SYPTE: Clean up your act

Last year South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE), an enormous power-crazed quango formed of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield councils, announced it needed to save £8million from its annual budget. As part of this, an all too brief consultation was instigated with the aim of cutting the Sheffield bus network by about 10%. As is usually the case with local authority consultations, the original plans were rubber stamped almost without change as reported in the Sheffield Star on 2 September 2015:

“Transport chiefs have agreed proposals to remove, replace, reduce and renumber buses across Sheffield despite last-ditch protests this afternoon.

“Campaigners demonstrated outside the meeting in Barnsley while inside protesters highlighted how the changes would hit people travelling to work or for hospital appointments.

“Martin Mayer, secretary of Sheffield Trade Union Council, asked councillors if they wanted to ‘take the political responsibility for the biggest ever cut on a single day to Sheffield buses’ – which he said amounted to at least a 10 per cent cut.

“Sheffield Bus Partnership claims the proposals will improve the city-wide bus network, reduce duplication and pollution, and make it more efficient.

“The plans were revised after thousands of people raised concerns during a heavily criticised public consultation.

“The cuts and changes will now come into force from the weekend starting October 31 after the plans were agreed.

“Plans were revised after thousands of people took part in consultation, with nine separate petitions against the changes submitted.

“But it was said at the meeting of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority transport committee that the amended plans would still have an impact on passengers, with several people speaking at the meeting and others protesting outside.

“Geraldine O’Connor, speaking as a disabled Sheffield resident, said she only found out about the consultation in July on the day it ended. She told councillors: ‘If your plans go ahead I might not be able to get to a job.’

“She claimed there was potential for a judicial review because disabled people would not be able to access ‘essential services such as the Hallamshire Hospital’ via the number 70.

“Graves Park Councillor Ian Auckland, who sits on the committee, said it was a ‘shrinking’ bus network. He added: ‘All the evidence is that shrinking networks lead to fewer passengers which leads to higher fares and so on – the only people who will benefit from that are the bus operators.’

“The changes were agreed as part of an interlinked package of measures under a devolution deal for the Sheffield region.

“David Young, from the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, said a ‘very good number of changes’ had been made to original plans as a result of consultation and as almost 2,500 people had taken part the ‘message has got out.’

“He said people travelling to hospital via the 70 would be able to change buses without having to walk.  Mr Young added: ‘There’s a lot of discussion about it all being bad news and cuts – there are increased services in some cases. These are all based on the actual patronage data, use it or lose it is very much a cliche but if customers are not using the services it is not sustainable to keep them running.’

“He said that most passengers’ concerns had been addressed by the revised proposals and some services had seen positive changes.

“The meeting also heard that it was estimated there would be ‘30 less job opportunities’ for people as a result of the changes, but no compulsory redundancies.”

And in the Sheffield Star just a week after the cuts…

“Sheffield Bus Partnership claimed the changes – which were revised after a public outcry – would improve the network and be more efficient.

“But Ann Suckley, of Ecclesfield, said it was now a battle to get to work at Meadowhall shopping centre, one of Sheffield’s biggest employers.  She said: ‘I now have to walk further which is fine but the 35 buses have gone to one an hour. The bus misses half the time so if you get the next hourly one you are going to be late for work.  You have to leave two and a half hours before work to make sure you can get there when it is a shopping centre that employs thousands of people.’

“A petition against changes to the 83 and 83a services was presented at Sheffield Council’s full meeting last week.

“Mary Fraser said it meant that elderly and disabled people in Firs Hill had to walk further and change buses to access shops in Burngreave.  She told councillors: ‘The elderly in Firs Hill don’t have any cars or anything like that to take them to these areas – I had to wait 25 minutes for a bus to take me home which I think is a disgrace.’

“Councillor Terry Fox said there had been several inquiries about bus changes and they would be passed on.

“Raymond Pixley, aged 89 and from Dore, said he had a printed timetable for the new 81 service which has replaced the 70 but it did not match the one online.  He said: ‘Even when I called SYPTE they couldn’t tell me which timetable was the right one.  We’ve got hospital appointments to get to and we can’t even find out what bus to get on.’

“Others have complained about long queues and cramped buses on the 52 routes from the city centre to Crookes, and the services up and down Ecclesall Road.

“Some called it a ‘shambles’ and one dad said his daughter now had to walk in the dark to catch the 87 bus to school or get there 45 minutes early by changing buses – which cost more in fares.

“Hairdresser James Pashley said there had been an incident of ‘bus rage’ at a stop outside The Crucible theatre when three buses passed as they were not in service on Thursday night.  He said: ‘When the 20 arrived a man asked if it went to Pitsmoor and the driver didn’t know – the passenger kicked off saying he had been there for 45 minutes.  They had an argument and the driver said he would call the police but then the passenger got out.’

“Transport chiefs say they are monitoring bus complaints to see which are more ‘significant’ – and that requests for changes will be reviewed.

“South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive said it has seen an increased number of complaints since the cuts were introduced last Sunday.

“A spokesman added: ‘This is normal when changes of this scale are made.  The executive and the bus operators are closely monitoring these and are determining which are temporary issues which will get resolved as people become more familiar with their journeys over the next two weeks, and which are more significant.  SYPTE is confident that accurate timetable information is available online, at bus stops and through printed timetables produced by the bus operators.  Passengers should be aware that printed timetables feature condensed travel information, and in some cases may include approximate times. We also encourage all of our passengers to plan their journey in advance, using our journey planning tools available at travelsouthyorkshire.com and on information kiosks in interchanges.  Customer satisfaction is important to us and we are encouraging bus users to give feedback on the network changes if something isn’t right, so the Sheffield Bus Partnership can understand where services are not meeting community needs. Requests for changes will be reviewed by the partnership and put in place where possible.'”

If SYPTE are so desperate to slash costs that they’re prepared to cut bus services to such an extent as to put people’s jobs at risk, make access to healthcare almost impossible and isolate the most vulnerable in the community, you’d think the easier cost savings would have been taken care of first, right?

Wrong.

Last year I filmed a member of staff at Sheffield Interchange spending 35 minutes wiping a grit bin clean with a bucket of soapy water.  A few weeks after there were THREE people cleaning the same windows – one with a squeegee, one with a blade and the other wiping the sills.  And now – as illustrated by the picture heading this blog – FOUR people sweeping up gravel. So I thought I’d ask SYPTE what was going on, starting with an email with the above picture and some others:

“Those pictures were taken at your Interchange today.  The first two show FOUR – repeat FOUR of your staff together doing nothing more than sweeping up gravel, including Anita Smith who I understand for reasons that escape me is a senior member of staff.  They were doing that – ALL FOUR OF THEM – for at least two hours; feel free to verify this via your CCTV records.

“The next picture is the state of the toilets at the same time (picture of toilets that looked like a bomb site).

“A few months ago I filmed the member of staff next to left wiping clean a grit bin near D2 with soapy water, taking 35 minutes.  This nonsense has to stop.  Without giving me a stock, straight bat answer such as ‘I’m sorry you were disappointed but be assured I’ll pass on your comments’ I would like you to answer the following questions:

1. What roles did each of the four members of staff have in sweeping up the gravel?

2. If all four did not have roles then why were they there, and will they be paid for that period?

3. Were any of the four staff more senior than the others and if so why did they not deploy surplus staff to clean the toilets?

4. How often are the toilets cleaned (cleaned does not mean attended, cleaned means swept and mopped, all surfaces wiped)?

A few days later came this reply:

“I have been passed your e-mail relating containing photos of 4 staff together on the runway at Sheffield interchange together with a photo of litter in the toilets. Following an investigation into this it transpires that the 4 staff were actually required to carry out a task they had been set – removing salt and grit from the kerbs and runways.  This required two staff to carry ‘buckets’ of a cleaning substance, one to do the ‘scrubbing and one to ensure their safety.

“Unfortunately due to current staffing levels any tasks such as this take cleaning staff form their regular duties including clearing the toilets.

“Thank you for taking the time to contact SYPTE, this allows us to explain why such actions take place.”

Not good enough.  I emailed back:

“Thank you for taking the trouble to look into this matter and for your prompt reply.  It is important that all SYPTE resources are used with the maximum efficiency and effectiveness, especially just a few months after the biggest cuts to the Sheffield bus network – including those services supported by SYPTE – in living memory.

“Whilst I perhaps expected any response to my email to be defensive, I am very disappointed with your explanation, though at the same time I have a morbid admiration for your defence of PTE staff, and the fantastical imagination necessary to justify allocating four people for at least half a day to sweep up some gravel in such a small area.

“Why would it take two members of staff to carry the cleaning agent? Surely, given the distance from the furthest point in the Interchange to the main building, even if the buckets couldn’t be carried in one journey by one person, then it would take less than 5 minutes for that person to make the same trip? And once the buckets were carried, what were the two people doing then?  Perhaps more puzzling is that in the pictures that I sent to SYPTE, plus many more I have, not only were no buckets being carried, but there is no evidence that any buckets were involved whatsoever. Maybe your investigation should have looked at the evidence before explaining it.

“As for the one person being responsible for the safety of the rest, presumably this was to ensure that if whoever was the scrubber couldn’t see or hear any oncoming buses then the person responsible for safety could alert the scrubber to the impending peril, and rapidly ensure that they and any equipment were relocated to a safe refuge until danger had passed. This, although rather over the top, would be reasonable enough, except in none of the pictures sent to you – plus others – was anyone looking in the direction of oncoming vehicles which can be clearly determined from the photographs.

“Wouldn’t it have been more honest to reply with a grudging admission that perhaps, on reflection, staff were not deployed in the more efficient and effective manner that day, that you’ll review procedures in future, and work with taxpayers rather than being defensive to the point of ridicule when all everybody wants is the maximum resources available for what the SYPTE should be doing, supporting local bus services?

“Wouldn’t it have been better for just two people to be allocated to the grit removal; one carrying the equipment and doing the actual scrubbing, and the other carrying the buckets then once the buckets were in situ snd not requiring to be carried, to be looking out properly for their safety while the scrubbing was taking place?

“Wouldn’t it have been better then for the two superfluous staff to be helping customers, promoting the use of local bus services, ensuring that tourist and locals alike are given the best possible travel experience in order that they will choose Sheffield again?

“Wouldn’t it be great if public bodies were more open, honest and clear, receptive to constructive criticism and be adaptive, ruthlessly efficient, always striving to do things better and maximising ever dwindling resources?”

No reply.  So the next time you’re not happy with your buses in South Yorkshire, you might ask if your council tax is being spent as efficiently as it might.  Local authorities seem to think they’re untouchable and get rather angry – almost intimidating – if you question them.

My previous blog on the forthcoming bus cuts in Derbyshire caused a bit of a kerfuffle at County Hall in Matlock.  I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Derbyshire County Council (DCC) to ascertain what the subsidy per passenger is on each supported bus service in order to see if there was a better way to preserve bus services rather that spend a proposed £1.3million on Demand Responsive Transport, a simple enough request and one sent in a purely personal capacity.  But DCC know who I work for, and rang them to tell me not to make such requests, and were clearly threatening unwelcome consequences for me and my employer if I refused to desist.

But that is my right – and your right – so exercise it.

Derbyshire County Council should choose a different route

This blog first appeared on 27 February 2016 and has been published, in edited form, in the 9 March 2016 edition of Route One magazine, route-one.net:

Derbyshire County Council (DCC) are looking to withdraw all funding for all supported bus services, with the exception of school buses which they are legally obliged to provide under the 1985 Transport Act. They say budget cuts imposed upon them from central Government leaves them with no choice.

The following is taken from their website: “Local residents are being asked their views on proposals to stop paying for local bus services and community transport to help us deal with the biggest budget cuts in our history. By 2020, the funding we get from central government is expected to be more than a third less than in 2010.”

“This means we need to review what we spend on paying for local bus services which don’t carry enough passengers to be run commercially (subsidised buses). We’re also reviewing the amount of money we give to Derbyshire’s six community transport schemes to run Dial-a-Bus (DAB) ‘shopping buses’. We’re already scaling back on our support for DAB services meaning that from this year we will fund one of these trips a week for every community, town or village, to a nearby town centre or supermarket. Some areas currently have several services a week.”

“But we are now putting forward further proposals to help save £4.4 million on transport costs.”

Their proposals would see the withdrawal of all county council funding for subsidised buses from October 2017, and therefore unless they can be run commercially they will stop. They also plan to withdraw all county council funding for DAB services, meaning that unless they can be funded from elsewhere they too will stop. To mitigate these losses, DCC would provide £1.3 million for a new Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) service which would be available to all passengers, both those currently using subsidised buses and those using DAB, and also provide a new Door-to-Door Plus service for people who currently use DAB but would be unable to use the proposed DRT service.

A quick look at how DRT services work: intending passengers have to book their seat either by telephone or online, much like a taxi. They then wait for the bus to turn up at the place and time booked, much like a taxi, and are then taken to the shops before being taken home afterwards, much like…

Councillor Dean Collins, Cabinet Member for Highways, Transport and Infrastructure, said of the DCC proposals: “We are facing unprecedented cuts and must review all our services, particularly those, like subsidised buses and community transport, that by law, we do not have to provide.

“We know from previous consultations that public and community transport is vital to helping people get out and about, enabling them to maintain their independence and wellbeing, but unfortunately, the fact is, we just don’t have the money to continue funding these services to the level we have previously, so we need to look at running things differently.

“No decisions have yet been made on these latest proposals and I would encourage people to take part in this new consultation so we are well aware of the public’s view of our plans.”

The consultation will run for eight weeks until Sunday 24 April 2016. However, smack bang in the middle of this period something even more significant in terms of impacting upon local services is about to happen. Under something called the Devolution Deal, part of Chancellor George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” fairytale, all councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – the city councils, borough councils, district councils and county councils – are expected to reach a deal in March, following negotiations with central Government the “North Midlands” devolution deal, also known as D2N2. As part of this it is intended to develop a North Midlands combined authority which would mean that decisions on and funding for services including public transport currently provided by Derbyshire County Council would stay in Derbyshire.

Whilst DCC laud this plan, claiming that as well as providing 55,000 new private sector jobs and building 77,000 extra homes, they would introduce “a better co-ordinated public transport system with ‘Oyster’ style smart ticketing that will help make sure communities are connected to jobs and training. The inevitable conclusion would be quality contracts and effectively re-regulation. All well and good and even nostalgic you might think. But since deregulation of bus services 30 years ago much has changed.

The promised revolution for bus networks and ticketing can work well in large cities such as London, but in shire counties like Derbyshire there are far smaller towns and villages, often served by single operators for the simple reason that there isn’t sufficient demand for a multi-operator high frequency network. Worse still, such schemes often result in cartels in all but name – Sheffield being a prime example – where two large operators (First and Stagecoach) effectively share the spoils between them, squeezing out small, independent operators who are more customer focused and offer a better standard of service with cheaper fares. With lower overheads these firms can continue to provide marginal services to areas which might not be satisfactorily profitable to the shareholders of the bigger companies, but are perfectly acceptable to your family run rural bus company. This would be lost.

DCC believe that their proposals are “the best option for Derbyshire to bring more money into the county, improve the economy and protect services in the future.” The plans also refer to a new “joint fund to spend on improving transport” whilst failing to mention that this refers to road infrastructure; not a single penny piece is promised towards supporting local bus services.

As if this wasn’t enough, Chesterfield Borough Council (CBC) are looking to bail out of the D2N2 scheme and instead join the new combined Sheffield City Region, which DCC object to, warning that if plans by CBC go ahead it will mean the biggest change to local government in Derbyshire for generations, meaning that “some key services in Chesterfield – Derbyshire’s largest town − would no longer be provided by Derbyshire County Council,” including public transport.

By now two things should have become apparent. Firstly, that DCC seem intent, come what may, to remove all funding – and responsibility – from local bus services. They’re simply not interested any more. Despite Councillor Collins’ words decisions have undoubtedly already been made and therefore secondly, the threat to supported services in Chesterfield is moot – they’re not going to exist anyway.

But rather than making party political capital at the expense of local bus services, surely there’s another way? DRT doesn’t work: they are inefficient, huge distances between the few passengers that use them meaning the exorbitant current subsidy of £24 per passenger for community transport would be peanuts. You’d have thought DCC themselves would know this following the last (and only) two DRT services they introduced, the Higham Connect and Hilcote Connect, both catastrophically expensive and unused failures swiftly replaced by a proper bus service, the 149 operated by G & J Holmes of Clay Cross.

Of course there is a better way. The subsidies DCC currently provide to local bus services works out at, on average, £1.19 per passenger. They could quite easily use the £1.3 million they are planning to throw at a crackpot DRT scheme to continue funding more the most used but still unprofitable services. In 2010 DCC held a similar consultation, requiring the buses budget to be cut by roughly a third. The same questionnaire was published along with a list of supported services. The original DCC proposal at the time, to withdraw all supported services where the subsidy worked out at more than £4 per passenger, was nodded through once the pantomime consultation dragged its way to the end. If DCC repeated the exercise but set the bar at the current average subsidy per passenger of £1.19 this would save the £1.3 million they’re planning for DRT.

However if for nothing other than to apportion blame for unnecessary service cuts on central Government they insist on cutting a full £4.4 million there are ways to breach the shortfall. When you first look at how local authorities receive funding aside from their grant from central Government, council tax and business rates come to mind. But councils throughout the county have already raised council tax by the maximum 2% allowed, and gave also opted for the additional 2% precept earmarked for social care. As for business rates, under plans announced by the Chancellor last October, although councils can cut rates they are not allowed to raise them, unless they are devolved cities with an elected mayor, and even then rates can only go up by 2% which must be ring fenced for capital projects. So what could be done?

Firstly, DCC could compel bus operators to charge commercial fares for schoolchildren on supported schools services, rather than the current 70p flat fare; the additional revenue of over £100,000 could be offset against the amount paid for the contracts.

Then take this a stage further and allow community transport schemes to charge 75% of the equivalent commercial taxi rate (the discount being exactly that offered to children under DCC’s b_line scheme), rather than a £3 standard fare. This would better reflect the cost of the journey being undertaken and also relate more closely to what the service actually is: a group hire taxi service. This would generate just over £300,000.

Introduce a 35p on-street departure charge (roughly the going rate for similar schemes) for bus services operating via or terminating in Derbyshire towns. This would share the burden between highly profitable services and other socially necessary ones. DCC provide bus priority measures and bus stops at effectively no charge to bus operators. There is precedent for this in council and PTE-run bus stations, and would be no different for charging for on-street car parking. In Chesterfield alone there are well over 6,000 departures every week and throughout the county this would raise £1.5 million.

Speaking of car parking the introduction of a 15% precept on car parking where fees are already charged, revenues from which would be clawed back from district and borough councils, would raise around £1.2 million.

And with all this, supported services that run across the county boundary would continue, and in turn DCC would still receive contributions from neighbouring local authorities to support these services of over £300,000.

And there’s the £4.4 million DCC want to keep bus services running. All figures are based on or taken from central Government and DCC websites along with Freedom of Information requests.

But having said all of that there is an even simpler way, which would relieve DCC of the logistical and administrative burden that supported bus services brings, and would genuinely ensure that local bus services continue to be provided where there is a clear demand. The £1.3 million earmarked for what would undoubtedly be an ill-fated DRT scheme should be diverted and used to more realistically reimburse operators for journeys made under the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS), a ludicrous idea implemented by Labour in 2007 giving virtually unlimited free bus travel to ten million people and reimbursing bus companies pennies in return. That is to say that currently, whenever a pensioner or disabled person boards a bus in Derbyshire (or anywhere) with a free bus pass, bus companies are not reimbursed the correct fare or even anywhere near it. They are paid about £1. That’s it. Even if the journey is 30 miles long and is totally unnecessary. And that is why not only are rural services more at risk under the politically motivated cuts that DCC seek to implement, but bus companies are not receiving what they should to contribute towards the running of what services do remain.

Despite their public service bleeding heart attitude, both locally and nationally Labour, through their “we know best” attitude of innovation-stifling regulation, continue to demonstrate their frightening lack of knowledge of the bus industry, risking isolating communities through political point scoring. It’s time they chose a different route.

Oh No! It’s a top-ten list

Easter is fast approaching which must mean that by now you’re sick of chocolate eggs and will need to seek out something different to eat whilst slumped in front of the television watching yet another list show, something along the lines of The Top Ten Most Sexist/Racist/Homophobic Sitcoms Ever on Channel Four or Five.

However, being a pioneer of, well, nothing much really I’ve decided to produce my own top ten. It won’t feature a not very funny female/black/gay “comedian” ranting about programmes they’ve never seen, it won’t be riddled with reality show blandees with shock and offence as fake as their tan, it won’t even feature Andrew Collins. In fact it won’t be on television at all. In a move that they will undoubtedly come to regret no broadcaster has chosen to commission this particular top ten, and so it’ll remain here, languishing amongst the indistinct, waiting for someone to click on a wrong link and maybe raise an eyebrow or three.

And so I give you my personal choice for the Top Ten ITV Sitcoms. It is entirely arbitrary, based on nothing but my own opinions, and you are welcome to disagree.

 
10. Whoops Apocalypse

A pre-Young Ones Rik Mayall appeared in this short-lived Andrew Marshall and David Renwick-penned sitcom from 1982, alongside British comedy stalwarts including John Barron, Geoffrey Palmer, John Cleese and Richard Griffiths plus Alexei Sayle in the only thing he was ever any good in.

Doomsday is just days away and Johnny Cyclops, former film star and now useless, perpetually bewildered US President, based not very loosely on Ronald Reagan, is cajoled even bullied from catastrophe to catastrophe by The Deacon (John Barron) and his advisers whose belief in God is as doting as it is futile. Our hero is looking to capture the deadly Quark Bomb, which has been stolen by International French terrorist, Lacrobat (John Cleese) who sends his enemies videos of his many previous evil deeds with bona fides provided by the supposedly rich and powerful throughout the world but who look curiously like Cleese himself.

Also on the hunt for the bomb is Rasim, the exiled Shah of Iran, who finds himself stuck on a cross-channel ferry in the English Channel during a strike with his aide Abdab (“a thousand apologies…”) and seem to spend most of their time in compromising positions in the toilet.

Add to this a left-wing British Prime Minister Kevin Pork (Peter Jones), who thinks he’s Superman and struts aimlessly around Number 10 in his cape while acting as Cyclops’ lapdog, a Russian President who is barely alive but who’s inner circle pull off every trick in the book to convince enemies he is in the rudest of health while looking for any excuse to push “the button”, Ed Bishop from UFO, a topless newsreader and blissfully over the top performances all round and you have probably the best political satire ITV has ever produced.

The plot, set in the midst of the Cold War is certainly of its time, but as life continually threatens to imitate art its relevance comes and goes with every significant political change of power. With this, and plenty of simple laugh out loud farce, Whoops Apocalypse has enough to keep a modern day audience informed and entertained.

 

9. George and Mildred

If you were asked to devise a typically 1970s British sitcom then this is probably the basic premise you’d come up with: middle-class suburbia, hen-pecked husband and his domineering wife who wants to impress her well-to-do neighbours. This is exactly that but for me is the best of its kind, including similar setups from the BBC.

If you count Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads as a spin off then this 1976 effort, a product of Man About The House from three years earlier, is the second best sitcom spin off ever made, although pretty much every other one was terrible.

George Roper (Brian Murphy) is a middle-aged, balding, weedy spendthrift somehow married to Mildred (the beautiful Yootha Joyce) who keeps him firmly planted under her stiletto. Together they’ve just moved to Hampton Wick, and while she desperately tries to climb up the social ladder with Conservative neighbours Jeffrey and Ann Fourmile (Norman Eshley and Sheila Fearn) and into bed with George, it is she who is held back on both counts, largely due to her husband hating everything suburban and conjugal.

Jeffrey is forever surplanting his political views on young son Tristram (Nicholas Bond-Owen), and doesn’t like having George as a neighbour, fearing he will be a bad influence on his child. Meanwhile Mildred and Ann get along just fine while bemoaning their husbands’ sometimes childish feuds.

Not forgetting the “others” in the marriage, George’s goldfish Moby and Mildred’s Yorkshire Terrier Truffles in whom they each confide their despairing thoughts, offering them more affection and attention than each other.

Perhaps typically of the time for ITV sitcoms there are some jokes that make you cringe, but that’s what made Police Squad! so brilliant, and is how Tim Vine pays his bills.

 

8.  Love Thy Neighbour

Often and unfairly derided as a lazy racist sitcom, and the go-to show for clips to illustrate a laboured and unjustified point on Bank Holiday Channel Four list shows, the relationships in this 1972 Vince Powell scribed comedy are basically the same as in George and Mildred; two neighbouring couples, husbands arguing while the wives look on in disdain.

The twist here is that as well as political divides there’s the added element of race, as one of the couples, wait for it, is black.

Eddie (Jack Smethurst) and Joan Booth (Kate Williams) are a working class couple who live next door to Bill (Rudolph Walker) and Barbie Reynolds (Nina Baden-Semper). The two men work together but don’t get on, while their wives are the best of friends. Eddie regularly hurls racial insults at Bill who gives as good as he gets, but Eddie is clearly written to be ignorant and less educated, showing up his bigoted views as ill-informed. Sadly, critics – now and then – didn’t see this and although it perhaps lacks some of the intelligence and socio-political bite of Till Death Us Do Part, Love Thy Neighbour makes a good fist of demonstrating the ignorance of racist attitudes at the time.

 

7. George And The Dragon

Not quite at each other’s throats all of the time, George (Sid James) and Gabrielle Dragon (Peggy Mount) play chauffeur and housekeeper to the wonderfully vague and distant Colonel Maynard (John Le Mesurier). George is forever trying to smuggle a girl back to the house in the hope that she’ll replace Gabrielle who always seems to catch them just before the act.

I can forgive the “Dragon” contrivance as the chemistry between the three is clear to see, doing the sparkling scripts from Vince Powell and Harry Driver full justice. Though George And The Dragon, which started its four-series run in 1966, was written for Sid James (who left ATV for Thames with Powell and Driver), Peggy Mount is equally good if not better, her acid tongue and forceful presence cutting through.

There are great plots across all four series, the quality of writing and performing is consistently high, and it isn’t as simple as the two main protagonists battling with each other. They do often work together, usually to undo whatever mess one or other has gotten themselves into, and John Le Mesurier basically playing himself provides a subtle but important foil.

It is easy to see why the show was and remains so popular, even if often forgotten.

 

6. Vicious

Theatricals old queen Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi basically play themselves, in the guise
of Freddie and Stuart, a caustic and snobby gay couple joined in their contempt for each other, who pace around their sitting room exchanging beautifully crafted and sometimes brutal insults while Violet (Frances de la Tour) and Ash (Iwan Rheon) drop by.

Many critics panned the show, first shown in 2013, as old-fashioned, coarse and a throwback to the 1970s. And therein lie its strengths.

McKellen and Jacobi’s knighthoods come from decades of creating legendary roles for stage and screen, playing everything from supervillains to Shakespeare, which is why it is wonderful to hear McKellen’s classically-trained voice snap out punchlines like “Bitch, please.”

Violet stumbles from one hopeless relationship – usually a failed holiday or online romance which she thinks is destined for marriage – while trying to fulfil her extreme sexual appetite with Ash, a handsome you g man who’s moved next door. Violet’s personal life gives Freddie and Stuart another target for their barbs.

My only downer with Vicious is that Iwan Rheon can’t sustain a Wigan accent without trying to speak while forcing a laugh. Happily though he’s gorgeous, so that’s all right.

 

5. Curry And Chips

Having become disillusioned with the BBC after three year of writing Till Death Us Do Part, Johnny Speight created this for London Weekend in 1969, its first colour programme in any sense of the word.

Kevin O’Grady (a blacked-up Spike Milligan) is of Pakistani-Irish descent and gets a job as cleaner at Lillicrap Limited, a factory that makes cheap novelty toys often found in seaside gift shops. Immediately, there is antipathy towards him (he is given nicknamed “Paki-Paddy”) even from the only other black face around, played by Kenny Lynch. To add to their prejudice, O’Grady is also half-Irish. Standing up for him is Arthur Blenkinsop (Eric Sykes) the foreman, who takes him to stay at Mrs Bartok’s (Fanny Carby) lodging house.

The humour is largely at the expense of the racists themselves, Norman (Norman Rossington) and Young Dick (a pre-Coronation Street Geoffrey Hughes), who while bemoaning the new addition who is keen to work hard, show themselves up to be lazy in both work and ignorance.

The ITA – seemingly as stupid as the people Speight sought to satirise – deemed the series racist and ordered LWT to pull the plug after just one series.

 

4. Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt

Set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Scarsdale, this 1976 show was centred on the bungling exploits of Selwyn Froggitt (Bill Maynard) a burly, balding, good-natured council labourer with intellectual pretetsions evidenced by his rolled up copy of the Times Literary Supplement, dug holes – sometimes for himself – while having a child-like enthusiasm to improve his life and that of everyone around him.

Froggitt was on the committee of the Scarsdales Working Mens’ Club where as concert secretary he was blissfully inept at arranging the entertainment. In fact, he was spectacularly incompetent at everything he turned his hand to, being equally inept at his day job (digging holes and filling them in) and home DIY, much to the annoyance of his Mum “I wish you wouldn’t open that cupboard Selwyn, things fall out!” (Megs Jenkins).

He was joined at the club bar by fellow committee members Scouse Jack (Bill Dean), Harry (Harold Goodwin) and excitable, go-to stereotypical Welshman Clive (Richard Davies). Raymond the barman (Ray Mort) enjoyed answering the club telephone with a number of deliciously fanciful addresses.

The show included lashings of slapstick alongside writer Alan Plater’s typical northern humour, and the later “Selwyn”-series aside, was faultless, loveable and very, very funny.

 

3. Take A Letter Mr Jones

Love this. While John Inman was busy starting in the wonderful Are You Being Served? He found time to jump ship – twice – to make two different sitcoms for ITV. This was the second and best of those efforts, made by Southern in 1981, where he plays Graham Jones, a “computer and a wife” to Joan Warner (Rula Lenska), a divorced, single mother, as well as a “busy top female executive” (as she frequently refers to herself) who is struggling to keep a balance between her professional life and her personal one. At home she has a six year old daughter called Lucy (who for some reason always seems on the verge of breaking out into hysterics) and an over-excitable Italian maid Maria (Miriam Margolyes).

Other secretaries in the 8-Star office provide excellent comedy, the dithering Daisy (Christine Ozanne), the young Scouse girl who seems to have slept her way into her job Brenda (Gina Maher) and the tall, frigid Ruth (Joan Blackham) who with Inman shares some of the show’s best banter.

As well as sexual politics there’s a good helping of slapstick, and were it not for Southern’s franchise coming to a bitter end just weeks after the end of the series I’m sure more would have been made.

A charming little sitcom, underrated, under-appreciated, but for me up there with the best.

 

2. Rising Damp

This sitcom from Yorkshire Television first shown in 1974 saw Leonard Rossiter and Richard Beckinsale work together for the second time – both appeared in Johnny Speight’s LWT play “If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them”.

Race was a strong theme in this, too, as Rossiter played Rupert Rigsby, a sexually frustrated, penny pinching, bigoted, ignorant and meddlesome landlord to Alan (Beckinsale), Ruth (France de la Tour) and Philip (Don Warrington).

Though Rossiter’s performance was powerful and always immaculate, he was aided considerably by the ensemble cast. Frances de la Tour is a wonderful mixture of vulnerability and frustrated longing while Richard Beckinsale shone as the immature medical student Alan, and Don Warrington brought a touch of class as “son of a chief ” Philip, who as well as being as recipient of Miss Jones frustrated longings constantly turned Rigsby’s prejudice back on him, always having the last laugh, something that critics who claim Rising Damp was racist often conveniently forget.

De la Tour disappeared for the third series and the standard slipped a little – proving that for a sitcom to be consistently good it needs a strong cast as well as a strong script, and although some of the plots were a touch threadbare later on, it is still fondly remembered – and many see this as ITV’s best. But I believe there’s one sitcom that’s even better…

 

1. Brass

Ah the glorious Brass, which over the course of two series from 1983 (we’ll forget the third which aired six years later on Channel Four which, to be honest, was poor) told the story of the feuding families of the Northern mining village of Utterly.

Self-made man and owner of the village mine, mill and munitions factory, Bradley (Timothy West) is the head of the Hardacre clan, which comprises his three sons, Bentley (deceased), ruthless Austin who is desperate to emulate his tyrant father (Robert Reynolds) and gay Cambridge scholar Morris, who enjoys time with his “chums” and teddy bear Hesketh (James Saxon) – all named after cars, see? – as well as two daughters, Charlotte (passionate about doing good works and, says her father, “innocent to the point of simplicity”) and Isabel, whose bedpost is more notch than wood. Then there’s his wife, Lady Patience (Caroline Blakiston), a wheelchair-user ever since an accident with a tambourine.

On the other side of the village live the Fairchilds. George (Geoffrey Hinsliff) its nominal head, worships the ground his employer Bradley treads him into, while his ample-bosomed wife Agnes (Barbara Ewing), proud Union firebrand who so irons her clothes before washing them and glues peas into pods “how else do you think they get there?” and rails with fury at all life throws at her. They have two sons. One is hardworking Jack (Shaun Scott) who has inherited his mother’s socialist leanings but is periodically diverted from bringing down capitalism by his secret and exhausting life as Isabel’s sex-monkey. (“I love him hopelessly! Passionately! Recklessly! Frequently!”) The other is poetry-writing Matt (Gary Cady), who is determined, once he has made the final payments on the family pencil, to go to Cambridge despite his love for Charlotte which he expressed in frankly rubbish poetry (“Thou are more lovely and more interesting, Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May but that’s quite another thing”) and his good job – “a job wi’ a stool!” – at the mine works.

Every period drama of the time was parodied blissfully by writers John Stevenson and Julian Roach – Hard Times, When The Boat Comes In, Brideshead Revisited – supplemented by plenty of visual gags (from Bradley’s favourite dish of lobster and chips to Lady Patience delicately spooning her gin and tonic hors d’oeuvre into her mouth before falling gracefully face-first into her bowl). Add to all of that lashings of innuendo – “Oh Matt,” sobs Charlotte as he bids her farewell, “I shall always wonder how many poems the lead in your pencil would have been good for!” – and the whole thing is essentially beautifully crafted daftness with actors and writers all seeing just how far out they can go and still bring everything safely back.

It is a joy. It is, quite simply, the best sitcom ITV has ever made.