather be forgotten than be remembered for my unsparingly critical observations.

Monday, 2 September 2019

A Comedy On This Day: I Didn't Know You Cared - A Knitter In The Family (3 September 1975)


LES: Look at it all. Gloom, muck, desolation. Ugliness.

MORT: Aye. Bloody marvellous, in't it?

 Only the second episode, and the studio audience are audibly subdued and hesitant at times. You can tell that they're trying to orient themselves around what sort of comedy this is and how it works. It has no familiar stars in it, and the rhythm and object of the jokes feels different to anything else. Peter Tinniswood was one of those writers with his own distinct idiom (none of his characters speak like people in any other programme) and I Didn't Know You Cared doesn't try to iron it out, making a virtue of this peculiarity instead. It's also very Northern/ Yorkshire and working-class, and so presumably harder for the Television Centre audience to quickly identify with.
 
 The audience become more won over by a bravura performance by Vanda Godsell as Carter's soon-to-be mother-in-law. Mrs Partington is a truly appalling woman, mean, judgemental and uninterested in others, traits that are revealed in a near-incessant monologue. Watching and understanding this character makes more sense of the rest of the world depicted in I Didn't Know You Cared, explaining why these menfolk are so gloomy and fatalistic about dealing with women.
 
 Personally, the one thing that really made me laugh in this episode was it's most extreme statement, when a despondent Uncle Mort reflects that, "Still, there's a lot to be said for death. I'll bet it's not half so boring as life."

Sunday, 1 September 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Rising Damp - The New Tenant (2 September 1974)

 The first episode, but not strictly from the first series. Actually part of an unofficial Comedy Playhouse-type series of six weekly playlets from Yorkshire Television. So what were the other five? A mixed bag, it would seem. Galton & Simpson's You'll Never Walk Alone, about Leeds United fans (led by Brian Glover) on a train to London for the Cup Final, was only ever intended to be a one-off. Brotherly Love with Keith Barron as a miner-turned property speculator. Slater's Day, with John Junkin as a PR man, a rare comedy excursion from Chris Boucher. Barry Took's Badger's Set, featured Julian Orchard doubling as a famous personality and his uncomprehending old father. And a second long-running success for Yorkshire, Oh No It's Selwyn Froggit.

 You can see why you'd immediately commission a series on the strength of this. It has a certain distinct individual personality to it. Eric Chappel's dialogue is quite densely-packed, full of allusions and reminiscences, and doesn't sound like anything that I've heard spoken in any earlier ITV sitcom. The Victorian house doesn't feel quite like anywhere we've seen before on ITV, not just in the detailed set (the bashed lampshade in the 'best' room) but in the relentless mentions of cold and discomfort - even the title, explained by Rigsby to Alan, "That's not rising damp, it's condensation!". Even Vienna is a geriatric cat of a type rarely allowed onto the television screen.
 
 It's obviously perfectly cast, with four identifiable characters who all seem to have some sort of gap in their past that has brought them to here. One thing that's rare about Rising Damp is that I'm equally interested in how all of the four characters get on with each of the other three, making six intriguing combinations.

 The studio audience are clearly very taken with what they're seeing, with one male and one female laugh particularly prominent. It is noticeable how the one thing that they find most hilarious is the very idea of having to respond to a black man...

Saturday, 31 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Sez Les (1 September 1973)


 Yorkshire seem to have tightened their belts in allocating the Sez Les budget since 1972. There's only one special guest artiste, only one dance routine, and little in the way of filmed sketches this time round.

 The unisex Irving Davies Dancers have replaced the Les Girls troupe, and they are quite a contrast to their predecessors. This week, they interpret Neil Sedaka's 'I'm A Song (Sing Me)" through the medium of mime. A curly-haired (male) lead dancer stands at the foot of a staircase, in front of the rest of the troupe who are arranged on the steps. All are in Marcel Marceux-type whiteface (something current in music at the time, with Leo Sayer and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band). The lead dancer is awarded a lot of close-ups and performs straight to camera. The effect is alarming. Someone in the team must really like Neil Sedaka because Dana's song is an unremarkable cover version of 'That's When The Music Takes Me'.

 There's a very curious long sketch with Roy Barraclough as a suitor of Dawson's daughter, announcing his intentions to the father. He is a wildly mincing character, and the mixed messages that he gives off cause Dawson to repeatedly respond inappropriately ("A CAMPari? Mind the POUFFE!", etc.). In a bewildering punchline, the suitor removes his cap and wig and reveals himself to actually be a butch fellow. It isn't made very clear why he should have been disguising himself in the first place... It's a frustrating watch, because it's an exciting premise and Roy Barraclough is so good in the role, but ends up as such a pointless skit.

Friday, 30 August 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Two Of A Kind (31 August 1963)


 The material that Morecambe & Wise were given to work with in this series was sometimes gossamer-thin. There are several cherishable moments in this episode - Eric trying to placate a growling offstage dog ("Is he registered with the kennel club?" "No, the zoo"), Ernie, dressed as a hussar, attempting to sing 'Wunderbar' through Eric's interruptions, Eric wearing a suit for an enormously fat man and claiming that it's perfect fit - but none of these moments happen in something that could be described as a fully-realised routine, let alone sketch. The sheer likability and silliness of the stars carries the material.

 An underwhelming pair of musical guests this week. Drumming bandleader Eric Delaney was one of those musicians who put on a show by moving about the stage, but even with him capering from one drumkit to another it's hard to maintain much interest. The Mike Sammes Singers were the vocal harmony group for hire in the 1960s (the Trunk Records Music For Biscuits compilation of their advertising jingles is a strangely compelling listen) but I'd never actually seen them before. I didn't realise that there were only six of them! I'd always imagined a big choir. The three men and three women perform a "boop be doop boop boop" interpretation of 'Pick Yourself Up', counting time and swapping chairs.