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.

Sandwiched between politics and porn

I’m a bit of a telly nerd. Only a bit, mind – I wouldn’t profess to have the in-depth knowledge of someone for whom being an enthusiast is a career, besides which I just don’t have the time. Taking getting to and from there into account I spend more than half my life at work, and more than half of what’s left trying to get some sleep, if the cat has left enough room.

But I’m enough of a nerd to know my way around British television, particularly sitcoms and light entertainment as my mahogany shelves would testify, creaking under the weight of umpteen DVD box sets. I’m also quite into what are known as idents, endcaps and the like – the presentation-y bits before and after television programmes that tell you when they were made and who by. Southern Television is a particular favourite, a regional ITV company until it’s bitter demise in 1981 whose logo was a white star that looked a bit like a ship’s wheel on a blue background, in the days when ITV had a proper federal, regional structure and you could get a warm glow when your own local station had produced something the whole country was watching.

The other reason that my nerdometer perhaps registers less than others is that I have a genuine problem with concentration. There’s probably a support group I could join or benefit I could claim, if only I could be bothered to fill the form in. This means that no matter how much I love a particular television programme, any more than two half hour episodes and my mind starts to drift. I have to draw on every ounce of what limited brainpower I have to get through a single Columbo, anything beyond that and I have to lie down. That probably explains why, during my forty-one years of existence, I have only ever been to the cinema twice: Ghostbusters and Ace Ventura Pet Detective. For me films have to be particularly engaging, and the only two I own on DVD, apart from the Columbo box set, are All The Presidents Men and Falling Down, and only then can I watch them on a rare day off having completely drained my mind beforehand.

Imagine then being asked to watch a film. A whole one. Specifically “The Bungee” on something called Talking Pictures TV. Now, I’m a pretty unadventurous kind of person, and my frequent but familiar journeys through the EPG had just about taken me through the General Entertainment genre and scratched the surface of News. This channel I was being asked to watch was sandwiched somewhere between politics and porn, a bit like a Jacqui Smith expenses claim.

So to the film: Hemel Pike (played by Harry H Corbett who a year later would take on his career-defining role as Harold Steptoe) and his cousin Ronnie (a pre-Frost Report, pre-anything come to think of it, Ronnie Barker) carry goods by canal around the waterways of Britain. It is a declining industry which sees boatmen living on their barges, and in the film Hemel often spends nights with different women en route, and herein lies the plot.

He crashes into a novice mariner, played by Eric Sykes, and both eventually stop at Rickmansworth where Hemel hooks up with Nellie, one of his regulars, who is a barmaid. When she realises she’s not the only port where he unloads his cargo, so to speak, she chases him away, threatening to kill him should they ever meet again.

Hemel and Ronnie continue towards Birmingham, on the way stopping at Leg O’Mutton Lock to meet Christine (Julia Foster), daughter of possesive lock keeper Joe Turnbull (Hugh Griffith) who Hemel fears. In order for them to meet, he hatches a plan whereby Ronnie takes Joe for a few drinks, leaving the coast clear. However it seems that Hemel’s plan is about to be thwarted when Joe says he’s going home, but Ronnie goads him into a drinking contest, leaving Hemel and Christine alone. Christine tries in vain to persuade Hemel to leave the canal and get a job on land so they can marry, but he enjoys the lifestyle too much.

The following morning after Hemel and Ronnie continue to Birmingham, Christine collapses and Joe calls Dr Scott (a young Derek Nimmo in a rare appearance without a dog collar). He tells Joe that Christine is three months pregnant, and Joe jumps to the conclusion that the father must be one of the men who pass through on the canal. In order to identify the culprit he drains the pound and padlocks the lock gates to prevent any barges passing through until the father comes forward. He attaches a bomb to the gates and takes the detonator and his gun to the outside toilet from where he keeps guard. The police are called (two of whom are played by the youthful Brian Wilde and Richard Briers) but to no avail.

Eventually Hemel and Ronnie return from Birmingham, Hemel admits that he is the father and is forced by Joe to pay his way and get a job on land in order to support Christine once they are married. Hemel goes through a number of different jobs, including one smashing glass bottles and another making plastic chandeliers, but deliberately gets the sack from them all, hankering after a return to the water.

After Christine learns from Ronnie that the canal boats are to be withdrawn from service in eighteen months time, she has Hemel’s boats renamed the Hemel and Christine in time for the wedding, and they agree to raise their new family on the waterways until Hemel is forced to return to a job on land.

For me The Bargee started slowly, and my only two problems with the film came very early on. Eric Sykes’ character didn’t really seem to serve any purpose; if it was meant to provide some slapstick relief to a fairly traditional love story then it just didn’t happen. The other is that Nellie seemed to exist purely to establish Hemel as a dirty (old) man, and save for the briefest of mentions at the very end when realising they’d have to return via Rickmansworth, that was the extent of her role.

Setting that aside, I found the film hugely enjoyable, flowing over the mind like the rippling waters of the canal – gentle but absorbing. The beautiful scenery was delightful to see as were early but fleeting performances from stars who’d go on to far greater things in sitcoms that are now universally regarded as the pinnacle of British television.

That, for me at least, is probably the most wonderful thing about Talking Pictures TV: even for those who struggle to watch films, the majority of those that they show will having you elbowing your partner, saying: “Look! LOOK!! Isn’t that, er, you know, him from, er…” and for curiosity alone it’s worth giving the channel a go and you’ll start to enjoy watching films, almost by stealth. I’m now looking forward to watching “The Iron Maiden”, another film that’s been suggested to me. If you take the trouble to plough through their schedule there are gems in there including a huge number of British comedy films starring early incarnations of those who went on to become small screen comedy fixtures.

Talking Pictures TV are quite big on those, too. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that they’re soon to show Take A Letter Mr Jones starting the brilliant John Inman as Graham Jones, “computer and secretary” to Joan Warner (Rula Lenska), a thirty-something executive at Eight Star, a company that seems to have its fingers in just about every possible pie. Add to the mix Miriam Margolyes as a mad Italian housekeeper and the writing of Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe (On The Buses) along with Bryan Izzard as producer and you have all the elements of a truly great sitcom. It is also, however, a sadly underrated sitcom due to it only running for one series, not because it wasn’t any good, but because it was produced by the aforementioned Southern Television which, if you haven’t fallen asleep by know, you will have read earlier disappeared from existence about six weeks after the final episode was aired. It is also often unfairly dismissed as not being that good, probably by those lazily comparing it to John Inman’s more famous vehicle Are You Being Served? (strictly speaking it began as a vehicle for Trevor Bannister but Inman stole the show), but it really does deserve to stand up there amongst the best.

That Beryl Marston! Is another Southern sitcom that’s coming soon starring Julia Mackenzie. And then my particular favourite, Tell Me Another, not a sitcom but a series where various television personalities of the day share anecdotes with Dick Hills, half of Morecambe and Wise’s early writing team, all edited together in the style of The Comedians, meaning you get around half a dozen stars per show. And all of this is possible because Talking Pictures TV are owned by Renown Pictures, who seem to have distribution rights for huge swathes of Southern’s back catalogue.

Although Southern weren’t as prolific a programme maker as their big five ITV contemporaries (ATV, Granada, London Weekend, Thames and Yorkshire) they did provide us with many high quality series. Spearhead, an army drama not unlike the later Soldier Soldier but without the irritating singers, Dick Barton plus many others are peppered throughout the Talking Pictures TV schedule.

Give it a try. Sky channel 343, Freesat 306 or Freeview 81. You’ll suddenly find yourself immersed in a world which you kind of knew existed and were desperate to discover, but didn’t quite know how. Until now.