Just up on new media site The Malcontent is a feature by me about ‘Seasons of War’, an unofficial Doctor Who charity anthology. Read all about it here!
Just up on new media site The Malcontent is a feature by me about ‘Seasons of War’, an unofficial Doctor Who charity anthology. Read all about it here!
Just before Christmas, I found myself newly unemployed, so I’ve been focusing my efforts on freelance writing, which is my passion.
The year started off on a sombre note, when I wrote a painstakingly personal essay on what David Bowie meant to me, timed to coincide with the release of his album Blackstar. It was published by The Malcontent, a new voice for current affairs and media, but sadly doubled as a requiem, when the news of Bowie’s death broke in the early hours of Monday, 11 January.
I decided to pay my own personal tribute to the man who sold the world, by heading down to London the following weekend, to pay my respects at three major sites: Heddon Street, where the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album cover was photographed, the now famous Bowie memorial at Windrush Square directly opposite Brixton station, and the house in which he was born, on Stansfield Road, Brixton.
During that weekend visit, I got to meet fellow creatives, including blogger Jasmine Storm, writer Paul Ebbs, and poet and novelist Ange Chan, and I danced till dawn at Duckie’s Bowie tribute night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, where I also got to say hello to online friends, Paul Burston and Lucie Tobin, who loved Bowie just as much as I did.
The end of that sad month saw me marking my fortieth birthday, where I got to see my name in print within the pages of Celestial Toyroom, the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s long running fan magazine. It was an essay that I’d sat on for some time, and it was nice to finally see it given some justice, thanks to editor John Davies.
February was a quiet month as I struggled with a chest infection and rib pains, but I resolved to reconnect with blogging network Daily Waffle, who had aired my work in the past, and endeavoured to expand upon other connections in the pursuit of more writing exposure.
Inspired by the outpouring of grief and affection that followed Bowie’s death, in conjunction with J.R. Southall and Jon Arnold, “Me and the Starman” was launched – an opportunity for fans to pay tribute to the different ways in which Bowie had connected with them on a personal level. So far, we have recieved tributes from not only fans but also musicians, and the finished result should be something really special.
March opened up with an essay peering behind the scenes of Absolute Beginners, the late, great, David Bowie’s last major hit single, which received a lot of positive attention and a goodly number of hits and retweets, not to mention some great feedback.
Keen to keep flexing my writing muscles, I’ve been providing Daily Waffle with regular features, reviewing and commenting upon new creative projects that interest me personally but deserve a wider audience, from Ange Chan’s poetry trilogy, and Obverse Books’ new range The Black Archive, to Tim Worthington’s mammoth discography of BBC Records, and forthcoming pieces on former Python Terry Jones’ documentary about the global economic crisis, Alan Clarke’s acclaimed BBC documentaries, and Barnaby Eaton-Jones’ revival of 1960s radio show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.
I’ve experimented in diversity by, for example, providing product reviews for multiple award winner Cara Sutra, book reviews for Emily Dubberley’s well established feminist-friendly adult website Cliterati, and a well-received guest blog for social media and online marketing agency Nick Lewis Communications. I also have articles lined up for a tribute to Douglas Adams
I continue to prepare guest blogs for Daily Waffle, maintain an online presence with this very blog site and my twitter feed @jamesgentwrites, have some niche material in the pipeline for fellow Doctor Who obsessives, and continue to look for broader opportunities both inprint and online, as well as continuing work on my massive biography of Monty Python, which I began researching in great detail five years ago.
Please, stay tuned for further developments!
Just up on The Daily Waffle, my feature on the new range of critical studies of select Doctor Who books, The Black Archive. I spoke to publisher Stuart Douglas, range editor Philip Purser-Hallard and writer Jon Arnold to get the inside track on this exciting new line of criticism. Read it here!
Originally posted on The Fan Can, 20 June 2012
You don’t have to be Toby Hadoke to know your Michael Sheard from your Cyril Shaps. It’s just part of fandom’s sweetly obsessive nature that we file and digest the names of Who’s guest actors. But spare a thought for the jobbing ‘supporting artists’ (that’s extras in old money), famous for 15 seconds and for whom roller caption credits were rarely due…
Constance Carling in Spearhead from Space
One of the first clues that all is not as it appears at Auto Plastics is the wax-faced, expressionless secretary played by Constance Carling. As wife of BBC producer Alan J W Bell, Carling racked up uncredited walk-ons in numerous episodes of Z Cars and Last of the Summer Wine. Eagle-eyed Monty Python fans may recognise her as the Crunchy Frog-scoffing theatregoer sat next to Eric Idle in the series one sketch, ‘Red Indian at the Theatre.’
Harry Fielder, The Face of Evil, et al
Harry ‘Aitch’ Fielder is the Zelig of ’70s and ’80s British telly, having turned up as an uncredited tough guy in pretty much everything. His IMDB page credits him with almost 300 film and TV appearances from Yes Minister to Minder, including (count ’em) 13 Doctor Whos and ten Blake’s 7s. Listen out for ‘Aitch”s brief appearance on the commentary of The Face of Evil DVD where he livens up the proceedings considerably.
Derek Ware in The Ambassadors of Death, Inferno, Claws of Axos, et al
HAVOC (as in ‘Action by’) head honcho, Derek Ware, cornered the market in stuntman antics back in the day. Notable Who bit parts include a Stan Laurel lookalike who gets bumped off in The Ambassadors of Death’s comically inept warehouse fight scene, only to regenerate in a later episode. There’s also a two-for-one in Inferno where he not only plays half-Primord Officer Wyatt, but also doubles as the guy he knocks off the tower in a spectacular stunt fall. His golden moment though is as everyone’s favourite pushbike-stealing, gibberish-grunting tramp, Pigbin Josh, in The Claws of Axos. Oo, and furthermore, arr.
Sian Pattenden, Mawdryn Undead
In episode four of Mawdryn Undead, poor old Nyssa and Tegan are de-aged by the titular, noodle-bonced weirdo. Young Nyssa was played by Lucy Benjamin, aka EastEnders’ Lisa Fowler and one-time real life squeeze of onscreen boyf Phil ‘Sontaran’ McFadden. More interestingly, appearing beside her is Sian Pattenden as young Tegan, who later made her name as one of Smash Hits’ best writers during its heyday before graduating on to the NME, The Face and The Guardian. Pattenden blogged about her memories of appearing in the serial on The Guardian website (have a gander here) and gamely attended 10th Planet’s signing event for the Black Guardian trilogy DVD release.
Trevor Ray in Doctor Who and the Silurians
Assistant script editor on the series at the time, Ray (and several other members of the production team) gave the middle finger to Equity by swelling up the ranks for the scenes of the Silurian plague hitting London – he appears as the ticket collector. Ray was no better off credit-wise behind the camera, as his production role was uncredited. Ray also wrote techno-pagan HTV classic Children of the Stones and appeared in the classic Play For Today, The Flipside of Dominick Hide as bisexual Alaric.
Not Harold Pinter, The Abominable Snowmen
A long-running, urban myth in Who fandom was that the late playwright Harold Pinter played Tibetan monk, Ralpachan, in The Abominable Snowman, credited under his acting alias of David Baron. The notion of an acclaimed writer riding high on the success of The Birthday Party and The Homecoming slumming it for a bit part in a cheap and cheerful kids show is a delicious one, but sadly the myth is a load of Yeti balls. The more prosaic truth is that at the time Pinter was writing The Basement, and the character was played by an actor of the same moniker. Ho (pause) hum.
Timothy Blackstone, Genesis of the Daleks
One of the Thal soldiers in Nerry Nation’s masterpiece had a colourful history that would have had Mary Whitehouse and Jean Rook reaching for the smelling salts if they’d known about the kind of undesirables infiltrating their least favourite teatime show. Timothy Blackstone was, simultaneously, one of Britain’s few hardcore porn stars. His credits include the bizarre Diversions, where he’s rogered senseless by smut starlet, Heather Deeley, who proceeds to chop off ‘little Timmy’ and fellate the dismembered member. Brother of MP Baroness Blackstone, he hit the headlines in 2003 when he was fined on two charges of insider dealing.
Terry Walsh, Planet of the Spiders
When Lupton zaps a hapless hovercraft owner during Planet of the Spiders’ interminable chase scene, the poor bloke meets his maker with a beaming smile akin to someone who’s just caught the punchline to a particularly ribald joke. It’s stuntman, Terry Walsh, and he’s visibly overjoyed at having been given a speaking part for once.
John Levene as a Cyberman in The Moonbase
Our very own Nicholas ‘masterclass’ Craig, John Levene’s first encounter of the Who kind was as a Cyberman in The Moonbase. But such was his raw, primal energy as third Yeti to the left in The Web of Fear that the Who team could no longer ignore this young promising actor’s star quality and it was only a matter of time that fame and fortune came beckoning as Sarge Benton in the UNIT years.
Christien Anholt, The Curse of Fenric
A credited, speaking part so not an extra per se. Young Christien Anholt makes an early TV appearance as Corporal Perkins in The Curse of Fenric, a story set in a parallel universe where WWII soldiers appear to be entirely casted by gay porn franchise, Bel Ami. I blame the producer. Anholt’s father was Tony Anholt, best known by cult TV spods as Verdeschi in Space: 1999 and Charles Frere in Howards Way where his co-star was his second wife, Tracey (Fires of Pompeii) Childs. Anholt Junior enjoyed C-list success playing second fiddle to Tia Carrere (of Wayne’s World fame) in schedule-filler, Relic Hunter, although his career high remains having Georgina ‘T Bag’ Hale sticking a butt plug up his ass in Preaching to the Perverted.
Original post here
Originally posted on The Fan Can, 24 September 2012. With artwork by Blane William Traynor.
We list the Doctors that might have been…
During its five decades, 11 actors have come to be known as Doctor Who. And we wouldn’t have it any other way (well, except one or two, tops). However, with the exception of Doctors Six and Ten, not all of the actors cast were the first actors to be offered the role. The Fan Can presents the Doctors who could have been…
First Doctor: Geoffrey Bayldon
Baffling that when JNT was casting around for someone to fill William Hartnell’s shoes in celebratory beano, The Five Doctors, he chose Richard Hurndall as his less-than-uncanny likeness. Geoffrey Bayldon – who at least shared a resemblance – had been channelling variations on the First Doctor’s cantankerous, wizardy persona for over a decade in Catweazel, Worzel Gummidge and Look & Read mini-drama Sky Hunter! When Big Finish cast Bayldon as an alternative First Doctor who never left Gallifrey (as part of its ‘Unbound’ range in 2003), Geoff casually revealed that he had been offered the role back in 1963! Other actors considered for the role back then included Leslie French, who later appeared briefly in Silver Nemesis, and Hugh David, who went on to direct Troughton serials The Highlanders and Fury From The Deep.
Second Doctor: Michael Hordern
Hordern, whose rich, oaky voice memorably graced Paddington Bear, Cosgrove-Hall’s Wind In The Willows and sob-fest Watership Down, was one of a handful of actors approached to replace Hartnell as the Doctor. Hordern’s tweedy, avuncular charm certainly feels very Doctorish, but light years away from Troughton’s scruffy, rabble-rousing, classless beatnik persona that makes the Second Doctor’s era more anti-establishment than that of his patrician predecessor. Other actors offered the role at the time included Valentine Dyall, who would have been even more bat-shit terrifying than Hartnell ever was.
Third Doctor: Ron Moody
Moody was top of outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin’s list of candidates for the first Doctor to appear in 625-line colour. Moody declined the offer, riding high from the award-winning Oliver! but he later regretted the decision. Given that Pertwee defined the Third Doctor so much, bringing to the part his love of action, gadgets, gurning, comedy voices and “moments of charm,” it’s a tantalising ‘what if’ to think how a different actor could have turned him into a completely different beast. We’re pretty sure Moody would have been spell-binding, given how his gravitas as Rothko elevated Into The Labyrinth from complete tat. Check him out as Hawk in Flight Of The Doves, alternately funny and scary and man of many faces, for a slight taster of what might have been.
Fourth Doctor: Graham Crowden
The stakes were even higher when Pertwee hung up his velvet jacket for the last time in 1974 after carrying the show through a consistently popular period, and Barry Letts looked far and wide for suitable actors to carry the baton. Carry On man candy Jim Dale was one such choice, seven years before we eventually got a youthful Doctor, while comedians Richard Hearne and Michael Bentine were also in the running. Hearne could have taken the show into a cul-de-sac of tiresome comedy slapstick, while Bentine wanted complete creative control – unimaginable for a show with Doctor Who’s hectic schedule. On the outside edge was Graham Crowden, at the time mainly known as part of Lindsay Anderson’s repertory company and who wouldn’t have been a million miles away from Letts’ eventual choice – both Crowden and Tom Baker have a great line in dangerous unpredictability. Somewhere in a parallel universe, is a version of The Horns Of Nimon with Tom Baker chewing the scenery as Soldeed and calling Lalla Ward a meddlesome hussy…
Fifth Doctor: Richard Griffiths
Griffiths, best known to most as that terrible c*nt Uncle Monty and muggle Vernon Dudsley, was originally approached to play the Fifth Doctor by JNT. It’s an intriguing bit of casting from a modern perspective, where an unattractive middle-aged Doctor is unlikely to happen, let alone one of Griffiths’ monumental girth. One can get a brief inkling of how Griffiths would have fared from his time as the chef turned sleuth in Pie In The Sky, like the Doctor righting wrongs as an occupational hazard rather than an appointed role. Now I’m imagining his TV spouse Maggie Steed as companion! I’m in.
Sixth Doctor: ?
You’ll have to use your imagination for this one, as Colin Baker was John Nathan-Turner’s only choice for Doctor, his audition taking the form of a wedding reception the producer happened to attend, as detailed in Trials and Tribulations, Ed Stradling’s ace documentary of the messiest period in Doctor Who’s history. Of course, if Nathan-Turner had bothered to audition someone, as opposed to hiring a bloke because they were a bit funny at a party, Who’s telly life in the late 1980s would have been very different.
Seventh Doctor: Ken Campbell
For the third time in six years, JNT found himself casting a new Doctor. Sylvester McCoy got the gig, but an early contender was avant-guard theatre misfit Ken Campbell, who actually discovered McCoy when he became part of Ken Campbell’s Roadshow in the 1970s. Campbell, who died in 2008, is best known as self-styled wit Roger in the Fawlty Towers episode, The Anniversary. Andrew Cartmel considered Campbell’s audition performance “too dark,” perhaps vindicated as his 1988 CITV series, Erasmus Microman, was canned after one series after sample audiences found the character disturbing.
Eighth Doctor: Liam Cunningham
Pretty much every English actor desperate for a career reboot auditioned for the Universal TV movie, from Anthony Head, Robert Lindsay and John Sessions to dimly remembered ’80s TV stars Paul Bown (Watching) and Rob Heyland (One By One). The Fan Can has gone for relative outsider, Liam Cunningham, as our Almost Doctor #8, a vastly underrated Irish actor who later came to prominence alongside Chris Eccleston in Jude and is now starring as Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones. Might have given writers of BBC Books’ Eighth Doctor adventures something more to get their teeth into than McGann’s wet-nosed puppy.
Ninth Doctor: Hugh Grant
Given how the rumour mill went into overdrive with the announcement of the new series in 2004, it’s hard to – as David Bowie once sang – “tell the bullshit from the lies” with Digital Spy and The Sun touting Bill Nighy, Alan Davies and Eddie Izzard. There’s little doubt that RTD had always gambled on Eccleston stepping up, but Hugh Grant later confessed he’d been offered the role and regretted turning it down after seeing how the show took off. Ecclescake was fantastic, but it could have been interesting given that the real, prostitute-bothering, News International-baiting, Grant is clearly a more complex character than his foppish, floppy-haired screen persona. Grant briefly essayed the role of the Doc in Moff’s love/hate letter to Who, The Curse Of Fatal Death, along with perennial tabloid favourite Doctor Joanna Lumley.
Tenth Doctor: ?
As with Big Col’s casting in 1984, there was only one man standing. As if Tennant’s virtual audition on RTD/Gardner production Casanova and his voicing new series curtain raiser, A Celebration, wasn’t enough of a fucking big clue. You can’t help thinking they should have cast Richard Griffiths anyway, just to spare the world from endless squeeing and slash fiction on Gallifrey Base and LiveJournal.
Eleventh Doctor: Paterson Joseph
Pint-sized Scots powerhouse, Robert Carlyle, was rumoured to be in line for Doc 11, something he’s strenuously denied ever since, although he could have been saving face if it’s true he skipped the trip of a lifetime for the flop Stargate: Universe. RTD speculated that Russell ‘Pob’ Tovey and Harry Lloyd showed promise as potential Doctors, while The Sun quoted Bendmydick Cuminmysnatch as saying he “didn’t want to be on school lunchboxes.” One inescapable rumour was that Paterson Joseph – that’s Johnson from Peep Show to you – was in the frame. Joseph coyly admitted that there was “some truth” in the rumour. To quote Robin Hood: Men In Tights, “Why not? It worked in Blazing Saddles.”
Original post here
DVD review of Solo: The Complete Series (Acorn Media), originally posted on Tachyon TV, 5 May 2012
By the end of its fourth and final season in 1978, The Good Life had firmly established itself as one of the nation’s most loved and popular sitcoms, so it was hardly the brainwave of the century when Head of Comedy, John Howard Davies, commissioned star vehicles for the cast who’d all been catapulted to the A-list of household names overnight. Jerry and Margo’s real-life selves, Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith, began the 1980s relocating from Surbiton to the landed gentry and the corridors of Whitehall with the kind of social mobility that would have made the uber-aspirational Margo green with envy, while a few years later Briers found himself back in suburbia, with an even more tolerant spouse, in Ever Decreasing Circles, a deceptively subversive take on the genre that anticipated One Foot In The Grave’s portrayal of the suburbs as one of the inner circles of Hell.
All three vehicles gave their stars prolonged success and established themselves as comedy classics in their own right, in the case of To The Manor Born and Yes Minister and its successor Yes Prime Minister almost eclipsing that of The Good Life, with record viewing figures. On the other hand Felicity ‘Treacle’ Kendal’s first centre-stage role, the appropriately titled Solo, racked up respectable viewing figures at the time but hasn’t found itself in the pantheon of well-remembered sitcoms of yesteryear, more of a vague recollection, a mild curiosity only recalled should one happen upon a random repeat on UK Gold one hungover Saturday morning.
Reissued on DVD this month by Acorn Media, the opportunity to revisit Solo provides several reasons why this is so. Her peers’ star vehicles had more sitcom-friendly themes to mine for big laughs, such as social aspiration, satirical commentary and suburbacom farce; Solo owes more to its writer Carla Lane’s previous success, Butterflies. Both shows feature as their central character a woman at a crossroads in life, struggling to define her own identity outside of the ones prescribed by social convention in a male-dominated world. Kendal plays Gemma Palmer, a newly single woman just turned thirty, having left her boyfriend Danny (Stephen Moore) to the uncomprehending consternation of her mother (Elspet Gret) – “A woman without a man is like a bird of prey with a squint”, she informs her daughter.
Solo must have confunded many viewers’ expectations – not least from the more sweaty-palmed members of the male audience – Kendal having become the nation’s sweetheart and a kind of fantasy spouse as the cute, devoted, tomboyish Barbara. For all that, Barbara had a steely resolve that made her no pushover, and it’s this side of her most iconic role that Kendal channels here as Gemma, more likely to be found with a frustrated frown than a perky smile. Although the stigma of being a single, thirtysomething woman is arguably not as it was thirty years ago, Gemma’s insecurities are still understandable – put into the programme’s proper context, a lot of women of Gemma’s generation found themselves in their thirties, with the feminist revolution having ground to a halt, wondering, ‘What next?’ – but the character herself often comes across as merely self-absorbed.
The fault here is not so much in the writing as the fact that, not being an ensemble piece with equally strong supporting characters to provide light and shade, a programme presented from a singular perspective can be mightily wearying. Lane and Butterflies director Gareth Gwenlan employ a lot of familiar tropes from that show – arch, waspish voicover monologues (“Shouldn’t I be plodding round the shop with an assortment of kids and a basket on walls, boiling cabbage in the kitchen and doing interesting things with cheese?”) and moody shots of our angst-ridden heroine wandering wistfully around parks and fields accompanied by reflective classical music. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The first series is principally the story of Gemma trying to find a role in life – leaving her secretarial job to become a social worker, which features enjoyable appearances by Roger Brierley and John Abineri – and her on-off relationship with Danny, which plays like a home counties version of Annie Hall, as they separate, get together one last ill-fated time before realising that when something’s finished, it should stay finished. You can’t not love Stephen Moore – even though Danny foolishly lost Gemma after a one night stand with her best friend Josie, his earnest attempts at reconciliation and Moore’s defeated, weary countenance evoke the same hangdog pathos as in his memorable roles in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy as Marvin and George in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole.
Series One attempts to provide some light relief from the couple’s uncouplings, not only with the one-dimensional stereotypes Gemma encounters as a social worker, but with dispensable cutaways to a pair of ditzy, slightly common medical students in the flat above Gemma’s. What these two sets of subplots reveal are issues that have always troubled me about Carla Lane’s writing – for a working class girl from Liverpool made good, her portrayals of teenagers (her ear for teenage dialogue has always been half a decade behind period her sitcoms are set in), the economically inactive and working class characters with aspirations are piss-taking caricatures; which is why the phenomenal success of Bread in its heyday baffled me utterly.
Thankfully, the medical students are ditched in the second series, which sees a shift in quality, with certain episodes capturing the bittersweet, melancholic humour of Butterflies at its finest. A particular highlight is the first episode, involving a brief, unconsummated fling with nineteen year old student Rafe, played by a young Peter Howitt, several years before briefly acquiring TV pinup status as Joey Boswell in Bread. The ever-dependable Milton Johns makes a characteristic appearance in one episode at his world-weary, morose best. Elspet Grey’s own character arc is given more room to breathe, as she continues to pursue a relationship with the unseen Howard, a man thirty years her junior, which provides a different perspective on the dating game from a woman facing thirty from the wrong side. This is worth dwelling upon – a relationship between a senior citizen and a younger man would be grist to the mill in most sitcom fare, but it’s handled sensitively and beautifully.
The second series also moves away from the strictly singular perspective of series one when Gemma has a mostly platonic relationship with the lodger upstairs, Sebastian (Michael Howe), a ‘player’ in modern terms; unbeknown to Gemma, Sebastian has a one-night stand with a gorgeous blonde, Rosie (Belinda Mayne), for whom he develops more serious feelings, despite it going against his vain self-image as a commitment-free lone wolf. Sebastian gets his own soliloquies – characters in Carla Lane sitcoms always get soliloquies, it’s in the rules – that, to be fair to Lane, are pretty representative of a certain stripe of manhood in all its ego and insecurity.
Solo ran for two seasons, an optimum time for a sitcom to bow out gracefully before its potential is exhausted and the inevitable ennui sets in. A sitcom focusing on relationship issues outside of stable relationships can never reach a satisfactory resolve, other than marrying off the two leads in clichéd fashion, and Solo ends on a more realistic but somewhat cynical note, with footloose Sebastian having succumbed to commitment with the weary nobility of a man facing the gallows’ pole and Gemma’s own current relationship, with the sketchily-portrayed Rex (David Rintoul), left on an ambiguous note, with Gemma clearly pondering if she’s left with any more answers than when she started.
As such, Solo is a sitcom of some integrity, albeit not many big laughs; a mature and thoughtful slow-burner before Lane’s sitcoms became a miasma of battle-of-the-sexes bitterness and hysterical caricatures, and an interesting addition to the specifically English, middle class genre of the ‘sadcom’ where the mass of men – and women – lead lives of quiet desperation…
DVD review of Mixed Blessings Series One (Network), originally posted on Tachyon TV, 21 March 2012
Network DVD continues to prove itself inexhaustible in exhuming the good, the bad and the average of vintage British TV with another comedy for which the world has hardly been waiting, but will doubtless be of at least some interest to TV historians specialising in the sitcom through the ages. Mixed Blessings was a London Weekend Television production that ran from 1978 to 1980, and centred on the mixed-race marriage between two University graduates, Thomas (Christopher ‘Love for Lydia‘ Blake) and Susan (Muriel Odunton), and their families’ attempts to come to terms with the union.
With hilarious consequences? Nowadays, multiracial relationships are such a part of society that it might seem surprising to a modern viewer that the subject was novel enough to be milked for twenty-one episodes of middlebrow sitcom fare, but it was obviously still a hot enough topic in the late 1970s for LWT to commission a series, in this case from no less than the former Morecambe & Wise co-writer Sid Green. Sitcoms of the 1970s haven’t always done their bit, to put it mildly, for race relations with the humour often defined by crude stereotyping, as memorably parodied with unforgiving bluntness by the ‘Them Next Door’ segment of The Day Today’s ‘Attitudes Night’.
Mixed Blessings is something of a step-up from the cheap shots of Love Thy Neighbour – LWT had just had a hit with the first British all-black sitcom The Fosters, so a retrograde step would have been unfortunate – and indeed the young couple don’t feel themselves defined by their race, simply being in their eyes a young couple very much in love who happen to be different races. The high concept nature of the series ensures though that their relationship is a continual object of fascination both to their relatives and the usual sitcom conveyor belt of passing tradesmen and meddling neighbours.
Both families are securely middle class – the couple are University graduates, Thomas’ father is a bank manager and Susan’s an insurance salesman – so there’s no equal opportunities trading of dated racial insults that was the weekly stock in trade of Eddie Booth and Bill Reynolds; in its place the recurring source of “humour” is Thomas’ gaffe-prone mother’s habit of putting her foot in her mouth with such unfortunate turns of phrase as “I call a spade a spade”, much to her short-tempered husband’s embarrassment.
The voice of reason throughout is Thomas’ aunt Dorothy, played by the always dependable Joan Sanderson, who seems to enjoy an opportunity to play a more liberal variation on her fearsome aunt persona. In this case she’s happily divorced and permanently has a wicked glint in her eye. She’s brisk and forceful as you’d expect, but is the first to accept the union and has fun at the expense of the token nosy, bigoted neighbour Mrs Beasley – on Mrs Beasley’s concern that she is entertaining ‘coloured people’ in her living room, Sanderson responds, quick as a flash, “Yes, we’re having an orgy. Would you like to join us?”
Mixed Blessings doesn’t really use its more polite, civilised suburban milieu to advance the dialogue on coming to terms with multi-racial unions, and if anything it’s because both sets of in-laws are of the rigidly upstanding and uptight, respectable members of the class that things don’t evolve much beyond some awkward social gaffes to uncomfortable “I’ll get me coat” hem-hawing all round. Depressingly, one scene in the first episodes sees both families – the happy couple included – concede that their relationship is a ‘problem’. It’s never made clear exactly why everyone just accepts this to be fact, although it does provoke a rare moment of unalloyed refreshing candour from Thomas’ father, with an hilariously frustrated rant about the phrase “Well, what can we do about it?” which he considers the the typical 1970s Briton’s response to anything and everything.
The writer, Sid Green, seems non-committal on the matter and comes at the subject from a fairly conservative standpoint, especially as the first series revolves around the assumption that a multi-racial relationship can never be anything but an endless minefield of ‘us and them’ social awkwardness, and the idea that a couple from different racial backgrounds could actually be happily married is greeted time and again with uncomprehending ‘does not compute’ bewilderment. Tony Osoba’s handyman makes the baffling, and troublingly unchallenged, observation, “Don’t often find, you know… like you two… except in the working classes that don’t know better.”
But then a prime-time ITV sitcom has never been the ideal ground for addressing prevailing social attitudes with any real substance, constrained as it is by the strict requirements of the format, and the race issue aside, Mixed Blessings soon settles down into traditional suburban sitcom fare at its most undemanding. Whenever the spotlight moves away from Thomas and Susan – whose main flaw as leads is that they are simply too bland and don’t share enough fizz to make them a convincing couple in the first flush of wedded bliss – the show settles more comfortably on the interactions between the parents, who are on the wrong side of the generation gap and a reliable source of predictable social gaffes and middle-class preoccupations about status and background.
As Mixed Blessings – on the evidence of this first series – doesn’t really exploit its central premise in any truly progressive fashion, it can only really be judged on its merits as a slice of mainstream situation comedy. As such, it’s a decidedly average entry in the canon and not hard to see why it hasn’t troubled TV comedy historians – or even the UK Gold graveyard shift – over the subsequent decades. It does however have the saving grace of a very catchy theme tune by musician turned actor Peter Davison. The boy could have been bigger than Ronnie Hazlehurst but he threw it all away.