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.

We thrive on segregation

Whenever television looks back at the 1970s it tends to do so with disdain: the usual ragbag of modern day worthies pontificate about the bad old days of protests and colour bars, strikes and segregation. But what of today – have things really moved on?

Johnny Speight’s If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them, first shown in 1970 then remade in colour in 1974, dealt with how people thrive on segregation, treating others as belonging a group rather than as individuals. From Richard Beckinsale fantasising about being a woman raped by a man to the blind Leonard Rossiter who thought Beckinsale was black because of the tone of his voice, Speight himself had something of an obsession with segregation, especially that according to race, with much of his work after The Arthur Haynes Show dealing with this subject – though sometimes misunderstood – to great effect.

Students at Oriel College, part of Oxford University, are the latest to find such a cause to leech onto, namely the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign. Although it’s origins lay in a post-Apartheid South Africa, the British black and white copy seeks to have removed from the College a statue of former student Cecil Rhodes, seen by opponents as something of an imperialist, a white supremacist, who made his fortune from mining diamonds in the former Cape Colony of South Africa where he later became Prime Minister in 1890.

Rhodes was a shrewd, perhaps ruthless businessman. The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 transformed South Africa into an industrial economy which saw Rhodes amongst others led to the rapid colonisation of the country, so much so that by the end of the 19th Century all the indigenous peoples of South Africa had lost their political and economic independence. White-owned mining companies were able to control workers who often found themselves in dangerous conditions for low wages and Rhodes was able to amass an enormous personal fortune through the creation of the De Beers consolidated Mines Company in 1888.  Today we call that “getting on”.

Rhodes used his personal wealth and political skills to become the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. His treatment of indigenous Africans as a businessman and Premier varied: by today’s standards he is seen as something of an imperialist, but he took a genuine interest in their cultures and language, and had a respect and understanding for Africans that belies his legacy.

But Rhodes’ methods in business and politics were merely a development of over 200 years of British and Dutch colonisation, which were relentlessly intensified after his death in 1902 when the British Government implemented the Act of Union and brought together the previously separate colonies of the Orange Free State, Transvaal, Natal, and the Cape Colony to form the Union of what we now know as South Africa.  In comparison, today’s Britain is a small, insignificant bit-player in a group of nationals with vested interests seeking to unify different peoples under common, unelected law called the European Union, disgracefully championed by a toadying media including BBC Radio Four’s not very funny or clever The Now Show.

Back to The Cape.  For the following two decades successive governments introduced a raft of regulations and discriminatory laws that tightened state control over blacks. The Natives’ Land Act of 1913 which reserved around 90 percent of the land in South Africa for whites and prevented Africans from freely buying land; the remainder of the land became “reserves” and were a forerunner of the “homelands” where illness and malnutrition were rife. For many Africans, especially young men and women, migration to wage-earning jobs in cities and mines became one of the only ways to pay colonial taxes and survive. In turn during this period mass urbanisation saw the number of city-dwelling Africans more than triple, but they lived in terrible conditions, with poor housing, health and transport and no electricity for many decades, and along with poverty came crime and fear for personal safety. Sadly there are some indigenous to Britain for whom that is a fairly accurate picture of their country today.

Of course it is difficult to justify racial segregation in South Africa, just as it is difficult to justify segregation of any kind, anywhere. But Rhodes’ tenure as mining magnate and Prime Minister was merely a progression from what had proceeded him, and by the standards that followed it could be argued he was, comparatively speaking, a free-market Liberal. That is not to say that what he presided over was not cruel. To deny anyone the opportunity to live, learn and earn as they would wish purely on the basis of their being somehow different to what is perceived as a superior group of human beings is as distasteful as it is ultimately self-destructive. And it is this where, for me, the hypocrisy of the “Rhodes Must Go” campaigners at Oxford University becomes apparent.

What set Rhodes apart from the Premiers who succeeded him (apart from his statue) was that he left in his Will an endowment to Oriel College whereby eighty-three students each and every year, initially of Teutonic descent but latterly anyone – including some of the greatest campaigners against segregation and for civil liberties – would be awarded scholarships affording them the opportunity denied to others from a different academic and socioeconomic background. Indeed, there is much controversy about the alleged hypocrisy of a black Oriel College student, Ntokozo Qwabe, who although accepted a Rhodes scholarship, partook in the protests. In my view he was given his opportunity and should take it. However, it is a tad disingenuous for him to want to whitewash Rhodes out of history but happily take his cash.

But for these opportunities the students who benefit from them would not have their platform for debate. To be able to attend any university, let alone Oxford, is granted only to those with the very highest academic and economic means. The rest of us are kept in our respective places, working for a living and paying our taxes to, er, help fund “our” universities.

Yet for some even these opportunities are not enough. At the time of writing junior doctors, for example, who could go on to earn £120,000 as a consultant, are in the middle of a series of strikes because they believe that an eleven per cent pay rise is “derisory” and that working after seven o’clock in the evening is “antisocial”. The segregating of blacks in South Africa and forcing them into “homelands” was both derisory and antisocial; enjoying a double digit wage windfall while working when the sun is just about dipping over the horizon is something the majority of people would kill for. Yet for all the talk of Unions existing for the common good, and how important statues are as a symbol of what is right and wrong, what about the one outside the TUC which depicts a man helping another man off the ground? How are striking junior doctors helping others, except themselves?

On a 1980 edition of Parkinson, guests John Betjeman and Maggie Smith were talking about pay protests with the great Kenneth Williams who put it this way:

“Why can’t they march for somebody else instead of a few pounds for themselves? What about somebody who’s really hard up? When a union does something like jeopardising the work of their fellow men. For example if you stop trains, people can’t get to their work, can they? So in doing what you want for yourself you’re jeopardising your fellow men, aren’t you? Well why can’t you act in concert with your fellow men? Why do you have to do something that endangers… your fellow men when that statue represents exactly that, helping not hindering.”

Host Michael Parkinson countered: “Because it might be that one worker is a lot worse off than their fellow. If they were all equal there’d be no problem… it’s all very well if you’ve got a talent, a decent job, you can go on and earn a handsome living… because you work in an area where you can back your talent and because your talent pays off in the end then you had a horizon, you could see ahead.”

The points Johnny Speight, Kenneth Williams and Michael Parkinson were making, that all human beings should be treated equally and have the same opportunities in life regardless of anything, and that given an opportunity one should grasp it with both hands and have confidence in oneself rather than dragging others down with you, are absolutely spot on. Whether the points being made were intended to be interpreted in this way comes down to the simple passing of time: Speight saw the preoccupation with segregation as a regressive brake on society whereas today’s students see it has a bandwagon on which to hitch a ride and get noticed; Williams saw striking as an excuse not to better oneself whereas today’s strikers attach themselves to individual causes such as Ntokozo Qwabe or junior doctors’ pay – in so called “sympathy strikes” to seek attention rather than the greater good; Parkinson was attempting to argue that people who had what might be termed a menial job (the example he gave was people whose job it was to “stick on door knobs”) had more of a right to strike than those with better prospects – of course there are fewer jobs with better prospects than that of a junior doctor.

But while students mourn for their colonial brothers in spades perhaps they should reflect on the fact that in this country, not all indigenous whites have the same opportunity to attend university. The real problem is class not colour.

Segregation is commonplace, is part of our lives, and as such television portrays it in it’s many forms, from the class divide of Upstairs Downstairs and the exquisite Brass, to the more cut and dried Porridge, and not forgetting The Nineteenth Hole which also threw in sexism for good measure albeit satirised in a fashion typical of Johnny Speight. Between them Government and society have taken great strides along the path to equality of all forms, and this has perhaps been best documented by the venerable Coronation Street which, over it’s fifty-odd years, has gone from a stark northern working class kitchen sink drama to taking a more metropolitan, softer snapshot of everyday life with the introduction of characters who are black, gay and transgender. Sadly however the Street’s smokers – black, gay or otherwise – are segregated in the grubby yard at the back of the Rovers Return. That’s progress for you.

Seemingly only certain types of segregation attract publicity, mainly to do with race or sexual orientation, driven by a left wing media narrative whose greatest exponent is of course The Guardian, where Owen Jones, who probably believes every word he writes, hitches a lift on whichever particular segregation bandwagon will gain him a few hundred more Twitter followers that day. To be fair to Owen, he doesn’t bleat about “only” earning £30,000 a year for writing about those not afforded his opportunities. That said, he doesn’t mention the fact that the tax arrangements of the proprietors of The Guardian are very well segregated in The Caymans.  That, too, is called “getting on”.

So what do protestors want? Junior doctors would do well to take a leaf out of the Oriel College students’ book – and grab the money and the opportunity, no matter how distasteful they might find it. Maybe in an act of solidarity they should black-up, forming a picket line of Paki-Paddies between scholarship-funded lectures protesting about how downtrodden educational immigrants are. If they want to know real hardship they should do what Matthew Parris did for World In Action in 1984 and live on Jobseekers Allowance. In that year, months after my mother had died of a brain tumour (doctors, eh?) my father joined the ill-fated miners’ strike. Our meals came from food parcels which we’d collect from the stage at Arkwright Town Miners’ Welfare and had about as much nutrition as the crumpled brown paper sack they came in – plenty of Bulgarian jam but no shortnin’ bread – and our heat came from burning fence posts which I stole – aged ten – from hedgerows armed with a wheelbarrow and a set of wire cutters, posts I’d then saw into fire-sized pieces under the cover of darkness.

It is so easy to protest from a position of comfort, not really having experienced that about which they complain. Segregation is a fact of life. Our country thrives on segregation whether as a cause to get angry about or a structure to exploit. Whichever way you look at it segregation puts people in their place. And that’s how society works.