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…