One of the comments that’s most often made when discussing old British television comedy shows is possibly the most aggravating. How many times have you read someone say “There are no good comedy shows on any of the British commercial networks. ITV in particular were *rubbish* at doing comedy. All of the good stuff was done by the BBC.” Drives me bonkers (not that it’s a long trip, mind).
Not true. Not even remotely true. An awful lot of the good stuff was done by the BBC, yes. “Dad’s Army”. “Steptoe and Son”. “Til Death Us Do Part”. “The Likely Lads”. “My Hero”. Hang on, what’s that doing in there? Without a doubt, the BBC were superb at comedy, and sitcoms in particular (although I have yet to be convinced that they can still do it).
However: off the top of my head, here are a few shows produced by the other lot. Some of which you’ll surely remember. “The Army Game”. “Please Sir”. “The Fenn Street Gang”. “Hot Metal”. “Whoops Apocalypse”. “After Henry”. “Rising Damp”. “Shelley”. “The New Statesman”. Not a bad haul for a couple of minutes thought, is it?
Yes, ITV have foisted some absolutely terrible wastes of time on us. So have the BBC. For every “Fresh Fields” there’s a “Roger, Roger”. You may have got cross at watching “On The Buses”, but the BBC would have been doing something equally rank . Try and deny that you watched them anyway. I know I did.
It may be that the reason why ITV’s stuff remains so underappreciated is that until recently much of it has lain dormant in archives, with little chance to see the stuff again and reappraise. I’m pleased to see that situation changing, with a steady stream of material both good and bad appearing on DVD. Your opinion may not alter. You may still go with the old truism mentioned at the top of this page, but at least you’ve now got the chance to decide for yourself.
Just out this month from Network DVD is another of ITV’s forgotten gems. Running for a healthy five series from 1980 to 1983, “Keep it in the Family” was a show that I loved when I was a nipper. I was edgy about seeing it again as I suspected it might not stand up to close scrutiny. I need not have worried. It’s not a world-beating lost classic, but it’s great fun, nonetheless. Series 1 is released this month I went through it all in one sitting. It’s a real nostalgia blast. I genuinely don’t believe I’ve seen a single frame of it in 27 years, but it stands up very well indeed.
It’s written by long-standing comedy footsoldier Brian Cooke (no sign of long-term partner Johnnie Mortimer) and it may not be the greatest sitcom you’ve ever seen, but it fulfills one major requirement. It made this viewer laugh. Copiously. That’s not a bad start.
The opening episode introduces everyone and puts the series set up in place in a very neat opening 25 minutes. When the old gentleman in the flat downstairs dies suddenly, landlord Dudley Rush (Robert Gillespie) is left with a problem – who to lease it to? The grasping relatives of the old boy have swarmed through the flat post-funeral and picked the place clean (one of said relatives is Neil McCarthy. Possibly the ultimate “ooh, it’s him off that thing!” actors, with a list of credits as long as several very long arms, and always a welcome visitor to any series).
Dudley’s left living above an empty flat. Dudley and his wife Muriel (Pauline Yates – strange to see Elizabeth Perrin back in suburbia so soon) both need the money. With a family to support, every little helps, and Dudley’s job as cartoonist on the weekly comic strip “Barney the Bionic Bulldog” barely covers the bills. His daughters Jacqui and Susan (Stacey Dorning and Jenny Quayle – both daughters of respected performers : Robert Dorning and Anthony Quayle respectively) are still around and living at home – one’s a bank clerk and one’s unemployed.
The obvious solution is to put the place up for rent. However, Dudley’s family have other plans. The daughters want to leave home and gain their independence – why not move into the vacant property below stairs?
Following a parade of potential tenants (including a sweaty middle-aged man who “paints nudes” and has his eye on the daughters, and a “Miss Whiplash” type in a vinyl overcoat) – none of whom Dudley fancies living in close proximity with – the inevitable happens, and the kids move in downstairs.
Bingo – plot established, and we’re off – with one slight addition. While knocking about in the attic, Dudley uncovers an old lion ventriloquist puppet belonging to one of the kids which he takes a shine to. For the rest of the series he’ll never be seen at the drawing board without it – usually holding a pencil in its paw. That’s the hook that I remembered from all those years ago, and it still works. Robert Gillespie gets a ton of comic mileage out of it, to the point where the damn thing’s almost a fifth regular character.
Terminally incapable of knuckling under and finishing anything without getting distracted, Dudley’s a comedy powerhouse. I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little about Robert Gillespie outside of a memorable three episode turn in “Survivors” – not much room to show off your comic chops there. Here, he’s let off the leash. Looking like a middle-aged Peter Sellers and sounding like a cross between Michael Keating in full Vila-from-Blakes’ 7 mode and Simon Oates, Gillespie dominates every scene he’s in. Cracking jokes, singing, pretending to be a pirate and firing one liners out like they’re going out of style, he’s endlessly entertaining. You wouldn’t want to live with someone like that, but he’s fun to watch.
Pauline Yates as Muriel keeps a quiet eye on Dudley and tries to steer him right. More than capable of a one-liner herself (there are multiple bedtime scenes between the two where they just shoot jokes at each other)
and seemingly the only sane half of the partnership, she’s more than a match for Gillespie in her own, understated way. With these two in charge you’ve got someone on whom you can unleash all the usual stock situations. You’ll normally get something watchable out of them as they deal with the usual parade of Bosses with wet trousers, restaurant visits involving lecherous businessmen, comic misunderstandings in courtrooms… you know the sort of thing. They’re all here, crammed into six episodes. Probably Martin Jarvis was doing the same thing in “Rings on their Fingers” over on the other side.
There’s a wonderful sequence in episode three as, while attending jury service, Dudley is confronted with a case where Patricia Hayes’s terminally shy witness has to write a rude statement down on a piece of paper. She won’t say it out loud so it has to be passed along the jury. When it reaches Dudley he thinks it’s come from the terribly nice young lady he’s been seated next to. With hilarious results, as they always say.
Sterling occasional support comes from Glyn Houston as Dudley’s boss – cantankerous, crotchety and comfortably well off with a home where, as Dudley puts it, “the whiskey flows like glue”. He loses his trousers ten minutes into episode two. Sadly a surprise visit from the vicar is not forthcoming.
The kids are less steady. Stacy Dorning’s character is basically the one who would like a regular sex life if she knew how to go about it – Dorning’s frequently reduced to fending off suitors while wearing a novelty t-shirt (of which there were a lot in the eighties – I seem to recall that “Butterflies” made great play of them as well). Meanwhile poor old Jenny Quayle doesn’t seem to have a character at all. Reduced to simpering a lot, she makes no impact and departs before too long to be recast. It’s Sabina Franklyn (yet another actor’s daughter – William Franklyn this time) who I remember in the role and Quayle isn’t bad, precisely – there’s just nothing for her to work with.
Comedy Criticism Cliche #2 – it’s all French Windows and Middle Class suburbia at ITV. Yes, and? See point 1, above. A lot of it was. And a lot of it wasn’t. This one very definitely is, but it’s no worse for that. One of the reasons why these things were so popular was that they provided an easy set of reference points for the watching audience. If you were predominantly middle-class and slightly posh (as lets face it, we all were, at least until the Tories invented poor people somewhere around 1983), you’d recognise the setup instantly. You knew what you were getting. Comfort television, if you will.
A great deal of television was like this, right through the seventies and eighties. Even Python has a few French-Windows-And-Suburbia sketches. Not for nothing was the original plan for Red Dwarf to be an establishing shot of a French Window and a sofa before a lengthy pan-out into deep space. You can either run with audience expectations, or you can push against them. Even if we didn’t live this way, television told us that a lot of people did. If they were funny with it, that was a handy bonus.
While we’re at it, Comedy Criticism Cliche #3 – commercial breaks hobble the ability of comedy shows to be funny. Not always. Yes, there’s a luxurious quality to having a full thirty minutes to play with, but there’s also an art to being able to pull a farce plot into two twelve-minute segments with a dramatic peak in the middle in order to persuade us to come back after Telly Selly Time.
“Keep It In The Family” doesn’t always succeed with the dramatic peak, settling instead for shots of Robert and Pauline grinning at each other while the End of Part One credit settles over their faces. It does manage the farce plotting with some elegance, though, especially in the final two episodes as it becomes more comfortable with itself.
The only sour note is struck in episode 5, a restaurant-based runaround involving manager Steve Plytas – obviously relieved to be on the other side of the doors after his doomed attempt to woo Manuel in “Fawlty Towers”. Roy Kinnear’s in this as well – usually a guarantee of good stuff but not when he bellows “go back to the jungle” at the departing back of a world-weary African Waiter. Yuk. Of its time yes, and more power to Network for letting it through uncut. But its not pleasant to watch. Still less welcome is the gale of approving audience laughter that follows it.
That misstep aside, “Keep It In The Family Series 1” comes highly recommended. Polished, funny, with the sort of theme tune that everyone stopped making around about 1983 and worth it for the Robert Gillespie / Pauline Yates double act alone, I don’t think you’ll regret spending time with the Rushes. I certainly don’t.
“Keep It In The Family” is available October 18th from Network DVD.