Life? Don’t Talk to Me About Life

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…

The Defiant Ones

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.

Dance ti’ thy Daddy

DVD review of Andy Capp: The Complete Series (Network), originally posted on Tachyon TV, 3 June 2012

Never mind Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, look which adaptation of an infamous British comic character is on DVD at last.

It’s ironic, in light of the tabloid demonization of the ‘economically inactive’, that the introduction of the Welfare State in the 1950s coincided with the debut of the Daily Mirror’s Andy Capp, a lazy, workshy, philandering, chain-smoking rogue whose daily routine encompasses the ‘labour exchange’ (as was), the pub and the bookies, with occasional rounds of domestic violence with his fearsome, rolling pin-brandishing wife Flo, the family breadwinner – in a nutshell, the Frank Gallagher of his day. Funny how one man’s folk devil can be another man’s folk hero, for in his heyday Capp was a national institution, with annual paperback collections of his exploits, merchandise tie-ins and two spin-off progeny (Buster and Mandy), both strangely unseen in the original strip (there’s a Jeremy Kyle episode, right there).

For all his workshy, gambling, philandering ways, what made Andy Capp a loveable rogue in the original strips wasn’t so much his brazenly inactive lifestyle as how he brass-necked his way each incident with a combination of bluff and wisecracking quick wit. It’s deeply rooted in unattractive qualities such as misogyny and lack of personal accountability, but also tied in with a kind of Quixotic, Mitty-esque level of almost quaint, fanciful self-delusion that they are living the dream, legends in their own lunchtime, when all the evidence points to the opposite; and earnest PC handwringing aside, this is probably the key to explaining why this archetype has been taken to the nation’s collective bosom over the decades, from Rab C Nesbitt to Frank Gallagher by way of virtually every character Sid James played, and doubtless the key to Capp’s popularity.

Capp was the creation of Hartlepool-born Reg Smythe, whose wife – interestingly – was called Flo, and created Capp on a whim “on the A1 road at 60mph” after a request from the Mirror’s editor to create a back page strip for its Northern readership, with Andy and Flo based upon his own downtrodden parents; and Smythe created Capp working for the GPO as a clerk, after finishing active duty.

However, a three pane comic strip does not guarantee a successful half-hour sitcom, as Thames found when it brought Andy to the small screen for one uncelebrated series in 1988, with James Bolam donning the iconic plaid cap and ever-present tab hanging from his lip.
The title role is a rare misfire for James Bolam, who has maintained a constant small screen presence over the decades, from bona fide classics The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened To…? and the Beiderbecke trilogy to solid, undemanding mainstream sitcom fare such as Only When I Laugh and Second Thoughts, through to the long-running Saga tour for ageing TV thesps that is BBC’s New Tricks. This longevity has been based in no small part upon Bolam’s dour Northern charm, equal parts cynical and wistful, two thirds Mark E Smith to one third Billy Liar, so it’s disappointing that the Capp doesn’t fit. (Literally so, in fact – in the strips, Andy’s flatcap was permanently was always pulled down to his nose; Bolam had to adjust the character’s side-profile so he could actually see where he was going and hit his marks.)

His hangdog demeanour is as at odds with Capp’s perpetual ebullience as showcased in the strips. A one-word summary of Bolan’s style here is deadpan, which has the jarring effect of making him appear to be in a completely different production to that of his fellow actors, most of whom pitch their performances at a more heightened level closer to the comic strip origin. Paula Tilbrook as his wife, Flo, puffs herself up in every scene, wears a variety of bustling headwear, uses exaggerated body language and gives wide-eyed double takes to camera for every ‘third panel’ scene. This in itself sits rather oddly with the halfway house approach producer John Howard Davies has taken – the decision to record the series on film, with location exteriors and soundstage interiors, and with no studio audience, gives it a Ripping Yarns-esque teleplay feel, while the scenes in the Capp household deliberately echo the look of the Mirror strip, not just in how the design of the Capps’ basic living room is spot-on but also how the director films every scene front-of-house, proscenium arch style, with the viewer’s fourth wall emulating the pane of the comic strip.

The obvious comparison to make here is with when the BBC produced Jane, a semi-animated live action adaptation of the wartime comic strip heroine’s adventures. The combination of live action and comic strip backgrounds was its singular gimmick and a novelty that could have been worth Thames emulating for this production, if at least to give it a distinct visual identity that acknowledges its comic strip roots and a coherent tonal pitch for the actors to match rather than the washed-out film it’s saddled with.

All of this is style over substance conjecture, however. The simple fact is that it didn’t win an audience (reportedly, it alienated many viewers with its outdated Northern stereotypes) nor a re-commission because it just falls flat as TV comedy – the humour is stale and unfunny, much of it failing to translate effectively into live action. Fortunately the occasional rounds of domestic violence don’t make it to the screen – cartoon violence of the clouds of dust variety is harmlessly funny, but a working class man and woman drubbing it out doesn’t tickle the same funny bones in live action, unless Nil By Mouth is your idea of post-pub entertainment.

What’s most surprising about Andy Capp is that this adaptation is from the pen of Keith Waterhouse. Waterhouse’s Soho memoirs Streets Ahead, tell of how he and Willis Hall turned procrastination into a fine art with all manner of activity displacement in order to avoid doing any work before the pubs opened, just like Andy. Clearly, Waterhouse found more comic mileage in a real life character who shared the same qualities as Andy, when the year after this series aired, his play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell made its West End debut, another celebration of a daydreaming, alcoholic idler. Who was one of the first actors to essay the role in its first year on stage? James Bolam.