Tuesday, 16 July 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Hark At Barker - Rustless On Law (17 July 1970)

 Hark At Barker must be the least documented work that Alan Ayckbourn has ever written. I had a look at half a dozen Ayckbourn books on my shelf after watching this, and it barely gets a mention anywhere.

 One reason for this neglect is the pen name Peter Caulfield. It's understandable to assume that he wrote it under an assumed name because he was embarrassed by it, but the actual reason was because he was under contract for the BBC at the time. Once you know that its by him, you can then detect elements of Ayckbourn in the programme, especially in the way that the routines involve a lot of playing games and enacting out scenarios, but Ronnie Barker's star peronna is so dominant - and the material is so much like a lot of pieces that he went on to do in The Two Ronnies - that you tend not to register the actual writing so much.

 Ayckbourn and Barker went back to 1964, when Barker appeared in Ayckbourn's first West End play (if only for three weeks), Mr Whatnot. Barker played one of his trademark crusty aristocrats, Lord Slingsby-Craddock, and the show was a 'silent' comedy about a mute piano tuner employed by the Slingsby-Craddocks, with no dialogue but with a hugely elaborate sound plot of hundreds of sound cues instead. Barker continued with this type of comedy in Futtocks End, The Picnic and By The Sea, and it’s a slight shame that Ayckbourn and Barker's only TV collaboration wasn't also in this vein.

Monday, 15 July 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width - What You've Never Had, You Never Miss (16 July 1970)

 A lot of - perhaps most - drama and comedy operates around the use of peripeteia, the sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances. This happens not only in narratives as a whole, but is generally the hinge that most individual scenes in a drama pivot around - something will have happened during the scene to change the circumstances by the end of it. Once you're primed to notice this, you see more clearly the process of writing behind things. When I've taught textual analysis of film to students, I've often given the advice that: if you're stuck observe what the reversal is in this scene and explain how it's shown.

 This story of Manny and Patrick continuing an accumulator bet through a day's races (mostly told in continuous time in a single room) is a good example of a peripatetic storyline in its most simplistic form, with the friends unexpectedly gaining and then losing a fortune. The problem with the story is that no one above the age of about eight could possibly be surprised by any of it. There's nothing that makes you think, that's clever, I couldn't have anticipated that... Instead you think - is that it? He can't remember the name of the horse? - and the thing is only just carried over the line by the likability of the characters.

 Thames' prop designers have done themselves proud with a faulty television set this week. The device through which the tailors try to follow the races, the viewer only gets to see the back of the unidentifiable television so as not to sully the reputation of any real-life manufacturers. But the hot valves, wires and ventilators of the exploding prop bring back the smell and feel of older sets still in circulation when I was a small child.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

A Comedy On This Day: The Morecambe & Wise Show (15 July 1970)

 There's a curious sketch this edition in which George Cooper and Margery Mason - in braces and pinny respectively - play Eric's parents. They live in an archetypal North Country working class home, but with twenty ducks on the wall, and the sketch starts with a pastiche of Eric Spear's Coronation Street theme. Eric is dressed in an effete Southerner's costume of matching pink shirt and necktie and brings Ernie home with him to meet his parents. Almost nothing funny is extracted from the situation save for the usual interjections, but there's an intriguing dramatic possibility in it. There is with the 'at home' sketch this edition, too, when Eric answers the door to an eight month's pregnant woman asking to see Ernie and Eric panics about the trouble he believes that his friend has got himself into.

 Three musical guests; the inevitable Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen, Kenneth McKellar and - more intriguingly - former Vernons Girl Samantha Jones. Like so many British female singers of the 1960s at least one of her singles became hailed as a Northern Soul favourite years later, but little of that comes over in this performance. She sings 'You've Got Your Troubles' in a big band style, as if she is trying to seduce the listener. This interpretation feels one remove away from the song's mood of shared gloom, as heard in The Fortunes' original rather morose performance of the song in 1963.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Pardon The Expression - The Pensioner (14 July 1965)

 Very little in the way of overt jokes in this episode, which really functions as a character piece for Swindley, who meets an old man in the park and offers him a temporary job in Dobson & Hawks' greengrocers. Naturally the old man lets him down, giving away the stock to needy pensioners.

 Swindley responds to the disappointment with the characteristic decency and kindness that lies under his surface pomposity. Arthur Lowe has some nice, rather melancholy, moments to get his teeth into here and we learn a little about Swindley's wartime service in the Navy (but prosaically on a barracks ship, rather than at sea) and that his most treasured possessions are "my cello and my late father's silver snuff box." There's more continuity with Swindley's Coronation Street persona here than in much of Pardon The Expression.

 Ambitiously, the designers have constructed with a section of boating lake (with water) in the Granada studios this week. You would think this was fraught with risks, but having made it they then put it to good use, the episode concluding with Swindley and his new friend Jacob Elijah on a boat and casting off.

Friday, 12 July 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Two Of A Kind (13 July 1963)

  The (particularly feeble) main sketch this week feels curious to a viewer primed by seeing Morecambe and Wise's later performances. Eric has spent sixteen years building a scale model of the Battle of Waterloo, which he earnestly explains to the audience, which a mischievous Ernie then smashes up during their re-enactment. Eh? Shouldn't that have been cast the other way around? 

 We also have a rare sight of Ernie Wise in drag in this edition, in the big physical number with M & W as a pair of ballroom dancers, surrounded by three real dancing couples. This is much more of a pleasure to watch. Putting the comics in identical costumes to the real dancers means that they can momentarily blend in, before inevitably disrupting the order of things.

 Janie Marden sings I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm in a shoo-be-be-doobee scat jazz style, shaking her arms, raising her eyebrows and tilting her head. It's certainly a committed performance, but magnified by the camera looks more unhinged than enticing.


Thursday, 11 July 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Steptoe & Son - The Holiday (12 July 1962)

 The first (but certainly not the last) time that Harold tries to get away on holiday on his own, and the primary emphasis is on the drama of the situation, rather than any silly bits of fun that might be found in it. Although that fun does include one of Galton & Simpson's greatest exchanges, when Albert leafs through Harold's holiday brochures:
ALBERT: Hey, look at it! It's all falling to bits!

HAROLD: That happens to be the Acropolis.

ALBERT: The what?

HAROLD: The Acropo... Ain't you never 'eard of it? That's famous, that is. The four horsemen of the Acropolis! Legendary. 

 But its largely tragedy, watching Albert block Harold's fortnight in Saint-Tropez through guilt (feebly - "I'll see you in the morning... God willing") and deception, reaching a comic peak with his martyred rejection of Harold's generous gift of £15 to go on a coach holiday - "Don't waste your money on me, Son. Spend it on your new friends".

  Speaking about Comedy Playhouse: The Offer, Ray Galton said, “I think we have written a little piece of Pinter here and we couldn’t possibly repeat it”. Happily they did repeat it - watching this alongside of Pinter's 1960 Armchair Theatre play A Night Out shows that there's nothing hubristic about the connection. Both use the intimacy and closeness of studio television to show the oppressiveness of living with an overbearing parent. In the same way that the viewer sees a huge close-up of Tom Bell's exhausted, fuming, face but hears a continual stream of complaints from Madge Ryan in A Night Out, in The Holiday the viewer stays in the room with Harold, posing in front of a mirror in holiday clothes with him, but having to listen to Albert's cries and moans from upstairs. Both sons even consider violence with whatever object comes to hand, be that a clock or - in Harold's case - a harpoon gun.

  This is the last episode of the first series, and Harold gets given his starkest moment of self-knowledge yet, when Colin Douglas' doctor tells him that the old man isn't to be upset and that he'll have to go to Bognor with Albert once again this summer:
HAROLD: So I'm trapped, that's what it amounts to, don't it? I'm trapped... I'm doomed to be a nursemaid to him all my life.

DOCTOR: I wouldn't put it like that... after all, we're all trapped by something or other. We all have responsibilities... one day you'll be old yourself.

HAROLD: Yeah, but I've been looking after him all my life. I ain't had time to get married and have kids to look after me... (shocked)... I WILL be on my own.
  Happy summer holidays, viewers!

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive - 1997 (11 July 2006)

 This sharp and specific media satire is beginning to require historical footnotes. This especially struck me when Sharon Horgan's P.A. tries to justify booking Richard Bacon for the show to Brydon - "He's actually better known now for insulting those fat people on Top Of The Pops" I wonder what a fifteen year-old comedy fan of today - who likes The Trip say, and wants to investigate more of Rob Brydon's work - would make of this programme?
 The other three guests on the first edition of the terrible panel show are Lucy Porter, Gail Porter and David Mitchell. All come with baggage and stipulations:
BRYDON: So we've got a bald woman who doesn't want people to mention that she's bald, we've got an unknown woman who would like us not to mention that she's unknown, we've got a man who's primarily known for voicing the thoughts in his head who wouldn't like us to mention voicing the thoughts in his head. Are we allowed to say that Jane Moore works for the gutter press? Would she rather we didn't mention that? Is Dave Gorman asking us not to mention that he looks like a lecturer or goes on the Internet a lot? Is everybody using this show as a chance to make a fresh start and go in a new direction?
 This is a hard show to warm to in some ways, with the hero being vain, disagreeable and unfriendly. His one saving grace is that he's always right about the shoddiness of much British broadcasting of his time... Whether that was enough for viewers, I'm not sure.