Telly in 1973 (Part III)

[… continued from Part II]

In retrospect 1973 turned out to be quite a banner year for British TV comedy.

Kicking things off in style, “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? ” was a sequel to much-loved 60’s sitcom “The Likely Lads“.

Written again by Ian LeFrenais and Dick Clement, its storyline rekindled the friendship between a pair of working class school chums from Newcastle, an unlikely friendship which which made the original so very funny.

Whilst one of the chums (Bob – played by Rodney Bewes) was constantly aspiring to join the white-collar middle class, complete with all its terrible affectations, the other (Terry – played by James Bolam) had just returned from a spell in the army and was finding it hard to comprehend things in the ‘real world’, not least of which was his friend’s fake ambitions.

The comedy of the show derives from each pal thinking he is are somehow superior to the other. Bob thinks he has it made with his brand new suburban home, doting wife, career path and badminton games, whilst Terry feels that, having fought for his country, he has moral superiority over everyone he meets.

Unlike other shows from the time which have disappointed, a recent re-viewing of some of the old episodes proved that the writing has most definitely stood the test of time. Indeed, some of the ‘uncomfortable’ humour has been replicated in newer shows like “The Office” or “Gavin & Stacey

Recently voted one of Britain’s best sitcoms, “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” debuted in February 1973. It introduced a hapless and accident prone character, Frank Spencer, to the TV viewing public.

Each episode usually found the well-meaning Frank in situations where his optimistic naivety resulted in chaos and/or calamity for those around him. A running gag throughout the series was we would often see one cameo character telling another that Spencer was trouble and should be avoided at all costs. Inevitably, this warning was ignored, resulting in circumstances spiralling out of control and the person suffering some kind of mental breakdown, with Spencer clueless as to his contribution to everything.

Played with superb comic timing by Michael Crawford – bravely doing all of his own dangerous stunts – Frank Spencer would turn out to be a character that still has a firm hold on UK public consciousness. In fact, there are probably stand-up comics in the Outer Hebrides still making some kind of a living from doing terrible impersonations of Spencer’s catchphrases “Oooh, Betty“, “a little bit of trouble” or “the cat’s done a whoopsie

As if to prove its comedic longevity, “Some Mothers…” has been almost constantly repeated by the BBC since its first airings, still proving – somewhat bizarrely – to be a massive hit in Australia.

As if to maintain some continuity here, let me hand you a piece of trivia… Michael Crawford was NOT the show’s producers’ first choice to play the bumbling beret-sporting Frank Spencer. Indeed, the role was first offered to….

Ronnie Barker, who himself debuted two new classic sitcoms in 1973, both as one-off pilots in a comedy series entitled “Seven of One

The first, “Open All Hours“, featured Barker as Arkwright, a miserly money-grabbing – and stammering – shopkeeper. He runs his little corner shop with a rod of iron, employing his oft-clueless nephew Granville (David Jason) as his much-put-upon errand boy. Set in Yorkshire, the full series did not air until 1976 but proved to be an immediate hit, later voted Britain’s EIGHTH best sitcom.

 The other sitcom that had roots in the “Seven of One” series was about the characters in a prison. In the pilot – entitled “Prisoner & Escort” – a criminal, Norman Stanley Fletcher (Barker), is being transported from one prison to another escorted by a pair of wardens.

The comedic interplay between Barker and his fellow actors (Brian Wilde and Fulton Mackay) was so popular with viewers that the BBC eagerly commissioned a full series, entitled “Porridge“, which dropped into British culture a year later in 1974. It became a TV comedy classic.

The series – which ran for 3 years, but had only 20 episodes – was set entirely inside the prison walls, bringing in several other criminal characters such as Fletcher’s cell-mate Godber (Richard Beckinsale), Harry Grout (Peter Vaughan) and Blanco (David Jason, once again featuring opposite Barker).

The premise of each episode usually involved Fletcher trying to get one up on the ‘system’ inside the prison walls, in the process always undermining the wardens and endearing himself to his fellow inmates.

Whilst I will happily watch any repeats/reruns of any of the above show, the same cannot be said for “Last of the Summer Wine” which also debuted in 1973.

Proving the old adage that, yes, less is often more, the show has recently staggered to its THIRTIETH series, and there’s news that the BBC – presumably now starved for any kind of ‘hit’ show  – have just commissioned a 31st, scheduled for 2010. 

I’ll happily admit I watched the first few series and found the show to be funny, if not entirely engaging or unmissable. I think, basically, it was broadcast a Sunday evening when absolutely nothing else was on.

Filmed in and around the rolling hills of West Yorkshire, it centres around the day-to-day ‘troubles’ a trio of old retired men can get into in a small village community. It perpetuated the myth truth that men never grow up, resulting in octogenarian bathtub races, wrinkly flirting and acting outrageously at the library.

The early line-up of actors – Bill Owen, Peter SallisMichael Bates and Kathy Staff – represent perhaps the ‘classic period’ of the show. Even if it has never fallen off Britain’s public radar in the last three decades, I think it fell off mine a lot sooner.

Ironically – and in a cruel twist of fate – it is the only show out of those I have listed here which is shown on American television, episodes appearing on PBS from time to time. I have tried to still appreciate, if only for ‘old time’s sake’ and the fact that it’s quintessentially English, but I usually change channels again within just a few minutes.

A ‘banner year’ for TV comedy indeed. Ronnie Barker in definitive roles, Sir David Jason in his TV debut, a couple of likely dads” bringing the suburban north into our living rooms and a cultural icon in the shape of Frank Spencer.

______________________

Tomorrow:- The X-Factor’s historical roots and Dutch detectivisation.

[article continued in Part IV…]

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